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Chapter Three

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« on: September 07, 2023, 09:16:24 am »

THE sun shone next day. Penny could be loosed in the garden whilst Judy coped with the housework. There was going to be quite enough of it---she could see that. Early morning tea to all the bedrooms, but she didn’t have to collect the trays. The child from the village did that. Her name was Gloria Pell, and old Pell the gardener was her grandfather. Gloria had red hair, and a free and impudent tongue when out of earshot of the Robbinses, who had somehow managed to inspire her with awe. Judy had her till eleven o’clock, when she descended to the kitchen to be at Mrs. Robbins’ beck and call. She came at eight, and stayed until six.

This first day she was being uppish and superior and showing Judy how, but friendly underneath.

“It’s not a bad place if you don’t get across Mr. Robbins. He’s a one, he is---and Mrs. Robbins too. But she’s a lovely cook. My mum says it’s a opportunity, and I’ve got to watch and see how she does everything. My mum says there’s going to be good money in cooking. My Auntie Ethel, she cooks for one of these British Restaurants, and she says they’re going to be all the thing. But I dunno. My Auntie Mabel says my hair ’ud be just right for me to go in for the hairdressing line---waves up lovely with a curler or two, only Mrs. Robbins makes me brush it flat when I come of a morning. A shame, I call it. I bet she couldn’t get her hair to curl, not if she took the kitchen poker to it.”

The house was big and rambling. Behind the Victorian glazed passage was an eighteenth-century façade, and behind that a perfect rabbit-warren of rooms on different levels, with steps going up and steps coming down, and passages all over the place. A lot of the rooms were empty. Judy said to herself, “The housemaid’s nightmare!” But it fascinated her all the same. One fairly level corridor ran right and left from the top of the stairs.

Gloria, full of importance, pointed out the room where the ceiling had fallen.

“It’s in ever such a mess, but I can’t show you, because Mr. Roger’s locked the door and taken away the key. He’s moved in next door. This is the best bedroom, on the other side of the one where the ceiling’s down. Mr. Pilgrim’s room it was. And the ceiling is all the same as the one that came down. I shouldn’t wonder if it wasn’t any too safe either. Too heavy by half, my mum says, with all those dancing girls and bunches of flowers---and not too decent, she says. She used to be under-housemaid here before she married my dad. And look at the staff they kept then! Mr. and Mrs. Robbins were here same as they are now---evergreens my mum calls them. And there was a kitchen-maid, and a house-parlour under Mr. Robbins, and a head housemaid, and my mum, and a woman to scrub, and a boy for the boots and knives.”

Judy contemplated the big room, and felt glad she would not have to do it every day. There were acres of old-fashioned Brussels carpet and a great deal of monumental Victorian furniture. But the bed was much older---a huge eighteenth-century four-poster, stripped of its curtains now, but with what looked like the original valance showing just how heavy and gloomy they must have been. The colour had gone away to a rusty brown, but where the pleats shielded it from the light there were streaks of the old deep red. The walls had a flowered paper---rose-garlands tied up with blue ribands, but there were so many pictures that they only appeared in bits. Most of the pictures were portraits. Mr. Pilgrim had obviously liked to have his family around him.

Gloria, very full of herself, did showman.

“That’s Mr. Roger when he was a baby---they didn’t ever think he’d live. And that’s Mrs. Pilgrim---she died when he was a week old. And that’s Miss Janetta and Miss Columba, took together when they was presented at Court. And that’s Mrs. Clayton---Miss Mary Pilgrim that was.”

Judy turned from a thin, gawky Miss Columba and a quite recognizable Miss Janetta, both in white satin, to the portrait of a handsome smiling young woman with a baby on her knee.

Gloria dropped her voice, but went on at full speed.

“She died quite young. That’s Mr. Henry Clayton on her lap. And that’s him grown up. My mum says he was the handsomest young gentleman you could see when that was took.”

Judy looked at the portrait of Henry Clayton. The name meant nothing to her. She had never heard it before. No shadow of the time when she was to hear it again and again reached out to touch her. She saw a lively, handsome young man of six or seven and twenty. He had his mother’s features, the dark eyes of her family, and an air of assured charm that was his own. She was aware of Gloria slipping away to the door, shutting it, and coming back again.

“The queerest start there ever was, his going off like that.”

“Did he go off?”

Gloria screwed up her eyes and widened her mouth in a most expressive grimace.

