Something the cat dragged in
by Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith / Lo que trajo el gato
A few seconds of pondering silence in the Scrabble game was interrupted by a rustle of plastic at the cat door: Portland Bill was coming in again. Nobody paid any attention. Michael and Gladys Herbert were ahead, Gladys doing a bit better than her husband. The Herberts played Scrabble often and were quite sharp at it. Colonel Edward Phelps-a neighbor and a good friend—was limping along, and his American niece Phyllis, aged nineteen, had been doing well but had lost interest in the last ten minutes. It would soon be teatime. The Colonel was sleepy and looked it.
'Quack,' said the Colonel thoughtfully, pushing a forefinger against his Kipling-style mustache. 'Pity-I was thinking of earthquake.'
'If you've got quack, Uncle Eddie,' said Phyllis, 'how could you get quake out of it?'
The cat made another more sustained noise at his door, and now with black tail and brindle hindquarters in the house, he moved backwards and pulled something through the plastic oval. What he had dragged in looked whitish and about six inches long.
'Caught another bird,' said Michael, impatient for Eddie to make his move so he could make a brilliant move before somebody grabbed it.
'Looks like another goose foot,' said Gladys, glancing. 'Ugh.'
The Colonel at last moved, adding a P to SUM.
Michael moved, raising a gasp of admiration from Phyllis for his INI stuck onto GEM, the N of which gave him DAWN.
Portland Bill flipped his trophy into the air, and it fell on the carpet with a thud.
'Really dead pigeon that,' remarked the Colonel who was nearest the cat, but whose eyesight was not the best. 'Turnip,' he said for Phyllis's benefit. 'Swede. Or an oddly shaped carrot,' he added, peering, then chuckled. 'I've seen carrots take the most fantastic shapes. Saw one once ...'
'This is white,' said Phyllis, and got up to investigate, since Gladys had to play before her. Phyllis, in slacks and sweater, bent over with hands on her knees. 'Good Chr— Oh! Uncle Eddie!' She stood up and clapped her hand over her mouth as if she had said something dreadful.
Michael Herbert had half risen from his chair. 'What's the matter?'
'They're human fingersV Phyllis said. 'Look!'
They all looked, coming slowly, unbelievingly, from the card table. The cat looked, proudly, up at the faces of the four humans gazing down. Gladys drew in her breath.
The two fingers were dead white and puffy, there was not a sign of blood even at the base of the fingers, which included a couple of inches of what had been the hand. What made the object undeniably the third and fourth fingers of a human hand were the two nails, yellowish and short and looking small because of the swollen flesh.
'What should we do, Michael?' Gladys was practical, but liked to let her husband make decisions.
'That's been dead for two weeks at least,' murmured the Colonel, who had had some war experiences.
'Could it have come from a hospital near here?' asked Phyllis.
'Hospital amputating like that?' replied her uncle with a chuckle.
'The nearest hospital is twenty miles from here,' said Gladys.
'Mustn't let Edna see it.' Michael glanced at his watch. 'Of course I think we-'
'Maybe call the police?' asked Gladys.
'I was thinking of that. I-' Michael's hesitation was interrupted by Edna-their housekeeper-cook-bumping just then against a door in a remote corner of the big living room. The tea tray had arrived. The others discreetly moved toward the low table in front of the fireplace, while Michael Herbert stood with an air of casualness. The fingers were just behind his shoes. Michael pulled an unlit pipe from his jacket pocket, and fiddled with it, blowing into its stem. His hands shook a little. He shooed Portland Bill away with one foot.
Edna finally dispensed napkins and plates, and said, 'Have a nice tea!' She was a local woman in her mid-fifties, a reliable soul, but with most of her mind on her own children and grandchildren-thank goodness under these circumstances, Michael thought. Edna arrived at half past seven in the morning on her bicycle and departed when she pleased, as long as there was something in the house for supper. The Herberts were not fussy.
Gladys was looking anxiously toward Michael. 'Get a-way, Bill!'
'Got to do something with this meanwhile,' Michael murmured. With determination he went to the basket of newspapers beside the fireplace, shook out a page of the Times, and returned to the fingers which Portland Bill was about to pick up. Michael beat the cat by grabbing the fingers through the newspaper. The others had not sat down. Michael made a gesture for them to do so, and closed the newspaper around the fingers, rolling and folding. 'The thing to do, I should think,' said Michael, 'is to notify the police, because there might have been-foul play somewhere.'
'Or might it have fallen,' the Colonel began, shaking out his napkin, 'out of an ambulance or some disposal unit-you know? Might've been an accident somewhere.'
'Or should we just let well enough alone-and get rid of it,' said Gladys. 'I need some tea.' She had poured, and proceeded to sip her cup.
