Ellis Peters - George Felse 01 - Fallen Into The Pit (5 page)

BOOK: Ellis Peters - George Felse 01 - Fallen Into The Pit
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Presently he brought his dishes in to her there, the door opening almost apologetically as on his first day, and his big, fair body coming in sidelong. She felt him there, though she did not turn her head, and all she saw was his hands as he put down the plate and cup on the table at her right hand. Then, as he was going, he touched her; his fingertips, first so softly that the contact was hardly perceptible, then with a sly, savoring firmness, in the soft flesh of her back, drawing lines, drawing a subtle shape there on her body.

“Even in this nice country,” he whispered, with a stupid little giggling breath of excitement and pleasure in her ear, “you will wear here, some day, a yellow star.”

He was gone, even a little hastily in the end, shutting the door loudly over her motionless silence. She stood there at the sink staring at her raised hands with a slight, concentrating frown, while the lather dried on them in little iridescent bubbles with the smallest of moist, bright sounds. She seemed to be contemplating some domestic complication such as the next week’s grocery order. What she was actually seeing was a long, dark earth corridor, and six people walking down it, father, mother, Walter, Hans, Frieda, Josef; and at the end of it a crematorium trolley, into which, one by one, they quietly climbed and vanished.

II—The Place
One

The farms at Comerford, cheek by jowl with the collieries, lay round the rim of a misshapen bowl which circled a bend of the River Comer. Over all the high ground sheep-pasture jostled with the waste tips and shafts of the mines, and the relics of old forest filled every cranny of the hills still left to them. But the greatest acreage on these levels belonged to new and fantastic forest, which had eaten at the pastures until almost sixty percent was absorbed. The pits had begun to dump here a hundred and fifty years ago from great numbers of sudden, shallow shafts; and having created about itself queer mud-pie shapes of clay, each shaft finally failed and was abandoned, the area being thereupon left for the wind to plant again, and the seasons to reclaim. On the better places a wild, deep, elastic grass grew, then heather, then the unconquerable silver birches which came from nowhere, by fragile-seeming colonies, to seed and flourish upon starvation. The casing of the shafts fell in, their perfunctory wooden surrounds disintegrated or were impounded in bad winters for firewood, and there remained, quite simply, a series of highly dangerous holes in the ground, which were nobody’s business. Presently about these death-traps the high woodlands thickened with bramble and heather and bilberries, and made soil enough for other trees to feed there; and a few more enterprising landowners, like Selwyn Blunden of the Harrow, covered the barren places with young plantations, and turned parts of them into preserves, since they would raise no other crop. So from forest Comerford circled round again to forest, but these woods had the bizarre outlines of the high places of Assyria, instead of the suave folded lines of the primeval England.

Slithering inward from the cooler winds, the village coiled itself inside the bowl, three convoluted streets, so involved that one could nowhere see more than fifty yards ahead, and a maze of footpaths kept clear by the obstinacy of the inhabitants, who used them on principle even when they proved to be the longest way home. And downward still from the village went the rich, sheltered fields of the lower farms, greening, greening into the black prolific water-meadows, and the serpentine curves and bright calm pool of the Comer.

The main road, winding up the valley, made the passage of the village perforce, for as yet there was no bypass to spare motorists the convolutions of the Comerford street. The railway was just over the coal-rim and out of sight, with the local station nestling a lane’s length from the last wood of the Harrow preserves.

On the rim the opencast unit camped like a giant circus, leisurely stripping up the more naked of the clay hills, under which the coal seams ran obliquely toward the Harrow; and on this sacred land, too, the Coal Board had designs, so that the contractor and his men sat and looked with shining eyes at the fat wooded lands, and the heathery open levels extending from the edge of their present site round to the skyline above the river. Old Blunden had shrugged his shoulders over the hectic changes in the landscape, in the social pattern of England and Comerford, even in the day-to-day business of farming, and had seemed to accept the necessity of adjusting himself to all these things; but he was human, and when the encroaching finger of change tried to creep over his own boundaries he stopped being quite so philosophical about it.

