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Chapter Forty-One

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« on: June 19, 2023, 10:30:02 am »

THE Friday evening work-party was in full swing.

“Such a pity neither Miss Susan nor Mrs. Random could get away, but there are a good few of us here all the same. And of course though it’s only a step, anyone might have their reasons for not wanting to go along the dark piece between the village and the south lodge. Only you’d think Mr. Edward might have stepped over to see the ladies safe home---unless maybe he’s working late with Mr. Barr again.”

Mrs. Deacon shook her head. By virtue of Doris’ position at the Hall and her own with the Miss Blakes she always knew rather more than anyone else. On this occasion she knew more than Mrs. Alexander.

“Mr. Edward hasn’t been over to Mr. Barr’s to-day. If he had, Miss Ora would have seen him go by. I go in evenings now to help her to bed, and she told me particular he hadn’t been by. I could have told her he’d been up at the Hall getting on for three-quarters of an hour just before lunch, but it wasn’t my business----” She paused to bite off a thread, and added with emphasis, “nor hers.

Mrs. Alexander nodded assent. She considered this amazing news in silence. Everybody in Greenings was aware that Mr. Edward hadn’t set foot in the Hall since he came home, and that he and Mr. Arnold didn’t meet, nor wouldn’t speak if they did.

She and Mrs. Deacon were both working on warm woollen frocks for Displaced Children. Hers was blue, and Mrs. Deacon’s was green. She took time to reflect that her sewing had been better than Ada Deacon’s before she said, “Mr. Edward was up at the Hall?”

Mrs. Deacon restrained her legitimate pride.

“Doris saw him---from the big landing window. Coming out of the drive, and across the sweep, and in at the front door. She could hear it shut after him, so she ran to look over the banisters, and there he was, going through to the study just as if he hadn’t been gone a day.”

Miss Sims was putting the sleeves into a rather dull brown dress. Good warm stuff, but not what you would choose for a child. Manufacturer’s remnants, that was what these pieces were, Mrs. Ball having some kind of a relation in the trade. She began to brood upon the fact that everyone else seemed to have a prettier colour, but was able to rouse herself at the mention of Annie Jackson’s name. It was Mrs. Pomfret who brought it up with an enquiry as to how she was getting on. Miss Sims, very deliberately tacking the right sleeve into the left armhole, was able to tell her all about Annie.

“Right down melancholy she is, poor thing, and no wonder. She’d a sister that went wrong in the head, and I shouldn’t wonder if Annie didn’t go the same way---hanging round the splash the way she does, and going backwards and forwards to that cottage of hers. I’m sure I wouldn’t have lived there, not if I was paid.”

Old Mrs. Stone was listening with all her ears. She liked a bit of company, and she liked the Vicarage cake. She could usually manage to put a piece in her pocket as well as the slice, which Mrs. Ball always cut for her to take to Betsey. Sometimes Betsey was obstinate about being left, making such remarks as, how would her mother like it if she was to come home and find her murdered in her bed, and once in a way there would be hysterics. But as a rule the slices of cake could be trusted to smooth her down. Of course she would have to get off early, before the others. She went on listening to all that was being said about Annie Jackson.

Tea and cake were brought in at half-past nine, the usual pleasant anticipation being heightened by the fact that everyone was expecting to get a glimpse of Annie Jackson. But it was Mrs. Ball who had slipped out of the room and now appeared with the tray. In response to enquiries she explained that Annie was not very well, and since she began at once to pour out tea and cut slices of cake, the attention of the ladies was diverted, especially as Mrs. Deacon chose this moment to point out to Miss Sims that she was putting her sleeves in the wrong way round. The point was doggedly contested and Mrs. Deacon provoked into asserting her claim to know what she was talking about on the grounds of being a mother.

“So I suppose I do know which side of a frock a child puts its arm through, and you may say what you like, but you’ve got them in wrong.”

Miss Sims held up the small brown garment and gazed at it.

“I don’t know what they want to make them different for,” she said. “There’s two arm-holes and two sleeves, and I suppose the child will have two arms same as other children. I don’t know what more anyone wants. And as to being a mother, Mrs. Deacon, that’s not what I call a suitable remark, not at a Vicarage work-party. Not what I’d call very refined. But of course we’ve all been brought up different, and I hope I know how to make allowances for those that haven’t had the same advantages that I’ve had myself.”

Coming out in a very deliberate manner but on a rising note, this speech could hardly have failed to induce recriminations if it had not been for Ruth Ball’s timely intervention. Arriving with a cup of tea in each hand, she asked Mrs. Deacon to be so very kind as to hand the cake, and warfare was averted. It is really not at all easy to partake of rich fruit cake and conduct a quarrel at one and the same moment. One or the other must be dispensed with, and when it came to competition the cake could be trusted to win. The fascinating topic of just what gave it that moist consistency, that inimitable flavour, superseded all others.

Old Mrs. Stone was having a very successful evening. She had not only had a second slice of cake herself, but she had managed to slide two more slices into her rather distressing work-bag. And now here was Mrs. Ball cutting her a piece for Betsey.

“And most kind, I’m sure, ma’am, but she’s a sad sufferer as you know. And I’ll be getting along if you’ll excuse me, for she don’t like being left, and that’s a fact. Nervous, that’s what she is, and no wonder, seeing as how she lays helpless there in her bed, and no one in call. So I’ll be going now, and thank you kindly, Mrs. Ball.”

“Well, whoever is nervous, she isn’t,” said Mrs. Pomfret in her decided voice. “Of course it’s only a little way, but I don’t mind saying if I hadn’t got my car I’d just as soon have company! There’s something about those two people being knocked on the head that gives me the creeps, and if I was to hear a footstep behind me in the dark I really shouldn’t like it at all.” She looked round, gave her jolly laugh, and added, “I hope I’m not frightening anyone---but the rest of you can all see each other home, can’t you?”

It was a little after this that the side door of the Vicarage was softly opened and a dark figure slipped out. The air was mild, with a south wind blowing and a sky full of cloud. It was so dark that the woman who had left the house was obliged to switch on a small electric torch before going down the drive. She walked in a slow, hesitating manner and let the torch swing aimlessly to and fro. Her head was bent, and seemed to be covered by a scarf. She went down the drive and turned out into the road.

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