Authors: Geoffrey Household
Tags: #Thriller & Suspense
I cannot guess how he intended to get out of that, unless he could persuade some members of the commune into a lie, or deny that the suit, which would be an unrecognisable rag, had ever belonged to him. But all this is guesswork. The more I think of it, the surer I am that he was dead certain that my body could never escape from the bed of the river and that the question would never arise. I presume he had satisfied himself before driving away from the colony to our rendezvous with the suits and aqualungs in the boot that I had said nothing to Elsa.
I was nearing the limit of endurance and could now rest and recover Elsa’s sandwiches from my pack with – thank God! – the strong Broom Lodge cider. I quickly changed and took that remote track across road and railway with my aqualung rolled in the suit and slung from a shoulder. I was shivering in spite of the fastest walk I could manage, and my only hope was to arrive soon at some quiet spot in the Forest where I could build a fire. I was instinctively against calling at the nearest house. For one thing it would have to be found; houses are few and far between on Severn banks. For another, Marrin was Elsa’s admired uncle. But I doubt if that would have counted if I had not been obsessed by gratitude for the sandwiches.
It was some two miles to the wooded slopes of the Forest. I wandered about looking for a sheltered dell and found still better cover in the tumbled entrance to a private coal mine. Vegetation had grown up around it and over the path, so that I knew it was abandoned. With dead twigs and broken pit props I soon had a fire going in the entrance which could not be seen from anywhere but the immediate front.
There I warmed up and, after luxuriously dozing in the comfort, for a while returned to a shaken but more or less normal self. Imagination began to play over all those conversations with Marrin which I have recorded. Jealousy I could leave out as a motive. Elsa was really his niece, and anyway he knew nothing of our too impulsive affair.
Three clues to what had disturbed him stood out: the exploration for traces of palaeolithic man; the Severn cliffs; the turtle. One or all of these could reveal his carefully guarded secret of the financing of Broom Lodge. Had he found gold in some recess below the present level of the Severn? Quite impossible. Stone-age man did not, know how to smelt gold or any other metal. Then could he actually be a traditional alchemist who had recovered the ritual formula for transmuting lead and mercury into gold? Nonsense! The alchemy was a smoke screen. Could he be panning some stream or sandbank in which was gold carried down from the Welsh mountains? Unlikely. It would have been discovered thousands of years before Mr Simeon Marrin got at it. The turtle? Well, he had been evasive about the turtle, even alarmed when I talked of bringing down a zoologist to identify it. There was a connection of some sort, but not essential.
I slept at first light, woken by the baa-ing of sheep when the sun was up. Stream water for breakfast. Hunger would have to wait. After scattering the ashes of my fire I set off, carrying the bundle of suit and aqualung, and strode furiously through the Forest towards Cinderford which I assumed was big enough to possess a police station. I had no solid evidence except the weight belt – provided an expert could prove by marks that the buckle had been deliberately jammed. All the facts I could probe were that the suit was his, that he had allowed me to go to the bottom of a deep which he knew was lethal and then had deserted me and kept quiet about it.
Deliberately I passed close to Broom Lodge and hid beneath the stems of a clump of foxgloves. I can only explain that by the mixture of motives which accompanies a foul temper. I wanted to see if routine was proceeding normally. I hoped to catch a glimpse of Elsa. I needed to know if Marrin had returned safely and to see his face. There was no chance of being caught unless somebody stepped on me.
Several of the druidical drop-outs went off into the forest. Useless as witnesses to anything so I let them go. The workshops were innocently busy. The only view of Elsa was her backside as she leaned over a garbage can. So I slid back into the cover of the trees, stormed on my way without caution and ran slap into the major who was peering along a straight ash sapling which he had just cut down.
‘Hi! Where are you off to, Piers? I thought you had gone.’
‘I am off to the police station, Major, and I shall be obliged if you will come with me.’
‘Not going to run me in, are you?’
I didn’t reply to that. My intention was to prevent him trotting back to Broom Lodge and saying he had met me.
‘Had a spot of trouble with the locals?’
I was so angry that I spat out the truth. ‘Your Simeon Marrin tried to kill me last night.’
‘What had you found out, Piers?’
