Beatrice Ashby looked down the dining-table at her nephew Patrick and thought how well he was doing it. The occasion must be an extraordinarily difficult one for him, but he was carrying it off beautifully. He was neither awkward nor exuberant. He brought to the situation the same quiet detachment that he had shown on their first meeting in that Pimlico room. It was a very adult quality, and a little surprising in a boy not yet twenty-one. He had great dignity this Patrick Ashby, she thought, watching him dealing with the Rector. Surely never before can anyone have been so silent by habit without appearing either stiff or stupid.
It was she who had brought Simon up, and she was pleased with the result. But this boy had brought himself up, and the result was even better, it seemed. Perhaps it was a case of “giving the first seven years” and the rest followed automatically. Or perhaps it was that the goodness in Patrick had been so innate that he had needed no other guidance. He had followed his own lights, and the result was this quiet, adult young man with the still face.
It was a mask of a face; a sad mask, on the whole. It was such a contrast to the similar set of features in Simon’s mobile countenance that they reminded one of those reversible comedy-tragedy masks that are used to decorate the title-pages of plays.
Simon was being particularly gay to-night, and Bee’s heart ached for him. He too was doing it well, and to-night she loved him almost without reservation. Simon was abdicating, and doing it with a grace and spontaneity that she would not have believed possible. She felt a little guilty that she had underrated him. She had not credited the selfish, acquisitive Simon with such a power of renunciation.
They were choosing a name for Honey’s filly foal, and the conversation was growing ribald. Nancy was insisting that “honey” was an endearment, and should be translated as “poppet,” and Eleanor said that no thoroughbred as good as Honey’s present foal should be damned by a name like Poppet. If Eleanor had refused to dress especially for Patrick’s arrival, she had now made up for it. It was a long time since Bee had seen her looking so well or so pretty. Eleanor belonged to a type which did not glow easily.
“Brat is in love with Honey,” Eleanor said.
“I suppose Bee dragged you round the paddocks before you were well over the doorstep,” said Nancy. “Were you impressed, Brat?”
She too had adopted the nickname. Only the Rector called him Patrick.
“I’m in love with the whole bunch,” Brat said. “And I found an old friend.”
“Oh? Who was that?”
“Oh, yes, of course. Poor old Regina. She must be about twenty!” Nancy said.
“Not so much of the ‘poor’,” said Simon. “Regina has kept us shod and clothed for a whole generation. We ought to pay her a dividend.”
“She takes her dividends out in pasture,” Eleanor said. “She was always a greedy eater.”
“When you drop foals like Regina year after year without a break, you’re entitled to an appetite,” Simon said.
Simon was drinking a great deal more than usual, but it seemed to be having little effect on him. Bee thought that the Rector looked at him now and then with pity in his eyes.
And Brat, too, at the other end of the table, was watching Simon, but without pity. Pity was not an emotion that Brat indulged in very often: like everyone who despises self-pity he did not readily pity others; but it was not because of his native disinclination to pity that he withheld sympathy from Simon Ashby. It was not even because Simon was his declared enemy; he had admired enemies before now. It was because there was something about Simon Ashby that repelled him. There was something unaccountable about Simon. There he sat, being light-hearted and charming, and there sat his relations and friends silently applauding his nobility and his courage. They were applauding an “act,” but they would all be staggered to know what an act Simon was really putting on for their benefit.
Watching him as he displayed his graces, Brat felt that Simon reminded him of someone that he had met quite lately. Someone who had just that air of breeding, and excellent good manners, and good looks, and that — unaccountability. Who could that have been?
He was maddened by that tip-of-the-tongue feeling. In one more second he would remember. Loding? No. Someone on the ship coming over? Not very likely. That lawyer chap: the K.C. chap, Macdermott? No. Then who could it ——
“Don’t you think so, Patrick?”
It was the Rector again. He must be careful with the old boy. He had been more afraid of meeting George Peck than of anyone but Simon. After a twin brother there is no one who is liable to remember so much about you or to remember that much so well as the man who taught you. There would be a score of small things that George Peck would know about Patrick Ashby that not even Patrick Ashby’s mother would know. But the meeting had gone off very well. Nancy Peck had kissed him on both cheeks and said: “Oh, dear, you’ve got very grown-up and serious, haven’t you!”
“Patrick always was,” the Rector had said, and had shaken hands.
