The telegraph wires swooped and the earth whirled round the carriage window; and Bee’s mind swooped and whirled with them.
“I would have come down to see you, of course,” Mr. Sandal had said on the telephone. “It is against all my principles to deal with such grave matters by telephone. But I was afraid that my presence might suggest to the children that there was something serious afoot. And it would be a pity to upset them if there is a chance that — that the trouble is temporary.”
Poor dear old Sandal. He had been very kind; had asked her if she were sitting down, before he broke the news; and had said: “You’re not feeling faint, are you, Miss Ashby?” when his shock had been administered.
She had not fainted. She had sat for a long time letting her knees get back their strength, and then she had gone to her room and looked for photographs of Patrick. Except for a studio group taken when Simon and Patrick were ten and Eleanor nine, she seemed to have nothing. She was not a snapshot-keeper.
Nora had been a passionate collector of her children’s photographs, but she had spurned photograph albums, which she held to be “a great waste of time and space.” (Nora had never wasted anything; it had been as if she was half conscious that her allotted time was short.) She had kept them all in a tattered and bursting manila envelope with O.H.M.S. on it, and the envelope went everywhere with her. It had gone to Europe on that holiday with her, and had made part of that blaze on the Kent coast.
Balked of photographs, Bee went up to the old nursery, as if there she would get nearer to the child Patrick, although she knew very well that nothing of Patrick’s remained there. Simon had burned them all. It was the only sign he had given that his twin’s death was more than he could well bear. Simon had gone away to school after Patrick’s death, and when he came back for the summer holidays he had behaved normally, if one took it for granted that not mentioning Patrick was in the circumstances normal enough. And then one day Bee had come on him tending a bonfire where the children had made their “Red Indian” and campfires, beyond the shrubbery, and on the fire were Patrick’s toys and other small belongings. Even exercise books, she noticed, had been brought down to feed the flames. Books and childish paintings and the silly horse that had hung at the end of his bed; Simon was burning them all.
He had been furious when he saw her. He had moved between her and the fire, standing at bay, as it were, and glared at her.
“I don’t want them around,” he had said, almost shouting.
“I understand, Simon,” she had said, and had gone away.
So there was nothing of Patrick in the old nursery under the eaves; and not very much of the other children, after all. When this had been Bee’s own nursery it had been ugly and individual and furnished largely with rejections from the other parts of the house. It had patterned linoleum, and a rag rug, and a cuckoo clock, and crazy basket chairs, and a clothes-horse, and a deal table covered with a red rep tablecloth trimmed with bobbles and marked with ink-stains; and coloured prints of “Bubbles” and similar masterpieces hung against a cabbage-rose wallpaper. But Nora had done it over, so that it became an illustration from a homemaker magazine, in powder-blue and white, with a wallpaper of nursery-rhyme characters. Only the cuckoo clock had stayed.
The children had been happy there, but had left no mark on it. Now that it was empty and tidy, it looked just like something in a furniture shop window.
She had gone back to her own room, baffled and sick at heart, and had packed a small bag for her use in the morning. To-morrow she must go up to town and face this new emergency in the history of the Ashbys.
“Do you believe, yourself, that it is Patrick?” she had asked.
But Mr. Sandal could give her no assurance.
“He has not the air of a pretender,” he allowed. “And if he is not Patrick, then who is he? The Ashby family resemblance has always been abnormally strong. And there is no other son of this generation.”
“But Patrick would have written,” she said.
That is the thought she always went back to. Patrick would never have left her in grief and doubt all those years. Patrick would have written. It couldn’t be Patrick.
Then if it wasn’t Patrick, who was it?
Round and round went her mind, swooping and whirling.
“You will be the best judge,” Mr. Sandal had said. “Of those now living you are the one who knew the boy best.”
“There is Simon,” she had said.
“But Simon was a boy at the time and boys forget, don’t they? You were grown up.”
So the onus was being put upon her. But how was she to know? She who had loved Patrick but now could hardly remember what he looked like at thirteen. What test would there be?
