The space machine, p.2
The Space Machine,
A CONVERSATION IN THE NIGHT
The staff of the Devonshire Arms were in the habit—presumably at Mrs Anson’s instruction—of sprinkling the shades of the oil-lamps with eau de cologne. This had the effect of infusing a cloying perfume through the first floor of the hotel, one so persistent that even now I cannot smell cologne without being reminded of the place.
On this evening, though, I thought I detected a different fragrance as I climbed the stairs. It was drier, less sickly, more redolent of herbs than Mrs Anson’s perfumes…but then I could smell it no more, and I went on into my room and closed the door.
I lit the two oil-lamps in my room, then tidied my appearance in front of the mirror. I knew I had alcohol on my breath, so I brushed my teeth, then sucked a peppermint lozenge. I shaved, combed my hair and moustache, and put on a clean shirt.
When this was done I placed an easy chair beside the door, and moved a table towards it. On this I placed one of the lamps, and blew out the other. As an afterthought I took one of Mrs Anson’s bath-towels, and folded it over the arm of the chair. Then I was ready.
I sat down, and opened a novel.
More than an hour passed, during which although I sat with the book on my knee, I read not one word. I could hear the gentle murmur of conversation drifting up from the downstairs rooms, but all else was still.
At last I heard a light tread on the stairs, and at once I was ready. I put aside the book, and draped the bath-towel over my arm. I waited until the footsteps had passed my door, and then I let myself out.
In the dim light of the corridor I saw a female figure, and as she heard me she turned. It was a chambermaid, carrying a hot water bottle in a dark-red cover.
“Good evening, sir,” she said, making a small sullen curtsey in my direction, then continued on her way.
I went across the corridor into the bath-room, closed the door, counted to one hundred slowly, and then returned to my room.
Once more I waited, this time in considerably greater agitation than before.
Within a few minutes I heard another tread on the stairs, this time rather heavier. Again I waited until the footsteps had passed before emerging. It was Hughes, on his way to his room. We nodded to each other as I opened the door of the bath-room.
When I returned to my own room I was growing angry with myself for having to resort to such elaborate preparations and minor deceptions. But I was determined to go through with this in the way I had planned.
On the third occasion I heard footsteps I recognized Dykes’s tread, as he bounded up taking two steps at a time. I was thankful not to have to go through the charade with the bath-towel.
Another half-hour passed and I was beginning to despair, wondering if I had miscalculated. After all, Miss Fitzgibbon might well be staying in Mrs Anson’s private quarters; I had no reason to suppose that she would have been allocated a room on this floor. At length, though, I was in luck. I heard a soft tread on the staircase, and this time when I looked down the corridor I saw the retreating back of a tall young woman. I tossed the towel back into my room, snatched up my samples-case, closed the door quietly and followed her.
If she was aware that I was behind her, she showed no sign of it. She walked to the very end of the corridor, to where a small staircase led upwards. She turned, and climbed the steps.
I hastened to the end of the corridor, and as I reached the bottom of the steps I saw that she was on the point of inserting a key into the door. She looked down at me.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Turnbull, Edward Turnbull.”
As she regarded me I felt immensely foolish, peering up at her from the bottom of the steps. She said nothing, but nodded slightly at me.
“Do I have the pleasure of addressing Miss Fitzgibbon?” I went on. “Miss A. Fitzgibbon?”
“That is I,” she said, in a pleasant, well modulated voice.
“Miss Fitzgibbon, I know you will think this an extraordinary request, but I have something here I think will be of interest to you. I wondered if I might show it to you?”
For a moment she said nothing, but continued to stare down at me. Then she said: “What is it, Mr Turnbull?”
I glanced along the corridor, fearing that at any moment another of the guests would appear.
I said: “Miss Fitzgibbon, may I come up to you?”
“No, you may not. I shall come down.”
She had a large leather hand-bag, and she placed this on the tiny landing beside her door. Then, raising her skirt slightly, she came slowly down the steps towards me.
When she stood before me in the corridor, I said: “I will not detain you for more than a few moments. It was most fortunate that you should be staying in this hotel.”
While I spoke I had crouched down on the floor, and was fumbling with the catch of my samples-case. The lid came open, and I took out one of the Visibility Protection Masks. I stood up, holding it in my hand, and noticed that Miss Fitzgibbon was regarding me curiously. There was something about her forthright gaze that was most disconcerting.
She said: “What do you have there, Mr Turnbull?”
“I call it the Visibility Protection Mask,” I said. She made no reply, so I went on in some confusion: “You see, it is suited for passengers as well as the driver, and can be removed at a moment’s notice.”
At this, the young lady stepped back from me, and seemed to be about to ascend the steps once more.
“Please wait!” I said. “I am not explaining very well.”
“Indeed you are not. What is it you have in your hand, and why should it be of such interest to me that you accost me in an hotel corridor?”
Her expression was so cold and formal I did not know how to phrase my words. “Miss Fitzgibbon, I understand that you are in the employ of Sir William Reynolds?”
She nodded to confirm this, so at once I stuttered out an account of how I felt sure he would be interested in my Mask.