No one had an answer to her suggestion. It was as if the three others were stunned, or hypnotized by one another's presence, vaguely expecting a response from another which did not come.
'Rid of it where? In the garbage?' asked Phyllis. 'Bury it,' she added, as if answering her own question.
'I don't think that would be right,' said Michael.
'Michael, do have some tea,' said his wife.
'Got to put this somewhere—overnight.' Michael still held the little bundle. 'Unless we ring the police now. It's already five and it's Sunday.'
'In England do the police care whether it's Sunday or not?' asked Phyllis.
Michael started for the armoire near the front door, with an idea of putting the thing on top beside a couple of hat boxes, but he was followed by the cat, and Michael knew that the cat with enough inspiration could leap to the top.
'I've got just the thing, I think,' said the Colonel, pleased by his own idea, but with an air of calm in case Edna made a second appearance. 'Bought some house slippers just yesterday in the High Street and I've still got the box. I'll go and fetch it, if I may.' He went off toward the stairs, then turned and said softly, 'We'll tie a string around it. Keep it away from the cat.' The Colonel climbed the stairs.
'Keep it in whose room?' asked Phyllis with a nervous giggle-
The Herberts did not answer. Michael, still on his feet, held the object in his right hand. Portland Bill sat with white forepaws neatly together, regarding Michael, waiting to see what Michael would do with it.
Colonel Phelps came down with his white cardboard shoe box. The little bundle went in easily, and Michael let the Colonel hold the box while he went to rinse his hands in the lavatory near the front door. When Michael returned, Portland Bill still hovered, and gave out a hopeful 'Meow?'
'Let's put it in the sideboard cupboard for the moment,' said Michael, and took the box from Eddie's hands. He felt that the box at least was comparatively clean, and he put it beside a stack of large and seldom-used dinner plates, then closed the cabinet door which had a key in it.
Phyllis bit into a Bath Oliver and said, 'I noticed a crease in one finger. If there's a ring there, it might give us a clue.'
Michael exchanged a glance with Eddie, who nodded slightly. They had all noticed the crease. Tacitly the men agreed to take care of this later.
'More tea, dear,' said Gladys. She refilled Phyllis's cup.
'M'wow,' said the cat in a disappointed tone. He was now seated facing the sideboard, looking over one shoulder.
Michael changed the subject: the progress of the Colonel's redecorating. The painting of the first-floor bedrooms was the main reason the Colonel and his niece were visiting the Herberts just now. But this was of no interest compared to Phyllis's question to Michael:
'Shouldn't you ask if anyone's missing in the neighborhood? Those fingers might be part of a murder.'
Gladys shook her head slightly and said nothing. Why did Americans always think in such violent terms? However, what could have severed a hand in such a manner? An explosion? An ax?
A lively scratching sound got Michael to his feet.
'Bill, do stop that!' Michael advanced on the cat and shooed him away. Bill had been trying to open the cabinet door.
Tea was over more quickly than usual. Michael stood by the sideboard while Edna cleared away.
'When're you going to look at the ring, Uncle Eddie?' Phyllis asked. She wore round-rimmed glasses and was rather myopic.
'I don't think Michael and I have quite decided what we should do, my dear,' said her uncle.
'Let's go into the library, Phyllis,' said Gladys. 'You said you wanted to look at some photographs.'
Phyllis had said that. There were photographs of Phyllis's mother and of the house where her mother had been born, in which Uncle Eddie now lived. Eddie was older than her mother by fifteen years. Now Phyllis wished she hadn't asked to see the photographs, because the men were going to do something with the fingers, and Phyllis would have liked to watch. After all, she was dissecting frogs and dogfish in zoology lab. But her mother had warned her before she left New York to mind her manners and not be 'crude and insensitive,' her mother's usual adjectives about Americans. Phyllis dutifully sat looking at photographs fifteen and twenty years old, at least.
'Let's take it out to the garage,' Michael said to Eddie. 'I've got a workbench there, you know.'
The two men walked along a graveled path to the two-car garage at the back of which Michael had a workshop with saws and hammers, chisels and electric drills, plus a supply of wood and planks in case the house needed any repairs or he felt in the mood to make something. Michael was a freelance journalist and book critic, but he enjoyed manual labor. Here Michael felt better with the awful box, somehow. He could set it on his sturdy workbench as if he were a surgeon laying out a body, or a corpse.
