The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

5

It was more than a week later that Mr. Heseltine put his thin, small, grey head round Robert’s door to say that Inspector Hallam was in the office and would like to see him for a moment.

The room on the opposite side of the hall where Mr. Heseltine lorded it over the clerks was always referred to as “the office,” although both Robert’s room and the little one behind it used by Nevil Bennet were, in spite of their carpets and their mahogany, plainly offices too. There was an official waiting-room behind “the office,” a small room corresponding to young Bennet’s, but it had never been popular with the Blair, Hayward, and Bennet clients. Callers stepped into the office to announce themselves and usually stayed there gossiping until such times as Robert was free to see them. The little “waiting-room” had long ago been appropriated by Miss Tuff for writing Robert’s letters in, away from the distraction of visitors and from the office-boy’s sniffings.

When Mr. Heseltine had gone away to fetch the Inspector, Robert noticed with surprise that he was apprehensive as he had not been apprehensive since in the days of his youth he approached a list of Examination Results pinned on a board. Was his life so placid that a stranger’s dilemma should stir it to that extent? Or was it that the Sharpes had been so constantly in his thoughts for the last week that they had ceased to be strangers?

He braced himself for whatever Hallam was going to say; but what emerged from Hallam’s careful phrases was that Scotland Yard had let them understand that no proceedings would be taken on the present evidence. Blair noticed the “present evidence” and gauged its meaning accurately. They were not dropping the case — did the Yard ever drop a case? — they were merely sitting quiet.

The thought of Scotland Yard sitting quiet was not a particularly reassuring one in the circumstances.

“I take it that they lacked corroborative evidence,” he said.

“They couldn’t trace the lorry driver who gave her the lift,” Hallam said.

“That wouldn’t surprise them.”

“No,” Hallam agreed, “no driver is going to risk the sack by confessing he gave anyone a lift. Especially a girl. Transport bosses are strict about that. And when it is a case of a girl in trouble of some kind, and when it’s the police that are doing the asking, no man in his senses is going to own up to even having seen her.” He took the cigarette that Robert offered him. “They needed that lorry driver,” he said. “Or someone like him,” he added.

“Yes,” Robert said, reflectively. “What did you make of her, Hallam?”

“The girl? I don’t know. Nice kid. Seemed quite genuine. Might have been one of my own.”

This, Blair realised, was a very good sample of what they would be up against if it ever came to a case. To every man of good feeling the girl in the witness box would look like his own daughter. Not because she was a waif, but for the very good reason that she wasn’t. The decent school coat, the mousy hair, the unmadeup young face with its appealing hollow below the cheek-bone, the wide-set candid eyes — it was a prosecuting counsel’s dream of a victim.

“Just like any other girl of her age,” Hallam said, still considering it. “Nothing against her.”

“So you don’t judge people by the colour of their eyes,” Robert said idly, his mind still on the girl.

“Ho! Don’t I!” said Hallam surprisingly. “Believe me, there’s a particular shade of baby blue that condemns a man, as far as I’m concerned, before he has opened his mouth. Plausible liars every one of them.” He paused to pull on his cigarette. “Given to murder, too, come to think of it — though I haven’t met many killers.”

“You alarm me,” Robert said. “In the future I shall give baby-blue eyes a wide berth.”

Hallam grinned. “As long as you keep your pocket book shut you needn’t worry. All Baby–Blue’s lies are for money. He only murders when he gets too entangled in his lies. The real murderer’s mark is not the colour of the eyes but their setting.”

“Setting?”

“Yes. They are set differently. The two eyes, I mean. They look as if they belonged to different faces.”

“I thought you hadn’t met many.”

“No, but I’ve read all the case histories and studied the photographs. I’ve always been surprised that no book on murder mentions it, it happens so often. The inequality of setting, I mean.”

“So it’s entirely your own theory.”

“The result of my own observation, yes. You ought to have a go at it sometime. Fascinating. I’ve got to the stage where I look for it now.”

“In the street, you mean?”

“No, not quite as bad as that. But in each new murder case. I wait for the photograph, and when it comes I think: ‘There! What did I tell you!’”

“And when the photograph comes and the eyes are of a mathematical identity?”

“Then it is nearly always what one might call an accidental murder. The kind of murder that might happen to anyone given the circumstances.”

“And when you turn up a photograph of the revered vicar of Nether Dumbleton who is being given a presentation by his grateful parishioners to mark his fiftieth year of devoted service, and you note that the setting of his eyes is wildly unequal, what conclusion do you come to?”

