Authors: Geoffrey Household
Tags: #Thriller & Suspense
‘Don’t care if he does. I’m on the way to have a piss. Some of ’em never waste it indoors. Good for the trees. May be right. Very sensible, some of their beliefs!’
I told him that he would have to take some gold trinkets as well as the cauldron to make the burglary appear convincing.
‘Yes, bothers me how we’re going to put them back,’ he said.
‘We don’t put them or the cauldron back till we have a quiet interview with him. He’ll talk, all right. Just seeing me alive will be enough to break him down.’
‘Suppose he really did make the bowl?’
‘Well if he did and has been buying gold on the market all along, we’ll be left with the problem of how the hell he makes enough profit to keep Broom Lodge running.’
For the major’s sake I hoped the burglary would succeed, but what excited me far more was that Marrin had loaded his diving kit into his van. I no longer had to keep an eye indefinitely on Bullo for him to appear, and then – if my patience lasted – to watch all night for his return.
I pointed out to the major that I could not take the cauldron up to London straightaway and that he would have to hide it for at least twenty-four hours while I rested – if that was necessary – and arranged the next move. I asked him to drive to Gloucester at once and to buy me a pair of fins at the best sports shop. Then he was to meet me at our usual place outside Drybrook at about quarter past nine and take me to Bullo, where Marrin kept his boat.
‘Didn’t know he had one!’
‘Well, he does. And wherever he goes he’ll have to wait for the turn of the tide to get back to Bullo; so you’ll have all night for the burglary and can take your time.’
All went according to plan. When he met me at Drybrook I curled up on the floor of the car, inconspicuous under the rug and the life jacket and slid out at the little lane to Bullo. Denzil was to drive on up-river and then make a detour to Broom Lodge so that there would be no chance of Marrin passing him on the road and recognising his car.
It was a warm, still evening, overcast, with not a sound but the lapping of the ebb against the stonework at the entrance to the pill. I lay down at the beginning of the avenue of hawthorn, where I could watch all movement on the banks. Marrin turned up about ten in the last of the light, on foot and carrying all his diving kit in a case made to fit, rather than my own untidy bundle. When he had gone down out of sight, I trotted along the avenue to the bank of the baby pill so that I could keep him in sight as long as possible. He was bound to set off downstream, for no little outboard motor could make way against the speed of the ebb.
All this while I had assumed that he meant to land at Arlingham and then walk along the bank until he arrived at his destination. I could not follow him, but I could intercept him on his return. But what good would that do unless he was actually carrying a gold bracelet or some other object from the hoard? I might not be able to bluff him into confessing where he had found it and I should lose all the advantage of being dead.
It was then that I had the wild idea of following him. I could come to no great harm so long as I stayed on or near the surface. I could never catch him up but I should not be far behind; and wherever he landed or anchored I should be able to make out the empty dinghy. Any success depended on his destination. The tide would carry him down the channel on the left bank for some three miles and then, swinging round the great bank of the Noose would take him back again for about the same distance to the right bank opposite Blakeney. I hardly dared to follow him as far as that through the twirlings and suckings of the yellow ebb, but on second thoughts I decided it would not be necessary. If his destination were on the right bank he had no reason to take a boat from Bullo; he had only to leave his car at any crossing of the railway, walk over the even Severn meadows and dive. Anyway that didn’t make sense. There could be no finding treasure under the mud.
It was far more likely that he intended to reach some point on the left bank without being carried round the Noose. Hock Cliff, which I had visited on the first day of my Severn ramblings, at once suggested itself. Unlike the red cliffs of the Severn, it was made of low lias clay and had been eaten back by the tides, leaving a flat terrace of rock at the edge of the shore. It was certainly easy to land there, but what for? However, leaving out the inexplicable diving equipment, Hock Cliff was a very possible site for treasure buried long ago on good, solid dry land well above the highest level of the river but now exposed by erosion. It was a theory which could be proved or disproved immediately.
