“I wonder if you would mind calling for the fish, dear,” Aunt Lin said on the telephone on Tuesday afternoon. “Nevil is coming to dinner, and so we are going to have an extra course of what we were going to have for breakfast. I really don’t see why we should have anything extra just for Nevil, but Christina says that it will keep him from making what she calls ‘inroads’ on the tart that is going to do again on her night-out tomorrow. So if you wouldn’t mind, dear.”
He was not looking forward greatly to an extra hour or two of Nevil’s society, but he was feeling so pleased with himself that he was in a better humour to support it than usual. He had arranged with a Larborough firm for the replacement of the Franchise windows; he had miraculously unearthed a key that fitted the Franchise gate — and there would be two duplicates in existence by tomorrow; and he had personally taken out the groceries — together with an offering of the best flowers that Milford could supply. His welcome at The Franchise had been such that he had almost ceased to regret the lack of light exchanges on Nevil lines. There were, after all, other things than getting to Christian-name terms in the first half-hour.
In the lunch hour he had rung up Kevin Macdermott, and arranged with his secretary that when Kevin was free in the evening he would call him at 10 High Street. Things were getting out of hand, and he wanted Kevin’s advice.
He had refused three invitations to golf, his excuse to his astounded cronies being that he had “no time to chase a piece of gutta-percha round a golf course.”
He had gone to see an important client who had been trying to interview him since the previous Friday and who had been provoked into asking him on the telephone if “he still worked for Blair, Hayward, and Bennet.”
He had got through his arrears of work with a mutely reproachful Mr. Heseltine; who, although he had allied himself on the Sharpe side, still obviously felt that the Franchise affair was not one for a firm like theirs to be mixed up in.
And he had been given tea by Miss Tuff out of the blue-patterned china on the lacquer tray covered by the fair white cloth and accompanied by two digestive biscuits on a plate.
It was lying on his desk now, the tea-tray; just as it had been a fortnight ago when the telephone had rung and he had lifted the receiver to hear Marion Sharpe’s voice for the first time. Two short weeks ago. He had sat looking at it in its patch of sunlight, feeling uneasy about his comfortable life and conscious of time slipping past him. But today, the digestive biscuits held no reproach for him because he had stepped outside the routine they typified. He was on calling terms with Scotland Yard; he was agent for a pair of scandalous women; he had become an amateur sleuth; and he had been witness of mob violence. His whole world looked different. Even the people he met looked different. The dark skinny woman he used to see sometimes shopping in the High Street, for instance, had turned into Marion.
Well, one result of stepping out of a routined life was, of course, that you couldn’t put on your hat and stroll home at four o’clock of an afternoon. He pushed the tea-tray out of his way, and went to work, and it was half-past six before he looked at the clock again, and seven before he opened the door of Number 10.
The sitting-room door was ajar as usual — like many doors in old houses it swung a little if left off the latch — and he could hear Nevil’s voice in the room beyond.
“On the contrary, I think you are being extremely silly,” Nevil was saying.
Robert recognised the tone at once. It was the cold rage with which a four-year-old Nevil had told a guest: “I am extremely sorry that I asked you to my party.” Nevil must be very angry indeed about something.
With his coat half off Robert paused to listen.
“You are interfering in something you know nothing whatever about; you can hardly claim that is an intelligent proceeding.”
There was no other voice, so he must be talking to someone on the telephone; probably keeping Kevin from getting through, the young idiot.
“I am not infatuated with anyone. I never have been infatuated with anyone. It is you who are infatuated — with ideas. You are being extremely silly, as I said before. . . . You are taking the part of an unbalanced adolescent in a case you know nothing about; I should have thought that was sufficient evidence of infatuation. . . . You can tell your father from me that there is nothing Christian about it, just unwarranted interference. I’m not sure it isn’t incitement to violence. . . . Yes, last night. . . . No, all their windows broken, and things painted on their walls. . . . If he is so interested in justice he might do something about that. But your lot are never interested in justice, are they? Only in injustice. . . . What do I mean by your lot? Just what I say. You and all your crowd who are for ever adopting good-for-nothings and championing them against the world. You wouldn’t put out a finger to keep a hard-working little man from going down the drain, but let an old lag lack the price of a meal and your sobs can be heard in Antarctica. You make me sick. . . . Yes, I said you make me sick. . . . Cat-sick. Sick to my stomach. I retch!”
And the bang of the receiver on its rest indicated that the poet had said his say.
Robert hung up his coat in the cupboard and went in. Nevil with a face like thunder was pouring himself out a stiff whisky.
“I’ll have one too,” Robert said. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” he added. “That wasn’t Rosemary, by any chance?”
“Who else? Is there anyone else in Britain capable of an ineffable silliness like that?”
“Oh, didn’t you hear that bit? She has taken up the cause of the persecuted Betty Kane.” Nevil gulped some whisky, and glared at Robert as if Robert were responsible.
