As Bee poured the coffee the twins disappeared on ploys of their own, this being their half-holiday; and Eleanor drank hers hastily and went back to the stables.
“Do you want the car this afternoon?” Simon asked. “I half promised old Gates that I would bring a calf out from Westover in one of our trailers. His own has collapsed.”
“No, I don’t need it,” Bee said, wondering what had prompted Simon to so dull a chore. She hoped it was not the Gates daughter; who was very pretty, very silly, and very commonplace. Gates was the tenant of Wigsell, the smallest of the three farms; and Simon was not normally tolerant of his opportunism.
“If you really want to know,” Simon said as he got up, “I want to see June Kaye’s new picture. It’s at the Empire.”
The disarming frankness of this would have delighted anyone but Beatrice Ashby, who knew very well her nephew’s habit of throwing up two balls to divert your attention from the third.
“Can I fetch you anything?”
“You might get one of the new bus timetables from the Westover and District offices if you have time. Eleanor says they have a new Clare service that goes round by Guessgate.”
“Bee,” said a voice in the hall. “Are you there, Bee?”
“Mrs. Peck,” Simon said, going out to meet her.
“Come in, Nancy,” Bee called. “Come and have coffee with me. The others have finished.”
And the Rector’s wife came into the room, put her empty basket on the sideboard, and sat down with a pleased sigh. “I could do with some,” she said.
When people mentioned Mrs. Peck’s name they still added: “Nancy Ledingham that was, you know;” although it was a decade since she had stunned the social world by marrying George Peck and burying herself in a country rectory. Nancy Ledingham had been more than the “débutante of her year;” she had been a national possession. The penny Press had done for her what the penny postcard had done for Lily Langtry: her beauty was common property. If the public did not stand on chairs to see her pass they certainly stopped the traffic; her appearance as bridesmaid at a wedding was enough to give the authorities palpitations for a week beforehand. She had that serene unquestionable loveliness that defeats even a willing detractor. Indeed the only question seemed to be whether the ultimate coronet would have strawberry leaves or not. More than once the popular Press had supplied her with a crown, but this was generally considered mere wishful thinking; her public would settle for strawberry leaves.
And then, quite suddenly — between a Tatler and a Tatler, so to speak — she had married George Peck. The shattered Press, doing the best they could for a shattered public, had pulled out the vox humana stop and quavered about romance, but George had defeated them. He was a tall, thin man with the face of a very intelligent and rather nice ape. Besides, as the society editor of the Clarion said: “A clergyman! I ask you! I could get more romance out of a cement-mixer!”
So the public let her go, into her chosen oblivion. Her aunt, who had been responsible for her coming-out, disinherited her. Her father died in a welter of chagrin and debts. And her old home, the great white house in the park, had become a school.
But after thirteen years of rectory life Nancy Peck was still serenely and unquestionably beautiful; and people still said: “Nancy Ledingham that was, you know.”
“I’ve come for the eggs,” she said, “but there’s no hurry, is there? It’s wonderful to sit and do nothing.”
Bee’s eyes slid sideways at her in a smile.
“You have such a nice face, Bee.”
“Thank you. Ruth says it is a face like a very expensive cat.”
“Nonsense. At least — not the furry kind. Oh, I know what she means! The long-necked, short-haired kind that show their small chins. Heraldic cats. Yes, Bee, darling, you have a face like a heraldic cat. Especially when you keep your head still and slide your eyes at people.” She put her cup down and sighed again with pleasure. “I can’t think how the Nonconformists have failed to discover coffee.”
“Yes. As a snare. It does far more for one than drink. And yet no one preaches about it, or signs pledges about it. Five mouthfuls and the world looks rosy.”
“Was it very grey before?”
“A sort of mud colour. I was so happy this week because it was the first week this year that we hadn’t needed sitting-room fires and I had no fires to do and no fireplaces to clean. But nothing — I repeat, nothing — will stop George from throwing his used matches into the fireplace. And as he takes fifteen matches to light one pipe ——! The room swarms with waste-paper baskets and ash trays, but no, George must use the fireplace. He doesn’t even aim, blast him. A fine careless flick of the wrist and the match lands anywhere from the fender to the farthest coal. And they have all got to be picked out again.”
