But by Friday morning it was too late to take measures for the safety of The Franchise.
Robert had reckoned with the diligence of the police; he had reckoned with the slow spread of whispers; but he had reckoned without the Ack–Emma.
The Ack–Emma was the latest representative of the tabloid newspaper to enter British journalism from the West. It was run on the principle that two thousand pounds for damages is a cheap price to pay for sales worth half a million. It had blacker headlines, more sensational pictures, and more indiscreet letterpress than any paper printed so far by British presses. Fleet Street had its own name for it — monosyllabic and unprintable — but no protection against it. The press had always been its own censor, deciding what was and what was not permissible by the principles of its own good sense and good taste. If a “rogue” publication decided not to conform to those principles then there was no power that could make it conform. In ten years the Ack–Emma had passed by half a million the daily net sales of the best selling newspaper in the country to date. In any suburban railway carriage seven out of ten people bound for work in the morning were reading an Ack–Emma.
And it was the Ack–Emma that blew the Franchise affair wide open.
Robert had been out early into the country on that Friday morning to see an old woman who was dying and wanted to alter her will. This was a performance she repeated on an average once every three months and her doctor made no secret of the fact that in his opinion she “would blow out a hundred candles one day without a second puff.” But of course a lawyer cannot tell a client who summons him urgently at eight-thirty in the morning not to be silly. So Robert had taken some new will forms, fetched his car from the garage, and driven into the country. In spite of his usual tussle with the old tyrant among the pillows — who could never be brought to understand the elementary fact that you cannot give away four shares amounting to one third each — he enjoyed the spring countryside. And he hummed to himself on the way home, looking forward to seeing Marion Sharpe in less than an hour.
He had decided to forgive her for liking Nevil. After all, Nevil had never tried to palm her off on Carley. One must be fair.
He ran the car into the garage, under the noses of the morning lot going out from the livery stable, parked it, and then, remembering that it was past the first of the month, strolled over to the office to pay his bill to Brough, who ran the office side. But it was Stanley who was in the office; thumbing over dockets and invoices with the strong hands that so surprisingly finished off his thin forearms.
“When I was in the Signals,” Stanley said, casting him an absent-minded glance, “I used to believe that the Quarter-bloke was a crook, but now I’m not so sure.”
“Something missing?” said Robert. “I just looked in to pay my bill. Bill usually has it ready.”
“I expect it’s somewhere around,” Stanley said, still thumbing. “Have a look.”
Robert, used to the ways of the office, picked up the loose papers discarded by Stanley, so as to come on the normal tidy strata of Bill’s arrangement below. As he lifted the untidy pile he uncovered a girl’s face; a newspaper picture of a girl’s face. He did not recognise it at once but it reminded him of someone and he paused to look at it.
“Got it!” said Stanley in triumph, extracting a sheet of paper from a clip. He swept the remaining loose papers on the desk into a pile and so laid bare to Robert’s gaze the whole front page of that morning’s Ack–Emma.
Cold with shock, Robert stared at it.
Stanley, turning to take the papers he was holding from his grasp, noticed his absorption and approved it.
“Nice little number, that,” he said. “Reminds me of a bint I had in Egypt. Same far-apart eyes. Nice kid she was. Told the most original lies.”
He went back to his paper-arranging, and Robert went on staring.
THIS IS THE GIRL
said the paper in enormous black letters across the top of the page; and below it, occupying two-thirds of the page, was the girl’s photograph. And then, in smaller but still obtrusive type, below:
IS THIS THE HOUSE?
and below it a photograph of The Franchise.
Across the bottom of the page was the legend:
THE GIRL SAYS YES: WHAT DO THE POLICE SAY?
See inside for the story.
He put out his hand and turned over the page.
Yes; it was all there, except for the Sharpes’ name.
He dropped the page, and looked again at that shocking frontispiece. Yesterday The Franchise was a house protected by four high walls; so unobtrusive, so sufficient unto itself, that even Milford did not know what it looked like. Now it was there to be stared at on every bookstall; on every newsagent’s counter from Penzance to Pentland. Its flat, forbidding front a foil for the innocence of the face above it.
The girl’s photograph was a head-and-shoulders affair, and appeared to be a studio portrait. Her hair had an arranged-for-an-occasion look, and she was wearing what looked like a party frock. Without her school coat she looked — not less innocent, nor older; no. He sought for the word that would express it. She looked less — tabu, was it? The school coat had stopped one thinking of her as a woman, just as a nun’s habit would. A whole treatise could probably be written, now he came to think of it, on the protective quality of school coats. Protective in both senses: armour and camouflage. Now that the coat was no longer there, she was feminine instead of merely female.
