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Chapter Three

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« on: May 02, 2023, 02:18:03 pm »

IT was on New Year’s Day that Nicholas Vaughan took possession of Little Thatch. Just before midday he drove through the narrow Devonshire lanes in his old car, piloting a disreputable lorry which followed him round awkward corners and blind bends. The lorry belonged to the nearest coal merchant, and in it was half a ton of coal in addition to a camp-bed, some chairs and tables, a number of packing cases, garden tools, and miscellaneous cooking pots. Vaughan chuckled to himself over his home-coming---never had a less impressive moving-in ceremony been performed. Transport was at a premium, so he had taken the simplest way of moving those of his belongings he wanted immediately---loaded them into the coal-lorry along with the coal. When he opened the kitchen door and went inside a surprise awaited him. There was a good fire burning in the range, the floor was scrubbed and clean, and on the wide window sill stood a big loaf of bread, a can of milk, and a big pasty. As he stood staring, footsteps sounded on the cobbles and a woman’s figure appeared at the door.

“Good-morning, Mr. Vaughan. I’m Anne St. Cyres. I haven’t come to bother you---just to say that if you want anything or if you’re in a fix we’re only a few hundred yards away, so please come and ask. Good luck to you in your new house.”

“Thank you very much. It’s very good of you---and thank you for all this----”

“Not a bit. You’re miles from a shop here. The baker won’t call till Wednesday and the butcher comes on Friday. You can get milk at Lane’s farm in the valley. There’s a barrel of cider in the larder which my father sent with his best wishes . . . oh, there’s Timothy Yeo’s cat again. It won’t stay with anybody else because it’s always lived here. Do you hate cats?”

“No. I like them. That’s a fine chap. I’ll keep him all right.”

“Good. He’s a grand ratter. Good-bye for now---and good luck.”

She turned and walked away before Vaughan had time for another word, and he bent and stroked the big marmalade-coloured cat, muttering to himself, “Decent of them, jolly decent of them,” as the lorry man came in at the door carrying an armful of pots.

“Want these in here, mister?” he asked, and the cat sat down sedately by the fire while Vaughan went out to lend a hand in carrying his modest goods and chattels into Little Thatch.

---

“HE’S a competent looking young man, Daddy.”

Anne St. Cyres laughed a little as she spoke to her father just after lunch that day, and St. Cyres nodded.

“Yes. Wilton gave him a very good character, and I like him myself. Business-like and shrewd, and ready to work hard---just the type of fellow to do well in the country, and he’s used to country conditions. I hope he won’t find it too lonely.”

“Well, he told you he wasn’t a sociable character, didn’t he? You can go in and have a word with him some time, you’ll soon notice if he seems hipped. I don’t think he’d have taken on a place like Little Thatch if he didn’t like being alone. Although I hardly exchanged a dozen words with him he gave me the impression that he knew his own mind all right. I’m glad he’s moved in straight away. I only heard this morning that June’s friends, the Gressinghams, have come to stay at Hinton Mallory. Mrs. Hesling’s taking them as paying guests.”

“Good gad! What’s a wealthy stockbroker going to do to amuse himself staying in a farmhouse?”

Anne linked her arm in her father’s and drew him further along the terrace.

“I suppose he’s still thinking of buying a place down here---but, as we know, there’s nothing on the market. I don’t think he’ll be successful. Anyway, I’d rather have him at Hinton Mallory than at Little Thatch.”

St. Cyres nodded, but he looked troubled. “Yes . . . I see what you mean---but I’d rather he weren’t here at all. I don’t like the idea of town dwellers buying up country properties and using them as playthings. I know the stockbroker type . . . speculators, all of them, no sense of responsibility to the land. In any case, this part of England is the last locality a man like Gressingham would choose unless he had some ulterior motive in coming here.”

“His motive is obvious---he comes here because June is here. She asked him to come. You can’t blame her for wanting to see something of her own friends, Daddy. She’s wretchedly bored----”

“Why doesn’t she do something, then?” broke out St. Cyres. “There was never a time in the world’s history when there was more need for men and women of goodwill to work together to justify their existence---and justify their privileges, too.”

