The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

7

The Wynns’ home outside Aylesbury was in a countrified suburb; the kind of district where rows of semi-detached houses creep along the edge of the still unspoiled fields; selfconscious and aware that they are intruders, or smug and not caring, according to the character their builders have given them. The Wynns lived in one of the apologetic rows; a red-brick string of ramshackle dwellings that set Robert’s teeth on edge; so raw they were, so crude, so hang-dog. But as he drove slowly up the road, looking for the appropriate number, he was won over by the love that had gone to the decoration of these regrettable objects. No love had gone to their building; only a reckoning. But to each owner, as he took over, the bare little house had represented his “sufficient beauty,” and having found it he served it. The gardens were small miracles of loveliness; each succeeding one a fresh revelation of some unsuspected poet’s heart.

Nevil really ought to be here to see, Robert thought, slowing down yet once more as a new perfection caught his eye; there was more poetry here than in a whole twelve months of his beloved Watchman. All his clichés were here: form, rhythm, colour, total gesture, design, impact. . . .

Or would Nevil see only a row of suburban gardens? Only Meadowside Lane, Aylesbury, with some Woolworth plants in the gardens?

Probably.

Number 39 was the one with the plain green grass bordered by a rockery. It was also distinguished by the fact that its curtains were invisible. No genteel net was stretched across the windowpane, no cream casement cloth hung at the sides. The windows were bare to the sun, the air, and the human gaze. This surprised Robert as much as it probably surprised the neighbours. It augured a nonconformity that he had not expected.

He rang the bell, wishing that he did not feel like a bagman. He was a suppliant; and that was a new role for Robert Blair.

Mrs. Wynn surprised him even more than her windows did. It was only when he had met her that he realised how complete a picture he had built in his mind of the woman who had adopted and mothered the child Betty Kane: the grey hair, the solid matronly comfortable figure, the plain broad sensible face; perhaps, even, an apron, or one of those flowered overalls that housewives wear. But Mrs. Wynn was not at all like that. She was slight and neat and young and modern and dark and pink-cheeked and still pretty, and had a pair of the most intelligent bright brown eyes Robert had ever seen.

When she saw a stranger she looked defensive, and made an involuntary closing movement with the door she was holding; but a second glance seemed to reassure her. Robert explained who he was, and she listened without interrupting him in a way he found quite admirable. Very few of his own clients listened without interrupting; male or female.

“You are under no obligation to talk to me,” he finished, having explained his presence. “But I hope very much that you won’t refuse. I have told Inspector Grant that I was going to see you this afternoon, on my clients’ behalf.”

“Oh, if the police know about it and don’t mind ——” She stepped back to let him come past her. “I expect you have to do your best for those people if you are their lawyer. And we have nothing to hide. But if it is really Betty you want to interview I’m afraid you can’t. We have sent her into the country to friends for the day, to avoid all the fuss. Leslie meant well, but it was a stupid thing to do.”

“Leslie?”

“My son. Sit down, won’t you.” She offered him one of the easy chairs in a pleasant, uncluttered sitting-room. “He was too angry about the police to think clearly — angry about their failure to do anything when it seemed so proved, I mean. He has always been devoted to Betty. Indeed until he got engaged they were inseparable.”

Robert’s ears pricked. This was the kind of thing he had come to hear.

“Engaged?”

“Yes. He got engaged just after the New Year to a very nice girl. We are all delighted.”

“Was Betty delighted?”

“She wasn’t jealous, if that is what you mean,” she said, looking at him with her intelligent eyes. “I expect she missed not coming first with him as she used to, but she was very nice about it. She is a nice girl, Mr. Blair. Believe me. I was a schoolmistress before I married — not a very good one, that is why I got married at the first opportunity — and I know a lot about girls. Betty has never given me a moment’s anxiety.”

“Yes. I know. Everyone reports excellently of her. Is your son’s fiancée a schoolfellow of hers?”

“No, she is a stranger. Her people have come to live near here and he met her at a dance.”

“Does Betty go to dances?”

“Not grown-up dances. She is too young yet.”

“So she had not met the fiancée?”

“To be honest, none of us had. He rather sprang her on us. But we liked her so much we didn’t mind.”

“He must be very young to be settling down?”

“Oh, the whole thing is absurd, of course. He is twenty and she is eighteen. But they are very sweet together. And I was very young myself when I married and I have been very happy. The only thing I lacked was a daughter, and Betty filled that gap.”

“What does she want to do when she leaves school?”

“She doesn’t know. She has no special talent for anything as far as I can see. I have a notion that she will marry early.”

“Because of her attractiveness?”

“No, because ——” she paused and apparently changed what she had been going to say. “Girls who have no particular bent fall easily into matrimony.”

He wondered if what she had been going to say had any remote connection with slate-blue eyes.

“When Betty failed to turn up in time to go back to school, you thought she was just playing truant? Although she was a well-behaved child.”

