‘DAYLIGHT!’ said Liz, coming out on to the pavement. ‘Good clean daylight.’ She sniffed the afternoon air with pleasure. ‘The car is round the corner in the square. Do you know London well, Mr — Mr Searle?’
‘I’ve been in England for holidays quite often, yes. Not often as early in the year as this, though.’
‘You haven’t seen England at all unless you have seen it in the spring.’
‘So I’ve heard.’
‘Did you fly over?’
‘Just from Paris, like a good American. Paris is fine in the spring too.’
‘So I’ve heard,’ she said, returning his phrase and his tone. And then, finding the eye he turned on her intimidating, went on: ‘Are you a journalist? Is that how you knew Cooney Wiggin?’
‘No, I’m in the same line as Cooney was.’
‘Not Press. Just photography. I spend most of the winter on the Coast, doing people.’
‘California. That keeps me on good terms with my bank manager. And the other half of the year I travel and photograph the things I want to photograph.’
‘It sounds a good sort of life,’ Liz said, as she unlocked the car door and got in.
‘It’s a very good life.’
The car was a two-seater Rolls; a little old-fashioned in shape as Rolls cars, which last for ever, are apt to be. Liz explained it as they drove out of the square into the stream of the late afternoon traffic.
‘The first thing Aunt Lavinia did when she made money was to buy herself a sable scarf. She had always thought a sable scarf the last word in good dressing. And the second thing she wanted was a Rolls. She got that with her next book. She never wore the scarf at all because she said it was a dreadful nuisance to have something dangling about her all the time, but the Rolls was a great success so we still have it.’
‘What happened to the sable scarf?’
‘She swopped it for a pair of Queen Anne chairs and a lawn-mower.’
As they came to rest in front of the hotel she said: ‘They won’t let me wait here. I’ll go over to the parking place and wait for you.’
‘But aren’t you going to pack for me?’
‘Pack for you? Certainly not.’
‘But your aunt said you were to.’
‘That was a mere figure of speech.’
‘Not the way I figure it. Anyhow, come up and watch while I pack. Lend me your advice and countenance. It’s a nice countenance.’
In the end it was actually Liz who packed the things into his two cases, while he took them out of the drawers and tossed them over to her. They were all very expensive things, she observed; custom-made of the best materials.
‘Are you very rich, or just very extravagant?’ she asked.
‘Fastidious, let us say.’
By the time they left the hotel the first street lamps were decorating the daylight.
‘This is when I think lights look best,’ Liz said. ‘While it is still daylight. They are daffodil yellow and magic. Presently when it grows dark they will go white and ordinary.’
They drove back to Bloomsbury only to find that Miss Fitch had gone. The Ross part of the firm, sprawled in large exhaustion in a chair and thoughtfully consuming what was left of the sherry, roused himself to a shadow of his professional bonhomie to say that Miss Fitch had decided that there would be more room in Mr Whitmore’s car and had gone over to the studio to pick him up when he had finished his half-hour. Miss Garrowby and Mr Searle were to follow them down to Salcott St Mary.
Searle was silent as they made their way out of London; from deference to the driver, Liz supposed, and liked him for it. It was not until green fields appeared on either hand that he began to talk about Walter. Cooney, it seemed, had thought a lot of Walter.
‘You weren’t in the Balkans with Cooney Wiggin, then?’
‘No, I knew Cooney back in the States. But he wrote me a lot in letters about your cousin.’
‘That was nice of him. But Walter isn’t my cousin, you know.’
‘Not? But Miss Fitch is your aunt, isn’t she?’
‘No. I’m no relation to any of them. Lavinia’s sister — Emma — married my father when I was little. That’s all. Mother — Emma, that is — practically surrounded him, if the truth must be told. He didn’t have a chance. You see, she brought up Lavinia, and it was a frightful shock to her when Vinnie upped and did something on her own. Especially anything so outré as becoming a best-seller. Emma looked round to see what else she could lay hands on that would do to go broody about, and there was Father, stranded with a baby daughter, and simply asking to be arrested. So she became Emma Garrowby, and my mother. I never think of her as my “step”, because I don’t remember any other. When my father died, mother came to live at Trimmings with Aunt Lavinia, and when I left school I took over the job of her secretary. Hence the line about packing for you.’
