“Kindness,” said Erica, to her father’s head groom, “have you anything laid by?”
Kindness paused in his checking the corn account, shot her a pale glance from a wrinkled old eye, and went on with his adding.
“Tuppence!” he said at length, in the tone one uses instead of a spit.
This referred to the account, and Erica waited. Kindness hated accounts.
“Enough to bury me decent,” he said, having reached the top of the column again.
“You don’t want to be buried yet a while. Could you lend me ten pounds, do you think?”
The old man paused in licking his stub of pencil, so that the lead made a purple stain on the exposed tip of his tongue.
“So that’s the way it is!” he said. “What have you been doing now?”
“I haven’t been doing anything. But there are some things I might want to do. And petrol is a dreadful price.”
The mention of petrol was a bad break.
“Oh, the car is it?” he said jealously.
Kindness hated Tinny. “If it’s the car you want it for, why don’t you ask Hart?”
“Oh, I couldn’t.” Erica was almost shocked. “Hart is quite new.” Hart being a newcomer with only eleven years’ service.
Kindness looked mollified.
“It isn’t anything shady,” she assured him. “I would have got it from Father at dinner tonight; the money, I mean; but he has gone to Uncle William’s for the night. And women are so inquisitive,” she added after a pause.
This, which could only refer to Nannie, made up the ground she had lost over the petrol. Kindness hated Nannie.
“Ten pounds is a big bit out of my coffin,” he said with a sideways jerk of the head.
“You won’t need it before Saturday. I have eight pounds in the bank, but I don’t want to waste time tomorrow morning going into Westover for it. Time is awfully precious just now. If anything happens to me, you’re sure of eight pounds anyhow. And Father is good for the other two.”
“And what made you come to Kindness?”
There was complacence in the tone, and anyone but Erica would have said: because you are my oldest friend, because you have always helped me out of difficulties since I was three years old and first put my legs astride a pony, because you can keep my counsel and yours, because in spite of your cantankerousness you are an old darling.
But Erica said, “I just thought how much handier tea caddies were than banks.”
“Oh, perhaps I shouldn’t have said that. Your wife told me about that, one day I was having tea with her. It wasn’t her fault, really. I saw the notes peering through the tea. A bit germy, I thought. For the tea, I mean. But an awfully good idea.” As Kindness was still speechless. “Boiling water kills most things, anyhow. Besides,” she said, bringing up as support what she should have used for attack, “who else could I go to?”
She reached over and took the stub of pencil from him, turned over a handbill of the local gymkhana which was lying on the saddle-room table, and wrote in schoolgirl characters on the back:
I owe Bartholomew Kindness ten pounds. Erica Meir Burgoyne.
“That will do until Saturday,” she said. “My checkbook is finished, anyhow.”
“I don’t like you frittering away my brass handles all over Kent,” Kindness grumbled.
“I think brass handles are very showy,” Erica said. “You’d do much better to have wrought iron.”
As they went through the gardens together towards his cottage and the tea caddy, Erica said:
“About how many pawnbrokers are there in Kent?”
“‘Bout two thousand.”
“Oh, dear!” said Erica. And let the conversation lapse.
But the two thousand pawnbrokers slept with her that night, and leaped awake before her waking eyes.
Two thousand! My hat!
But of course Kindness was just guessing. He probably had never pawned anything in his life. How could he know in the very least how many pawnbrokers there were in a county? Still, there was bound to be quite a number. Even in a well-to-do county like Kent. She had never noticed even one. But she supposed you wouldn’t notice one unless you happened to be looking for it. Like mushrooms.
It was half-past six of a hot, still morning as she backed Tinny out of the garage, and no one was awake in the bland white house that smiled at her as she went. Tinny made a noise at any time, but the noise she made in the before-breakfast silence of a summer morning was obscene. And for the first time Erica was guilty of disloyalty in her feeling for Tinny. Exasperated she had been often; yes, furious; but it had always been the fury of possession, the anger one feels for someone so loved as to be part of oneself. Never in her indignation, never in the moments of her friends’ laughter, had she ever been tempted to disown Tinny. Still less to give her up.
But now she thought quite calmly, I shall really have to get a new car.
Erica was growing up.
Tinny expostulated her way through the quiet shining lanes, chuffing, snorting, and shaking, while Erica sat upright in the old-fashioned seat and ceased to think about her. Beside her was a box containing half a spring chicken, bread and butter, tomatoes, shortbread, and a bottle of milk. This —“Miss Erica’s lunch”— was the Steynes housekeeper’s unwitting contribution to the confounding of the Law. Beyond it, in a brown paper parcel, was Erica’s own subscription — a less delicate but more filling one than the housekeeper’s — purchased at Mr.-Deeds-inthe-village. (“Eastindiaman and provision Merchant. All the Best in Season.”) Mr. Deeds had provided pink and shining slices of jellied veal (“Do you really want it as thick as that, Miss Erica?”) but he had not been able to supply a brand of chocolates with raisins in it. No demand for that, there wasn’t.