“And he says: why don’t you leave them.”
“He does. However, now that I’ve had some Latchetts coffee I have decided not to take a chopper to him after all.”
“Poor Nan. These Christians.”
“How are the coming-of-age preparations getting on?”
“The invitations are about to go to the printers; which is a nice definite stage to have arrived at. A dinner for intimates, here; and a dance for everyone in the barn. What is Alec’s address, by the way?”
“I can’t remember his latest one off-hand. I’ll look it up for you. He has a different one almost every time he writes. I think he gets heaved out when he can’t pay his rent. Not that I hear from him often, of course. He has never forgiven me for not marrying well, so that I could keep my only brother in the state to which he had been accustomed.”
“Is he playing just now?”
“I don’t know. He had a part in that silly comedy at the Savoy but it ran only a few weeks. He is so much a type that his parts are necessarily limited.”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“No one could cast Alec as anything but Alec. You don’t know how lucky you are, Bee, to have Ashbys to deal with. The incidence of rakes in the Ashby family is singularly low.”
“There was Walter.”
“A lone wolf crying in the wilderness. What became of Cousin Walter?”
“Oh, he died.”
“In an odour of sanctity?”
“No. Carbolic. A workhouse ward, I think.”
“Even Walter wasn’t bad, you know. He just liked drink and hadn’t the head for it. But when a Ledingham is a rake he is plain bad.”
They sat together in a comfortable silence, considering their respective families. Bee was several years older than her friend: almost a generation older. But neither could remember a time when the other was not there; and the Ledingham children had gone in and out of Latchetts as if it were their home, as familiar with it as the Ashbys were with Clare.
“I have been thinking so often lately of Bill and Nora,” Nancy said. “This would have been such a happy time for them.”
“Yes,” Bee said, reflectively; her eyes on the window. It was at that view she had been looking when it happened. On a day very like this and at this time of the year. Standing in the sitting-room window, thinking how lovely everything looked and if they would think that nothing they had seen in Europe was half as lovely. Wondering if Nora would look well again; she had been very pulled down after the twins’ birth. Hoping she had been a good deputy for them, and yet a little pleased to be resuming her own life in London to-morrow.
The twins had been asleep, and the older children upstairs grooming themselves for the welcome and for the dinner they were to be allowed to stay up for. In half an hour or so the car would swing out from the avenue of lime trees and come to rest at the door and there they would be; in a flurry of laughter and embracing and present-giving and well-being.
The turning on of the wireless had been so absent-minded a gesture that she did not know that she had done it. “The two o’clock plane from Paris to London,” said the cool voice, “with nine passengers and a crew of three crashed this afternoon just after crossing the Kent coast. There were no survivors.”
No. There had been no survivors.
“They were so wrapped up in the children,” Nancy said. “They have been so much in my mind lately, now that Simon is going to be twenty-one.”
“And Patrick has been in mine.”
“Patrick?” Nancy sounded at a loss. “Oh, yes, of course. Poor Pat.”
Bee looked at her curiously. “You had almost forgotten, hadn’t you?”
“Well, it is a long time ago, Bee. And — well, I suppose one’s mind tidies away the things it can’t bear to remember. Bill and Nora — that was frightful, but it was something that happened to people. I mean, it was part of the ordinary risks of life. But Pat — that was different.” She sat silent for a moment. “I have pushed it so far down in my mind that I can’t even remember what he looked like any more. Was he as like Simon as Ruth is like Jane?”
“Oh, no. They weren’t identical twins. Not much more alike than some brothers are. Though oddly enough they were much more in each other’s pockets than Ruth and Jane are.”
“Simon seems to have got over it. Do you think he remembers it often?”
“He must have remembered it very often lately.”
“Yes. But it is a long way between thirteen and twenty-one. I expect even a twin grows shadowy at that distance.”
This gave Bee pause. How shadowy was he to her: the kind solemn little boy who should have been coming into his inheritance next month? She tried to call up his face in front of her but there was only a blur. He had been small and immature for his age, but otherwise he was just an Ashby. Less an individual than a family resemblance. All she really remembered, now she thought about it, was that he was solemn and kind.
Kindness was not a common trait in small boys.
