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Authors: Geoffrey Household

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BOOK: Summon the Bright Water
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He didn’t miss it. He couldn’t. He picked it up with an exclamation of astonishment, raised his hands, murmured something I couldn’t hear and looked upwards into all the branches around as if assuming that some bird had dropped the watch into his path. Then he continued to Broom Lodge almost at a run. His manner was so peculiar and excited that I was bursting with curiosity and followed, slipping into the tall, pink foxgloves from which, the day before, I had watched the back of the house and caught a glimpse of Elsa.

Now it was that I perceived a new facet of that many-sided man, Simeon Marrin. He was a fraud, an idealist and a born leader – like so many of them not excluding murder when needful – but I had not suspected him of being superstitious. Perhaps superstitious is the wrong word. It implies illogicality, whereas the ritual which I had witnessed showed that he had worked out or accepted some sort of purgatory as a consequence of the transition from one life to another. Carver dashed into the estate office and almost immediately came out with Marrin. He was showing him the watch, miraculously transported to the spot where he could not miss it, but the other, so far as I could see, was not over-impressed until Carver pointed to the broken strap. Then Marrin’s face quite evidently displayed a sudden gravity, even shock. The broken strap had no special meaning for Carver, but for Marrin it was an instant reminder of the cunning weakening of the straps on the open-heel fins. My spirit by a neat piece of telekinesis – I was always good with my hands – had established its identity. Inspired guesswork, but I am sure I am right.

I left for the rock where I had deposited the diving kit and waited there until it was dark and I could walk home with the aqualung without attracting attention. I had no immediate use for it, but I did foresee that Severn and Forest were equally likely to hold the clue to the hoard which Marrin was ransacking. I think it was that night when my attitude towards him changed. After a solid, much-needed supper I lay on my bed of twigs, concentrating not so much on the mystery of the gold as on my quarry. In my mind I called him that because I hoped to track him through the forest as relentlessly as a carnivore. If the druidicals knew how my thoughts were running and believed in such things – was there any damned nonsense they weren’t ready to believe? – they could call me possessed, though in fact I wanted Marrin alive, well and talking. At any rate I slept as soundly as any satisfied werewolf.

Off again in the morning to find a message from the major at the foot of the sapling.

‘Easy. He left me alone there. Perhaps we are assuming guilt where there isn’t any. Mining. Naturally keeps it quiet. Are you sure your misfortune was not accident? Meet me tomorrow same place eleven am.’

‘My misfortune’ – hell! But of course he wanted to believe in his hero if it was at all possible. In spite of that, our interests were the same. He had put it plainly enough when he said that he must keep Marrin out of gaol. As for me, I was determined to prevent a crime more monstrous than murder. I was a little suspicious of that phrase ‘left me alone there’. But after all, why shouldn’t the major be left alone there? He was a welcome guest and an old friend and it did not matter if he wandered round investigating chemicals. It was proof of his value to me as an ally, so long as he could keep his mouth shut, and did not go chasing after preposterous ideas like mining. There might be some stream in the Forest where you could pick up a few grains by panning, but you could not dig a hole, as in the Klondike, and find sizeable nuggets at the bottom.

I did not approve of another roadside meeting in daylight. The major was taking this business of staying dead as casually as a game of hide-and-seek. However, he discreetly parked his car among the trees, waiting patiently until I appeared and signalled to him to join me. He showed me three excellent pictures of the turtle, well lit from the opposite window of the laboratory, showing a side view of head and tail and a front view of the head. I noticed for the first time that there was no skeleton, only the curious armadillo-like carapace covering the whole animal.

‘What did Simeon tell you about it?’ he asked.

‘That he had put it up for fun.’

‘Just like him! See you don’t believe it! Think he bought it?’

‘Possibly. But if he just wanted to impress his public a skeleton of a crocodile would have done – and been cheaper.’

