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Chapter Two

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« on: September 05, 2023, 04:54:25 am »


--1--

ONE look at the Dower House had been enough for Anne. She knew a beautiful house when she saw one, and her heart rejoiced at the big sunny rooms, nobly proportioned and enriched with panelling and carven stone. She agreed with Raymond that the ground floor would suit them admirably and be easy to run: that the enormous old kitchens and the service stairs could be shut off and left to the owners as storage space, and that the garden was of manageable size. Anne had only had a few hours to inspect, measure and memorise her new home. Lady Ridding had shown both tact and commonsense in spending only a few minutes with her tenant-to-be, and had then sent in the bailiff to discuss the necessary adaptations, and he had proved to be reasonable and helpful. That had been in January. Now, on Lady Day, Raymond drove his wife from Milham Prior so that she could be at the Dower House when their goods arrived. It was a lovely morning: March winds scudded white clouds across the blue sky, and tossed the daffodils in poetic fashion: the sun shone on golden willow palm and budding greenery; away and beyond, the moorland made a tranquil background, fold upon fold of grey and brown and mauve like a far-off rampart against the sky.

Raymond had lost his qualm of the previous day: the sight of Anne’s face when he opened the front door of the Dower House was enough. Bare and clean, barred with sunshine and shadow from the mullioned windows, the rooms looked serene and welcoming and lovely. Anne went from white-panelled drawing-room to dark-panelled study, from honey-coloured bedroom to leaf brown of dining-room: inspected the Aga and the new stainless steel sink which had been installed in the old servery, the cupboard space in the one time butler’s pantry, and she whooped with joy over tiling and porcelain in the new bathroom.

“Ray, it’s marvellous! Everything’s been done quite perfectly. I’ll never scoff at the aristocracy again. The noblesse have jolly well obliged this time.”

“It looks pretty good to me,” he said. “Nothing makeshift or shoddy about.”

“I’m going to love this house so much, I shall never want to go away anywhere,” said Anne. “It’ll be a full-time job and a dream of delight simultaneously. Ray, come and sit on the window seat in the sunshine and tell me a bit more about people in the village. It’ll help such a lot if I can get them placed and learn their names before I meet them. I’m awful at names.”

“Right: let’s start with the hierarchy. Sir James and Lady R. You won’t forget them. I suppose the parson and his lady come next in the book of precedence: the Rev. Eversley and Mrs. Kingsley: he is thin and she is fat and I swear she bullies him. They’re both elderly, conservative to their marrow bones, and my guess is they’ll take a very poor view of anything in the way of progress or reform. Mrs. K. will certainly leave cards on you, so put out the salver. Other card leavers will be Col. and Mrs. Staveley of Monk’s Milham---two more old dodderers---and Miss Braithwaite of Coombedene. You may like her: old Brown says she talks like a Bolshie, which means she isn’t hidebound. So much for local gentry.”

“Give me a line on the village.”

“I don’t know too much about it myself, angel. The most important bodies I’ve heard of are Mrs. Yeo, who runs the Post Office, the village shop, W.I., M.U., and all the other worthy efforts. You’d better make friends with her, she’s a power in the village. The innkeeper is Simon Barracombe. He was once a butler and he looks it: too much hand washing and kowtowing for an innkeeper, but his wife takes in visitors, which may be useful if we want to ask folks to see us. You saw the bailiff---Sanderson. He struck me as a sound chap. If you want information, he’d probably be the best person to ask. Villages all have their private politics, and there’s generally some scandal or schism or what have you, and it’s often useful if you’re given a word off the record by someone who isn’t involved.”

“Yes, I think you’re right there,” said Anne. “I shall have to watch my step: newcomers are suspect in villages. Is that someone at the front door, Ray?”

“I didn’t hear anybody.”

Anne jumped up and ran across the room. The drawing-room, where they sat, faced south, as did the front door which stood wide open to the sunshine. Glancing through the open door of the drawing-room, Anne had been aware of a shadow in the wide entrance hall beyond. When she reached the hall she had to choke back an exclamation of astonishment. In the doorway, silhouetted against the sunlight, stood a figure so tall and dark and unexpected that Anne had a sudden qualm of discomfort, a sense that she was facing something unreal and utterly unlike anything she had ever known.