Or would she know at once when she saw him that he was Patrick? Or that he — wasn’t?
And if he wasn’t and yet insisted that he was, what would happen? Would he bring a claim? Make a court action of it? Drag them all through the publicity of the daily Press?
And if he was Patrick, what of Simon? How would he take the resurrection of a brother he had not seen for eight years? The loss of a fortune. Would he be glad about it, fortune or no, or would he hate his brother?
The coming-of-age celebrations would have to be postponed, that was clear. They were much too close now for anything to be decided by that time. What excuse should they make?
But oh, if it could, by some miracle, be Patrick, she would be free of that haunting horror, that thought of the boy who regretted too late to come back.
Her mind was still swooping and swirling as she climbed the stairs to the offices of Cosset, Thring and Noble.
“Ah, Miss Ashby,” Mr. Sandal said. “This is a shocking dilemma. A most unprecedented —— Do sit down. You must be exhausted. A dreadful ordeal for you. Sit down, sit down. Mercer, some tea for Miss Ashby.”
“Did he say why he didn’t write, all those years?” she asked; this being the all-important thing in her mind.
“He said something about ‘perhaps preferring to be dead’.”
“A psychological difficulty, no doubt,” Mr. Sandal said, proffering comfort.
“Then you believe it is Patrick?”
“I mean, if it is Patrick, his ‘preferring to be dead’ would no doubt arise from the same psychological difficulty as did his running away.”
“Yes. I see. I suppose so. Only — it is so unlike Patrick. Not to write, I mean.”
“It was unlike Patrick to run away.”
“Yes; there is that. He certainly wasn’t a runner-away by nature. He was a sensitive child but very brave. Something must have gone very wrong.” She sat silent for a moment. “And now he is back.”
“We hope so; we hope so.”
“Did he seem quite normal to you?”
“Excessively,” said Mr. Sandal, with a hint of dryness in his tone.
“I looked for photographs of Patrick, but there is nothing later than this.” She produced the studio group. “The children had studio portraits taken regularly every three years, from the time they were babies. This was the last of them. The new one would have been taken in the summer of the year that Bill and Nora were killed; the year Patrick — disappeared. Patrick is ten there.”
She watched while Mr. Sundal studied the small immature face.
“No,” he said at last. “It is impossible to say anything from so early a photograph. As I said before, the family likeness is very strong. At that age they are just young Ashbys, aren’t they? Without any great individuality.” He looked up from studying the photograph and went on: “I am hoping that when you yourself see the boy — the young man — you will have no doubt one way or another. After all, it is not entirely a matter of likeness, this recognition, is it? There is an aura of — of personality.”
“But — but if I am not sure? What is to happen if I am not sure?”
“About that: I think I have found a way out. I dined last night with my young friend Kevin Macdermott.”
“Yes. I was greatly distressed, of course, and told him of my difficulty, and he comforted me greatly by assuring me that identification would be a quite simple matter. It was merely an affair of teeth.”
“Teeth? But Patrick had quite ordinary teeth.”
“Yes, yes. But he had no doubt been to a dentist, and dentists have records. Indeed, most dentists have a sort of visual memory, I understand, of mouths they have treated — a very grim thought — and would almost recognise one at sight. But the record will certainly show ——” He caught the look on Bee’s face and paused. “What is the matter?”
“The children went to Hammond.”
“Hammond? Well? That is simple, isn’t it? If you don’t definitely identify the boy as Patrick, we have only to ——” He broke off. “Hammond!” he said quietly. “Oh!”
“Yes,” Bee said, agreeing with the tone of the monosyllable.
“Dear me, how unfortunate. How very unfortunate.”
Into the subsequent silence Mr. Sandal said miserably: “I think I ought to tell you that Kevin Macdermott thinks the boy is lying.”
“What could Mr. Macdermott possibly know about it,” said Bee angrily. “He has not even seen him!” And as Mr. Sandal went on sitting in miserable silence, “Well?”
