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Chapter Two

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« on: June 16, 2023, 11:58:38 am »

EDWARD Random emerged from the station entrance and turned to the right. If he had not stopped at the bookstall he would have seen Susan Wayne then. As it was, he did not see her until he had taken the next left-hand turn, now plainly marked by a signpost which said, “Greenings 1½ miles.” The signpost was new, or at any rate new to him---but then last time he had come down Jack Burton had given him a lift and they had come in from the other side. And before that---in the days before the deluge---well, you either knew where Greenings was, or you took your chance of not finding it at all. When he thought how long it was since he had got out at Embank and walked this way his face darkened.

He turned by the signpost and saw Susan walking along the lane in front of him with a suit-case swinging from an ungloved hand. The glove and its fellow had been thrust into the pocket of a blue swagger coat. She walked well, and she pleased the eye in the sort of impersonal way that it is pleased by any other agreeable feature of the landscape. A purely surface impression, but definitely pleasant. It was not until a minute or two later that the personal element began to intrude, not with any degree of insistence, but as a vague feeling that he had seen that straight fair hair before. It was very straight except just at the ends, and it was very fair and very thick, and it was cut in a pageboy bob. When nearly every girl you saw had curls all over her head, you were apt to remember the one who hadn’t.

Across a five-year gap he remembered Susan Wayne---seventeen and a good deal too fat, or at any rate what she thought was a good deal too fat. He had no rooted objection to curves himself, but the Susan he began to remember had certainly been on the plump side, with apple cheeks, round grey eyes like a kitten’s, and that very thick, very fair bob. Quite a nice child. He lengthened his stride and came up with her. If it wasn’t Susan, he would just go on, but if it was it would be rather absurd to stalk past her and then run into her again at Emmeline’s.

She looked round at him as he came up, and for a moment he wasn’t quite sure. And then he was---just like that. She wasn’t fat any more, but the eyes were the same, only now that her face was thinner they looked larger, and the lashes had darkened to a golden brown. She probably did something to them, but the effect was good. After all, why go through the world with white eyelashes if you didn’t want to? He frowned, and said in his abruptest manner,

“Are you Susan Wayne?”

Susan’s eyes opened to their fullest extent. There was soft dust in the lane, and she hadn’t heard him coming. She had been thinking about Professor Postlethwaite on his way to America, and what a pity it was that the money wouldn’t run to her going too, not only because she had always wanted to go to America, but because it was practically certain that he would get his lecture notes mixed up if she wasn’t there to keep them straight. And then in the twinkling of an eyelash the five-year-old past had risen up, and there was Edward Random glowering at her in the middle of Halfpenny Lane.

No one knew why it was called Halfpenny Lane, but it was. And no one knew how the past could suddenly rise up and hit you where it hurt, but it could and did---at least for a horrid moment. Just for that moment she was seventeen again, much too fat, and in love with Edward Random who was in love with Verona Grey. It was frightful, but thank goodness it didn’t last. Five years ago was five years ago. Nobody can make you live things over again. Not she, nor Edward. Oh, poor Edward! A tide of warmth and kindness flowed in. She dropped her suit-case and put out both hands to him.

“Oh, Edward, how nice---how very nice!”

Afterwards he was to reflect that Susan was really the only person to take this point of view about his return. No, that wasn’t quite fair. Emmeline, who was his stepmother, had done so, and quite whole-heartedly. But as in her case affection and relief had taken the form of a perfect deluge of tears it had not been very enlivening.

Susan did not weep, she glowed. If there was a faint moisture in her eyes, it merely made them brighter. She held his hands for a moment in a warm, firm clasp, then stepped back and said all over again,

“Oh, Edward---how nice!

Well, it was. He had actually stopped frowning, but the line where the frown had been remained. The thin, dark face showed other lines, and none of them happy ones. It was stamped with endurance. There had been pain, bad pain, but it hadn’t broken him. There was a certain wary alertness, a touch of bitter humour. Susan’s soft heart was stirred. It was Edward himself who had once told her with scorn that her heart was as soft as butter that had been left out in the sun. She had gone away and cried dreadfully, and her eyes had swelled right up. She would have given anything in the world to cry becomingly like Verona---a tear or two, eyes like wet violets, long dark lashes just becomingly damp. How awful to be seventeen and fat, with swollen eyelids and a broken heart.

