Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey

20

Brat had not been prepared to find birthday presents by his plate on Friday morning. He had not, in fact, reckoned with a birthday at all. “All celebration has been postponed until Mr. Charles Ashby comes back to this country,” Mr. Sandal had said to him in London, and it was not until Bee had drawn his attention to it that he had remembered that, celebration apart, there would inevitably be a day on which he would become twenty-one. He had had so little experience of birthdays that he had taken it for granted that a postponement of celebration meant a simple verbal congratulation from each member of the family, and he was dismayed by the pile of parcels by his breakfast plate. He quailed at the thought of having to open them in public.

The sardonic light in Simon’s eye braced him to the task. He had a suspicion that Simon’s punctuality at breakfast this morning was due less to the presence of Mr. Sandal than to the prospect of enjoying his embarrassment over those presents.

“Happy birthday, Brat!” they said, as they came in. “Happy birthday, Brat!” One after another. So that the light benedictions fell round him like confetti.

He wished he didn’t feel so bad about it. He wished that they were really his family, and that these were his presents by his plate, and that it was his birthday. It was a very nice thing, a family birthday.

“Are you an opener-before-breakfast or an opener-after, Brat?” Eleanor asked.

“After,” he said promptly, and won a breathing-space.

After several cups of strong coffee he might feel braver.

Simon had, as well as presents, a pile of telegrams from the still large numbers of his acquaintances who had not heard of his twin’s return, and he opened them as he ate and shared the contents. Having read each message aloud he added a postscript of comment.

“An exact shilling, the cheeseparing adding-machine! And I gave her a wonderful lunch last time I was in town. . . . What do you imagine Bobby is doing in Skye? He loathes mountains and is a martyr to midges. . . . Gore and Bowen. I suppose that’s to remind me to pay my bill. . . . I’m sure I don’t know anyone called Bert Burt. Do you think he can be a bookie?”

When eventually Brat could no longer postpone the opening of his parcels, his task was made easier by the fact that his presents were for the most part replicas of those Simon was pulling out of his own pile. Mr. Sandal’s Georgian sugar-sifter, Bee’s silver flask, Eleanor’s whip, and the twins’ pocket-book, were all duplicated. Only the present from the Rectory was individual. It was a small wooden box that played a tune when the lid was opened. Brat had never seen or heard of such a thing before, and was so delighted with it that he forgot to be self-conscious and became absorbed in it.

“That came from Clare Park,” Bee said.

And at that reminder of Loding he came back to reality and shut down the lid on the sweet frail melody.

This morning he was going to sign his soul away. It was no time for tinkling little tunes.

This signing-away was also the subject of surprise. He had imagined in his innocence that various papers would be put in front of him and he would sign them, and that would be that. A matter of twenty minutes at the most. But it proved to be a matter of hours. He and Mr. Sandal sat side by side at the big table in the library, and the whole economic history of Latchetts was laid open for his inspection. Cosset, Thring and Noble were accounting to their young client for the years of his minority.

Brat, a little bewildered but interested, toiled after Mr. Sandal in his progress through the years, and admired the way the old man handled this legal and mathematical exploration.

“Your dear mother’s fortune is not what it was in the prosperous days when she inherited it, of course; but it will be sufficient to ensure that you may live at Latchetts in the future without anxiety. As you have observed, the margin of safety has often been very small during the years of your minority, but it was Miss Ashby’s wish that there should be no borrowing on the strength of your inheritance from your mother. She was determined that that should come to you intact when you were twenty-one.”

He went on laying statements in front of Brat, and for the first time Brat was aware of the struggle and the insecurity that lay behind the assured contentment that Latchetts presented to the eye.

“What happened that year?” he asked, putting his finger on a particularly black record.

Mr. Sandal flipped over some papers. “Ah, yes. I remember. That was a bad year. A very bad year. One of the mares died and two were barren, and a very fine foal broke a leg. A heart-breaking year. It is a precarious way of making a living. That year, for instance,” his thin dry finger pointed out another unsatisfactory report, “everything went swimmingly at Latchetts but it happened to be a year when no one was buying and none of the yearlings made their reserve price at the sales. A matter of luck. Merely luck. You will observe that some of the years were exceedingly lucky ones, so that the losses were overtaken.”

He left the stables and went on to the farms: the conditions of lease, the improvements, the standing of the tenants, the nature of the crops. Eventually he came to the matter of personal income.

“Your father made a very good income in his profession of consulting engineer, and there seemed, of course, nothing to prevent him making that large yearly sum for a lifetime to come. He therefore spent generously on Latchetts and on the horses that were his hobby. Bought expensive and finely-bred mares, and so on, so that when he died his investments were not very extensive, and death duties had of course to be paid, so the investments had to go.”

He slipped another sheet in front of Brat’s eye, showing how the duty had been paid without mortgaging Latchetts.

“Miss Ashby has her own income and has never taken an allowance from the Latchetts estate. Except a house-keeping one, that is. The two elder children have had increasing allowances as they grew up. With the exception of some personal possessions — the children’s ponies, for instance — the horses in the stable belong to the estate. When the children went to sales to buy for re-selling they were given money by Miss Ashby, and any profit on the improved horses went towards the expenses of Latchetts. I understand, however, that Simon has lately bought one or two with the result of profitable bets, and Eleanor with the result of her efforts as an instructress in the art of riding. Miss Ashby will no doubt tell you which these are. They do not appear in the relevant papers. The Shetland ponies were Miss Ashby’s own venture, and are her own property. I hope that is all clear?”