‘Nothing – except that he’s a fraud.’
‘Oh, I know that! But a prophet, possibly a prophet! So I must forgive him so long as he doesn’t land himself in gaol or commit unpardonable blasphemy. Don’t blame you for thinking us all crackers! Simeon and the Stone Age. Me and stirrups.’
‘Roman cavalry didn’t have ’em in Arthur’s time. Heavily armoured they were. That’s why folk memory called them knights when the legends started seven hundred years later. Hovered around throwing things or poking at the enemy. If you charged, either you fell off or the lance broke. Then you carried on with the spike at the other end.’
Evidently the major was something of a historian. The surprise of finding that there was such a professional side to him made me forget self-pity for a moment and listen.
‘Arthur’s tactics – that’s what I want to improve. Stirrups all they needed to be able to withdraw the lance. Then charge at the trot knee to knee and go through the Saxon infantry like a dose of salts.’
‘Are you proposing to alter the course of history?’ I asked, for he seemed to be considering transmigration backwards in time as well as forwards.
‘Yes. Why not? Aren’t pleased with the present, are you, if you’re on your way to the police station?’
He caressed his ash sapling.
‘That’ll be the right weight when it’s seasoned,’ he said, ‘and it will bend not break. Now why set the cops on Simeon? After all, he only tried to kill you. Much more important things than that! You should find out what he’s up to before he can make a fool of himself again. A pity for Elsa that would be. Nice girl. Young chap like you should make a pass at her. Get your face slapped, I expect, but it won’t hurt.’
‘Don’t you know what he’s up to?’ I asked.
‘Whatever will do the most good to the colony. Ever heard of St Januarius?’
‘The martyr whose blood liquefies?’
‘That’s the chap. Dried blood kept in a holy bottle of some kind. Faithful come in their thousands to see it liquefy. Priests make sure that it damn well does when it should. A lie to the senses of course, but all to the good. It makes thousands believe truths which the senses have nothing to do with. Why are you carrying that kit? Been diving with Simeon?’
‘Yes. At night this time. And over a quicksand where he knew I must drown.’
‘Must or could?’
‘Must. But when the bore arrived it pulled up the whole bottom and me with it.’
‘So he doesn’t know you escaped?’
‘He soon will.’
‘Why not stay dead, old boy?’
‘Want to know where he gets his gold from, don’t you?’
‘Not for myself.’
‘I know that. Heard you talk about a lot of antique economies on the first night. You’d rather be famous than rich every time. Stay dead and you’ll have a chance. Come marching into Broom Lodge with a warrant and you won’t.’
I asked him what his interest was. As he had once said to me, a monk ought to live in poverty but there was no reason why the monastery should. However Marrin came by his money, it kept the commune going.
‘Simple, Piers, simple! I’ve been worried. Old soldier, sane sometimes. Assume Simeon made the bowl. Where did he get the gold from? Alchemy, my arse! Imagine the scandal if he’s pinching it somewhere! Bloody newspaper headlines! Worse blasphemy than ever. That’s what I want to avoid. Assume he scooped his bowl out of the bed of the Severn. “Then Did Those Feet in Ancient Time?” We have to know what he has been up to. His father was a dear friend of mine. Didn’t tell you that, did I? You stay dead, boy! Much more alive that way. Tuck down in the Forest somewhere near! Needn’t tell me where. Two of us can check up on him when one can’t.’
With his visionary lunacies of Arthur, enhanced by trotting down the Mall in shining armour, his militant Christianity to match and his clipped speech, he puzzled me. He must have been close on fifty, though his straight back and flat belly were those of a fit man ten years younger. But the age difference hardly counted; I realised that he was treating me as if I had been one of his trusted subalterns in trouble. There had been a wholly charming smile when he described himself as sane, sometimes.
‘Stands to reason!’ he went on. ‘You’re dead and I’m not. I can’t dive but I’ve got a car. You haven’t got a car, but you can dive. I’ll be in Little Drybrook outside Bream this evening with some rations. Say, half past seven. I’m a guest and don’t have to dine in mess if I don’t want to. Up to you whether you decide to meet me or not. Old-fashioned Humber. Black. You can’t mistake it.’
