There was a knock at the door. Mervyn Bunter, relaxing with his feet up, a cigarette, and the Times crossword, located his shoes and called “Come in.”
A small blond person hovered in the doorway.
“Please Bunter,” it said, “may I speak to you about something?” Roger shut the door firmly behind him and continued in rehearsed tones, “It’s about a personal matter.”
Bunter, with long practice in not smiling indulgently at the idiosyncrasies of his employer and more lately his family, nodded seriously and invited the boy to pull up a chair. Roger looked dubiously at the desk chair, the other armchair, and the bed, and Bunter seeing what was required kicked the footstool out of the way and squashed himself into two-thirds of his own chair as Roger levered himself into the rest.
“How may I be of assistance?”
Roger muttered something, took hold of his arm and leant his face against the sleeve. On half-term holiday from his day school he was doing a poor job of concealing that he had been badly upset by something on the last day, arriving home with the bruises and contusions suggestive of a fight, and evidently nervy. His parents, observing that one couldn’t force confidences, had made encouraging noises but got nowhere. Evidently Bunter was now to be the object of confession.
“I was in a fight at school.”
“I thought you might have been.”
“It was Varley.” The boy grinned proudly for a moment. “I knocked him down, and he’s lots bigger than me.”
“How did you do it?”
“I got him by surprise. He doesn’t expect younger boys to hit him. I hate him. I can’t wait until I go away next year.”
Bunter, reflecting on Roger’s disastrous first attempt at prep school, merely noted “But then he hit you back?”
“Well yes, but everyone was cheering for me and I was doing all right until Carruthers made us stop because Mr Witherson was coming, so I couldn’t finish him off and next time it won’t be a surprise.”
“Perhaps you’d better leave it as a moral victory.”
“Mm.” A small nose rubbed against Bunter’s sleeve again. “But if he says it again I’ll have to.”
“Don’t you think there might be better ways to handle your disputes?”
“But it was a point of honour! There isn’t any other way. Besides - ” They were coming to it now and the voice rose in what was almost a wail. “Bunter, it isn’t true is it?”
“What isn’t true?” But he knew.
“What he said about Mummy. I mean, about Mummy and Daddy and – and things.”
He sniffed again, ominously, holding Bunter’s arm in a death grip from which he gently disengaged it to lift the small and miserable heap into his lap. Roger turned his face gratefully into Bunter’s coat and went on, “He said that mummy and daddy only got married because mummy was a murderess and she had to go to prison, and that daddy killed somebody so that they wouldn’t hang her, and that they, they -” his voice rose at the final outrage, “that they murdered the lost Tsar of Russia!”
Bunter swore inwardly at adults who could not keep their mouths shut in front of their children, and proffered a handkerchief. It was taken in silence.
“I can see why you had to hit him,” Bunter acknowledged. “But shouldn’t you talk to your father about it?”
Roger pulled his head back and looked up at him in horror. “You mean it is true!”
“Of course it isn’t. But it is quite private, isn’t it?”
“I s’pose so. But Bunter, I can’t tell it to them, and I’ll have to fight him again and he’s bigger than me, and I don’t know what to do.”
Bunter sighed. “All right. How about we make a bargain? I shall tell you what really happened, so that you know and you can tell this boy he’s got it wrong, and you promise me that you’ll talk to your father about it if you want to know more. OK?”
Roger considered for a moment. “OK. Is it really not awful, then?”
“Young man, your father is the finest man I have ever known, and your mother should be the finest woman to you, as mine was to me. Surely if you think about it, you can see that they’d never do anything dishonourable? Besides, if they had murdered the lost Tsar of Russia, don’t you think that you’d have heard about it before now?”
Roger uncurled slightly. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“Think of it now. Let’s see, then. Do you know what a solicitor is?” The boy nodded. “It all happened years before the war, so it isn’t surprising if people get a bit muddled. People are often very poor at thinking straight - that's why so many criminals get caught through silly things. There was a solicitor – in London – who gambled with some money that wasn’t his. When he saw that he might get found out, he decided that the only thing for him to do was to murder his cousin and steal his money. That way he would have lots of money again, and he wouldn’t get found out. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“That’s where your parents come into it. They didn’t know one another yet, but the cousin who was murdered was a friend of your mother’s, so when the solicitor killed him, he did it so as to make it look as if she had done it.”
“He stitched her up!”
“I suppose he did. Moreover he did it so cleverly that even the police thought that your mother might have done it until your father found out about it all and proved that it was really the solicitor who was guilty after all.”
“Daddy rescued her?”
“Well, not exactly, because of course she hadn’t done anything that she had to be rescued from. You could say perhaps that he rescued the situation. It’s very embarrassing for the police, you know, when they have arrested the wrong person.”
“But was Mummy really in prison?”
“Not exactly prison, but she was on remand. That’s when a person has to live in prison before they go on trial. But it doesn’t mean that he’s done anything wrong.”
“She can’t have liked it very much.”
“I don’t imagine that she did. You’ll have to ask her about it.”
“But what about the Tsar of Russia?”
Bunter laughed. “Nonsense. I suppose it must be about the occasion - before they were married, when your parents investigated the murder of a poor young Russian man, but he certainly wasn’t the Tsar, nor his heir. He was just an unhappy dancer.”
“So it was all rubbish.”
“I told you it was.”
Roger blew his nose noisily, picked at a scab on his knee, and shuffled round to a more comfortable position with his back against Bunter’s chest.
“May I stay and help with the crossword, please?”
“If you like. See if you can get five across.”
“All right. Bunter?”
“Hmm?” Seventeen down, five letters.
“I do love you, Bunter. You won’t ever leave us, will you?”
“No,” he blinked his eyes rapidly behind the boy’s head. “I won’t ever leave.”
“I think that five across is ‘mermaid’.”
“So it is. What about seven down?”