“It’s a perpetual wonder to me,” Ben Carley said, eyeing the well-populated benches in the little court, “how so many of the lieges have so little to do on a Monday morning. Though I must say it’s some time since the gathering has had so much tone. Have you noticed the Sports Wear? Back row but one, in a yellow hat that doesn’t go with her mauve powder or her hair. If she’s left that little Godfrey girl in charge, she’s going to be short of change tonight. I got that girl off when she was fifteen. She’d been swiping cash since she could walk and she’s still swiping it. No female to be left alone with a till, believe me. And that Anne Boleyn woman. First time I’ve ever seen her in court. Though how she’s avoided it so long I don’t know. Her sister’s for ever paying out cheques to cover her R.D. ones. No one’s ever discovered what she does with the money. Someone blackmailing her, perhaps. I wonder who. I wouldn’t put it past Arthur Wallis, at the White Hart. Three different orders to pay every week, and another on the way, just won’t come out of a potman’s pay.”
Robert let Carley burble on without listening to him. He was only too conscious that the audience in court was not the usual Monday morning collection of loafers putting off time until they opened. The news had gone round, by the mysterious Milford channels, and they had come to see the Sharpes charged. The normal drabness of the court was gay with women’s clothes; and its normal drowsy silence sibilant with their chatter.
One face he saw which should have been hostile but was oddly friendly: that of Mrs. Wynn, whom he had last seen standing in her lovely little patch of garden in Meadowside Lane, Aylesbury. He could not think of Mrs. Wynn as an enemy. He liked her, admired her, and was sorry for her in advance. He would have liked to go over and say how d’you do to her, but the game had been laid out on the squares now and they were chequers of different colour.
Grant had not appeared so far, but Hallam was there, talking to the sergeant who had come to The Franchise the night the hooligans wrecked the windows.
“How’s your sleuth doing?” Carley asked, during a pause in his running commentary.
“The sleuth’s all right, but the problem is colossal,” Robert said. “The proverbial needle just gives itself up by comparison.”
“One girl against the world,” mocked Ben. “I’m looking forward to seeing this floosie in the flesh. I suppose after all the fan mail she’s had, and the offers of marriage, and the resemblance to Saint Bernadette, she’ll think a country police court too small an arena for her. Did she have any stage offers?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I suppose Mama would repress them anyhow. That’s her there with the brown suit, and she looks a very sensible woman to me. I can’t think how she ever came to have a daughter like ——. Oh, but she was adopted, wasn’t she? An Awful Warning. It’s a constant wonder to me how little folk know about the people they live with. There was a woman over at Ham Green had a daughter that was never out of her sight as far as she knew, but daughter walked out in a pet one day and didn’t come back and frantic mother goes howling to the police and police discover that the girl who has apparently never been away from mother for a night is a married woman with a child and has merely collected child and gone to live with husband. See police records if not believing Ben Carley. Ah, well, if you grow dissatisfied with your sleuth let me know and I’ll give you the address of a very good one. Here we go.”
He rose in deference to the Bench, while continuing a monologue on the Bench’s complexion, possible temper, and probable occupation yesterday.
Three routine cases were disposed of; old offenders apparently so used to the procedure that they anticipated the drill, and Robert half expected someone to say “Wait for it, can’t you!”
Then he saw Grant come in quietly and sit in an observer’s position at the back of the Press bench, and he knew that the time had come.
They came in together when their names were called, and took their places in the horrid little pew as if they were merely taking their places in church. It was rather like that, he thought: the quiet, and observant eyes, and the suggestion of waiting for a performance to begin. But he suddenly realised what he would be feeling if it were Aunt Lin in Mrs. Sharpe’s place, and was fully aware for the first time of what Marion must be suffering on her mother’s behalf. Even if the Assizes saw them cleared of the charge, what would compensate them for what they had endured? What punishment fit Betty Kane’s crime?