He had looked consideringly at Brat, but no more consideringly than was normal in a man examining an old pupil met after a decade of absence. And Brat, who had no love for the Cloth, found himself liking the Rector. He was still wary of him, but the wariness was due not to the Rector’s calling but to his knowledge of Pat Ashby, and to the intelligence and penetration of the eyes in his simian face.
Considering that intelligence, Brat was glad that he was particularly well primed in the matter of Pat Ashby’s schooling. The Rector was Alec Loding’s brother-in-law, and Loding had had what he called a front-stall view of the Ashby twins’ education.
As for Alec Loding’s sister, she was the most beautiful woman that Brat had ever seen. He had never heard of the famous Nancy Ledingham, but her brother had been eloquent about her. “Could have had anyone in the world; any man would have been delighted to keep her just to look at; but she had to choose George Peck.” He had been shown Nancy in every kind of garment, from a swimming suit to her court presentation gown, but none of the photographs had done justice to her serene beauty, her gaiety, her general niceness. He felt that George Peck must be all right if Nancy had married him.
“Was that the Toselli child you had out with you?” she was saying to Eleanor. “That object I met you with this afternoon?”
“That was Tony,” Eleanor said.
“How he brought back the days of my youth!”
“Tony did? How?”
“You won’t remember it, but there used to be things called cavalry regiments. And every regiment had a trick-riding team. And every trick-riding team had a “comedy” member. And every “comedy” member of a trick-riding team looked just like Tony.”
“So they did!” Bee said, delighted. “That was what he reminded me of this afternoon and I couldn’t think of it at the time. That masterly irrelevance. The completely unrelated garments.”
“You may wonder why I took him out at all,” Eleanor remarked. “But after Sheila Parslow he’s a positive holiday. He’ll ride quite well some day, Tony.”
“To the prospective horseman all things are forgiven, are they?” the Rector said, mocking mildly.
“Doesn’t La Parslow get any better?” Simon asked.
“She will never get any better. She skates about in the saddle like a block of ice on a plate. I could weep for the horse all the time we are out. Luckily Cherrypicker has an indestructible frame and practically no feelings.”
The move from the dining-room to the living-room produced an anti-climax. The talk ceased to flow and ran into aimless trickles. Brat was suddenly so tired that he could hardly stand up. He hoped that no one would spring anything on him now; his normally hard head was muzzy with unaccustomed wine, and his thoughts fumbled and stuck. The twins said good night and went upstairs. Bee poured the coffee which had been placed in readiness for them on a low table by the fire, and it was not as hot as it should have been. Bee made despairing grimaces at Nancy.
“Our Lana, is it?” Nancy asked, sympathetic.
“Yes. I suppose she had to meet our Arthur and couldn’t wait another ten minutes.”
Simon, too, fell silent, as if the effort he had been making seemed suddenly not worth while. Only Eleanor seemed to have brought from the dining-room the warmth and happiness that had made dinner a success. In the moments of silence between the slow spurts of talk the rain fell against the tall windows with a soft shush.
“You were right about the weather, Aunt Bee,” Eleanor said. “She said this morning that it was that too-bright kind that would bring rain before night.”
“Bee is perennially right,” the Rector said, giving her a look that was half a smile, half a benediction.
“It sounds loathsome,” Bee said.
Nancy waited until they had lingered properly over their coffee and then said: “It has been a very full day for Brat, Bee; and I expect you are all tired. We won’t stay now, but you’ll come over and see us when you can crawl out from under the crush, won’t you, Brat?”
Simon fetched her wraps and they all went out to the doorstep to see their guests off. On the doorstep Nancy took off her evening shoes, tucked them under her arm, and stepped into a pair of Wellingtons that she had left behind the door. Then she tucked her other arm under her husband’s, huddled close to him under their single umbrella, and walked away with him into the night.
“Good old Nancy,” Simon said. “You can’t keep a Ledingham down.” He sounded just a little drunk.
“Dear Nan,” Bee said softly. She moved into the living-room and surveyed it in an absent fashion.
“I think Nan is right,” she said. “It is time we all went to bed. It has been an exciting day for all of us.”
“We don’t want it to end so soon, do we?” Eleanor said.
“You have La Parslow at nine-thirty to-morrow,” Simon reminded her. “I saw it in the book.”
“What were you doing with the riding book?”
“I like to see that you’re not cheating on your income tax.”
“Oh, yes, let’s go to bed,” Eleanor said, with a wide happy yawn. “It’s been a wonderful day.”
She turned to Brat to say good night, became suddenly shy, gave him her hand and said: “Good night then, Brat. Sleep well,” and went away upstairs.
