It was Thursday morning and on Sunday Charles Ashby would come sailing up Southampton Water, and nothing would stop the subsequent celebrations. He followed Bee into the hall at Latchetts feeling desperate.
“Do you mind if I desert you and go into Westover?” he asked Bee.
“No, I think you are due a little rest from the family. Simon is for ever running away.”
So he took the bus into Westover and waited until it was time for Mr. Macallan to be having his mid-morning coffee. He went, to the Westover Times office and asked to see the files. The office boy, who showed no sign of ever having seen him before, took him to the cellar and showed him where they were. Brat read the report of the inquest all over again, but could find no help there.
Perhaps in the full report there would be something?
He went out and looked up Colonel Smollett in the telephone book. Where, he asked the Colonel, would the report of the inquest on himself be now? With the police? Well, would he make it easy for him to see it?
The Colonel would, but he considered it a most morbid and undesirable ambition, and implored young Ashby to think again.
So armed with the Colonel’s telephoned introduction, he went to see a highly amused police force, who sat him down in a leather armchair and offered him cigarettes, and set before him the coroner’s report of eight years ago with the empressment of a conjurer who has produced the rabbit from the hat.
He read it all through several times. It was merely the Westover Times’ report in greater detail.
He thanked the police, offered them cigarettes in his turn, and went away as empty of suggestion as he had come. He went down to the harbour and hung over the wall, staring westward at the cliffs.
He had a fixed point, anyhow. A fixed point that could not be altered. Simon Ashby was in Clare that day. That was held to by a man who had no reason for lying, and no suspicion that the fact was of any importance. Simon had never been long enough away from Mr. Pilbeam’s vicinity to make his absence felt.
Pat Ashby must have been killed between the time that old Abel met him in the early afternoon and the moment when Mr. Pilbeam had to chase Simon home for six o’clock supper.
Well, there was that old saying about Mahomet and the mountain.
He thought the Mahomet theory over, but was stumped by the coat on the cliff-top. It was Simon who had written that note, but Simon was never out of Clare.
It was two o’clock when he came to himself, and he went to have lunch at a small pub in the harbour. They had nothing much left, but it did not matter because he sat staring at his plate until they put the bill in front of him.
He went back to Latchetts and without going to the house went to the stables and took out one of the horses that had not been at Bures. There was no one about but Arthur, who reported that all the horses were safely back and all well except that Buster had an overreach.
“Taking him out like that, sir?” Arthur asked, nodding at Brat’s tweed suit. And Brat said that he was.
He turned up to the down as he had that first morning when he took out Timber, and did again what he had done on Timber’s back. But all the glory was gone. The whole world looked sick. Life itself tasted bad.
He dismounted and sat down where he had sat that morning a month ago, looking out over the small green valley. It had seemed paradise to him then. Even that silly girl who had come and talked to him had not sufficed to spoil it for him. He remembered how her eyes had popped when she found he was not Simon. She had come there sure of seeing Simon because it was his favourite place for exercising the horses. Because he. . . .
The horse by his side threw up his head as Brat’s sudden movement jerked the bit in his mouth.
Because he . . .?
He listened to the girl’s voice in his mind. Then he got slowly to his feet and stood a long time staring across the valley.
He knew now how Simon had done it. And he also knew the answer to something that had puzzled him. He knew why Simon had been afraid that, by some miracle, it was the real Patrick who had come back.
He got on the horse and went back to the stables. The great clouds were racing up from the south-west and it was beginning to rain. In the saddle room he took a sheet of writing paper from the desk and wrote on it: “Out for dinner. Leave the front door on the latch for me, and don’t worry if I am late.” He put it in an envelope, addressed it to Bee, and asked Arthur to hand it in at the house when he was passing. He took his burberry from the back of the saddle-room door, and went out into the rain, away from Latchetts. He had the knowledge now. What was he going to do with it?
He walked without conscious purpose, unaware of anything but the dreadful question to be answered. He came to the smithy where Mr. Pilbeam was still working, and greeted him, and exchanged opinions on the work in hand and on the weather to come, without having for a moment ceased to battle with the thing in his mind.
He walked up the path to Tanbitches and up the hill over the wet grass to the crown of beeches, and walked there to and fro among the great boles of the trees, distracted and stricken.
How could he bring this thing on Bee?
On Eleanor? On Latchetts?
Had he not already done Latchetts sufficient harm?
Would it matter so much if Simon were left in possession as he had been for eight years?
Who had been harmed by that? Only one person: Patrick.
If Simon was to be brought to justice for Patrick’s death, it would mean horror beyond horror for Bee and the rest.
He didn’t have to do it at all. He could go away; stage a suicide. After all, Simon had staged Patrick’s suicide, and it had passed a police investigation. If a boy of thirteen could do that he could do it. He could just drop out, and things would be as they were a month ago.
And — Pat Ashby?
But Pat, if he could choose, would not want justice on Simon at the cost of his family’s ruin. Not Pat, who had been kind and always thought first of others.
