The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

23

“We had better wait until the crowd thins out,” Robert said. “Then they’ll let us out the back way.”

He was wondering why Marion looked so grave; so unrejoicing. Almost as if she were suffering from shock. Had the strain been as bad as all that?

As if aware of his puzzlement, she said: “That woman. That poor woman. I can’t think of anything else.”

“Who?” Robert said, stupidly.

“The girl’s mother. Can you imagine anything more frightful? To have lost the roof over one’s head is bad —— Oh, yes, Robert my dear, you don’t have to tell us ——” She held out a late edition of the Larborough Times with a Stop Press paragraph reading: THE FRANCHISE, HOUSE MADE FAMOUS BY MILFORD ABDUCTION CASE, BURNT TO THE GROUND LAST NIGHT. “Yesterday that would have seemed to me an enormous tragedy. But compared with that woman’s calvary it seems an incident. What can be more shattering than to find that the person you have lived with and loved all those years not only doesn’t exist but has never existed? That the person you have so much loved not only doesn’t love you but doesn’t care two hoots about you and never did? What is there left for someone like that? She can never again take a step on to green grass without wondering if it is bog.”

“Yes,” Kevin said, “I couldn’t bear to look at her. It was indecent, what she was suffering.”

“She has a charming son,” Mrs. Sharpe said. “I hope he will be a comfort to her.”

“But don’t you see,” Marion said. “She hasn’t got her son. She has nothing now. She thought she had Betty. She loved her and was as sure of her as she loved and was sure of her son. Now the very foundations of her life have given way. How is she to judge, any longer, if appearances can be so deceptive? No, she has nothing. Just a desolation. I am bleeding inside for her.”

Kevin slipped an arm into hers and said: “You have had sufficient trouble of your own lately without saddling yourself with another’s. Come; they’ll let us go now, I think. Did it please you to see the police converging in that polite casual way of theirs on the perjurers?”

“No, I could think of nothing but that woman’s crucifixion.”

So she too had thought of it as that.

Kevin ignored her. “And the indecent scramble for a telephone that the Press indulged in the moment his lordship’s red tail was through the door? You will be vindicated at great length in every newspaper in Britain, I promise you. It will be the most public vindication since Dreyfus. Wait here for me, while I get out of these. I shan’t be a moment.”

“I suppose we had best go to a hotel for a night or two?” Mrs. Sharpe said. “Have we any belongings at all?”

“Yes, quite a few, I’m glad to say,” Robert told her; and described what had been saved. “But there is an alternative to the hotel.” And he told them of Stanley’s suggestion.

So it was to the little house on the outer rim of the “new” town that Marion and her mother came back; and it was in the front room at Miss Sim’s that they sat down to celebrate; a sober little group: Marion, her mother, Robert, and Stanley. Kevin had had to go back to town. There was a large bunch of garden flowers on the table which had come with one of Aunt Lin’s best notes. Aunt Lin’s warm and gracious little notes had as little actual meaning as her “Have you had a busy day, dear?” but they had the same cushioning effect on life. Stanley had come in with a copy of the Larborough Evening News which carried on its front page the first report of the trial. The report was printed under a heading which read: ANANIAS ALSO RAN.

“Will you golf with me tomorrow afternoon?” Robert asked Marion. “You have been cooped up too long. We can start early, before the two-rounders have finished their lunch and have the course to ourselves.”

“Yes, I should like that,” she said. “I suppose tomorrow life will begin again and be just the usual mixture of good and bad. But tonight it is just a place where dreadful things can happen to one.”

When he called for her on the morrow, however, all seemed well with life. “You can’t imagine what bliss it is,” she said. “Living in this house, I mean. You just turn a tap and hot water comes out.”

“It is also very educational,” Mrs. Sharpe said.

“Educational?”

“You can hear every word that is said next door.”

“Oh, come, Mother! Not every word!”

“Every third word,” amended Mrs. Sharpe.

So they drove out to the golf course in high spirits, and Robert decided that he would ask her to marry him when they were having tea in the club-house afterwards. Or would there be too many people interrupting there, with their kind words on the result of the trial? Perhaps on the way home again?

He had decided that the best plan was to leave Aunt Lin in possession of the old house — the place was so much hers that it was unthinkable that she should not live there until she died — and to find a small place for Marion and himself somewhere else in Milford. It would not be easy, these days, but if the worst came to the worst they could make a tiny flat on the top floor of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet’s. It would mean removing the records of two hundred years or so; but the records were rapidly arriving at museum quality and should be moved in any case.

Yes, he would ask her on the way home again.

This resolution lasted until he found that the thought of what was to come was spoiling his game. So on the ninth green he suddenly stopped waggling his putter at the ball, and said: “I want you to marry me, Marion.”

“Do you, Robert?” She picked her own putter out of her bag, and dropped the bag at the edge of the green.

“You will, won’t you?”

“No, Robert dear, I won’t.”

“But Marion! Why? Why not, I mean.”

“Oh — as the children say, ‘because’.”

“Because why?”

“Half a dozen reasons, any one of them good by themselves. For one, if a man is not married by the time he is forty, then marriage is not one of the things he wants out of life. Just something that has overtaken him; like flu and rheumatism and income-tax demands. I don’t want to be just something that has overtaken you.”

“But that is ——”

“Then, I don’t think that I should be in the least an asset to Blair, Hayward, and Bennet. Even ——”

“I’m not asking you to marry Blair, Hayward, and Bennet.”

“Even the proof that I didn’t beat Betty Kane won’t free me of being ‘the woman in the Kane case’; an uncomfortable sort of wife for the senior partner. It wouldn’t do you any good, Robert, believe me.”

