John Collier (1901-1980)
Wet Saturday ~ A Classic British Short Story by John Collier
It was July. In the sprawling house they were imprisoned by the swish and the gurgle and all the hundred sounds of rain. They were in the drawing room, behind four tall and weeping windows, in a lake of damp and faded chintz.
This house, ill-kept and unprepossessing, was necessary to Mr. Princey, who detested his wife, his daughter, and his hulking son. His life was to walk through the village, touching his hat, not smiling. His cold pleasure was to recapture snapshot memories of the infinitely remote summers of this childhood — coming into the orangery and finding his lost wooden horse, the tunnel in the box hedge and the square light at the end of it. But now all this was threatened — his pride of position in the village, his passionate attachment to the house — and all because Millicent, his cloddish daughter Millicent, had done this shocking and incredibly stupid thing. Mr. Princey turned from her in revulsion and spoke to his wife.
“They’d send her to the lunatic asylum,” he said. “A criminal-lunatic asylum. We should have to move. It would be impossible.”
His daughter began to shake again. “I’ll kill myself,” she said.
“Be quiet,” said Mr. Princey. “We have very little time. No time for nonsense. I intend to deal with this.” He called to his son, who stood looking out the window. “George, come here. Listen, how far did you get with your medicine before they threw you out as hopeless?”
“You know as well as I do,” said George.
“Do you know enough — did they drive enough into your head for you to be able to guess what a competent doctor could tell about such a wound?”
“Well, it’s a — it’s a knock or blow.”
“If a tile fell from the roof? Or a piece of the coping?”
“Well, guv’nor, you see, it’s like this –“
“Is it possible?”
“Oh, because she hit him several times.”
“I can’t stand it,” said Mrs. Princey.
“You have got to stand it, my dear,” said her husband. “And keep that hysterical note out of your voice. It might be overheard. We are talking about the weather. If he fell down the well, George, striking his head several times?”
“I really don’t know, guv’nor.”
“He’d have to had to hit the sides several times in thirty or forty feet, and at the correct angles. No. I’m afraid not. We must go over it all again. Millicent.”
“Millicent, we must go over it all again. Perhaps you have forgotten something. One tiny irrelevant detail may save or ruin us. Particularly you, Millicent. You don’t want to be put in an asylum, do you? Or be hanged? They might hang you, Millicent. You must stop that shaking. You must keep your voice quiet. We are talking of the weather. Now.”
“I can’t. I… I…”
“Be quiet, child. Be quiet.” He put his long, cold face very near to his daughter’s. He found himself horribly revolted by her. Her features were thick, her jaw heavy, her whole figure repellently powerful. “Answer me,” he said. “You were in the stable?”
“One moment, though. Who knew you were in love with this wretched curate?”
“No one. I’ve never said a–“
“Don’t worry,” said George. “The whole god-damned village knows. They’ve been sniggering about it in the Plough for three years past.”
“Likely enough,” said Mr. Princey. “Likely enough. What filth! He made as if to wipe something off the backs of his hands. “Well, now, we continue. You were in the stable?”
“You were putting the croquet set into its box?”
“You hear someone crossing the yard?”
“It was Withers?”
“So you called him?”
“Loudly? Did you call him loudly? Could anyone have heard?”
“No, Father. I’m sure not. I didn’t call him. He saw me as I went to the door. He just waved his hand and came over.”
“How can I find out from you whether there was anyone about? Whether he could have been seen?”
“I’m sure not, Father. I’m quite sure.”
“So you both went into the stable?”
“Yes. It was raining quite hard.”
“What did he say?”
“He said ‘Hullo, Milly.’ And to excuse him coming in the back way, but he’d set out to walk over to Lyston.”
“And he said, passing the park, he’d seen the house and suddenly thought of me, and he thought he’d just look in for a minute, just to tell me something. He said he was so happy, he wanted me to share it. He’d heard from the Bishop he was to have the vicarage. And it wasn’t only that. It meant he could marry. And he began to stutter. And I thought me meant me.”
“Don’t tell me what you thought. Exactly what he said. Nothing else.”
“Well … Oh dear!”
“Don’t cry. It is a luxury you cannot afford. Tell me.”
