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Chapter Three

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« on: September 05, 2023, 08:16:08 am »

--1--

ANNE Ferens was a friendly soul, and she was soon on good terms with her neighbours, both villagers and ‘quality’; she found the former much more attractive than the latter. “The quality are always grumbling while the village folk are always cheerful,” she said to her husband, and Raymond replied:

“Perfectly reasonable. The villagers are better off than they’ve ever been before and the gentry are worse off. Some of them, like our Lady Ridding, are adaptable enough to develop a business sense, but most of them, like the poor old Staveleys, just sit and moan over the injustices and hardships of ‘England---now.’ Incidentally, ‘England---now’---is doing us pretty well. You’re getting to be a nut-brown maid. You’re looking prettier every day, Anne.”

“Thank you for those kind words. May I say in my turn that you’re looking much less like something grown in a cellar, Ray. I shall admire your manly beauty if you continue the good work.”

The villagers of Milham in the Moor were by nature conservative and tended to be suspicious of newcomers. When they first saw Anne Ferens, they were almost startled by her vividness and vitality. She was a gypsy type in colouring: black hair, smoothly parted and plaited into a big bun low down on her neck, dark eyes and amusingly tilted dark eyebrows, a brown skin and lips that were red even without her habitual cherry lipstick. Her eyes were bright and expressive, her cheeks dimpled and her lips curved easily to a wide smile and she loved bright colours, scarlet and orange and yellow, emerald green and cerise; no colour was too bright for Anne to wear. If the villagers were a bit startled at first by both the modernity and the vividness of the new doctor’s young wife, they soon got to enjoy the look of her, as well as her gaiety and spontaneous interest in everything.

It was a few weeks after the Ferenses had settled into the Dower House that Anne received a note from Sister Monica, conveying a courteous old-fashioned invitation ‘to take tea’ at Gramarye. Anne tossed the note across to Raymond at breakfast time: “I suppose I’ve got to go sometime, so I might as well go and get it over. I shall jolly well keep my eyes open while I’m there.”

“I shouldn’t, angel,” he replied. “Treat it as you would treat any other not very welcome social occasion. Be polite and dignified---you’re very good at both---and come away as soon as you can, having uttered nothing but courteous platitudes.”

Anne sat and thought. Then she said: “I don’t believe that woman’s fit to be trusted with the care of little children, Ray.”

“Anne, let’s get this clear,” he replied. “Gramarye is not our business. The home has a qualified medical man in charge: it is regularly inspected by the committee of management and it is known to the county authorities, who see fit to send homeless or maladjusted children there. It’s nothing to do with you or with me.” He paused, and then went on: “I think we’ve got to be very careful, Anne. Sister Monica has held a position of trust here for thirty years. I have said I don’t like her. I think she has all the bad qualities of an ageing, dominating and narrow-minded woman, but she is woven into the very fabric of the life of this village and she has a lot of influence here. If I thought that the situation was such as to warrant interference from me, I would interfere and devil take the consequences, but I don’t think such interference is indicated.”

“Would you feel the same if a child you were fond of was there, Ray?”

“I don’t know, and I’m not going to debate a hypothetical case. To the best of my knowledge and belief those small kids at Gramarye are well housed, well fed, and well clothed. Their health is supervised by Brown and their general welfare supervised by a committee of whom Lady Ridding is chairman. Don’t go tilting at windmills, Anne.”

Anne suddenly grinned. “All right, but do just tell me this. What do you mean by windmills?”

“You know, my child. We both believe that Sister Monica has the defects of her qualities---a very useful phrase. I think she’s deceitful, and she deceives herself as well as other people. I’m prepared to believe she’s a liar, a fomenter of trouble, a sneak and a hypocrite. I also believe she’s a very competent nurse and an excellent manager. May I have some more coffee?”

“Do. It’s good coffee, isn’t it? All right, Ray. I will refrain from observing anything.”

“Oh, no, you won’t,” he said, “but kindly remember this. If you have any grounds for complaint, you can lay them before the Committee. Not before me. It’s not my pigeon.”

--2--

After Anne Ferens had been to tea at Gramarye, she went for a walk in the park. The land to the south of the church and the Manor House fell steeply to the river. Beyond the river valley it rose again in a magnificent rolling chequer board of farm land---‘landscape plotted and pieced: fold, fallow and plough’---until the cultivated fields faded out into the greater sweep of the high moorland. Anne never tired of the wooded loveliness of the park and of the vast prospect seen from the Milham hillside. She walked to-day because she wanted to order her turbulent thoughts before she talked to her husband; generally a reasonable person, she admitted to herself that she was being unreasonable on the subject of Gramarye, and she made a deliberate effort to think things over.

She had been given tea in the parlour, a small room whose furnishings and garnishings seemed a hybrid of Victorianism and a nunnery; it had white ‘satin striped’ wallpaper on which hung religious colour prints of a sentimental variety: much laundered cretonne covers and curtains were palely hygienic rather than decorative and the linoleum on the floor was polished to a perilous degree. Sister Monica, in navy blue alpaca and a white veil, seemed to brood over a low tea table which held a really beautiful Rockingham tea set, (a ‘silver jubilee’ gift to herself from Lady Ridding on the twenty-fifth anniversary of her wardenship, she explained). Sitting thus, dispensing excellent China tea and wafer-like bread and butter, she had kept up a murmur of polite platitudes and had agreed obsequiously with all Anne’s cheerful commonplaces. Later they had seen the children at tea; twelve infants between the ages of three and five sat in dreadful decorum at a long low table, presided over by an elderly woman in nurse’s uniform. When Sister Monica entered, all the children stood up in silence, and Anne had a sense of horror. How did you make infants of that age stand in silence? Sister Monica murmured their names: then a small girl recited a verse of poetry---“I once had a beautiful doll, dears . . .” and finally they sang a verse of a hymn, which made Anne want to scream, so automatic were the thin shrill tuneless little voices. Then Anne had been conducted round the house and shown the white dormitories and whiter bathrooms, the play room, the kitchens, the chapel room. It was all very well equipped, faultlessly tidy, and clean to the point of the aseptic. The staff consisted of ‘Nurse,’ who had presided at the children’s tea, a dour-faced cook and three uniformed maids aged about sixteen who looked at Anne with owlish suspicious eyes.

