Robert was less sure about the ultimate triumph of good by Friday afternoon.
It was not the Bishop’s letter which shook his faith. Indeed the events of Friday did much to take the wind out of the Bishop’s sails; and if Robert had been told on Wednesday morning that he would bitterly regret anything that served to deflate the Bishop he would not have believed it.
His Lordship’s letter had run very true to form. The Watchman, he said, had always set its face against violence and was not now, of course, proposing to condone it, but there were occasions when violence was but a symptom of a deep social unrest, resentment, and insecurity. As in the recent Nullahbad case, for instance. (The “unrest, resentment, and insecurity” in the Nullahbad case lay entirely in the bosoms of two thieves who could not find the opal bracelet they had come to steal and by way of reprisal killed the seven sleeping occupants of the bungalow in their beds.) There were undoubtedly times when the proletariat felt themselves helpless to redress a patent wrong, and it was not to be marvelled at that some of the more passionate spirits were moved to personal protest. (Robert thought that Bill and Stanley would hardly recognise the louts of Monday night under the guise of “passionate spirits”; and he held that “personal protest” was a slight understatement for the entire wrecking of the ground floor windows of The Franchise.) The people to be blamed for the unrest (the Watchman had a passion for euphemism: unrest, under-privileged, backward, unfortunate; where the rest of the world talked about violence, the poor, mentally deficient, and prostitutes; and one of the things that the Ack–Emma and the Watchman had in common, now he thought about it, was the belief that all prostitutes were hearts-of-gold who had taken the wrong turning)— the people to be blamed for the unrest were not those perhaps misguided persons who had demonstrated their resentment so unmistakably, but the powers whose weakness, ineptitude and lack of zeal had led to the injustice of a dropped case. It was part of the English heritage that justice should not only be done but that it should be shown to be done; and the place for that was in open court.
“What good does he think it would do anyone for the police to waste time preparing a case that they were fore-ordained to lose?” Robert asked Nevil, who was reading the letter over his shoulder.
“It would have done us a power of good,” Nevil said. “He doesn’t seem to have thought of that. If the Magistrate dismissed the case the suggestion that his poor bruised darling was telling fibs could hardly be avoided, could it! Have you come to the bruises?”
The bruises came near the end. The “poor bruised body” of this young and blameless girl, his lordship said, was a crying indictment of a law that had failed to protect her and now failed to vindicate her. The whole conduct of this case was one that demanded the most searching scrutiny.
“That must be making the Yard very happy this morning,” Robert said.
“This afternoon,” amended Nevil.
“Why this afternoon?”
“No one at the Yard would read a bogus publication like the Watchman. They won’t see it until someone sends it to them this afternoon.”
But they had seen it, as it turned out. Grant had read it in the train. He had picked it off the bookstall with three others; not because it was his choice but because it was a choice between that and coloured publications with bathing-belle covers.
Robert deserted the office and took the copy of the Watchman out to The Franchise together with that morning’s Ack–Emma, which had quite definitely no further interest in the Franchise affair. Since the final, subdued letter on Wednesday it had ceased to mention the matter. It was a lovely day; the grass in the Franchise courtyard absurdly green, the dirty-white front of the house glorified by the sun into a semblance of grace, the reflected light from the rosy brick wall flooding the shabby drawing-room and giving it a smiling warmth. They had sat there, the three of them, in great contentment. The Ack–Emma had finished its undressing of them in public; the Bishop’s letter was not after all as bad as it might have been; Alec Ramsden was busy on their behalf in Larborough and would without doubt unearth facts sooner or later that would be their salvation; the summer was here with its bright short nights; Stanley was proving himself “a great dear”; they had paid a second short visit to Milford yesterday in pursuance of their design to become part of the scenery, and nothing untoward had happened to them beyond stares, black looks, and a few audible remarks. Altogether, the feeling of the meeting was that it all might be worse.
“How much ice will this cut?” Mrs. Sharpe asked Robert, stabbing her skinny index finger at the correspondence page of the Watchman.
