An Extract from The Little Stranger
The fit of discontentment passed with the night; by the morning I had almost forgotten it. That day was the start of a brief busy phase for Graham and me, for with the hot weather there had come a variety of small epidemics in the district, and now a bad summer fever began to do the rounds of the villages. One already delicate child was severely affected, and I spent a lot of time on him, calling in at the house sometimes two or three times a day until he was better. There was no money in it: he was a 'club' patient, which meant I received only a handful of shillings for treating him and his brothers and sisters over the course of an entire year. But I knew his family well, and was fond of them, and was glad to see him recover; and the parents were touchingly grateful.
I just about remembered, in the midst of all this, to send out Betty's prescription to the Hall, but I had no further contact with her or with the Ayreses. I continued to pass the walls of Hundreds on my regular round, and now and then I'd catch myself thinking with something like wistfulness of the unkempt landscape beyond it, with that poor neglected house at its heart, quietly sliding into decay. But as we turned the high point of summer and the season started to wane, that was as much thought as I began to give it. My visit to the Ayreses soon felt vaguely unreal-like some vivid but improbable dream.
Then, one evening at the end of August-more than a month,in other words, since I had gone out to treat Betty-I was driving along one of the lanes outside Lidcote and caught sight of a large black dog sniffing around in the dust. It must have been half past seven or so. The sun was still quite high in the sky, but the sky itself was beginning to pink; I'd finished my evening surgery and was on my way to visit a patient in one of the neighbouring villages.
The dog started barking when he heard my car, and as he put up his head and moved forward I saw the grey in his fur, and recognised him as the elderly Hundreds Labrador, Gyp. A second later I saw Caroline. She was right at the edge of the lane, on the shadowy side. Hatless and bare-legged, she was reaching into one of the hedges-had managed to work her way into the brambles so completely that without Gyp to alert me I would have driven past without spotting her. Drawing closer, I saw her call for the dog to be quiet; she turned her head to my car, narrowing her eyes against what must have been the glare of the windscreen. I noticed then that she had the strap of a satchel over her breast, and was carrying what I took to be an old spotted handkerchief, done up as a bundle like Dick Whittington's. Drawing level with her, I put on the brake and called through my open window.
'Are you running away from home, Miss Ayres?'
She recognised me then, and smiled, and began to back out of the bushes. She did it gingerly, putting up a hand to free her hair from the brambles, then giving a final spring to the dusty surface of the road. Brushing down her skirt-she was dressed in the same badly fitting cotton frock she'd been wearing when I'd seen her last-she said, 'I've been into the village, doing errands for my mother. But then I got tempted from the path. Look.'
She carefully opened the bundle up, and I realised that what I had taken for spots on the handkerchief were actually purple juice-stains: she had lined the cloth with dock leaves, and was filling it with blackberries. She picked out one of the largest berries for me, lightly blowing the dust from it before she handed it over. I put it into my mouth and felt it break against my tongue, warm as blood, and fantastically sweet.
'Aren't they good?' she said, as I swallowed. She gave me another, then took one for herself. 'My brother and I used to come berrying here when we were young. It's the best spot for blackberries in the whole of the county, I don't know why. It can be dry as the Sahara everywhere else, but the fruit here are always good. They must be fed by a spring, or something.'
She put her thumb to the corner of her mouth to catch a trickle of dark juice, and pretended to frown. 'But that was an Ayres family secret, and I shouldn't have blabbed. Now I'm afraid I may have to kill you. Or do you swear to keep the knowledge to yourself?'
'I swear,' I said.
I laughed. 'Honour bright.'
She warily gave me another berry. 'Well, I suppose I shall have to trust you. It must be frightfully bad form to kill a doctor, after all; just a step or two down from shooting an albatross. Also quite hard, I imagine, since you must know all the tricks yourselves.'
She tucked back her hair, seeming happy to talk, standing a yard or so from my window, tall and easy on those thickish legs of hers; and because I was mindful of the engine, idling away and wasting fuel, I switched it off. The car seemed to sink, as if glad to be released, and I became aware of the treacly weight and exhaustion of the summer air. From across the fields, muted by heat and distance, there came the grind and snap of farm machinery, and calling voices. On those light late-August evenings the harvesters worked until gone eleven.
Caroline picked out more fruit. She said, with a tilt of her head,'You haven't asked after Betty.'
'I was just about to,' I said. 'How has she been? Any more trouble?'
'Not a peep! She spent a day in bed, then made a miraculous recovery. We've been doing our best since then to make her feel more comfortable. We told her she needn't use the back stair any more, if she doesn't like it. And Roddie's got hold of a wireless for her; that's bucked her up no end. Apparently they used to have a wireless at home, but it got broken in some argument. Now one of us has to drive into Lidcote once a week to recharge the battery; but we think it's worth it, if it keeps her happy… Tell the truth, though. That medicine you sent over was pure chalk, wasn't it? Was there ever anything wrong with her?'
'I couldn't possibly say,' I answered loftily. 'The patient–doctor bond, and all that. Besides, you might sue for malpractice.'
'Ha!' Her expression grew rueful. 'You're on safe ground, there. We couldn't afford the lawyers' fees-'
She turned her head, as Gyp let out two or three sharp barks. While we had been talking he had been nosing his way through the grass at the edge of the lane, but now there was an agitated flapping on the other side of the hedge and he disappeared into a gap in the brambles.
'He's going after a bird,' Caroline said, 'the old fat-head. These used to be our birds once, you know; now they're Mr Milton's. He won't like it if Gyp gets hold of a partridge.-Gyp! Gyppo! Come back! Come here, you idiotic thing!'
Hastily thrusting the bundle of blackberries at me, she went off in pursuit. I watched her leaning into the hedge, parting the brambles to reach and call, apparently unafraid of spiders or thorns, her brown hair catching again. It took her a couple of minutes to retrieve the dog, and by the time she had done that and he had trotted back to the car, looking terribly pleased with himself, with his mouth open and his pink tongue loose, I had remembered my patient and said I should be going.
'Well, take some berries with you,' she said good-naturedly, as I restarted the engine. But seeing her begin to separate the fruit it occurred to me that I would be driving more or less towards Hundreds, and, since it was a good two or three miles' journey, I offered her a lift. I hesitated about doing it, not knowing if she'd care to accept; apart from anything else, she looked very much at home there on the dusty country lane, rather as a tramp or a gypsy would. She seemed to hesitate, too, once I had asked her- but it turned out she was simply thinking the thing over. Glancing at her wrist-watch, she said, 'I'd like that, very much. And if you could bear to drop me at the lane to our farm, instead of at the park gates, I'd be even more grateful. My brother's there.
