In the library, as the voices of Bee and Mr. Macallan faded down the hall and into the out-of-doors, there was silence. Brat, uncertain of the quality of that silence, turned to the shelves and began to consider the books.
“Well,” said Simon, lounging in the window, “another hazard safely negotiated.”
Brat waited, trying to analyse the sound of the words while they still hung in the air.
“Hazard?” he said at length.
“The snags and bunkers in the difficult business of coming back. It must have taken some nerve, all things considered. What moved you to it, Brat — homesickness?”
This was the first frank question he had been asked, and he suddenly liked Ashby the better for it.
“Not exactly. A realisation that my place was here, after all.” He felt that that had a self-righteous sound, and added: “I mean, that my place in the world was here.”
This was succeeded by another silence. Brat went on looking at books and hoped that he was not going to like young Ashby. That would be an unforeseen complication. It was bad enough not to be able to face the person he was supplanting, now that he was left alone in a room with him; but to find himself liking that person would make the situation intolerable.
It was Bee who broke the silence.
“I think we should have offered the poor little man a drink,” she said, coming in. “However, it’s too late now. He can get one from his ‘contact’ at the White Hart.”
“The Bell, I suspect,” Simon said.
“Why the Bell?”
“Our Lana frequents that in preference to the White Hart.”
“Ah, well. The sooner everyone knows the sooner the fuss will be over.” She smiled at Brat to take any sting from the words. “Let’s go and look at the horses, shall we? Have you any riding clothes with you, Brat?”
“Not any that Latchetts would recognise as riding clothes,” Brat said, noticing how thankfully she seized on the excuse not to call him Patrick.
“Come up with me,” Simon said, “and I’ll find you something.”
“Good,” said Bee, looking pleased with him. “I’ll collect Eleanor.”
“Did you like being given the old night nursery?” Simon asked, preceding Brat upstairs.
“Same old paper, I suppose you noticed.”
“Do you remember the night we had an Ivanhoe–Hereward battle?”
“No; I don’t remember that.”
“No. Of course you wouldn’t.”
Again the words hung on the silence, teasing Brat’s ear with an echo of their tone.
He followed young Ashby into the room he had shared with his brother, and noticed that there was no suggestion in the room that it had ever been shared by another person. It was, on the contrary, very much Simon’s own room; being furnished with his possessions to an extent that made it as much a sitting-room as a bedroom. Shelves of books, rows of silver cups, framed sketches of horses on the walls, easy chairs, and a small desk with a telephone extension on it.
Brat moved over to the window while Simon rummaged among his clothes for appropriate garments. The window, as he knew, looked over the stables, but a green hedge of lilac and laburnum trees hid the buildings from view. Above them, in the middle distance, rose the tower of Clare church. On Sunday, he supposed, he would be taken to service there. Another hazard. Hazard had been an odd word for young Ashby to choose, surely?
Simon emerged from the cupboard with breeches and a tweed coat.
“I think these ought to do,” he said, throwing them on the bed. “I’ll find you a shirt.” He opened a drawer of the chest which held his dressing mirror and toilet things. The chest stood by the window, and Brat, still uneasy in Ashby’s vicinity, moved over to the fireplace and began to look at the silver cups on the mantelpiece. All of them were prizes for horsemanship, and they ranged from a hurdle race at the local point-to-point to Olympia. All of them except one were of a date too late to have concerned Patrick Ashby; the exception being a small and humble chalice that had been awarded to Simon Ashby on “Patience” for being the winner of the juvenile jumping class at the Bures Agricultural Show in the year before Patrick Ashby committed suicide.
Simon, looking round and seeing the small cup in Brat’s hand, smiled and said: “I took that from you, if you remember.”
“From me?” Brat said, unprepared.
“You would have won on Old Harry if I hadn’t done you out of it by doing a perfect second round.”
“Oh, yes,” Brat said. And to lay a new scent: “You seem to have done well for yourself since.”
“Not badly,” Simon said, his attention going back to his shirt drawer. “But I’m going to do a lot better. Ballsbridge and all stops to Olympia.” It was said absentmindedly, but with confidence; as if the money to buy good horseflesh would automatically be available. Brat wondered a little, but felt that this was no moment for discussing the financial future.
“Do you remember the object that used to hang at the end of your bed?” Simon asked casually, pushing the shirt drawer shut.
“The little horse?” Brat said. “Yes, of course. Travesty,” he added, giving its name and mock breeding. “By Irish Peasant out of Bog Oak.”
He turned from the exhibits on the mantelpiece, meaning to collect the clothes that Ashby had looked out for him; but as he turned he saw Ashby’s face in the mirror, and the naked shock on that face stopped him in his tracks. Simon had been in the act of pushing the drawer shut, but the action was arrested half-way. It was, thought Brat, exactly the reaction of someone who has heard a telephone ring; the involuntary pause and then the resumed movement.