“Not much, I think. Even among the Watchman clique the Bishop is looked at slightly sideways nowadays, I understand. His championship of Mahoney didn’t do him any good.”
“Who was Mahoney?” Marion asked.
“Have you forgotten Mahoney? He was the Irish ‘patriot’ who put a bomb in a woman’s bicycle basket in a busy English street and blew four people to pieces, including the woman, who was later identified by her wedding ring. The Bishop held that Mahoney was merely misguided, not a murderer; that he was fighting on behalf of a repressed minority — the Irish, believe it or not — and that we should not make him into a martyr. That was a little too much for even Watchman stomachs, and since then the Bishop’s prestige is not what it was, I hear.”
“Isn’t it shocking how one forgets when it doesn’t concern oneself,” Marion said. “Did they hang Mahoney?”
“They did, I am glad to say — much to his own pained surprise. So many of his predecessors had benefited from the plea that we should not make martyrs, that murder had ceased to be reckoned in their minds as one of the dangerous trades. It was rapidly becoming as safe as banking.”
“Talking of banking,” Mrs. Sharpe said, “I think it would be best if our financial position were made clear to you, and for that you should get in touch with old Mr. Crowle’s solicitors in London, who manage our affairs. I shall write to them explaining that you are to be given full details, so that you may know how much we have to come and go on, and can make corresponding arrangements for the spending of it in defence of our good name. It is not exactly the way we had planned to spend it.”
“Let us be thankful we have it to spend,” Marion said. “What does a penniless person do in a case like this?”
Robert quite frankly did not know.
He took the address of the Crowle solicitors and went home to lunch with Aunt Lin, feeling happier than he had at any time since he had first caught sight of the Ack–Emma’s front page on Bill’s desk last Friday. He felt as one feels in a bad thunderstorm when the noise ceases to be directly overhead; it will still continue, and probably still be very unpleasant, but one can see a future through it, whereas but a moment ago there was nothing but the dreadful “now.”
Even Aunt Lin seemed to have forgotten The Franchise for a spell and was at her woolly and endearing best — full of the birthday presents she was buying for Lettice’s twins in Saskatchewan. She had provided his favourite lunch — cold ham, boiled potatoes, and brown-betty with thick cream — and moment by moment he was finding it more difficult to realise that this was the Friday morning he had dreaded because it would see the beginning of a Watchman campaign against them. It seemed to him that the Bishop of Larborough was very much what Lettice’s husband used to call “a busted flush.” He couldn’t imagine now why he had wasted a thought on him.
It was in this mood that he went back to the office. And it was in this mood that he picked up the receiver to answer Hallam’s call.
“Mr. Blair?” Hallam said. “I’m at the Rose and Crown. I’m afraid I’ve got bad news for you. Inspector Grant’s here.”
“At the Rose and Crown?”
“Yes. And he’s got a warrant.”
Robert’s brain stopped functioning. “A search warrant?” he asked stupidly.
“No; a warrant to arrest.”
“I’m afraid so.”
“But he can’t have!”
“I expect it’s a bit of a shock for you. I admit I hadn’t anticipated it myself.”
“You mean he has managed to get a witness — a corroborative witness?”
“He has two of them. The case is sewn up and tied with ribbon.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“Will you come over, or shall we go to you? I expect you’ll want to come out with us.”
“Out where? Oh, yes. Yes, of course I shall. I’ll come over to the Rose and Crown now. Where are you? In the lounge?”
“No, in Grant’s bedroom. Number Five. The one with the casement window on the street — over the bar.”
“All right. I’m coming straight over. I say!”
“A warrant for both?”
“Yes. For two.”
“All right. Thank you. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
He sat for a moment getting back his breath, and trying to orientate himself. Nevil was out on business, but Nevil was not much of a moral support at any time. He got up, took his hat, and went to the door of “the office.”
“Mr. Heseltine, please,” he said, in the polite formula always used in the presence of the younger staff; and the old man followed him into the hall and out to the sunlit doorway.
“Timmy,” Robert said. “We’re in trouble. Inspector Grant is here from Headquarters with a warrant to arrest the Franchise people.” Even as he said the words he could not believe that the thing was really happening.
