“I suppose you know what you’re doing, dear,” Aunt Lin said, “but I can’t help thinking it’s very odd of you to defend people like that.”
“I am not ‘defending’ them,” Robert said patiently, “I am representing them. And there is no evidence whatever that they are ‘people like that’.”
“There is the girl’s statement, Robert. She couldn’t just have made all that up.”
“Oh, couldn’t she!”
“What advantage would it be to her to tell a lot of lies!” She was standing in his doorway passing her prayer-book from one hand to the other as she put on her white gloves. “What else could she have been doing if she wasn’t at The Franchise?”
Robert bit back a “You’d be surprised!” It was always best with Aunt Lin to take the line of least resistance.
She smoothed her gloves into place. “If it’s just that you’re being noble, Robert dear, I must say you are just being wrong-headed. And do you have to go out to the house! Surely they could come to the office tomorrow. There’s no hurry is there? It isn’t as if someone was going to arrest them on the spot.”
“It was my suggestion that I should go out to The Franchise. If someone accused you of stealing things off Woolworth’s counter and you couldn’t disprove it, I don’t suppose you would enjoy walking down Milford High Street in broad daylight.”
“I mightn’t like it but I should most certainly do it, and give Mr. Hensell a piece of my mind.”
“Who is Mr. Hensell?”
“The manager. Couldn’t you come to church with me first and then go out to The Franchise; it’s such a long time since you’ve been, dear.”
“If you stand there much longer you’ll be late for the first time in ten years. You go and pray that my judgment may be perfected.”
“I shall most certainly pray for you, dear. I always do. I shall also put up a little one for myself. All this is going to be very difficult for me.”
“Now that you’re acting for those people I shan’t be able to talk about it to anyone. It is quite maddening, dear, to sit silent and hear everyone telling for gospel truth things you know for a fact are wrong. It’s like wanting to be sick and having to postpone it. Oh, dear, the bells have stopped, haven’t they? I’ll just have to slip into the Bracketts’ pew. They won’t mind. You won’t stay to lunch at that place, will you, dear.”
“I don’t suppose that I shall be invited.”
But his welcome at The Franchise was so warm that he felt that he might very well be invited after all. He would say no, of course; not because Aunt Lin’s chicken was waiting but because Marion Sharpe would have to do the washing up afterwards. When there was no one there they probably ate off trays. Or in the kitchen, for all anyone knew.
“I am sorry we refused to answer the telephone last night,” Marion said, apologising again. “But after the fourth or fifth time it really was too much. And we didn’t expect you to have news so soon. After all you had only set out on Friday afternoon.”
“Your telephone callers: were they male or female?”
“One male, and four female, as far as I remember. When you rang this morning I thought it was beginning again, but they seem to be late-sleepers. Or perhaps they don’t really get evil-minded much before evening. We certainly provided the Saturday evening’s entertainment for the country youths. They congregated in a group inside the gate and cat-called. Then Nevil found a bar of wood in the out-house ——”
“Yes, your nephew. I mean, your cousin. He came to pay what he called a visit of condolence, which was very nice of him. And he found a bar that could be wedged in the gateway to keep the thing shut; we have no key for it, you see. But of course that didn’t stop them for long. They hoisted each other up on the wall, and sat there in a row being offensive until it was time for them to go to their beds.”
“Lack of education,” old Mrs. Sharpe said thoughtfully, “is an extraordinary handicap when one is being offensive. They had no resource at all.”
“Neither have parrots,” Robert said. “But they can be provocative enough. We must see what police protection we can claim. Meanwhile I can tell you something pleasanter about that wall. I know how the girl saw over it.”
He told them about his visit to Mrs. Tilsit and his discovery that the girl amused herself by bus-riding (or said she did) and his subsequent visit to the Larborough And District Motor Services garage.
“In the fortnight that the girl was at Mainshill there were two breakdowns of single-deck buses due to go out on the Milford run; and each time a double-decker had to be substituted. There are only three services each way daily, you know. And each time the breakdown happened to the bus due to go out on the mid-day service. So there were at least two occasions in that fortnight when she could have seen the house, the courtyard, you two, and the car, all together.”
“But could anyone passing on top of a bus take in so much?”
“Have you ever travelled on the upper deck of a country bus? Even when the bus is going at a steady thirty-five, the pace seems funeral. What you can see is so much further away, and you can see it so much longer. Down below, the hedges brush the window and the pace seems good because things are closer. That is one thing. The other is that she has a photographic memory.” And he told them what Mrs. Wynn had said.
“Do we tell the police this?” Mrs. Sharpe asked.
“No. It doesn’t prove anything; just solves the problem of how she knew about you. When she needed an alibi she remembered you, and risked your not being able to prove that you were somewhere else. When you bring your car to the door, by the way, which side of the car is nearest the door?”
