When Robert went out to The Franchise, three days later, to drive the Sharpes over to Norton for the Assizes on the morrow, he found an almost bridal atmosphere about the place. Two absurd tubs of yellow wallflowers stood at the top of the steps; and the dark hall gleamed with flowers like a church decorated for a wedding.
“Nevil!” Marion said, with an explanatory wave of her hand to the massed glory. “He said the house should be en fête.”
“I wish that I had thought of it,” Robert said.
“After the last few days, it surprises me that you can think at all. If it were not for you, it is not rejoicing we should be today!”
“If it weren’t for a man called Bell, you mean.”
“Alexander Bell. He invented the telephone. If it weren’t for that invention we should still be groping in the dark. It will be months before I can look at a telephone without blenching.”
“Did you take turn about?”
“Oh, no. We each had our own. Kevin and his clerk at his chambers, me at his little place in St. Paul’s Churchyard, Alec Ramsden and three of his men at his office and wherever they could find a telephone that they could use uninterruptedly.”
“That was six of you.”
“Seven of us with six telephones. And we needed them!”
“At first it was fun. We were filled with the exhilaration of the hunt, of knowing that we were on the right track. Success was practically in our laps. But by the time we had made sure that none of the Chadwicks in the London telephone book had any connection with a Chadwick who had flown to Copenhagen on the 29th of March, and that all the Air line knew about him was that two seats had been booked from Larborough on the 27th, we had lost any feeling of fun we had started with. The Larborough information cheered us, of course. But after that it was pure slog. We found out what we sold to Denmark and what she bought from us, and we divided them up between us.”
“No, the buyers and sellers. The Danish tourist office was a god-send. They just poured information at us. Kevin, his clerk, and I took the exports, and Ramsden and his men took the imports. From then on it was a tedious business of being put through to managers and asking: ‘Have you a man called Bernard Chadwick working for you?’ The number of firms who haven’t got a Bernard Chadwick working for them is unbelievable. But I know a lot more about our exports to Denmark than I did before.”
“I have no doubt of it!”
“I was so sick of the telephone that when it rang at my end I nearly didn’t pick it up. I had almost forgotten that telephones were two-way. A telephone was just a sort of quiz instrument that I could plug into offices all over the country. I stared at it for quite a while before I realised that it was after all a mutual affair and that someone was trying to call me for a change.”
“And it was Ramsden.”
“Yes, it was Alec Ramsden. He said: ‘We’ve got him. He buys porcelain and stuff for Brayne, Havard and Co.’”
“I am glad it was Ramsden who unearthed him. It will comfort him for his failure to run down the girl.”
“Yes, he’s feeling better about it now. After that it was a rush to interview the people we needed and to obtain subpoenas and what not. But the whole lovely result will be waiting for us in the court at Norton tomorrow. Kevin can hardly wait. His mouth waters at the prospect.”
“If it was ever in my power to be sorry for that girl,” Mrs. Sharpe said, coming in with an over-night bag and dumping it on a mahogany wall-table in a way that would have turned Aunt Lin faint, “it would be in a witness-box facing a hostile Kevin Macdermott.” Robert noticed that the bag, which had originally been a very elegant and expensive one — a relic of her prosperous early married life, perhaps — was now deplorably shabby. He decided that when he married Marion his present to the bride’s mother would be a dressing-case; small, light, elegant and expensive.
“It will never be in my power,” Marion said, “to have even a passing sensation of sorrow for that girl. I would swat her off the earth’s face as I would swat a moth in a cupboard — except that I am always sorry about the moth.”
“What had the girl intended to do?” Mrs. Sharpe asked. “Had she intended to go back to her people at all?”
“I don’t think so,” Robert said. “I think she was still filled with rage and resentment at ceasing to be the centre of interest at 39 Meadowside Lane. It is as Kevin said long ago: crime begins in egotism; inordinate vanity. A normal girl, even an emotional adolescent, might be heart-broken that her adopted brother no longer considered her the most important thing in his life; but she would work it out in sobs, or sulks, or being difficult, or deciding that she was going to renounce the world and go into a convent, or half a dozen other methods that the adolescent uses in the process of adjustment. But with an egotism like Betty Kane’s there is no adjustment. She expects the world to adjust itself to her. The criminal always does, by the way. There was never a criminal who didn’t consider himself ill-done-by.”
“A charming creature,” Mrs. Sharpe said.
“Yes. Even the Bishop of Larborough would find some difficulty in thinking up a case for her. His usual ‘environment’ hobby-horse is no good this time. Betty Kane had everything that he recommends for the cure of the criminal: love, freedom to develop her talents, education, security. It’s quite a poser for his lordship when you come to consider it, because he doesn’t believe in heredity. He thinks that criminals are made, and therefore can be unmade. ‘Bad blood’ is just an old superstition, in the Bishop’s estimation.”