I was going to leave him to it. I expect they'd be glad of some help,though; they usually are.'
I said I'd be happy to. I opened up the passenger door, to let Gyp into the back; and once he had turned and slithered fussily about for a second or two on the rear seat, she moved the front seat back into place and got in beside me.
I felt the weight of her as she sat, in the tilt and creak of the car;and I suddenly wished that the car weren't quite so small and so ancient. She didn't seem to mind it, however. She placed the satchel flat on her knees, and rested the bundle of berries on top, and gave a sigh of pleasure, apparently grateful to be sitting down.She was wearing her flat boyish sandals, and her bare legs were still unshaven; each little hair, I noticed, was laden with dust, like an eye-blacked lash.
Once I'd moved off she offered me another blackberry, but this time I shook my head, not wanting to eat up all her crop. When she had taken one herself I asked after her mother and her brother.
'Mother's fine,' she answered, swallowing. 'Thanks for asking. She was very glad to meet you that time. She does like to know who's who in the county. We go about so much less than we used to, you see, and she's rather proud about visitors, with the house so shabby, so she feels a bit cut off. Roddie is-well, how he usually is, working too hard, eating too little… His leg is a nuisance.'
'Yes, I wondered about that.'
'I don't know how much it really troubles him. Quite a lot, I suspect. He says he hasn't time to get it treated. What he means, I think, is that there isn't the money for it.'
This was the second time she had mentioned money, but now there was no trace of ruefulness in her voice, she spoke as if merely stating a fact. Changing gear at a bend in the road, I said, 'Are things as bad as that?' And then, when she didn't answer at once:'Do you mind my asking?'
'No, I don't mind. I was just thinking what to say… They're pretty bad, to be honest with you. I don't know how bad, because Rod does all the book-keeping himself, and he's quite cagey. All he ever says is that he's going to pull things through. We both try and keep the worst of it from Mother, but it must be obvious even to her that things at Hundreds will never be what they were. We've lost too much land, for one thing. The farm's more or less our only income now. And the world's a changed place, isn't it? That's why we've been so keen to hang on to Betty. I can't tell you what a difference it's made to Mother's spirits, our being able to ring for a servant in the old-fashioned way, instead of having to traipse down to the kitchen for a jug of hot water, or something, ourselves. That sort of thing means such a lot. We had servants at Hundreds, you see, right up to the war.'
Again she spoke matter-of-factly; as if to someone of her own class. But she was still for a second, and then she moved as if selfconscious,saying, in quite a different voice, 'God, how shallow you must think us. I'm so sorry.'
I said, 'Not at all.'
But it was clear what she meant, and the obviousness of her embarrassment only served to embarrass me. The road we had taken, too, was one I remembered going up and down as a boy at just about this time of year-carrying out the midday 'snap' of bread and cheese to my mother's brothers as they helped with the Hundreds harvest. No doubt those men would have been very tickled to think that, thirty years on, a qualified doctor, I would be driving up that same road in my own car with the squire's daughter at my side. But I felt overcome suddenly with an absurd sense of gaucheness, and falseness-as if, had my plain labourer uncles actually appeared before me now, they would have seen me for the fraud I was, and laughed at me.
So for a while I said nothing, and neither did Caroline, and all our former ease seemed lost. It was a shame, for the drive was a pleasant one, the hedges colourful and fragrant, thick with dogrose and red valerian and creamy white 'keck'. Where the bushes gave way to gates one caught glimpses of the fields beyond them, some stripped already to stubble and soil and being picked over by rooks, some still with wheat in them, the pale of the crop streaked scarlet with poppies.
We reached the end of the Hundreds Farm lane, and I slowed the car in preparation for turning into it. But she straightened up as if ready to get out.
'Don't trouble to take me all the way down. It's no distance.'
'Are you sure?'
'Well, all right.'
I supposed she had had enough of me; and couldn't blame her. But when I had put on the brake and let the engine idle she reached to the catch of her door, then paused with her hand upon it. Half turning to me, she said awkwardly, 'Thank you so much for the lift, Dr Faraday. I'm sorry to have gone on, before. I expect you think what most people must think, when they've seen Hundreds as it is nowadays: that we're absolutely mad to go on living there, trying to keep it the way it was; that we ought to just… give up. The truth is, you see, we know how lucky we are to have lived there at all. We have to sort of keep the place in order, keep up our side of the bargain. That can feel like an awful pressure, sometimes.'
Her tone was simple and very sincere, and her voice, I realised, was a pleasant one, low and melodious-the voice of a much handsomer woman, so that I was very much struck by it, there in the close warm twilight of the car.
My complicated feelings began to unravel. I said, 'I don't think you're in the least bit mad, Miss Ayres. I only wish there was something I could do to make your family burdens lighter. That's the doctor in me, I suppose. Your brother's leg, for example. I've been thinking, if I could take a good look at it-'
She shook her head. 'That's kind of you. But I really meant it,just now, when I said there wasn't the money for treatments.'
'How about if it were possible to waive the fee?'
'Well, that would be even kinder! But I don't think my brother would see it that way. He has a silly sort of pride when it comes to things like that.'
'Ah,' I said, 'but there might be a way around that, too…'
I'd had this idea at the back of my mind ever since my trip to Hundreds; now I put it together properly as I spoke. I told her about the successes I'd had in the past in using electrical therapy to treat muscle injuries very like her brother's. I said that induction coils were rarely seen outside specialist wards, where they tended to be used on very fresh injuries, but that my hunch was their application could be far wider.
'GPs need to be convinced,' I said. 'They need to see the evidence. I've got the equipment, but the right kind of case doesn't always come up. If I had an appropriate patient, and was writing the work up as I went along, making a paper out of it-well, the patient would be doing me a kind of favour. I wouldn't dream of charging a fee.'
She narrowed her eyes. 'I begin to see the misty outline of a beautiful arrangement.'
'Exactly. Your brother wouldn't even have to come to my surgery: the machine's very portable, I could bring it out to the Hall. I couldn't swear it would work, of course. But if I were to get him wired up to it, say, once a week for two or three months, it's just possible he'd feel the benefits enormously… What do you think?'
'I think it sounds marvellous!' she said, as if really delighted by the idea. 'But aren't you afraid of wasting your time? Surely there are more deserving cases.'
'Your brother's case seems pretty deserving to me,' I told her. 'And as for wasting time-well, to be quite honest with you, I don't think it'll do my standing at the district hospital any harm, to be seen taking the initiative with a trial of this nature.'
That was perfectly true; though had I been really honest with her, I would have added that I also had hopes of impressing the local gentry-who, hearing perhaps of my success in treating Roderick Ayres's ailments, might for the first time in twenty years consider sending for me to take a look at their own…
We talked the matter over for a minute or two, with the car engine idling; and since she grew more excited about it the more she heard, she at last said, 'Look, why not come up to the farm with me right now, and put this to Roddie yourself?'
