On Wednesday morning Bee took him to call on the tenants of the three farms: Frenchland, Upacres, and Wigsell. “Gates last; just to larn him,” Bee said. Gates was last also in importance, since Wigsell was the smallest of the three farms. It had originally been the home farm of Latchetts and lay just beyond the Rectory, on the slope north of the village. It was almost too small a farm to be self-supporting, but Gates also ran the butcher’s shop in the village (open twice a week) and was not dependent on what he made from Wigsell.
“Do you drive, Brat?” Bee asked, as they prepared to get into the car.
“Yes, but I’d rather you did. You know the”—“road” he had almost said —“the car better.”
“Nice of you to call it a car. I expect you’re used to a left-hand drive.”
“I’m sorry it had to be the bug. It isn’t often the car goes wrong on us. Jameson has all its inside out on the garage floor, and is conducting a post-mortem in a silent fury.”
“I like the bug. I came from the station in it yesterday.”
“So you did. What a very long time ago that seems. Does it seem like that to you?”
“Yes.” It seemed years away to him.
“Have you heard that we’ve been saved from the Clarion?” she asked, as they sped down the avenue to the accompaniment of the bug’s sewing-machine song.
“Are you not a consumer of the Press at breakfast?” asked Bee, who had breakfasted at eight o’clock.
“I never lived where we had papers to read at breakfast. We just switched on the radio.”
“Oh, lord, yes. I forget that your generation doesn’t have to read.”
“How have we been saved?”
“We have been rescued by three people we never heard of, and are never likely to meet. The fourth wife of a Manchester dentist, the husband of a principal boy, and the owner of a black leather trunk.” She pressed the horn and turned slowly to the right out of the avenue. “The owner of the trunk left it at Charing Cross with someone’s arms and legs in it. Or, of course, it may be the owner’s arms and legs. That is a question which will occupy the Clarion for some time to come, I expect. The husband of the principal boy is suing for alienation of affection, and none of the three people concerned has ever been bothered with an inhibition, which is very nice for the Clarion. Since the reports of divorce cases have been pruned the Clarion has been suffering from frustration, and a suit for alienation of affection is a gift from heaven. Especially when it is Tattie Thacker’s affections.” She looked with pleasure at the morning. “I do like a morning after rain.”
“You’ve still one to come?”
“The fourth wife of the Manchester dentist.”
“Oh. Yes. She, poor wretch, has just been exhumed from a very expensive and elaborate tomb and found to be loaded with arsenic. Her husband is found to be missing.”
“And you think that the Clarion will be too busy to bother about — us?”
“I’m sure of it. They haven’t room as it is for all they want to do with Tattie. She had a whole page to herself this morning. If they ever bothered about the Ashbys they would print the report in a tiny paragraph at the bottom of a page, and five million people would read it and not be able to tell you two minutes later what was in it. I think we are quite safe. The Westover Times will have one of their usual discreet paragraphs this morning, and that will be the end of the matter.”
Well, that was another snag out of the way. In the meantime he must keep his wits alive for the visits to Frenchland and Upacres. He was supposed to know these people.
Frenchland was farmed by a tall rosy old man and his tall sallow sister. “Everyone was terrified of Miss Hassell,” Loding had said. “She had a face like a witch, and a tongue that took the skin off you. She didn’t talk; just made one remark and you found that you were raw.”
“Well, this is an honour,” old Mr. Hassell said, coming to the garden gate and seeing whom Bee had with her. “Mr. Patrick, I’m glad to see you. I’m tarnation glad to see you.” He took Brat’s hand in his gnarled old fist and closed on it with his other one. There was no doubt that he was glad to see Patrick Ashby again.
It was difficult to know whether Miss Hassell was glad or not. She eyed Brat while she shook hands with him and said: “This is an unexpected pleasure.” Her dry use of the conventional phrase and its wicked appropriateness amused Brat.
“Foreign parts don’t seem to have changed you much,” she said, as she set out glasses in the crowded little parlour.
“I’ve changed in one way,” Brat said.
“You have?” She wasn’t going to gratify him by asking in what way.
“I’m not frightened of you any more.”
Old Mr. Hassell laughed.
“You beat me there, son. She still puts the fear of God in me. If I’m half an hour late getting home from market I creep up the lane with my tail down like I was a sheep-stealer.”
Miss Hassell said nothing, but Brat thought there was a new interest in her glance; almost as if she were pleased with him. And she went away and fetched some shortbread from the kitchen which she had obviously had no intention of producing before.
They drank a liquid called White Port Wine Type, and discussed Rhode Island Reds.
At Upacres there was only plump Mrs. Docket, and she was busy making butter in the dairy at the back.
“Come in, whoever you are!” she called, and they went down the cool tiled passage from the open front door, and turned into the chill of the dairy.
“I can’t stop this,” she said, looking round at them. “The butter is just —— Oh, goodness, I didn’t know! I just thought it was someone passing. The children are all at school and Carrie is out in the barn and —— Goodness! To think of it!”