--2--

“Miss Torrington, is it not? May I introduce my wife?”

Raymond’s easy voice behind her brought Anne back to the realities of a sunny day in a new and lovely home, and she realised who this tall woman must be---the wonderful Sister Monica of Gramarye. She was certainly a very tall woman, but her garb accentuated her height: she was dressed in the long dark cloak and veil which hospital nurses had worn as uniform in the early nineteen hundreds: the dark silk veil was drawn smoothly over silver hair, parted in the centre, and below the wings of intensely white hair her eyes were unexpectedly black. Into Anne’s mind flashed the thought: “She’s simply fantastic . . . unbelievable . . .” even as she pulled herself together and held out her hand.

“I do apologise for troubling you,” said the visitor. “I thought the house was still empty and you would not be arriving until later in the day. I just brought a little bunch of flowers to welcome you. The children picked them for you, and they are from all of us at Gramarye. Rosemary, give the flowers to Mrs. Ferens, dear.”

From behind the dark cloak emerged a very small fair child. Without a word or a smile she held up a posy of flowers to Anne, and the latter gave a cry of pleasure.

“Oh, but they’re lovely! What a kind thought---and I adore wild daffodils. Look, Raymond, aren’t they just adorable?”

The posy was indeed a thing of delight, tiny wild daffodils, dog violets, primroses and wind-flowers put together with much skill and surrounded with a delightful paper frill. “It’s the prettiest bouquet I’ve ever had, Rosemary. Thank you very much, Miss Torrington. Nothing could have given me more pleasure.”

“I’m so happy that you like them. I’m always called Sister Monica, if you don’t mind, Mrs. Ferens. Now I’m not going to stay. I just wanted to wish you happiness in your new home. Say good-bye, Rosemary. Perhaps Mrs. Ferens will come and see us all some day later on.”

“I should love to,” said Anne, and bent to kiss the small pale child, but Rosemary drew back, her eyes startled, and hid behind the long dark skirts of the nurse.

“Forgive her, she’s very shy,” said Sister Monica. “She’ll soon get over it. I’m so glad you’ve got such a lovely day for your first day in Milham. Good-bye.”

She had a deep soft voice, and she smiled benignly at Anne---but the smile was only on her lips, not in her eyes. Anne waved to her as she went, repeating words of thanks, and then followed Raymond back into the drawing-room, closing the door after her this time.

“Cripes!” she exclaimed. “What a woman! She gives me the horrors. Why on earth didn’t you warn me what she was like?”

“I thought I did, angel. I told you I didn’t like her. The pseudo-religious female always gets my hackles up.”

“I can’t bear the look of her. That dreadful old-fashioned uniform is just an affectation, and it’s enough to give any small child the jitters,” said Anne. “I’m certain she’s bogus, Ray.”

“Look here, Anne, don’t be too censorious about the female. I admit she’s a shattering apparition, but you’ve got to remember she’s been running Gramarye for thirty years, to the admiration and satisfaction of all concerned. Not only that, she’s worked for the church, she’s been emergency nurse and midwife in the village, and during the war she did all the Red Cross collections and other cadgings. Flag days and the lord knows what else. I admit I’m thankful I haven’t got to have any professional dealings with her---old Brown’s still M.O. at Gramarye---but I think we’ve both got to watch our step with Sister Monica, and be very careful not to criticise her to anyone else.”

“Oh, I see that: I’m not a fool, Ray: but I’ve never seen anybody I disliked so much at first glance. I saw her shadow right across the doorway.”

“You can’t blame a woman of that size for casting a shadow, angel, and it was very amiable of her to bring the flowers. They’re very pretty flowers.”

“They’re lovely, but Ray, don’t you realise she was listening to us talking? She must have heard our voices, and she didn’t ring the bell or knock or call to us.”

“Yes. Quite characteristic, I expect. She’s a dominating type behind that smarmy manner, and she’s been sovereign in her small domain for a very long time. I can well believe she’s a snooper who kids herself it’s her duty to snoop. Well, that’s enough about that. We’re agreed we don’t like her, but bear in mind that she’s the cat’s whiskers here. Listen, Anne. That’s the van. This is where we get busy.”

