Fog of Doubt
By Christianna Brand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1953 Christianna Brand
All rights reserved.
The dank grey fog was like an army blanket, held pressed against the windows of the car. It seemed an age before Tedward returned from his reconnaissance, his yellow wash-leather glove looming up startlingly, a disembodied hand, knocking at the glass beside her with a terrifying little, muffled thud. Rosie lowered the window and poked out her lovely head. 'Any luck?'
'Yes, it's Sutherland Avenue we're in, not Elgin Avenue at all.' He flashed his torch and there, all the time, was the street name, just a few feet from them, a gleam of white along the low railing. The light went out and he melted back into the grey; she saw the flare of the torch again, dimly glowing, as he passed round the back of the car and climbed into the driving seat, settling himself beside her, stout, solid, comfortable old Tedward, with a reassuring pat upon her knee. 'Won't be long now, chicken. I know exactly where we are. Don't worry.'
'That's what you said before,' she complained, driven by shock and anxiety to an unwonted peevishness.
'Yes, but this time I really do; only we seem to have got back-to-front, God knows how, and I shall have to turn her round.' A bus crept by, a ghost bus, a-glimmer with eerie lights, with more lights making pin-points in the leaden dark where a line of lesser vehicles crawled in its broad wake. He swung round with infinite caution and for a minute or two they crept along in the queue before edging off cautiously, hugging the gutter, to the left. 'Don't worry, pet! I really do know now.'
Rosie jerked impatiently. 'How can I not worry? We've been hours already.'
'A quarter of an hour at most, Rosie. I couldn't have driven an inch faster, darling—pea soup isn't in it.'
'No, but losing the way like this—you surely ought to know it by now.'
'I do, when I can see an inch in front of me.'
'If only we'd rung up the police before we started,' she said, fretfully.
'I know,' he admitted. 'That was my fault; I ought to have thought of it. But there it is—it's usually only about five minutes from my place to yours, and one's instinct was to leap into the car and dash round. I'd no idea the fog was anything like this.'
Her round young face was white with anxiety, her long legs twisted about one another, muscles tight with nervous strain. 'Tedward—you don't think he's dead, do you?'
'How the hell do I know?' he said, losing patience a little in his own acute nervousness.
'Well, you're a doctor, aren't you?'
He leaned out of the window to watch the kerb as they crept round to the left again. 'Just because I'm a doctor, it doesn't mean I can diagnose a message over the telephone. Tell me again just what happened....'
'I've told you, Tedward. The telephone rang and I thought it might be a patient for you, so I picked it up, just like I would at home for Thomas. And the voice said in this frightful sort of croak, "Come quick!" and I said, "Who is it?" and he said, "Tell the doctor to come quick," and then he said, "Someone came in and hit me with a mastoid mallet," and then he said, "I'm dying." So of course I was utterly bewildered, but I still thought he was just a patient and I said, "Well, tell me where to come to," and he gave our address. Our address!'
'You're sure it was your address?'
'Well, I suppose I know where I live, don't I?' said Rosie, querulously.
'And he definitely said "a mastoid mallet"?'
'Thomas must have left one lying around somewhere and the burglar just picked it up and hit poor Raoul with it. There's a lot of old instruments stuck away all over the place.'
'You're sure it was this Raoul Vernet?'
'Well, the voice said our address and Raoul was having dinner there to-night, and there wouldn't be anyone else there with a foreign accent. Oh, Tedward—do you think he could be really dying? Of course Frenchmen do make a fuss.'
'You could judge better than I could, Rosie. I didn't hear him.'
'He sounded frightfully faint and then there was a clonk as though he'd dropped the receiver....'
'Well, we'll soon be there,' he said. They swung round once more, hugging the kerb. 'This is Maida Vale now: we shan't be long.'
They drove on in silence, the little car stealing through the muffled murmur of the fog-blanketed city like a marauding cat—creeping along on its belly, grey body melting into the grey, only its two bright eyes round and agleam in the night. The man's heavy, middle-aged face, usually so jocund and smiling, was lined with anxiety and as leaden and grey as the fog outside; the girl sat with plump, tapering fingers locked tautly about a nyloned knee. He, whose whole training had been in the preservation of life, told himself stoutly that anyway all vile, seducing rats like this creature Raoul Vernet were a great deal better dead; she, young, anxious, over-excited, gave herself up to the contemplation of her delectable sins and cudgelled her foolish wits to decide whether, from her own point of view, it was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing if poor Raoul proved to have pipped off. And what, if he had pipped off, he had said to Matilda before he pipped.
It was just a week since Rosie had told Matilda. 'I say, Tilda, I wanted to ask you something. I'm afraid I've got myself into a most frightful muddle. In fact I think I may be going to have a baby.'