“Didn’t he just! And he wasn’t so young neither. That picture was took a long time before---he didn’t go off no more than about three years ago. He was going to be married to Miss Lesley Freyne. Lots of money she’d got, and they did say that was why he was marrying her. Anyway he come down here for the wedding, but it never come off. My mum says she wasn’t surprised---not about its being broke off, you know. But nobody knows what come of him. Three days before the wedding, and he went off and nobody’s never seen nor heard of him since. My mum says he did ought to be ashamed of himself, serving Miss Lesley the way he did. Everyone likes Miss Lesley ever so, and if she wasn’t pretty, well, he’d knowed that all along, and if he wasn’t in love with her, he knowed that too, and he didn’t ought to have gone so far---coming down for the wedding and all! My mum says she don’t wonder he couldn’t show his face here after the way he served Miss Lesley. But don’t you say I said nothing about it, because if Mrs. Robbins knowed she’d give me what for.”

She edged towards the door and opened it cautiously, as if she expected to find Mrs. Robbins with an ear to the keyhole. Confronted by an empty corridor, she giggled and resumed her narrative.

“Those two rooms opposite is the Miss Pilgrims’. This one’s Miss Netta’s---and it takes her all the morning to dress, so you can’t ever get in to do it till after twelve. The other door’s their bathroom. There’s another one at the end of the passage past the stairs. That’s Mr. Jerome’s room next to it---and you can’t get in there except when he’s in the bathroom.” She gave Judy an impudent sideways grin. “Pretty old bag of tricks, isn’t it? And that’s Miss Day’s room opposite so she can go in to him if he gets one of his bad turns. It’s in the night he gets them. Something awful, they say. I wouldn’t sleep here, not for love nor money, and my mum wouldn’t let me neither. Shouts and calls out fit to curdle you, poor gentleman. I wouldn’t like to be you, sleeping so near.”

Judy thought it was time to apply the brake.

“How do you know, if you don’t sleep in?”

Gloria tossed her head. The red unruly mop flew out.

“Nor wouldn’t!” she said. “Not if they was to go down on their bended knees! But Ivy, the other girl that was here, the one that’s been called up to go in a factory, she slept in till she couldn’t bear it no longer, and then my mum give her a bed, and we’d come and go together. Ever such a nice girl she was. But of course you’d never think it to look at Mr. Jerome. He’s ever so quiet to look at, only he don’t like you to look at him, because of his face. My mum says he didn’t ought to be given way to about it. It isn’t nothing to be ashamed of, she says, and he did ought to be roused up and got to come off of it---that’s what my mum says.”

Judy had a feeling that she was going to hear more than she wanted to about Gloria’s mum. It was a relief when she departed kitchenwards. But oh, what a lot of cleaning there was to be done, and what a little time there was going to be to do it in!

When she heard the click of the door along the passage and saw out of the tail of her eye something large and male in a dressing-gown limp over to the bathroom, she went hurriedly in to do the room.

Rooms are interesting. They tell you a lot about the people who live in them. This one told her something about the Pilgrims. Because it was, she thought, the nicest room in the house, and only nice people would give the nicest room in the house to a more or less penniless cousin who had been landed on them as a permanent invalid. It had two windows looking over the garden, and a deep alcove nearly all glass, so that as long as the sun was out at all there would be some of it in this room. She stood looking out, and saw a garden with high brick walls. Most of it seemed to be paved, with round, square, and rectangular beds in which dwarf conifers made a green contrast with the brown winter twigs of what she thought were flowering shrubs. There were snowdrops in bloom, and all manner of bulby things coming up. All the walls were covered with neatly trained fruit trees, with here and there the stark spread shoots of a climbing rose. The end wall was pierced by a really beautiful pair of wrought-iron gates leading to a second walled garden beyond. She was to discover that there were four of these gardens, one behind the other, each larger and less formal than the last.

She turned back to the room and looked at it between curtains gay with flowers. There were a couple of deep, comfortable chairs, and a spacious sofa, as well as the bed, which had a most expensive and up-to-date spring mattress. There were bookshelves against the walls, books piled on the bedside table, a radio set---everything, in fact, that kindness could suggest to soften an invalid’s lot.

As Judy got on with her work she felt pleased about this. She thought slightingly about Frank Abbott, who had tried to put spokes in the wheel and stop her coming down to such nice people. These feelings were confirmed when she presently ran out into the garden to see how Penny was getting on and found her playing ecstatically on a sand-heap. She had a trowel and a lot of three-inch pots provided by old Pell, and she was turning out rows and rows and rows of lovely castle puddings and decorating them with white pebbles and scarlet berries, while Miss Collie, vast in navy slacks and a fisherman’s jersey, sieved earth into seed-boxes and sowed her early onions. The sun shone, and a great ramshackle greenhouse kept off the wind.

