The Pheasant by Glenda Palmer Vibert
Our new Short Story of the Month is published in memory of the author, Glenda Palmer Vibert, and is based on a true account of one of her grandfather’s experiences as a poacher in Llanelli.
Glenda was born in Llanelli on 14 September, 1939. A happy early childhood was interrupted when the age of eleven, she contracted tuberculosis. Throughout her years in hospital she read voraciously and widely, and she later completed her formal education, ultimately receiving First Class Honours in English Literature from Cardiff University. She went on to enjoy a successful teaching career in Penarth and served as a magistrate in Barry.
Elizabeth Francis made no concessions to the twentieth century. As far as she was concerned, Victoria was still very firmly planted on the throne of England. The calendar may say nineteen twenty, but that was ignored by Elizabeth. She was a tiny woman, small and finely boned, but having a strength that belied her apparent delicacy. Her dark, Indian-straight hair was hardly streaked with white, while her black eyes looked boldly on life.
The burly police constable hesitated, foot on step, nervously fingering his note book and pencil. Elizabeth Francis' sharp tongue was well known in the small, fiercely Welsh industrial town. Many a would-be complaining customer had been shrivelled by Elizabeth as she stood, hands on hips, barely visible behind the mound of home grown vegetables on the market stall. This was the stance that met Constable Parry's wilting gaze now.
“Who says that my Richard was poaching?”
“Well, er- that is...”
David Parry grew more nervous.
“Witnesses you must have, not some old gossip.”
‘Wil Toplis saw him, he did, with that old pheasant in his–”
Elizabeth Francis cut him short.
“Wil Toplis?” she spat sneeringly. “He couldn't see a cow in a field!”
David Parry backed away. He had delivered his message, he had done his duty.
Elizabeth Francis went in and slammed the front door shut. She stood for a few seconds in the long dark passage of the house. The grandfather clock with its silly swan face ticked with a comfortable velvet tick. Poaching again, she thought. Why can't that wife of his control him?
She made her way into the cramped kitchen with its glowering range and its high-backed settle, upon which a small, red-haired child was curled reading a comic.
“Come here child. Take a message to your idle father.”
The child stood before her grandmother. Their eyes met, the same dark, deep eyes, the grandmother's hard, the child’s wide and questioning.
“Tell your father that I want to see him – and not when he feels like it, but now.”
“But he’ll be in work now.”
“Nonsense! He’ll be in the West End; your father never wastes good drinking time by working.”
The child slammed the little gate of the house shut and set off down Sandy Road. “Always me,” she grumbled to herself, “always me running messages.” Her small hands were red from helping Mamgu with the washing and her arms ached from working the washing dolly.
A car swooshed past her going all of twenty miles an hour, mud splattering the hem of her too big dress.
The pub was crowded with noise and smoke as the child pushed her way past sweating, furnace-begrimed men, slaking the thirst of red hot ingots with the strong, thick ale brewed locally.
“Have you seen my father?” she asked no one in particular. A furnace blasted face looked down at her above a white sweat-cloth.
“Draw fana,” he said to her in Welsh, “over there bach.”
He pointed to a corner of the bar where a tall, red-haired man was holding court, talking in rapid Welsh to a spell-bound audience of three or four tin-plate workers in their metal-soled clogs. Dick Francis saw his youngest daughter and, mellowed by beer, lifted her in his arms and swung her above his head.
“Fy merch I,” he announced proudly, “my daughter.”
“No need to say that man. With that red hair she couldn't be anyone else's child.”
The men laughed and made a fuss of the girl, who was oblivious to their laughter and teasing.
“Mamgu wants you,” said the child breathlessly and a little afraid.
“Tell her I’ll come at stop-tap,” said Dick, placing the child on the bar counter.
“But she said now,” said the child urgently.
Something in her tone convinced him this was not a request from Elizabeth, but a command.
Dick swore softly to himself. What right had his mother to treat him like a child? After all, he was married now with four daughters of his own, and a wife that had much the same spitfire quality as his mother – far too much he sometimes thought.
Nevertheless, he bade farewell to his mates and walked unsteadily towards his maternal home, the child trotting at his side.
Mother and son faced each other in the little parlour.
“Well?” said Elizabeth, questioningly.
“Well what?” answered her son sullenly.
“You know very well what. I've just had a visit from David Parry - it's poaching you've been again!”
“Who says I've been poaching?”
“Wil Toplis, you fool, he's been after you for years, swore he'd see you behind bars and this is his chance.”
“Damn Mam, he's always saying that but he's not done it yet.”
