"I’m going to learn to drive,” Daisy decided as the Triumph two-seater slowed on entering the village of Didmarsh-under-Edge.
“I quite enjoy it,” said Gwen. “Except for cranking the engine when it’s cold.”
Though the November air was chilly, the sun shone on pale gold Cotswold stone, and Michaelmas daisies still bloomed in cottage gardens. Here and there, the last bronze and yellow leaves clung to the twigs of tall beeches and elms. “It would be spiffing to be able to hop in the car on a beautiful day like this and buzz out of London into the country for a few hours. I could go and visit Belinda, my stepdaughter, at school. Imagine not having to worry about train timetables and being picked up at the station and all that rot.”
“I don’t mind picking you up at the station,” Gwen assured her, her thin face earnest. Turning into a narrow, steeply rising lane between the churchyard and the Didmarsh Post Office and General Store, she raised her voice to be heard over the roar of the motor. “Would your husband let you drive?”
“Alec? Good gracious, he doesn’t tell me what to do! Just because he’s a policeman, it doesn’t mean he tries to lay down the law. At least . . .”
Daisy paused. She had been going to make an exception for the times when she found herself involved in one of Alec’s cases, when he most definitely, if unsuccessfully, did attempt to control her actions. But those times were best not talked of, though Gwen had probably heard rumours through the Old Girls’ network.
“I wouldn’t have married him if he’d shown signs of wanting to dictate what I can or can’t do,” she amended. “This is 1924, after all, not the Victorian Dark Ages. By the way, I hope you haven’t told all your family that Alec’s a policeman. Lots of people get a funny look in their eyes when they find out I’m a policeman’s wife.”
“No, you asked me not to and I haven’t. But I wasn’t thinking so much about that; more about . . .” Gwen took her eyes from the road to cast a quick glance at Daisy’s bulging midsection.
“The baby?” Daisy patted the bulge, which her coat so nicely concealed when she was standing but seemed to emphasize when she was seated. “I suppose I’d better not take driving lessons until after it’s born. Soon I won’t be able to fit behind a steering wheel. Another three months! I never dreamt nine months could seem so long. But that has nothing to do with Alec.”
Daisy laughed. “Sorry, I mean my being pregnant doesn’t have anything to do with Alec being, or not being, dictatorial. If you see what I mean.”
“I do. I’m just so used to my father always getting his way—not just with Mother, with all of us—that I can’t quite fathom how a modern marriage works. Here we are.”
The lane continued slanting upward across the steep slope, the Cotswold escarpment, between hedges wreathed with old-man’s beard and berried briony. Soon the hedges gave way to drystone walls. After a quarter mile or so, always climbing, Daisy saw on their left stone gateposts bracketing a gap in the wall. Gwen neatly negotiated the sharp turn into the drive between open wrought-iron gates. In curlicued script picked out in gold, the left-hand gate bore the legend Edge, the right-hand Manor. The small gatehouse looked deserted.
“No gatekeeper since the War,” Gwen observed. “Biddle, our gardener, lives there now. He’s not there during the day, of course, and Mrs. Biddle ‘obliges’ in the house, so we leave the gates open for convenience.”
“Hardly anyone has gatekeepers these days.”
A row of yews sheltered the cottage to the north. As the Triumph drew level with the bushy evergreens, a series of ear-shattering explosions rang out. Daisy’s heart skipped a beat before she realized the car was backfiring.
Or was it? Gwen stamped on the brake, staring back at the trees. Following her gaze, Daisy saw movement amid the dark green foliage, and then her ears rang with a second set of bangs and pops. This time, guessing the cause, she spotted flashes on the road behind the car.
“Those little devils!” Gwen jumped out of the car and tore in among the trees.
She emerged triumphant a few moments later, each hand grasping the collar of a small, wiry, and decidedly grubby boy. She marched them over to the car. “Apologize to Mrs. Fletcher at once,” she snapped, “or I’ll tell your grandfather and he’ll give you a proper whopping.”
“Mummy won’t let him,” the younger whined. He was eight or nine, the elder perhaps ten.