“Yes; she was growing bored with school; and she had always said — which is quite true — that the first day back at school is a wasted one. So we thought she was just ‘taking advantage’ for once, as they say. ‘Trying it on’ as Leslie said, when he heard that she hadn’t turned up.”

“I see. Was she wearing school clothes on her holiday?”

For the first time Mrs. Wynn looked doubtfully at him; uncertain of his motive in asking.

“No. No, she was wearing her week-end clothes. . . . You know that when she came back she was wearing only a frock and shoes?”

Robert nodded.

“I find it difficult to imagine women so depraved that they would treat a helpless child like that.”

“If you could meet the women, Mrs. Wynn, you would find it still more difficult to imagine.”

“But all the worst criminals look innocent and harmless, don’t they?”

Robert let that pass. He wanted to know about the bruises on the girl’s body. Were they fresh bruises?

“Oh, quite fresh. Most of them had not begun to ‘turn’ even.”

This surprised Robert a little.

“But there were older bruises as well, I take it.”

“If there were they had faded so much as to be unnoticeable among all the bad new ones.”

“What did the new ones look like? A whipping?”

“Oh, no. She had actually been knocked about. Even her poor little face. One jaw was swollen, and there was a big bruise on the other temple.”

“The police say that she grew hysterical when it was suggested that she should tell them her story.”

“That was when she was still ill. Once we had got the story out of her and she had had a long rest, it was easy enough to persuade her to repeat it to the police.”

“I know you will answer this frankly, Mrs. Wynn: Has there never been any suspicion in your mind that Betty’s story might not be true? Even a momentary suspicion?”

“Not even a momentary one. Why should there be? She has always been a truthful child. Even if she hadn’t, how could she invent a long circumstantial story like that without being found out? The police asked her all the questions they wanted to; there was never any suggestion of accepting her statement as it stood.”

“When she first told her story to you, did she tell it all in a piece?”

“Oh, no; it was spread over a day or two. The outline, first. And then filling in the details as she remembered them. Things like the window in the attic being round.”

“Her days of coma had not blurred her memory.”

“I don’t think they would in any case. I mean, with Betty’s kind of brain. She has a photographic memory.”

Has she indeed! thought Robert; both ears erect and wide open.

“Even as a small child she could look at the page of a book — a child’s book, of course — and repeat most of the contents from the picture in her mind. And when we played the Kim game — you know? the objects on the tray — we had to put Betty out of the game because she invariably won. Oh, no, she would remember what she saw.”

Well, there was another game in which the cry was “Growing warm!” Robert remembered.

“You say she was always a truthful child — and everyone supports you in that — but did she never indulge in romanticising her own life, as children sometimes do?”

“Never,” said Mrs. Wynn firmly. The idea seemed faintly to amuse her. “She couldn’t,” she added. “Unless it was the real thing it was no use to Betty. Even playing dolls’ tea-parties, she would never imagine the things on the plates as most children are quite happy to do; there had to be a real thing there, even if it was only a little cube of bread. Usually it was something nicer, of course; it was a good way to wangle an extra and she was always a little greedy.”

Robert admired the detachment with which she considered her longed-for and much-loved daughter. The remains of a schoolmistress’s cynicism? So much more valuable, anyhow, for a child than a blind love. It was a pity that her intelligence and devotion had been so ill-rewarded.

“I don’t want to keep on at a subject that must be unpleasant for you,” Robert said. “But perhaps you could tell me something about the parents.”

“Her parents?” Mrs. Wynn asked, surprised.

“Yes. Did you know them well? What were they like?”

“We didn’t know them at all. We never even saw them.”

“But you had Betty for — what was it? — nine months? — before her parents were killed, hadn’t you?”

“Yes, but her mother wrote shortly after Betty came to us and said that to come to see her would only upset the child and make her unhappy and that the best thing for everyone would be to leave her to us until such times as she could go back to London. She said would I talk to Betty about her at least once every day.”

Robert’s heart contracted with pity for this unknown dead woman who had been willing to tear her own heart out for her only child. What treasure of love and care had been poured out in front of Betty Kane, child evacuee.

“Did she settle down easily when she came? Or did she cry for her mother?”

“She cried because she didn’t like the food. I don’t remember her ever crying for her mother. She fell in love with Leslie the first night — she was just a baby, you know — and I think her interest in him blotted out any grief she might have felt. And he, being four years older, was just the right age to feel protective. He still does — that is why we are in this mess today.”

“How did this Ack–Emma affair happen? I know it was your son who went to the paper, but did you eventually come round to his ——”

“Good heavens, no,” Mrs. Wynn said indignantly. “It was all over before we could do anything about it. My husband and I were out when Leslie and the reporter came — they sent a man back with him when they heard his story, to get it first-hand from Betty — and when ——”

“And Betty gave it quite willingly?”

