Only the Rector, Bee, Charles, Eleanor, and the firm of Cosset, Thring and Noble knew, so far, that Brat was not Patrick Ashby.
And the police.
The police, that is, at what is known as “the highest level.”
The police had been told everything, and they were now engaged in their own admirable fashion in smoothing out the mess to the best of their ability without breaking any of the laws which they were engaged to uphold. Simon Ashby was dead. It was to no one’s advantage to uncover the story of his crime. By a process of not saying too much, the ritual of the Law might be complied with, leaving unwanted truths still buried; a harrow dragging over earth that held below its surface unexploded bombs.
The coroner sat on the poor bones found in the quarry, and adjourned the inquest sine die. No one in the neighbourhood had ever been reported missing. Tanbitches, on the other hand, was a favourite camping ground for gipsies, who were not given to reporting accidents to the police. Nothing remained of the clothing but a few scraps of unrecognisable cloth. The objects found in the vicinity of the bones were unidentifiable; they consisted of a corroded piece of metal that might once have been a whistle, another corroded piece still recognisable as a knife, and several coins of small denominations.
“George!” said Bee. “What became of the pen?”
“The stylograph? I lost it.”
“Someone had to lose it, my dear. Colonel Smollett couldn’t; he’s a soldier, with a soldier’s sense of duty. The police couldn’t; they have their self-respect and their duty to the public to consider. But my conscience is between me and my God. I think they were touchingly grateful to me in their tacit way.”
The adjourned inquest on Simon Ashby came later, since it had been postponed until Brat was capable of being interviewed in hospital. The policeman who had interviewed him reported that Mr. Ashby could remember nothing about the accident, or why he should have gone there with his brother at that hour to climb down into the quarry. He had an idea that it was the result of a bet. Something about whether there was water in the old quarry or not, he thought; but could not take his oath on it since his recollection was vague. He had serious head injuries and was still very ill. He did know, however, that he had found out from Abel Tusk that there was no water there; and Simon probably had said that that was highly unlikely, and so the contest may have arisen.
Abel Tusk corroborated the fact that Patrick Ashby had asked him about water in the quarry, and that it was an unusual thing to find the floor of an old quarry dry. It was Abel Tusk who had given the first alarm of the accident. He had been out on the hill with his sheep and had heard what he took to be cries for help from the direction of the quarry, and had gone there as fast as he could and found the undamaged rope, and had gone down to the blacksmith’s and used his telephone to call the police.
Bee, replying to the coroner, agreed that she would most certainly have taken steps to put an end to any such plan had she heard about it. And the coroner expressed his opinion that it was for that reason that the thing had been done sub rosa.
The verdict was death by misadventure, and the coroner expressed his sympathy with the family on the loss of this high-spirited young man.
So the problem of Simon was settled. Simon who, before he was fourteen, had killed his brother, calmly written a note on that brother’s behalf, tossed the pen into the abyss after his brother’s body, and gone home calmly to six o’clock supper when he was chased out of the smithy. Who had joined the night search for his brother on his pony, and some time during that long night had taken his brother’s coat to the cliff-top and left it there with the note in the pocket. Who was now to be mourned by the countryside as a high-spirited young man of memorable charm.
The problem of Brat remained.
Not the problem of who he was, but of the problem of his future. The doctors had decided that, having against all probability lived so long, he was likely to go on living. He would need long care, however, and a peaceful life if he was to recover properly.
“Uncle Charles came to see you one day when you were ill,” Bee said to him when he was well enough to keep his attention on a subject. “He was astonished by your resemblance to Walter Ashby. My cousin.”
“Yes?” said Brat. He was not interested. What did it matter now?
“We began inquiries about you.”
“The police did that,” he said wearily. “Years ago.”
