It was not until several weeks after he had decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter. Murder is a serious business. The slightest slip may be disastrous. Dr. Bickleigh had no intention of risking disaster.
Naturally his decision did not arrive ready-made. It evolved gradually, the fruit of much wistful cogitation. And if cogitation, however wistfully nebulous, must have its starting-point, that of Dr. Bickleigh’s might be looked for in a certain tennis-party on a hot Saturday afternoon towards the end of June.
It was a party that the Bickleighs themselves were giving. Half Wyvern’s Cross was coming to it: all Wyvern’s Cross, in fact, that counted. Dr. Bickleigh, coming back to lunch only a few minutes short of two o’clock, tired after a long and strenuous morning’s round, found Fairlawn in a state of no little turmoil, and his wife impatiently waiting to get the diningroom cleared.
“Really, Edmund,” she greeted him, peering at him disapprovingly through the thick glasses she wore. “Really, I think you might have been considerate enough to get back a little earlier to-day. How can Florence get on with the sandwiches if you keep her waiting to wash up your lunch things like this?” When her husband was late, Mrs. Bickleigh invariably took her meals alone, at their correct times.
“I’m sorry, Julia. I thought I’d better try to get through my list this morning, so as to be free this afternoon.”
“Well, of course.” Mrs. Bickleigh contrived to reconcile the two apparently irreconcilable necessities by conveying her impression that her husband must have wilfully dawdled by the wayside.
Dr. Bickleigh poured himself out a glass of beer from the bottle by his plate, and carved some cold leg of lamb. He was too tired at the moment to attempt to extenuate himself further; besides, he knew it would be quite useless. He looked sadly at the joint in front of him. There was no knuckle left on it, and the knuckle was the only part he liked. Unfortunately, Julia liked it too.
He began to eat without enthusiasm.
Julia stood over him, sentinel-like. When he made as if to help himself to more beer, she interposed.
“No, Edmund. One glass is quite enough for you on a day like this.”
“The hotter the day, the better the drink, my dear,” suggested the doctor, but without very much hope.
Julia, who disapproved of facetiousness as much as she disapproved of most other things, only frowned. “You have too much to do to sit here drinking. Besides, you know how beer makes you perspire. Do you want any more meat? Then you had better ring at once.”
Dr. Bickleigh rose. He did not point out that, as Julia was standing already, she might perhaps ring the bell herself and save him the trouble. Julia would consider it middle-class manners to ring a bell herself when there was a man in the room to do it instead: and middle-class manners were to Julia what patent medicines were to himself—quite impossible.
Mrs. Bickleigh was eight years older than her husband—forty-five to his thirty-seven. She was also a good two inches taller, for Dr. Bickleigh was an unusually small man. A somewhat gaunt, erect woman, with frizzy dark hair and a thin-lipped mouth that twisted decidedly downwards at the corners, she had a quite unjoyful as well as a quite unlovely face; and she wore rimless pince-nez, not horn-rimmed spectacles, in front of her slightly prominent, pale-blue eyes. The two had been married ten years, and had no children.
When Florence had brought in the remains of a cold gooseberrypie and departed again, Julia began to give her husband his instructions. “You’d better put the net up first; it sags so during the first half-hour. The new balls are in the cupboard under the stairs; we’ll use them, of course, but you can give the old ones a rubbing on the hall mat as well. Then there are the two tables to be taken out, and the chairs, and I think we’ll have the bathing-tent up as well in this sun. Then you’ll have to—”
“I don’t think I shall be able to get all these things done,” interrupted the doctor, with a doubtful air. “I—”
“My dear Edmund, they’ve got to be done.”
“Yes, but I haven’t finished my round yet. Couldn’t get them all in this morning. There are two more visits I must make.”
Julia frowned. “Who?”
“Mrs. Parrot, and the Holne boy.”
“They’re not urgent.”
“Not urgent, no; but quite serious enough.”
“Not so serious as all that,” pronounced Julia. “They can wait perfectly well. You can see them after the people have gone.”
“But that won’t be till after surgery-time, in any case.”
“Then you’ll have to see them after surgery,” said Julia calmly, knocking his evening meal, as it were, out of her husband’s mouth. “Have you finished? No, you’ve no time for cheese. Hurry, please, Edmund.”
Dr. Bickleigh reflected that at any rate there would be a good tea to-day. “Well, well, it’s just as well we don’t give tennis parties every day,” he said amiably enough, as he massaged his neat little moustache with his napkin and pushed back his chair.
Feeling better for his hurried meal, he put on his hat and went into the garden.“Not so serious as all that,” pronounced Julia. “They can wait perfectly well. You can see them after the people have gone.”
The tennis-posts were of an antiquated pattern, and the handle most difficult to wind as the net began to tauten. Julia had been repeating for several years that they must get new ones next season, but somehow there never seemed to be quite enough money for such an article of sheer luxury; and in any case, as she did not have to wind the net up herself, the matter was not very important to her. The doctor had to lean the whole of his meagre eight-and-ahalf stones on the handle for the last turn or two to get the net to the required height. That feat accomplished, he stood back and wiped his forehead. He was not in good condition, and the winding of a tennis-net can be a strenuous business. Then, as always after any physical exertion, he touched carefully the waxed tips of his moustache.
The guests had been asked for half-past three, and it was now already a quarter to the hour. Glancing guiltily at his watch, Dr. Bickleigh hurried up the little bank that bounded the tennis-court on the side nearest the house, turning up the sleeves of his buff-coloured cotton shirt (with two collars to match) as he went. His neat blue coat was already hanging on one of the tennis-posts. Dr. Bickleigh invariably wore a blue serge suit for his work. Country practitioners who made their rounds in old tweed coats and shapeless flannel trousers always seemed to him to be letting down the dignity of the profession. Even to wind up the net and bring out the chairs Dr. Bickleigh wore a spotless grey trilby hat, with a turned-up and corded brim—a hat to which an advertisement-writer could have applied no other word but “natty.”
