“Daisy, do you really need to stay away over the weekend?” Alec asked plaintively, folding the News Chronicle and pushing back his chair from the table. “There’s just a chance I may actually get a couple of days off. You’ve got egg on your chin.”
“No! How careless.” Daisy dabbed with a napkin. “As far as my work is concerned, I could easily manage the writing part for the book in a couple of days, though I do hope I might get an article out of it as well. Lucy’s photographs are the trouble. She has to hope the weather will cooperate, and one can’t exactly count on it in March. Three or four days gives her a better chance of getting decent conditions.”
“Surely you don’t have to stay to hold her hand!”
“But you see, darling, in this case I rather do.”
“Are we talking about the same Lucy? Lady Gerald?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I don’t believe Lucy ever needed her hand held in her life!”
“The trouble is,” Daisy explained with a sigh, “she doesn’t care for the man who presently owns Appsworth Hall and its folly.”
“What’s wrong with him? I don’t know that I want to let you go and stay with—”
“Darling, you’ve gone all medieval again. Victorian, at least. This is 1926! You don’t let me do things, remember? Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with the poor man except that he’s a manufacturer of bathroom fixtures.”
Alec burst out laughing. “I can’t see how you persuaded her to visit him in the first place! Not that she has any justification for such an attitude. Didn’t you tell me her great-grandfather was a manufacturer of umbrella silk?”
“Great-great, I think. I suspect that’s why she’s so touchy,” said Daisy, the origin of whose family’s title was lost in the mists of time.
Lucy, granddaughter of an earl and Daisy’s closest friend, had been very difficult when Daisy first started going about with a middle-class policeman, albeit a Detective Chief Inspector from Scotland Yard. In fact she had disapproved quite as strongly as had Daisy’s mother, the Dowager Lady Dalrymple. Unlike the viscountess, she had revised her opinion and given a qualified approval when he promised to support Daisy’s writing career even after they married. Lucy, too, was a career-woman, continuing her photography studio since marrying the easy-going Lord Gerald Bincombe.
But writing, photography, and even detecting were one thing. Manufacturing bathroom fixtures was another, quite beyond the pale.
“It wasn’t easy to get her to agree,” Daisy admitted.
“Haven’t you collected enough follies for your book to skip this one?”
“We have towers, temples, cloisters, pillars, and fake medieval ruins aplenty, even a campanile, but not a single grotto. Appsworth has the best grotto in the country. There are a couple of others, but they’ve rather been let go to rack and ruin. Mr. Pritchard—”
“Of Pritchard’s Plumbing Products?” Alec laughed again. “The man behind the blue PPP insignia in half the wash-basins and lavatories in the country? Instigator of a million vulgar jokes?”
“Lucy seems to think it makes it worse that it’s one of the biggest concerns in the country. Our Mr. Pritchard is semi-retired and Chairman of the Board—or something of the kind—I believe. But if he weren’t so successful, he wouldn’t be rich enough to have bought Appsworth Hall and done a marvellous job of restoring the grotto. Or so we’ve heard.”
“All modern plumbing?”
His teasing grin made Daisy’s lips twitch, but she said, “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least. There’s a stream running through it, and it’s chalk and limestone country, the Marlborough Downs, where streams tend to appear and disappear whenever they feel like it.”
“Do you have to go this week?”
“March isn’t the best time of year for outdoor photography, but our publisher is baying at our heels. Besides, we’re invited for this week, for the long weekend, and having accepted, one can’t simply say, ‘Oh, sorry, it’s rather inconvenient, may we come next week?’ That’s another reason it wouldn’t be at all the thing to duck out and come home for the weekend.”
“I could ring up, when I know whether I’m really getting time off, and claim a family emergency.”
“Darling, I’m shocked!” she told him severely. “A policeman inventing an alibi? Well, not an alibi, exactly, but I call it disgraceful. What is the world coming to? I’ll tell you what, though: When I get down there, I’ll see if I can cadge an invitation for you to join us.”
“All I wanted,” he said mournfully, “is a quiet day at home with you and the babies.”
“Oh dear, I can’t very well expect the poor man to invite the twins and Nurse Gilpin, too.”
“No, that would be a bit much. How on earth did you manage to wangle an invitation from Pritchard’s Plumbing in the first place?”
“It’s a long story, involving a cousin of Gerald’s in the Ministry of Health, an old school friend, Mr. Pritchard’s fondness for titles, and . . . But you’re going to be late, darling. In spite of her reluctance, it’s Lucy’s doing. I’m not sure I’ve got it all straight, and you wouldn’t believe it anyway.”