Simon turned to face him, slowly, the shirt hanging over his left forearm. “I think you’ll find that all right,” he said, taking the shirt in his right hand and holding it out to Brat but keeping his eyes on Brat’s face. His expression was no longer shocked; he merely looked blank, as if his mind were elsewhere. As if, Brat thought, he were doing sums in his head.
Brat took the shirt, collected the rest of the clothes, expressed his thanks, and made for the door.
“Come down when you’re ready,” Simon said, still staring at him in that blank way. “We’ll be waiting for you.”
And Brat, making his way round the landing to his own room in the opposite wing, was shocked in his turn. Ashby hadn’t expected him to know that. Ashby had been so certain, indeed, that he would not know about the toy horse that he had been rocked back on his heels when it was clear that he did know about it.
And that meant?
It could mean only one thing.
It meant that young Ashby had not believed for a moment that he was Patrick.
Brat shut the door of the peaceful old night nursery behind him and stood leaning against it, the clothes cascading slowly to the ground from his slackened arm.
Simon had not been fooled. That touching little scene over the sherry glasses had been only an act.
It was a staggering thought.
Why had Simon bothered to pretend?
Why had he not said at once, “You are not Patrick and nothing will make me believe that you are!”?
That had been his original line, if Lana’s report and the family atmosphere meant anything. Up to the last moment they had been unsure of his reaction to Brat’s arrival; and he had gratified them all by a frank and charming capitulation.
Why the gratuitous capitulation?
Was it — was it a trap of some sort? Were the welcome and the charm merely the grass and green leaves laid over a pit he had prepared?
But he could not have known until the actual face-to-face meeting that he, Brat, was not Patrick. And he had apparently known instantly that the person he was facing was not his brother. Why then should he. . . .
Brat stooped to pick up the clothes from the floor and straightened himself abruptly. He had remembered something. He had remembered that odd relaxing on Simon’s part the moment he had had a good look at himself. That suggestion of relief. Of being “let off.”
So that was it!
Simon had been afraid that it was Patrick.
When he found that he was faced with a mere impostor he must have had difficulty in refraining from embracing him.
But that still did not explain the capitulation.
Perhaps it was a mere postponement; a setting to partners. It might be that he planned a more dramatic dénouement; a more public discrediting.
If that were so, Brat thought, there were a few surprises in store for young Mr. Ashby. The more he thought about the surprises the better he began to feel about things. As he changed into riding clothes he recalled with something like pleasure that shocked face in the mirror. Simon had been unaware that he, Brat, had passed any “family” tests. He had not been present when Brat passed the searching test of knowing his way about the house; and he had not had any chance of being told about it. All that he knew was that Brat had satisfied the lawyers of his identity. Having been faced with, to him, an obvious impostor he must have looked forward with a delighted malice to baiting the pretender.
Yes; all ready to pull the wings off flies was young Mr. Ashby.
The first tentative pull had been about the Ivanhoe–Hereward battle. Something that only Patrick would know about. But something, too, that he might easily have forgotten.
The little wooden horse was something that only Patrick would know about and something that Patrick could in no circumstances have forgotten.
And Brat had known about it.
Not much wonder that Ashby had been shocked. Shocked and at sea. Not much wonder that he looked as if he were doing sums in his head.
Brat spared a kind thought for that master tutor, Alec Loding. Loding had missed his vocation; as a coach he was superb. Sometime, somewhere, something was going to turn up that Alec Loding had either forgotten to tell him about or had not himself known; and the moment was going to be a very sticky one; but so far he had known his lines. So far he was word perfect.
Even to the point of Travesty.
A little object of black bog oak, it had been. “Rudimentary and surrealist,” Loding had said, “but recognisable as a horse.” It had originally been yoked to a jaunting car, the whole turn-out being one of those bog-oak souvenirs that tourists brought back from Ireland in the days before it was more advisable to bring home the bacon. The small car, being made of bits and pieces, soon went the way of all nursery objects; but the little horse, chunky and solid, had survived and had become Patrick’s halidom and fetish. It was Alec Loding who had been responsible for its naming; one winter evening over nursery tea. He and Nancy had looked in at Latchetts on their way home from some pony races, hoping for a drink; but finding no one at home except Nora, who was having tea upstairs with her children, they had joined the nursery party. And there, while they made toast, they had sought a name for Patrick’s talisman. Patrick, who always referred to the object as “my little Irish horse,” and was conscious of no need for a more particular description, rejected all suggestions.
“What would you call it, Alec?” his mother asked Loding, who had been too busy consuming buttered toast to care what a toy was called.
“Travesty,” Alec had said, eyeing the thing. “By Irish Peasant out of Bog Oak.”
