It was a beautiful day, the day that Brat Farrar came to Latchetts, but a restless little wind kept turning the leaves over so that in spite of the sunlight and the bright air the world was filled with a vague unease and a promise of storm.
“Much too shiny!” thought Bee, looking at the landscape from her bedroom window after breakfast. “‘Tears before night,’ as Nanny used to say of too exuberant children. However. At least he will arrive in sunshine.”
She had been greatly exercised in her mind over that arrival. It was to be as informal as possible; that was a thing that was agreed to by all concerned. Someone would meet him at the station and bring him home, and there would be luncheon with only the family present. The question was: Who was to meet him? The twins had held that the whole family should go to the station, but that, of course, was not to be thought of. The prodigal could hardly be welcomed publicly on the platform at Guessgate for the entertainment of the railway staff and casual travellers between Westover and Bures. She herself could not go without giving the returning Patrick an air of being her protégé; which was something to be avoided at all costs. She had not forgotten Simon’s sneer about her “adoption” of Patrick. Simon — the obvious choice for the role of welcomer — was not available; since her announcement on Sunday he had slept at home but had not otherwise taken part in Latchetts activities, and Bee’s attempt to talk to him in his room late on Monday night had been futile.
So she had been relieved when Eleanor offered to drive the four miles to the station at Guessgate and bring Patrick back.
The present load on her mind was that family meal after his arrival. If Simon did not turn up how was his absence to be explained? And if he did turn up what was that lunch going to be like?
She turned to go down for one more rehearsal with the cook — their third cook in the last twelve months — when she was waylaid by Lana, their “help.” Lana came from the village, and had gilt hair and varnished fingernails and the local version of the current make-up. She “obliged” only because her “boy-friend” worked in the stables. She would sweep and dust, she explained when she first came, because that was “all right,” but she would not wait at table because that was “menial.” Bee had longed to tell her that no one with her hands, or her breath, or her scent, or her manners, would ever be allowed to hand an Ashby a plate; but she had learned to be politic. She explained that there was, in any case, no question of waiting at table; the Ashbys always waited on themselves.
Lana had come to say that the “vacuum was vomiting instead of swallowing,” and domestic worries closed once more over Bee’s head and swamped domestic drama. She came to the surface in time to see Eleanor getting into her little two-seater.
“Aren’t you taking the car?” she asked. “The car” was the family vehicle, Eleanor’s disreputable little conveyance being known as “the bug.”
“No. He’ll have to take us as we are,” Eleanor said.
Bee noticed that she had not bothered to change into a dress. She was wearing the breeches and gaiters in which she had begun the morning.
“Oh, take me, take me!” Ruth said, precipitating herself down the steps and on to the car, but taking good care, Bee noticed, to keep “her blue” away from the bug’s dusty metal.
“No,” Eleanor said firmly.
“I’m sure he would like me to be there. One of my generation, I mean. After all, he knows you. It won’t be exciting for him to see you the way it would be for him to see ——”
“No. And keep off if you don’t want that dazzling outfit of yours to be mucked up.”
“I do think it is selfish of Eleanor,” Ruth said, dusting her palms as she watched the car grow small between the lime trees. “She just wants to keep the excitement to herself.”
“Nonsense. It was arranged that you and Jane should wait here. Where is Jane, by the way?”
“In the stables, I think. She isn’t interested in Patrick.”
“I hope she comes in in good time for lunch.”
“Oh, she will. She may not be interested in Patrick, but she is always ready for her meals. Is Simon going to be there, at lunch?”
“I hope so.”
“What do you think he will say to Patrick?”
If the peace and happiness of Latchetts was going to break down into a welter of discord the twins must go away to school. They would be going to school in a year or two, anyhow; they had much better go now than live in an atmosphere of strain and hatred.
“Do you think there will be a scene?” Ruth asked, hopefully.
“Of course not, Ruth. I wish you wouldn’t dramatise things.”
But she wished, too, that she could count on there being no scene. And Eleanor, on her way to the station, was wishing the same thing. She was a little nervous of meeting this new brother, and annoyed with herself for being nervous. Her everyday clothes were her protest against her own excitement: a pretence that nothing of real moment was about to happen.
Guessgate, which served three villages but no town, was a small wayside station with a fairly heavy goods business but little passenger traffic, so that when Brat climbed down from his carriage there was no one on the platform but a fat countrywoman, a sweating porter, the ticket-collector, and Eleanor.
“Hullo,” she said. “You are very like Simon.” And she shook hands with him. He noticed that she wore no make-up. A little powdering of freckles went over the bridge of her nose.
“Eleanor,” he said, identifying her.
“Yes. What about your luggage? I have just the small car but the dickey holds quite a lot.”
“I have just this,” he said, indicating his “grip.”
“Is the rest coming later?”
“No, this is all I possess.”