‘And Walter? Where does he come in?’
‘He is the eldest sister’s son. His parents died in India and Aunt Lavinia has brought him up since then. I mean, since he was fifteen, or so.’
He was silent for a little, evidently disentangling this in his mind.
Why had she told him that, she wondered? Why had she told him that her mother was possessive; even if she had made it clear that she was possessive in the very nicest way? Was it possible that she was nervous? She, who was never nervous and never chattered. What was there to be nervous about? There was surely nothing disconcerting in the presence of a good-looking young man. Both as Liz Garrowby and as Miss Lavinia Fitch’s secretary she had entertained a great many good-looking young men in her time, and had not been (as far as she could remember) greatly impressed.
She turned from the black polished surface of the arterial road into a side one. The last raw scar of new development had faded behind them, and they were now in an altogether country world. The little lanes ran in and out of each other, anonymous and irrelevant, and Liz picked the ones she wanted without hesitation.
‘How do you choose?’ Searle asked. ‘All these little dirt roads look alike to me.’
‘They look alike to me too. But I have done this trip so often that my hands do it for me, the way my fingers know the keys of a typewriter. I couldn’t repeat the keys of a typewriter by trying to visualise them, but my fingers know where each key is. Do you know this part of the world?’
‘No, this is new to me.’
‘It’s a dull county, I think. Quite featureless. Walter says that it is a constant permutation of the same seven “props”: six trees and a haystack. Indeed he says that there is a phrase in the county regiment’s official march that says quite plainly: Six trees and a hay-stack!’ She sang the phrase for him. ‘But where you see the bump in the road is the beginning of Orfordshire, and that is much more satisfying.’
Orfordshire was in truth a satisfactory stretch of territory. In the growing dusk its lines flowed together in ever-changing combinations that were dream-like in their perfection. Presently they paused on the lip of a shallow valley and looked down on the dark smudge of roofs and the scattered lights of a village.
‘Salcott St Mary,’ Liz said, introducing it. ‘A once beautiful English village that is now occupied territory.’
‘Occupied by whom?’
‘By what the remaining natives call “they artist folk”. It is very sad for them, poor things. They took Aunt Lavinia in their stride, because she was the owner of the “big house” and not part of their actual lives at all. And she has been here so long that she is almost beginning to belong. The big house has never been part of the village in the last hundred years, anyhow, so it didn’t matter much who lived in it. The rot started when the mill house fell vacant, and some firm was going to buy it for a factory. I mean: to turn it into a factory. Then Marta Hallard heard about it and bought it to live in, right under the various lawyers’ noses, and everyone was delighted and thought they were saved. They didn’t much want an actress creature living in the mill house, but at least they weren’t after all to have a factory in their nice village. Poor darlings, if they could only have foreseen.’
She set the car in motion, and drove slowly along the slope, parallel with the village.
‘I take it there was a sheep-track from London to here in about six months,’ Searle said.
‘How did you know?’
‘I see it all the time on the Coast. Someone finds a good quiet spot, and before they’ve got the plumbing fixed they’re being asked to vote for mayor.’
‘Yes. Every third cottage in the place has an alien in it. All degrees of wealth, from Toby Tullis — the play-wright, you know — who has a lovely Jacobean house in the middle of the village street, to Serge Ratoff the dancer who lives in a converted stable. All degrees of living in sin, from Deenie Paddington who never has the same weekend guest twice, to poor old Atlanta Hope and Bart Hobart who have been living in sin, bless them, for the best part of thirty years. All degrees of talent from Silas Weekley, who writes those dark novels of country life, all steaming manure and slashing rain, to Miss Easton–Dixon who writes a fairy-tale book once a year for the Christmas trade.’
‘It sounds lovely,’ Searle said.
