But Alec Loding’s main interest in the Ashby coming-of-age was to blow the celebrations sky-high. Indeed, he was at this moment actively engaged in pulling strings to that end.
Or, rather, trying to pull strings. The strings weren’t pulling very well.
He was sitting in the back room at the Green Man, the remains of lunch spread before him, and beside him sat a young man. A boy, one would have said, but for something controlled and still that did not go with adolescence. Loding poured coffee for himself and sugared it liberally; casting a glance now and then at his companion, who was turning an almost empty beer glass round and round on the table. The movement was so deliberate that it hardly came under the heading of fidgeting.
“Well?” said Loding at last.
Loding took a mouthful of coffee.
“I’m not an actor.”
Something in the unaccented phrase seemed to sting Loding and he flushed a little.
“You’re not asked to be emotional, if that is what you mean. There is no filial devotion to be simulated, you know. Only dutiful affection for an aunt you haven’t seen for nearly ten years — which one would expect to be more dutiful than affectionate.”
“You young idiot, I’m offering you a fortune.”
“Half a fortune. And you’re not offering me anything.”
“If I’m not offering it to you, what am I doing?”
“Propositioning me,” said the young man. He had not raised his eyes from his slowly-turning beer.
“Very well, I’m propositioning you, to use your barbarous idiom. What is wrong with the proposition?”
“What is crazy about it, given the initial advantage of your existence?”
“No one could bring it off.”
“It is not so long since a famous general whose face was a household word — if you will forgive the metaphor — was impersonated quite successfully by an actor in broad daylight and in full view of the multitude.”
“That is quite different.”
“I agree. You aren’t asked to impersonate anyone. Just to be yourself. A much easier task.”
“No,” said the young man.
Loding kept his temper with a visible effort. He had a pink, collapsed face that reminded one of the underside of fresh mushrooms. The flesh hung away from his good Ledingham bones with a discouraged slackness, and the incipient pouches under his eyes detracted from their undoubted intelligence. Managers who had once cast him for gay young rakes now offered him nothing but discredited roués.
“My God!” he said suddenly. “Your teeth!”
Even that did not startle the young man’s face into any expression. He lifted his eyes for the first time, resting them incuriously on Loding. “What’s the matter with my teeth?” he asked.
“It’s how they identify people nowadays. A dentist keeps a record of work, you know. I wonder where those kids went. Something would have to be done about that. Are those front teeth your own?”
“The two middle ones are caps. They were kicked out.”
“They went to someone here in town, I remember that much. There was a London trip to see the dentist twice a year; once before Christmas and once in the summer. They went to the dentist in the morning and to a show in the afternoon: pantomime in the winter and the Tournament at Olympia in the summer. These are the kind of things you would have to know, by the way.”
The gentle monosyllable maddened Loding.
“Look, Farrar, what are you frightened of? A strawberry mark? I bathed with that kid in the buff many a time and he hadn’t as much as a mole on him. He was so ordinary that you could order him by the dozen from any prep. school in England. You are more like his brother at this moment than that kid ever was, twins though they were. I tell you, I thought for a moment that you were young Ashby. Isn’t that good enough for you? You come and live with me for a fortnight and by the end of it there won’t be anything you don’t know about the village of Clare and its inhabitants. Nor anything about Latchetts. I know every last pantry in it. Nor anything about the Ashbys. Can you swim, by the way?”
The young man nodded. He had gone back to his glass of beer.
“Don’t you ever qualify a statement?”
“Not unless it needs it.”
“The kid could swim like an eel. There’s the matter of ears, too. Yours look ordinary enough, and his must have been ordinary too or I should remember. Anyone who has worked in a life-class notices ears. But I must see what photographs of him exist. Front ones wouldn’t matter, but a real close-up of an ear might be a give-away. I think I must take a trip to Clare and do some prospecting.”
“Don’t bother on my account.”
Loding was silent for a moment. Then he said, reasonably: “Tell me, do you believe my story at all?”
“Do you believe that I am who I say I am, and that I come from a village called Clare, where there is someone who is practically your double? Do you believe that? Or do you think that this is just a way of getting you to come home with me?”
“No, I didn’t think it was that. I believe your story.”