--3--

Anne Ferens was much too busy for the remainder of that morning to think any more about Sister Monica. Being a methodical woman and a bit of a genius at home-making, Anne had thought out the position of all her belongings beforehand, and she was kept busy running round after the vanmen, seeing that everything was placed where she wanted it placed. At intervals she paused to sing songs of praise to herself because she and Raymond had furnished with old pieces and not modern ones. It had been a toss-up when they started as to whether to invest in modern ‘functional’ style, or to collect old furniture, and Anne’s decision had been made partly because she had inherited a few beautiful old pieces from her parents, partly because she found modern furniture boring and lacking in character. When everything was in place, Anne had to admit that the big rooms looked a bit empty, but it was a very pleasant emptiness. The floors were all of beautiful wood, and if carpets and rugs were rather like islands on the parquet or oak boards, it didn’t seem to matter, and spaciousness was dear to Anne’s heart.

At lunch time, Raymond took her out to have a meal at the Milham Arms, and they fed in style on very excellent salmon caught in Sir James’s waters. They were waited on most ceremoniously by the ex-butler, Simon Barracombe, who was almost pontifical in his slow solemnity, and the meal was rounded off by that rarest of pleasures in an English inn, first-class coffee. After the meal, Anne went and stood outside the inn while Raymond paid the bill, and she studied the village street with delight. She stood on a plateau; there was a little open square in front of her backed by the lovely stonework of Church, Manor and Dower House. To right and left the street ran steeply down hill between cottages which were mostly thatched and colour washed, built straight on to the street, but each cottage had a strip of flower bed below its front windows, where aubrietia and arabis and saxifrage made vivid carpets and cushions of mauve and white and yellow and pink around the daffodils and narcissi. To Anne, who had been inured for four years to the drab sootiness of an industrial town, the vivid colouring of flower beds, cottages and thatches was as exciting as music or poetry, and she stared with delight, her eyes gay with happiness, so that the villagers who passed smiled back at her.

When her husband joined her, they stood for a while, while Raymond pointed out the places he knew: “Post Office to your right, the pink cottage: smithy farther down the hill, also on your right: Sanderson’s house is the white one, and the Mill is at the bottom of the hill, near the bridge. The vicarage is behind the church and Gramarye just below that. There’s also a garage and another small shop and the village Institute. That’s about the lot, except the Infant school. The older children are taken to Milham Prior, much to the fury of their parents.”

As they strolled back across the little square, Anne said: “That was a very good lunch, Ray. Did it cost the earth?”

Raymond screwed up his face. “Well, for a village inn, it was a bit steep, but, as you said, it was a very good lunch, and a very good sherry and the best coffee I’ve had in years, apart from yours.”

“He’s a wicked old man, that Simon the Cellarer. I felt it in my bones,” said Anne. “Thank you very much for my good lunch, but we won’t do that again.”

Raymond Ferens laughed as they strolled in through the wrought iron gates of the Dower House. “I’ve always thought of you as a kindly, charitable sort of woman, Anne, very tolerant of the backslidings of poor humanity. You’ve only met four people in this village: our noble landlord, whom you confidently expect to overcharge us for all produce supplied: poor old Brown, whom you described as a bad old man at the first glance: Simon Barracombe, whom you say is wicked, and Sister Monica, who according to you is bogus.”

“Oh, she’s plain wicked. I know she is,” said Anne. “And it looks such a virtuous village, Ray: could anything be more innocent looking?” She paused and looked back at the sunny coloured cottages, and her husband laughed.

“Human nature’s never innocent, angel. Whenever you get a group of people living together, whether in town or village, you find the mixed characteristics of humanity---envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness mingled with neighbourliness and unselfishness and honest-to-God goodness. This place is beautiful: Stourton was hideous, but if a social statistician could get busy in both, he’d find the same percentages of human virtues and human failings. But I like humanity, and even its sins are sometimes endearing.”

“Yes. You’re perfectly right,” said Anne soberly, but he laughed.