“That his wife satisfies him, his children obey him, his stipend is sufficient for his needs, he has no politics, he gets on with the local big-wigs, and he is allowed to have the kind of services he wants. In fact, he has never had the slightest need to murder anyone.”

“It seems to me that you are having your cake and eating it very nicely.”

“Huh!” Hallam said disgustedly. “Just wasting good police observation on a legal mind. I’d have thought,” he added, moving to go, “that a lawyer would be glad of some free tips about judging perfect strangers.”

“All you are doing,” Robert pointed out, “is corrupting an innocent mind. I shall never be able to inspect a new client from now on without my subconscious registering the colour of his eyes and the symmetry of their setting.”

“Well, that’s something. It’s about time you knew some of the facts of life.”

“Thank you for coming to tell me about the ‘Franchise’ affair,” Robert said, returning to sobriety.

“The telephone in this town,” Hallam said, “is about as private as the radio.”

“Anyhow, thank you. I must let the Sharpes know at once.”

As Hallam took his leave, Robert lifted the telephone receiver.

He could not, as Hallam said, talk freely over the telephone, but he would say that he was coming out to see them immediately and that the news was good. That would take the present weight off their minds. It would also — he glanced at his watch — be time for Mrs. Sharpe’s daily rest, so perhaps he would have a hope of avoiding the old dragon. And also a hope of a tête-à-tête with Marion Sharpe, of course; though he left that thought unformulated at the back of his mind.

But there was no answer to his call.

With the bored and reluctant aid of the Exchange he rang the number for a solid five minutes, without result. The Sharpes were not at home.

While he was still engaged with the Exchange, Nevil Bennet strolled in clad in his usual outrageous tweed, a pinkish shirt, and a purple tie. Robert, eyeing him over the receiver, wondered for the hundredth time what was going to become of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet when it at last slipped from his good Blair grasp into the hands of this young sprig of the Bennets. That the boy had brains he knew, but brains wouldn’t take him far in Milford. Milford expected a man to stop being undergraduate when he reached graduate age. But there was no sign of Nevil’s acceptance of the world outside his coterie. He was still actively, if unconsciously, epaté-ing that world. As his clothes bore witness.

It was not that Robert had any desire to see the boy in customary suits of solemn black. His own suit was a grey tweed; and his country clientèle would look doubtfully on “town” clothes. (“That awful little man with the striped suits,” Marion Sharpe had said of a town-clad lawyer, in that unguarded moment on the telephone.) But there were tweeds and tweeds, and Nevil Bennet’s were the second kind. Quite outrageously the second kind.

“Robert,” Nevil said, as Robert gave it up and laid down the receiver, “I’ve finished the papers on the Calthorpe transfer, and I thought I would run into Larborough this afternoon, if you haven’t anything you want me to do.”

“Can’t you talk to her on the telephone?” Robert asked; Nevil being engaged, in the casual modern fashion, to the Bishop of Larborough’s third daughter.

“Oh, it isn’t Rosemary. She is in London for a week.”

“A protest meeting at the Albert Hall, I suppose,” said Robert, who was feeling disgruntled because of his failure to speak to the Sharpes when he was primed with good news for them.

“No, at the Guildhall,” Nevil said.

“What is it this time? Vivisection?”

“You are frightfully last-century now and then, Robert,” Nevil said, with his air of solemn patience. “No one objects to vivisection nowadays except a few cranks. The protest is against this country’s refusal to give shelter to the patriot Kotovich.”

“The said patriot is very badly ‘wanted’ in his own country, I understand.”

“By his enemies; yes.”

“By the police; for two murders.”

“Executions.”

“You a disciple of John Knox, Nevil?”

“Good God, no. What has that to do with it?”

He believed in self-appointed executioners. The idea has a little ‘gone out’ in this country, I understand. Anyhow, if it’s a choice between Rosemary’s opinion of Kotovich and the opinion of the Special Branch, I’ll take the Special Branch.”

“The Special Branch only do what the Foreign Office tells them. Everyone knows that. But if I stay and explain the ramifications of the Kotovich affair to you, I shall be late for the film.”

“What film?”

“The French film I am going into Larborough to see.”

“I suppose you know that most of those French trifles that the British intelligentsia bate their breath about are considered very so-so in their own country? However. Do you think you could pause long enough to drop a note into the letter-box of The Franchise as you go by?”

“I might. I always wanted to see what was inside that wall. Who lives there now?”

“An old woman and her daughter.”