'What the hell do you make of this?' asked Michael as he flipped the fingers out by holding one side of the newspaper. The fingers flopped onto the well-used wooden surface, this time palm side upward. The white flesh was jagged where it had been cut, and in the strong beam of the spotlight which shone from over the bench, they could see two bits of metacarpals, also jagged, projecting from the flesh. Michael turned the fingers over with the tip of a screwdriver. He twisted the screwdriver tip, and parted the flesh enough to see the glint of gold.
'Gold ring,' said Eddie. 'But he was a workman of some kind, don't you think? Look at those nails. Short and thick. Still some soil under them-dirty, anyway.'
'I was thinking-if we report it to the police, shouldn't we leave it the way it is? Not try to look at the ring?'
'Are you going to report it to the police?' asked Eddie with a smile as he lit a cigar. 'What'll you be in for then?'
'In for? I'll say the cat dragged it in. Why should I be in for anything? I'm curious about the ring. Might give us a clue.'
Colonel Phelps glanced at the garage door, which Michael had closed but not locked. He too was curious about the ring. Eddie was thinking, if it had been a gentleman's hand, they might have turned it in to the police by now. 'Many farmworkers around here still?' mused the Colonel. 'I suppose so.'
Michael shrugged, nervous. 'What do you say about the ring?'
'Let's have a look.' The Colonel puffed serenely, and looked at Michael's racks of tools.
'I know what we need.' Michael reached for a Stanley knife which he ordinarily used for cutting cardboard, pushed the blade out with his thumb, and placed his fingers on i lie pudgy remainder of the palm. He made a cut above where the ring was, then below.
Eddie Phelps bent to watch. 'No blood at all. Drained out. Just like the war days.'
Nothing but a goose foot, Michael was telling himself in order not to faint. Michael repeated his cuts on the top surface of the finger. He felt like asking Eddie if he wanted to finish the job, but Michael thought that might be cowardly.
'Dear me,' Eddie murmured unhelpfully.
Michael had to cut off some strips of flesh, then take a firm grip with both hands to get the wedding ring off. It most certainly was a wedding ring of plain gold, not very thick or broad, but suitable for a man to wear. Michael rinsed it at the cold water tap of the sink on his left. When he held it near the spotlight, initials were legible: W.R.-M.T.
Eddie peered. 'Now that's a clue!'
Michael heard the cat scratching at the garage door, then a meow. Next Michael put the three pieces of flesh he had cut off into an old rag, wadded it up, and told Eddie he would be back in a minute. He opened the garage door, discouraged Bill with a 'Whisht!' and stuck the rag into a dustbin which had a fastening that a cat could not open. Michael had thought he had a plan to propose to Eddie, but when he returned-Eddie was again examining the ring-Michael was too shaken to speak. He had meant to say something about making 'discreet inquiries.' Instead he said in a voice gone hollow:
'Let's call it a day-unless we think of something brilliant tonight. Let's leave the box here. The cat can't get in.'
Michael didn't want the box even on his workbench. He put the ring in with the fingers, and set the box on top of some plastic jerricans which stood against a wall. His workshop was even ratproof, so far. Nothing was going to come in to chew at the box.
As Michael got into bed that night, Gladys said, 'If we don't tell the police, we've simply got to bury it somewhere.'
'Yes,' said Michael vaguely. It seemed somehow a criminal act, burying a pair of human fingers. He had told Gladys about the ring. The initials hadn't rung any bell with her.
Colonel Edward Phelps went to sleep quite peacefully, having reminded himself that he had seen a lot worse in 1941.
Phyllis had quizzed her uncle and Michael about the ring at dinner. Maybe it would all be solved tomorrow and turn out to be-somehow-something quite simple and innocent. Anyway, it would make quite a story to tell her chums in college. And her mother! So this was the quiet English countryside!
The next day being Monday, with the post office open, Michael decided to pose a question to Mary Jeffrey, who doubled there as postal clerk and grocery salesgirl. Michael bought some stamps, then asked casually:
'By the way, Mary, is anybody missing lately-in this neighborhood?'
Mary, a bright-faced girl with dark curly hair, looked puzzled. 'Missing how?'
'Disappeared,' Michael said with a smile.
Mary shook her head. 'Not that I know. Why do you ask?'
Michael had tried to prepare for this. 'I read somewhere in a newspaper that people do sometimes-just disappear, even in small villages like this. Drift away, change their names or some such. Baffles everyone, where they go.' Michael was drifting away himself. Not a good job, but the question was put.
He walked the quarter of a mile back home, wishing he had had the guts to ask Mary if anyone in the area had a bandaged left hand, or if she'd heard of any such accident. Mary had boyfriends who frequented the local pub. Mary this minute might know of a man with a bandaged hand, but Michael could not possibly tell Mary that the missing fingers were in his garage.