Bee automatically took her place at the churn while she shook hands with Brat.
“Well, well,” said kind plump Mrs. Docket, “a fine, good-looking Ashby you are. You’re more like Mr. Simon than ever you were.”
Brat thought that Bee looked up with interest when she said that.
“It’s a happy day for us all, Miss Ashby, isn’t it? I could hardly believe it. I just said to Joe, I don’t believe it, I said. It’s the kind of thing that happens in books. And in pictures and plays. Not the kind of thing that would happen to quiet folk like us in a quiet place like Clare, I said. And yet here you are and it’s really happened. My, Mr. Patrick, it’s nice to see you again, and looking so well and bonny.”
“Can I have a shot at that?” Brat asked, indicating the churn. “I’ve never handled one of those things.”
“But of course you have!” Mrs. Docket said, looking taken aback. “You used to come in special on Saturday mornings to have a go at it.”
Brat’s heart missed a beat. “Did I?” he said. “I’ve forgotten that.”
Always say quite frankly that you don’t remember, Loding had advised. No one can deny that you don’t remember, but they will certainly jump on you if you try to make-believe about anything.
“I thought you did this by electricity now,” he heard Bee say as she made way for him at the churn.
“Oh, we do everything else by electricity, of course,” Mrs. Docket said. “But I can’t believe it makes good butter. No more home-made taste to it than you’d get at the International in Westover. Sometimes when I’m rushed I switch on the electricity, but I’m always sorry afterwards. Awful mechanical, it is. No artfulness about it.”
They drank hot black tea and ate light floury scones and discussed the children’s schooling.
“She’s a darling, Mrs. Docket,” Bee said as they drove away. “I think she is still of the opinion in her heart of hearts that electricity is an invention of the devil.”
But Brat was thoughtful. He must stop himself from volunteering remarks. It was not important about the churn, but it quite easily might have been something vital. He must be less forthcoming.
“About Friday, Brat,” Bee said, as they made their way back to Clare and to Wigsell.
“What is on Friday?” said Brat, out of his absorption.
Bee looked round and smiled at him. “Your birthday,” she said.
Of course. He was now the possessor of a birthday.
“Had you forgotten that you are going to be twenty-one on Friday?” she asked.
“I had, almost.” He caught her sidelong look at him. After a pause she said: “You came of age a long time ago, didn’t you.” She said it without smiling and it was not a question.
“About Friday,” she went on. “I thought that since we have postponed the celebrations for Uncle Charles’s benefit, we wouldn’t have a party on Friday. Mr. Sandal will be coming down with the papers he wants you to sign, so we shall have him to lunch, and make it just a quiet family party.”
Papers to sign. Yes, he had known that there would be papers to sign sooner or later. He had even learned to make his capital letters the way Patrick did, thanks to an old exercise book that Loding had unearthed and filched from the Rectory. And, after all, signing a paper didn’t make him any more of a heel than he was being at this moment. It just put him more surely in the Law’s reverence, made the thing irrevocable.
“Is that how you would like it?”
“What? Oh, the birthday. Yes, of course. I don’t want a party. I don’t want a celebration, if it comes to that. Can’t we just take this coming-of-age for granted?”
“I don’t think the neighbourhood would be very pleased if we did. They are all looking forward to some kind of party. I think we shall have to give them one. Even the invitation cards are all ready. I altered the date to a fortnight after Charles’s arrival. He is due in about twenty-three days. So you’ll have to ‘thole’ it, as old Nannie used to say.”
Yes, he would have to thole it. Anyhow, he could sit back now and relax for a little. He was not supposed to know the Gates family.
They were coming back to the village now; the white rails of the south paddocks on their left. It was a washed and shining morning, but it had an uneasy glitter. The sky was metallic, and the light had a silver edge to it.
As they passed the entrance to the Rectory Bee said: “Alec Loding came down for the week-end not long ago.”
“Oh? What is he doing now?”
“Still playing roué parts in dreadful little comedies and farces. You know: four characters, five doors, and one bed. I didn’t see him, but Nancy said he had improved.”
“In what way?”
“Oh, more interested in other people. Kindlier. He even made efforts to get on with George. Nancy thought age was beginning to tell. He was quite happy to sit for hours with a book in George’s study when George was out. And when George was in they would yarn quite happily. Nancy was delighted. She has always been fond of Alec, but she used to dread his visits. The country bored him and George bored him even more, and he never bothered to hide it. So it was a pleasant change.”
Half-way through the village they turned into the lane that led to Wigsell.
“You don’t remember Emmy Vidler, do you?” she asked Brat. “She was brought up at Wigsell, and married Gates when he had a farm the other side of Bures. When her father died, Gates put a bailiff into his farm and took over Wigsell. And, of course, the butcher’s shop. So they are very comfortably off. The boy couldn’t stand his father, and got himself a job in the Midlands somewhere; engineering. But the girl lives at home, and is the apple of her father’s eye. She went to an expensive boarding school, where I understand she was known as Margot. Her name is Peggy.”
