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A Loose And Golden Chain

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Stella drove to Town feeling badgered and battered by questions and surprised statements. Not only had she to face the shock and incredulity of her mother and brother, but also that of her majestic Aunt Gertrude, who had called that morning for, it seemed, the express purpose of discussing Stella’s betrothal in tones of deepest disapproval. And then the morning was made yet more hideous by the brief appearance of Inspector Hannasyde with the news that Scotland Yard were satisfied that they knew who had killed Uncle Gregory and Aunt Harriet, but they were unable to bring the case to trial. Although welcome news, since this meant that they evidently no longer suspected Stella’s mother of the murders, it led to inevitable discussion and comment, which Stella could bear no longer. After lunch, she thought of Randall with relief, and fled the house.

He surprised her by seeming pleased to see her, kissed her, and bade her sit down in his library. “Amuse yourself, my love,” he said, “while I finish this letter. If you want tea, ring the bell.”

Stella shrugged, sat back on the leather sofa, and watched Randall’s bent head and swiftly moving hand. He was dressed in a dark suit and tie, and it struck her that he was looking tired, a frown etched between his black brows. The quiet of the room and the smell of it – leather and tobacco – was oddly comforting after the tumult at home. She leafed through a back issue of John O’London’s Weekly but none of the stories seemed particularly interesting.

Presently Randall blotted his letter, addressed the envelope, and glanced up to meet her gaze. He raised one eyebrow and said, “Well?”

“How soon can we get married?”

His mouth curled in a saturnine smile. “I take it that our relatives disapprove?”

“It’s bad enough having Mummy wondering how I can think of deserting her, or Guy saying every five minutes that I can’t be serious; but as for Aunt Gertrude! She called me frivolous and lacking in proper feeling.” She caught Randall’s expression and added, “Well, so I am, I daresay, but you know what she’s like.”

“Unfortunately I do.” He rang for Benson to bring tea, and joined Stella on her sofa. “Two days, with a special licence, I believe,” he added.

She nodded, and squeezed the slim fingers holding hers. “Would you mind?”

He glanced at her, gently ran his finger along her cheek. “Don’t you want a full dress wedding, my sweet, with Guy to give you away, and my darling Aunt Zoe weeping becomingly?”

Stella looked at him, too horrified by the picture this had conjured up to reprove her betrothed for insulting her family. “Oh lord, it would be exactly like that. Let’s please elope.”

When Benson returned with the tea tray, Stella poured, and then said, abruptly, that the police had been round again, and that they knew who the murderer was. “What do you know about it, Randall? Because I won’t believe you if you say, nothing.”

He frowned. “It’s not pleasant, Stella. Are you sure you want to know?”

She nodded. “Hannasyde said that the police were satisfied, but one can’t help wondering if it’s just because they don’t have proof. And I really don’t want to live the rest of my life speculating that one of my family is a murderer.”

Looking at her, he could see a vague horror lurking in her expression, and realised that she would not accept a mere assurance. He sighed and put their cups back on the table. “It was Rumbold. I won’t explain why, but trust me that it was for understandable reasons.”

“Oh no,” she said, distressed. “I liked him so much. Poor Mrs Rumbold. Is that why? It wasn’t an accident, then?”

He shook his head. She bit her lip and looked at her hands in his, and there was a long silence before Randall disengaged his hands and gave her the cup. “Drink up, my love.”

Obediently, Stella drank, and thought confusedly about her uncle and Mr Rumbold. “Are you really going to give away all Uncle Gregory’s money?”

“Yes,” he replied curtly. “I still have plenty of cash, if that’s what you were worrying about.”

“Of course I wasn’t!” she said, indignantly, distracted – as he had no doubt intended. “Though it would serve you right if I was. It’s only what Guy thinks, anyway.”

“Does he?” Randall enquired interestedly. “It never ceases to amaze me how commonplace a mind he has.”

“Well he has, of course, but you needn’t say so.”

“Darling Stella, let me warn you now that matrimony will not make me bear with Guy with any more patience than now, so if you were hoping I might encourage his imbecility once we were more closely related, you can let that hope die gracefully.”

“You are a serpent, Randall, but I do love you.”

