The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

8

Robert had decided to kill a great many birds with one stone by spending the night in London.

To begin with, he wanted to have his hand held. And in the circumstances no one would hold his hand to better purpose than his old school friend Kevin Macdermott. What Kevin did not know about crime was probably not so anyhow. And as a well-known defending counsel his knowledge of human nature was extensive, varied, and peculiar.

At the moment the betting was evens whether Macdermott would die of high blood-pressure before he was sixty, or grace the Woolsack when he was seventy. Robert hoped the latter. He was very fond of Kevin.

They had first gravitated towards each other at school because they were both “going in for Law,” but they had become and remained friends because they were complementary. To the Irishman, Robert’s equanimity was amusing, provocative, and — when he was tired — restful. To Robert, Kevin’s Celt flamboyance was exotic and fascinating. It was typical that Robert’s ambition was to go back to the little country town and continue life as it was; while Kevin’s was to alter everything that was alterable in the Law and to make as much noise as possible in the doing of it.

So far Kevin had not altered much — though he had done his best where some judges’ rulings were concerned — but he had made considerable noise in his effortless, slightly malicious, fashion. Already the presence of Kevin Macdermott in a case added fifty per cent to its newspaper value — and a good deal more than that to its cost.

He had married — advantageously but happily — had a pleasant house near Weybridge and three hardy sons, lean and dark and lively like their father. For town purposes he kept a small flat in St. Paul’s Churchyard, where, as he pointed out, he “could afford to look down on Queen Anne.” And whenever Robert was in town — which was not oftener than Robert could help — they dined together, either at the flat or at the latest place where Kevin had found good claret. Outside the Law, Kevin’s interests were show hacks, claret, and the livelier films of Warner Brothers.

Kevin was to be at some Bar dinner tonight, so his secretary had said when Robert had tried to reach him from Milford; but he would be delighted to have a legitimate excuse for dodging the speeches, so would Robert go along to St. Paul’s Churchyard after dinner, and wait for him.

That was a good thing; if Kevin came from a dinner he would be relaxed and prepared to settle down for the evening; not restless and with three-quarters of his mind still back in the court-room as he sometimes was.

Meanwhile, he would ring up Grant at Scotland Yard and see if he could spare him some minutes tomorrow morning. He must get it clear in his mind how he stood in relation with Scotland Yard: fellow sufferers, but on opposite sides of the fence.

At the Fortescue, the Edwardian old place in Jermyn Street, where he had stayed ever since he was first allowed to go to London on his own, they greeted him like a nephew and gave him “the room he had last time”; a dim comfortable box with a shoulder-high bed and a buttoned-plush settee; and brought him up a tray on which reposed an out-size brown kitchen teapot, a Georgian silver cream jug, about a pound of sugar lumps in a sixpenny glass dish, a Dresden cup with flowers and little castles, a red-and-gold Worcester plate made for “their Maj’s” William IV and his Queen, and a much buckled kitchen knife with a stained brown handle.

Both the tea and the tray refreshed Robert. He went out into the evening streets feeling vaguely hopeful.

His search for the truth about Betty Kane brought him, only half consciously, to the vacant space where that block of flats had been; the spot where both her parents had died in one shattering burst of high explosive. It was a bare neat space, waiting its appointed part in some plan. Nothing was there to show that a building had ever stood on the spot. Round about, the unharmed houses stood with blank smug faces, like mentally deficient children too idiot to have understood the meaning of a disaster. It had passed them by and that was all they knew or cared about.

On the opposite side of the wide street, a row of small shops still stood as they had obviously stood for fifty years or more. Robert crossed to them and went into the tobacconist’s to buy cigarettes; a tobacconist-and-newsagent knows everything.

“Were you here when that happened?” Robert asked, leaning his head towards the door.

“When what happened?” asked the rosy little man, so used to the blank space that he had long ago become unaware of it. “Oh, the incident? No, I was out on duty. Warden, I was.”

Robert said that he had meant was he here in business at the time.

Oh, yes; yes, certainly he had the business then, and for long before it. Brought up in the neighbourhood, he was, and succeeded his father in the business.

“You would know the local people well, then. Do you remember the couple who were caretakers of the block of flats, by any chance?”

“The Kanes? Of course I do. Why wouldn’t I remember them? They were in and out of this place all day. He for his paper in the morning, and then her for her cigarettes shortly after, and then back for his evening paper and her back for the third time probably for cigarettes again, and then he and I used to have a pint at the local when my boy had finished his lessons and would take over for me here. You knew them, sir?”

“No. But I met someone the other day who spoke of them. How was the whole place wrecked?”

The little pink man sucked his teeth with a derisive sound.