Brat turned to Bee, but she said: “I shall come in to see you on my way up.” So he turned back to face Simon.
“Good night, Simon.” He met the clear cold eyes levelly.
“Good night to you — Patrick,” Simon said, looking faintly amused. He had managed to make the name sound like a provocation.
“Are you coming up now?” Brat heard Bee ask him as he climbed the stairs.
“Not quite yet.”
“Will you see that the lights are out, then? And make sure of the locks?”
“Yes, of course I’ll do that. Good night, Bee darling.”
As Brat turned on to the landing he saw Bee’s arms go round Simon. And he was stabbed by a hot despairing jealousy that shocked him. What had it to do with him?
Bee followed him into the old night nursery in a few moments. She looked with a practised eye at the bed and said: “That moron promised to put in a hot-water bottle and she has forgotten to do it.”
“Don’t worry,” Brat said. “I’d only have put it out again. I don’t use the things.”
“You must think us a crowd of soft-livers,” she said.
“I think you’re a nice crowd,” he said.
She looked at him and smiled.
“Too tired for breakfast at eight-thirty?”
“That sounds luxuriously late to me.”
“Did you enjoy it, that hard life — Brat?”
“I think you’re nice too,” she said, and kissed him lightly. “I wish you hadn’t stayed away from us so long, but we are glad to have you back. Good night, my dear.” And as she went out: “It’s no use ringing a bell, of course, because no one will answer. But if you have a mad desire for fried shrimps, or iced water, or a copy of the Pilgrim’s Progress or something, come along to my room. It is still the right-hand one in front.”
“Good night,” he said.
She stood for a moment outside his room, the door-knob still in her hand, and then moved away to Eleanor’s door. She knocked and went in. For the last year or so Eleanor had been a great comfort to her. She had been so long alone in her need for judgment and resolution that it was refreshing to have the companionship of her own kind; to have Eleanor’s unemotional good sense on tap when she wanted it.
“Hullo, Bee,” Eleanor said, looking up through the hair she was brushing. She was beginning to drop the “aunt,” as Simon did.
Bee sank into a chair and said: “Well, that’s over.”
“It turned out to be quite a success, didn’t it,” Eleanor said. “Simon behaved beautifully. Poor Simon.”
“Yes. Poor Simon.”
“Perhaps Brat — Patrick — will offer him some kind of partnership. Do you think? After all, Simon helped to make the stable. It wouldn’t be fair to walk in and grab the lot after taking no interest for years and years.”
“No. I don’t know. I hope so.”
“You sound tired.”
“Aren’t we all?”
“D’you know, Bee, I must confess I have the greatest difficulty in connecting the two.”
“The two? Simon and Patrick?”
“No. Patrick and Brat.”
There was a moment’s silence, filled with the soft sound of the rain and the strokes of Eleanor’s brush.
“You mean you — don’t think he is Patrick?”
Eleanor stopped brushing and looked up, her eyes wide with surprise. “Of course he’s Patrick,” she said, astonished. “Who else would he be?” She put down the brush and began to tie up her hair in a blue ribbon. “It’s just that I have no feeling of ever having met him before. Odd, isn’t it? When we spent nearly twelve years of our lives together. I like him; don’t you?”
“Yes,” Bee said. “I like him.” She, too, had no feeling of ever having met him before, and she too did not see “who else he could be.”
“Did Patrick not smile very often?”
“No; he was a serious child.”
“When Brat smiles I want to cry.”
“Good heavens, Eleanor.”
“You can ‘good heavens’ all you like, but I expect you know what I mean.”
Bee thought that she did.
“Did he tell you why he didn’t write to us all those years?”
“No. There wasn’t much opportunity for confidences.”
“I thought you might have asked him when you were going round the paddocks with him this evening.”
“No. He was too interested in the horses.”
“Why do you think he didn’t take any interest in us after he left?”
“Perhaps he took what old Nannie used to call a ‘scunner’ to us. It’s not so surprising, in a way, as the fact that he ran away in the first place. The urge to put Latchetts behind him must have been overwhelming.”
“Yes. I suppose so. But he was such a kind person: Pat. And so fond of us all. He mightn’t have wanted to come back, but you would have thought he’d want to let us know that he was safe.”
Since this was her own private stumbling-block, Bee had no help to offer.
