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Our Library => E. C. R. Lorac - Fire in the Thatch (1946) => Topic started by: Admin on May 03, 2023, 04:04:13 am



Title: Chapter Four
Post by: Admin on May 03, 2023, 04:04:13 am
AS the days lengthened, Nicholas Vaughan worked steadily over his ground at Little Thatch. Colonel St. Cyres, who looked in on his new tenant occasionally with a fatherly eye, was impressed with the amount of work Vaughan accomplished. The garden was dug through before January was out, and then Vaughan fitted up a lean-to greenhouse against the wall of the linhey. A petrol pump was fitted to the farther well, and a second-hand electric plant was assembled by Vaughan in the outbuildings and insulated piping laid to connect it with the house and greenhouse. By Lady Day he had the greenhouse well stocked with seedlings and he had bought four sturdy young bullocks to graze in the pasture below Little Thatch. During the past month he had persuaded old Reuben Dickon---brother to the gardener at Manor Thatch---to come and work for him, and Colonel St. Cyres was amused and interested to see the old man and the young one digging side by side in tacit understanding. Dickon was a bent, gnarled old peasant, as sturdy as the gnarled and ancient hawthorn trees which grew in the hedge banks, and the old man still dug with the slow, practised skill which achieved so much more than seemed possible from the slow action. Dickon was very deaf, and on the rare occasions he spoke it was in a husky roar which could be heard right along the valley.

“Thiccy weeds, dang ’un!” he would shout, as he triumphantly routed out an intractable root stock of sow thistle or dandelion, or yards of leathery runners of couch grass or gout weeds. “That’s got he, the barstard!” he would roar in occasional triumph.

It was at Easter that Anne St. Cyres was asked by Vaughan to come to inspect his house. She had met him in the lane as she returned from church on Good Friday, and had stopped to talk to him.

“My father waxes eloquent about all you’ve done in your garden,” she said. “I believe he’s a bit jealous: he says your ground’s better tilled than ours is now.”

“Oh, the garden won’t look like anything this year,” he had answered. “I shall get some decent crops off it, given reasonable luck, because the ground’s good, but you can’t make a garden in a year. House painting’s much quicker work. Won’t you come in and inspect some time? I’d value your opinion.”

“Thanks very much, I should love to come,” she replied. “I’ve always been fond of Little Thatch. I’ve often said that when I’m old I shall live there myself. It’s such a friendly house.”

“It is that,” he replied with that sudden smile of his. “I believe I talk to it! Often when I’ve been painting or distempering the walls on these long evenings I’ve found myself having a chat with the house. Will you come in and have tea one day next week and tell me what you think about it?”

“Thanks very much. Will Tuesday do---about five o’clock---and may I bring you some seedlings, or are you one of those haughty people who despise all plants save those you’ve raised yourself?”

“Indeed I’m not---especially during my first year at Little Thatch. Tuesday at five---that’ll be fine.”

Anne was a correct young woman. When she arrived at Little Thatch on Tuesday she went to the front door and knocked, instead of going to the kitchen door, which always stood open.

Nicholas Vaughan opened the door with a smiling face. “Come in,” he said. “You’re my first visitor----”

He broke off as Anne cried out in sheer delight. “Oh, but it’s lovely! I wouldn’t have believed you could have done it all so quickly.”

She stood in the little hall and saw the long, sunlit sitting-room agleam in the mellow light. The walls were now pale honey colour, the paint work shining cream, and the great beams were stripped and stained, almost black against the cream ceiling. A fire burned merrily in the old grate, and the floor was stained dark like the beams. Against the long wall opposite the windows book cases had been fitted into position, their shelves filled with books, and one comfortable grandfather chair stood by the fire.

“The furniture will arrive by degrees,” said Vaughan. “I’m buying things as I see them. Come and see the kitchen---I hope you don’t mind having tea in the kitchen, but I thought it’d be more comfortable. The parlour’s not ready for company yet.”

The kitchen compared very favourably with the “parlour,” for it was as clean and comely. The table was scrubbed to whiteness, and the china neatly set out, with loaf and butter, oatcakes and honey, and a big fruit cake. The kettle was boiling on the small range, and Nicholas Vaughan made tea with the neatness of a man well accustomed to managing for himself.