When I left him I was far from convinced of his reliability, but I did not go to the Cinderford police station. Marrin’s motive had first to be investigated. If I could not present his reason for attempted murder my allegations might not stand up. It was open to him to swear that he had tried to rescue me, failed to find me and in order to avoid newspaper publicity for his beloved commune had kept quiet about the accident.
To remain dead was not difficult. My name and face were only known at Beachley and Blakeney, where I had stayed at inns on this side of the river. So movement was no problem, nor was food. Provided that I watched the street long enough to be sure that no member of the commune was about I could enter any village shop without arousing curiosity. Though the Forest seemed gloriously empty there were a good many hikers on the green tracks and a few genuine tramps drawing unemployment pay from a post office, saving on rent and living life as – in good weather – it should be lived. I could pass as either.
Business for the day was to find a secluded spot not too far from Broom Lodge which I could make my headquarters. I thought the right choice would be one of the conifer woods close-planted by the Forestry Commission, dark and dismal but without anything to attract travellers on foot who naturally stick to the great oaks spreading over their waving green sea. First, I quartered a plantation near Staple Edge. That was no good – neither dell nor free mine, too dense and thus with a risk of fire if I lit one. However, it held an outcrop of rock forming an unmistakable landmark, and there I hid the diving kit which was a nuisance to carry and could attract attention. Then I struck south-east towards Blakeney and found another dense and trackless stand of conifers not far from Broom Lodge.
It covered the side of a steep hill, pock-marked by the typical depressions which might be due to Romans after iron or free miners after coal. Exploration led me to a level patch where the timber was thin enough to admit some sunlight. A building, which may have been a large cottage or a small iron foundry, had stood there once and its site had not been completely cleared by the foresters. The bricks of an outside lavatory still stood to a height of some four feet – a weatherproof den if I could find a roof for the three sides. That was provided by a rusty base plate from some engine. When a lever and a ramp of loose stones had got it into position I covered it with dead branches so that it looked like a rubbish heap to be burned when the woods were safely wet. More twigs laid over the turf beneath formed a bed – uncomfortable, but still a bed. As for fire, there was no danger whatever, for among the ruins was the blackened dome of a hearth with a few courses of chimney. Industrial rather than sylvan peace, but it served very well. There was no sign that gypsies or enterprising small boys had ever pushed through to the heart of the plantation – no paper bags, plastic bottles or travellers’ turds.
All morning, while eyes and legs were searching for a home, mind had been pondering the major’s question: did Marrin make the golden cauldron or was it ancient work? That rich, two-handled vessel, primitive but exquisitely curved, might be Saxon or a Roman import from the east. I am no authority on art, and without an original in front of me for comparison I could not tell. In any case this conjecture came up against a dead end. Why the smoke screen of alchemy and the yarn of a win on the football pools if Marrin had discovered and dug up an ancient hoard from tomb or temple, and could have made a fortune even after splitting with the state or the landowner?
I could not give the answer, but I was convinced that I was on the right track. Whatever he had found – and the Forest with its ancient mines and ports was as likely a place as any to unearth a buried treasure – he was keeping quiet about it and iniquitously melting it down himself to support his bloody colony of cranks.
I was at last very content that the major had advised me to remain dead. I was free to study Marrin’s movements without his ever dreaming that in his mysterious excursions a silent follower was closely behind, ready to expose him and rescue for posterity what treasure was left. Now that I had a home, I could familiarise myself with my territory as cautiously as any animal. I was about to write ‘hunted animal’, but that was false. I was an animal with a grudge and my quarry was human.
Never before had I realised how unforgiving is the conflict between the sacredness of knowledge and the acquisitiveness of the greedy, whether for the sake of personal wealth or the propagation of a creed, positive right against a wretched negative. Marrin would put it the other way round, convinced to the extent of murder.
In spite of the major’s sound advice I might well have decided against meeting him that evening if he had not uttered the words ‘with the rations’. Since Elsa’s sandwiches the night before I had had nothing to eat except a slab of greasy fried fish bought from a passing van. Shops anywhere near my headquarters were to be avoided. The corpse was learning that continual caution was needed if it was to stay dead among the living.