Mr. Sandal was to come on Thursday night and stay over till after luncheon on Friday.
On Thursday morning Bee said that she was going into Westover to do some special shopping for Mr. Sandal’s meals, and what would Brat like to do with his day?
Brat said that he would like to come with her and see Westover again, and Bee looked pleased.
“We can stop on the way through the village,” she said, “and let Mrs. Gloom run her eye over you. It will be one less for you to meet after church on Sunday.”
So they stopped at the newsagent’s, and Brat was exhibited, and Mrs. Gloom sucked the last ounce of satisfaction out of the drama of his return, and they laughed together about her as they sped away to the sea.
“People who can’t sing are horribly frustrated,” Bee said, after a little.
Brat considered this non sequitur. “The highest mountain in Britain is Ben Nevis,” he said, proffering one in his turn.
Bee laughed at that and said: “No, I just meant that I should like to sing at the top of my voice, but I can only croak. Can you sing?”
“No. I croak too. We could croak together.”
“I doubt if it is legal to croak in a built-up area. One never knows nowadays. And anyhow, there is that.” She waved her hand at a large sign which read:
MOTORISTS. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM USING YOUR HORN.
THIS IS A HOSPITAL.
Brat glanced up at the building, set on the slope above the town, and remarked that it was uncommonly pretty for a hospital.
“Yes; much less terrifying than the normal place. It is a great pity that that was allowed to happen.” She jerked her chin at the row of cheap shops on the opposite side of the road; some of them not much better than shacks. Dingy cafés, a cobbler’s, a bicycle “depot,” a seller of wreaths and crosses, a rival seller of flowers, a greengrocer’s, and anonymous businesses with windows painted half-way up and odd bills tacked in the window.
They were running down the slope into the town, and this miscellaneous strip of roadside commerce was the last petering-out of the poorer suburbs. Beyond was Westover proper: clean and neat and shining in the reflected light from the sea.
As Bee turned into the car park she said: “You don’t want to tail round looking at ‘sea-food’ for Mr. Sandal’s consumption. Go away and amuse yourself, and we’ll meet for lunch at the Angel about a quarter to one.”
He was some distance away when she called him back. “I forgot to ask if you were short of money. I can lend you some if you ——”
“Oh, no, thanks; I still have some of what Cosset, Thring and what-you-may-call-’em advanced me.”
He went first to the harbour to see the place that he was supposed to have set out from eight years ago. It was filled with coastwise shipping and fishing boats, very gay in the dancing light. He leaned against the warm stones of the breakwater and contemplated it. It was here that Alec Loding had sat painting his “old scow” on the last day of Pat Ashby’s life. It was over those cliffs away to the right that Pat Ashby had fallen to his death.
He pushed himself off the breakwater and went to look for the office of the Westover Times. It took him some time to find it because, although every citizen of Westover read the local paper, very few of them had occasion to seek it out in its home. Its home was a stone’s-throw from the harbour, in a small old house in a small old street which still had its original cobbles. The entrance was so low that Brat instinctively ducked his head as he went in. Beyond, after the bright sunlight outside, there was blackness. But out of the blackness the unmistakable adolescent voice of an office boy said: “Yes?”
Brat said that he would like to see Mr. Macallan.
The voice said that Mr. Macallan was out.
“I suppose you couldn’t tell me where I could find him?”
“The fourth table on the left upstairs at the Blue Bird.”
“Can’t help it; that’s where he is. That’s where he always is, this time of day.”
The Blue Bird, it seemed, was a coffee-shop round the corner on the harbour front. And Mr. Macallan was indeed sitting at the fourth table on the left upstairs, which was the one by the far window. Mr. Macallan was sitting with a half-drunk cup of coffee in front of him, glowering down on the bright front. He greeted Brat amiably, however, as one old friend to another, and pulled out a chair for him.
“I’m afraid I haven’t been much good to you,” Brat said.
“The only way I’ll ever get myself on to the front page of the Clarion is in a trunk,” Mr. Macallan said.
“In sections. And I can’t help feeling that would be a wee bit drastic.” He spread out that morning’s Clarion so that the shrieking black print screamed up from the table. The trunk murder was still front-page news after three days, it having been discovered that the legs in the case belonged to two different persons; a complication which put the present case hors concurs in the trunk-murder class.
