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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Fire in the Thatch (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on May 02, 2023, 01:00:47 pm

Title: Chapter Two
Post by: Admin on May 02, 2023, 01:00:47 pm
JUST as Anne St. Cyres shut the door of the wood-shed and ran over the frosty cobbles towards Michael, a very old car drew up in the lane outside the gate of Little Thatch, and the driver got out and stood by the gate, looking at the neglected garden. He was a big fellow, over six feet tall, with such broad shoulders that his height seemed less than it was. He stood with his arms folded on the gate and stared thoughtfully at Little Thatch. The house was a long, low building---more spacious than the usual Devonshire cottage. None of its corners was a right angle, none of its walls quite vertical. The ancient cob walls seemed to crouch a little, their curves denoting strength, not weakness: the thatch over the long roof seemed like a blanket, comfortably overhanging the walls in deep eaves which cast lilac shadows on the rose and ochre of the freshly washed walls. The long, low sturdy house pleased the observer at the gate: (Anne St. Cyres said later that the man resembled the house, because his heavy powerful shoulders reminded her of the thick cob walls of Little Thatch). He noted the excellent condition of the thatch, with its comely patterned ridge and plaited “dollies” at the gable ends, the tall sturdy brick chimneys bestriding the thatch, and the stonework showing through the colour wash in the squat buttress at one end. An old house but a worthy one, he meditated, thick walled, deep thatched, with good mullioned windows all facing south. To the north towards the lane, the house presented a dead wall without a window in it, an inscrutable uneven solid wall, squatting beneath its thatch, as though to snub an inquisitive observer.

When Colonel St. Cyres first saw Nicholas Vaughan leaning patiently on the gate of Little Thatch, the older man said to himself, “Fine big chap: he ought to be able to dig. Shoulders like a bull . . .”

When Vaughan turned to face him, the Colonel had a shock of surprise, for one of Vaughan’s eyes was covered by an eye-shade, and the livid unlovely line of a recently healed scar marred the left side of his face. One grey eye looked steadily at the Colonel.

“Good-morning. I hope I’m not inconveniently early. My name’s Vaughan.”

“Good-morning. I’m glad you took the opportunity of coming. Wilton’s an old friend of mine and I value his judgment. He gave you some idea of what this property is like? Come along in.”

He opened the gate and preceded Vaughan down the cobbled path, and the latter turned his back on the house and studied the garden.

“Yes,” he replied. “Commander Wilton gave me a very fair idea of it. This was a small holding once, I take it? That’s a shippon among the outbuildings, isn’t it?”

“Shippon?” queried St. Cyres. “Oh---you mean the cow shed. Our folks call that a linhey. Yes. Twenty years ago this was a flourishing small holding---twenty acres went with the house including the two orchards. Now the land’s let or I farm it myself. As it stands, it’s the house, garden, and orchard, with another small orchard across the road if you want it---about an acre, all told. The garden’s been neglected for years.”

“Yes,” said the tall man, and his tone spoke volumes. There was a fork sticking in a half-dug trench in one of the weed-covered beds, and Vaughan took it and turned over a few spits of earth, bending to the job as though he loved it. “That’s good soil,” he said tersely. “It was well cultivated---once.”

“You’re right there,” replied St. Cyres. “Ten years ago this garden was famous in the district---and the land hereabouts is the most fertile in the county.” He walked along the unkempt cobbled path the full length of the house and stopped at a small gate which gave access to the orchard. “Mostly cider apples,” he said, “a few Bramleys and Coxes, some damson plums and Victorias---well worth having . . .”

“And some pasture . . . good for geese and ducks,” said the other. “Now what about water?”

“None laid on. Two pumps: this well here is a deep one---forty feet. The other’s a surface well, but the pump’s close to the kitchen.”

“I’ve got to make sure of the water question,” said Vaughan. “If I take this place, I mean to cultivate. I can put an old petrol pump on the well if the water’s there.”

“It’s there all right. I can give you my word you’re safe over that.”