But it was still a pathetically young face, immature and appealing. The candid brow, the wide-set eyes, the bee-stung lip that gave her mouth the expression of a disappointed child — it made a formidable whole. It would not be only the Bishop of Larborough who would believe a story told by that face.
“May I borrow this paper?” he asked Stanley.
“Take it,” Stanley said. “We had it for our elevenses. There’s nothing in it.”
Robert was surprised. “Didn’t you find this interesting?” he asked, indicating the front page.
Stanley cast a glance at the pictured face. “Not except that she reminded me of that bint in Egypt, lies and all.”
“So you didn’t believe that story she told?”
“What do you think!” Stanley said, contemptuous.
“Where do you think the girl was, then, all that time?”
“If I remember what I think I remember about the Red Sea sadie, I’d say very definitely — oh, but definitely — on the tiles,” Stanley said, and went out to attend to a customer.
Robert picked up the paper and went soberly away. At least one man-in-the-street had not believed the story; but that seemed to be due as much to an old memory as to present cynicism.
And although Stanley had quite obviously read the story without reading the names of the characters concerned, or even the place-names, only ten per cent of readers did that (according to the best Mass Observation); the other ninety per cent would have read every word, and would now be discussing the affair with varying degrees of relish.
At his own office he found that Hallam had been trying to reach him by telephone.
“Shut the door and come in, will you,” he said to old Mr. Heseltine, who had caught him with the news on his arrival and was now standing in the door of his room. “And have a look at that.”
He reached for the receiver with one hand, and laid the paper under Mr. Heseltine’s nose with the other.
The old man touched it with his small-boned fastidious hand, as one seeing a strange exhibit for the first time. “This is the publication one hears so much about,” he said. And gave his attention to it, as he would to any strange document.
“We are both in a spot, aren’t we!” Hallam said, when they were connected. And raked his vocabulary for some epithets suitable to the Ack–Emma. “As if the police hadn’t enough to do without having that rag on their tails!” he finished, being naturally absorbed in the police point of view.
“Have you heard from the Yard?”
“Grant was burning the wires at nine this morning. But there’s nothing they can do. Just grin and bear it. The police are always fair game. Nothing you can do, either, if it comes to that.”
“Not a thing,” Robert said. “We have a fine free press.”
Hallam said a few more things about the press. “Do your people know?” he asked.
“I shouldn’t think so. I’m quite sure they would never normally see the Ack–Emma, and there hasn’t been time for some kind soul to send it to them. But they are due here in about ten minutes, and I’ll show it to them then.”
“If it was ever possible for me to be sorry for that old battle-axe,” Hallam said, “it would be at this minute.”
“How did the Ack–Emma get the story? I thought the parents — the girl’s guardians, I mean — were very strongly against that kind of publicity.”
“Grant says the girl’s brother went off the deep end about the police taking no action and went to the Ack–Emma off his own bat. They are strong on the champion act. ‘The Ack–Emma will see right done!’ I once knew one of their crusades run into a third day.”
When he hung up Robert thought that if it was a bad break for both sides, it was at least an even break. The police would without doubt redouble their efforts to find corroborative evidence; on the other hand the publication of the girl’s photograph meant for the Sharpes a faint hope that somebody, somewhere, would recognise it and say: “This girl could not have been in The Franchise on the date in question because she was at such-and-such a place.”
“A shocking story, Mr. Robert,” Mr. Heseltine said. “And if I may say so a quite shocking publication. Most offensive.”
“That house,” Robert said, “is The Franchise, where old Mrs. Sharpe and her daughter live; and where I went the other day, if you remember, to give them some legal advice.”
“You mean that these people are our clients?”
“But, Mr. Robert, that is not at all in our line.” Robert winced at the dismay in his voice. “That is quite outside our usual — indeed quite beyond our normal — we are not competent ——”
“We are competent, I hope, to defend any client against a publication like the Ack–Emma,” Robert said, coldly.
Mr. Heseltine eyed the screaming rag on the table. He was obviously facing the difficult choice between a criminal clientèle and a disgraceful journal.
“Did you believe the girl’s story when you read it?” Robert asked.
“I don’t see how she could have made it up,” Mr. Heseltine said simply. “It is such a very circumstantial story, isn’t it?”
“It is, indeed. But I saw the girl when she was brought to The Franchise to identify it last week — that was the day I went out so hurriedly just after tea — and I don’t believe a word she says. Not a word,” he added, glad to be able to say it loudly and distinctly to himself and to be sure at last that he believed it.
“But how could she have thought of The Franchise at all, or known all those things, if she wasn’t there?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t the least idea.”
“It is a most unlikely place to pick on, surely; a remote, invisible house like that, on a lonely road, in country that people don’t visit very much.”
