Ellis Peters - George Felse 01 - Fallen Into The Pit (10 page)

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 01 - Fallen Into The Pit
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“Now, you understand him a great deal better than that, if you’d be perfectly honest with yourself,” said Bunty serenely. “He’s worried that you should be spending your time thinking about this particular subject, and whether you like it or not, you know quite well it’s on your account he’s worrying. He’d be a great deal happier if you didn’t have to think about it at all—and frankly, so would I.”

“I don’t have to,” said Dominic. “I want to.”

“Why? Is it a nice thing to think about?”

He considered this with some surprise, and admitted: “No, not nice, I suppose. But it’s there, and how can you
not
think about it? I suppose it might be rather good not to know anything about it; but it’s interesting, all the same. And
how
can you not know anything about a thing, when you’ve
seen
it?”

“It can’t be done,” she agreed, smiling.

“Well, but he won’t see that. You can see it, why can’t he?”

“He can,” said Bunty. “He does. That’s what worries him. He wouldn’t be so unreasonable about it if he wasn’t fighting a losing battle.”

“Well, if I’m not allowed to talk about it,” said Dominic, between a prophecy and a threat, “I shall think about it all the more. And anyhow, he shouldn’t have hit me.”

“And you shouldn’t have given him that final piece of lip. And the one wasn’t particularly like your father, and the other wasn’t particularly like you—was it?”

Dominic, aware that he was being turned from his course, but unable to detect the exact mechanism by which she steered him, gave her a long, wary look, and suddenly colored a little, and again as suddenly grinned. “Oh, Mummy, you are a devil!”

“And you,” said Bunty, relieved, “are a dope.”

George wasn’t quite so easy, because George was seriously worried. Maybe he would eventually get used to the idea that his son had senses and faculties and wits meant to be exercised, sooner or later, beyond the range of his protective supervision; but at the moment he was still contesting the suggestion that the time for such a development had arrived.

“It’s sheer inquisitiveness,” he said stubbornly, “and unhealthy inquisitiveness, at that. You don’t want him to grow into a morbid Yank-type adolescent, do you?—lapping up sensation like ice cream?”

“Not the least fear of that,” said Bunty, with equal firmness. “Dom got pulled into this, whether he liked it or not. Do you think you could just forget about it, if you were in his shoes?”

“Maybe not forget about it, but I could keep my fingers out of it when I was told, and he’d better, or else—”

“I doubt very much if you could have done anything of the kind,” said Bunty severely. “The same conscience which makes you try to head him off now would have kept you in it up to the neck then. So for goodness’ sake, even if you feel you must slap him down, at least don’t misrepresent him.”

George, as a matter of fact, and as she very well knew, already regretted his momentary loss of temper; but he had not changed his mind.

Two

The local inhabitants were left to George because he knew them every one, and they all knew him. Such a degree of familiarity raises as many new difficulties as it eliminates old ones, but at least both sides know where they stand.

He went up to see Hollins on the day after the inquest. Mrs. Hollins met him in the yard, and brought him into the kitchen and sat down with him there with the simplicity of every day, as if she did not even know that a man she had hated was dead; and yet she had had dealings with the police before, and could certainly recognize the occasion. George began the interview wondering about her calm, and ended understanding it. She had been through such extravagances of persecution, suspicion and compression already that nothing in this line was any longer a novelty to her, and therefore there was nothing to get excited about. It was as simple as that. Her linked hands, rather plump and dark upon the edge of the table, had unusual tensions, but it did not seem to him that they had much to do with his visit; her eyes were certainly wide, luminous and haunted, but he thought by older things than the death of Helmut Schauffler. On the whole it seemed to him that she was not steeling herself up toward a crisis, but relaxing from one.

“You’ll want to see Chris, I dare say,” she said. “He’ll be in pretty soon now, all being well. Let me make the tea a little early for once. You’d like some, wouldn’t you?”

He didn’t object. The easier the atmosphere remained, the better pleased he would be; and she had a kind of graciousness which he wished to assist and preserve for her sake and his own, instead of putting clumsy official fingers through it. They sat in the hearth of the big, dark farmhouse kitchen, under the warped black beams stuck with iron hooks; there were seats set into the ingle on either side of the fire, and only the firelight, no daylight, lit their faces here. It was a room looking forward to winter before summer was over the hill; and she was a tired, autumnal woman, content with a retired quietness and a private warmth for the rest of her life. She had seen too much and traveled too far already to have any palate left for wilder pleasures. However, they drank tea together, and blinked at the fire, which she kept rather high for so bright an autumn day.