“Will you pour out?” he enquired, after he had held Anne’s chair in place for her. “I made that cake. I had to tell you. I’m just bursting with excitement over it. It’s only sheer will-power which prevented me cutting it before you came, because I’m all agog to see if it’s cooked properly.”

Anne laughed back at him, noting how much his face had changed since she first saw him. He had discarded his eye-shade, and though the scars on his face were still obvious they were no longer disfiguring. He looked happy, and his weather-tanned face was fresh and healthy.

“It looks a jolly good cake,” she said, “and I’m sure it’s well baked---it’s risen so nicely. Where did you learn to cook?”

“I was always keen on sailing, and I had to cook in the cuddy---you learn to be neat on a small sailing boat. It took a bit of time to get on terms with the range here---I hadn’t seen one of that type before. It’s peculiar to the county, isn’t it? but I’ve got it tamed, even though I had to take it half to pieces. The chimney was partly blocked with birds’ nests, and it smoked like Hades. I’d say your old Timothy Yeo didn’t do much cooking, and as for smoke, he must have loved it. Do have some honey. I got that from young Hesling down in the valley. I’m going to get a few hives of my own soon.”

“You like plenty to do, don’t you?” laughed Anne. “What with the house and the garden and the ducks and the geese and bullocks you can’t find any time left to be bored.”

“No, rather not. I find the days go all too fast, there’s such a lot I want to do,” he replied. “It’s all a great lark. I’ve always wanted a bit of land of my own, and I’m enjoying it.”

As Anne ate her tea---and being a healthy creature she enjoyed a good tea---she observed the neat kitchen in which they sat. Vaughan obviously used this room as his living-room, and he had a small table with a bookshelf above it on one side of the chimney piece. There was a typewriter on the table, and the books appeared to be reference books. Vaughan caught the direction of her glance, and observed, “I’ve found the typewriter useful while my eyes have been out of action. I couldn’t see at all for the first month or two after I was knocked out, and I was glad I’d learnt to type. I’m able to read again now, though only for a short while at a time. You can guess how useful all the gardening and house-painting were---kept me from moping. Now what about this cake?---oh, who the dickens is that?”

He got up as Anne cut the cake and opened the kitchen door in answer to the knock. Anne did not look round, but she heard the visitor’s voice---it was Tom Gressingham.

“I hope you don’t mind me looking you up, Mr. Vaughan,” said the deep, complacent voice. “I was wondering if you’d care for a game of bridge. I’m staying down at Hinton Mallory and I’ve got a couple of cronies staying with me. We’d be delighted if you’d look in for a drink and a game of bridge one evening.”

“Thanks, I don’t play bridge,” replied Vaughan stolidly, and Gressingham replied:

“No? What a pity. This is a very nice little property you’ve got, Mr. Vaughan. Just the sort of thing I fancy myself.”

“I’m afraid it’s not to let, and neither is it for sale,” replied Vaughan, and his voice was not encouraging.

Gressingham replied: “Oh, I wasn’t suggesting anything of that kind, but I hope you won’t mind if I just glance round your garden. I’m interested in gardens.”

“So am I, and when mine’s ready for inspection I’ll put up a notice to that effect,” replied Vaughan. “Until then, it’s private property, like anybody else’s garden. Good day to you.”

He closed the door and came into the kitchen again. “I hope I haven’t been being offensive to a friend of yours, Miss St. Cyres,” he said, “but that fellow gets my goat. He’s always snooping round, and if there’s one country habit which I respect it’s that of not prying on your neighbours.”

“So do I,” said Anne firmly. “That, as you probably know, is Mr. Gressingham. He retains rooms at Hinton Mallory and comes down here frequently. He is a friend of my sister-in-law’s, so I try to be civil to him out of politeness to her, though I admit I don’t like him---and I wasn’t a bit sorry to hear you speak to him as you did. I think it’s insufferable for a stranger to come and poke his nose in and expect to be made free of other people’s gardens. I congratulate you on your cake, Mr. Vaughan. It’s a jolly good cake.”

Vaughan cut himself another large slice with a happy grin. “Seems all right to me,” he said, “but I’m not exactly a connoisseur. Steak and kidney pudding’s my long suit, though I often wonder where all the kidneys go to these days. They’re as rare as new-laid eggs in the Navy.”

