Authors: Winston Graham
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www.panmacmillan.co.uk/belloContentsWinston GrahamThe Japanese GirlThe Medici Ear-RingCotty's CoveThe IslandGibbAt The Chalet LartrecVive Le RoiThe Cornish FarmChapter 10The WigwamThe Old BoysI Had Known Sam Taylor For YearsThe Basket ChairJacka's FightBut For The Grace Of GodWinston GrahamThe Japanese Girl
Winston Mawdsley Graham OBE was an English novelist, best known for the series of historical novels about the Poldarks. Graham was born in Manchester in 1908, but moved to Perranporth, Cornwall when he was seventeen. His first novel,The House with the Stained Glass Windowswas published in 1933. His first âPoldark' novel,Ross Poldark, was published in 1945, and was followed by eleven further titles, the last of which,Bella Poldark, came out in 2002. The novels were set in Cornwall, especially in and around Perranporth, where Graham spent much of his life, and were made into a BBC television series in the 1970s. It was so successful that vicars moved or cancelled church services rather than try to hold them when Poldark was showing.
Aside from the Poldark series, Graham's most successful work wasMarnie, a thriller which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1964. Hitchcock had originally hoped that Grace Kelly would return to films to play the lead and she had agreed in principle, but the plan failed when the principality of Monaco realised that the heroine was a thief and sexually repressed. The leads were eventually taken by Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. Five of Graham's other books were filmed, includingThe Walking Stick,Night Without StarsandTake My Life. Graham wrote a history of the Spanish Armadas and an historical novel,The Grove of Eagles, based in that period. He was also an accomplished writer of suspense novels. His autobiography,Memoirs of a Private Man, was published by Macmillan in 2003. He had completed work on it just weeks before he died. Graham was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and in 1983 was honoured with the OBE.The Japanese Girl
I didn't notice anything special about her at first. I didn't even notice she was foreign. You get in a crowded train and think yourself lucky to find a corner seat, and it doesn't occur to you to take any particular notice of the person opposite.
So I'd been sitting there maybe twenty minutes before I noticed this book she was reading. I'd been looking through the evening paper looking at the cricket scores and wondering if Surrey would have time to win, when I happened to glance up and look at her eyes. You couldn't tell what the book was because it had one of these fancy leather holders on it like you hardly ever see now; but the peculiar thing was her eyes weren't going from side to side, they were going up and down.
I watched for a bit, and it occurred to me to wonder if she was adding up figures, the way I do all day Song; but it didn't look like that. You can tell when people are calculating. And then she turned over a page, and I wondered if she was left-handed or I was going crackers and was seeing things in a mirror because she turned back instead of forwards. In other words she was reading the book from back to front.
Just at that minute she happened to glance up, and she met my eyes and I looked away, and I realized then she was an oriental. It wasn't much: so many girls pencil their eyes that way these days; and her skin was just pale, a bit sallow; but again make-up hardly allowed it to show.
I'd never seen anyone read a book like that, and didn't even know they did read that way, and I couldn't keep my eyes from going up every now and then and watching her.
So we were in Brighton almost before I knew it, and the train was emptying. She had a lot of parcels and getting out she dropped one and I picked it up for her and she thanked me. Then I followed her down the platform and out into the street.
It was a windy day, with a lot of April cloud scudding across the sky. I'd not been to Brighton since I was a kid, so I had to ask my way, and presently I found myself queueing for a bus about three people behind her.
She was a small girl, and quite slight but not thin, and her hair was black, but not that dead blackness you often see in the East; in fact when the wind lifted it it seemed to shine and glisten like it might have been wet. You couldn't call her good-looking but just something about her appealed to me and made me feel queer, and God knows I'm no womanizer: usually these days I've no time to bother looking around. But it just happened with this girl just then.
And getting into the bus she dropped the same parcel, so I trod on the toe of the fat man in front of me trying to get to it, and he thought I was attempting to get on the bus ahead of him and was quite nasty about it. This time she gave me a very nice smile indeed with a little personality about it. The first time it had been a lifting of the lips and a âThank you' with eyes that didn't properly look. This time they looked and recognized, and they smiled too and she said âPlease excuse me.' She didn't actually say â prease' but it was half way between an R and an L.
I took the seat next to her in the bus and tried hard to think of something to say, and while I was still thinking and nothing coming at all the conductor came up and I asked him for Melton Street, and would he tell me when we got there. Then she said: âOh, I'm getting out there. I'll tell you.' All I could think to say was âThank you,' and I sweated and took off my glasses to polish them and put them back, and the bus jolted along and we sat in silence.
Then it was time to get off and this did give me a chance. I said: âPerhaps you'd let me â as I've â¦' and took hold of the parcel I'd picked up twice already, and she smiled and let me.
Off the bus I said: âI'm a stranger to Brighton, but if we're going the same way, perhaps I could carry it for you,' and she said: â Well, yes, partly the same way. Melton Street is nearer to the sea.'
We walked along in the afternoon sunlight with the wind blowing strong between the houses and smelling sweet and salty. I'm not exactly a he-man to look at but I was a lot bigger than her, and it gave me a good feeling to be walking beside her. Good, did I call it? Wonderful. But mentally I was tearing my hair out how to capitalize on this bit of luck.
âD'you live in Brighton?' I asked.
âYes. Yes, I work here. Do you? But of course not â you are not knowing it.'
âI live in London,' I said. â I work in the City. I'm just here for the afternoon to visit a sick colleague. He's just been taken ill.He's lived here for years. Lucky man.'
âYes, it's a nice place,' she said. âI have only been here four years but it's a nice place.'
âEngland, d'you mean or â or d'you mean Brighton?'
âI was born in England.'
âOh,' I said. â Sorry.' I had to go on then.âYou see, I just noticed on the train. I noticed that book you were reading. It wasn't English, was it?'
âNo â¦ No, it was Japanese. My mother and father were both Japanese.'
âOh,' I said. âI see. I couldn't think. That book, you see. You were reading it from back to front. And up and down. I never knew Japanese was like that,'
She laughed. A little tinkling laugh. âI have never been to Japan, but that was the first language I ever spoke.'
We had come to a stop. Just a bit of a conversation but it was the most important thing that had happened to me in a very long time.
âThat's your way,' she said. â To the end of the street where the traffic lights are, and Melton Street is next on your left.'
âI'm in no hurry,' I said. âCan I carry this parcel home for you?'
âThis is where I live.'
âOh, well â¦' I hung on to the parcel and then had to give it up. âDo you often go to London?'
âNo. It is my half day. I go to visit my brother about once a month, that's all.'
âWell, I expect I may be visiting Mr Armitage again. Next week or the week after. It'll be a Saturday afternoon again. I'll look out for you on the train â see if I can carry another parcel.'
She laughed again and we separated. I watched her go up the steps to her house. I waited and saw her let herself in. She didn't turn round. I went on to call on Mr Armitage.
When I got home to Islington Hettie was looking fagged out. She nearly always did now.
It's a funny thing. It's funny how fate treats you. As a young chap I was as fond of girls as the average fellow, but I never was a Don Juan, either in looks or in carrying on. For one thing I was short-sighted and for another I was shy. Yet I married one of the prettiest girls in the district. One of the prettiest I've ever seen. Hettie at 19 was a real pretty one: dark curly hair, big eyes, beautiful skin. Perhaps a shade delicate looking; but there were lots of boys after her and I was delighted and flattered when she chose me.
And we were married and we were quite happy for a time. Setting up house, making love in an inexpert fashion; me in quite a good job that didn't then look as dead-end as it was going to be, she still going out to work herself. I think it was as good as most people's lives. And then she began to fade. There's no other word for it. Just like a flower out of water. She was anaemic, the doctor said, but none of his pills made any difference. She wasn't really ever seriously ill â it was just that her looks began to go at twenty-two instead of at forty-two. Her hair hung lank instead of curling, her eyes lost their lustre, her skin took on a sort of freckled look, only they weren't natural freckles, it was more like a change in the skin. Not that this all happened in a year, but it happened in five years. She was like a may-fly or something, beautiful for a day.
We didn't have children. First it was because she wanted to go on working, then it was because she was too delicate. Of course I was still fond of her in a way, but it was in an anaemic way, as if her anaemia made it impossible for you to have strong feelings about her. Sometimes I felt trapped, shackled, pinned down by her and by my dead-end job. When I was a kid I'd had all sorts of dreams and ambitions â thought I'd travel, see life, make good. And I'm determined and a hard worker â with a break Icouldhave made good. But the break didn't come and I was on a tread-mill, tied to a quiet, mousy, delicate wife, who never complained but who made a virtue of not complaining. She was rather religious: it maddened me sometimes when she did voluntary work and neglected her own home.
Of course it wouldn't be true to say I felt this all the time, or even a large part of the time. Most days, most weeks, I hardly thought about it at all. Routine is deadening. And in the end comforting. You still have dreams but you â what's the word? â sublimate them by filling up the pools and watching the telly.
But I came home this night really swimming with excitement. Meeting this girl was the most stimulating thing that had happened to me in a year. Because since I married Hettie, and that was fourteen years ago, I'd hardly looked at another woman seriously. And suddenly out of the blue it was as if I had been stung.
I slept badly. We slept in separate beds which we'd changed to three years ago because Hettie said my restlessness kept her awake. Tonight I was glad because I could toss and turn just as much as I pleased. Half awake and half asleep I went over my brief meeting with the Japanese girl and made up extra conversation that would have convinced her what a charming man I was.
The thing was that I thought from the way she looked at me that she was attracted to me too. It was only in the light of morning when the pale sunlight began to show in nicks through the thin green chintz curtains that I faced up to the fact that I would probably never see her again.
I worked for Annerton's, the big London dock firm. I was assistant cashier, under Mr Armitage (who had just been taken ill). It had looked a fair enough prospect when I joined the firm at 17: reasonable pay with good prospects of promotion. But although I'd moved up I'd not for some reason made the grade with them. Twice I'd been passed over and twice I'd nearly left. But somewhere at bottom in me is a streak of self-distrust â a dislike of anything new and a fear that the new may turn out worse than the old. I'm obstinate, people say, determined and ambitious. But they don't understand the fear I have of the unknown.
And Hettie always discouraged me from trying a new job. She really hadn't any confidence in my initiative, and I suppose, God help her, she was reasonably comfortable in our shared house, knowing her neighbours, not wanting to move.
The following Friday I went to see Mr Head and suggested he might like me to call on Mr Armitage again on the next Saturday. He seemed surprised, because Armitage and I had never got on specially well; but he said all right, if Ifeltlike going down perhaps I could take these bank papers for Armitage to approve. I needn't wait for them: Armitage could post them back at his leisure.
I didn't wait for them. I was in and out of Armitage's house in twenty minutes, and then for three hours I moved around in the neighbourhood of the girl's home.
She looked quite startled when she saw me.
âOh,' I said, âwell I said itmighthappen but I never thought itwould. Haven't you any parcels I can carry this evening?'
She half laughed but didn't look displeased and we stood there a minute or so. I said I had been seeing my sick colleague again and she said she had been to the afternoon showing of a movie and had stayed out for supper.
I said: â Well, it's a bit cold here. Would you like a drink? That looks quite a nice pub.'
She hesitated, and I knew this was the moment of decision. I'd planned this all beforehand, but it all fell to pieces if she said no.
She didn't say no, and that's how it all began.
We began to meet once a week, each Saturday afternoon. Her name was Yodi Okuma. Her parents were both dead. Her father had been a Japanese seaman whose ship had been unloading in Liverpool in 1941 and he had been interned. After the war he had come to London and married a Japanese girl and they had two children, Yodi and Takemoto â or Taki, as she called him â her younger brother. Taki was training to be a teacher at London University; Yodi worked in an upholstery firm in Brighton and with her wages was helping to support her brother through his college days. Taki, she said, was much more Japanese looking than she was, but he loved England and never wanted to leave it. His ambition was to become a tutor of Japanese at Oxford or Cambridge. Yodi on the contrary wanted to travel. She didn't care how soon she could get away from England. She wanted to see Japan and all the world.
This was an immediate bond between us. Her talk of travel lit up all my old ambitions. We went to the pictures three or four times, always to see travel films or movies set against glamorous backgrounds, such asHawaii. We talked and talked, and always found more in common.
And of course it wasn't just talk. Every time we met the attraction grew, and soon I was kissing her goodbye. Then in no time it became a question not of how we could spend the afternoon but where we could spend it. The place she lived in was a hostel for girls, and the rules were still fairly strict.
One day I took a half day off from the office and went to Brighton unknown to her and took a room in a block of flats in Kemptown. It was only a tiny bed-sitter and it cost Â£5 a week, but it was modern and light and private, right on the top floor. I'd got Â£300 in the Post Office and Hettie would never know I had drawn it out. Just spending the capital it would go a long way. I didn't see beyond the end of the year.
So I took her to the flat the next Saturday afternoon and we made love. She was quite different from Hettie â I didn't know two women could be so different. She was so impulsively warm, so welcoming, that it made all the difference to me; I felt I was discovering a woman for the first time.
Of course I had told her I was married, and she didn't seem to mind that. She was a submissive little creature in some ways, as if generations of her forebears had left this as a mark on her, a mark of the inferior sex. Yet she had a distinct personality, quite strong, quite wayward, full of warmth and high spirits. She took things lightly, amiably, even ill-health. We hardly spoke of Hettie and she hardly spoke of her life before she met me. We both lived in the present, and we both talked of the future. She seemed to have no special friends among the girls she worked with or those she boarded with. She was devoted to her brother and wrote him every week. I don't know if she had had boy friends, I was only happy that she had none now.
All these weeks I had not, of course, been visiting Mr Armitage. He was still ill, and getting no better, but this news came by letter to the firm; there was no need for his assistant to go down. Him being away made a lot more work for me but I didn't mind because every week was just a preparation for Saturday.
I told Hettie I was still seeing Mr Armitage, but after a bit I thought, she's just not going to swallow this much longer, so I told her one night I was going to the races in Plumpton on the next Saturday. I knew it would shock her because she didn't approve of gambling, so I knew there was no risk of her wanting to come with me. I'd chosen racing partly for that reason and partly because I thought if she ever does find out about the Â£300, saying I'd lost it at the races was an easy way out.
Because I still hadn't really thought of leaving her.
Well, she was shocked, in her quiet rather listless way; but she also said: âHow long have you been going?'
âGoing?' I stared at her. âWhy this is â¦' and then I sensed that it was better not to say it was the first time. âThis will be the third Saturday. Before that I went to see Armitage every week â honestly.'
âI knew there was something different,' she said. âThere was something different about you. There has been â even for longer than three weeks.'
âWhat d'you mean?' I laughed. âI don't feel any different.'
âWell, you are. More excited, like. Excitable. Edgy.'
âNot bad-tempered. You can't say I've been bad-tempered.'
âNo, no. I wouldn't say that. But edgy. Half the time you don't listen when I talk to you. You don't read the evening paper the way you used to. It's â something I can't describe. Oh, Jack â¦'
âYes?' I was fearful then that she might have guessed.
âHow much are youbettingon the races? It's the craziest way of losing money. You get nothing for it â nothing at all. You might as well throw it down a drain!'
I laughed again. âYou can set your mind easy about that! I never put more than ten bob on any race â more often it's five! Honestly, Hettie, since Armitage was taken ill I've been working late nearly every night, you know that. I've been at a stretch. And I find this going off and watching horses, it's a sort of relaxation. You ought to come sometime.'
She shook her head dubiously, as I hoped she would. âIt's such abadhabit. There are such awful people at race meetings. And anyway, even if you only put ten shillings on a race, it might mean you losing three or four pounds in an afternoon.'
âOh, really!' I patted her hand, almost in affection, though now she meant nothing, nothing to me. âI've never lost more than two pounds yet. And I win sometimes. So far I'm not a pound down on three meetings.'
âThree meetings,' she said quietly. âYou told me it had only been two.'
The next day, the next afternoon, Yodi and I went and sat on the beach for an hour or two before we went back to the little room in Kemptown. We talked about beaches. Neither of us had ever been out of England, but these days everybody has a good idea what foreign places look like: the Mediterranean towns, the surfs of Australia and Honolulu, the glimmering domes of Venice, the temples and magnolias of Kyoto, the painted fishes of the Caribbean. We talked about them and wished we could visit them together. She was mad keen to travel â even keener than I was â and as soon as her brother was earning his own keep she meant to get a job, if she could, which would enable her to. Japanese airlines, she thought, might welcome a girl who could speak good English.
But of course at heart that was not the way she wanted to travel, whisked by jets from place to place, boarded at hostels, on a rigorous time-schedule. Nor did I. The essence of travel as I saw it, even if only perhaps for two holidays a year, was leisure to enjoy the places one visited and money to visit them in comfort.
Just then I began to see a tremendous opportunity ahead. Armitage was no better and was not going to get any better. The fiction was still put about but nobody believed in it any more. Armitage had not been appointed head cashier until he was 47. I was only 35. But I was his second man. If he retired â as he must very soon â there was every prospect of me taking his place. That meant nearly double what I was making now â and four weeks' holiday a year, instead of two. If that happened, I thought, I'd have the courage to tell Hettie about Yodi. Whether I left Hettie might depend on her, but I would be able to keep Yodi in a really pleasant little flat somewhere and we could spend all our spare time together and all my holidays. If Hettie would divorce me, so much the better: then I could make a clean break. Also as head cashier at Annerton's I would be in a good position to apply for a still better position somewhere and one that would give me a chance to travel.
I was very excited when I told Yodi all this, and she quickly caught on to the idea. âYou mean if you could you would marry me, Jack?'
âOf course! It's the one thing I'd like most in the world. Didn't you know?'
âWell â¦ Between this and being married â there is a gap. I was not so sure.'
âWhy are you so modest, Yodi, so sort of self-effacing?'
âIf I am, it is the way of Japanese women.'
âBut you've been brought up in the West, brought up in our ways.'
She was silent. âWhen I was small the Japanese were not popular in England. Some of the little girls I went to school with, their fathers had been in the prison camps â So it was not very nice for me. Since I grew up, young men â¦ well, they have not wanted marriage. Perhaps it has given me a sense of inferiority.' âI've got to put that to rights,' I said.
All the next two weeks I was on tenterhooks. I heard Armitage had sent in his resignation. I knew the board would be thinking about his successor â probably had been for some time. I worked furiously, wondering when the call would come and if it would come. Rumours of all sorts flew about, but I didn't believe half of them. I knew Armitage hadn't liked me, but I thought my work was good enough. I was ripe for the big move. Because of Yodi I had to have it.
Then one Friday afternoon Mr Head sent for me. I went in, mouth dry, hands hot, but cool in the head, not nervous so that anyone could see, not shaking.
He said: âAh, Jack, sit down. You know of course that Mr Armitage has resigned. Poor chap, I think he's about done for. The result of the latest tests he's had could hardly have been worse.'
I said: â I'm sorry. Of course I knew he was leaving.'
âYes, well, there it is, there it is. A good and loyal servant. Naturally the board have been considering his successor.'
âYes,' I said, âI expect they have.'
âThey've interviewed a number of candidates and yesterday they appointed a new man. His name is Cassell, and he comes from Palmer's, the textile combine. I hope you'll get on well with him. He comes with the highest references.'
Hettie, of course, was not surprised and not too upset. âAfter all, dear, you are a bit young, aren't you?'
âThe new man's 39,' I said.
âWell, he's had a lot of other experience, I expect.'
âWhat's other experience to do with it? I know Annerton's business through and through! D'you know, this new fellow will have to lean on me formonthsbefore he knows whether he's coming or going!IâII have to teach him whatIknow before he can begin to do his job properly! It's just too damned unfair. That bastard Ward! And I expect Armitage had his say!'
âDon't be so angry, Jack. It'll upset me. What's the use of carrying on? They've made their choice. You â maybe you â¦'
âWell, go on: what were you going to say?'
âWell, maybe they wanted somebody â¦ better educated or something. Or with different interests. I should hope they don't know you go racing every week!'
It was typical of her, I thought, to show she felt I didn't measure up to the job. How can anyone do well in life with a wife like that? I asked Yodi this and she said: âJack, don't think about her. I see why you are unhappy with her but don't let that sort of talk put you down. Let us plan whatweare going to do now. Do you now look for another job?'
âNot yet,' I said. âI've had a pretty drastic idea. But first I want to see how the new man measures up.'
In the night Ihadhad drastic ideas, ideas that had frightened me, yet often as I rejected them during the next two weeks they kept coming back. And the longer I considered them, the more solid and feasible and acceptable they became.
Cassell arrived and confirmed my suspicion. He was an adequate sort of chap with a hearty public school manner that I could see would have impressed the board. I tested him out gingerly on one or two points and he knew his accountancy well enough, but he came from an entirely different firm from Annerton's and it would take him months to get the hang of things. Cassell was friendly to me because he needed my help, but when he had it all at his finger-tips he would be patronizing. I could see it coming. It would be Armitage all over again.
And I couldn't stand that. I wasn't prepared to stand that. There were only two alternatives: I could look for a new job â and what chance had I of getting a new position much different from the old â and if that happened how long could I keep the flat for Yodi? How long in fact could I keep Yodi's love and loyalty? The other alternative I stayed awake at nights considering. I had the guts todoit: I felt certain of that, because I was driven into a corner. But did I have the guts to carry it through? And, more important than all that, more important than anything I did, did Yodi have the courage and the love and the loyalty to play her part?
The third Saturday I determined to sound her out. Yet I didn't know how to begin. I plunged in suddenly, when we were lying in bed after our love, when we were sipping coffee and smoking.
âYodi, I have a plan â for both of us. It's a way I think we can marry and travel and have money. But it needs â awful courage, and â and great loyalty â and patience. No, don't smile; this is serious. Dead serious. Let me tell you. Don't interrupt. Just let me tell you. But, right at the start, I want one promise, that's if you don't want to do this, if you won't do my plan, then we'll drop it and you forget I've ever spoken. Promise you'll forget.'
She looked at me with her jet-fringed eyes â misty after love the way I liked to see them. âI promise Jack. Yes, I pledge that.' She didn't say âpredge', but the word was half way between the two.
I said: â Just now,' and swallowed and stopped; began again. âJust now I could steal money from Annerton's and nobody would know.'
She lay very still beside me.
I said: âI could've done for the last three months but it never entered myhead. I'm not â a thief. Not if I could choose I wouldn't be. But maybe this is the time when I mustchooseto be. Because the opportunity won't ever come again. This man, this new man Cassell, he's all at sea at present. All the time I'm handling big money â pay for the staff every Friday: there's 400 on the staff â other things. Any week, any weekat all, a thousand pounds could drop into my lap, nobody would know.'
