It further upset Aunt Lin that Robert should have breakfast next morning at 7.45 so that he could go early to the office. It was another sign of the degeneration that the Franchise affair was responsible for. To have early breakfast so that he might catch a train, or set out for a distant meet, or attend a client’s funeral, was one thing. But to have early breakfast just so that he could arrive at work at an office-boy hour was a very odd proceeding, and unbefitting a Blair.
Robert smiled, walking up the sunny High Street still shuttered and quiet. He had always liked the early morning hours, and it was at this hour that Milford looked its best; its pinks and sepias and creams as delicate in the sunlight as a tinted drawing. Spring was merging into summer, and already the warmth of the pavement radiated into the cool air; the pollarded limes were full out. That would mean shorter nights for the lonely women at The Franchise, he remembered thankfully. But perhaps — with any luck — by the time the summer was actually here their vindication would be complete and their home no longer a beleaguered fortress.
Propped against the still closed door of the office was a long thin grey man who seemed to be all bones and to have no stomach at all.
“Good-morning,” Robert said. “Did you want to see me?”
“No,” said the grey man. “You wanted to see me.”
“At least so your telegram said. I take it you’re Mr. Blair?”
“But you can’t be here already!” Robert said.
“It’s not far,” the man said laconically.
“Come in,” said Robert trying to live up to Mr. Ramsden’s standard of economy in comment.
In the office he asked as he unlocked his desk: “Have you had breakfast?”
“Yes, I had bacon and eggs at the White Hart.”
“I am wonderfully relieved that you could come yourself.”
“I had just finished a case. And Kevin Macdermott has done a lot for me.”
Yes; Kevin, for all his surface malice and his overcrowded life, found the will and the time to help those who deserved help. In which he differed markedly from the Bishop of Larborough, who preferred the undeserving.
“Perhaps the best way would be for you to read this statement,” he said, handing Ramsden the copy of Betty Kane’s statement to the police, “and then we can go on with the story from there.”
Ramsden took the typescript, sat down in the visitors’ chair — folded up would be a more accurate description of his action — and withdrew himself from Robert’s presence very much as Kevin had done in the room in St. Paul’s Churchyard. Robert, taking out his own work, envied them their power of concentration.
“Yes, Mr. Blair?” he said presently; and Robert gave him the rest of the story: the girl’s identification of the house and its inmates, Robert’s own entrance into the affair, the police decision that they would not proceed on the available evidence, Leslie Wynn’s resentment and its result in the Ack–Emma publicity, his own interviews with the girl’s relations and what they revealed, his discovery that she went bus-riding and that a double-decker did run on the Milford bus-route during the relevant weeks, and his unearthing of X.
“To find out more about X is your job, Mr. Ramsden. The lounge waiter, Albert, knows what he looked like, and this is a list of residents for the period in question. It would be too great luck that he should be staying at the Midland, but one never knows. After that you’re on your own. Tell Albert I sent you, by the way. I’ve known him a long time.”
“Very good. I’ll get over to Larborough now. I’ll have a photograph of the girl by tomorrow, but perhaps you could lend me your Ack–Emma one for today.”
“Certainly. How are you going to get a proper photograph of her?”
Robert deduced that Scotland Yard had been given one when the girl was reported missing, and that his old colleagues at Headquarters would not be too reluctant to give him a copy; so he left it at that.
“There’s just a chance that the conductor of one of those double-decker buses may remember her,” he said as Ramsden was going. “They are Larborough And District Motor Services buses. The garage is in Victoria Street.”
At half-past nine the staff arrived — one of the first being Nevil; a change in routine which surprised Robert: Nevil was usually the last to arrive and the last to settle down. He would wander in, divest himself of his wrappings in his own small room at the back, wander into “the office” to say good morning, wander into the “waiting-room” at the back to say hello to Miss Tuff, and finally wander into Robert’s room and stand there thumbing open the bound roll of one of the esoteric periodicals that came for him by post and commenting on the permanently deplorable state of affairs in England. Robert had grown quite used to running through his morning post to a Nevil obbligato. But today Nevil came in at the appointed time, went into his own room, shut the door firmly after him, and, if the pulling in and out of drawers was any evidence, settled down to work at once.
Miss Tuff came in with her notebook and her dazzling white peter-pan collar, and Robert’s normal day had begun. Miss Tuff had worn peter-pan collars over her dark frock for twenty years, and would have looked undressed, almost indecent, without them now. A fresh one went on every morning; the previous day’s having been laundered the night before and laid ready for putting on tomorrow. The only break in the routine was on Sundays. Robert had once met Miss Tuff on a Sunday and entirely failed to recognise her because she was wearing a jabot.
