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Authors: Peter Dickinson

Perfect Gallows

BOOK: Perfect Gallows
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Perfect Gallows

A Crime Novel

Peter Dickinson

August 1944

T
he door had been forced.

Poachers after dove-meat? GIs from the camp? Lovers desperate for a place—but the nights had been fine and warm and the woods were private enough. He tiptoed up the narrow spiral stair.

No one in the loft, and the doves apparently unalarmed. Shafts of almost horizontal sunlight shot through the flight-slits above and below the nest-boxes, bright golden dusty bars which made everything else dim. The ladder …

It was loose, its slant line just visible across the chamber, beyond the dazzle of sunbeams. Last time he'd been in the dovecote, a couple of weeks back, he'd left the ladder bolted in place with its foot by the stair-head. That made it look as if the intruders must have been poachers—they'd need to swing the ladder round to reach the nest-boxes—though to judge by the stir and mutter there were plenty of birds left.

Stooping beneath the jut of the nest-boxes he picked his way round outside the mess of droppings to reach the ladder. A rope—new, strange, never there before—was knotted to the third rung up and rose in a slant and straining line, angling inwards toward the central pole round which the ladder pivoted. Stiff with the menace of it, he forced his head back so that he could follow the rope towards the golden bars of light above. Their lines were broken by a dark blob. The blob itself was marked by two pale patches.

For a moment the shapes were unreadable, in another moment not. The patches were the soles of two bare feet. The blob was black not only because it was silhouetted against the sun-shafts. It was black of its own nature. Black clothes, black skin.

“Samuel?”

Silence. His voice had stilled the fidgeting birds. He gulped, controlling his shock and waiting for the hammer of his heart to calm, then climbed. The transfer of his weight pushed the ladder a few inches further on its circuit and the body moved beside it. Five rungs up he reached out and laid his fingertips on the nearer ankle where the weight of the limb stretched it below the pin-striped trouser-leg. Cold as a raw sausage.

So Caliban was dead. There would be no more performances. Last night's had been the only one, the single chance, given and taken. Meant.

Apart from the questioning tilt of its head the body hung straight, respectable and respectful. The rope ran from the knot beside the neck up over the beam which connected the ladder to the central pole and then down to the rung where it was fastened. Samuel could have tied that bottom knot first, climbed and slung the rope over the beam, put the noose round his neck, jumped …

No. The pink soles of the feet were clean. So were the rungs of the ladder. It was more than six weeks since Andrew had mucked the dovecot out with Jean. Unless the doves had stopped spattering their droppings …

He glanced down. The floor of course was the usual mottled mess, dark khaki flecked with white and black, fresh droppings on top of old, all streaked with bright light where the sunbeams shot through the lower flight holes, each pock and hummock casting its tiny shadow. And stamped clear in the streak immediately beneath him, a footprint. The familiar pattern of a GI boot. You might never have spotted it, except from above, in this special light, but now that he'd seen one he saw three more—all over the mottled floor—dozens!

No, not all over the floor. In a rough ring, just inside the swing of the circling ladder.

A picture swept into his mind, half a dozen men facing outwards, drunk faces lit and vanishing in the waver of torch-beams, whoops of glee echoing up the chamber, the axle-bearing groaning with the turn of the ladder, fast as it can be spun from hand to hand, and the body circling overhead, its legs still dancing to their tune.

“There's guys homesick for a good lynching.”

Would a lynch-party clean the ladder-rungs?

The bottom door scraped on its flagstone, the noise huge in the silence. Andrew scuttled down the ladder and round beneath the nest-boxes to the top of the stair.

“Jean?”

“Coming. Couldn't you find a key?”

“Don't come up! Wait!”

He glanced back. His rush from the ladder had moved it again so that now the body hung with the head directly lit by one of the sun-shafts. The eyes were open, the angle of the neck asked its question.

“And if, before you go …?”

Stiffly he turned away, drew a deep breath, squared his shoulders. Forget it. That's all over. It's part of the past, part of Andrew. Andrew's finished.

He made himself Adrian, put on a face of horror and rushed down the stair.

March 1986

A
drian was used to the glances, the faint frowns of not-quite recognition. He responded by seeming not to notice them. Much later, driving home perhaps, these people would suddenly exclaim his name. They would then tell their friends that of course they'd known he wasn't specially tall, but they'd never imagined …

Now they were in any case distracted by his companion, fluttering and fingering among the numbered lots, young enough to be his daughter and obviously not, monkey-faced but delectable in her pale grey mink, an embodiment of youth and warmth in the big dead rooms.