“I know. I don’t know how the job was worked, but that it is a job I am certain. It is a choice not between stories, but between human beings. I am quite certain that the two Sharpes are incapable of insane conduct like that. Whereas I don’t believe the girl incapable of telling a story like that. That is what it amounts to.” He paused a moment. “And you’ll just have to trust my judgment about it, Timmy,” he added, using his childhood’s name for the old clerk.
Whether it was the “Timmy” or the argument, it was apparent that Mr. Heseltine had no further protest to make.
“You’ll be able to see the criminals for yourself,” Robert said, “because I hear their voices in the hall now. You might bring them in, will you.”
Mr. Heseltine went dumbly out on his mission, and Robert turned the newspaper over so that the comparatively innocuous GIRL SMUGGLED ABOARD was all that would meet the visitors’ eye.
Mrs. Sharpe, moved by some belated instinct for convention, had donned a hat in honour of the occasion. It was a flattish affair of black satin, and the general effect was that of a doctor of learning. That the effect had not been wasted was obvious by the relieved look on Mr. Heseltine’s face. This was quite obviously not the kind of client he had expected; it was, on the other hand, the kind of client he was used to.
“Don’t go away,” Robert said to him, as he greeted the visitors; and to the others: “I want you to meet the oldest member of the firm, Mr. Heseltine.”
It suited Mrs. Sharpe to be gracious; and exceedingly Victoria Regina was old Mrs. Sharpe when she was being gracious. Mr. Heseltine was more than relieved; he capitulated. Robert’s first battle was over.
When they were alone Robert noticed that Marion had been waiting to say something.
“An odd thing happened this morning,” she said. “We went to the Ann Boleyn place to have coffee — we quite often do — and there were two vacant tables, but when Miss Truelove saw us coming she very hastily tilted the chairs against the tables and said they were reserved. I might have believed her if she hadn’t looked so embarrassed. You don’t think that rumour has begun to get busy already, do you? That she did that because she has heard some gossip?”
“No,” Robert said, sadly, “because she has read this morning’s Ack–Emma.” He turned the newspaper front side up. “I am sorry to have such bad news for you. You’ll just have to shut your teeth and take it, as small boys say. I don’t suppose you have ever seen this poisonous rag at close quarters. It’s a pity that the acquaintance should begin on so personal a basis.”
“Oh, no!” Marion said, in passionate protest as her eye fell on the picture of The Franchise.
And then there was unbroken silence while the two women absorbed the contents of the inner page.
“I take it,” Mrs. Sharpe said at last, “that we have no redress against this sort of thing?”
“None,” Robert said. “All the statements are perfectly true. And it is all statement and not comment. Even if it were comment — and I’ve no doubt the comment will come — there has been no charge so the case is not sub judice. They are free to comment if they please.”
“The whole thing is one huge implied comment,” Marion said. “That the police failed to do their duty. What do they think we did? Bribed them?”
“I think the suggestion is that the humble victim has less pull with the police than the wicked rich.”
“Rich,” repeated Marion, her voice curdling with bitterness.
“Anyone who has more than six chimneys is rich. Now. If you are not too shocked to think, consider. We know that the girl was never at The Franchise, that she could not ——” But Marion interrupted him.
“Do you know it?” she asked.
“Yes,” Robert said.
Her challenging eyes lost their challenge, and her glance dropped.
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
“If the girl was never there, how could she have seen the house! . . . She did see it somehow. It is too unlikely for belief that she could be merely repeating a description that someone else gave her. . . . How could she see it? Naturally, I mean.”
“You could see it, I suppose, from the top deck of a bus,” Marion said. “But there are no double-decker buses on the Milford route. Or from on top of a load of hay. But it is the wrong time of year for hay.”
“It may be the wrong time for hay,” croaked Mrs. Sharpe, “but there is no season for lorry-loads. I have seen lorries loaded with goods as high as any hay waggon.”
“Yes,” Marion said. “Suppose the lift the girl got was not in a car, but on a lorry.”
“There is only one thing against that. If a girl was given a lift on a lorry she would be in the cabin, even if it meant sitting on someone’s knee. They wouldn’t perch her up on top of the load. Especially as it was a rainy evening, you may remember. . . . No one ever came to The Franchise to ask the way, or to sell something, or to mend something — someone that the girl could have been with, even in the background?”
But no; they were both sure that no one had come, within the time the girl had been on holiday.
“Then we take it for granted that what she learned about The Franchise she learned from being high enough on one occasion to see over the wall. We shall probably never know when or how, and we probably could not prove it if we did know. So our whole efforts will have to be devoted, not to proving that she wasn’t at The Franchise, but that she was somewhere else!”