“Well, I don’t suppose her stepping on the Ack–Emma bandwagon will have much effect one way or another.”
“The Ack–Emma! It isn’t the Ack–Emma. It’s the Watchman. That mental deficient she calls father has written a letter about it for Friday’s issue. Yes, you may well look squeamish. As if we weren’t coping with enough without that highfalutin nugget of perverted sentimentality putting in its sixpenceworth!”
Remembering that the Watchman was the only paper ever to have published any of Nevil’s poems, Robert thought this showed slight ingratitude. But he approved the description.
“Perhaps they won’t print it,” he said, less in hope than looking for comfort.
“You know very well they will print anything he chooses to send them. Whose money saved them just when they were going down for the third time? The Bishop’s, of course.”
“His wife’s, you mean.” The Bishop had married one of the two grand-daughters of Cowan’s Cranberry Sauce.
“All right, his wife’s. And the Bishop has the Watchman for a lay pulpit. And there isn’t anything too silly for him to say in it, or too unlikely for them to print. Do you remember that girl who went round shooting taxi-drivers in cold blood for a profit of about seven-and-eleven a time? That girl was just his meat. He sobbed himself practically into a coma about her. He wrote a long heart-breaking letter about her in the Watchman, pointing out how under-privileged she had been, and how she had won a scholarship to a secondary school and hadn’t been able to ‘take it up’ because her people were too poor to provide her with books or proper clothes, and so she had gone to blind-alley jobs and then to bad company — and so, it was inferred, to shooting taxi-drivers, though he didn’t actually mention that little matter. Well, all the Watchman readers lahved that, of course; it was just their cup of tea; all criminals according to the Watchman readers are frustrated angels. And then the Chairman of the Board of Governors of the school — the school she was supposed to have won a scholarship to — wrote to point out that so far from winning anything was she that her name was 159th out of two hundred competitors; and that someone as interested in education as the Bishop was should have known that no one was prevented from accepting a scholarship through lack of money, since in needy cases books and money grants were forthcoming automatically. Well, you would have thought that that would shake him, wouldn’t you? But not a bit. They printed the Chairman’s letter on a back page, in small print; and in the very next issue the old boy was sobbing over some other case that he knew nothing about. And on Friday, so help me, he’ll be sobbing over Betty Kane.”
“I wonder — if I went over to see him tomorrow ——”
“It goes to press tomorrow.”
“Yes, so it does. Perhaps if I telephoned ——”
“If you think that anyone or anything will make His Lordship keep back a finished composition from the public gaze, you’re being naïve.”
The telephone rang.
“If that’s Rosemary, I’m in China,” Nevil said.
But it was Kevin Macdermott.
“Well, sleuth,” said Kevin. “My congratulations. But next time don’t waste an afternoon trying to ring up civilians in Aylesbury, when you can get the same information from Scotland Yard by return.”
Robert said that he was still sufficiently civilian not to think in terms of Scotland Yard at all; but that he was learning; rapidly.
He sketched the happenings of last night for Kevin’s benefit, and said: “I can’t afford to be leisurely about it any more. Something must be done as quickly as possible to clear them of this thing.”
“You want me to give you the name of a private agent, is that it?”
“Yes, I suppose it has come to that. But I did wonder ——”
“Wonder what?” Kevin asked, as he hesitated.
“Well, I did think of going to Grant at the Yard and saying quite frankly that I had found out how she could have known about the Sharpes and about the house; and that she had met a man in Larborough and that I had a witness of the meeting.”
“So that they could do what?”
“So that they could investigate the girl’s movements during that month instead of us.”
“And you think they would?”
“Of course. Why not?”
“Because it wouldn’t be worth their while. All they would do when they found out that she was not trustworthy would be to drop the case thankfully into oblivion. She has not sworn to anything so they could not prosecute her for perjury.”
“They could proceed against her for having misled them.”
“Yes, but it wouldn’t be worth their while. It won’t be easy to unearth her movements for that month, we may be sure. And on top of all that unnecessary investigation they would have the job of preparing and presenting a case. It’s highly unlikely that an overworked department, with serious cases flooding in at their doors, are going to all that bother when they could quietly drop the thing on the spot.”
“But it’s supposed to be a department of Justice. It leaves the Sharpes ——”
“No, a department of the Law. Justice begins in court. As you very well know. Besides, Rob, you haven’t brought them any proof of anything. You don’t know that she ever went to Milford. And the fact that she picked up a man at the Midland, and had tea with him, doesn’t do anything to disprove her story that she was picked up by the Sharpes. In fact the only leg you have to stand on is Alec Ramsden, 5 Spring Gardens, Fulham, South West.”
“Who is he?”
