Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas, 1931. The crime was instantaneous and unpremeditated, and the murderer was left staring from the weapon on the table to the dead man in the shadow of the tapestry curtains, not apprehensive, not yet afraid, but incredulous and dumb.
2. The Grays
At the time of his death Gray was in his seventieth year, and had six children living. There had been a seventh, who died as a child, and so long ago that the younger ones scarcely remembered his existence. Only when the bitterness and futility of his parenthood pressed upon the ageing man with a greater sense of weariness than usual did Gray wonder whether the young Philip might not have grown up to be a solace and companion to him. But these moods occurred seldom, and for the most part he, like his children, forgot the little son who had died thirty years ago.
It was his habit at Christmas-time to invite all his relatives to spend the season at his lonely house at King’s Poplars. The wife of one and the husbands of two of them made their numbers up to nine, while Mrs. Alastair Gray, the dead man’s mother, an old lady of ninety, brought the party up to eleven. There was, in addition, a number of servants, both male and female.
As was shown at the inquest, Gray was on good terms with none of his children, while more than one had good reason to wish him out of their path. His eldest son, Richard, was at this time a man of two-and-forty, ambitious, dogged, and fierce to achieve his objective, which was place and reputation. He was childless, a fact that greatly distressed and humiliated him, was well known in political life, and had a few years earlier obtained a knighthood. He had been for many years married to Laura Arkwright, a notable woman in society.
Gray’s eldest daughter, Amy, his only unmarried child, kept his house for him, and was a shrewd and shrewish woman of forty, small, sharp-featured, with reddish hair and thin lips and hands.
His second daughter, Olivia, was married to Eustace Moore, the unscrupulous but intelligent financier into whose hands Gray had allowed the larger portion of his capital to pass.
The dead Philip had come next, and after him Isobel, who had made a brilliant but, as it turned out, disastrous marriage several years earlier. Gray had been delighted when Harry Devereux asked for his daughter. The suitor was rich, handsome, and much sought after. He had a reputation for wit and charm that was not wholly misplaced, but he should have married a woman of his own world, not the young, independent, fiercely idealistic Isobel. Within two years his wife acknowledged her folly, but when she endeavoured to escape from its consequences she found herself powerless. Her husband assured her that she would win nothing but obloquy if she attempted to divorce him; and here she realised that he was right. A man of his popularity had women on every hand prepared to defend him. She thought it improbable that he had not guarded himself at every turn and thus she endured for another year. Then she was delivered of a girl-child, who survived her birth seven months. Isobel attributed the baby’s death to a certain brutal action on the part of the father, and spent anguished weeks wondering how she could have averted the tragedy. Finally she asked her father to receive her home, detailing, as best she could, the manner of her life, her intolerable life, in London. Both Gray and Amy wrote, imploring her frantically to consider the position she would occupy if she returned, the manner in which tongues would wag, her own humiliation. They commiserated her on the death of the child, letting it be seen that they thought her request due to mental upset, following her loss, and spoke hopefully of “next time.” Isobel left both letters unanswered, and the household at King’s Poplars heard nothing more of her, until Devereux himself came down to suggest that Isobel should return home, as she was ill, stubborn, persistently refused him his rights, and he feared some desperate act on her part, such as suicide.
“And you think it would be pleasanter for us to have the scandal of a suicide in the house, rather than yourself?” was Gray’s acid comment.
Amy said, “It’s a struggle to live as it is, without another mouth to feed.”
Devereux made it plain that he would allow his wife a handsome allowance so long as she remained at the Manor House. The attitude of father and sister altered at once. A week later Isobel reappeared. The older servants—there was at that time a housekeeper who had known the family for a great many years, who died twelve months later, besides the long-established Moulton—were openly shocked at her appearance. Isobel had always been the independent, the courageous one. She had found herself work in the neighbouring market town, had loved solitude, had read, had gloried in trips to London, had haunted book-shops and art galleries. Isobel Devereux came back white and listless, meekly submissive to her father, and handing over to Amy, without demur, practically all the money with which her husband supplied her. She scarcely counted as a personality, but could be relied upon to perform those casual and thankless household duties that are invariably shirked by others.
Hildebrand, named for the famous Cardinal, came next, a difficult, striking, handsome figure, sullen and secretive, capable of sudden expansion when he blossomed as unexpectedly and beautifully as a miracle or a flower, but among his own people dark, silent, and morose. From childhood he had caused his father anxiety; he was original, headstrong, and hot-tempered, and had early cut himself off from all sympathetic communication with his family, who were antipathetic to his ideals and intentions, and responded with the utmost ungraciousness (reasonable enough in the circumstances) to his perennial demands for financial assistance. He was seldom mentioned to their acquaintances by any of them, and eked out a wretched, cramped existence with the woman he had chosen to marry and their trail of drab, unattractive children, in a little house near the Fulham cemetery.
The last child, Ruth, had been married for eight years to Miles Amery, a promising young lawyer whose career had, unfortunately, stopped short at the promise. Richard and Eustace were both enraged and disgusted by this wilful relative, who seemed devoid of ambition, and did not even want to bring kudos to the family into which he had married. He pursued his obscure way with apparent satisfaction, never even aiming at anything higher. He seemed to think that a moderate income and a middle-class house in an unexceptionable district were the culmination of any man’s desire. If you asked him how he was, he said very fit and having lots of fun.
“Fun!” said Eustace in a sepulchral tone, as Chadband might have said, “Drink!” and believing it every whit as sinful.
“Fun!” intoned Richard, vexed and outraged at what seemed to him a wanton flinging away of opportunity. “What’s fun?”
They might well ask. Ruth could have told them. It was the house in St. John’s Wood, and the two little girls, Moira and Pat, and all the satisfactions of their happy, full, rich life with one another.