I waited then, drawing breath. A freckle of ash dropped off her cigarette. â But somebody would find out, Jack, sooner or later they'dâ'
âWait. I'm coming to that. A thousand pounds any week, every week, for the next three or four months. Get me? We could make away with probably twenty thousand. Perhaps even more.'
âHow do I â¦'
âListen, Yodi. Sooner or later I'll get caught. That's for certain. They'll want to know what I've done with the money. A lucky thing, just by chance, when Hettie wanted to know where I was going every Saturday I said I was going to the races. There was a reason for that, but now it fits in. I shall say I lost the money on the races. But all the time you'll have it.'
She sat up. â Oh, Jack, this is not serious â'
âIt is. It's a proposition. No one can prove I didn't gamble the money away. No one knows about you and me. People round here will recognize you because you're Japanese; but not me, I'm just anybody â a man. There's nothing to connect us. You said you never told anybody my name â¦'
âOf course not! I didn't wish to get you into trouble with your wife.'
âSo.' Even while I spoke the proposition seemed to solidify. âSo the money will come to you. You will bank it. There's nothing to stop you opening half a dozen bank accounts. Banks never object to money being paidin. It's not their concern where it came from so long as their customer has respectable references. They only worry if you want an overdraft. So in a few months you could have Â£20,000 in your name, untouchable, safe. So long as no one knows about us, no one could ever query it.'
She was sitting up, holding the sheet to her throat. âBut, Jack, what good would that be to you? If they caught you, you would go to prison!'
âYes,' I said. âI know. That's what I've got toface. It's the only way we could make this scheme work.'
âBut â but if wereallydid this â and it makes me tremble just the thought of it â if we did it, why couldn't we stop when you thought you were going to be found out â stop in time and then â then we'd leave the country together â go to South America, or even Japan!'
âWould you want to marry a wanted criminal?' I asked. âAnd be a wanted criminal yourself? You would be, you know, then. And as for me, maybe I'm funny. It'd give me a real kick to steal this money â it really would, from Annerton's â I'denjoyit. But I couldn't â couldn't â enjoy spending the money feeling every minute a policeman's hand might come on my shoulder. There isn't any peace of mind that way, I'd feel like a hunted rat!'
âBut if you went to prison, how could you enjoy it? I don't understand â'
âListen, Yodi. It would be my first offence. My lawyer would make a lot of me being tempted to gamble and being deeply sorry, etc., etc. I might get three years. I might get four. With good behaviour I shouldn't have to serve more than three at the outside. My wife'll be shocked to death. She's religious. Pretty certainly she'll be persuaded by her father and mother to divorce me. In three years I come out. I get some job found for me by the Prisoners' Aid or whatever they're called. I hold it down for three months, then I turn it in, take a job in Brighton, happen to meet you. We fall in love and get married. Presently we leave England. I've got a clean sheet, I've paid for my crime. We go to live somewhere else â France or Canada or Japan. Presently we begin to live a little better. Once we're out of England nobody will ever check. Then we travel as we want to travel, live as we want to live. Maybe it won't last us all our lives, but we'll have a wonderful time on it travelling everywhere we want â together.'
There was a long silence beside me. I couldn't hear her breathing but I could feel it Slow take in, then a tremulous give out. A clock struck, and I knew I should be going.
âWell?' I said at last.
She took my hand. âGive me time, please. I have to think of this thing. Give me time.'
So we began to plan. It looked easy, but there were twenty ways of slipping up and I had to guard against them all.
Getting the money wasn't any trouble. When you have a pay-roll of four hundred. I didn't make up the pay envelopes, two clerks did that; but I made out the cheque for drawing the money, and nobody ever queried it. Nobody would ever query it until the audit at Christmas, which was five months off. Even then, accountancy firms being rushed off their feet, it would be at least another month after that before they tackled the accounts. I wasn't at all afraid of Cassell. He never concerned himself with the day-to-day working of the firm; he was dealing with jobs like the financing of development plans, the costing of new products. And there were other ways I could get money apart from the wages cheque.
But because it was easy I went along with infinite care. To be caught later on might not matter; to be caught at the beginning would ruin everything.
And getting the money was only the beginning. There must be no connection, no hint of a connection between me and Yodi. If there was we were done for â and she would be in trouble as well as me. The likelihood of me being recognized in the flat in Kempton was infinitely tiny; small-time embezzlers don't get their photos in the papers; those days are over; but I took to wearing dark clip-ons over my ordinary lenses, and I only went to the flat now and again. Every week from the week she agreed, instead of coming straight to meet her I went a race meeting. Sometimes it was Brighton, sometimes Plumpton or Lingfield. After I got there I put five or ten pounds on the first two races, stuffed the slips in my pockets, and after the horses had lost â as they usually did â I left and met Yodi by arrangement somewhere and handed her the money. I didn't buy a car myself but I bought her a second hand Morris 1000 so that she could get about in it to meet me. Sometimes I went farther afield when there was no racing in Sussex or Kent, and then I would not see her but would keep the money till the following week. At home I ordered the racing papers and kept them upstairs, marking them heavily in blue pencil as if I'd been studying form. Hettie complained about them cluttering up the bedroom, but I took no notice and one day when I found she'd burned some I made such a row that she burst into tears.
I was building up the picture, and every suit I had carried a pocket half full of old betting slips.
Passing the money to Yodi was no problem; a thousand pounds in fivers and tenners will easily go in a big envelope; but she did seem unnecessarily scared about opening so many bank accounts and she seemed to feel the money was safer from prying eyes in a suitcase under the bed. In the end she opened five accounts: two in Brighton in different banks, one in Hove, one in Worthing, one in Eastbourne. They were all under her own name. I didn't wantanyirregularity to exist, so that anyone could get at her. After all there's no law against having money. Banks love you if you have money. So does almost everybody, I've found.
But even with five accounts it's a bit much to pay in Â£200 in cash every week. Even with five accounts the suitcases under the bed began to get full. Where money was concerned she was sharp and yet she was timid. She latched on quickly enough to all my ideas and followed them to the letter; but she was terrified of paying the money into the banks, of opening a deposit account so that the money could earn interest, of chatting naturally to the bank cashier and perhaps asking his advice.
One evening when we had been able to go back to the flat and make love she said: â Supposing â you say we have to make plans for everything â supposing I was asked where all this money came from â nothing to do with you, but somebody said: ââMiss Okuma, please tell me where all this cash comes from. I demand to know.'' '
I said: â Tell them you're a prostitute.'
She stared at me, eyes wider than they were ever meant to go. Then she laughed. âOh, you are funny!'
âNo, I'm serious. I don't know much about it, but the tales they tell, some of these high-class girls make a fantastic amount, and all in cash.'
Her eyes clouded. âYou would have me say that?'
I patted her arm. âI wouldn't have youbethat. But if youwereasked â if you were ever in a corner â it would be an explanation, a way out. They couldn't ever prove different.'
She was silent quite a while, and I thought maybe I'd offended her. But after a while she went on: âJack, while we are talking like this, do you realize how much you are trusting me?'
âWe discussed all that when you agreed to the plan.'
âYes, but think again. Think now. You are giving this to me â all this money. You have noholdover me â we are not even married. What if I let you go to prison and then betrayed you?'
âYou wouldn't. I just know you wouldn't.'
âBut what if Idid, Jack? You said prepare for everything. What if I did?'
These weeks I had grown up, aged, matured; it was queer: I could feel it myself. At her question I looked deep into the darkness of my own nature. It was as if I'd opened a door that hadn't ever been opened before.
I said: âThen, Yodi, I think if you betrayed me, if all this went for nothing, then I think I should kill you.'
She took my hand. âBut I could disappear, go and live in Tokyo. There there are millions of girls who look like me. If I changed my name â Oh, I know Iwon't; but you have to realize the risk, thetrustâ¦'
âIf I couldn't find you,' I said, â then I think I would kill your brother.'
I felt her shrink as if she had been touched by a hot iron. âJack â¦ you couldn't â you wouldn't.'
I took her hand again: it was very clammy. âNo, I wouldn't; I couldn't. But if you betrayed me in this it would be the end of the world. You wouldn't â you couldn't do that.'
No more was said then; but if that conversation brought a sort of chill between us for the rest of the evening, it also some-how served to cement the pact. Now we quite understood each other.
The weeks passed and the plan continued to run smoothly. I dreaded a sudden illness which would keep me away from the office for a week or more. So long as I was there to superintend the figures we were perfectly safe. Yodi was due for a week's holiday from her firm, and I sent her to Switzerland. In that week in two journeys she took out nearly ten thousand pounds.
Of course this was risky: smuggling currency out of the country is a penal offence, and she would have had a bad time had she been caught. But in the late holiday season the numbers passing through the air terminals are still great, and she was so inconspicuous: small, quiet, pretty, poorly dressed. The only thing that distinguished her was the Japanese name on a British passport; but this apparently only brought a friendly question from the officials.
I began to breathe more freely now. With Â£17,000 safely put away, at least the scheme couldn't totally fail. There was really only one big risk still, and that was the connection between her and me. Hettie might become suspicious and have me followed, or someone in the firm might notice the discrepancies and not tell me but they'd set detectives on me without me knowing.
But Hettie wasn't the type. She probably didn't think I had it in me to take up with another woman, and even if she suspected she wouldn't ever go about it that way. And as for the firm, there was really only the two clerks and I kept them always in their place. As for Cassell, he was a non-starter.
Mind, as the money went on building up, the tension grew. All the time, quietly, like an iron band it tightened. After a couple of short flaming rows which showed the strain between us, Yodi adopted the plan of bringing with her every week a bunch of travel books and brochures. Then, if we met in the flat, after making love we made plans, if not in the flat we sat in her car in some by-way or dropped in at a pub and looked over the brochures together.
When I came out I'd be thirty-eight or thirty-nine; and it was going to be a long wait, three to four years. So it would be a help while I was in to be able to dwell on the exact plans we had as soon as we met again.
The first plan, when we got married, was to go on a honeymoon to the South of France. We'd buy a little car and drive along stopping at whatever beach took our fancy and stay just as long as we liked and then move on again. After that we'd go into Italy, to Pisa, to Florence and then across to Venice. There we would park our little car and stay in Venice exploring all its beauty and having gondola rides until we wanted to move on again. So we would take a boat down the Jugoslav coast of the Adriatic, stopping off wherever we fancied and so slowly reach Greece. Here we would explore Athens and Mycenae and Delphi and presently take the train on to Istanbul. We had read up all about the covered markets and sailing up the Bosphorous and the great beautiful unused Mosques. And so we would stay there until the last of the summer faded. Then we would fly back to Venice and from there drive slowly home.
This was our first itinerary. The very first. The second, undertaken the second year, would be to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Japan â¦
This planning helped a lot. It gave us an escape. It justified what we were doing. It made the future real â this life at present was just a preparation.
Hettie was ailing when Christmas came: the chills of November brought on a bronchial catarrh, and she asked me to stay home Saturdays to keep her company. I said I was sorry I couldn't. She said it was crazy: how much money had I lost up to now? I said I hadn't lost, I'd made a profit. She said surely there can't be racing in this weather. I said I was going to point-to-point; they were just as exciting to me.
At Christmas I had to stay at home because she took to her bed for a few days â that is, I missed one Saturday. Sitting by the fire that evening I thought: where shall I be next Christmas? Not as comfortable and warm as this. Cold and lonely and locked up. And the Christmas after and the Christmas after. But the next. The next one we could spend in the Bahamas â¦
When I met her on the Saturday following Yodi wanted to break our plan. âJack,' she said. âI can't stand it; I can't stand it any more! This waiting; this feeling as if an axe is going to fall! I can't bear it! Let's go!'
âYes, go. What have we got now? We had Â£26,000 before this week. Now this week you bring Â£1,500. That means Â£27,500. It is enough. Why wait for this terrible blow to fall? Could we not be lost in South America? There are all mixtures of races there. A Japanese would be nothing unusual, neither would an Englishman. In three or four years anything could happen. It is toolong! There could be another war by then. We could escape somewherenowand be happy!'
The same thoughts had not been absent from my mind. It was well to plan, all right in theory to say you'd wait until you were caught, pay the penalty, go to prison, take the punishment and come out clean. But who likes the prospect of three years in jail? Youth doesn't last for ever. Three of my best years gone for ever. What you could do with them. Three years without touching Yodi's soft body, hearing her voice, even reading a letter from her. Sometimes in the night I couldn't sleep, turning and tossing until even Hettie in the other bed was wakened.
Yet to run now completely destroyed the scheme. All my life I've been a coward, always I've been afraid of being pursued â perhaps it's what happened when I was a kid once and a whole baying pack of older boys came after me racing through the streets. Perhaps it's just the way I was born. If I ran now I'd perhaps get right away, but should I ever have another moment's peace? I'd read the story of the Train Robbers. What sort of a life had they had, hounded, tracked down, changing names, places, never at rest? In the end they'd nearly all given themselves up or been caught. If I stuck to the plan and it worked, I paid my penalty and came out free. I met Yodi as if I'd never known her before. I fell in love with her. Where her money came from was nobody's business.
I took her face in my hands. âLet's wait,' I said. âLet's take a chance for another two or three weeks. I'm taking more every week now. If we get up to Â£35,000 we'll think again.'
âI do not believe I can stand it,' she said, beginning to weep. âIf you leave me, if you go to prison, I shall have all this money! I shall be too terrified!'
âNobody can touchyou,' I said. âSo long as no one discovers that we know each other, you'll be absolutely safe.'
âBut all those years I shall lose you. All those years and we can't even â even write.'
âI know,' I said. âDon't weaken me now, dear. I know how you must feel â but understand howIfeel. Just the same.'
âLet us go,' she said. â Let us make plans to leave early next month.'
The following week, plunging now, I took three thousand. I knew it couldn't be long now because of the auditors. It was a question of weeks, perhaps even days. Yet they were all so blind. They didn't seem towantto find out. I realized I could have taken two thousand a week all the time and nobody would have questioned it. They didn'tdeserveto catch me. Ishouldslip away, I could slip away while there was still time.
The next week I took another three thousand. I began to feel fatalistic about it. Nobody could expect this luck to last. I began to make preparations. Dover to Calais, you were over in an hour. Train to Paris. Hire a car there, drive to Geneva. Leave the car, train to Berne. Whom should I meet in a cafÃ© but Miss Yodi Okuma who happened to have flown over to ZÃ¼rich on a holiday. There was Â£10,000 in ZÃ¼rich. That would last till the hue and cry died down. We were not Train Robbers. They wouldn't go on pursuing me endlessly the way they had them.
So I decided it was my last week. Another three thousand and then I was off. I promised Yodi this. I promised myself this. The Tuesday and the Wednesday went by, and I thought, if I am really going to bolt, why limit myself to Â£3,000? Why not five? Why not six? So I made plans, and on the Thursday morning when Mr Head called me in for his usual morning chat I had the whole scoop in line. Tomorrow when I left I would carry a bag. This would be the one big scoop.
But when I went into his office Mr Cassell was there too, and with them were two grave-faced men I knew by sight. They were the auditors.
So it all happened as planned. First questioned by them, then tackled, then challenged. I finally broke down and confessed what I had done. It was a nasty time, especially when they brought in two of the firm's directors. But it gave me an opportunity I'd never had before to tell them just what I thought of them, why I'd broken out like this, why I'd defrauded them, why I'd lost thousands of pounds of their money on the races. Because I had been a loyal servant of theirs for eighteen years, had joined them straight from school, had wanted only to work for them and work my way up the firm for the rest of my life. Instead I had been treated as a cog not as a human being, overworked, underpaid and disregarded when any promotion was going. I was expected to work for another twenty-five years and then I'd be retired with a gold watch and a miserly pension and told to enjoy my old age! It was time they woke up, I told them, and realized that the days of slavery were past, and if their treatment of their staff was oppressive and dishonest, they couldn't expect loyalty and honesty in return.
I fairly let myself go. I said the same things again when the police arrived. Maybe I overdid it a bit, because it seemed such a good line. God knows it was the truth, and maybe it sounded like the truth. But possibly I overdid it.
It was all worse than I thought. That's the trouble with imagination: you can't trust it. You go to the dentist and think he's going to torture you and you don't feel a thing. You go to a doctor for a simple pain somewhere and his examination gives you hell. Well, this was hell.
They took me away, and the next day I was up before a magistrate and was remanded in custody. Remanded in custody, mark you. It means I was shoved in prison like an old lag in a cell with two other men who'd been caught shop-breaking. It was grim, just that to begin, and I can tell you my heart was in my boots. Because this was the very beginning and I couldn't see all the time ahead.
I didn't want to see Hettie but she came just the same. âOh, Jack, why did youdoit? Why? Why? Why? Weren't we happy together? Did you want for anything? What waswrong?'
âI wanted foreverything,' I said passionately. âEverything that makes life worth living!'
She burst into fresh tears. âI told you. Oh, I told you. That racing! All the betting! I can'tbelieveyou lost, wasted so much!'
This was a point of interest to the police too. One day Inspector Lawrence came to me and said: âLook, tell me a bit about this racing. Who did you go with?'
âNobody. I went on my own.'
âEvery week? No pals? You must have had pals.'
âI didn't. I went on my own. I didn't need anyone else.'
âAnd all this money. How much did you lose?'
âThe lot. Every penny. Every week.'
âYou never won at all?'
âOh, yes, sometimes! It was great then! Sometimes I nearly got back what I'd lost.'
âAnd what did you spend it on?'
âSpend it on? I went next week and put it on the horses again.'
âLook,' said Inspector Lawrence again. âI know you've lost a lot. But youmusthave some left. Well, I tell you, if you hand this over it will mitigate your sentence. If you are able to return even five or six thousand pounds. Restitution. That's what they call it. It might mean a year off your sentence. You've been very straightforward about everything else. This would help.'
âI'm sorry,' said. âIf I had it they could have it back. Honest. It isn't going to be any use to me where I'm going.'
The Inspector looked at me. âToo true,' he said.
The trial didn't last very long. After all, I admitted everything so they had nothing to prove. The judge gave me seven years.
Icouldn'tbelieve it at first. That thin old crow with the haggard face and the dirty grey wig. I'd thought when he was addressing me he sounded pretty harsh, but I thought that was part of the drill.
Something I'd said to the police about getting back at Annerton's for treating me like a cypher, that somehow rubbed him up wrong. I suppose judges have to think about society. I suppose he thought if I don't make an example of this chap, every little downtrodden clerk will think he's entitled to pinch the week's takings.
But seven years. It hit me like a blow in the face and I nearly fainted before they took me down below. I know they fetched a doctor to me so I must have looked pretty sick.
âNever mind,' said one of the warders grimly, trying to comfort me. â It's only five really â that's if you behave yourself.'
I've said about imagination not matching up. Well, it didn't match up. I say to all those people who think of taking a risk, well don't. And all this talk about improving prisons. All I can say is if the prison I was in was an improved one, then God help it before.
The humiliation, the degradation, maybe you expect that too, but it takes a greater grip on you than you ever thought, making you feel like something that crawls and isn't even fit again to see the light. I regretted then, God, how I regretted not having made a run for it while there was still time! Now I should be sunning myself on the Copacabana Beach in Rio instead of shut in four narrow walls with a bucket seat for a lavatory in the corner and a tiny window with six bars. And with Yodi. With Yodi! Yodi I would see no more for five long years. Yodi with the sloe eyes and the casual, easy smile, the dark glinty hair and the welcoming arms.
Because of course it had to be a part of our scheme that she should never come to see me. Never, whatever the emergency. And I could never write to her. Never. We had arranged it that once every three months she would send me a copy ofSporting Life, for the first day of the month she sent it. This would show that she was keeping to our plan and waiting for me and that all was well. I'd specially forbidden her even to enclose a message or try to underline a passage in it. And I'd told her always to post it from London, never from Brighton.
I was absolutely determined that we should be safe.
It drove me mad that the wrong woman could visit me at regular intervals. This was the first snag. Hettie's religion made her react the wrong way, and she said stoutly she was going to stick by me whatever the cost to herself, and meet me when I came out. She gave up our place and went to live with her parents. At first I tried to be gentle with her, acting the remorseful husband and saying that she must divorce me for her own sake: she was pretty, I said, and still young; she could marry again; my life was finished, I said; when I came out I'd be no use â no one would ever offer me a decent job again, I could never support a wife; for her own sake she must leave me and forget me.
She would have none of it. Sometimes I thought she actually enjoyed her nobility; she saw herself in the role; the disgrace, the near-poverty might kill her, but never should she be said to lack loyalty to her unhappy husband. I wrote to her father, telling him what I thought. Her father wrote back telling me whathethought, and it didn't make polite reading. But his views didn't sway her.
After six months in London they took me up to the midlands and there I stayed for two years. At the beginning I used to do what I told Yodi I'd do, which was go over in my mind every night one of the six wonderful holidays we'd planned down to the last detail. It worked for a while and I used to go to sleep lulled by a sense of anticipation, with sensuous thoughts of marriage to her and travel in the most beautiful lands in the world. And if it had been only three years to wait the plan might have lasted longer. But by the time nine months had gone by, with an absolute minimum of another fifty months ahead before I couldhopeto begin the first journey, the anodyne was wearing thin. Then often I would lie sleepless for hours on end wondering what I had done to myself. When I got out I would be forty. I wasn't quite thirty-six yet. To middle aged people forty is quite young; to someone still only thirty-five it looks like the beginning of old age.
Perhaps if she had been able to visit me it would have been different. But only the wrong woman visited me.
One day after eighteen months, the accumulated bitterness of everything bubbled over in me and I told Hettie I was not coming back to her when I got out. I told her I was sick of the sight of her anaemic mottled face on the other side of the glass and that I had only stolen the money and gambled with it in the hope of getting away from her. I told her it was her fault all through and I never wanted to see her again and why didn't she leave me alone and I'd rather be dead than ever live with her again.
I told her a lot that I wasn't proud of afterwards, but it did the trick. I had no more visits from her, no more letters. Six months later she began divorce proceedings. I never saw her again.
It's a funny thing but a human being can gradually get used to anything. My life before I met Yodi had been all routine: now it was all routine again. Horrible routine, of course, but by the end of the second year just that bit more bearable. The warders you got to know and they got to know you. They were a grim lot and not much intelligence, but you knew which ones to avoid and how to stay out of trouble. The prisoners were nearly all long-term men like me and some were as nasty as they come, but others were friendly enough and generous when it came to the pinch. I came to be known as a quiet one, best left to myself, no trouble to anyone but no use to anyone.
