Read The Beast Must Die Online

Authors: Nicholas Blake

The Beast Must Die (10 page)

‘Yes. You did that very nicely. Your father ought to see you now. Look out! Keep your eyes over your shoulder. You can see the gusts coming, if you look to windward.’

Phil was obviously very pleased. George considers him – or pretends to consider him – an arrant coward. It’s extraordinary the extent to which the character of children like Phil is conditioned by the need to justify themselves in the eyes of an unsympathetic parent, to prove the parent wrong.

‘Oh yes,’ he cried. ‘D’you think – could we ask him to come out with us one day?’ Then his face fell. ‘No, I’d forgotten. He wouldn’t come, I don’t expect. He can’t swim.’

‘Can’t swim?’ I said. The phrase repeated itself over and over in my mind, shouting at me louder and louder from somewhere miles away and yet in the most secret core of my being – like the voices one hears as one is going under an anaesthetic – and the frenzied thumping of my heart was like that too, or like the revenging spirit battering a way out of its prison.

No more tonight. I must think it out carefully. Tomorrow I’ll write down my plan. It will be simple and deadly. Already I can see it forming before my eyes.

16 August

YES. I BELIEVE
it’s foolproof now. The only difficulty will be to get George out on the river, but a little
judicious
taunting ought to do the trick. And once he’s aboard the dinghy his number’s up.

I shall have to wait for another squally day, like yesterday. Assume a south-westerly wind, that’s the prevailing wind here. We’ll beat up the river half a mile or so, and then come round and run before the wind. That will be my moment. We’ll be running with the boom on the port side. I’ll wait for a squall, and then see to it that the boat gybes all standing. With the lee helm she carries she’s bound to capsize.
And George can’t swim
.

I thought first of upsetting her like this myself. But there are generally fishermen scattered along the banks of the river here, and one of them might happen to see the ‘accident’, might happen to know something about sailing, and awkward questions would be asked as to why an experienced sailor like myself allowed the boat to turn over. How much more convincing if George was holding the tiller at the crucial moment!

This is how I’ve worked it out. When we start to run, I’ll hand over the tiller to George, looking after the main and jib sheets myself. As soon as I see a strong gust approaching, I’ll tell George to put his helm up, that’ll get the wind behind the leech of the mainsail, and the boom will swing right over with terrific violence. One’s only hope of correcting a gybe all standing is to put the helm hard down then, but George won’t know this, and I shan’t have time to snatch the tiller away from him before the boat turns over. I must remember to pull up the centre-board
when
we start to run. This is quite the normal thing to do, and it will doubly ensure the boat’s capsizing. George will be thrown clear, with luck, stunned by the boom. He shouldn’t have a chance of getting back and gripping on to the hull. I’ll have to work it so that I’m caught under the sail or tied up with one of the sheets or something, so that I can’t extricate myself to rescue the poor dear fellow till it’s too late. Must also see to it that we’re not too near any of the fishermen on the banks when we turn over.

It will be a perfect murder, an absolute accident. The worst that can happen is that I may be censured by the coroner for allowing George to be sailing the boat in such a treacherous wind.

The coroner! My God, there’s a snag there I’d overlooked. My real name will almost certainly have to come out at the inquest, and Lena will know I’m the father of the boy George ran over when she was in the car. Will she put two and two together, and begin to suspect that the sailing accident was not as genuine as it looked? I’ll have to get round her somehow or other. Does she love me enough to hold her tongue? It’s a dirty business, this part of it – using Lena like this. But why the hell should I care? Martie is what I must remember, the poor wavering little figure in the middle of the road, the burst bag of sweets. What do anyone’s feelings matter compared with his death?

Drowning is very painful, they say, in the preliminary stages. Good. I’m glad. George’s lungs bursting, the top of his head shrieking with pain, his hands scrabbling
vainly
to thrust the giant weight of water off his chest. I hope he remembers Martie then. Shall I swim near him and shout ‘Martin Cairnes’ in his ear? No, I think I can safely leave him to his own drowning thoughts; they will take sufficient vengeance for Martie.