“Oh.” She smiled just a little. “No moss.”
“No,” he said, “no moss,” and began to like her very much.
“The car is out in the yard. Through this way.”
“Been away, Mr. Ashby?” the ticket-collector said, accepting his piece of pasteboard.
“Yes, I’ve been away.”
At the sound of his voice the ticket-collector looked up, puzzled.
“He took you for Simon,” Eleanor said, as they got into the car; and smiled properly. Her two front teeth crossed just a little; which gave her face an endearing childishness. It was a cool, determined, small face when she was serious. “You couldn’t have come home at a better time of the year,” she said, as they scrunched over the gravel of the station yard and fled away into the landscape.
“Home,” he thought. Her hair was the colour of corn so ripe that it was nearly white. Pale, silky stuff, very fine. It was brushed back into a knot, as if she could not be bothered to do anything else with it.
“The blossom is just beginning. And the first foals are here.”
The knees in their worn whipcord were just like a boy’s. But the bare arms protruding from the jacket she wore slung over her shoulders were delicately round.
“Honey has a filly foal that is going to make history. Wait till you see it. You won’t know Honey, of course. She was after your time. Her real name is Greek Honey. By Hymettus out of a mare called Money For Jam. I hope you will be impressed with our horses.”
“I expect to be,” he said.
“Aunt Bee says that you’re still interested in them. Horses, I mean.”
“I haven’t done much on the breeding side, of course. Just preparing horses for work.”
They came to the village.
So this was Clare. This warm, living, smiling entity was what those little flat squares on the map had stood for. There was the White Hart; there was the Bell. And up there behind, on its knoll, was the church where the Ashby tablets hung.
“The village is looking nice, isn’t it?” Eleanor said. “Not changed a bit since I can remember. Not changed since the Flood, if it comes to that. The names of the people in the houses come in the same order down the street as they did in the time of Richard the Second. But of course you know that! I keep thinking of you as a visitor.”
Beyond the village, he knew, were the great gates of Clare Park. He waited, mildly curious, to see the entrance to what had been Alec Loding’s home. It proved to be a sweeping curve of iron lace flanked by two enormous pillars bearing on each a lion passant. Astride the farther lion was a small boy clad in a leopard-skin rug with green baize edging, a seaside pail worn helmet-wise, and nothing else that was visible. A very long brass poker stood up lance-wise from its rest on his bare foot.
“It’s all right,” Eleanor said. “You did see it.”
“That comforts me quite a bit.”
“Did you know that Clare was a school nowadays?”
He had nearly said yes, when he remembered that this was merely one of the things Loding had told him, not one of the things that he was supposed to know.
“What kind of school?”
“A school for dodgers.”
“Yes. Anyone who loathes hard work and has a parent with enough money to pay the fees makes a bee-line for Clare. No one is forced to learn anything at Clare. Not even the multiplication table. The theory is that one day you’ll feel the need of the multiplication table and be seized with a mad desire to acquire the nine-times. Of course, it doesn’t work out like that at all.”
“Of course not. No one who could get out of the nine-times would ever dream of acquiring it voluntarily.”
“And if they don’t do lessons what do they do all day?”
“Express their personalities. They draw things; or make things; or whitewash the coach-house; or dress up, like Antony Toselli. That was Tony on the lion. I teach some of them to ride. They like that. Riding, I mean. I think they are so bored with easy things that they find something a little difficult simply fascinating. But of course it has to be something out of the ordinary. The difficult thing, I mean. If it was a difficulty that everyone was supposed to overcome they wouldn’t be interested. That would bring them down to the common level of you and me. They wouldn’t be ‘different’ any longer.”
“Very profitable to Latchetts, anyhow. And here is Latchetts.”
Brat’s heart rose up into his throat. Eleanor turned slowly into the white gateway between the limes.
It was just as well that she was going slowly, for she had no sooner entered the green tunnel than something like a giant blue butterfly shot out from the boles of the trees and danced wildly in front of the car.
Eleanor braked and swore simultaneously.
“Hullo! Hullo!” shouted the butterfly, dancing to Brat’s side of the car.
“You little idiot,” Eleanor said. “You deserve to be killed. Don’t you know that a driver doesn’t see well coming into the avenue out of the sunlight?”
“Hullo! Hullo, Patrick! It’s me! Ruth. How d’you do. I came to ride up with you. To the house, you know. Can I sit on your knee? There isn’t very much room in that awful old car of Eleanor’s, and I don’t want to crush my dress. I hope you like my dress. It is put on specially for your coming home. You’re very good-looking, aren’t you? Am I what you expected?”
She waited for an answer to that, so Brat said that he hadn’t really thought about it.
“Oh,” said Ruth, much dashed. “We thought about you,” she said reprovingly. “No one has talked about anything else for days.”
