Brat had expected that Simon’s success would have shored up his disintegrating spiritual structure and that the cracks would have disappeared. But it seemed that the very opposite had happened. The strain of the afternoon followed by the triumph of having beaten a performer like Riding Light had eaten away a little more of the foundation and shaken his equilibrium still further.
“I’ve never seen Simon so cock-a-hoop,” Eleanor said, watching Simon over Brat’s shoulder as they danced together that night. She said it as one making an apology. “He is usually so off-hand about his triumphs.”
Brat said that it was probably the champagne, and turned her away from her view of Simon.
He had looked forward all day to dancing with Eleanor, but it was with Bee that he had danced first. Just as he had given up his first chance of a ride with Eleanor to walk on Tanbitches with the ghost of Pat Ashby, so when faced with the moment of his first dance with Eleanor he had found something else that he wanted more. He had crossed the room to Bee and said: “Will you dance with me?” They had danced together in a happy quiet, her only remark being: “Who taught you to cheat someone out of a race like that?”
“I didn’t have to be taught. It’s original sin.”
She laughed a little and patted him with the hand that was lying on his shoulder. She was a lovely woman, Bee Ashby, and he loved her. The only other person he had ever loved was a horse called Smoky.
“I haven’t seen much of you this afternoon since that awful exhibition of Tony’s,” Eleanor said.
Brat said that he had wanted to talk to her before the race but that she was in deep conversation with Roger Clint.
“Oh, yes. I remember. His uncle wants him to give up the farm and go and live in Ulster. His uncle is Tim Connell, you know, who has the Kilbarty stud. Tim wants to retire, and would lease the place to Roger, but Roger doesn’t want to leave England.”
Understandably, Brat thought. England and Eleanor together was heaven enough. “I don’t see him here to-night?”
“No, he didn’t stay for the dance. He just came to get a silver cup to take home to his wife.”
“Yes, she had their first baby last week, and she sent him to the show to get a christening mug for it. What is the matter?” she asked.
“Remind me sometime to break Ruth’s neck,” he said, beginning to dance again.
She looked amused and said: “Has Ruth been romancing?”
“She said he wanted to marry you.”
“Oh, well, he did have an idea like that but it’s a long time ago. And of course he wasn’t married last year, so Ruth probably didn’t know about it. Are you going to be all patriarchal and supervise my marriage plans?”
“Have you any?”
“None at all.”
As the night wore on and he danced more and more with Eleanor, she said: “You really must dance with someone else, Brat.”
“Only with Peggy Gates.”
“So you’ve been keeping track of me. Am I keeping you from dancing with someone you want to dance with?”
“No. I love dancing with you.”
“All right, then.”
This was perhaps the first and the last night he would ever dance with Eleanor. A little before midnight they went up together to the buffet, filled their plates, and took them to one of the little tables in the balcony. The buffet was part of the actual hotel building, and the balcony, a piece of Regency ironwork, looked down on the little garden at the side of the hotel. Chinese lanterns hung in the garden and above the tables in the balcony.
“I’m too happy to eat,” Eleanor said, and drank her champagne in a dreamy silence. “You look very nice in your evening things, Brat.”
“Do you like my frock?”
“It’s the most beautiful frock I ever saw.”
“I did hope you would like it.”
“Have you had supper already to-night?”
“No. Only some drinks and a sandwich.”
“Better eat, then.”
She ate in an uninterested fashion that was new in Eleanor.
“It has been an Ashby occasion, hasn’t it, the Seventy-fourth Annual Show of the Bures Agricultural. . . . Stay still for a moment, you have a gnat crawling down your collar.”
She leant over and struck the back of his neck lightly. “Oh, it’s going down!” In a rough sisterly fashion she bent his head aside with one hand while she retrieved the insect with the other.
“Got it?” he said.
But she was silent, and he looked up at her.
“You’re not my brother!” she said. “I couldn’t feel the way I——” She stopped, horrified.
In the silence the beat of the distant drums came up from the assembly room.
“Oh, Brat, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean that! I think I must have drunk too much.” She began to sob. “Oh, Brat, I’m sorry!” She gathered up her bag from the table and stumbled from the dim balcony into the buffet room. “I’ll go and lie down and get sober.”
Brat let her go and sought counsel in the bar. There was some sort of stunt in the assembly room at midnight, and the bar was deserted except for Simon, all by himself with a bottle of champagne at a table in the far corner.
“Ah! My big brother,” said Simon. “Are you not interested in the lottery drawing? Have a drink.”