“Jerry-built. That’s what it was. Just jerry-built. The bomb fell in the area there — that’s how the Kanes were killed, they were down in their basement feeling fairly safe — and the whole thing just settled down like a house of cards. Shocking.” He straightened the edge of a pile of evening papers. “It was just her bad luck that the only evening in weeks that she was at home with her husband, a bomb had to come.” He seemed to find a sardonic pleasure in the thought.

“Where was she usually, then?” Robert asked. “Did she work somewhere in the evenings?”

“Work!” said the little man, with vast scorn. “Her!” And then, recollecting: “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sure. I forgot for the minute that they might be friends of ——”

Robert hastened to assure him that his interest in the Kanes was purely academic. Someone had remembered them as caretakers of the block of flats, that was all. If Mrs. Kane was not out working in the evenings what was she out doing?

“Having a good time, of course. Oh, yes, people managed to have a good time even then — if they wanted it enough and looked hard enough for it. Kane, he wanted her to go away to the country with that little girl of theirs, but would she? Not her! Three days of the country would kill her she said. She didn’t even go to see the little thing when they evacuated her. The authorities, that is. With the rest of the children. It’s my opinion she was tickled to death to have the child off her hands so that she could go dancing at nights.”

“Whom did she go dancing with?”

“Officers,” the little man said succinctly. “A lot more exciting than watching the grass grow. I don’t say there was any actual harm in it, mind you,” he said hastily. “She’s dead, and I wouldn’t like to pin anything on her that she isn’t here to unpin, if you take my meaning. But she was a bad mother and a bad wife, that’s flat and no one ever said anything to the contrary.”

“Was she pretty?” Robert asked, thinking of the good emotion he had wasted on Betty’s mother.

“In a sulky sort of way, yes. She sort of smouldered. You wondered what she would be like when she was lit up. Excited, I mean; not tight. I never saw her tight. She didn’t get her excitement that way.”

“And her husband?”

“Ah, he was all right, Bert Kane was. Deserved better luck than that woman. One of the best, Bert was. Terribly fond of the little girl. Spoiled her, of course. She had only to want something and he got it for her; but she was a nice kid, for all that. Demure. Butter wouldn’t melt in her little mouth. Yes, Bert deserved better out of life than a good-time wife and a cupboard-love kid. One of the best, Bert was. . . . ” He looked over the roadway at the empty space, reflectively. “It took them the best part of a week to find him,” he said.

Robert paid for his cigarettes and went out into the street both saddened and relieved. Sad for Bert Kane, who had deserved better; but glad that Betty Kane’s mother was not the woman he had pictured. All the way to London his mind had grieved for that dead woman; the woman who had broken her heart for her child’s good. It had seemed to him unbearable that the child she had so greatly loved should be Betty Kane. But now he was free of that grief. Betty Kane’s mother was exactly the mother he would have chosen for her if he were God. And she on her part looked very like being her mother’s daughter.

“A cupboard-love kid.” Well, well. And what was it Mrs. Wynn had said? “She cried because she didn’t like the food, but I don’t remember her crying for her mother.”

Nor for that father who so devotedly spoiled her, apparently.

When he got back to the hotel he took his copy of the Ack–Emma from his despatch case, and over his solitary dinner at the Fortescue considered at his leisure the story on Page Two. From its poster-simplicity opening —

“On a night in April a girl came back to her home clad in nothing but a frock and shoes. She had left home, a bright happy schoolgirl with not a . . . ”

to its final fanfare of sobs, it was of its kind a small masterpiece. It did perfectly what it set out to do. And that was to appeal to the greatest number of readers with one and the same story. To those who wanted sex-interest it offered the girl’s lack of clothes, to the sentimentalist her youth and charm, to the partisan her helpless condition, to the sadist the details of her beatings, to the sufferer from class-hatred a description of the big white house behind its high walls, and to the warm-hearted British public in general the impression that the police had been, if not “nobbled,” then at least lax, and that Right had not been Done.

Yes. It was clever.

Of course the story was a gift for them — which is why they had sent a man back immediately with young Leslie Wynn. But Robert felt that, when really on their mettle, the Ack–Emma could probably make a good story of a broken connecting-rod.

It must be a dreary business catering exclusively for the human failings. He turned the pages over, observing how consistently each story was used to appeal to the regrettable in the reader. Even GAVE AWAY A MILLION, he noticed, was the story of a disgraceful old man unloading on his income-tax and not of a boy who had climbed out of a slum by his own courage and enterprise.

With a slight nausea he put the thing back in his case, and took the case with him to St. Paul’s Churchyard. There he found the “daily” woman waiting for him with her hat on. Mr. Macdermott’s secretary had telephoned to say that a friend of his was coming and that he was to be given the run of the house and left alone in it without scruple; she had stayed merely to let him in; she would now leave him to it; there was whisky on the little table by the fire, and there was another bottle in the cupboard, but it might, if you asked her, be wise not to remind Mr. Macdermott about it or he would stay up too late and she had great trouble getting him up in the morning.