They swung into the farm entrance and came to rest on the small old cobbles of the yard. Two dogs rushed at them in wild self-importance, yelling their arrival to the world.
“I do wish Gates would train his dogs,” said Bee, whose dogs were as well-trained as her horses.
The clamour brought Mrs. Gates to the front door. She was a faded and subdued little woman who must once have been very pretty.
“Glen! Joy! Be quiet!” she called, ineffectually, and came forward to greet them. But before she reached them Gates came round the corner of the house, and in a few strides had anticipated her. His pompous welcome drowned her more genuine pleasure, and she stood smiling gently at Brat while her husband trumpeted forth their satisfaction in seeing Patrick Ashby on their doorstep again.
Gates was a large, coarse individual, but Brat supposed that once he had had the youthful vigour and assurance that appealed to pretty, fragile little women like Emmy Vidler.
“They tell me that you’ve been making money in horses over there,” he said to Brat.
“I’ve earned my living from them,” Brat said.
“You come and see what I’ve got in my stable.” He began to lead the way to the back of the house.
“But Harry, they must come in and sit down for a little,” his wife protested.
“They’ll sit down presently. They’d much rather look at a piece of good horseflesh than at your gewgaws. Come along, Mr. Patrick. Come along, Miss Ashby. Alfred!” he bellowed as they went down the yard. “Turn out that new horse for Miss Ashby to see.”
Mrs. Gates, tailing along behind, found herself side by side with Brat. “I am so happy about this,” she said quietly. “So happy about your coming back. I remember you when you were little; when I lived here in my father’s day. Except for my own son I’ve never been so fond of a small boy as I was of you.”
“Now then, Mr. Patrick, have a look at this here, have a look at this! Tell me if that doesn’t fill the eye for you.”
Gates swept his great limb of an arm at the stable door where Alfred was leading out a brown horse that looked oddly out of place in the small farmyard, even in a region where every small farmer kept a mount that would carry him across country in the winter. There was no denying it, the brown horse was something exceptional.
“There! what do you think of that, eh? What do you think of that?”
Bee, having looked, said: “But that, surely, is the horse that Dick Pope won the jumping on at the Bath Show last year.”
“That’s the horse,” Gates said complacently. “And not only the jumping. The cup for the best riding horse in the show. Cost me a pretty penny, that did, but I can afford it and nothing’s too good for my girl. Oh ah! It’s for Peggy I bought it. That wouldn’t carry me, that wouldn’t.” He gave an abrupt shout of laughter; at least Brat supposed it was laughter. “But my girl, now, she’s a feather in the saddle. I don’t have to tell you, Miss Ashby; you’ve seen her. There’s no one in the county deserves a good horse better than my Peggy, and I don’t grudge the money for it.”
“You’ve certainly got a good horse, Mr. Gates,” Bee said, with an enthusiasm in her voice that surprised Brat. He looked across at her and wondered why she was looking so pleased. After all, this brown horse was a potential rival to Timber, and all the other Latchetts’ animals.
“Got a vet’s certificate with it, I need hardly say. I don’t buy pigs in pokes.”
“Is Peggy going to show it this year?”
“Of course she is, of course she is. What did I buy it for but for her to show?”
Bee’s face was positively blissful. “How nice!” she said, and she sounded rapturous.
“Do you like it, Miss Ashby?” Peggy Gates said, appearing at Brat’s side.
Peggy was a very pretty creature. Pink and white and gold. Brat thought that if it were possible to cross Miss Parslow and Eleanor the result would probably be Peggy Gates. She accepted her introduction to Brat with composure, but managed to convey the impression that it was personally delightful to her to have Patrick home again. Her small hand lay in his with a soft pressure that was intimate rather than friendly. Brat shook it heartily and resisted a temptation to wipe his palm down his hip.
She accepted Bee’s congratulations on her possession of the horse, allowed a decent interval for further contemplation of it, and then with an admirable display of social dexterity, lifted the whole family from the yard into the drawing-room of the house. It was called the drawing-room, and was furnished as such, but Bee, who remembered it as old Mrs. Vidler’s parlour, thought the water-colours and wistaria wallpaper a poor exchange for the lustre jugs and framed engravings of Mrs. Vidler’s day.
They drank very good madeira and talked about the Bures Agricultural Show.
And they drove home with Bee still looking as if someone had left her a fortune. She caught Brat’s considering look at her and said: “Well?”
“You look like a cat that has been given cream,” he said.
She gave him her sideways, amused glance. “Cream and fish and liver,” she said; but did not tell him the translation.
“When all the fuss of Friday is over, Brat,” she said, “you must go up to town and get yourself a wardrobe. Walters will take weeks to make your evening things, and you’ll need them for the celebration when Uncle Charles comes home.”
“What shall I get?” he asked, at a loss for the first time.
“I should leave it to Walters, if I were you.”
“Outfit for a young English gentleman,” Brat said.
And she looked sideways again, surprised by the twist in his voice.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01