Authors: Josephine Tey
RGL e-Book Cover 2014
“A Shilling for Candles,” Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1936
IT was a little after seven on a summer morning, and William
Potticary was taking his accustomed way over the short down grass of the
cliff-top. Beyond his elbow, two hundred feet below, lay the Channel, very
still and shining, like a milky opal. All around him hung the bright air,
empty as yet of larks. In all the sunlit world no sound except for the
screaming of some seagulls on the distant beach; no human activity except for
the small lonely figure of Potticary himself, square and dark and
uncompromising. A million dewdrops sparkling on the virgin grass suggested a
world new-come from its Creator’s hand. Not to Potticary, of course. What the
dew suggested to Potticary was that the ground fog of the early hours had not
begun to disperse until well after sunrise. His subconscious noted the fact
and tucked it away, while his conscious mind debated whether, having raised
an appetite for breakfast, he should turn at the Gap and go back to the
Coastguard Station, or whether, in view of the fineness of the morning, he
should walk into Westover for the morning paper, and so hear about the latest
murder two hours earlier than he would otherwise. Of course, what with
wireless, the edge was off the morning paper, as you might say. But it was an
objective. War or peace, a man had to have an objective. You couldn’t go into
Westover just to look at the front. And going back to breakfast with the
paper under your arm made you feel fine, somehow. Yes, perhaps he would walk
into the town.
The pace of his black, square-toed boots quickened slightly, their shining
surface winking in the sunlight. Proper service, these boots were. One might
have thought that Potticary, having spent his best years in brushing his
boots to order, would have asserted his individuality, or expressed his
personality, or otherwise shaken the dust of a meaningless discipline off his
feet by leaving the dust on his boots. But no, Potticary, poor fool, brushed
his boots for love of it. He probably had a slave mentality, but had never
read enough for it to worry him. As for expressing one’s personality, if you
described the symptoms to him he would, of course, recognize them. But not by
name; In the Service they call that “contrariness.”
A seagull flashed suddenly above the cliff-top, and dropped screaming from
sight to join its wheeling comrades below. A dreadful row these gulls were
making. Potticary moved over to the cliff edge to see what jetsam the tide,
now beginning to ebb, had left for them to quarrel over.
The white line of the gently creaming surf was broken by a patch of
verdigris green. A bit of cloth. Baize, or something. Funny it should stay so
bright a color after being in the water so—
Potticary’s blue eyes widened suddenly, his body becoming strangely still.
Then the square black boots began to run.
Thud, thud, thud,
thick turf, like a heart beating. The Gap was two hundred yards away, but
Potticary’s time would not have disgraced a track performer. He clattered
down the rough steps hewn in the chalk of the Gap, gasping; indignation
welling through his excitement. That was what came of going into cold water
before breakfast! Lunacy, so help him. Spoiling other people’s breakfasts,
too. Schaefer’s best, except where ribs broken. Not likely to be ribs broken.
Perhaps only a faint after all. Assure the patient in a loud voice that he is
safe. Her arms and legs were as brown as the sand. That was why he had
thought the green thing a piece of cloth. Lunacy, so help him. Who wanted
cold water in the dawn unless they had to swim for it? He’d had to swim for
it in his time. In that Red Sea port. Taking in a landing party to help the
Arabs. Though why anyone wanted to help the lousy bastards—that was the
time to swim. When you had to. Orange juice and thin toast, too. No stamina.
Lunacy, so help him.
It was difficult going on the beach. The large white pebbles slid
maliciously under his feet, and the rare patches of sand, being about tide
level, were soft and yielding. But presently he was within the cloud of
gulls, enveloped by their beating wings and their wild crying.
There was no need for Schaefer’s, nor for any other method. He saw that at
a glance. The girl was past all help. And Potticary, who had picked bodies
unemotionally from the Red Sea surf, was strangely moved. It was all wrong
that someone so young should be lying there when all the world was waking up
to a brilliant day; when so much of life lay in front of her. A pretty girl,
too, she must have been. Her hair had a dyed look, but the rest of her was
A wave washed over her feet and sucked itself away, derisively, through
the scarlet-tipped toes. Potticary, although the tide in another minute would
be yards away, pulled the inanimate heap a little higher up the beach, beyond
reach of the sea’s impudence.
Then his mind turned to telephones. He looked around for some garment
which the girl might have left behind when she went in to swim. But there
seemed to be nothing. Perhaps she had left whatever she was wearing below
high-water level and the tide had taken it. Or perhaps it wasn’t here that
she had gone into the water. Anyhow, there was nothing now with which to
cover her body, and Potticary turned away and began his hurried plodding
along the beach again, and so back to the Coastguard Station and the nearest
“Body on the beach,” he said to Bill Gunter as he took the receiver from
the hook and called the police.