I read a lot. First it was all travel books, but somehow that began to taste bad and I went on to history and biography. I read and read, everything I could get hold of, and the time passed. I learned to sew mail-bags and did some printing and carpentering. At the end of two and a half years, they moved me down south again â not exactly to an open prison but one where there was more liberty. I was put in the garden. I never knew the first thing about cabbages or how to grow potatoes but I learned now.
Every three monthsSporting Lifearrived regularly. But after I'd been moved it kept getting posted up to Leeds and then being forwarded on. There was no way of me letting her know that I'd moved. I just had to hope that some way she'd find out.
It's funny too how all the anger and the bitterness dies away with time. Or it doesn't so much die away as lose its reality. Like Yodi and the plans for travel, like Hettie and her sad thin face, like Annerton's and the feel of wads of five-pound notes. There's that song that I first heard about now: â Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset, quietly flow the years â¦' It was sunrise and sunset for me, with just the routine jobs in between, the hours in the garden, the crude meals, the recreation room, the library, the cinema, the shuffling back to the cells.
It was a monastic sort of life â steady work, plain food, mortification or deprivation of the flesh, time to think. Time to pray. Only no one prayed. And your companions didn't look like holy fathers.
I never made any real close friends. I knew all of them, talked sometimes, more often was talked to (usually out of the corners of their mouths). Grey-faced men. Wolf-faced. Weasel-faced. Pig-faced. All with their tales to tell. All longing to get out, but many of them in for their second or third stretch. Many you could see were confirmed outlaws. As soon as their term inside was ended, they'd go out and be against the law straight away, fighting it until they were copped again.
Not like me â inside paying for my future in the sun.
The third year went and part of the fourth. I didn't have any visitors except prison visitors who did their best for me and talked about life outside. There was one cousin who came about every two months. He was the only relative.
The fourth year went and moved into the fifth. I had my thirty-ninth birthday. Sometimes I felt as if I'd never lived in the outside world at all, as if it was only something I had ever known from hearsay. I'd changed a lot, I thought, when I saw myself in a glass. My hair was going grey at the sides and my cheeks had sunken in. I hadn't really lost any weight but it was distributed differently. The skin of my body was ash-white like the underside of a stone. I suffered a lot from indigestion and constipation. The colour of my face and hands was not bad because of all the work in the garden, but my nails were broken and darkened with working with the soil. My thumbs had spread and the nails had flattened like little spades. I knew all about market gardening. One of my prison visitors suggested that when I came out I would easily get a job in market gardening. There were good opportunities, he said, and you were paid good money because labour was scarce. I thanked him and thought my own thoughts.
In the fifth year the only danger was that something might happen and I wouldn't earn myself full remission. There was a bit of trouble in the prison and I was lucky to be able to steer clear of it.
Sometimes I tried to picture what Yodi was like, and now and then I tried to remember the itineraries we had planned. But the dead silence of fifty months had sapped it all away. Of course I knew that it would all come back as soon as I was free, but I was anxious lest I should have changed so much that Yodi wouldn't any longer love me. And would I evenrecognizeher?
And the fifth year neared its end, and one day, planting out some brussels sprouts, I realized that I would not be there to eat them. I looked round the garden with a new eye and decided that when we finally settled down after all our travels I would always have a garden of my own. Growing things, green things, seemed one of the few jobs in life really worth while.
And so at last the end. There is an end to everything. And so at last they let me out.
I came out used to the open air â in a way â but mentally it was as if I'd been five years underground. I blinked like an old dog; I came out into a world where the traffic had doubled and it seemed to me the pace of life had too. And no one cared, no one waited, no one met me. I learned that Hettie hadn't remarried but was still living with her mother and father. Perhaps that was how she always ought to have been; her one mistake had been ever to leave home.
They found me a job at a petrol station, but I moved soon from that and started work with a firm of garden contractors near Newbury. It was up my street, the sort of thing I'd grown used to now, and to like. The men were better, that was the chief difference. After a month I sent a copy ofSporting Lifeto an address in Brighton. On the back page I wrote my new address. Two weeks later a copy ofSporting Lifecame back to me. It didn't have any address on it or any message. It didn't have to. Not even a date. The date we'd arranged was to be two weeks after the date of the newspaper.
I began to be dead scared. Even just living in the world outside the prison, ordinary life, was bad enough: it rushed about me like a whirlwind; people were mad. But now I was approaching the climax of my whole scheme. I was scared that I should look so old, that I wouldn't recognize her, that we wouldn't like each other any more, that she or I would have forgotten the arrangements for meeting, that something had gone wrong outside I would know nothing about. Perhaps she was dead. Perhaps the police would be waiting for me.
I tried to freshen up, to make my hands look better, to get the ingrained dirt out of the nails; I put dye on my hair and then thought it looked worse than ever and tried to wash it out. I bought a fresh suit, a coloured shirt, a gay tie: they all looked wrong on me, as if you were dressing up a corpse.
It was to be a Saturday again.
Always, it seemed, everything happened on a Saturday. I left Newbury early, changed from Paddington to Victoria, took a fast train for Brighton. I didn't like crossing London, I was reallyscaredof people, so many people. Even the train seemed fuller than usual for midday. People looked smarter, younger, took no notice of me. No girl sat opposite me in the train reading a book up and down and from back to front.
It was windy at Brighton as usual. My legs felt like jelly as I went down the hill. Maybe, I thought, even the cafÃ© where we'd arranged to meet would have closed down, be an amusement arcade or a supermarket.
But no, it looked just the same, didn't look as if it had even had a coat of paint all these years. It was near the end of lunch time but the place was still crowded. I blinked on the threshold, afraid to plunge in. Then in a corner I saw a smartly dressed Japanese girl.
I almost didn't recognize her, she was so smart; and she looked much older, more sophisticated, her glinting hair quite short: she looked more Japanese; there was no mistaking her now. Somehow in five years she had grown up and her race you couldn't mistake.
She wasn't looking up â she was eating soup and had a copy ofSporting Lifepropped up against a sauce bottle. This was exactly as arranged. There was one empty four-table and an isolated seat here and there, but I went slowly across, shakily, could hardly stand.
âD'you mind,' I said, and cleared my throat, â d'you mind if I share your table, miss?'
She glanced up briefly, eyes trying to be casual but strangely scared. âNot at all.' She looked down again at her newspaper.
Nothing more was said. I sat down, the waitress came, and I ordered. This was as far as our arrangement had gone. We'd agreed that from here on we should go on with our playacting, pretending, in case anyone had followed me, that this was our first meeting, that we just casually got acquainted, liked each other, and arranged to meet again sometime.
But the separation had been too long; too much emotion, too much tension built up in half a meal. In any case I knew I had been too cautious in my planning here. Nobody followed me. Nobody ever would. Nobody cared twopence what happened to me or what I did from now on. I'd committed a crime and had paid for it, and that was it so far as the police were concerned. I was free.
Free but damaged. I was still locked, chained within an experience, could not shake off the fetters. I was not the same man. And I was scared. I was scared of not being satisfactory to her. At first when you are imprisoned sex is a big problem; but the months and the years simply sap away your vitality and your desires â¦
Over the coffee we began to talk. Words came aridly, guardedly, bridging great gaps of time, turning back to try to fill in the gaps. Often it was like reaching for stepping-stones that were not there.
After coffee we got up, went to her place. She had long since left the little room we had had, lived now in a smart flat just off Bedford Square. It was an old-fashioned sort of house but the flat was very smart. On my money, I presumed. Did it matter? It wasour money, jointly owned, to be jointly spent.
Sitting in this flat smoking and drinking another coffee I felt ill-at-ease, uncouth, a stranger. She too was ill-at-ease, restless, kept getting up and rearranging things, stubbing out one cigarette and lighting another. She had changed for the better â at least in looks â as much as I had changed for the worse. She wasn't any longer the lonely, meek, submissive, casual little girl whose parcel I'd picked up. She was so well tamed out, her nails painted, a rich perfume about her. I kept eyeing her. Her skirts were absurdly short, she was like a warm well-bred beautiful cat. The difference in our ages when we first met had hardly seemed to matter. Now it was a gulf.
She said: âDar-ling, do you remember those plans we made? To travel. To travel here and there.'
âYes â¦ they kept me going â for the first year or so they kept me going.'
âAnd after that?'
âOh, I remembered them all through.'
âI'm glad. So have I.'
âWell, it was our aim, wasn't it. One of our aims.'
âThe first one was to go to Paris, wasn't it?'
âNo, the South of France.'
âThat's it. And then to Italy and Venice.'
âThen down the Adriatic by steamer.'
âCalling at Dubrovnik before going to Greece and Turkey.'
âYou remember it all.'
âYes, I remember it all.'
The afternoon passed. I felt I was visiting. Twice the telephone rang, but each time she answered it only briefly and immediately came back. Of course she was loving and attentive; but there wasn't any reality in it yet. We were still separated from each other, not now by prison bars but by the different lives we had led in the last five years. We were foreigners to each other, with only the shared memory of some months of stolen love and stolen money, which had happened in another age, a long life ago. Before that we had been strangers. Could the memory come alive within us and become a part of our present existence? Patience, there would have to be patience and understanding on both sides. It was early days yet: the very first hours of meeting. I told myself that very soon it would all be different, would be as before.
We were both waiting for the evening. She chain-smoked all the time. She constantly asked me questions about my life, about Hettie, about whether the newspaper had reached me regularly. How shocked she had been at the verdict. How long it had all seemed. When I asked her about her life she several times turned the question into a question about mine. At length, being pressed, she said a little sulkily that she had got through it somehow.
âHow? What have you done? Have you been working?'
âOh, yes, most of the time I was working. But three years ago â I have to tell you this, Jack â I had to go to Japan.'
âJapan?' I said.
âI had to, dar-ling. An uncle died. My brother â it was in his term-time and he couldn't go. I had to go. It was important.'
âSo you have seen it without me.'
âA little.' She nestled close to me. âOnly a little. There is much more still to see.'
âYou spent my money to go?'
âI had to. I thought you would not mind.'
âWhere is your brother now?'
âAt the University. He is teaching. He is very happy in England.'
âBut you are not?'
âI am happier than I used to be, dearest Jack.'
In the early evening we made love. It was all right, I thought, after all. She was so easy, so sweet, so welcoming. That part was all right. But her bedroom was furnished like a Japanese room, with bright silks and a low bed and paintings of flowers and birds on hanging silk. I was oppressed by the perfume and the luxury. I would have been so much more at home in the bare little room where we had first been together. That would have had some connection with the past. This had not. The past was quite gone. She gave herself to me wantonly; it was beautiful but it was unreal.
In the late evening she got up and made a dish of fried chicken and rice and we had white wine and sat on stools at a low table in the living-room. She pressed the wine on me and I drank a lot, trying to disengage my past and to enter this new world that she now lived in. I was not used to the wine and it went to my head. Afterwards we made love again, and this time I met her wantonness with a sort of savagery of my own. This homecoming contained all the ingredients that I had so often pictured in my lonely cell, only the ingredients had changed their flavour.
Lying there in the dark, I said: âHow much of my money have you got left?'
âI haven't counted. For a long time I haven't counted, darling.'
âWhen are we going away?'
âTo the South of France, to Italy, to Greece?'
âIt's too early yet. It will be cold there. May or June would be best.'
âWhen are we going to marry?'
âIt is better to wait. You told me it would be unsafe for a year perhaps.'
âI think I was too cautious. Nobody will care.'
She lay silent in the darkness.
âHave you changed, Yodi?' I asked.
âYes, in a way I have changed, dear Jack. Your money has changed me.'
âYou don't love me?'
âIt isn't that. Of course I love you. But we have to get used to each other again.'
There was a long silence. âTell me,' I said.
âI think you are going to be very angry.'
My heart began to thump. âTell me,' I said again.
âI was faithful to our plan, my darling. I was faithful to it, I swear. I stayed just the same for all of one year, oh, for more than one year. But I asked. They told me it would be at least six years before you got out. I waited but it seemed a lifetime. There was a threat of war. Do you know what that could mean? My father and mother suffered in the last war, were imprisoned, half their lives taken. But if there is another war, this time the world will end. All our chance of ever living, loving, seeing, tasting, enjoying. It will all be done.'
âWhat are you trying to tell me?'
âSo I thought, I thought surely he will notmindif I see just a tiny few of the things we planned to see together, before it is too late.'
I lay there very quiet in the dark listening to the soft, gentle sweet voice. She was soft and sweet against me.
âSo I went to the South of France in the second summer. I â I stopped there, but it was lovely and I was tempted to go farther. I â I wrestled with this temptation and I lost. So I went on.'
âWhere did you go?'
âI went to Pisa, to Florence, to Venice. I lost my heart and my mind. I took a boat down the Adriatic to Athens. I went to Istanbul. I swear I did not intend any of this when I left; but the beauty of it, the â the travel went to my head. Your money corrupted me, Jack.'
I still lay very still, but now I was listening to the thump of my heart again. âGo on,' I said.
âIt was wonderful, dar-ling. I â I spent money. I bought clothes. Then I came home for the winter here living quietly, thinking of the horrible thing I had done to you.'
The only light in the room was the light coming from outside, through the curtains. It was different from the light in a cell. She wiped her mouth on a handkerchief, and her hand trembled as it moved against mine.
âIt was â a terrible winter,' she said.
âYes, it was a bad winter â even where I was.'
âDon't be angry with me, darling. Please, please. I couldn't bear that. It would make me cry.'
âWhat happened that winter?' I asked.
âIn â in the February I could stand the cold no longer. I thought of all the beauty I had seen. I longed for it again. In the February I could stand it no longer. I â went to Japan.'
âAnd,' I said, â and to Bangkok and Hong Kong?'
âYes â¦ then I came back through India. Bombay, Madras, up to Nepal, then Baghdad, Beirut. And home.'
âIt would cost you a lot,' I said.
âYes. It was more expensive than we planned.'
âBut for one only. Or did you take your brother?'
âOr some other man?'
âNo, it was for one only! I swear to you!'
âForgive me, darling Jack,' she said, beginning to cry. âEach year it was the same. Every year when I came home I swore it would be the last time. But every year it was the same. I went across America to Honolulu â two years ago, that was â and then to Tahiti. Then there was Mexico and South America. Chile is so beautiful I longed to stay there.'
âBut you came back.'
âI came back. I'd promised you.'
âBecause of the risk to your brother?'
She looked at me in sudden fear. â Because I had promisedyou! Don't be too angry with me, Jack. I'll â I'll make it up to you. In time it will all be as you planned.'
âHow much of my money have you got left?'
âI don't know. Really I don't know, darling.'
âOh, don't. Don't, Jack.' I had grasped her wrist. âI â have other things to tell you yet.'
âHow much did you spend? How much is left?'
âYour money corrupted me! It made me think differently, act differently! I have never been the same. I should never have promised: I was too young to understand. You put too big a burden â' Her hand twisted in mine, trying to get free. âLast year I had Â£3,000. I thought â'
âThree thousand pounds! Great God!'
âWait! I have more now, darling. I knew then that somehow I must repay you. Somehow I must do something to help. I thought you might be out this year â I wasn't sure. Then something you had said to me once â when I asked you how I should explain having this money if ever I was asked â that came back to me. I had one last holiday. I had always wanted to see Egypt and South Africa â¦ After it I bought this flat, furnished it, set myself up. It was the only way. I have already made money â¦'
My mind was groping in the dark bog that her words had created. Before I could speak she went on: âI can make money again, Jack. This is very profitable. You cannot live here but we can often meet. You can come here as we arrange. And you can travel onmymoney â as I travelled on yours. When I can get away, if I can get away, we can still go together. Please, please try to understand what you did to me leaving me with all this money. I was only a child â¦'
I released her hand and got up. Doors were opening and shutting in my brain like cell doors clanging in prison. I saw lights where there were no lights, blundered over a chair, began to dress.
She slipped out beside me, put on a kimono, stood near to me, still gently talking, soft labial sounds, distressed, fearful, explaining, excusing, persuading. This must have been a terrible moment for her; yet she had faced it out of fear for her brother. She was very beautiful. I could see what a success she would be in her trade.
I thought of all I had done, of all I had suffered, of all I had planned, of the supreme success of the whole plan â utterly, uterly in vain because of her. I went insane with grief and rage. She had put on the bedside light and saw my face, and then she tried to turn and run.
I caught her at the door. Still pleading, still beautiful, she fought off my hands until they gripped her throat. Then she kicked and scratched while her heart still beat.
After a long while I was lying on the bed alone, and the insanity had passed, and she was on the floor. I got up slowly and went into the bathroom and sluiced my face and hands. Then I went back and looked at her and tried not to retch. My knees were like water, my hands trembling without control. I finished dressing and began to search her flat. The telephone went once but I ignored it. I found two hundred and twenty pounds in a wallet in a drawer. That was all I ever made out of my years in prison.
I put on my coat and went and had a last look at her. It was not until I was about to close the outer door of the flat that I thought of all the fingerprints.
So I went back in and dampened a tea-towel and spent half an hour wiping over all the surfaces I was likely to have touched.
âI caught a train back to London but missed the last train for Newbury so spent the night in a cheap hotel.
â¦ On the Monday morning I went back to my market gardening. And now I am waiting. There isnoconnection at all between me and the murdered prostitute â no one knows we ever met or knew of each other's existence. The chances are that the police will find a fingerprint somewhere. If they do they'll soon catch on. If not, I am free.
If I stay free I shall stick to market gardening and the soil. Growing green things out of the good earth is one of the few worthwhile jobs left. It is real to me, one of the few things left that are real. And in doing it one does not need to meet people or have dealings with them or to travel far.
If the police do catch up with me, it will mean, perhaps three years in close confinement, and then no doubt I shall be moved to a prison where I can till and hoe the soil again.
I don't want to go back, but perhaps the end in either case is not very different.
These last few days, since that terrible visit to Brighton, some of the tension has been draining out of me. Five years in prison have quite unfitted me for the stress and strain of everyday life, the push and the pressure of people, the business of competing with other men, not merely for a living but for a foot on the pavement, a seat in a train, a place in a queue. Above all it has unfitted me for travel.
It is a relief now to know that all those grandiose schemes we thought up need never be implemented. It's a relief that I shall never have to travel far again.The Medici Ear-Ring
Bob Loveridge owned this Medici ear-ring. It had been in his family for a long time, and it was one of the things he'd always bring out to show you if you gave him any encouragement. He was proud of it, liked telling the story.
Bob was a friend of mine, though he was 20 years older, and for a few months I'd courted his daughter. Bob was in shipping and lived in Hampstead and drove a Bentley. Lucille, his daughter, had the usual Mini. Bob's marriage had folded up about 12 years ago, and Lucille was now the only woman in his life.
I am an artist. That means I eke out life in patched jeans and a turtle-neck sweater and earn as much in a year, if I'm lucky, as a junior typist. This made the prospect of suggesting marriage to Lucille rather difficult. I had known the family all my life, and I got on well with Bob; and no doubt he had enough for three, but one doesn'twantto be kept â nor, if painting really means something, does one want to drift into shipping as a means of keeping a family. Because coy little water-colours of a Saturday just won't do.
It was hard, as I say, because she was a pretty girl and we got on well â really well; she had the colouring I like: autumn-tinted hair and short-sighted sleepy eyes with umber depths to them. So when she took up with Peter Stevenson I was half jealous, half relieved. An artist can afford girls, and there are always girls in Chelsea who will share your bed and your gas stove; but marriage â¦ Peter's arrival took temptation out of my way, but made what I was losing all the more delectable.
I liked him too â perhaps all the better because he also was poor. But as a Grammar School junior teacher even his prospects, at twenty-three, were better than mine at thirty.
This time I'm talking about, they had been engaged three months, and Bob Loveridge rang me inviting me to his house for the evening.
Just then I'd rented a studio from an equally unsuccessful friend who was trying his luck for a change in Paris, and I was painting hard, having had luck with two things I'd sold to the Grantham Gallery and was feeling generally inspired. I dragged myself away from the easel reluctantly and put on my best suit and went along to the Loveridges expecting a good meal and probably an evening of bridge with him and Lucille and Peter Stevenson. Bob was mad on bridge, and I like it for its orderliness, its formality. But when I got there I was told there was to be an eight. The Mayhews and the Frenches were coming, and we were to play duplicate, which is always a bit more intense.
The Mayhews turned out to be an upper middle-aged, upper middle-income couple from out of town somewhere; she a Jewess, and he a tight-necked, red-faced man with a Battle of Britain scar on his cheek. The Frenches were late and when they came it was only Captain French, his sister having gone down with a migraine.
I disliked French at sight. Perhaps he couldn't be blamed for his defaulting sister mucking up the evening; but he was in a crack regiment, not long out of Sandhurst, and young and suave and far too sure of his own charm. He hardly bothered to apologize for being late or for not letting Bob Loveridge know in time to get an eighth. The fact that he had come himself was apparently in his view a more than adequate recompense.
And straight away he set his sights on Lucille and took a bearing. He talked so much to her at dinner that she might have been the general's daughter. Now Lucille is nobody's fool, and no doubt it had happened to her before; but I suppose his charm really did work for some people, and she was modest enough to be flattered. I could see rocks ahead. Peter Stevenson stood the onslaught on his girl pretty well. He was on his best behaviour, of course, but I had known times when he could be quick off the mark and bull-headed. Humphrey French â and in a way Lucille â were trying him high tonight.
After dinner we drifted into the drawing-room, and the two tables were set for bridge; and all I could see â for three of us anyhow â was â dummy' bridge, which is neither fish, flesh nor fowl, and I was beginning to yawn mentally when Captain French suggested couldn't we play poker instead? What business it was of his to suggest this I never knew, but anyway Bob Loveridge said, why not? if everyone was agreeable, we could make the stakes fairly small.
This we did, pulling the two tables together and settling down, French again beside Lucille; and Peter took the opposite side of the table. By now his face was tightening, like somebody's glove that's a size small.
A humorist once called poker a game of chance. Maybe he was a good player. I am not. Nor is Peter. Or he wasn't that night. But that night it became a sort of private war between him and French, and that made him reckless. French, of course, was cool as an ice-pack and knew his stuff â from long years of practice, no doubt. Anyway, he won all along the line. As for the others, the Mayhews lost a little, but in the good-humoured way of people having an inexpensive evening out. Bob Loveridge was just in pocket. Lucille was very lucky and won quite a lot. This made things more difficult for Peter. By eleven I was Â£18 down. Peter about Â£40.