I glanced at my watch. 'Well, there's the patient I promised to look in on.'
'Oh, but can't they wait a little? Patients must be good at waiting. That's why they're called patients, surely… Just five minutes,to explain it to him? Just to tell him what you've told me?'
She spoke, now, like a jolly sort of schoolgirl, and her manner was hard to resist. I said, 'All right,' and turned the car into the lane, and after a short jolting ride we found ourselves in the cobbled yard of the farm. Ahead of us was the Hundreds farmhouse, a gaunt Victorian building. To our left were the cow-pen and milking-shed. We'd clearly arrived near the end of milkingtime, for only a small group of cows still waited, fretful and complaining, to be taken in from their pen. The rest-about fifty of them, I guessed-could just be seen in an enclosure on the other side of the yard.
We got out and, with Gyp, began to pick our way over the cobbles. It was hard work: all farmyards are filthy, but this one was filthier than most, and the mud and slurry had been churned by hooves and then baked solid, in ruts and peaks, by the long dry summer. The shed, when we reached it, turned out to be an old wooden structure in a rather obvious state of dilapidation, reeking of manure and ammonia and giving off heat like a glass hothouse. There were no milking machines, only stools and pails, and in the first two stalls we found the farmer, Makins, and his grown-up son, each at work on a cow. Makins had come in from outside the county a few years before, but I knew him by sight, a harassedlooking lean-faced man in his early fifties, the very image of a struggling dairyman. Caroline called to him, and he gave us a nod, glancing at me in mild curiosity; we walked further and, to my surprise, found Roderick. I'd guessed he was in the farmhouse or busy in some other part of the farm, but here he was, milking along with the others, his face scarlet with heat and exertion, his long lean legs folded up and his forehead pressed into the cow's dusty brown flank.
He looked up and blinked when he saw me-not entirely pleased, I thought, to be caught at work like this, but doing a good job of hiding his feelings, for he called lightly, though without smiling: 'I hope you'll excuse me if I don't get up to shake your hand!' He looked at his sister.
'Everything all right?'
'Everything's fine,' she answered. 'Dr Faraday wants to talk to you about something, that's all.'
'Well, I shan't be long.-Settle down, you great daft thing.'
His cow had started moving fretfully about at the sound of our voices. Caroline drew me back.
'They get skittish around strangers. They know me, though. Do you mind if I help?'
'Of course not,' I said.
She let herself into the cow-pen, slipping on a pair of wellingtons and a filthy canvas apron, moving easily among the waiting animals, then driving one back into the shed and putting it to stand in the stall beside her brother's. Her arms were bare already, so she had no sleeves to roll up, but she washed her hands at a stand-pipe and gave them a swill with disinfectant; she brought over a stool and a zinc pail, put them down beside the cow-giving the cow a shove with her elbow as she did it, to bring it round to the right position-and set to work. I heard the noisy squirt of the milk in the empty bucket, and saw the brisk rhythmic movement of her arms. Taking a step to one side, I could just make out beneath the cow's broad hindquarters the flash of her
hands tugging on the pale, impossibly elastic-looking udders.
She had finished that cow and started on another before Roderick finished his. He led the beast out of the shed, emptied his pail of foaming milk into a scrubbed steel vat, then came over to me, wiping his fingers on his apron and jerking up his chin.
'What can I do for you?'
I didn't want to keep him from his work, so told him briefly what I had in mind, phrasing it all as if I were asking a favour, putting it to him that he'd be helping me out with some rather important research… The scheme sounded less convincing, somehow, than when I had described it to his sister in the car, and he listened with a very dubious expression, especially when I described the electrical nature of the machine. 'I'm sorry to say we haven't the fuel to run our generator during the day,' he said, shaking his head as if that put an end to it. But I assured him that the coil ran off its own dry cells… I could see Caroline watching us, and when she had finished with another cow she came and joined us, adding her arguments to mine. Roderick looked anxiously at the restless waiting cattle as she spoke, and I think he agreed to the scheme in the end purely as a way of shutting us up. As soon as he could, he went limping over to the pen to fetch another beast for milking, and it was Caroline who fixed the date for me to come to the house.
'I'll make sure he's there,' she murmured. 'Don't worry.' And she added, as if just struck by the thought: 'Come long enough to stay for tea again, will you? I know Mother would want you to.'
'Yes,' I said, pleased. 'I'd like to. Thank you, Miss Ayres.'
At that, she put on a comically pained expression. 'Oh, call me Caroline, won't you? Lord knows, I've years and years ahead of me of being dry Miss Ayres… But I'll still call you Doctor, if I may. One never quite likes to breach those professional distances, somehow.'
Smiling, she offered me her warm, milk-scented hand; and we shook on it, there in the cowshed, like a couple of farmers sealing a deal.
The date I made with her was for the following Sunday: another warm day, as it turned out, with a parched, languished feel to it,and a sky made heavy and hazy with dust and grain. The square red front of the Hall looked pale and curiously insubstantial as I approached, and only as I drew up on the gravel did it seem to come into proper focus: I saw again all the shabby detail and, even more than on my first visit, I had an impression of the house being held in some sort of balance. One could see so painfully, I thought, both the glorious thing it had recently been, and the ruin it was on the way to becoming.
This time Roderick must have been looking out for me. The front door was drawn gratingly open, and he stood at the top of the cracked steps while I emerged from the car. When I made my way over to him with my doctor's bag in one hand and, in the other, the induction coil in its neat wooden case, he gave a frown.
'This is the gadget you meant? I was picturing something heftier. This looks like something you'd keep sandwiches in.'
I said, 'It's more powerful than you'd think.'
'Well, if you say so… Let me show you to my room.'
He spoke as if rather regretting having agreed to the whole thing. But he turned and led me inside, taking me to the right of the staircase this time, and along another cool dim passage. He opened up the last of its doors, saying vaguely, 'I'm afraid it's a bit of a mess in here.'
I followed him in, and set down my things; then looked about me in some surprise. When he had spoken of 'his room' I'd naturally been picturing an ordinary bedroom, but this room was huge-or seemed huge to me then, when I still hadn't quite acclimatised myself to the scale of things at Hundreds-with panelled walls, a lattice-work plaster ceiling, and a wide stone fireplace with a Gothic surround.
'This used to be a billiard room,' Roderick said to me, seeing my face. 'My great-grandfather kitted it up. I think he must have fancied himself as some sort of baron, don't you? But we lost the billiards stuff years ago, and when I came home from the Air Force-home from hospital, I mean-well, it took me a while to be able to manage stairs and so on, so my mother and sister had the idea of putting a bed for me in here. I've grown so used to it, it's never seemed worth going back upstairs. I do all my work in here, too.'
