Authors: Nicholas Blake
‘Oh, it’s you,’ said Georgia. ‘I thought for a minute a cow had got in.’
‘You’d start eating grass if you had to go through – it’s sending me haywire!’ Lena turned upon Georgia, with one of those impulsive movements of her shoulders
seemed to create a dramatic situation out of thin air. Her eyes blazed. ‘What’s wrong with me? Just tell me, what is wrong with me? Is it BO, or is it what her closest friends wouldn’t tell her?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with you. How do you mean?’
‘Well, why does everyone avoid me, then?’ Lena was whipping herself up into hysteria. ‘Felix, I mean. And Phil. Phil and I used to get on rather well, and now he disappears round corners to get out of my way. But I don’t care a damn about him. It’s Felix. What did I have to fall in love with the man for? Me – in love – I ask you? Several million males to choose from, in this country alone, and I fall for the one chap who didn’t want me – except as a card of introduction to the late lamented. No, that’s not true. I swear Felix loved me. You can’t pretend that sort of thing – women may, but men can’t. Oh God, we were so happy. Even when I began to wonder what Felix was after – well, I didn’t really, I wanted to be blind.’
Lena’s face, a little stupid and conventional-pretty in repose, became beautiful when her feelings made her forget poise, make-up, and the careful ‘grooming’ of her film training. She gripped Georgia’s hands – an impulsive, extraordinary appealing gesture – and went on urgently.
‘Last night – you noticed now he wouldn’t come out into the garden when I asked him, alone. Well, afterwards I thought that must have been because of this diary, because he was afraid of my knowing that
’d been playing a double game with me at first. But then he told us about the diary, he knew that secret wasn’t between us any longer. But when I rang him up this morning, and said I didn’t mind about it and loved him and wanted to be with him and help him – oh, he was just calm, polite, quite the gentleman, said it would be best for us not to meet more than necessary. I just don’t understand. It’s killing me, Georgia. I used to think I had my pride, but here I go trailing after this chap on my knees, like a blasted pilgrim or something.’
‘I’m sorry, my dear. It must be absolutely foul for you. But pride – I shouldn’t worry about that – it’s the white elephant of the emotions, very imposing and expensive, and the sooner one can get rid of it, the better.’
‘Oh, I’m not worrying about
. It’s Felix I’m worrying about. I don’t care if he killed George or not, but I wish he didn’t have to kill me too. D’you think – I mean, are they going to arrest him? It’s so awful, to think they may arrest him any minute and then I’d perhaps never see him again, and every minute we’re not together now is being wasted.’
Lena began to cry. Georgia waited till she recovered, then said gently, ‘I don’t believe he did it, nor does Nigel. We’ll get him out of it, between us. But we must have all the truth, if we’re to save him. He may have some very good reason for not wanting to see you just now, or it may be some misguided chivalrousness – he doesn’t want to get you mixed up, perhaps, in this
. But you mustn’t hide anything, keep anything back – that’d be misguided chivalry too.’
Lena gripped her hands together in her lap. Staring straight in front of her, she said, ‘It’s so difficult. You see, it involves someone else beside me. Aren’t you liable to be chucked into prison if you conceal evidence?’
‘Well, if you are what they call an accessory after the act. But it’s worth risking, isn’t it? You mean, about this medicine bottle that’s disappeared?’
‘Look, will you promise to tell no one but your husband, and ask him to talk to me about it before he passes it on?’
‘All right. I’ll tell you. I’ve kept it to myself because, you see, the other person involved is Phil – and I’m rather fond of him.’
Lena Lawson began to tell her story. It started with a conversation at dinner in the Ratterys’ house. They were talking about the right to kill, and Felix said he believed one was justified in getting rid of social pests – people who made life a hell for everyone around them. She hadn’t taken it seriously at the time, but, when George was taken ill and spoke Felix’s name, she remembered it again. She had had to go into the dining room, and there she noticed the bottle of tonic on the table. George was groaning and writhing in the next room, and somehow she immediately connected this in her mind with the bottle and with Felix’s words. It was quite irrational, but she was
for a moment that Felix had poisoned George. The one thought in her mind was to get rid of the bottle. It never occurred to her that, by doing so, she was removing the only possible evidence for George’s death being suicide. Instinctively, she had moved to the window, with the idea of throwing the bottle into the shrubbery. It was then that she saw Phil staring in at her, his nose pressed against the pane. At the same moment, she heard old Mrs Rattery calling to her out of the drawing room. She opened the window, gave Phil the bottle, and told him to hide it somewhere. There was no time for explanations. She didn’t know, even now, where he had put it; he seemed to be avoiding her whenever she tried to speak to him alone.
