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Authors: Geoffrey Household

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He was found next morning in the middle of the lane. He had been struck by a car, run over and killed instantly. The driver might have had his lights out, but even so in the utter silence Paddy must have heard the car and could easily have moved on to the grass verge out of the way.

It was an obvious case of manslaughter and a possible case of murder. A tenable theory was that Paddy had set out to a secret meeting on the Pidge—a perfect spot for it—and had been deliberately assassinated. Loved though he was by everyone in Penminster, he could well have made some enemies elsewhere in the jealous, horsy world; but police, after enquiries among his friends and customers, were strongly against anything of the sort. However inexplicable the accident, a local man familiar with the Pidge and using it for some illegal purpose was probably involved.

And then the wildest bit of good luck or bad luck, according to how one looks at it! For a couple of days before Paddy's death I had been running with a spare on the left front wheel. It happened to be an old but hardly used radial tyre with a distinctive tread unlike the other three. When I drove into the Penminster garage where they had been mending the puncture on my regular wheel the proprietor said to me with some embarrassment that he was sorry but he had been asked to report to police immediately if any car came in with three well-used tyres and one new radial. Of course I had no objection and went off to lunch at the Royal George. When I returned a police van was in the garage courtyard with three experts round my car. They told me at once that my car had killed Mr Gadsden, cautioned me and asked if I would care to make a statement. Behind the bumper they had found a trace of blood and a shred of cloth which matched Paddy's trousers. In the tread of a tyre was imbedded one of Paddy's teeth. There was no doubt that it was my car which had struck Paddy and that the off back wheel had crushed his jaw and neck.

I had no trouble in clearing myself. On the night of Paddy's death I had been at the house-warming party given by Sir Victor Pirrone. The Manor House is on the edge of our little town and hardly more than a mile from my home, so I walked. That is considered eccentric, but I always do if I am likely to be lavishly entertained in Penminster. I reckon that I shall not be in a fit state to drive when I leave, though sober enough to enjoy the walk home grateful for life and with heightened perception. There is the added advantage that I can leave when I choose without waiting for a lift—a lift which is bound to be inconvenient since my house is on the way to nowhere and approached from the main road by a farm track which my father refused to surface in order to prevent, as he said, fools turning down it in the hope that it led to the valley below.

My presence at the Pirrones from eight to two was confirmed by Rita Vernon and one of our local magistrates as well as by the High Sheriff. I had even been accompanied for part of the way home by P.C. Warrender, who was wheeling his bicycle and taking a shortcut to investigate a rick fire. He was able to state that when he passed the house my car was standing outside the front door where I had left it. Neither of us had any reason to examine it closely.

So there was no doubt that my car had been stolen and that the culprit had audaciously put it back exactly where it had been instead of abandoning it. That was risky but by no means impossible. The house stands all alone above its parkland of oak and elm, and the Pidge is easily reached by lanes and not more than a mile of main road. Fingerprinting revealed only mine and a gloved hand.

Our superintendent of police, while assuming that it was hit-and-run accident caused by some quick-thinking criminal who then had the sense to return the car and clear out of the district on foot, had reservations. He said to me that my alibi was too perfect. When I replied indignantly that my witnesses were unimpeachable, he explained that he had not meant that at all, but did have an uneasy feeling that my alibi was intended to be perfect. If the identity of the car which killed Paddy were ever discovered, no suspicion could possibly be attached to me. Two conclusions followed from that: that the car thief knew for certain I would be out, and that Paddy's death was murder and not an accident at all.

He then asked who knew that I had been invited to the Pirrone party. I told him that everybody knew, but he was plainly dissatisfied with that. However, it was true. Temporary staff for house and garden had been taken on. Penminster buzzed with rumours of this dinner and dance for county magnates, financiers from the City and their offspring—hoping, I think, for TV stars and famous drunks featured in the gossip columns. Invitations had gone out a month before, and we—the local folk who were in no way distinguished but couldn't be left out—had freely discussed what we might expect and what we thought of Sir Victor Pirrone.