For Robert, being old-fashioned, believed in retribution. He might not go all the way with Moses — an eye was not always compensation for an eye — but he certainly agreed with Gilbert: the punishment should fit the crime. He certainly did not believe that a few quiet talks with the chaplain and a promise to reform made a criminal into a respect-worthy citizen. “Your true criminal,” he remembered Kevin saying one night, after a long discussion on penal reform, “has two unvarying characteristics, and it is these two characteristics which make him a criminal. Monstrous vanity and colossal selfishness. And they are both as integral, as ineradicable, as the texture of the skin. You might as well talk of ‘reforming’ the colour of one’s eyes.”
“But,” someone had objected, “there have been monsters of vanity and selfishness who were not criminal.”
“Only because they have victimised their wives instead of their bank,” Kevin had pointed out. “Tomes have been written trying to define the criminal, but it is a very simple definition after all. The criminal is a person who makes the satisfaction of his own immediate personal wants the mainspring of his actions. You can’t cure him of his egotism, but you can make the indulgence of it not worth his while. Or almost not worth his while.”
Kevin’s idea of prison reform, Robert remembered, was deportation to a penal colony. An island community where everyone worked hard. This was not a reform for the benefit of the prisoners. It would be a nicer life for the warders, Kevin said; and would leave more room in this crowded island for good citizens’ houses and gardens; and since most criminals hated hard work more than they hated anything in this world, it would be a better deterrent than the present plan which, in Kevin’s estimation, was no more punitive than a third-rate public school.
Looking at the two figures in the dock Robert thought that in the “bad old days” only the guilty were put in the pillory. Nowadays, it was the untried who bore the pillory and the guilty went immediately into a safe obscurity. Something had gone wrong somewhere.
Old Mrs. Sharpe was wearing the flat black satin hat in which she had appeared at his office on the morning of the Ack–Emma irruption into their affairs, and looked academic, respectable, but odd. Marion too was wearing a hat — less, he supposed, out of deference to the court than as some protection against the public gaze. It was a country felt, with a short brim; and its orthodoxy lessened to some extent her normal air of being a law unto herself. With her black hair hidden and her brilliant eyes shadowed she looked no swarthier than a normal out-of-doors woman might. And though Robert missed the black hair and the brilliance he thought that it was all to the good that she should look as “ordinary” as possible. It might lessen the pecking-to-death instinct in her hostile fellows.
And then he saw Betty Kane.
It was the stir on the Press bench that told him she was in court. Normally the Press bench was occupied by two bored apprentices in the art of reporting: one for the Milford Advertiser (once weekly, on Fridays) and one combining the Norton Courier (twice weekly, Tuesdays and Fridays) with the Larborough Times and anyone else who would take the stuff. But today the Press bench was filled, and the faces there were neither young nor bored. They were the faces of men invited to a meal and quite ready for it.
And Betty Kane was two-thirds of what they had come for.
Robert had not seen her since she stood in the drawing-room at The Franchise in her dark blue school coat, and he was surprised all over again by her youth and her candid innocence. In the weeks since he had first seen her she had grown into a monster in his mind; he thought of her only as the perverted creature who had lied two human beings into the dock. Now, seeing the actual physical Betty Kane again, he was nonplussed. He knew that this girl and his monster were one, but he found it difficult to realise. And if he, who felt that he now knew Betty Kane so well, reacted like that to her presence, what effect would her child-like grace have on good men and true when the time came?
She was wearing “week-end” clothes, not her school things. A cloudy blue outfit that made one think of forget-me-nots and wood-smoke and bluebells and summer distances, and was further calculated to bedevil the judgment of sober men. Her young and simple and very-well-brought-up hat stood back from her face and showed the charming brow and the wide-set eyes. Robert absolved Mrs. Wynn, without even having to consider the matter, from any conscious dressing of the girl for the occasion, but was bitterly aware that if she had lain awake at nights devising the outfit it could not have served its purpose better.
When her name was called and she walked to the witness stand, he stole a glance at the faces of those who could see her clearly. With the sole exception of Ben Carley — who was looking at her with the interest one accords a museum exhibit — there was only one expression on the faces of the men: a sort of affectionate compassion. The women, he observed, had not surrendered so easily. The more motherly ones obviously yearned to her youth and her vulnerability, but the younger ones were merely avid; without emotion other than curiosity.