“Whether I bring it round from the garage or in from the road the off side is next the door, because it’s easier to get out of.”
“Yes; so that the near side, with the darker paint on the front wheel, would be facing the gate,” Robert said conclusively. “That is the picture she saw. The grass and the divided path, the car at the door with the odd wheel, two women — both individual — the round attic window in the roof. She had only to look at the picture in her mind and describe it. The day she was using the picture for — the day she was supposed to have been kidnapped — was more than a month away and it was a thousand to one against your being able to say what you had done or where you had been on that day.”
“And I take it,” Mrs. Sharpe said, “that the odds are very much greater against our being able to say what she has done or where she has been in that month.”
“The odds are against us, yes. As my friend Kevin Macdermott pointed out last night, there is nothing to hinder her having been in Sydney, N.S.W. But somehow I am far more hopeful today than I was on Friday morning. We know so much more about the girl now.” He told them of his interviews in Aylesbury and Mainshill.
“But if the police inquiries didn’t unearth what she was doing that month ——”
“The police inquiries were devoted to checking her statement. They didn’t start, as we do, with the premise that her statement is untrue from beginning to end. They checked it and it checked. They had no particular reason to doubt it. She had a blameless reputation, and when they inquired from her aunt how she had spent her holiday time they found that it had consisted of innocent visits to the cinema and country bus-rides.”
“And what do you think it consisted of?” Mrs. Sharpe asked.
“I think she met someone in Larborough. That, anyhow, is the obvious explanation. It’s from that supposition that I think any inquiry of ours should start.”
“And what do we do about engaging an agent?” asked Mrs. Sharpe. “Do you know of one?”
“Well,” Robert said, hesitating, “it had crossed my mind that you might let me pursue my own inquiries a little further before we engage a professional. I know that ——”
“Mr. Blair,” the old woman said, interrupting him, “you have been called into this unpleasant case without warning, and it cannot have been very willingly; and you have been very kind in doing your best for us. But we cannot expect you to turn yourself into a private inquiry agent on our behalf. We are not rich — indeed we have very little to live on — but as long as we have any money at all we shall pay for what services are proper. And it is not proper that you should turn yourself into a — what is it? — a Sexton Blake for our benefit.”
“It may not be proper but it is very much to my taste. Believe me, Mrs. Sharpe, I hadn’t planned it with any conscious thought of saving your pocket. Coming home in the car last night, very pleased with what I had done so far, I realised how much I should hate giving up the search to someone else. It had become a personal hunt. Please don’t discourage me from ——”
“If Mr. Blair is willing to carry on a little longer,” Marion interrupted, “I think we should thank him heartily and accept. I know just how he feels. I wish I could go hunting myself.”
“There will no doubt come a time when I shall have to turn it over to a proper inquiry agent whether I want to or not. If the trail leads far from Larborough, for instance. I have too many other commitments to follow it far. But as long as the search is on our doorsteps I do want to be the one to pursue it.”
“How had you planned to pursue it?” Marion asked, interested.
“Well, I had thought of beginning with the coffee-lunch places. In Larborough, I mean. For one thing, there can’t be so very many of them. And for another, we do know that, at any rate at the beginning, that was the kind of lunch she had.”
“Why do you say ‘at the beginning’?” Marion asked.
“Once she had met the hypothetical X, she may have lunched anywhere. But up till then she paid for her own lunches, and they were ‘coffee’ ones. A girl of that age prefers a bun lunch anyhow, even if she has money for a two-course meal. So I concentrate on the coffee-places. I flourish the Ack–Emma at the waitresses and find out as tactfully as a country lawyer knows how whether they have ever seen the girl in their place. Does that sound like sense to you?”
“Very good sense,” Marion said.
Robert turned to Mrs. Sharpe. “But if you think you will be better served by a professional — and that is more than possible — then I shall bow out with ——”
“I don’t think we could be better served by anyone,” Mrs. Sharpe said. “I have expressed my appreciation already of the trouble you have gone to on our behalf. If it would really please you to run down this — this ——”
“Moppet,” supplied Robert happily.
“Mopsy,” Mrs. Sharpe amended, “then we can only agree and be grateful. But it seems to me likely to be a very long run.”
“There is a big gap, it seems to me, between meeting a hypothetical X in Larborough, and walking into a house near Aylesbury wearing nothing but a frock and shoes and well and truly beaten. Marion, there is still some of the Amontillado, I think.”
In the silence that succeeded Marion’s departure to fetch the sherry the quiet of the old house became apparent. There were no trees in the courtyard to make small noises in the wind and no birds to chatter. The silence was as absolute as the midnight silence of a small town. Was it peaceful, Robert wondered, after the crowded life of a boarding-house? Or was it lonely and a little frightening?