“Your mother won’t hear about it till it’s over. Addie’s brats,” she said to Daisy. “I expect you remember my sister Adelaide from school?”
“Vaguely. She’s a couple of years older, isn’t she?”
“Yes, she’ll be thirty in January.” She shook the boys. “Hurry up and apologize, or it’ll be too late.”
“Sorry,” the elder muttered sullenly, echoed by his brother.
Gwen gave them another shake. “You can do better than that.”
“We’re very sorry, Mrs. Fletcher, but it was only squibs. They’re not dangerous or anything.”
“They jolly well are when you throw them at a car,” their aunt pointed out. “I could have been startled enough to run it off the road. Get into the dickey, both of you, and be careful of Mrs. Fletcher’s luggage. Adrian will have to sit on your lap, Reggie.”
“We don’t want to go to the house,” Reggie said mutinously.
Adrian panicked. “We said sorry, Aunt Gwen. You can’t tell Grandfather now!”
“I ought to. But I won’t if you both empty your pockets and give me every squib you possess.”
“But we bought them with our own money!” Reggie protested. “What if we promise not to throw them at cars?”
“Every one,” Gwen said, uncompromising.
Well acquainted with the contents of her eldest nephew’s pockets, Daisy was not surprised at the odds and ends laid out on the running board. Besides a dozen squibs, and a roll of caps, which Gwen also confiscated, the collection included three fluffy toffees, a matchbox containing two dead beetles, quantities of string, a stub of pencil, several small, smoothly rounded stones, and a catapult. Gwen hesitated over this last.
“Didn’t Aunt Babs take this away from you?”
“She just gave it back. We promised not to shoot at the farm animals or the greenhouses or anything. She kept it for a whole week, and it’s a ’specially good one!”
“Oh, all right. Take your stuff and get in.”
“Because I say so. Because you’re going to tell your mother exactly what you did. Not that she’ll do anything about it,” Gwen muttered, resuming her place behind the steering wheel, her comment supported by the boys’ insouciance as they climbed into the dickey. “I have a feeling I’m going to regret giving in over that catapult.”
“But they’re easy to make,” Daisy pointed out. “They could easily replace it.”
“Boys will be boys,” Daisy murmured, though she had always hated the second part of her nanny’s favourite saying: “but girls must be young ladies.”
The drive led back across the hillside, for the most part on the level. As they passed some farm buildings on the lower slope, Gwen waved to a woman in trousers talking to a man perched high on the back of a massive cart horse.
“My sister Barbara. She’s the eldest of us.”
“Aunt Gwen?” came Adrian’s quavery voice from behind. “You won’t tell Aunt Babs, will you? About the squibs?”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
“Because she said if we do anything else bad this week, she’ll duck us in the horse trough and she doesn’t care if we catch our death of cold.”
“It would jolly well serve you right.”
“It would be murder,” Reggie said self-righteously.
“Well, we don’t want murder in the family, so I won’t tell her, as long as you behave yourselves till bedtime. Sorry, Daisy, when I invited you, I’d forgotten it was the boys’ half-term holiday. And there are other ructions in the family at present, I’m afraid.”
“Never mind, I’ll just ignore all that and concentrate on my article. It’s jolly decent of your people to let me come. My American editor is really keen. They don’t know about the Gunpowder Plot over there, so he thinks it’s frightfully exotic. It came just before the Mayflower and the Pilgrims and all that, which is when their history begins.”
Gwen laughed. “If I recall correctly, we started at school with Caesar’s invasion of Britain in something b.c.”
“But after that, there wasn’t much besides Alfred and the cakes until 1066. I hope you’ll be able to tell me the history of your Guy Fawkes celebration. It’d be nice to have some background as well as a description of tomorrow’s fête.”
“Father will be only too glad to expound.”
“Good.” Daisy’s insatiable curiosity got the better of her. “And if you want to let off steam about the ructions, I’ll lend a sympathetic ear . . . or not, as the case may be.”