'Yes,' I said, 'so I see.'
This was the room, I realised, that I had glimpsed from the terrace in July. It was even more of a jumble than it had seemed to me then. One corner was given over to a punishing-looking ironframed bed, with a dressing-table close beside it and, next to that, an antique washing-stand and mirror. Before the Gothic fireplace stood a couple of old leather armchairs, handsome enough, but both very scuffed and split at their seams. There were two curtained windows, one leading out via those convolvulus-choked stone steps to the terrace; in front of the other, and rather spoiling the lovely long line of it, Roderick had set up a desk and swivel chair. He had obviously put the desk there in order to catch the best of the northern daylight, but this also meant that its illuminated surface-which was almost obscured by a litter of papers, ledgers, folders, technical books, dirty teacups and overflowing ashtrays-acted as a sort of magnet on the eye, irresistibly drawing one's gaze from every point in the room. The desk was clearly a magnet for Roderick in other ways too, for even while talking to me he had gone across to it and started rooting about for something in the chaos. At last he produced a stub of pencil, then fished in his pocket for a scrap of paper and began copying down what looked like a series of sums into one of the ledgers.
'Sit down, won't you?' he said to me over his shoulder. 'I shan't be a tick. But I've just come back from the farm, and if I don't make a note of these blasted figures right now, I'm sure to forget.'
I did sit, for a minute or two. But as he showed no sign of joining me, I thought I might as well prepare my machine, so I brought it over and set it down between the two scuffed leather chairs, unhooking its latch and drawing off its case. I'd used the apparatus many times before, and it was simple enough, a combination of coil, dry-cell battery and metal plate electrodes; but it looked rather daunting with its terminals and wires, and when I raised my head again I saw that Roderick had left his desk and was gazing down at it in some dismay.
'Quite a little monster, isn't it,' he said, plucking at his lip. 'You mean to set it going right now?'
'Well,' I said, pausing with the tangled leads in my hands, 'I thought that was the idea. But if you'd rather not-'
'No, no, it's all right. Since you're here, we might as well get on with it. Do I strip off, or how does it work?'
I said I thought we should get away with him simply rolling his baggy trouser leg up, over the knee. He seemed glad not to have to undress in front of me, but once he had taken off his plimsoll and the much-darned sock beneath it and seen to the trousers, he folded his arms, looking awkward.
'I feel like I'm joining the Freemasons! I don't have to swear an oath or anything?'
I laughed. 'In the first place you simply have to sit here and letme examine you, if you don't mind. It won't take long.'
He lowered himself into the armchair, and I squatted before him and gently took hold of the injured leg, drawing it straight. As the muscle tightened he gave a grunt of pain.
'Not too much for you?' I asked. 'I need to move it about a bit, I'm afraid, to get the feel of the injury.'
The leg was slender in my hands, thick with springing dark hair, but the skin had a yellowish, bloodless look, and in various spots on the calf and shin the hair gave way to polished pink dents and ridges. The knee was as pale and bulbous as some queer root, and terribly stiff. The muscle of the calf was shallow and rigid, knotty with indurated tissue. The ankle joint-which Roderick was drastically overusing, in compensation for the lack of movement above – looked puffy and inflamed.
'Pretty foul, isn't it?' he said, in a more subdued tone, as I tried the leg and foot in various positions.
'Well, the circulation's sluggish, and there are a lot of adhesions. That's not good. But I've certainly seen worse… How's
He jerked away. 'Christ! What are you trying to do, twist the damn thing off?'
I gently took hold of the leg again and set it into its natural position, and spent a moment or two simply warming and working the rigid muscle of the calf between my fingers. Then I went through the process of wiring him up: soaking squares of lint with salt solution, fixing these to the electrode plates; putting the plates in position on his leg with elastic bindings. He leaned forward to watch me do it, looking more interested now. As I made a few final adjustments to the machine he said, in a simple, boyish way, 'That's the condenser, is it? Yes, I see. And there's how you interrupt the current, I suppose… Look here, do you have a licence for this? I'm not about to start sparking at the ears or anything?'
I said, 'I hope not. But let's just say the last patient I hooked up to this now saves a fortune on permanent waves.'
He blinked, mistaking my tone, taking me seriously for a second. Then he met my gaze-met it properly for the first time that day, perhaps for the first time ever; finally 'seeing' me-and he smiled. The smile lifted his features completely, and drew attention from his scars. One saw the likeness between him and his mother.
I said, 'Are you ready?'
He grimaced, more boyish than ever. 'I suppose so.'
'Right, here goes.'
I threw the switch. He yelped, his leg jumping forward in an involuntary twitch. Then he started laughing. I said, 'Not painful?'
'No. Like pins and needles, that's all. Now it's hotting up! Is that right?'
'Perfect. Once the heat begins to fade, let me know, and I'll turn it up a bit.'
We spent five or ten minutes like that, until the sensation of heat in his leg had reached a constant, which meant that the current had found its peak. I left the machine to look after itself then, and sat down in the second leather armchair. Roderick began to feel in his trouser pocket for his tobacco and packet of papers. But I couldn't bear to see him roll up one of his wretched little 'coffin nails' again, so I got out my own case and lighter and we helped ourselves to a cigarette each. He took a long draw on his, closing his eyes and letting his head grow loose on his slender neck.
I said sympathetically, 'You look tired.'
At once, he made an effort to sit straighter. 'I'm all right. I was up at six this morning, that's all, for the milking. It isn't so bad in this weather, of course; it's in winter that one feels it… Having Makins for a dairyman doesn't help, though.'
'No? Why not?'
He changed his pose again, and spoke as if reluctantly. 'Oh, I oughtn't to complain. He's had it tough, with this bloody heat wave: we've lost milk, we've lost grass, we've already had to start the herd off on next winter's feed. But he wants a thousand impossible things, and doesn't have a clue about how to achieve them. That's left to me, unfortunately.'
I asked, What sort of things? He said, with the same touch of reluctance, 'Well, his big idea is for me to get an extension run out here from the water main. He wants me to bring out electricity while I'm at it. He says that even if the well fills up again, the pump is just about ready to blow. He wants me to replace that; and he's started saying now that he thinks the milking-shed's unsafe. He'd like me to pull it down and build a brick one. With a brick shed and an electric milker we could start turning out accredited milk, and make more of a profit. It's all he talks about.'
He reached to a table at his side for a gun-metal ashtray, already crowded with worm-like stubs. I leaned across and tapped my cigarette into it too, saying, 'Well, I fear he's right about the milk.'