I put on suit, life jacket, mask and aqualung and dropped into the mouth of the baby pill, being careful to keep my feet off the bottom. Marrin put-putted out of Bullo and passed close inshore, but could not possibly see me in the gathering darkness. I slipped out and followed, swimming well clear of the Box Rock, of which only a small part was showing above water. The dinghy was now far ahead of me, but occasionally I caught a glimpse of it when it bounced on the vicious wavelets of the ebb and the wake showed white. The sound of the engine told me that he was bound straight down-channel and not bearing a little to port as he would if he intended to land below Arlingham. I was about to give up and make for the Arlingham shore myself when the engine stopped and I thought I heard the splash of his heavy anchor; sound travelled half a mile over the sleeping Severn. So I kept on swimming until I could make out the dinghy anchored below the wood at the top of Hock Cliff. There seemed no reason why he should stop there. He still had his clothes on. I think now that he had arrived earlier than he intended and was waiting for the tide to fall a foot or two further. There turned out to be a handy little inlet in the rock terrace where the dinghy could safely lie when he left it, but he could not yet be sure of its position because the whole terrace was still awash, with the ebb dancing over it fast enough to hole or swamp the dinghy if he made a mistake.
I was in danger of being carried past him but managed to reach the edge of the terrace underwater and clung there by my fingers, as if I were a climber on a rock face, until I found a cleft which enabled me to relax and lift my head to watch the dinghy and Marrin. The ebb spat its silt at me and I remembered my agony in the quicksand. Then came disgust at the ceremony I had witnessed for the propitiation of my soul. Well, it wasn’t propitiated. Far from it! I was suddenly exasperated by all this folly – the silly side of them as Elsa had called it. Marrin, I had told the major, would break down as soon as he knew I was alive. And he’d break down worse still if he had a little additional evidence that I was dead.
Looking back I think that I myself was possessed by a devil which knew exactly what it was about. Blood sacrifice and fireworks are unnecessary when there is an eager human spirit ready to give a temporary home. To break him at any cost was what I wanted, to have him gibbering the truth of the gold and his reason for murder.
The dinghy was nearer in than I thought, riding just off a peninsula of the terrace. Marrin had anchored none too soon. I swam along the angle between rock and mud like a Severn lamprey seeking blood to suck until with two good kicks I could reach the mooring. The mysterious jerk on the rope produced some startled movement on board which then quietened down.
With hands and knees grasping the stem and out of sight, I put head and shoulders over the bows dressed exactly as I was when he tried to kill me and remained perfectly still. He was standing in the stern looking for the inlet. When he turned round and saw me, he stared, frozen. Then he tried to fend off this motionless phantom with movements of the arms as if he were swimming or clearing a mist of smoke before the eyes. Not surprisingly the dinghy tipped – if I helped it at all it was accidental – and he went overboard with a coughing yell, crashing his head on the outcrop of rock, just underwater, which had allowed my approach. The ebb caught him and swept him away from the boat, and he was on his way down-channel with any carcases and timber which the Severn had gathered to itself since morning.
I heard no more of him and saw nothing. I should have expected Marrin, considering his intimacy with spirits, at least to try to talk to my uneasy ghost instead of panicking. I hoped he would be swept ashore on the sands of the Noose. God knows I did not want him dead, for you cannot interrogate the dead.
My first intention was to swim ashore below Hock Cliff regardless of the difficulty of ever regaining the opposite bank till daylight, and to leave the dinghy as it was and at anchor; but the speed with which Marrin had been swept away was terrifying and only my hand on the gunwale prevented me from following. So I climbed on board, shipping a good deal of water, and started the engine which would not hold us against the tide but allowed me to ease the boat into the shore of the Noose not too far down. Then I gave it a shove and sent it spinning on its way to the sea. I wished there to be no awkward mystery about Marrin’s death. More charitably, I hoped the dinghy might be of use to him if both were stuck on the same sandbank.
I now had to return to Bullo and recover my clothes. It was a long and wearisome plod over the Severn’s special mixture of mud and sand until I reached the seawall of the Awre peninsula. I was not as cold as on the night of my escape, but it was essential not to be seen. Fortunately it was near midnight in a world emptied of men and I disturbed nothing but sheep while walking along the river to the copse and my baby pill. When I had changed I did not take the lane under the embankment, which was much too close to the cottages, but climbed directly up and over the railway. There, carrying my bundle, I must have been seen against the skyline by some gardener or fisherman trying to forecast the next day’s weather by inspecting the sky instead of going to bed.