After they had finished tea Vaughan took Anne round the empty house, showing the freshly painted bedrooms with the pride of a schoolboy. He was evidently very clever with his hands as well as something of a mechanic and electrician. He had got some of the rooms wired for lighting, but his great pride was “water laid on.” He had contrived a frame to hold a water cistern at one end of the house and the pipes were already in place to feed the kitchen sink. Later he intended to fit a bath in, and told Anne how he overcame the difficulties of boring holes in the ancient cob walls. She found him an entertaining person, and entered into all his plans with enthusiasm coupled to a helpful knowledge of old buildings and the peculiarities of their fabrics. When she stood at the door to bid him good-bye and thank him for his courtesy Anne added: “You’ll have to give a party when you’ve got the house finished---a real house-warming.”

“Rather---I shall---and I hope you and your father will come,” he replied.

---

WHEN Anne left Little Thatch and turned along the lane to her own home---it was only a few hundred yards away---she saw with some annoyance that Tom Gressingham was just walking towards her in company with June. The latter laughed when she saw Anne.

“So that’s where you’ve been, my dear, hobnobbing with the hermit. I hope you enjoyed yourself.”

Anne realised with discomfort that her own face had flushed---a thing which seldom happened. June’s voice and manner irritated her, but she replied sedately: “Yes, I enjoyed myself very much, thank you. Mr. Vaughan was showing me how much nicer the house looks now it’s all clean and repainted.”

“But how nice!” exclaimed Gressingham. “You are privileged, Miss Anne. I thought no one was permitted to view the hermit’s property---but you are the exception to prove the rule.”

“Walk down to Hinton Mallory with us, Anne,” said June. “Tom’s got a new radio, and he’s also got a new cocktail.”

“Come and sample both, and meet my guests, too, Miss Anne,” added Gressingham.

“Thanks very much, but I must be getting back,” said Anne. “Dickon has a day off, and I’ve got to see about the hens and ducks.”

“Oh, you’ll turn into a hen yourself one day,” retorted June, and Gressingham put in:

“Not a hen, my child, a duck---it sounds so much prettier.”

Anne was conscious of a desire to box his ears, but she replied placidly, “It’s all very well for you two to laugh about hens and ducks, but you both love eggs and poultry. If somebody didn’t see the birds were fed regularly and safely shut up at night you’d get neither eggs nor roast chick.”

“How true,” said Gressingham. “Robbing the hen-roost, or the dirge of the duck. I can’t tell you how much I admire your constancy, sweet Anne of Manor Thatch.”

The two strolled on laughing, and Anne moved on her way, walking parallel with Vaughan’s garden. To her surprise she saw him standing by the gate of his pasture.

“I say, if you’d ever like that chap to have the hiding he richly deserves, you’ve only got to say so,” he said. “He’s my own idea of a very dirty dog.”

“Thanks for saying it, but please don’t have any brawls here,” replied Anne. “It would make things a lot worse, and I find it hard enough to keep my temper as it is.”

Gressingham and June walked together down the sloping meadow path towards Hinton Mallory. It had been one of those rare spring days when the sun was hot enough to make the daffodils hang their heads, and every hedgerow was gay with budding foliage, with blackthorn in drifts of snow whiteness, with willow trees asmother with pollened flowers and primroses shining in enamelled bosses among the fresh green on the banks. June cared nothing for wild flowers, for budding trees or singing birds: lambs could caper and calves leap---she was quite indifferent---but she was aware that her own vitality responded to the rising temperature, to the radiance of the sun and the sense of wellbeing imparted by the gay spring day. She hummed a song as she walked through the meadow, and Gressingham pinched her arm.

“Feeling the old world’s not such a bad place after all, honey?---a place to be happy in.”

“Oh, the world’d be all right, especially if the damned war was over and I was walking down Piccadilly in decent clothes with some money in my pocket,” she replied.

“Why not?” murmured Gressingham, and then added: “I can’t make that man out---Vaughan, as he calls himself.”

“Why not?” mocked June. “It’s his name, isn’t it?”

“Maybe, though I should hate to put any money on it,” responded Gressingham. “The more I think about him the more I’m convinced there’s something fishy about him. Why does a chap like that hide himself down here---because hide he does. He never so much as shows his face outside his own garden, and he’s put those wattle screens across every gap in his fences.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t like people looking into his garden every time they pass by,” replied June.