“Marion, for heaven’s sake! Stop ——”

“Then, you have Aunt Lin and I have my mother. We couldn’t just park them like pieces of chewing-gum. I not only love my mother, I like her. I admire her and enjoy living with her. You, on the other hand, are used to being spoiled by Aunt Lin —— Oh, yes, you are! — and would miss far more than you know all the creature comforts and the cosseting that I wouldn’t know how to give you — and wouldn’t give you if I knew how,” she added, flashing a smile at him.

“Marion, it is because you don’t cosset me that I want to marry you. Because you have an adult mind and a ——”

“An adult mind is very nice to go to dinner with once a week, but after a lifetime with Aunt Lin you would find it a very poor exchange for good pastry in an uncritical atmosphere.”

“There is one thing you haven’t even mentioned,” Robert said.

“What is that?”

“Do you care for me at all?”

“Yes. I care for you a great deal. More than I have ever cared for anyone, I think. That is, partly, why I won’t marry you. The other reason has to do with myself.”

“With you?”

“You see, I am not a marrying woman. I don’t want to have to put up with someone else’s crochets, someone else’s demands, someone else’s colds in the head. Mother and I suit each other perfectly because we make no demands on each other. If one of us has a cold in the head she retires to her room without fuss and doses her disgusting self until she is fit for human society again. But no husband would do that. He would expect sympathy — even though he brought on the cold himself by pulling off clothes when he grew warm instead of waiting sensibly to get cool — sympathy and attention and feeding. No, Robert. There are a hundred thousand women just panting to look after some man’s cold; why pick on me?”

“Because you are that one woman in a hundred thousand, and I love you.”

She looked slightly penitent. “I sound flippant, don’t I? But what I say is good sound sense.”

“But, Marion, it is a lonely life ——”

“A ‘full’ life in my experience is usually full only of other people’s demands.”

“— and you will not have your mother for ever.”

“Knowing Mother as I do, I have no doubt that she will outlive me with perfect ease. You had better hole out: I see old Colonel Whittaker’s four on the horizon.”

Automatically he pushed his ball into the hole. “But what will you do?” he asked.

“If I don’t marry you?”

He ground his teeth. She was right: perhaps her mocking habit of mind would not be a comfort to live with.

“What had you and your mother thought of doing now that you have lost The Franchise?”

She delayed over her answer, as if it were difficult to say. Fussing with her bag, and keeping her back to him.

“We are going to Canada,” she said.

“Going away!”

She still had her back to him. “Yes.”

He was aghast. “But Marion, you can’t. And why to Canada?”

“I have a cousin who is a professor at McGill. A son of Mother’s only sister. He wrote some time ago to ask Mother if we would go out to keep house for him, but by that time we had inherited The Franchise and were very happy in England. So we said no. But the offer is still open. And we — we both will be glad to go now.”

“I see.”

“Don’t look so downcast. You don’t know what an escape you are having, my dear.”

They finished the round in a business-like silence.

But driving back to Sin Lane after having dropped Marion at Miss Sim’s, Robert smiled wryly to think that to all the new experiences that knowing the Sharpes had brought to him was now added that of being a rejected suitor. The final, and perhaps the most surprising, one.

Three days later, having sold to a local dealer what had been saved of their furniture, and to Stanley the car he so much despised, they left Milford by train. By the odd toy train that ran from Milford to the junction at Norton. And Robert came to the junction with them to see them on to the fast train.

“I always had a passion for travelling light,” Marion said, referring to their scanty luggage, “but I never imagined it would be indulged to the extent of travelling with an over-night case to Canada.”

But Robert could not think of small-talk. He was filled with a misery and desolation that he had not known since his small soul was filled with woe at going back to school. The blossom foamed along the line side, the fields were burnished with buttercups, but the world for Robert was grey ash and drizzle.

He watched the London train bear them away, and went home wondering how he could support Milford without the hope of seeing Marion’s thin brown face at least once a day.

But on the whole he supported it very well. He took to golfing of an afternoon again; and although a ball would always in the future be for him a “piece of gutta-percha,” his form had not seriously deteriorated. He rejoiced Mr. Heseltine’s heart by taking an interest in work. He suggested to Nevil that between them they might sort and catalogue the records in the attic and perhaps make a book of them. By the time Marion’s goodbye letter from London came, three weeks later, the soft folds of life in Milford were already closing round him.

MY VERY DEAR ROBERT (wrote Marion).

This is a hasty au revoir note, just to let you know that we are both thinking of you. We leave on the morning plane to Montreal the day after tomorrow. Now that the moment is almost here we have discovered that what we both remember are the good and lovely things, and that the rest fades to comparative insignificance. This may be only nostalgia in advance. I don’t know. I only know that it will always be happiness to remember you. And Stanley, and Bill — and England.

Our united love to you, and our gratitude

MARION SHARPE.

He laid the letter down on his brass and mahogany desk. Laid it down in the afternoon patch of sunlight.

Tomorrow at this time Marion would no longer be in England.

It was a desolating thought, but there was nothing to do but be sensible about it. What, indeed, was there to do about it?

And then three things happened at once.

Mr. Heseltine came in to say that Mrs. Lomax wanted to alter her will again, and would he go out to the farm immediately.

Aunt Lin rang up and asked him to call for the fish on his way home.

And Miss Tuff brought in his tea.

He looked for a long moment at the two digestive biscuits on the plate. Then, with a gentle finality, he pushed the tray out of his way and reached for the telephone.

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