“Good . . . I could put some glass up against that linhey or whatever you call it. I’ll just look at those outbuildings.”

“Like to see the house first?”

“No. The house is all right, I’ll see that later. It’s the land I’m thinking of. I’ve got my living to earn, by and large, and I’m going to earn it on the land.”

St. Cyres listened to him with a mixture of sympathy and amusement: an earnest young man, with a very pleasant deep voice---“a gentleman” St. Cyres postulated in his old-fashioned way, but a gentleman who loved the soil, loved it enough to pick up the frosted loam and crumble it in his fingers. St. Cyres let him poke round in the long row of outbuildings---pig sty, cattle shed, wood-shed, coal house, wash house, earth closet. Let him see it as it was, sturdy buildings suited to a working man’s needs, no frills or comforts. Stark toil was what this place needed---but the chap had big shoulders and big capable hands.

“That’s all right---the fabric’s sound enough,” said Vaughan placidly as he finished surveying the ancient sheds. “Look here, sir. This garden wants some muck on it before it’ll be fit for much. I don’t want to buy manure, and I hate chemicals. What about the pasture below there, across my hedge? Is it yours?”

“It’s mine all right. D’you want to keep a horse?”

“Lord, no. Not enough work to justify it. I should like to raise some bullocks or heifers---just a few. A bit of pasture and an acre or so of hay---it’d be the making of this place. I was brought up on a farm, and although it’s market gardening I’m out for, I know the value of a few beasts. Can’t keep up fertility without beasts.”

“Something in it,” agreed St. Cyres. “My daughter swears by cow dung and she raises the best tomatoes in the district. I wouldn’t mind letting you have some pasture and a small meadow, but think of the work involved. Labour’s next to impossible to get. You might get a boy---but not a skilled one.”

Nicholas Vaughan grinned. A grin which showed fine white teeth in a wide mouth, and did away with the sinister expression caused by eye-patch and scar. “Do I look the sort of bloke who can’t work?” he asked. “I’m thirty: fit as a fiddle and strong as two horses. This” (pointing to his eye-shade) “isn’t permanent. It’s protecting a healing wound and the sight is still there. The light hurts it at present. One of our guns turned nasty on us and back-fired. Never mind that. I’m not afraid of work, and I like beasts. A bunch of yearling heifers won’t tire me out, I promise you.”

“Good for you,” said St. Cyres. “Leigh, down in the valley there, has some promising beasts for sale, and I might let you have some hay. Very heavy crop this year. Come and see the house. It’s a good house for all the muck it’s in. I’d do it up for you, but I can’t get the labour.”

“We do our own walls where I come from,” replied Vaughan, and St. Cyres enquired,

“Yorkshireman? North Riding?”

“Pretty close. Borders of Westmorland. I say, this isn’t at all bad.”

St. Cyres had unlocked the kitchen door, and the two men had stepped inside and turned to survey the cottage through the open kitchen door. The kitchen was at the west end of the cottage, and from a door in its eastern wall it was possible to look through the length of the building. The kitchen opened into a long, beamed sitting-room---twenty feet long at least, Vaughan estimated; beyond that came a small entrance hall with the front door, and beyond that another small square room. All the windows, which had deep window seats, faced south, with a good view across the valley of the river Mallow.

Vaughan walked into the sitting-room and studied it: the floor was of the mixture of lime and ash peculiar to the county: the cob walls bulged and curved, and were colour washed a particularly hideous shade of Pompeian red beloved by Devonians, but the proportion of the long low room was beautiful, as was the panelling of the ancient doors (now painted, like all the woodwork, a revolting chocolate colour). Three great beams crossed the ceiling transversely---their surface plastered and whitewashed.

“I say, this is a damned fine room,” said Vaughan. “How came a small holding to have a great room like this?”

