Bures was a little market town, set north of Westover and almost in the middle of the county. It was like almost every other little market town in the south of England, except perhaps that it stood in slightly richer and more unspoiled country than most. For which reason the Bures Agricultural Show, although a small country affair, had a standing and reputation considerably greater than its size alone would warrant. Every year animals would appear at the Bures Show on their way to more mature triumphs elsewhere, and it was common for someone, watching an exhibit at one of the great shows, to say: “I remember that when it was a novice at Bures three years ago.”
It was a pleasant, civilised little town, with a minister, some fine old inns, a High Street both broad and gay, and no self-consciousness whatsoever. The farmers who brought their wares to its markets would have annoyed Mr. Macallan exceedingly by their content with their lot, and their evident unawareness that there were other worlds to conquer. An air of well-being came off the Bures pavements like reflected sunlight. Bad years there might be, for both tradespeople and farmers, but that was a risk that was incidental in a life that was satisfying and good.
The annual show, in the early summer, was a social reunion as well as a business affair, and the day ended with a “ball” in the assembly room of the Chequers, at which farmers’ wives who hadn’t seen each other since New Year swopped gossip, and young blades who had not met since the Combined Hunts Ball swopped horses. The combined hunts, between them, embraced the town; the Lerridge to the south and the Kenley Vale to the north; and did much to ensure that the horses exhibited at Bures should be worth more than a passing glance. And since almost every farmer well enough off to own both a horse and a tractor belonged to one or other of the hunts, there was never any lack of competition.
In the early days of the show, when transport was still by horse and slow, it was the custom to stay overnight at Bures; and the Chequers, the Rose and Crown, the Wellington, and the Kenley Arms packed them in three to a bed. But with the coming of the motor all that changed. It was more fun to go home nine-to-a-car in the summer dawn than to sleep three-to-a-bed in the Wellington. It was not always a successful method of getting home, of course, and more than one young farmer had spent his summer months in hospital after the Bures Show, but to the younger generation it was inconceivable that they should sleep in an inn when their home was less than forty miles away. So only the older exhibitors, who clung to tradition, or those who lived at an inconvenient distance from Bures, or could not, owing to difficult communications, get their animals away on the evening of the show, still stayed overnight at Bures. And of these most stayed at the Chequers.
The Ashbys had had the same bedrooms at the Chequers for the night of the Bures Show since the days of William Ashby the Seventh: he who had joined the Westover Fencibles to resist the expected invasion of Napoleon the First. They were not the best bedrooms, because in those days the best bedrooms went to the Ledinghams of Clare, who also, of course, had a yearly reservation for the night of the show. What the Ledinghams left went to the Shirleys of Penbury and the Hallands of Hallands House. The Hallands, on whose lands on the outskirts of the town the show was held, had used the bedrooms only for their overflow of guests, but a Hallands guest rated a great deal higher, of course, than any Ashby in the flesh.
Penbury was now the possession of the nation in the shape of the National Trust; a shillingsworth of uplift for coachloads who didn’t know Gibbons from Adam and wanted their tea. Hallands House was also the possession of the nation, in the shape of a Government department. No one quite knew what this alien community did. Mrs. Thrale, who ran the Singing Kettle tea-rooms out on the Westover road, once boldly asked a young Government employee who was drinking her coffee what her task was at the moment, and was told that it was “arranging the translation of Tom Jones into Turkish”; but this was held to be merely a misunderstanding on Mrs. Thrale’s part, and no one had the heart to question the aliens further. They kept themselves to themselves very determinedly, and it was no longer possible for the people of Bures to walk through Hallands Park.
It would have been possible long ago for the Ashbys on their annual visit to have some of the finer bedrooms at the Chequers, but no such idea ever crossed an Ashby mind. The difference between Number 3 and Number 17 was not that one was a fine room with a pleasant outlook and good furniture and the other a back room looking on to the roof of the assembly room, but that one wasn’t “their” room and the other was. So they still had the three little rooms in the older wing, which, since the bathroom had been added at the end of the passage, made it practically an Ashby apartment.
Gregg took the horses over to Bures on Tuesday evening. Arthur followed on Wednesday morning with the ponies and Eleanor’s hack, Buster, who hated any box but his own, and was liable to kick a strange stable to pieces. Simon and the twins went in the car with Bee; and Brat shared the bug with Eleanor and Tony Toselli, who had insisted on being allowed to compete in the Best Child Rider class. (“My father will commit suicide if I am not allowed to try.”)
Brat wished that this tadpole creature was not sitting between himself and Eleanor. The feeling that his time with Eleanor was short was constantly with him, making each indifferent moment a matter of consequence. But Eleanor seemed happy enough to feel charitable even to Tony Toselli.
“It’s going to be perfect weather,” she said, looking at the high arch of the sky with no cloud in it. “I can remember only one real soaker at Bures and that’s years ago. They’ve always been awfully lucky. Did I put my string gloves in the locker?”
