There was a short silence.
“And this is the girl who is sitting in a car outside the gate of The Franchise at this moment?” said Robert.
“I take it that you have reasons for bringing her here.”
“Yes. When the girl had recovered sufficiently she was induced to tell her story to the police. It was taken down in shorthand as she told it, and she read the typed version and signed it. In that statement there were two things that helped the police a lot. These are the relevant extracts:
‘When we had been going for some time we passed a bus that had MILFORD in a lighted sign on it. No, I don’t know where Milford is. No, I have never been there.’
“That is one. The other is:
‘From the window of the attic 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 grass. Yes, lawn, I suppose. No, I don’t remember any shrubs; just the grass and the paths.’”
Grant shut the little notebook he had been quoting from.
“As far as we know — and the search has been thorough — there is no other house between Larborough and Milford which fulfils the girl’s description except The Franchise. The Franchise, moreover, fulfils it in every particular. When the girl saw the wall and the gate today she was sure that this was the place; but she has not so far seen inside the gate, of course. I had first to explain matters to Miss Sharpe, and find out if she was willing to be confronted with the girl. She very rightly suggested that some legal witness should be present.”
“Do you wonder that I wanted help in a hurry?” Marion Sharpe said, turning to Robert. “Can you imagine a more nightmare piece of nonsense?”
“The girl’s story is certainly the oddest mixture of the factual and the absurd. I know that domestic help is scarce,” Robert said, “but would anyone hope to enlist a servant by forcibly detaining her, to say nothing of beating and starving her.”
“No normal person, of course,” Grant agreed, keeping his eye steadily fixed on Robert’s so that it had no tendency to slide over to Marion Sharpe. “But believe me in my first twelve months in the force I had come across a dozen things much more incredible. There is no end to the extravagances of human conduct.”
“I agree; but the extravagance is just as likely to be in the girl’s conduct. After all, the extravagance begins with her. She is the one who has been missing for ——” He paused in question.
“A month,” Grant supplied.
“For a month; while there is no suggestion that the household at The Franchise has varied at all from its routine. Would it not be possible for Miss Sharpe to provide an alibi for the day in question?”
“No,” Marion Sharpe said. “The day, according to the Inspector, is the 28th of March. That is a long time ago, and our days here vary very little, if at all. It would be quite impossible for us to remember what we were doing on March the 28th — and most unlikely that anyone would remember for us.”
“Your maid?” Robert suggested. “Servants have ways of marking their domestic life that is often surprising.”
“We have no maid,” she said. “We find it difficult to keep one: The Franchise is so isolated.”
The moment threatened to become awkward and Robert hastened to break it.
“This girl — I don’t know her name, by the way.”
“Elisabeth Kane; known as Betty Kane.”
“Oh, yes; you did tell me. I’m sorry. This girl — may we know something about her? I take it that the police have investigated her before accepting so much of her story. Why guardians and not parents, for instance?”
“She is a war orphan. She was evacuated to the Aylesbury district as a small child. She was an only child, and was billeted with the Wynns, who had a boy four years older. About twelve months later both parents were killed, in the same ‘incident,’ and the Wynns, who had always wanted a daughter and were very fond of the child, were glad to keep her. She looks on them as her parents, since she can hardly remember the real ones.”
“I see. And her record?”
“Excellent. A very quiet girl, by every account. Good at her school work but not brilliant. Has never been in any kind of trouble, in school or out of it. ‘Transparently truthful’ was the phrase her form mistress used about her.”
“When she eventually turned up at her home, after her absence, was there any evidence of the beatings she said she had been given?”
“Oh, yes. Very definitely. The Wynns’ own doctor saw her early next morning, and his statement is that she had been very extensively knocked about. Indeed, some of the bruises were still visible much later when she made her statement to us.”
“No history of epilepsy?”
“No; we considered that very early in the inquiry. I should like to say that the Wynns are very sensible people. They have been greatly distressed, but they have not tried to dramatise the affair, or allowed the girl to be an object of interest or pity. They have taken the affair admirably.”
“And all that remains is for me to take my end of it with the same admirable detachment,” Marion Sharpe said.
“You see my position, Miss Sharpe. The girl not only describes the house in which she says she was detained; she describes the two inhabitants — and describes them very accurately. ‘A thin, elderly woman with soft white hair and no hat, dressed in black; and a much younger woman, thin and tall and dark like a gipsy, with no hat and a bright silk scarf round her neck.’”