St. Cyres came in and stood beside him. “Local history has it that this is an ancient ‘house of refreshment,’ to use the old term,” he replied. “In short, it was the Cider House, and a bar once divided this room, with a compartment behind it for the cider barrels. The partition was taken down in my father’s time. I can’t tell you the exact history of the place, but I believe the kitchen end is very ancient, the further end of later date. I should say it’s Tudor in origin, with Jacobean additions and Georgian improvements. Those panelled doors are Jacobean, and the stairs, too---they’re oak, and as hard as iron.”

“Gad, I like it... You could make a gorgeous room of this: the fireplace is decent, too.” They wandered on, up the little twisting stairs, and examined four bedrooms, small sunny rooms, and Vaughan sniffed appreciatively. “It’s warm in here,” he said. “Surprising to find a dry house in Devon.”

“This one’s always dry except for surface condensation,” replied St. Cyres. “The fabric is sound and the thatch waterproof. The garden slopes away to the valley, as you can see and there’s good drainage---the conduits are square oak pipes, probably the original ones, but they’re still sound. If you listen you can hear the water running away merrily under that drain by the kitchen door. The only trouble is this: owing to the thick cob walls and heavy thatch the cottage maintains an almost even temperature inside, summer and winter. If you come inside on a scorching summer day you’ll find the big room cold; now it’s frosty outside and the house seems warm. The temperature is probably an even fifty degrees, but when there’s a sudden change of temperature outside you’ll get surface condensation on the stone floors and you’ll probably think the floors are damp.”

“Oh no, I shan’t. I know all about condensation on stone floors. I was brought up in Westmorland,” said Vaughan. “Is there another bedroom? These four don’t account for all the floor space down below.”

“Quite right. There’s another bedroom over the kitchen, with its own stairs.”

“Two stairways, by gum! Quite an establishment. That’ll suit me fine. I can camp out over the kitchen while I get the rest of the house into order. I can see myself being busy for some time to come.”

St. Cyres hesitated, and then said: “How’ll you manage about housekeeping? I’ve told you, it’s next to impossible to get labour or domestic service.”

“Domestic service be blowed! I’ll manage for myself, pro tem.”

“That’s all very well, but a man needs a bit of comfort after a hard day on the land,” said St. Cyres. “Haven’t you a sister, or anybody who’d housekeep for you?”

Vaughan laughed: that same merry grin which lit up his long face and contradicted its saturnine expression.

“Sister? I can see mine coming here! She’s a hundred per cent intellectual. No. I shall do for myself. You needn’t be afraid I shall make a mess of it. I’m a much more competent housewife than many of the womenfolk I know.”

“It’ll be a dull life for you,” said St. Cyres in his conscientious way. “There’s no young society hereabouts. I’ve got a daughter, but she’s a busy girl---she runs the house and helps on the farm, and we don’t find time to entertain.”

“Now look here, sir,” replied Vaughan. “Let’s get this straight. I’m not a sociable character. I like working on the land, I like painting doors and walls and all that, and I’m interested in books. I’ve got quite a number. If you want a sociable tenant to brighten country life, count me out. I’m about as sociable as a hermit crab---but I’ll bring this place into cultivation again, and make the house as good as it’s capable of being---which is very good. I can give you sound references, but I won’t undertake to attend whist drives or play bridge, or dance or go to garden parties, or do anything in that line. What about it?”

“My dear chap, I don’t want you to play bridge, or to dance---I loathe bridge and modern dancing---but a fellow of your age wants something better than a fried sausage for supper and a bed over the kitchen.”

“Leave that to me. In confidence---and I mean in confidence---I’m meaning to get married some time, and when I’m colour washing walls and painting doors, I shall be doing it with an end in view.”

St. Cyres’ face cleared. “That’s a different story,” he said. “I wish you all the luck in the world---but this house isn’t everybody’s money. No water laid on, no electricity, no indoors sanitation. Most modern young women would find it anathema. Why not bring your wife-to-be to see it? It’s only fair to give her a say in the matter before you decide on it.”