Was he to make good Simon’s monstrous supposition that he would do nothing? Was Simon to spend a long life as the owner of Latchetts? Were Simon’s children to inherit Latchetts?
But they would still be Ashbys. If Simon were brought to justice there would be no more Ashbys at Latchetts.
And how would it advantage Latchetts to have its inheritance made safe by the condoning of murder?
Was it not, perhaps, to uncover that murder that he had come by such strange ways to Latchetts?
He had come half across a world to that meeting with Loding in the street, and he had said to himself that so strange a chance must be destiny. But he had not imagined it to be an important destiny. Now, it would seem, it was an all-important one.
What was he to do? Who could advise him? Decide for him? It was not fair that this should be put on his shoulders. He had not the wisdom, the experience, to deal with a thing of this magnitude.
“I am retribution,” he had said to Simon, and meant it. But that was before he had the weapon of retribution in his hand.
What was he to do?
Go to the police to-night? To-morrow?
Do nothing, and let the celebrations begin when Charles Ashby came home?
What was he to do?
It was late that night that George Peck, sitting in his study and conscious every now and then even from his distant vantage point in Thebes of the lashing rain on the window of the Rectory in Clare, heard a tapping at that window, and came back from Thebes and went to the front door. It was by no means the first time that people had tapped on that window late at night.
In the light from the hall he saw one of the Ashbys, he could not tell which because the soaked hat almost obscured the face.
“Rector, may I come in and talk to you?”
“Of course, Patrick. Come in.”
Brat stood on the step, the rain sluicing from his coat.
“I’m afraid I’m very wet,” he said vaguely.
The Rector looked down and saw that the grey tweed of his trousers was black, and his shoes an oozing pulp. His eyes went sharply to the boy’s face. Brat had taken off his limp hat and the rain-water from his soaked hair was running down his face.
“Take off your coat and leave it here,” the Rector said. “I’ll give you another one when you are ready to go.” He went to the hall cloakroom and came back with a towel. “Rub your head with that.”
Brat did as he was told, with the obedient air and fumbling movements of a child. The Rector went through to the empty kitchen and brought a kettle of water.
“Come in,” he said. “Just drop the towel where your wet coat is.” He led the way into his study and put the kettle on an electric ring. “That will be hot in no time. I often make tea for myself when I sit up late. What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
“A pit in Dothan.”
“I’m sorry. My mind has stopped working. Have you a drink of any kind?”
The Rector had meant to put the whisky in the tea, as a toddy, but he poured a stiff one now and Brat drank it.
“Thank you. I am sorry to come and worry you like this, but I had to talk to you. I hope you don’t mind.”
“I am here to be talked to. Some more whisky?”
“Then let me give you some dry shoes.”
“Oh, no, thank you. I’m used to being wet, you know. Rector, I want your advice about something very important, but can I talk to you as if — as if it were confessional? I mean, without your feeling that you must do something about it.”
“Whatever you say I shall treat as confession, certainly.”
“Well, first I have to tell you something. I am not Patrick Ashby.”
“No,” agreed the Rector. And Brat stared.
“You mean — you mean, you knew I wasn’t Patrick?”
“I rather thought that you weren’t.”
“There is more to any person than a physical presence; there is an aura, a personality, a being. And I was almost sure the first time I met you that I had never met you before. There was nothing in you that I recognised, although you have many things in common with Patrick as well as your appearance.”
“And you did nothing about it!”
“What do you suggest that I should have done? Your lawyer, your family, and your friends had all accepted and welcomed you. I had no evidence to show that you were not Patrick. Nothing but my own belief that you weren’t. What good would it have done to express my disbelief? It did not seem to me that it would be long before the situation resolved itself without my interference.”
“You mean: that I should be found out.”
“No. I mean that you did not seem to me someone who would be happy in the life you had chosen. Judging by your visit to-night, I was right.”
“But I didn’t come here to-night just to confess to not being Patrick.”
“No, that is only — I had to tell you that because it was the only way you could understand what has — I wish my mind was clearer. I’ve been walking about trying to get things straight.”
“Perhaps if you told me first how you came to Latchetts at all, it would at least clear my mind.”
“I— I met someone in America who had lived in Clare. They — she thought I looked like an Ashby, and suggested that I should pretend to be Patrick.”
“And you were to pay her a share of the proceeds of the deception.”
“I can only say that she earned her percentage whatever it was. As a tutor she must be remarkable. I have never seen a better piece of coaching. Are you American, then?”
“No,” said Brat, and the Rector smiled faintly at the emphasis. “I was brought up in an orphanage. I was left on its doorstep.”
And he sketched for the Rector the story of his life.
“I have heard of your orphanage,” the Rector said, when he had finished. “It explains one thing that puzzled me: your good upbringing.” He poured tea, and added whisky. “Would you like something more substantial than biscuits, by the way? No? Then have the oatmeal ones; they are very filling.”
“I had to tell you all this because of something I found out. Patrick didn’t commit suicide. He was murdered.”
