Mr. Sandal, of Cosset, Thring and Noble, was nearing the end of his afternoon’s work and his mind was beginning its daily debate as to whether it should be the 4.55 or the 5.15 that should bear him home. This was almost the only debate that ever exercised Mr. Sandal’s mind. The clients of Cosset, Thring and Noble were of two kinds only: those who made up their own minds about a problem and told their solicitors in firm tones what they wanted done, and those who had no problems. The even pulse of the Georgian office in the shadow of the plane trees was never quickened by unexpected news or untoward happenings. Even the death of a client was not news: clients were expected to die; the appropriate will would be in the appropriate deed-box and things would go on as before.
Family solicitors; that is what Cosset, Thring and Noble were. Keepers of wills and protectors of secrets; but not wrestlers with problems. Which is why Mr. Sandal was by no means the best person to take what was coming to him.
“Is that all, Mercer?” he said to his clerk, who had been showing a visitor out.
“There’s one client in the waiting-room, sir. Young Mr. Ashby.”
“Ashby? Of Latchetts?”
“Oh, good; good. Bring in a pot of tea, Mercer, will you?”
“Yes, sir.” And to the client: “Will you come in, sir?”
The young man came in.
“Ah, Simon, my dear boy,” Mr. Sandal said, shaking hands with him, “I am delighted to see you. Are you up on business, or are you just ——”
His voice died away uncertainly, and he stared, the gesture of his arm towards a chair arrested mid-way.
“God bless my soul,” he said, “you are not Simon.”
“No. I am not Simon.”
“But — but you are an Ashby.”
“If you think that, it makes things a whole lot easier for me.”
“Yes? Do forgive me if I am a little confused. I didn’t know that there were Ashby cousins.”
“There aren’t, as far as I know.”
“No? Then — forgive me — which Ashby are you?”
Mr. Sandal’s neat mouth opened and shut like a goldfish’s.
He stopped being a green thought in a green shade and became a very worried and staggered little lawyer.
For a long moment he looked into the light Ashby eyes so near his own without finding any words that seemed adequate to the occasion.
“I think we had better both sit down,” he said at last. He indicated the visitors’ chair, and subsided into his own with an air of being glad of an anchorage in a world suddenly at sea.
“Now, let us clarify the situation,” he said. “The only Patrick Ashby died at the age of thirteen, some — let me see — eight years ago, it must be.”
“What makes you think he died?”
“He committed suicide, and left a farewell note.”
“Did the note mention suicide?”
“I am afraid I cannot recall the wording.”
“Nor can I, exactly. But I can give you the sense of it. It said: ‘I can’t stand it any longer. Don’t be angry with me.’”
“Yes. Yes, that was the tenor of the message.”
“And where in that is the mention of suicide?”
“The suggestion surely is — One would naturally infer — The letter was found on the cliff-top with the boy’s coat.”
“The cliff path is the short cut to the harbour.”
“The harbour? You mean ——”
“It was a running-away note; not a suicide one.”
“But — but the coat?”
“You can’t leave a note on the open down. The only way to leave it is in the pocket of something.”
“Are you seriously suggesting that — that — that you are Patrick Ashby, and that you never committed suicide at all?”
The young man looked at him with those unrevealing eyes of his. “When I came in,” he said, “you took me for my brother.”
“Yes. They were twins. Not identical twins, but of course very ——” The full implication of what he was saying came home to him. “God bless my soul, so I did. So I did.”
He sat for a moment or two staring in a helpless fashion. And while he stared Mercer came in with the tea.
“Do you take tea?” Mr. Sandal asked, the question being merely a reflex conditioned by the presence of the tea-tray.
“Thank you,” said the young man. “No sugar.”
“You do realise, don’t you,” Mr. Sandal said, half-appealingly, “that such a very startling and — and serious claim must be investigated? One cannot, you understand, merely accept your statement.”
“I don’t expect you to.”
“Good. That is good. Very sensible of you. At some later date it may be possible — the fatted calf — but just now we have to be sensible about it. You do see that. Milk?”
“For instance: you ran away, you say. Ran away to sea, I take it.”
“On what ship?”
“The Ira Jones. She was lying in Westover harbour.”
“You stowed away, of course.”
“And where did the ship take you?” asked Mr. Sandal, making notes and beginning to feel that he wasn’t doing so badly after all. This was quite the worst situation he had ever been in, and there was no question of catching the 5.15 now.
“The Channel Islands. St. Helier.”
“Were you discovered on board?”
“You disembarked at St. Helier, undiscovered.”
“I got the boat to St. Malo.”
“You stowed away again?”
“No, I paid my fare.”
“You remember what the boat was called?”
“No; it was the regular ferry service.”
“I see. And then?”
“I went bus-riding. Buses always seemed to me more exciting than that old station wagon at Latchetts, but I never had a chance of riding in them.”