“What’s horrible about murder,” Mr. Macallan said reflectively, “is not that it happens, but that it happens to your Aunt Agnes, if you follow me. Hi! Miss! A cup of coffee for my friend here. Brother Johnny goes to the war and gets killed and it is all very sad, but no one is shocked — civilisation being what it is. But if someone bumps Aunt Agnes off on her way home one night that is a shock. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen to people you know.”
“It must be worse when someone you know bumps off someone’s Aunt Agnes.”
“Ay,” said Mr. Macallan, shooting an extra spoonful of sugar into his half-cold coffee and stirring it vigorously. “I’ve seen some of that. Families, you know. It’s always the same: they just can’t believe it. Their Johnny. That is the horror in murder. The domesticity of it.” He took out his cigarette case and offered it. “And how do you like being Clare’s white-headed boy? Are you glad to be back?”
“You can’t imagine how glad.”
“After that fine free life in Arizona or Texas or wherever it was? You mean you actually prefer this?” Mr. Macallan jerked his head at the Westover front filled with placid shoppers. And, as Brat nodded: “Mercy-be-here! I can hardly credit it.”
“Why? Don’t you like the place?”
Mr. Macallan looked down at the southern English walking about in their southern English sunshine, and metaphorically spat. “They’re so satisfied with themselves I can’t take my eyes off them,” he said.
“Satisfied with their lot, you mean? Why not?”
“Nothing in this world came out of satisfaction.”
“Except the human race,” said Brat.
Mr. Macallan grinned. “I’ll allow you that.” But he went on glowering down at the bright harbour scene. “I look at them and think: ‘These people kept Scotland fighting for four hundred years,’ and I can’t find the answer.”
“The answer, of course, is that they didn’t.”
“No? Let me tell you that my country ——”
“They’ve been much too busy for the last thousand years keeping the shores of England. But for them your Scotland would be part of Spain to-day.”
This was apparently a new idea to Mr. Macallan. He decided to let it ride.
“You weren’t looking for me, were you? When you came to the Blue Bird?”
“Yes. I went to the office first and they told me you would be here. There’s something I want and I thought that you might help me to it.”
“Not publicity, I take it,” Mr. Macallan said dryly.
“No, I want to read my obituary.”
“Man, who doesn’t! You’re a privileged person, Mr. Ashby, a very privileged person.”
“I suppose the Westover Times keeps back numbers.”
“Och, yes, back to June the 18th, 1827. Or is it June the 28th? I forget. So you want to look at the files. Well, there’s not very much, but you’ll find it very interesting of course. One’s own death must be a fascinating subject to read about.”
“You’ve read about it, then?”
“Och, yes. Before I went out to Latchetts on Tuesday, I naturally looked you up.”
So it was that, when they stumbled down the dark stairs to the cellar of the Westover Times offices, Mr. Macallan was able to put his hand on the required copy without delay and without raising the dust of a hundred and fifty years about their ears.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Mr. Macallan said, spreading the volume open under the naked light above the old-fashioned sloping desk. “Have a good time. If there is anything else I can do for you, just let me know. And drop in when you feel like it.”
He trotted up the stone stairs, and the scuffling sound of his shoes faded upwards into the world of men, and Brat was left alone with the past.
The Westover Times appeared twice a week: on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Patrick Ashby’s death had occurred on a Saturday, so that a single Wednesday issue carried both the announcement of his death and the report of the inquest. As well as the usual announcement inserted by the family in the list of deaths, there was a short news item on the middle page. The Westover Times had been owned and run by a Westover family since its founding, and it still kept the stateliness, the good manners, and the reticence of an early Edwardian doctor’s brougham plying between Harley Street and Knightsbridge. The paper announced the sad occurrence and offered its sympathy to the family in this great trial which had come to them so soon after the tragic deaths of Mr. and Mrs. Ashby in a flying accident. It offered no information beyond the fact that on Saturday afternoon or evening Patrick Ashby had met his death by falling over the cliffs to the west of the town. An account of the inquest would be found on page five.
On page five there was a whole column on the inquest. A column was not enough, of course, to do justice to the inquest in detail, but all the salient facts were there, and now and then a piece of evidence was reported verbatim.