“Oh, yes. I can think of no explanation, but I understand your position. And now I think we had better have the girl in, but before we do I should like to say ——”
The door opened noiselessly, and old Mrs. Sharpe appeared on the threshold. The short pieces of white hair round her face stood up on end, as her pillow had left them, and she looked more than ever like a sibyl.
She pushed the door to behind her and surveyed the gathering with a malicious interest.
“Hah!” she said, making a sound like the throaty squawk of a hen. “Three strange men!”
“Let me present them, Mother,” Marion said, as the three got to their feet.
“This is Mr. Blair, of Blair, Hayward, and Bennet — the firm who have that lovely house at the top of the High Street.”
As Robert bowed the old woman fixed him with her seagull’s eye.
“Needs re-tiling,” she said.
It did, but it was not the greeting he had expected.
It comforted him a little that her greeting to Grant was even more unorthodox. Far from being impressed or agitated by the presence of Scotland Yard in her drawing-room of a spring afternoon, she merely said in her dry voice: “You should not be sitting in that chair; you are much too heavy for it.”
When her daughter introduced the local Inspector she cast one glance at him, moved her head an inch, and quite obviously dismissed him from further consideration. This, Hallam, to judge by his expression, found peculiarly shattering.
Grant looked inquiringly at Miss Sharpe.
“I’ll tell her,” she said. “Mother, the Inspector wants us to see a young girl who is waiting in a car outside the gate. She was missing from her home near Aylesbury for a month, and when she turned up again — in a distressed condition — she said that she had been detained by people who wanted to make a servant of her. They kept her locked up when she refused, and beat and starved her. She described the place and the people minutely, and it so happens that you and I fit the description admirably. So does our house. The suggestion is that she was detained up in our attic with the round window.”
“Remarkably interesting,” said the old lady, seating herself with deliberation on an Empire sofa. “What did we beat her with?”
“A dog whip, I understand.”
“Have we got a dog whip?”
“We have one of those ‘lead’ things, I think. They make a whip if necessary. But the point is, the Inspector would like us to meet this girl, so that she can say if we are the people who detained her or not.”
“Have you any objections, Mrs. Sharpe?” Grant asked.
“On the contrary, Inspector. I look forward to the meeting with impatience. It is not every afternoon, I assure you, that I go to my rest a dull old woman and rise a potential monster.”
“Then if you will excuse me, I shall bring ——”
Hallam made a motion, offering himself as messenger, but Grant shook his head. It was obvious that he wanted to be present when the girl first saw what was beyond the gate.
As the Inspector went out Marion Sharpe explained Blair’s presence to her mother. “It was extraordinarily kind of him to come at such short notice and so quickly,” she added, and Robert felt again the impact of that bright pale old eye. For his money, old Mrs. Sharpe was quite capable of beating seven different people between breakfast and lunch, any day of the week.
“You have my sympathy, Mr. Blair,” she said, unsympathetically.
“Why, Mrs. Sharpe?”
“I take it that Broadmoor is a little out of your line.”
“I find it extraordinarily stimulating,” Robert said, refusing to be bullied by her.
This drew a flash of appreciation from her; something that was like the shadow of a smile. Robert had the odd feeling that she suddenly liked him; but if so she was making no verbal confession of it. Her dry voice said tartly: “Yes, I expect the distractions of Milford are scarce and mild. My daughter pursues a piece of gutta-percha round the golf course ——”
“It is not gutta-percha any more, Mother,” her daughter put in.
“But at my age Milford does not provide even that distraction. I am reduced to pouring weedkiller on weeds — a legitimate form of sadism on a par with drowning fleas. Do you drown your fleas, Mr. Blair?”
“No, I squash them. But I have a sister who used to pursue them with a cake of soap.”
“Soap?” said Mrs. Sharpe, with genuine interest.
“I understand that she hit them with the soft side and they stuck to it.”
“How very interesting. A technique I have not met before. I must try that next time.”
With his other ear he heard that Marion was being nice to the snubbed Inspector. “You play a very good game, Inspector,” she was saying.
He was conscious of the feeling you get near the end of a dream, when waking is just round the corner, that none of the inconsequence really matters because presently you’ll be back in the real world.
This was misleading because the real world came through the door with the return of Inspector Grant. Grant came in first, so that he was in a position to see the expressions on all the faces concerned, and held the door open for a police matron and a girl.
Marion Sharpe stood up slowly, as if the better to face anything that might be coming to her, but her mother remained seated on the sofa as one giving an audience, her Victorian back as flat as it had been as a young girl, her hands lying composedly in her lap. Even her wild hair could not detract from the impression that she was mistress of the situation.