“Daughter?” repeated Nevil, automatically pricking his ears.

“Middle-aged daughter.”

“Oh. All right, I’ll just get my coat.”

Robert wrote merely that he had tried to talk to them, that he had to go out on business for an hour or so, but that he would ring them up again when he was free, and that Scotland Yard had no case, as the case stood, and acknowledged the fact.

Nevil swept in with a dreadful raglan affair over his arm, snatched up the letter and disappeared with a “Tell Aunt Lin I may be late. She asked me over to dinner.”

Robert donned his own sober grey hat and walked over to the Rose and Crown to meet his client — an old farmer, and the last man in England to suffer from chronic gout. The old man was not yet there, and Robert, usually so placid, so lazily good-natured, was conscious of impatience. The pattern of his life had changed. Up to now it had been an even succession of equal attractions; he had gone from one thing to another without hurry and without emotion. Now there was a focus of interest, and the rest revolved round it.

He sat down on one of the chintz-covered chairs in the lounge and looked at the dog-eared journals lying on the adjacent coffee table. The only current number was The Watchman, the weekly review, and he picked it up reluctantly, thinking yet once more how the dry feel of the paper offended his finger tips and its serrated edges set his own teeth on edge. It was the usual collection of protests, poems, and pedantry; the place of honour among the protests being accorded to Nevil’s future father-in-law, who spread himself for three-quarters of a column on England’s shame in that she refused sanctuary to a fugitive patriot.

The Bishop of Larborough had long ago extended the Christian philosophy to include the belief that the underdog is always right. He was wildly popular with Balkan revolutionaries, British strike committees, and all the old lags in the local penal establishment. (The sole exception to this last being that chronic recidivist, Bandy Brayne, who held the good bishop in vast contempt, and reserved his affection for the Governor; to whom a tear in the eye was just a drop of H2O, and who unpicked his most heart-breaking tales with a swift, unemotional accuracy.) There was nothing, said the old lags affectionately, that the old boy would not believe; you could lay it on with a trowel.

Normally Robert found the Bishop mildly amusing, but today he was merely irritated. He tried two poems, neither of which made sense to him, and flung the thing back on the table.

“England in the wrong again?” asked Ben Carley, pausing by his chair and jerking a head at The Watchman.

“Hullo, Carley.”

“A Marble Arch for the well-to-do,” the little lawyer said, flicking the paper scornfully with a nicotine-stained finger. “Have a drink?”

“Thanks, but I’m waiting for old Mr. Wynyard. He doesn’t move a step more than he need, nowadays.”

“No, poor old boy. The sins of the fathers. Awful to be suffering for port you never drank! I saw your car outside The Franchise the other day.”

“Yes,” said Robert, and wondered a little. It was unlike Ben Carley to be blunt. And if he had seen Robert’s car he had also seen the police cars.

“If you know them you’ll be able to tell me something I always wanted to know about them. Is the rumour true?”

“Rumour?”

Are they witches?”

“Are they supposed to be?” said Robert lightly.

“There’s a strong support for the belief in the countryside, I understand,” Carley said, his bright black eyes resting for a moment on Robert’s with intention, and then going on to wander over the lounge with their habitual quick interrogation.

Robert understood that the little man was offering him, tacitly, information that he thought ought to be useful to him.

“Ah well,” Robert said, “since entertainment came into the country with the cinema, God bless it, an end has been put to witch-hunting.”

“Don’t you believe it. Give these midland morons a good excuse and they’ll witch-hunt with the best. An inbred crowd of degenerates, if you ask me. Here’s your old boy. Well, I’ll be seeing you.”

It was one of Robert’s chief attractions that he was genuinely interested in people and in their troubles, and he listened to old Mr. Wynyard’s rambling story with a kindness that won the old man’s gratitude — and added, although he was unaware of it, a hundred to the sum that stood against his name in the old farmer’s will — but as soon as their business was over he made straight for the hotel telephone.

There were far too many people about, and he decided to use the one in the garage over in Sin Lane. The office would be shut by now, and anyhow it was further away. And if he telephoned from the garage, so his thoughts went as he strode across the street, he would have his car at hand if she — if they asked him to come out and discuss the business further, as they very well might, as they almost certainly would — yes, of course they would want to discuss what they could do to discredit the girl’s story, whether there was to be a case or not — he had been so relieved over Hallam’s news that he had not yet come round in his mind to considering what —

“Evening, Mr. Blair,” Bill Brough said, oozing his large person out of the narrow office door, his round calm face bland and welcoming. “Want your car?”