It had not even crossed Erica’s mind that she was tired, that there remained less than an hour before closing time, and that a starving man might just as well have good solid lumps of plain chocolate as be indulged in his light preference for raisins. No; Erica — although she could not have told you about it — knew all about the importance of little things. Especially the importance of little things when one was unhappy. In the hot and dusty evening she had toured the neighboring villages with a determination that grew with her lack of success. So that now, in the torn and gaping pocket of Tinny’s near door, lay four half-pound slabs of chocolate with raisins in it, the whole stock of Mrs.-Higgs-at-Leytham, who at a quarter past seven had been persuaded to leave her high tea (“only for you I’d do it, Miss Burgoyne, not for another soul”) and turn the enormous key in her small blistered door.
It was after seven before she had clamored her way through sleeping Mallingford and entered the hot, shadeless country beyond. As she turned into the long straight of the chalky lane where her quick country-trained eyes had noticed that boot yesterday, she wished that Tisdall might have better cover than those gorse bushes. Not cover from the Law, but cover from the sky there was going to be at midday. A blazing day, it was going to be. Tisdall would need all of that bottle of milk and those tomatoes. She debated whether or not it would be a good move to transport the fugitive to other climes. Over to Charing, for instance. There were woods enough there to house an army in safety from sun and law. But Erica had never much liked woods, and had never felt particularly safe in one. It was better to be hot in gorse bushes and be able to see a long way away, than have strangers stumbling over you in the cool of thick trees. Besides, the Tisdall man might refuse the offer of a lift.
There is no doubt as to what the Tisdall man’s answer would have been, but the proposition was never put to him. Either he was so dead asleep that not even the uproar of Tinny’s advent could rouse him, or he was no longer in that piece of country. Erica went to the end of the mile-long straight, Tinny full out and making a noise like an express train, and came back to the spot where she had stopped yesterday. As she shut off the engine, the silence fell about her, absolute. Not even a lark sang, not a shadow stirred.
She waited there, quietly, not looking about her, her arms propped on the wheel in the attitude of one considering her future movements. There must be no expectancy in her appearance to arouse suspicion in the mind of stray countrymen. For twenty minutes she sat, relaxed and incurious. Then she stretched herself, made sure during the stretch that the lane was still unoccupied, and got out. If Tisdall had wanted to speak to her, he would have reached her before now. She took the two parcels and the chocolate and cached them where Tisdall had been lying yesterday. To these she added a packet of cigarettes produced from her own sagging pocket. Erica did not smoke herself — she had tried it, of course, had not much liked it, and with the logic that was her ruling characteristic had not persisted — and she did not know that Tisdall smoked. These, and the matches, were just “in case.” Erica never did a job that was not thorough.
She climbed in again, pressed Tinny into life, and without a pause or backward glance headed down the lane, her face and thoughts turned to the far-off coast and Dymchurch.
It was Erica’s very sound theory that no “local” had stolen that coat. She had lived all her life in a country community, and knew very well that a new black overcoat cannot make its appearance even on the meanest back without receiving a truly remarkable amount of attention. She knew, too, that your countryman is not versed in the ways of pawnshops, and that a coat lying in a car would not represent to him a possible cash value, as it would to someone “on the road.” If he coveted it at all, it would be for possession; and the difficulty of explaining its appearance would result in his leaving it where it was. The coat, therefore, according to Erica’s reasoning, had been taken by a “casual.”
This made things at once easier and more difficult. A “casual” is a much more noticeable person than a “local,” and so easier to identify. On the other hand, a “casual” is a movable object and difficult to track. In the week that had passed since the theft, that coat might have traversed most of Kent. It might now be-
Hunger gave wings to Erica’s imagination. By the time she was in sight of Dymchurch she had, thanks to modern methods of hitchhiking and old-fashioned methods of stowing away, placed the coat on the back of a clerk in the office of the Mayor of Bordeaux. He was a little pale clerk with a delicate wife and puny baby, and Erica’s heart was sore at the thought of having to take the coat from him, even for Tisdall.
At this point Erica decided that she must eat. Fasting was good for the imagination but bad for logic. She stepped on the brake at sight of The Rising Sun, “good pull-up for car men, open all night.” It was a tin shed, set down by the roadside with the inconsequence of a matchbox, painted gamboge and violet, and set about with geraniums. The door was hospitably open, and the sound of voices floated out on the warm air.
In the tiny interior were two very large men. The proprietor was cutting very large slices from a very fresh loaf, and the other man was sipping very hot liquid from a very large mug with very great noise. At sight of Erica on the doorstep all these activities ceased abruptly.
“Good morning,” said Erica into the silence.
“Morning, miss,” said the proprietor. “Cup of tea, perhaps?”