The odds were that if the fight went against him he would pay up and look big, for he had always been a sporting old chap; but he would see to it that there was a fight first. His appeal was a massive responsibility, for he was one of the powers in the district still, for all his virtual retirement. The farm might be nominally his son’s responsibility now, even his son’s property, but their voices in this matter were one voice, and that was the old man’s.

Meantime, the large, leather-coated, weather-beaten Gypsies and their monstrous machines went on methodically building new mountains and gouging out new valleys, and the dark topsoil, neatly isolated, began to grow a fresh young grass even in the autumn, in the first decline of the beautiful year. And for the time being this edge of Comerford looked like a stretch of the baked clay deserts of Sinkiang. People who had never turned a hair about the open shafts in the woods were never tired of lamenting this temporary devastation. Even the more thoughtful residents looked forward to the day when the lie of coal would be exhausted, and the site would be folded level and bare again to heal slowly in the soothing flow of seasons. Only the little boys, exulting in strange friendly men and the pleasures of change, collected new grotesque tractors and grabs and loaders as they had formerly collected cigarette packets and stamps, and gravitated to the site on their way home from school as dogs to a bone. Just as the twentieth-century nomads, the new navigators, gravitated inevitably to the pubs of Comerford in the darkening evenings, and boiled among the regulars like an incompatible ingredient in some chemical mixture, with larger bodies, louder voices and different accents, a race of good-humored giants left over from the primitive world.

The Shock of Hay was the largest pub in the village, snug under the shadow of the church tower, with the trim oval green drawn around it like a nicely arranged skirt about a demure woman posing for her portrait. It had a creaking picture-sign so faded that it might have been anything, and a large stable-yard from the heyday of horses, and an erroneous reputation of being a coaching inn, though the truth was that no coach in the history of transport ever ran so crazy a route as to pass through Comerford. The house was warm and red and squat, with ceilings rather low for Georgian, but rooms of the commendable spaciousness which gives a large man license to stretch his legs as he sits, without tangling them in the iron stand of the next table, or tripping up his neighbor in the gangway. The sunshine miners liked it because they could sprawl; but they liked it also, as everybody did, because it possessed the inestimable asset of the person of Io Hart.

Joe Hart owned and ran it. He had been born there, and his father before him, and though he had had a few vicissitudes in his young days, sown a few unexpected crops here and there, been a boxer and a fireman and a lumberjack for brief periods, it had always been taken for granted that when the old man died he should come here and take over the business. And so he had, as to the manner born.

Mrs. Hart had been dead for four years now, but Io, the elder daughter, who was twenty-two, had everything at her finger-ends, could manage the whole diverse flow of customers year in and year out without disarranging a curl of her warm brown hair, and make her father, into the bargain, do whatever she wanted. When she knew what she wanted, which wasn’t always. Folks were beginning to say that she didn’t know which of two young men she wanted, and that was shaping into quite a serious matter, especially when they would come and do their quarreling in the snug, and over any mortal thing under the sun except Io. Luckily, the only other girl was thirteen, a safe age yet. Her name was Catherine, but it had been shortened to Cat early in her schooldays, and from that had swiveled round into Pussy, by which unexpected and in many ways unsuitable name everyone in Comerford knew her. She was an extremely self-possessed young woman, shaped like a boy rather than a girl, though not so lumpy at the joints; she could outrun most boys of her age, skim stones over the Comer with a flick of the wrist like a whiplash while the shots of her rivals sank despondently in mid-stream, climb like any monkey, throw from the shoulder, keep up her end one-handed in school or out of it, and had generally, as her father proudly said (though not in her hearing), all her buttons on. She would never be the beauty Io was, but in another way she might be pretty disturbing in a few years, with her direct green eyes and her snub nose, and all that light-brown hair now impatiently confined in two long plaits, one over either shoulder. But the only kind of cat she recalled was some rangy tigerish tom, treading sleekly across the gardens in long strides with his soft, disdainful feet; not the kind of cat one would call Pussy. Because of its inappropriateness the name stuck; people are like that.