“It might help to have an outside opinion,” Gwen said thoughtfully. “Besides, after all, your father was a viscount and Father’s only a baronet.”
“I shouldn’t dream of interfering! On that basis or any other.”
“What’s a viscount?” Adrian enquired.
Gwen and Daisy looked at each other in dismay. They had forgotten the little pitchers with big ears in the dickey.
“A lord, you dunce,” said Reggie, his manner insufferably superior.
“I’m not a dunce!” Adrian was at a disadvantage, seated as he was on his brother’s knees, but he made a spirited attempt to bring his fists to bear.
“Horse trough!” Gwen warned.
The rest of the journey was accomplished in peace.
Daisy had visited Edge Manor several times during her school days. She and Gwen had never been particularly intimate friends, but her own childhood home, Fairacres, was less than twenty miles away across country. She knew Gwen’s family had owned the land hereabouts since the Wars of the Roses. The Tyndalls had accommodated themselves over the centuries to the whims of history, having managed to remain inconspicuous but always on the right side at the decisive moment, like the Vicar of Bray.
Edge Manor, built and periodically rebuilt with local limestone, had likewise accommodated itself over the centuries to the whims of its owners and the exigencies of its situation halfway up a steep hillside. The south front, before which the Triumph drew up, was taller and narrower than most small country houses. To the right of the cobbled forecourt stretched a row of garages, once carriage houses, more usually tucked away somewhere out of view of residents and visitors.
Beyond the façade, the building stretched northward with, as Daisy recalled, a great many inconvenient flights of two or three or half a dozen steps here and there to adjust to the terrain. But to compensate, the long west side provided a spectacular view of the terraced gardens and the village and across the Vale of Evesham, where most of the Tyndall acres lay.
“Leave your camera and typewriter in the car, Daisy,” said Gwen. “Someone will fetch them. You boys can carry the rest in.”
She ushered Daisy into the house, followed by her subdued nephews struggling with the luggage. The wide entrance hall, two stories high, was floored with polished oak. Apart from a couple of antique chests, it was furnished as a sitting room, with sofas and chairs grouped on a large rug around a blaze in the fireplace opposite the front door. The late-afternoon sun poured in through tall south and west windows, each graced with a vase of golden beech leaves, crimson-berried hawthorn, and pink and orange spindle.
This inviting scene was marred by the two angry men in the middle of the room.
One was an imposing figure, whose voluminous plus fours and shooting jacket with baggy pockets made him appear even larger than his already-impressive size. Daisy recognized Sir Harold Tyndall. His girth had grown and his hairline had receded since last she saw him, but his reddish moustache bristled as fiercely as ever. A tall, bull-necked bear of a man, to mix a few metaphors, he was roaring like a lion: “What the devil made you suppose the bounder would be welcome at Edge Manor?”
“Miller is not a bounder, sir!” The boyish young man confronting him, bursting with indignation, was an inch or two taller and equally large-boned. However, his frame had not yet filled out and he was loose-limbed, lanky, in his light blue blazer with a Cambridge college crest on the pocket and wide-legged “Oxford bags.” “He’s a—”
“Pshaw! He’s aiding and abetting this nonsense of yours, and he’s got his eye on your sister, or I’m a Dutchman.”
“Gwen?” The youth must be Jack Tyndall, Daisy realized. She saw that Gwen was very pink-cheeked, whether embarrassed by an unwarranted assertion or dismayed by its accuracy. Jack, obviously astonished, continued, “I don’t think—”
“That’s the trouble, my boy, you don’t think! Tyndalls have run this estate for centuries, passed directly from father to son, and my son is not going to break that trust for some footling, short-lived fad.”
“Aeronautics is not a—”
“Father, Jack,” Gwen interrupted, “here’s Mrs. Fletcher.”
The combatants swung round. Sir Harold advanced to shake hands.
“Ah yes, Dalrymple’s daughter. We’re delighted to have you come and write about our festivities, Mrs. Fletcher. The Tyndalls have held a Guy Fawkes fête nearly every year since 1606, even during the Commonwealth. Oddly enough, Bonfire Night was the only traditional festivity allowed by the Puritans, though it celebrates the foiling of a plot against the monarchy.”