Until half-past ten Robert worked, and then realised that he had had breakfast at an abnormally early hour and was now in need of more sustenance than an office cup of tea. He would go out and have coffee and a sandwich at the Rose and Crown. You got the best coffee in Milford at the Anne Boleyn, but it was always full of shopping females (“How nice to see you, my dear! We did miss you so at Ronnie’s party! And have you heard. . . . ”) and that was an atmosphere he would not face for all the coffee in Brazil. He would go across to the Rose and Crown, and afterwards he would shop a little on behalf of the Franchise people, and after lunch he would go out and break to them gently the bad news about the Watchman. He could not do it on the telephone because they had no telephone now. The Larborough firm had come out with ladders and putty and recalcitrant sheets of glass and had replaced the windows without fuss or mess. But they, of course, were Private Enterprise. The Post Office, being a Government department, had taken the matter of the telephone into avizandum and would move in their own elephantine good time. So Robert planned to spend part of his afternoon telling the Sharpes the news he could not tell them by telephone.
It was still early for mid-morning snacks and the chintz and old oak of the Rose and Crown lounge was deserted except for Ben Carley, who was sitting by the gate-legged table at the window reading the Ack–Emma. Carley had never been Robert’s cup-of-tea — any more than, he suspected, he was Carley’s — but they had the bond of their profession (one of the strongest in human nature) and in a small place like Milford that made them very nearly bosom friends. So Robert sat down as a matter of course at Carley’s table; remembering as he did so that he still owed Carley gratitude for that unheeded warning of his about the feeling in the countryside.
Carley lowered the Ack–Emma and regarded him with the too-lively dark eyes that were so alien in this English Midland serenity. “It seems to be dying down,” he said. “Only one letter today; just to keep something in the kitty.”
“The Ack–Emma, yes. But the Watchman is beginning a campaign of its own on Friday.”
“The Watchman! What’s it doing climbing into the Ack–Emma’s bed?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Robert said.
“No, I suppose not,” Carley said, considering it. “Two sides of the same penny, when you come to think of it. Oh, well. That needn’t worry you. The total circulation of the Watchman is about twenty thousand. If that.”
“Perhaps. But practically every one of those twenty thousand has a second cousin in the permanent Civil Service in this country.”
“So what? Has anyone ever known the permanent Civil Service to move a finger in any cause whatever outside their normal routine?”
“No, but they pass the buck. And sooner or later the buck drops into — into a — a ——”
“A fertile spot,” Carley offered, mixing the metaphor deliberately.
“Yes. Sooner or later some busybody or sentimentalist or egotist, with not enough to do, thinks that something should be done about this and begins to pull strings. And a string pulled in the Civil Service has the same effect as a string pulled in a peep-show. A whole series of figures is yanked into action, willy-nilly. Gerald obliges Tony, and Reggie obliges Gerald, and so on, to incalculable ends.”
Carley was silent a moment. “It’s a pity,” he said. “Just when the Ack–Emma was losing way. Another two days and they would have dropped it for good. In fact they’re two days over their normal schedule, as it is. I have never known them carry a subject longer than three issues. The response must have been terrific to warrant that amount of space.”
“Yes,” Robert agreed, gloomily.
“Of course, it was a gift for them. The beating of kidnapped girls is growing very rare. As a change of fare it was beyond price. When you have only three or four dishes, like the Ack–Emma, it’s difficult to keep the customers’ palates properly tickled. A tit-bit like the Franchise affair must have put up their circulation by thousands in the Larborough district alone.”
“Their circulation will slack off. It’s just a tide. But what I have to deal with is what’s left on the beach.”
“A particularly smelly beach, let me say,” Carley observed. “Do you know that fat blonde with the mauve powder and the uplift brassiere who runs that Sports Wear shop next the Anne Boleyn? She’s one of the things on your beach.”
“She lived at the same boarding-house in London as the Sharpes, it seems; and she has a lovely story as to how Marion Sharpe once beat a dog half to death in a rage. Her clients loved that story. So did the Anne Boleyn customers. She goes there for her morning coffee.” He glanced wryly at the angry flush on Robert’s face. “I needn’t tell you that she has a dog of her own. It has never been corrected in its spoiled life, but it is rapidly dying of fatty degeneration through the indiscriminate feeding of morsels whenever the fat blonde is feeling gooey.”