The grown-ups had laughed, but Patrick, who was too young to know the meaning of the word, thought that Travesty was a fine, proud-sounding name. A name filled with the tramplings and prancings and curvettings of war horses, and worthy therefore of the little black object of his love.
“He kept it in a pocket,” Loding had said in Queen Adelaide’s sitting-room (it was raining that morning) “but when he grew too big for that it hung on a frayed Stewart tartan ribbon off a box of Edinburgh rock at the end of his bed.”
Yes: not much wonder that Simon had been shaken to the core. No stranger to the Ashby family could have known about Travesty.
Brat, buttoning himself into Ashby garments and noticing how a well-cut article adapts itself even to an alien figure, wondered what Simon was making of the problem. He had no doubt learned by now that the “impostor” not only knew about the existence of Travesty but had walked about the house with the confidence of long acquaintance. A faint flare of excitement woke in Brat. The same excitement that had made those interviews with old Mr. Sandal so enjoyable. For the last couple of hours — ever since his arrival at Guessgate station — he had been received with kindness and welcome, and the result had been a faint queasiness, a sort of spiritual indigestion. What had been a dice game for dangerous stakes had become a mere taking candy from a baby. Now that Simon was his opponent, the thing was once more a contest.
Not dice, thought Brat, considering himself in the mirror. Chequers rather. A matter of cautious moves, of anticipating attack, of blocking an unforeseen thrust. Yes; chequers.
Brat went downstairs buoyed up with a new anticipation. He would not any more have to stand with his back to young Ashby because he was unable to face him. The pieces were laid out on the board and they faced each other across it.
Through the wide-open door of the hall he could see the Ashbys grouped in the sunlight on the steps and went forward to join them. Ruth, with her chronically roving eye, was the first to see him.
“Oh, doesn’t he look nice,” said Ruth, still paying court.
Brat was aware that he looked “nice” but wished that Ruth had not called attention to his borrowed finery. He wondered if anyone had ever smacked Ruth Ashby.
“You must get some riding clothes from Walters as soon as may be,” Bee said. “These are almost a good enough fit to do as a pattern. Which would save you having to go to town for measurements only.”
“Those breeches aren’t Walters’,” Simon said, eyeing the clothes lazily. “They’re Gore and Bowen’s. Walters never made a good pair of breeches in his life.”
He was draped against the wall by the doorway, relaxed and apparently at peace with the world. His eyes travelled slowly up from Brat’s boots to his shirt, and came to rest, with the same detached interest on his face.
“Well,” he said amiably, pushing himself off the wall, “let’s go and look at some horses.”
Not chequers, thought Brat. No, not chequers. Poker.
“We’ll show you the stables this afternoon,” Bee said, “and leave the mares until after tea.”
She ran an arm through Brat’s and gathered Simon in with her other one, so that they went towards the stables arm-in-arm like old friends; Eleanor and the twins tailing along behind.
“Gregg is all agog to see you,” she said. “Not that you’ll notice any agogness, of course. His face doesn’t permit anything like that. You’ll just have to believe me that he is excited inside.”
“What happened to old Malpas?” Brat asked, although he had heard all about old Malpas one afternoon outside the Orangery.
“He became very astigmatic,” Bee said. “Figuratively speaking. We could never see eye to eye. He didn’t really like taking orders from a woman. So he retired about eighteen months after I took over, and we’ve had Gregg ever since. He’s a misanthropist, and a misogynist, and he has his perks, of course; but he doesn’t let any of them interfere with the running of the stables. There was a noted drop in the fodder bills after old Malpas left. And the local people like Gregg better because he buys his hay direct from the farmers and not through a contractor. And I think on the whole he’s a better horsemaster than Malpas was. Cleverer at getting a poor horse into condition. And a genius at doctoring a sick one.”
Why doesn’t he relax? she was thinking, feeling the boy’s arm rigid under her fingers. The ordeal is over now, surely. Why doesn’t he relax?
And Brat for his part was conscious of her fingers clasping his forearm as he had never been conscious before of a woman’s hand. He was experiencing again that surge of an unrecognised emotion that had filled him when Bee had taken his hand to lead him to the interview with Mr. Macallan.
But his first sight of the stables distracted his attention from both emotional and ethical problems.
His reaction to the stable yard at Latchetts was very much the reaction of a merchant seaman to his first acquaintance with one of His Majesty’s ships. A sort of contemptuous but kindly amusement. A wonder that the thing wasn’t finished off with ribbons. Only the fact that several horses’ heads protruded inquisitively from the loose boxes convinced him that the place was seriously used as a stable at all. It was like nothing so much as one of the toy models he had seen in expensive toy shops. He had always imagined that those gay little affairs with their bright paint and their flowers in tubs had been manufactured to a child’s taste. But apparently they had been authentic copies of an actual article. He was looking at one of the articles at this moment, and being very much surprised.