At this stage, Peter said with deadly politeness that he was cleaned out, and the game, in spite of Humphrey French's offer to lend him a fiver, broke up. Well, I was livid both with French and with Bob Loveridge, because Bob must have known if he'd the gumption of a louse that neither of us could afford to lose that kind of money. In spite of my little run of prosperity Â£18 to me was more than Â£100 to him, and I could see it might mean me being late with the rent for the studio, an idea I wasn't wild about, seeing there was someone in Paris depending on it for his bread ticket.
And Â£40 to Peter at this stage must have been quite a fortune. A war orphan since he was three, he'd had a fairly tough life; and the thing that astonished me was that he had that sort of spare folding money spoiling the line of his jacket. (It came out later that an elderly aunt had just died and in the way of old ladies had kept a nest-egg in a tin box under the bed. This had been found by the district nurse and turned over to him that day. As he said to me afterwards, if the party had been a day later the money would all have been out of harm's way helping to reduce his overdraft.)
By this time a bit of the general embarrassment must have penetrated Bob Loveridge's thick skin, and there's no doubt he would later have tried some tactful and roundabout way of making it up to the boy â if it had ever got that far. So would Lucille; but for her it was already a little late. By now Peter's general dislike of the situation was centring not so much on Humphrey French as on her.
It wasn't unnatural. Anyone who's been in love knows that love is about as stable as the bubble in a spirit level. Give it the slightest tilt and you're way off centre and inclining at 45 degrees towards the milder forms of homicide.
So the fraternization between Peter and Lucille after the poker game was strictly nil. Humphrey French was still making a fuss of the girl, but she'd seen the red lights, and did some back-pedalling.
Then I heard Mrs Mayhew ask about the Medici Ear-ring. Bob Loveridge had mentioned it to her at supper, and this started a new trend of talk. He went across to his little safe in the wall and brought back the ear-ring for us to see.
Of course I'd seen it three or four times before, and watched the usual reactions, the exclamations of interest and admiration. I estimate Bob must have had more than his full repayment in entertainment, even if he had bought the thing and paid double its value in some casual sale; but in fact he swore it had been in his family a hundred and fifty years.
âMy great-great-grandfather bought it in Naples from a broken-down nobleman. My great-grandfather in a letter to his brother refers to a parchment that went with the ear-ring, telling how it came to be made and giving a record of its owners, but, whatever it was, it's been lost. All we have is this letter which presumably tells the same story, the way one would write to one's brother about it. The date of the ear-ring is 1494.'
âVery exact,' said Mayhew, finishing his whisky. âWould it be spring or autumn?'
âWell the exactness is not so silly as it sounds â that's if the story is really true. In fact it would be the autumn.' Bob really enjoyed being able to say this. âA pair of ear-rings were made by a Florentine silversmith for one of the Medicis, Pietro the Second. Lorenzo â the great Lorenzo â had been dead only two years and his son Pietro was 23, a brilliant young man but unstable and dissolute. These ear-rings were made to his order for his current favourite, a girl called Giovanna Farenza, and the story is that when they were ready, Pietro insisted he should fit them in her ears himself. But while he was in her room doing this â and who knows what else besides! â news came that the French under Charles VIII were in Italy and advancing on Pisa and Leghorn with 40,000 trained soldiers. Florence was committed by treaty to oppose this invasion, so Pietro up and left Giovanna Farenza on the instant, with one ear-ring in her ear and the other still in his pocket. They never met again. Pietro was outnumbered and turned yellow. He gave in to his enemies and made a shameful bargain with them. When he returned to Florence he was thrown out for his treachery, and the long Medici rule was at an end. Pietro after a few attempts to regain power went south with the French and a few years later was drowned in a river crossing and buried at Monte Cassino â¦ This ear-ring â¦ this is the other one â the one that is supposed to have belonged to Giovanna Farenza â¦'
It was a pretty trinket, heavy for the modern eye, of chased silver with a pearl inset. It was a pretty story too. Even if the thing had been dreamed up in some silversmith's shop in Naples, it was still picturesque. One felt itoughtto be true.
âI should think this is worth quite a lot,' said Humphrey French. âThe pearl alone.'
âI've never had it valued,' said Bob. â To me it's just an heirloom that I wouldn't want to be without.'
Captain French said: â What do you think, Nora? You ought to have a pretty good idea.'
It was the first hint I'd got that he and Mrs Mayhew had met before. Nora Mayhew coloured and picked up the ear-ring again.
âWhy you?' said Bob Loveridge, asking the natural question.
âI've studied antiques,' said Mrs Mayhew. â I used to have a shop in Marylebone Lane. This â¦ Oh, I'd think it was worth â¦' She felt the pearl between her fingers. âDreadfully difficult to know nowadays, but if the pearl's what it seems, I should say that is worth Â£300. The whole thing â as an antique â I think if you put it up at Sotheby's you'd be very unlucky to get less than Â£500 â even without the story.'
Loveridge said: âWell, I should never sell it. It's got a sentimental feeling for me â as if Giovanna Farenza were an ancestor of mine.'
âPerhaps she was,' said Mayhew, chuckling into his tight collar.
âThe other one has never been found, I suppose?' said French. âIsn't it worth making a duplicate? You'd look wonderful in them,' he added to Lucille.
âI've never had my ears pierced. Anyway, I'm not the Italian type. One needs to be dark and tall, with sleek heavy hair.'
Loveridge was called away to the telephone and talk broke out generally. When Bob came back he gave us whiskies all round and under this warming influence things improved.
About midnight the Mayhews said they ought to be going: it was a long ride back, and Mayhew was flying to Paris in the morning. They got up, and others got up, and then Loveridge said:
âOh, I'll put the ear-ring away,' and picked up the case and carried it to the safe. At the safe he stopped with his back to us, while Humphrey French told us about a marvellous yachting party he had been on last year. After a minute Loveridge turned and said: âBy the way, what did Idowith the ear-ring?'
We all stared at him.
âWhat did you think you did with it?' Mayhew asked.
âPut it back in the case.'
âYes, well â¦'
âIt isn't here,' said Bob. â I happened to open it as I was going to lock it away and â¦'
We all stared at the case which he held for us to see. It was lined with shiny blue silk and quite empty.
âIt's only by chance I opened it,' he repeated. âI was just going to put the case back in the safe and I clicked it open with my thumb â¦'
âYou dropped it in your pocket, probably,' Lucille said.
âNo.' He felt in his pockets. âI never put it in a pocket because it's a bit delicate. Anyway, don't you remember, I was called away to the phone and left it in here.'
Nora Mayhew gave a brief laugh and said, âMy dear, let's turn outourpockets, then. Perhaps somebody here has been absent-minded â¦'
At once Bob Loveridge was apologetic. Of course, nothing was farther from his thoughts than that anyone here should have pocketed it. In fact, he thought perhaps someone might be joking. Obviously, nothing could be farther from his thoughts â¦
We searched. We searched the room, we turned out the loose cushions from the chairs, we lifted the rugs, we moved the tables, we searched the study, where the telephone was, we even shook out magazines and newspapers in that rather senseless way one does when all the sensible places have been explored. Nothing. We stood there dusting our knees, not quite sure what the next move was.
Eventually Bob said: âD'you know I believe itisa joke. One of you is doing this to take the micky out of me.' He smiled. âHonestly â¦ it's the only explanation.'
There was an uncomfortable silence.
âHas anyone else been in the study?' I asked. âThe maid who served the coffee â¦'
âNo, that was before I took the ear-ring out. And even if I had carried it in there, there's no way into the room except through this one. Violet only came in here to pick up the coffee things. She never went into the study at all.'
âYou should come on one of these yachting parlies sometime.' Humphrey French said to Lucille in an undertone. âFabulous fun. Just people of our own age, you know. Quite a ball.'
Nora Mayhew picked up her bag. âWe've really got to go, Bob. I'm sorry, but it's a full hour's drive. I don't know what you think about this â this loss, I really don't. It's terribly unfortunate to happen like this â'
âI'm stumped. Completely and utterly â'
âBut I think I know what Iwantto do,' Mrs Mayhew continued. âOr what Ioughtto do, anyhow. What we all ought to do.' She laughed in embarrassment and went to the card table and cleared a space. Then she turned her handbag upside down and the contents fell out with a clatter â lipsticks, compact, hair grips, cigarettes, lighter, money, comb, aspirin, nail boards, eye shadow, safety-pins.
âIt's the only thing, Bob. Really the only thing. Unless you want to call in the police â'
âOf course not â¦ At least, not in that way, and not yet â'
âWell, calling them in later won't be much use if one of us is to blame. Really, this is the only sensible thing to do â for our satisfaction, apart from yours. Darling, howwouldwe feel if the ear-ring were never found?'
âIt's on thefloorsomewhere,' said Loveridge in exasperation. â It's been dropped, or slipped down â¦'
âWell, you do see we can't stay all night, and this is the only other way. The men can turn out their pockets too. Lucille, come and look through these things for me, will you. George, mere's another table over there. Empty your pockets and let everyone see you do it.'
With Loveridge still muttering and protesting, Nora Mayhew insisted that her husband should turn out everything in his pockets, and when Bob refused to search him, George Mayhew took off his coat, pulled it inside out and offered himself to French.
So after about five very awkward minutes, the two Mayhews had made it pretty plain to everyone in the room that, unless they were a couple of professional pickpockets,theywere not responsible for any funny goings-on in Hampstead. They then prepared to take their leave, with over-assurances of undying friendship on both sides. In fact it was quite hard to tell which were the more embarrassed, the Loveridges or their out-of-town friends.
When Bob came back into the room again, French was talking earnestly and without apparent constraint to Lucille and to me, and Peter had sat on the settee idly flipping the pages of a magazine.
Bob blew out a breath: âPhew! That was a difficult moment. God, I'm tired! Shall we call it a day?'
âThe difficult moment hasn't entirely passed,' said Peter, staring at his magazine.
âWell,' said French, yawning. âI have nothing to hide. Let's get it over and done with.'
âI've told you,' Loveridge said, âthis isunnecessary. The darned thing wasn't insured, but if it's gone, it'sgone. I don't want to lose all my friends as a consequence.'
âYou won't lose ' em if you let them clear themselves,' French said. â Nora Mayhew was right.They'llbe much happier to turn out their pockets and have it all above board.'
âSpeak for yourself,' said Peter.
We all looked at him in surprise.
âWhat d'you mean?'
âI think Bob's right about this,' Peter said. âHe invited us here as his friends. Something has vanished. Disappeared down a hole, maybe. That's bad luck for everybody. But if we have to turn out ourpocketsjust to prove that we haven'tstolenthe thing, then for God's sake â¦'
âExactly â' Bob said.
âNot exactly at all,' French said. âNora Mayhew was right. It's plain common sense â'
âFor Heaven's sake stop sheltering behind Nora Mayhew,' Peter snapped. âIf it's your opinion, say so!'
French was still as cool as he'd been at poker. âAll right, it's my opinion, then. If I go now, without any check, and the ear-ring's never found, then I could never come here again. Bob may be a trustful sort of chap, but he can't help his thoughts.'
Peter Stevenson looked at me, but, much as I disliked French, I really had to agree with him over this. If you got a clearance now, well, then you were in the clear. Of course, they were both right in a sense. How can you choose between trust and proof?
Peter put down the magazine. â It so happens that I don't want to turn out my pockets. Right? The reason's unimportant. I just don't. You've known me for about nine months, Bob. You, Lucille, for about twelve. Well, I give you my word that I've never touched your ear-ring tonight. Will that be enough? Satisfactory? Or is it not enough?'
âOf course â'
âOf course,' Bob said slowly. âI don't want to â'
âWell thanks,' said French. âBut I suppose you realize that it leaves us in a position of thinking anything we choose.'
He turned to the card table, which by now had been cleared of everything else and methodically emptied all his pockets. Having done that, he pulled his jacket inside out the way George Mayhew had done and then went towards Bob Loveridge in his shirt sleeves with his hands in the air.
Bob said: âNo, no,' so French then tamed to me, and to satisfy him I patted his trousers and under his arms. Then, because I certainly didn't want to be saddled with any of the blame, I did the same. God knows, there wasn't much in my pockets but an empty wallet, a handkerchief and a bunch of keys. When it was done and we had our coats on again French looked at Peter. I thought Peter was being an obstinate fool too and said, much to my later regret: â Come on, it's nothing; get it over. Bob doesn't want it, but we ought to insist on it as a matter of common good manners. Then the whole thing can be dropped. Like the ear-ring. I think the bloody thing's still stuck in the springs of one of the arm-chairs.'
Peter looked at me, and the way he looked gave me the first qualm. Until then I had only been anxious to clear him of any suspicion of bad temper, nothing more.
He abruptly jerked round and looked at Lucille, then he turned to Bob Loveridge.
âWell, if you will have it you will have it! The reason I didn't want to empty my pockets is that I have an ear-ring I brought to show you that's just like the one that's disappeared.'
We looked back at him, feeling pretty stupid ourselves, while he put his hand in his pocket and fumbled about and then took out a Swan Vestas matchbox. He put it down on the card table with a bang and opened the box, took out an ear-ring and slapped it on the table beside the box.
âI've only just got hold of it,' he said angrily. âIt's been in my family apparently for a time, but I hadn't seen it before. I wondered if it was a match for the one you have, so I brought it along to show you and compare it. But as it happened I decided not to take it out when you showed us yours.'
Bob Loveridge was looking hard at Peter while he spoke. We all were some distance from the table. Nobody made a move.
Peter said irritably: âFor God's sake look at it! There it is. That's the one I brought. It isn't yours, Bob, but I think it makes a pair.'
Bob Loveridge walked slowly to the table and picked up â well, picked up âtheear-ring. He held it for us all to see, turned it round, smoothed a thumb and finger over the pearl. His face was quite white, like someone who'd had bad news. Then he suddenly offered it to his daughter. Lucille's hair shook in a violent negative.
Humphrey French moved across and stared at the ear-ring but didn't touch it. Then he shrugged and looked expressively across at Peter. I did not move.
Peter said again: âI think it makes a pair. That's if we ever find the other one.'
Loveridge said slowly: âI suppose you â meant it as a joke.'
âDaddy,' Lucille said, âif we â'
âA joke?' said Peter. âNo, it was no joke.'
âI'm inclined to agree with you,' said Loveridge. âI was only trying to find a â a reasonable excuse for you for trying on â such a â such a damned sillytrick.'
âSilly trick!' Peter said between his teeth. âThat's my ear-ring!'
âCan you prove it?'
âWhy the hell should I?'
âI'd like to hear you try.'
âWell, you're going to be disappointed! It's exactly what I said before â either you trust and believe in someone or you don't â'
âI'm sorry, Peter,' Bob said. âWe've got a little beyond that, I'm afraid. I don't like what's happened and I'm not going to pretend to.'
âI'm sorry, too,' said Peter, staring directly back at him.
Bob said: âCan you find your own way out?'
Peter glanced around â at me, at Captain French, briefly at Lucille.
âRight,' he said. âRight. I'll go. Good night and be damned to the lot of you!'
And he went. As he moved I spoke his name, having some unformed impulse to try and save the complete break. But whatever I had said at that moment would have been useless. Maybe the only one who could have stopped him was Lucille, and she was as tongue-tied as any of us.
The front door slammed.
The following day I had a visitor. The place I'd rented from my friend was the top floor of a Victorian house in Fulham-pretending-to-be-Chelsea. It wasn't huge even by the standards of today: a poky bedroom with a shared bath, but the studio was big and had a north light, and one cooked one's meals on a gas-ring in the corner.
It was Lucille Loveridge, whom I might have expected but somehow hadn't. I'd never really reached the heart-missing-a-beat stage with her; but welcoming her there, stained shirt and brash in hand, I thought how exactly right she was for me, the shape, the colour, the smell, the grace of good moving and a personality that immediately went click-click with mine. She lit the whole place up.
We talked for a bit generally, and she drew her cheeks in over a nervous cigarette while she looked at some of my recent pictures. I'd recently gone through a Fauvist phase and was just coming out for air at the other side. I tried to explain this to her and she nodded and was dutifully intelligent, but I knew only about a third of it registered either way.
Eventually, when she'd corkscrewed the stub of her cigarette in a British Railways ashtray, she said: â Well, Bill,wasn'tthat a mess last night!'
I tutted in sympathetic agreement. She said: âI felt sosick. I could have been as sick as a dog. I got to sleep about five, but then only for a couple of hours.'
I said: â You haven't heard anything from Peter?'
She shook her head. âNor will, if I know him. It's theendbetween us. And all because of a filthy little ear-ring that couldn't have mattered less!'
I looked at her cautiously. â In a way, ithadto matter. Because it worked out as a question of trust, didn't it?'
âBut why should hetakethe ear-ring in the first place? He's not athiefâ never could be! The money he lost was an awful lot, I know, but it wasn'tthatimportant. Good Heavens, I would have advanced it him out of my quarterly allowance if he had wanted it!'
âHe didn't want it,' I said. âHe wanted trust, didn't he? And he didn't get it.'
âShould he have? With the thing in his pocket? Should we all have said absolutelynothingand let him take the ear-ring away? It's justpastmy comprehension! Why he should ever have done it!'
âYou don't think there was any truth in his story?'
She blinked at me with her cloudy eyes and lit another cigarette. âNo. How could there be? It was such afeebleexcuse. Nobody's born as young as that, Bill; not any more.'
I liked her every way. Even in her wooden-headed approach to this problem of Peter, which was so much like her father. I liked the look of her brassiere strap showing through the shoulder of her thin blouse. I liked her ankles and legs. I coveted them. I coveted her. I knew I could teach her so much about life without harming or altering the essential, obstinate but charming female who answered to the name of Lucille Loveridge.
And at that very moment I was very much tempted, because I knew just how she felt and how easy that spirit-level bubble of love could be given a tilt in my direction. âLook, my sweet,' I'd say, and put my arm round her, â forget it for a day or so. Have lunch with me and then come back here and we can make plans for the evening. I'm free as air, and the only way to face life when it kicks you in the face is to grin and kick back. Can't I help you to kick back?'
Something like that but a little less obvious. Maybe words wouldn't be necessary at all, once one had made the right gestures â¦
She was looking at me. Well, I was tempted like Hell. But what's always been wrong with me in my life is that I'm not a big-timer.
I said: âShould I go and see Peter?'
No great smoker at normal times, she drew at this second cigarette as if she had a real grudge against it. âIt wouldn't do anygood, would it? I mean, what good would it do? What could you say? What could he say?'
âI don't know. That's what we'd have to find out.'
âYoudon't think there's anything in his fantastic story, do you?'
âSeems very doubtful. But if we both agree that he's not the natural thieving type, I think we ought to try and find what the true explanation is.'
âYes,' she said. âYes. If we only hadsomethingto go on.'
When Peter Stevenson came out of the school gates at Beckenham I fell into step beside him. He looked startled, and then hitched up his collar and walked on.
âI want a word with you,' I said casually.
âGo to Hell!'
It wasn't good advice considering how I'd felt a few hours ago, but I put it down to ignorance.
âWas that story you told last night the truth?'
âWhat does it matter!'
âI thought it did.'
It was beginning to rain. He turned into the car park.
âYou must admit,' I said, âthat it was a pretty odd coincidence.'
We came up to his dingy Morris 1000 and he began to fumble in his pockets. âOf course it was a coincidence,' he said. âI'd never seen the damned thing until Tuesday.'
âWhich? Yours or theirs?'
âSo you do believe me?'
âYes,' I said. âYou're a bit thick at times, Peter, but you're not a liar. You haven't got the right lobes to your ears.'
He didn't think much of my humour and bent to unlock the door of the car. âCan I give you a lift somewhere?'
âYes, the nearest tube station. I only came out to see you.'
He clicked my door and presently I got in. He put the key in the ignition but did not switch on. âAn old aunt of mine died,' he said. âLast week. I was the only relative. I went down to the funeral and then again on Tuesday to look over some things. There's some good Meissen that will make a show in the sale rooms. No money except what was in a tin box under the bed. That was what I lost. Odd how these old ladies exist on a shoestring, with an old age pension andnocapital, but with about a thousand pounds' worth of china in daily use. Her jewel box was full of trinkets but nothing valuable except this ear-ring. As soon as I saw it I thought, good Lord, that's exactly like the Loveridge's, and took it to show them and compare it. I knew Bob would be sure to bring his ear-ring out if there were strangers there, and I thought it would set him rocking on his heels if I matched it. As good as a straight flush at poker. The one I didn't quite get.' He brooded, staring at the pockmarks of rain on the windscreen.
âThen when it came to the time,' I said, âwhen Bob took out his ear-ring you were feeling too bloody-minded to produce yours.'
He looked at me. âHow did you know?'
âThe crystal ball never lets me down.'
âI suppose it was obvious, wasn't it?' He added quickly: âIt wasn't so much losing the money I minded.'
âOf course not. It was the man French making a pass at Lucille.'
âYes â¦ Yes.' Peter switched on the engine and started the car. He backed carefully out of the car park and headed north. âI have to go some way tonight, so I might as well take you farther into town.'
âD'you know,' he said after a minute or two, when the traffic had eased off, âI've always thought you were my nearest rival for Lucille.'
âGood Lord. What gave you that idea?'
âWell, I don't know â¦ Isn't it true?'
âI know when I'm out of the running,' I said. â Lucille fell for you in a big way at the first meeting, and I've never been in the hunt since.'
He laughed shortly. âBut she still thinks I'm a liar and a thief, eh?'
âShe doesn'twantto, my dear man. She's still madly in love with you, but if you go stalking off in a tizzy without making any attempt to justify yourself, what on earth can she think? In fact you seemed almost to welcome the thing as a trial by faith.'
He stopped with a jerk at traffic lights, and the man behind gave a complaining toot. âD'you think it'smyfault, then? Good grief, if you're in love with someone you don't believe them cheats and pickpockets at the drop of a hat! What chance is there of making a go of marriage if that's the only way you can begin â'
âOh, I know, I know. But this is a tough age. I understand exactly how you feel, but that doesn't mean I approve of your sitting back with the sulks and doing nothing to prove your point. Try to think how impossible your story looks from their point of view. Haven't you got some evidence of ownership of this ear-ring? Didn't your aunt have some record of it? When did she buy it and where? Have you been through all her things?'
âNo, of course not. It's not a job I like, prying into some dead old lady's private life. I never knew her well, Aunt Maud. She was one of those stiff-backed old girls who never let themselves down. But there's a mountain of stuff â¦'
âI know what it's like. But have a shot. You don't want to lose a valuable trinket and a valuable woman as well.'