“Does Miss St. Cyres go there often?” enquired Gressingham, and she laughed.

“Scenting a scandal, Tom? Don’t you believe it! Anne’s as virtuous as she’s dull, and I can’t give her a more complete testimonial. She approves of the Vaughan man, and so does Pops, so he must be a creature after their own hearts, a man who loves mud and dung and farmyard smells, and never expects to enjoy anything. Don’t go harping on about him, he bores me, Tom. Tell me about these men you’ve got staying with you. Anyone amusing?”

“There’s Bill Potter---he’s been a film actor and he’s a very good dancer, also a very good bridge player. He’s about thirty years of age and has done most of the things he shouldn’t if that’s any recommendation. Then there’s Rummy Radcliffe---I believe his real front name is Raymond but he’s always known as Rummy. He made a pot of money before the war, speculating. He’s one of those uncanny birds who can always smell the way the market’s going. It’s a sort of extra sense, I’ve never known him slip up---and there aren’t many speculators you can say that for.”

“Perhaps he’d like to speculate with some of my pennies and make a bean or two for me,” said June, but Gressingham laughed.

“Not during the war, sweet---that sort of game can’t be played these days. If you want money, June, you can have it. I’ve told you so.”

“Oh, what’s the use of saying that---we’ve argued it all out before,” she retorted. “I’m the wife of Denis St. Cyres, and the daughter-in-law of that old ramrod, and sister-in-law to that virtuous suet pudding, and here I’m stuck. Damn everything! How do you persuade your friends to come down to this hole, Tom? You must be very attractive to get your men-friends to put up with Hinton Mallory.”

“Oh, but I am very attractive---hadn’t you noticed it?” he laughed back. “You’re very shrewd, June---it’s quite true that my visitors have a reason for coming which isn’t always connected with roast chicken for dinner and ham and eggs for breakfast. I’ve got a few ideas, you know, and some of these fellows like to cash in on ideas. Now I don’t believe you’d find this part of the world nearly so boring if there was a first-class hotel near at hand---one of the country club variety, with a cocktail bar, and a dance floor, and all the trimmings.”

“Goodness, is that the idea? I thought you told Pops you wanted to farm.”

“So I do, until I’ve acquired some land, honey---then: well, we shall just see.”

“Shall we?” she asked speculatively. “You won’t get any land here, Tom, and I can’t see why you should choose this neighbourhood. It’s not the sort of place for a hotel.”

“No? Well, you think things out, angel. There’s a lot to be said for seclusion---and, believe me, the hotel industry is going to boom in a year or so. Ah, there’s Rummy. Don’t be put off by appearances, June. I know he’s fat---but he’s amusing.”

They had reached the gate of Hinton Mallory: a pleasant garden lay in front of the old house, and the grass plot had just been scythed---for the benefit of Gressingham and his friends. A very stout man in a checked tweed suit was practising putting on the so-called lawn, and Gressingham called to him.

“Come and be introduced, Rummy. This is Mrs. St. Cyres. May I introduce Rummy Radcliffe, June?”

“Charmed,” said the stout man. He had a deep booming voice and his round face was almost ludicrous, for he had a tiny pursed up mouth and globular eyes behind exaggerated horn-rimmed glasses.

“He’s just like a fish . . . one of these things in the Zoo Aquarium,” thought June to herself. Rummy’s hands were fat, podgy and clammy.

“I take it that you come from the Manor,” boomed Rummy, “a very fascinating old property, I’d say, but in need of modernising. It’s shocking what people put up with. I’ve been having a nose round, Tom. I should love to be able to develop this property. It’d be the easiest job in the world to make a private road across those fields. No object at all in meandering for miles before you get here. Did you ever see such a crazy business as the road-system hereabouts, Mrs. St. Cyres---and as for blind corners, God bless my soul, it’s criminal! I was frightened out of my wits before I got here.”

“So you may have been,” said June, “but the people hereabouts would be delighted to hear you say so. They don’t encourage other people’s cars in this part of the world, and they’re quite happy to drive their own at an average of ten miles an hour.”

“You don’t say so!” boomed Rummy, and Tom Gressingham put in,

“Come inside and have a quick one, June. Ah, here’s Bill.”