“And what chance is there of that?” Mrs. Sharpe asked.
“A better chance than before this was published,” Robert said, indicating the front page of the Ack–Emma. “Indeed it is the one bright spot in the bad business. We could not have published the girl’s photograph in the hope of information about her whereabouts during that month. But now that they have published it — her own people, I mean — the same benefit should come to us. They have broadcast the story — and that is our bad luck; but they have also broadcast the photograph — and if we have any good luck at all someone, somewhere, will observe that the story and the photograph do not fit. That at the material time, as given in the story, the subject of the photograph could not possibly have been in the stated place, because they, personally, know her to have been elsewhere.”
Marion’s face lost a little of its bleak look, and even Mrs. Sharpe’s thin back looked less rigid. What had seemed a disaster might be, after all, the means of their salvation.
“And what can we do in the way of private investigation?” Mrs. Sharpe asked. “You realise, I expect, that we have very little money; and I take it that a private inquiry is a spendthrift business.”
“It does usually run away with more than one had bargained for, because it is difficult to budget for. But to begin with I am going, myself, to see the various people involved, and find out, if possible, on what lines any inquiry should be based. Find out what she was likely to do.”
“Will they tell you that?”
“Oh, no. They are probably unaware themselves of her tendencies. But if they talk about her at all a picture must emerge. At least I hope so.”
There was a few moments’ silence.
“You are extraordinarily kind, Mr. Blair.”
Victoria Regina had come back to Mrs. Sharpe’s manner, but there was a hint of something else. Almost of surprise; as if kindness was not one of the things she had normally met with in life; nor expected. Her stiffly gracious acknowledgement was as eloquent as if she had said: “You know that we are poor, and that we may never be able to pay you adequately, and we are not at all the kind of people that you would choose to represent, but you are going out of your way to do us the best service in your power, and we are grateful.”
“When do you go?” Marion asked.
“Directly after lunch.”
“The sooner the better.”
“Then we won’t keep you,” Mrs. Sharpe said, rising. She stood for a moment looking down at the paper where it lay spread on the table. “We enjoyed the privacy of The Franchise a great deal,” she said.
When he had seen them out of the door and into their car, he called Nevil into his room and picked up the receiver to talk to Aunt Lin about packing a bag.
“I suppose you don’t see the Ack–Emma ever?” he asked Nevil.
“I take it that the question is rhetoric,” Nevil said.
“Have a look at this morning’s. Hullo, Aunt Lin.”
“Does someone want to sue them for something? It will be sound money for us, if so. They practically always settle out of court. They have a special fund for the ——” Nevil’s voice died away. He had seen the front page that was staring up at him from the table.
Robert stole a look at him over the telephone, and observed with satisfaction the naked shock on his cousin’s bright young features. The youth of today, he understood, considered themselves shock-proof; it was good to know that, faced with an ordinary slab of real life, they reacted like any other human being.
“Be an angel, Aunt Lin, and pack a bag for me, will you? Just for over-night. . . . ”
Nevil had torn the paper open and was now reading the story.
“Just London and back, I expect, but I’m not sure. Anyhow, just the little case; and just the minimum. Not all the things I might need, if you love me. Last time there was a bottle of digestive powder weighing nearly a pound, and when in heck did I ever need a digestive powder! . . . All right, then I will have ulcers. . . . Yes, I’ll be in to lunch in about ten minutes.”
“The blasted swine!” said the poet and intellectual, falling back in his need on the vernacular.
“Well, what do you make of it?”
“Make of it! Of what?”
“The girl’s story.”
“Does one have to make anything of it? An obvious piece of sensationalism by an unbalanced adolescent?”
“And if I told you that the said adolescent is a very calm, ordinary, well-spoken-of schoolgirl who is anything but sensational?”
“Have you seen her?”
“Yes. That was why I first went to The Franchise last week, to be there when Scotland Yard brought the girl to confront them.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it, young Nevil. She may talk hens and Maupassant with you, but it is me she turns to in trouble.
“To be there on their behalf?”
Nevil relaxed suddenly. “Oh, well; that’s all right. For a moment I thought you were against her. Against them. But that’s all right. We can join forces to put a spoke in the wheel of this —” he flicked the paper —“this moppet.” Robert laughed at this typically Nevil choice of epithet. “What are you going to do about it, Robert?”
Robert told him. “And you will hold the fort while I am gone.” He saw that Nevil’s attention had gone back to the “moppet.” He moved over to join him and together they considered the young face looking so calmly up at them.
“An attractive face, on the whole,” Robert said. “What do you make of it?”
“What I should like to make of it,” said the aesthete, with slow venom, “would be a very nasty mess.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01