The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum

Our Library => Cyril Hare - That Yew Tree's Shade (1954) => Topic started by: Admin on April 21, 2023, 07:19:27 am

Title: 6: The Acquaintances of Mr. Rose
Post by: Admin on April 21, 2023, 07:19:27 am
GODFREY was late down to breakfast next morning. He was not sorry to find that Mr. Rose had been an earlier riser and was even then pacing the lawn outside with all the enjoyment that might have been expected from a man to whom such an exercise had been long denied. He took the opportunity to ask his mother, in suitably reproachful tones, precisely for what offence her guest had been imprisoned. Mrs. Ransome, however, was disappointingly vague. It was, she said, something to do with money. Her manner suggested that a mere peccadillo of that kind should not be taken too seriously.

"Your money is in trust until you're twenty-one, I suppose?" she added. "You ought to be quite safe with Humphrey, then. All the same, I shouldn't sign anything if he should happen to want you to." She concluded by proposing that if Godfrey was really curious about Rose's misdeeds he should ask him himself---a suggestion that Godfrey turned down with some annoyance.

He was finishing his breakfast in a somewhat uncertain frame of mind when the rattle of a badly sprung vehicle outside brought Mrs. Ransome to her feet.

"Thank goodness, there's Mr. Wendon!" she exclaimed. "Catering just before Easter is such a problem, and I was beginning to wonder---- No, Godfrey, it's quite all right this time---simply two perfectly legitimate chickens."

She went to the door, and Godfrey followed her. He was able to satisfy himself that this time the transaction was perfectly legal. The fowls were handed over, weighed, and paid for, and Wendon was just getting back into his jeep when Rose strolled up across the lawn. The fresh air had put some colour into his cheeks, his eyes shone with the pleasure of living, and he walked with the spring of a man without a care in the world.

"Good morning," he called to Godfrey. "I hope you didn't catch cold last night. Ah, Wendon, my dear fellow, I'm delighted to see you again."

Wendon did not say anything for an appreciable time. His pale face had gone a shade paler, he was breathing very hard, and he was staring at the visitor with set and angry eyes.

"What the hell are you doing here?" he said at last.

"I'm staying in these parts for a few days," said Rose easily. "And how is the world treating you?"

Wendon left the jeep and walked across the drive to where Rose was standing. He stopped no more than a foot or two away and thrust his head forward till their faces almost touched.

"You double-crossing little twister!" he said. "How do you expect the world to be treating me, as you put it? You bleed a man white---leave him to whistle for his money---and then sail in, as cool as a cucumber, and ask a question like that!"

Wendon had a highly interested audience to his harangue. Grethe was leaning out of the kitchen window, a parcel of chicken giblets in her hand, drinking in every word. Mrs. Ransome, startled out of her usual serenity, clutched her son convulsively by the arm. Godfrey was wondering whether it was his duty to intervene before blood was shed, while at the same time he tried to keep count of Wendon's astonishing sequence of metaphors. Of them all, Rose was by far the least perturbed.

"You know, Wendon," he said in quiet, conversational tones, "I wonder whether you are being altogether fair. I told you at the time that there was an element of risk in the venture. You can't say I wasn't perfectly frank with you. And there was no reason why it shouldn't have come off, either. The trouble with you and the rest of them was being in too great a hurry. You pushed and prodded and burst the whole thing wide open, and there we were. And where I've been has been none too comfortable, I can assure you," he added with a disarming smile.

"And where," roared Wendon, "is my money?"

Rose shrugged his shoulders and shook his head with a gesture of sincere regret. He might have been a distinguished physician lamenting an incurable case.

"A fat lot you care!" cried Wendon. "We can all starve, while you're living in comfort on a woman!"

"Really, Mr. Wendon!" Mrs. Ransome intervened. "I think it is time you took yourself off. Mr. Rose may not mind being insulted in this way, but I do."

"You must excuse him, Marian," said Rose. "Mr. Wendon is, of course, justified to some extent in what he says, but not exactly in the sense that you understood. I am sure you did not intend any rudeness towards Mrs. Ransome, did you, Wendon? I do live---I always have lived---on other men---and women. After all, one must live on something. Mr. Wendon lives on pigs and poultry, I understand. I'm sure it's a much more satisfactory way of getting a living."

It was clear that by now the crisis was over. Under the equable flow of Rose's beautifully modulated voice Wendon's rage had subsided to angry mutterings. He was stalking back to the jeep when Rose's last words caught his ear.