Marrin at the time had been holding forth – quite sincerely – on the life of the tideway from lamprey to salmon so that I felt the remains of the turtle were probably from one of the Severn deeps, either discovered by him in the silt or perhaps on the mantelpiece of the lonely cottage of some salmon fisher. I asked the major to run into nearby Bream and come back with a sheet of paper and a stamped envelope. When he returned I sent the photographs to my colleague in the zoology department and asked him to let me know urgently what the creature was, addressing his reply to me at Bream Post Office as I was continually on the move.

‘I’ve been thinking,’ the major said. ‘Simeon could have dug it up down a mine.’

‘What is this about mining?’

‘Keeps a pick and spade and drum of nylon cord in the boot of his car. What for?’

‘To bury my body if it turns up.’

‘Might be anywhere, old boy. Police bound to find it first.’

‘Free bucket of coal? Digging up daffodil bulbs?’

‘Goes off for the day sometimes with Evans and Carver. We ought to follow the car.’

‘You can follow if you like. I’m not risking it,’ I said firmly.

‘What about a false beard or something?’

Typical of him! I had only the clothes I stood up in and my voice was easily recognisable. It was a perfect formula for disaster.

‘Do you know where they go?’

‘Wigpool Common. A company mined for gold there years ago.’

‘Try your luck alone, then, but don’t get caught snooping!’ I reminded him that Marrin was determined to keep his secrets and that friendship would not count at all in an emergency.

‘Locals say there is an underground lake. Bloody rabbit warren, they say. Full of tunnels. Iron. Romans. Why would they want an underground lake anyway?’

‘Communing with spirits of the earth.’

‘Ah yes! Hadn’t thought of that. Very reasonable.’

‘But gold more reasonable still, you think?’

‘Might be both.’

‘Snow White and the seven dwarfs?’

‘You mustn’t laugh at legends, Piers. There’s always some truth in them if you can spot where it is. Next time I’m going to watch ’em.’

I told him to be very careful that afterwards he wasn’t watched himself, and I insisted he should not try to meet me until I told him when and where. Meanwhile all communications should be by the stump of the sapling, and I would call there every morning.

No doubt the major was on to something of interest, relevant or not. I would have liked to know what was the significance of Wigpool Common, but this new eccentricity of Marrin and his inner circle confirmed how helpless I was. I could watch the comings and goings at Broom Lodge; I could explore the banks of the Severn; but I could not follow Marrin if he left by car and most certainly not in company with the major whose distinctive Humber was sure to be spotted. If asked by Marrin what the devil he thought he was doing, his only hope was to stutter one of his staccato replies which could mean anything.

So, when the major had driven away, there was nothing for it but to walk home to my comfortable ex-lavatory, stopping on the way to buy a daily papei: with any other reading matter that Bream might have and, if there was an off-licence, supplies of something better than my coal-tasting stream.

Bream was far enough from Broom Lodge to make it unlikely that any members of the commune would be about. Their normal shopping town was Lydney. After sliding, not too obviously, from cover to cover like a soldier afraid of snipers, I completed my purchases, passed the butcher’s, saw some mutton kidneys in the window and thought how good they would be grilled on a wooden spit. When I had paid for them and was just going out, Elsa appeared from the living quarters behind the shop.


‘And you – what are you doing here?’

‘Selling black puddings. I thought you were in Wales.’

‘Are you alone? Did anyone drive you over?’

‘I bicycled. I’m trying to get a contract from dear Mr Willets.’

‘And she’s got it,’ said Mr Willets, impressed by the ‘dear’ in such a lovely mouth.

‘At forty pence a pound?’

‘Don’t leave me much profit, Miss Marrin, but it’s a deal.’

We walked out together, myself torn between the delight of seeing her and anxiety lest this might be the end of my staying dead.

‘You haven’t shaved and you smell of coal and dried leaves,’ she said.

‘Only my clothes. It’s just that I slept rough last night. I couldn’t find a room anywhere so I played Robin Hood in the green wood.’

‘Come back with me and clean up!’

That gave me an opportunity. ‘Think how hurt they would be if I just came back to have a bath and cleared off!’

‘Then come back and stay with us again! You’d be welcome. Simeon liked you.’

I said that I knew that and had liked him. It wasn’t a lie, I had. ‘But you know how difficult it was for us,’ I reminded her.

