So Cosset, Thring and Noble began their investigations, and Bee went back to Latchetts to deal with the problem of postponing the coming-of-age celebrations.
Was she to tell the children now, before the thing was certain? And if not, what excuse could she possibly put forward for not celebrating at the proper time?
Mr. Sandal was against telling the children yet. The unknown Kevin’s verdict had left a mark on him, it seemed; and he was entirely prepared to find a flaw in the so-complete dossier that had been handed to them. It would be inadvisable, he thought, to bring the children into this until the claim had been sifted through the finest mesh.
With that she agreed. If this thing passed — if that boy in the back room in Pimlico was not Patrick — they need never know anything about it. Simon would probably have to be told, so that he could be warned against future attempts at fraud, but by that time it would be of no more than academic interest; a quite impersonal affair. Her present difficulty was how to reconcile the children’s ignorance with the postponing of the celebrations.
The person who rescued her from this dilemma was Great-uncle Charles, who cabled to announce his (long overdue) retirement, and his hope to be present at his great-nephew’s coming-of-age party. He was on his way home from the Far East, and, since he refused to fly, his homecoming was likely to be a protracted one, but he hoped Simon would keep the champagne corked till he came.
Great-uncles do not normally cut much ice in the families in which they survive, but to the Ashbys Great-uncle Charles was much more than a great-uncle: he was a household word. Every birthday had been made iridescent and every Christmas a tingling expectation by the thought of Great-uncle Charles’s present. There were reasonable bounds to the possible presents of parents; and Father Christmas’s were merely the answer to indents.
But neither reason nor bounds had any connection with presents from Great-uncle Charles. Once he had sent a set of chopsticks, which upset nursery discipline for a week. And once it had been the skin of a snake; the glory of owning the skin of a snake had made Simon dizzy for days. And Eleanor still ran to and from her bath in a pair of odd-smelling leather slippers that had come on her twelfth birthday. At least four times every year Great-uncle Charles became the most important factor in the Ashby family; and when you have been of first importance four times a year for twenty years your importance is pretty considerable. Simon might grumble and the others protest a little, but they would without doubt wait for Great-uncle Charles.
Besides, she had a shrewd idea that Simon would not be willing to offend the last-surviving Ashby of his generation. Charles was not rich — he had been far too liberal a giver all his life — but he was comfortably off; and Simon, for all his careless good nature and easy charm, was an exceedingly practical person.
So the postponement was taken by the family with resignation, and by Clare with equanimity. It was held to be a very proper thing that the Ashbys should wait until the old boy could be present. Bee spent her after-dinner leisure altering the date on the invitation cards, and thanking heaven for the mercifulness of chance.
Bee was at odds with herself these days. She wanted this boy to be Patrick; but it would be so much better for all concerned, she felt, if he proved not to be Patrick. Seven-eighths of her wanted Patrick back; warm, and alive, and dear; wanted it passionately. The other eighth shrank from the upheaval of the happy Ashby world that his return would bring with it. When she caught this renegade eighth at its work she reproved it and was suitably ashamed of herself; but she could not destroy it. And so she was distrait and short-tempered, and Ruth, commenting on it to Jane, said:
“Do you think she can have a Secret Sorrow?”
“I expect the books won’t balance,” Jane said. “She’s a very bad adder-up.”
Mr. Sandal reported from time to time on the progress of the investigations, and the reports were uniform and monotonous. Everything seemed to confirm the boy’s story.
“The most heartening thing, using the word in its sense of reassurance,” Mr. Sandal said, “is that the young man seems to have no contacts since he came to England. He has lived at that address since the Philadelphia’s arrival, and he has had neither letters nor visitors. The woman who owns the house occupies one of the front rooms on the ground floor. She is one of those women who has nothing to do but sit back and watch her neighbours. The lives of her tenants seem to be an open book to the good lady. She is also accustomed to waiting for the postman and collecting the letters he drops. Nothing escapes her. Her description of myself was, I understand, hardly flattering but quite touching in its fidelity. The young man could therefore have hardly had visitors without her being aware of it. He was out all day, of course; as any young man in London would be. But there is no trace of that intimacy which would suggest connivance. He had no friends.”