“It was only Kevin’s opinion on the hypothesis.”
“I know, but why did he think that?”
“He said it was a — a ‘phoney thing to come straight to a lawyer’.”
“What nonsense! It was a very sensible thing to do.”
“Yes. That was his point. It was too sensible. Too pat. Everything, Kevin said, was too pat for his liking. He said a boy coming home after years away would go home.”
“Then he doesn’t know Patrick. That is just what Patrick would have done: broken it gently by going to the family lawyer first. He was always the most thoughtful and unselfish of creatures. I don’t think much of the clever Mr. Macdermott’s analysis.”
“I felt it only right to tell you everything,” Mr. Sandal said, still miserably.
“Yes, of course,” Bee said kindly, recovering her temper. “Did you tell Mr. Macdermott that Patrick — that the boy had remembered crying at Olympia? I mean, that he had volunteered the information.”
“I did; yes.”
“And he still thought the boy was lying?”
“That was part of the ‘patness’ he professed not to like.”
Bee gave a small snort. “What a mind!” she said. “I suppose that is what a court practice does.”
“It is a detached mind, that is all. One not emotionally engaged in the matter, as we are. It behooves us to keep our minds detached.”
“Yes, of course,” Bee said, sobered. “Well, now that poor old Hammond is to be no help to us — they never found him, did you know? Everything was just blown to dust.”
“Yes. Yes, so I heard; poor fellow.”
“Now that we have no physical evidence, I suppose we have to rely on the boy’s own story. I mean, on checking it. I suppose that can be done.”
“Oh, quite easily. It is all quite straightforward, with dates and places. That is what Kevin found so —— Yes. Yes. Of course it can be checked. And of course I am sure that it will check. He would not have offered us information which would be proved nonsense.”
“So really there is nothing to wait for.”
“No, I—— No.”
Bee braced herself.
“Then how soon can you arrange for me to meet him?”
“Well — I have been thinking about it, and I don’t think, you know, that it should be arranged at all.”
“What I should like to do — with your permission and co-operation — would be to, as it were, walk in on him. Go and see him unannounced. So that you would see him as he is and not as he wants you to see him. If we made an appointment here at the office, he would ——”
“Yes, I see. I understand. I agree to that. Can we go now?”
“I don’t see why not. I really don’t see why not,” Mr. Sandal said in that regretful tone that lawyers use when they cannot see any reason why not. “There is, of course, the chance that he may be out. But we can at least go and see. Ah, here is your tea! Will you drink it while Mercer asks Simspon to ask Willett to get us a taxi?”
“You haven’t got anything stronger, have you?” Bee asked.
“I’m afraid not; I’m afraid not. I have never succumbed to the transatlantic custom of the bottle in the office. But Willett will get you anything you may ——”
“Oh, no, thank you; it’s all right. I’ll drink the tea. They say the effects are much more lasting, anyway.”
Mr. Sandal looked as though he would like to pat her encouragingly on the shoulder, but could not make up his mind to it. He was really a very kind little man, she thought, but just — just not much of a prop.
“Did he explain why he chose the name Farrar?” she asked, when they were seated in the taxi.
“He didn’t explain anything,” Mr. Sandal said, falling back on his dry tone.
“Did you gather that he was badly off?”
“He did not mention money, but he seemed very well-dressed in a slightly un-English fashion.”
“There was no suggestion of a loan?”
“Oh, no. Oh, dear me, no.”
“Then he hasn’t come back just because he is broke,” Bee said, and felt somehow pleased. She sat back and relaxed a little. Perhaps everything was going to be all right.
“I have never quite understood why Pimlico descended so rapidly in the social scale,” said Mr. Sandal, breaking the silence as they travelled down the avenues of pretentious porches. “It has fine wide streets, and little through-traffic, and no more smuts than its neighbours. Why should the well-to-do have deserted it and yet stayed in Belgravia? Very puzzling.”