The matter of what to do with the fingers was put aside for that morning, as the Herberts had laid on a drive to Cambridge, followed by lunch at the house of a don who was a friend of the Herberts. Unthinkable to cancel that because of getting involved with the police, so the fingers did not come up that morning in conversation. They talked of anything else during the drive. Michael and Gladys and Eddie had decided, before taking off for Cambridge, that they should not discuss the fingers again in front of Phyllis, but let it blow over, if possible. Eddie and Phyllis were to leave on the afternoon of Wednesday, day after tomorrow, and by then the matter might be cleared up or in the hands of the police.
Gladys also had gently warned Phyllis not to bring up 'the cat incident' at the don's house, so Phyllis did not. All went well and happily, and the Herberts and Eddie and Phyllis were back at the Herberts' house around four. Edna told Gladys she had just realized they were short of butter, and since she was watching a cake . .. Michael, in the living room with Eddie, heard this and volunteered to go to the grocery.
Michael bought the butter, a couple of packets of cigarettes, a box of toffee that looked nice, and was served by Mary in her usual modest and polite manner. He had been hoping for news from her. Michael had taken his change and was walking to the door, when Mary cried: 'Oh, Mr Herbert!'
Michael turned round.
'I heard of someone disappearing just this noon,' Mary said, leaning toward Michael across the counter, smiling now. 'Bill Reeves-lives on Mr Dickenson's property, you know. He has a cottage there, works on the land-or did.'
Michael didn't know Bill Reeves, but he certainly knew of the Dickenson property, which was vast, to the northwest of the village. Bill Reeves's initials fitted the W.R. on the ring. 'Yes? He disappeared?'
'About two weeks ago, Mr Vickers told me. Mr Vickers has the petrol station near the Dickenson property, you know. He came in today, so I thought I'd ask him.' She smiled again, as if she had done satisfactorily with Michael's little riddle.
Michael knew the petrol station and knew how Vickers looked, vaguely. 'Interesting. Does Mr Vickers know why he disappeared?'
'No. Mr Vickers said it's a mystery. Bill Reeves's wife left the cottage too, a few days ago, but everyone knows she went to Manchester to stay with her sister there.'
Michael nodded. 'Well, well. Shows it can happen even here, eh? People disappearing.' He smiled and went out of the shop.
The thing to do was ring up Tom Dickenson, Michael thought, and ask him what he knew. Michael didn't call him Tom, had met him only a couple of times at local political rallies and such. Dickenson was about thirty, married, had inherited, and now led the life of gentleman farmer, Michael thought. The family was in the wool industry, had factories up north, and had owned their land here for generations.
When he got home, Michael asked Eddie to come up to his study, and despite Phyllis's curiosity, did not invite her to join them. Michael told Eddie what Mary had said about the disappearance of a farmworker called Bill Reeves a couple of weeks ago. Eddie agreed that they might ring up Dickenson.
'The initials on the ring could be an accident,' Eddie said. 'The Dickenson place is fifteen miles from here, you say.'
'Yes, but I still think I'll ring him.' Michael looked up the number in the directory on his desk. There were two numbers. Michael tried the first.
A servant answered, or someone who sounded like a servant, inquired Michael's name, then said he would summon Mr Dickenson. Michael waited a good minute. Eddie was waiting too. 'Hello, Mr Dickenson. I'm one of your neighbors, Michael Herbert ... Yes, yes, I know we have-couple of times. Look, I have a question to ask which you might think odd, but-I understand you had a workman or tenant on your land called Bill Reeves?'
'Ye-es?' replied Tom Dickenson.
'And where is he now? I'm asking because I was told he disappeared a couple of weeks ago.' 'Yes, that's true. Why do you ask?' 'Do you know where he went?'
'No idea,' replied Dickenson. 'Did you have any dealings with him?'
'No. Could you tell me what his wife's name is?' 'Marjorie.'
That fitted the first initial. 'Do you happen to know her maiden name?'
Tom Dickenson chuckled. 'I'm afraid I don't.'
Michael glanced at Eddie, who was watching him. 'Do you know if Bill Reeves wore a wedding ring?'
'No. Never paid that much attention to him. Why?'
Why, indeed? Michael shifted. If he ended the conversation here, he would not have learned much. 'Because-I've found something that just might be a clue in regard to Bill Reeves. I presume someone's looking for him, if no one knows his whereabouts.'
'I'm not looking for him,' Tom Dickenson replied in his easy manner. 'I doubt if his wife is, either. She moved out a week ago. May I ask what you found?'
'I'd rather not say over the phone ... I wonder if I could come to see you. Or perhaps you could come to my house.'
