Erica’s healthy appetite extended to bread and marmalade and several cups of tea, but she absorbed little information with the nourishment. Bill, for all his willingness to give her anything she wanted, knew very little about Harrogate Harry. She had now to decide whether or not to leave a “warm” Dymchurch and follow the unknown and elusive Harry into the “cold” of the Ton-bridge country.
“Are most tramps honest, would you say?” she asked as she was paying her bill.
“We — 11,” said Bill, thinking it out, “honest up to the point of opportunity, if you know what I mean.”
Erica knew. Not one tramp in fifty would refuse the gift of a coat lying unattended. And Harrogate Harry definitely liked to acquire coats and boots. And Harry had been in Dymchurch a week last Tuesday. Her job, therefore, was to follow the china-mender through the summer landscape until she caught up with him. If night overtook her in her search she must think of some really reassuring lie which could be telephoned to her father at Steynes to account for her absence. The need for lying caused her the first pang she had suffered so far in her self-appointed crusade; she had never needed to shut out her father from any ploy of hers. For the second time in a few hours her loyalty was divided. She had not noticed her disloyalty to Tinny; but this time she noticed and cared.
Oh, well, the day was young, and days just now were long. And Tinny might be a veteran but she was never sick or sorry. If luck held as it had begun she might still be back in her own bed at Steynes tonight. Back at Steynes —with the coat!
Her breath stopped at the very prospect.
She said good-bye to the admiring Bill, promised to recommend his breakfasts to all her friends, and set Tinny’s nose west and north through the hot flowery country. The roads were blinding now in the glare of the sky, the horizons beginning to swim. Tinny sweltered stoutly through the green furnace, and was soon as comfortable as a frying pan. In spite of her eagerness Erica was forced every few miles to pause and open both doors while Tinny cooled. Yes, she really must get another car.
Near Kippings Cross, on the main Ton-bridge road, she repeated as tactics what she had by accident found serviceable: she pulled up for lunch at a wayside hut. But this time luck was lacking in the service. The hut was kept by a jolly woman with a flow of conversation but no interest in tramps. She had all the normal woman’s intolerance of a waster, and “didn’t encourage vagrants.” Erica ate sparingly and drank her bottled coffee, glad of the temporary shade; but presently she rose and went out to find a “better place.” The “better” referring not to food but to possible information. With a self-control beyond praise she turned her eyes away from the endless tea gardens, green and cool, with gay cloths gleaming like wet stones in the shadows. Not for her that luxury today. Tea gardens knew nothing of tramps.
She turned down a lane to Goudhurst, and sought an inn. Inns had always china to mend, and now that she was in Harrogate’s home country, so to speak, she would surely find someone who knew him.
She ate cold underdone beef and green salad in a room as beautiful as any at Steynes, and prayed that one, at least, of the dishes on her table, should be cracked. When the tinned fruit appeared in a broken china rose-bowl she nearly whooped aloud.
Yes, the waitress agreed, it was a pretty bowl. She didn’t know if it was valuable or not, she was only there for the season (it being understood that the possible value of household goods could not interest anyone whose playground was the world). Yes, she supposed that someone local mended their china but she didn’t know. Yes, she could ask, of course.
The landlord, asked who had mended the china bowl so beautifully, said that that particular bowl was bought just as it was, in a job lot of stuff over at Matfield Green. And anyhow it was so old a mend that the man that did it was probably dead by now. But if Erica wanted a man to mend her china, there was a good traveling man who came around now and then. Palmer, by name. He could put fifty pieces together when he was sober without showing a join. But you’d got to be sure he was sober.
Erica listened to the vices and virtues of Palmer, and asked if he was the only one in the district.
The only one the landlord knew. But you couldn’t find a better than Harry.
That was his name. Harrogate Harry they called him. No, the landlord did not know where he was to be found. Lived in a tent Brenchley way, so he understood. Not the kind of household that Erica had better visit alone, he thought he had better say. Harry was no example as a citizen.
Erica went out into the heat encouraged by the news that for days, sometimes weeks, together, Harry did not stir away from his temporary home. As soon as he made a little extra money, he sat back and drank it.
Well, if one is going to interview a china-mender one’s first necessity is broken china. Erica drove into Tunbridge Wells, hoping that the great-aunt who lived somberly in Calverly Park was sleeping off her forbidden pastry and not promenading under the lime trees, and in an antique shop spent some of Kindness’s coffin money on a frivolous little porcelain figure of a dancer. She drove back to Pembury and in the afternoon quiet of a deep lane proceeded to drop the dancer with abandon on the running board of the car. But the dancer was tough. Even when Erica took her firmly by the feet and tapped her on the jamb of the door, she remained whole. In the end, afraid that greater violence might shatter her completely, she snapped off an arm with her finger and thumb, and there was her passport to Harrogate Harry.
