“Aunt Bee,” said Jane, breathing heavily into her soup, “was Noah a cleverer back-room boy than Ulysses, or was Ulysses a cleverer back-room boy than Noah?”
“Don’t eat out of the point of your spoon, Jane.”
“I can’t mobilise the strings out of the side.”
Jane looked across at her twin, negotiating the vermicelli with smug neatness.
“She has a stronger suck than I have.”
“Aunt Bee has a face like a very expensive cat,” Ruth said, eyeing her aunt sideways.
Bee privately thought that this was a very good description, but wished that Ruth would not be quaint.
“No, but which was the cleverest?” said Jane, who never departed from a path once her feet were on it.
“Clever-er,” said Ruth.
“Was it Noah or Ulysses? Simon, which was it, do you think?”
“Ulysses,” said her brother, not looking up from his paper.
It was so like Simon, Bee thought, to be reading the list of runners at Newmarket, peppering his soup, and listening to the conversation at one and the same time.
“Why, Simon? Why Ulysses?”
“He hadn’t Noah’s good Met. service. Whereabouts was Firelight in the Free Handicap, do you remember?”
“Oh, away down,” Bee said.
“A coming-of-age is a little like a wedding, isn’t it, Simon?” This was Ruth.
“Better on the whole.”
“You can stay and dance at your own coming of age. Which you can’t at your wedding.”
“I shall stay and dance at my wedding.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you.”
Oh, dear, thought Bee, I suppose there are families that have conversation at meals, but I don’t know how they manage it. Perhaps I haven’t been strict enough.
She looked down the table at the three bent heads, and Eleanor’s still vacant place, and wondered if she had done right by them. Would Bill and Nora be pleased with what she had made of their children? If by some miracle they could walk in now, young and fine-looking and gay as they had gone to their deaths, would they say: “Ah, yes, that is just how we pictured them; even to Jane’s ragamuffin look.”
Bee’s eyes smiled as they rested on Jane.
The twins were nine-going-on-ten and identical. Identical, that is to say, in the technical sense. In spite of their physical resemblance there was never any doubt as to which was Jane and which was Ruth. They had the same straight flaxen hair, the same small-boned face and pale skin, the same direct gaze with a challenge in it; but there the identity stopped. Jane was wearing rather grubby jodhpurs and a shapeless jersey festooned with pulled ends of wool. Her hair was pushed back without aid of mirror and held in the uncompromising clasp of a kirby-grip so old that it had reverted to its original steel colour, as old hairpins do. She was slightly astigmatic and, when in the presence of Authority, was in the habit of wearing horn-rimmed spectacles. Normally they lived in the hip pocket of her breeches, and they had been lain-upon, leant-upon, and sat-upon so often that she lived in a permanent state of bankruptcy: breakages over the yearly allowance having to be paid for out of her money-box. She rode to and fro to lessons at the Rectory on Fourposter, the old white pony; her short legs sticking out on either side of him like straws. Fourposter had long ago become a conveyance rather than a ride, so it did not matter that his great barrel was as manageable as a feather-bed and almost as wide.
Ruth, on the other hand, wore a pink cotton frock, as fresh as when she had set off on her bicycle that morning for the Rectory. Her hands were clean and the nails unbroken, and somewhere she had found a pink ribbon and had tied the two side-pieces of her hair in a bow on the top of her head.
Eight years, Bee was thinking. Eight years of contriving, conserving, and planning. And in six weeks’ time her stewardship would come to an end. In little more than a month Simon would be twenty-one, and would inherit his mother’s fortune and the lean years would be over. The Ashbys had never been rich but while her brother lived there was ample to keep Latchetts — the house and the three farms on the estate — as it should be kept. Only his sudden death had accounted for the near-poverty of those eight years. And only Bee’s own resolution accounted for the fact that her sister-in-law’s money would, next month, come to her son intact. There had been no borrowing on the strength of that future inheritance. Not even when Mr. Sandal, of Cosset, Thring and Noble, had been prepared to countenance it. Latchetts must pay its way, Bee had said. And Latchetts, after eight years, was still self-supporting and solvent.
Beyond her nephew’s fair head she could see, through the window, the white rails of the south paddock, and the flick of old Regina’s tail in the sunlight. It was the horses that had saved them. The horses that had been her brother’s hobby had proved the salvation of his house. Year after year, in spite of all the ills, accidents, and sheer cussedness that afflict horseflesh, the horses had shown a profit. The swings had always paid a little more than the roundabouts. When the original small stud that had been her brother’s delight seemed likely to be a doubtful prop, Bee had added the small hardy children’s ponies to occupy the colder pastures half-way up the down. Eleanor had schooled doubtful hacks into “safe rides for a lady,” and had sold them at a profit. And now that the manor was a boarding-school she was teaching others to ride, at a very respectable price per hour.