“Yes, but they had very little to come and go on. Only that a young girl had arrived by train with a baby, and gone away by train without one. The train had come from the crowded Birmingham district with all its ramifications. We started at the other end. Walter’s end. We went back to where Walter was, somewhere about twenty-two years ago, and began from there. Walter was a rolling stone, so it wasn’t easy, but we did find out that, among his other jobs, he was in charge of a stable in Gloucestershire for a couple of months while the owner was away having an operation. The household was a housekeeper and a young girl who cooked. She was a very good cook, but her real ambition was to be a hospital nurse. The housekeeper liked her and so did the owner, and when they found she was going to have a baby they let her stay on, and she had her baby in the local maternity home. The housekeeper always believed that it was Walter’s child, but the girl would not say. She did not want to get married; she wanted to be a nurse. She said that she was taking the baby home for the christening — she came from Evesham way — and she didn’t come back. But the housekeeper had a letter from her long afterwards, thanking her for her goodness and telling her that the girl had realised her ambition and was a nurse. No one knows about my baby,” she said, “but I have seen that he is well looked after.”
She glanced at Brat. He was lying with his eyes on the ceiling, but he appeared to be listening.
“Her name was Mary Woodward. She was an even better nurse than she was a cook. She was killed during the war, taking patients out of a ward to safety in a shelter.”
There was a long silence.
“I seem to have inherited my cooking talents too,” he said; and she could not tell whether the words were bitter or not.
“I was very fond of Walter. He was a dear; very kind. He had only one fault; he had no head for drink, and he liked drink very much. I don’t believe for a moment that Walter knew about the girl. He was the kind who would have rushed to marry her. I think she didn’t want him to know.”
She had another look at Brat. Perhaps she had told him all this too soon; before he was strong enough to be interested. But she had hoped that it would give him an interest in life.
“I’m afraid that is as near as we can get, Brat. But none of us have any doubt about it. Charles took one look at you and said, ‘Walter.’ And I think myself you look a little like your mother. That is Mary Woodward. It was taken in her second year at St. Luke’s.”
She gave him the photograph, and left it with him.
A week or two later she said to Eleanor: “Nell, I’m going to leave you. I’ve taken a lease of Tim Connell’s stud at Kilbarty.”
“Not immediately, but when Brat is able to travel.”
“You’re taking Brat there? Oh, yes, of course you must go! Oh, that is a wonderful idea, Bee. It solves such a lot of problems, doesn’t it? But can you afford it? Shall I lend you money for it?”
“No, Uncle Charles is doing that. Lovely to think of Charles supporting horses, isn’t it? You’ll need all you have to pay death duty, my dear. Mr. Sandal has broken it to the Bank that the place belonged to Simon all the time.”
“What shall we do about letting people know about Brat? I mean, about his not being Patrick.”
“I don’t think we’ll have to do anything about it. The facts will inevitably ooze. They always do. I think we just do nothing to prevent the leak. The fact that we are making him part of the family instead of starting prosecutions and things will take a lot of the fun out of it for the scandal-mongers. We’ll survive, Nell. And so will he.”
“Of course we will. And the first time someone mentions it boldly to me, I shall say: ‘My cousin? Yes, he did pretend to be my brother. He is very like Patrick, isn’t he? As if we were discussing cream-cakes.’” She paused a moment and then added: “But I should like the news to get round before I’m too old to marry him.”
“Are you thinking of it?” Bee said, taken aback.
“I’m set on it.”
Bee hesitated; and then decided to let the future take care of itself.
“Don’t worry. It will get round,” she said.
“Now that Uncle Charles is here, and is going to settle down at Latchetts,” she said later to Brat, “I can go back to having a life of my own somewhere else.”
His eyes came away from the ceiling, and watched her.
“There’s a place in Ulster I have my eye on. Tim Connell’s place at Kilbarty.”
She saw his fingers begin to play with the sheet, unhappily.
“Are you going away to Ulster, then?” he asked.
“Only if you will come with me, and run the stable for me.”
The easy tears of the newly-convalescent rose in his eyes and ran down his cheek.
“Oh, Bee!” he said.
“I take it that means that my offer is accepted,” she said.
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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01