There were moments, Robert thought, when he could very nearly hug Ben Carley, striped suits and all.
“Ah, well, it will blow over,” said Carley, with the pliant philosophy of a race long used to lying low and letting the storm blow past.
Robert looked surprised. Forty generations of protesting ancestors were surprised in his sole person. “I don’t see that blowing over is any advantage,” he said. “It won’t help my clients at all.”
“What can you do?”
“Fight, of course.”
“Fight what? You wouldn’t get a slander verdict, if that’s what you’re thinking of.”
“No. I hadn’t thought of slander. I propose to find out what the girl was really doing during those weeks.”
Carley looked amused. “Just like that,” he said, commenting on this simple statement of a tall order.
“It won’t be easy and it will probably cost them all they have, but there is no alternative.”
“They could go away from here. Sell the house and settle down somewhere else. A year from now no one outside the Milford district will remember anything about this affair.”
“They would never do that; and I shouldn’t advise them to, even if they would. You can’t have a tin can tied to your tail and go through life pretending it isn’t there. Besides, it is quite unthinkable that that girl should be allowed to get away with her tale. It’s a matter of principle.”
“You can pay too high a price for your damned principles. But I wish you luck, anyhow. Are you considering a private inquiry agent? Because if you are I know a very good ——”
Robert said that he had got an agent and that he was already at work.
Carley’s expressive face conveyed his amused congratulation at this swift action on the part of the conservative Blair, Hayward, and Bennet.
“The Yard had better look to its laurels,” he said. His eyes went to the street beyond the leaded panes of the window, and the amusement in them faded to a fixed attention. He stared for a moment or two and then said softly: “Well! of all the nerve!”
It was an admiring phrase, not an indignant one; and Robert turned to see what was occasioning his admiration.
On the opposite side of the street was the Sharpes’ battered old car; its odd front wheel well in evidence. And in the back, enthroned in her usual place and with her usual air of faint protest at this means of transport, was Mrs. Sharpe. The car was pulled up outside the grocer’s, and Marion was presumably inside shopping. It could have been there only a few moments or Ben Carley would have noticed it before, but already two errand boys had paused to stare, leaning on their bicycles with voluptuous satisfaction in this free spectacle. And even while Robert took in the scene people came to the doors of neighbouring shops as the news flew from mouth to mouth.
“What incredible folly!” Robert said angrily.
“Folly nothing,” said Carley, his eyes on the picture. “I wish they were clients of mine.”
He fumbled in his pocket for change to pay for his coffee, and Robert fled from the room. He reached the near side of the car just as Marion came out on to the pavement at the other side. “Mrs. Sharpe,” he said sternly, “this is an extraordinarily silly thing to do. You are only exacerbating ——”
“Oh, good morning, Mr. Blair,” she said, in polite social tones. “Have you had your morning coffee, or would you like to accompany us to the Anne Boleyn?”
“Miss Sharpe!” he said appealing to Marion, who was putting her packages down on the seat. “You must know that this is a silly thing to do.”
“I honestly don’t know whether it is or not,” she said, “but it seems to be something that we must do. Perhaps we have grown childish with living too much to ourselves, but we found that neither of us could forget that snub at the Anne Boleyn. That condemnation without trial.”
“We suffer from spiritual indigestion, Mr. Blair. And the only cure is a hair of the dog that bit us. To wit, a cup of Miss Truelove’s excellent coffee.”
“But it is so unnecessary! So ——”
“We feel that at half-past ten in the morning there must be a large number of free tables at the Anne Boleyn,” Mrs. Sharpe said tartly.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Blair,” Marion said. “It is a gesture only. Once we have drunk our token cup of coffee at the Anne Boleyn we shall never darken its doors again.” She burlesqued the phrase in characteristic fashion.
“But it will merely provide Milford with a free ——”
Mrs. Sharpe caught him up before he could utter the word. “Milford must get used to us as a spectacle,” she said dryly, “since we have decided that living entirely within four walls is not something that we can contemplate.”
“They will soon grow used to seeing monsters and take us for granted again. If you see a giraffe once a year it remains a spectacle; if you see it daily it becomes part of the scenery. We propose to become part of the Milford scenery.”
“Very well, you plan to become part of the scenery. But do one thing for me just now.” Already the curtains of first-floor windows were being drawn aside and faces appearing. “Give up the Anne Boleyn plan — give it up for today at least — and have your coffee with me at the Rose and Crown.”