The Rector set down the cup he was holding. For the first time he looked startled.
“Murdered? By whom?”
“But, Patrick! That —— What is your name, by the way?”
“You forget. I haven’t got one. I’ve always been called Brat. It was a corruption of Bartholomew.”
“But my dear fellow, that is absurd. What evidence have you of anything so incredible?”
“I have Simon’s word for it.”
“Simon told you?”
“He boasted about it. He said that I could never do anything about it because it would mean giving myself away. He knew as soon as he saw me that I wasn’t Patrick, you see.”
“When did this extraordinary conversation take place?”
“Last night, at the Bures ball. It wasn’t as sudden as it sounds. I began to wonder about Simon long before that, and I challenged him about it because of something he said about knowing I wasn’t Patrick, and he laughed and boasted about it.”
“I think that the setting of this scene does a lot to explain it.”
“You mean you think we were drunk?”
“Not exactly. Elated, shall we say. And you challenged Simon on the subject, and Simon with his perverted sense of mischief provided you with what you expected from him.”
“Do you really believe I have as little intelligence as that?” Brat asked quietly.
“It surprises me, I must admit. I have always considered you to be highly intelligent.”
“Then believe me, I am not here because of a piece of fooling on Simon’s part. Patrick didn’t commit suicide. Simon killed him. Deliberately. And what is more, I know how he did it.”
And he told him.
“But Brat, you have no evidence even now. That is theory, what you have just told me. An ingenious and likely theory, I admit. It has the merit of simplicity. But you have no evidence whatsoever.”
“We can get the evidence, if the police once know the truth. But that isn’t what I want to know. What I want advice about is — well, whether to let sleeping dogs lie.”
And he explained his dilemma.
But the Rector, rather surprisingly in view of his silence about his doubts of Brat’s identity, had no doubts on the subject at all. If murder had been done, then the law must be invoked. Anything else was anarchy.
His point was that Brat had no case against Simon. His mind had run on murder, he had taunted Simon with it, Simon had one of his well-known impish moments and confessed, and Brat after long thought had found a theory to fit the alleged confession.
“And you think that I’ve been walking about in the rain since four o’clock because of a little joke of Simon’s? You think that I came here to-night and confessed to not being Patrick because of a little joke of Simon’s?” The Rector was silent. “Tell me, Rector, were you surprised when Pat committed suicide?”
“Do you know anyone who wasn’t surprised?”
“No. But suicide is a surprising thing.”
“I give up,” Brat said.
In the contemplative silence that followed, the Rector said: “I see what you meant by the pit in Dothan. That was an excellent upbringing at the orphanage.”
“It was a very thoroughly Biblical one, if that is what you mean. Simon knows that story, too, by the way.”
“I expect so, but how do you happen to know?”
“When he heard that Patrick had come back he couldn’t help, in spite of his denials, a fear that it might be true. There had been that other case, you see. That time the victim had survived by a miracle. He was afraid that by some miracle Patrick had survived. I know, because he came into that room, the first day I was there, strung up to face something dreadful. And his relief when he saw me was almost funny.”
He drank down the rest of his tea and looked quizzically at the Rector. In spite of himself he was beginning to feel better.
“Another of Simon’s little jokes was to send me out that first day on Timber, without telling me he was a rogue. But I suppose that was just his ‘perverted sense of mischief.’ And still another of his little jokes was to loosen my girth yesterday before I started a race on Chevron. But I suppose that was just one of his ‘well-known impish moments’.”
The Rector’s deep eyes considered Brat.
“I am not defending Simon — he has never been an admirable character — but tricks played on an interloper, a pretender — even dangerous tricks, are one thing, and the murder of a well-loved brother is quite another. Why, by the way, did Simon not denounce you at once if he did not believe you were his brother?”
“For the same reason that you didn’t.”
“I see. He would merely be held to be — difficult.”
“And of course, having got rid of one Patrick with impunity, he looked forward with confidence to getting rid of another.”
“Brat, I wish I could convince you that this is a figment of your imagination.”
“You must have a great respect for my imaginative powers.”
“If you look back, critically and honestly, you must see how the thing grew in your mind from quite small beginnings. An edifice of your own making.”
And that, when Brat took his leave towards two o’clock in the morning, was still the Rector’s opinion.
He offered Brat a bed, but Brat compromised on the loan of a waterproof and a torch, and found his way back to Latchetts by the soaking field-path with the rain still pouring hopelessly down.
“Come and see me again before you decide anything,” the Rector had said; but he had at least been helpful in one direction. He had answered Brat’s main question. If it was a choice between love and justice, the choice had to be justice.
He found the front door of Latchetts unlocked, a note from Bee on the hall table, saying: “Soup on the ring in the pantry,” and a silver cup on an ebony stand bearing a card in Eleanor’s writing which said: “You forgot this, you blasé rodeo hound!”
He put out the lights and crept up through the silent house to his bed in the old night nursery. Someone had put a hot-water bottle in his bed. He was asleep almost before his head touched the pillow.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01