“I came to ask you about Helmut Schauffler,” said George. “Your husband, too, of course.”

“But it’s a month now since he left us. I’m afraid there’s nothing we can tell you about him since then.” She looked up and met his eyes without a smile, but tranquilly. “You know already all about that affair. It was an experiment that failed, that’s all.”

“I wouldn’t care to say I know all about it,” said George. “I always wondered what made you take him on.”

“Considerations which ought to have kept him out, I suppose. It was my suggestion.” She gave him a long, clear look, as if she wondered how much she could express and he understand. “I am legally an Englishwoman, perhaps, but I am still German. You can’t get rid of your blood. I lived for years by ignoring mine, but you can’t even do that forever. I hoped to be able to reconcile myself with my race through just one man who should prove to be—at any rate, not altogether vile. It sounds romantic, but it was in reality very practical. I was asking for very little, you see, even an occasional impulse of decency would have done—even the most grudging effort to live at honest peace with me. It would have been like recovering a whole country.”

“But it didn’t work out,” said George. “I see!”

“He was what he was. He was satisfied with what he was. You must know it as well as I do by this time.”

“I doubt if anyone knows it as well as you do,” said George, watching her squarely. “Better tell me exactly what did happen to the experiment. It wasn’t so simple, for instance, was it, as if you had been merely an Englishwoman who took a similar chance on him?—or even any other German woman!”

“No,” said Gerd, after a long minute of silence, during which her eyes seemed to him to grow larger, darker and deeper in her still face. “My case was that of a German Jewess, exactly as it would have been in 1933. I think, Sergeant Felse, you have wasted your war!”

“Tell me!” said George. And she told him; from the humble entry of Helmut to the shock of his first expansion, through dozens of similar moments, nightmare moments when she had been left alone with him only by the normal routine of the day, only for seconds at a time, but long enough to look down the dark shaft of his mind into the abyss out of which she had climbed once at terrible cost. “And you think you have changed something, with your war! You think you have drained that pool! It’s only frozen over very thinly. Wait for the first, the very first thaw, and the ice will give like tissue-paper, and you will be swimming for your lives again. And so shall we!” she said, with piercing quietness.

“You didn’t tell your husband anything about this persecution. Why not?”

She told him that, too. He believed her. She was accustomed to containing her own troubles rather than make them greater by spreading them further, like ink through blotting paper.

“But Jim Tugg found out? Or at any rate, suspected!”

“I never told him anything, either, but he is better acquainted than my husband with people like that boy. He often pestered me with questions, and I tried to put him off. But yes, he knew. Knew, or guessed. There was some trouble between them once or twice, and Jim began to try to stay in between us. It was—sometimes—successful. Not always!”

“And the night when he attacked Schauffler in the village? He told us as little as possible to account for it, but it was a determined attack, and my impression is that he’d followed him that evening with a very definite purpose. He meant driving him off this farm at least, if not off the face of the earth.” George watched her eyes, but they met his gaze emptily, looking through him and beyond, with a daunting, dark patience. “What happened to bring that on? Something even worse than usual?”

“Only the last of many scenes like those I’ve described already. But I was tired, and Jim came at the wrong moment, and I said more than I meant. It was a weakness and I was sorry for it. But it was too late then. He went away to find him, and there was nothing I could do to stop him.”

“Did you want to stop him?” asked George simply.

Her look remained fixed, and a little strained. “I would sometimes have been very glad to see Helmut Schauffler dead. Why not admit it? I had every reason to dislike him. But I have never quite reached the point of wanting someone to kill him. There has been more than enough killing. Yes, I would have stopped Jim if I could. But if you know him you certainly know he is not an easy man to stop.”

“And so you got rid of Helmut,” said George, “without much cost to Jim, as it turned out. But your husband must have had more than an inkling of what was going on, by then? He could hardly miss it, after that, could he?”

“There was no longer any need to make a secret of it, when the boy was gone. I told Chris all he needed to know—there was no need to dwell upon details. It was over.”

“Was it?”

She looked at him with the first disquiet she had shown, and raised her head a little warily. “What do you mean?”

“He was still in the village. Didn’t he come near you again? It could happen.”

“After Jim had beaten him like that? Helmut was brave only when he
knew
the odds were on his side.”

“But very painstaking and persistent in seeking situations where they
were
on his side. Remember,” he said, “I’ve seen him in action before, on a boy who was probably much less capable of dealing with him than you were, but in similar circumstances. I know how patient and devious he could be in pursuit of amusement.”