He lifted the hand not holding the cup to his lips and kissed her fingers. “If you really want to avoid an edifying family gathering, come down the day after tomorrow, and we’ll get married at St James’. Only you must promise not to wear that hat again.”

Stella grinned. “Alright. You can include it in the wedding vow, if you like.”

“Don’t think I won’t.” He reached into his waistcoat pocket and slid a ring gently onto her finger. “You can have this now, since it’s to be such a short engagement.”

She glanced down and saw a single pale blue square stone; she turned her hand, and the ring flashed in the afternoon sunlight. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “It wouldn’t be anything else, if you chose it, but thank-you.”

Randall was a bracing lover, she discovered, for he declined to rhapsodise on the likely bliss of their married life, and instead bade her push off since if she wanted to be married soon he had things to do.

“Alright,” Stella said, without rancour. “Do call me tomorrow, though.”

“I will.”

She put on her hat and gloves, grimacing at Randall’s expression of distaste, and headed out to spend the rest of her worldly goods. She had a good figure, she decided, surveying herself in the mirror of the shop Randall had recommended, nice skin and grey eyes. She was not entirely convinced about the hair style, since her hair was fine and curly and had a tendency to fluffiness. And I’m not a fluffy person, Stella told herself. What does one wear to get married in, if not white lace and pearls? she wondered, trying on a navy blue and white spotted silk frock. Randall was not the sort of man who never noticed what one had on – quite the opposite – and would certainly not hesitate to tell her if she was looking haggish.

It was no consolation to be told, when she returned home, that her ring was entirely unsuitable, and that Randall should have known better than to give it. Guy looked at it enviously and spent the whole of dinner grumbling about probate, and the unfairness of life that meant that Randall had more money and yet did nothing to earn it. A sharp quarrel arose between him and Stella as a result, which Mrs Matthews quelled in saintly fashion, and which led to a rather strained silence thereafter.

Stella had to wait until after lunch before the expected call from Randall. “Tomorrow,” he said, with very little preamble, “at two o’clock. And unless you want your mother in full possession of the facts beforehand, pack a bag yourself.”

“Alright.”

She called her friend, Mathilda Clare, and asked if she would stand as witness – to which request Miss Clare, interested and surprised, agreed promptly, and the two arranged to meet at Miss Clare’s flat at noon the next day.

After breakfast the next morning, Stella did the various tasks of the household which were hers, packed a suitcase and a hatbox, and slipped down to the garage with her luggage without being spotted. A vague excuse of visiting a friend satisfied her mother, and Stella was in time at Mathilda’s, and enjoying her friend’s excellent taste. Mathilda did not hesitate to be brutally frank about Stella’s proposed outfit, saying that she should never wear that particular shade of pink ever again. In the end, they went through every single frock in her suitcase before Mathilda found one that she deemed passable.

Stella sat on the stool and let her friend do her hair. “Ever thought about letting it grow?” Mathilda asked, holding up combs against Stella’s hair and rejecting them. “I think you’d suit a more formal style.”

“No, it’s too much bother, I think. I just have to run a brush through it, and it’s ready for the day.”

“Just run a brush… My dear!” Mathilda’s glance met hers in the mirror and, while she was obviously joking, there was, underneath, a little shock. “Well, I suppose you’re pretty enough not to have to bother.”

“Tilda, I never know how you do it – everything you wear is just perfect.”

“Long practise,” Miss Clare responded, dryly. “My occasional journalism includes reporting on fashion, which helps. And to see what really doesn’t work, too. What sort of dress allowance is he giving you?”

Stella stared at her. “Honestly, I have no idea. We haven’t discussed it.” She paused, and blushed, and added, “We’ve only been engaged for about a week.”

“Oh? Well, I suppose you do know each other well, it’s not some love-at-first sight idiocy.”

Stella grinned. “I have my share of idiocies, but this isn’t one of them. I’m fairly sure.”

“Good.” She found what she had been looking for, clipped them into Stella’s hair, briefly admired the effect, then busied herself with shoes and handbag while Stella put on lipstick.

Stella re-packed her suitcase: it and the hatbox were sent by district messenger to Randall’s flat. Presently, they took a taxi to the church so as not to disarrange their finery, stepped out, straightened each other’s headgear, and walked through the churchyard into the building.