“Yes, that’s perfectly true,” replied Anne, in her serene, sensible voice, “but it’s not easy to find a job fitted to one’s limitations when one is transplanted into a strange environment. If I were to find myself in a service flat in Mayfair, complete with central heating and a restaurant for meals, I’m perfectly certain I should feel useless and confused, and probably I should mope and grumble---and so would you! Imagine living in a single room flatlet like the one June was describing last night.”

“Heaven forbid!” exclaimed St. Cyres. “Personally I’d rather perish---but no one’s forced to live in those damned rabbit hutches in London, Anne.”

“Some people adore them, Daddy. It’s no use expecting everyone to like the same things. They don’t. The evacuee business ought to have taught us that. We saw Londoners pitchforked into the country, and they loathed it. It was only the children who liked it, the grown women were bored and miserable, as June is bored and miserable, and it’s better to try to understand her point of view. I’m glad for her sake that she’s got someone she likes to talk to, although I’m sorry that I don’t like her friends. It seems mean of me, somehow.”

“Rubbish! She doesn’t like your friends, does she?---or try to be polite to them. Do you remember when old Mrs. Mansfield came that day . . . ?”

“Shall I ever forget it?” laughed Anne. “All the same I think you’d better go and call on Mr. Gressingham, Daddy. Just stroll in some time and ask him if he’d care for some rough shooting. There are lots of wild duck up the valley.”

“Me call on Gressingham, Anne? Why on earth should I?”

“To stop people talking, dad. You know how the country gossips. If June is always running along to see the Gressinghams and we aren’t even polite to them, tongues are going to wag. It’s no use Mother going---she couldn’t bear them---but everyone knows she never goes out in winter. I’ll look in some time, just for manners---but you’ve got to do the thing properly. I may have my own private opinion about June---I’ll admit that to you---but I’m not going to have the farmers’ wives gossiping about her if I can help it. It’s not dignified and it’s unpleasant.”

“I see,” said St. Cyres, and his voice sounded doleful, but he went on: “but this man Gressingham’s got his wife with him, hasn’t he? He’s not there alone?”

“She came down with him, and I gather she’s to be there on and off. She has a job of sorts---something to do with ambulance driving. It sounded to me one of those comfortable jobs where you show up if you want to---and get plenty of petrol coupons to reach your job with. She’s pretty frightful, Daddy---from our point of view. What you’d call a hundred per cent Jezebel. She wears wine-coloured slacks and a fur coat. If you go in after tea to-day you’ll miss her: she went away this morning.”

“You seem to know all about them, Anne.”

“Yes. I’m quite well-informed,” said Anne, and for once her voice sounded edgy. “I’ve heard about them from everybody: June herself, then from Mrs. Hesling who came up here to talk about the ducks---or so she pretended---then from old Dickon when he was bringing the coal in, and from Tom Ridd when he brought the potatoes in, and from the post-girl. Oh, everyone’s talking about them, Daddy. That’s why you’ve got to try to be polite.”

There was a moment’s silence, and then St. Cyres said: “I don’t like it, Anne. If June’s going to import people like that here the sooner she goes back to London the better. If it’s a question of money, I could . . .”

“It’s not a question of money---not from my point of view,” replied Anne. “I’ve always been straight with you, Daddy, and I’ll be straight with you now. June’s bored: she married Denis because she wanted a husband to satisfy the demands of her own vitality. She’s a creature of sex, and her husband’s a prisoner of war and she’s left stranded. If we send June back to London to live her own life, I’m certain she’ll be some man’s mistress before six months are up. That’s my opinion---but I’ve good grounds for stating it. If we keep her here we can keep her straight---or try to---and look Denis in the face when he comes home.”

St. Cyres was silent. Anne very seldom spoke as she was speaking now, but he trusted her judgment. At last he said: “Very well. I’ll look in at Hinton Mallory after tea.”

“Good,” she replied. “I’m sure it’s the right thing to do. Go at half-past five and I’ll come and rescue you before six.”