As he brought out and set up the deck-chairs he tried to arrange in his mind the rest of his tasks in their best order. The bathing-tent had better go up next, for the day was a blazing one and complexions are important things even in the country. Then it would be useless to start with only six balls if Benjie Torr was in the first set, for that morose young man had a gloomily vigorous style, and it was uncanny how he seemed to land balls right in the middle of the almost impenetrable gooseberry plantation in the kitchen-garden. Then the two collapsible tables would need to be up and bearing their quotas of cigarettes, matches, and glasses before the first people arrived, for nothing looks so bad as to bring these things out haphazard afterwards. (Dr. Bickleigh was almost as particular as his wife about things being done in the right way when guests were about.) It seemed to him that everything was just as urgent as everything else.
He was struggling with the bathing-tent when Julia came out of the house and joined him. “You’ve done the net, Edmund,” she asserted; there was no need to ask, as the net was in position to answer for itself, but Mrs. Bickleigh never minded putting the obvious into words.
Dr. Bickleigh paused in his labours to agree that he had done the net.
“It’s sagging already. You’d better tighten it up at once.”
The doctor hurried over to the post and leaned on the handle. Julia was not satisfied till the net was raised a whole turn beyond what Dr. Bickleigh had secretly imagined to be the limit of his capacity.
Panting slightly, he rejoined her at the top of the bank.
Mrs. Bickleigh was surveying the rest of the court with a cold eye. “The lines don’t look at all good. Did you tell Widdecombe to do them this morning?”
“I told him, distinctly. But you know what Widdecombe is, my dear.”
“I do,” replied Julia grimly. “He’s scamped them, as usual.” On a Saturday afternoon Widdecombe was no longer available to repair his omissions of the morning.
Dr. Bickleigh scrutinised the lines with an earnest frown. “I think he has done them, though. Yes, I’m sure he has.”
“Only once, if at all. Dear me, it’s a pity I can’t be in a dozen places at once, to see to everything myself.” Her tone rebuked her husband for being out on his rounds and unable to supervise the malingering Widdecombe from there. “Well, you’ll have to run over them again yourself, Edmund, as soon as you’ve finished the other things.”
“I’ll try,” said Dr. Bickleigh, a little doubtfully, for he had been wondering whether he would be able to get everything else done in time.
“Try? It must be done.”
“Well, if it must, it must,” at once agreed the little man, with his habitual amiability. “So I’d better get on with this confounded tent. It’s being more of a nuisance than ever, of course.”
Mrs. Bickleigh, whose immediate tasks had apparently been disposed of, walked off with her usual purposeful air to the rose-garden. The morning paper was under her arm. It occurred to neither of them that she should relieve her husband’s congested time by doing the lines herself.Before her marriage Mrs. Bickleigh had been a Crewstanton. She was, in everything but name, a Crewstanton still. She showed her husband so several times a day.
Before her marriage Mrs. Bickleigh had been a Crewstanton. She was, in everything but name, a Crewstanton still. She showed her husband so several times a day. During their short engagement she had informed her fiancé not once, but several times, with the air of one imparting interesting information, that her grandmother would have no more contemplated sitting down to a meal with her doctor than with her butler, and here was she, Julia, actually contemplating marrying one; it was really, Julia would point out with a short laugh, enough to make that grandmother turn in her grave; and Dr. Bickleigh agreed with her that it was. His wife had reminded him of this singular turn of fortune at frequent intervals ever since, and Dr. Bickleigh continued to express his sympathy for the feelings of the grandmother had she been alive to experience them.
For the Crewstantons, once one of the most important families in north Devonshire, had dwindled shockingly. Sir Charles, the twelfth baronet, had preferred to pay his crushing new taxes by selling piecemeal bits and slices of the wide Crewstanton lands instead of altering his way of living, and now inhabited with his other daughter a small villa on the outskirts of Torquay, where he was sinking angrily into the grave as fast as unlimited whiskey could help him—but not fast enough for his unmarried daughter.
The Crewstanton lands had gone. Three Crewstanton sons, who had been brought up with a valet apiece and unlimited small change, were vegetating miserably, one pretending to manage a banana estate in Jamaica, one making belief to bedoing useful work in a surgical bandage firm in Derby, and one(the only one) putting his expensive education to good account by keeping himself in comparative comfort by his skill in bridge,billiards, and poker. Only the fourth, the youngest, had really made a success of his life; he had married a well-known actress, who was able to support him more or less in the style to which he had been accustomed.
Julia, offered the alternative of marriage with a man whom her grandmother could never have entertained at her own table, or joining her younger sister in the ménage at Torquay, then being seriously discussed as an impossible but inevitable future, had not hesitated for a moment.
Not that she had ever been grateful to Edmund. That she was thirty-five years old, had years ago parted with any hopes that she might ever have entertained of marriage, and possessed a face not unlike that of her own favourite horse (as her sister Hilda, a candid woman, immediately pointed out on learning of the engagement), weighed nothing against the fact that she was a Crewstanton. Julia had only one criterion, and that was birth. Any gratitude for the marriage—and how much gratitude was due perhaps only Julia could estimate—was owed by Edmund. And for the last ten years it was impossible to complain that Edmund had failed her in that respect.
From MALICE AFORETHOUGHT, by Francis Iles. Used with the permission of the publisher, DOVER PUBLICATIONS. Copyright © 1978 by Francis Iles.