Randall was as exquisitely dressed as usual, in formal morning dress and shining shoes. The young man with him was very carelessly dressed, in comparison, standing with hands in pockets, bonelessly slouched a little. There were introductions – Randall’s friend, Fletcher, was softly-spoken and smiling, though his muttered comments seemed rather telegraphic in style – and the rector who would officiate at the ceremony observed the two parties and declared that the licence was in order.

It was not a long service. They said their responses, were pronounced married, signed the register along with their witnesses. There was a late lunch, afterwards, at Simpson’s, and toasts were made to Mr and Mrs Matthews.

Then Mathilda and Fletcher departed, and Stella and Randall were alone, walking together along Piccadilly. “We’ll have a honeymoon later, if you’d like,” Randall said, opening the door of his flat, and ushering her into the grey hall she had once called affected. He kissed her. Randall had kissed her before, but this was not the same at all; she kissed him in return, suddenly passionate, and felt his thin hands slide into her hair and cup her head.

“Come to bed, darling,” he said, lifting his head slightly but leaving his fingers in her hair, stroking. She shivered with pleasure.

“Yes, please,” she said.

He took her hand and gently pulled her through an open door to a bedroom – this she had never seen before in her few visits to his flat – decorated in blue and black, which was starker than she had expected, with no soft touches at all.

“That’s a beautiful frock,” he said. “I congratulate you.” His hands were deft on the line of small buttons which fastened the bodice, and he kissed her throat and breast gradually exposed. For some reason Stella had not expected tenderness, and the kisses and the soft touch of his warm breath on her skin made her shiver, and her heart thumped strongly.

She was down to her underwear before Randall struggled out of his coat and she gathered sufficient courage to start unfastening his garments. She piled the studs carefully on the chest of drawers along with the cufflinks, and brushed his warm skin with investigative fingers. She had also not expected to find his lean, lithe body exciting, but the sight of him gradually revealed to her made her pulse race.

His hands touched her, stroked her, and she could not help making noises of helpless need, and his face relaxed, brilliant blue eyes losing their hardness and the thin mouth softening with kisses. “I love you, Stella,” he said, as their conjunction approached. “Darling.” He stroked her mouth with his thumb, and they kissed again.

Some time later, lying sprawled in the bed and touching only idly, she said, “I didn’t think I felt that way about you. An attachment of the mind rather than the body, if you see what I mean.”

“Mm,” he said. “You mean you’re much less interested in my sparkling conversation now?”

“Something like that.”

“Maybe the two can be combined.” He moved, and bent his lips to her ear, and spoke for some time, a gleam in his eyes that Stella caught only briefly before she succumbed to the sensual syllables, and she moved involuntarily on the sheets beneath him. “Yes,” she said, gasping, “keep talking.”

There came a time when even Randall could speak no intelligible words, and he was using his mouth for other things, and Stella could not have heard him even if he had spoken.

It was a little later than she had planned when she finally managed to heave herself from the bed and dress. She called home with inward trepidation.

“Stella, my love,” said her mother, forgivingly, “had you forgotten that Dr Fielding is dining with us this evening?”

Stella had, though she was glad of it. Sitting down to dinner with her erstwhile fiancé would have been awkward to say the least. “I’m not coming home tonight,” she said, cutting through Mrs Matthews’ gentle complaints. “Randall and I were married today.”

Predictably, this provoked a gasp. “Darling, please don’t try to joke. You know that I am not at all strong, and mustn’t be shocked.”

“I’m serious,” Stella said, casting her eyes to the crimson ceiling. “I wouldn’t joke about something like this.”

“Please, not a registry office?” said her mother, faintly, in tones of horror.

“No, it was at St James’, Piccadilly. And I’m sorry we did it without telling anyone, but I didn’t want any fuss.”

“You know I never fuss, darling,” Mrs Matthews said, reproachfully and inaccurately. She talked on, dwelling pleasurably and disappointedly on the full dress wedding she had been cheated of: photographers outside their local church, her picture in the paper, perhaps, guests complimenting her on the exquisite taste evidently shown by Miss Matthews’ brave, charming widowed mother.

“There’ll be a notice in the Times tomorrow, Randall said,” said Stella, conscious of Randall’s soft-footed entry in the room. “I’m at his flat.” She wanted to turn into his arms, to melt there. “I’ll write.”

