“Does Kevin Macdermott have to look like a tout when he comes to the country?” Nevil asked, the following evening as he and Robert waited for the guest to finish his ablutions and come down to dinner.
What Kevin in country clothes actually looked like, Robert considered, was a rather disreputable trainer of jumpers for the smaller meetings; but he refrained from saying that to Nevil. Remembering the clothes that Nevil had startled the countryside with for the last few years, he felt that Nevil was in no position to criticise anyone’s taste. Nevil had turned up to dinner in a chaste dark grey suit of the most irreproachable orthodoxy, and seemed to think that his new conformity made him free to forget the experimentalism of his immediate past.
“I suppose Christina is in the usual lather of sentiment?”
“A lather of white of egg, as far as I have been able to judge.”
Christina regarded Kevin as “Satan in person,” and adored him. His Satanic qualities came not from his looks — though Kevin did indeed look a little like Satan — but from the fact that he “defended the wicked for the sake of worldly gain.” And she adored him because he was good-looking, and a possibly reclaimable sinner, and because he praised her baking.
“I hope it’s a soufflé, then, and not that meringue stuff. Do you think that Macdermott could be lured into coming down to defend them at Norton Assizes?”
“I think he is much too busy for that, even if he were interested. But I’m hoping that one of his dogs-bodies will come.”
“Primed by Macdermott.”
“That’s the idea.”
“I really don’t see why Marion should have to slave to provide Macdermott with lunch. Does he realise that she has to prepare and clear away and wash up every single thing, to say nothing of carting them to and fro a day’s journey to that antediluvian kitchen?”
“It was Marion’s own idea that he should come to lunch with them. I take it that she considers the extra trouble worth while.”
“Oh, you were always crazy about Kevin; and you simply don’t know how to begin to appreciate a woman like Marion. It’s — it’s obscene that she should be wasting her vitality on household drudgery, a woman like that. She should be hacking her way through jungles, or scaling precipices, or ruling a barbarous race, or measuring the planets. Ten thousand nit-wit blondes dripping with mink have nothing to do but sit back and have the polish on their predatory nails changed, and Marion carts coal. Coal! Marion! And I suppose by the time this case is finished they won’t have a penny to pay a maid even if they could get one.”
“Let us hope that by the time this case is finished they are not doing hard labour by order.”
“Robert, it couldn’t come to that! It’s unthinkable.”
“Yes, it’s unthinkable. I suppose it is always unbelievable that anyone one knows should go to prison.”
“It’s bad enough that they should go into the dock. Marion. Who never did a cruel, or underhand, or shabby thing in her life. And just because a —— Do you know, I had a lovely time the other night. I found a book on torture, and I stayed awake till two o’clock choosing which one I would use on the Kane.”
“You should get together with Marion. That is her ambition too.”
“And what would yours be?” There was a faint hint of scorn in the tone, as though it was understood that the mild Robert would have no strong feelings on the subject. “Or haven’t you considered it?”
“I don’t need to consider it,” Robert said slowly. “I’m going to undress her in public.”
“Not that way. I’m going to strip her of every rag of pretence, in open court, so that everyone will see her for what she is.”
Nevil looked curiously at him for a moment. “Amen,” he said quietly. “I didn’t know you felt like that about it, Robert.” He was going to add something, but the door opened and Macdermott came in, and the evening had begun.
Eating solidly through Aunt Lin’s superb dinner, Robert hoped that it was not going to be a mistake to take Kevin to Sunday lunch at The Franchise. He was desperately anxious that the Sharpes should make a success with Kevin; and there was no denying that Kevin was temperamental and the Sharpes not everyone’s cup of tea. Was lunch at The Franchise likely to be an asset to their cause? A lunch cooked by Marion? For Kevin who was a gourmet? When he had first read the invitation — handed in by Stanley this morning — he was glad that they had made the gesture, but misgiving was slowly growing in him. And as one perfection succeeded the other in unhurried procession across Aunt Lin’s shining mahogany, with Christina’s large face hovering in eager benevolence beyond the candle-light, the misgiving swelled until it took entire possession of him. “Shapes that did not stand up” might fill his breast with a warm, protective affection; but they could hardly be expected to have the same effect on Kevin.