“Thanks. I’ll buy my own.”
He bought a drink at the bar and carried it down the long room to Simon’s table.
“I suppose lottery odds are too long for you,” Simon said. “You want the table rigged before you bet.”
Brat ignored that. “I haven’t had a chance of congratulating you on your win with Timber.”
“I don’t need praise from you.”
Simon was certainly drunk.
“That was very rude of me, wasn’t it?” he said like a pleased child. “But I enjoy being rude. I’m behaving very badly to-night, aren’t I? I seem to be slipping. Have a drink.”
“I’ve got one.”
“You don’t like me, do you?” He looked pleased by Brat’s dislike.
“I suppose because you are the only one who doesn’t believe that I am Patrick.”
“You mean, don’t you, that I’m the only one who knows you’re not?”
There was a long silence while Brat searched the shining eyes with their odd dark rim.
“You killed him,” he said, suddenly sure of it.
“Of course I did.” He leaned forward and looked delightedly at Brat. “But you’ll never be able to say so, will you? Because of course Patrick isn’t dead at all. He’s alive, and I’m talking to him.”
“How did you do it?”
“You’d like to know, wouldn’t you? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s very simple.” He leaned still closer and said in a mock-confidential undertone: “You see, I’m a witch. I can be in two places at once.”
He sat back and enjoyed Brat’s discomfiture.
“You must think that I’m a lot drunker than I am, my friend,” he said. “I’ve told you about Patrick, because you are my posthumous accomplice. A wonderful epithet, that, and I managed it very well. But if you think that I am going to make you free of the details, you are mistaken.”
“Then, why did you do it?”
“He was a very stupid little boy,” he said in his airy “Simon” tone, “and not worthy of Latchetts.” Then he added, without façade: “I hated him, if you want to know.”
He poured himself another glass of the Ayala, and drank it. He laughed under his breath, and said: “It’s a wonderful spiritual twinship, isn’t it? I can’t tell about you and you can’t tell about me!”
“You have the advantage of me, though.”
“I have? How?”
“You have no scruples.”
“Yes; I suppose it is an advantage.”
“I have to put up with you, but you have no intention of putting up with me, have you? You did your best to kill me this afternoon.”
“Not my best.”
“You’ll improve on it, I take it?”
“I expect you will. A person who can be in two places at once can do better than a loosened girth.”
“Oh, much better. But one has to accept the means to hand.”
“I suppose you wouldn’t like, in return for my confidences, to tell me something?”
“Tell you what?”
“Who you are?”
Brat sat looking at him for a long time.
“Don’t you recognise me?” he said.
“No. Who are you?”
“Retribution,” said Brat, and finished his drink.
He walked out of the bar and hung for a little over the banisters until his inside settled down and his breath came more easily. He tried to think of some place where he could be alone to think this thing out. There was nowhere in the hotel; even in his bedroom Simon might join him at any moment; he would have to go out.
He went to get his coat from Number 17, and on the way back again he met Bee.
“Has everyone gone crazy?” Bee said angrily. “Eleanor is upstairs crying, Simon is getting drunk in the bar, and now you look as if you had seen a ghost. What is the matter with everyone? Have you had a quarrel?”
“A quarrel? No. Eleanor and Simon have had a wearing day, I expect.”
“And what makes you so white about the gills?”
“Ballroom air. I’m from the wide open spaces: remember?”
“I’ve always understood that the wide open spaces were just seething with dance halls.”
“Do you mind if I take the car, Bee?”
“Take it where?”
“I want to see the sun rise over Kenley Vale.”
“Put on your coat,” she said. “It’s cold out.”
At the top of the rise looking over Kenley Vale he stopped the car and shut off the engine. It was still dark and would be dark for some time yet. He got out and stood on the grass verge, leaning against the bonnet, and listened to the silence. The earth and grass smelt strong in the cool damp after the sun of yesterday. The air was motionless. Far away across the Vale a train whistled.
He had a cigarette, and his stomach felt better. But the turmoil had merely moved up. The turmoil was now in his head.
He had been right about Simon. He had been right in seeing the resemblance to Timber: the well-bred creature with the beautiful manners who was also a rogue. Simon had told the truth, back there in the bar. He had been glad to tell him the truth. They said all killers wanted to boast about their killings; Simon must have longed often to tell someone how clever he had been. But he could never tell until now; when he had a “safe” listener.
He, Brat Farrar, was the “safe” listener.
He, Brat Farrar, owned Latchetts, and Simon took it for granted that he would keep what he had taken. That he would keep it as Simon’s accessory.