17 August

I LAID DOWN
my bait for George at lunch today. Carfax and his wife were there. The pitiful way Violet tried to pretend she did not notice the byplay between Rhoda Carfax and George – it sharpened my wits against him. I said that Phil looked like becoming a first-rate hand with a boat. In George’s face there was a struggle between fatuous pride and ungracious scepticism. He said, rather grudgingly, he was glad to hear there was something the boy could do; stop him mooning about in the garden all the holidays; etc., etc.

‘You ought to try your hand at it some day,’ I said.

‘Come out in your cockleshell? I value my own skin too much for that!’ He laughed, a bit too strenuously.

‘Oh, it’s quite safe, if that’s what you’re worrying about. It’s funny, though,’ I went on, to the table at large, ‘how many people are frightened of small boats, people who don’t think twice about the chances of their getting run over every time they cross the street.’

George lowered his eyelids a little at that last crack of mine; it was the only sign he gave. Violet piped up:

‘Oh, George isn’t
frightened
, I’m sure. It’s just a question of—’

It was the worst possible thing she could have said. George was obviously furious at the idea of his wife’s taking up the cudgels for him. No doubt she was going on to say that it was just a question of George’s not being able to swim; but he interrupted, mimicking her voice most disagreeably:

‘No dear, George
isn’t
frightened. Not frightened of baby boats, he isn’t.’

‘That’s fine,’ I said negligently. ‘You’ll come out one day, then? I’m sure you’ll enjoy every minute of it.’

So that’s that. I felt a breathless excitement. Everything else in the room seemed tenuous and remote – Lena chattering away to Carfax, Violet’s vague flutterings, Rhoda laughing lazily into George’s face, old Mrs Rattery picking at her fish with an air of disapproval, as though she’d found its pedigree missing, and darting a very sharp glance now and then from under her penthouse eyebrows at George and Rhoda. I had to sit very still, deliberately to relax my body that trembled like tense wire. I stared out of the window, till the grey house and the tree it framed were blurred and blended together into a kind of trembling, shifting, dappled pattern like river water under trees when the sun is shining.

I was jerked back out of this trance by a voice that seemed to come from a great distance. It was Rhoda Carfax, saying to me:

‘And what do you do with yourself here all day, Mr Lane, when you’re not instructing the young?’

I was pulling myself together to make some reply, when George broke in:

‘Oh, he just sits upstairs, plotting his murder.’

In my thrillers I’ve often enough used the cliché about all the blood seeming to drain out of someone’s heart. I’d never realised, though, how accurate it was. George’s remark made me feel – and look, I expect – like white meat. I stared at him, for what seemed like hours, my mouth trembling out of control. It was not till Rhoda said, ‘Oh, you’re working on a new book, are you?’ that I realised that George had been talking about fiction murder. Or was he? Is it possible that he can have discovered or suspected something? No, it’s ridiculous to be afraid of that. My relief, at the moment, was so enormous that I became pugnacious and irritable, furious with George for giving me such a shock.

I said, ‘Yes, I’m working out a very pretty murder – quite my masterpiece, I think.’

‘He’s certainly darned close about it,’ said George. ‘Locked doors, sealed lips, and all that. Of course, he
says
he’s writing a thriller, but we’ve got no proof, have we? I think he ought to show us his manuscript, don’t you, Rhoda? Just so we can be sure he’s not a
fugitive
from justice, or a master criminal in disguise, or something.’

‘I don’t—’

‘Yes, do read some of it out after lunch, Felix,’ said Lena. ‘We’ll all sit round, and do some community screaming when the villain’s dagger descends.’

It was appalling. The idea began to spread and rage like a heath fire. ‘Please do.’ ‘Yes, you must.’ ‘Come on, Felix, be a sport.’

I said, trying to be firm but sounding, I’m afraid, like a flustered hen:

‘No. I can’t. I’m sorry. I hate anyone to see an unfinished manuscript of mine. I’m just funny that way.’

‘Don’t be a spoilsport, Felix. Tell you what – I’ll read it out myself, if the blushing author is too coy. I’ll read out the first chapter, and then we’ll have a sweepstake on who the murderer is – a bob each in the pool. I suppose the murderer does come into the first chapter? I’ll go upstairs and fetch it now.’