Neither could old Mr. Heseltine; that was obvious. He stared, wordless; his pale old eyes aghast.
“It’s a bit of a shock, isn’t it, Timmy?” He shouldn’t have hoped for support from the frail old clerk.
But shocked as he was, and frail, and old, Mr. Heseltine was nevertheless a law clerk, and the support was forthcoming. After a lifetime among formulae his mind reacted automatically to the letter of the situation.
“A warrant,” he said. “Why a warrant?”
“Because they can’t arrest anyone without one,” Robert said a trifle impatiently. Was old Timmy getting past his work?
“I don’t mean that. I mean, it’s a misdemeanour they’re accused of, not a felony. They could surely make it a summons, Mr. Robert? They don’t need to arrest them, surely? Not for a misdemeanour.”
Robert had not thought of that. “A summons to appear,” he said. “Yes, why not? Of course there’s nothing to hinder them arresting them if they want to.”
“But why should they want to? People like the Sharpes wouldn’t run away. Nor do any further harm while they are waiting to appear. Who issued the warrant, did they say?”
“No, they didn’t say. Many thanks, Timmy; you’ve been as good as a stiff drink. I must go over to the Rose and Crown now — Inspector Grant is there with Hallam — and face the music. There’s no way of warning The Franchise because they have no telephone. I’ll just have to go out there with Grant and Hallam hanging round my neck. And only this morning we were beginning to see daylight, so we thought. You might tell Nevil when he comes in, will you? And stop him doing anything foolish or impulsive.”
“You know very well, Mr. Robert, I’ve never been able to stop Mr. Nevil doing anything he wanted to do. Though it has seemed to me that he has been surprisingly sober this last week. In the metaphorical sense, I mean.”
“Long may it last,” Robert said, stepping out into the sunlit street.
It was the dead period of the afternoon at the Rose and Crown and he passed through the hall and up the wide shallow stairs without meeting anyone, and knocked at the door of Number Five. Grant, calm and polite as always, let him in. Hallam, vaguely unhappy-looking, was leaning against the dressing-table in the window.
“I understand that you hadn’t expected this, Mr. Blair,” Grant said.
“No, I hadn’t. To be frank, it is a great shock to me.”
“Sit down,” Grant said. “I don’t want to hurry you.”
“You have new evidence, Inspector Hallam says.”
“Yes; what we think is conclusive evidence.”
“May I know what it is?”
“Certainly. We have a man who saw Betty Kane being picked up by the car at the bus stop ——”
“By a car,” Robert said.
“Yes, if you like, by a car — but its description fits that of the Sharpes’.”
“So do ten thousand others in Britain. And?”
“The girl from the farm, who went once a week to help clean The Franchise, will swear that she heard screams coming from the attic.”
“Went once a week? Doesn’t she go any longer?”
“Not since the Kane affair became common gossip.”
“Not very valuable pieces of evidence in themselves, but very valuable as proof of the girl’s story. For instance she really did miss that Larborough–London coach. Our witness says that it passed him about half a mile down the road. When he came in sight of the bus-stop a few moments later the girl was there waiting. It is a long straight road, the main London road through Mainshill ——”
“I know. I know it.”
“Yes; well, when he was still some way from the girl he saw the car stop by her, saw her get in, and saw her driven away.”
“But not who drove the car?”
“No. It was too far away for that.”
“And this girl from the farm — did she volunteer the information about the screaming?”
“Not to us. She spoke about it to her friends, and we acted on information, and found her quite willing to repeat the story on oath.”
“Did she speak about it to her friends before the gossip about Betty Kane’s abduction got round?”
That was unexpected, and Robert was rocked back on his heels. If that was really true — that the girl had mentioned screaming before there was any question of the Sharpes being in trouble — then the evidence would be damning. Robert got up and walked restlessly to the window and back. He thought enviously of Ben Carley. Ben wouldn’t be hating this as he hated it, feeling inadequate and at a loss. Ben would be in his element; his mind delighting in the problem and in the hope of outwitting established authority. Robert was dimly aware that his own deep-seated respect for established authority was a handicap to him rather than an asset; he needed some of Ben’s native belief that authority is there to be circumvented.