“Mr. Blair, coffee with you at the Rose and Crown would be delightful, but it would do nothing to relieve my spiritual indigestion, which, in the popular phrase, ‘is killing me’.”
“Miss Sharpe, I appeal to you. You have said that you realise that you are probably being childish, and — well, as a personal obligation to me as your agent, I ask you not to go on with the Anne Boleyn plan.”
“That is blackmail,” Mrs. Sharpe remarked.
“It is unanswerable, anyhow,” Marion said, smiling faintly at him. “We seem to be going to have coffee at the Rose and Crown.” She sighed. “Just when I was all strung up for a gesture!”
“Well, of all the nerve!” came a voice from overhead. It was Carley’s phrase over again but held none of Carley’s admiration; it was loaded with indignation.
“You can’t leave the car here,” Robert said. “Quite apart from the traffic laws it is practically Exhibit A.”
“Oh, we didn’t intend to,” Marion said. “We were taking it round to the garage so that Stanley can do something technical to its inside with some instrument he has there. He is exceedingly scornful about our car, Stanley is.”
“I dare say. Well, I shall go round with you; and you had better step on it before we are run in for attracting a crowd.”
“Poor Mr. Blair,” Marion said, pressing the starter. “It must be horrid for you not to be part of the landscape any more, after all those years of comfortable merging.”
She said it without malice — indeed there was genuine sympathy in her voice — but the sentence stuck in his mind and made a small tender place there as they drove round into Sin Lane, avoided five hacks and a pony that were trailing temperamentally out of the livery stable, and came to rest in the dimness of the garage.
Bill came out to meet them, wiping his hands on an oily rag. “Morning, Mrs. Sharpe. Glad to see you out. Morning, Miss Sharpe. That was a neat job you did on Stan’s forehead. The edges closed as neat as if they had been stitched. You ought to have been a nurse.”
“Not me. I have no patience with people’s fads. But I might have been a surgeon. You can’t be very faddy on the operating table.”
Stanley appeared from the back, ignoring the two women who now ranked as intimates, and took over the car. “What time do you want this wreck?” he asked.
“An hour do?” Marion asked.
“A year wouldn’t do, but I’ll do all that can be done in an hour.” His eye went on to Robert. “Anything for the Guineas?”
“I’ve had a good tip for Bali Boogie.”
“Nonsense,” old Mrs. Sharpe said. “None of that Hippocras blood were any good when it came to a struggle. Just turned it up.”
The three men stared at her, astonished.
“You are interested in racing?” Robert said, unbelieving.
“No, in horseflesh. My brother bred thoroughbreds.” Seeing their faces she gave her dry cackle of laughter, so like a hen’s squawk. “Did you think I went to rest every afternoon with my Bible, Mr. Blair? Or perhaps with a book on black magic. No, indeed; I take the racing page of the daily paper. And Stanley would be well advised to save his money on Bali Boogie; if anything in horseflesh ever deserved so obscene a name that animal does.”
“And what instead?” Stanley asked, with his usual economy.
“They say that horse sense is the instinct that keeps horses from betting on men. But if you must do something as silly as betting, then you had better put your money on Kominsky.”
“Kominsky!” Stanley said. “But it’s at sixties!”
“You can of course lose your money at a shorter price if you like,” she said dryly. “Shall we go, Mr. Blair?”
“All right,” Stan said. “Kominsky it is; and you’re on to a tenth of my stake.”
They walked back to the Rose and Crown; and as they emerged from the comparative privacy of Sin Lane into the open street Robert had the exposed feeling that being out in a bad air-raid used to give him. All the attention and all the venom in the uneasy night seemed to be concentrated on his shrinking person. So now in the bright early-summer sunlight he crossed the street feeling naked and unprotected. He was ashamed to see how relaxed and seemingly indifferent Marion swung along at his side, and hoped that his self-consciousness was not apparent. He talked as naturally as he could, but he remembered how easily her mind had always read the contents of his, and felt that he was not making a very good job of it.
A solitary waiter was picking up the shilling that Ben Carley had left on the table, but otherwise the lounge was deserted. As they seated themselves round the bowl of wallflowers on the black oak table Marion said: “You heard that our windows are in again?”
“Yes; P.C. Newsam looked in on his way home last night to tell me. That was smart work.”
“Did you bribe them?” Mrs. Sharpe asked.