“No, I want to use your telephone first, if I may.”

“Sure. Go ahead.”

Stanley, who was under a car, poked his fawn’s face out and asked:

“Know anything?”

“Not a thing, Stan. Haven’t had a bet for months.”

“I’m two pounds down on a cow called Bright Promise. That’s what comes of putting your faith in horseflesh. Next time you know something ——”

“Next time I have a bet I’ll tell you. But it will still be horseflesh.”

“As long as it’s not a cow ——” Stanley said, disappearing under the car again; and Robert moved into the hot bright little office and picked up the receiver.

It was Marion who answered, and her voice sounded warm and glad.

“You can’t imagine what a relief your note was to us. Both my mother and I have been picking oakum for the last week. Do they still pick oakum, by the way?”

“I think not. It is something more constructive nowadays, I understand.”

“Occupational therapy.”

“More or less.”

“I can’t think of any compulsory sewing that would improve my character.”

“They would probably find you something more congenial. It is against modern thought to compel a prisoner to do anything that he doesn’t want to.”

“That is the first time I have heard you sound tart.”

“Was I tart?”

“Pure angostura.”

Well, she had reached the subject of drink; perhaps now she would suggest his coming out for sherry before dinner.

“What a charming nephew you have, by the way.”

“Nephew?”

“The one who brought the note.”

“He is not my nephew,” Robert said coldly. Why was it so ageing to be avuncular? “He is my first cousin once removed. But I am glad you liked him.” This would not do; he would have to take the bull by the horns. “I should like to see you sometime to discuss what we can do to straighten things out. To make things safer ——” He waited.

“Yes, of course. Perhaps we could look in at your office one morning when we are shopping? What kind of thing could we do, do you think?”

“Some kind of private inquiry, perhaps. I can’t very well discuss it over the telephone.”

“No, of course you can’t. How would it do if we came in on Friday morning? That is our weekly shopping day. Or is Friday a busy day for you?”

“No, Friday would be quite convenient,” Robert said, swallowing down his disappointment. “About noon?”

“Yes, that would do very well. Twelve o’clock the day after tomorrow, at your office. Goodbye, and thank you again for your support and help.”

She rang off, firmly and cleanly, without all the usual preliminary twitterings that Robert had come to expect from women.

“Shall I run her out for you,” Bill Brough asked as he came out into the dim daylight of the garage.

“What? Oh, the car. No, I shan’t need it tonight, thanks.”

He set off on his normal evening walk down the High Street, trying hard not to feel snubbed. He had not been anxious to go to The Franchise in the first instance, and had made his reluctance pretty plain; she was quite naturally avoiding a repetition of the circumstances. That he had identified himself with their interests was a mere business affair, to be resolved in an office, impersonally. They would not again involve him further than that.

Ah, well, he thought, flinging himself down in his favourite chair by the wood fire in the sitting-room and opening the evening paper (printed that morning in London), when they came to the office on Friday he could do something to put the affair on a more personal basis. To wipe out the memory of that first unhappy refusal.

The quiet of the old house soothed him. Christina had been closeted in her room for two days, in prayer and meditation, and Aunt Lin was in the kitchen preparing dinner. There was a gay letter from Lettice, his only sister, who had driven a truck for several years of a bloody war, fallen in love with a tall silent Canadian, and was now raising five blond brats in Saskatchewan. “Come out soon, Robin dear,” she finished, “before the brats grow up and before the moss grows right round you. You know how bad Aunt Lin is for you!” He could hear her saying it. She and Aunt Lin had never seen eye to eye.

He was smiling, relaxed and reminiscent, when both his quiet and his peace were shattered by the irruption of Nevil.

“Why didn’t you tell me she was like that!” Nevil demanded.

“Who?”

“The Sharpe woman! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t expect you would meet her,” Robert said. “All you had to do was drop the letter through the door.”

“There was nothing in the door to drop it through, so I rang, and they had just come back from wherever they were. Anyhow, she answered it.”

“I thought she slept in the afternoons.”

“I don’t believe she ever sleeps. She doesn’t belong to the human family at all. She is all compact of fire and metal.”

“I know she’s a very rude old woman but you have to make allowances. She has had a very hard ——”

Old? Who are you talking about?”

“Old Mrs. Sharpe, of course.”

“I didn’t even see old Mrs. Sharpe. I’m talking about Marion.”

“Marion Sharpe? And how did you know her name was Marion?”

“She told me. It does suit her, doesn’t it? She couldn’t be anything but Marion.”