“Well, thank you for being so frank,” he said at last. “Now, I’m not minimising the crime you are accusing these people of, but it is misdemeanour not felony, so why a warrant? Surely a summons would meet the case perfectly?”
“A summons would be in order certainly,” Grant said smoothly. “But in cases where the crime is aggravated — and my superiors take a grave view of the present one — a warrant is issued.”
Robert could not help wondering how much the gadfly attentions of the Ack–Emma had influenced the calm judgments at the Yard. He caught Grant’s eye and knew that Grant had read his thought.
“The girl was missing for a whole month — all but a day or two,” Grant said, “and had been very badly knocked about, very deliberately. It is not a case to be taken lightly.”
“But what do you gain from arrest?” Robert asked, remembering Mr. Heseltine’s point. “There is no question of these people not being there to answer the charge. Nor any question of a similar crime being committed by them in the interval. When did you want them to appear, by the way?”
“I planned to bring them up at the police court on Monday.”
“Then I suggest that you serve them with a summons to appear.”
“My superiors have decided on a warrant,” Grant said, without emotion.
“But you could use your judgment. Your superiors can have no knowledge of local conditions, for instance. If The Franchise is left without occupants it will be a wreck in a week. Have your superiors thought of that? And if you arrest these women, you can only keep them in custody until Monday, when I shall ask for bail. It seems a pity to risk hooliganism at The Franchise just for the gesture of arrest. And I know Inspector Hallam has no men to spare for its protection.”
This right-and-left gave them both pause. It was amazing how ingrained the respect for property was in the English soul; the first change in Grant’s face had occurred at the mention of the possible wrecking of the house. Robert cast an unexpectedly kind thought to the louts who had provided the precedent, and so weighted his argument with example. As for Hallam, quite apart from his limited force he was not likely to look kindly on the prospect of fresh hooliganism in his district and fresh culprits to track down.
Into the long pause Hallam said tentatively: “There is something in what Mr. Blair says. Feeling in the countryside is very strong, and I doubt if they would leave the house untouched if it was empty. Especially if news of the arrest got about.”
It took nearly half an hour to convince Grant, however. For some reason there was a personal element in the affair for Grant, and Robert could not imagine what it could be, or why it should be there.
“Well,” the Inspector said at length, “you don’t need me to serve a summons.” It was as if a surgeon was contemptuous at being asked to open a boil, Robert thought, amused and vastly relieved. “I’ll leave that to Hallam and get back to town. But I’ll be in court on Monday. I understand that the Assizes are imminent, so if we avoid a remand the case can go straight on to the Assizes. Can you be ready with your defence by Monday, do you think?”
“Inspector, with all the defence my clients have we could be ready by tea-time,” Robert said bitterly.
To his surprise, Grant turned to him with a broader smile than was usual with him; and it was a very kind smile. “Mr. Blair,” he said, “you have done me out of an arrest this afternoon, but I don’t hold it against you. On the contrary, I think your clients are luckier than they deserve in their solicitor. It will be my prayer that they are less lucky in their counsel! Otherwise I may find myself talked into voting them a testimonial.”
So it was not with “Grant and Hallam hanging round his neck” that Robert went out to The Franchise; not with a warrant at all. He went out in Hallam’s familiar car with a summons sticking out of the pocket of it; and he was sick with relief when he thought of the escape they had had, and sick with apprehension when he thought of the fix they were in.
“Inspector Grant seemed to have a very personal interest in executing that warrant,” he said to Hallam as they went along. “Is it that the Ack–Emma has been biting him, do you think?”
“Oh, no,” Hallam said. “Grant’s as nearly indifferent to that sort of thing as a human being can be.”
“Well, it’s my belief — strictly between ourselves — that he can’t forgive them for fooling him. The Sharpes, I mean. He’s famous at the Yard for his good judgment of people, you see; and, again between ourselves, he didn’t much care for the Kane girl or her story; and he liked them even less when he had seen the Franchise people, in spite of all the evidence. Now he thinks the wool was pulled over his eyes, and he’s not taking it lightly. It would have given him a lot of pleasure, I imagine, to produce that warrant in their drawing-room.”