Roderick laughed. 'I know he's right! He's right about it all. The farm's absolutely jiggered. But what the hell am I to do about it? He keeps asking me, Why can't I free up some capital? It's as though he's found the phrase in some magazine. I've told him frankly that Hundreds doesn't have any capital to free. He doesn't believe me. He sees us living here, in this great house; he thinks we're sitting on piles of gold. He doesn't see us blundering around in the night with candles and Tilleys because we've run out of oil for the generator. He doesn't see my sister, scrubbing floors, washing dishes in cold water…' He jerked a hand towards his desk.
'I've been writing letters to the bank, and putting an application together for a building licence. I spoke to a man at the district council yesterday about the water main and the electricity. He didn't give me much encouragement; he said we're too isolated out here to make it worth their while. But of course, the whole thing has to be put down on paper. They need plans and surveyor's reports, and God knows what else. That's so it can do the rounds of about ten different departments, I suppose, before they reject it properly…'
He had started speaking almost unwillingly, but it was as if he had some sort of spring inside him, and his own words wound it:as he went on I watched the bitter shifting about of his scarred, finely cut features, the restless dipping and rising of his hands, and suddenly remembered what David Graham had told me, about his having had that touch of 'nervous trouble' after his smash. I'd been supposing his manner to be rather casual, all this time. Now I realised that the casualness was actually something else completely: perhaps an exhaustion, perhaps a studied warding off of anxiety; perhaps even a tension, so complete and habitual it resembled languor.
He became aware of my thoughtful gaze. He fell silent, drawing deeply on his cigarette again, and taking his time over exhaling. He said, in a different voice, 'You mustn't let me run on. I can be a frightful bore about it.'
'Not at all,' I answered. 'I'd like to hear more.'
But he was clearly set on turning the subject, and for five or ten minutes we discussed other things. Every so often as we chatted I moved forward to check his leg, and to ask him how the muscle was feeling. 'It's fine,' he'd answer each time, but I could see his face growing flushed, so guessed he was suffering slightly. Soon it was clear that the skin had started to itch. He began to pick and rub at the edge of the electrodes. When I finally switched the thing off and removed the elastics, he worked his fingernails vigorously up and down his calf, grateful to be released.
The treated flesh, as I'd expected, looked hot and moist, almost scarlet. I dried it off, shook powder on it, and spent another couple of minutes working the muscle with my fingers. But it was clearly one thing for him to be wired up to an impersonal machine, and quite another to have me squatting before him going over his leg with quick warm powdered hands: he shifted about impatiently, and at last I let him rise. He saw to his sock and plimsoll and unrolled his trouser leg, all without speaking. But once he had taken a few paces across the room he looked back at me and said, as if pleased and surprised, 'You know, that's not too bad. That's really not too bad at all.'
I realised then how much I had wanted the thing to be a success. I said, 'Walk again, and let me watch you… Yes, you're definitely moving more freely. Just don't overdo it. It's a good start, but we must take things slowly. For now, you must keep that muscle warm. You've some liniment, I suppose?'
He glanced doubtfully around the room. 'I think they gave me some lotion or other when they sent me home.'
'Never mind. I'll give you a new prescription.'
'Oh, now, look here. You mustn't trouble any more than you already have.'
'I told you, didn't I? You're doing me the favour.'
I'd anticipated exactly this, and had brought along a bottle in my bag. He took it from me, then stood gazing at the label while I went back to the machine. As I was tidying away the lint there was a knock on the door, which startled me slightly, for I had heard no footsteps: the room had those two great windows, but the wooden panelling on its walls gave it an insulated feel, as if it were the below-decks cabin of an ocean liner. Roderick called out, and the door was opened. Gyp appeared, thrusting his way into the room and trotting straight to me; and behind him, more tentatively, came Caroline. She was wearing an Aertex blouse today, tucked haphazardly into the waistband of a shapeless cotton skirt.
She said, 'Are you cooked, Roddie?'
'Quite fried,' he answered.
'And is that the machine? Crikey. Like something of Dr Frankenstein's, isn't it?'
She watched me lock the thing back in its case, then noticed her brother, who was absently flexing and bending his leg. She must have seen from his pose and expression the relief the treatment had brought him, for she gave me a serious, grateful look, which somehow pleased me almost more than the success of the therapy itself. But then, as if embarrassed by her own emotion, she turned away from me to pick up a stray piece of paper from the floor, and began complaining light-heartedly about Roderick's untidiness.
'If only there were some sort of machine for keeping rooms in order!' she said. Roderick had unstoppered the bottle of liniment and was lifting it to his nose.
'I thought we had one of those already. It's called Betty. Or else why do we pay her?'
'Don't listen to him, Doctor. He never lets poor Betty in here.'
'I can't keep her out!' he said. 'And she moves things around where I can't find them, and then pretends she hasn't touched them.'
He spoke absently now, already having drifted back to that magnetic desk of his, the bottle put aside and his leg forgotten; and when he had opened up the cover of a dog-eared manila file and was frowning down at it he began, just as automatically, to bring out papers and tobacco in order to roll a cigarette.
I saw Caroline watching him, her expression growing serious again.
'I wish you'd give those filthy things up,' she said. She went to one of the oak-panelled walls and ran her hand across the wood.'Look at these poor panels. The smoke's ruining them. They ought to be waxed or oiled or something.'
'Oh, the whole house needs something,' said Roderick, yawning. 'If you know a way of doing something with nothing-no money, I mean-then go ahead, be my guest. Besides' -he had raised his head and caught my eye, and made another obvious effort to speak more brightly-'it's a fellow's duty to smoke in this room, wouldn't you say, Dr Faraday?'
He gestured to the lattice-work ceiling, which I had taken to be ivory coloured with age, but which I now realised had been stained an irregular nicotine-yellow by half-a-century's worth of cigarpuffing billiard players.
Soon he returned to his papers, and Caroline and I took the hint and left him. He promised, with a touch of vagueness, that he would shortly join us for tea.
His sister shook her head. 'He'll be in there for hours now,' shemurmured, as we moved away from his door. 'I wish he'd let me share the work with him, but he never will… His leg was really better, though, wasn't it? I can't thank you enough for helping him like this.'
'He could help himself,' I said, 'by doing the right kind of exercises. Or a bit of simple massage every day would make a great deal of difference to the muscle. I've given him some liniment; you might see that he uses it?'
'I'll do my best. But I expect you've noticed how careless of himself he is.' She slowed her step. 'What do you think of him, honestly?'
I said, 'I think he's fundamentally very healthy. I think he's charming, too, by the way. It's a pity he's been allowed to organise his room like that, with the business side of things dominating everything else.'