Alec came round the table and kissed her. “I wouldn’t believe it from anyone but you, love. You’re leaving this afternoon?”
“Yes, Lucy’s coming to lunch, then we’re driving down.”
“Lucy’s driving?” At her nod, he groaned.
“You may need our car.”
“True. Ring up this evening to tell me you got there safely, will you? Leave a message if I’m not home yet.”
“Right-oh, darling.” Daisy stood up and gave him a hug. “I’ll probably see you Sunday evening. We can stretch the weekend till Monday if necessary, but Lucy’s not likely to want to, as long as we have decent weather for her shots. Unless you’ll come to join us?”
“I’ll leave it to you to assess the situation. It’s up to you to decide whether I want to meet the Bathroom King, work permitting, and whether he wants to meet me.”
Alec went off to catch criminals, and Daisy went up to the nursery.
Mrs. Gilpin ruled the nursery, but she had long since been induced to concede that Daisy and Alec might visit Miranda and Oliver whenever they chose. They were even allowed to take their own children out for a walk without Nurse tagging along, though the nurserymaid, Bertha, usually acted as her deputy. Nonetheless, Nurse Gilpin was always cock-a-hoop when Daisy went out of town for a few days, as her work sometimes required, leaving the twins in their nanny’s sole charge.
This led Daisy to put off informing her of an impending absence till the last minute. Of course she always gave the housekeeper, Mrs. Dobson, plenty of warning. From Mrs. Dobson to the parlourmaid, Elsie, was no distance; from Elsie to Bertha, little further; and whatever Bertha knew, Nurse Gilpin knew.
As Daisy opened the nursery door, five pairs of eyes turned her way. Three small bodies launched themselves towards her. Naturally the dog, Nana, arrived first, her cold wet nose bumping Daisy’s knee in greeting. The twins toddled in her wake; Oliver in such a hurry that he sat down unexpectedly and completed the course crawling, still a faster means of locomotion as far as he was concerned. Single-minded, he beat Miranda, who put much of her effort into shouting, “Ma-ma-ma-ma!” as she came. Daisy, as usual, ended up sitting on the floor so as to accommodate everyone in her arms.
“You’ll spoil them, Mummy,” said Mrs. Gilpin disapprovingly.
Bertha bobbed a curtsy and went on ironing nappies. The twins used positive mountains of nappies. How on earth, Daisy wondered, did mothers manage who couldn’t afford to pay nannies and nurserymaids and laundrymen? Presumably their babies survived without beautifully pressed, crease-free nappies. Ironing them seemed an unnecessary expenditure of time and energy, but Mrs. Gilpin certainly wouldn’t tolerate such a suggestion. Daisy decided to save her energies for the battles that were sure to arise as Oliver and Miranda grew older.
“I’m going to be away for a few days, Mrs. Gilpin,” she said. “I’ll leave a telephone number, of course, in case you need to reach me.”
“Oh, I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” said Nurse with a smug smile.
And there—as Hamlet would no doubt have said had he taken any interest in child-care—was the rub. It was nice to know the babies would be very well taken care of while she was out of town, but depressing in a way that they didn’t really need her.
“Will you miss me?” she whispered in Miranda’s little pink ear, half hidden by her froth of dark curls.
Miranda giggled. Oliver stuck his tongue out and blew a raspberry, an act so screamingly funny that he roared with laughter and then repeated it.
“All right, Master Oliver,” Mrs. Gilpin commanded, “that’s quite enough of that!”
But Daisy couldn’t help giggling, too, especially when Miranda tried to copy her brother, with indifferent success.
Perhaps it was just as well that Nurse Gilpin ruled the nursery, Daisy thought as she stood up half an hour later. Otherwise the children might grow up to be horrid undisciplined brats. Or perhaps, like Daisy herself, they had the best of both worlds: Nurse to make them mind their p’s and q’s, and Mummy to indulge and laugh with them. All one could do was love them and hope for the best.
“I’ll only be gone a few days,” she assured Oliver, and stooped to tickle his tummy one more time. “I’m going to stay with a plumber,” she said to Miranda, who regarded her solemnly. “It should be interesting, as long as your godmother controls the bees in her bonnet and isn’t rude to the poor man.”
Excerpted from Sheer Folly by .
Copyright © 2009 by Carola Dunn.
Published in September 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.