Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey

9

Bee waited till Evensong would be over, and then walked across the fields to the Rectory. Ostensibly, she was going to tell them the news; actually she was going to pour out her troubles to George Peck. When George could withdraw his mind sufficiently from the classic world to focus it on the present one, he was a comfortable person to talk to. Unemotional and unshockable. Bee supposed that an intimate acquaintance with classic on-goings, topped-off with a cure of souls in a country parish, had so conditioned him to shocks that he had long ago become immune from further attack. Neither ancient iniquity nor modern English back-sliding surprised him. So it was not to Nancy, her friend, that she was taking her unquiet heart, but to the Rector. Nancy would wrap her round with warm affection and sympathy, but it was not sympathy she needed; it was support. Besides, if she was to find understanding it would not be with Nancy, who had forgotten Patrick’s very existence, but with George Peck, who would most certainly remember the boy he had taught.

So she walked in the sunlight over the fields, through the churchyard, and into the Rectory garden through the little iron gate that had caused that terrific row in 1723. Very peaceful it all was to-night, and very peaceful were the rival smiths, sleeping within twelve feet of each other over there in the corner in good Clare earth. Some day quite soon, she thought, pausing with her hand on the delicate iron scroll, my trouble too will be just an old song; one must try to keep things in proportion. But it was her head talking to her heart, and her heart would not listen.

She found the Rector where she knew he would be. Always after Evensong it was his habit to go and stare at something in the garden; usually at something at the farther end of the garden from which he could not be too easily recalled to the trivialities of social obligation. This evening he was staring at a purple lilac and polluting the fragrant air with a pipe that smelt like a damp bonfire. “There should be a by-law against pipes like George’s,” his wife had said, and the present sample was no exception. It depressed Bee still further.

He glanced up as she came down the path and went back to staring at the lilac. “Wonderful colour, isn’t it,” he said. “Odd to think that it is just an optical illusion. What colour is a lilac when you are not looking at it, I wonder?”

Bee remembered that the Rector had once broken it to the twins that a clock does not tick if no one is in the room. She had found Ruth being surreptitious in the hall, and Ruth, when asked what this noiseless progress was occasioned by, had said that she was “trying to sneak up on the drawing-room clock.” She wanted to catch it not ticking.

Bee stood by the Rector in silence for a little, looking at the glory and trying to arrange her thoughts. But they would not arrange.

“George,” she said at length, “you remember Patrick, don’t you?”

“Pat Ashby? Of course.” He turned to look at her.

“Well, he didn’t die at all. He just ran away. That is what the note meant. And he is coming back. And Simon isn’t pleased.” A great round shameless tear slipped out of her eye and ran down her cheek. She brushed it off her chin and went on staring at the lilac.

George extended a bony forefinger and gently speared the front of her shoulder with it.

“Sit down,” he said.

She sat down on the seat behind her, under the arch of the young green honeysuckle, and the Rector sat down beside her. “Now, tell me,” he said; and she told him. All the bewildering story, in the proper order and with full detail; Mr. Sandal’s telephone call, the journey to town, the top-floor-back in Pimlico, the investigations of Cosset, Thring and Noble, the rescue by Great-uncle Charles, the ultimate facing of the facts and announcing them to the family, the family reaction.

“Eleanor is a little cold about it, but reasonable as she always is. The thing is there and she is going to make the best of it. Jane, of course, is partisan, and sorry for Simon, but she will get over that when she meets her brother in the flesh. She is a friendly soul by nature.”

“And Ruth?”

“Ruth is planning her wardrobe for Tuesday,” Bee said tartly.

The Rector smiled a little. “The happy ones of the earth, the Ruths.”

“But Simon. . . . How can one account for Simon?”

“I don’t think that that is very difficult, you know. Simon would have had to be a saint to welcome back a brother who was going to supplant him. A brother, moreover, who has been dead to him since the age of thirteen.”

“But, George, his twin! They were inseparable.”

“I think that thirteen is further removed from twenty-one than almost any other equidistant points in life. It is a whole lifetime away. An association that ended at thirteen has little but sentimental value for the boy of twenty-one. Latchetts has been Simon’s for — what is it? — eight years; he has known for eight years that he would come into his mother’s money at twenty-one: to be deprived of all that without warning would upset a stronger character than Simon’s.”