You cannot ask questions about a vague tramp who, you think, may have stolen a coat. But to look for a china-mender is quite a legitimate search, involving no surprise or suspicion in the minds of the questioned. It took Erica only ninety minutes to come face-to-face with Harrogate. It would have taken her less, but the tent was a long way from any made road; first up a cart track through woods, a track impassable even for the versatile Tinny, then across an open piece of gorse land with far views of the Medway valley, and into a second wood to a clearing at its further edge, where a stream ran down to a dark pool.
Erica wished that the tent had not been in a wood. From her earliest childhood she had been fearless by nature (the kind of child of whom older people say out hunting: not a nerve in her body), but there was no denying that she didn’t like woods. She liked to see a long way away. And though the stream ran bright and clear and merry in the sunlight, the pool in the hollow was still and deep and forbidding. One of those sudden, secret cups of black water more common in Sussex than in Kent.
As she came across the clearing carrying the little dancer in her hand, a dog rushed out at her, shattering the quiet with hysterical protest. And at the noise a woman came to the tent door and stood there watching Erica as she came. She was a very tall woman, broad-shouldered and straight, and Erica had the mad feeling that this long approach to her over an open floor should end in a curtsey.
“Good afternoon,” she called, cheerfully, above the clamor of the dog. But the woman waited without moving. “I have a piece of china — can’t you make that dog be quiet?” She was face-to-face with her now, only the noise of the dog between them.
The woman lifted a foot to the animal’s ribs, and the high yelling died into silence. The murmur of the stream came back.
Erica showed the broken porcelain figure.
“Harry!” called the woman, her black inquisitive eyes not leaving Erica. And Harry came to the tent door: a small weaselish man with bloodshot eyes, and evidently in the worst of tempers. “A job for you.”
“I’m not working,” said Harry, and spat.
“Oh. I’m sorry. I heard you were very good at mending things.”
The woman took the figure and broken piece from Erica’s hands. “He’s working, all right,” she said.
Harry spat again, and took the pieces. “Have you the money to pay?” he asked, angrily.
“How much will it be?”
“Two and six,” said the woman.
“Oh, yes, I have that much.”
He went back into the tent, and the woman stood in the way so that Erica could neither follow nor see. Unconsciously she had, in imagining this moment, always placed herself inside the tent — with the coat folded up in the corner. Now she was not even to be allowed to see inside.
“He won’t be long,” Queenie said. “By the time you’ve cut a whistle from the ash tree, it’ll be ready.”
Erica’s small sober face broke into one of its rare smiles. “You thought I couldn’t do that, didn’t you?” For the woman’s phrase had been a flick in the face of a supposed town dweller.
She cut the wood with her pocketknife, shaped it, nicked it, and damped it in the stream, hoping that a preoccupation might disarm Queenie and her partner. She even hoped that the last processes of whistle manufacture might be made in friendly company with the mending of china. But the moment she moved back to the tent, Queenie came from her desultory stick gathering in the wood to stand guard. And Erica found her whistle finished and the mended figure in her hands, without being one whit wiser or richer than she was when she left the car in the road. She could have cried.
She produced her small purse (Erica hated a bag) and paid her half crown, and the sight of the folded notes in the little back partition all waiting to do their work of rescue, drove her to desperation. Without any warning and without knowing she was going to say it, she asked the man:
“What did you do with the coat you took at Dymchurch?”
There was a moment of complete stillness, and Erica rushed on:
“I don’t want to do anything about it. Prosecuting, or anything like that, I mean. But I do want that coat awfully bad. I’ll buy it back from you if you still have it. Or if you’ve pawned it —”
“You’re a nice one!” the man burst out. “Coming here to have a job of work done and then accusing a man of battle and blue murder. You be out of here before I lose my temper good and proper and crack you one on the side of the jaw. Impudent little — with your loose tongue. I’ve a good mind to twist it out of, your bloody head, and what’s s more I—”
The woman pushed him aside and stood over Erica, tall and intimidating.
“What makes you think my man took a coat?”
“The coat he had when Jake, the lorry driver, gave him a lift a week last Tuesday was taken from a car at Dymchurch. We know that.” She hoped the “we” sounded well. And she hoped she didn’t sound as doubtful as she felt. They were both very innocent and indignant-looking. “But it isn’t a matter of making a case. We only want the coat back. I’ll give you a pound for it,” she added, as they were about to break in on her again.
She saw their eyes change. And in spite of her predicament a great relief flooded her. The man was the man. They knew what coat she was talking about.