At least Kevin seemed glad to be here, he thought, listening to Macdermott making open love to Aunt Lin, with a word thrown to Christina every now and then to keep her happy and faithful. Dear Heaven, the Irish! Nevil was on his best behaviour, full of earnest attention, with a discreet “sir” thrown in now and again; often enough to make Kevin feel superior but not often enough to make him feel old. The subtler English form of flattery, in fact. Aunt Lin was like a girl, pink-cheeked and radiant; absorbing flattery like a sponge, subjecting it to some chemical process, and pouring it out again as charm. Listening to her talk Robert was amused to find that the Sharpes had suffered a sea-change in her mind. By the mere fact of being in danger of imprisonment, they had been promoted from “these people” to “poor things.” This had nothing to do with Kevin’s presence; it was a combination of native kindness and woolly thinking.
It was odd, Robert thought, looking round the table, that this family party — so gay, so warm, so secure — should be occasioned by the dire need of two helpless women in that dark silent house set down among the endless fields.
He went to bed with the warm aura of the party still round him, but in his heart a chill anxiety and an ache. Were they asleep out there at The Franchise? How much sleep had they had lately?
He lay long awake, and wakened early; listening to the Sunday morning silence. Hoping that it would be a good day — The Franchise looked its worst in rain, when its dirty-white became almost grey — and that whatever Marion made for lunch would “stand up.” Just before eight o’clock a car came in from the country and stopped below the window, and someone whistled a soft bugle call. A company call, it was. B Company. Stanley, presumably. He got up and put his head out of the window.
Stanley, hatless as usual — he had never seen Stanley in any kind of head covering — was sitting in the car regarding him with tolerant benevolence.
“You Sunday snoozers,” said Stanley.
“Did you get me up just to sneer at me?”
“No. I have a message from Miss Sharpe. She says when you come out you’re to take Betty Kane’s statement with you, and you’re on no account to forget it because it’s of the first importance. I’ll say it’s important! She’s going round looking as if she had unearthed a million.”
“Looking happy!” Robert said, unbelieving.
Like a bride. Indeed I haven’t seen a woman look like that since my cousin Beulah married her Pole. A face like a scone, Beulah has; and believe me that day she looked like Venus, Cleopatra, and Helen of Troy rolled into one.”
“Do you know what it is that Miss Sharpe is so happy about?”
“No. I did cast out a few feelers, but she’s saving it up, it seems. Anyhow, don’t forget the copy of the statement, or the responses won’t come right, or something. The pass-word’s in the statement.”
Stanley proceeded on his way up the street towards Sin Lane, and Robert took his towel and went to the bathroom greatly puzzled. While he waited for breakfast he looked out the statement from among the papers in his dispatch case, and read it through again with a new attention. What had Marion remembered or discovered that was making her so happy? Betty Kane had slipped somewhere, that was obvious. Marion was radiant, and Marion wanted him to bring the Kane statement when he came. That could only mean that somewhere in the statement was proof that Betty Kane was lying.
He reached the end of the statement without finding any likely sentence and began to hunt through it again. What could it be? That she had said it was raining, and that it — perhaps — had not been raining? But that would not have been vital, or even important to the credibility of her story. The Milford bus, then? The one she said she had passed, when being driven in the Sharpes’ car. Were the times wrong? But they had checked the times long ago, and they fitted nearly enough. The “lighted sign” on the bus? Was the time too early for a sign to be lighted? But that would have been merely a slip of memory, not a discrediting factor in her statement.
He hoped passionately that Marion in her anxiety to obtain that “one small piece of evidence” on their side was not exaggerating some trifling discrepancy into proof of dishonesty. The descent from hope would be worse than no hope at all.
This real worry almost obliterated the social worry of the lunch from his mind, and he ceased to care greatly whether Kevin enjoyed his meal at The Franchise or not. When Aunt Lin said to him, covertly, as she set off for church: “What do you think they’ll give you for lunch, dear? I’m quite sure they live on those toasted flake things out of packets, poor things,” he said shortly: “They know good wine when they taste it; that should please Kevin.”
“What has happened to young Bennet?” Kevin asked as they drove out to The Franchise.
“He wasn’t asked to lunch,” Robert said.
“I didn’t mean that. What has happened to the strident suits and the superiority and the Watchman aggressiveness?”