Saturday afternoon was a holiday for the Ashby children and they were accustomed in the summer to take a “piece” with them and pursue their various interests in the countryside until it was time to come home to their evening meal. No alarm had been raised about Patrick’s non-appearance in the evening until he had been missing for several hours. It was taken for granted that he had gone farther than he had intended in his latest hobby of bird-watching, and that he was merely late. When darkness closed down and he still had not come home, telephoned inquiries were sent all round the countryside in an effort to find someone who had seen him, so that if an accident had overtaken him rescue might be directed to the proper locality. When these inquiries proved barren, a search-party was organised to beat all the likely places for the missing boy. The search was conducted both on horse and on foot, and along the roads by car, without success.
In the first light of early morning the boy’s jacket was found by a coastguard patrolling along the cliffs. Albert Potticary, the coastguard in question, gave evidence that the coat was lying about fifty yards from the cliff-edge, just where the path from Tanbitches began to descend through the gap to the harbour at Westover. It was lying a few yards off the path on the side nearer the cliff, and was weighted in its place by a stone. It was wet with dew when he picked it up, and the pockets were empty except for a note written in thin ink. The note was the one now shown him. He telephoned the news to the police and at once instituted a search for a body on the beach. No body was found. High tide the previous night had been at seven-twenty-nine, and if the boy had fallen into the water, or if he had fallen before high-water so that his body was taken out by the tide, it would not be washed up again at Westover. No one drowned in the Westover district had ever been washed up nearer than Castleton, away to the west; and most of them farther west than that. He was therefore not hopeful of finding any body when he instituted the search. It was merely routine.
The last person to see Patrick Ashby turned out to be Abel Tusk, the shepherd. He had met the boy in the early afternoon, about half-way between Tanbitches and the cliff.
Q. What was he doing?
A. He was lying on his belly in the grass.
Q. Doing what?
A. Waiting for a lark.
Q. What kind of lark?
A. An English lark.
Q. Ah, you mean he was bird-watching. Did he appear his normal self?
Yes, Abel said, as far as he could judge Pat Ashby had looked much as usual. Never very “gabby” at any time. A quiet boy? Yes, a nice quiet boy. They discussed birds for a little and then parted. He, Abel Tusk, was on his way into Westover by the cliff path, it being also his own half-holiday. He did not get back until late at night and did not hear about the search for the boy until Sunday morning.
Asked if many people used that cliff path he said no. There were buses from the village that got you into Westover in a tenth of the time, but he didn’t care for buses. It was rough walking, the cliff part of the path, and not suitable for the kind of shoes that people going to town would be wearing. So no one but someone like himself who was already on the sea side of Tanbitches hill would think of going to Westover that way.
Bee gave evidence that his parents’ deaths had been a great shock to the boy, but that he had taken it well and had seemed to be recovering. She had no reason to think that he contemplated taking his own life. The children separated on Saturday afternoons because their interests were different, so that it was not unusual for Patrick to be alone.
Q. His twin did not accompany him?
A. No. Patrick was fascinated by birds, but Simon’s tastes are mechanical.
Q. You have seen the note found in the boy’s coat, and you recognise it as the handwriting of your nephew Patrick?
A. Oh, yes. Patrick had a very individual way of making his capital letters. And he was the only person I know who wrote with a stylograph.
She explained the nature of a stylograph. The one Patrick owned had been black vulcanite with a thin yellow spiral down the barrel. Yes, it was missing. He carried it always with him; it was one of his pet possessions.
Q. Can you think of any reason why this sudden desire to take his own life should overcome him, when he seemed to his friend, the shepherd, to be normally happy in the afternoon?
A. I can only suggest that he was normally happy during the afternoon, but that when it was time to turn homeward the thought of going back to a house empty of so much that had made life fine for him was suddenly too much, and that he was overcome by an impulse born of a moment’s despair.
And that was the verdict of the court, too. That the boy had succumbed to a passing impulse at a moment when the balance of his mind had been disturbed.
That was the end of the column and that was the end of Patrick Ashby. Brat turned over the pages of the next issue, filled with the small importances of summer-time Westover: shows, bowling competitions, tennis tournaments, council meetings, trade outings; but there was no mention of Pat Ashby. Pat Ashby already belonged to the past.