They had valued its privacy, old Mrs. Sharpe had said in his office on Friday morning. But was it a good life shut in behind the high walls in the perpetual silence?
“It seems to me,” Mrs. Sharpe said, “that the girl took a great risk in choosing The Franchise, knowing nothing of the household or its circumstances.”
“Of course she took a risk,” Robert said. “She had to. But I don’t think it was as big a gamble as you think.”
“No. What you are saying is that for all the girl knew there might be a large household of young people and three maid-servants at The Franchise.”
“But I think she knew quite well that there was no such thing.”
“How could she?”
“Either she gossiped with the bus-conductor, or — and I think this is the more likely — she overheard comment from her fellow-passengers. You know the kind of thing: ‘There are the Sharpes. Fancy living alone in a big house like that, just the two of them. And no maids willing to stay in a lonely place so far from shops and the pictures ——’ and so on. It is very much a ‘local’ bus, that Larborough–Milford one. And it is a lonely route, with no wayside cottages, and no village other than Ham Green. The Franchise is the only spot of human interest for miles. It would be more than human nature is capable of to pass the combined interest of the house, the owners, and their car without comments of some kind.”
“I see. Yes, that makes sense.”
“I wish, in a way, it had been through chatting with the conductor that she learned about you. That way, he would be more likely to remember her. The girl says she was never in Milford and doesn’t know where it is. If a conductor remembered her, we could at least shake her story to that extent.”
“If I know anything of the young person she would open those child-like eyes of hers and say: ‘Oh, was that Milford? I just got on a bus and went to the terminus and back.’”
“Yes. It wouldn’t take us very far. But if I fail to pick up the girl’s trail in Larborough, I’ll try her picture on the local conductors. I do wish she was a more memorable creature.”
The silence fell round them again while they contemplated the un-memorable nature of Betty Kane.
They were sitting in the drawing-room, facing the window, looking out on the green square of the courtyard and faded pink of the brick wall. And as they looked the gate was pushed open and a small group of seven or eight people appeared and stood at gaze. Entirely at their ease they were; pointing out to each other the salient points of interest — the favourite being apparently the round window in the roof. If last night The Franchise had provided the country youth with its Saturday evening entertainment, it was now, so it would seem, providing Sunday morning interest for Larborough. Certainly a couple of cars were waiting for them outside the gate, since the women of the party wore silly little shoes and indoor frocks.
Robert glanced across at Mrs. Sharpe, but except for a tightening of her always grim mouth she had not moved.
“Our public,” she said at last, witheringly.
“Shall I go and move them on?” Robert said. “It’s my fault for not putting back the wooden bar you left off for me.”
“Let them be,” she said. “They will go presently. This is what royalty puts up with daily; we can support it for a few moments.”
But the visitors showed no sign of going. Indeed, one group moved round the house to inspect the out-buildings; and the rest were still there when Marion came back with the sherry. Robert apologised again for not having put up the bar. He was feeling small and inadequate. It went against the grain to stay there quietly and watch strangers prowling round as if they owned the place or were contemplating buying it. But if he went out and asked them to move on and they refused to, what power had he to make them go? And how would he look in the Sharpes’ eyes if he had to beat a retreat to the house and leave these people in possession?
The group of explorers came back from their tour round the house and reported with laughter and gesticulation what they had seen. He heard Marion say something under her breath and wondered if she were cursing. She looked like a woman who would have a very fine line in curses. She had put down the sherry tray and had apparently forgotten about it; it was no moment for hospitality. He longed to do something decisive and spectacular to please her, just as he had longed to rescue his lady-love from burning buildings when he was fifteen. But alas, there was no surmounting the fact that he was forty-odd and had learned that it is wiser to wait for the fire-escape.
And while he hesitated, angry with himself and with those crude human creatures outside, the fire-escape arrived in the person of a tall young man in a regrettable tweed suit.
“Nevil,” breathed Marion, watching the picture.
Nevil surveyed the group with his most insufferable air of superiority, and it seemed that they wilted slightly, but they were evidently determined to stand their ground. Indeed, the male with the sports jacket and the pin-striped trousers was clearly preparing to make an issue of it.
Nevil looked at them silently for a further few seconds and then fished in his inner pocket for something. At the first movement of his hand a strange difference came over the group. The outer members of it detached themselves and faded unobtrusively through the gate; the nearer ones lost their air of bravado, and became placatory. Finally the sports-jacket made small rejecting movements of surrender and joined the retreat through the gate.