“Oh, he has fallen out with the Watchman over this case.”
“For the first time he is in a position to have actual personal knowledge of a case the Watchman is pontificating about, and it has been a bit of a shock to him, I think.”
“Is the reformation going to last?”
“Well, do you know, I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if it did. Apart from the fact that he has got to an age when they normally give up childish things, and was due for a change, I think he has been doing some revision and wondering if any of the other Watchman white-headed boys were any more worthy of championing than Betty Kane. Kotovich, for instance.”
“Hah! The patriot!” Kevin said expressively.
“Yes. Only last week he was holding forth on our duty to Kotovich; our duty to protect and cherish him — and eventually provide him with a British passport, I suppose. I doubt if today he would be quite so simple. He has grown up wonderfully in the last few days. I didn’t know he even possessed a suit like the one he was wearing last night. It must be one he got to go to his school prize-giving in, for he certainly has worn nothing so sober since.”
“I hope for your sake it lasts. He has brains, the boy; and once he got rid of his circus tricks would be an asset to the firm.”
“Aunt Lin is distressed because he has split with Rosemary over the Franchise affair, and she is afraid he won’t marry a Bishop’s daughter after all.”
“Hooray! More power to him. I begin to like the boy. You put a few wedges into that split, Rob — casual-like — and see that he marries some nice stupid English girl who will give him five children and give the rest of the neighbourhood tennis parties between showers on Saturday afternoons. It’s a much nicer kind of stupidity than standing up on platforms and holding forth on subjects you don’t know the first thing about. Is this the place?”
“Yes, this is The Franchise.”
“A perfect ‘mystery house’.”
“It wasn’t a mystery house when it was built. The gates, as you can see, were scroll work — rather nice work, too — so that the whole place was visible from the road. It was the simple operation of backing the gate with the iron sheeting that converted the house from something quite ordinary to something rather secret.”
“A perfect house for Betty Kane’s purpose anyhow. What a piece of luck for her that she remembered it.”
Robert was to feel guilty afterwards that he had not had greater faith in Marion; both over the matter of Betty Kane’s statement and over the lunch. He should have remembered how cool-minded she was, how analytic; and he should have remembered the Sharpe gift for taking people as they found them and its soothing effect on the persons concerned. The Sharpes had made no effort to live up to Aunt Lin’s standard of hospitality; no effort to provide a formal dining-room lunch. They had set a table for four in the window of the drawing-room where the sun fell on it. It was a cherrywood table, very pleasant in grain but sadly needing polishing. The wine glasses, on the other hand, were polished to a diamond brilliance. (How like Marion, he thought, to concentrate on the thing that mattered and to ignore mere appearance.)
“The dining-room is an incredibly gloomy place,” Mrs. Sharpe said. “Come and see it, Mr. Macdermott.”
That too was typical. No sitting round with their sherry making small talk. Come and see our horrible dining-room. And the visitor was part of the household before he knew it.
“Tell me,” Robert said to Marion as they were left alone, “what is this about the ——”
“No, I am not going to talk about it until after lunch. It is to be your liqueur. It is a piece of the most astonishing luck that I should have thought of it last night, when Mr. Macdermott was coming to lunch today. It makes everything quite different. It won’t stop the case, I suppose, but it does make everything different for us. It is the ‘small thing’ that I was praying for to be evidence for us. Have you told Mr. Macdermott?”
“About your message. No, I haven’t said anything. I thought it better — not to.”
“Robert!” she said looking at him with a quizzical amusement. “You didn’t trust me. You were afraid I was havering.”
“I was afraid you might be building more on a small foundation than — than it would hold. I——”
“Don’t be afraid,” she said, reassuringly. “It will hold. Would you like to come to the kitchen and carry the tray of soup for me?”
They had even managed the service without fuss or flurry. Robert carried the tray with four flat bowls of soup, and Marion came after him with a large dish under a Sheffield plate cover, and that seemed to be all. When they had drunk their soup, Marion put the large dish in front of her mother, and a bottle of wine in front of Kevin. The dish was a pot-au-feu chicken with all its vegetables round it; and the wine was a Montrachet.
“A Montrachet!” Kevin said. “You wonderful woman.”