“There is a sort of suction about desertion,” Bee said, trying to meet him on the small-talk level. “The local Lady Almighty occasions the draught by leaving, and the rest, in descending order of importance, follow in her wake. And the poorer people flood in from either side to fill the vacuum. Is this the place?”
Her dismay took possession of her again as she looked at the dismal front of the house; at the peeling paint and the stained stucco, the variety of drab curtains at the windows, the unswept doorway and the rubbed-out house-number on the horrible pillar.
The front door was open and they walked in.
A different card on each door in the hallway proclaimed the fact that the house was let out in single rooms.
“The address is 59K,” Mr. Sandal said. “I take it that K is the number of the room.”
“They begin on the ground floor and work upwards,” Bee said. “This is B on my side.” So they mounted.
“H,” said Bee, peering at a first-floor door. “It’s up the next flight.”
The second floor was also the top one. They stood together on the dark landing listening to the silence. He is out, she thought, he is out, and I shall have to go through all this again.
“Have you a match?” she said.
“I and J,” she read, on the two front-room doors.
Then it was the back one.
They stood in the dark for a moment, staring at it. Then Mr. Sandal moved purposively forward and knocked.
“Come in!” said a voice. It was a deep, boy’s voice; quite unlike Simon’s light sophisticated tones.
Bee, being half a head taller than Mr. Sandal, could see over his shoulder; and her first feeling was one of shock that he should be so much more like Simon than Patrick ever was. Her mind had been filled with images of Patrick: vague, blurred images that she strove to make clear so that she could compare them with the adult reality. Her whole being had been obsessed with Patrick for the last twenty-four hours.
And now here was someone just like Simon.
The boy got up from where he had been sitting on the edge of the bed, and with no haste or embarrassment pulled from off his left hand the sock he had been darning. She couldn’t imagine Simon darning a sock.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” said Mr. Sandal. “I hope you don’t mind: I’ve brought you a visitor.” He moved aside to let Bee come in. “Do you know who this is?”
Bee’s heart hammered on her ribs as she met the boy’s light calm gaze and watched him identify her.
“You do your hair differently,” he said.
Yes, of course; hairdressing had changed completely in those eight years; of course he would see a difference.
“You recognise her, then?” Mr. Sandal said.
“Yes, of course. It’s Aunt Bee.”
She waited for him to come forward to greet her, but he made no move to. After a moment’s pause he turned to find a seat for her.
“I’m afraid there is only one chair. It is all right if you don’t lean back on it,” he said, picking up one of those hard chairs with a black curved back and a tan seat with small holes in it. Bee was glad to sit down on it.
“Do you mind the bed?” he said to Mr. Sandal.
“I’ll stand, thank you, I’ll stand,” Mr. Sandal said hastily.
The details of the face were not at all like Simon’s, she thought; watching the boy stick the needle carefully in the sock. It was the general impression that was the same; once you really looked at him the startling resemblance vanished, and only the family likeness remained.
“Miss Ashby could not wait for a meeting at my office, so I brought her here,” Mr. Sandal said. “You don’t seem particularly ——” He allowed the sentence to speak for itself.
The boy looked at her in a friendly unsmiling way and said: “I’m not very sure of my welcome.”
It was a curiously immobile face. A face like a child’s drawing, now she came to think of it. Everything in the right place and with the right proportions, but without animation. Even the mouth had the straight uncompromising line that is a child’s version of a mouth.
He moved over to lay the socks on the dressing-table, and she saw that he was lame.
“Have you hurt your leg?” she asked.
“I broke it. Over in the States.”
“But should you be walking about on it if it is still tender?”
“Oh, it doesn’t hurt,” he said. “It’s just short.”
“Short! You mean, permanently short?”
“It looks like it.”
They were sensitive lips, she noticed, for all their thinness; they gave him away when he said that.
“But something can be done about that,” she said. “It just means that it was mended badly. I expect you didn’t have a very good surgeon.”
“I don’t remember a surgeon. Perhaps I passed out. They did all the correct things: hung weights on the end of it, and all that.”
“But Pat ——” she began, and failed to finish his name.
