To Love and Be Wise, by Josephine Tey

12

SILAS WEEKLEY lived in a cottage down the lane that led to the far bend of the river. Or rather, that started off towards the river. The lane, where it met the fields, turned at right-angles along the back of the village, only to turn up again and rejoin the village street. It was an entirely local affair. In the last cottage before the fields lived Silas Weekley, and Grant, ‘proceeding’ there police-fashion, was surprised to find it so poor a dwelling. It was not only that Weekley was a best-seller and could therefore afford a home that was more attractive than this, but there had been no effort to beautify the place; no generosity of paint and wash such as the other cottagers had used to make the street of Salcott St Mary a delight to the eye. No window plants, no trim curtains. The place had a slum air that was strange in its surroundings.

The cottage door was open and the combined howls of an infant and a child poured out into the sunny morning. An enamel basin of dirty water stood in the porch, the soap bubbles on it bursting one by one in slow resignation. An animal toy of soft fur, so worn and grubby as to be unidentifiable as any known species, lay on the floor. The room beyond was unoccupied for the moment, and Grant stood observing it in a kind of wonder. It was poorly furnished and untidy beyond belief.

The crying continued to come from some room in the rear, so Grant knocked loudly on the front door. At his second knock, a woman’s voice called: ‘Just leave it there, thank you.’ At his third knock supplemented with a call, she came from the darkness at the back and moved forward to inspect him.

‘Mrs Weekley?’ Grant said doubtfully.

‘Yes, I’m Mrs Weekley.’

She must have been pretty once. Pretty and intelligent; and independent. Grant remembered hearing somewhere that Weekley had married an elementary school teacher. She was wearing a sacking apron over a print wrapper, and the kind of old shoes that a woman all too easily gets used to as good enough to do chores in. She had not bothered to put on stockings, and the shoes had left smudges on her bare insteps. Her unwaved hair was pulled back into a tight desperate knot, but the front strands were too short to be confined there for long and now hung down on either side of her face. It was a rather long face and very tired.

Grant said that he would like to see her husband for a moment.

‘Oh.’ She took it in slowly, as if her mind were still with the crying children. ‘I’m sorry things are so untidy,’ she said vaguely. ‘My girl from the village didn’t come today. She often doesn’t. It just depends on how she is feeling. And with the children it is difficult ——. I don’t think I can disturb my husband in the middle of the morning.’ Grant wondered whether she considered the children were making no disturbance at all. ‘He writes in the morning, you see.’

‘I see. But if you would give him my card I think he will see me.’

‘Are you from the publishers?’

‘No, I’m ——’

‘Because I think it would be better to wait, and not interrupt him. He could meet you at the Swan, couldn’t he? Just before lunch, perhaps.’

‘No, I’m afraid that I must see him. You see, it is a matter ——’

‘It is very important that he shouldn’t be disturbed. It interrupts his train of thought, and then he finds it difficult to — to get back. He writes very slowly — carefully, I mean — sometimes only a paragraph a day, so you see it is ——’

‘Mrs Weekley,’ Grant said, bluntly, ‘please give that card to your husband and say that I must see him, whatever he happens to be doing.’

She stood with the card in her fingers, not even glancing at it, her mind obviously busy with the search for some excuse that would convince him. And he was all of a sudden aware that she was afraid to take that card to her husband. Afraid to interrupt him.

To help her, he said that surely there would be no interruption where the children had been making so much noise. Her husband could hardly be concentrating very hard.

‘Oh, he doesn’t work here,’ she said. ‘In the house, I mean. He has a little house of his own at the end of the garden.’

Grant took back the card she was holding, and said grimly: ‘Will you show me the way, Mrs Weekley?’

Dumbly she led him through a dark kitchen where a toddler sat splay-legged on the floor enjoying his tears, and an infant in a perambulator sobbed in elemental fury. Beyond, in the bright sunshine of the garden, a boy of three or so was throwing stones from the pebble path against the wooden door of an outhouse, an unproductive occupation which nevertheless made a satisfying noise.

‘Stop that, Freddy,’ she said automatically, and Freddy as automatically went on throwing the stones against the door.

The back garden was a long thin strip of ground that ran along the side of the back lane, and at the very end of it, a long way from the house, was a wooden shed. Mrs Weekley pointed it out and said:

‘Perhaps you would just go and introduce yourself, would you? The children will be coming in from school for their midday meal and it isn’t ready.’

‘Children?’ Grant said.

‘Yes, the three eldest. So if you don’t mind.’

‘No, of course I don’t mind,’ Grant said. Indeed, few things would please him like interrupting the great Silas Weekley this morning, but he refrained from saying so to Silas Weekley’s wife.

