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MARJORIE BOWEN

THE PLEASANT HUSBAND

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Ex Libris

Collected in The Pleasant Husband and Other Stories,
Hurst & Blackett, Ltd., London, 1921

Reprinted in The Evening Standard Second Book of Strange Stories, London, 1937

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2018
Version Date: 2018-07-14
Produced by Maria Regina Castellanos, Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan

The text of this book is in the public domain in Australia.
All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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THE lover felt uncomfortable; not all the perfume of oleander and myrtle could sweeten his sense of moral nausea.

And yet there was nothing wrong, at least with the setting; the Italian night, the mountains, the sea, the pinewood, the scented stillness, the moon rising behind a bar of dark purple clouds... the woman waiting for him.

"Just like a stage set," he thought and knew that that was the last thing that ought to have occurred to him.

He looked at the dark villa and leant against the little gate, trying to reason himself into a better mood.

Whatever was wrong must be with himself; there was nothing the matter with the situation; he was in love with Olivia, and she was going to run away with him, leave her stupid, indifferent, tyrannical husband, who thought of nothing but his collection of shells, and really enjoy, for the first time, all those good things that should have been her heritage.

He, the lover, had money; it would all be done very well indeed; there need be nothing sordid or unpleasant about any of it, all would be a matter of fast trains, good hotels, plenty of pocket money and an assured future—surely an ideal elopement.

What then was the matter?

Perhaps Olivia's romantic notion that he should come for her like this in the evening, meet him by the little gate and slip through the quiet fields to catch the Genoa express... of course, he ought to have liked it, as Olivia had planned it, and it certainly was very suitable...

He glanced up at the moon, hoping to find consolation there; but the moon looked very conventional, like a worn-out stage property.

"It's the twentieth century," muttered the lad, "that is what is wrong. One oughtn't to do these things now... there is something... silly... about it."

That was it, something silly; what in the name of Heaven had induced him to come to this particular spot and wait for this particular woman?

Of course he was in love—but, well, there was something silly about it.

"I expect it is the newspapers," he thought. "Cleopatra's suicide and the Romeo and Juliet affair would have been just cheap and sordid reported in the Press... the world's got over that sort of thing like schoolboys get over the measles and the mumps.... Olivia ought not to have asked me and I ought not to have come."

Besides, she was late; he heard the clock strike from the church of the neighbouring village; it would mean a brisk walk to the railway station, and the lanes were heavy walking.

He pushed open the gate cautiously and peered through the gloom for a glimpse of Olivia.

Tiresome of her to be late; he was sure that she was "dressing the part"—a white dress, a cloak, a case of jewels... he was sure of it; his sense of the touch of ridicule over the whole thing deepened; he hoped they would not look fools in the train, he wished that he had told her to come suitably dressed.

When she still delayed, he began to wonder if he could not send her back when she did come; really, they ought to think it over longer, far better turn in now and sleep on it... that Genoa train was atrociously uncomfortable, the spring night was cool and induced to sleep—he even yawned.

A light flickered among the oleander bushes; that was rather rash of her and really the mood was quite strong, like limelight; he stepped inside the gate in his eagerness to meet her and tell her to put her lantern out.

He stepped towards the wavering circle of light that showed up the waxy cluster of blossoms and the long grey green leaves of the oleanders.

"Is that you, Creed?" asked a cheerful masculine voice.

The lover stood still, curbing a childish desire to take to his heels, and then the light discovered, engulfed him, displayed him from head to foot and delivered him to the gaze of Olivia's husband.

"I thought I heard you," said that person, pleasantly, "but I was not quite sure, the waves make such a noise."

"Just going past—back to the hotel after a ramble," said Creed, steadily—"thought I heard someone in your garden, so stepped in—"

"Never mind about all that," interrupted the other, "come into the house."

He held his little storm lantern leaving the bushes, and in the glow of it stood, picked out from the background of the dark masses of the villa and the dark outline of the house.

The lover, looking at his familiar, rather stupid face, the bold forehead, the spectacled eyes, the rather ragged fair beard, the slightly stooping figure in the rubbed shantung—he never would trouble to change for dinner—felt more than ever foolish.