“You seem to have become remarkably intimate for a doorstep acquaintance.”

“Oh, she gave me tea.”

“Tea! I thought you were in a desperate hurry to see a French film.”

“I’m never in a desperate hurry to do anything when a woman like Marion Sharpe invites me to tea. Have you noticed her eyes? But of course you have. You’re her lawyer. That wonderful shading of grey into hazel. And the way her eyebrows lie above them, like the brush-mark of a painter genius. Winged eyebrows, they are. I made a poem about them on the way home. Do you want to hear it?”

“No,” Robert said firmly. “Did you enjoy your film?”

“Oh, I didn’t go.”

“You didn’t go!”

“I told you I had tea with Marion instead.”

“You mean you have been at The Franchise the whole afternoon!”

“I suppose I have,” Nevil said dreamily, “but, by God, it didn’t seem more than seven minutes.”

“And what happened to your thirst for French cinema?”

“But Marion is French film. Even you must see that!” Robert winced at the “even you.” “Why bother with the shadow, when you can be with the reality? Reality. That is her great quality, isn’t it? I’ve never met anyone as real as Marion is.”

“Not even Rosemary?” Robert was in the state known to Aunt Lin as “put out.”

“Oh, Rosemary is a darling, and I’m going to marry her, but that is quite a different thing.”

“Is it?” said Robert, with deceptive meekness.

“Of course. People don’t marry women like Marion Sharpe, any more than they marry winds and clouds. Any more than they marry Joan of Arc. It’s positively blasphemous to consider marriage in relation to a woman like that. She spoke very nicely of you, by the way.”

“That was kind of her.”

The tone was so dry that even Nevil caught the flavour of it.

“Don’t you like her?” he asked, pausing to look at his cousin in surprised disbelief.

Robert had ceased for the moment to be kind, lazy, tolerant Robert Blair; he was just a tired man who hadn’t yet had his dinner and was suffering from the memory of a frustration and a snubbing.

“As far as I am concerned,” he said, “Marion Sharpe is just a skinny woman of forty who lives with a rude old mother in an ugly old house, and needs legal advice on occasion like anyone else.”

But even as the words came out he wanted to stop them, as if they were a betrayal of a friend.

“No, probably she isn’t your cup of tea,” Nevil said tolerantly. “You have always preferred them a little stupid, and blond, haven’t you.” This was said without malice, as one stating a dullish fact.

“I can’t imagine why you should think that.”

“All the women you nearly married were that type.”

“I have never ‘nearly married’ anyone,” Robert said stiffly.

“That’s what you think. You’ll never know how nearly Molly Manders landed you.”

“Molly Manders?” Aunt Lin said, coming in flushed from her cooking and bearing the tray with the sherry. “Such a silly girl. Imagined that you used a baking-board for pancakes. And was always looking at herself in that little pocket mirror of hers.”

“Aunt Lin saved you that time, didn’t you, Aunt Lin?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about, Nevil dear. Do stop prancing about the hearthrug, and put a log on the fire. Did you like your French film, dear?”

“I didn’t go. I had tea at The Franchise instead.” He shot a glance at Robert, having learned by now that there was more in Robert’s reaction than met the eye.

“With those strange people? What did you talk about?”

“Mountains — Maupassant — hens ——”

Hens, dear?”

“Yes; the concentrated evil of a hen’s face in a close-up.”

Aunt Lin looked vague. She turned to Robert, as to terra firma.

“Had I better call, dear, if you are going to know them? Or ask the vicar’s wife to call?”

“I don’t think I would commit the vicar’s wife to anything so irrevocable,” Robert said, dryly.

She looked doubtful for a moment, but household cares obliterated the question in her mind. “Don’t dawdle too long over your sherry or what I have in the oven will be spoiled. Thank goodness, Christina will be down again tomorrow. At least I hope so; I have never known her salvation take more than two days. And I don’t really think that I will call on those Franchise people, dear, if it is all the same to you. Apart from being strangers and very odd, they quite frankly terrify me.”

Yes; that was a sample of the reaction he might expect where the Sharpes were concerned. Ben Carley had gone out of his way today to let him know that, if there was police trouble at The Franchise, he wouldn’t be able to count on an unprejudiced jury. He must take measures for the protection of the Sharpes. When he saw them on Friday he would suggest a private investigation by a paid agent. The police were overworked — had been overworked for a decade and more — and there was just a chance that one man working at his leisure on one trail might be more successful than the orthodox and official investigation had been.

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