Not even the dude ranch had prepared him for this. There was paint galore at the dude ranch, but there was also a tradition of toughness. The dude ranch would never have thought of mowing the bit of grass in the middle until it looked like a square of green baize, so neat-edged and trim that it looked as if you could roll it up and take it away. At the dude ranch there was still a suggestion of the mud, dung, sweat, and flies which are inseparable from a life alongside horseflesh.
The little building on the left of the yard entrance was the saddle room, and in the saddle-room door was the stud-groom, Gregg. Gregg had in the highest degree that disillusioned air common to those who make their living out of horses. He had also the horseman’s quality of agelessness. He was probably fifty, but it would not be surprising to be told that he was thirty-five.
He took two paces forward and waited for them to come up to him. The two paces were his concession to good manners, and the waiting emphasised the fact that he was receiving them on his own ground. His clear blue eyes ran over Brat as Bee introduced them, but his expression remained polite and inscrutable. He gave Brat a conventional welcome and a crushing hand-clasp.
“I hear you’ve been riding horses in America,” he said.
“Only western ones,” Brat said. “Working horses.”
“Oh, these work,” Gregg said, inclining his head towards the boxes. Don’t be in any doubt about it, the tone said. It was as if he had understood Brat’s distrust of the spit and polish. His eyes went past Brat to Eleanor standing behind and he said: “Have you seen what’s in the saddle room, Miss Eleanor?”
From the gloom of the saddle room there materialised as if in answer to his question the figure of a small boy. He materialised rather reluctantly as if uncertain of his welcome. In spite of a change of costume Brat recognised him as the rider of the stone lion at the gates of Clare. His present apparel, though less startling, was hardly more orthodox than his leopard-skin outfit. He was wearing a striped football jersey that clung to his tadpole body, a pair of jodhpurs so large that they hung in a fold above each skinny knee, a steeple-chasing jockey cap with the crash-lining showing at the back, and a pair of grubby red moccasins.
“Tony!” said Eleanor. “Tony, what are you doing here?”
“I’ve come for my ride,” said Tony, his eyes darting to and fro among the group like lizards.
“But this isn’t the day for your ride.”
“Isn’t it, Eleanor? I thought it was.”
“You know quite well that you don’t ride on a Tuesday.”
“I thought this was Wednesday.”
“You’re a dreadful little liar, Tony,” Eleanor said dispassionately. “You knew quite well this wasn’t Wednesday. You just saw me in a car with a stranger and so you came along to find out who the stranger was.”
“Eleanor,” murmured Bee, deprecating.
“You don’t know him,” Eleanor said, as if the subject of discussion was not present. “His curiosity amounts to a mania. It’s almost his only human attribute.”
“If you take him to-day you won’t have to take him to-morrow,” Simon said, eyeing the Toselli child with distaste.
“He can’t come and expect to ride just when he feels like it!” Eleanor said. “Besides, I said I wouldn’t take him out again in these things. I told you to get a pair of boots, Tony.”
The black eyes stopped being lizards and became two brimming pools of grief. “My father can’t afford boots for me,” said Tony with a catch in his alto, guaranteed to draw blood from a stone.
“Your father has £12,000 a year free of income tax,” Eleanor said briskly.
“If you took him to-day, Nell,” Bee said, “you’d be free to help me to-morrow when half the countryside comes dropping in to have a look at Brat.” And, as Eleanor hesitated: “You might as well get it over now that he’s here.”
“And he’ll still be wearing moccasins to-morrow,” Simon drawled.
“Indian riders wear moccasins,” Tony observed mildly, “and they are very good riders.”
“I don’t think your destitute father would be very pleased if you turned up with moccasins in the Row. You get a pair of boots. And if I take you this afternoon, Tony, you are not to think that you can make a habit of this.”
“Oh, no, Eleanor.”
“If you come on the wrong day again you’ll just have to go away without a ride.”
“Yes, Eleanor.” The eyes were lizards again, darting and sliding.
“All right. Go and ask Arthur to saddle Spuds for you.”
“No thanks, you’ll observe,” Eleanor said, watching him go.
“What is the crash helmet for?” Simon asked.
“His skull is as thin as cellophane, he says, and must be protected. I don’t know how he got one that size. Out of a circus, I should imagine. What with his Indian longings I suppose I should be thankful that he doesn’t turn up in a headband and a single feather.”
“He will one day, when it occurs to him,” Simon said.
“Oh, well, I suppose I’d better go and saddle Buster. I’m sorry, Brat,” she said, smiling a little at him, “but it is really one of those blessings in disguise. The pony he rides will be a lot less fresh with him to-day than he would be to-morrow, after a day in the stable. And you don’t really need three people to show you round. I’ll go round the paddocks with you after tea.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14