A Shilling for Candles, by Josephine Tey

Chapter 1

It was a little after seven on a summer morning, and William Potticary was taking his accustomed way over the short down grass of the cliff-top. Beyond his elbow, two hundred feet below, lay the Channel, very still and shining, like a milky opal. All around him hung the bright air, empty as yet of larks. In all the sunlit world no sound except for the screaming of some seagulls on the distant beach; no human activity except for the small lonely figure of Potticary himself, square and dark and uncompromising. A million dewdrops sparkling on the virgin grass suggested a world new-come from its Creator’s hand. Not to Potticary, of course. What the dew suggested to Potticary was that the ground fog of the early hours had not begun to disperse until well after sunrise. His subconscious noted the fact and tucked it away, while his conscious mind debated whether, having raised an appetite for breakfast, he should turn at the Gap and go back to the Coastguard Station, or whether, in view of the fineness of the morning, he should walk into Westover for the morning paper, and so hear about the latest murder two hours earlier than he would otherwise. Of course, what with wireless, the edge was off the morning paper, as you might say. But it was an objective. War or peace, a man had to have an objective. You couldn’t go into Westover just to look at the front. And going back to breakfast with the paper under your arm made you feel fine, somehow. Yes, perhaps he would walk into the town.

The pace of his black, square-toed boots quickened slightly, their shining surface winking in the sunlight. Proper service, these boots were. One might have thought that Potticary, having spent his best years in brushing his boots to order, would have asserted his individuality, or expressed his personality, or otherwise shaken the dust of a meaningless discipline off his feet by leaving the dust on his boots. But no, Potticary, poor fool, brushed his boots for love of it. He probably had a slave mentality, but had never read enough for it to worry him. As for expressing one’s personality, if you described the symptoms to him he would, of course, recognize them. But not by name; In the Service they call that “contrariness.”

A seagull flashed suddenly above the cliff-top, and dropped screaming from sight to join its wheeling comrades below. A dreadful row these gulls were making. Potticary moved over to the cliff edge to see what jetsam the tide, now beginning to ebb, had left for them to quarrel over.

The white line of the gently creaming surf was broken by a patch of verdigris green. A bit of cloth. Baize, or something. Funny it should stay so bright a color after being in the water so —

Potticary’s blue eyes widened suddenly, his body becoming strangely still. Then the square black boots began to run. Thud, thud, thud, on the thick turf, like a heart beating. The Gap was two hundred yards away, but Potticary’s time would not have disgraced a track performer. He clattered down the rough steps hewn in the chalk of the Gap, gasping; indignation welling through his excitement. That was what came of going into cold water before breakfast! Lunacy, so help him. Spoiling other people’s breakfasts, too. Schaefer’s best, except where ribs broken. Not likely to be ribs broken. Perhaps only a faint after all. Assure the patient in a loud voice that he is safe. Her arms and legs were as brown as the sand. That was why he had thought the green thing a piece of cloth. Lunacy, so help him. Who wanted cold water in the dawn unless they had to swim for it? He’d had to swim for it in his time. In that Red Sea port. Taking in a landing party to help the Arabs. Though why anyone wanted to help the lousy bastards — that was the time to swim. When you had to. Orange juice and thin toast, too. No stamina. Lunacy, so help him.

It was difficult going on the beach. The large white pebbles slid maliciously under his feet, and the rare patches of sand, being about tide level, were soft and yielding. But presently he was within the cloud of gulls, enveloped by their beating wings and their wild crying.

There was no need for Schaefer’s, nor for any other method. He saw that at a glance. The girl was past all help. And Potticary, who had picked bodies unemotionally from the Red Sea surf, was strangely moved. It was all wrong that someone so young should be lying there when all the world was waking up to a brilliant day; when so much of life lay in front of her. A pretty girl, too, she must have been. Her hair had a dyed look, but the rest of her was all right.

A wave washed over her feet and sucked itself away, derisively, through the scarlet-tipped toes. Potticary, although the tide in another minute would be yards away, pulled the inanimate heap a little higher up the beach, beyond reach of the sea’s impudence.

Then his mind turned to telephones. He looked around for some garment which the girl might have left behind when she went in to swim. But there seemed to be nothing. Perhaps she had left whatever she was wearing below high-water level and the tide had taken it. Or perhaps it wasn’t here that she had gone into the water. Anyhow, there was nothing now with which to cover her body, and Potticary turned away and began his hurried plodding along the beach again, and so back to the Coastguard Station and the nearest telephone.

“Body on the beach,” he said to Bill Gunter as he took the receiver from the hook and called the police.

Bill clicked his tongue against his front teeth, and jerked his head back. A gesture which expressed with eloquence and economy the tiresomeness of circumstances, the unreasonableness of human beings who get themselves drowned, and his own satisfaction in expecting the worst of life and being right. “If they want to commit suicide,” he said in his subterranean voice, “why do they have to pick on us? Isn’t there the whole of the south coast?”

“Not a suicide,” Potticary gasped in the intervals of hulloing.

Bill took no notice of him. “Just because the fare to the south coast is more than to here! You’d think when a fellow was tired of life he’d stop being mean about the fare and bump himself off in style. But no! They take the cheapest ticket they can get and strew themselves over our doorstep!”

“Beachy Head get a lot,” gasped the fair-minded Potticary. “Not a suicide, anyhow.”

“Course it’s a suicide. What do we have cliffs for? Bulwark of England? No. Just as a convenience to suicides. That makes four this year. And there’ll be more when they get their income tax demands.”

He paused, his ear caught by what Potticary was saying.

“— a girl. Well, a woman. In a bright green bathing dress.” (Potticary belonged to a generation which did not know swimsuits.) “Just south of the Gap. ‘Bout a hundred yards. No, no one there. I had to come away to telephone. But I’m going back right away. Yes, I’ll meet you there. Oh, hullo, Sergeant, is that you? Yes, not the best beginning of a day, but we’re getting used to it. Oh, no, just a bathing fatality. Ambulance? Oh, yes, you can bring it practically to the Gap. The track goes off the main Westover road just past the third milestone, and finishes in those trees just inland from the Gap. All right, I’ll be seeing you.”

“How can you tell it’s just a bathing fatality,” Bill said.

“She had a bathing dress on, didn’t you hear?”

“Nothing to hinder her putting on a bathing dress to throw herself into the water. Make it look like accident.”

“You can’t throw yourself into the water this time of year. You land on the beach. And there isn’t any doubt what you’ve done.”

“Might have walked into the water till she drowned,” said Bill, who was a last-ditcher by nature.

“Ye’? Might have died of an overdose of bull’s-eyes,” said Potticary, who approved of last-ditchery in Arabia but found it boring to live with.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tey/josephine/shilling-for-candles/chapter1.html

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