After an instant of silence, Dickenson said, 'Quite honestly, I'm not interested in Reeves. I don't think he left any debts, as far as I know, I'll say that for him. But I don't care what's happened to him, if I may speak frankly.'
'I see. Sorry to've bothered you, Mr Dickenson.'
They hung up.
Michael turned to Eddie Phelps and said, 'I think you got most of that. Dickenson's not interested.'
'Can't expect Dickenson to be concerned about a disappeared farmworker. Did I hear him say the wife's gone too?'
'Thought I told you. She went to Manchester to her sister's, Mary told me.' Michael took a pipe from the rack on his desk and began to fill it. 'Wife's name is Marjorie. Fits the initial on the ring.'
'True,' said the Colonel, 'but there're lots of Marys and Margarets in the world.'
'Dickenson didn't know her maiden name. Now look, Eddie, with no help from Dickenson, I'm thinking we ought to buzz the police and get this over with. I'm sure I can't bring myself to bury that-object. The thing would haunt me. I'd be thinking a dog would dig it up, even if it's just bones or in a worse state, and the police would have to start with somebody else besides me, and with a trail not so fresh to follow.'
'You're still thinking of foul play?-I have a simpler idea,' Eddie said with an air of calm and logic. 'Gladys said there was a hospital twenty miles away, I presume in Colchester. We might ask if in the last two weeks or so there's been an accident involving the loss of third and fourth fingers of a man's left hand. They'd have his name.
It looks like an accident and of the kind that doesn't happen every day.'
Michael was on the brink of agreeing to this, at least before ringing the police, when the telephone rang. Michael took it, and found Gladys on the line downstairs with a man whose voice sounded like Dickenson's. 'I'll take it, Gladys.'
Tom Dickenson said hello to Michael. 'I've-I thought if you really would like to see me-' 'I'd be very glad to.'
'I'd prefer to speak with you alone, if that's possible.'
Michael assured him it was, and Dickenson said he could come along in about twenty minutes. Michael put the telephone down with a feeling of relief, and said to Eddie, 'He's coming over now and wants to talk with me alone. That is the best.'
'Yes.' Eddie got up from Michael's sofa, disappointed. 'He'll be more open, if he has anything to say. Are you going to tell him about the fingers?' He peered at Michael sideways, bushy eyebrows raised.
'May not come to that. I'll see what he has to say first.'
'He's going to ask you what you found.'
Michael knew that. They went downstairs. Michael saw Phyllis in the back garden, banging a croquet ball all by herself, and heard Gladys's voice in the kitchen. Michael informed Gladys, out of Edna's hearing, of the imminent arrival of Tom Dickenson, and explained why: Mary's information that a certain Bill Reeves was missing, a worker on Dickenson's property. Gladys realized at once that the initials matched.
And here came Dickenson's car, a black Triumph convertible, rather in need of a wash. Michael went out to greet him. 'Helios,' and 'you remember mes.' They vaguely remembered each other. Michael invited Dickenson into the house before Phyllis could drift over and compel an introduction.
Tom Dickenson was blond and tallish, now in leather jacket and corduroys and green rubber boots which he assured Michael were not muddy. He had just been working on his land, and hadn't taken the time to change.
'Let's go up,' said Michael, leading the way to the stairs.
Michael offered Dickenson a comfortable armchair, and sat down on his old sofa. 'You told me-Bill Reeves's wife went off too?'
Dickenson smiled a little, and his bluish-gray eyes gazed calmly at Michael. 'His wife left, yes. But that was after Reeves vanished. Marjorie went to Manchester, I heard. She has a sister there. The Reeves weren't getting on so well. They're both about twenty-five-Reeves fond of his drink. I'll be glad to replace Reeves, frankly. Easily done.'
Michael waited for more. It didn't come. Michael was wondering why Dickenson had been willing to come to see him about a farmworker he didn't much like?
'Why're you interested?' Dickenson asked. Then he broke out in a laugh which made him look younger and happier. 'Is Reeves perhaps asking for a job with you-under another name?'
'Not at all.' Michael smiled too. 'I haven't anywhere to lodge a worker. No.'
'But you said you found something?' Tom Dickenson's brows drew in a polite frown of inquiry.
Michael looked at the floor, then lifted his eyes and said, 'I found two fingers of a man's left hand-with a wedding ring on one finger. The initials on the ring could stand for William Reeves. The other initials are M.T., which could be Marjorie somebody. That's why I thought I should ring you up.'
Had Dickenson's face gone paler, or was Michael imagining? Dickenson's lips were slightly parted, his eyes uncertain. 'Good lord, found it where?'