'Yes, I know. Our father used to run the estate from the library. It's his old desk that Roderick uses, but I never remember it looking so chaotic in the old days, and that was with four farms to manage, not just one. We had an agent to help us then, mind; a Mr McLeod. He had to leave us during the war. He had an office of his own, just back there. This side of the Hall was the “men's side”, if you know what I mean, and always busy. Now, apart from Roderick's room, this whole section of the house might as well not be here at all.'
She spoke casually, but it was novel and curious to me to think of having grown up in a house with so many spare rooms in it they could be shut up and forgotten. When I said this to Caroline, however, she gave that rueful laugh of hers.
'The novelty soon wears off, I assure you! One starts to think of them pretty quickly as something like tiresome poor relations, for one can't abandon them completely, but they have accidents, or fall ill, and finish by using up more money than would have been needed to pension them off. It's a shame, because there are some quite nice features here… But I could show you over the house, if you'd like? If you promise to avert your gaze from the worst bits? The sixpenny tour. What do you say?'
She seemed genuinely keen to do it, and I said I'd like it very much, if it wouldn't mean keeping her mother waiting. She said, 'Oh, Mother's a true Edwardian at heart: she thinks it a barbarism to take tea before four o'clock. What time is it now?' It was just after half past three. 'We've plenty of time. Let's start at the front.'
She snapped her fingers for Gyp, who had gone trotting on ahead, and took me back past her brother's door.
'The hall you've seen, of course,' she said, when we reached it and I had set down my therapy machine and bag. 'The floor's Carrara marble, and three inches thick-hence the vaulted ceilings in the rooms underneath. It's a devil to polish. The staircase: considered quite a feat of engineering when it was put in, because of the open second landing; there aren't many others quite like it. My father used to say it was like something from a department store. My grandmother refused to use it; it gave her vertigo… Over there's our old morning-room, but I won't show you that: it's quite empty, and far too shabby. Let's go in here instead.'
She opened a door on a darkened room which, once she had gone across to the shuttered windows and let in some light, revealed itself as a pleasant, largish library. Most of its shelves, however, were hung with dust-sheets, and some of its furniture was obviously gone: she reached into a mesh-fronted case and carefully drew out a couple of what she said were the house's best books, but I could see that the room was not what it had been, and there wasn't much to linger for. She went to the fireplace to peer up the chimney, concerned about a fall of soot in the grate; then she closed the shutter and led me to the neighbouring room-the old estate office she had already mentioned, which was panelled like Roderick's and had similar Gothic touches. Her brother's door was next, and just beyond that was the curtained arch that led to the basement. We went quietly past them both and found the 'boot-room', a musty-smelling chamber full of mackintoshes and perished wellingtons and tennis racquets and mallets but really, she told me, a sort of tiring-room from the days when the family still ran a stables. A door inside it led to a quaint delft-tiled lavatory that had been known for over a century, she said, as 'the gentlemen's hoo-hah'.
She snapped her fingers again for Gyp, and we moved on.
'You're not bored?' she asked.
'Not at all.'
'Do I make a good guide?'
'You make a capital guide.'
'But now, oh dear, here's one of those bits from which you must turn your gaze. Oh, and now you're laughing at us! That's unfair.'
I had to explain why I was smiling: the panel she meant was the one from which I'd prised that plaster acorn, all those years before. I told the story rather warily, not quite sure how she would take it. But she widened her eyes as if thrilled.
'Oh, but that's too funny! And Mother really gave you a medal? Like Queen Alexandra? I wonder if she remembers.'
'Please don't mention it to her,' I said. 'I'm sure she doesn't. I was one of about fifty nasty little grubby-kneed boys that day.'
'But you liked the house, even then?'
'Enough to want to vandalise it.'
'Well,' she said kindly, 'I don't blame you for wanting to vandalise these silly mouldings. They were simply asking to be snapped off. What you started I'm afraid Roddie and I, between us, probably finished… But isn't that queer? You saw Hundreds before he or I ever did.'
'So I did,' I said, struck by the thought.
We moved away from the broken mouldings, and continued our tour. She drew my attention to a short line of portraits, murky canvases in heavy gold frames. And, just as in some American movie mock-up of a stately home, they turned out to be what she called 'the family album'.
'None of them is terribly good or valuable or anything, I'm afraid,' she said. 'All the valuable ones have been sold, along with the best of the furniture. But they're fun, if you can bear the bad light.'
She pointed to the first. 'Here's William Barber Ayres. He's the man who had the Hall built. A good county chap, like all the Ayreses, but evidently rather near: we have letters to him from the architect, complaining of outstanding fees and more or less threatening to send round the heavies… Next is Matthew Ayres, who took troops to Boston. He came back in disgrace, with an American wife, and died three months later; we like to say she poisoned him… This is Ralph Billington Ayres, Matthew's nephew-the family gambler, who for a time ran a second estate, in Norfolk, and just like a Georgette Heyer rake lost the whole of it in a single game of cards… And this is Catherine Ayres, his daughter-in-law and my great-grandmother. She was an Irish racehorse heiress, and restored the family fortune. It was said that she could never go near a horse herself, for fear of frightening it. Pretty clear where I get my looks from, wouldn't you say?'
She laughed as she spoke, because the woman in the painting was strikingly ugly; but the fact is, Caroline did resemble her, just a little-though it gave me a slight shock to realise it, for I found I had grown as used to her mismatched masculine features as I had to Roderick's scars. I made some gesture of polite demurral, but she had already turned away. She had two more rooms, she said, to show me, but would 'save the best till last'. I thought the one she took me to next was arresting enough: a dining-room, done up in a pale chinoiserie theme, with a hand-painted paper on its walls and, on its polished table, two ormolu candelabra with writhing branches and cups. But then she led me back to the centre of the passage and, opening up another door, made me stand just inside the threshold while she crossed through the darkness of the room beyond to unfasten the shutters at one of its windows.
This passage ran from north to south, so all its rooms faced west. The afternoon was bright, the light came in like blades through the seams in the shutters, and even as she lifted the bolt I could see that the space we were in was a large and impressive one, with various sheeted pieces of furniture dotted about. But when she drew the creaking shutters back and details leapt into life around me, I was so astonished, I laughed.
The room was an octagonal saloon, about forty feet across. It had a vivid yellow paper on its walls and a greenish patterned carpet; the fireplace was unblemished white marble, and from the centre of the heavily moulded ceiling there hung a large gilt-and-crystal chandelier.
'Pretty crazy, isn't it?' said Caroline, laughing too.
'It's incredible!' I said. 'One would never guess at it from the rest of the house-which is all so relatively sober.'