‘It’s obscene,’ Liz said, more hotly than she intended; and then wondered again why she should be so on edge this evening. ‘And talking of the obscene,’ she said, pulling herself together, ‘I’m afraid it is too dark for you to appreciate Trimmings, but the full flavour of it can keep till the morning. You can just get the general effect against the sky.’
She waited while the young man took in the frieze of dark pinnacles and crenellations against the evening sky. ‘The special gem is the Gothic conservatory, which you can’t see in this light.’
‘Why did Miss Fitch choose this?’ Searle asked in wonder.
‘Because she thought it was grand,’ Liz said, her voice warm with affection. ‘She was brought up in a rectory, you know; the kind of rectory that was built circa 1850; so her eye became conditioned to Victorian Gothic. Even now, you know, she doesn’t honestly see what is wrong with it. She knows people laugh at it, and she is quite philosophical about it, but she doesn’t really know why they laugh. When she first brought Cormac Ross, her publisher, here, he complimented her on the appropriateness of the name, and she had no idea what he was talking about.’
‘Well, I’m in no mood to be critical, even of Victorian Gothic,’ the young man said. ‘It was extraordinarily nice of Miss Fitch to have me down here without even stopping to look me up in the reference books. Somehow over in the States we expect more caution from the English.’
‘It isn’t a matter of caution with the English; it’s a matter of domestic calculation. Aunt Lavinia asked you down on the spur of the moment because she didn’t have to do any domestic reckoning. She knows that there is enough spare linen to furnish a spare bed, and enough food in the house to feed a guest, and enough “labour” to provide for his comfort, and so she has no need to hesitate. Do you mind if we go straight round to the garage and take your things in through the side door. It’s a day’s march to the front door from the domestics’ quarters, the baronial hall unfortunately intervening.’
‘Who built this and why?’ Searle asked, looking up at the bulk of the house as they skirted it.
‘A man from Bradford, I understand. There was a very pleasant early Georgian house on the spot — there is a print of it in the gun-room — but he thought it a poor-looking object and pulled it down.’
So it was through ugly passages, dimly lit, that Searle carried his luggage; passages that Liz said always reminded her of boarding-school.
‘Just drop them there,’ she said, indicating a service stair, ‘and someone will take them up presently. Come through now to comparative civilisation and get warm and have a drink and meet Walter.’
She pushed open a baize door and led him into the front of the house.
‘Do you roller-skate?’ he asked, as they crossed the meaningless spaces of the hall.
Liz said that she hadn’t thought of it, but that the place was, of course, useful for dances. ‘The local hunt use it once a year,’ she said. ‘Though you mightn’t think it, it’s less draughty than the Corn Exchange in Wickham.’
She opened a door and they went from the grey spaces of Orfordshire and the dreary dim corridors of the house into warmth and firelight and the welcome of a lived-in room full of well-used furniture and scented with burning logs and narcissi. Lavinia was sunk in a chair with her neat little feet on the edge of the steel fender and her untidy mop of hair escaping from its pins all over the cushions. Facing her, with his elbow on the mantelpiece and one foot on the fender in his favourite attitude, was Walter Whitmore, and Liz saw him with a rush of affection and relief.
Why relief? she asked herself, as she listened to the greetings. She had known Walter would be here. Why relief?
Was it just that she could now hand over the social burden to Walter?
But social duties were her daily task and she took them in her stride. Nor could Searle be justly considered a burden. She had rarely met anyone so easy or so undemanding. Why this gladness to see Walter, this absurd feeling that now it would be all right? Like a child coming back from strangeness to a familiar room.
She watched the pleasure on Walter’s face as he welcomed Searle; and loved him. He was human, and imperfect, and his face was already growing lined, and his hair showed signs of growing back above the temples, but he was Walter, and real; not — not something of inhuman beauty that had walked out of some morning of the world beyond our remembering.
She took pleasure in remarking that, face to face with Walter’s tallness, the newcomer looked nearly short. And his shoes, for all their expensiveness were, from an English point of view, distinctly regrettable.
‘After all, he’s only a photographer,’ she said to herself, and was caught up by her own absurdity.