“But you have still not told me what it is.”
“It keeps grit out of one’s eyes when motoring,” I said, and on a sudden impulse I raised the Mask to my eyes’, and held it in place with my hands. At this the young lady laughed abruptly, but I felt that it was not an unkind laughter.
“They are motoring goggles!” she said. “Why did you not say?”
“You have seen them before?” I said in surprise.
“They are common in America.”
“Then Sir William already possesses some?” I said.
“No…but he probably feels he does not need them.”
I crouched down again, hunting through my samples-case.
“There is a ladies’ model,” I said, searching anxiously through the various products that I kept in my case. At last I found the smaller variety that Mr Westerman’s factory had produced, and stood up, holding it out to her. In my haste I inadvertently knocked my case, and a pile of photograph albums, wallets and writing-cases spilled on the floor. “You may try this on, Miss Fitzgibbon. It’s made of the best kid.”
As I looked again at the young lady, I thought for a moment that her laughter was continuing, but she held her face perfectly seriously.
“I’m not sure that I need—”
“I assure you that it is comfortable to wear.”
My earnestness at last won through, for she took the leather goggles from me.
“There’s an adjustable strap,” I said. “Please try it on.”
I bent down once more, and thrust my spilled samples back into the case. As I did so, I glanced down the corridor again.
When I stood up, Miss Fitzgibbon had raised the Mask to her forehead, and was trying to connect the strap. The large, flowered hat that she was wearing made this exceptionally difficult. If I had felt foolish at the beginning of this interview, then it was nothing to what I now felt. My impulsive nature and awkwardness of manner had led me to a situation of the most embarrassing kind.
“It appears to have become caught in my hair, Mr Turnbull.”
She tugged at the strap, but frowned as the hairs were pulled. I wanted to help her in some way, but I was too nervous of her.
She tugged again at the strap, but the metal clasp was tangled in the strands of hair.
At the far end of the corridor I heard the sound of voices, and the creak of the wooden staircase. Miss Fitzgibbon heard the sounds too, for she also looked that way.
“What am I to do?” she said softly. “I cannot be found with this in my hair.”
She pulled again, but winced.
“May I help?” I said, reaching forward.
A shadow appeared on the wall by the top of the staircase, thrown by the lamps in the hallway.
“We will be discovered at any moment!” said Miss Fitzgibbon, the goggles swinging beside her face. “We had better step into my room for a few minutes.”
The voices were coming closer.
“Your room?” I said in astonishment. “Do you not want a chaperone? After all—”
“Whom would you propose to chaperone me?” said Miss Fitzgibbon. “Mrs Anson?”
Raising her skirt again, she hurried up the steps towards the door. After hesitating another second or two I took up my samples-case, holding the lid down with my hand, and followed. I waited while the young lady unlocked the door, and a moment later we were inside.
The room was larger than mine, and more comfortable. There were two gas-mantles against the wall, and when Miss Fitzgibbon turned them up the room was filled with a bright, warm radiance. A coal fire burned in the grate, and the windows were richly curtained with long, velvet drapes. In one comer there was a large French bedstead, with the covers turned down. Most of the space, however, was given over to furniture which would not have looked out of place in the average parlour, with a chaise longue, two easy chairs, several rugs, an immense dresser, a bookcase and a small table.
I stood nervously by the door, while Miss Fitzgibbon went to a mirror and untangled the goggles from her hair. She placed these on the table.
When she had removed her hat, she said: “Please sit down, Mr Turnbull.”
I looked at the goggles. “I think I should leave now.”
Miss Fitzgibbon was silent, listening to the sound of the voices as they passed the bottom of the stairs.
“Perhaps it would be as well if you stayed a little longer,” she said. “It would not do for you to be seen leaving my room at this late hour.”
I laughed politely with her, but I must confess to being considerably taken aback by such a remark.
I sat down in one of the easy chairs beside the table and Miss Fitzgibbon went to the fireplace and poked the coals so that they flared up more brightly.
“Please excuse me for a moment,” she said. As she passed me I sensed that she had about her a trace of the herbal fragrance I had noticed earlier. She went through an inner door, and closed it.
I sat silently, cursing my impulsive nature. I was sorely embarrassed by this incident, for Miss Fitzgibbon clearly had no need for, nor interest in, my motoring Mask. The notion that she would persuade Sir William to experiment with my goggles was even more unlikely. I had annoyed and compromised her, for if Mrs Anson, or indeed anyone else in the hotel, should discover that I had been alone in her room at night, then the young lady’s reputation would be permanently marked.
When Miss Fitzgibbon returned, some ten minutes later, I heard the sound of a cistern hissing in the next room, and surmised that it must be a private bath-room. This seemed to be so, for Miss Fitzgibbon had apparently renewed her maquillage, and her hair was arranged differently, so that the tight bun she had been wearing had been loosened to allow some strands of her hair to fall about her shoulders. As she moved past me to sit in the other chair I noticed that the herbal fragrance was more noticeable.
She sat down, and leaned back with a sigh. Her behaviour towards me was entirely without ceremony.