"Satisfactory living!" he echoed. "I don't know what you call satisfactory, but it may interest you to know that I was put into the County Court last week for a debt of twenty-five pounds twelve and eightpence. That's the kind of satisfaction you've brought me down to!"

For the first time Rose showed real emotion. A look of distress passed across his face.

"My dear fellow!" he exclaimed. "My dear fellow!" He almost ran across to where Wendon, now at the wheel, was jabbing angrily at a recalcitrant self-starter. "I had no idea things were so bad. Really, this won't do at all! Put in the County Court for a petty debt---a man in your position---that's truly shocking!" A fat note-case had appeared in his hand. "How much did you say it was? Twenty-five pounds twelve and eight? You really must allow me . . . No, no, I insist. After all, it's only the merest trifle compared with what we so unfortunately lost together. . . . I'm afraid I haven't the precise sum here, but suppose we say thirty pounds?"

He pressed the notes into Wendon's hand. The latter looked at them incredulously.

"Well, I'll be damned!" he said.

His fist closed on the money and for a moment it looked as if he was about to fling it back into Rose's face. Then he changed his mind abruptly and thrust it into his pocket. Without saying another word, he jumped from his seat and swung furiously at the starting handle until the engine came to life with a roar. Then he climbed back into the seat, his face an angry brick red, his hands quivering. "Blast you!" he shouted above the noise of the engine. The jeep shot down the drive and out of the gate, scattering gravel as it went.

Mrs. Ransome was the first to break the silence that followed.

"You never told me that you knew Mr. Wendon, Humphrey," she said somewhat reproachfully.

"I wasn't expecting to meet him here, of course. But that's the worst of creditors. You never know where they'll turn up. I'm sorry for the disturbance, Marian."

"I'm sorry to think there may be no more chickens from Mr. Wendon. I've never seen a man in such a temper, and giving him that money only made it worse. You've wasted thirty pounds, I think."

"It was worth trying," said Rose, philosophically. "The reactions of these fellows are unpredictable. And he kept the money, which is a good sign."

"Thirty pounds!" Mrs. Ransome repeated. "It's a lot. Why do you carry so much cash about with you?"

"I have to. As an undischarged bankrupt I can't ask for credit without falling foul of the law. So what I want I must pay for on the nail. That's a tip worth remembering, young man," he added to Godfrey. "Beware of the man with his pockets full of money! The chances are that his cheques will all be stumers. Now in the days when I was solvent I often hadn't the price of a bus fare on me."

Godfrey, horribly embarrassed, found himself for once with nothing to say. He could not bring himself to ask the question that was uppermost in his mind. His mother, less inhibited, did it for him.

"And while you're giving good advice, Humphrey," she said, "perhaps you wouldn't mind telling us where the bankrupt gets all his cash to put in his pockets?"

Rose shrugged his shoulders.

"Well, you heard what our friend Wendon suggested just now," he said, shortly. "And now," he went on, changing the subject, "it's going to be a lovely day. I don't know about anyone else, but I should like a walk. In a day or two the hill is going to be crawling with Easter trippers. This should be our chance to enjoy it in comfort. What does anyone say?"

Walking, like church bazaars, was a recreation not in Mrs. Ransome's line. She accompanied Rose and Godfrey only as far as the first turning in the Druids' Glade, and then made her way back to the house.

From his study window Pettigrew saw the two ill-assorted figures emerge on to the green slope and make their way slowly down the hill. Rose chatted amiably as they went, and little by little the charm which he had laid on Godfrey the evening before began to reassert itself. But this time the process was slower and less complete. Against the background of wood and down, under the wide arc of the sky, Humphrey seemed to dwindle into something less important and far less interesting than he had seemed overnight in the close companionship of Mrs. Ransome's drawing-room. Godfrey even found himself yawning once or twice.

They found themselves in due course outside Henry Spicer's cottage. Rose's eyes brightened.

"Spicer!" he said. "I owe that man something!" He read the notice on the gate. "'Spicer Memorial Museum. Entrance one shilling.' Shall we go in?"

The Spicer Museum, conceived at a time when the writer's reputation was at its height, is now little visited. They had the place to themselves save for a somnolent guardian. It had the slightly unreal air that a house once lived in and now a depository of miscellaneous relics always presents. Rose moved quickly from one exhibit to another, pausing only for a long, loving look at the manuscript of The Solipsist preserved in its glass case. He passed over the famous Whistler portrait with no more than a casual glance and came to rest finally before a Beerbohm caricature of the author in extreme old age.