“No one is ever perfectly right, my wench, neither you, nor I, nor anybody else. And remember this: the country looks innocent and towns often look the reverse, but human nature is the same whether in town or country---it’s a mixture of good and bad. The only people who really get my goat are the ones who kid themselves they’re a hundred per cent good. Now do you want me to do any heaving or shoving or manhandling this afternoon, or can I go and get the bits and pieces fixed in my surgery?”

“You go along to your surgery, Ray, or go and talk shop with that snuffy old mass of iniquity in his surgery. I know you’re panting to get started on a nice pneumonia or obstructed twins. All manhandling’s done: I’m going to make beds and get rid of the mess. Tea at five and don’t be late. And I won’t criticise anybody else or say anybody’s wicked.”

“Leave the aspersions to the village,” he laughed. “They’ve had a good look at you, and they’ll all have a few words to say on the subject of Jezebel, bless them.”

--4--

It was just as Anne had produced broom and dustpan that the old-fashioned bell jangled at the front door, and Anne found a strangely assorted group awaiting her: Lady Ridding stood in the porch, a picture of gracious benevolence and dignity: behind her was a buxom village woman, and in the drive an aged man standing by a wheelbarrow, with a tow-haired boy beside him.

“Welcome to the Dower House, Mrs. Ferens, and may you and your husband be very happy here,” smiled the great lady. “Now I haven’t come to interrupt you: I know how busy you must be, but I’ve brought Mrs. Beer to introduce her, and if you would like someone to help, she will stay now. She’s a great standby with polishing these old wooden floors. Thomas has brought you some flowers from the greenhouses as our moving-in gift. The arum lilies look so beautiful in this house, and he’ll collect the pots again when the flowers are over. And young Dick will bring your milk and cream and take any orders for vegetables. Now I won’t stay. I know you’re busy---and do send for Sanderson at once if you want anything done in the house.”

Anne tumbled out a breathless “Thank you . . . thank you very much, Lady Ridding,” as she looked at the noble pots of arums and primulas, and the older lady smiled back: “Not at all. It’s a great pleasure---and how nice to have someone so young and pretty for a neighbour! I’m delighted to have you here, my dear.”

She sailed away like a galleon in full rig, her ample coat billowing out in the wind, and Mrs. Beer greeted Anne serenely.

“Good-afternoon, ma’am. Her ladyship’s like that, rather sudden but so good-hearted. Now if you’re not wanting me, I’ll just go straight home, but I’ve got some time free if so be you’d like me to sweep and polish.”

“I should like it very much, Mrs. Beer, so do come in,” said Anne, and the buxom body turned to old Thomas.

“Now do you ask Mrs. Ferens if she’d like them pots stood in the porch meanwhiles and how much milk she wants this evening, and don’t you step inside in them mucky boots, young Dick.”

Mrs. Beer turned out to be the sort of body whom overworked housewives pray for but seldom attain. She set to work clearing up the debris the vanmen had left and was polishing the floors in two-twos, while Anne got the beds made and tidied up the bedroom, realising how much easier it was to work in big rooms rather than in small ones. It was nearly four o’clock when she went into a drawing-room already shining and tidy with the pots of arum lilies standing on the wide window sills. Mrs. Beer was just putting the posy from Gramarye on the mantel shelf, and she said to Anne: “I see you’ve had Sister Monica here, ma’am. I’d know her little bunches of flowers anywhere; she’s clever the way she arranges them.”

“I think they’re beautiful,” said Anne. “I expect you’ve known Sister Monica a long time, Mrs. Beer.”

“Indeed I have, ma’am. I mind her when she first came, thirty years ago that be, and her cap and veil just the same as she wears to-day, never altered one bit she hasn’t except her white hair. Maybe she do look odd and old-fashioned to people from away, but we’re so used to her we never notice. I had my niece to stay with me at Christmas, she’s a Plymouth girl, and she was proper startled when she saw Sister. But there, she’s a wonderful woman. Old Dr. Brown, he do think the world of her, and so do Vicar and Lady Ridding.” Mrs. Beer looked around the room and then said: “And now, ma’am, if you’d like me to light Aga, I’m used to they. Two they’ve got at the Manor, and I know them’s little ways.”

“Then you know more than I do,” laughed Anne. “I’ve got everything to learn about them.”

“They’re easy if so be you treat them proper,” said Mrs. Beer. “Wonders, I call them.”