Some of that I told the superintendent, led on by his pleasant manner. Then the iron hand came out of the glove.

‘Mr Hollaston, to whom did you lend your car?'

I exclaimed that anyone would tell him I had no conceivable motive to murder Paddy Gadsden, who was very dear to me.

‘I am not suggesting for a moment that you knew for what your car would be used. I require to know to whom you lent it.'

I gave him my word of honour that I had not lent it to anybody and added that I always left it outside the front door.

‘With the keys in it?'

Well, yes, they were. It saved trouble, and the car was perfectly safe up the remote drive to the house and just below my open bedroom window. He accepted that, probably ascribing such casual behaviour to the supposed Bohemian carelessness of an artist, and asked me to give him in strict confidence my opinion of Sir Victor Pirrone. I replied that I hardly knew the man, that he had moved into the Manor House at the end of March and that police enquiries would be far more revealing than anything I could say. After that he left me alone.

Naturally we think we know a lot about the Pirrones. Strangers cannot settle in a little country town without becoming the subject of pub-biography, detailed and wildly inaccurate. Pirrone so far is neither liked nor disliked. He is imposingly handsome for a man in his early sixties, generous, cordial and a host out of the Arabian Nights, but one somehow feels that it might all be put on in the morning like a monogrammed shirt. He is Sicilian by birth, and it is said that he made his money in the export of fruit—then from fruit to shipping, to finance, to British naturalisation and eventually to a knighthood, changing his Christian name from Vittorio to Victor. Rita tells me that a more interesting side of him shows in his hobby: the social history of his island. Apparently he is a source of fascinating footnotes on the six peoples who dominated Sicily and the remnants of their customs, folklore and architecture.

Lady Pirrone I like very much on short acquaintance. She lets everyone know that she is not Italian but Spanish, and not Spanish but Basque. She rolls in fat and has not much in her still-pretty head beyond good manners inserted by a convent and excellent English by a governess. I gather that English governesses were common in the wealthy steel and shipping circles of Bilbao. She is inclined to disown industry, claiming descent from a very ancient family of Basque chieftains who, until her grandfather came down to the coast and took to ship-building, had never amounted to anything outside their own remote valley in the heart of the western Pyrenees—evidently a deep-rooted family much like my own, which may be why I find her congenial.

So much for Pirrone's party and my alibi. I can't be haunted by guilt. Even the subconscious has some common sense. And Meg insists that I am healthy. She'd know if there were anything badly wrong. I could detect it.

Could I? Well then, more analysis—of Meg this time as well as myself. Unlike Paddy's niece, it was not necessary for Meg to wait for probate of the will. I took her over at once. She moped for a few days and once was found looping down the High Street to Paddy's workshop. They sent for me to pick her up. No one else wanted to. She was in a chattering temper and had already bitten through the paw of an inquisitive terrier. Dogs which know her will sometimes join in her dancing, stabbing games. Cats, who set more store by dignity, always ignore her.

Both of us quickly accepted the position and I was permitted to take the place of Paddy. I had every outside pocket in my working coats enlarged to form a den for her, and she turned out to be a comfortable, undemanding companion whether I was painting in the studio or out of doors so long as she was instantly given liberty whenever she wanted it.

I wrote that Meg can see nothing wrong with me. I have begun to surmise—and more than surmise—that, through her, illness can be detected, on condition of course that one is in frequent contact with her. To begin with, such contact was unplanned and as involuntary as sticking a hand in a trouser pocket; but instead of jingling coins the hand sank into the furry roll and caressed it. I have very sensitive fingers. Like the blind I can identify textures and the nature of uneven substances without seeing them. Oddly enough this may be a useful gift to a painter. Sometimes I find that I have reproduced what I feel, thus giving another dimension to what I see.

So I quickly became familiar with Meg's bodily expression of her moods: wrigglings, stiffness, heart beat, the tiny ears alert or relaxed, the tail stiffened to grip a ground that was not there, or used as a toy or, like a cat, as a coverlet in sleep. When that small, shrewd head was out in the open and savouring the world from the safety of the dark pocket, I began to distinguish thoughts and emotions much as a psychologist can acquire valuable information from the unconscious gestures of hands, eyes, head and mouth. Meg's reactions to human and other animals were at first like an unknown script, until the language of soft fur and snake ribs, of the whole graceful mechanism that drove the killer teeth, became to some extent decipherable.