“I— don’t — believe — it!” Ben said, sotto voce, while she was taking the oath. “You mean that child was on the loose for a month? I don’t believe she’s ever kissed anything but the book!”
“I’ll bring witnesses to prove it,” muttered Robert, angry that even the worldly and cynical Carley was succumbing.
“You could bring ten irreproachable witnesses and still not get a jury to believe it; and it’s the jury who count, my friend.”
Yes, what jury would believe any bad of her!
Watching her as she was led through her story, he reminded himself of Albert’s account of her: the “nicely brought-up girl” whom no one would have thought of as a woman at all, and the cool expertness with which she attached the man she had chosen.
She had a very pleasant voice; young and light and clear; without accent or affectation. And she told her tale like a model witness; volunteering no extras, explicit in what she did say. The pressmen could hardly keep their eyes on their shorthand. The Bench was obviously doting. (God send there was something tougher at the Assizes!) The members of the police force were gently perspiring in sympathy. The body of the court breathless and motionless.
No actress had ever had a better reception.
She was quite calm, as far as anyone could see; and apparently unaware of the effect she was having. She made no effort to make a point, or to use a piece of information dramatically. And Robert found himself wondering whether the understatement was deliberate and whether she realised quite clearly how effective it was.
“And did you in fact mend the linen?”
“I was too stiff from the beating, that night. But I mended some later.”
Just as if she were saying: “I was too busy playing bridge.” It gave an extraordinary air of truth to what she said.
Nor was there any sign of triumph in the account of her vindication. She had said this and that about the place of her imprisonment, and this and that had proved to be so. But she showed no overt pleasure in the fact. When she was asked if she recognised the women in the dock, and if they were in fact the women who had detained and beaten her, she looked at them gravely for a moment of silence and then said that she did and they were.
“Do you want to examine, Mr. Blair?”
“No, sir. I have no questions.”
This caused a slight stir of surprise and disappointment in the body of the court, who had looked forward to drama; but it was accepted by the initiates without remark; it was taken for granted that the case would go forward to another court.
Hallam had already given his statement, and the girl was now followed by the corroborative witnesses.
The man who had seen her picked up by the car proved to be a Post Office sorter called Piper. He worked on a postal van which the L.M.S. ran between Larborough and London, and he was dropped off at Mainshill station on the return journey because it was near his home. He was walking up the long straight London road through Mainshill, when he noticed that a young girl was waiting at the stop for the London coaches. He was still a long distance from her but he noticed her because the London coach had overtaken him about half a minute previously, before he had come within sight of the bus stop; and when he saw her waiting there he realised that she must just have missed it. While he was walking towards her but still some distance away, a car overtook him at a good pace. He did not even glance at it because his interest was concentrated on the girl and on whether when he came up with her he should stop and tell her that the London bus had passed. Then he saw the car slow down alongside the girl. She bent forward to talk to whoever was in it, and then got in herself and was driven away.
By this time he was near enough to describe the car but not to read the number. He had not thought of reading the number anyhow. He was merely glad that the girl had got a lift so quickly.
He would not take an oath that the girl in question was the girl he had seen give evidence, but he was certain in his own mind. She had worn a palish coat and hat — grey he thought — and black slippers.
Well, those shoes with no straps across the instep.
Well, court shoes, but he called them slippers. (And had every intention, his tone made it clear, of going on calling them slippers.)
“Do you want to examine, Mr. Blair?”
“No, thank you, sir.”
Then came Rose Glyn.
Robert’s first impression was of the vulgar perfection of her teeth. They reminded him of a false set made by a not very clever dentist. There surely never had been, never could be, any natural teeth as flashily perfect as those Rose Glyn had produced as substitutes for her milk teeth.