“Eleanor is very late, isn’t she?”
“Is she out with La Parslow?” Simon asked.
“The Parslow girl, yes.”
“The unhappy horse has probably dropped dead.”
Simon got up to take away the soup plates, and to help out the meat course from the sideboard, and Bee watched him with critical approval. At least she had managed not to spoil Simon; and that, given Simon’s selfish charm, was no small achievement. Simon had an air of appealing dependence that was quite fallacious, but it had fooled all and sundry since he was in the nursery. Bee had watched the fooling process with amusement and something that was like a reluctant admiration; if she herself had been gifted with Simon’s particular brand of charm, she felt, she would in all likelihood have made it work for her as Simon did. But she had seen to it that it did not work with her.
“It would be nice if a coming-of-age had something like bridesmaids,” Ruth observed, turning over her helping with a fastidious fork.
This fell on stony ground.
“The Rector says that Ulysses was probably a frightful nuisance round the house,” said the undeviating Jane.
“Oh!” said Bee, interested in this sidelight on the classics. “Why?”
“He said he was ‘without doubt a — a gadget-contriver,’ and that Penelope was probably very glad to be rid of him for a bit. I wish liver wasn’t so smooth.”
Eleanor came in and helped herself from the sideboard in her usual silent fashion.
“Pah!” said Ruth. “What a smell of stables.”
“You’re late, Nell,” Bee said, inquiring.
“She’ll never ride,” Eleanor said. “She can’t even bump the saddle yet.”
“Perhaps loony people can’t ride,” Ruth suggested.
“Ruth,” Bee said, with vigour. “The pupils at the Manor are not lunatic. They are not even mentally deficient. They are just ‘difficult.’”
“Ill-adjusted is the technical description,” Simon said.
“Well, they behave like lunatics. If you behave like a lunatic how is anyone to tell that you’re not one?”
Since no one had an answer to this, silence fell over the Ashby luncheon table. Eleanor ate with the swift purposefulness of a hungry schoolboy, not lifting her eyes from her plate. Simon took out a pencil and reckoned odds on the margin of his paper. Ruth, who had stolen three biscuits from the jar on the Rectory sideboard and eaten them in the lavatory, made a castle of her food with a moat of gravy round it. Jane consumed hers with industrious pleasure. And Bee sat with her eyes on the view beyond the window.
Over that far ridge the land sloped in chequered miles to the sea and the clustered roofs of Westover. But here, in this high valley, shut off from the Channel gales and open to the sun, the trees stood up in the bright air with a midland serenity: with an air, almost, of enchantment. The scene had the bright perfection and stillness of an apparition.
A fine inheritance; a fine rich inheritance. She hoped that Simon would do well by it. There were times when she had — no, not been afraid. Times perhaps when she had wondered. Simon had far too many sides to him; a quicksilver quality that did not go with a yeoman inheritance. Only Latchetts, of all the surrounding estates, still sheltered a local family and Bee hoped that it would go on sheltering Ashbys for centuries to come. Fair, small-boned, long-headed Ashbys like the ones round the table.
“Jane, must you splash fruit juice round like that?”
“I don’t like rhubarb in inches, Aunt Bee, I like it in mush.”
“Well, mush it more carefully.”
When she had been Jane’s age she had mushed up her rhubarb too, and at this same table. At this same table had eaten Ashbys who had died of fever in India, of wounds in the Crimea, of starvation in Queensland, of typhoid at the Cape, and of cirrhosis of the liver in the Straits Settlements. But always there had been an Ashby at Latchetts; and they had done well by the land. Here and there came a ne’er-do-well — like her cousin Walter — but Providence had seen to it that the worthless quality had been confined to younger sons, who could practise their waywardness on subjects remote from Latchetts.
No queens had come to Latchetts to dine; no cavaliers to hide. For three hundred years it had stood in its meadows very much as it stood now; a yeoman’s dwelling. And for nearly two of those three hundred years Ashbys had lived in it.
“Simon, dear, see to the cona.”
Perhaps its simplicity had saved it. It had pretended to nothing; had aspired to nothing. Its goodness had been dug back into the earth; its sap had returned to its roots. Across the valley the long white house of Clare stood in its park, gracious as a vicereine, but there were no Ledinghams there now. The Ledinghams had been prodigal of their talents and their riches; using Clare as a background, as a purse, as a decoration, as a refuge, but not as a home. For centuries they had peacocked over the world: as pro-consuls, explorers, court jesters, rakes, and revolutionaries; and Clare had supported their extravagances. Now only their portraits remained. And the great house in the park was a boarding-school for the unmanageable children of parents with progressive ideas and large bank accounts.
But the Ashbys stayed at Latchetts.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01