The Sundial - Fred M. White - ebook

The Sundial ebook

Fred M White

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John Charlock had found out that all he had longed and hoped for since the early days was nothing more than vexation of spirit. Charlock made his way upwards. He had known what it was to starve. He often slept in parks. And now everything has changed, and he has become almost unsurpassed as a portrait painter. Glory and happiness came to him thanks to his brush and pencil. And at the same time, he seems to have found the only woman who could make him happy.

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Liczba stron: 405

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Contents

I. A BLIGHTED LIFE

II. “THE DESIRE OF THE MOTH”

III. “HOME, SWEET HOME!”

IV. SACKCLOTH AND ASHES

V. “BUT VET A WOMAN”

VI. A SCIENTIFIC DISCUSSION

VII. THE PHOTOGRAPH

VIII. THE RUBICON

IX. BEYOND THE BRIDGE

X. THE FIRST OF THE FRUIT

XI. THE DOCTRINE OF PLATO

XII. A CRIME OR NOT?

XIII. MODERN FRIENDSHIP

XIV. BARK IS CONFIDENTIAL

XV. ILL TIDINGS

XVI. THE HONOUR OF THE FAMILY

XVII. “LOVE ME, LOVE MV DOG!”

XVIII. CUPBOARD LOVE

XIX. UNBIDDEN GUESTS

XX. ACROSS THE THRESHOLD

XXI. THE HONOUR OF THE FAMILY

XXII. BREAD AND SALT

XXIII. BEHIND THE VEIL

XXIV. MISTRESS OF HERSELF

XXV. A PLAUSIBLE SCOUNDREL

XXVI. THE JEWEL CASKET

XXVII. KATE COMES BACK

XXVIII. A STARTLING CONTRAST

XXIX. A LAPSE OF MEMORY

XXX. “THOU ART THE MAN!”

XXXI. AN UNEXPECTED FRIEND

XXXII. SWIFT COMES OUT

XXXIII. A WORD IN SEASON

XXXIV. A BLACK SUSPICION

XXXV. THE SEARCH

XXXVI. AN UNSEEN DANGER

XXXVII. A DARK SUSPICION

XXXVIII. THE EMPTY ROOM

XXXIX. IN THE BAR

XL. INFIRM OF PURPOSE”

XLI. DAMNING PROOFS

XLII. THE FIRE

XLIII. A ONE-SIDED CONTEST

XLIV. BROUGHT TO BOOK

XLV. THE HIDING-PLACE

XLVI. THE PRICE OF A CRIME

XLVII. ABSOLUTION

XLVIII. SEALED IN THE GRAVE

I. A BLIGHTED LIFE

The bitterness of it tasted dry and insipid in John Charlock’s mouth, like Dead Sea fruit. It was only lately that he had found out that all he had longed and hoped for since the early days was nothing more than vexation of spirit.

This process had been gradual, but it was none the less painful for that. It mattered nothing now that fame and fortune had come to him through the medium of his brush and pencil. For Charlock had fought his way up from the bottom. He had known what it was to starve. He had often slept in the open parks. And now everything was changed, and he stood almost unrivalled as a portrait-painter. And, at the same time, he appeared to have found the one woman who could make his happiness complete.

It was only five years ago, yet it seemed to Charlock like a lifetime. Perhaps he had been to blame; perhaps he had been harsh and hard, but the gulf between his wife and himself seemed to have been bridged over since the boy came.

And the child was slipping away, as an evening primrose blooms and dies within the compass of a night...It had been a weary vigil and cruel withal, since there was only one end. The doctor held out no hope. He had told him that the boy could not last till morning, and that was why Charlock had sent the nurse away, so that he might be with his child till the end. Very quietly he crept back to the bed again and stood looking down at the small white face. The features were so colourless that death might have come already, save that the lips were parting and the eyelids twitched. The child had spoken his last words. Charlock would never hear that voice again.

The end was very, very near. The tiny life was drifting out to sea with the tide. As Charlock stood there his eye noted the sudden change, his quick ear caught a fluttering sigh. There was no need to tell him that the boy had gone.

Well, that was over at any rate. Charlock felt quite calm and collected. There was no great grief in his heart. He supposed it was all for the best. Perhaps it would have been a pity if little Jack had grown up to the knowledge of a divided household. But it would be a divided household no longer. And the sooner Kate Charlock realized that, the better. Of course, she would have all the sympathy and he would have all the blame. Not that he cared much about that. A great artist like John Charlock was beyond the measure of ordinary criticism. No doubt his was a sour, saturnine nature. No doubt Kate Charlock was pitied by all who knew her. It seemed almost a tragedy that a woman so pure and beautiful should be allied to so uncouth a being as Charlock. These strange thoughts ran through the painter’s mind like a thread of scarlet intermingled with a warp of black.