Was she so impressed by Leslie Searle that she needed protection against him? Surely not.
It was not uncommon to find that morning-of-the-world beauty among northern peoples; nor was it to be wondered at that it made one think of tales of the seal people and their strangeness. The young man was just a good-looking Scandinavian–American with a deplorable taste in shoes and a talent for using the right kind of lens. There was not the slightest need for her to cross herself, or utter charms against him.
Even so, when her mother asked him at dinner whether he had any family in England, she was conscious of a vague surprise that he should be possessed of anything so mundane as relations.
He had a girl cousin, he said; that was all.
‘We don’t like each other. She paints.’
‘Is the painting a non-sequitur?’ Walter asked.
‘Oh, I like her painting well enough — what I’ve seen of it. It’s just that we annoy each other, so we don’t bother with one another.’
Lavinia asked what she painted; was it portraits?
Liz wondered, while they talked, if she had ever painted her cousin. It must be nice to be able to take a brush and a box of paints and put on record for one’s own pleasure and satisfaction a beauty that could otherwise never belong to one. To have it to keep and look at whenever one wanted to until one died.
‘Elizabeth Garrowby!’ she said to herself. ‘In no time at all you will be hanging up actor’s photographs.’
But no; it wasn’t like that at all. It was no more reprehensible than loving a — than admiring a work of Praxiteles. If Praxiteles had ever decided to immortalise a hurdler, the hurdler would have looked just like Leslie Searle. She must ask him sometime where he went to school, and if he had ever run races over hurdles.
She was a little sorry to see that her mother did not like Searle. No one would ever suspect it, of course; but Liz knew her mother very well and could gauge with micrometer accuracy her secret reactions to any given situation. She was aware now of the distrust that seethed and bubbled behind that bland front, as lava seethes and bubbles behind the smiling slopes of Vesuvius.
In that she was, of course, right. When Walter had borne his guest away to show him his room, and Liz had gone to tidy for dinner, Mrs Garrowby had catechised her sister about this unknown quantity that she had unloaded on the household.
‘How do you know that he ever knew Cooney Wiggin at all?’ she asked.
‘If he didn’t, Walter will soon find out,’ Lavinia said reasonably. ‘Don’t bother me, Em. I’m tired. It was an awful party. Everyone screaming their heads off.’
‘If his little plan is to burgle Trimmings, it will be too late tomorrow morning for Walter to find out that he didn’t know Cooney at all. Anyone could say they knew Cooney. If it comes to that, anyone could say they knew Cooney and get away with it. There was practically no part of Cooney Wiggin’s life that wasn’t public property.’
‘I can’t think why you should be so suspicious about him. We have often had people we didn’t know anything about down here at a moment’s notice ——’
‘Indeed we have,’ Emma said grimly.
‘And so far they have always been what they said they were. Why pick on Mr Searle for your suspicions?’
‘He is much too personable to be wholesome.’
It was typical of Emma to shy at the word ‘beauty’, and to substitute a bastard compromise like ‘personable’.
Lavinia pointed out that since Mr Searle was staying only till Monday the amount of unwholesomeness he could manage to disseminate was necessarily small.
‘And if it is burglary you are thinking of, he’s going to have a sad shock when he goes through Trimmings. I can’t think, off-hand, of anything that is worth lugging as far as Wickham.’
‘There’s the silver.’
‘Somehow I can’t believe that anyone went to all the trouble of appearing at Cormac’s party, and pretending to know Cooney, and asking for Walter, just to obtain possession of a couple of dozen forks, some spoons, and a salver. Why not just force a lock one dark night?’
Mrs Garrowby looked unconvinced.
‘It must be very useful to have someone who is dead when you want to be introduced to a family.’
‘Oh, Em,’ Lavinia had said, breaking into laughter as much at the sentence as at the sentiment.
So Mrs Garrowby sat and brooded darkly behind her gracious exterior. She was not afraid for the Trimmings silver, of course. She was afraid of what she called the young man’s ‘personableness.’ She distrusted it for itself, and hated it as a potential threat to her house.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01