On Friday morning Simon came bright and cheerful to breakfast and greeted Brat with pleasure. He commented on the process of the “trunk” murder investigations, the character of Tattie Thacker (whose value had been estimated by the court at one half-penny) and the iniquity of poisoning as a means of ridding oneself of a human encumbrance. Except for an occasional gleam in his eye he showed no awareness of their changed relationship. He was taking their “spiritual twinship” for granted.
Eleanor too seemed to be back on the old footing, although she seemed shy, like someone who has made a social gaffe. She suggested that in the afternoon they should take the four silver cups into Westover and give instructions for their engraving.
“It will be nice to have ‘Patrick Ashby’ on a cup again,” she said.
“Yes, won’t it!” Simon said.
Simon evidently looked forward to years of baiting his spiritual twin. But when Brat said, in answer to Bee, that he had talked late with the Rector, Simon’s head came up as if he had heard a warning. And after that Brat caught Simon’s glance at him every now and then.
When Eleanor and Brat were setting off for Westover in the afternoon, he appeared and insisted on making a third in the bug’s scanty space. One of the cups was his own unaided work, he said, and he had a right to say what was to go on it, and whether it should be in Roman, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek or Cyrillic script, or mere shorthand.
So powerful was Simon’s indifferent charm that even Brat found himself on the verge of wondering whether the Rector had been right and he had built his story out of whole cloth. But he remembered the horse that Farmer Gates had bought for his daughter Peggy, and concluded that that was a more reliable guide to Simon than anything Simon himself might provide.
When they had decided on the lettering for the names on the cups, Simon and Eleanor went to tea, but Brat said that he had some shopping to do. Brat had decided what he had to do in the present impasse. He could not go to the police with his story in its present form with any more hope of being believed than he had been by the Rector. If the Rector, who knew Simon’s weaknesses, refused to believe without concrete evidence, how much more would the police refuse to believe, when Simon to them was not a wayward boy but Mr. Ashby of Latchetts?
Brat therefore proposed to provide them with the evidence.
He went down to the harbour and sought a chandler’s, and there, after some consultation and a deal of choosing, bought two hundred feet of rope. The rope was so thin that it was not much thicker than stout string, but its breaking-point under tension was very much that of steel. He asked them to pack it in a cardboard box and deliver it to the Angel garage, where the bug was. He received it at the garage and packed it away in the luggage compartment.
When the others arrived to go home he was waiting innocently in the car with an evening paper.
They had packed themselves into the bug and were preparing to go when Simon said: “Whoa! We’ve forgotten to leave that old tire with them,” and he got out and opened the rear compartment to get the tire.
“What is in the box, Nell?”
“I didn’t put any box there,” Eleanor said, not moving. “It can’t be for us.”
“It’s mine,” Brat said.
“What is it?”
“James Fryer and Son, Ship Chandlers,” said Simon’s voice.
Oh, God! There was a label on the box that he had not noticed.
Simon shut the luggage compartment with a bang and came back to his seat. “What have you been buying, Brat? One of those ships in a bottle? No, it is a little too large for that. One of those ships not in a bottle. One of those full-sailed galleons that sit on suburban sideboards to delight the heart of our Island Race and comfort it for being sick on the trip to Margate.”
“Don’t be a fool, Simon. What is it, Brat? Is it really a secret?”
If Simon wanted to find out what was in the box he most certainly would, by one method or another. And to make a mystery of it was to call attention to it. Far better to be apparently frank about it.
“If you must know, I’m afraid I’ll lose the knack of spinning a rope, so I’ve bought some to practise on.”
Eleanor was delighted. Brat must show them some spinning that very evening.
“No. Not till I’ve tried it out in camera first.”
“You’ll teach me how, won’t you?”
Yes, he would teach her how to throw a rope. She was going to hate him one day soon, if that rope did what it was bought for.
When they arrived back at Latchetts he took the rope out and left it openly in the hall. Bee asked about it, and accepted the explanation of its presence, and no one took any more notice of it. He wished that his last short time at Latchetts did not have to be spent in lying. It was odd that, having spent his whole time at Latchetts lying like a Levantine, he should mind so much about this smaller deception.
There was still time to do nothing about it. To leave the rope there, and not ask it to answer any question. It was the wrong kind of rope for throwing, but he could change it for the right kind.
But when night came, and he was alone in his room, he knew that he had no choice. This was what he had come half across a world to do, and he was going to do it.
The household went early to bed, still tired from their excitements at Bures, and he gave them till half-past twelve, and then prospected. There seemed to be no light anywhere. There was certainly no sound. He went downstairs and took the rope from its corner. He unlatched the dining-room window, stepped over the sill into the night, and drew it gently down again behind him. He waited for any reaction, but there was none.