As we accelerated away I saw his face had gone clouded and obstinate again. âThey're doubting the trinket; I'm doubting â well â¦ I was ordered out of their house like a common sneak thief. Isn't it up to them to do the next bit of thinking?'
I sighed. â It seems to me nobody thinks in this. Except perhaps me. But I can't bring you together. I can't get you near enough even to bang your heads.'
He let me out at the next tube station.
I saw nothing of any of them for a couple of weeks. I was working hard, and I was putting on the canvas something I wanted to put there. It was exciting and absorbing â one of the fairly rare moments in an artist's life when there is a fusion between ambition and attainment. Rare, but it makes the rest worthwhile.
Then, just after the impulse had worked itself out, I got a card from Bob Loveridge asking me to go up and see him without delay. When I arrived, boy, they were in a fine state. A letter had come by the morning post. In it was a typewritten message, unheaded and unsigned. It read:
âIt was not the thief's intention that someone else should be accused of the theft. Enclosed is a pawn-ticket. By taking this to the address given, your ear-ring may, on payment of Â£25, be redeemed. In future, when people offer to turn out their pockets, ask them also to take off their shoes.'
Over the rest, to coin a phrase, it would be kinder to draw a veil.
I went with Bob Loveridge to this shop in Dulwich, and there the ear-ring certainly was, and Bob coughed up Â£25, much to the disappointment of the pawnbroker, a Cockney with a fat tight little face that cracked every now and then into a smile that looked as if it was painful. The young man who pawned it, he said, was about seventeen or eighteen and was dressed like a messenger. He would never conceivably recognize him again. The anxiety went out of his smile when we stopped asking questions, but the disappointment remained.
The ear-ring was a bit bent, but otherwise sound enough. The odd thing was that when we got it home and compared it with Peter's ear-ring they were not an exact match, there being slight differences in the turning of the silver. Whether it was in fact the ear-ring that Pietro the Second carried off to war, or whether it was another one made by the same bright Neapolitan silversmith to sell the same story over again, we never knew. The pearl was a good one and the silver was old. Lucille, after getting her ears pierced, wore them both at her wedding.
Not that she came to that easily. Having let myself in for the dreary job of go-between I carried on, but before the end I began to feel like a U.N. conciliation officer in a border dispute.
Of course Bob Loveridge combined the handsome apologies he made to Peter with an absolute burning determination to smoke out the real thief. The fact that he'd been led to make such a bloomer was an extra goad.
From time to time he could be seen staring broodingly at Violet's bent back when she came into the room. But actually Nora Mayhew seemed the least unlikely suspect, since she it was who had made the most fuss and insisted on a superficial search being made. We knew she had been in antiques, and Bob dug out the fact that she had once been heavily fined in Italy for attempting to smuggle an old master out of the country without a permit. Captain French's association with her was cleared up when we found that Mrs Mayhew, who had been a Miss Cohen, was at school in Switzerland with Humphrey French's mother, who had been a Miss Blomberg, and that they frequently still ski-ed together. This sinister revelation did not help us at all. Nor particularly did the discovery that Humphrey French was heavily in debt â it seemed likely enough in a young soldier who could still afford to cling to old-fashioned habits.
Eventually we gave it up, but the problem still rankled. One of Bob's favourite questions was why the person who sent it to the pawnbroker had not asked much more than Â£25 for it, since, if it was someone in the room, or even Violet the maid, they must all have heard Nora Mayhew's estimate of its value. It didn't appear to occur to him that perhaps the thief urgently wanted some fairly small sum of money for a limited period and might have pawned the jewel intending later to redeem it and return it in any case. I've often wondered how Robert would take such a suggestion.
Anyway my friend in Paris hadn't to wait for the rent of the studio.Cotty's Cove
It was in the seventies of last century that it began, when she lived with her father in the manor of Sawle. It was a grey, quiet time in Cornwall, for the mining slump had taken hold and miners were leaving the country by every ship. Quietness and an uneasy peace were creeping over the scarred countryside, though here and there a chimney still smoked and an engine discordantly clanged.
Her name was Lavinia Cotty and their house was a large one, a thick-set, square-shouldered, low-lying house built of weathered yellow stone and set in a green sandy fold of the hills quite close to the sea. From it you could see the grey cottages of the village climbing the hill-side a mile away.
Mr Cotty had been a widower for twenty years and Miss Cotty a spinster for thirty-five. Great-grandfather Cotty, a tough old man, had built the house and started the family off in roaring good style in the days when Napoleon was still an ambitious schoolboy, but he would not have been pleased now at the sight of either his house or his grandson. One hadn't the money to maintain the other, and they had reached old age together and would presently tumble down and be decently forgotten.
Miss Cotty was prim and quiet and tall. She had never been good-looking and so had changed very little, there being no special bloom to fade. But she was neat and ladylike and graceful, with a certain restrained charm. She kept the house in some sort of order with one maid; she did a little genteel weeding in the garden, hands carefully gloved; she read poetry â chiefly Mr Tennyson and Mr Wordsworth â and, when her father wasn't there, a little fiction; she knitted for herself and sewed for the house and helped the vicar and visited the poor; she read the local papers to her father, whose eyes were troubling him; and once a month she drove to Truro in the trap, with the maid to carry the larger parcels.
To look at Miss Cotty you would not have guessed at her one indulgence.
From the back door of the house it was a quarter of a mile rather difficult walking across soft, hairy sandhills to the cliff-edge and the sea and a beach of pale golden sand. Down the cliff there was a path and at the foot a cave with an arched roof like a Gothic church.
This was something Miss Cotty had never been able to resist; she came every fine day in the light weather and stayed an hour â or more if she could spare it. It had been an escape ever since her girlhood. Often she didn't open her book but sat quiet in the sun, with the noise of the sea in her ears, and thought of everything and nothing, drowsy in the sun, and warm and happy and relaxed.
And on good days, when the sea was high enough to cut off this cove from all the others, leaving only a crescent of dry sand, she would go back into the cave and take off her clothes and slip into the bathing costume she had made and would turn quickly and plunge into the sea. And the cold rush of it would catch at her throat and she would give little crows of anguished delight. It was the best thing in the day.
Although hardly anyone ever passed even when the tide was out, she never bathed when there was any way round from the larger bays, and she never got over a half-attractive sense of doing wrong and a fear of being seen. For a few minutes each day she was a child again.
And sometimes on very hot days when the tide was very high she would creep, after putting off her things, to the mouth of the cave and stand naked for a moment just within the eye of the sun, her hands pressed to her temples, shivering with happiness like a flower in the warmth and the light.
After the bathe she would sit and comb her long silky hair until it slithered and shone. Then, very soon, it was time to braid it and pin it up and go home.
She did not bring much on these visits, for she had found a high ledge in the cave where she left the things she needed from day to day. No one took much interest in her absences. Susie was a dull girl and courting. Mr Cotty was short-sighted and gouty and thought only of his own ease. He had long since come to look on his daughter's liking for lonely walks as a queer habit he could do nothing to check.
One day something took place that changed Miss Cotty's life. The vicar had been to call and had stayed on and on talking of the over-grown churchyard and the failing-off in the collection, so she had not been able to go for her jaunt at the right time. It was too bad, as the weather had been rough for a week but was now broken and smiling: intense sunshine, brilliant skies and islands of cloud. She hurried down just before seven, knowing she must be back soon for supper. It was June and the days at their longest, but by now the tide would have been ebbing an hour. The sun was full on her cave.
As she reached the last slope of the path she let her weight carry her and reached the sand with a rush of feet. But she stopped there because someone was in her cave.
A man. He was lying there sunning himself, impudent and at ease. She was angry at once. For years she had been undisturbed; people just didn't come here; it was Cotty land right to the cliff edge; everyone knew that. In this state of the tide the manmusthave trespassed.
She coughed. He took no notice and made no move. She walked nearer and stopped again. Something wrong. He was asleep â or unconscious â or â¦
His clothes were wet; round him the soft sand was still dark with it. A young man in blue drill trousers and the rags of a white shirt hanging. His feet were bare. He had a great mane of fair hair all clotted with sand, a straight nose, a young mouth. Hair grew low on each cheek but he had no beard or moustache except for a day or so's stubble. He was breathing.
Miss Cotty took a step back. Then she turned and looked out to sea, but there was nothing there; nothing but the waves like great white cities and the sun shining on the wet sand.
A sailor? Cast off â¦ living. She looked back at him, and his twisted attitude touched her pity. She knelt on the sand beside him and gingerly, after a close look, pulled his head up to rest on her lap.
It took strength, for he was a big, solid man. The muscles of his shoulder gleamed white through the torn shirt. His head was heavy and the yellow hair clogged and matted and dank. Like the head of a young lion. Flotsam. Something stirred in her. Poor boy â¦ She'd heard of a wreck at Padstow, but surely that was too far. Why was she sitting here? She should run and bring help.
And then the young lion began to stir, and at once she wanted to get up and stand away primly watching. But to drop his head with a thump on the sand would not be the act of a Christian, so she stayed where she was, not sure whether to be alarmed or compassionate.
He opened his eyes. They were large and quite hazel with little flecks of a darker brown floating in them. He stared at Miss Cotty. Miss Cotty blushed. He moved his head again and passed his tongue over each lip.
âI'm going to be sick,' he said.
That made her feel no better, nor the event when his prediction came true; but the language was a reassurance because she had thought him a foreigner, probably a Scandinavian. And afterwards, when he was on the mend, she saw he was older than she had thought. Expression always adds age â and sometimes charm.
He spoke fair English with a burr â but not a Cornish burr â and although still very exhausted his story came out at short intervals. It was not the Padstow shipwreck but theKing Lear, a fore and aft, for Bristol with grain. She had been badly damaged in the gales of the last few days and had foundered ten miles out. He had been in the water eight hours clinging to a spar, and for a good time before that had touched no food. She brought him two pieces of cake from the ledge and some home-made toffee. It was all there was. He ate the cake slowly and with care, propped up against the rock drying in the sun, while she stood a white shadow at the other side of the cave and watched him. She knew she ought to be getting back.
âI'm grateful for your help,' he said. âReally I am. Me name's Stephen Dawe. What is yours, ma'am, if I may ask?'
Miss Cotty told him. â I think,' she said, âif you're better I'll go and tell the coastguards. They will see you are well looked after.'
âHow far is the village? Give me time and perhaps I could walk. A mile? Is it more?'
âA little. It would be unwise to go so far without help.'
To prove her wrong he got to his feet, and at once his legs gave way. With a gasp she ran to him and helped him into a sitting position. For a few moments he lolled dizzily against her shoulder, then he shook his head like a dog and straightened his back and looked at her. She took her arm from round his shoulders and stood up â because his face had an almost frightening closeness. She had never been quite so close to a strange man before. And each time she looked at him he seemed to grow more mature. This was no ship-wrecked cabin-boy.
âThank you, ma'am,' he said. âSorry to be so foolish, like.'
The next time he tried he was all right. Much taller than the tall Miss Cotty, she found. Fine broad shoulders and long flanks. There was a tattoo of a speared fish on his left forearm, and his blue trousers had bell bottoms. He was still looking at her.
âI think,' she said quietly, âthe sea is far enough out for us to get round.'
âUs? You're very kind, ma'am. If you'd show me and aid me a little to begin you could leave me half-way.'
But the help offered, she would not qualify it. Her father would be furious, but this surely was a fair excuse. The sailor might have lain there for hours, might even have died.
They got on slowly, for he had to rest now and then, while the twilight caught them up like a slow tide. They hardly spoke, because he was too exhausted and she too shy. After a while he did without her arm.
Then, as they came to the inlet round which the village clustered he sighed faintly and sat down on the sand and said he was done, so she went on ahead. Pink in the face and feeling conspicuous, she found the landlord of the Tavern Inn, and very soon men were carrying Stephen Dawe into the village. She hovered for a few minutes near the tap-room, but when the doctor said he could find nothing much wrong she slipped away and hurried off up the tow-path towards home.
Her father wasn't easily softened, not even by the story she brought, and grunted and sulked through the hour before it was time to go to bed.
In her own room Miss Cotty stood for a long time at the window listening to the distant tramp of the sea. When after a while she climbed into her curtained bed it was to dream of blond Vikings and caves and wet sand and a man's eyes upon her.
When she went down to the beach next day after lunch he was waiting for her. Her heart began to beat. He'd bought or borrowed new clothing: a blue shirt open at the throat and long blue corduroy trousers. And the two-day stubble was shaved. He bent his head a little over her hand, very polite.
âHow,' she said, ââ how did you know? â¦ Did you know I should be here?'
âWell, I didn't quite like to call at your home. And I reckoned I had to say thank you.'
âI â sent down this morning to ask. I heard you were better. But there's nothing to thank me for.'
He smiled at her. âI like to think different. But it's good luck us meeting like this again. Can you stay a while?'
She sat down at the mouth of the cave, not easily and gracefully as she did when alone, but primly and stiffly, like a spinster. She felt she had been a little familiar in her greeting, and she was angry with herself for still feeling embarrassed.
But he soon got over that. He had a way with him. The exposure and the exhaustion had done him no harm. Miss Cotty got that impression of his vitality. Always it would be able to throw off fatigue or depression. It bubbled. It effervesced. It affected her and fascinated her and threatened to swamp her.
He called her Miss Cotty and was soon talking to her as to a woman of his own age and class. At first she had thought he looked on her as older than himself, but she saw now that it wasn't so. She was curiously flattered.
He told her he was the illegitimate son of a Gloucestershire baronet by one of his servant girls. He told her this without shame, and before she had time to feel horrified he was on with his tale. At sixteen he had run away to sea, and for twelve years had gone all over the world. That makes him twenty-eight, she thought. She began to subtract twenty-eight from thirty-five and then stopped. I don't know why I should bother to workthatout, she thought.
Perhaps it was because he seemed interested in her. His bright eyes were always on her. She didn't know whether to be flattered or amused or scornful. After all he was a sailor. And he wasn't being familiar in a familiar way. She found herself swayed by the sound of his voice, quick to be angry and quick to sympathize. Her mind was active all the time in resisting his taking ways, yet all the time step by step it was yielding.
They talked for an hour, and then she remembered herself and got up, and he asked if he might come again. Her tongue played a trick and she said yes. It didn't hesitate and it didn't qualify. He kissed her fingers and went off with vigorous rangey strides, leaving her standing quietly there on the sand.
It is the surprise. I didn't expect him. Tomorrow I shall know. Tomorrow will be different. Kept at a distance he can be â amusing â¦ one or two days more. He can't be staying longer than that. I forgot to ask him. Perhaps he won't be there even tomorrow.
That was silly, because it weakened her. And he was there. Of course he was there. Distantly she asked him her questions, but he wasn't put out. He was going to stay a while yet. As for money, there had been some in a belt round his waist, and when that was done he'd walk to Plymouth. He was tired of the sea and wanted change.
That day, after her pride had been softened, he asked her about herself, and in short sentences she told him what he wanted to know. He didn't seem to have seen anyone like her before. She was not pretty, no. But she was tall, with that grace â like the frond of a fern â and so cool and composed â or so he thought. And above all she was a lady and as unspotted as a flower growing under glass. She was so unlike his podgy, unimaginative mother and his rip-roaring father. He had met all the women he wanted in the hundred ports of the world; but not Miss Cotty.
He came the next day and the next day and the next. It grew to be an assignation. Two o'clock or three o'clock or four. He began to call her Miss Lavinia. She never called him anything to his face. Her pride had gone down in defeat. She no longer thought of the conventions. In fact she hardly thought at all â at least not reasonably, dispassionately, not in the way she used to think.
An hour was the time they stopped. Sometimes he talked all the time, sometimes hardly at all. He told her of the sea. Of Marseilles, and the great lion rock of Gibraltar, of the islands of Greece and the sapphire blue Caribbean; of Malay and villages built out in the water on stilts; of the opium dens of Singapore; of hurricanes in the Strait of Macassar and typhoons in the China Sea; of rounding Cape Horn in the black of the night, and scudding down the Roaring Forties; of wrecks and comradeship and old sea shanties.
She listened most times leaning back against the rock with closed eyes, at ease now and her stiffness forgotten. And always he watched her. Now and then she would smile and sometimes she would laugh outright, which did not seem like Miss Cotty. Sometimes she would blush â it was queer how easily she blushed; he could make the colour come and go almost as he pleased. And sometimes she would open her eyes and look at him and say: âI don't believe that!' And because her eyes had a new sparkle in them he was set on convincing her and would kneel up in front of her in a supplicating way. Sometimes her laughter would stop short at this and she would get up and walk down to the sea as if her feelings were too much for her.
One day he kissed her. How it came to that she didn't know. He had been playfully imploring her to believe in some story about a shark and she would not. Perhaps there was something in her eyes that should not have been there, because the next moment he was nearer her and his lips were on hers.
That changed everything. She pushed him away from her and ran breathless up the cliff-path. For three sunny days she did not go near the cove. But on the fourth she went and found him there.
At first he was penitent, bending his yellow head and saying he was sorry. But after she'd half relented she found things subtly different. She wasn't any longer in control, and she crossed the sandhills on her way home knowing that they had agreed to meet tomorrow and that she had listened to things no respectable lady should have stayed to hear.
After that there was no fixed hour. He crossed the beach with the incoming tide and left it with the ebb. Sometimes that meant two hours, sometimes three.
The weather had set fair, with a faint easterly breeze which turned the sand-dunes paler, and the sea was quiet and lapped at their feet. They were like days taken from an eternal summer.
Even Mr Cotty began to take note. These walks of Lavinia's grew longer and longer and could not seem to be put off for more urgent things, like reading to him. And the impulse took her at any awkward hour, sometimes soon after breakfast, sometimes late in the evening. She was absent-minded and jumpy and excitable; her cheeks would flush up at nothing, her eyes were queer and wayward. When she came in she was out of breath. At meals she was out of breath. It was all very trying. But she gave him no useful answers, and he did not see whom else he might ask. He had noticed the sailor once or twice in the village, a great tall fellow with tawny hair and a rolling seaman's walk. But nothing would ever have brought Mr Cotty to suppose that his daughter, his little Lavinia, rising thirty-five or six and devoted only to him could be carrying on with such a common fellow.
That was what it came to. Carrying on. The vulgar phrase brought the colour into her face, so after a time she refused to use it even in her private thoughts. She knew as well as her father that Lavinia Cotty wouldn't do what she was doing; some other woman had taken her place. Reason was there now and then, but it showed like a half-tide rock, disappearing regularly with the flood of the tide.
And he, oddly, was in much the same state. Something withdrawn in her and untouched had turned his imagination into flame.
On the twentieth of July they separated at one in the afternoon and he said: âCome tonight. At midnight the tide will be up and there'll be a fine moon.'
Without hesitation she said,no. But his last words were: âI'll be here at midnight, waiting.'
She went up the cliff-path, hot and angry and afraid.
At eleven that night she stood at me window of her bedroom. She had fought the battle and won. Bad she had been â but not that. They loved each other; he had told her his own feelings often, and she â she knew what she felt about him.
But marriage was out of the question â even if he had suggested it, and he had not. Deep down there could be nothing between them except this strange passion. He had put in here like a ship into port, for rest and repair. Soon he'd be off again on his roving. Already perhaps he was privately dreaming of standing down the Channel in a stiff westerly breeze. Miss Cotty, sailor's wife. Futility before it began. Futility? Miss Cotty, sailor's mistress. That was what it came to, and here thirty-five years of strict upbringing was too strong for even Stephen Dawe.
She threw down the cloak she had picked up and went to the bed. Days of quiet work, nights of dreamless rest. Days and nights and years stretched behind her and stretching away ahead. Father asking for his spectacles. Susie crying when she is scolded and having to be petted up again. Sowing wall-flower seeds and layering carnations. Playing hymns on the piano. Knitting and sewing and reading. This is my life and I am happy in it, I amhappyin it! Leave me alone! Go home, Stephen! Here in my own room I am too strong for you!
She left the house at eleven-thirty, slipping quietly from the back door and out at the gate in the tamarisk hedge. She wore her winter cloak, and the moon made silver streaks in her hair. The sandhills were a desert of salt with deep pools and ravines of shadow. Across them and through them she plunged, sometimes waist-deep in darkness, sometimes in full light, her shadow like a dog at her feet. She walked as if in a dream.
At the cliff she hesitated. The surf was a line of phantom cavalry dividing sand and sea. All that was fastidious in her urged her to go back, but her will would not bring itself to check her steps. Instead, her cloak fluttering, she went down.
At the bottom the sand was soft and pale and secret. The lightest of cool airs wafted, and she shivered, but it was not cold. Everything was different. It was not her friendly familiar cave. The rocks were sharp-edged like witches' faces and the shadows were monstrous and misshapen. It was a midsummer night's dream, all of it a dream, in which she walked lonely and afraid.
She went into the cave, knowing that at any moment a shadow would move to join her and turn this dream into a muted twilit reality, to drown her thoughts in a dark ecstasy for the duration of its stay.
But no shadow was there. And none came.
Next day she knew the truth. She had fled back soon after twelve, in humiliation, angry, thankful, sick at heart. She had been sleepwalking and had come awake. It was a hard blow that had roused her, but now she was thankful, hardly able to believe she had gone at all, desperately affronted. By morning she was too ill to get up. Her father was frightened by this odd turn and came to sit by her bed. He'd thought her a bit off colour for some time, he said. Sickening for something for some time. Only last night at supper â¦ Best thing was to send for old Tregarthen. It never did to let these things run on. Women were queer creatures â¦ Oh, by the way, had she heard? That fellow she found on the beach had been arrested in the Tavern last night. A rum-runner, or some such thing; captain of a schooner that had fallen foul of a government cutter and got itself sunk. He'd gone off to Bristol to stand his trial. You thought that sort of thing had died out nowadays. Now in his father's time â your grandfather's, my dear â the game had been worth the candle. Everyone was in the trade then â even the parson.
They gave him nine months, and it was all Miss Cotty could learn. After that the papers said nothing, it being neither news nor policy to report on the health and progress of petty criminals.
In the early spring of the following year she felt it grow in her that one day soon when she went down to the cave he would be there, with the sun shining on his yellow head. For a time then she never went without expectancy and hope, knowing that by now he would be free again, sure he would return to keep the appointment; but always the cave gaped at her and there was nothing but the mutter of the impersonal sea. Before, she had never needed company here; now her loneliness was intense and almost unendurable. All that summer and through the next winter she went daily, blaming herself now for not having got into some sort of communication with him while she could. She never expected him to write or to call at the house; if he came it would be as he'd first come and as she'd always met him.