"I can't stop," he said quickly, "thanks awfully, but there are a couple of letters I want to catch to-morrow's mail—must get them in before midnight—"

"But you really must come in," insisted the other, in his high, rather querulous, voice, "there is something important I want to say—"

"Well, to-morrow—"

"No, now—"

Creed had to submit: something had evidently gone very much amiss with the whole plan; he did not really very much regret the postponement of the elopement, but he did not want to go into the house and play out some sort of a comedy before Olivia; she would be sure to look tragic and to have Chopin open on the piano; of course, the mistake of the whole affair was that this was the twentieth century, and people didn't do these things... if you tried, you looked and felt a fool...

He followed his host through the low window which had often proved so effective a frame for Olivia's charms when she stood there to welcome him into the thrice familiar room that the Lauries had made so English, and so pleasant.

Olivia had always had her carpets and her draperies, her lamps and her tea from London, the "antique" furniture, the basso- relievos and the pictures from Florence; it was all very pleasant.

The white glare of the acetylene was veiled by rosy silk, the fireplace was banked with boughs of camellias, red and white; the last books from London and Paris lay half unwrapped near the Italian lace-work Olivia was learning; the chairs were very comfortable, whisky and glasses, syphon and cigars were ready; all as usual; how really crazy it all made the idea of an elopement seem!

Creed began to tell himself that, of course, he would never have thought of it had it not been for Olivia's extremely romantic disposition...

He seated himself on the long box ottoman he and his love had turned into a couch by means of draperies of rose-red damask and piles of cushions of different tapestries; they had "picked up" all these pieces wandering together in the streets of Florence; it was such a favourite seat of theirs that he took it almost mechanically as Laurie seated himself in a long comfortable chair and drew the pink shade farther over the lamp so that the rosy glow of the room was deepened.

The lover took off his hat and loosened his light overcoat, the husband leant back comfortably and crossed his legs; he had rather fine ankles and always wore silk socks.

Creed was glad that Olivia was not there; this was bad enough, but if she had been there he would have felt quite a fool.

Laurie looked at him from behind the thick pebbles of his glasses that magnified his rather full brown eyes.

"My dear fellow, I know exactly how you are feeling, exactly. And really there is no need. Above everything—nothing ridiculous. You agree?"

"Of course," said Creed, quickly. "I don't know quite what you mean—"

"Let me make my point clear. Now, you came here to-night to run away with my wife, which was silly."

Creed coloured; it was so precisely his own thought that he did not know how to gather together the rags of his tattered romance.

"Please don't say anything," continued Laurie, in a leisurely tone, leaning well back among his cushions. "This is the twentieth century. And, well, we've rather cut these things out."

"That is exactly," said Creed, with some eagerness and relief, "what I have been thinking."

"People don't run away with other men's wives nowadays without being ridiculous—especially in this childish way—a moon and all that sort of thing—"

Creed felt most uncomfortable and bound to defend his thwarted action.

"We aren't unique," he said; "look at the papers—"

"Exactly. Look at them. They show you the futility of the whole thing. Just why it is impossible for people like yourself and Olivia to do such things. My dear fellow, it is so stupid."

"Quite," agreed the lover, dismally. "I suppose I lost my head—"

"No. It was Olivia. I had to talk seriously to her just now, she was becoming quite hysterical and undignified. However, I soon induced her to see reason."

"She has given the idea up?" asked Creed, beginning to feel more comfortable; after all, by the rosy light of the familiar lamp it could surely all be regarded as just a wildish sort of joke.

"Entirely," said Laurie, who was now quietly smoking. "Olivia has entirely given up the idea. She did so, as a matter of fact, as soon as I spoke to her."

"How did you find out?" asked Creed, feeling extremely fatuous.

"I had been observing you for some time—the slippered pantaloon, you know, with plenty of leisure on his hands! I saw where your flirtation was leading you—Olivia's agitation to-day betrayed her—I did not have much difficulty in getting at the truth."

"It is very decent of you to have taken it like this," said Creed.

"What did you expect, my dear fellow? You hardly thought to see me, with my glasses and knock knees and absentmindedness, and all those other little trials that annoy Olivia so—playing the Othello? Imagine me as the jealous husband! Absurd."

"Quite," agreed the lover, hastily. "Naturally, we knew you would be sensible about it—this—this running away was well, really just to please Olivia—"

"Just to please Olivia," interrupted Laurie. "Like you might give a child a sweet—I understand so well! The moon, the oleanders, the flight! hah! hah!"

"That was precisely the situation," answered Creed, warming to his subject. "Of course I'm very fond of Olivia and all that, but, well, I had that feeling all along—these things are not done nowadays."