“Ah well,” Brat said, “when you have run away for years and years people will talk about you.”
“I shouldn’t dream of doing anything so outré,” Ruth said, unforgiving.
“Where did you get that word?” Eleanor asked.
“It’s a very good word. Mrs. Peck uses it.”
Brat felt that he ought to paint in a little local colour by saying: “How are the Pecks, by the way?” But he had no mind to spare for artifice. He was waiting for the moment when the limes would thin out and he would see Latchetts.
For the moment when he would be face to face with his “twin.”
“Simon hasn’t come back yet,” he heard Ruth say; and saw her sideways glance at Eleanor. The glance, even more than the information, shook him.
So Simon wasn’t waiting on the doorstep for him. Simon was “away” somewhere and the family was uneasy about it.
Alec Loding had disabused him of the idea that a feudal staff reception would await him at Latchetts; that there would be a line of servants, headed by the butler and descending in strict order to the latest tweeny, to welcome the Young Master to the ancestral home. That, Loding had said, had gone out with bustles, and Latchetts had never had a butler, anyhow. And he had known, too, that there would be no array of relations. The children’s father had been an only son with one sister, Aunt Bee. The children’s mother had been an only daughter with two brothers: both of them killed by the Germans before they were twenty. The only near Ashby relation was Great-uncle Charles, reported by Loding to be now nearing Singapore.
But it had not occurred to him that all the available Ashbys might not be there. That there might be dissenters. The ease of his meeting with Eleanor had fooled him. Metaphorically speaking, he picked up the reins that had been lying on his neck.
The car ran out of the thin spring green of the avenue into the wide sweep in front of the house, and there in the too-bright gusty sunlight stood Latchetts; very quiet, very friendly, very sure of itself. The gabled front of the original building had been altered by some eighteenth-century Ashby to conform with the times, so that only the tiled roof showed its age and origin. Built in the last days of Elizabeth, it was now blandly “Queen Anne.” It stood there in its grasslands, undecorated and sufficient; needing no garden for its enhancement. The green of the small park flowered at its heart into the house itself, and any other flowering would have been redundant.
As Eleanor swept round towards the house, Brat saw Beatrice Ashby come out on to the doorstep, and a sudden panic seized him; a mad desire to blurt out the truth to her and back out there and then; before he had put foot over the doorstep; before he was definitely “on” in the scene. It was going to be a damnably difficult and awkward scene and he had no idea how to play it.
It was Ruth who saved him from the worst moment of awkwardness. Before the car had come to a halt she was piping her triumph to the world, so that Brat’s arrival somehow took second place to her own achievement.
“I met him after all, Aunt Bee! I met him after all. I came up from the gate with them. You don’t mind, do you? I just strolled down as far as the gate and when I got there I saw them coming, and they stopped and gave me a lift and here we are and so I met him after all.”
She linked her arm through Brat’s and tumbled with him out of the car, dragging him behind her as if he were a find of her own. So that it was with a mutual shrug for this display of personality that Brat and Bee greeted each other. They were united for the moment in a rueful amusement, and by the time the amusement had passed so had the moment.
Before awkwardness could come flooding back, there was a second distraction. Jane came riding round the corner of the house on Fourposter on her way to the stables. The instant check of her hands on the reins when she saw the group at the door made it obvious that she had not planned on being one of that group. But it was too late now to back out, even if backing out had been possible. It was never possible to back away from anything that Fourposter might happen to be interested in; he had no mouth and an insatiable curiosity. So forward came the reluctant Jane on a highly interested pony. As Fourposter came to a halt she slid politely to the ground and stood there shy and defensive. When Bee introduced her she laid a small limp hand in Brat’s and after a moment withdrew it.
“What is your pony’s name?” Brat asked, aware of her antagonism.
“That’s Fourposter,” Ruth said, appropriating Jane’s mount. “The Rector calls him the Equine Omnibus.”
Brat put out his hand to the pony, who refused the advance by withdrawing a pace and looking contemptuously down his Roman nose. As a gesture it was pure burlesque; a Victorian gesture of repudiation from a Victorian drama.
“A comedian,” remarked Brat; and Bee, delighted with his perception, laughed.
“He doesn’t like people,” Jane said, half-repressive, half-defending her friend.
But Brat kept his hand out, and presently Fourposter’s curiosity overcame his stand-offishness and he dropped his head to the waiting hand. Brat made much of him, till Fourposter capitulated entirely and nuzzled him with elephantine playfulness.
“Well!” said Ruth, watching. “He never does that to anyone!”
Brat looked down into the small tight face by his elbow, at the small grubby hands clutching the reins so tightly.
“I expect he does to Jane when no one is around,” he said.
“Jane, it is time you were cleaned up for lunch,” Bee said, and turned to lead the way indoors.
And Brat followed her, over the threshold.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14