Tilda sat staring at her, struck motionless, one hand grasping the tail of Emma's nightdress. Emma, straining against white Dayella like a dog on a leash, postured with great silliness before Adorabella, the copy-cat baby in the glass who obligingly postured back; such sycophancy suddenly palling, gave up and stuck out her tongue. This strictly forbidden gesture brought Tilda back to life. She hauled her child on to her knee and, automatically beating its round, pink mushroom of a behind, said with a sort of despairing resignation: 'Oh, Rosie! '
'Well, there's no use being horrified,' said Rosie. 'It's done now, and that's all there is to it.'
'It's not all there is to it, I assure you,' said Matilda, restoring the blithely uncaring Emma to an upright position and undoing her own good work by responding to craven caresses. 'Having an illegitimate child's no joke, my dear, especially at the ripe age of eighteen years.'
'Good gracious, you don't think I'm going to have it, do you?'
'What else do you propose to do about it?'
'Oh, well, my dear, there are thousands of ways. I mean, dreary old women in back streets with hot water bottles, though what they do with them one never can imagine. But still I needn't worry; I can always go to Tedward.'
Tedward was Thomas Evans' partner in medical practice. 'Tedward wouldn't touch a thing like that.'
'He might not for other people, but he would for me. I mean, he's frightfully soppy about me, isn't he?'
'I think he is, rather, God help him!—but all the more reason why he shouldn't help you under these circumstances. And what on earth,' said Tilda, miserably, 'what on earth is Thomas going to say?'
'I thought perhaps we needn't tell Thomas,' said Rosie, quickly.
'Oh, don't be silly, child; living here in the house with him—and being a doctor....'
Rosie was Thomas's sister, thought she was less than half his age. She had been left a burden on him, while he still fought his way through the years of his medical training and he, since the burden was rounded of face and limb with warm, amber eyes and foolish curly yellow hair, and had, moreover, grown up gay and easy tempered and not more incredibly silly than the next pretty girl, had conceived an idealistic passion for it, had exalted the burden in his otherwise eminently cool and sensible mind, into a treasure of infinite virtue and charm. Matilda, in the twelve years of their marriage, had tried diffidently to suggest to him now and then that so much physical allurement allied to so much careless generosity and a skull of purest ivory through and through, might be pregnant of future danger—and pregnant, it now seemed, had been just the word. But Thomas, in all other matters quite aridly rational, was a damn fool about Rosie and that was all there was to it. He had reiterated indulgently that she was a perfect bloody idiot, of course, like all girls of her age; but, unlike the rest, as good as gold. And he had completed his folly by packing her off, all on her own, to a finishing school in Switzerland, still with a beautiful faith in the armour of a round felt hat with a crested school hatband, and a uniform overcoat. Rosie had, of course, pitched the hat out on to the line, the moment her train steamed out of Victoria station, and sought a compartment not reserved like her own, 'for ladies only'; and even an old school hat might have some virtue in it, it seemed, if virtue was quite the word for it: for its flight past the window had provided an opening for conversation with her first pick-up, a young dog who had subsequently proved to be up to some very old tricks. So that now, despite the kind help and chaperonage in Geneva of Matilda's own one-time flame, Raoul Vernet, here she was back on the family's hands, not to say in the family way.
Raoul Vernet! Tucking up the sleepy baby into its white blankets, putting out the nursery gas fire, feeling her way across the darkened room, Tilda smiled reminiscently and was back again with Raoul under the trees outside the little pub in Carouge, a tram ride from Geneva; with a carafe of red wine between them on the white tablecloth and Raoul murmuring that to-night, now really to-night, at last they would go to some place and be alone together.... 'Eh, Mathilde? Ah, Mathildc—dites oui; dites oui!' A fine one I am, she thought, to be preaching morality to poor, fallen Rosie.
Rosie, fallen perhaps but not noticeably crestfallen, was curled up in the firelight on the shabby sofa-bed in Thomas's 'office'. 'Well, now, Rosie—you had better tell me all about it....'
And, damn it!—there she was, back in Carouge again; sitting under the trees with the fairy lights, seeing again the table before her as bold and clear as a Van Gogh painting, white rolls broken on a white cloth and a bottle of rough red wine.... 'Of course you wouldn't know about it, Tilda, it's a little place outside Geneva, "our pub" we used to call it, and it was most terribly romantic and I suppose we were young and idiotic, of course I'd be more experienced now.... But we used to go out there evening after evening and have dinner and sit under the trees and hold hands. I think we were quite dotty for a little while; you wouldn't understand, but one gets into a sort of a state where one just doesn't think that anything else exists or matters in the whole world. And he—he had a little flat that somebody had lent him, because of course he was only a student, he hadn't a sou, right up on top of the hill, you went up a heavenly crooked little street to it, and it was too heavenly there and—well, in the end I just sort of gave up even trying to be good and we used to go up there for days and days together and nights too of course, and we were so madly in love it wasn't true!'