“Look,” she said. “They've got your initials on them. Would you like them as a prezzy? They're almost good as new.”

She turned one of the ivory-backed hairbrushes over and pressed the yellow bristles with suede-gloved fingers.

“Not surprising,” he said. “The old boy was bald as a coot.”

“Who? You knew him!”

“I acknowledge him as my great-great-uncle.”

“That's why the initials are the same!”

“Indirectly why.”

She didn't hear him. Another thought had intervened.

“That's why you were so keen to come!”

“I also thought it might amuse you to add a modicum of junk to your squirrel-hoard.”

“Ooh, yes. I want it
all
! But you can keep the hairbrushes.”

“No, thank you. I am going to look at the books. I'll meet you at the foot of the stairs in forty minutes.”

She folded back her glove and held out her arm for him to set the timer on the man-sized wrist-watch. He stroked the skin as he finished, kissed a finger to her and turned away.

The Viewing Day was more crowded than one would have expected, judging only by the interest of the lots on offer. When Sir Arnold Wragge had returned from Kimberley with his millions and rebuilt The Mimms he had furnished it by instructing his agents to “Buy modern—best you can get and bugger the cost.” So everything down to the bootjacks was excellently made and had worn so well that the objects had tended to resist the batterings of the years, and thus often had the look of fakes, the too perfect props of a costume-drama. With the less functional pieces the agents had, perhaps rightly, assumed that Sir Arnold would accept cost as the criterion of excellence, so these all in their various ways tended to be excessive.

The house itself colluded, though more interestingly. Someone had told Sir Arnold that the best architect in England was a young fellow named Lutyens. He had designed a series of rooms which were indeed grand, in a fashion likely to be gratifying to the client but rather differently satisfying to the ironic outsider. The same kind of ambiguity was apparent in the family group of the Wragges, by Sargent, which hung above the fireplace in the Saloon, the room Adrian was now leaving.

The Lutyens revival accounted for some of the crowd. As he reached the door Adrian caught by the elbow and prevented from falling a man who had tripped over the legs of a young woman who was kneeling to sketch the door-fittings. The woman snarled at the man for a clumsy sod and the man swore back and turned, as if to the witness of a traffic accident, to where Adrian had been; but without having seemed to hurry he was already out in the corridor.

Pursuit of him was blocked by two middle-aged couples who were teasing out of their joint memories the details of the Wragge inheritance, that true-life romance that had intermittently occupied corners of the scant post-war newspapers of their youth. They represented another type in the crowd at the Viewing Day, intending at most to leave a bid for some curio to keep as a souvenir of this contact with once-newsworthy riches.

“Wanted to cut her off with a shilling,” one of them was saying, “and then the poor lad went and got killed in Italy.”

“Wasn't there some kind of nephew?” said one of the women. “Couldn't he have put in a claim?”

Adrian slipped past them, unnoticeable almost to the point of being invisible, the family ghost. He turned into another huge room, its walls lined with leather-bound books, series after series of the necessary authors, mostly unread but present because a room designated in the architect's plans as the Library has got to contain books. The lighter furniture had been moved elsewhere and the floor-space filled with trestles on which were ranged volumes brought in from other rooms, the random acquisitions of a mainly unliterary family. Members of the public would come in and nose through a row or two, but since most of the books were to be sold in lots of forty or fifty together they soon left. Three men who looked like dealers were working systematically along the trestles, watched by a young woman from the auctioneers.

Adrian at first glanced casually at the books, picking out the odd item that caught his eye, reading a paragraph or two and putting it back. After a few minutes he reached a pile of scrap-albums and began to look through them. They contained newspaper-cuttings, playbills and programmes, photographs of performances, mostly out-of-doors. He put two volumes aside after a quick inspection and turned to the point in the third at which the entries ended and a series of unfilled pages began.

Having studied the single item on the last completed page—a programme—he closed the album and put it back beneath the others.

Now he began to search the trestles more systematically, running his finger along the titles, clearly looking for one particular book. The process brought him up against a dealer working in the opposite direction.

“Have you spotted a copy of
Nada the Lily
? Rider Haggard?” he said.

The man, round-faced, woolly-haired, looked at him with bored eyes.

“Don't think so. Wouldn't have noticed, unless it's a first.”

“It might be, but it's not collectable. It got some fairly heavy handling.”

The man shrugged and returned to the books. Adrian continued his search, but had done little more than half the room before he looked at his watch and saw that his time was almost up. He considered a moment, then crossed to where the woolly-haired dealer was working, now close to the pile of albums.

“Do you do theatrical material?”

“We've got a section. I've seen that lot. It's rubbish.”