“And if you’ve pawned it, I’ll give you ten shillings to tell me where.”
“What do you get out of this?” the woman said. “What do you want with a man’s coat?”
“I didn’t say anything about it being a man’s.” Triumph ran through her like an electric shock.
“Oh, never mind!” Queenie dismissed with rough impatience any further pretense. “What is it to you?”
If she mentioned murder they would both panic, and deny with their last breath any knowledge of the coat. She knew well, thanks to her father’s monologues, the petty offender’s horror of major crime. They would go to almost any lengths to avoid being mixed up, even remotely, in a capital charge.
“It’s to get Hart out of trouble,” she said. “He shouldn’t have left the car unattended. The owner is coming back tomorrow, and if the coat isn’t found by then Hart will lose his job.”
“Who’s Art?” asked the woman. “Your brother?”
“No. Our chauffeur.”
“Chauffeur!” Harry gave a high skirl of laughter that had little amusement in it. “That’s a good one. I suppose you have two Rolls–Royces and five Bentleys.” His little red eyes ran over her worn and outgrown clothes.
“No. Just a Lanchester and my old Morris.” As their disbelief penetrated: “My name is Erica Burgoyne. My father is Chief Constable.”
“Ye’? My name is John D. Rockefeller, and my father was the Duke of Wellington.”
Erica whipped up her short tweed skirt, gripped the elastic waistband of the gym knickers she wore summer and winter, and pushed the inner side of it towards him on an extended thumb.
“Can you read?” she said.
“Erica M. Burgoyne” read the astonished man, in red on a Cash’s label.
“It’s a great mistake to be too skeptical,” she said, letting the elastic snap back into place.
“So you’re doing it for a chauffeur, eh?” Harry leered at her, trying to get back his lost ground. “You’re very concerned about a chauffeur, aren’t you?”
“I’m desperately in love with him,” Erica said, in the tone in which one says: “And a box of matches, please.” At school theatricals Erica had always had charge of the curtains.
But it passed. Their minds were too full of speculation to be concerned with emotion.
“How much?” said the woman.
“For the coat?”
“No. For telling you where to find it.”
“I told you, I’ll give you ten shillings.”
“But how do I know you’ll tell me the truth?”
“How do we know you’re telling the truth?”
“All right, I’ll give you a pound. I shall still have to buy it from the pawnshop, you know.”
“It isn’t in a pawnshop,” the man said. “I sold it to a stone-breaker.”
“W-h-a-t!” cried Erica in a despairing wail. “Do I have to begin looking for someone else?”
“Oh, no need to look, no need at all. You hand over the cash, and I’ll tell you where to find the bloke.”
Erica took out a pound note and showed it to him. “Well?”
“He’s working at the Five Wents crossroad, Paddock Wood way. And if he ain’t there, he lives in a cottage in Capel. Near the church.”
Erica held out the note. But the woman had seen the contents of the purse.
“Wait, Harry! She’ll pay more.” She moved between Erica and the path through the wood.
“I won’t give you a penny more,” Erica said incisively. Indignation overcame her awareness of the black pool, the silence, and her dislike of woods. “That’s cheating.”
The woman grabbed at her purse; but Erica had played lacrosse for her school only last winter. Queenie’s eager hand, to her great astonishment, met not the purse but Erica’s other arm, and came up and hit her own face with surprising violence. And Erica was around her stately bulk and running across the clearing, as she had swerved and run, half-bored, half-pleased, through many winter afternoons.
She heard them come after her, and wondered what they would do to her if they caught up with her. She wasn’t afraid of the woman, but the man was small and light, and for all his drinking might be speedy. And he knew the path. In the shade of the trees, after the bright sunlight, she could hardly see a path at all. She wished she had said that someone was waiting for her in the car. It would have been —
Her foot caught in a root, and she rolled over and over.
She heard him coming thudding down the soft path, and as she sat up his face appeared, as if it were swimming towards her, above the undergrowth. In a few seconds he would be on her. She had fallen heavily because she was still clutching something in either hand. She looked to see what she was holding. In one hand was the china figure; in the other her purse and — the whistle.
The whistle! She put it to her mouth and blew a sort of tattoo. Long and short, like a code. A signal.
At the sound the man stopped, only a few yards from her, doubtfully.
“Hart!” she called with all the force of her very good lungs. “Hart!” And whistled again.
“All right,” said the man, “all right! You can have your — Hart. Someday I’ll tell your pa what’s going on around his house. And I’ll bet you pay me more than a few quid then, me lady!”
“Good-bye,” said Erica. “Thank your wife from me for the whistle.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01