“Well —” Erica looked around. “You haven’t any bacon, by any chance?”
“Lovely bacon,” said the owner promptly.
“Melt in your mouth.”
“I’ll have a lot,” said Erica happily. “Egg with it, perhaps?”
“Three,” said Erica.
The owner craned his neck to see out the door, and found that she really was alone.
“Come,” he said. “That’s something like. Nice to see a young girl that can appreciate her vittles these days. Have a seat, miss.” He dusted an iron chair for her with the corner of his apron. “Bacon be ready in no time. Thick or thin?”
“Thick, please. Good morning.” This to the other man, in more particular greeting, as she sat down and so definitely became a partner in this business of eating and drinking. “Is that your lorry out there? I have always wanted to drive one of those.”
“Ye’? I’ve always wanted to be a tightrope walker.”
“You’re the wrong build,” said Erica seriously. “Better stick to lorry driving.” And the owner paused in his slicing of the bacon to laugh.
The lorry driver decided that sarcasm was wasted on so literal a mind. He relaxed into amiability.
“Oh, well; nice to have ladies’ company for a change, eh, Bill?”
“Don’t you have lots of it?” asked Erica. “I thought lorries were very popular.” And before the astounded man could make up his mind whether this skinny child was being rude, provocative, or merely matter-of-fact, she went on, “Do you give lifts to tramps, ever, by the way?”
“Never!” said the driver promptly, glad to feel his feet on firm ground.
“That’s a pity. I’m interested in tramps.”
“Christian interest?” inquired Bill, turning the sizzling bacon in the pan.
“Well, now. You writing a book?”
“Not exactly. I’m gathering material for someone else. You must see a lot of tramps, even if you don’t give them lifts,” she persisted, to the driver.
“No time to see anyone when you’re driving that there.”
“Tell her about Harrogate Harry,” prompted Bill, breaking eggs. “I saw him in your cab last week sometime.”
“Never saw anyone in my cab, you didn’t.”
“Oh, come unstuck, will you. The little lady’s all right. She’s not the sort to go blabbing even if you did give an odd tramp a lift.”
“Harrogate isn’t a tramp.”
“Who is he, then?” asked Erica.
“He’s a china merchant. Traveling.”
“Oh, I know. A blue-and-white bowl in exchange for a rabbit skin.”
“No. Nothing like that. Mends teapot handles and such.”
“Oh. Does he make much?” This for the sake of keeping the driver on the subject.
“Enough to be going on with. And he cadges an old coat or a pair of boots now and then.”
Erica said nothing for a moment, and she wondered if the thumping of her heart was as audible to these two men as it was in her ears. An old coat, now and then. What should she say now? She could not say: Did he have a coat the day you saw him? That would be a complete giveaway.
“He sounds interesting,” she said, at last. “Mustard, please,” to Bill. “I should like to meet him. But I suppose he is at the other end of the country by now. What day did you see him?”
“Lemme see. I picked him up outside Dymchurch and dropped him near Ton-bridge. That was a week last Monday.”
So it hadn’t been Harrogate. What a pity! He had sounded so hopeful a subject, with his desire for coats and boots, his wandering ways, and his friendliness with lorry drivers who get a man away quickly from possibly unfriendly territory. Oh, well, it was no good imagining that it was going to be as easy as this had promised to be.
Bill set down the mustard by her plate. “Not Monday,” he said. “Not that it makes any difference. But Jimmy was here unloading stores when you went by. Tuesday, it was.”
Not that it made any difference! Erica took a great mouthful of eggs and bacon to quiet her singing heart.
For a little there was silence in The Rising Sun; partly because Erica had a masculine habit of silence while she ate, partly because she had not yet made up her mind what it would be both politic and productive to say next. She was startled into anxiety when the lorry driver thrust his mug away from him and rose to go.
“But you haven’t told me about Harrogate What’s-His–Name!”
“What is there to tell?”
“Well, a traveling china-mender must be chock full of interest. I would like to meet him and have a talk.”
“He isn’t much of a talker.”
“I’d make it worth his while.”
Bill laughed, “If you was to give Harrogate five bob, he’d talk his head off. And for ten he’ll tell you how he found the south pole.”
Erica turned to the more sympathetic one of the two.
“You know him? Does he have a home, do you know?”
“In winter he stays put, mostly, I think. But in summer he lives in a tent.”
“Living with Queenie Webster somewhere near Pembury,” put in the driver, who didn’t like the shift of interest to Bill.
He put down some coppers on the scrubbed table and moved to the door.
“And if you’re making it worth anyone’s while, I’d square Queenie first if I was you.”
“Thank you,” said Erica. “I’ll remember. Thank you for your help.”
The genuine warmth of gratitude in her voice made him pause. He stood in the doorway considering her. “Tramps are a queer taste for a girl with a healthy appetite,” he said, and went out to his lorry.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14