The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

19

This, oddly enough, was also Aunt Lin’s reaction.

Aunt Lin had become gradually reconciled to Robert’s connection with the Franchise affair as it moved from the provincial-unsavoury to the national-celebrated. It was, after all, no disgrace to be connected with a case that was reported in The Times. Aunt Lin did not, of course, read The Times, but her friends did. The vicar, and old Colonel Whittaker, and the girl at Boots and old Mrs. Warren from Weymouth (Swanage); and it was vaguely gratifying to think that Robert should be solicitor for the defence in a famous trial, even if the defence was against a charge of beating a helpless girl. And of course it had never even remotely shadowed her mind that Robert would not win the case. She had taken that quite placidly for granted. In the first place Robert himself was so clever; and in the second Blair, Hayward, and Bennet could not conceivably be connected with a failure. She had even regretted in her own mind, in passing, that his triumph would take place over at Norton and not in Milford where everyone might be there to see.

So that the first hint of doubt came as a surprise to her. Not a shock, since she still could not visualise the prospect of failure. But definitely as a new thought.

“But, Robert,” she said, sweeping her foot round under the table in an effort to locate her footstool, “you don’t suppose for a moment that you are going to lose the case, do you?”

“On the contrary,” Robert said, “I don’t suppose for a moment that we shall win it.”

“Robert!”

“In trial by jury it is customary to have a case to put to the jury. So far we have no case. And I don’t think that the jury is going to like that at all.”

“You sound quite pettish, dear. I think you are allowing the thing to get on your nerves. Why don’t you take tomorrow afternoon off and arrange a golf four? You have hardly golfed at all lately and it can’t be good for your liver. Not golfing, I mean.”

“I can’t believe,” Robert said wonderingly, “that I was ever interested in the fate of ‘a piece of gutta-percha’ on a golf course. That must have been in some other life.”

“That is what I say, dear. You are losing your sense of proportion. Allowing this affair to worry you quite unnecessarily. After all, you have Kevin.”

“That I take leave to doubt.”

“What do you mean, dear?”

“I can’t imagine Kevin taking time off and travelling down to Norton to defend a case that he is fore-ordained to lose. He has his quixotic moments, but they don’t entirely obliterate his common sense.”

“But Kevin promised to come.”

“When he made that promise there was still time for a defence to materialise. Now we can almost count the days to the Assizes and still we have no evidence — and no prospect of any.”

Miss Bennet eyed him over her soup spoon. “I don’t think, you know, dear,” she said, “that you have enough faith.”

Robert refrained from saying that he had none at all. Not, anyhow, where divine intervention in the Franchise affair was concerned.

“Have faith, my dear,” she said happily, “and it will all come right. You’ll see.” The charged silence that succeeded this evidently worried her a little, for she added: “If I had known you were doubtful or unhappy about the case, dear, I should have said extra prayers about it long ago. I am afraid I took it for granted that you and Kevin would manage it between you.” “It” being British justice. “But now that I know you are worrying about it I shall most certainly put up some special petitions.”

The matter-of-fact application-for-relief tone with which this was uttered restored Robert’s good humour.

“Thank you, darling,” he said in his normal good-natured voice.

She laid the spoon down on her empty plate and sat back; and a small teasing smile appeared on her round pink face. “I know that tone,” she said. “It means that you’re humouring me. But there’s no need to, you know. It’s I who am right about this, and you are wrong. It says quite distinctly that faith will move mountains. The difficulty always is that it takes a quite colossal faith to move a mountain; and it is practically impossible to assemble so large a faith, so mountains are practically never moved. But in lesser cases — like the present one — it is possible to have enough faith for the occasion. So instead of being deliberately hopeless, dear, do try to have some confidence in the event. Meanwhile I shall go along to St. Matthew’s this evening and spend a little time praying that you will be given a piece of evidence tomorrow morning. That will make you feel happier.”

When Alec Ramsden walked into his room next morning with the piece of evidence, Robert’s first thought was that nothing could prevent Aunt Lin taking credit for it. Nor was there any hope of his not mentioning it, since the first thing she would ask him at luncheon, in bright confident tones, would be: “Well, dear, did you get the evidence I prayed for?”

Ramsden was both pleased with himself and amused; so much could be translated, at any rate, from the Ramsden idiom into common knowledge.

“I had better confess frankly, Mr. Blair, that when you sent me to that school I had no great hopes. I went because it seemed to be as good a starting-place as any, and I might find out from the staff some good way of getting acquainted with Rees. Or rather, letting one of my boys get acquainted. I had even worked out how could get printed letters from her without any fuss, once one of my boys got off with her. But you’re a wonder, Mr. Blair. You had the right idea after all.”

“You mean you’ve got what we wanted!”