“Well, Mr Turnbull,” she said. “I find I owe you an apology. I’m sorry I was stuffy to you outside.”
“It is I who should apologize,” I said at once. “I—”
“It was a natural reaction, I’m afraid,” she went on, as if she had not heard me. “I’ve just spent the last four hours with Mrs Anson, and she seems never to be at a loss for words.”
“I felt sure you were a friend of hers,” I said.
“She has appointed herself my guardian and mentor. I accept a lot of advice from her.” Miss Fitzgibbon stood up again, and went to the dresser and produced two glasses. “I know you drink, Mr Turnbull, for I have smelled your breath. Would you care for a glass of brandy?”
“Thank you, yes,” I said, swallowing hard.
She poured some brandy from a metal flask which she took from her hand-bag, and placed the two glasses on the table between us. “Like you, Mr Turnbull, I sometimes find the need for fortification.”
She sat down again. We raised glasses, and sipped the drink.
“You have lapsed into silence,” she said. “I hope I have not alarmed you.”
I stared at her helplessly, wishing that I had never set out on this naive enterprise.
“Do you come to, Skipton frequently?” she said.
“About two or three times a year, Miss Fitzgibbon, I think. I should bid you good-night. It is not proper for me to be here with you alone.”
“But I still haven’t discovered why you were so eager to show me your goggles.”
“I felt you might influence Sir William to consider trying them.”
She nodded her understanding. “And you are a goggles salesman?”
“No, Miss Fitzgibbon. You see, the firm I am employed by is a manufacturer of…”
My voice had tailed away, for I had heard in the same instant the sound that now clearly distracted Miss Fitzgibbon. We had both heard, just beyond the door, a creaking of floorboards.
Miss Fitzgibbon raised a finger to her lips, and we sat in anguished silence. A few moments later there was a sharp and peremptory rapping on the door!
“Miss Fitzgibbon!” It was Mrs Anson’s voice.
I stared desperately at my new friend.
“What shall we do?” I whispered. “If I am found here at this hour…”
“Keep quiet…leave it to me.”
From outside, again: “Miss Fitzgibbon!”
She moved quickly to the far side of the room, and stood beside the bed.
“What is it, Mrs Anson?” she called, in a faint, tired-seeming voice.
There was a short silence. Then: “Has the maid brought a hot water bottle to your room?”
“Yes, thank you. I am already abed.”
“With the lamps still alight, Miss Fitzgibbon?”
The young lady pointed desperately at the door, and waved her hands at me. I understood immediately, and moved quickly to one side so that I could not be seen through the keyhole.
“I am doing a little reading, Mrs Anson. Good night to you.”
There was another silence from beyond the door, during which I felt I must surely shout aloud to break the tension!
“I thought I heard the sound of a man’s voice,” said Mrs Anson.
“I am quite alone,” said Miss Fitzgibbon. I saw that her face was flushing red, although whether it was from embarrassment or anger I could not tell.
“I don’t think I am mistaken.”
“Please wait a moment,” said Miss Fitzgibbon.
She crept over to me, and raised her mouth until it was beside my ear.
“I shall have to let her in,” she whispered. “I know what to do. Please turn your back.”
“What?” I said in astonish
“Turn your back … please!”
I stared at her in anguish for a moment longer, then did as she said. I heard her move away from me towards the wardrobe, and then there came the sound of her pulling at the clasps and buttons of her gown. I closed my eyes firmly, covering them with my hand. The enormity of my situation was without parallel.
I heard the wardrobe door close, and then felt the touch of a hand on my arm. I looked: Miss Fitzgibbon was standing beside me, a long striped flannel dressing-gown covering her. She had taken the pins from her hair so that it fell loosely about her face.
“Take these,” she whispered, thrusting the two brandy-glasses into my hands. “Wait inside the bath-room.”
“Miss Fitzgibbon, I really must insist!” said Mrs Anson.
I stumbled towards the bath-room door. As I did so I glanced back and saw Miss Fitzgibbon throwing back the covers of the bed and crumpling the linen and bolster. She took my samples-case, and thrust it under the chaise longue. I went inside the bath-room and closed the door. In the dark I leaned back against the door frame, and felt my hands trembling.
The outer door was opened.
“Mrs Anson, what is it you want?”
I heard Mrs Anson march into the room. I could imagine her glaring suspiciously about, and I waited for the moment of her irruption into the bath-room.
“Miss Fitzgibbon, it is very late. Why are you not yet asleep?”
“I am doing some reading. Had you not knocked when you did, I dare say I should be asleep at this moment.”
“I distinctly heard a male voice.”
“But you can see…I am alone. Could it not have been from the next room?”
“It came from in here.”
“Were you listening at the door?”
“Of course not! I was passing down the lower corridor on the way to my own room.”
“Then you could easily have been mistaken. I too have heard voices.”
The tone of Mrs Anson’s words changed suddenly. “My dear Amelia, I am concerned only for your well-being. You do not know these commercial men as well as I. You are young and innocent, and I am responsible for your safety.”