After I had crossed the main road, the journey was easy enough: up a farm track and then a footpath with only a mile to go before I was safely under the oaks in one of the thickest parts of the Forest. There I became hopelessly confused, for there were rides and tracks in all directions and few visible stars to help. I should have been out till dawn if I had not crossed my usual path to Broom Lodge at a spot where I could recognise it.
I entered my den at first light, dead tired and unable to start out again if I had wished. I ate whatever was handy and turned in. News of the major’s burglary could wait. It seemed likely to fail and was futile. Even if the cauldron were proved to be of great antiquity I had no longer any hope of finding the barbaric hoard from which it had come.
In the late afternoon I set out for an evening visit to the sapling stump, keeping up my usual precautions since the hasty gulpings of the Severn might have rejected Marrin as indigestible and thrown him up on shore. I did not expect any message at all from the major. The pessimism of melancholy inclined me to believe that by this time he would have been handed over to the police or – if the commune wished to keep the scandal in the family – be locked up in disgrace pending Marrin’s return.
Half an hour after I was settled in cover a very thoughtful Denzil appeared. He had evidently made several visits in the hope of finding me.
‘At last! At last!’ he exclaimed.
‘Did you pull it off?’
‘Yes, yes!’ – success no longer seemed to interest him – ‘Simeon has disappeared. I hope … I hope … What did you see?’
‘I saw him leave Bullo Pill in his dinghy and go down on the ebb. That was all. Hasn’t he come back?’
I was keeping the full story to myself. The major knew too much already and was naturally apprehensive.
‘Not like him! Never missed a day!’
‘He might be stranded on the opposite bank,’ I suggested tentatively.
‘Would have telephoned. You’re sure you … well, I mean he was all right when you left him?’
‘I didn’t leave him. I watched him arrive and after that all I saw was the wake of the dinghy when he started out. So you got the cauldron?’
‘I could have. No trouble. No trouble at all.’
‘But you didn’t take it?’
‘Got in all right, made a mess of the place. Turned out the drawers and stole a few trinkets. But I hadn’t got the key of the casket. I think Simeon keeps it on him.’
‘You could have taken the whole thing.’
‘Too heavy, Piers. Couldn’t go down the drain pipe with that. I’d have had to throw it out of the window. Crash! Wake somebody.’
‘Why the hell didn’t you break it open?’
‘Hadn’t the heart. All that ivory work. And the bowl? What is it? We don’t know, do we? Could be … could be sacrilege.’
It wasn’t difficult to guess the cause of the inhibition. The major had no hesitation in burgling the sanctum of alchemy, which he knew to be partly play-acting, but when it came to violating the golden bowl his illusions, reaching all the way back to the Dark Ages and Arthur, Champion of Christendom, prevented possible sacrilege.
‘Don’t tell me you think that crazy murderer is the Guardian of the Grail?’
‘What makes you say that?’
My remark, more a spark of exasperation than serious, had struck home. I could have disclosed that I had witnessed the pagan ceremony which was far from a proper use of the Christian Grail, but I didn’t. The swings and roundabouts of his own heretical funfair were much too unpredictable.
‘Because I don’t see Marrin as Perceval. The thing was probably the favourite drinking bowl of some Saxon or Dane, or older still and the property of Nodens. Blood from his enemy or wine from his vineyard, depending on how civilised he was.’
‘You believe he existed before he became a god?’
‘Marrin does. And you said yourself that there is always a truth behind legend.’
All side issues of no immediate importance. I asked him if anyone had been in the laboratory since the burglary.
‘Unlikely. I locked it all up again.’
‘And the broken window – has nobody noticed it?’
‘I don’t think so. Too high up. Eyes down. Meditation. Work.’
Wearily I demanded what he had done with the swag. He marched off into the open order of the trees, beckoning me to follow as if any speech were an indiscretion. At first he could not find the right oak, though it was the only one which had a low branch close to the ground. He climbed from that into a much higher fork – he must, as he said, have been good at P.T. – and recovered a small bag well hidden by a bunch of mistletoe.