“The station wagon. Ah, yes,” said Mr. Sandal; and wrote: “Remembers car.” “And then?”
“Let me see. I was garage-boy for a while at an hotel in a place called Villedieu.”
“You remember the name of the hotel, perhaps?”
“The Dauphin, I think. From there I went across country and fetched up in Havre. In Havre I got a job as galley boy on a tramp steamer.”
“The name? You remember it?”
“I’ll never forget it! She was called the Barfleur. I joined her as Farrar. F-a-r-r-a-r. I stayed with her until I left her in Tampico. From there I worked my way north to the States. Would you like me to write down for you the places I worked at in the States?”
“That would be very kind of you. Here is — ah, you have a pen. If you would just write them here, in a list. Thank you. And you came back to England ——?”
“On the 2nd of last month. On the Philadelphia. As a passenger. I took a room in London and have lived there ever since. I’ll write the address for you; you’ll want to check that too.”
“Yes. Thank you. Yes.” Mr. Sandal had an odd feeling that it was this young man — who after all was on trial, so to speak — who was dominating the situation and not, as it certainly should be, himself. He pulled himself together.
“Have you attempted to communicate with your —— I mean, with Miss Ashby?”
“No, is it difficult?” said the young man gently.
“What I mean is ——”
“I’ve done nothing about my family, if that is what you mean. I thought this was the best way.”
“Very wise. Very wise.” There he was again, being forced into the position of chorus. “I shall get in touch with Miss Ashby at once, and inform her of your visit.”
“Tell her that I’m alive, yes.”
“Yes. Quite so.” Was the young man making fun of him? Surely not.
“Meanwhile you will go on living at this address?”
“Yes, I shall be there.” The young man got up, again taking the initiative from him.
“If your credentials prove to be good,” Mr. Sandal said with an attempt at severity, “I shall be the first to welcome you back to England and to your home. In spite of the fact that your desertion of it has caused deep grief to all concerned. I find it inexplicable that you should not have communicated with your people before now.”
“Perhaps I liked being dead.”
“Anyhow you never did find me very explicable, did you?”
“You thought it was because I was afraid that I cried, that day at Olympia, didn’t you?”
“It wasn’t you know. It was because the horses were so beautiful.”
“Olympia! You mean. . . . But that was. . . . You remember, then ——”
“I expect you’ll let me know, Mr. Sandal, when you have checked my statements.”
“What? Oh, yes; yes, certainly.” Good heavens, even he himself had forgotten that children’s party at the Tournament. Perhaps he had been altogether too cautious. If this young man — the owner of Latchetts — dear me! Perhaps he should not have been so ——
“I hope you don’t think ——” he began.
But the young man was gone, letting himself out with cool decision and a brief nod to Mercer.
Mr. Sandal sat down in the inner office and mopped his brow.
And Brat, walking down the street, was shocked to find himself exhilarated. He had expected to be nervous and a little ashamed. And it had not been in the least like that. It had been one of the most exciting things he had ever done. A wonderful, tight-rope sort of thing. He had sat there and lied and not even been conscious that he was lying, it had been so thrilling. It was like riding a rogue; you had the same wary, strung-up feeling; the same satisfaction in avoiding an unexpected movement to destroy you. But nothing he had ever ridden had given him the mental excitement, the subsequent glow of achievement, that this had given him. He was drunk with it.
And greatly surprised.
So this, he thought, was what sent criminals back to their old Ways when there was no material need. This breathless, step-picking excitement; this subsequent intoxication of achievement.
He went to have tea, according to Loding’s instructions; but he could not eat. He felt as if he had already had food and drink. No previous experience of his had had this oddly satisfying effect. Normally, after the exciting things of life — riding, love-making, rescue, close calls — he was ravenously hungry. But now he just sat and looked at the food in front of him in a daze of content. The glow inside him left no room for food.
No one had followed him into the restaurant, and no one seemed to be taking any interest in him.
He paid his bill and went out. No one was loitering anywhere; the pavement was one long stream of hurrying people. He went to a telephone at Victoria.
“Well?” said Loding. “How did it go?”
“Have you been drinking?”
“That is the first time I have ever heard you use a superlative.”
“I’m just pleased.”
“My God, you must be. Does it show?”
“Is there any faint change in that poker face of yours?”
“How should I know? Don’t you want to know about this afternoon?”
“I already know the most important thing.”
“What is that?”
“You haven’t been given in charge.”
“Did you expect me to be?”
“There was always the chance. But I didn’t really expect it. Not with our combined intelligences.”
“Did the old boy fall on your neck?”
“No. He nearly fell over. He’s being very correct.”
“Everything to be verified.”
“How did he receive you?”
“He took me for Simon.”
He heard Loding’s amused laughter.