“Cromwell should have been grateful to the plotters for their attempt to blow up James the First, which might have saved the Puritans the trouble of beheading Charles the First,” said Jack. “How do you do, Mrs. Fletcher.”
“You remember my brother, Daisy? He must have been twelve or thirteen when you last met.”
“A horrible, cheeky pest of a schoolboy.” Jack had a charming grin.
“Not half as pestilent as—”
Daisy nudged Gwen to remind her she had promised not to tell her father of his grandsons’ misdeeds. The boys themselves had vanished.
Jack pulled an expressive grimace. “What have they done now?” he asked.
But Sir Harold had not noticed the byplay, intent as he was on urging Daisy over to the windows so that he could point out the site of the fireworks display and the beginnings of the bonfire. “You see, down there on the meadow below the terraces? My gardeners and tenants have been piling up brush for weeks.”
As her host maundered on, telling how the fireworks had begun as a demonstration of loyalty to the first Stuart king and continued as a much anticipated local event, Daisy grew increasingly desperate. The baby had decided to bash her in the bladder, over and over again, as if bouncing a ball off a wall. She might be a modern, emancipated, working woman, but explaining her situation to the baronet was more than she could face.
To her relief, Lady Tyndall came to the rescue. A faded, delicate, anxious-looking woman, she inserted herself between her husband and her guest and said almost pleadingly, “Harold, I’m sure Mrs. Fletcher will be interested in your stories later, but first she wants to wash off the grime of the journey and put her feet up for a while before tea.”
Though Sir Harold looked offended, he made no objection. “I’ll see you at teatime, Mrs. Fletcher,” he said, and stamped off.
“The downstairs cloakroom is over there, as I expect you remember,” said Lady Tyndall, pointing.
When she emerged, feeling much better, Gwen was waiting for her.
“Mother said she took one look at you and knew what you needed. I saw you were desperate, but I thought it was just my father. He often makes me feel that way. I didn’t dare interrupt when he was on his hobbyhorse. Sorry I didn’t realize what was wrong, but I’ve never been pregnant.”
“The little brute was kicking me like mad, in a sensitive spot. It’s a very strange sensation. You’ve no idea.”
“I can’t imagine! Come on up to your room. Your stuff’s been taken up. I had Jack fetch the typewriter and camera because I knew you were concerned about them. You’re all right on the stairs, aren’t you?”
“Perfectly all right.”
“I must say you look positively fit as a fiddle. Addie used to fuss like anything when she was pregnant, and Mother cosseted her.”
At an easy pace, Gwen led the way up the superbly carved Jacobean oak staircase. Following, Daisy asked, “Has Adelaide come back to live at Edge Manor? Her husband was killed in the War, wasn’t he?”
“No and yes. She married a neighbour and lives with her mother-in-law just down the lane, between here and the village. Stephen was killed in ’15, when she was pregnant with Adrian.”
“Widowed at twenty, with two young sons!”
“I know it’s hard, but Addie really manages to make the worst of things. She never stops moaning and groaning, and she spoils the children abominably when she’s not complaining about their mischief. I’m afraid Mrs. Yarborough encourages her to spend most of her time here in the bosom of her family.”
For all her brave words, Daisy was tired from the train journey and glad to reach the top of the stairs. “At least the boys are old enough to go away to prep school, aren’t they?” she asked as they crossed the landing, a gallery open to the hall below.
“Yes, but she won’t send them. They go to a day school in Evesham, where the discipline appears to be nonexistent. And she intends them to go on to Prince Harold’s Grammar in Evesham, so there’s no relief in sight. She claims she can’t afford a Public School.”
“Wouldn’t Sir Harold . . . ?”
“He might, if he could be persuaded that it’s his own idea. The trouble is, Reggie and Adrian are scared to death of him, so they behave themselves when he’s around. One really can’t go talebearing, and they’re beginning to realize it, so threats don’t work very well any longer. I’m not sure he’d really cane them anyway. He was so proud of Addie when she produced two boys so quickly, he’s inclined to think they can do no wrong.”