“It must have been difficult to come back,” Eleanor said, running the comb through her brush. “He looked so tired to-night that he looked like a dead man. It’s not a very lively face at the best of times, is it? If you chopped it off behind the ears and hung it on a wall, no one would know the difference.”
Bee knew Eleanor well enough, and agreed with her sufficiently, to translate this successfully.
“You don’t think he’ll want to sheer off again once the excitement of coming home has worn off?”
“Oh, no, I’m quite sure he won’t.”
“You think he is here for keeps?”
“Of course I do.”
But Brat, standing in the dark before the open window of his room and looking at the curve of the down in the wet starlight, was wondering about that very matter. The thing had succeeded beyond Loding’s most extravagant promises, and now?
Where did he go from here? How long would it be before Simon had him cold? And if Simon failed, how long could he go on living a life where at any moment someone might spring a mine?
That is what he had set out to do, of course. But somehow he had not really looked beyond the first stages. In his heart he had been unable to believe that he would succeed. Now that success was his he felt rather like someone who has climbed a pinnacle and can’t get down again. Elated but misgiving.
He turned from the window and switched the lamp on. His landlady in Pimlico used to say that she “was so tired that she felt as if she’d been through a mangle”; he knew now how good a description that had been. That was exactly how he felt. Wrung out and empty. So limp that it was an effort to lift a hand to undress. He pulled off his nice new suit — the suit that had made him feel so guilty in that other life way back in London — and made himself hang it up. He peeled off his underclothes and stumbled into his faded old pyjamas. He wondered for a moment whether they would mind if the rain came in and marked the carpet, but decided to risk it. So he left the window wide open and got into bed.
He lay for a long time listening to the quiet sound of the rain and looking at the room. Now was the time for Pat Ashby’s ghost to come and chill that room. He waited for the ghost but it did not come. The room was warm and welcoming. The figures on the wallpaper, the figures that those children had grown up with, looked friendly and alive. He turned his head to look at the groups by the bedside. To look for the one Eleanor had been in love with. The chap with the profile. He wondered if she was in love with anyone now.
His eyes went on to the wood of the bedstead, and he remembered that this was Alec Loding’s bed, and was pleased once more by the irony of it all. It was fantastically right that he should come to Latchetts only to sleep in Alec Loding’s bed. He must tell him one day. It was the kind of thing that Loding would appreciate.
He wondered whether it was Eleanor or Bee who had put the flowers in the bowl. Flowers to welcome him — home.
Latchetts, he said to himself, looking at the room. This is Latchetts. I’m here. This is Latchetts.
The sound of the word was a soporific; like the swing of a hammock. He put out his hand and switched off the light. In the dark the rain suddenly sounded louder.
This morning he had got up and dressed in that back room under the slates, with the crowding chimney-pots beyond the window. And here he was, going to sleep in Latchetts, with the sweet cold smell of the down blowing in on the damp air from the window.
As sleep drew him under he had an odd feeling of reassurance. A feeling that Pat Ashby didn’t mind his being there; that he was on the contrary pleased about it all.
The unlikeliness of this roused him a little, and his thoughts, running on approval and disapproval, went to Bee. What was it that he had felt when Bee took his hand to lead him to the interview this afternoon? What was different from any other of the thousand handclasps he had experienced in his time? Why the surge of warmth under his heart, and what kind of emotion was it anyway? He had suffered the same obscure gratification when Bee had thrust her arm through his on the way to the stables. What was so remarkable about a woman putting her hand on your arm? A woman, moreover, that you were not in love with, and were never likely to be in love with.
It was because she was a woman, of course, but the thing that made it remarkable was something else again. It had something to do with being taken for granted by her. No one else had taken his hand in just that way. Casual but — no, not possessive. Quite a few had been possessive with him, and he had not been gratified in the least. Casual but — what? Belonging. It had something to do with belonging. The hand had taken him for granted because he belonged. It was the unthinking friendliness of a woman to one of her family. Was it because he had never “belonged” before, that made that commonplace gesture into a benediction?
He went on thinking of Bee as he fell asleep. Her sidelong glance when she was considering something; her courage; the way she had braced herself to meet him that day in the back room in Pimlico; the way she had kissed him before she was sure, just in case he was Patrick; the way she had dealt with the suspense of Simon’s absence when he arrived to-day.
She was a lovely woman, Beatrice Ashby, and he loved her.
He had reached the toppling-over place of sleep when he was yanked of a sudden wide awake.
He had remembered something.
He knew now who it was that Simon Ashby reminded him of.
It was Timber.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01