“Toby Byrne,” Mrs. Sharpe said with a snort. “You should have heard Charles’s stable lads on him.”
“I’ve heard Nevil,” Robert said. “I doubt if anyone could improve on Nevil’s version of the subject.”
“Is the engagement definitely broken, then?” Marion asked.
“Definitely. Aunt Lin has hopes of the eldest Whittaker girl. She is a niece of Lady Mountleven, and a grand-daughter of Karr’s Krisps.”
Marion laughed with him. “Is she nice, the Whittaker girl?” she asked.
“Yes. Fair, pretty, well-brought-up, musical but doesn’t sing.”
“I should like Nevil to get a nice wife. All he needs is some permanent interest of his own. A focus for his energies and his emotions.”
“At the moment the focus for both is The Franchise.”
“I know. He has been a dear to us. Well, I suppose it is time that we were going. If anyone had told me last week that I should be leaving The Franchise to go to a triumph at Norton I wouldn’t have believed it. Poor Stanley can sleep in his own bed from now on, instead of guarding a couple of hags in a lonely house.”
“Isn’t he sleeping here tonight?” Robert asked.
“No. Why should he?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like the idea of the house being left entirely empty.”
“The policeman will be round as usual on his beat. Anyhow, no one has even tried to do anything since the night they smashed our windows. It is only for tonight. Tomorrow we shall be home again.”
“I know. But I don’t much like it. Couldn’t Stanley stay one more night? Until the case is over.”
“If they want to wreck our windows again,” Mrs. Sharpe said, “I don’t suppose Stanley’s being here will deter them.”
“No, I suppose not. I’ll remind Hallam, anyhow, that the house is empty tonight,” Robert said, and left it there.
Marion locked the door behind them, and they walked to the gate, where Robert’s car was waiting. At the gate Marion paused to look back at the house. “It’s an ugly old place,” she said, “but it has one virtue. It looks the same all the year round. At midsummer the grass gets a little burnt and tired-looking, but otherwise it doesn’t change. Most houses have a ‘best’ time; rhododendrons, or herbaceous borders, or Virginia creeper, or almond blossom, or something. But The Franchise is always the same. It has no frills. What are you laughing at, Mother?”
“I was thinking how bedizened the poor thing looks with those tubs of wallflower.”
They stood there for a moment, laughing at the forbidding, dirty-white house with its incongruous decoration of frivolity; and laughing, shut the gate on it.
But Robert did not forget; and before having dinner with Kevin at The Feathers in Norton he called the police station at Milford and reminded them that the Sharpes’ house would be empty for that one night.
“All right, Mr. Blair,” the sergeant said, “I’ll tell the man on the beat to open the gate and look round. Yes, we still have a key. That’ll be all right.”
Robert did not quite see what that would achieve; but then he did not see what protection could be afforded in any case. Mrs. Sharpe had said, if anyone was minded to break windows then the windows would inevitably be broken. He decided that he was being fussy, and joined Kevin and his law friends with relief.
The Law talks well, and it was late before Robert went to bed in one of the dark panelled rooms that made The Feathers famous. The Feathers — one of the “musts” of American visitors to Britain — was not only famous but up to date. Pipes had been led through the linen-fold oak, wires through the beamed ceilings, and a telephone line through the oak planks of the floor. The Feathers had been providing comfort for the travelling public since 1480, and saw no reason why it should stop.
Robert fell asleep as soon as his head touched the pillow and the telephone at his ear had been ringing for some moments before he became aware of it.
“Well?” he said, still half-asleep. And became instantly wide awake.
It was Stanley. Could he come back to Milford? The Franchise was on fire.
“It’s got a good hold, but they think they can save it.”
“I’ll be over as soon as I can make it.”
He made the twenty miles in a door-to-door time that the Robert Blair of a month ago would have considered reprehensible in the achievement of another, and quite inconceivable as an achievement of his own. As he tore past his own home at the lower end of Milford High Street and out into the country beyond, he saw the glow against the horizon, like the rising of a full moon. But the moon hung in the sky, a young silver moon in the pale summer night. And the glow of the burning Franchise wavered in sickening gusts that tightened Robert’s heart with remembered horror.
At least there was no one in the building. He wondered if anyone had been there in time to rescue what was valuable from the house. Would there be anyone there who could distinguish what was valuable from what was worthless?
The gates were wide open and the courtyard — bright in the flames — was crowded with the men and machines of the Fire Service. The first thing he saw, incongruous on the grass, was the bead-work chair from the drawing-room; and a wave of hysteria rose in him. Someone had saved that, anyhow.