“Your private sleuth. And a very good one, take it from me. He has a flock of tame operators at call, so if he is busy himself he can supply you with a fairly good substitute. Tell him I gave you his name and he won’t palm off a dud on you. Not that he would, anyhow. He’s the salt of the earth. Pensioned from the Force because of a wound ‘received in the course of duty.’ He’ll do you proud. I must go. If there’s anything else I can do just give me a ring sometime. I wish I had time to come down and see The Franchise and your witches for myself. They grow on me. Goodbye.”
Robert laid down the receiver, picked it up again, asked for Information, and obtained the telephone number of Alec Ramsden. There was no answer and he sent a telegram saying that he, Robert Blair, needed some work done urgently and that Kevin Macdermott had said that Ramsden was the man to do it.
“Robert,” said Aunt Lin coming in pink and indignant, “did you know that you left the fish on the hall table and it has soaked through to the mahogany and Christina was waiting for it.”
“Is the gravamen of the charge the mahogany or keeping Christina waiting?”
“Really, Robert, I hardly know what’s come over you. Since you got involved in this Franchise affair you’ve changed entirely. A fortnight ago you would never have dreamed of putting a parcel of fish down on polished mahogany and forgetting all about it. And if you had you would be sorry about it and apologise.”
“I do apologise, Aunt Lin; I am truly contrite. But it is not often I am saddled with a responsibility as serious as the present one and you must forgive me if I am a little jaded.”
“I don’t think you are jaded at all. On the contrary, I have never seen you so pleased with yourself. I think you are positively relishing this sordid affair. Only this morning Miss Truelove at the Anne Boleyn was condoling with me on your being mixed up in it.”
“Was she indeed? Well, I condole with Miss Truelove’s sister.”
“Condole about what?”
“On having a sister like Miss Truelove. You are having a bad time, aren’t you, Aunt Lin.”
“Don’t be sarcastic, dear. It is not pleasant for anyone in this town to see the notoriety that has overtaken it. It has always been a quiet and dignified little place.”
“I don’t like Milford as much as I did a fortnight ago,” Robert said reflectively, “so I’ll save my tears.”
“No less than four separate charabancs arrived from Larborough at one time or another today, having come for nothing but to inspect The Franchise en route.”
“And who catered for them?” Robert asked, knowing that coach traffic was not welcome in Milford.
“No one. They were simply furious.”
“That will larn them to go poking their noses. There is nothing Larborough minds about as much as its stomach.”
“The vicar’s wife insists on being Christian about it, but I think that that is the wrong point of view.”
“Yes; ‘reserving our judgment,’ you know. That is merely feebleness, not Christianity. Of course I don’t discuss the case, Robert dear; even with her. I am the soul of discretion. But of course she knows how I feel, and I know how she feels, so discussion is hardly necessary.”
What was clearly a snort came from Nevil where he was sunk in an easy chair.
“Did you say something, Nevil dear?”
The nursery tone clearly intimidated Nevil. “No, Aunt Lin,” he said meekly.
But he was not going to escape so easily; the snort had only too clearly been a snort. “I don’t grudge you the drink, dear, but is that your third whisky? There is a Traminer for dinner, and you won’t taste it at all after that strong stuff. You mustn’t get into bad habits if you are going to marry a Bishop’s daughter.”
“I am not going to marry Rosemary.”
Miss Bennet stared, aghast. “Not!”
“I would as soon marry a Public Assistance Board.”
“I would as soon marry a radio set.” Robert remembered Kevin’s remark about Rosemary giving birth to nothing but a gramophone record. “I would as soon marry a crocodile.” Since Rosemary was very pretty Robert supposed that “crocodile” had something to do with tears. “I would as soon marry a soap-box.” Marble Arch, Robert supposed. “I would as soon marry the Ack–Emma.” That seemed to be final.
“But Nevil, dear, why!”
“She is a very silly creature. Almost as silly as the Watchman.”
Robert heroically refrained from mentioning the fact that for the last six years the Watchman had been Nevil’s bible.
“Oh, come, dear; you’ve had a tiff; all engaged couples do. It’s a good thing to get the give-and-take business on a firm basis before marriage; those couples who never quarrel during their engagement lead surprisingly rowdy lives after marriage; so don’t take a small disagreement too seriously. You can ring her up before you go home tonight ——”
“It is a quite fundamental disagreement,” Nevil said coldly. “And there is no prospect whatever of my ringing her up.”
“But Nevil, dear, what ——”
The three thin cracked notes of the gong floated through her protest and gave her pause. The drama of broken engagements gave place on the instant to more immediate concerns.
“That is the gong. I think you had better take your drink in with you, dear. Christina likes to serve the soup as soon as she has added the egg, and she is not in a very good mood tonight because of getting the fish so late. Though why that should make any difference to her I can’t think. It is only grilled, and that doesn’t take any time. It’s not as if she had had to wipe the fish juice off the mahogany, because I did that myself.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14