Simon had a careless generosity when it did not cost him inconvenience; but Patrick had had that inner kindness that not only gives but gives up.
“I still wonder,” Bee said unhappily, “whether we should have allowed the body that was found on the Castleton beach to be buried over there. A pauper’s burial, it was.”
“But, Bee! It had been months in the water, hadn’t it? They couldn’t even tell what sex it was; could they? And Castleton is miles away. And they get all the corpses from the Atlantic founderings, anyhow. I mean, the nearer ones. It is not sense to worry over — to identify it with ——” Her dismayed voice died into silence.
“No, of course it isn’t!” Bee said briskly. “I am just being morbid. Have some more coffee.”
And as she poured the coffee she decided that when Nancy had gone she would unlock the private drawer of her desk and burn that pitiful note of Patrick’s. It was morbid to keep it, even if she had not looked at it for years. She had never had the heart to tear it up because it had seemed part of Patrick. But of course that was absurd. It was no more part of Patrick than was the despair that had filled him when he wrote: “I’m sorry, but I can’t bear it any longer. Don’t be angry with me. Patrick.” She would take it out and burn it. Burning it would not blot it from her mind, of course, but there was nothing she could do about that. The round schoolboy letters were printed there for always. Round, careful letters written with the stylograph that he had been so attached to. It was so like Patrick to apologise for taking his own life.
Nancy, watching her friend’s face, proffered what she considered to be consolation. “They say, you know, that when you throw yourself from a high place you lose consciousness almost at once.”
“I don’t think he did it that way, Nan.”
“No!” Nancy sounded staggered. “But that was where the note was found. I mean, the coat with the note in the pocket. On the cliff-top.”
“Yes, but by the path. By the path down the Gap to the shore.”
“Then what do you ——?”
“I think he swam out.”
“Till he couldn’t come back, you mean?”
“Yes. When I was in loco parentis that time, when Bill and Nora were on holiday, we went several times to the Gap, the children and I; to swim and have a picnic. And once when we were there Patrick said that the best way to die — I think he called it the lovely way — would be to swim out until you were too tired to go any farther. He said it quite matter-of-factly, of course. In those days it was — a mere academic matter. When I pointed out that drowning would still be drowning, he said: ‘But you would be so tired, you see; you wouldn’t care any more. The water would just take you.’ He loved the water.”
She was silent for a little and then blurted out the thing that had been her private nightmare for years.
“I’ve always been afraid that when it was too late to come back he may have regretted.”
“Oh, Bee, no!”
Bee’s sidelong glance went to Nancy’s beautiful, protesting face.
“Morbid. I know. Forget I said it.”
“I don’t know now how I could have forgotten,” Nancy said, wondering. “The worst of pushing horrible things down into one’s subconscious is that when they pop up again they are as fresh as if they had been in a refrigerator. You haven’t allowed time to get at them to — to mould them over a little.”
“I think a great many people have almost forgotten that Simon had a twin,” Bee said, excusing. “Or that he has not always been the heir. Certainly no one has mentioned Patrick to me since the coming-of-age celebrations have been in the air.”
“Why was Patrick so inconsolable about his parents’ death?”
“I didn’t know he was. None of us did. All the children were wild with grief to begin with, of course. Sick with it. But none more than another. Patrick seemed bewildered rather than inconsolable. ‘You mean: Latchetts belongs to me now?’ I remember him saying, as if it were some strange idea, difficult to understand. Simon was impatient with him, I remember. Simon was always the brilliant one. I think that it was all too much for Patrick; too strange. The adrift feeling of being suddenly without his father and mother, and the weight of Latchetts on his shoulders. It was too much for him and he was so unhappy that he — took a way out.”
“Poor Pat. Poor darling. It was wrong of me to forget him.”
“Come; let us go and get those eggs. You won’t forget to let me have Alec’s address, will you? A Ledingham must have an invitation.”
“No, I’ll look it up when I go back, and telephone it to you. Can your latest moron take a telephone message?”
“Well, I’ll stick to basic. You won’t forget that he is Alec Loding on the stage, will you?” She picked up her basket from the sideboard. “I wonder if he would come. It is a long time since he has been to Clare. A country life is not Alec’s idea of amusement. But an Ashby coming-of-age is surely something that would interest him.”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01