Io was darker of eyes and hair, though fairer of face. She had a pink-and-white skin which glowed softly, and when she smiled, which was often, the glow seemed to brighten and deepen, warming her whole face. She was one of those fortunate people who are dainty by nature, invariably dainty without any effort on their part, whose clothes always fit, whose hair always curls, and to whom dust never adheres, while mud-splashes in the street deflect themselves from touching even their shoes. Her very gestures had a finished delicacy, and no spot ever spilled overboard from a glass while she carried it. She was plump, frankly plump, with some shape about it, the new feminine turn of fashion might have been designed expressly for her soft, firm figure. Her arms even had dimples in them near the elbows, dairy-maid fashion, and even those village connoisseurs who theoretically were devotees of the attenuated celluloid lovelies of Hollywood found this generosity of Io’s person singularly agreeable to behold. In fact, the chief drawback of the Shock of Hay was that sometimes even its ample spaces became uncomfortably full.

The two who were seriously upsetting the peace of the place on Io’s account were Charles Blunden and Chad Wedderburn. Not that they ever came into the open about it; they just sat there in their particular corner of the snug, perhaps one or two nights a week for an hour or less, and bristled at each other like fighting terriers. But it was quite obvious what goaded them, by the jealous way they sharpened their words and threw them like darts whenever she came near them. They were always arguing about something, and the something was never Io; it might be politics, it might be books, or music, or even football; but most often it was something abstruse and high-flown, amply provided with long words and formidable terms, so that their neighbors admired the more as they understood the less. They had always been friends, and for that matter had always argued, in a casual way, so that the effect was not of a change, but only of a sudden and devastating acceleration in the inflammable progress of their relationship. But it left people with an uneasy feeling that some day it might get really out of hand, and refuse to stop.

Now wouldn’t you think, said Comerford to itself, that two young men who had been half across the world during the war, and lived through two or three lifetimes of adventure and discomfort and danger, could be trusted to behave with some restraint and calm over the simple matter of a girl they both admired? Yet that was the one thing that set them both off like the fuse to explosives; after all they’d been through! True, there were lulls of common sense between, chiefly when Io, who had a temper of her own if it came to that, had visibly been pushed to consider knocking their heads together. Then the odds were that one or other of them would laugh, though rather discomfortedly, and they would come to their senses and go off together apparently friends, and both out of spirits.

Charles, of course, would have been quite a catch for any girl, with all the Harrow land in his hands; but the other one had still the rags of that glamorous reputation of his, for all his attempts to claw himself naked of them. Most people, when they thought about the issue at all, thought Io would be a fool if she didn’t take Charles; and most of the observers who had watched the rivalry, in its comedy setting, most closely, gave it as their opinion that in the end that was what she would do. They claimed to see the signs of preference already; but the only person who really saw them, with cruel clearness, was Chad himself. He saw them all the time, whether they existed or not. And to tell the truth, his temper was not improved by the fact that as often as not he was ashamed of his subjection, and knew himself every kind of fool. Diagnosis, however, is not cure, and a fool he continued, kicking himself for it all the way.

Two

An hour before closing time, on this particular evening toward the end of the August holidays, they were arguing about the Blunden appeal, which hung in suspense somewhere in the legal wilds, as yet unheard. It had come up because the sunshine miners were making vast, unpleasing harmonies in the bar, and their presence had reminded Charles how the grabs were steadily scooping their way nearer to his boundary fence.

“They say there’s nearly two hundred thousand tons of the stuff under the heath and the top pastures,” he said gloomily. “As if that’s worth tearing the guts out of those fields for! At the price it costs ’em to get it, too!”