Into the hiatus he said: “You don’t have to call me anything until you are sure.”
“They do miracles in surgery nowadays,” she said, covering her break. “How long ago is it since it happened?”
“I’d have to think. About a couple of years now, I think.”
Except for the flat American a, his speech was without peculiarity.
“Well, we must see what can be done about it. A horse, was it?”
“Yes. I wasn’t quick enough. How did you know it was a horse?”
“You told Mr. Sandal that you had worked with horses. Did you enjoy that?” Just like railway-carriage small-talk, she thought.
“It’s the only life I do enjoy.”
She forgot about small-talk. “Really?” she said, pleased. “Were they good horses, those western ones?”
“Most of them were commoners, of course. Very good stuff for their work — which, after all, is being a good horse, I suppose. But every now and then you come across one with blood. Some of those are beauties. More — more individual than I ever remember English horses being.”
“Perhaps in England we ‘manner’ the individuality out of them. I hadn’t thought of it. Did you have a horse of your own at all?”
“Yes, I had one. Smoky.”
She noticed the change in his voice when he said it. As audible as the flat note in the cracked bell of a chime.
“Yes, a dark grey with black points. Not that hard, iron colour, you know. A soft, smoky colour. When he had a tantrum he was just a whirling cloud of smoke.”
A whirling cloud of smoke. She could see it. He must love horses to be able to see them like that. He must particularly have loved his Smoky.
“What happened to Smoky?”
“I sold him.”
No trespassers. Very well, she would not trespass. He had probably had to sell the horse when he broke his leg.
She began to hope very strenuously that this was Patrick.
The thought recalled her to the situation which she had begun to lose sight of. She looked doubtfully at Mr. Sandal.
Catching the appeal in her glance, Mr. Sandal said: “Miss Ashby is no doubt prepared to vouch for you, but you will understand that the matter needs more clarification. If it were a simple matter of a prodigal’s homecoming, your aunt’s acceptance of you would no doubt be sufficient to restore you to the bosom of your family. But in the present instance it is a matter of property. Of the ultimate destination of a fortune. And the law will require incontrovertible evidence of your identity before you could be allowed to succeed to anything that was Patrick Ashby’s. I hope you understand our position.”
“I understand perfectly. I shall, of course, stay here until you have made your inquiries and are satisfied.”
“But you can’t stay here,” Bee said, looking with loathing at the room and the forest of chimney-pots beyond the window.
“I have stayed in a great many worse places.”
“Perhaps. That is no reason for staying here. If you need money we can give you some, you know.”
“I’ll stay here, thanks.”
“Are you just being independent?”
“No. It’s quiet here. And handy. And bung full of privacy. When you have lived in bunk houses you put a high value on privacy.”
“Very well, you stay here. Is there anything else we can — can stake you to?”
“I could do with another suit.”
“Very well. Mr. Sandal will advance whatever you need for that.” She suddenly remembered that if he went to the Ashby tailor there would be a sensation. So she added: “And he will give you the address of his tailor.”
“Why not Walters?” said the boy.
For a moment she could not speak.
“Aren’t they there any more?”
“Oh, yes; but there would be too many explanations if you went to Walters.” She must keep a hold on herself. Anyone could find out who the Ashby tailor had been.
“Oh, yes. I see.”
She fell back on small-talk and began to take her leave.
“We have not told the family about you,” she said, as she prepared to go. “We thought it better not to, until things are — are what Mr. Sandal calls clarified.”
A flash of amusement showed in his eyes at that. For a moment they were allied in a secret laughter.
She turned at the door to say good-bye. He was standing in the middle of the room watching her go, leaving Mr. Sandal to shepherd her out. He looked remote and lonely. And she thought: “If this is Patrick, Patrick come home again, and I am leaving him like this, as if he were a casual acquaintance ——” It was more than she could bear, the thought of the boy’s loneliness.
She went back to him, took his face lightly in her gloved hand, and kissed his cheek. “Welcome back, my dear,” she said.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14