‘You’ll do nothing of the sort.’ My voice cracked a little. ‘I absolutely forbid it. I will not have people snooping about my manuscripts.’ George’s stupid grinning face infuriated me. I must have been glaring at him. ‘You wouldn’t like to have someone prying into your private correspondence, so lay off mine – too thick-headed to take a hint.’

George, of course, was delighted to have got me on the hop. ‘Aha, so that’s it! Private correspondence. Love letters. Hiding his love light under a bushel.’ He
roared
with laughter at his witticism. ‘You’d better look out, or Lena’ll be getting jealous. She’s a terror when roused, don’t I know it.’

I made a desperate effort to get control of myself and speak in negligent tones. ‘No. Not love letters, George. You mustn’t give way to this one-track habit of mind.’ Something made me go on, ‘But I shouldn’t read out my manuscript, George. Supposing I’d put you into the story – it’d be very embarrassing for you, wouldn’t it?’

Carfax spoke up, unexpectedly, ‘I don’t expect he’d recognise himself. People don’t, do they? Unless he was the hero, of course.’

A pleasantly acidulated remark. Carfax is such a neutral sort of figure – one didn’t expect it of him. The point, needless to say, was much too fine for George’s thick skin to feel any prick from it. We began to talk about the extent to which writers draw on real people for their fictitious characters, and the breeze passed over. But it was disagreeably chilly while it lasted. I hope to God I don’t give myself away at all, losing my temper with George like that. I hope my hiding place for this diary is really safe. I doubt if lock and key would keep George out, should he feel really inquisitive about ‘the manuscript’.

18 August

CAN YOU IMAGINE
yourself,
hypocrite lecteur
, in the position of being able to do a murder with impunity? A murder which, whether the act – the manner of taking off – succeeds or through some incalculable mischance fails, must still beyond any shadow of suspicion appear to be an accident? Can you imagine yourself living day after day in the same house as your victim, a man whose existence – apart from your own knowledge of its special infamy – is a curse to everyone around him and an insult to its Creator? Can you imagine how easy it is to live with this detested creature – how soon familiarity with your victim breeds a contempt for him? He looks at you a little strangely, perhaps, sometimes: you seem to him distrait, and you return him a pleasant, absent-minded smile – absent-minded because at that very moment you are running over in your head, for the fiftieth time, the exact movements of wind, sail and tiller which will compass his destruction.

Imagine all this, if you can, and then try to conceive yourself baulked, baffled, held at check by one simple little thing. ‘The still, small voice,’ perhaps you are guessing, gentle reader. A generous thought, but incorrect. Believe me, I have no faintest qualm of conscience about removing George Rattery. If I had had no other reason, the way he is warping and bruising the life of that charming child, Phil, would
be
justification enough: he has killed one golden lad, I will not let him destroy another. No, it is not conscience that holds me back. Not even my own natural timidity. It’s an even more elementary obstacle than these – nothing more nor less than the weather.

Here I am, and here I shall be for I don’t know how many days, whistling for a wind like any ancient mariner. (I suppose whistling for a wind is sympathetic magic, as old as the first sailing ship; the same thing as when savages beat cymbals to bring down rain or enact fertility rites in their fields.) Not that it’s quite true to say I’m whistling for a wind. There was wind today, but unfortunately too much of it – a near-gale, south-westerly. That’s the trouble. I must have a day when there’s enough breeze to turn over a badly handled boat, but not so much that it will appear wanton negligence to have taken out a novice in it. And how long shall I have to wait for just the right amount of wind? I can’t stay on here for ever. Apart from anything else, Lena is getting restive. To tell the truth, I’m beginning to find her just the tiniest bit of a bore. It’s abominable to say this, she’s so sweet and loving, but she seems to have lost a lot of her verve lately; she’s become a thought too girlish and clinging and intense for my present mood. Only this evening she said, ‘Felix, can’t we go away somewhere together. I’m tired of all these people. Won’t you come away? Please.’ She was oddly worked up about it. No wonder, it can’t be much fun for her, seeing George every day, being reminded of that evening seven months ago
when
their car ran down a child in a lane. I had to fob her off with vague promises, of course. I don’t feel too good about Lena, but I daren’t break with her, even if I was willing to be caddish, because I must have her on my side when my real identity comes out at the inquest.

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