The Bench did not like her teeth either, it seemed, and Rose soon stopped smiling. But her tale was lethal enough. She had been in the habit of going to The Franchise every Monday to clean the house. On a Monday in April she had been there as usual, and was preparing to leave in the evening when she heard screaming coming from upstairs somewhere. She thought something had happened to Mrs. or Miss Sharpe and ran to the foot of the stairs to see. The screaming seemed to be far away, as if it came from the attic. She was going to go upstairs, but Mrs. Sharpe came out of the drawing-room and asked her what she was doing. She said someone was screaming upstairs. Mrs. Sharpe said nonsense, that she was imagining things, and wasn’t it time that she was going home. The screaming had stopped then, and while Mrs. Sharpe was talking Miss Sharpe came downstairs. Miss Sharpe went with Mrs. Sharpe into the drawing-room, and Mrs. Sharpe said something about “ought to be more careful.” She was frightened, she did not quite know why, and went away to the kitchen and took her money from where it was always left for her on the kitchen mantelpiece, and ran from the house. The date was April the 15th. She remembered the date because she had decided that next time she went back, on the following Monday, she would give the Sharpes her week’s notice; and she had in fact done that, and had not worked for the Sharpes since Monday April the 29th.
Robert was faintly cheered by the bad impression she was patently making on everyone. Her open delight in the dramatic, her Christmas Supplement glossiness, her obvious malice, and her horrible clothes, were unhappily contrasted with the restraint and good sense and good taste of her predecessor in the witness box. From the expressions on the faces of her audience she was summed up as a slut and no one would trust her with sixpence.
But that did nothing to discount the evidence she had just given on oath.
Robert, letting her go, wondered if there was any way of pinning that watch on her, so to speak. Being a country girl, unversed in the ways of pawnshops, it was unlikely that she had stolen that watch to sell it; she had taken it to keep for herself. That being so, was there perhaps some way of convicting her of theft and so discrediting her evidence to that extent?
She was succeeded by her friend Gladys Rees. Gladys was as small and pale and skinny as her friend was opulent. She was scared and ill at ease, and took the oath hesitatingly. Her accent was so broad that even the Court found difficulty in following her, and the prosecution had several times to translate her wilder flights of English into something nearer common speech. But the gist of her evidence was clear. On the evening of Monday the 15th April she had gone walking with her friend, Rose Glyn. No, not anywhere special, just walking after supper. Up to High Wood and back. And Rose Glyn had told her that she was scared of The Franchise because she had heard someone screaming in an upstairs room, although there was supposed not to be anyone there. She, Gladys, knew that it was Monday the 15th that Rose had told her that, because Rose had said that when she went next week she was going to give notice. And she had given notice and had not worked for the Sharpes since Monday the 29th.
“I wonder what dear Rose has got on her,” Carley said, as she left the witness box.
“What makes you think she has anything?”
“People don’t come and perjure themselves for friendship; not even country morons like Gladys Rees. The poor silly little rat was frightened stiff. She would never have come voluntarily. No, that oleograph has a lever of some sort. Worth looking into if you’re stuck, perhaps.”
“Do you happen to know the number of your watch?” he asked Marion as he was driving them back to The Franchise. “The one Rose Glyn stole.”
“I didn’t even know that watches had numbers,” Marion said.
“Good ones do.”
“Oh, mine was a good one, but I don’t know anything about its number. It was very distinctive, though. It had a pale blue enamel face with gold figures.”
“Yes. Why do you ask? Even if I got it back I could never bear to wear it after that girl.”
“It wasn’t so much getting it back I thought of, as convicting her of having taken it.”
“That would be nice.”
“Ben Carley calls her ‘the oleograph,’ by the way.”
“How lovely. That is just what she is like. Is that the little man you wanted to push us off on to, that first day?”
“That’s the one.”
“I am so glad that I refused to be pushed.”
“I hope you will still be as glad when this case is over,” Robert said, suddenly sober.
“We have not yet thanked you for standing surety for our bail,” Mrs. Sharpe said from the back of the car.
“If we began to thank him for all we owe him,” Marion said, “there would be no end to it.”
Except, he thought, that he had enlisted Kevin Macdermott on their side — and that was an accident of friendship — what had he been able to do for them? They would go for trial at Norton little more than a fortnight hence, and they had no defence whatever.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55