'Our cat dragged it in-believe it or not. Had to tell my wife, because the cat brought it into the living room in front of all of us.' Somehow it was a tremendous relief for Michael to get the words out. 'My old friend Eddie Phelps and his American niece are here now. They saw it.' Michael stood up. Now he wanted a cigarette, got the box from his desk and offered it to Dickenson.
Dickenson said he had just stopped smoking, but he would like one.
'It was a bit shocking,' Michael went on, 'so I thought I'd make some inquiries in the neighborhood before I spoke to the police. I think informing the police is the right thing to do. Don't you?'
Dickenson did not answer at once. 'I had to cut away some of the finger to get the ring off-with Eddie's assistance last night.' Dickenson still said nothing, only drew on his cigarette, frowning. 'I thought the ring might give a clue, which it does, though it might have nothing at all to do with this Bill Reeves. You don't seem to know if he wore a wedding ring, and you don't know Marjorie's maiden name.'
'Oh, that one can find out.' Dickenson's voice sounded different and more husky.
'Do you think we should do that? Or maybe you know where Reeves's parents live. Or Marjorie's parents? Maybe Reeves is at one or the other's place now.'
'Not at his wife's parents', I'll bet,' said Dickenson with a nervous smile. 'She's fed up with him.'
'Well-what do you think? I'll tell the police?... Would you like to see the ring?' 'No. I'll take your word.'
'Then I'll get in touch with the police tomorrow-or this evening. I suppose the sooner the better.' Michael noticed
Dickenson glancing around the room as if he might see the fingers lying on a bookshelf.
The study door moved and Portland Bill walked in. Michael never quite closed his door, and Bill had an assured way with doors, rearing a little and giving them a push.
Dickenson blinked at the cat, then said to Michael in a firm voice, 'I could stand a whiskey. May I?'
Michael went downstairs and brought back the bottle and two glasses in his hands. There had been no one in the living room. Michael poured. Then he shut the door of his study.
Dickenson took a good inch of his drink at the first gulp. 'I may as well tell you now that I killed Reeves.'
A tremor went over Michael's shoulders, yet he told himself that he had known this all along-or since Dickenson's telephone call to him, anyway. 'Yes?' said Michael.
'Reeves had been . . . trying it on with my wife. I won't give it the dignity of calling it an affair. I blame my wife-flirting in a silly way with Reeves. He was just a lout, as far as I'm concerned. Handsome and stupid. His wife knew, and she hated him for it.' Dickenson drew on the last of his cigarette, and Michael fetched the box again. Dickenson took one. 'Reeves got ever more sure of himself. I wanted to sack him and send him away, but I couldn't because of his lease on the cottage, and I didn't want to bring the situation with my wife to light-with the law, I mean, as a reason.'
'How long did this go on?'
Dickenson had to think. 'Maybe about a month.' 'And your wife-now?'
Tom Dickenson sighed, and rubbed his eyes. He sat hunched forward in his chair. 'We'll patch it up. We've hardly been married a year.'
'She knows you killed Reeves?'
Now Dickenson sat back, propped a green boot on one knee, and drummed the fingers of one hand on the arm of his chair. 'I don't know. She may think I just sent him packing. She didn't ask any questions.'
Michael could imagine, and he could also see that Dickenson would prefer that his wife never knew. Michael realized that he would have to make a decision: to turn Dickenson over to the police or not. Or would Dickenson even prefer to be turned in? Michael was listening to the confession of a man who had had a crime on his conscience for more than two weeks, bottled up inside himself, or so Michael assumed. And how had Dickenson killed him? 'Does anyone else know?' Michael asked cautiously.
'Well-I can tell you about that. I suppose I must. Yes.' Dickenson's voice was again hoarse, and his whiskey gone.
Michael got up and replenished Dickenson's glass.
Dickenson sipped now, and stared at the wall beside Michael.
Portland Bill sat at a little distance from Michael, concentrating on Dickenson as if he understood every word and was waiting for the next installment.
'I told Reeves to stop playing about with my wife or leave my property with his own wife, but he brought up the lease-and why didn't I speak to my wife. Arrogant, you know, so pleased with himself that the master's wife had deigned to look at him and-' Dickenson began again. 'Tuesdays and Fridays I go to London to take care of the company. A couple of times, Diane said she didn't feel like going to London or she had some other engagement. Reeves could always manage to find a little work close to the house on those days, I'm sure. And then-there was a second victim-like me.'
'Victim? What do you mean?'