“Robert told us you were a claret lover,” Marion said, “but what is left in old Mr. Crowle’s cellar is long past its best. So it was a choice between that and a very heavy red burgundy that is wonderful on winter evenings but not so good with one of the Staples’ fowls on a summer day.”
Kevin said something about how seldom it was that women were interested in anything that did not bubble, or alternatively explode.
“To be frank,” Mrs. Sharpe said, “if these parcels had been saleable we should probably have sold them, but we were exceedingly glad that they were too scrappy and varied for that. I was brought up to appreciate wine. My husband had a fairly good cellar, though his palate was not as good as mine. But my brother at Lessways had a better one, and a fine palate to match.”
“Lessways?” Kevin said, and looked at her as if searching for a resemblance. “You’re not Charlie Meredith’s sister, are you?”
“I am. Did you know Charles? But you couldn’t. You are too young.”
“The first pony I ever had of my own was bred by Charlie Meredith,” Kevin said. “I had him for seven years and he never put a foot wrong.”
And after that, of course, both of them ceased to take any further interest in the others, and not over-much in the food.
Robert caught Marion’s amused and congratulatory glance at him, and said: “You did yourself grave injustice when you said you couldn’t cook.”
“If you were a woman you would observe that I have not cooked anything. The soup I emptied out of a can, heated it, and added some sherry and flavouring; the fowl I put into a pot just as it came from Staples, poured some boiling water over it, added everything I could think of and left it on the stove with a prayer; the cream cheese also came from the farm.”
“And the wonderful rolls to go with the cream cheese?”
“Stanley’s landlady made those.”
They laughed a little together, quietly.
Tomorrow she was going into the dock. Tomorrow she was going to be a public spectacle for the delight of Milford. But today her life was still her own, and she could share amusement with him; could be content with the hour. Or so it seemed if her shining eyes were any evidence.
They took the cheese plates from under the noses of the other two, who did not even pause in their conversation to remark the action, carried the trays of dirty dishes away to the kitchen and made the coffee there. It was a great gloomy place with a floor of stone slabs, and an old-fashioned sink that depressed him at sight.
“We put the range on only on Mondays when the scrubbing is done,” Marion said, seeing his interest in the place. “Otherwise we cook on the little oil stove.”
He thought of the hot water that ran so instantly into the shining bath when he turned the tap this morning, and was ashamed. He could hardly visualise, after his long years of soft living, an existence where one’s bathing was done in water that was heated over an oil burner.
“Your friend is a charmer, isn’t he,” she said, pouring the hot coffee into its jug. “A little Mephistophelian — one would be terribly afraid of him as opposing counsel — but a charmer.”
“It’s the Irish,” Robert said, gloomily. “It comes as natural to them as breathing. Us poor Saxons plod along our brutish way and wonder how they do it.”
She had turned to give him the tray to carry, and so was facing him with their hands almost touching. “The Saxons have the two qualities that I value most in this world. Two qualities that explain why they have inherited the earth. Kindness and dependability — or tolerance and responsibility, if you prefer the terms. Two qualities the Celt never had; which is why the Irish have inherited nothing but squabbles. Oh damn, I forgot the cream. Wait a moment. It’s keeping cold in the wash-house.” She came back with the cream and said, mock rustic: “I have heard tell as how there’s things called refrigerators in some folks’ houses now, but we don’t need none.”
And as he carried the coffee to the sunlight of the drawing-room he visualised the bone-chilling cold of those kitchen quarters in winter with no roaring range as there had been in the palmy days of the house when a cook had lorded it over half a dozen servants and you ordered coal by the wagon load. He longed to take Marion away from the place. Where he would take her he did not quite know — his own home was filled with the aura of Aunt Lin. It would have to be a place where there was nothing to polish and nothing to carry and practically everything was done by pressing a button. He could not see Marion spending her old age in service to some pieces of mahogany.
As they drank their coffee he brought the conversation gently round to the possibility of their selling The Franchise at some time or other and buying a cottage somewhere.
“No one would buy the place,” Marion said. “It is a white elephant. Not big enough for a school, too remote for flats, and too big for a family these days. It might make a good madhouse,” she added, thoughtfully, her eyes on the high pink wall beyond the window; and Robert saw Kevin’s glance flash over her and run away again. “It is quiet, at least. No trees to creak, or ivy to tap at the window-panes, or birds to go yap-yap-yap until you want to scream. It is a very peaceful place for tired nerves. Perhaps someone would consider it for that.”