“I saw her form mistress, and was quite frank about what we wanted and why. Well, as frank as need be. I said Gladys was suspected of perjury — a penal servitude affair — but that we thought she’d been blackmailed into giving her evidence, and to prove it was blackmail we needed a sample of any printed letters she ever wrote. Well, when you sent me there I took it for granted that she would not have printed a single letter since she left the kindergarten. But the form mistress — a Miss Baggaly — said to give her a minute to think. ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘she was very good at drawing, and if I have nothing perhaps the visiting art-mistress might have something. We like to keep good work when our pupils produce it.’ As a comfort for all the duds they have to put up with, I suppose, poor things. Well, I didn’t have to see the art-mistress, because Miss Baggaly hunted through some things, and produced this.”

He laid a sheet of paper down on the desk in front of Robert. It appeared to be a free-hand map of Canada, showing the principal divisions, towns and rivers. It was inaccurate but very neat. Across the bottom was printed DOMINION OF CANADA. And in the right-hand corner was the signature: Gladys Rees.

“It seems that every summer, at breaking-up time, they have an exhibition of work, and they normally keep the exhibits until the next exhibition the following year. I suppose it would seem too callous just to toss them out the day after. Or perhaps they keep them to show to visiting big-wigs and inspectors. Anyhow, there were drawers full of the stuff. This,” he indicated the map, “was a product of a competition —‘Draw a map of any country from memory in twenty minutes’— and the three prize winners had their answers exhibited. This was a ‘third equal’.”

“I can hardly believe it,” Robert said, feasting his eyes on Gladys Rees’s handiwork.

“Miss Baggaly was right about her being good with her hands. Funny, when she stayed so illiterate. You can see where they corrected her dotted Capital I’s.”

You could indeed. Robert was gloating over the place.

“She has no mind, the girl, but a good eye,” he said, considering Gladys’s idea of Canada. “She remembered the shape of things but not the names. And the spelling is entirely her own. I suppose the ‘third equal’ was for the neat work.”

“Neat work for us anyhow,” Ramsden said, laying down the scrap of paper that had come with the watch. “Let us be thankful she didn’t choose Alaska.”

“Yes,” Robert said. “A miracle.” (Aunt Lin’s miracle, his mind said.) “Who is the best man at this sort of thing?”

Ramsden told him.

“I’ll take it up to town with me now, tonight, and have the report before morning, and I’ll take it round to Mr. Macdermott at breakfast time, if that’s all right with you.”

“Right?” said Robert. “It’s perfect.”

“I think it might be a good idea to fingerprint them too-and the little cardboard box. There are judges who don’t like handwriting experts, but the two together would convince even a judge.”

“Well,” Robert said, handing them over, “at least my clients are not going to be sentenced to hard labour.”

“There’s nothing like looking on the bright side,” Ramsden commented dryly; and Robert laughed.

“You think I’m ungrateful for such a dispensation. I’m not. It’s a terrific load off my mind. But the real load is still there. Proving that Rose Glyn is a thief, liar, and blackmailer — with perjury thrown in as a sideline — leaves Betty Kane’s story still untouched. And it is Betty Kane’s story that we set out to disprove.”

“There’s still time,” Ramsden said; but half-heartedly.

“About all there is time for is a miracle.”

“Well? Why not? They happen. Why shouldn’t they happen to us? What time shall I telephone you tomorrow?”

But it was Kevin who telephoned on the morrow; full of congratulations and jubilation. “You’re a marvel, Rob. I’ll make mincemeat of them.”

Yes, it would be a lovely little exercise in cat-and-mouse play for Kevin; and the Sharpes would walk out of the court “free.” Free to go back to their haunted house and their haunted existence; two half-mad witches who had once threatened and beaten a girl.

“You don’t sound very gay, Rob. Is it getting you down?”

Robert said what he was thinking; that the Sharpes saved from prison would still be in a prison of Betty Kane’s making.

“Perhaps not, perhaps not,” Kevin said. “I’ll do my best with the Kane over that howler about the divided path. Indeed, if Miles Allison weren’t prosecuting I could probably break her with it; but Miles will probably be quick enough to retrieve the situation. Cheer up, Rob. At the very least her credit will be seriously shaken.”

But shaking Betty Kane’s credit was not enough. He knew just how little effect that would have on the general public. He had had a large experience lately of the woman-in-the-street, and had been appalled by the general inability to analyse the simplest statement. Even if the newspapers were to report that small bit about the view from the window — and they would probably be much too busy reporting the more sensational matter of Rose Glyn’s perjury — even if they reported it, it would have no effect on the average reader. “They tried to put her in the wrong but they were very quickly put in their place.” That is all it would convey to them.

Kevin might successfully shake Betty Kane’s credit with the Court, the reporters, the officials, and any critical minds who happened to be present; but on the present evidence he could do nothing to alter the strong feeling of partisanship that Betty Kane’s case had aroused throughout the country. The Sharpes would stay condemned.

And Betty Kane would “get away with it.”