Again Vaughan laughed: “My wife-to-be, as you style her, isn’t a modern young woman---not in your sense. The woman who marries me will know what she’s in for, and that’s hard work. Incidentally, I’m not such a mutt as to want to show any woman this house as it stands, with all that foul colour wash and decayed chocolate paint. You wait till I’ve done with it and it’s gleaming cream and honey colour; when there’s an engine for pumping water and a plant for electric light. I’ve got enough capital to make this house a good home---if you give me a square deal and an assured tenancy.”

“I’ll give you a square deal all right,” said St. Cyres, “but think it over before you decide. I tell you frankly I can’t do what I should like to do---that is, get the garden clean and the orchards into order, and I can’t get the house done up for the same reason---there’s no labour to be had. All the builders are working under the Essential Works order, and all the farmers are short-handed. Here’s my offer. I’ll let you the house, garden and orchards as they stand for the same rent old Timothy Yeo paid me---that is £26 a year, and I’ll rent you the pasture and meadow below the garden at current agricultural rates. I’m prepared to offer you a good tenancy and option of renewal. Think it over: if you still like it after you’ve considered it, ring up my lawyer in Exeter---old Bodlesham---and he’ll get an agreement made out.”

“That’s all right,” said Vaughan, “but listen to me. If I’m to get that garden fit for anything this summer, I’ve got to get on to it now. It’s good soil, but it’s foul with couch grass and gout weed and every pest under the sun---and the soil’s starved. You tell your lawyer to get busy on the agreement: I won’t hustle him---but give me your word I can have the place and let me go on to it straight away. I can’t afford to waste a week if I’m to get a crop out of this land this year---and you know that as well as I do. I’ve got an option on an engine for the pump and I’ve got my eye on an electric plant. Let me go right ahead. Your word’s as good as a lawyer’s deed, I know that.”

St. Cyres was not a man who liked to be hustled, but seeing the eagerness on the other’s face, he made up his mind then and there.

“Very well,” he replied. “If you want it you can have it---but remember I’ve told you all the drawbacks. There’s no water main nearer than three miles---and not likely to be---and the same applies to sewerage. The nearest electricity supply is two miles away. The house is ancient, and those cob walls won’t stand much knocking about---but it’s weather worthy, the fabric’s sound and the thatch rainproof. As for the garden---it’s been neglected these ten years, but it’s on some of the most fertile land in the county.”

“Right. It’s what I want; provided the water’s here and you’ll allow me a free hand in cultivation---putting up some glass and a shack for my car, I’ll take it---or buy it.”

“No. I won’t sell, but I’ll give you an assured tenancy---and good luck to you.”

“Thanks. I won’t let you down,” replied Vaughan.


WHEN Colonel St. Cyres went home, he left the keys of Little Thatch with his new tenant so that Vaughan could study the house at his leisure. Once alone in the place, Vaughan went carefully through the house, examining walls and windows, cupboards and floors. The more he studied it, the more he liked it. It was plain to any man who cared about old houses that this squat sturdy building could make a beautiful and comfortable home to anybody who cared for living and working in the country and who was not deterred by the lack of urban amenities. Having studied the house in detail, Vaughan went outside and put the door key in his pocket with an expression of serene content on his face. Then, taking off his old Burberry, with a grin of sheer delight, he took the fork and began to trench the ground in front of the cottage. The night’s frost was only a hoar frost---it had not penetrated the ground---and Vaughan found the soil light and workable beneath the matt of grass and weed. In the narrow beds beneath the cottage windows long-stemmed violets defied the frost, winter jasmine shone in sprays of clearest chrome yellow and aconites spread their green frills to the sun. Lighting his pipe, Vaughan began to plan out his garden: cold frames and some glass against the linhey, tomatoes on the long southward slope, potatoes and root crops in the lower beds. Some wattle fencing and fruit cages when he could get them—and all the apple trees needed pruning and spraying and banding. As he dug, he planned out his land, thought of the best way of investing his capital in it, pondering over pump and piping, electric plant and wiring, some heating for the greenhouse, and as he cogitated, his face was the face of a very contented man.