He knocked twice on the door of the wooden hut — a very trim wooden hut — without getting an answer, and so opened the door.

Silas Weekley swung round from the table at which he was writing and said: ‘How dare you walk into my ——’ and then stopped as he saw Grant. He had quite obviously expected the intruder to be his wife.

‘Who are you?’ he said rudely. ‘If you are a journalist you will find that rudeness doesn’t pay. This is private ground and you are trespassing.’

‘I am Detective–Inspector Grant from Scotland Yard,’ Grant said and watched the news sink home.

After a moment or two Silas got his lower jaw under control again and said: ‘And what do you want, may I ask?’ It was an attempt at truculence and it was not convincing.

Grant said his regulation piece about investigating the disappearance of Leslie Searle and accounting for the movements of all those who knew Searle, and noted with the unoccupied half of his mind that the ink on the script that Weekley was working on was not only dry but dark. It was yesterday’s ink. Weekley had done not a line this morning although it was now past noon.

At the mention of Searle Weekley began a diatribe against moneyed dilettantes which — in view of Weekley’s income and the sum total of his morning’s work — Grant thought inappropriate. He cut him short and asked what he had been doing on Wednesday night.

‘And if I do not choose to tell you?’

‘I record your refusal and go away.’

Weekley did not like the sound of this, so he muttered something about being badgered by the police.

‘All that I am doing,’ Grant pointed out, ‘is asking for your cooperation as a citizen. As I have pointed out, it is within your right to refuse cooperation.’

Silas said sulkily that he had been writing on Wednesday night from supper-time onwards.

‘Any witnesses to that?’ Grant asked, wasting no frills on Silas.

‘My wife, of course.’

‘She was here with you?’

‘No, of course not. She was in the house.’

‘And you were here alone?’

‘I was.’

‘Thank you and good-morning,’ Grant said walking out of the hut and shutting the door crisply behind him.

The morning smelt very fresh and sweet. The sour smell of vomited milk and rough-dried dish-cloths that had hung about the house was nothing to the smell of soured humanity that filled the place where Silas Weekley worked. As he walked back to the house he remembered that it was from this joyless and distorted mind that the current English ‘masterpieces’ came. The thought did nothing to reassure him. He avoided the joyless house, where the agitated clattering of pans (an appropriate orchestration, he couldn’t help thinking) conveyed the preoccupation of its mistress, and walked round the side of it to the front gate, accompanied by Freddy.

‘Hullo, Freddy,’ he said, sorry for the bored brat.

‘Hullo,’ Freddy said without enthusiasm.

‘Isn’t there a more exciting game than flinging stones at a door?’

‘No,’ said Freddy.

‘Couldn’t you find one if you looked about you?’

‘No,’ said Freddy, with cold finality.

Grant stood for a moment contemplating him.

‘There will never be any doubt about your paternity, Frederick,’ he said, and walked away up the lane to the spot where he had left his car.

It was down this lane that Leslie Searle had walked on Wednesday night, calling farewells to the group in the village street. He had walked past the Weekley cottage to where a stile led into the first of the fields that lay between the village and the river bend.

At least that is what one took for granted that he did.

He could have walked along the back lane and come to the village street again. But there would have been little point, surely, in that. He was never seen again in the village. He had walked into the darkness of the lane and disappeared.

A little crazy, Tullis had said of Silas Weekley. But Silas Weekley didn’t strike Grant as being crazy. A sadist, perhaps. A megalomaniac almost certainly. A man sick of a twisted vanity. But actually crazy no.

Or would an alienist think differently?

One of the most famous alienists in the country had once said to him that to write a book was to give oneself away. (Someone else had said the same thing more wittily and more succinctly, but he could not think at the moment who it was.) There was unconscious betrayal in every line, said the alienist. What, wondered Grant, would the alienist’s verdict be after reading one of Silas Weekley’s malignant effusions? That it was the outpouring of a petty mind, a mere fermentation of vanity? Or that it was a confession of madness?

He thought for a moment of going back to the Swan and ringing up Wickham police station from there, but the Swan would be busy just now and the telephone a far from confidential affair. He decided to go back to Wickham and have lunch there, so that he could see Inspector Rodgers at his leisure and pick up any messages that might be waiting for him from Headquarters.

In Wickham he found the higher orders at the police station preparing to retire into the peace of the weekend, and the lower ranks preparing for the weekly liveliness of Saturday night. Rodgers had little to say — he was never a talkative man — and nothing to report. The disappearance of Searle was the talk of Wickham, he said, now that the morning papers had made it general news; but no one had come in to suggest that they had seen him.