But that, of course, was not possible. The unholy alliance with Loding was one thing; but the alliance that Simon took so mockingly for granted was not possible. It was monstrous. Unthinkable.
And that being that, what was he going to do about it?
Go to the police and say: Look, I’m not Patrick Ashby at all. Patrick Ashby was killed by his brother eight years ago. I know, because he told me so when he was a little drunk.
And then they would point out that in the course of their investigation into the death of Patrick Ashby it was proved that Simon Ashby had spent the relevant hours in the smith’s company in Clare.
He could tell them the truth about himself, but nothing would be changed except his own life. Patrick Ashby would remain a suicide.
How had Simon done it?
“One has to accept the means at hand,” he had said, about his slackening of the girth.
What “means at hand” had there been that day eight years ago?
The slackening of the girth had been a combination of planning and improvisation. The “signing the book” suggestion had been a long shot. If it worked successfully to get him out of the way, then Simon was free to complete the rest of his plan. If it did not work, then no harm was done. The set-up was innocent to the observer’s eye.
That was the way Simon’s mind had worked about the girth, and that was the way it had worked eight years ago, undoubtedly. The set-up that was innocent and unquestionable. The using of the means at hand.
How, eight years ago, had Simon used an innocent set of circumstances to provide him with the chance he wanted?
Brat’s mind was still toiling round and round the problem when the first sigh of the stirring air told him that the dawn was coming. Presently the wind came again, lifting the leaves this time and ruffling the grass, and the east was grey. He watched the light come. The first bird notes dropped into the quiet.
He had been there for hours and he was no nearer a solution of the problem that faced him.
A policeman came along at leisure, pushing a bicycle, and paused to ask if he were in trouble. Brat said that he was getting some fresh air after a dance.
The policeman looked at his starched linen and accepted his explanation without remark. He looked at the interior of the car and said: “First time I ever saw a young gentleman getting fresh air alone after a dance. You haven’t made away with her, by any chance, have you, sir?”
Brat wondered what he would say if he said: “No, but I’m accessory after the fact to another murder.”
“She turned me down,” he said.
“Ah. I see. Nursing your grief. Take it from me, sir, a week from now you’ll be so thankful you’ll feel like dancing in the street.”
And he pushed his bicycle away along the ridge.
Brat began to shiver.
He got into the car and headed after the policeman. Where could he get something hot, he asked?
There was an all-night café at the main crossroads two miles ahead, the policeman said.
At the café, warm and bright and mundane after the grey spaces of the dawn, he drank scalding coffee. A buxom woman was frying sausages for two lorry-drivers, and a third was trying his luck at a penny-in-the-slot game in the corner. They glanced incuriously at his dance clothes, but beyond exchanging greetings with him they left him alone.
He came back to Bures at breakfast time, and put the car in the garage. The Chequers vestibule had a littered look; it was still only half-past seven, and show people notoriously made a night of it. He went up to Number 17 and found Simon fast asleep, with all his clothes in one single heap on the floor just as he had peeled them off. He changed into his day clothes, quietly at first and then less carefully as he realised that only long shaking would awaken Simon in his present condition. He looked down at Simon and marvelled. He slept quietly, like a child. Had he grown so used to the thing after eight years that it no longer troubled him, or was it that it never had been a monstrous thing in his estimation?
It was a charming face, except perhaps for the pettish mouth. A delightful face; delicately made and proportioned. There was no more suggestion of wrong-doing about it than there was in the beauty that was Timber.
He went downstairs and washed, wishing that he had thought in time of having a bath. He had been too obsessed by the desire to change clothes without having to talk to Simon.
When he came into the dining-room he found Bee and the twins having breakfast, and joined them.
“Nell and Simon are still asleep,” Bee said. “You’d better come back with me and the twins in the car, and let Eleanor take Simon when they waken.”
“What about Tony?”
“Oh, he went back yesterday with Mrs. Stack.”
It was a relief to know that he could go back to Latchetts with Bee in peace.
The twins began to talk about Tony’s exploit, which was patently going to be part of Latchetts history, and he did not have to make conversation. Bee asked if the dawn had come up to expectation, and remarked that he was looking the better of it.
Through the green early-morning countryside they drove home to Clare, and Brat caught himself looking at it with the emotions of someone who has only a short time to live. He looked at things with a that-will-still-be-there attitude.
He would never come to Bures. He might never even drive with Bee again.
Whatever else Simon’s confession meant, it meant the end of his life at Latchetts.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01