She shivered as he lifted her hair and kissed the nape of her neck slowly. Her voice cracked as she bade her mother a rather hasty farewell, and she put down the receiver. “That’s so unfair,” she said, turning to look at him, “and decidedly underhand.” He had on a gorgeously-coloured dressing gown over his shirt and trousers which made her blink.

He smiled. “Get used to it, darling,” he replied, stroking her cheek with his thumb. “Come and eat some supper.”

There was a simple supper laid on the table in the dining room, and they ate and drank, and talked. They conferred about calendars, for Randall had a number of engagements in the next few weeks, at some of which he knew Stella would be welcome, and others not. Stella had other friends in Town, and planned to write notes to inform them of her marriage and new address.

“Should I consider finding us a house to live in?” Randall said, at length. “Or are you willing to live with the grey hall?”

Stella laughed. “I don’t mind it for now. Though our circumstances might change, I suppose.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Very well. You won’t mind sharing the bedroom? There is a spare room, but it’s not very convenient.”

She coloured a little. “No, I don’t mind.”

“Good,” he said, softly. The gleam in his eyes was not hard to interpret, and Stella could not help leaning forward to kiss him. He took her glass with its remains of burgundy and set it down on the table, and then gently pulled her into his embrace. She responded eagerly; they kissed, and retreated to the bedroom again.

The following morning, drowsy and relaxed in the morning sunshine and following a very pleasurable night, Stella found herself alone in the bed, but Randall, in his gorgeous dressing gown, was sitting at the table beside the open window drinking coffee and reading the newspapers, a cigarette between his fingers.

“Hullo,” she said, marvelling at the scene.

“My sweet slugabed,” he replied, looking up at her. “Your case arrived last night. Benson will unpack for you shortly.”

“What’s the time?” She was too relaxed to feel any resentment at the insult.

“Half-past nine.”

“Goodness me, how late. Have I missed breakfast?”

He smiled. “Darling, how little you know me.” He poured out a cup of coffee for her and placed it on the table beside the bed. Stella realised abruptly that she was nude beneath the bedclothes and somehow that seemed rather more embarrassing in the bright light of day than in the dimmer glow of lamplight.

“Thank-you,” she said, pulling up the sheet and reaching out cautiously for the cup. “And thank-you for last night. It was – well, I guess you know.”

He bent his head and kissed her, and his hand caressed her bare shoulder. “One can guess, but one doesn’t ever know. You seemed to be enjoying yourself.”

“Gosh, yes.”

He smiled wryly. “Good. Tell me if there’s anything you don’t like.”

“I suppose you would do it anyway,” she replied, wryly.

He paused, and said, “Not in this. Never in bed.”

“Oh.” Stella glanced at him shrewdly. “Well, everything has been quite acceptable so far.”

He bowed ironically, and returned to his seat. Stella drank her coffee and got up determinedly, noticing that her own dressing gown had been left out, but aware of Randall’s brief comprehensive glance over her bare flesh before she slid into the patterned silk and joined him for breakfast.

Randall’s manservant, who seemed to know by some sort of prevision what was going on behind closed doors, opened a door discreetly and murmured that a bath had been run for madam, and if she permitted he would unpack her clothes and lay out garments.

“Thank-you,” she said, a little taken-aback. “I’ll wear the green poplin.”

The bath was a welcome thought, though. As Benson came into the room, she saw that there was a bathroom beyond. She closed the door behind her and stepped into the scented water. She soaked and washed, and contemplated the slight aches within her body which the night’s activities had left behind. She stretched contentedly. Before the water cooled too much, she emerged, dried off, and put on her dressing gown again.

Her dress was laid out on the bed for her, along with her underwear and stockings, and Randall had departed. She dressed, and noticed that he had left the Times folded at the Court Circular page, where she read the notice:

Marriages

The marriage between Randall Matthews, only son of Mr and Mrs Hubert Matthews (dec’d) and Miss Stella Matthews, daughter of Mr Arthur Matthews (dec’d) and Mrs Arthur Matthews took place privately at St James’ church, Piccadilly yesterday. The bride and groom will reside in London.

The close type on the flimsy paper made everything seem much more real. She smiled to herself, and went to find her husband.