The young man came willingly to the office and answered questions freely. With Bee’s consent, Kevin Macdermott had “sat in” at one of these office conferences, and even Kevin had been shaken. “What shakes me,” Kevin had said, “is not the fellow’s knowledge of the subject — all good con. men are glib — but the general cut of his jib. He’s quite frankly not what I expected. After a little while in my job you develop a smell for a wrong ’un. This chap has me baffled. He doesn’t smell like a crook to me, and yet the set-up stinks.”
So the day came when Mr. Sandal announced to Bee that Cosset, Thring and Noble were now prepared to accept the claimant as Patrick Ashby, the eldest son of William Ashby of Latchetts, and to hand over to him everything that was due to him. There would be legal formalities, of course, since the fact of his death eight years ago had been presumed; but they would be automatic. As far as they, Cosset, Thring and Noble, were concerned, Patrick Ashby was free to go home whenever he pleased.
So the moment had come, and Bee was faced with breaking the news to the family.
Her instinct was to tell Simon first, privately; but she felt that anything that set him apart from the others in this matter of welcoming back his brother was to be avoided. It would be better to take for granted that for Simon, as for the others, the news would be a matter for unqualified happiness.
It was after lunch on a Sunday that she told them.
“I have something to tell you that will be rather a shock to you. But a nice kind of shock,” she said. And went on from there. Patrick had not committed suicide, as they had thought. He had merely run away. And now he had come back. He had been living for a little in London because, of course, he had to prove to the lawyers that he was Patrick. But he had had no difficulty in doing that. And now he was going to come home.
She had avoided looking at their faces as she talked; it was easier just to talk into space, impersonally. But in the startled silence that followed her story she looked across at Simon; and for a moment did not recognise him. The shrunk white face with the blazing eyes had no resemblance to the Simon she knew. She looked away hastily.
“Does it mean that this new brother will get all the money that is Simon’s?” asked Jane, with her usual lack of finesse.
“Well, I think it was a horrible thing to do,” Eleanor said bluntly.
“Running away and leaving us all thinking he was dead.”
“He didn’t know that, of course. I mean: that we would take his note to mean that he was going to kill himself.”
“Even so. He left us all without a word for — for — how long is it? Seven years? Nearly eight years. And then comes back one day without warning, and expects us to welcome him.”
“Is he nice?” asked Ruth.
“What do you mean by nice?” Bee asked, glad for once of Ruth’s interest in the personal.
“Is he nice to look at? And does he talk nicely or has he a frightful accent?”
“He is exceedingly nice to look at, and he has no accent whatsoever.”
“Where has he been all this time?” Eleanor asked.
“Mexico and the States, mostly.”
“Mexico!” said Ruth. “How romantic! Does he wear a black sailor hat?”
“A what? No, of course he doesn’t. He wears a hat like anyone else.”
“How often have you seen him, Aunt Bee?” Eleanor asked.
“Just once. A few weeks ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell us about it then?”
“It seemed better to wait until the lawyers were finished with him and he was ready to come home. You couldn’t all go rushing up to London to see him.”
“No, I suppose not. But I expect Simon would have liked to go up and see him, wouldn’t you, Simon, and we wouldn’t have minded? After all, Patrick was his twin.”
“I don’t believe for one moment that it is Patrick,” Simon said, in a tight, careful voice that was worse than shouting.
“But, Simon!” Eleanor said.
Bee sat in a dismayed silence. This was worse than she had anticipated.
“But, Simon! Aunt Bee has seen him. She must know.”
“Aunt Bee seems to have adopted him.”
Much worse than she had anticipated.