That to Robert was a thought that was even worse than the prospect of the Sharpes’ haunted life. Betty Kane would go on being the centre of an adoring family; secure, loved, hero-worshipped. The once easy-going Robert grew homicidal at the thought.

He had had to confess to Aunt Lin that a piece of evidence had turned up at the time specified in her prayers, but had pusillanimously refrained from telling her that the said evidence was good enough to destroy the police case. She would call that winning the case; and “winning,” to Robert, meant something very different.

To Nevil too, it seemed. And for the first time since young Bennet came to occupy the back room that used to be his, Robert thought of him as an ally; a communal spirit. To Nevil, too, it was unthinkable that Betty Kane should “get away with it.” And Robert was surprised all over again at the murderous rage that fills the pacifist-minded when their indignation is roused. Nevil had a special way of saying “Betty Kane”: as if the syllables were some poison he had put in his mouth by mistake and he was spitting it out. “Poisonous,” too, was his favourite epithet for her. “That poisonous creature.” Robert found him very comforting.

But there was little comfort in the situation. The Sharpes had accepted the news of their probable escape from a prison sentence with the same dignity that had characterised their acceptance of everything, from Betty Kane’s first accusation to the serving of a summons and an appearance in the dock. But they, too, realised that the thing would be escape but not vindication. The police case would break down, and they would get their verdict. But they would get it because in English law there was no middle course. In a Scots court the verdict would be Not Proven. And that, in fact, would be what the result of the Assizes verdict next week would amount to. Merely that the police had not had good enough evidence to prove their case. Not that the case was necessarily a bad one.

It was when the Assizes were only four days away that he confessed to Aunt Lin that the evidence did suffice to defeat the charge. The growing worry on that round pink face was too much for him. He had meant merely to give her that sop and leave the matter there; but instead he found himself pouring it all out to her as he had poured out his troubles as a small boy; in the days when Aunt Lin was an omniscient and omnipotent angel and not just kind, silly Aunt Lin. She listened to this unexpected torrent of words — so different from the normal phrases of their meal-time intercourse — in surprised silence, her jewel-blue eyes attentive and concerned.

“Don’t you see, Aunt Lin, it isn’t victory; it’s defeat,” he finished. “It’s a travesty of justice. It isn’t a verdict we’re fighting for; it’s justice. And we have no hope of getting it. Not a ghost of a hope!”

“But why didn’t you tell me all this, dear? Did you think I would not understand, or agree, or something?”

“Well, you didn’t feel as I did about ——”

“Just because I didn’t much like the look of those people at The Franchise — and I must confess, dear, even now, that they aren’t the kind of people I naturally take to — just because I didn’t much like them doesn’t mean that I am indifferent to seeing justice done, surely?”

“No, of course not; but you said quite frankly that you found Betty Kane’s story believable, and so ——”

“That,” said Aunt Lin calmly, “was before the police court.”

“The court? But you weren’t at the court.”

“No, dear, but Colonel Whittaker was, and he didn’t like the girl at all.”

“Didn’t he, indeed.”

“No. He was quite eloquent about it. He said he had once had a — a what-do-you-call-it — a lance-corporal in his regiment, or battalion or something, who was exactly like Betty Kane. He said he was an injured innocent who set the whole battalion by the ears and was more trouble than a dozen hard-cases. Such a nice expression: hard-cases, isn’t it. He finished up in the greenhouse, Colonel Whittaker said.”

“The glasshouse.”

“Well, something like that. And as for the Glyn girl from Staples, he said that one glance at her and you automatically began to reckon the number of lies there would be per sentence. He didn’t like the Glyn girl either. So you see, dear, you needn’t have thought that I would be unsympathetic about your worry. I am just as interested in abstract justice as you are, I assure you. And I shall redouble my prayers for your success. I was going over to the Gleasons’ garden party this afternoon, but I shall go along to St. Matthew’s instead and spend a quiet hour there. I think it is going to rain in any case. It always does rain at the Gleasons’ garden party, poor things.”

“Well, Aunt Lin, I don’t deny we need your prayers. Nothing short of a miracle can save us now.”

“Well, I shall pray for the miracle.”

“A last-minute reprieve with the rope round the hero’s neck? That happens only in detective stories and the last few minutes of horse-operas.”

“Not at all. It happens every day, somewhere in the world. If there was some way of finding out and adding up the times it happens you would no doubt be surprised. Providence does take a hand, you know, when other methods fail. You haven’t enough faith, my dear, as I pointed out before.”

“I don’t believe that an angel of the Lord is going to appear in my office with an account of what Betty Kane was doing for that month, if that is what you mean,” Robert said.

“The trouble with you, dear, is that you think of an angel of the Lord as a creature with wings, whereas he is probably a scruffy little man in a bowler hat. Anyhow, I shall pray very hard this afternoon, and tonight too, of course; and by tomorrow perhaps help will be sent.”

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