‘Well, you can scarcely wonder, can you?’ said Georgia.
‘You ask Phil to hide a bottle – he sees you in a very agitated state. Then he hears that his father has been poisoned and the police are looking for this bottle. What conclusions could you expect him to draw?’
Lena stared at her wildly. Then she broke out, half laughing, half sobbing, ‘Oh God! That’s just too rich! Phil thinks
did it? I – oh, that’s too much –!’
Georgia was on her feet and bending over the girl in one swift movement. She took her shoulders and shook her without mercy, till Lena’s bright hair was tumbling in a wave over one eye and the wild, idiot laughter ceased. Looking up over Lena’s head, now held fast to
breast, and feeling the convulsive trembling of her body, Georgia saw a face gazing down at them from an upper window – the face of an old woman – harsh, sombre, patrician in feature, the mouth set squarely in an expression that might have been merely a rebuke at the wild laughter playing around this hushed house, or might have been the cold, appeased triumph of a vengeful god, a stone image on whose knees the blood sacrifice has been laid.
GEORGIA RELATED THIS
conversation to Nigel when he returned to the hotel before lunch.
‘That explains it,’ he said. ‘I felt pretty sure it was Lena who had got rid of the bottle, but I couldn’t think why she should keep dark about it after she realised that its disappearance wouldn’t make things any easier for Felix. I suppose it couldn’t have been suicide after all. Well, we’ll have to talk to young Phil.’
‘I’m glad we’ve got him away from that house. I saw Mrs Rattery senior this morning. She was looking down at us from an upper window, like Jezebel – at least, not very like Jezebel, more like a ju-ju I came across in Borneo once, sitting all by itself in the middle of a forest with a great deal of dried blood on its knees. A very interesting find.’
‘Very, I’m sure,’ said Nigel, shuddering slightly. ‘You know, I’m beginning to get ideas about that old lady. If she wasn’t such an obvious choice – just the sort of frightfully high red herring that any detective writer might draw across the trail – Oh well. If this was a book, I’d put my money on that chap Carfax. He’s as smooth and transparent as glass; I kept wondering if he wasn’t doing some sort of mirror-trick on us.’
‘The great Gaboriau said, didn’t he? – “always suspect that which seems probable, and begin by believing what appears incredible”.’
‘If he said that, the great Gaboriau must have been a halfwit. I’ve never heard such a cheap, fantastic paradox.’
‘But why not? Murder
fantastic, except when it’s governed by strict rules like those of the blood feud. There’s no use taking up a realistic approach to it; no murderer is a realist – he wouldn’t commit murder if he was. Your own success at your profession is due to the fact that you’re semi-unhinged a great part of the time.’
‘Your tribute, though spontaneous, is uncalled for. By the way, did you see Violet Rattery this morning?’
‘Only for a minute or two.’
‘I’m just wondering what it was she said to George when they had a scene last week. George’s mother was slinging dark hints when we rescued Phil from her yesterday morning. I think this is where the womanly touch will come in again.’
Georgia grimaced. ‘For how long do you propose to use me as an agent provocateur, may I ask?’
‘Provocateuse. You are, my sweet, amazingly provocative, in spite of your hard-bitten exterior. I can’t imagine why.’
‘Woman’s place is in the kitchen. From now on I stay there. I’ve had enough of your insidious stuff. If you want to plant vipers in people’s bosoms, go and plant yourself there for a change.’
‘Is this mutiny?’
‘Oh, I just wanted to know. Well, the kitchen is downstairs, first left, second right …’
After lunch, Nigel took Phil Rattery out into the garden. The boy was polite enough, but in one of his distrait moods, as Nigel made conversation. His pallor, the pathetic thinness of his legs and arms, the occasional wincing look in his eyes kept Nigel shying away from the subject he wished to talk about. Yet the boy’s composure, his air of delicate secrecy – like a cat’s – challenged him.