“What are you going to do all the morning? Look at Mrs. Godwin’s jam exhibit?”
“I’m going to walk the course.”
“Canny Brat,” she said, approving. “How right you are.”
“The other fellows probably know every inch of it.”
“Oh, yes. For most of them it is an annual. In fact, if you started the horses off they’d probably go round by themselves, they are so used to it. Did Bee remember to give you your stand ticket?”
“And have you got it with you?”
“I sound a fusser this morning, don’t I? You are a nice reassuring person to be with. Do you never get excited, Brat?”
“Inside turning over and over.”
“That’s interesting. It just doesn’t show, I suppose.”
“I suppose not.”
“It’s an extraordinarily useful sort of face to have. Mine goes a dull unhealthy pink, as you can see.”
He thought the warm childish flush on her normally cool features touching and endearing.
“I hear that Peggy Gates has a new outfit for the occasion. Have you ever seen her on a horse? I can’t remember.”
“She looks nice,” Eleanor said approvingly. “She rides very well. I think she will do justice to that horse of Dick Pope’s.”
It was typical of Eleanor that her judgement was independent of her emotions.
The High Street of Bures glittered in the low morning sunlight. Large Motoring Association signs encouraged the traveller, and fluttering advertisements cajoled him. “Carr’s Meal for Calves,” said a banner. “Saffo, the Safe Disinfectant!” screamed a chimney-to-chimney pendant. “Pett’s Dip,” said a placard quietly, taking it for granted that the Dip was sufficiently famous to explain itself.
In the dim hall of the Chequers Bee was waiting for them. Simon had gone round to the stables, she said.
“The rooms are Numbers 17, 18, and 19, Brat. You are sharing 17 with Simon, Nell and I have 18, and the twins are in the connecting one, 19.”
Sharing a room with Simon was something he had not reckoned with, but there was nothing he could do about it. He picked up Eleanor’s bag and his own and went upstairs with them, since the hall was a flurry of arriving guests. Eleanor came with him and showed him where the rooms were.
“The first time I came here and was allowed to stay the night I thought life had nothing left to offer,” she said. “Put it down there, Brat, thank you, and I’ll unpack it at once or my frock will be ruined.”
In Number 17 Simon’s things were already strewn all over the room, including the second bed. It was odd how these inanimate belongings of Simon’s had, even in his absence, a kind of arrogance.
Brat cleared his own bed and unpacked, hanging his new evening things carefully in the still empty wardrobe. To-night for the first time in his life he would wear evening clothes.
“In case you get lost, Brat,” Bee said to him when he came down, “lunch is at twelve-thirty in the luncheon tent. The last table to your left as you come in. What do you plan to do this morning? Poke the pigs?”
“No, he is going to walk the course,” Eleanor said.
“All right. Don’t stray off it into any Government holy-of-holies and get yourself arrested, will you?”
Tony was handed over to Mrs. Stack, who, being interested solely in rural industries, represented a Fixed Point in the flux of an agricultural show.
“If he tells you that his father is dying and he is urgently wanted at home, don’t believe him,” Eleanor said.
“Is his father ill, then?”
“No, but Tony may grow bored before half-past twelve. I’ll come and fetch him for lunch.”
Brat walked into the High Street of Bures with a feeling of escape. For the first time for nearly a month he was his own master, free to be himself. He had forgotten what it was like to walk about without care. For nearly three hours he could go where he liked, ask what he wanted, and answer without a curb on his tongue.
“Hallands Park,” said the direction sign on a bus, so he got on the bus and went there. He had never been to a country show before, and he went round the exhibits with an interest that was at once fresh and critical, comparing all he saw with similar things seen elsewhere. Homespuns in Arizona, farm implements in Normandy, rams in Zacatecas, Herefords after American air, pottery in New Mexico. Occasionally someone looked at him curiously, and more than one hand was half lifted in salutation only to fall again. He was too like an Ashby ever to be completely free in Bures. But, speaking generally, people were too absorbed in the exhibits and in their own cares at that hour of the morning to take much interest in the passer-by.
Having exhausted the exhibition, he walked out into the park, where the red flags marked out the temporary race-course. It was a straight, fast-galloping course over hurdles for the first half-mile through the park, then it went out into the country in a wide curve of a mile or more, came back to the park about half a mile from the stands, and from then on was another series of hurdles up to the finish in front of the stands. Except for the sharp turns and a few very blind fences in the country, it was not a difficult course. The hurdles in the park stretches were regulation racing ones, and the turf was wonderful. Brat’s heart lifted.
It was very peaceful out there in the country, and he came back to the show with a sense of reluctance. But he was surprised to find how glad he was to see the familiar faces round the table in the luncheon tent when he got there; how glad he was to sink into the place kept for him, and be part of this family again.
People came up to their table to welcome him back to Bures Show, to England. People who had known Bill and Nora Ashby, and Bill’s father before him. None of them expected him to remember them, and he had merely to be polite.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14