The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

3

Grant and the girl accompanied Robert and Marion Sharpe on the inspection of the house, while Hallam and the police matron waited in the drawing-room. As they reached the first-floor landing, after the girl had identified the kitchen, Robert said:

“Miss Kane said that the second flight of stairs was covered in ‘something hard,’ but the same carpet continues up from the first flight.”

“Only to the curve,” Marion said. “The bit that ‘shows.’ Round the corner it is drugget. A Victorian way of economising. Nowadays if you are poor you buy less expensive carpet and use it all the way up. But those were still the days when what the neighbours thought mattered. So the lush stuff went as far as eye could see and no further.”

The girl had been right about the third flight, too. The treads of the short flight to the attic were bare.

The all-important attic was a low square little box of a room, with the ceiling slanting abruptly down on three sides in conformity with the slate roof outside. It was lit only by the round window looking out to the front. A short stretch of slates sloped from below the window to the low white parapet. The window was divided into four panes, one of which showed a badly starred crack. It had never been made to open.

The attic was completely bare of furnishing. Unnaturally bare, Robert thought, for so convenient and accessible a store-room.

“There used to be stuff here when we first came,” Marion said, as if answering him. “But when we found that we should be without help half the time we got rid of it.”

Grant turned to the girl with a questioning air.

“The bed was in that corner,” she said, pointing to the corner away from the window. “And next it was the wooden commode. And in this corner behind the door there were three empty travelling-cases — two suitcases and a trunk with a flat top. There was a chair but she took it away after I tried to break the window.” She referred to Marion without emotion, as if she were not present. “There is where I tried to break the window.”

It seemed to Robert that the crack looked much more than a few weeks old; but there was no denying that the crack was there.

Grant crossed to the far corner and bent to examine the bare floor, but it did not need close examination. Even from where he was standing by the door Robert could see the marks of castors on the floor where the bed had stood.

“There was a bed there,” Marion said. “It was one of the things we got rid of.”

“What did you do with it?”

“Let me think. Oh, we gave it to the cowman’s wife over at Staples Farm. Her eldest boy got too big to share a room with the others any more and she put him up in their loft. We get our dairy stuff from Staples. You can’t see it from here but it is only four fields away over the rise.”

“Where do you keep your spare trunks, Miss Sharpe? Have you another box-room?”

For the first time Marion hesitated. “We do have a large square trunk with a flat top, but my mother uses it to store things in. When we inherited The Franchise there was a very valuable tallboy in the bedroom my mother has, and we sold it, and used the big trunk instead. With a chintz cover on it. My suitcases I keep in the cupboard on the first-floor landing.”

“Miss Kane, do you remember what the cases looked like?”

“Oh, yes. One was a brown leather with those sort-of caps at the corners, and the other was one of those American-looking canvas-covered ones with stripes.”

Well, that was definite enough.

Grant examined the room a little longer, studied the view from the window, and then turned to go.

“May we see the suitcases in the cupboard?” he asked Marion.

“Certainly,” Marion said, but she seemed unhappy.

On the lower landing she opened the cupboard door and stood back to let the Inspector look. As Robert moved out of their way he caught the unguarded flash of triumph on the girl’s face. It so altered her calm, rather childish, face that it shocked him. It was a savage emotion, primitive and cruel. And very startling on the face of a demure schoolgirl who was the pride of her guardians and preceptors.

The cupboard contained shelves bearing household linen, and on the floor four suitcases. Two were expanding ones, one of pressed fibre and one of rawhide; the other two were: a brown cowhide with protected corners, and a square canvas-covered hatbox with a broad band of multi-coloured stripes down the middle.

“Are these the cases?” Grant asked.

“Yes,” the girl said. “Those two.”

“I am not going to disturb my mother again this afternoon,” Marion said, with sudden anger. “I acknowledge that the trunk in her room is large and flat-topped. It has been there without interruption for the last three years.”

“Very good, Miss Sharpe. And now the garage, if you please.”

Down at the back of the house, where the stables had been converted long ago into garage, the little group stood and surveyed the battered old grey car. Grant read out the girl’s untechnical description of it as recorded in her statement. It fitted, but it would fit equally well at least a thousand cars on the roads of Britain today, Blair thought. It was hardly evidence at all. “‘One of the wheels was painted a different shade from the others and didn’t look as if it belonged. The different wheel was the one in front on my side as it was standing at the pavement,’” Grant finished.

In silence the four people looked at the darker grey of the near front wheel. There seemed nothing to say.

“Thank you very much, Miss Sharpe,” Grant said at length, shutting his notebook and putting it away. “You have been very courteous and helpful and I am grateful to you. I shall be able to get you on the telephone any time in the next few days, I suppose, if I want to talk to you further?”

“Oh, yes, Inspector. We have no intention of going anywhere.”

If Grant was aware of her too-ready comprehension he did not show it.

He handed over the girl to the matron and they left without a backward glance. Then he and Hallam took their leave, Hallam still with an air of apologising for trespass.

Marion had gone out into the hall with them, leaving Blair in the drawing-room, and when she came back she was carrying a tray with sherry and glasses.

“I don’t ask you to stay for dinner,” she said, putting down the tray and beginning to pour the wine, “partly because our ‘dinner’ is usually a very scratch supper and not at all what you are used to. (Did you know that your aunt’s meals are famous in Milford? Even I had heard about them.) And partly because — well, because, as my mother said, Broadmoor is a little out of your line, I expect.”