As they pulled up by the Franchise gate and Robert took out his key, Hallam said: “If you open both sides I’ll drive the car inside, even for the short time. No need to advertise the fact that we’re here.” And Robert, pushing open the solid iron leaves, thought that when visiting actresses said “Your policemen are wonderful” they didn’t know the half of it. He got back into the car and Hallam drove up the short straight drive and round the circular path to the door. As Robert got out of the car Marion came round the corner of the house, wearing gardening gloves and a very old skirt. Where her hair was blown up from her forehead by the wind it changed from the heavy dark stuff that it was to a soft smoke. The first summer sun had darkened her skin and she looked more than ever like a gipsy. Coming on Robert unexpectedly she had not time to guard her expression, and the lighting of her whole face as she saw him made his heart turn over.
“How nice!” she said. “Mother is still resting but she will be down soon and we can have some tea. I——” Her glance went on to Hallam and her voice died away uncertainly. “Good afternoon, Inspector.”
“Good afternoon, Miss Sharpe. I’m sorry to break into your mother’s rest, but perhaps you would ask her to come down. It’s important.”
She paused a moment, and then led the way indoors. “Yes, certainly. Has there been some — some new development? Come in and sit down.” She led them into the drawing-room that he knew so well by now — the lovely mirror, the dreadful fireplace, the bead-work chair, the good “pieces,” the old pink carpet faded to a dirty grey — and stood there, searching their faces, savouring the new threat in the atmosphere.
“What is it?” she asked Robert.
But Hallam said: “I think it would be easier if you fetched Mrs. Sharpe and I told you both at the same time.”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” she agreed, and turned to go. But there was no need to go. Mrs. Sharpe came into the room, very much as she had on that previous occasion when Hallam and Robert had been there together: her short strands of white hair standing on end where they had been pushed up by her pillow, her seagull’s eyes bright and inquiring.
“Only two kinds of people,” she said, “arrive in noiseless cars. Millionaires and the police. Since we have no acquaintances among the former — and an ever-widening acquaintance with the latter — I deduced that some of our acquaintances had arrived.”
“I’m afraid I’m even less welcome than usual, Mrs. Sharpe. I’ve come to serve a summons on you and Miss Sharpe.”
“A summons?” Marion said, puzzled.
“A summons to appear at the police court on Monday morning to answer a charge of abduction and assault.” It was obvious that Hallam was not happy.
“I don’t believe it,” Marion said slowly. “I don’t believe it. You mean you are charging us with this thing?”
“Yes, Miss Sharpe.”
“But how? Why now?” She turned to Robert.
“The police think they have the corroborative evidence they needed,” Robert said.
“What evidence?” Mrs. Sharpe asked, reacting for the first time.
“I think the best plan would be for Inspector Hallam to serve you both with the summonses, and we can discuss the situation at greater length when he has gone.”
“You mean, we have to accept them?” Marion said. “To appear in the public court — my mother too — to answer a — to be accused of a thing like that?”
“I’m afraid there is no alternative.”
She seemed half intimidated by his shortness, half resentful at his lack of championship. And Hallam, as he handed the document to her, seemed to be aware of this last and to resent it in his turn.
“And I think I ought to tell you, in case he doesn’t, that but for Mr. Blair here it wouldn’t be a mere summons, it would be a warrant; and you would be sleeping tonight in a cell instead of in your own beds. Don’t bother, Miss Sharpe: I’ll let myself out.”
And Robert, watching him go and remembering how Mrs. Sharpe had snubbed him on his first appearance in that room, thought that the score was now game all.
“Is that true?” Mrs. Sharpe asked.
“Perfectly true,” Robert said; and told them about Grant’s arrival to arrest them. “But it isn’t me you have to thank for your escape: it is old Mr. Heseltine in the office.” And he described how the old clerk’s mind reacted automatically to stimulus of a legal sort.