'What on earth was the school doing, Rosie, all this time, to let you behave like this?'
'Oh, well of course I told them a whole lot of lies and then I finally pretended that you'd come to Geneva to find out what I was up to, and I used to put on a funny voice and pretend to be you on the telephone talking to Madame, and we used to nearly die with laughter because of course she got frightfully confidential about how awful I was and of course I used to agree like mad....'
'Why on earth couldn't the damn woman write to me?' said Matilda angrily.
'Well, I'm telling you—she thought she was practically in daily communication with you over the 'phone, only you had la grippe or something or other madly infectious, so you couldn't actually meet her because of course she was petrified of getting it. And then of course you were most frightfully considerate and were afraid I might carry the infection back to the school so I had to stay away for more and more days and nights, and in the end I think she just gave us all up; but anyway by that time he'd gone home so it didn't matter anyway.'
'Well, where was home—I mean who is this man?'
'Oh, don't get excited, Tilda and think I can marry him or anything of that sort, because I can't. His people were farmers or something, miles away in the mountains—you can't see me spending my life on an alp for the sake of my Littel One, can you?—yodelling away at goats or whatever they do.'
'I gather that you have recovered from your grande passion?' said Matilda dryly.
'I meant it at the time,' said Rosie, a little shame-faced. 'It was—I don't know, it was simply tremendous.' She added with an air of experience that it had been too tremendous to last, that was the trouble; and it just hadn't. These things simply couldn't last for ever.
'Not even three months, in fact.'
'Oh, well, if you're going to be stuffy about it, I wish I hadn't told you. I mean, I did think you'd be a bit more broadminded, Tilda. You usually are.'
Matilda's heart smote her; beneath the airy confidence, she knew there must shelter a sick anxiety, she saw that there was an added whiteness, a paper whiteness, under the pink and white skin, a hint of desperation in the indignant amber-coloured eyes. If only the young could make their demands upon one's pity and affection without feeling compelled to assume an air of such contemptuous superiority. However.... 'I don't think you can accuse me of a Victorian scene, exactly, Rosie,' she said. 'I'll help you in every possible, conceivable way I can; only I can't help you to get rid of it, because first of all I think it's horrible in itself; secondly if anything goes wrong it's too dangerous to everyone concerned, including you, and incredibly sordid to boot; and thirdly, I'm married to a doctor, and you're the sister of a doctor, and it would be ghastly for Thomas if either of us got involved in a thing like that. Anything else....'
'Well, I shall have to go to Tedward, that's all,' said Rosie.
So Rosie told Tedward. He sat at his desk in the surgery at his house on the canal bank, ceaselessly tapping with the point of a dark green Venus pencil. 'Do you mean, Rosie, that the man got you drunk?'
'He was so much older than me, Tedward,' insisted Rosie, gabbling it all out again as she had earnestly gabbled it to him three times already. 'And he—he took me to this wonderful restaurant, I mean the most frightfully grand place right on the Jardin des Anglais, and—well, I don't know, the lime trees were in flower, you know, and it all smelt too heavenly and he was so terrifically sort of sophisticated and all that and I suppose I tried to be sophisticated too....' She looked up at him piteously, poor little wronged, broken-hearted, disillusioned flower who didn't seem, somehow, to have caught what the gentleman said.... 'And we had a terrific dinner and simply thousands of wines....'
'I'll bet,' said Tedward, dryly.
'I know it was silly of me, Tedward, but he was so much older than me, I mean really quite old, but really very handsome and terrifically well-dressed and of course terribly experienced and all that. Actually, I suppose he was what you might call a roué.'
'I wouldn't be surprised.'
'And then he asked me if I'd like to go back to his appartement and have a cup of real English tea....'
'What, no etchings?'
'No, English tea seems to have been his line,' said Rosie, simply. 'I suppose it's more original in Switzerland. And he had a wonderful flat, looking out over the bay, because he's quite rich and all that; and then he—he sort of began to make love to me and I felt so stupid and sleepy and I suppose I was sort of flattered....' She burst into tears again.
He looked at her wretchedly. His kind, round, friendly face seemed quite altered all of a sudden, she thought, covertly watching him through her highly becoming tears; with sagging white cheeks and jaw. She scrubbed her nose to an endearing pink shininess with her silly little handkerchief and went and perched herself on the arm of his chair. 'Don't take on so, pet. It isn't the end of the world, I suppose.'
'I just can't believe it, Rosie,' he said. 'Not about you.'
'That's because you still persist in looking on me as a little girl.' (Continues...)
Excerpted from Fog of Doubt by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1953 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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