“I don’t know how willingly. I wasn’t there. My husband and I knew nothing about it until this morning, when Leslie laid an Ack–Emma under our noses. A little defiantly, I may add. He is not feeling too good about it now that it is done. The Ack–Emma, I should like to assure you, Mr. Blair, is not normally my son’s choice. If he had not been worked-up ——”

“I know. I know exactly how it happened. And that tell-us-your-troubles-and-we’ll-see-right-done is very insidious stuff.” He rose. “You have been very kind indeed, Mrs. Wynn, and I am exceedingly grateful to you.”

His tone was evidently more heartfelt than she had expected and she looked doubtfully at him. What have I said to help you? she seemed to be asking, half-dismayed.

He asked where Betty’s parents had lived in London, and she told him. “There is nothing there now,” she added. “Just the open space. It is to be part of some new building scheme, so they have done nothing to it so far.”

On the doorstep he ran into Leslie.

Leslie was an extraordinarily good-looking young man who seemed to be entirely unaware of the fact — a trait that endeared him to Robert, who was in no mood to look kindly on him. Robert had pictured him as the bull-in-a-china-shop type; but on the contrary he was a rather delicate, kind-looking boy with shy earnest eyes and untidy soft hair. He glared at Robert with frank enmity when his mother presented him and had explained his business there; but, as his mother had said, there was a shade of defiance in the glare; Leslie was obviously not very happy with his own conscience this evening.

“No one is going to beat my sister and get away with it,” he said fiercely when Robert had mildly deplored his action.

“I sympathise with your point of view,” Robert said, “but I personally would rather be beaten nightly for a fortnight than have my photograph on the front page of the Ack–Emma. Especially if I was a young girl.”

“If you had been beaten every night for a fortnight and no one did anything about it you might be very glad to have your photograph published in any rag if it got you justice,” Leslie observed pertinently and brushed past them into the house.

Mrs. Wynn turned to Robert with a small apologetic smile, and Robert, taking advantage of her softened moment, said: “Mrs. Wynn, if it ever occurs to you that anything in that story of Betty’s does not ring true, I hope you won’t decide that sleeping dogs are best left.”

“Don’t pin your faith to that hope, Mr. Blair.”

“You would let sleeping dogs lie, and the innocent suffer?”

“Oh no; I didn’t mean that. I meant the hope of my doubting Betty’s story. If I believed her at the beginning I am not likely to doubt her later.”

“One never knows. Someday it may occur to you that this or that does not ‘fit.’ You have a naturally analytic mind; it may present you with a piece of subconscious when you least expect it. Something that has puzzled you deep down may refuse to be pushed down any more.”

She had walked to the gate with him, and as he spoke the last sentence he turned to take farewell of her. To his surprise something moved behind her eyes at that light remark of his.

So she wasn’t certain after all.

Somewhere, in the story, in the circumstances, there was some small thing that left a question in that sober analytical mind of hers.

What was it?

And then, with what he always remembered afterwards as the only perfect sample of telepathic communication in his experience, he paused as he was stepping into his car, and said: “Had she anything in her pockets when she came home?”

“She had only one pocket; the one in her dress.”

“And was there anything in it?”

There was the faintest tightening of the muscles round her mouth. “Just a lipstick,” she said, evenly.

“A lipstick! She is a little young for that, isn’t she?”

“My dear Mr. Blair, they start experimenting with lipstick at the age of ten. As a wet-day amusement it has taken the place of dressing-up in Mother’s things.”

“Yes, probably; Woolworth is a great benefactor.”

She smiled and said goodbye again and moved towards the house as he drove away.

What puzzled her about the lipstick? Robert wondered, as he turned from the uneven surface of Meadowside Lane on to the black smooth surface of the main Aylesbury–London road. Was it just the fact that the fiends at The Franchise should have left it with the girl? Was that what she found odd?

How amazing that the worry in her subconscious mind had communicated itself so instantly to him. He had not known that he was going to say that sentence about the girl’s pockets until he heard himself saying it. It would never have occurred to him, left to himself, to wonder what was in the pocket of her frock. It would not occur to him that the frock might have a pocket at all.

So there was a lipstick.

And its presence was something that puzzled Mrs. Wynn.

Well; that was a straw that could be added to the little heap he had collected. To the fact that the girl had a photographic memory. To the fact that her nose had been put out of joint without warning only a month or two ago. To the fact that she was greedy. To the fact that she was bored with school. To the fact that she liked “reality.”

To the fact — above all — that no one in that household, not even detached sensible Mrs. Wynn, knew what went on in Betty Kane’s mind. It was quite unbelievable that a girl of fifteen who had been the centre of a young man’s world could see herself supplanted over-night without reacting violently to the situation. But Betty had been “very nice about it.”

Robert found this heartening. It was proof that that candid young face was no guide at all to the person who was Betty Kane.

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