And with that she left him, and St. Cyres chewed over his thoughts miserably as he sorted apples in the apple-house.

---

HINTON Mallory was one of the largest farmhouses in the district. One of Colonel St. Cyres’s friends who had stayed with him recently had said: “If Mallory Fitzjohn were on a bus route or near a station you’d have become a show place, Colonel. I haven’t seen a finer group of houses in the county.”

“Thank God we’re not on a bus route then, and that our roads will never tempt the motoring week-enders,” St. Cyres had replied.

“The Mallorys”---as the group was described locally---consisted of three big houses with attendant cottages. Manor Thatch---the St. Cyres’s home---was the “great house” of the group: attached to it was Little Thatch and three small labourers’ cottages. A few hundred yards from Manor Thatch was the Old Vicarage, now used as a farmhouse, with Church Cottages near by. Manor Thatch with its attendant cottages, the Church and Vicarage Farm made up Mallory Fitzjohn. Hinton Mallory was in the valley below, and Upton Mallory lay across the river.

Hinton Mallory was an unusually beautiful old house which consisted of the remains of monastic buildings coupled to a Jacobean wing. With its great stone chimneys, medieval open fireplaces and panelled walls, Hinton Mallory was finer than many a manor house. Seen from the hills, the thatched roofs and spreading stone barns made a beautiful group, embowered in the tall elms and ancient oaks which luxuriated in the rich valley soil. The approach to the farm was disillusioning to the urban mind, for the lanes, deep set between high banks and dense hedgerows, were generally thick with mud and farmyard squelch, and no view was obtainable by either driver or pedestrian, for banks and hedges shut the lanes in completely. For six months of the year it was desirable to wear Wellingtons when approaching Hinton Mallory: ordinary shoes were liable to be pulled off the feet when they adhered to the red glutinous mud; the river frequently broke its banks after rainstorms, and the unwary had to paddle through the flooded stretches.

Some of these disadvantages were being expounded to Tom Gressingham by a friend who had driven over to see him at Hinton Mallory. Gressingham was a man of fifty, but he looked younger than his years. His admirers said he was a fine looking fellow, and he was, in fact, a big upstanding figure of a man, but beginning to lose in his fight against obesity. His hair was still black and plentiful, well cut, well brushed: his complexion sanguine, tending to excess of colour now, his eyes very dark but somewhat lack-lustre. When Anne St. Cyres first saw Gressingham she remembered Browning’s famous lines in the Pied Piper:

    “Nor brighter was his eye nor moister
     Than a too long opened oyster.”


Gressingham’s visitor, Howard Brendon, was a great contrast to him in appearance---a long, lean, grey man, narrow headed, narrow faced, tight-lipped and colourless: a ferret of a man, but well groomed, well tailored, immaculately clean, and dressed in tweeds which were not only meant for the country but looked right in the country---which Gressingham’s tweeds never did. Brendon accepted the whisky and soda which Gressingham held out to him and said:

“I agree with you it’s a fine house and an interesting house---if you happen to value antiquities---but you’d make the mistake of a lifetime if you bought it. However, as it’s not on the market, and not likely to be, the point’s not worth debating.”

Gressingham laughed, and his laugh was that of a well-satisfied man. “I’ve heard that before, old chap, many times before. As you know, I’ve made quite a hobby of buying old properties, spending a bit on them and selling them again to advantage---my own advantage as well as the other fellow’s. You’d be surprised the number of times I’ve met with the ‘won’t sell at any figure’ attitude, and found that a little persuasion and a little time worked wonders. I’m not boasting when I tell you that I’ve hardly ever come to a dead-end that way.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” replied the other, “but you might as well face the facts this time. This place is owned by Colonel St. Cyres. He’s as likely to sell his land as to commit perjury in a Court of Law. I don’t know if the analogy enlightens you, but it’s as strong as I can make it.”

“Right. He won’t consider selling now. He’s no need to. Farming’s done well during the war, but it’s not going to do so well in future. The government’s handed out a lot of soft sawder to the farmers---quite right, too---but in peace time cheap food’s what’s wanted, and it’s cheaper to import meat and grain than to raise it in this country. In five years’ time quite a number of land-owning gentry will be glad to realise a good figure for their property.”