“Don't you swear at me or big as you are I'll give you a hiding. Now you tell me what happened - the truth mind - and I'll tell you what you must do.”
Dick sat down in the worn armchair and told his tale.
While this little scene was being played out in Sandy Road, another confrontation was taking place at Cwm Terrace between Dick's wife Marged and Constable Parry, who this time had the good sense to be accompanied by no less a figure than his superior, the Sergeant. Marged Francis was as formidable, in her way, as her renowned mother-in-law. She was a tall woman, with a swath of dark, high-piled hair, fathomless brown eyes and Roman nose. The poor clothes she wore did nothing to detract from her naturally regal bearing.
The policemen had placed themselves at the bottom of the flight of steps leading to the house. This gave Marged the strategic advantage of being placed at the top, looking down at them. They had been arguing with her for ten minutes and were not making any progress. Curious neighbours were beginning to appear on their door-steps, speculating what Dick had been up to this time. Marged eyed them coldly.
“I’ll not have my character besmirched by talking to you lot on the doorstep. You'd better come inside.” She turned to the gossiping neighbours. “And you lot can go about your business – there’s nothing to see.”
With that, she swept inside the house, followed by a reluctant Constable and a triumphant Sergeant. The Sergeant was a newcomer to Llanelli and knew nothing of the deviousness of Llanelli people.
The whole house gleamed from polishing, the smell of scrubbing and scouring overwhelmed by the delicious aroma of roasting fowl.
“Then you still say that your husband spent the night at home?”
The questioning police sergeant very obviously sniffed the smell wafting from the oven.
“Where else should a man be at that time of night but in the bed of his wife?”
The police Sergeant was exasperated with this stubborn woman who apparently had no fear of his uniform.
“I'm going to search this house,” he said as he moved towards the oven door. Marged barred his way.
“Open the door and welcome - that is if you've got a search warrant.”
“Now Marged,” said the constable nervously.
“None of your smooth tongue, David Parry. To open this oven door you need a search warrant - and you haven't got one.”
The police sergeant lost his temper and slammed the summons down on the table.
“Your husband is to appear in court a week from today and I'll come back with a warrant tomorrow - and then you’ll be in court for aiding and abetting… and… obstructing the law.”
“We'll see about that,” said Marged triumphantly as the Police sergeant stamped out of the house and down the steps, the red-faced constable trailing behind him.
“I'll get a warrant and be back in the morning – I'll get the lot of them!” he shouted at no one in particular. Dick, his daughter on his shoulder, and his tiny mother marching along on their way to the house, shouted a pleasant “Shw mae” at the constable. The sergeant nearly had apoplexy.
“No good sir,” said David Parry resignedly. “By the time we get back they will have eaten the evidence, so we'll be none the wiser.”
“Well then, let them eat it – and I hope the taste still lingers when Dick Francis finds himself eating jail food. Wil Toplis saw him and can identify him - his red hair shone like a beacon in the light of the torch. We’ll get the bugger this time!”
David Parry sighed and said nothing. It seemed to be a cut and dried case, but a nagging doubt still filled his mind.
In the Francis household a council of war was taking place. At least, Marged and Elizabeth discussed what should be done, while Dick sat contentedly puffing on his pipe, the child on his lap.
The day of the trial dawned, a bright clear day that drew the crowds. The tiny court house was packed with friends and well-wishers, for Dick was a very popular man, always ready with a hand-out for those in need – too ready, thought his wife. Nothing had been seen of Dick since the day the summons had been served. Rumours flew around like leaves in an autumn gale. Some said he’d emigrated to Australia; others that he'd gone to join his cousin in Manchester. Still wilder tales reported that he was hiding in a cave in the quarry. Would he appear?
At three minutes to ten Dick had not appeared. At two minutes to ten Dick had still not appeared, but Marged, accompanied by her mother-in-law, walked elegantly into court. The onlookers stood back respectfully as they passed by.
At one minute to ten the magistrates took their places on the bench. Wil Toplis paced nervously up and down in the hall outside the courtroom. The whispering grew louder. Then as the Town Hall clock started to strike, Dick Francis strode purposefully into the packed courtroom. His hands were stuck deep into the pockets of his voluminous over-coat, a red and white scarf was wound around his neck and a soft floppy cap was pulled well down over his head. It was time for the trial to begin.