Well, the boy was dead. Charlock repeated the words over and over again as if forcing himself to realize it. He had sat there for hours watching the small light burn lower and lower in its socket, whilst his wife slept in her own room. She had persistently refused to believe that there was anything radically wrong with the boy, though she had asked Charlock to call her in case a crisis might arise. Perhaps Charlock had forgotten about his wife. But the boy was dead, and Kate Charlock lay asleep, happily oblivious to the toy tragedy.

But she would have to be told. She must be aroused at once. Quietly Charlock crossed the corridor and entered his wife’s room. He gave a quick, contemptuous glance at all the signs of extravagance and luxury which was the dominant note of the place. Here was a Duchesse dressing-table, littered with silver toilet appliances. The air was heavy with perfume. A pair of wax candles gleamed on either side of the dressing-table. In an armchair close by a figure in black lay fast asleep. The hangings from the bed were thrown back, and on the bed itself lay a heap of discarded clothing. With a sudden outburst of anger Charlock shook the figure in the armchair. The woman opened her eyes.

“What has become of your mistress?” Charlock asked hoarsely. “Now don’t tell any of your lies to me! Where has she gone?”

The maid began to whimper, but it was no use to wriggle and prevaricate under those stern eyes. There was something in the square, grim face of John Charlock that caused most people to fear him. He looked positively cruel.

“She has gone out, sir,” the maid stammered.

“Oh, she has gone out, and she left you to wait up for her? She went early? It was a few minutes past ten when your mistress came to bed, and I was to awake her if anything–happened.”

An insolent look came over the maid’s face.

“If you want to know, she’s gone to Mrs. Bromley-Martin’s,” she said. “It is no business of mine, and though I am a servant, I am not used to being spoken to like this. If you looked after your wife a bit better there wouldn’t be so much talk.”

“Talk!” Charlock echoed. “What do you mean?”

“Ask the other servants. Ask your neighbours. Ask them what Mrs. Charlock does in the garden by night. It is all very well to be fond of solitude. If it could only speak, that old sundial could tell a story or two. Once they used to hide love letters in trees. Nowadays they have got a better idea than that. If I were you–”

But Charlock was not listening. It was doubtful, even, if he had noticed the studied insolence of the French maid. He strode back to the chamber of death and locked the door behind him. He was thinking of men who had killed their wives for less than this. He was filled with the heartless cruelty of it, the cold-blooded cruelty and deceit. How could a mother have slipped away in this fashion knowing that her child was so ill? It was no excuse that she had been sanguine of his recovery. From the very first she had refused to believe that there was anything wrong with the boy. And, doubtless, that was why she had gone off thinking that her husband would be none the wiser. And once he had regarded her as one of the best of women and the sweetest. He had not been much of a squire of dames except from a business point of view. But Kate Chantrey had been different from the rest. Her beauty was so spirituelle. Those great brown eyes of hers were clear and pure and soulful as those of a Madonna.

Bareheaded, Charlock walked through the garden and out into the road. The dawn was breaking in the East, and pearly mists were rolling up the valleys. But Charlock saw none of these things. In a vague kind of way he noticed the old sundial at the bottom of the garden with the fountain round it–that marvellous piece of carving which had been one of his extravagances on his last trip to Venice. It looked fair and chaste in the light of the early morn. There was nothing about it to suggest a vulgar liaison such as that at which Hortense the French maid had hinted. Charlock would have dismissed the idea contemptuously, but somehow he could not get it out of his mind; and yet it must have been mere servants’ gossip. Kate Charlock was too inordinately selfish, too fond of the luxuries that her husband’s money provided, to compromise herself even for so fascinating a man as Arnold Rent. Charlock knew that Rent was a friend of his wife’s, a man whom she professed to understand and sympathize with. But the matter had never troubled him before. He could trust Kate. Assuredly he had confidence in her so long as her interests were his.

He came at length to his destination. He walked across the lawn of Mrs. Bromley-Martin’s house. He could see two figures on the balcony. With a bitter smile he recognized his wife.

“The woman pays,” he muttered to himself. “Oh, yes, the woman pays right enough, but it is generally the man who finds the money. Presumably God in His wisdom has some use for women like that, but it is hard to see where that fool of a fellow comes in. I dare say he fancies her ill-used and ill-treated, and tied to a brute unworthy of a mate at all. And yet as I stand here, knowing everything, I am not surprised that Rent should be deceived. Well, he shall have his chance to learn his lesson as I learnt mine It seems almost a pity to intrude upon a scene of high emotion like that, but it must be done.”

