Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 33

Jonathon Babbitt, as he now styled himself, stayed by the car to watch the bricklayers. He did not want to get mud on his spats. The men were topping out the dormer windows. The roof beams formed a pleasing, logical lattice against the grey sky, ready to take the slates that were stacked either side of the rutted track where the drive would be.

It was all taking shape nicely, the house climbing up on itself in piled angles, in bays and buttresses and tall leaded windows, in gables and embellished outcroppings that jostled to declare ascendancy in red brick and grey slate.

‘I want it to be substantial,’ he had told the architect. And substantial it was. A fine house.

‘I hope you’re keeping an eye on those rascals,’ Babbitt said to the builder beside him, rascals being one of old Woodward’s officer-words. ‘We certainly had to in France.’

Babbitt was happy to give the impression he had been an officer, affecting a regimental tie and a vocabulary that included words like rascals, ne’er-do-wells and chaps. He leaned slightly but emphatically on his stick as he half-turned to speak. Wounded hero. People made assumptions. If they chose to assume things based on a tie, a stick and a manner of speaking, that was their business. There was hardly anyone left to tell a different story, anyway.

‘They’re good lads,’ said the builder, a cherubic ex-Navy man with the brandy bloom on his face. He was offended at hearing his men – many of them former tars who had seen active service – so described.

‘Do a good job and there’ll be plenty more work to follow.’ Babbitt had found it sound business practice to hold out the vague promise of future employment, whatever his actual plans.

Yes, a fine, substantial house. A fine, substantial family house. He imagined himself greeting important guests under the electric chandeliers, maids hovering. The mayor and lady mayoress, all the local notables, members of the Chamber of Commerce and their wives…even the Garstons themselves, perhaps.

And Ruth Lafford – Ruth Babbitt – by his side in a long velvet dress, pearls at her throat, blonde hair piled high. ‘Allow me to present my wife.’

Watch’em turn green.

Her having Tolman’s bastard had thrown his plans into disarray at first, until he had realised how he could work it to his advantage.

It certainly made her more accessible. Who would look at her now, with a kid in tow? Women were ten a penny these days. There was no need to take on anyone else’s brat. It would give her cause to be grateful to him. And a grateful woman was a compliant woman.

Babbitt had calculated that he could cast himself as the white knight, nobly rescuing this poor, fallen girl and her child, defying convention in such a way that would reflect credit on him. He could drop hints that he was doing the right thing by a fallen comrade, keeping some trench-pledged promise, bringing the mother and child into a decent home, making an honest woman of her and giving the boy a father.

As for the brat, well, it wasn’t as if he would have to have anything to do with it, unless she got it into her head to be difficult. A nanny, then nursery, then boarding school – out of sight, out of mind. In any case, she’d have her hands full once he’d planted two or three sprogs of his own on her.

Most importantly, control of the kid would bring with it control of the woman, giving him a hold over her. Women were soppy about their nippers, even the bastards. She would toe the line to protect the brat.

Yes, it could all work out very nicely, very nicely indeed, once she’d stopped mooning over bloody Tolman – a long-rotted corpse without a doubt, and good riddance – and saw reason. Perhaps that fat bitch of a stepmother could help there. Yes.

‘Well,’ Babbitt told the builder, ‘keep the chaps at it. I’ll be getting back to the factory, keep them at it.’

He climbed into the back seat of the Lagonda, settling into the smell of seat leather and small cigars, and told his driver to take him to Turner Street. The works manager, Brennan, had been easily bought – bloody hypocrites, all these union types – but he couldn’t be trusted alone for long.



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