“The people who have adopted him, Simon, are Cosset, Thring and Noble. A not very emotional firm, I think you’ll agree. If there had been the faintest doubt of his being Patrick, Cosset, Thring and Noble would have discovered it during those weeks. They have left no part of his life since he left England unaccounted for.”
“Of course whoever it is has had a life that can be checked! What did they expect? But what possible reason can they have for believing that he is Patrick?”
“Well, for one thing, he is your double.”
This was clearly unexpected. “My double?” he said vaguely.
“Yes. He is even more like you than when he went away.”
The colour had come back to Simon’s face and the stuff on the bones had begun to look like flesh again; but now he looked stupid, like a boxer who is taking too much punishment.
“Believe me, Simon dear,” she said, “it is Patrick!”
“It isn’t. I know it isn’t. You are all being fooled!”
“But, Simon!” Eleanor said. “Why should you think that? I know it won’t be easy for you to have Patrick back — it won’t be easy for any of us — but there’s no use making a fuss about it. The thing is there and we just have to accept it. You are only making things worse by trying to push it away.”
“How did this — this creature who says he is Patrick, how did he get to Mexico? How did he leave England? And when? And where?”
“He left from Westover in a ship called the Ira Jones.”
“Westover! Who says so?”
“He does. And according to the harbourmaster, a ship of that name did leave Westover on the night that Patrick went missing.”
Since this seemed to leave Simon without speech, she went on: “And everything he did from then on has been checked. The hotel he worked at in Normandy is no longer there, but they have found the ship he sailed from Havre in — it’s a tramp, but it belongs to a firm in Brest — and people have been shown photographs and identified him. And so on, all the way back to England. Till the day he walked into Mr. Sandal’s office.”
“Is that how he came back?” Eleanor asked. “Went to see old Mr. Sandal?”
“Well, I should say that proves that he is Patrick, if anyone is in any doubt about it. But I don’t know why there should be doubt at all. After all, it would be very easy to catch him out if he wasn’t Patrick, wouldn’t it? All the family things he wouldn’t know. . . . ”
“It isn’t Patrick.”
“It is a shock for you, Simon, my dear,” Bee said, “and, as Eleanor says, it won’t be easy for you. But I think it will be easier when you see him. Easier to accept him, I mean. He is so undeniably an Ashby, and so very like you.”
“Patrick wasn’t very like me.”
Eleanor saved Bee from having to reply to that. “He was, Simon. Of course he was. He was your twin.”
“If I ran away for years and years, would you believe I was me, Jane?” Ruth asked.
“You wouldn’t stay away for years and years, anyhow,” Jane said.
“What makes you think I wouldn’t?”
“You’d come home in no time at all.”
“Why would I come home?”
“To see how everyone was taking your running away.”
“When is he coming, Aunt Bee?” Eleanor asked.
“On Tuesday. At least that is what we had arranged. But if you would like to put it off a little — until you grow more used to the idea, I mean. . . . ” She glanced at Simon, who was looking sick and baffled. In her most apprehensive moments she had never pictured a reaction as serious as this.
“If you flatter yourself that I shall grow used to the idea, you are wrong,” Simon said. “It makes no difference to me when the fellow comes. As far as I’m concerned he is not Patrick and he never will be.”
And he walked out of the room. Walking, Bee noticed, not very steadily, as if he were drunk.
“I’ve never known Simon like that before,” Eleanor said, puzzled.
“I should have broken it to him differently. I’m afraid it is my fault. I just — didn’t want to make him different from anyone else.”
“But he loved Patrick, didn’t he? Why shouldn’t he be glad about it? Even a little glad!”
“I think it is horrid that someone can come and take Simon’s place, without warning, like that,” Jane said. “Simply horrid. And I don’t wonder that Simon is angry.”
“Aunt Bee,” said Ruth, “can I wear my blue on Tuesday when Patrick comes?”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14