“It’s not the whisky,” Blair said, smiling at her, “it’s the Irish in him. All the Irish hate getting up.”

This gave her pause on the doorstep; evidently struck by this new idea.

“I wouldn’t wonder,” she said. “My old man’s the same, and he’s Irish. It’s not whisky with him, just original sin. At least that’s what I always thought. But perhaps it’s just his misfortune in being a Murphy.”

It was a pleasant little place; warm and friendly, and peaceful now that the roar of the city traffic was still. He poured himself a drink, went to the window to look down on Queen Anne, paused a moment to note once more how lightly the great bulk of the church floated on its base; so proportioned, so balanced, that it looked as if one could take it up on a palm and dandle it there; and then sat down and, for the first time since he had gone out that morning to see a maddening old woman who was changing her will again, relaxed.

He was half asleep when he heard Kevin’s key in the lock, and his host was in the room before he could move.

Macdermott tweaked his neck in an evil pinch as he passed behind him to the decanters on the table. “It’s beginning, old boy,” he said, “it’s beginning.”

“What is?” Robert asked.

“The thickening of that handsome neck of yours.”

Robert rubbed his neck lazily where it stung. “I do begin to notice draughts on the back of it, now you come to mention it,” he said.

“Christ, Robert! does nothing distress you,” Kevin said, his eyes pale and bright and mocking under their black brows, “even the imminent prospect of losing those good looks of yours?”

“I’m a little distressed at the moment, but it isn’t my looks.”

“Well, what with Blair, Hayward, and Bennet, it can’t be bankruptcy; so I suppose it’s a woman.”

“Yes, but not the way you mean.”

“Thinking of getting married? You ought to, Rob.”

“You said that before.”

“You want an heir for Blair, Hayward, and Bennet, don’t you?” The calm certainty of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet had always pricked Kevin into small gibes, Robert remembered.

“There is no guarantee that it wouldn’t be a girl. Anyhow, Nevil is taking care of that.”

“The only thing that young woman of Nevil’s will ever give birth to is a gramophone record. She was gracing a platform again the other day, I hear. If she had to earn the money for her train fares she mightn’t be so willing to dash about the country being the Vocal Minority.” He sat down with his drink. “I needn’t ask if you are up on business. Sometime you really ought to come up and see this town. I suppose you dash off again tomorrow after a 10 a.m. interview with someone’s solicitors.”

“No,” Robert said. “With Scotland Yard.”

Kevin paused with his glass half-way to his mouth. “Robert, you’re slipping,” he said. “What has the Yard to do with your Ivory Tower?”

“That’s just it,” Robert said equably, ignoring this additional flick at his Milford security. “It’s there on the doorstep and I don’t quite know how to deal with it. I want to listen to someone being intelligent about the situation. I don’t know why I should unload it on you. You must be sick of problems. But you always did do my algebra for me.”

“And you always reckoned the stocks and shares ones, if I remember rightly. I was always a fool about stocks. I still owe you something for saving me from a bad investment. Two bad investments,” he added.

“Two?”

“Tamara, and Topeka Tin.”

“I remember saving you from Topeka Tin, but I had nothing whatever to do with your breaking with Tamara.”

“Oh, hadn’t you, indeed! My good Robert, if you could have seen your face when I introduced you to her. Oh, no, not that way. Quite the contrary. The instantaneous kindness of your expression, that blasted English mask of courtesy and good breeding — it said everything. I saw myself going through life introducing Tamara to people and watching their faces being well-bred about it. It cured me of her in record time. I have never ceased to be grateful to you. So produce what is in the despatch case.”

Nothing escaped Kevin, Robert thought, taking out his own copy of Betty Kane’s statement to the police.

“This is a very short statement. I wish you would read it and tell me how it strikes you.”

He wanted the impact on Kevin, without preliminaries to dull the edge of it.

Macdermott took it, read the first paragraph in one swift eye movement, and said: “This is the Ack–Emma’s protégée, I take it.”

“I had no idea that you ever saw the Ack–Emma” Robert said, surprised.

“God love you, I feed on the Ack–Emma. No crime, no causes célèbres. No causes célèbres, no Kevin Macdermott. Or only a piece of him.” He lapsed into utter silence. For four minutes his absorption was so complete that Robert felt alone in the room, as if his host had gone away. “Humph!” he said, coming out of it.

“Well?”

“I take it that your clients are the two women in the case, and not this girl?”

“Of course.”

“Now you tell me your end,” Kevin said, and listened.

Robert gave him the whole story. His reluctant visit, his growing partisanship as it became clear that it was a choice between Betty Kane and the two women, Scotland Yard’s decision not to move on the available evidence, and Leslie Wynn’s rash visit to the offices of the Ack–Emma.