“Only about twenty acres of the ground they want from you is pasture,” said Chad unpleasantly and promptly, “and you know it, so don’t go around pretending they’re proposing to take good agricultural land in this case.
I
can’t see why you’re kicking.”

“They very often have taken good agricultural land, and you know that. Years and years to get it back into shape!”

“I’ve seen that view questioned by better-informed people than you. It doesn’t take half so long to put it back in condition as you people make out. Read some of the books about soil, and see if they don’t bear me out.”

“I’m a farmer myself, and I know—”

“But farmers disagree about it themselves. And in any case, this time it’s just twenty acres of not so brilliant high pasture, and no more. The rest’s all waste land, being used for precisely nothing, not even building. Fit for nothing! If it was leveled at least it could be built on.” He had begun simply by taking the opposite side because he must, but by this time he was serious, dead serious, on one of his queer hobby-horses, almost all of which consisted in finding the good to be said for anything which was being denounced publicly and loudly, and in some cases with suspicious facility, by the majority of other people. He leaned across the table and spread his lean, nervous hand under Charles’s eyes. “Look! I know it looks like hell, I know it makes a positive wilderness while it lasts, I know it’s the fashion, almost the rule, to damn it out of hand. I know it
does
put land back from its full usefulness for some time—we needn’t argue how long, the experts are busy doing that—and I even know some bad mistakes have been made in judging the priorities in some cases, and good land
has
been taken. But for heaven’s sake, do consider this particular case on its own merits, and don’t just hand me out the arguments that might be justifiable if you were growing wheat on every acre they want to take up.”

“Twenty acres is twenty acres,” said Charles obstinately. “And they want the whole of the preserve, as well.”

“Oh, don’t let’s pretend that’s of any great value! You and your old man like to play with a little shooting there yourselves, but that’s all there is to it. The woods there are pretty enough to look at, but it isn’t a case of valuable timber or loss of soil. I bet you that land could be pasture at the most three seasons after it was relaid—I could show you land that was bearing a pretty good grass the second year after—and that’s what it’s never done in my lifetime or yours.”

“I very much doubt it. And anyhow, it’s an asset as it is— it’s woodland.”

“Private woodland, about half of it, with your fence round it, and not so hot at that. Come off it, Charles!”

“As much an asset, at any rate, as two hundred thousand tons of rubbish at an uneconomic price.”

“But the plant’s here, the labor’s here, it’s a continuation of the very job they’re doing, and if you let them carry on you’ll be bringing the price down, and handsomely. That’s the point!”

“Never within miles of the cost by the old way,” said Charles positively and truthfully; for his grandfather had been in the dog-hole colliery business in the later stages of Comerford’s shallow-mining past.

“Are you seriously holding up the old way as a present-day possibility? As an alternative to surface mining?” Chad really looked startled, as if his friend had proposed a return to the stagecoach; so much startled that Charles colored a little, his broad, florid face burning brick-red under the dark, pained stare. But he felt the weight of listening opinion in the snug to be on his side, and answered sturdily:

“Why not? It got the coal out, didn’t it? Not that we need, in my opinion, to get such poor stuff as this out at all!”

“But it’s there, and the odds are it will be wanted out at some time. And it may as well be while the site here is open— clear the whole lot, and let’s have the ground back in service— whether in two years or ten, at least once for all. If you win your appeal, and they re-lay this site and go away, sooner or later that shallow coal left under your ground is going to be wanted. Supplies aren’t so inexhaustible that we can suppose any deposit of two hundred thousand tons can be ignored forever. Then how do you propose to get it out? Shallow shafts?—like last century?”

“Why not?” said Charles defiantly. “It was effective, wasn’t it?”