“In five years’ time the sale of land will be controlled. What you refuse to realise is that this country’s going to swing to the left, and the hell of a long way, too.”

At that moment the door opened and Mrs. Hesling announced: “Here’s Colonel St. Cyres come to see you,” and she ushered the latter in without further ceremony.

If Gressingham were taken aback he did not show it. Advancing with outstretched hand he said cheerfully: “Delighted to see you, sir. Very good of you to come over. May I introduce my friend, Howard Brendon? He’s come over from Dulverton to look me up---a very friendly thing to do in these days of transport difficulties.”

Gressingham was not an unobservant man: he was a very good amateur actor and based his performances on a habit of noting other men’s foibles. St. Cyres bowed to Brendon, and the bow was returned with the same reserve. “Looking at each other as though they were nasty smells---priceless,” observed Gressingham to himself. Aloud he said, “A whisky and soda, sir, or gin and bitters?”

“Thanks. Not for me, Mr. Gressingham,” replied St. Cyres. “My daughter-in-law tells me you’re enjoying staying here. I’m afraid you must find the place somewhat primitive.”

“Oh, a bit of that doesn’t hurt me,” replied Gressingham cheerfully. “If you ask me, we tend to be over-civilised these days---mawkish---depending too much on machine products. Does a man good to get back to the earth occasionally and learn that life isn’t all refinement. Nothing nice-minded about me, Colonel. Then there’s this to it: you country folk don’t understand what rationing means. In this place there’s butter and cream and milk, good poultry and eggs, home cured ham and good pork. You farmers live, by jove! If the food they give me here is what you call primitive, give me the primitive every time!”

Gressingham’s laugh rang out, cheerful and unforced, as he went and refilled his glass. “Did you smell my dinner cooking as you came in, Colonel? Smelt like privation---what? It’s four years since I had a holiday, and by the lord I’ve earned it and I’ve enjoyed it.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying it,” replied St. Cyres courteously. “I’ve always been told that Mrs. Hesling makes her guests very comfortable, but I shouldn’t like you to run away with the idea that country folk get more than their fair share of rations. Farming is hard physical work, and it can’t be done without adequate victuals.”

Gressingham laughed: a noisy, cheerful laugh as he replied,

“Don’t imagine I’m casting aspersions or suggesting any unfairness, Colonel. I know a bit about country life, and I agree with you that a man who is using his muscles from morning to night needs extra calories to stoke up his energy. All I meant was that I appreciate my good fortune in being here. I think the war has taught us a lot---all of us---and one thing it has taught the city worker is that the country can offer more amenities than was previously believed. Take the spate of country books issued during the war---the demand for them exceeds the supply, because the town-dweller thinks he’s made a mistake in not trying to understand and enjoy the country. I’m an example: I’m London born and bred, and yet I’ve an itch to get a country property and to farm a bit on my own account.”

Howard Brendon gave a dry chuckle: “Well, you’ve got money to burn, and it’s nobody’s business how you burn it, Gressingham, but Colonel St. Cyres will bear me out when I say that a London financier is asking for trouble if he thinks he can start farming on nothing but a good bank balance and belief in his own capacity. Farming is a skilled job; you need to be bred to it, to have it in your bones, and to have generations of painfully acquired wisdom behind you.”

“You’re perfectly right, Mr. Brendon,” said St. Cyres. “A farmer’s born, not made, and the mentality of the city man can’t be adapted to the slow judgment of the countryman. That’s my opinion, at least. Now, Mr. Gressingham, I was wondering if you cared for shooting? We can’t offer you any high-class sport, but there are still a few partridges and wild duck---the close season doesn’t start before February---and the rabbits need keeping down.”

“Very good of you, Colonel. It would give me a great deal of pleasure. I brought a couple of guns down with me in case I got the chance of a shot.”

“Gressingham’s a first-class shot,” observed Brendon dryly. “Any preserving about here, Colonel?”