"Exactly—for a dilettante like yourself, my dear Creed, the whole thing must have been distressingly crude."

He had now finished his cigarette, and as he leant back in his easy chair he put the tips of his long fingers together; he had fine hands, polished and delicate as one of his own prized shells.

"I know you think that I know more about conchology than human nature, but this little tangle has come my way, and I must try to adjust it," he continued. "I have dealt with Olivia—she will hardly refer to the matter again—she is so entirely convinced of the force of my arguments—there only remains yourself, my dear Creed."

"But if Olivia is satisfied, so am I," said the lover, "really, there is nothing now to be said—it was just an escapade—"

Laurie waved one of his hands.

"I want to be quite fair," he interrupted. "I want you to see Olivia—and if you, after seeing her, are still of the same mind, why, then I shall take steps, rational, sane steps, to give her to you—"

But Creed did not care at all for this proposed interview; he had had enough agitation for to-night; he wanted to go back to his comfortable bed in the hotel... he hoped they would all meet in the morning as if nothing had happened.

"No, no," he said, hastily. "You've put everything on such a sane basis, Laurie, that I couldn't think of reviving—any—any such foolishness; as you say, this is the twentieth century."

The door opened with a suddenness that caused both men to start.

Lucia, the Lauries' maid, stood in the doorway.

Laurie rose with a quick sound of annoyance. "I didn't expect you back to-night, Lucia, I told you to stay with your mother to- night—how strange you never understand!"

The girl smiled cheerfully.

"But I did understand, signor! I was to go for the eggs, to Camoldi, and to bring them back in the morning—because it is so far—"

"Yes, yes," said Laurie, testily, "why did you come back to- night?"

The girl triumphantly lifted a corner of her shawl and showed a basket on her arm.

"I did not need to go as far as Mother Podeva for the eggs, old Cecco had some, fresh as fresh, so I came back—can I get anything for the signor?"

Laurie did not answer, he seemed unaccountably vexed; he stood staring at the girl through his thick glasses and stroking his sparse beard.

Creed could not understand at first; how strange, he thought, for Laurie to send the girl on such an errand, so late, and tell her to stay away the night, then, gazing at his host's embarrassment, he saw the reason; of course, the servant had been sent away while Laurie had his little scene with Olivia and while he dealt with himself, Creed; she was not to overhear nor to see—she was to stay away all night to give Olivia a chance to recover herself; it was really very thoughtful and tactful of Laurie—one knew what gossips these women were, and here she was, blundering back into the middle of it; no wonder that Laurie looked vexed.

Creed made an effort to help the situation. "I really must be going," he said, taking up his hat and rising. "I am late already."

"My dear fellow!" interrupted Laurie, quickly. "You must forgive me! This foolishness, about the eggs! They are so scarce, so very scarce. I cannot do without one in the morning, egg in marsala! How foolish! Quite an anti-climax, my dear Creed!" He was talking rather loudly, no doubt, thought Creed, to give Olivia, presumably recovering herself upstairs, warning that the servant had returned.

"Yes, the eggs are very, very difficult to get," smiled Lucia. "But I thought I should get them nearer than Camoldi!"

"Yes, yes," answered Laurie. "A moment, Creed, excuse me a moment—"

He followed the servant out of the room and closed the door.

"I'll slip away," thought the other man. "And get back before they shut the hotel up—old Laurie is getting agitated. I'll see him to-morrow—though really everything is settled—"

He opened the window and looked up at the sky, carelessly, to see if the moon held. And then a rather remarkable thing happened.

The moon, that had seemed so conventional and stagy, had now a very distinct face in it, and, as Creed looked, this face seemed to snarl at him and lean out of the sky and snap like a vicious animal.

Creed felt the perspiration break out round his forehead and nose... the whole affair had been affecting his nerves after all... he stepped back into the room to mix himself a drink... a stiff drink.

Strange he hadn't noticed before how perfectly horrible the room was; and the rose-coloured ottoman he had been sitting on, why, it was a ghastly piece of furniture... he stood looking at it, instead of mixing himself that drink.

A scrap of white stuff had been shut in one corner.... So Olivia kept things in it... what things?

He pushed off the cushions and lifted the ottoman lid.

Olivia herself lay inside, slightly doubled up, with a neat bullet wound in her temple.

As the ottoman lid banged down the door opened.

Creed, running with incredible speed through the shadowed garden, heard John Laurie beating after him, through the oleander bushes, howling because he had been cheated of his second victim.


THE END