‘Not even a “nut” to confess to the murder,’ he said dryly.

‘Well, that is a nice change,’ Grant said.

‘He’ll be along, he’ll be along,’ Rodgers said resignedly, and invited Grant home to lunch.

But Grant preferred to eat at the White Hart.

He was sitting in the dining-room of the White Hart eating the unpretentious but ample lunch that they provided, when the radio music in the kitchen ceased, and presently, oddly urbane among the castanet racket, came the voice of the announcer.

‘Before the news, here is a police message. Would anyone who gave a lift to a young man on Wednesday night on the road between Wickham and Crome, in Orfordshire, or anywhere in that vicinity, please communicate with Scotland Yard ——’

‘Telephone Whitehall One Two One Two,’ chanted the kitchen staff happily.

And then there was a rush of high-pitched conversation as the staff fell to on this latest tit-bit of news.

Grant ate the very good roly-poly without relish and went out again into the sunlight. The streets, which had been teeming with Saturday shoppers when he came in to lunch, were deserted, the shops shut. He drove out of town wishing once more that he was going fishing. How had he ever chosen a profession where he could not count on a Saturday afternoon holiday? Half the world was free to sit back and enjoy itself this sunny afternoon, but he had to spend it pottering about asking questions that led nowhere.

He drove back to Salcott in a state of mental dyspepsia, being only slightly cheered by Dora Siggins. He picked up Dora in the long straight of dull hedged lane that ran for a mile or more parallel to the river just outside the town. In the distance he had taken the plodding figure to be a youth carrying a kit of tools, but as he came nearer and slowed in answer to the raised thumb, he found that it was a girl in dungarees carrying a shopping bag. She grinned cheekily at him and said:

‘Saved my life, you have! I missed the bus because I was buying slippers for the dance tonight.’

‘Oh,’ said Grant, looking at the parcel that had evidently refused to go into the overflowing bag. ‘Glass ones?’

‘Not me,’ she said, banging the door shut behind her and wriggling comfortably into the seat. ‘None of that home-by-midnight stuff about me. ‘Sides, it wasn’t a glass slipper at all, you know. It was fur. French, or something. We learned that at school.’

Grant wondered privately if modern youth had been left any illusions at all. What would a world without fantasy be like? Or did the charming illusion that he was all-important fill for the modern child the place of earlier and more impersonal fantasies? The thought improved his temper considerably.

At least they were quick of wit, these modern children. The cinema, he supposed. It was always the one-and-tuppennys — the regulars — who got the point while the front balcony were still groping. His passenger had got his reference to dance slippers without a second for consideration.

She was a gay child, even after a week’s work and missing the bus on a Saturday half-holiday, and poured out her history without any encouragement. Her name was Dora Siggins and she worked at a laundry, but she had a boy friend in a garage at Salcott, and they were going to get married as soon as the boy friend got a rise, which would be at Christmas, if all went as they expected.

When, long afterwards, Grant sent Dora Siggins a box of chocolates as an anonymous tribute to the help she had been to him, he hoped heartily that it would lead to no misunderstanding with the boy friend who was so sure of his rise at Christmas.

‘You a commercial?’ she asked presently, having exhausted her personal story.

‘No,’ said Grant. ‘I’m a policeman.’

‘Go on!’ she said, and then, struck by the possibility that he might be telling the truth, took a more careful look at the interior of the car. ‘Coo!’ she said at length. ‘Blamed if you aren’t, at that!’

‘What convinced you?’ Grant said curiously.

‘Spit and polish,’ she said. ‘Only the fire service and the police have the spare time to keep a car shiny this way. I thought the police were forbidden to give lifts?’

‘You’re thinking of the Post Office, aren’t you. Here is Salcott on the horizon. Where do you live?’

‘The cottage with the wild cherry tree. My, I can’t tell you how glad I am I didn’t have to walk those four miles. You got the car out on the fly?’

‘No,’ Grant said, and asked why she should think that.

‘Oh, the plain clothes and all. Thought maybe you were out for the day on your little own. There’s one thing you ought to have that the American police have.’

‘What is that?’ Grant asked bringing the car to a halt opposite the cottage with the cherry tree.

‘Sirens to go yelling along the roads with.’

‘God forbid,’ Grant said.

‘I’ve always wanted to go tearing along the streets behind a siren, seeing people scattering every way.’

‘Don’t forget your shoes,’ Grant said, unsympathetically, indicating the parcel she was leaving on the seat.

‘Oh, gee, no; thanks! Thanks a million for everything. I’ll never say a word against the police as long as I live.’

She ran up the cottage path, paused to wave to him, and disappeared.

Grant moved on into the village to resume his questioning.

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