“And what is this new evidence they think they have?”
“They have it all right,” Robert said dryly. “There is no thinking about it.” He told them about the girl being picked up on the London road through Mainshill. “That merely corroborates what we have always suspected: that when she left Cherrill Street, ostensibly on her way home, she was keeping an appointment. But the other piece of evidence is much more serious. You told me once that you had a woman — a girl — from the farm, who came in one day a week and cleaned for you.”
“Rose Glyn, yes.”
“I understand that since the gossip got round she doesn’t come any more.”
“Since the gossip ——? You mean, the Betty Kane story? Oh, she was sacked before that ever came to light.”
“Sacked?” Robert said sharply.
“Yes. Why do you look so surprised? In our experience of domestic workers sacking is not an unexpected occurrence.”
“No, but in this case it might explain a lot. What did you sack her for?”
“Stealing,” said old Mrs. Sharpe.
“She had always lifted a shilling or two from a purse if it was left around,” supplemented Marion, “but because we needed help so badly we turned a blind eye and kept purses out of her way. Also any small liftable articles, like stockings. And then she took the watch I’d had for twenty years. I had taken it off to wash some things — the soapsuds rise up one’s arms, you know — and when I went back to look for it it had gone. I asked her about it, but of course she ‘hadn’t seen it.’ That was too much. That watch was part of me, as much a part of me as my hair or my fingernails. There was no recovering it, because we had no evidence at all that she had taken it. But after she had gone we talked it over and next morning we walked over to the farm, and just mentioned that we would not be needing her any more. That was a Tuesday — she always came on Mondays — and that afternoon after my mother had gone up to rest Inspector Grant arrived, with Betty Kane in the car.”
“I see. Was anyone else there when you told the girl at the farm that she was sacked?”
“I don’t remember. I don’t think so. She doesn’t belong to the farm — to Staples, I mean; they are delightful people. She is one of the labourer’s daughters. And as far as I remember we met her outside their cottage and just mentioned the thing in passing.”
“How did she take it?”
“She got very pink and flounced a bit.”
“She grew beetroot red and bridled like a turkeycock,” Mrs. Sharpe said. “Why do you ask?”
“Because she will say on oath that when she was working here she heard screams coming from your attic.”
“Will she indeed,” said Mrs. Sharpe, contemplatively.
“What is much worse, there is evidence that she mentioned the screams before there was any rumour of the Betty Kane trouble.”
This produced a complete silence. Once more Robert was aware how noiseless the house was, how dead. Even the French clock on the mantelpiece was silent. The curtain at the window moved inwards on a gust of air and fell back to its place as soundlessly as if it were moving in a film.
“That,” said Marion at last, “is what is known as a facer.”
“A facer for you, too.”
“For us, yes.”
“I don’t mean professionally.”
“No? How then?”
“You are faced with the possibility that we have been lying.”
“Really, Marion!” he said impatiently, using her name for the first time and not noticing that he had used it. “What I am faced with, if anything, is the choice between your word and the word of Rose Glyn’s friends.”
But she did not appear to be listening. “I wish,” she said passionately, “oh, how I wish that we had one small, just one small piece of evidence on our side! She gets away — that girl gets away with everything, everything. We keep on saying ‘It is not true,’ but we have no way of showing that it is not true. It is all negative. All inconclusive. All feeble denial. Things combine to back up her lies, but nothing happens to help prove that we are telling the truth. Nothing!”
“Sit down, Marion,” her mother said. “A tantrum won’t improve the situation.”
“I could kill that girl; I could kill her. My God, I could torture her twice a day for a year and then begin again on New Year’s day. When I think what she has done to us I——”
“Don’t think,” Robert interrupted. “Think instead of the day when she is discredited in open court. If I know anything of human nature that will hurt Miss Kane a great deal worse than the beating someone gave her.”
“You still believe that that is possible?” Marion said incredulous.
“Yes. I don’t quite know how we shall bring it about. But that we shall bring it about I do believe.”
“With not one tiny piece of evidence for us, not one; and evidence just — just blossoming for her?”