But she never saw him again.
As time passed the continual ache in her breast grew less unbearable. She carried it about with her like the wound of a soldier, with a certain pride. We are the slaves of our temperaments, and hers, quietly tenacious in all things, grew more constant with the years. She forgot her old judgments and thought only of the fine things in his character. In her mind he grew into a legend. If he had turned up this might have been shattered, but he did not come, and the daily walk became a pilgrimage. She didn't stretch luxuriously in the sun or splash shyly in the water; she came to live over in her memory the hours of that summer.
At home, after the first week, she went on as usual, and no one noticed a lack of interest in the daily round. Susie was soon to marry the baker boy, and Mr Cotty was full of his gout. Little Lavinia, he thought, had tired of her long walks and now took short ones. She'd always been a wilful child, and if sometimes she came back soaked by the soft sou'westers he couldn't do anything to keep her in.
Her need to go down to the cove once every day came to be fanatical. Nothing must stop her. Even when her father died she was only away two days and then went dressed in sombre black to sit staring quietly out to sea with a feeling that her presence had been missed and resented.
After her father had gone the house began to go too. Doors creaked and wouldn't open, slates, rattled in the wind and some blew off and let in the drip of rain. Rooms smelt of mildew and dust, and often enough there were dead leaves lying in the hall. The sand crept round the front garden and slowly covered the soil and the rockery and the flowers.
She grew old, but not quite in the usual way. Her hair turned grey and then white, and her tall figure lost its straightness, but her face never took the lines of age. At fifty she looked young and strange.
They thought of her as queer, living alone in a rickety old house, and they left her alone; but she welcomed that. The important thing in her day was her visit to the shrine by the sea. She had dreamed there and loved there, and now she kept silent watch.
Twenty-three years after that summer she was found one morning by an old tin-streamer lying at the edge of the cliff where the path went down. She had known he was coming and had gone out at dawn but had not quite been able to manage the last few yards.
It's still there, the house, what's left of it, a crumbling ruin half buried in sand, eyeless and roofless and gaunt. And the cove is still there, unchanged as she was unchanged.
One day seventy years after, six people walked into the cove and settled to spend the afternoon in the sun. After bathing they sat in the mouth of the cave for lunch. After lunch they sun-bathed and kicked a ball about and sea-bathed again. After tea the girls began to gather up the things while the three men still lay indolently smoking. It had been a perfect day, and only the salesman was talkative.
âI bought an ordnance map this morning. It's interesting. The gap we're in is called Cotty's Cove.' He spread the map and pointed with a pencil. âYou can tell which it is by the way the rock juts out into the sea.'
âEvery rock and every stump round here has a name,' said the young married man, peering. âPass my towel, would you, Dawe?'
The tall fair man roused himself. He'd been almost asleep, on the border-line of dreaming, yet hearing the talk of others.
âPersonally,' he said, âI don't care what it's called so long as they don't fence it in and say it belongs to someone called Cotty.' Curious name. âThe wind's getting up a bit.' Cotty, strange name. Cotty. His pipe was out.
âAnd the sea,' said the salesman. âWe shall have to move soon.'
âWe're safe enough,' said Dawe. There's some sort of a path, I know.'
Silence fell then until one of the sisters came out of the cave.
âLook what I've found,' she said. âI hung my bikini on a ledge and this caught in the strap.' She showed a comb.
It was old, sticky with sand, and the silver of the handle was badly corroded with rust.
âLooks pretty ancient,' said the salesman. âMust have been there a few years.'
âMore than afewyears,' said the girl. âMore than a few years, by the shape of it.'
âIs it worth keeping? Take it back with you as a souvenir.'
âIt's not much good. It might clean up, but â¦' She stopped and looked across at Robert Dawe, whose eyes were on it. Curious eyes he seemed to have just then, gold-specked on the pupils, and lambent and foreign and old.
âI should put it back,' he said. â You never know. Someone may come to claim it.'
The sun had gone behind a cloud, and the cove was suddenly chill and colourless. The girl shivered slightly. Dawe's eyes were fixed with a puzzled frown on the horizon where the sea still shimmered. What had he been thinking of when he dozed off? Odd, broken thoughts not quite his own â¦ He felt as if he had just forgotten something and now would never remember. He was sad because something was lost to him for ever.
The girl made a move back towards the cave. âAll right,' she said. âIt's no use to me so I think I will.'
No one nowadays believes in ghosts. Like other superstitions, they have been explained away or gone out of fashion. And anyway the rusty comb on the ledge in the cave remains unclaimed.
But on some nights when the moon is up and the sea quiet â all but that thin line of muttering surf; and the sandhills are white and lumpy and the black rock edge alive with a hundred silhouette faces â then maybe something of Miss Cotty; not perhaps her ghost, but some impress of her vigil, some part of her maiden lonely spirit, broods over the cove like an echo of rapture and a memory of pain.The Island
I am nine years old, and I live in the park three miles from the centre of the city. I have lived there all my life. My mother is a delicate woman with catarrh, a weak heart and a resolute will. My father is my mother's husband. He is a merchant, a small tubby vigorous man with a fair moustache, a bald head and keen twinkling eyes. They are both over forty when I am born and they have not much in common with my youth.
They have lived all their lives on an island. Although they are living in a city they are on an island. I too am on this island until I am nine.
We live in a tall semi-detached house with a long narrow garden. On the ground floor there is a drawing-room, a kitchen and a dining-room, connected by a long hall. The dining-room has a big square mahogany table covered between meals by a green velvet cloth with tassels. A white tablecloth is put over this for mid-day dinner, for high tea and for supper. There is a bookcase with Chambers' Encyclopaedia, Darwin'sDescent of Manand Morley'sLife of Gladstone. There is a cane-bottomed rocking-chair before the fire and almost always a fire. The walls are hung with a heavy crimson flock paper, and there are big paintings of cattle sitting beside lakes with dark mountains in the background.
The drawing-room is for entertaining and for Sundays. It is a lighter room with moquette velvet arm-chairs, casement curtains drawn in at the waist by a cord, and a 'cello and a piano. My mother and my father play together and they also sing. They sing âThe Keys of Heaven' and other duets. My mother sings â The Indian Love Lyrics' and â In the Gloaming'. My father sings âI Hear You Calling Me' and âAbsent' and â Sun of My Soul'.
It was another man, though, Alfred Highman, who sang âSun of My Soul' at their wedding breakfast. His was a light tenor, and his voice echoed through the house as my mother changed out of her wedding dress and got ready to leave. On the train, as it was pulling out of Exchange Station, my father sat on his silk hat. They went to Llandudno and made gentle love together on the warm September nights.
I have one brother but he went to the war, and another brother, but he died. I am a child of their middle age. I do not belong on their island.
We have one maid, Patty, a Northumbrian girl, who worries my mother because she will not always wear a cap; and sometimes there are rumours that she meets men on her afternoons off. Patty is quite a problem, for she is pretty and knows it. Indeed I have sometimes stolen into her bedroom and found her standing in front of the mirror saying: âAren't I beautiful! Aren't I beautiful!' Once, too, I walked into the bathroom when the tumblers of the key had not turned and found her naked to the waist standing with arms raised holding up her hair and with plump high breasts like pale, pale oranges waiting to be plucked.
I am often ill and sit alone in the dark dining-room reading, and one day I pick up the paper and see this advertisement. â Will the owner of the third largest trout please communicate with Wylde, 60 Dickinson Road, when he will hear something to his advantage.'
Now I know that I own the third largest trout. It swims round and round in the big glass bowl on the pedestal in front of the dining-room window. His scales glisten gold and silver in the evening gaslight and in the morning sun. There are two other fish with him, but he is the biggest I have, and the third biggest in all the world.
How can I take him? He is mine, but my mother would not let me go. She would say it was dangerous crossing the busy streets, though in fact Dickinson Road is the only busy one, with single-deck electric tram cars skidding rapidly over the sets. The Park, where we live, is a private enclave within the city, privately kept up, with soft bumpy roads and lodges at each entrance, and wooden bars like frontier posts to keep out unwanted traffic.
How can I go? But Wednesday is Patty's afternoon off, and my mother rests each day from two until four. I will have a sick headache and be unable to go to school. I do this, and the dark October day connives at secrecy.
I know exactly where 60 Dickinson Road is, for this is my grandfather's house. Or it was my grandfather's house until he died. Then we were going to move there ourselves, and had the bedrooms repapered, mine with bluebirds flying over silver trees; but at the last moment there was some dispute with an uncle and the house was publicly sold. I do not know who owns it now, but I feel I shall be recognized.
I cannot take the whole bowl for it is too heavy to carry, but there is a two-pound stone jamjar and this with water in it can just contain my fish. Once it has plopped in, slippery and a little greasy in my fingers, it moves round almost snout to tail. Such a lovely fish with under-hung bottom jaw and slow palpitating gills and eyes like the blind man down the road. Secret, silent friend, he knows me, he knowshisfriend, and shows it with little twitches of his fins and tails. I put a thin sheet of wrapping paper over the top and tie it with fine string the way I have seen my mother do with home-made marmalade.
School cap and a scarf, tuck the thick fair hair out of my eyes; jar under arm. The only risk is meeting rough lads who might play some trick. But mostly they will be at school, where I should be.
I slip down Scarsdale Road to the end of the Park, water flipping under my arm and darkening the paper cap. Across the rough ground opposite the Park and on to Dickinson Road. It is half a mile then.
The day has lowered, and there is a hint of frost. All sounds are clearer, more distinct, as if heard in an extra dimension. A dog's bark, the cry of a child, the hollow-tooth clop of horses' hooves, a city hooter, the bristling whisper of a broom among leaves, the noisy clanging bell of a distant tram.
No. 60. It looks different. There is a notice outside. Wylde's Photographers. It was Wylde's who advertised. This is a bigger, squarer house than ours; it is more middle-aged, more substantial. The bay windows spread wide like an alderman's waistcoat. A crabbed oak tree, some thirty feet high and very powerful, stands in the front garden, its branches stretching towards the windows, which are just out of reach. The gate is big and wooden, not iron, the path loose-pebbled, and walking on it makes a noise like chewing nuts. The front door is green. There are no curtains at the front room windows, which I am not tall enough to see into.
(This is the house my mother was married from, in a white satin dress edged with lace and decorated with pale peach ribbons; she keeps it still, after 21 years, among tissue paper in a box in our attic.)
I knock at the front door. The knocker is of brass, and leaves a smell of metal polish on my fingers. A little movement in the jar tells me that my fish has stood the journey without harm. I wait.
At this stage for the first time I begin to feel afraid.
There is a long wait and then footsteps. The door opens cautiously a few inches and a boy of about fourteen peers out. He is dressed in knickerbockers and a tweed jacket with an Eton cottar and a thin black tie. He is heavily built, rather stout, with fine blue eyes and thick lips. I feel I have seen him before.
âWhat is it?'
âI have come about your advertisement, the one you put in the paper. You know. About the owner of â'
âOh â¦ come in.'
âI go in through a door opened only just wide enough to allow my passage. The hall inside is quite empty; my feet creak on the bare boards. The wallpaper is peeling off the walls. There is a smell of dust and mildew, and also some more unpleasant smell.
âCome in here,' says the boy. He leads the way into the old drawing-room which I remember from visits as a tiny child. This is empty of ordinary furniture, but the sad daylight falling through the wide bow windows shows a camera, some screens, a couple of fancy chairs and a decorative stage as background. Bending over the camera is Mr Wylde. I remember now he has taken my photograph last year. I wore my new grey suit. But Mr Wylde does not move or look round; he is crouched over his camera like a waxwork, and it is as if we do not exist in the same world.
âIn here,' says the boy, and he leads me through into the conservatory which backs on to the drawing-room.
I see that there have been big changes here. Instead of the little formal garden beyond with the lily pond there is a huge pool, feet deep, constantly swirling as if being stirred from within by great fish. Although it is open to the sky it is an even darker sky than the one I have left in Dickinson Road, and the air is so cold that it strikes to one's bones. There are people sitting round, feet almost to the edge of the pool; but it is too dark to see their faces. I see only their boots: big men's elastic-sided boots, women's button boots, clogs, elegant shoes, jodhpurs, wellingtons, slippers, mules.
I look at the boy beside me. I say: âWhere have I seen you before?'
He smiled with his teeth. âI'm your brother.'
âOh no, you're not!' I said. âMy brother's years older than you.'
âNotthatbrother,' he says. â I'm the other brother. The one that died in the womb.'
The light is very poor, but I can see that he is still smiling. It is a poor joke, whatever it is meant to be. A nasty joke. I wonder what a womb is and do not like to ask. A man comes up.
âIs this the boy?'
âYes, Great-grandpa. And he's brought the fish. He claims â'
âNever mind what he claims. Bring him over to the other side.'
I cannot see the man's face. It is as if it is all wrapped up in dark. But he is wearing carpet slippers which scuff as he moves; and he has a gold signet ring on one hand, and carries in the same hand gold pince-nez swinging by a thin cord. There is a smell of snuff as he moves. Sometimes the sense of smell burrows deepest into the unknown, and as I follow him a memory stirs within me, some natal memory, as a beast stirs in a deep sleep.
We follow him to the other side. Here it is different; lighter but with the foggy light of impermanence. I can still see no faces, but only legs and boots. Sometimes one moves as a foot is crossed over. The boots are more bizarre here, of types I have never seen before, some with coloured heels, some laced to the knee. One hears also the faint whisper of voices, like the breeze among palm leaves.
âCast in your fish,' says this man.
I look down at the jar I have been carrying all this time, and see that the cover, soaked with water, has broken away and my trout is swimming round and round with great agitation, as if struggling to be free from this confined space.
âWhy?' I say. âWhy throw it in there? I may never see it again.'
âYou'll never see it again,' whispers the boy at my side, â but you'll have the knowledge. You'll no longer be on an island.'
âYou'll be one of us,' says this man. âCast in your fish.'
I stare up through the hazy light. I can see nothing of their faces, except the boy's, and I am afraid. It is a fear that moves in my backbone like the beginnings of dysentery. But, having come here, the irrevocable step has already been taken. This my soul apprehends without the courage to ask why.
The water is stirring all the time, and every now and then it breaks up as fishes come to the surface; but what is exposed is so smooth and pale that it might be drowned faces surfacing and plunging.
A hand grips my arm. It is the boy who claims to be my brother. But it is not a boy's hand, it is a claw.
âCast in. You have always been one of us.'
I pull the last pieces of paper from the top of the jar and then hold the jar over the pool. A silence falls. I had not known before that there was noise, but now I know there is silence. I turn the jar over, the water falls with a great splash, and seconds after, my beautiful fish, as if now struggling to remain with me, slithers out of the jar and falls into the water with a plop.
From everyone, from all the people round me, there comes a great âAh!' Then I look again into the pool, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fish, and a white thing surges to the surface just where the trout has fallen in, and the white thing is my own face.
I sway a little, feeling faint, knowing now that there is a change in me, that in some way now I can never go back. A hand takes my arm again, but it is the old man with the pince-nez. His grasp, unlike the boy's, is friendly, joking. âThere's a ba-ba. There's a fine boy. There's a lovely fellow.' He might be humouring a tiny baby instead of a boy of nine. I feel him trying to settle the gold pince-nez on my nose.
I neither repulse him nor aid him, feeling just then too sick to care. As he puts the pince-nez on the bridge of my nose, lights, prisms, flash to my brain, colours, reflections, noise, glimpses of scenes, of faces come and go. It is always difficult to put even simple rimmed spectacles on another person's face. At last I put a hand up and steady them.
And then quite suddenly, the darkness and the haze about the pool disappear and I can see every detail of the scene.
I slip back, half faltering, half running, out of the green door, across the pebble-crunching path, out of the paint-peeled wooden gate, across Dickinson Road in the half dark, a tram croaking and screeching towards me. Somewhere I have left the jar too, and run, scarf flapping, thick hair spreading over eyes, cap in pocket, alongside the tall convent wall of Scarsdale Road.
While I have been inside, the frost has come down like thin icing sugar on branch and brick and flag, and the pools in the dented road are glazing over like the eyes of a man dying.
My watch has stopped, and I do not know the time, but from the bustle of people it seems likely that it is nearly five. If so my mother will be up and I shall be questioned about going out when I have been ill. Not that this will be any problem; she believes what I tell her without doubting that I am telling the truth.
I do not know all that I will soon know, but my mind is adult and withdrawn. It is able to look on the thin, pale, tow-headed, breathless, running boy as if it were apart from him and could judge him impersonally. It is able to see the semidetached house with the gas lights twinkling in front room and kitchen as if with new eyes, as if never seen before.
I slip in.
My mother is down and has had tea and is in the drawing-room practising scales on the piano. My father is not yet home. Scales are one of the things my mother plays supremely well. She has put on weight recently and her curly brown hair is losing its colour and turning grey.
âWhy,' she says, stopping playing, âwherever have you been?'
I make up a simple but plausible story. I have always had a talent for making up simple plausible stories, and as I have said, she has always accepted these without question. Not that she does not know of the existence of lies, but she has taught me they are wrong and she does not believe me capable of such wrong.
Sometimes I believe she does not think theworldcapable of wrong. She is an innocent, as I shall never be again. They live on an island of innocents, my father and mother, products of our age and a class which has protected itself from the physical world, which knows evil only at second hand and as an abstract concept ever to be defeated by good, which believes in the perfectibility of man, which believes right is greater than might, which knows that God is in his heaven even if by no means everything is right with the world. Theirs is not complacency, for they are too modest for that, it is a gentle, ignorant loving-kindness that I can only envy without participation. At nine years old I am escaped from them and at one with my earlier ancestors and my descendants. This island, their island, will be borne away by their death, perhaps never to recur.
And the third largest trout swims everlastingly out to sea.Gibb
He'd been lucky, right from the start, you had to admit that. No convenient fog, which everybody said was the only chance; not even darkness; he'd just slipped away from the working party in full daylight and made off unnoticed for the trees on the other side of the valley. Then there'd been the lucky bicycle; he'd gone down that rough track like a lunatic, pedalling for dear life and hoping he wouldn't strike a stone. Before the warders had blown he was out on the main road and cycling briskly along, and you might have thought he was a curate out sick visiting if it hadn't been for the awkward question of clothes.
Two motorists had stared at him coming the other way, and he'd jumped off the bicycle at the foot of the long hill and run beside the river until he came to the house. There again it was touch and go, but he went up to a side window and broke it and climbed in. In the third bedroom he found a suit and a cap. He grabbed them and was out again before anyone saw him. He spent the rest of the daylight in the wood on the slope of the other hill. Lying there, there was plenty of time to take in the smells of damp earth and young leaves and lichen and the roots of trees; they were a real tonic after two years inside; but they didn't feed him. When darkness came it was a long and hungry tramp, making so far as he could south-east by the stars. He struck the hilly and deserted road through Holne Chase and walked for a while with the River Dart bubbling alongside. He slid through Ashburton when the first dyes of dawn were blueing the east. As he went by a blackbird piped a noisy alarm â not at him but at a tabby cat weaving in and out of the fading shadows on the other side of the road.
After that it was bird song all the way. A city man, Leslie Gibb hadn't realized before what a row they all made, and he innocently supposed that this went on the year round and was not limited to a month or so. By now hunger gripped like the beginning of cramp, but he would make no move to steal food. The last the police would have heard of him was a broken window and a stolen suit near Dartmeet. If he stole food he would be drawing an arrow on a map.
Full dawn saw him through Bicklington. He thumbed at one or two truck drivers but none of them stopped. There was sure to be a road check, and he kept a look-out at each village. He wished his suit fitted better: he was strung uncomfortably high.
There was the fussy, waspish sound of a motor behind him, and he raised his hand hopefully as he turned. It was a private car and to his surprise it stopped. Driver and car were antiques, the driver sixty-five or more, in a bowler hat and a worn blue suit, with a wing collar made for a bigger man.
âWant a lift for a few miles? I'm only going as far as Sidmouth.'
âThanks. Thanks very much.'
Gibb ran round the car and got in. It palpitated breathlessly for a few seconds, then the old man shoved in the gear with a sound like a small boy rattling an iron stick over railings. They jerked into motion.
âLovely morning, isn't it! Lovely morning,' said the old man. âMakes you feel good to be out and about!'
âYou're dead right, it does,' said Gibb, relaxing on the lumpy seat with relief. Oh, to get off his feet!
âWell, yes â¦ London, sort of.'
âWell, well, very enterprising to be off so early. I personally like to be up early, y'know. Always have done, ever since I was a lad.'
âYes,' Gibb agreed. âI like to get up early too.'
The old man crashed the gears at the foot of a hill, and they ground up it at a fast walking pace. The engine roared and quivered madly as if it was going to take off and leave them behind. A bright, red-faced perky old man with sharp features, and a way of thrusting his thin neck out like a bird. Like an elderly Rhode Island Red, just about ready for the cooking pot.
âI'm going to see my sister at Sidmouth!' shouted the old man. âAlways go every month! You a Londoner?'
âYes.' They got to the top of the hill and rattled down the other side. Gibb glanced at his driver. One of the inquisitive type.
âBeen working down here?'
âYes,' Gibb said swiftly, sidelong. âBeen on a dock job at Plymouth, I have, see, but yesterday I hear my little girl's been knocked down! Car come on the pavement behind her. Just coming home from school, she was, poor kid. Pushed her into a lamp-post. Broke two ribs, they say. Couldn't sleep when I heard. Terrible, isn't it?'
âTerrible,' said the old man, clucking his tongue. â I'mverysorry for you. Very sorry indeed. Have you heard how she is?'
âNot since. I set off this morning, soon as it was light.'
âMotor-cars,' said the old man. âThe bane of life today. Ought to be prohibited. Will in another generation or two.'
âYes,' said Gibb, ready to agree to anything. â I shouldn't wonder if you're right.'
They hummed recklessly through another village. Two policemen were there talking to a motorist. Gibb braced himself but they got past.
âBut wouldn't it have been better,' said the old man, âto have gone by train? It's little more than four hours by rail.'
Gibb licked his lips. There was a lovely spanner in the cubby-hole of the car. âWell, y'see, I was laid off three weeks ago. Laid off, I was. I've stayed on expecting another job, see, but you know how money goes, especially sending it home as well. I just hadn't got the cash.'
The old man clucked sympathetically and to Gibb's relief began to talk of his own life. He was a retired schoolmaster â â just a village school, you understand.' Gibb heard all about school meals â which made his stomach turn over â and the education act and the effect of inflation on pensions.