He made his way softly over the gravel to the grass, sat down in the shelter of the first paddock trees, out of the range of the windows, and without need of any light, deftly knotted footholds at intervals down the length of rope. It was a pleasant reassuring thing to feel the familiar touch of rope after so long. It was a well-bred rope and answered sweetly to his demands. He felt grateful to James Fryer and Son.
He wound the rope and put the coil of it over his shoulder. In half an hour the moon would be up. It was a young moon, and not much of a lamp, but he had two good torches in his pocket and he did not very much desire a full moon’s frankness to-night.
Every five minutes he stopped and waited to see if he had been followed. But nothing at all moved in the night. Not even a cat.
The grey light of the coming moon greeted him as he came towards the foot of Tanbitches, and he found the path to Westover without having to flick a torch. He followed it up a little and then, when he could see the beech-crown of the hill against the sky, he struck off it until he reached the thicket on the upper side of the old quarry. There he sat down and waited. But again there was no sound in all the sleeping countryside except the sudden cry of a sheep on the hill. He tied the rope round the bole of the largest of the young beeches that had seeded themselves there, and let it uncoil itself until it fell over the edge of the quarry into the green thickness below. This was the steep side of the quarry. The lower side had had a narrow entrance, but it had long ago fallen together and become overgrown with an impenetrable denseness of briars. Old Abel had told him all about it the day they had sat there and talked of Patrick. Abel knew all about the quarry because he had once rescued a sheep from it. It was much easier to go down the sheer face, Abel said, than in at the lower side. In fact, to go in at the lower side, or any other side, was plumb impossible. No, there was no water in it; at least there wasn’t any twenty years ago, which was when last he went down after a sheep; the water all drained away under the hill to the sea.
Brat tested the rope several times, and felt for it fraying. But the bole of the tree was smooth, and where it went over the lip of the quarry he had padded it. He slid over the edge and felt for his first toe-hold. Now that he was level with the ground he was more aware of the brightness of the sky. He could see the dark shape of the low thicket against it, and the larger darkness of the tree above him.
He had found his first foothold in the rope now, but his hands were still on the rope where it lay taut on the turf.
“I should hate,” said Simon’s voice in its most “Simon” drawl, “to let you go without an appropriate farewell. I mean, I could just cut the rope and let you think, if you had time to think at all, that it had broken. But that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?”
Brat could see his bulk against the sky. From the shape of it, he was half-kneeling on the edge, by the rope. Brat could touch him by putting out a hand.
Fool that he had been to underrate Simon. Simon had taken no chances. He hadn’t even taken the chance of following him. He had come first and waited.
“Cutting the rope won’t do much good,” he said. “I’ll only land in the branches of some tree farther down, and yell my head off until someone comes.”
“I know better than that. A personal acquaintance of mine, this quarry is. Almost a relation, one might say.” He expelled his breath in a whispered laugh. “A sheer drop to the ground, half a hillside away.”
Brat wondered if he had time to slide down the rope in one swift rush before Simon cut it. The footholds had been for coming up again. He could just ignore them and slide. Would he be near enough the bottom before Simon realised what he had done?
Or would it be better ——? Yes. His hand tightened on the rope and he pressed on his toe-hold and lifted himself until he had almost got one knee on the turf again. But Simon must have his hand on the rope somewhere. He had felt the movement.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” he said, and brought his heel down on Brat’s hand. Brat grabbed the foot with his other hand and hung on, his fingers in the opening of the shoe. Simon brought his knife down on Brat’s wrist and Brat yelled, but continued to hang on. He dragged his right hand from under Simon’s shoe and caught him round the back of the ankle. He was covering with his body the rope in front of Simon and as long as he held on Simon could not turn to cut the rope behind him. It is very upsetting to have one’s foot grasped from below when one is standing on the very edge of a precipice.
“Let go!” said Simon, stabbing frantically.
“If you don’t stop that,” panted Brat, “I’ll drag you over with me.”
“Let go! Let go!” Simon said, hitting wildly in blind panic and not listening.
Brat removed the hand that was holding on to the edge of the shoe and caught the knife-hand as it came down. He now had his right hand round Simon’s left ankle, and his left hand was clutching Simon’s right wrist.
Simon screamed and pulled away, but Brat hung his weight on the wrist. He had the confidence of a toe-hold, but Simon had nothing to brace himself against. Simon tore at the hand that was hanging on to his knife-wrist, and Brat, with a great heave, took his right hand from Simon’s foot and caught Simon’s left hand with it. He had now got Simon by both wrists, and Simon was bent over like a bow above him.
“Drop that knife!” he said.
As he said it he felt the turf at the quarry edge settle a little and slide forward. It made no difference to him, except to press him out a little from the face of the cliff. But to Simon, already bent over by the weight of Brat’s arms and body, it was fatal.
Horrified, Brat saw the dark mass come forward on top of him. It struck him from his toe-hold, and he fell down with it into darkness.
A great light exploded in his head, and he ceased to know anything.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01