Charlock bent to listen again. There was no word of the conversation that escaped him. Then he saw the hostess emerge and claim his wife’s attention. A wild desire to rush into the drawing-room, to overturn chairs and card-tables and drive those puppets into the open air seized him. They longed for a new sensation. They were very near having one at that moment. Checking the insane impulse, Charlock passed through the open window and entered the drawing-room. The close, highly spiced atmosphere seemed to choke him. His mind went back now to the great trouble which he had just gone through. There sat the woman who should have shared his vigil, smiling and sorting her cards as if she had not a care in the world.

It was hard to restrain the reproaches that rose to his lips. It was a tense task to approach the card table quietly and lay his hand upon his wife’s arm. It was small wonder, too, that the grip should have been close as that of a vice.

II. “THE DESIRE OF THE MOTH”

“It would be quite safe,” Kate Charlock had said to herself. John was so foolish about the boy. He always took the gloomiest view of everything. She would retire to her bedroom, and would pretend to be asleep. She could dress herself and slip across to Mrs. Bromley-Martin’s and pass the night in the fascinating pursuit of bridge. Nobody would know. She would be back by daylight. And then she could take her husband’s place by the boy’s bedside.

She had forgotten everything in the excitement of the moment. She leant forward as the game finished.

“Mrs. Charlock cuts out,” the dealer murmured.

She rose reluctantly and another gambler eagerly took her place. The subdued lights of the shaded candles touched drawn faces. Now and again came a cry of annoyance from some plunger whose luck was past bearing. Outside, the silence of the night was coming to an end. The trees murmured with the first touch of the morning breeze. As Kate Charlock crossed the room towards one of the French windows, a man followed her. One of the card-players elevated his eyebrows and smiled significantly at his partner, who happened also to be his hostess. Her eyes twinkled in reply.

“Who is the man?” he asked.

“Arnold Rent,” was the reply. “They say he is going to be President of the Royal Society. He is a man of various attainments. He is writing a series of essays on the follies of Society. I believe electricity is his speciality. But he says he came here to-night to gain experience.”

“That was ingenious of him,” the questioner said sarcastically. “He couldn’t have come to a better house. All the follies and frivolities worth seeing can be found here.”

“That is right enough,” Mrs. Bromley-Martin said placidly. “I thought it was awfully sweet of hint to choose me out of so many others. I am living in hopes that perhaps he will mention my name in one of his essays, and then how furiously jealous all the rest will be! Still, I like Arnold Rent. He is so terribly cynical. In the old days he would have made an ideal libertine.”

The man under discussion crossed the room and stood by Kate Charlock’s side. She turned her beautiful face to him, her eyes smiled a welcome. It was by no means the first time the two had met under Mrs. Bromley-Martin’s roof.

“There is a seat on the balcony,” Rent said. “Shall we sit there and chat for five minutes? The atmosphere of that room is positively poison to me. It seems incredible that civilized men and women, endowed with all the blessings of life, can sit down and deliberately pass their nights like this.”

A gentle sigh escaped Kate Charlock’s lips. Her face glowed with sympathy; there was a sad expression on the lovely features.

“Is it as bad as you expected, then?” she asked.

“Oh, worse, infinitely worse. In their way these people are just as heathenish as the Romans of the Empire were. What a strange thing fashion is! Your friends come down here ostensibly from the Cowes Regatta, but they have played nothing but bridge all day since Monday. It disgusts me to see young girls given over to the vice of gambling, heedless of aught else. Forgive me if I wonder why you come here. It cannot be out of sympathy with women like Mrs. Bromley-Martin and her class.”

“Perhaps not,” Kate Charlock murmured. She sighed again in the same gentle fashion. Her eyes had a far-away look in them. “Perhaps I am like the man who is on the verge of a breakdown from overwork, or the man who falls back upon brandy to drown some overwhelming sorrow.”

The words came slowly and sadly. In the first flush of the dawn Rent did not fail to see the look of patient unhappiness on the face of his companion. Many fair women Arnold Rent had seen in his time, but never one who appealed to him as Kate Charlock did then. He had been too seriously engaged in study to think of women in the abstract. This tall fair creature in silver grey appeared to be asking mutely for his sympathy. It was such a perfect face, too, a face that seemed to be out of place here. There was a suggestion of sadness in the glorious eyes, as if the woman nursed some secret sorrow and hid it bravely from the world. Nine men out of ten would have picked out Kate Charlock as a perfect confidante in the hour of trouble or affliction. And Arnold Rent had heard whispers of the story of her life. He turned to her quickly, forgetting his cynicism.

“Do you speak from experience?” he asked.

A wave of colour swept over her face.

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