Presently they began to approach Exeter. âTell me where you would like to be put down.'
âWell, if it's all the same to you, maybe I'll come part way to Sidmouth.'
âThat'll take you well out of your way.'
âSometimes you stand a better chance of picking up a lift on one of these side roads. I reckon.'
âAs you please.' For the first time the old man's rinsed-out blue eyes rested on his companion with a hint of doubt. Silence fell.
They branched off beyond the River Exe. The countryside was in full bloom; apples and cherries waved their blossoms wantonly in the breeze. Past a road junction, in a quiet part of the road, Gibb said: âThis'll do.'
âMy dear young man, you're right off your proper direction here. However, if that is what you want, so be it.' He brought the car to a grunting stop.
âNow you can get out.'
The old man looked startled. âWhat d'you mean?'
Gibb picked up the heavy spanner. âI mean I want your car. That's plain enough, isn't it? Out â¦'
The old man licked his lips. A vein corded in his neck. â What are you going to do?'
âI'll not cosh you if you play the game, but one shout or move and I'll lay you out. Got that?'
They climbed out of the car. No one was about. Gibb opened a gate and led the way into an apple orchard. In the middle of it they might have been in a Japanese flower world. Every time they moved a shower of scented petals floated over them.
âAgainst that tree. Sit down. I want your braces, to take the places of my strings, see, because I want my string to tie you up.'
The âstring' was rope he'd stolen with the suit. The old man said: âFor twenty-eight years I have been offering lifts to people on the road. This is the first time â¦'
âWell, there has to be a first time for everything, hasn't there. Didn't they say about me on the radio last night? I bet they did. Les Gibb, serving a three-year stretch for robbery with violence. Chanced it, last night â'
âYes, with violence. I'd as soon cosh you as not, see. What's that?' Gibb raised his head.
âThat cuckoo noise. That's not a real cuckoo, is it?'
âYes, of course.'
âFirst time I ever heard one. They don't live where I live.'
âBe careful,' said the old man nervously. âMy circulation is poor. If you tie my wrists too tight â¦'
âO.K. I won't kill you, at least not if you behave.' Gibb stood up and stared at his victim. âYou'll do, I think. You know you remind me of my old schoolmaster. He didn't like me much. Used to call me ââ Gibb by name and glib by nature''.'
âI can understand that,' said the other bitterly. âYou certainly took me in with your lies.'
âWell, maybe it's easier if you're brought up right, like you was. I wasn't, see. My old man used to beat the daylights out of me. It makes you a bit glib, that does â¦ Just try it some time; you got to think of an excuse quick or get a bash on the earhole. Itmakesyou glib â¦ Afraid I'll have to gag you.'
Protesting like a drowning swimmer, the old man had his scarf tied over his mouth. It wouldn't last long, but it would muffle him for a while. Gibb thumbed through the schoolmaster's wallet. He took the driving licence and four pound notes.
âSorry about this,' he said. âSo long. Someone'll find you sooner or later, and it's a nice sunny day for a picnic.'
He went back to the car, got in and drove off. He kept to the main A.35, cut out Sidmouth but didn't avoid Lyme Regis, and the old car nearly died climbing the great hill out of the town. He held up a long stream of traffic, and felt himself like a carnival queen at the head of a procession. At the top he drew into a gate to let them all past, and mopped his brow. Not a thing worked on the car except the engine; he couldn't see what speed he was doing, what petrol he had got, whether he had oil or water. He was light-headed for lack of food, but somehow he'd overcome the first pangs and he decided to press on while the going was good. Neatly noon now, and the sun beat down. He tried to lower one of the windows, but after struggling for a time the door came open and nearly caught on a passing post. After that he was content to sweat and swelter.
At last it was Dorchester 3 miles. All depended how long before the old schoolmaster was found. Risk it. Down the long straight main street, which was crowded with traffic. A policeman held him up, and when he was waved on he stalled his engine. Watched with mild contempt but without suspicion, he pulled the starter a half dozen times before the engine fired. Then with sweat crawling all over him like a nest of worms, he jerked ahead.
Out of the town, take the left fork for Salisbury. A toss-up but you followed your hunch. In Salisbury he'd have to stop, buy something to eat and drink. Couldn't go on no longer. His throat was parched, his tongue swollen. But he never reached Salisbury. He turned a corner and saw, at first not realizing. It was the sort of queue you get at a frontier post, except that it only seemed for cars going his way. Then he saw police.
He was within twenty yards of the last car in the line. Between himself and the last car was an overgrown lane: he turned almost on two wheels into it, jolted and lurched over deep ruts and then nearly into a ditch. Down it, rattling and wobbling; there was a stream at the bottom and a ford. Through with a sound like tearing linen; water whooshed at either side of him, and he took the hill like a racer. But the old car, forced too hard, had had a coronary. Half-way up it coughed and missed and began to die. He was just able to steer it under the shade of a tree before it breathed its last.
Out double quick. Not sure if the police had seen him but there was no time to stop and find out. He jumped a gate, ran round the edge of a field of green oats, looked hastily back, and, seeing no one but a farm worker who gazed at him with vacuous interest from the seat of a tractor, began to walk away more slowly, keeping the sun on his back.
He walked for an hour. It was a dream walk, half a nightmare. He was in a land of stately trees planted here and there on wide green fields with all the gifted irrelevance of the 18th century. Birds darted across his path, cows stopped their chewing to watch him pass, a foal kicked its heels and galloped away. All his life a city dweller, he had never seen anything like it before. In his weak condition it all seemed too perfect to be real, an Elysian field in which he walked standing still while invisible scene-shifters moved the monuments of green beauty unsteadily past him.
A cottage by the road. His knees were giving way under him. He went up and knocked on the door. A middle-aged woman with grey eyes opened it.
âCould you â let me have â a glass of water?'
She looked at him suspiciously, hesitated, and then he folded up on the doorstep.
He didn't remember getting inside the house but he supposed afterwards she must have helped him. She had given him water and then a weak whisky; he could feel it seeping into his veins like raw new blood.
She sat quietly with folded hands on the other side of the kitchen while he told her he'd been walking all morning and had lost his way and hadn't realized it was so hot, etc., etc. The kitchen was as clean and neat as she was, not a hair out of place; he was in luck because there didn't seem to be a man. And she wasn't wearing a wedding ring. You could always manage a woman on her own. He got up, making a pretence of going, but quickly sat down again, putting on what he thought was a rather good act of feeling faint and saying that as a matter of fact he hadn't bothered with breakfast and had she by any chance a bite to eat in the house to help him on his way? He'd gladly pay for it, he really would.
Gibb had a way with him; people somehow always fell for his easy talk, and the woman said: âI have some cold meat â a few cold potatoes. You're welcome to them if you want them.'
âThanks. Thanks very much. I wouldn't ask but I'm not long out of hospital. You get proper out of condition, lying up like that, no exercise.'
âI'm sorry,' she said, bringing him a plate of beef that made him hardly able to think straight for the sight of it. âYou are convalescent?'
âWell, in a manner of speaking, yes. I'm up and down, you know. It's from the war, y'see. Long time ago, but it keeps on giving me a bit of trouble.'
She looked at him quickly, with her steady grey eyes. â Itisa long time ago. I shouldn't have thought you were old enough.'
âI'm forty-four. I wasjustold enough. Worse luck.' He laughed. âTime goes, don't it.'
âYes,' she agreed soberly. âTime goes.'
He ate the food, trying not to wolf it. Every moment he felt better, but he didn't hide from himself the job it would be getting to London if the cop had reported the stolen car in Dorchester. Once or twice she went out of the kitchen but was soon back and kept passing into a small scullery where he heard her moving pans about.
He said: âThis somebody's park round here?'
âI thought it looked like a park, all those trees, like.'
She smiled for the first time. âNo. It's just â farm land. You're English, aren't you?' She was quite easy on the eye when her face lit up.
âOh, yes. But I've not seen much country, not like this. Been round London docks most of my life.'
âI see.' She had unobtrusively cut him more bread.
âD'you have a farm?' he asked.
âNo. Oh no. I â Live in this cottage.'
âAll by yourself?'
âYes.' He saw that after she spoke she regretted it. So she wasn't too comfortable about aim, eh? She added: â My fiancÃ© was killed in the war.'
âYou don't say.' He wiped his mouth. âThat was bad. Real bad. So we got a sort of bond, haven't we?' '
âWhat do you mean?'
âWell, look what the war done for me. Where was he killed â where was your fiancÃ© killed?'
He said easily: âWhy, that's wheremynumber came up! What a chance! Isn't that something. It's a small world!'
âYes, it's a small world.' She picked up his plate and carried it out. He eyed her retreating figure.
When she came back she said abruptly: â Have you been in hospital in this district?'
âWell, no, not in this district, as you might say. I'm just staying near by. How far are we from Salisbury?'
âPhew! Where's your nearest town?'
âWe are four miles from Shaftesbury.'
âI reckon I'll make for there and get a bus back to Dorchester. I reckon that's better than going home the way I came.'
âWere you in a parachute regiment?' she asked.
âWhat?' He lifted his head and stared. âWhy, yes. Funny you should guess that. Funny, I'd say. Did your â was your fiancÃ© in airborne?'
âYes. They all were, weren't they?'
âYes, of course they was, I suppose. Funny, I don't remember much. I got mine pretty soon, you know. Knocked right out.'
By the window, with her back to the sunlight, she still watched him. âWould you like to borrow a bicycle?'
He stared into the sun. âWhat, me borrow a bike? You got one? How could I let you have it back?'
âLeave it at the Old Bell. They can bring it back when they come visiting the next farm.'
âThat's â well, it's generous â¦ And me a stranger! You might never see your bike again,'
âIt isn't mine. It belonged to my fiancÃ© â¦ No doubt he would be glad if I lent it to someone â wounded in the same battle.'
He was uncomfortable. Sharp enough in his own way, he sensed irony in her voice. But he couldn't lose by saying yes. â Thanks. Thanks very much. A friend in need is a friend indeed, that's what they say, isn't it?'
âYes, that's what they say.'
He offered to pay for the food. He offered to give her something for the loan of the old bicycle she wheeled out of a shed. But she refused both. Her arm half raised to shade her eyes from the sun, she quietly accepted his thanks and his handshake and watched him get on the bike and after a preliminary wobble go off down the lane.
She watched him until he was out of sight over the brow of the hill. She'd heard all about him on the one o'clock news, but she was quite alone and did not feel like being brutally tied up and left in an orchard the way some old Devonshire schoolmaster had been.
Even now she did not rush to telephone, even though she hated him bitterly for trying to ingratiate himself by lying about his part in the war. She could not bear fox hunting â however many chickens the fox might have stolen, however sly and slippery he might be.
Gibb was feeling a different man, and if only his shoes didn't hurt â¦ That was why he kept the bicycle. He kept the bicycle and bought a map of the district in Shaftesbury and took a road north towards Warminster and then turned right for Wylye. But after a few miles he saw another road block ahead, and he dumped the bike in a hedge and began to cut across the fields. It took him two hours to do four miles and he had gone off course again. A bus came marked Devizes and stopped to let off an old market woman. On impulse he took her place. He was making no progress, but it might shake him free of the police cordon. The bus was full and he was glad of the crowd around him. He understood people so much better than he understood nature.
At Devizes he saw another bus marked Newbury and climbed on that. If he could make this part of the journey he reckoned he had a chance. Once the bus had started he began to feel sleepy. Two or three times he dozed and sat up with a start, dunking that prison officers were standing all round him.
By the time they were through Marlborough the sun was on the slant and from here you could see across miles of open countryside with hundreds of great trees standing alone like monoliths. Not for the first time today, things stirred in the underworld of Gibb's consciousness. Maybe after a time it would be dull; but you wouldn'tfeelthe same, living in a place like this, youcouldn't feelthe same.
Imagine being born here instead of among the tall trees of the London warehouses.
There were police at the bus stop at Newbury, but he had got out the stop before. He came quietly through the town, slouched past the bus station. There was a bus temptingly marked Reading but it wasn't worth the risk.
Seventeen miles from Newbury to Reading, and after two he began to lift his thumb, still determined to make London tonight. He was hungry again. A lorry picked him up but it was only going four miles and soon he was out on the road again. His feet were killing him. The sun was low, and the high hedges threw half the road in shadow. Fifty miles more. So near and yet so â
A long black saloon drew up with a slither of tyres. âWant a lift?'
A big youngish middle-aged man with a clipped moustache as narrow as an eyebrow, a cap dead straight over his eyes, and a mate-in-three-moves suit. âGoing far?'
âWell, London. That's where I'm hoping to get.'
âCan do you as far as Twickenham, if that's any good.' Cuban cheroot smoke drifted across.
âThanks. Thanks a lot.'
They accelerated away with a well-bred whine. The needle dickered up to sixty-five, to seventy. Cor, what luck. âSmashing car,' Gibb ventured.
âYes, sure. New last week. Just running her in. She'll do well over the ton. Pretty good animal all round.'
âAren't you supposed to run a new car in slow, like?'
âShe's all right. And the firm buys me a new one every year.'
They swirled round a corner at seventy. At a 30 sign, the man slowed to 50. It wouldn't be much joy if they were stopped for speeding.
Gibb breathed again as they slid through Reading. He thought he was pretty well safe now. The man cut south to avoid Slough and went on talking about the blondes in his life. Abruptly he said: âAnd what are you doing on the road? You don't look like an ordinary biker?'
Gibb thought quickly. You chose your piece for your listener. âI â er â no. I been working in Bristol. Bristol docks, you know.'
âAh. Going home for a few days?'
âYes. Bit of family trouble.'
âAh. Family trouble. What I don't know about family trouble you could write on a visiting card.'
Darkness was falling as they drove through Egham.
âWife or girl-friend?' said the man.
âEh? Oh â er â wife.'
âGone off with another man, she has.'
Gibb thought that would appeal to his companion. It did.
âToo bad. Wish mine would.'
âYou wish yours would what?' said Gibb.
âGo off with another man. Instead of sitting at home waiting for me.'
âIt all depends how you look at it, don't it,' said Gibb cautiously.
The man offered him a cigarette, which he took. It would keep the hunger away. â What are you going to do?'
Gibb's cigarette was lit from a blowing thing pulled out of the dashboard. He tried to sound thoughtful. âMe? I don't know. Depends if I can find her, see.'
âKnow the man?'
âYe-es. Old flame of hers. Name of Chertsey.'
âThat's odd,' said the driver. â We just passed a signpost sayingChertsey 3 miles. Think he's there?'
âHa, ha,' said Gibb, sweating. âThat's funny, that is. No, I reckon he wouldn't be there.'
âYou're not pulling my leg?'
âNo. No, of course I'm not.'
âMaybe you're well out of it,' said the other, dragging his cap a half inch more over his eyes. âWomen always try to tie you down. Even blondes â you only have to know 'em a fortnight and they start getting their hooks in.' He made a racing change and overtook a Bentley which was proceeding at a comfortable sixty.
After that silence fell, and to Gibb's relief his friend did not speak again until they were in Twickenham.
It was easy from there. You said goodbye to the type and watched his numerous tail-lights disappear; you walked along the main street looking at the shops and the people, thankful you were back in your own surroundings and that darkness had brought you safety. You had a snack meal at a cafÃ© and then you got on a red double-decker â two years since you had seen a red double-decker; and you dozed all the way into central London. Then you changed to another bus and dozed again while you bobbed and swayed out to Shadwell.
The windows of the bus were open, and it was a different smell out here. A smell of weed and water and tar somehow crept through all the ordinary city smells of an early summer night. It might be no beauty spot, not like all he had seen today, but it was home.
After he got off the bus he walked right past the warehouse they had broken into. Everything had gone wrong from the start, that night. Then Alf had panicked and slugged the night-watchman. You could never tell how a man would be in an emergency, not until the emergency came. Alf had been the biggest mistake of his life.
Across the Highway and up towards Cable Street. Now it meant going slow again. They'd be on the watch for him round his old haunts. They'd keep a sharp watch round the Basin, expecting he might try to stow away on one of the ships. He stopped at a stall and bought one or two things, then went up the narrow street beyond like a cat slinking towards its own back yard.
Half-way along the street he turned down an entry, picking his way among the broken milk bottles and the cans. A dustbin gave him a convenient lift over a wall. About him the shabby houses were lighted, but a little mist had drifted off the river and was smearing the sharp outlines; a baby was crying; somewhere a man and a woman were having a flaming row.
On the roof of a wash-house he slid off his shoes, moved along the ridge; then he began to climb a drainpipe with his feet pressing into the angle of the wall.
The window was lighted. He tapped but there was no answer. He got his hand under the sash and shoved it up. It made a screech, and by the time he was in the kitchen an old woman had opened the door opposite and made a dried-up noise exactly like the opening window.
â 'Lo, Beat, you not expecting me?'
She took a hand away from her mouth to shut the door behind her. It cut out the music from a radio. âWell â¦'
âMean to say you hadn't heard?'
â 'Course I 'ad, but â¦ I didn't know if you'dtryâ¦ I didn't think you'd dare try. I thought they'd be sure to catch you before you got 'ere.'
âI'd like to see 'em. Where is she â here or â¦?'
âSal? She's 'ere. They sent 'er 'ome this morning.'
âWhat's she like? Is she bad?'
âThey say she'll be O.K. It was a lucky escape. I near died â¦ Nowcareful, don't give 'er a shock. Let me go first.'
In the next room a girl of ten was in bed listening to the radio. She had a bandage round her head. â Dad!' she screamed.
âNow take it easy. Take it easy. What you been up to, you little monkey, then â getting into this sort of mess. Cor, how you've grown!'
She tried to put her arms round his neck, but grimaced and lay back on the pillows and let him kiss her.
âI'm bristly,' he said. âHaven't had time to clean up. Been travelling, y'know.'
âI said Dad'd come, didn't I? I did, didn't I! I said you'd come, Dad â¦ I said he'd come. How did you? â¦ Have they â'
âNever mind about that, then. What about you? Tell me about it.'
âIt was a van,' said Beat from the doorway. â Come round a corner and skidded. Crazy fool driving. Crushed 'er against a lamp-post. They thought she was badly 'urt.'
âShelookshurt,' said Les, peering sourly at his daughter's thin face.
âShe's got two ribs broke. But nothing else, they says. I says they should have kept 'er in 'ospital another day, but they says she's O.K. to come ' ome.'
âI'm glad they did,' said Gibb, âelse maybe I wouldn't have seen her.'
âBut you're going to stay now, aren't you, Dad?' Sally said. â I heard about you on the radio! They gave it every news! Can't you stay now you've come? It's been so long â¦'
âI got you a present,' said Gibb, taking out the thing he had bought at the stall. Then he looked at the length of the figure in the bed. âBut I reckon I made a mistake. I â¦'
He handed her the doll he had bought, and while she exclaimed over it he looked across at Beat, who was still in the doorway. âYou don't notice time passing where I been. Honest to God, you don't. Least, not in the same way. You don't realize Salâs getting too old for dolls. It'll be fancy hair-do's and high heels before you know where you are.'
âLay off it. Sal's never too old for dolls, are you, Sal?'
âIt's fabulous,' said Sally. â It's fabulous.'
âThink you can risk it 'ere tonight?' asked Beat. âThey won't think you'll be 'ere yet.'
âI don't know. I'd like to, but â¦'
There was a photo on a table by the bed. It was the old newspaper cutting framed: âMax and Maureen, Melody with a Smile'. His wife. She hadn't changed much. And Max with that smile. He'd knock it right off his bloody face if he got the chance. Gibb slapped the photo over on its glass and stood up.
âI want a word with you, Beat.'
He followed her into the kitchen and shut the door and stood with his back to it, looking at the old woman.
Beat said: â She's coming back, Les. I had a wire this morning. She should be 'ere tomorrow.'
âSo she went off with him after all.'
âWhat d'you mean, went off with 'im? Who told you that?'
âI got a letter.'
âIt wasn't signed.'
âAh â¦' The old woman wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. âDon't it make yousickâ always somebody ready to make trouble.'
âIt isn't them that's made trouble,' he said between his teeth.
âIt's Maureen, the bitch. I knew all these years she was dying to go back to her act â and him. Well, now she's gone â left Sally, left me. I suppose she couldn't do without a man.'
âLes, you ought to be ashamed of yourself! She ' asn'tleftyou. She only left Sal temporary. You know how Max was always plaguing 'er to go back. Well they got this offer of a three-week tour in Scotland. Good money. She thought she'd do it â earn a bit extra. She took ' er 'oliday and the Dock Board give 'er a week extra. That's all.'
âAll! And three weeks with Max!'
âMan, don't you know 'e'smarried! Hiswife'swith them.'
Gibb slowly rubbed his hand up and down the bristles on his chin. He glared at Beat and then rubbed the other side of his chin.
âYou can't 'ave fairer than that,' said Beat.
Gibb looked round the room. Two more pictures of ships from calendars on the wall. The clock had stopped and the minute hand was broken. The tin where he used to keep his cigarettes was still on the shelf. It all smelt the same.
âWhy the hell didn't shewriteme?'
âLes, you know what she'slike. She says, Imustwrite to Les, and then she don't. She gets out paper â often I've seen 'er â and she writes three lines and then she sits biting the end of 'er pen. There she sits, and she says, I can't think what tosay. You ought to know what she's like by now.'
Gibb rubbed his nose for a change. âMaybe yes and maybe no. But it sounds different in that place and sheoughtto've written.'
âYes, of course, she ought, but â'
There was a knock on the door. Gibb's attitude, which had been slowly easing, tensed up again. He jerked his thumb at the old woman and slid quickly into the other bedroom, which was in darkness. Beat went to the door.
A plainclothes man with two policemen behind him. âGood evening, Miss Royal, we've come for Leslie Gibb. I have a warrant here, and all ways out of the house are guarded.'
âWhy, I don't know what you're talking about! The idea. Forcing your way in!Reellyâ¦' Protesting, Beat was pushed aside. In a few seconds the men were in both rooms. Gibb stood by the open window of one, looking down at the policeman in the area below.
âWell, Gibb â¦'
âLooks like a fair cop, don't it.'
â 'Fraid so. I hope you're going to come quietly.'
âYou don't want a rough house?'
âYou know it'll do you no good.'
âI'll come quiet on one condition.'
âGive me half an hour with the nipper. It's a long way to come â just for nothing at all.'
The plainclothes man hesitated. â You're a slippery customer.'
âNot all that slippery.'