So she liked the silence; the stillness that had seemed to him so dead. It was perhaps what she had longed for in her London life of noise and elbowing and demands; her life of fret and cramped quarters. The big quiet ugly house had been a haven.
And now it was a haven no longer.
Some day — Oh-please-God-let-it-happen — some day he would strip Betty Kane for ever of credit and love.
“And now,” Marion said, “you are invited to inspect the ‘fatal attic’.”
“Yes,” Kevin said, “I should be greatly interested to see the things that the girl professed to identify. All her statements seemed to me the result of logical guesses. Like the harder carpet on the second flight of stairs. Or the wooden commode — something that you would almost certainly find in a country house. Or the flat-topped trunk.”
“Yes, it was rather terrifying at the time, the way she kept hitting on things we had — and I hadn’t had time to gather my wits — it was only afterwards I saw how little she really had identified in her statement. And she did make one complete bloomer, only no one thought of it until last night. Have you got the statement, Robert?”
“Yes.” He took it out of his pocket.
They had climbed, she, and Robert and Macdermott, the last bare flight of stairs and she led them into the attic. “I came up here last night on my usual Saturday tour round the house with a mop. That is our solution to the housekeeping problem, in case you are interested. A good large mop well soaked in absorbent polish-stuff run over every floor once a week. It takes five minutes per room and keeps the dust at bay.”
Kevin was poking round the room, and inspecting the view from the window. “So this is the view she described,” he said.
“Yes,” Marion said, “that is the view she described. And if I remember the words of her statement, as I remembered them last night, correctly, then she said something that she can’t —— Robert, would you read the bit where she describes the view from the window?”
Robert looked up the relevant passage, and began to read. Kevin was bending slightly forward staring out of the little round window, and Marion was standing behind him, smiling faintly like a sibyl.
“‘From the window of the attic,’” read Robert, “‘I could see a high brick wall with a big iron gate in the middle of it. There was a road on the further side of the wall, because I could see the telegraph posts. No, I couldn’t see the traffic on it because the wall was too high. Just the tops of lorry loads sometimes. You couldn’t see through the gate because it had sheets of iron on the inside. Inside the gate the carriage-way went straight for a little and then divided in two into a circle up to the door. No, it wasn’t a garden, just ——’”
“What!” yelled Kevin, straightening himself abruptly.
“What what?” Robert asked, startled.
“Read that last bit again, that bit about the carriage-way.”
“‘Inside the gate the carriage-way went straight for a little and then divided in two into a circle up to the ——’”
Kevin’s shout of laughter stopped him. It was an abrupt monosyllable of amused triumph.
“You see?” Marion said into the sudden silence.
“Yes,” Kevin said softly, his pale bright eyes gloating on the view. “That was something she didn’t reckon with.”
Robert moved over as Marion gave way to let him have her place, and so saw what they were talking about. The edge of the roof with its small parapet cut off the view of the courtyard before the carriage-way branched at all. No one imprisoned in that room would know about the two half circles up to the doorway.
“You see,” Marion said, “the Inspector read that description when we were all in the drawing-room. And all of us knew that the description was accurate. I mean, an accurate picture of what the courtyard is like; so we unconsciously treated it as something that was finished with. Even the Inspector. I remember his looking at the view from the window but it was quite an automatic gesture. It didn’t occur to any of us that it would not have been as described. Indeed, except for one tiny detail it was as described.”
“Except for one tiny detail,” Kevin said. “She arrived in darkness and fled in darkness, and she says she was locked in the room all the time, so she could have known nothing of that branching drive. What does she say, again, about her arrival, Rob?”
Robert looked it up and read:
“‘The car stopped at last and the younger woman, the one with the black hair, got out and pushed open big double gates on to a drive. Then she got back in and drove the car up to a house. No, it was too dark to see what kind of a house, except that it had steps up to the door. No, I don’t remember how many steps; four or five, I think. Yes, definitely a small flight of them.’ And then she goes on about being taken to the kitchen for coffee.”
“So,” Kevin said. “And her account of her flight? What time of night was that?”