Brat said that it was.

“Now about the future. It is the Bank’s advice that the money left you by your mother should stay invested as it is now. Have you any objection to that?”

“I don’t want any lump sum,” Loding had said. “I should only blue it, in the first place. And in the second place, it would cause a shocking amount of heart-searching at the bank. We don’t want any heart-searching once you’re in the saddle. All I want is a cosy little weekly allowance for the rest of my life, so that I can thumb my nose at Equity, and managements, and producers who say that I’m always late for rehearsals. And landladies. Riches, my boy, don’t consist in having things, but in not having to do something you don’t want to do. And don’t you forget it. Riches is being able to thumb your nose.”

“What income would that bring me, as it is?” Brat asked Mr. Sandal, and Mr. Sandal told him.

That was all right. He could peel Loding’s cut off that and still have enough to meet his obligations at Latchetts.

“These are the children’s present allowances. The twins, of course, will be going away to school presently, and that will be a charge on the estate for a few years.”

He was surprised by the smallness of the allowances. Why, he thought, I made more than that in three months at the dude ranch. It subtly altered his attitude to Simon that Simon in the matter of spending money should have been so much his inferior.

“They’re not very big, are they?” he said to Mr. Sandal, and the old man looked taken aback.

“They are in accordance with the size of the estate,” he said dryly.

“Well, I think they ought to be stepped up a bit now.”

“Yes; that would be quite in order. But you cannot expect to carry two adults as passengers on the estate. It would not be just to the estate. They are both capable of earning their own living.”

“What do you suggest, then?”

“I would suggest that Eleanor be given a slightly increased allowance while she lives at Latchetts, or until she marries.”

“Is she thinking of getting married?”

“My dear boy, all young ladies think of getting married, especially when they are as pleasant to look upon as your sister. I am not aware, however, that she has so far exhibited any specific interest in the matter.”

“Oh. And Simon?”

“Simon’s case is difficult. Until a few weeks ago he looked upon Latchetts as his. He is not likely to remain long at Latchetts now, but the slightly increased allowance you suggest could be paid to him while he gives you his services here.”

“I don’t think that is good enough,” said Brat, who was surprised by Mr. Sandal’s assumption that Simon would go. Simon showed no signs of going. “I think a bit of the estate is owing to him.”

“Morally owing, you mean?”

“Yes, I suppose so.”

“No doubt you are right, but it is a dangerous assumption which you cannot expect me to countenance. One cannot hand out bits of a financial estate and still keep the said estate in good heart. An allowance is one thing: it comes out of income. But the giving away of the fabric of the thing is to damage its whole structure.”

“Well, I suggest that if Simon wants to go away and begin somewhere on his own that the money to start should be lent to him out of the estate at a nominal rate of interest. I suppose if I say without interest you’ll jump down my throat.”

The old man smiled on him, quite kindly. “I think there is nothing against that. I am looking forward to a period of great prosperity for Latchetts now that the lean years are over. I don’t suppose a loan to Simon would greatly incommode the estate. There would be the saving of the allowance to balance it. Now, about the increase in the present allowances ——”

They settled the amounts of that.

“Lastly,” said Mr. Sandal, “the pensioners.”

“Pensioners?”

“Yes. The various dependents of the family who have become too old to work.”

For the fourth time that morning Brat was surprised. He looked at the long list and wondered if all established English families had this drain on their income. Mr. Sandal seemed to take it as a matter of course; as much a commonplace of honourable practice as paying one’s income tax. Mr. Sandal had frowned on any extravagance where the family was concerned: able-bodied Ashbys must earn their own living. The obligation to support the aged and infirm retainers of the family he took for granted. There was Nannie, who was now ninety-two and lived in a place called New Deer in Scotland; there was an old groom of eighty-nine who lived in the village, and another at Guessgate; there was a cook who had cooked for them until she was sixty-eight and now lived with a daughter of sixty-nine in Horsham; and so on.

He thought of the brassy blonde in the flowered rayon who had bade him welcome to Latchetts. Who would pension her? The country, he supposed. For long and honourable service?

Brat agreed to the continuance of the pensions, and then Simon was called in to do his share of signing. It pleased Brat, who had found it a depressing morning, to notice the sudden widening of Simon’s eye as it lighted on his own signature. It was nearly a decade since Simon had set eyes on those capital letters of Patrick’s, and here they were blandly confronting him on the library table. That would “larn” him to be sardonic over Brat’s efforts to carry off a birthday that was not his.

Then Bee came in, and Mr. Sandal explained the increased provisions in the matter of allowances and the plan for providing for Simon’s future. When Simon heard of the plan he eyed Brat thoughtfully; and Brat could read quite plainly what the look said. “Bribery, is that it? Well, it won’t work. I’m damned well staying here and you will damned well pay me that allowance.” Whatever plans Simon had, they centred round Latchetts.

Bee seemed pleased, however. She put her arm through his to lead him to lunch, and squeezed it. “Dear Brat!” she said.

“I congratulated you both and gave you my good wishes at breakfast,” Mr. Sandal said, picking up his glass of claret, “but I should like now to drink a toast.” He lifted his glass to Brat. “To Patrick, who has not only succeeded to his inheritance but has accepted its obligations.”

“To Patrick!” they said. “To Patrick!”

“To Patrick!” said Jane, last.

He looked at her and found that she was smiling at him.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:04