They had turned up another three steps into a passage and passed several doors. Now Gwen announced, “Here’s your room. Mind the steps down. Two of them.”
The warning came just in time as Gwen opened the door on a dazzling flood of golden evening light.
Descending the steps with care, Daisy had an impression of comfortable blue furnishings, but her attention was on the view across the Vale to the Malvern Hills, so near her own childhood home. “Oh, lovely! I do envy you your view. There are advantages to living in St. John’s Wood, so close to central London, but views aren’t one of them.”
“Mother told me to give you the best spare room, not stuck away up on the second floor with the rest of us like when you were a mere school friend. It doesn’t run to its own bathroom, though, I’m afraid. You’ll share with the parents, but there’s plenty of hot water. That’s their rooms we passed on this side, bathroom, et cetera, opposite, and Father’s den at the end.”
“Are you still up at the top?”
“Yes, Babs and Jack and I, and Jack’s friend who’s visiting.” A faint pink rose in Gwen’s cheeks as she mentioned her brother’s friend. Miller, Daisy recalled, the bounder who was encouraging Jack in his aeronautical nonsense and might—or might not—have his eye on Gwen. “I expect you remember what a strange layout this house has.”
“Vaguely.” Daisy took off her hat and coat and went over to the washstand, waving Gwen to a chair.
“We live on the west side and the servants get the east side, facing the hill. Difficult as it is to get servants since the War, I keep expecting such as remain to rebel one of these days and demand a decent share of light and air. On the other hand—I don’t expect you remember our butler, Jennings?”
“I have a vague impression of an ancient personage in rusty black.”
“He’s even more ancient now, but he refuses to retire to a nice comfy cottage, and to give up that coat. He can’t manage the stairs anymore and he only appears at dinner. Most of his time seems to be spent doing the silver, but he still rules the staff with a rod of iron.”
“Another reason for them to quit en masse, I’d think, besides the dark rooms.”
“At least they have electricity now. When Father put in the generator, he had the servants’ side electrified as well as the rest.”
“Anything that makes things easier for the servants must make things easier for your mother. I thought she looked . . . not very well.”
“She’s been ‘not very well’ as long as I can remember. I suppose we never thought twice about it when we were children, but looking back, I can see she was always fragile. But she hasn’t had to run the house since the end of the War. As soon as Babs and I were demobbed from the Land Army, I took over.”
“Babs still works on the land, though?”
“She found she really enjoyed farming, and she needed something to keep her occupied. We both lost fiancés in the War, you know. Three unlucky sisters—it sounds like one of the grimmer fairy stories, doesn’t it?” Gwen fell silent, a faraway look in her eyes.
Daisy nearly told her that she, too, had lost her fiancé. But Michael had been a conscientious objector, a Quaker pacifist who had been blown up driving a Friends’ Ambulance Unit. Though he had been at the front, he had not fought, and the prejudice against “conchies” remained strong. Besides, though her first love would always have a place in her heart, she had found a second, whereas the Tyndall sisters had not.
Or was there something going on between Gwen and the unknown Miller? Before Daisy could come up with a delicate way to probe, Gwen sighed and went on.
“But your brother was killed, wasn’t he? We’re lucky that Jack’s the baby of the family by several years and was too young to join up. It would have killed Mother to lose him. I just wish he hadn’t invited . . . But I mustn’t trouble you with our squabbles.” She stood up, with an effortful smile. “The Guy Fawkes fête always makes Father feel frightfully Lord-of-the-Manorish and he’s thrilled that you’ve come to write about it, so he jolly well ought to be in a good temper. I’ll leave you in peace now. I’ve got to go and try to persuade Addie to punish those blasted boys. Tea in half an hour in the drawing room, if you feel up to coming down.”
“I’m eating for two, remember. I’ll be there,” Daisy promised, hoping the bounder Miller, sower of dissension, would be present. She was dying to meet him.
Copyright © 2006 by Carola Dunn