“Like Sister Monica,” said Anne.

Mrs. Beer stared at her a moment and then said: “I’d rather have Aga---but there, Sister’s worked here a powerful long time and she has her little ways too, maybe.”

Anne’s final visitor that day was John Sanderson, the estate manager. He was a tall, quiet fellow of about forty and both the Ferenses liked him and judged him to be trustworthy and kindly.

“I just came in to see if there was anything you wanted done, Mrs. Ferens. There are often odd jobs to be attended to in these old houses and we’ve got a couple of old chaps who’re very handy at small repairs.”

“That’s very kind of you,” said Anne. “In fact everybody has been so good I can’t be grateful enough. Everything you have done is quite beautiful and I’m simply delighted with it all. The only thing I’ve noticed is that one of the drawing-room windows won’t open. I think it’s stuck.”

“We’ll soon see to that. I meant to have sent in a man to look at them. The woodwork’s very old and they do tend to shrink and swell.” He went across the drawing-room to examine the window and Anne saw him glance at the posy on the mantelpiece.

“Sister Monica brought me those flowers,” said Anne, and he nodded.

“So I see. Her speciality.”

“She looks a character,” said Anne innocently.

“Yes. I think she is a character,” he replied. “You can’t live in this village without knowing that.” He paused, and then added: “Sister Monica either likes you or doesn’t, and I’m one of the people she doesn’t like. I’ll send in a man to put these windows to rights, Mrs. Ferens. Sure there’s nothing else?”

“Nothing, thank you very much,” said Anne, “not in the house, anyway.”

He turned and looked at her, his eyes intelligent and amused. “If you want to know anything more about Sister Monica----”

“---you can only say she’s a wonder,” laughed Anne.

“You never said a truer word,” he replied. “Good-bye, and I hope you’ll find everything works. If not, just let me know.”

--5--

Raymond came in at five o’clock to find tea ready and his wife in a pretty frock, sitting like a lady in the big drawing-room. “Well, angel, I hand it to you for energy. You’ve got straight in just about record time.”

“It was easy,” said Anne. “Everyone’s been falling over themselves to be kind and helpful. Lady Ridding brought a treasure of a woman to help clean up, to say nothing of the flowers: don’t those arums give us an air of chaste superiority? This is a wonderful village.”

He cocked an eyebrow at the word, his lean, pale face crinkled in a grin. “D’you know, I think we’ll delete that word from our vocabulary, Anne.”

“As we deleted the word culture after its redefinition by an eminent poet,” murmured Anne. “For the same reason, Ray?---because it implies too much and is understood too little?”

“Let us not be controversial,” he said, sitting down luxuriously in a chair which offered comfort and yet avoided engulfing him. “If we are not careful, the word ‘wonderful’ will become a gag.”

“How right you are,” she laughed. “Have you been collecting evidence about the person the word is applied to locally? I don’t believe I’m far wrong, Ray. She’s a menace, only nobody dares say so out loud.”

“According to my informant, being old Brown, she’s the noblest creature the Almighty ever made,” said Raymond. “Judging by more indirect evidence, she’s the focus point of most of the village bickerings. The fact is they’ve all been here too long, Anne---doctor and parson, landlord and warden, postman and postmistress. Venner, down at the mill, hit the nail on the head. ‘Time we had some fresh blood,’ he said. You must go and see the mill, Anne. It’s amazing the power they get from that fall.”

“All in good time, sir. To begin with I’m going to have my work cut out. A. Not to be managed by our noble landlady: she’ll be ordering my dinner if I don’t look out. B. Not to be hypnotised by Sister Monica. She’s mistress of the evil eye. C. Not to be bullied by old Thomas, the gardener. He wants to have control over our garden. Now come and see the Aga. It’s functioning. So is the central heating. It’s really rather . . . impressive,” she ended, after a rhetorical pause.

“I am duly impressed,” replied Ray. “It’s a grand day’s work you’ve done, angel. How do you feel about it all?”

“It’s lovely,” said Anne, “but we shall have to work hard to avoid using that newly banned word. How were the pneumonias?”

“They weren’t. But Sir James has rather a nice asthma. That’s the real reason why we’re here.”

“How useful of him,” said Anne.

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