Words failed Chad for a moment to express the deadly effectiveness of uncontrolled shallow mining in Comerford. He leaned back with a gusty sigh, and reached for his beer. Io, watching them from the doorway as she went out with a tray, thought them unusually placid tonight, but did not suspect that for the moment she was forgotten. Her reactions if she had suspected it, however, would have been simple relief, only very faintly tinged with pique.

“Shallow mining,” said Chad, carefully quiet as always when he wanted his own prejudices to stop overweighting his case and erecting Charles’s defenses against him, “has done more damage to this district than any other kind of exploitation. Just at the back of the Harrow—off your land—there’s a perfect example, that little triangular field where all those experimental shafts were sunk when we were kids. You know it. Could you even put sheep on that field?”

“No,” admitted Charles, after a moment of grudged but honest consideration. “I suppose you couldn’t. Anyhow,
I
wouldn’t care to risk it.”

“No, and if you did you’d lose half of them. It’s pitted all over. They’ve had to wire off the path and take it round the two hedges instead of straight across, for fear of losing somebody down one of the holes; and even under the hedge the path’s cracking and sliding away. Until that ground’s finished subsiding it’s done being used for anything. And that may be for good, it’s certainly several lifetimes. You can’t even hurry the process. If you put heavy machinery on that ground to try to iron it out, you’d simply lose your machines. But it could be stripped and opencast, and at least you’d have some sort of usable land again.”

“But that’s a very extreme case,” objected Charles. “It’s hardly fair to judge by one small field that’s been ruined. The rest of the shafts round the district are fairly scattered.”

“Pretty thickly! Do you know there are at least fifty on your own land?”

They were warming again to enmity, perhaps because Io’s blue dress filled the corners of their eyes, and Io’s small, rounded and pleasing voice was saying something gay and unintelligible to a group of colliers just within earshot.

“Candidly, I don’t believe it,” said Charles, jutting his square brown jaw belligerently.

“You mean to say you don’t know?”

“I’m as likely to know as you, but no, I don’t know the exact figure. And neither do you! But I don’t believe there are anything like fifty!”

“All right, let’s prove it! One way or the other! Come round with me on Saturday afternoon, and I’ll show you shafts you didn’t know were there.”

“It’s likely, isn’t it?” said Charles, jeering. “I’ve been going around with my eyes closed all this time, I suppose?”

“I suppose so, too.”

“My God, I never saw such infernal assurance!” spluttered Charles.

“Well, come and see! What have you got to lose?”

“Damn it, man, it’s
my land
!”

“All right, then,
you
take
me
all round it, and show me how little damage your precious shallow mining did to it.”

They would go, too, wrangling all the way in precisely the same manner, with the same more peaceful intervals, in which they would discuss the problem earnestly and even amicably, but disagreeing still. They were temperamentally incapable of agreeing upon any subject, and the more serious they were, and the less obsessed by their differences, the more sharply defined did those differences become. The inhabitants of the snug listened tolerantly and with interest, grinning over their beer; and the vigorous singing of the sunshine miners in the bar subsided gently into the tinkling of the piano, and reluctantly ceased. It was at this moment of calm that the lower pane of the window suddenly exploded inward with a shattering noise, and slivers of glass shot in through the curtains and rang like ice upon the table.

A single voice, indistinguishably venomous and frightened, began bellowing outside in the lane, and there was a sound of heaving and grunting struggle under the window, but no second voice. The snug rose as one man, emptying glasses on the instant of flight, to pour out by the side door into the lane and see who was scragging whom. They were not greatly surprised, for fights, though comparatively few, were potentially many these days; and the usual speculations came out in staccato phrases as they left their seats, answering one another equably.

“That Union Movement chap again with his ruddy literature, maybe—said he was asking for trouble, coming here!”

“D.P.S, I bet!”

“More likely sunshine miners and colliers arguing the toss.”