“He didn’t trouble me again,” she said firmly.

“He never came here—when you were on your own, for instance?”

“No, I had no more trouble.”

“Then you can’t give me any more information about his movements the day he was killed? He was at work as usual during the day, came back to his lodgings at the usual time, about half-past five. In the evening he went out again, the landlady saw him leave the house about a quarter to seven. A boy tinkering with his motor-bike by the side of the road at Markyeat Cross says he saw him pass soon after seven, and climb the stile into the field. Since then no one seems to have seen him until he turned up the following night in the brook. That field-path leads up this way. I just wondered if he’d been here again.”

“I haven’t seen him since he was in court,” she said.

“And Jim? He hasn’t run into him, either?”

“Jim hasn’t seen him,” she said. “Why should he? Jim knows nothing at all about him since they fought, and you know that part already. That’s finished with.”

“I hope so,” said George equably, and watched her for a moment with curious, placid eyes. “But you never know, do you, what’s finished with and what isn’t? How well do you remember that evening? Can you tell me what you were doing here while Helmut was coming up the field-path?”

“Wednesday!” she said, recollecting. “Yes—I was ironing most of the evening. I fed the hens, as usual, about eight o’clock, and collected the eggs, and then finished the ironing. And then I went on making a dress, and listened to the wireless. That’s all!”

“You didn’t go out at all that night?”

She smiled, and said: “No.”

“Nor your husband, either?”

“Oh, yes, Chris went out halfway through the evening, to see Mr. Blunden at the Harrow. They were planning to transport some stock together to some show in the south. But he can tell you all about that, better than I can.”

“What time did he get back?”

“Oh, I suppose about half-past ten—I can’t be sure to a quarter of an hour or so. He’s a little late, but when he comes he can tell you more exactly, I expect.”

And when Chris Hollins came, clumping in a few minutes later from the yard, he did fill in the picture with a few dredged-up details; the time of his call at Blunden’s, about nine o’clock, as he remembered, for the wireless was on with the news; the route of his long and leisurely walk home; his arrival somewhat before half-past ten. He had taken his time coming home, certainly; it was a lovely night, and he’d felt like a walk. But as he had chosen the more obscure heath pathways, and the woodland tracks, he had met hardly a soul after leaving the lane by the Harrow, until he had stopped for a moment to talk to Bill Hayley the carrier almost at the foot of his own drive.

He was not, naturally enough, so accomplished at this kind of thing as his wife, and he exhibited all the signs of guilt which the innocent show when questioned by the police. George in his unregenerate ’teens, coming away from the orchard-wall of this very farm with two or three purloined apples in his pocket, had felt himself going this same dark brick-red color even upon passing close to a policeman. Besides, there are so many laws that there exists always the possibility that one or two of them
may
have been unwittingly broken. Hollins’s lowered brow, broad and belligerent as the curly forehead of his own bull, did not quicken George’s pulse by a single beat. Yet he was deeply interested. Chiefly in the way they looked at each other, the stocky, straight, blustering, uneasy, kind husband and the dark, quiet, relaxed wife. After every answer, his eyes stole away to hers, seemed to circle her, looking for a way into that calm, to bruise their simple blueness against it and withdraw to stare again. And she met them with her dark, self-contained gentleness, closed and inviolable, and did not let him in. However often he scratched at the door, she did not let him in. Like a fireguard, fending him off, she spread the grieving glance of her black eyes all around her to keep his hands out of the fire. But deep within her head those eyes were watching him, too, more inwardly, with less of composure and quiet than she had in keeping her own counsel.

George did not know nor try to guess what was going on between them in this absence of communication; but at least he knew that something was going on, and something in which they both went blindfolded as surely as he did.

“You didn’t see anything of Schauffler, then, on the day he was murdered?” said George, choosing his words with deliberation. He added, snapping away the pencil with which he had noted down the scanty details of Hollins’s walk home: “Either of you?”

She didn’t turn a hair. She had lived with the reality of murder, why should she start at the word? But her husband drew in his head as if the wall had leaned at him.

“No, we didn’t. Why should you think we had, any more than anybody else around the village? He’d left here a month before. He hasn’t been up here since. Why should he?”

“Why, indeed?” said George, and went away very thoughtfully from between the two fencing glances, to let them close at last.

But for some reason he did not go down the drive. He turned aside when he left the yard, and went along the field-path by the remembered orchard-wall. There was a narrow door in it, almost at the end, he recalled. It had just been painted, bright, deep green paint, maybe a few days old.

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 01 - Fallen Into The Pit
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