'Ah, well. I dare say the original architect would have wept if he'd known what was coming. It was Ralph Billington Ayres – you remember him? the family blade?-who had this room added, in the 1820s, when he still had most of his money. Apparently they were all madly keen on yellow in those days; God knows why. The paper's original, which is why we've hung on to it. As you can see'-she pointed out various spots where the ancient paper was drooping from the walls-'it seems less interested in hanging on to us. I can't show you the chandelier in all its glory, unfortunately, with the generator off; it's quite something when it's blazing. That's original too, but my parents had it electrified when they were first married. They used to throw lots of parties in those days, when the house was still grand enough to bear it. The carpet's in strips, of course. You can roll them back for dancing.'
She pointed out one or two other features, lifting off dustsheets to expose the fine low Regency chair or cabinet or sofa underneath.
'What's this?' I asked, of one irregular-looking item. 'Piano?'
She put back a corner of its quilted cover. 'Flemish harpsichord, older than the house. I don't suppose you play?'
'Good heavens, no.'
'No, nor I. A pity. It ought really to be used, poor thing.'
But she spoke without much emotion, running her hand in a business-like way over the instrument's decorated case, then letting the cover fall again and going over to the unshuttered window. I joined her there. The window was actually a pair of long glass doors and, like the ones in Roderick's room and the little parlour, it opened on to a set of flying stone steps leading down to the terrace. As I saw when I drew closer, these particular steps had collapsed: the top one still jutted from the sill, but the rest lay scattered on the gravel four feet below, dark and weathered as if they had lain there some time. Undeterred, Caroline seized the handle of the doors and opened them up, and we stood on the little precipice in the soft, warm, fragrant air, looking over the west lawn. The lawn must once, I thought, have been trimmed and level: perhaps a space for croquet. Now the ground was lumpy with molehills and thistles, and the grass in places was knee-high. The straggling shrubs all around it gave way to clumps of purple beech, beautifully vivid in colour but quite out of control; and the two huge unlopped English elms beyond them would, I saw, once the sun sank lower, cast the whole of the scene in shadow.
Away to the right was a clutch of outbuildings, the garage and disused stables. Over the stable door was a great white clock.
'Twenty to nine,' I said, smiling, looking at the stuck ornamental hands.
Caroline nodded. 'Roddie and I did that when the clock first broke.' And then, seeing my puzzled expression: 'Twenty to nine is the time Miss Havisham's clocks are stopped at in Great Expectations. We thought it awfully funny, then. It seems a bit less funny now, I must admit… Beyond the stables are the old gardens- the kitchen gardens, and so on.'
I could just see the wall of them. It was made of the same uneven mellow red brick as the house; an arched opening in it gave a glimpse of cinder paths and overgrown borders and what I thought might be a quince or a medlar and, since I am fond of walled gardens, I said without thinking that I'd like to take a look at them.
Caroline glanced at her watch and said gamely, 'Well, we still have almost ten minutes. It's quickest to go this way.'
She put her hand to the door frame, leaning forward and bending her legs. 'I mean, jump.'
I drew her back. 'Oh, no. I'm too old for that sort of thing. Take me some other time, would you?'
'Well, all right.'
She seemed sorry. I think our tour had made her restless; or else she was simply showing her youth. She stayed at my side for a few minutes more, but then went around the room again, making sure that the furniture was properly wrapped, and lifting one or two corners of carpet to check for silver-fish and moth.
'Goodbye, poor neglected saloon,' she said, when she had closed the window and fastened the shutter and we had made our way, half blind, back out to the passage. And because she had spoken with something like a sigh, as she turned the key on the room I said, 'I'm so glad to have seen the house. It's lovely.'
'You think so?'
'Well, don't you?'
'Oh, it's not such a bad old pile, I suppose.'
For once, her jolly fifth-form manner grated on me. I said, 'Come on, Caroline, be serious.'
It was the first time I had used her Christian name, and perhaps that, combined with my slightly chiding tone, made her selfconscious. She coloured in that unbecoming way of hers, and the jolliness faded. Meeting my gaze she said, as if in honest surrender,
'You're right. Hundreds is lovely. But it's a sort of lovely monster! It needs to be fed all the time, with money and hard work. And when one feels them'-she nodded to the row of sombre portraits- 'at one's shoulder, looking on, it can begin to seem like a frightful burden… It's hardest on Rod, because he has the extra responsibility of being master. He doesn't want to let people down, you see.'
She had a sort of trick, I realised, of turning the talk away from herself. I said, 'I'm sure your brother's doing all he can. You, too.' But over my words there came, from one of the clocks of the house, the quick, bright striking of four, and she touched my arm, her look clearing.
'Come on. My mother's waiting. The sixpenny tour includes refreshments, don't forget!'
So we continued along that passage to the start of the next, and went into the little parlour.
We found Mrs Ayres at her writing-desk, putting paste to a fragment of paper. She looked up almost guiltily as we appeared,though I couldn't imagine why; then I saw that the fragment was actually an unfranked stamp that had rather obviously already been through the post.
'Now, I fear,' she said, as she attached the stamp to an envelope, 'that this may not be quite legal. But heaven knows, we live in very lawless times. You won't give me away, Dr Faraday?'
I said, 'Not only that, I'll be happy to abet the crime. I'll take the letter to the post at Lidcote, if you like.'
'You will? How kind of you. The postmen are so careless nowadays. Before the war Wills the postman would come right to the door, twice a day. The man who has the round now complains about the extra distance. We're lucky if he doesn't leave our post at the end of the drive.'
She moved across the room as she spoke, making a small, elegant gesture with one of her slim, ringed hands, and I followed her to the chairs beside the fireplace. She was dressed more or less as she had been on my first visit, in creased dark linen with a knotted silk scarf at her throat, and in another pair of mildly distracting polished shoes. Looking warmly into my face, she said, 'Caroline has told me what you're doing for Roderick. I'm so very grateful to you for taking an interest in him. You really think this treatment will make a difference?'
I said, 'Well, the signs so far are good.'
'They're better than good,' said Caroline, lowering herself with a thump on to the sofa. 'Dr Faraday's just being modest. It really is helping, Mother.'
'But that's marvellous! Roderick works so terribly hard you know, Doctor. Poor boy. I'm afraid he hasn't the way his father had, with the estate. He hasn't the feel for the land and so on.'
I suspected she was right. But I said, politely, that I wasn't sure a feel for the land counted for much any more, given how difficult things were being made for the farmers; and with that readiness to please that characterises very charming people, she answered at once, 'Yes, indeed. I expect you know far more about it than I do… Now, Caroline's been showing you over the house, I think.'
'She has, yes.'
'And do you like it?'