An almost unrecognisable Stanley grabbed his sleeve and said: “There you are. I thought you ought to know, somehow.” Sweat trickled down his blackened face, leaving clear rivulets behind them, so that his young face looked seamed and old. “There isn’t enough water. We’ve got quite a lot of the stuff out. All the drawing-room stuff that they used every day. I thought that’s what they’d want, if it had to be a choice. And we flung out some of the upstairs stuff but all the heavy stuff has gone up.”
Mattresses and bed-linen were piled on the grass out of the way of the firemen’s boots. The furniture stood about the grass as it had been set down, looking surprised and lost.
“Let’s take the furniture further away,” Stanley said. “It’s not safe where it is. Either some lighted bits will fall on it or one of those bastards will use it to stand on.” The bastards were the Fire Service, doing their sweating and efficient best.
So Robert found himself prosaically carting furniture through a fantastic scene; miserably identifying pieces that he had known in their proper sphere. The chair that Mrs. Sharpe had considered Inspector Grant too heavy for; the cherrywood table they had given Kevin luncheon at; the wall-table that Mrs. Sharpe had dumped her bag down on only a few hours ago. The roar and crackle of the flames, the shoutings of the firemen, the odd mixture of moonlight, head-lights, and wavering flame, the mad juxtaposition and irrelevance of the bits of furniture, reminded him of how it felt to be coming round from an anaesthetic.
And then two things happened together. The first floor fell in with a crash. And as the new spout of flame lit the faces round him he saw two youths alongside whose countenances were alive with gloating. At the same moment he became aware that Stanley had seen them too. He saw Stanley’s fist catch the further one under the chin with a crack that could be heard even over the noise of the flames, and the gloating face disappeared into the darkness of the trampled grass.
Robert had not hit anyone since he gave up boxing when he left school, and he had no intention of hitting anyone now. His left arm seemed to do all that was necessary of its own accord. And the second leering face went down into obscurity.
“Neat,” remarked Stanley, sucking his broken knuckles. And then, “Look!” he said.
The roof crumpled like, a child’s face when it is beginning to cry; like a melting negative. The little round window, so famous and so ill-reputed, leaned forward a little and sank slowly inwards. A tongue of flame leapt up and fell again. Then the whole roof collapsed into the seething mass below, falling two floors to join the red wreck of the rest of the interior. The men moved back from the furnace heat. The fire roared in unrestricted triumph into the summer night.
When at last it died away Robert noticed with a vague surprise that the dawn had come. A calm, grey dawn, full of promise. Quiet had come too; the roar and the shoutings had faded to the soft hiss of water on the smoking skeleton. Only the four walls stood, blurred and grimy, in the middle of the trampled grass. The four walls and the flight of steps with their warped iron railing. On either side of the doorway stood what remained of Nevil’s gay little tubs, the soaked and blackened flowers hanging in unrecognisable shreds over their edges. Between them the square opening yawned into a black emptiness.
“Well,” said Stanley, standing beside him, “that seems to be that.”
“How did it begin?” asked Bill, who had arrived too late to see anything but the wreck that was left.
“No one knows. It was well alight when P.C. Newsam arrived on his beat,” Robert said. “What became of those two chaps, by the way?”
“The two we corrected?” Stanley said. “They went home.”
“It’s a pity that expression is no evidence.”
“Yes,” Stanley said. “They won’t get anyone for this any more than they got anyone for the window-breaking. And I still owe someone for a crack on the head.”
“You nearly broke that creature’s neck tonight. That ought to be some kind of compensation to you.”
“How are you going to tell them?” Stanley said. This obviously referred to the Sharpes.
“God knows,” Robert said. “Am I to tell them first and let it spoil their triumph in court for them; or am I to let them have their triumph and face the awful come-down afterwards?”
“Let them have their triumph,” Stanley said. “Nothing that happens afterwards can take that away from them. Don’t mess it up.”
“Perhaps you are right, Stan. I wish I knew. I had better book rooms at the Rose and Crown for them.”
“They wouldn’t like that,” Stan said.
“Perhaps not,” Robert said, a shade impatiently. “But they have no choice. Whatever they decide to do they will want to stay here a night or two to arrange about things, I expect. And the Rose and Crown is the best available.”
“Well,” Stanley said, “I’ve been thinking. And I’m sure my landlady would be glad to have them. She’s always been on their side, and she has a spare room, and they could have that sitting-room in front that she never uses, and it’s very quiet down there, that last row of Council houses facing on the Meadows. I’m sure they’d rather have that than a hotel where they would be stared at.”
“They would indeed, Stan. I should never have thought of it. You think your landlady would be willing?”
“I don’t think; I’m sure. They’re her greatest interest in life at the moment. It would be like royalty coming to stay.”
“Well, find out definitely, would you, and telephone me a message to Norton. To The Feathers at Norton.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14