“Not since the war. We don’t raise any birds, and the keepers are all otherwise employed,” rejoined St. Cyres, “but there has been very little shooting since 1939, and there have been a few birds every year. I go out occasionally and take old Tom Ridd with me---he was a keeper in the old days and he’s very knowledgeable. Hullo, here’s my daughter come to fetch me home.”

Anne walked in, as serene of countenance as ever, and smiled pleasantly at Gressingham.

“Good-evening, Mr. Gressingham. My sister-in-law tells me you’ve fallen in love with Hinton Mallory. It’s a beautiful old house, isn’t it?”

“It is, indeed. May I introduce Mr. Brendon---Miss St. Cyres. Yes. I think this house is a wonderful property---and it could be improved so easily. There must be plenty of water for pumping if you dug for it, and I estimate the fall of the river by the mill would drive a fair-sized dynamo. You could get light and a small amount of power----”

“Oh, I’m quite sure you could,” laughed Anne, “but have you suggested it to Mrs. Hesling?”

Gressingham laughed in return. “Of course: equally of course she said she was quite satisfied with the old ways---a hand-pump and oil lamps. Now won’t you have a gin and lime, Miss Anne, or let me mix you a cocktail?”

“Not for me, thanks. I’ve really got to take Daddy home: one of his tenants is coming in to see him about six o’clock. Have you asked Mr. Gressingham if he’d care for some shooting, Daddy? And Mother asked me to apologise for her because she hadn’t called on Mrs. Gressingham. My mother hardly ever gets out in the winter, because of her arthritis, but she hopes your wife will waive formality and come to luncheon one day.”

“Thanks very much. Very good of you,” replied Gressingham. “My wife and I are most anxious to make friends in the locality, Miss Anne. We think it’s a most beautiful part of the world. Of course Meriel is often away, still busy with her driving, but she hopes to be back shortly. Well, Colonel, I won’t try to keep you if you want to be off, but any day you send a message I shall be delighted to come shooting. Very kind of you to suggest it: very neighbourly, as they say hereabouts.”

---

“SEEMS a friendly sort of fellow,” observed Colonel St. Cyres to his daughter as they walked slowly up the field path which led from Hinton Mallory to Manor Thatch, and Anne nodded.

“Oh, yes: he’s friendly enough---but I don’t like him. I know it’s a mistake to say you can judge people at sight, but even if I hadn’t taken exception to the way he talks to June, I should still have said to myself that Mr. Thomas Gressingham was a man I shouldn’t trust further than I could see him. Who is his friend, Daddy?---I seem to have heard his name, somehow.”

“Yes. Howard Brendon comes of an old legal family. His father was a well-known solicitor in Exeter. This man has bought a place in North Devon, near Dulverton. He’s made a considerable name as an antiquarian, and his name was in the papers a year or two back when he fought an action over a right-of-way through his property. He won his action, but at the cost of alienating himself from all his neighbours. I believe he’s very much disliked, but he’s a wealthy man and of some consequence amongst the archaeologists of the county. Probably Gressingham is his broker.”

“Wait a minute---didn’t Mr. Brendon get married a year or so back---he married a young wife, rather a lovely girl. Now I remember. I saw the pictures of the wedding in the papers. I don’t remember who she was---not a Devonshire girl, anyway.”

“Maybe. You’ve a better memory than I have, Anne. Somehow I didn’t like the combination of Gressingham and Brendon together down here: suggested to my mind that they’re up to something. Gressingham’s got this idea of acquiring a country property---and Brendon must have known all about the folk in these parts at one time. His father would have acted for many of them.”

“Anyway, Mr. Brendon doesn’t seem to be encouraging his friend’s idea of a city man turning farmer.”

“Quite true,” agreed the Colonel, “but you were talking just now of judging people at sight, Anne. Admittedly I don’t care for Gressingham---he’s not in my line of country at all, and between you and me I’ve only one name for him---a bounder---but I liked Brendon even less. I wouldn’t trust that man a yard. He’s like . . . by gad, Anne, he’s like a ferret. He’d bite you if he got the chance. Never saw a harder face in my life---a grim face without any humanity in it---though he looks a gentleman and speaks like one.”