'I'm glad. Naturally, it's the shadow of what it once was. But then, as my children keep reminding me, we're lucky to have held on to it at all… I do think eighteenth-century houses the nicest. Such a civilised century. The house I grew up in was a great Victorian eyesore of a place. It's a Roman Catholic boarding school now, and I must say, the nuns are very welcome to it. I do worry about the poor little girls, however. So many very gloomy corridors and turns of stair. We used to say it was haunted, when I was a child; I don't think it was. It might be now. My father died there, and he hated Roman Catholics with a passion… You've heard about all the changes at Standish, of course?'
I nodded. 'Yes. Well, bits and pieces, from my patients mainly.'
Standish was a neighbouring 'big house', an Elizabethan manor house whose family, the Randalls, had left the county to start a new life in South Africa. The place had been empty for two years, but had recently been sold: the buyer was a London man, named Peter Baker-Hyde, an architect working on Coventry, who had been drawn to Standish as a country retreat by what he considered to be its 'out-of-the-way charm'.
I said, 'I gather there's a wife and a young daughter, and two expensive motor cars; but no horses or dogs. And I hear the man has a good war record-was quite the hero, out in Italy. He clearly did all right out of it: it sounds like he's already spent a lot of money on renovations to the house.'
I spoke a shade sourly, for none of the new wealth at Standish was headed my way: I'd learned just that week that Mr Baker-Hyde and his wife had registered with one of my local rivals, Dr Seeley.
Caroline laughed. 'He's a town planner, isn't he? He'll probably knock Standish down and build a roller-skating rink. Or maybe they'll sell the house to the Americans. They'll ship it over and have it rebuilt, like they did with Warwick Priory. They say you can get an American to buy any old bit of black timber, just by telling him it comes from the Forest of Arden, or was sneezed on by Shakespeare, or something.'
'How cynical you are!' said her mother. 'I think the Baker-Hydes sound charming. There are so few really nice people left in the county these days, we ought to be grateful for them for taking Standish on. When I think of all the great houses and what's become of them, I feel almost marooned. There's Umberslade Hall, where the Colonel's father used to go shooting: filled with secretaries now. Woodcote stands empty; I believe Meriden Hall is the same. Charlecote and Coughton have both been turned over to the public…'
She spoke with a sigh, her tone growing serious and almost plangent; and just for a second she looked her age. Then she turned her head, her expression changing.
She had caught, as I had, the faint echoey rattle of china and teaspoons, out in the passage. Putting a hand to her breast, she leaned towards me and said in a mock-anxious murmur, 'Here comes what my son calls “the skeletons' polka”. Betty has a positive genius, you know, for dropping cups. And we simply haven't the china-' The rattle grew louder, and she closed her eyes. 'Oh, the suspense!' She called through the open door, 'Do watch your step, Betty!'
'I'm watching it, madam!' came the indignant reply; and in another moment the girl appeared in the doorway, frowning and blushing as she manoeuvred in the large mahogany tray.
I got up to help her, but Caroline rose at the same time. She took the tray capably from Betty's hands, set it down and looked it over.
'Not a single drop spilled! That must be in your honour, Doctor. You see we have Dr Faraday with us, Betty? He sorted you out with a miracle cure that time, you remember?'
Betty put down her head. 'Yes, miss.'
I said, smiling, 'How are you, Betty?'
'I'm all right, thank you, sir.'
'I'm glad to hear it, and to see you looking so well. So smart, too!'
I spoke guilelessly, but her expression slightly darkened, as if she suspected me of teasing; and then I remembered her having complained to me about the 'awful dress and hat' that the Ayreses made her wear. The fact is, she was rather quaintly dressed, in a black frock with a white apron, and with starched cuffs and a collar dwarfing her childish wrists and throat; and on her head was a fussy frilled cap, the kind of thing I couldn't remember having seen in a Warwickshire drawing-room since before the war. But in that old-fashioned, shabby-elegant setting, it was somehow hard to imagine her dressed any other way.
And she looked healthy enough, and took trouble over handing out the cups and the slices of cake, as if she were settling down all right. When she had finished she even made us a dip, like an unformed curtsey. Mrs Ayres said, 'Thank you, Betty, that will do,'and she turned and left us. We heard the fading slap and squeak of her stout-soled shoes as she made her way back to the basement.
Caroline, setting down a bowl of tea for Gyp to lap at, said,'Poor Betty. Not a natural parlourmaid.'
But her mother spoke indulgently. 'Oh, we must give her more time. I always remember my great-aunt saying that a well-run house was like an oyster. Girls come to one as specks of grit, you see; ten years later, they leave one as pearls.'
She was addressing me as well as Caroline-clearly forgetting,for the moment, that my own mother had once been one of the specks of grit her great-aunt had meant. I think even Caroline had forgotten it. They both sat comfortably in their chairs, enjoying the tea and the cake that Betty had prepared for them, then awkwardly carried for them, then cut and served for them, from plates and cups which, at the ring of a bell, she would soon remove and wash… I said nothing this time, however. I sat enjoying the tea and cake, too. For if the house, like an oyster, was at work on Betty, fining and disguising her with layer after minuscule layer of its own particular charm, then I suppose it had already begun a similar process with me.
Just as Caroline had predicted, her brother failed to join us that day: it was she who, a little later, walked with me out to my car. She asked if I was driving straight back to Lidcote; I told her I was planning to call on someone in another village. And when I named the village in question, she said, 'Oh, then you should carry on across the park and go out by the other gates. It's much quicker than going back the way you came and driving round. That drive's as bad as this one, mind, so watch out for your tyres.'
Then she was struck by an idea. 'But, listen here. Would it help you to use the park more often? As a short-cut between patients, I mean?'
'Well,' I answered, thinking it over, 'yes, I suppose it would, very much.'
'Then you must use it whenever you like! I'm only sorry we never thought of it before. You'll find the gates are kept shut with wire, but that's simply because since the war we've begun to have problems with ramblers wandering in. Just fasten them behind you, they're never actually locked.'
I said, 'You really won't mind? Nor your mother, or your brother? I'll take you at your word, you know, and be out here every day.'
She smiled. 'We'd like it. Wouldn't we, Gyp?'
She moved back, putting her hands on her hips to watch me start the car and turn it. Then she snapped her fingers for the dog, and they headed off across the gravel.
I picked my way around the north side of the house, looking for the entrance to the other drive: going slowly, not quite certain of the way, and incidentally getting a view of the windows of Roderick's room. He didn't notice my car, but I saw him there, as I passed, very clearly: he was sitting at his desk, with his cheek on his hand, gazing at the papers and open books before him as if impossibly baffled and weary.
Copyright (c) Sarah Waters 2009, All Rights Reserved