“I expect I did it badly,” Bee said. “The way I told them, I mean. I should have told Simon first, privately. But I did so want to keep them all on the same level. To pretend that they would all be equally glad. Taking Simon apart and telling him before the others would have — would have ——”

“Anticipated the trouble.”

“Yes. Something like that, I suppose. I suppose I had known quite well that his reaction would be — different from the others. And I just wanted to minimise the difference. I had never imagined for a moment, you see, that his reaction would be so violent. That he would go to the length of denying that Patrick was alive.”

“That is only his method of pushing the unwelcome fact away from him.”

“Unwelcome,” Bee murmured.

“Yes, unwelcome. And very naturally unwelcome. You make things difficult for yourself if you don’t accept that fundamental fact. You remember Patrick with your adult mind, and are rejoiced that he is still alive.” He turned his head to look at her. “Or — are you?”

“Of course I am!” she said, a shade too emphatically. But he let it go.

“Simon doesn’t remember him with an adult mind or adult emotions. To Simon he is a remembered emotion; not a present one. He has no present love to fight his present — hatred with.”

“Oh, George.”

“Yes; it is best to face it. It would take an almost divine love to combat the resentment that Simon must be feeling now; and there has never been anything in the least divine about Simon. Poor Simon. It is a wretched thing to have happened to him.”

“And at the very worst moment. When we were all ready for celebration.”

“At least this is the answer to something that has puzzled me for eight years.”

“What is that?”

“The fact of Patrick’s suicide. I could never reconcile it with the Patrick I knew. Patrick was a sensitive child, but he had a tremendous fund of good common sense; a balance. A far better equilibrium, for instance, than the less sensitive but more brilliant Simon. He had also, moreover, a great sense of obligation. If Latchetts was suddenly and unaccountably his he might be overwhelmed to the point of running away, but not unbalanced to the point of taking his life.”

“Why did we all so unquestioningly accept the suicide theory?”

“The coat on the cliff-top. The note — which did read like a suicide one, undoubtedly. The complete lack of anyone who had seen him after old Abel met him between Tanbitches and the cliff. The persistence with which suicides use that particular part of the coast for their taking-off. It was the natural conclusion to come to. I don’t remember that we ever questioned it. But it had always stayed in my mind as an unaccountable thing. Not the method, but the fact that Patrick should have taken his own life. It was unlike everything I knew about Patrick. And now we find that, after all, he did no such thing.”

“I shut my eyes and the lilac is no colour; I open them and it is purple,” Bee was saying to herself; which was her way of keeping her tears at bay. Just as she counted objects when in danger of crying at a play.

“Tell me, are you pleased with this adult Patrick who has come back?”

“Yes. Yes, I am pleased. He is in some ways very like the Patrick who went away. Very quiet. Self-contained. Very considerate. Do you remember how Patrick used to turn and say: ‘Are you all right?’ before he began whatever he was planning to do on his own? He still thinks of the other person. Didn’t try to — rush me, or take his welcome for granted. And he still keeps his bad times to himself. Simon always came flying to one with his griefs and grievances, but Patrick dealt with his own. He seems still to be able to deal with his own.”

“Has he had a bad time, then, do you think?”

“I gather it hasn’t been a bed of roses. I forgot to tell you that he is lame.”

“Lame!”

“Yes. Just a little. Some accident with a horse. He is still mad about horses.”

“That will make you happy,” George said. He said it a little wryly, being no horseman.

“Yes,” agreed Bee with a faint smile for the wryness. “It is good that Latchetts should go to a real lover.”

“You rate Simon as a poor lover?”

“Not poor. Indifferent, perhaps. To Simon horses are a means of providing excitement. Of enhancing his prestige. A medium for trade; for profitable dickering. I doubt if it goes further than that. For horses as — people, if you know what I mean, he has little feeling. Their sicknesses bore him. Eleanor will stay up for nights on end with a horse that is ill, sharing the nursing fifty-fifty with Gregg. The only time Simon loses sleep is when a horse he wants to ride, or jump, or hunt, has a ‘leg’.”

“Poor Simon,” the Rector said reflectively. “Not the temperament to make a successful fight against jealousy. A very destructive emotion indeed, jealousy.”

Before Bee could answer, Nancy appeared.

“Bee! How nice,” she said. “Were you at Evensong, and did you see the latest contingent from our local school for scandalisers? Two adolescents who are ‘studying the prevalent English superstitions’: to wit, the Church of England. A boy, very hairy for fourteen, it seemed to me; and a girl with eleven combs keeping up her not very abundant wisps. What would you say a passion for combs was an indication of? A sense of insecurity?”