“He said no. He said it wasn’t me. It’s Ella Brangwyn-Davies. And he was sorry. And all that. Then he went to go.”
“I went mad. He turned his back. I had the winning post of the croquet set in my hand –“
“Did you shout or scream? I mean, as you hit him?”
“No. I’m sure I didn’t.”
“Did he? Come on. Tell me.”
“I threw it down. I came straight into the house. That’s all. I wish I were dead.”
“And you met none of the servants. No one will go into the stable. You see, George, he probably told people he was going to Lyston. Certainly no one knows he came here. He might have been attacked in the woods. We must consider every detail . . . A curate, with his head battered in –“
“Don’t, Father!” cried Millicent.
“Do you want to be hanged? A curate, with his head battered in, found in the woods. Who’d want to kill Withers?”
There was a tap on the door, which opened immediately. It was little Captain Smollett, who never stood on ceremony. “Who’d kill Withers?” said he. “I would, with pleasure. How d’you do, Mrs. Princey. I walked right in.”
“He heard you, Father,” moaned Millicent.
“My dear, we can have our little joke,” said her father. “Don’t pretend to be shocked. A little theoretical curate-killing, Smollett. In these days we talk nothing but thrillers.”
“Parsonicide,” said Captain Smollett. “Justifiable parsonicide. Have you heard about Ella Brangwyn-Davies? I shall be laughed at.”
“Why?” said Mr. Princey. “Why should you be laughed at?”
“Had a shot in that direction myself,” said Smollett, with careful sang-froid. “She’d have said yes, too. Hadn’t you heard? She told most people. Now it’ll look as if I got turned down for a white rat in a dog collar.”
“Too bad!” said Mr. Princey.
“Fortune of war,” said the little Captain.
“Sit down,” said Mr. Princey. “Mother, Millicent, console Captain Smollett with your best light conversation. George and I have something to look to. We shall be back in a minute or two, Smollett. Come, George.”
It was actually five minutes before Mr. Princey and his son returned.
“Smollett,” said Mr. Princey, “will you come round to the stable for a moment? There’s something I want to show you.”
They went into the stable yard. The buildings were now unused except as odd sheds. No one ever went there. Captain Smollett entered, George followed him, Mr. Princey came last. As he closed the door he took up a gun which stood behind it. “Smollett,” said he, “we have come out to shoot a rat which George heard squeaking under that tub. Now, you must listen to me very carefully or you will be show by accident. I mean that.”
Smollett looked at him. “Very well,” said he. “Go on.”
“A very tragic happening has taken place this afternoon,” said Mr. Princey. “It will be even more tragic unless it is smoothed over.”
“Oh?” said Smollett.
“You head me ask,” said Mr. Princey, “who would kill Withers. You heard Millicent make a comment, an unguarded comment.”
“Well?” said Smollett. “What of it?”
“Very little,” said Mr. Princey. “Unless you heard that Withers had met a violent end this very afternoon. And that, my dear Smollett, is what you are going to hear.”
“Have you killed hiim?” cried Smollett.
“Millicent has,” said Mr. Princey.
“Hell!” said Smollett.
“It is hell,” said Mr. Princey. “You would have remembered–and guessed.”
“Maybe,” said Smollett. “Yes. I suppose I should.”
“Therefore,” said Mr. Princey, “you constitute a problem.”
“Why did she kill him?” said Smollett.
“It is one of these disgusting things,” said Mr. Princey. “Pitiable, too. She deluded herself that he was in love with her.”
“Oh, of course,” said Smollett.
“And he told her about the Brangwyn-Davies girl.”
“I see,” said Smollett.
“I have no wish,” said Mr. Princey, “that she should be proved either a lunatic or a murderess. I could hardly live here after that.”
“I suppose not,” said Smollett.
“On the other hand,” said Mr. Princey,” you know about it.”
“Yes,” said Smollett. “I am wondering if I could keep my mouth shut. If I promised you–“
“I am wondering if I could believe you,” said Mr. Princey.
“If I promised,” said Smollett.
“If things went smoothly,” said Mr. Princey. “But not if there was any sort of suspicion, any questioning. You would be afraid of being an accessory.”
“I don’t know,” said Smollett.
“I do,” said Mr. Princey. “What are we going to do?”