They tumbled out by the side door to see for themselves, all but Chad Wedderburn, who sat regarding his linked hands on the table with a slight frown of distaste and weariness. Even when Charles got up with somewhat strained casualness and said he might as well see the fun, too, Chad did not move. The sounds of battle had no charm for him. Io came in resignedly from the bar, and found him still sitting there, finishing a cigarette. He looked round at her, and even for her did not smile.

“What, one superior being?” said Io, none too kindly. “Are you made of different clay, or something?” She sounded hard-boiled, and a little ill-tempered; but she looked upset, and more than a little scared. It was all very well pretending, but she didn’t like it much, either. She went to the window, and began to brush tinkling splinters of glass out of the curtains and down from the sill; but at every louder shout from outside she started just perceptibly. A dozen people were talking at once, now, and the heaving and crashing had almost ceased; there was just a breathless trampling, a babel of argument and expostulation, and then the virtuous youthful tones of Police-Constable Weaver, pitched high, to assert who was master here.

“Now, then, what’s going on? What’s going on here?”

He was very young, he liked to say the correct thing, and Chad was tempted to suppose he even practiced the tone in which it should be delivered.

“All over!” said Chad, smiling at Io. “The law’s arrived. No need to worry about possible bloodshed anymore.”

“I wasn’t worrying,” said Io smartly, kneeling over the dustpan. “I couldn’t care less! Men! They’re no better than dead-end kids, got to be either hitting someone else, or watching two other men hit each other. Even a football match is no good unless it ends in a free fight!” She marched away furiously by one door as the dispersing spectators came in by the other in a haze of satisfied excitement, with fat voices and shining, pleased eyes, doing their best to justify her strictures, and settled down contentedly to their drinks again with a topic of conversation which would last them all the rest of the evening.

Charles, tweedy and broad-set, the perfect picture of the young yeoman farmer, came back to his chair rather selfconsciously, trying to look as if the spectacle of two men trying to take each other apart had really rather bored him. In fact the mind of Charles moved with a methodical probing caution which ruled out boredom. He said with a shrug and a smile:

“Another case for the old man’s bench next week! Disturbing the peace, or assault—if they can sort out who hit whom first—or whatever is the correct charge these days.” But he couldn’t disguise the excitement which flushed his fine, candid face, ruddy and solid and simple with all the graces Chad’s black-visaged person lacked. He leaned over the table as if he had a secret, though a dozen full-voiced conversations about him were tossing the same theme. “It could have been a bad business. Didn’t you see them? My God, Jim meant making a job of it this time! I knew there’d been some bad blood up there, and I believe they’ve already been pulled apart a couple of times, but this looked like being the real thing.”

“Jim? Jim who?”

“Tugg. Good Lord, didn’t you really look? Lord knows it does seem asking for trouble to take in a German laborer on the same farm—”

“A German?” said Chad, his lean brows drawing together. “Schauffler?”

“Whatever his name is! The fellow they’ve got up there. Big, fair-haired chap nearly Tugg’s own size. I heard Hollins had had a bit of trouble with them already. Seems it’s Jim who usually starts it—”

“Yes,” agreed Chad thoughtfully, remembering another, safer, easier Jim who was just out of hospital and back at the hostel, with only a long scar on his ribs to show for it, “yes, it would be.”

“Oh, I don’t know!” protested Charles, failing to understand. “He’s usually a reasonable enough chap, I should have said. There must be something behind it. Tugg doesn’t just fly off the handle. But a German, of course—it was a fool trick to have him there, if you ask me.”

So everyone would be saying, of course, and so perhaps it was; but where, thought Chad, as he finished his drink and quietly took his leave, where is the right place for the Helmut Schaufflers? What’s to be done with them? No keeping Helmut on the Hollins farm after this, however big a something there is behind it; and no other farmer will touch him with a bargepole, with the certainty of upsetting all his other labor. And yet we can’t get rid of him. If he does something too blatantly his own fault and no one else’s, we can deport him, he’s still German; but he won’t ever be left visibly the
only
guilty party in any clash; it will always be the other fellow who begins it.

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