“Bev, did you! –”
“Aha, what a sharp little thing it is! And you are the only one that knows! Because I think I’m on the upward path now. I think I’ve broken the ice. And when I’m established here, they’ll all feel the weight of my hand, and not in little jokes either.”
He was giggling a great deal now. Edith was much puzzled. Here she was, in possession of the secret which had so much troubled her idol, Mr Ridley, and yet now that she was able to be of use to him, he was no longer her idol. This pink, sweet-talking little man seemed suddenly to have filled her whole being with warmth and comfort and wonder.
“You’d never tell, would you?” said he teasingly.
“Oh, Bev, no — never, never,” she whispered.
Bevill Higgin leaned forward and kissed her, very softly, but for a long, long time. A delicious warmth suffused her. She seemed to melt, to move toward him without any will of her own. Gently, very gently, his hand stole in the front of her nightdress and caressed her breast. She shuddered with pleasure as he slipped the straps from her shoulders, and, pushing the nightdress downward, stroked first her stomach and then her thighs with a touch as light as a feather. She heaved gently on a warm, smooth sea.
“Mommie.” It was Earl’s voice, sleepy but loud. “Mommie, I wanna go to the bathroom.”
Edith came to herself with a start. She pushed Higgin roughly from her. “Get away!” she whispered roughly, “get away from me, you nasty old thing.”
“Edith,” said he, in a very low voice, “don’t be frightened. It’s me! It’s Bev! Be calm!”
Hampered as she was by her downthrust nightdress she nevertheless managed to scramble quickly over him to the floor. Seizing a hairbrush in one hand, and screening her naked breasts with the other, she struck at him, and as he guarded his head from the blows she beat furiously at his hands.
“Get out of here,” she whispered. Earl, concerned only with his own mounting need, wailed from the cot. “Get out,” she whispered, over and over, until Higgin, scrambling from the bed, rushed from the room. She threw his slippers after him.
Later, she sat up in her bed, marvelling at herself. She had as near as a toucher been seduced! She had always thought of seduction as something that happened in fine hotels, or in the backs of very expensive cars. And right here, in her house and the Morphews’, in this little room, with her hair in curlers, and little Earlie asleep not three feet away! It was staggering. It was shattering.
Yet she could not weep. The experience had been immeasurably stimulating. She felt no shame, only triumphant virtue. She wasn’t anybody that could be had by any slick old fellow with a line of smooth talk! It had been a narrow escape, but the more she thought about it, the more she knew that she would never have let him go the limit.
And she had the secret! How Ridley would thank her! How he’d be grateful to her! For he wasn’t one of the kind that always looked at a woman with one thing in mind. He was above all that. She’d be there extra early in the morning. She’d wake him up with her news.
Her ideal was triumphantly restored to his throne.
At half-past two on Tuesday, November 7th, Gloster Ridley was arranging his office for the meeting with the lawyers. Miss Green had done all the necessary work well beforehand, but still he fussed nervously with the chairs, rearranged heaps of paper on his side-table, laid pencils conveniently on his blotter, tinkered with anything and with everything. How different was the demeanour of Mr A. J. Marryat, who stood calmly by the window, smiling out at the beauty of the late autumn. But the difference between the two men was superficial; though the one fussed and the other was at ease, both had an air of confidence.
Mr Marryat turned to Ridley. “Gordon Balmer has just come in the front door,” said he. “Now, remember, the important thing is never to lose face. They’ll talk a lot about court, but this is the trial. We’ve got to maintain face.”
Ridley smiled, and concealing his nervousness for the first time, he stood behind his desk in an attitude which was almost debonair. It was not long until Miss Green opened the door to admit The Bellman’s lawyer.
“I’m a little late,” said Mr Balmer. “I wanted to get over earlier in order to do some arranging; there’s a lot in the way these situations are handled.” He made his way directly behind Ridley’s desk, and put his briefcase upon it. “I’ll sit here, if you don’t mind,” said he. “I have a good many papers and I’ll need somewhere to put them.”
“I’ve thought of that already,” said Ridley, “and I’ve arranged a place for you here.” He indicated a chair on the other side of the desk. “You see, I’ve cleared a place for all your papers.”
“Of course I had no intention of taking your chair,” said Mr Balmer, though that was what he had just been prevented from doing. “But as I suppose I shall be in charge of the meeting I more or less unconsciously made for this place. You see,” he said, lowering his voice confidentially, “there’s a certain psychological advantage about dominating the room, on these occasions. And the man who sits behind the desk always dominates the men whose legs can be seen. It’s a funny thing; not one in a thousand thinks of it.”
“Extraordinary!” said Ridley, but he did not budge from his position, which made it impossible for Mr Balmer to get the dominating chair without forcibly pushing him aside. “As a matter of fact, I’ve tried to give you a psychological advantage of another sort; I’ve put you with your back to the window, and Mr Snelgrove will sit facing full into the light. I think that’s rather good, don’t you?”
Mr Balmer muttered something which might have been assent. Certainly he did not seem to think that any advantage of lighting could make up for the loss of the dominating chair, the chair which, by his attitude, he had put in the position of the Bench. With an ill grace he moved to the less desirable chair indicated by Ridley, and began to take some things out of his briefcase.
Ridley looked toward Mr Marryat, who was behind Balmer. Though his expression did not change, his eyes signalled “Face?”, and equally without expression Mr Marryat signalled back “Face, indeed!”
Again there came a tap at the door, and Miss Green ushered in Mr Snelgrove and Professor Vambrace.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” said Ridley. “I had expected three in your party. I hope that X has not disappointed you?”
“You may be sure that X will appear at the proper time,” said Mr Snelgrove. “As we are to have this meeting under circumstances which I must say I consider to be very irregular, I must ask for certain necessary accommodations. I have many papers, and I shall want a desk. I presume that there will be no objection if I sit here?” And he also made for Ridley’s chair, but the editor stood his ground.
“I am sure that you will find everything you want here, opposite Mr Balmer,” said he. “Blotting paper, pens, ink, pencils — we have tried to anticipate your wants, but if anything is lacking my secretary will get it for you at once.”
“I would greatly have preferred to hold this encounter in my own chambers,” said Mr Snelgrove, in a voice which temper was already causing to tremble. “I consider it most unusual and undesirable to meet a colleague who may become an opponent in his client’s office.” And he glared at Gordon Balmer in a manner which was intended to make Ridley, as a non-legal person, feel superfluous and intrusive.
“I am not on my home ground, either, Mr Snelgrove,” said Balmer, and went on ostentatiously arranging some papers. It was to be a source of astonishment to Ridley and Marryat, during the ensuing hour, that both the lawyers had brief-cases containing a great many papers which could not possibly have had any bearing on the matter in hand, but which peeped importantly from their satchels as though they might, at any moment, leap forth to prove or disprove something of the utmost importance.
Professor Vambrace said nothing, but took a chair somewhat to the rear of Mr Snelgrove. He had, for the occasion, put on a suit of dark, heavy tweed, and a black tie, and looked more than ever like a tragedian of the old school.
Once again the door opened, and Miss Green showed in Dean Jevon Knapp.
“Sorry to be late, if indeed I am late,” said he, smiling urbanely at everyone. He fixed upon Mr Marryat, as the most amiable-looking person present, and shook him by the hand with great cordiality, to his astonishment.