Bill Potter was tall and lanky---a good contrast to the rotund Rummy, and the four of them strolled into Gressingham’s sitting-room, where a new cocktail cabinet had been fitted into a corner and a big portable radio was crooning noisily.

“Did you find a fourth for bridge, Tom?” enquired Potter, but Gressingham shook his head.

“Sorry, I’m afraid I haven’t. I’d counted on Howard Brendon, but he couldn’t come. Tiresome of him. He’s been coming over twice a week for some time past, and he’s a damned good bridge player.”

“Brendon? Is it true his wife’s left him?” asked Rummy, who had been manipulating the cocktail shaker, and Gressingham replied,

“God knows, I don’t. I’ve never seen the lady. I did my best to get a fourth for you, Bill. I went and asked the bloke at Little Thatch.”

“Good heavens!” exclaimed June, “you must be mad! Did you really imagine the hermit could play bridge? You’re an optimist---and if he did, he’d come in corduroys and reek of cow dung, and lick his fingers every time he played a card. Why, the creature’s simply uncouth!”

“Why? Been trying to do the glamour girl at Little Thatch?” enquired Gressingham, and Radcliffe put in:

“Little Thatch? That’s the hovel up the hill, isn’t it? In the layout I was planning I should make that cottage the lodge---I can see it all.”

“Who’s the creature you’re talking about?” enquired Potter, and Tom Gressingham replied:

“He’s the tenant of Little Thatch. He’s uncouth to look at, I grant you, but he’s an educated man, and he’s been in the Navy---and some of those naval blokes are very hot bridge players.”

“You make me tired!” laughed June. “He couldn’t have been anything but a common rating.”

“No matter. Takes all sorts to make a world,” said Rummy amiably. “I should like to have had a word with him. If we get things going according to plan, an ex-naval man at the lodge might be useful.”

“Useful as chucker-out?” enquired June. “Look here, Tom. It’s time you left off leading your friends up the garden path. You know you can’t get any land round here. It all belongs to my father-in-law, and he’d die rather than sell you any land.”

“Keep cool, darling. Your pops isn’t the only landowner in the county. Rummy’s a bit premature in his plans, but he’s always like that. I can’t tell you how many properties I’ve seen him reorganise---on paper. It’s a hobby of his, and believe me, some of his ideas come off.”

“Don’t you play bridge, Mrs. St. Cyres?” enquired Potter, but June answered, “I do---but my bridge isn’t out of the top drawer, and I’m not going to play with you three. I’m too lazy to concentrate. I’d rather play vingt-et-un or roulette.”

“That’s okay by me,” said Rummy amiably, and Gressingham put in:

“Toddle home and put on a pretty frock, darling, and come and dine with us. Safety in numbers, and we’ll see you home.”

“A lovely idea!” said June. “Put on a long frock and pretty slippers and splash through the mud or walk down the field to get here, and then remember Manor Thatch is locked up at ten o’clock. If I stay out after that Anne will sit up until I come in, and offer me hot cocoa when I arrive. No thanks. I said I was lazy, and I am. It’s too much bother to argue with them. I’ve tried it and I’m beaten.”

“Darling, don’t say that,” expostulated Gressingham. “We shall have to get you out of this. Can’t have your spirit broken.”

“I shall be all right when I live in a civilised place again,” said June. “I’m not intending to stay here indefinitely.”

She took a few steps in tune to the radio, which was producing dance music, and Bill Potter slipped an arm round her and they slithered in and out between the heavy furniture.

Rummy filled his glass again and addressed Gressingham, “Who is that chap at Little Thatch? I saw him back his car in when I passed. Big hulking brute, what? Think I might go and have a word with him. You never know. That cottage of his might come in very useful.”

“You can try to have a word with him if you like, Rummy, but I tell you it’s no go. The chap’s bats---or else he’s a ticket-of-leave man. The one thing he’s quite determined about is that he’s going to steer clear of everybody. If you go and see him he’ll only be offensive.”

“That so? Well, a ticket-of-leave man might have his uses. When I’m on to a scheme I’m always out to employ local talent, and, if a fellow’s got something to hide, in my opinion it’s policy to find out what that something is.”

Gressingham shrugged his shoulders and called across the room to June,

“Have another one, honey---just a little one!”