“You are mistaken.”

No recording equipment could have picked up the alteration in Adrian's tone, but the dealer paused in his work. Adrian pulled out the third album and flipped the pages, pausing three or four times to point to names in programmes. The dealer attempted to conceal the symptoms of interest.

“She had a very good eye for young talent,” said Adrian. “I bet some of these are not recorded elsewhere.”

“Can't tell.”

“I can, however, tell you about this.”

Adrian turned to the final programme and pointed to a name.

“First appearance on any public stage,” he said. “This is probably the only copy in existence. There was one performance—the others were cancelled. The spare programmes would all have gone for scrap.”

“Same fellow?” said the dealer.

“Myself.”

Without moving his head the dealer swivelled his eyes to stare. Affability was evidently not his style. He now seemed to think that some kind of trick was being played on him.

“If you find me that copy of
Nada
,” said Adrian, “I will do you a signed manuscript note on the production to put with the album. That particular copy, mind you.”

He took out his wallet and produced a card. The dealer read it as though suspecting a forgery. By the time he looked up Adrian was halfway to the door.

The girl was waiting. She ran to meet him, seized his wrist and dragged him back to the room they had been in before, to a corner where the working equipment of a late Victorian household was laid out, brass coal-scuttles, mahogany sweepers, cane carpet-beaters, crumb-trays and so on, things which twenty years before would have gone to the scrap-dealer or bonfire but which were now classified as “Bygones”. The girl, eager as a leashed dog straining after an odour, hauled Adrian to one of the tables.

“Lookie! Lookie!” she whispered. “Please, A.”

She was pointing at a small flat drawer which lay in the middle of a mass of material from the butler's pantry. In it were a dozen wooden objects, most of them flat discs about two inches across with turned knobs at the centre.

“Butter-moulds,” said Adrian.

He picked out a squat hollow cylinder and fitted one of the discs into it, knob down. There was a flange at the lower end which held the disc in place. The inner surface of the disc was incised with a carving of a cart-horse.

“You wet it,” he said, “fill it with butter, turn it over and press it out. Presto—and you have a suitably rural picture on your butter.”

“Will you leave a bid?”

“They aren't a separate lot. I will endeavour to make arrangements.”

“Darling A. But look at these ones. Aren't they funny? And tiny?”

At the back of the drawer was another set of moulds, less than half the size and very different in style, different in fact from most other lots on display. The large ones were made of fine-grained box, turned on a lathe, their images chiselled out with the deft strokes of a craftsman on piecework. These others were only crudely circular, whittled (perhaps from beech) with a knife. Instead of pictures, letters were incised on their inner surfaces. Their maker had not tried to copy the lathe-turned knobs of the large discs. One had a square block, but the other four had whittled human heads. Small though these images were, their nature was unmistakable. They had nothing to do with Western civilization, that billion-celled complexity whose spirit informed and shaped even such trivial objects as the moulds in a butler's pantry. No, they quite clearly belonged instead with the stuff now on display in the Billiard Room, the mementoes of Sir Arnold's life in South Africa, assegais, knobkerries, Zulu shields and head-dresses, ceremonial stools, and such. Within the conventions of that very different culture it could be discerned that these were not generalized representations but attempts at individual faces—two women, an old man and a young one.

“Aren't they funny?” she said again. “But they're alive. They say something, don't they? What are they saying, A.?”

She looked up when he failed to answer. His face was blanker than ever.

“Put my foot in it?” she whispered.

He shook his head and took the mould out of her hand. For a moment his face, without a muscle stirring, seemed to become that of an individual, somebody one of the other people in the room might have recognized next time they met him. After a couple of seconds the mask reassembled itself. When he gave her the mould she took it without looking, her eyes still on his.

“Something dreadful?” she said.

“Fairly dreadful. You are a remarkable child. I was rather fond of the chap who made them, my uncle's black butler. He died in an unpleasant fashion. I found the body. Perhaps I'll tell you some time.”

“How sad … If it's going to remind you … I don't have to …”

“Rather us than someone else.”

“Oh, you are a darling!”

“Perhaps they'll bring me luck in the new show.”

“Barney thinks the rehearsals are terrific.”

“He would say that whether it was true or not.”

“Of course it's true!”

“I wish I had your confidence. Anyway, I will leave a bid for the moulds.”

“Goody goody. I dote on them. Why did he make them so tiny, A.?”

“Because the others were too large to hold a butter-ration. For part of each year it was only two ounces.”

“Really truly? You mean I can cut down to two ounces a day and you won't whinge?”

“A week.”

BOOK: Perfect Gallows
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