'Peter.' Now Dickenson rolled his glass between his hands, the cigarette projected from his lips, and he stared at the wall beside Michael, and spoke as if he were narrating what he saw on a screen there. 'We were trimming some hedgerows deep in the fields, cutting stakes too for new markings. Reeves and I. Axes and sledgehammers. Peter was driving in stakes quite a way from us. Peter's another hand like Reeves, been with me longer. I had the feeling Reeves might attack me-then say it was an accident or some such. It was afternoon, and he'd had a few pints at lunch. He had a hatchet. I didn't turn my back on Reeves, and my anger was somehow rising. He had a smirk on his face, and he swung his hatchet as if to catch me in the thigh, though he wasn't near enough to me. Then he turned his back on me-arrogantly-and I hit him in the head with the big hammer. I hit him a second time as he was falling, but that landed on his back. I didn't know Peter was so close to me, or I didn't think about that. Peter came running, with his ax. Peter said, "Good! Damn the bastard!" or something like that, and-' Dickenson seemed stuck for words, and looked at the floor, then the cat.
'And then?... Reeves was dead.'
'Yes. All this happened in seconds. Peter really finished it with a bash on Reeves's head with the ax. We were quite near some woods-my woods. Peter said, 'Let's bury the swine! Get rid of him!' Peter was in a cursing rage and I was out of my mind for a different reason, maybe shock, but Peter was saying that Reeves had been having it off with his wife too, or trying to, and that he knew about Reeves and Diane. Peter and I dug a grave in the woods, both of us working like madmen-hacking at tree roots and throwing up earth with our hands. At the last, just before we threw him in, Peter took the hatchet and said-something about Reeves's wedding ring, and he brought the hatchet down a couple of times on Reeves's hand.'
Michael did not feel so well. He leaned over, mainly to lower his head, and stroked the cat's strong back. The cat still concentrated on Dickenson.
'Then-we buried it, both of us drenched in sweat by then. Peter said, "You won't get a word out of me, sir. This bastard deserved what he got." We trampled the grave and Peter spat on it. Peter's a man, I'll say that for him.'
'A man ... And you?'
'I dunno.' Dickenson's eyes were serious when he next spoke. 'That was one of the days Diane had a tea date at some women's club in our village. The same afternoon, I thought, my God, the fingers! Maybe they're just lying there on the ground, because I couldn't remember Peter or myself throwing them into the grave. So I went back. I found them. I could've dug another hole, except that I hadn't brought anything to dig with and I also didn't want ... anything more of Reeves on my land. So I got into my car and drove, not caring where, not paying any attention to where I was, and when I saw some woods, I got out and flung the thing as far as I could.'
Michael said, 'Must've been within half a mile of this house. Portland Bill doesn't venture farther, I think. He's been doctored, poor old Bill.' The cat looked up at his name. 'You trust this Peter?'
'I do. I knew his father and so did my father. And if I were asked-I'm not sure I could say who struck the fatal blow, I or Peter. But to be correct, I'd take the responsibility, because I did strike two blows with the hammer. I can't claim self-defense, because Reeves hadn't attacked me.'
Correct. An odd word, Michael thought. But Dickenson was the type who would want to be correct. 'What do you propose to do now?'
'Propose? I?' Dickenson's sigh was almost a gasp. 'I dunno. I've admitted it. In a way it's in your hands or-' He made a gesture to indicate the downstairs. Td like to spare Peter-keep him out of it-if I can. You understand, I think. I can talk to you. You're a man like myself.'
Michael was not sure of that, but he had been trying to imagine himself in Dickenson's position, trying to see himself twenty years younger in the same circumstances. Reeves had been a swine-even to his own wife-unprincipled, and should a young man like Dickenson ruin his own life, or the best part of it, over a man like Reeves? 'What about Reeves's wife?'
Dickenson shook his head and frowned. 'I know she detested him. If he's absent without tidings, I'll wager she'll never make the least effort to find him. She's glad to be rid of him, I'm sure.'
A silence began and grew. Portland Bill yawned, arched his back and stretched. Dickenson watched the cat as if he might say something: after all the cat had discovered the fingers. But the cat said nothing. Dickenson broke the silence awkwardly but in a polite tone:
'Where are the fingers-by the way?'
'In the back of my garage-which is locked. They're in a shoe box.' Michael felt quite off balance. 'Look, I have two guests in the house.'
Tom Dickenson got to his feet quickly. 'I know. Sorry.'
'Nothing to be sorry about, but I've really got to say something to them because the Colonel-my old friend Eddie-knows I rang you up about the initials on the ring and that you were to call on us-me. He could've said something to the others.'
'Of course. I understand.'
'Could you stay here for a few minutes while I speak with the people downstairs? Feel free with the whiskey.'
'Thank you.' His eyes did not flinch.
Michael went downstairs. Phyllis was kneeling by the gramophone, about to put a record on. Eddie Phelps sat in a corner of the sofa reading a newspaper. 'Where's Gladys?' Michael asked.