“Well, thank heaven for that, at least,” Loding said with a quirk of his eyebrow. “I know that my looks are not what they were, but I should be shattered to find that they suggested the predatory. Well, then. That settled, do you believe that you are as like young Ashby as I say?”
For a whole turn of the glass there was no answer. “I doubt it.”
“On your own showing it is some time since you saw him.”
“But you don’t have to be young Ashby. Just look like him. And believe me you do! My God, how you do! It’s something I wouldn’t have believed unless I saw it with my own eyes; something I have imagined only happened in books. And it is worth a fortune to you. You have only to put out your hand and take it.”
“Oh, no, I haven’t.”
“Metaphorically speaking. Do you realise that except for the first year or so your story would be truth? It would be your own story; able to stand up to any amount of checking.” His voice twisted into a comedy note. “Or — would it?”
“Oh, yes, it would check.”
“Well, then. You have only to stow away on the Ira Jones out of Westover instead of going for a day trip to Dieppe, et voilà!”
“How do you know there was a ship called the Ira Jones at Westover about then?”
“‘About then’! You do me scant justice, amigo. There was a ship of that repellent title at Westover the day the boy disappeared. I know because I spent most of the day painting her. On canvas, not on her plates, you understand. And the old scow went out before I had finished; bound for the Channel Islands. All my ships go out before I have finished painting them.”
There was silence for a little.
“It’s in your lap, Farrar.”
“So is my table napkin.”
“A fortune. A charming small estate. Security. A——”
“Security, did you say?”
“After the initial gamble, of course,” Loding said smoothly.
The light eyes that looked at him for a moment held a faint amusement.
“Hadn’t it occurred to you at all, Mr. Loding, that the gamble was yours?”
“You’re offering me the sweetest chance for a double-cross that I ever heard of. I take your coaching, pass the exam, and forget about you. And you wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it. How did you figure to keep tabs on me?”
“I hadn’t. No one with your Ashby looks could be a double-crosser. The Ashbys are monsters of rectitude.”
The boy pushed away the glass.
“Which must be why I don’t take kindly to the idea of being a phoney. Thank you for my lunch, Mr. Loding. If I had known what you had in mind when you asked me to lunch with you, I wouldn’t have ——”
“All right, all right. Don’t apologise. And don’t run away; we’ll go together. You don’t like my proposition: very good: so be it. But you, on the other hand, fascinate me. I can hardly take my eyes off you, or believe that anything so unique exists. And since you are sure that my improper proposal to you has nothing of the personal in it, there is nothing against our walking as far as the Underground together.”
Loding paid for their lunch, and as they walked out of the Green Man he said: “I won’t ask where you are living in case you think I want to hound you. But I shall give you my address in the hope that you will come to see me. Oh, no; not about the proposition. If it isn’t your cup of tea then it isn’t your cup of tea; and if you felt like that you certainly wouldn’t make a success of it. No, not about the proposition. I have something in my rooms that I think would interest you.”
He paused artistically while they negotiated a street crossing.
“When my old home, Clare, was sold — after my father’s death — Nancy bundled together all the personal things in my room and sent them to me. A whole trunkful of rubbish, which I have never had the energy to get rid of, and a large proportion of it consists of snapshots and photographs of the companions of my youth. I think you would find it very interesting.”
He glanced sideways at the uncommunicative profile of his companion.
“Tell me,” he said as they stopped at the entrance to the Underground, “do you play cards?”
“Not with strangers,” said the young man pleasantly.
“I just wondered. I had never met the perfect poker face until now, and I should be sorry if it was being wasted on some nonconformist abstainer. Ah, well. Here is my address. If by any chance I have fled from there the Spotlight will find me. I am truly sorry I couldn’t sell you the idea of being an Ashby. You would have made an excellent master of Latchetts, I feel. Someone who was at home with horses, and used to an outdoor life.”
The young man, who had made a gesture of farewell and was in the act of turning away, paused. “Horses?” he said.
“Yes,” Loding said, vaguely surprised. “It’s a stud, you know. Very well thought of, I understand.”
“Oh.” He paused a moment longer, and then turned away.
Loding watched him as he went down the street. “I missed something,” he was thinking. “There was some bait he would have risen to, and I missed it. Why should he have nibbled at the word horse? He must be sick of them.”
Ah, well; perhaps he would come to see what his double looked like.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01