Brat sat back in the dead quiet of the cellar and thought about it all. The boy lying in the summer grass waiting for his beloved larks to drop out of the sky. And the night coming. And no boy coming home across Tanbitches hill.
Mechanical interests, Bee had said, describing Simon’s way of spending his half-holiday. That meant the internal combustion engine, he supposed. It was about the age of thirteen that one did begin to be interested in cars. Simon had probably been innocently tinkering in the garage at Latchetts. Certainly there was no suggestion at the inquest, as reported in the Press, that his whereabouts had been a matter for question.
When he joined Bee for lunch at the Angel he longed to ask her bluntly where Simon had been that afternoon. But of course one could not say: “Where was Simon the afternoon I ran away from home?” It was an utterly pointless question. He must think up some other way of bringing the subject into the conversation. He was distracted by the old head-waiter at the Angel, who had known all the Ashby children and was shaken to the core, apparently, by Patrick’s unexpected return. His old hands trembled as they laid the various dishes in front of him, and each dish was accompanied by a quavered “Mr. Patrick, sir,” as if he was glad to use the name. But the climax came with the sweet course. The sweet was fruit tart, and he had already served both Bee and Brat, but he returned immediately and with great empressment laid a large meringue on a silver dish in front of Brat’s place. Brat gazed at it in surprise and then looked up to find the old man waiting for his comment with a proud smile and tears in his eyes. His mind was so full of Simon that he was not quick enough, and it was Bee who saved the situation.
“How wonderful of Daniel to remember that you always had that!” she said, and Brat followed her lead and the old man went away pleased and moved, mopping his eyes on a dazzling white handkerchief that looked as large as a sheet.
“Thanks,” Brat said to Bee. “I hadn’t remembered that.”
“Dear old Daniel. I think it is almost like seeing his own son coming back. He had three, you know. They all died in one war, and his grandsons all died in the following one. He was very fond of you children, so I expect it is very wonderful for him to see anyone he has loved come back from the dead. What have you been doing with your morning?”
“Reading my obituary.”
“How morbid of you. Or, no, of course, it isn’t. It is what we all want to do. Did you see little Mr. Macallan?”
“I did. He sent his best respects to you. Aunt Bee ——”
“You are too old to begin calling me aunt.”
“Bee, what were Simon’s ‘mechanical interests’?”
“Simon never had any mechanical interests as far as I know.”
“You said at the inquest that he had.”
“I did? I can’t imagine what they could have been. What was it apropos of?”
“To explain why we didn’t do things together on a Saturday afternoon. What did Simon do when I went bird-watching?” He tried to make it sound like someone trying to remember an old way of life.
“Pottered about, I expect. Simon was always a potterer. His hobbies never lasted longer than a fortnight at the outside.”
“So you don’t remember what Simon was using for a hobby the day I ran away?”
“It’s absurd of me, my dear, but I don’t. I don’t even remember where he was that day. When something dreadful happens, you know, you push it down in your mind and never bring it up again if you can help it. I do remember that he spent all night out on his pony looking frantically for you. Poor Simon. You did him a bad turn, Brat. I don’t know if you realise it. Simon changed after you went. I don’t know whether it was the shock of your going or the lack of your sober companionship, but he was a different person afterwards.”
Since Brat had no answer to this he ate in silence, and presently she said: “And you did me a bad turn in never writing to me. Why didn’t you, Brat?”
This was the weak spot in the whole structure, as Loding had continually pointed out.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know!”
The exasperation and desperation of his tone had an appropriateness that he had not foreseen.
“All right,” she said. “I won’t worry you, my dear. I didn’t mean to. It is just something that has puzzled me. I was so very fond of you when you were small, and we were such very good friends. It was not like you to live a life of your own without once glancing back.”
He raked up an offering from the depths of his own experience. “It’s easier than you’d think to drop the past behind you when you are fourteen. If you are continually meeting fresh experience, I mean. The past has no greater reality than something you saw in a cinema. No personal reality, I mean.”
“I must try running away one day,” she said lightly. “There is a lot of the past I should like to drop behind me.”
And Daniel came with the cheese, and they talked about other things.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14