“Yes. Even then.”
“Is that just native optimism, Mr. Blair,” Mrs. Sharpe asked, “or your innate belief in the triumph of Good, or what?”
“I don’t know. I think Truth has a validity of its own.”
“Dreyfus didn’t find it very valid; nor Slater; nor some others of whom there is record,” she said dryly.
“They did in the end.”
“Well, frankly, I don’t look forward to a life in prison waiting for Truth to demonstrate its validity.”
“I don’t believe that it will come to that. Prison, I mean. You will have to appear on Monday, and since we have no adequate defence you will no doubt be sent for trial. But we shall ask for bail, and that means that you can go on staying here until the Assizes at Norton. And before that I hope that Alec Ramsden will have picked up the girl’s trail. Remember we don’t even have to know what she was doing for the rest of the month. All we have to show is that she did something else on the day she says you picked her up. Take away that first bit and her whole story collapses. And it is my ambition to take it away in public.”
“To undress her in public the way the Ack–Emma has undressed us? Do you think she would mind?” Marion said. “Mind as we minded?”
“To have been the heroine of a newspaper sensation, to say nothing of the adored centre of a loving and sympathetic family, and then to be uncovered to the public gaze as a liar, a cheat and a wanton? I think she would mind. And there is one thing she would mind particularly. One result of her escapade was that she got back Leslie Wynn’s attention; the attention she had lost when he became engaged. As long as she is a wronged heroine she is assured of that attention; once we show her up she has lost it for good.”
“I never thought to see the milk of human kindness so curdled in your gentle veins, Mr. Blair,” Mrs. Sharpe remarked.
“If she had broken out as a result of the boy’s engagement — as she very well might — I should have nothing but pity for her. She is at an unstable age, and his engagement must have been a shock. But I don’t think that had very much to do with it. I think she is her mother’s daughter; and was merely setting out a little early on the road her mother took. As selfish, as self-indulgent, as greedy, as plausible as the blood she came of. Now I must go. I said that I would be at home after five o’clock if Ramsden wanted to ring up to report. And I want to ring Kevin Macdermott and get his help about counsel and things.”
“I’m afraid that we — that I, rather — have been rather ungracious about this,” Marion said. “You have done, and are doing, so much for us. But it was such a shock. So entirely unexpected and out of the blue. You must forgive me if ——”
“There is nothing to forgive. I think you have both taken it very well. Have you got someone in the place of the dishonest and about-to-commit-perjury Rose? You can’t have this huge place entirely on your hands.”
“Well, no one in the locality would come, of course. But Stanley — what would we do without Stanley? — Stanley knows a woman in Larborough who might be induced to come out by bus once a week. You know, when the thought of that girl becomes too much for me, I think of Stanley.”
“Yes,” Robert said, smiling. “The salt of the earth.”
“He is even teaching me how to cook. I know how to turn eggs in the frying-pan without breaking them now. ‘D’you have to go at them as if you were conducting the Philharmonic?’ he asked me. And when I asked him how he got so neat-handed he said it was with ‘cooking in a bivvy two feet square.’”
“How are you going to get back to Milford?” Mrs. Sharpe asked.
“The afternoon bus from Larborough will pick me up. No word of your telephone being repaired, I suppose?”
Both women took the question as comment not interrogation. Mrs. Sharpe took leave of him in the drawing-room, but Marion walked to the gate with him. As they crossed the circle of grass enclosed by the branching driveway, he remarked: “It’s a good thing you haven’t a large family or there would be a worn track across the grass to the door.”
“There is that as it is,” she said, looking at the darker line in the rough grass. “It is more than human nature could bear to walk round that unnecessary curve.”
Small talk, he was thinking; small talk. Idle words to cover up a stark situation. He had sounded very brave and fine about the validity of Truth, but how much was mere sound? What were the odds on Ramsden’s turning up evidence in time for the court on Monday? In time for the Assizes? Long odds against, wasn’t it? And he had better grow used to the thought.