“No. I just mentioned that it was the work of hooligans. If your missing windows had been the result of blast you would no doubt still be living with the elements. Blast ranks as misfortune, and therefore a thing to be put up with. But hooliganism is one of those things that Something Must Be Done About. Hence your new windows. I wish that it was all as easy as replacing windows.”
He was unaware that there had been any change in his voice, but Marion searched his face and said: “Some new development?”
“I’m afraid there is. I was coming out this afternoon to tell you about it. It appears that just when the Ack–Emma is dropping the subject — there is only one letter today and that a mild one — just when the Ack–Emma has grown tired of Betty Kane’s cause the Watchman is going to take it up.”
“Excelsior!” said Marion. “The Watchman snatching the torch from the failing hands of the Ack–Emma is a charming picture.”
“Climbing into the Ack–Emma’s bed,” Ben Carley had called it; but the sentiment was the same.
“Have you spies in the Watchman office, Mr. Blair?” Mrs. Sharpe asked.
“No; it was Nevil who got wind of it. They are going to print a letter from his future father-in-law, the Bishop of Larborough.”
“Hah!” said Mrs. Sharpe. “Toby Byrne.”
“You know him?” asked Robert, thinking that the quality of her tone would peel the varnish off wood if spilt on it.
“He went to school with my nephew. The son of the horse-leech brother. Toby Byrne, indeed. He doesn’t change.”
“I gather that you didn’t like him.”
“I never knew him. He went home for the holidays once with my nephew but was never asked back.”
“He discovered for the first time that stable lads got up at the crack of dawn, and he was horrified. It was slavery, he said; and he went round the lads urging them to stand up for their rights. If they combined, he said, not a horse would go out of the stable before nine o’clock in the morning. The lads used to mimic him for years afterwards; but he was not asked back.”
“Yes; he doesn’t change,” agreed Robert. “He has been using the same technique ever since, on everything from Kaffirs to crêches. The less he knows about a thing the more strongly he feels about it. Nevil was of the opinion that nothing could be done about the proposed letter, since the Bishop had already written it, and what the Bishop has written is not to be contemplated as waste-paper. But I couldn’t just sit and do nothing about it; so I rang him up after dinner and pointed out as tactfully as I could that he was embracing a very doubtful cause, and at the same time doing harm to two possibly innocent people. But I might have saved my breath. He pointed out that the Watchman existed for the free expression of opinion, and inferred that I was trying to prevent such freedom. I ended up by asking him if he approved of lynching, because he was doing his best to bring one about. That was after I saw it was hopeless and had stopped being tactful.” He took the cup of coffee that Mrs. Sharpe had poured out for him. “He’s a sad come-down after his predecessor in the See; who was the terror of every evil-doer in five counties, and a scholar to boot.”
“How did Toby Byrne achieve gaiters?” Mrs. Sharpe wondered.
“I assume that Cowan’s Cranberry Sauce had no inconsiderable part in his translation.”
“Ah, yes. His wife. I forgot. Sugar, Mr. Blair?”
“By the way, here are the two duplicate keys to the Franchise gate. I take it that I may keep one. The other you had better give to the police, I think, so that they can look round as they please. I also have to inform you that you now have a private agent in your employ.” And he told them about Alec Ramsden, who appeared on doorsteps at half-past eight in the morning.
“No word of anyone recognising the Ack–Emma photograph and writing to Scotland Yard?” Marion asked. “I had pinned my faith to that.”
“Not so far. But there is still hope.”
“It is five days since the Ack–Emma printed it. If anyone was ever going to recognise it they would have by now.”
“You don’t make allowances for the discards. That is nearly always the way it happens. Someone spreads open their parcel of chips and says: ‘Dear me, where did I see that face?’ Or someone is using a bundle of newspapers to line drawers in a hotel. Or something like that. Don’t lose hope, Miss Sharpe. Between the good Lord and Alec Ramsden, we’ll triumph in the end.”
She looked at him soberly. “You really believe that, don’t you,” she said as one noting a phenomenon.
“I do,” he said.
“You believe in the ultimate triumph of Good.”
“I don’t know. I suppose because the other thing is unthinkable. Nothing more positive or more commendable than that.”
“I should have a greater faith in a God who hadn’t given Toby Byrne a bishopric,” Mrs. Sharpe said. “When does Toby’s letter appear, by the way?”
“On Friday morning.”
“I can hardly wait,” said Mrs. Sharpe.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01