+++

The sun shone for two days. Roger Pilgrim went away up to town. Penny played in the garden. Judy worked harder than she had ever done in her life. Then it poured with rain. Penny had to stay indoors. Judy gave her a little dustpan and brush, and a duster. But when Gloria departed downstairs Penny’s interest in house-work waned. She came and stood in front of Judy and turned a commanding gaze upon her.

“It’s bored of being a little girl. It’s a lion---it’s a very fierce, stamping lion. Make it a tail to go swish, swish!”

Judy pinned on the duster, and for about half an hour all went miraculously well. The lion swished, and growled, and pounced. She got Jerome Pilgrim’s room done, so that was off her mind, and managed to get Penny to the far end of the corridor before he came out of the bathroom.

A few minutes later Miss Janetta called her, and she found herself involved in looking for a ring which had fallen and rolled. Miss Netta, in a pale blue dressing-gown, continued to arrange her elaborate curls, and to say at intervals, “I can’t think where it’s gone,” or, “It must be somewhere.” By the time Judy had found it and emerged into the passage she was hot and dusty, and Penny was nowhere to be seen---not in the corridor---not in their bedroom---not in any of the other rooms whose doors she opened as she passed them. With a feeling of horror she realized that the last door on the left was open---the door of Captain Pilgrim’s room. If the little toad had gone in there----

She had. Before she reached it Judy could hear the growling noise which meant that Penny was still being a lion. She looked round the edge of the half-open door and saw the duster tail being vigorously swished, whilst Penny proclaimed in the hoarsest tone she could manage, “It’s a very fierce lion. It can roar and it can bite. It’s the most fierce lion in the world.”

Jerome Pilgrim sat forward in his chair. He wore a camelshair dressing-gown, and he looked very large. One side of his face was handsome still, but drawn and haggard. The other, partly screened by a lifted hand, showed a long puckered scar which ran from temple to chin. The eyes which looked from those hollow sockets were dark and moody. The hair above the frowning brows was almost black except for a long white streak which carried on the line of the scar.

Penny stopped halfway through a growl, came a step nearer, and said in an interested tone, “Did something bite your face? Was it a lion?”

The deep, rather harsh voice said “Something like that. You’d better run away.”

Penny advanced another step.

“It’s not a fierce lion any more. It’s a kind lion. It won’t bite. Does it hurt where the bad lion bit you?”

“Sometimes.”

Penny said, “Poor----” in a cooing voice. And then, “Didn’t they kiss the place to make it well?”

Judy heard him laugh. It wasn’t a merry sound.

“Well, no---they didn’t.”

“Silly people!” Penny’s voice was full of scorn. She tugged at the screening hand and stood on tiptoe. A soft, wet kiss was planted solemnly upon the scarred cheek.

Jerome Pilgrim sat up with a jerk as Judy came round the door. She said in the most matter-of-fact voice she could manage, “I’m so sorry, Captain Pilgrim---Miss Janetta called me and she got away. She isn’t really used to being in somebody else’s house yet. Come along, Penny!”

As she spoke, his hand had gone up to his cheek. Penny tugged it down again.

“Not come---stay. Man tell story---’bout lion----”

“Penny!”

Judy got a frown, Jerome Pilgrim an enchanting smile.

“It wants a story. ’Bout a fierce pouncy lion.”

Judy could see him slipping. She thought it would be frightfully good for him to take Penny off her hands whilst she finished the rooms. She said in a brisk, friendly way, “She’d love it if you would---and I’d get on about twice as fast. But not if it would be a bother----”

There was a spark of bitter amusement in the dark eyes.

“She gets her way a good deal, doesn’t she? But you’d better take her away---I don’t want to give her bad dreams.”

He wasn’t prepared for the bluntness with which she came back at him.

“Don’t be stupid! Why should you give her dreams?”

If the words were blunt, she had a friendly smile and a friendly voice. A pleasant-looking young thing---nice brown hair, nice teeth, blue overall---looked at him as if he was a human being and not an object of pity. His hand had dropped. He said, “Well, I’m not very pretty---am I?”

He thought she looked surprised.

“Because you’ve got a scar? What difference does it make? Men don’t have to bother about their complexions. As for Penny---she kissed you, didn’t she? Will you really take her off my hands for a bit? It would be awfully kind. But mind you turn her out if she’s too much for you or anything like that. I shall be doing your bathroom, and then Miss Janetta’s room.”

She went away without really giving him time to answer, leaving the door as she had found it. She left the bathroom door open too. As she cleaned the bath and tidied up, snatches of Androcles and the Lion came to her---snatches of Penny in comment, argument, appreciation. The story was undoubtedly going down well.

When she collected her, Penny’s eyes were like stars. Jerome received the throttling embrace which was her highest tribute, and the departure was a reluctant one.

To the surprise of the family, Jerome came down to lunch.

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