“Beatrice has come with a very wonderful piece of news,” the Rector said.

“Don’t tell me Simon has got himself engaged.”

“No. It is not about Simon. It’s about Patrick.”

“Patrick?” Nancy said uncertainly.

“He is alive.” And he told her how.

“Oh, Bee, my dear,” Nancy said, putting her arms round her friend, “how glorious for you. Now you won’t have to wonder any more.”

That Nancy’s first reaction was to remember that private nightmare of hers broke Bee down altogether.

“You need a drink,” Nancy said, briskly. “Come along in and we’ll finish what’s left in the sherry bottle.”

“A deplorable reason for drinking sherry,” the Rector said.

“What is?”

“That one ‘needs a drink’.”

“An even more deplorable reason is that if we don’t drink it Mrs. Godkin will. She has had most of the rest of the bottle. Come along.”

So Bee drank the Rectory sherry and listened while George enlightened Nancy on the details of Patrick Ashby’s return. Now that her weight of knowledge was shared with her own generation, the burden was suddenly lighter. Whatever difficulties lay ahead, there Would be George and Nancy to support and comfort her.

“When is Patrick coming?” Nancy asked; and the Rector turned to Bee.

“On Tuesday,” Bee told them. “What I can’t decide is the best way of spreading the news in the district.”

“That’s easy,” Nancy said. “Just tell Mrs. Gloom.”

Mrs. Gloom kept the sweets-tobacco-and-newspaper shop in the village. Her real name was Bloom, but her relish for disaster caused her to be known, first by the Ledingham and Ashby children, and later by all and sundry, as Mrs. Gloom.

“Or you could send yourself a postcard. The post office is almost as good. That is what Jim Bowden did when he jilted the Heywood girl. Sent his mother a telegram announcing his wedding. The fuss was all over before he came back.”

“I’m afraid we are going to be at the exact centre of the fuss until the nine days’ wonder is over,” Bee said. “One must just put up with it.”

“Ah, well, my dear, it’s a nice sort of fuss,” Nancy said, comforting.

“Yes. But the situation is so — so incalculable. It’s like — like ——”

“I know,” Nancy said, agreeing. “Like walking on jelly.”

“I was going to say picking one’s way over a bog, but I think the jelly is a better description.”

“Or one of those uneven floors at fun fairs,” the Rector said unexpectedly, as Bee took her leave.

“How do you know about fun fairs, George?” his wife asked.

“They had one at the Westover Carnival a year or two ago, I seem to remember. A most interesting study in masochism.”

“You see now why I have stuck to George,” Nancy said, as she walked with Bee to the garden gate. “After thirteen years I am still finding out things about him. I wouldn’t have believed that he even knew what a fun fair was. Can you picture George lost in contemplation of the Giant Racer?”

But it was not of Nancy’s George that she was thinking as she walked away through the churchyard, but of the fun-fair floor that she was doomed to walk in the days ahead. She turned in at the south porch of the church and found the great oak door still unlocked. The light of the sunset flooded the grey vault with warmth, and the whole building held peace as a cup holds water. She sat down on a bench by the door and listened to the silence. A companionable silence which she shared with the figures on the tombs, the tattered banners, the names on the wall, the Legion’s garish Union Jack, and the slow ticking of a clock. The tombs were all Ledingham ones: from the simple dignity of the Crusader to the marble family that wept with ostentatious opulence over the eighteenth-century politician. The Ashbys had no crusaders and no opulence. Their memorials were tablets on the wall. Bee sat there and read them for the thousandth time. “Of Latchetts” was the refrain. “Of Latchetts in this parish.” No field-marshals, no chancellors, no poets, no reformers. Just the yeoman simplicity of Latchetts; the small-squire sufficiency of Latchetts.

And now Latchetts belonged to this unknown boy from half a world away.

“A great sense of obligation,” the Rector had said, speaking of the Patrick he remembered. And that had been the Patrick that she, too, remembered. And that Patrick would have written to them.

Always she came back to that in her mind. The Patrick they knew would never have left them in grief and doubt for eight years.

“Some psychological difficulty,” Mr. Sandal had said. And after all, he had run away. A sufficiently unlikely thing for Patrick to do. Perhaps he had been overcome by shame when he came to himself.

And yet. And yet.

That kind child who so automatically asked: “Are you all right?”

That child with the “great sense of obligation”?

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