Susan gave a backward glance at the horrid picture and laughed.

“How nice to meet like this!”

The emotion of the moment was over. He considered that she was overworking a rather tepid word.

“At any rate I can carry your suit-case.”

“Oh, no---you’ve got one of your own.”

“It’s quite light.”

“So is mine.” She picked it up as she spoke.

“Do I protest?”

“I don’t think so---waste of time. I’ve got a box coming up by the carrier, so this is only things for the night.”

She had taken up the case with her right hand. As he fell into step beside her, it was twisted out of her grasp so quickly and dexterously that she had no chance to resist. She really did feel angry as she reflected that Edward had always liked getting his own way and been rather ingenious over it. Whatever else had changed, he seemed to be just the same about this. Her colour brightened and she laughed.

“You really haven’t changed!”

“What a pity, but while there’s life there’s hope. You’re not still living in Greenings, are you?”

“Oh, no. Aunt Lucy died while I was at college. I work for Professor Postlethwaite, but he’s gone to America on a lecture tour.”

“Five years in a couple of sentences---how economical! What does he profess?”

“Oh, literature. He’s gone to lecture on all the different people Shakespeare might have been. So when Emmeline wrote and said your Uncle Arnold wanted someone to catalogue the library at the Hall, and would I come and stay with her and do it, I said I would.”

It was ridiculous to feel nervous, but she did. A glance at Edward’s face did nothing to reassure her. It looked bleak. He said,

“How amusing.”

“What is there amusing about it?”

“I don’t know---it just struck me that way.”

She thought struck was the right word. To change the subject she said,

“I suppose you are staying with Emmeline too?”

“Just for the moment. It will give Greenings something to talk about, if nothing else.”

Susan looked steadily in front of her and said,

“Why should it?”

“Return of the outcast. You know, I’ve only been down once since I got back.”

“I don’t know anything---except that everyone thought you were dead----”

He said in a light, brittle voice,

“And I wasn’t. My mistake. Never come back from the dead---it is a social solecism.”

“You shouldn’t say that. When Emmeline wrote and told me you were alive she said, ‘It is too much happiness!’ ”

“Yes, I believe she really was pleased. There has to be an exception to every rule, and it rather adds to the general humour of the situation that the one person who didn’t mind my being alive should be a stepmother. What else did she tell you?”

“Well, you know Emmeline’s letters. There were bits about the cats---Scheherazade had just had a very plain family, and she was a good deal upset about it in between being all up in the air about you, but I gathered that you were taking a refresher course in land agency. And when she wrote the other day, there was a bit about Lord Burlingham telling her that you were going to come to him, and how nice it would be to have you so near.”

She saw him smile.

“Lovely for everyone! Especially for Arnold!”

Susan hated people who beat about the bush. She plunged.

“Look here, Edward, what is all this? Why shouldn’t your Uncle Arnold be pleased? Because if there has been a lurid family quarrel, I had much better know, or I shall be sure to put my foot in it.”

“Both feet, I should think! It’s not so much a Row as an Awkward Situation, and as you’ll be right in the middle of the Random family you had better be put wise.” He swung the two suit-cases and stuck out his chin. “Well, here you are---we’ll start with a little potted family history. In the last generation there were three Randoms---my Uncle James, my father Jonathan, and my Uncle Arnold. James lost his wife and child and never married again. Jonathan married twice when he had tried most other things and failed at them, after which he died, leaving a son, me, a widow, Emmeline, and a considerable number of debts which Uncle James thought it his duty to pay. He had a very strong sense of duty. He put Emmeline in the south lodge and brought me up regardless.”

“Yes?” Susan’s voice made a question of it.

He laughed.

“It wasn’t ‘Yes’, my dear, it was a thundering ‘No’. We had an epic row, and I cleared out.”