Bill clicked his tongue against his front teeth, and jerked his head back.
A gesture which expressed with eloquence and economy the tiresomeness of
circumstances, the unreasonableness of human beings who get themselves
drowned, and his own satisfaction in expecting the worst of life and being
right. “If they want to commit suicide,” he said in his subterranean voice,
“why do they have to pick on us? Isn’t there the whole of the south
“Not a suicide,” Potticary gasped in the intervals of hulloing.
Bill took no notice of him. “Just because the fare to the south coast is
more than to here! You’d think when a fellow was tired of life he’d stop
being mean about the fare and bump himself off in style. But no! They take
the cheapest ticket they can get and strew themselves over our doorstep!”
“Beachy Head get a lot,” gasped the fair-minded Potticary. “Not a suicide,
“Course it’s a suicide. What do we have cliffs for? Bulwark of England?
No. Just as a convenience to suicides. That makes four this year. And
there’ll be more when they get their income tax demands.”
He paused, his ear caught by what Potticary was saying.
“—a girl. Well, a woman. In a bright green bathing dress.”
(Potticary belonged to a generation which did not know swimsuits.) “Just
south of the Gap. ‘Bout a hundred yards. No, no one there. I had to come away
to telephone. But I’m going back right away. Yes, I’ll meet you there. Oh,
hullo, Sergeant, is that you? Yes, not the best beginning of a day, but we’re
getting used to it. Oh, no, just a bathing fatality. Ambulance? Oh, yes, you
can bring it practically to the Gap. The track goes off the main Westover
road just past the third milestone, and finishes in those trees just inland
from the Gap. All right, I’ll be seeing you.”
“How can you tell it’s just a bathing fatality,” Bill said.
“She had a bathing dress on, didn’t you hear?”
“Nothing to hinder her putting on a bathing dress to throw herself into
the water. Make it look like accident.”
“You can’t throw yourself into the water this time of year. You land on
the beach. And there isn’t any doubt what you’ve done.”
“Might have walked into the water till she drowned,” said Bill, who was a
last-ditcher by nature.
“Ye’? Might have died of an overdose of bull’s-eyes,” said Potticary, who
approved of last-ditchery in Arabia but found it boring to live with.
THEY stood around the body in a solemn little group:
Potticary, Bill, the sergeant, a constable, and the two ambulance men. The
younger ambulance man was worried about his stomach, and the possibility of
its disgracing him, but the others had nothing but business in their
“Know her?” the sergeant asked.
“No,” said Potticary. “Never seen her before.”
None of them had seen her before.
“Can’t be from Westover. No one would come out from town with a perfectly
good beach at their doors. Must have come from inland somewhere.”
“Maybe she went into the water at Westover and was washed up here,” the
“Not time for that,” Potticary objected. “She hadn’t been that long in the
water. Must have been drowned hereabouts.”
“Then how did she get here?” the sergeant asked.
“By car, of course,” Bill said.
“And where is the car now?”
“Where everyone leaves their car: where the track ends at the trees.”
“Yes?” said the sergeant. “Well, there’s no car there.”
The ambulance men agreed with him. They had come up that way with the
police—the ambulance was waiting there now—but there was no sign
of any other car.
“That’s funny,” Potticary said. “There’s nowhere near enough to be inside
walking distance. Not at this time in the morning.”
“Shouldn’t think she’d walk anyhow,” the older ambulance man observed.
“Expensive,” he added, as they seemed to question him.
They considered the body for a moment in silence. Yes, the ambulance man
was right; it was a body expensively cared for.
“And where are her clothes, anyhow?”
The sergeant was worried.
Potticary explained his theory about the clothes; that she had left them
below high-water mark and that they were now somewhere at sea.
“Yes, that’s possible,” said the sergeant.
“But how did she get here?”
“Funny she should be bathing alone, isn’t it?” ventured the young
ambulance man, trying out his stomach.
“Nothing’s funny, nowadays,” Bill rumbled. “It’s a wonder she wasn’t
playing jumping off the cliff with a glider. Swimming on an empty stomach,
all alone, is just too ordinary. The young fools make me tired.”
“Is that a bracelet around her ankle, or what?” the constable asked.
Yes, it was a bracelet. A chain of platinum links. Curious links, they
were. Each one shaped like a C.
“Well,” the sergeant straightened himself, “I suppose there’s nothing to
be done but to remove the body to the mortuary, and then find out who she is.
Judging by appearances that shouldn’t be difficult. Nothing ‘lost, stolen or
strayed’ about that one.”
“No,” agreed the ambulance man. “The butler is probably telephoning the
station now in great agitation.”