âI'll have to sit beside you.'
âO.K. It's a deal.'
Watched carefully, Gibb went past them and was followed closely into the next room. Just inside he stopped.
âWell, stone the crows, look at that!'
Sally was asleep. The radio still going, she lay with her bandaged head half off the pillow and with her new doll clutched in one hand.
âLooks as if you won't need your half hour,' said the plainclothes man.
âNow give me a break! Think I don't get pleasure just looking at her like that? What d'you think!'
âO.K. If you feel that way.'
The other two policemen went back into the kitchen and the plainclothes man sat on a chair near the window while Gibb stood by the bed for a bit. Then he pressed up the pillow cautiously so that she was lying straight. He held her plait in his fingers for a minute or so. â Hair like her mother's,' he said. â Not a bit like mine.'
The plainclothes man offered him a cigarette; Gibb nodded his thanks and accepted a light. âYou got kids?'
Gibb sat on the chair and looked at his daughter.
âHope she don't want it cut off.'
âHer hair. Kids these days â¦'
The plainclothes man tapped his cigarette.
âShe's not like me at all really,' said Gibb. âI've got coarse hair. Always had â even as a kid.'
âYes. I expect she'll be like her mother when she grows up.'
The music on the radio faded and the midnight summary began. At that moment there were voices outside in the kitchen and hurried footsteps and the door was flung open by a dark woman of about thirty-five. Her glance took everything
Gibb got up.
âLes! â¦ I didn't expectyou! â¦ I been in the train all day!' She came up to the bed. âIs she all right?'
âSeems like it!'
âGod, what a fright! â¦ I nearlydied!' She scowled at her daughter carefully for a few seconds as if making sure no one was deceiving her. â It's â she's just asleep? That's all? Just asleep?'
She turned to Gibb. â Les, youfool! Youarea flaming fool! This'll mean longer for you when you get back â¦'
They hesitated, and then he kissed her.
The radio voice said: âSearch is continuing for Leslie Gibb who escaped from Dartmoor at 5 p.m. yesterday. Gibb, an ex-paratrooper wounded at Arnhem, is serving a three-year sentence for robbery with violence â¦'At The Chalet Lartrec
I was looking out for a village. Almost any sort of village would have done, because things had been difficult for the last hour.
The snow had started just as I reached the top of the pass. They'd told me in Pontresina that the road was still clear, and I'd found it so: a few piled heaps of white here and there like dirty linen waiting to be collected, but nothing new at all. Right at the summit by the now-empty hospice I stopped the car to let the engine cool in the icy wind and strolled about to ease my stiff leg; but I didn't stay long. The clouds were lowering all around like elephants' bellies, and it was lonely up there, more than a mile high, with nothing human or alive anywhere, the great peaks half hidden and the first fall of winter long overdue.
So I climbed in and the engine fired at the fourth push, and as I turned the car round the first corner the flakes of snow began to drift absent-mindedly about in the wind.
It's a nasty road at the best of times. You go down and down but never seem to get any lower, round dozens of acute hairpin bends and through echoing tunnels with faint relics of daylight at the far end; and every time your tyres slither on the loose surface you look down thousands of feet into the dark pine-wooded valleys wreathed in cloud. It's like some medieval artist's vision of judgment; and of course if you slither too far the vision becomes an immediate fact.
In a mile or two it was snowing hard, and the car had no chains. It was nearly five o'clock â the climb having taken so much longer because of that plug â and very soon it would be quite dark. The snow was fine and soft, and for a bit the strong wind blew it off the centre of the road, piling it in drifts in the unexpected corners. I'd hoped to make Tirano and find a hotel there â it looked no distance on the map â but today it just wasn't going to work out. I couldn't remember whether there was anything at all before Tirano except the frontier post. It might be better to try to spend the night in the car than to skid to the edge of a precipice and then â¦ whoo!
The screenwipers were making heavy going of it, and I had to stop and get out to clean them. The snow was soft in my face, like walking into a flight of cold wet moths, and the wind was howling away in the distance across the valley. Somewhere nearer at hand just for a moment I caught the musical note of a cow-bell, but there was no other traveller, no other human being anywhere. They might all have gone long ago to some more civilized land.
With the dark I had to stop again and again, because the screen was freezing over and it was easy to miss the turns of the road. I could see the paragraphs in the papers: âThe victim of a sudden storm in the Bernina Alps was Major Frederick Vane, aged 33, a British officer attached to UNESCO, who unwisely attempted to cross from Switzerland into Italy by the Bernina Pass, which is normally closed to vehicular traffic in October. His car â¦'
And then I turned one more contorted bend and the headlights showed up a few farm huts and the narrow cobbled street of a village.
It was a welcome sight. There was no one about, and the wind whistled through the slit between the houses like an errand boy with bad teeth.
Almost at the end of the street I braked in time to avoid a man with a handcart. After the lonely drive, I felt warmed towards him as towards an old friend. But the feeling wasn't returned because he didn't like standing in the draught and didn't feel warmed at all. However, after a minute or two our conversation attracted attention even on that bleak night. Two other figures appeared, anxious to help. Yes, they said, it was as Angelo Luciano stated: nothing here and doubts about Bagnolo, the next village, fifteen kilometres on. Beyond that was the frontier and then Tirano, but â¦
Then quite suddenly, as an afterthought, someone mentioned the Chalet Lartrec, and at once they were all agreed it might be worth trying at the Chalet Lartrec, which was off this road and only about a kilometre distant. The season being over, they said, Monsieur Lartrec would have closed down his house, but it was just possible he would make an exception in a case like this.
By now my screen had frozen over completely, so I scraped it into a state of semi-transparency and thanked them and drove on, reflecting how often people forgot the important thing until nearly too late.
At the stone marked 10, I turned as directed down a narrow track barely wide enough for a car. I knew that somewhere not far away the valley fell into further cloudy depths. Two gateposts showed up and beyond that a light. I left the car in the semi-shelter of three waving pines and picked a way across snow-filled frozen ruts towards the light, carrying my smallest suitcase.
The chalet was a three-storeyed place, painted in green, and all the shutters were up except at the window that showed the light.
I knocked on the door and waited.
There was no reply. I knocked again, picturing the unknown Lartrec crouching ill-temperedly over his log fire. Just then there was the screech of bolts and I stood back a step.
Light came out and I saw a woman.
âEr â Monsieur Lartrec?' I said.
She was staring at me. Perhaps she was surprised at seeing a stranger.
âYou wish to see my husband?' she said in French.
I explained. While I was speaking the wind was shaking the door in her hand, and it blew little infiltrations of snow into the hall. She was quite young, with a lot of dark hair and deep-set black eyes.
When I had finished she said: âI regret, monsieur. We cannot put you up. We have no bed, no food. We are closed for the winter.'
I pointed to the snow. âIt is five or six inches already. All I need is shelter until daybreak.'
âWe are closed, monsieur. It is not possible.'
âBut I have no chains! I don't think I could even get my car to the main road again!'
She hesitated. â I will see my husband.'
She shut the door tight, leaving me on the step, stamping my feet and thinking bitter thoughts. I reflected that French was not her first language any more than it was mine. She was probably Swiss-Italian, or her mother tongue was perhaps that odd Romance dialect that a few Swiss still speak. Then the door came open and this time a tall man stood there. He peered out at me as if I were a typhoid-carrier.
Wearily I explained it all again, and again came the same refusal. But by now I was getting bloody-minded and was not to be moved from his doorstep. Did he, I asked him, expect me to freeze to death in the car?
Suddenly he gave way. âOh, very well. I see that it is bad for you. We must do what we can.'
I followed him in, just holding my tongue; and it was fortunate that I did because, once they'd capitulated, they seemed willing to put a good face on it. I felt stiff and uncomfortable, willing to lie on a board somewhere and no thanks to them; but M. Lartrec showed me into a pleasant enough bedroom in which the central heating pipes were going full blast, and I gratefully thawed out and presently was called down to a meal of pasta, stewed steak, cheese and grapes, with a half litre of new and raw Chianti. So I began to feel a whole lot better towards them and to life in general.
Lartrec was not above thirty-five, distinguished-looking in an angular way, brutally thin, with great bony shoulders that he would shrug nervously as if his shirt were chafing him. Mme Lartrec was probably a bit younger, good-looking in her way, with finely shaped hands that had been roughened and reddened with work. She might, I thought, have been ill, for the fine olive skin that usually goes with such looks was over-sallow. Their only servant was a slow-witted boy with hair of a length that he did not know was fashionable, who followed his mistress â in person or with his gaze â wherever she went. Of Lartrec he seemed afraid.
For a few minutes after supper I sat in the large bare hall with my feet on the only square of carpet and tried to read last week'sDie Weltwoche. But German has never been my strong point, and for the most part I listened to the lament of the wind and wondered if the roads would be quite blocked in the morning. To spend a night here was one thing, but I was due back in Rome on Monday.
The fingers of the thatched-barn cuckoo clock in the corner climbed up to nine, and when it had hiccupped I rose to go to bed. I wandered round the room staring at the pictures, an impressionistic view of Lake Maggiore, three impossible snow scenes, a photograph of a fat young man with beady eyes; then I went through the dining-room to the kitchen door and tapped.
The door was flung open and Lartrec looked at me.
Behind him shining pans, my unwashed dishes, skis in a corner, a big stove, the tear-stained face of his wife.
âI thought I'd just tell you I'm going to bed.'
âCertainly, monsieur. Everything is to your liking?'
âIndeed yes. I'm most grateful for the food and the shelter.'
âYou can find your way to your room? No, no, I'll show you.'
I insisted this wasn't necessary, but he took absolutely no notice and I followed him upstairs. In the bedroom he seemed reluctant to go, and we made a few forced remarks. There was no ease between us, but he still stood by the door, tall and gaunt, like an unfrocked priest.
âYou are Swiss?' I said, feeling sure he was not.
His blue eyes flickered as he shook his head
After a pause I said: âIf I could have my breakfast at eight â¦?'
âBut of course.'
âAnything will do. Anything you have: honey or an egg or even just a pot of coffee.'
âI hope the roads won't be completely blocked.'
âIt seldom happens with the first fall â¦ You must think it strange, monsieur, that my wife â that you should see my wife in tears.'
âI'm married myself.'
He stiffened. â It is not at all what you think. It is not domestic.'
I said I was pleased to know it, and waited for him to go.
âYou are in part responsible for this tonight.'
I stared at him. âSorry. I assure you I'll not stay here a minute longer than I can help.'
âNo, no. It is not just your coming, it is your coming tonight of all nights that gave her a shock. It is exactly the anniversary of something which happened twelve months ago. The anniversary to the day and to the hour.' He weighed me up. âYou are from England?'
âI thought so from your accent. I have never been to England but I have often wished to go.'
There was a pause. We didn't seem to be getting very far. âCigarette?' I said.
âIn England you suffered from two wars, but not in the same ways. In Hungary â¦' He stopped.
Light dawned. The high cheek-bones, the blue eyes, the rather metallic voice. âYou are Hungarian?'
âYes,' he said half reluctantly.
âI spent a few days in Budapest once. A beautiful city.'
He gave that nervous twitch to his shoulders. âMy native town is Szeged â¦ that conveys nothing to you?'
âI'm afraid not. Where is it?'
âA hundred and ninety kilometres south of Budapest. The second city of the republic. It is where the revolution of 1956 began.'
âThe rev â¦' I stopped. âOh â¦thatone. Were you there?'
âI was one of the leaders of the student movement.'
Neither of us spoke for a bit. âCigarette?' I said again, interested now.
He came back into the room and took one. I lit it for him, and his face, nodding his thanks, came out of the smoke, rapt and painful.
âDid you get away?' I asked sympathetically.
âI was transported to Russia. I was there â in Siberia â eight years.'
I studied his face. I have seen these men before. They are of all nationalities, but once you have seen the signs in one man you recognize them in others.
âYou revolted against the Communists?'
He drew on his cigarette with hollowed cheeks. âI think you have to clear your mind, monsieur, of some misconceptions, like most westerners. When the war ended in Europe I was eleven. After thateveryonein Hungary was Communist. There was no alternative. What we were revolting against in 1956 was not Communism as such, but the iron hand ofSovietCommunism as exercised through Rakosi, the secretary of the Party. We did not want everything at once, but just thebeginningsof freedom, such as Yugoslavia enjoyed; and Mr Nagy, our prime minister, had undertaken to set on foot some of those liberal forms, including free elections. All this was set at nought by the sudden arrival of Russian forces in Budapest and the deposing of Nagy. It was against this, and against the pressure of a foreign power occupying our territory, that we organized the first demonstrations.'
He stopped and frowned at his cigarette, moved to tap the ash into the plastic ashtray on the dressing-table.
âIs your wife Hungarian?' I asked.
âMy wife? Yes. Why?'
âIt was a natural inference. Did she escape, then?'
âIn 1956 Maria was not my wife. In 1956 I was twenty-two. In our childhood she and I had been sweethearts; but while I was at the university we drifted apart and she had just at this time married Julius Zigani. She was nineteen then and he was twenty-five, the oldest of our group. He came of an old Magyar family and had a little money of his own â¦ She was not happy with him.'
The room was warm and I loosened my tie. Outside the wind howled like a bereaved dog.
âShe was not happy with him, monsieur. I knew later that all the time she had loved me.'
âThe demonstrations? â¦' I prompted after a minute.
âWe students were an idealistic lot, dreaming of new freedoms, andreasonablefreedoms â¦ But we were also practical. Each week secret pamphlets were written and distributed. Much preparatory work was done. Of course our group was only one of many. In our group there was Maurus Kozma, who was our leader, and Emeric Erdy â and Julius Zigani, Maria's husband. Those first demonstrations â¦ I cannot tell you how full they were of high spirits and of hope. After the first day in Szeged we drove in trucks to Budapest to join the students and the factory workers there. Then of course the trouble.'
âWell, it led, as I suppose one could have expected, to clashes with the A. V.H., our own abominable secret police, whom we hated even more than the Russians. Next morning Russian tanks moved in to support them and opened fire on us. But by now we had ample small weapons, for much of our army had joined us. It was a noble struggle â¦'
âAn exhilarating struggle. Half Budapest was laid waste; but we got our way â or thought we had got our way â and the revolt died down. Mr Nagy was brought back. Our efforts and sacrifices, it seemed, were not to be in vain. But you know how the Russians always work. You know the rest.' He sighed. âThree days later armoured divisions of Soviet troops moved into the city. Thousands were bloodily murdered, the legal government was overthrown and a puppet government was set up in its place. Mr Nagy could only take refuge in a foreign embassy. From there he was decoyed out by a lying promise of safe conduct. As soon as he was out he was seized by the Russians and sent to imprisonment and execution. This was perhaps the shabbiest thing of all. Then mass executions and deportations of the other leaders of the revolt took place. I went into hiding with Kozma and Erdy. Julius Zigani and Maria were somewhere in the city but we lost touch with them. Many tried to leave the country, some with success, but at that time we had not given up. To leave one's country is to leave one's hope â¦'
He stopped then and moved slowly to the window to peer out. There was something furtive in his movements, as if years of exile had left their mark.
âBut in the end?' I said.
âIn the end we were caught. Someone had informed on us. Kozma was shot. Erdy and I were deported. Erdy died in exile. I lived to come back.'
âNot to Hungary. But to look for Julius Zigani.'
âIt was he who betrayed us. The Russians told us. They told us he had bought his freedom by selling his friends. Not only did he betray us but six others also. Maria did not know, though she tells me now she once suspected and then dismissed the suspicion as too evil to be true. They left Hungary and settled in Switzerland. Zigani had been able to bring out a little money and he bought this chalet and opened it to summer guests.'
âYou â found them?'
His shadow gave a jerk on the wall as he twitched his shoulders. âIt was twelve months ago. You understand. The tracing does not matter. He had changed his name but that does not matter either. In the afternoon I came to this chalet just as it was going dark. I was not sure even then, not at all sure. I came up to it but I did not knock on the door as you knocked on the door. Instead I crept round to the kitchen and looked in at the window. They werethere, in the newly lit lamplight, Maria putting food on his plate, and Zigani bending greedily to eat it. She seemed scarcely changed, but he had put on some more weight. He was always as fat as a pig, with small eyes, old eyes, and short lashless lids.'
I was suddenly reminded of the photograph of the fat man in the hall. Lartrec had paused. Until now I had been too interested to care, but at this moment it occurred to me that I did not want to hear any more.
âDon't you think you've told me enough?'
He said: âI went round to the front then and knocked. The boy came, the rather simple boy. I pushed past him and went into the kitchen, shutting the boy out. They looked at me as if frozen where they sat. Something had been spilled on the stove and was hissing. I said to Zigani: ââ There are nine of us here, Julius, not just one. Nine of us, all of that one group. Maurus and Stephen, who were shot, and Erdy and Victor who died in captivity, and Leo who was killed by the hounds â¦” I went on to the end, and all the time he sat there with a stain of egg on the corner of his mouth. When I'd finished I looked at Maria and said: ââ Did you know that this man â'' And then I heard him move. He'd jumped â so quick for a fat man â to a drawer and I went after him to the oven. As he turned with a revolver I hit him across the head with the iron poker.'
Lartrec dropped his smouldering cigarette in the ashtray. Whatever I said now, he was going on to the end.
âHe was dead within five minutes. I felt no sorrow and no sense of guilt. It was what I had come for, what I had intended to do for so long. But we had to face the outcome. We were no longer in a country at war where such things pass unheeded. It seemed that the only possible way would be to flee while there was still time. Italy, or more probably France, might give us asylum. France has accepted and absorbed so many refugees in trouble, and Maria and I could begin a new life there. But it was Maria, yes Maria, who suggested another way. No one knew of my presence in the neighbourhood. If I were to carry the body to the bottom of the cellar steps and leave it in the appropriate position, it might well appear that he had fallen and caught his head on the iron stairs. The boy was devoted to Maria and would say anything she told him. Suppose I went away again as I had come, there was no one in the house strong enough to inflict such a blow. And he was a heavy man and the fall down the steps would be great. There was danger, of course, but the other way there was also danger â to admit the crime, as it were, and to run away. Maria had Swiss citizenship. The Swiss police are persistent. It could be that they would trace Maria and apply for her extradition. The way she suggested â if it worked â neither she nor I would be hunted. In a few months, after it had all blown over, I could come to the district and meet Maria and marry her with no fear of suspicion. Those were the alternatives, monsieur. What would you have done?'
Lartrec's cigarette was still sending up a spiral of smoke as straight as a smoke signal. I found I was sweating. It wasn't just the heat of the room.
âYou really want my opinion?'
âWell, it won't help much, will it, at this stage; you made your choice: but I think on the whole you were lucky to get away with it. And you won't get away with it much longer if you start telling the story to perfect strangers.'
âYou are the first and the last. It was something â¦ it came out. I can rely on your discretion?'
âYes.' Travelling over Europe today in spite of its new prosperity, one comes constantly upon the old sickly scars. âIs your boy â the slow one â is he a Catholic?'
âThen I think I should have been afraid of your wife's scheme for two reasons. I should have been afraid of the boy telling what he knew in confession. And I should have been afraid that the Swiss police, who as you say are persistent, might have found something in Zigani's injuries inconsistent with the theory of a fall. On the whole I should have preferred the risk of an escape to France where I imagine you would find others from your country who would give you shelter. But I wish you hadn't told me this.'
âAnd the killing,' persisted Lartrec, leaning forward. âAs an Englishman, would you have done different?'
âI don't suppose so â¦ No. Probably not.'
There was silence for a while.
âI too am a Catholic,' he said. âThe instinct of confession dies hard. But in one way, in therightway, this can never come out. Perhaps it is my excuse for troubling you. That and your arriving so unexpectedly â on the anniversary. Your coming tonight â we could not get over that.'
I thought of some men I had seen in a hospital in Austria. â I shouldn't let your conscience get too active,' I said. âTraitors â traitors only deserve what they get. But I think you have made a mistake in continuing to live here. In this house you'll never be quite free.'
Faintly from downstairs came the sound of the cuckoo clock announcing ten. It seemed to bring him back to his duties as a host. He smiled a little, coldly, courteously.
âWhat time would monsieur wish to be knocked in the morning?'
I was a long time dropping off. My leg was aching, and whichever way I moved it it wouldn't stop. And I thought all the time of Lartrec's story. Presently I got up and bolted the door â¦
I woke at seven and the wind had dropped. I was almost afraid to open the shutters, but relief, the storm was over. There had been a fair fall of snow but not enough. The roads would be passable. I wondered if Mark would still be in Milan. I thought again of Latrec's story and wondered if he would refer to it again. Probably he would be bitterly repenting the confidences of the night. I should be glad to be on my way. It is not pleasant to be guest to a murderer whose safety now rests on your silence.
I'd not ordered breakfast until eight, but I washed and shaved in lukewarm water and stuffed my things into my bag. It was now getting on for eight, and I thought I'd go out and inspect the car. I could hear someone chopping wood, but that was the only movement so far.
It is always a little depressing to be the only person in a guest-house, and the place looked shabby in the morning light. The first thing I saw in the hall were my other two bags. It was thoughtful of Lartrec to have brought them in.
The shutters were to in the dining-room, and the hall was untidy and cold. I opened the front door and stepped out. The sun was bright now but hazy like an opaque electric bulb, and I made for the three pines, the crisp snow crunching. When I got to them I stopped. The car was no longer there.
I looked round, rejecting unpleasant thoughts. The wind had been so strong that it had blown away the track marks, and I thought perhaps Lartrec had moved the car into one of the sheds for protection. Still he should have told me.
I went back.
âLartrec!' I called in the hall.
ââ¦ trec,' came the echo upstairs.
âLartrec!' I called in the dining-room.
They were probably all at the back. Someone was chopping wood again.
I went into the kitchen. The remains of supper were on the table. It was not chopping but knocking. It came from the larder. I pulled back the bolt.
The boy stared at me stupidly. His hair was a damp twisted mat on his forehead. He burst into tears and began to gabble.
I took him and shook him.
âWhere is your mistress, boy?'
He stared at me in fright, blinking as if he had just come out of deep water.
âGone? Gone where?'
âI do not know, signer.'
âAnd Monsieur Lartrec? Has he gone too?'
âNo, signer, he is still here.'
âThen take me to him.'
âNo, signor. I am afraid.'
âDon't be a fool. I'll not let him hurt you.'
The tears running down to his chin, the boy faltered across to another door, which I opened. There were steps leading down and a smell of old wine. He tried to run then, but I stopped him and lit a lamp and pushed him down the steps before me.