He said at last more abruptly than he meant, ‘About this bottle. You know – the bottle of tonic, Phil. Where did you hide it?’
Phil looked straight into his eyes, with an almost aggressive expression of innocence. ‘But I didn’t hide the bottle, sir.’
Nigel was on the point of accepting this at its face value when he remembered a dictum of his schoolmaster friend, Michael Evans. ‘A really accomplished and
boy always stares a master full in the eyes when he’s indulging in any important piece of duplicity.’ Nigel hardened his heart.
‘But Lena says she gave it to you to hide.’
‘She says that? But – then, you mean it wasn’t her who –’ Phil swallowed hard – ‘who poisoned my father?’
‘No, of course it wasn’t.’ The boy’s dreadful, strained gravity made Nigel feel he wanted to get his hands on whoever was responsible for it. He had to keep looking at the boy to remind himself that Phil was a tortured, bewildered child, not the adult that so often seemed to be speaking out of his mouth. ‘Of course, it wasn’t. I admire you for wanting to protect her, but there’s no need for that now any longer.’
‘But if she didn’t do it, why did she ask me to hide the bottle?’ asked Phil, his brow painfully creased.
‘I shouldn’t worry about that,’ said Nigel incautiously.
‘I can’t help it. I’m not a kid, you know. I think you ought to tell me why.’
Nigel could see the boy’s quick, inexperienced mind already wrestling with the problem. He decided to tell him the truth. It was a decision that was going to have very strange consequences, but Nigel could not have anticipated them.
‘It’s rather a mix-up,’ he said. ‘Lena was trying to protect somebody else, as a matter of fact.’
Phil’s luminous face darkened, as though a shadow passed over a pure, ash-pale mere. ‘He who shall teach the child to doubt,’ Nigel repeated uneasily to himself, ‘The rotting grave shall ne’er get out.’ Phil had turned to him, was gripping his sleeve.
‘It’s not true, is it? I know it’s not true!’
‘No. I don’t think Felix did it.’
‘But do the police?’
‘Well, the police have to suspect everybody at first, you know. And Felix has been a bit foolish.’
‘You won’t let them do anything to him, will you? Promise me.’ The innocent, physical candour of Phil’s appeal made him seem for a moment strangely girlish.
‘We’ll look after him,’ said Nigel. ‘Don’t you worry. The first thing is to get hold of that bottle.’
‘It’s on the roof.’
On the roof?
‘Yes, I’ll show you. Come along.’ All impatience now, Phil dragged Nigel out of his chair and, half-running, kept a pace ahead of him all the way down to the Ratterys’ house. Nigel was out of breath by the time he had been hustled up two flights of stairs and a ladder and was looking out of an attic window on to the gabled roof. Phil pointed.
‘It’s in the gutter, just down there. I’ll climb down and fetch it.’
‘You’ll do nothing of the sort. I don’t want you to break your neck. We’ll fetch a ladder and lean it up against the wall of the house.’
‘It’s all right, sir, honestly it is. I’ve often climbed about on the roof. It’s easy as pie if you take your shoes off, and I’ve got a rope.’
‘D’you mean to say you climbed down there and put the bottle in the gutter on Saturday night? In the dark?’
‘Well, it wasn’t quite dark. I thought of letting the bottle slide down on a piece of string. But then I’d have to let go of the string and it might have dangled down the wall below the gutter and someone might have spotted it, you see.’
Phil was already tying round his waist a coil of rope which he had taken from an old leather Gladstone bag in the attic.
‘It’s certainly a jolly good hiding place,’ said Nigel. ‘Whatever made you think of it?’
‘We lost a ball there once. Dad and I were playing cricket with a tennis ball on the lawn, and he hit it on the roof and it got stuck in the gutter. So Dad climbed out of the window here and fished it up. Mum was in an awful stew. She thought he was going to fall off. But he’s – he was a jolly good climber. He used to use this rope in the Alps.’
Something rapped hard on Nigel’s mind, knocking for admittance, but the door was locked and for the moment he had mislaid the key. It would come to him presently; he had an extraordinarily comprehensive memory, in which even the most apparently irrelevant details of a case were neatly filed away. It had never failed him. At present he was too much distracted by
sight of Phil sliding down into the recess base of a chimney, crawling up the other gable and disappearing over the top of it.