“I can’t see anything else,” said Smollett. “You’d never be fool enough to do me in. You can’t get rid of two corpses.”
“I regard it,” said Mr. Princey, “as a better risk than the other. It could be an accident. Or you and Withers could both disappear. There are possibilities in that.”
“Listen,” said Smollett, “You can’t–“
“Listen,” said Mr. Princey. “There may be a way out. There is a way out, Smollett. You gave me the idea yourself.”
“Did I?” said Smollett. “What?”
“You said you would kill Withers,” said Mr. Princey. “You have a motive.”
“I was joking,” said Smollett.
“You are always joking,” said Mr. Princey. “People think there must be something behind it. Listen, Smollett, I can’t trust you, you must trust me. Or I will kill you now, in the next minute. I mean that. You can choose between dying and living.”
“Go on,” said Smollett.
“There is a sewer here,” said Mr. Princey, speaking fast and forcefully. “That is where I am going to put Withers. No outsider knows he has come up here this afternoon. No one will ever look there for him unless you tell them. You must give me evidence that you have murdered Withers.”
“Why?” said Smollett.
“So that I shall be dead sure that you will never open your lips on the matter,” said Mr. Princey.
“What evidence?” said Smollett.
“George,” said Mr. Princey, “hit him in the face, hard.”
“Good God!” said Smollett.
“Again,” said Mr. Princey. “Don’t bruise your knuckles.”
“Oh!” said Smollett.
“I’m sorry,” said Mr. Princey. “There must be traces of a struggle between you and Withers. Then it will not be altogether safe for you to go to the police.”
“Why won’t you take my word?” said Smollett.
“I will when we’ve finished,” said Mr. Princey. “George, get that croquet post. Take your handkerchief to it. As I told you. Smollett, you’ll just grasp the end of this croquet post. I shall shoot you if you don’t.”
“Oh, hell,” said Smollett. “All right.”
“Pull two hairs out of his head, George,” said Mr. Princey, “and remember what I told you to do with them. Now, Smollett, you take that bar and raise the big flagstone with the ring in it. Withers is in the next stall. You’ve got to drag him through and dump him in.”
“I won’t touch him,” said Smollett.
“Stand back, George,” said Mr. Princey, raising the gun.
“Wait a minute,” cried Smollett. “Wait a minute.” He did as he was told.
Mr. Princey wiped his brow. “Look here,” said he. “Everything is perfectly safe. Remember, no one knows that Withers came here. Everyone thinks he walked over to Lyston. That’s five miles of country to search. They’ll never look in our sewer. Do you see how safe it is?”
“I suppose it is,” said Smollett.
“Now come into the house,” said Mr. Princey. “We shall never get that rat.”
They went into the house. The maid was bringing tea into the drawing room. “See, my dear,” said Mr. Princey to his wife, “we went to the stable to shoot a rat and we found Captain Smollett. Don’t be offended, my dear fellow.”
“You must have walked up the back drive,” said Mrs. Princey.
“Yes. Yes. That was it,” said Smollett in some confusion.
“You’ve cut your lip,” said George, handing him a cup of tea.
“I … I just knocked it.”
“Shall I tell Bridget to bring some iodine?” said Mrs. Princey. The maid looked up, waiting.
“Don’t trouble, please,” said Smollett. “It’s nothing.”
“Very well, Bridget,” said Mrs. Princey. “That’s all.”
“Smollett is very kind,” said Mr. Princey. “He knows all our trouble. We can rely on him. We have his word.”
“Oh, have we, Captain Smollett?” cried Mrs. Princey. “You are good.”
“Don’t worry, old fellow,” Mr. Princey said. “They’ll never find anything.”
Pretty soon Smollett took his leave. Mrs. Princey pressed his hand very hard. Tears came into her eyes. All three of them watched him go down the drive. Then Mr. Princey spoke very earnestly to his wife for a few minutes and the two of them went upstairs and spoke still more earnestly to Millicent. Soon after, the rain having ceased, Mr. Princey took a stroll round the stable yard.
He came back and went to the telephone. “Put me through to Lyston police station,” said he. “Quickly … Hullo, is that the police station? This is Mr. Princey, of Abbott’s Laxton. I’m afraid something rather terrible has happened up here. Can you send someone at once?”