At half-past five Ramsden rang up to give him the promised report; and it was one of unqualified failure. It was the girl he was looking for, of course; having failed to identify the man as a resident at the Midland, and having therefore no information at all about him. But nowhere had he found even a trace of her. His own men had been given duplicates of the photograph and with them had made inquiries at the airports, the railway termini, travel agencies, and the more likely hotels. No one claimed to have seen her. He himself had combed Larborough, and was slightly cheered to find that the photograph he had been given was at least easily recognisable, since it had been readily identified at the places where Betty Kane had actually been. At the two main picture houses, for instance — where, according to the box-office girls’ information, she had always been alone — and at the ladies’ cloakroom of the bus-station. He had tried the garages, but had drawn blank.
“Yes,” Robert said. “He picked her up at the bus-stop on the London road through Mainshill. Where she would normally have gone to catch her coach home.” And he told Ramsden of the new developments. “So things really are urgent now. They are being brought up on Monday. If only we could prove what she did that first evening. That would bring her whole story crashing down.”
“What kind of car was it?” Ramsden asked.
Robert described it, and Ramsden sighed audibly over the telephone.
“Yes,” Robert agreed. “A rough ten thousand of them between London and Carlisle. Well, I’ll leave you to it. I want to ring up Kevin Macdermott and tell him our woes.”
Kevin was not in chambers, nor yet at the flat in St. Paul’s Churchyard, and Robert eventually ran him to earth at his home near Weybridge. He sounded relaxed and amiable, and was instantly attentive when he heard the news that the police had got their evidence. He listened without remark while Robert poured out the story to him.
“So you see, Kevin,” Robert finished, “we’re in a frightful jam.”
“A schoolboy description,” Kevin said, “but exquisitely accurate. My advice to you is to ‘give’ them the police court, and concentrate on the Assizes.”
“Kevin, couldn’t you come down for the week-end, and let me talk about it to you? It’s six years, Aunt Lin was saying yesterday, since you spent a night with us, so you’re overdue anyhow. Couldn’t you?”
“I promised Sean I’d take him over to Newbury on Sunday to choose a pony.”
“But couldn’t you postpone it? I’m sure Sean wouldn’t mind if he knew it was in a good cause.”
“Sean,” said his doting parent, “has never taken the slightest interest in any cause that was not to his own immediate advantage. Being a chip off the old block. If I came would you introduce me to your witches?”
“But of course.”
“And would Christina make me some butter tarts?”
“And could I have the room with the text in wools?”
“Kevin, you’ll come?”
“Well, it’s a damned dull country, Milford, except in the winter”— this was a reference to hunting, Kevin’s only eye for country being from the back of a horse —“and I was looking forward to a Sunday riding on the downs. But a combination of witches, butter tarts, and a bedroom with a text in wools is no small draw.”
As he was about to hang up, Kevin paused and said: “Oh, I say, Rob?”
“Yes?” Robert said, and waited.
“Have you considered the possibility that the police have the right of it?”
“You mean, that the girl’s absurd tale may be true?”
“Yes. Are you keeping that in mind — as a possibility, I mean?”
“If I were I shouldn’t ——” Robert began angrily, and then laughed. “Come down and see them,” he said.
“I come, I come,” Kevin assured him, and hung up.
Robert called the garage, and when Bill answered asked if Stanley was still there.
“It’s a wonder you can’t hear him from where you are,” Bill said.
“We’ve just been rescuing that bay pony of Matt Ellis’s from our inspection pit. Did you want Stan?”
“Not to speak to. Would you be very kind and ask him to pick up a note for Mrs. Sharpe on his way past tonight?”
“Yes, certainly. I say, Mr. Blair, is it true that there is fresh trouble coming about the Franchise affair — or shouldn’t I ask that?”
Milford! thought Robert. How did they do it? A sort of information-pollen blown on the wind?
“Yes, I’m afraid there is,” he said. “I expect they’ll tell Stanley about it when he goes out tonight. Don’t let him forget about the note, will you?”
“No, that’s all right.”
He wrote to The Franchise to say that Kevin Macdermott was coming down for Saturday night, and could he bring him out to see them on Sunday afternoon before he left to go back to town?
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01