My first clue to the script was accidental. Old Walter, who keeps my garden productive, is a rabbit fancier. He was showing me two of his prize white does alongside each other in their cages. Both were pregnant and near their time, and both to my eyes were exactly alike. Meg showed no interest in one, but quite evidently considered the other abnormal, perhaps sick and easily to be caught. I asked Walter if she were off her food or if there were anything wrong with her. No, she was in the pink of health. Two days later she had a messy miscarriage and died.

Shortly afterwards Walter himself went down with flu, which turned to pneumonia. He had hardly ever had a day's illness and when the district nurse was in his cottage, packing him up for hospital, he was convinced, with the hell of a temperature and slightly delirious, that she was laying him out for his funeral. I was standing by and tried to comfort him by telling him nobody died of pneumonia in these days except the very old.

To my surprise he muttered gloomily: ‘Ah, but let's see what Miss Meg thinks.'

I woke up Meg who stuck out her head and chattered. She didn't like the scent of the fever. That was all I could feel; but it seemed a splendid opportunity to raise morale.

‘She says you'll be easy tomorrow,' I replied.

Well, of course the antibiotics worked and he was. He is up and about now and, I know, embroidering the story. Meg has always aroused curiosity in everyone who meets her, and some of the older farm hands ask after her health with marked respect, whispering about me as they did about Paddy. The vicar, who has the usual vicarish habit of leaping in with exaggerated Christian cheerfulness where angels fear to tread, has started to greet me with: ‘And how's our familiar this morning?' A jest, but not so far from truth. And do I in fact receive from Meg not only with my fingers but with another sense?

 

I finished writing at that point. Meg was nowhere. I had been too occupied to keep an eye on her. And I had to move. The shadow had found me. Found me? No. Whatever it is, it cannot find me or lose me since it is within me.

I bolted for the open, just as earlier I had bolted for the trees. I might have gone on running till I reached the heather and the still water of the mere if it had not been for Meg. Meg must not be left behind and lost. That was the only thought concrete enough to block the nebulous, overwhelming instinct to run. Love versus instinct. It might be fair—though so doubtful, so very distant a parallel—to consider the doe who stands by her fawn quivering with terror, useless little horns lowered, while the leopard, felt but still unseen, gathers for the charge. It's a platitude that love can overcome fear, but that is not a lot of use in my case, for it does not prevent fear. Love's only business is to preserve the race, not the individual.

However, I was just able to come to a stop and call. On a fallen branch at the edge of the copse I saw Meg sitting up, herself like a lively, straight shoot growing from the dead, and she came bobbing down the hill, up my leg and into her pocket. Perfectly calm and friendly. Whatever wants to eat me does not eat polecats.

Through communion with Meg confidence partly returned. When at a crossroads of lanes I passed a small white pub with a notice of
Bed and Breakfast
in the bar window I turned back and went in. Naturally they were fascinated by Meg, assuming that she was a ferret and that I was training her; I could hardly be poaching rabbits since I wasn't the type and carried neither net nor gun. When I explained that she was just a pet, all they wanted to know was whether she was clean about the house. Spotless. Polecats, like cats, must be clean with very little maternal tuition. In Meg's case, Paddy would have acted as a mother in the first few weeks of her life with him.

The landlord was a townsman; he had been a barman in a Bournemouth hotel and had not needed much persuasion when a chance came to set himself up in the peace of the country. The persuasion, I am sure, was due to his wife who was sturdy, deep Dorset, hailing from Poyntington, not far across the county border from Penminster. She seemed to take to us and told me that my friend—as she rightly called Meg—reminded her of her grandfather who possessed a black bantam cock which followed him everywhere and used to sit on his shoulder. My Indian owl would do that in our common bungalow but seldom followed me.

BOOK: The Sending
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