The girl was wearing her school coat, and childish low-heeled clumpish black school shoes; and consequently looked younger than Blair had anticipated. She was not very tall, and certainly not pretty. But she had — what was the word? — appeal. Her eyes, a darkish blue, were set wide apart in a face of the type popularly referred to as heart-shaped. Her hair was mouse-coloured, but grew off her forehead in a good line. Below each cheek-bone a slight hollow, a miracle of delicate modelling, gave the face charm and pathos. Her lower lip was full, but the mouth was too small. So were her ears. Too small and too close to her head.
An ordinary sort of girl, after all. Not the sort you would notice in a crowd. Not at all the type to be the heroine of a sensation. Robert wondered what she would look like in other clothes.
The girl’s glance rested first on the old woman, and then went on to Marion. The glance held neither surprise nor triumph, and not much interest.
“Yes, these are the women,” she said.
“You have no doubt about it?” Grant asked her, and added: “It is a very grave accusation, you know.”
“No, I have no doubt. How could I?”
“These two ladies are the women who detained you, took your clothes from you, forced you to mend linen, and whipped you?”
“Yes, these are the women.”
“A remarkable liar,” said old Mrs. Sharpe, in the tone in which one says: “A remarkable likeness.”
“You say that we took you into the kitchen for coffee,” Marion said.
“Yes, you did.”
“Can you describe the kitchen?”
“I didn’t pay much attention. It was a big one — with a stone floor, I think — and a row of bells.”
“What kind of stove?”
“I didn’t notice the stove, but the pan the old woman heated the coffee in was a pale blue enamel one with a dark blue edge and a lot of chips off round the bottom edge.”
“I doubt if there is any kitchen in England that hasn’t a pan exactly like that,” Marion said. “We have three of them.”
“Is the girl a virgin?” asked Mrs. Sharpe, in the mildly interested tone of a person inquiring: “Is it a Chanel?”
In the startled pause that this produced Robert was aware of Hallam’s scandalised face, the hot blood running up into the girl’s, and the fact that there was no protesting “Mother!” from the daughter as he unconsciously, but confidently, expected. He wondered whether her silence was tacit approval, or whether after a lifetime with Mrs. Sharpe she was shock-proof.
Grant said in cold reproof that the matter was irrelevant.
“You think so?” said the old lady. “If I had been missing for a month from my home it is the first thing that my mother would have wanted to know about me. However. Now that the girl has identified us, what do you propose to do? Arrest us?”
“Oh, no. Things are a long way from that at the moment. I want to take Miss Kane to the kitchen and the attic, so that her descriptions of them can be verified. If they are, I report on the case to my superior and he decides in conference what further steps to take.”
“I see. A most admirable caution, Inspector.” She rose slowly to her feet. “Ah, well, if you will excuse me I shall go back to my interrupted rest.”
“But don’t you want to be present when Miss Kane inspects — to hear the ——” blurted Grant, surprised for once out of his composure.
“Oh, dear, no.” She smoothed down her black gown with a slight frown. “They split invisible atoms,” she remarked testily, “but no one so far has invented a material that does not crease. I have not the faintest doubt,” she went on, “that Miss Kane will identify the attic. Indeed I should be surprised beyond belief if she failed to.”
She began to move towards the door, and consequently towards the girl; and for the first time the girl’s eyes lit with expression. A spasm of alarm crossed her face. The police matron came forward a step, protectively. Mrs. Sharpe continued her unhurried progress and came to rest a yard or so from the girl, so that they were face to face. For a full five seconds there was silence while she examined the girl’s face with interest.
“For two people who are on beating terms, we are distressingly ill acquainted,” she said at last. “I hope to know you much better before this affair is finished, Miss Kane.” She turned to Robert and bowed. “Goodbye, Mr. Blair. I hope you will continue to find us stimulating.” And, ignoring the rest of the gathering, she walked out of the door that Hallam held open for her.
There was a distinct feeling of anti-climax now that she was no longer there, and Robert paid her the tribute of a reluctant admiration. It was no small achievement to steal the interest from an outraged heroine.
“You have no objections to letting Miss Kane see the relevant parts of the house, Miss Sharpe?” Grant asked.
“Of course not. But before we go further I should like to say what I was going to say before you brought Miss Kane in. I am glad that Miss Kane is present to hear it now. It is this. I have never to my knowledge seen this girl before. I did not give her a lift anywhere, on any occasion. She was not brought into this house either by me or by my mother, nor was she kept here. I should like that to be clearly understood.”
“Very well, Miss Sharpe. It is understood that your attitude is a complete denial of the girl’s story.”
“A complete denial from beginning to end. And now, will you come and see the kitchen?”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14