“I didn’t mind him so much,” replied Anne. “I felt I knew where I was with him. He’s as hard as nails and made no attempt to pretend he liked us. Quite obviously he didn’t---but never mind that. However, it doesn’t matter about him, he’s not likely to come over here very often. When you see June, Daddy, just say something pleasant about Mr. Gressingham, and tell her you’ve asked him to shoot. I’m doing my best to get her to be more friendly: if I can only make friends with her a bit things will be easier. I admit I don’t like her, but I’m sorry for her---and I do think a lot about Denis.”

“I can’t think why the poor chap ever married a girl like that,” said St. Cyres, and Anne retorted:

“It’s no use going back to that each time, Daddy. He did marry her, and he’s had the rottenest luck in getting taken prisoner. I want to do what I can for Denis, and so do you, and that’s why we’ve got to go on trying with June.”

“Quite right, my dear,” said Colonel St. Cyres humbly, “but I’m sorry she has to have friends like Mr. Gressingham down here.”

---

WHEN Anne and her father had left, Tom Gressingham walked back to the fire and observed to Howard Brendon, “I wonder why the old chap turned so civil all of a sudden: seems a bit fishy to me.”

“I suppose his daughter-in-law asked him to call,” replied Brendon. “It’d be a bit awkward all round if her in-laws wouldn’t countenance her friends in a place like this, especially if she’s going to run in and out while you’re here. Country folk gossip, Gressingham, for all they seem so dumb.”

“Oh, let ’em gossip,” replied Tom indifferently. “All the same, I wish I knew what had induced the old man to do the polite. It certainly wasn’t June. She’d had a bit of a dust with him already on my account. St. Cyres has a lovely old cottage---a derelict mess of a place but it’d pay for reconditioning---and June asked him to let me take it and improve it. Nothing doing. He wouldn’t hear of it.”

“Of course he wouldn’t. What did I tell you? St. Cyres won’t let any townsfolk develop his properties. A cottage can be condemned and only fit for cattle to live in, but he wouldn’t have it altered, let alone sell it. I suppose he’d put some farm labourers in it rather than let it to you at a good rent.”

“I can’t quite make it out. The cottage---Little Thatch---is let. There’s a big tough there, working in the garden. I’ve no idea who the chap is, but Mrs. Hesling says he’s living there all by himself, pigging it in the kitchen. I can’t make it out. He’s not a farm labourer, that’s certain. I spoke to him over the gate when I passed, and although he wouldn’t bother to be civil, from the dozen or so words he spoke it was clear enough he’s an educated man, though I’d hazard a guess he’s a north-country man---dour, hard sort of chap. He was digging in the garden, up to his knees in mud and muck like a labourer.”

“Perhaps Miss Anne St. Cyres has taken a leaf out of her sister-in-law’s book and got Daddy to let the cottage to a boy friend of her own,” replied Brendon, and Gressingham sniggered.

“Think so? I don’t---and I shouldn’t admire her taste if she had. The bloke’s got a patch over his eye and a scar right down one cheek---a proper tough. The funny part of it is that I’m convinced I’ve seen his face somewhere. I couldn’t get a good look at him, because he turned away almost at once: then to-day, when I walked past again, he’d fixed up a wattle which screens the garden, so I didn’t get another look at him.”

“He sounds a shy bird,” commented Brendon. “Well, I’d better be off---I shan’t get to Exeter before seven as it is. If I do hear of any properties likely to come into the market, I’ll let you know, though if you take my advice you’ll go back to the Home Counties. This part of the world’s no good to a man like you, Gressingham. The landowners are a sticky lot, they’ll never welcome a Londoner, and you’re not the man to be satisfied with your own company for long. Give up the idea and buy a decent modern house in Berkshire or Surrey---you’re far more likely to get value for money there.”

“Thanks for the advice, old man. All the same, I don’t give up easily, any more than you do. My experience in life has been that you can get what you want if you want it enough.”

“If you’re willing to pay for it, in short. They say money talks, but the man who said that had never been in Devon.”

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