“Sometime after supper if I remember rightly,” Robert said, shuffling through the pages. “After dark, anyhow. Here it is.” And he read:
“‘When I got to the first landing, the one above the hall, I could hear them talking in the kitchen. There was no light in the hall. I went on down the last flight, expecting every moment that one of them would come out and catch me, and then made a dash for the door. It wasn’t locked and I ran straight out and down the steps to the gate and out to the road. I ran along the road — yes, it was hard like a highroad — until I couldn’t run any longer and I lay in the grass till I was feeling able to go on.’”
“‘It was hard, like a highroad,’” Kevin quoted. “The inference being that it was too dark to see the surface she was running on.”
There was a short silence.
“My mother thinks that this is enough to discredit her,” Marion said. She looked from Robert to Kevin, and back again, without much hope. “But you don’t, do you.” It was hardly a question.
“No,” Kevin said. “No. Not alone. She might wriggle out of it with a clever counsel’s help. Might say that she had deduced the circle from the swing of the car when she arrived. What she would normally have deduced, of course, would be the ordinary carriage sweep. No one would spontaneously think of anything as awkward as that circular drive. It makes a pretty pattern, that’s all — which is probably why she remembered it. I think this tit-bit should be kept as make-weight for the Assizes.”
“Yes, I thought you would say that,” Marion said. “I’m not really disappointed. I was glad about it, not because I thought that it would free us of the charge, but because it frees us of the doubt that must have — must have ——” She stammered unexpectedly, avoiding Robert’s eyes.
“Must have muddied our crystal minds,” finished Kevin, briskly; and cast a glance of pleased malice at Robert. “How did you think of this last night when you came to sweep?”
“I don’t know. I stood looking out of the window, and at the view she described, and wishing that we might have just one small tiny microscopic piece of evidence on our side. And then, without thinking, I heard Inspector Grant’s voice reading that bit in the drawing-room. Most of the story he told us in his own words, you know. But the bits that brought him to The Franchise he read in the girl’s words. I heard his voice — it’s a nice voice — saying the bit about the circular carriage-way, and from where I was at that moment there was no circular carriage-way. Perhaps it was an answer to unspoken prayer.”
“So you still think that we had best ‘give’ them tomorrow and bank everything on the Assizes?” Robert said.
“Yes. It makes no difference actually to Miss Sharpe and her mother. An appearance in one place is very like an appearance in another — except that the Assizes at Norton will probably be less unpleasant than a police court in one’s home town. And the shorter their appearance tomorrow the better from their point of view. You have no evidence to put before the court tomorrow, so it should be a very short and formal affair. A parade of their evidence, an announcement that you reserve your defence, an application for bail, and voilà!”
This suited Robert well enough. He did not want to prolong tomorrow’s ordeal for them; he had more confidence in any case in a judgment framed outside Milford; and most of all he did not want, now that it had come to a case, a half-decision, a dismissal. That would not be sufficient for his purpose where Betty Kane was concerned. He wanted the whole story of that month told in open court, in Betty Kane’s presence. And by the time the Assizes opened at Norton, he would, please God, have the story ready to tell.
“Whom can we get to defend them?” he asked Kevin as they drove home to tea.
Kevin reached into a pocket, and Robert took it for granted that what he was looking for was a list of addresses. But what he produced was obviously an engagement book.
“What is the date of the Assizes at Norton, do you know?” he asked.
Robert told him, and held his breath.
“It’s just possible that I might be able to come down myself. Let me see, let me see.”
Robert let him see in complete silence. One word, he felt, might ruin the magic.
“Yes,” Kevin said. “I don’t see why I shouldn’t — short of the unforeseen. I like your witches. It would give me great pleasure to defend them against that very nasty piece of work. How odd that she should be old Charlie Meredith’s sister. One of the best, the old boy was. About the only approximately honest horse-coper known in history. I have never ceased to be grateful to him for that pony. A boy’s first horse is very important. It colours his whole after-life; not only his attitude to horseflesh; everything else as well. There is something in the trust and friendship that exists between a boy and a good horse that ——”
Robert listened, relaxed and amused. He had realised, with a gentle irony untinged with any bitterness, that Kevin had given up any thought of the Sharpes’ guilt long before the evidence of that view from the window was presented to him. It was not possible that old Charlie Meredith’s sister could have abducted anyone.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01