“Did you manage to use his Tournament party?”
“Oh, my God, don’t go monosyllabic on me. You didn’t have to rake it up, did you?”
“No. It fitted very neatly.”
“Was he impressed?”
“It had him on the ropes.”
“It didn’t convince him, though?”
“I didn’t wait to see. I was on my way out.”
“You mean, that was your exit line? My boy, I take off my hat to you. You’re a perishing marvel. After living in your pocket for the last fortnight I thought I was beginning to know you. But you’re still surprising me to death.”
“I surprise myself, if it’s any consolation to you.”
“I don’t detect any bitterness in that line, do I?”
“No. Just surprise. Neat.”
“Ah, well; we shall not be meeting for some time to come. It has been a privilege to know you, my boy. I shall never hear Kew Gardens mentioned without thinking tenderly of you. And I look forward, of course, to further privileges from knowing you in the future. Meanwhile, don’t ring me up unless there is absolutely no alternative. You are as well briefed as I can make you. From now on you’re on your own.”
Loding was right: it had been a wonderful briefing. For a whole fortnight, from early morning till seven in the evening, rain or shine, they had sat in Kew Gardens and rehearsed the ways of Latchetts and Clare, the histories of Ashbys and Ledinghams, the lie of a land he had never seen. And that too had been exciting. He had always been what they called “good at exams”; and had always come to an examination paper with the same faint pleasure that an addict brings to a quiz party. And those fourteen days in Kew Gardens had been one glorified quiz party. Indeed, the last few days had had some of the tight-rope excitement that had characterised this afternoon. “Which arm did you bowl with?” “Go to the stables from the side door.” “Did you sing?” “Could you play the piano?” “Who lived in the lodge at Clare?” “What colour was your mother’s hair?” “How did your father make his money, apart from the estate?” “What was the name of his firm?” “What was your favourite food?” “The name of the tuck-shop owner in the village?” “Where is the Ashby pew in the church?” “Go from the great drawing-room to the butler’s pantry in Clare.” “What was the housekeeper’s name?” “Could you ride a bicycle?” “What do you see from the south window in the attic?” Loding fired the questions at him through the long days, and it had been first amusing and then exciting to avoid being stumped.
Kew had been Loding’s idea. “Your life since you came to London must be subject to the most searching scrutiny, if you will forgive the cliché. So you can’t come and live with me as I suggested. You can’t even be seen with me by anyone we know. Nor can I come to your Pimlico place. You must go on being unvisited there as you have been up till now.” So the Kew scheme had been evolved. Kew Gardens, Loding said, had perfect cover and a wonderful field of fire. There was nowhere in London where you could see approaching figures at such a distance and still be unnoticed yourself. Nowhere in London that offered the variety of meeting-places, the undisturbed quiet, that Kew did.
So each morning they had arrived separately, by different gates; had met at a new point and gone to a different region; and there for a fortnight Loding had primed him with photographs, maps, plans, drawings, and pencilled diagrams. He had begun with a one-inch Ordnance Survey map of Clare and its surroundings, progressed to a larger size, and thence to plans of the house; so that it was rather like coming down from above in a plane. First the lie of the country, then the details of fields and gardens, and then the close-up of the house so that the thing was whole in his mind from the beginning, and the details had merely to be pointed on a picture already etched. It was methodical, careful teaching, and Brat appreciated it.
But the highlight, of course, was provided by the photographs. And it was not, oddly enough, the photograph of his “twin” that held his attention once he had seen them all. Simon, of course, was extraordinarily like him; and it gave him a strange, almost embarrassed, feeling to look at the pictured face so like his own. But it was not Simon who held his interest; it was the child who had not lived to grow up; the boy whose place he was going to take. He had an odd feeling of identity with Patrick.
Even he himself noticed this, and found it strange. He should have been filled with guilt when he considered Patrick. But his only emotion was one of partisanship; almost of alliance.
Crossing the courtyard at Victoria after telephoning, he wondered what had prompted him to say that about Patrick crying. Loding had told him merely that Patrick had cried for no known reason (he was seven then) and that old Sandal had been disgusted and had never taken the children out again. Loding had left the story with him to be used as and when he thought fit. What had prompted him to say that Patrick had cried because the horses were so beautiful? Was that, perhaps, why Patrick had cried?
Well, there was no going back now, whether he wanted to or not. That insistent voice that had talked to him in the dark of his room had fought for its head and got it. All he could do was sit in the saddle and hope for the best. But at least it would be a breath-taking ride; a unique, heart-stopping ride. Danger to life and limb he was used to; but far more exciting was this new mental danger, this pitting of wits.
This danger to his immortal soul, the orphanage would call it. But he had never believed in his immortal soul.
He couldn’t go to Latchetts as a blackmailer, he wouldn’t go as a suppliant, he would damn well go as an invader.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01