“So tonight,” Macdermott said, “the Yard is moving heaven and earth to find corroborative evidence that will back up the girl’s story.”

“I suppose so,” said Robert, depressed. “But what I want to know is: Do you or do you not believe the girl’s story?”

“I never believe anyone’s story,” Kevin pointed out with gentle malice. “What you want to know is: Do I find the girl’s story believable? And of course I do.”

“You do!”

“I do. Why not?”

“But it’s an absurd story,” Robert said, more hotly than he had intended.

“There is nothing absurd about it. Women who live lonely lives do insane things — especially if they are poor gentlewomen. Only the other day an elderly woman was found to have kept her sister chained up to a bed in a room no bigger than a good-sized cupboard. She had kept her like that for three years, and had fed her on the crusts and potato skins and the other scraps that she didn’t want herself. She said, when it was discovered, that their money was going down too fast and this was her way of making ends meet. She had quite a good bank balance actually, but it was the fear induced by insecurity that had sent her crazy. That is a much more unbelievable — and from your point of view absurd — story than the girl’s.”

“Is it? It seems to me just an ordinary tale of insanity.”

“Only because you know it happened. I mean, that someone had actually seen the thing. Suppose, on the contrary, that the rumour had merely gone round; that the crazy sister had heard it and released her victim before any investigation could be made; that the investigators found only two old ladies living an apparently normal life except for the invalidism nature of one of them. What then? Would you have believed the ‘chained-up’ tale? Or would you, more likely, have called it an ‘absurd story’?”

Robert sank a little deeper into his depression.

“Here are two lonely and badly-dowered women saddled with a big house in the country; one of them too old to do much household work and the other loathing it. What is the most likely form for their mild insanity to take? The capture of a girl to be servant to them, of course.”

Damn Kevin and his counsel’s mind. He had thought that he had wanted Kevin’s opinion, but what he had wanted was Kevin’s backing for his own opinion.

“The girl they capture happens to be a blameless schoolgirl, conveniently far from her home. It is their bad luck that she is so blameless, because since she has never been caught out in a lie to date, everyone is going to take her word against theirs. If I were the police I would have risked it. It seems to me they are losing their nerve.”

He shot an amused glance at Robert, sunk in his chair, glooming down his long legs at the fire. He sat for a moment or two enjoying his friend’s discomfiture.

“Of course,” he said, at length, “they may have remembered a parallel case, where everyone believed the girl’s heart-rending story and were very thoroughly led up the garden.”

“A parallel!” Robert said, folding his legs and sitting up. “When?”

“Seventeen-something. I forget the exact date.”

“Oh,” said Robert, dashed again.

“I don’t know what is ‘Oh’ about it,” Macdermott said mildly. “The nature of alibis has not changed much in two centuries.”

“Alibis?”

“If the parallel case is any guide the girl’s story is an alibi.”

“Then you believe —— I mean you find it believable — that the girl’s story is all nonsense?”

“A complete invention from beginning to end.”

“Kevin, you are maddening. You said you found it believable.”

“So I do. I also find it believable that it is a tissue of lies. I am not briefed for either side. I can make a very good case out for either, at the shortest notice. On the whole I should prefer to be counsel for the young woman from Aylesbury. She would be wonderful in the witness box, and from what you tell me neither of the Sharpes would be much help, visually, to a counsel.”

He got up to help himself to more whisky, holding out his other hand for Robert’s glass. But Robert was in no mood for conviviality. He shook his head without lifting his gaze from the fire. He was tired and beginning to be out of temper with Kevin. He had been wrong to come. When a man had been a counsel in the criminal courts as long as Kevin had, his mind had only points of view, not convictions any more. He would wait until Kevin had half-finished the glass he was now sitting down with, and then make a movement to go. It would be good to put his head on a pillow and forget for a little that he was responsible for other people’s problems. Or rather, for the solution of them.

“I wonder what she was doing all that month,” Kevin said conversationally, taking a large gulp of practically neat whisky.

Robert’s mouth opened to say: “Then you do believe the girl is a fake!” but he stopped himself in time. He rebelled against dancing any more this evening to Kevin’s piping.

“If you drink so much whisky on top of claret, what you will be doing for a month is a cure, my lad,” he said. And to his surprise Kevin lay back and laughed like a schoolboy.

“Oh, Rob, I love you,” he said delightedly. “You are the very essence of England. Everything we admire and envy in you. You sit there so mild, so polite, and let people bait you, until they conclude that you are an old tabby and they can do what they like with you, and then just when they are beginning to preen themselves they go that short step too far and wham! out comes that business-like paw with the glove off!” He picked Robert’s glass out of his hand without a by-your-leave and rose to fill it and Robert let him. He was feeling better.

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