“About that,” Robert said. “You do realise, don’t you, that the girl has an enormous advantage over you. In the matter of evidence, I mean. She is free to describe almost any object she likes as being part of your household. If it happens to be there, that is strong evidence for her. If it happens not to be there, that is not evidence for you; the inference is merely that you have got rid of it. If the suitcases, for instance, had not been there, she could say that you had got rid of them because they had been in the attic and could be described.”

“But she did describe them, without ever having seen them.”

“She described two suitcases, you mean. If your four suitcases had been a matching set she would have only one chance in perhaps five of being right. But because you happened to have one of each of the common kinds her chances worked out at about even.”

He picked up the glass of sherry that she had set down beside him, took a mouthful, and was astonished to find it admirable.

She smiled a little at him and said: “We economise, but not on wine,” and he flushed slightly, wondering if his surprise had been as obvious as that.

“But there was the odd wheel of the car. How did she know about that? The whole set-up is extraordinary. How did she know about my mother and me, and what the house looked like? Our gates are never open. Even if she opened them — though what she could be doing on that lonely road I can’t imagine — even if she opened them and looked inside she would not know about my mother and me.”

“No chance of her having made friends with a maid? Or a gardener?”

“We have never had a gardener, because there is nothing but grass. And we have not had a maid for a year. Just a girl from the farm who comes in once a week and does the rough cleaning.”

Robert said sympathetically that it was a big house to have on her hands unaided.

“Yes; but two things help. I am not a house-proud woman. And it is still so wonderful to have a home of our own that I am willing to put up with the disadvantages. Old Mr. Crowle was my father’s cousin, but we didn’t know him at all. My mother and I had always lived in a Kensington boarding-house.” One corner of her mouth moved up in a wry smile. “You can imagine how popular Mother was with the residents.” The smile faded. “My father died when I was very little. He was one of those optimists who are always going to be rich tomorrow. When he found one day that his speculations had not left even enough for a loaf of bread on the morrow, he committed suicide and left Mother to face things.”

Robert felt that this to some extent explained Mrs. Sharpe.

“I was not trained for a profession, so my life has been spent in odd-jobs. Not domestic ones — I loathe domesticity — but helping in those lady-like businesses that abound in Kensington. Lampshades, or advising on holidays, or flowers, or bric-à-brac. When old Mr. Crowle died I was working in a tea-shop — one of those morning-coffee gossip shops. Yes, it is a little difficult.”

“What is?”

“To imagine me among the tea-cups.”

Robert, unused to having his mind read — Aunt Lin was incapable of following anyone’s mental processes even when they were explained to her — was disconcerted. But she was not thinking of him.

“We had just begun to feel settled down, and at home, and safe, when this happened.”

For the first time since she had asked his help Robert felt the stirring of partisanship. “And all because a slip of a girl needs an alibi,” he said. “We must find out more about Betty Kane.”

“I can tell you one thing about her. She is over-sexed.”

“Is that just feminine intuition?”

“No. I am not very feminine and I have no intuition. But I have never known anyone — man or woman — with that colour of eye who wasn’t. That opaque dark blue, like a very faded navy — it’s infallible.”

Robert smiled at her indulgently. She was very feminine after all.

“And don’t feel superior because it happens not to be lawyers’ logic,” she added. “Have a look round at your own friends, and see.”

Before he could stop himself he thought of Gerald Blunt, the Milford scandal. Assuredly Gerald had slate-blue eyes. So had Arthur Wallis, the potman at The White Hart, who was paying three different monetary levies weekly. So had —— Damn the woman, she had no right to make a silly generalisation like that and be right about it.

“It is fascinating to speculate on what she really did during that month,” Marion said. “It affords me intense satisfaction that someone beat her black and blue. At least there is one person in this world who has arrived at a correct estimate of her. I hope I meet him someday, so that I may shake his hand.”

“Him?”

“With those eyes it is bound to be a ‘him’.”

“Well,” Robert said, preparing to go, “I doubt very much whether Grant has a case that he will want to present in court. It would be the girl’s word against yours, with no other backing on either side. Against you would be her statement; so detailed, so circumstantial. Against her would be the inherent unlikeliness of the story. I don’t think he could hope to get a verdict.”

“But the thing is there, whether he brings it into court or not. And not only in the files of Scotland Yard. Sooner or later a thing like that begins to be whispered about. It would be no comfort to us not to have the thing cleared up.”

“Oh, it will be cleared up, if I have anything to do with it. But I think we wait for a day or two to see what the Yard mean to do about it. They have far better facilities for arriving at the truth than we are ever likely to have.”

“Coming from a lawyer, that is a touching tribute to the honesty of the police.”

“Believe me, truth may be a virtue, but Scotland Yard discovered long ago that it is a business asset. It doesn’t pay them to be satisfied with anything less.”

“If he did bring it to court,” she said, coming to the door with him, “and did get a verdict, what would that mean for us?”

“I’m not sure whether it would be two years’ imprisonment or seven years penal servitude. I told you I was a broken reed where criminal procedure is concerned. But I shall look it up.”

“Yes, do,” she said. “There’s quite a difference.”

He decided that he liked her habit of mockery. Especially in the face of a criminal charge.

“Goodbye,” she said. “It was kind of you to come. You have been a great comfort to me.”

And Robert, remembering how nearly he had thrown her to Ben Carley, blushed to himself as he walked to the gate.

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