Susan remembered the row. It was about Verona, because Edward was ragingly in love with her, and James Random had taken the line that if he wanted to marry her he could go right ahead and do it, only he would have to foot the bill himself, because his allowance would automatically come to a full stop on his wedding day. A more dramatic version preferred by some credited James Random with the remark that he would rather see Edward in his coffin, but bearing in mind Mr. Random’s dignified personality and temperate manner of speech, Susan, even at seventeen, had not really found herself able to believe in it. With these things in her mind, she thought it best just to go on looking interested. It was always safer to say nothing than to chance what you said being wrong, only usually she didn’t think about this until it was too late.

Edward swung the suit-cases and went on in that light bitter voice.

“We now skip four and a half years. I have been dead for about three of them---quite credibly and circumstantially dead. Uncle James has naturally made a new will. Even if I haven’t been formally disinherited, you don’t leave the family possessions to a corpse. So Edward being dead, and James being dead, dear Uncle Arnold scoops the lot. That’s the set-up. Didn’t Emmeline tell you about it?”

Susan shook her head.

“I don’t think so. There was a squiggle down in the corner of the last page which I couldn’t quite read, but I thought it was only some more about one of the kittens which had turned out quite unexpectedly good so she had changed its name from Smut to Lucifer. Edward, you don’t mean to say your Uncle Arnold didn’t do anything about it? When he found you weren’t dead?”

“He did not.”

“But couldn’t he be made to? Mr. Random would never have left you out of his will if he hadn’t thought you were dead.”

“And how does one prove what a dead man would or wouldn’t have done? We had had a colossal row, and he did change his will. Those are facts, and the law has a stupid affection for facts.”

“When did he change it---when you went away, or when he thought that you were dead?”

Just for a moment he looked at her with anger. Then he laughed and said,

“Never you mind, my child! And I’m not washing the family linen in public either. It may be dirty, and I think we’ll keep it at home.”

It was so much what he might have said to the schoolgirl of five years ago that it took her aback. She ought to have remembered to go on holding her tongue, but she hadn’t, and he had snubbed her. And instead of really minding, it felt quite natural. She coloured, but she laughed too, and said a little ruefully,

“I’m sorry---it just slipped out.”

All at once there was a warm, comfortable feeling between them. He remembered that there had always been something rather comfortable about Susan. It might be boring in the long run. He wondered whether it would be. It might, but then on the other hand it mightn’t. He found himself saying, “You really haven’t changed a lot.”

“Nor have you. I said so at once.”

The frown had come down again.

“Most people would say I had changed considerably.”

She shook her head.

“I don’t believe people really do. Sometimes one bit comes to the top and you see more of it than you used to, but that isn’t really a change. Apples don’t turn into pears, or raspberries into plums. People have their own special flavours, and I think they keep them.”

He said, “Sour grapes and rotten medlars! Perhaps you are right. I must warn you that I am definitely in the medlar category. Even your blameless reputation may be damaged if we arrive practically hand in hand. You see, I haven’t been able to account at all satisfactorily for those four and a half years, and I understand from Emmeline that there are a number of exciting stories going round. It distresses her, I’m afraid, but there isn’t anything I can do about it.”

“You could say where you were.”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t bear talking about.” The brittle voice again.

Something hurt Susan at her heart. Brittle things break.

But he went on.

“The favourite theory seems to be that I was in prison under a false name, but there are some quite good variants in which I fly the country because I’ve killed a man in a duel, or have been turned out of my club for cheating at cards.”

Susan said, “I wish you would talk sense!” Her tone was downright and a little angry.

“Too much trouble. Burlingham’s a brave man, isn’t he? He really is offering me the agency, you know. And that’s not a confidence, because if he told Emmeline, everyone within twenty miles or so will have heard all about it. And that means my Uncle Arnold---which is probably why Burlingham did it.”

She said, “That sounds---horrid.”

“Just a plain sequence. Arnold loves me---Burlingham loves Arnold---how pleased Arnold will be to know that Burlingham is giving me a job that will ensure my being right under his nose. Since the estates march, there’s quite a chance of Arnold running into me any day of the week, even if I don’t stay on with Emmeline.”

Susan said bluntly, “You mean Arnold doesn’t like you, and Lord Burlingham doesn’t like Arnold.”

Edward burst out laughing.

“You’ve got it in one!”

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