The Prosecution presented its case and the first witness to be called was Wil Toplis. Nervously he related how, as game-keeper to the Squire of Stradey Estate, he'd been on his usual night patrol in Stradey Woods, keeping an extra sharp eye open as the Squire was getting tired of losing his best pheasants. At about one in the morning he'd heard the sound of gun shots and rushed towards the sounds, his labrador streaking ahead of him. He said he’d heard a scuffle by the wall of the estate and saw a dark figure, a man, scrambling to get over the wall, the dog worrying at the man's trouser leg. He'd called out to the man to stop and in the powerful beam of his torch he'd seen the back of the man’s head and a shock of red hair. There had been the sound of tearing cloth as the figure wrenched himself away from the now frantic dog and disappeared over the wall. By the time Wil and the dog had made their way over the wall onto the roadway, the figure had vanished. All Wil was left with was a piece of cloth from the trousers, a red and white scarf which everyone knew that Dick Francis always wore, and the memory of the sight of that distinguishing red hair .
William Latford, defending solicitor, rose to his feet to cross examine Wil Toplis. Latford was well known as a defender of those in need; he gave his services free to many people. His services were free now. He dared not offend Marged Francis; she was the best washer-woman he'd ever had.
“You say you can positively identify Richard Francis as the figure that you saw on the wall that dark night?”
“Yes sir, this is his scarf.” Wil pointed to the scarf on the clerk’s desk, “and that there is a piece of his trousers.”
“Is Mr Francis the only person in Llanelli to wear a red and white scarf, Mr Toplis?”
Wil shifted uncomfortably, his weasel face growing a bit pink.
“No sir, but that is Dick Francis’ scarf, I’m sure of it.”
Latford turned to Dick Francis sitting calmly in the Dock.
“Is he not wearing his red and white scarf at this moment?”
Wil could only agree that indeed Dick was wearing a scarf but, he maintained, a different scarf. Latford then turned to the question of the torn trousers and said to Wil that so far, no one had produced the torn trousers. Wil did not reply.
Latford then asked Wil, “Did you see the poacher's face?”
“Well no, but no one can mistake that hair sir.”
“Is there no one else with red hair in the whole town of Llanelli, Mr. Toplis?”
“Not many red-haired poachers, sir.”
“That was not what I asked you. Are there other red haired men in Llanelli?”
“I suppose so, but...”
“No ‘buts’ Mr. Toplis. Are there other red-haired men in the town?”
“No further questions.”
Mr. Hervey Crawford, acting for the Squire, got to his feet.
“Just a moment Mr. Toplis. Have you ever caught Mr. Francis poaching before on the Squire’s estate?”
“Yes sir. I warned that next time I caught him he'd be prosecuted.”
“What did he say to that?”
“He said that a man had to eat and that the Squire only shot for fun while many people went hungry.”
“Have you ever caught any other red-haired men on the Squire’s property?”
The prosecution then called the Police Sergeant to the stand. He grimly related the tale of his visits to the house in Cwm Terrace. He told how, on the first occasion, he could smell pheasant cooking in the oven and how Marged Francis had adamantly refused to let him open the oven door. He told how he returned the following day and searched the property but could find nothing. The prosecutor sat down and Mr. Latford rose to cross-examine. .
“How did you know that Mrs Francis had pheasant in the oven, sergeant?”
“I've told you - I could smell it.”
“Is the smell of cooking pheasant a very familiar smell to you, Sergeant?”
“I have smelled pheasant before, sir.”
“Am I to assume that as a humble police officer you can afford to eat pheasant so often that the smell of a pheasant roasting can unmistakably be identified by you?”
“I've never eaten pheasant in my life but I know that the bird in Marged Francis’ oven was a pheasant.”
“You ‘know’, Sergeant - but did you see it?”
“No ‘buts’ Sergeant - you could smell something roasting in the oven and in your eagerness to condemn this man you decided that whatever was cooking in Marged Francis’ oven was a pheasant. No more questions, Sergeant.”
The Police sergeant was not looking pleased as he left the witness stand. Mr. Latford then called Marged Francis to the stand. She stood there calmly, taking the oath without hesitation, although she would have preferred to take it in Welsh, as she told the Magistrate. The prosecutor shuffled papers for what seemed an age to the spectators, before looking up to question Marged, who stood looking at him, steadily and unruffled.
“Do you remember the day that the policemen called on you?”
“Indeed I do.”
“What was it you were cooking?”
“I was cooking a fowl - a treat for the family.”
“The sergeant said that it had a very distinctive smell - how do you account for that?”
“Well sir, I put plenty of herbs with the bird when I cooked it - perhaps the police sergeant's wife is not a very good cook and doesn't know about these things.”
