The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey


“Have you had a busy day, dear?” Aunt Lin asked, opening her table napkin and arranging it across her plump lap.

This was a sentence that made sense but had no meaning. It was as much an overture to dinner as the spreading of her napkin, and the exploratory movement of her right foot as she located the footstool which compensated for her short legs. She expected no answer; or rather, being unaware that she had asked the question, she did not listen to his answer.

Robert looked up the table at her with a more conscious benevolence than usual. After his uncharted step-picking at The Franchise, the serenity of Aunt Lin’s presence was very comforting, and he looked with a new awareness at the solid little figure with the short neck and the round pink face and the iron-grey hair that frizzed out from its large hairpins. Linda Bennet led a life of recipes, film stars, god-children, and church bazaars, and found it perfect. Well-being and contentment enveloped her like a cloak. She read the Women’s Page of the daily paper (How To Make A Boutonnière From Old Kid Gloves) and nothing else as far as Robert was aware. Occasionally when she tidied away the paper that Robert had left lying about, she would pause to read the headlines and comment on them. (“MAN ENDS EIGHTY-TWO DAY FAST”— Silly creature! “OIL DISCOVERY IN BAHAMAS”— Did I tell you that paraffin is up a penny, dear?) But she gave the impression of never really believing that the world the papers reported did in fact exist. The world for Aunt Lin began with Robert Blair and ended within a ten-mile radius of him.

“What kept you so late tonight, dear?” she asked, having finished her soup.

From long experience Robert recognised this as being in a different category from: “Have you had a busy day, dear?”

“I had to go out to The Franchise — that house on the Larborough road. They wanted some legal advice.”

“Those odd people? I didn’t know you knew them.”

“I didn’t. They just wanted my advice.”

“I hope they pay you for it, dear. They have no money at all, you know. The father was in some kind of importing business — monkey-nuts or something — and drank himself to death. Left them without a penny, poor things. Old Mrs. Sharpe ran a boarding-house in London to make ends meet, and the daughter was maid-of-all-work. They were just going to be turned into the street with their furniture, when the old man at The Franchise died. So providential!”

“Aunt Lin! Where do you get those stories?”

“But it’s true, dear. Perfectly true. I forget who told me — someone who had stayed in the same street in London — but it was first-hand, anyhow. I am not one to pass on idle gossip, as you know. Is it a nice house? I always wondered what was inside that iron gate.”

“No, rather ugly. But they have some nice pieces of furniture.”

“Not as well kept as ours, I’ll be bound,” she said, looking complacently at the perfect sideboard and the beautiful chairs ranged against the wall. “The vicar said yesterday that if this house were not so obviously a home it would be a show place.” Mention of the clergy seemed to remind her of something. “By the way, will you be extra patient with Christina for the next few days. I think she is going to be ‘saved’ again.”

“Oh, poor Aunt Lin, what a bore for you. But I was afraid of it. There was a ‘text’ in the saucer of my early-morning tea today. ‘Thou God seest me’ on a pink scroll, with a tasteful design of Easter lilies in the background. Is she changing her church again, then?”

“Yes. She has discovered that the Methodists are ‘whited sepulchres,’ it seems, so she is going to those ‘Bethel’ people above Benson’s bakery, and is due to be ‘saved’ any day now. She has been shouting hymns all the morning.”

“But she always does.”

“Not ‘sword of the Lord’ ones. As long as she sticks to ‘pearly crowns’ or ‘streets of gold’ I know it is all right. But once she begins on the ‘sword of the Lord’ I know that it will be my turn to do the baking presently.”

“Well, darling, you bake just as well as Christina.”

“Oh, no, she doesn’t,” said Christina, coming in with the meat course. A big soft creature with untidy straight hair and a vague eye. “Only one thing your Aunt Lin makes better than me, Mr. Robert, and that’s hot cross buns, and that’s only once a year. So there! And if I’m not appreciated in this house, I’ll go where I will be.”

“Christina, my love!” Robert said, “you know very well that no one could imagine this house without you, and if you left I should follow you to the world’s end. For your butter tarts, if for nothing else. Can we have butter tarts tomorrow, by the way?”

“Butter tarts are no food for unrepentant sinners. Besides I don’t think I have the butter. But we’ll see. Meanwhile, Mr. Robert, you examine your soul and stop casting stones.”

Aunt Lin sighed gently as the door closed behind her. “Twenty years,” she said meditatively. “You won’t remember her when she first came from the orphanage. Fifteen, and so skinny, poor little brat. She ate a whole loaf for her tea, and said she would pray for me all her life. I think she has, you know.”

Something like a tear glistened in Miss Bennet’s blue eye.

“I hope she postpones the salvation until she has made those butter tarts,” said Robert, brutally materialistic. “Did you enjoy your picture?”

“Well, dear, I couldn’t forget that he had five wives.”

“Who has?”

Had, dear. One at a time. Gene Darrow. I must say, those little programmes they give away are very informative but a little disillusioning. He was a student, you see. In the picture, I mean. Very young and romantic. But I kept remembering those five wives, and it spoiled the afternoon for me. So charming to look at too. They say he dangled his third wife out of a fifth-storey window by the wrists, but I don’t really believe that. He doesn’t look strong enough, for one thing. Looks as if he had chest trouble as a child. That peaky look, and thin wrists. Not strong enough to dangle anyone. Certainly not out of a fifth-storey. . . . ”

The gentle monologue went on, all through the pudding course; and Robert withdrew his attention and thought about The Franchise. He came to the surface as they rose from table and moved into the sitting-room for coffee.

“It is the most becoming garment, if maids would only realise it,” she was saying.

“What is?”

“An apron. She was a maid in the palace, you know, and wore one of those silly little bits of muslin. So becoming. Did those people at The Franchise have a maid, by the way? No? Well, I am not surprised. They starved the last one, you know. Gave her ——”

“Oh, Aunt Lin!“

“I assure you. For breakfast she got the crusts they cut off the toast. And when they had milk pudding . . . ”

Robert did not hear what enormity was born of the milk pudding. In spite of his good dinner he was suddenly tired and depressed. If kind silly Aunt Lin saw no harm in repeating those absurd stories, what would the real gossips of Milford achieve with the stuff of a real scandal?

“And talking of maids — the brown sugar is finished, dear, so you will have to have lump for tonight — talking of maids, the Carleys’ little maid has got herself into trouble.”

“You mean someone else has got her into trouble.”

“Yes. Arthur Wallis, the potman at The White Hart.”

“What, Wallis again!”

“Yes, it really is getting past a joke, isn’t it. I can’t think why the man doesn’t get married. It would be much cheaper.”

But Robert was not listening. He was back in the drawing-room at The Franchise, being gently mocked for his legal intolerance of a generalisation. Back in the shabby room with the unpolished furniture, where things lay about on chairs and no one bothered to tidy them away.

And where, now he came to think of it, no one ran round after him with an ash-tray.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01