"That's how I remember him," he said. "I told you I met him once, didn't I? I was in an accountant's office at the time, and he came in about his income-tax. It had gone up to something over a shilling in the pound, and he was fearfully worried. Of course tax evasion was in its infancy in those days. I was only a junior clerk---not more than an office-boy really, and it was no part of my job, but I was able to suggest something fairly useful and it made him very happy. I was very green, then, or I could have made something out of it for myself. As it was, I only got . . ."

He seemed to have forgotten Godfrey for the moment. "I wonder where that damned thing is now?" he murmured to himself. He stood abstractedly in the middle of the room, as though contemplating the green office-boy of those distant days and the long road that he had travelled since then. "Let's get out into the fresh air," he said abruptly. "It's musty in here."

Outside, Rose looked at the cottage with disfavour. "These museum people don't know their own business," he said. "Properly run, it should be worth a lot of money. It can't take enough to pay expenses as it is."

"Do you think a Spicer roadhouse would be better?" Godfrey suggested ironically. "With postcards and souvenirs on sale, and Solipsist teas at half a crown a head?"

"Why not?" said Rose. "Look what those Stratford fellows have done. Spicer isn't Shakespeare, but you could put him over just the same. It's simply a question of publicity. Publicity is the key to success, and why anyone should be afraid of it----"

"Good morning, Mr. Rose!" said a voice behind them. Rose swung round and found himself facing a young man with a camera. The shutter clicked, and the man jumped on to a bicycle and rode off towards the main road. Rose looked after him sourly.

"Now that will be in all tomorrow's papers, I suppose," he grumbled. "I shan't be able to stay here if that sort of thing goes on. I should have thought by now I was entitled to a certain amount of privacy if I wanted it."

"Perhaps Henry Spicer, too?" Godfrey suggested.

Rose had the grace to laugh. "Very well, we'll leave the museum as it is," he said. "But even by its own standards it's a poor show. I'd like to improve it if I could."

They strolled on down the lane to its junction with the road. The only traffic in view was a bicycle, travelling away from them in the direction of Yewbury. It was being ridden by a woman. She was in some difficulties up the moderately steep slope and wobbled dangerously from side to side. They were about to cross when a car shot past them, going in the same direction as the bicycle. It overtook it some fifty yards from where they stood. There was ample room for the car to pass, but instead of going over to its offside it appeared to drive directly at the labouring bicycle as it tottered on the crown of the road. At the last moment, when a collision seemed inevitable, the driver sounded his horn, at the same time swinging out by the barest minimum necessary to avoid running it down. The startled rider for her part made a vain attempt to get back to the side of the road, turned her handlebars too quickly and crashed to the ground, her machine on top of her, as the car dashed by.

"That," said Rose, "was a bloody piece of driving."

"He looked as if he was doing it on purpose," said Godfrey. "I wish I could have got his number."

"I didn't get it either, but it looked uncommonly like the hearse that met me at the station last night."

As they spoke they were hurrying to where the fallen bicyclist, having disentangled herself from her machine, was painfully trying to rise. Godfrey got to her first. It was not until he had his hands under her arms and was lifting her to her feet that he realized that he was clasping Mrs. Pink. He helped her to the side of the road, sat her down upon the bank and set himself rather clumsily to brush the dirt off her skirt with his hands. Rose, meanwhile, had picked up the bicycle and was salvaging the contents of the basket that lay strewn about the roadway.

It was clear that Mrs. Pink was not seriously hurt, but she was shocked and exhausted. She sat on the bank, her eyes closed, breathing heavily and clasping to her bosom the battered remains of her straw hat.

"We saw what happened," Godfrey told her. "It was a shocking bit of driving. We ought to tell the police. Did you get his number?"

"No, no," Mrs. Pink murmured faintly. "I don't want the police. I don't suppose Mr. Todman knew what he was doing. Marlene had her baby last night. I expect he's dreadfully upset."

"I think I've collected all your bits and pieces, madam," said Rose, wheeling the bicycle up to the bank.

At the sound of his voice Mrs. Pink opened her eyes.

"Humphrey," she said flatly.

"Well, if it isn't Martha!" said Rose.

And that, as Godfrey subsequently recorded with some surprise, was the only conversation that he heard exchanged between them.

Mrs. Pink stood up.

"I am feeling all right now," she answered. "I think I'd better be getting home."

Rose picked up the bicycle.

"Godfrey, my dear fellow," he said, "do you mind making my excuses to your mother and telling her that I shall not be back for lunch?"

Without another word said, Mrs. Pink set off along the road, walking slowly and stiffly. Rose went beside her, wheeling the bicycle. Whether they were talking as they went Godfrey could not determine. He watched them out of sight and then turned for home.