“Where was your husband on the night in question?’
“Where else would a man be, but in the bed of his wife?’
“Mrs. Francis,” said Crawford, “have you any witnesses that can swear your husband spent the whole night with you?”
Marged looked at him disdainfully.
“Have you any witnesses that can swear that your wife spent the whole night with you, Mr Crawford?”
Mr Crawford looked apoplectic and the Magistrate hastily intervened, instructing Marged to please just answer the questions.
The prosecutor tried again.
“'Isn't it rather a coincidence that the day after a poaching incident, when two policemen call on you, you are cooking a ‘fowl’ which you refuse to show to them?”
“Coincidence it may be - but not criminal, is it?”
Mr. Crawford was exasperated. He called Elizabeth Francis to the stand. She was barely visible so they gave her a box to stand on.
Primly she took the oath. The black feathers on her bonnet dared to move slightly in the breeze from the fan that attempted to cool the hot room. She confirmed that on the evening of the night in question she had been visiting her son and daughter-in-law and that when she had left, her son was preparing to retire for the night. Mr Crawford commented sarcastically that she too could probably confirm that Marged Francis had been cooking a ‘fowl’ the following day and that he had no more questions for her.
Mr Latford then asked her some questions in order to confirm her good character. Briskly she related her family’s history and impeccable reputation – which no one had dared to besmirch before this.
“And what do you do for a living?”
Elizabeth placed her hands squarely on her hips.
“I sell faggots and peas on the market, sometimes I sell chickens too - I have a run full of ‘fowls’ (she spat the words in Toplis' direction) which I occasionally give to my children.”
Mr. Lawford asked his final question of her.
“Did you give the ‘fowl’ to your daughter-in-law on the day in question?”
“I did sir, a nice fat hen.”
“Thank you, Mrs Francis.”
Elizabeth stepped down off her box and, feathers dancing, walked briskly to her seat next to her daughter-in-law. Neither woman felt impelled to give each other comforting looks, but they gazed around the courtroom challenging anyone to dispute what had been said.
The last one to be called to the stand was Dick himself. He answered the questions put to him clearly and concisely. No, he had not been poaching. Yes, he had spent the night at home. Yes, he had eaten ‘fowl’ for supper the following night.
Mr. Crawford rose to cross-examine.
“Why are you wearing such an extravagant hat, Mr. Francis? Please remove it. It is disrespectful to the Court.”
“What's ‘extravagant’, sir?” asked Dick, deceptively meekly.
“Why are you wearing such an... an elaborate hat – one that covers your whole head?”
“Because I'm cold sir – I'm a steeple-jack you know, and it gets very cold up on the chimneys.”
“You are not on the chimneys now, Mr Francis. Please remove your hat.”
“I'd rather not, if you don't mind sir.”
Mr Crawford smiled grimly. “Got him,” he thought triumphantly.
“I put it to you that you will not remove your hat because if you do, Mr. Toplis will have no doubt in his mind that you were the poacher, that you are the man who stole from our squire. If you remove your hat the whole room will see that famous red hair of yours - hair that will flame your guilt across the court room. Remove your hat!”
Dick did not move. He did not speak. Once again Mr. Crawford commanded: “Remove your hat!”
Everyone leaned forward expectantly.
“Well sir, if you insist.”
“I do insist.”
Dick sighed, put his hand slowly to his hat and removed it. There was an audible gasp in the court room. Then silence, and then, the whole room convulsed into peal after peal of laughter. Richard Francis was as bald as an egg! All his hair and eyebrows - even eye lashes had been shaved off. There was pandemonium and a full fifteen minutes passed before order could be restored. The magistrates retired for a few moments only before returning a verdict of Not guilty.
Dick, his mother and wife emerged triumphant from the court-room. On the steps outside they were surrounded by cheering friends. Wil Toplis tried to creep away unnoticed, but Dick spotted him.
“Come here you bugger.”
“Now Dick, no hard feelings, I was only doing my job.”
“I don't mind you doing your job - but that bloody dog of yours is vicious - nearly tore my leg off.”
He lifted his trouser leg to show a jagged, half healed scar. Toplis gasped.
“I knew it was you.”
“But you didn't prove it though, did you? I'll get you for this.”
The threat must have been heard by at least half a dozen people, yet a few weeks later, when the police were looking for witnesses to the “accident” suffered by Wil Toplis, they couldn't find any. Odd, that accident. It was said that a tree-branch had fallen on him and given him a black eye and some loose teeth. Still, no one came forward – no one had seen a thing.