‘I don’t care if we do shock them.’

‘But much better if we can meet and you don’t say a word. When can I see you?’

‘Whenever you like, if you

‘Tomorrow afternoon in your dell?’

‘If I can.’

She pedalled off. I was fairly confident that she would not speak of our meeting, not for the reason I had given but because she knew instinctively that I had a better reason and had not told her all the truth.

For the rest of the day there was nothing for it but to be patient and wish to God that she was not the fond niece of Simeon Marrin. Next morning I went over to the woods behind Broom Lodge to see if the major had left any message for me. I was now familiar with the shortest route by tracks and footpaths through the Forest and often passed the time of day with other walkers. That was unimportant since no one knew who I was. The risk of meeting any of the colonists was very slight. They were dutifully busy at their tasks with neither time nor inclination for casual strolls.

I found a report from the major, militarily precise and piously long, which I had to read more than twice before it was clear that even for him mining was ruled out. He had gone to Wigpool Common on foot in the afternoon and apparently behaved as sensibly as any private investigator. Tea at a teashop. One pub at eighteen hours. Another at eighteen-thirty. I think soldiers must be trained to leave out all illuminating details in their reports. Yes, the place was riddled with underground shafts but the entrances were all blocked up. Iron mining it had been, not coal. Yes, there was supposed to be a large cavern with a pool in it. Strangers had been casually poking about after gold for years, encouraged by rumours rather than geology. A tall man with one or two companions often drove out and was digging near the Bailey Rock. Not for gold. They were in the wrong place for that. They didn’t say much, and were accepted as geologists.

I gathered that the local inhabitants took such visitors as all in the day’s work. Whether scientists or romanticists, they caused no excitement in a village of former miners for whom the pattern of galleries under their feet was as familiar as the pattern of galaxies to an astronomer. Marrin of course might have come across a hoard in some solitary dig, but that he could keep it secret was most unlikely. All the evidence I had still pointed to the bank of the Severn.

The lake or pool might certainly exist in old iron workings, since even the modern coal mines had been closed down because of the expense of pumping. Whether the pool was or was not in a natural cavern seemed doubtful. The only essential question for us was why Marrin and his assistants did not talk about their excavations – probably for the same reason that they did not talk about their forest ceremonies. I might not be far out in my wild guess that they were introducing themselves to long-suffering spirits of lower earth.

In the early afternoon I set out for Elsa’s private dell and had trouble in finding it since I had been paying attention to her rather than the path she took. So I returned quickly to the track by which we had left Broom Lodge, waited for her and then followed her. It was not safe to show myself so near the colony and walk alongside her.

She was nervous and not very happy, once or twice stopping as if to return. That was understandable. I may have appeared to her a mere seducer anxious to keep our affair quiet and in no hurry to see her again. She had nothing to go on, knew not enough about me and was calling herself a sucker.

I had shaved, but otherwise looked what I was: a tramp in the Forest. The darling took command from the start, kissing me like a sister with her arms on my shoulders.

‘Piers, you needn’t be so proud,’ she said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you had no money?’

It was, after all, an intelligent guess that I couldn’t afford an inn and I wouldn’t sponge on the colony. I was half tempted to let her explanation stand, for it would save a lot of trouble. On the other hand, she might quite easily ignore my demand for secrecy and tell her uncle that he was to insist on putting me up even if I refused.

What I did was to give her some account of my travels, which I had barely mentioned since the first dinner at Broom Lodge. When one is studying communities of the past, I said, one must live as they did to understand their economies. That was of course nonsense, but it sounded impressive and she cheered up.

‘Your Romans had hot baths, Piers,’ she retorted.

‘But the tribes of the Forest didn’t.’

‘Why don’t you try ploughing a field with a flint on the end of a digging stick?’

‘Unnecessary. I’d be more interested in the mining and trading of the flints.’

She accused me of being an absent-minded professor, and I asked her if she thought they couldn’t fall in love.

‘And then hide just round the corner for three days when they are supposed to be in Wales and don’t write or telephone!’

BOOK: Summon the Bright Water
7.9Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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