Nevil banged the gate to behind them, levered the wooden bar into place, and strolled up the path to the door wiping his hands fastidiously on a really shocking handkerchief. And Marion ran out to the door to meet him.
“Nevil!” Robert heard her say. “How did you do it?”
“Do what?” Nevil asked.
“Get rid of those creatures.”
“Oh, I just asked their names and addresses,” Nevil said. “You’ve no idea how discreet people become if you take out a notebook and ask for their name and address. It’s the modern equivalent to: ‘Fly, all is discovered.’ They don’t wait to ask your credentials in case you may actually have some. Hello, Robert. Good morning, Mrs. Sharpe. I’m actually on my way to Larborough, but I saw the gate open and these two frightful cars outside so I stopped to investigate. I didn’t know Robert was here.”
This quite innocent implication that of course Robert was capable of dealing equally well with the situation was the unkindest cut of all. Robert could have brained him.
“Well, now that you are here and have so expertly rid us of the nuisance you must stay and drink a glass of sherry,” Mrs. Sharpe said.
“Could I come in and drink it on my way home in the evening?” Nevil said. “You see, I’m on my way to lunch with my prospective father-in-law and it being Sunday there is a ritual. One must be there for the warming-up exercises.”
“But of course come in on your way home,” Marion said. “We shall be delighted. How shall we know it is you? For the gate, I mean.” She was pouring sherry and handing it to Robert.
“Do you know morse?”
“Yes, but don’t tell me you do.”
“You look a most unlikely morse addict.”
“Oh, when I was fourteen I was going to sea, and I acquired in the heat of my ambition a lot of incidental idiocies. Morse was one of them. I shall hoot the initials of your beautiful name on the horn, when I come. Two longs and three shorts. I must fly. The thought of talking to you tonight will support me through luncheon at the Palace.”
“Won’t Rosemary be any support?” Robert asked, overcome by his baser self.
“I shouldn’t think so. On Sundays Rosemary is a daughter in her father’s house. It is a role that does not become her. Au revoir, Mrs. Sharpe. Don’t let Robert drink all the sherry.”
“And when,” Robert heard Marion ask as she went with him to the door, “did you decide not to go to sea?”
“When I was fifteen. I took up ballooning instead.”
“Theoretical, I suppose.”
“Well, I gassed about gases.”
Why did they sound so friendly, so at ease, Robert wondered. As if they had known each other a long time. Why did she like that light-weight Nevil?
“And when you were sixteen?”
If she knew how many things Nevil had taken up and dropped in his time she might not be so pleased to be the latest of them.
“Is the sherry too dry for you, Mr. Blair,” Mrs. Sharpe asked.
“No, oh no, thank you, it is excellent.” Was it possible that he had been looking sour? Perish the thought.
He stole a cautious glance at the old lady and thought that she was looking faintly amused. And old Mrs. Sharpe being amused was no comfortable sight.
“I think I had better go before Miss Sharpe bars the gate behind Nevil,” he said. “Otherwise she will have to come to the gate again with me.”
“But won’t you stay and have lunch with us? There is no ritual about it at The Franchise.”
But Robert made his excuses. He didn’t like the Robert Blair he was becoming. Petty and childish and inadequate. He would go back and have ordinary Sunday lunch with Aunt Lin and be again Robert Blair of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet, equable and tolerant and at peace with his world.
Nevil had gone by the time he reached the gate, in a flurry of sound that shattered the Sabbath quiet, and Marion was about to close the gate.
“I can’t think that the Bishop approves of his future son-in-law’s means of transport,” she said looking after the roaring object as it streaked down the road.
“Exhausting,” Robert said, still caustic.
She smiled at him. “I think that is the first witty pun I have ever heard anyone make,” she said. “I hoped you would stay for lunch, but in a way I’m rather relieved that you aren’t.”
“Are you indeed?”
“I made a ‘shape’ but it didn’t stand up. I’m a very bad cook. I do faithfully what it says in the book but it hardly ever works out. Indeed I’m surprised to death when it does. So you will be better off with your Aunt Lin’s apple tart.”
And Robert suddenly and illogically wished that he was staying, to share the “shape” that had not stood up and to be gently mocked by her along with her cooking.
“I’ll let you know tomorrow night how I get on in Larborough,” he said matter-of-factly. Since he was not on hens-and-Maupassant terms with her he would keep the conversation to practicalities. “And I’ll ring up Inspector Hallam and see if one of their men can give a look round The Franchise once or twice a day; just to show the uniform, so to speak, and to discourage idlers.”
“You are very kind, Mr. Blair,” she said. “I can’t imagine what it would be without you to lean on.”
Well, if he couldn’t be young and a poet, he could be a crutch. A dull thing, a thing resorted to only in emergencies, but useful; useful.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01