Gladys was deadheading roses. Michael called to her. She wore rubber boots like Dickenson, but hers were smaller and bright red. Michael looked to see if Edna was behind the kitchen door. Gladys said Edna had gone off to buy something at the grocery. Michael told Dickenson's story, trying to make it brief and clear. Phyllis's mouth fell open a couple of times. Eddie Phelps held his chin in a wise-looking fashion and said 'Um-hm' now and then.
'I really don't feel like turning him in-or even speaking to the police,' Michael ventured in a voice hardly above a whisper. No one had said anything after his narration, and Michael had waited several seconds. 'I don't see why we can't just let it blow over. What's the harm?'
'What's the harm, yes,' said Eddie Phelps, but it might have been a mindless echo for all the help it gave Michael.
'I've heard of stories like this-among primitive peoples,' Phyllis said earnestly, as if to say she found Tom Dickenson's action quite justifiable.
Michael had of course included the resident worker Peter in his account. Had Dickenson's hammer blow been fatal, or the blow of Peter's ax? 'The primitive ethic is not what I'm concerned with,' Michael said, and at once felt confused. In regard to Tom Dickenson he was concerned with just the opposite of the primitive.
'But what else is it?' asked Phyllis.
'Yes, yes,' said the Colonel, gazing at the ceiling.
'Really, Eddie,' said Michael, 'you're not being much of a help.'
'I'd say nothing about it. Bury those fingers somewhere-with the ring. Or maybe the ring in a different place for safety. Yes.' The Colonel was almost muttering, murmuring, but he did look at Michael.
'I'm not sure,' said Gladys, frowning with thought.
'I agree with Uncle Eddie,' Phyllis said, aware that Dickenson was upstairs awaiting his verdict. 'Mr Dickenson was provoked -seriously- and the man who got killed seems to have been a creep!'
'That's not the way the law looks at it,' Michael said with a wry smile. 'Lots of people are provoked seriously. And a human life is a human life.'
'We're not the law,' said Phyllis, as if they were something superior to the law just then.
Michael had been thinking just that: they were not the law, but they were acting as if they were. He was inclined to go along with Phyllis-and Eddie. 'All right. I don't feel like reporting this, given all the circumstances.'
But Gladys held out. She wasn't sure. Michael knew his wife well enough to believe that it was not going to be a bone of contention between them, if they were at variance -just now. So Michael said, 'You're one against three, Glad. Do you seriously want to ruin a young man's life for a thing like this?'
'True, we've got to take a vote, as if we were a jury,' said Eddie.
Gladys saw the point. She conceded. Less than a minute later, Michael climbed the stairs to his study, where the first draft of a book review curled in the roller of his typewriter, untouched since the day before yesterday. Fortunately he could still meet the deadline without killing himself.
'We don't want to report this to the police,' Michael said.
Dickenson, on his feet, nodded solemnly as if receiving a verdict. He would have nodded in the same manner if he had been told the opposite, Michael thought.
'I'll get rid of the fingers,' Michael mumbled, and bent to get some pipe tobacco.
'Surely that's my responsibility. Let me bury them somewhere-with the ring.'
It really was Dickenson's responsibility, and Michael was glad to escape the task. 'Right. Well-shall we go downstairs? Would you like to meet my wife and my friend Colonel — '
'No, thank you. Not just now,' Dickenson interrupted. 'Another time. But would you give them-my thanks?'
They went down some other stairs at the back of the hall, and out to the garage, whose key Michael had in his key case. Michael thought for a moment that the shoe box might have disappeared mysteriously as in a detective story, but it was exactly where he had left it, on top of the old jerricans. He gave it to Dickenson, and Dickenson departed in his dusty Triumph northward. Michael entered his house by the front door.
By now the others were having a drink. Michael felt suddenly relieved, and he smiled. 'I think old Portland ought to have something special at the cocktail hour, don't you?' Michael said, mainly to Gladys.
Portland Bill was looking without much interest at a bowl of ice cubes. Only Phyllis said, 'Yes/' with enthusiasm.
Michael went to the kitchen and spoke with Edna who was dusting flour onto a board. 'Any more smoked salmon left from lunch?'
'One slice, sir,' said Edna, as if it weren't worth serving to anyone, and she virtuously hadn't eaten it, though she might.
'Can I have it for old Bill? He adores it.' When Michael came back into the living room with the pink slice on a saucer, Phyllis said:
'I bet Mr Dickenson wrecks his car on the way home. That's often the way it is.' She whispered suddenly, remembering her manners, 'Because he feels guilty.'
Portland Bill bolted his salmon with brief but intense delight.
Tom Dickenson did not wreck his car.
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