“Don’t the children ever make a noise?” she asked and Sister Monica replied: “Indeed, yes. It’s right that little children should be noisy, but we teach them to be quiet at meals. It’s so much better for their health. It’s wonderful to see how the little newcomers get into our ways. Never any trouble after the first day or two. I have a great belief in the healing influences of quiet and cleanliness and orderliness. Ours is such a simple, gentle routine and they respond to it wonderfully.”

Walking down the steep path which led to the mill, Anne thought, “That’s the most dreadful place I ever was in. They’re not children at all, they’re little automatons. It’s enough to make potential criminals of all of them . . . and that awful hymn.” When she reached river level, she went and stood on the little wooden bridge which crossed the mill stream and watched the play of light and shadow in the deep clear water as it swirled by to rejoin the main stream. She was aware of a deep perturbation in her mind, as though she had been having a strenuous argument in which she had been worsted. She loathed Sister Monica, but she was aware of the woman’s strength of character; somehow, all through that inane conversation over the tea table, there had emerged that feeling of struggling with something like an eel, something which eluded your grasp and defeated you because you couldn’t come to grips with it. A footstep on the far side of the bridge made her look up quickly and she saw John Sanderson, the bailiff: Anne and her husband both liked Sanderson, and Raymond had taken to asking him to their house for a drink occasionally.

“Why, Mrs. Ferens, you’re looking worried,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to stand on this bridge and meditate. It’s rather a melancholy spot.”

“Why?” she asked. “I was thinking how fascinating the water is, so clear and deep and swirling. I came here to cheer myself up. I’ve just been to tea at Gramarye.”

“Oh dear,” he said, and Anne caught his quick glance round.

“Are you afraid somebody’s listening in?” she said. “Walk up through the park with me and come in for a drink. I feel I need one.”

“Thanks very much,” he replied, and they left the bridge and turned uphill.

“I think that children’s home is simply ghastly,” she said. “It gave me the horrors: such little children---and they’re all frightened. Have you ever been there?”

“Yes, quite often,” he replied. “It’s my business to survey the fabric and order decorations and repairs. I hate the place. To me it has the authentic flavour of a Victorian orphanage, in which fear was the dominant factor.”

“But can’t the Committee members see what we see?” asked Anne.

“No. For one thing they don’t want to: for another they’re all old: Lady R., Colonel and Mrs. Staveley, Dr. Brown, the vicar and Mrs. Kingsley, and old Mr. and Mrs. Burlap from Coombe. The fact is that all these worthies are overjoyed to perceive what they call discipline in the home: they don’t like modern ideas or modern children and they do like charity children to seem like charity children.”

“I’m certain there’s something fundamentally wrong there,” said Anne. “Even the little maids looked as though they were bullied.”

“They probably are---for their souls’ good. That’s what they’re there for. They are girls who have gone wrong in one way or another, and Sister Monica is responsible for their moral welfare. Shall we change the subject until we get inside the house? Some of the estate men use this path, and if walls have ears, the same is true of trees and thickets.”

“As you will. I’ll pick that one up again later,” said Anne. “Meantime, what books have you been reading lately?”

“Travel books. I always do. Someday I’m going to exciting places, by sea for preference. A nice leisurely tramp steamer which expects to be at sea for a couple of years and stops at every port from Gib. to Sydney.”

--3--

“Your very good health, sir,” said Anne, raising her glass to Sanderson with an air half gallant, half mirthful, and wholly charming. “And now will you tell me why you’re frightened of Sister Monica?”

“I’m not frightened of her,” he replied. “I’m aware that she’s dangerous, in the same way that a virus or blood poisoning can be dangerous. I take steps to avoid trouble from them. You see, I like my job here. There aren’t many good jobs going in estate management, and this is an interesting job. Sister Monica nearly got me sacked some months after I came here. If I gave her the opportunity, she’d try it again.”

“How?”

“By telling lies about me with a grain of truth in them. She is one of those people who can not only lie plausibly and with conviction, but she can tell a lie to your face without batting an eyelid, knowing that you know it’s a lie, and it’s very hard to bowl her out.”

“But doesn’t Lady Ridding realise that?”

“She won’t let herself realise it. Sister Monica is very useful to her. Lady Ridding wants maid servants at the Manor, and Sister Monica can always produce some village youngster whom she has ‘influenced’---hypnotised is a better word---and trained in the ways of genteel service. It’s a wonderful gift, and Lady R. profits by it.”

“I think it’s awful,” said Anne.

Sanderson put his glass down and leant forward. “Look here, Mrs. Ferens. Don’t let this thing worry you. Those children aren’t ill-treated, they’re only dominated. At the age of five they go on to other homes connected with schools. They soon forget the Warden of Gramarye. And in the nature of things, Sister Monica can’t go on very much longer. She’s over sixty now. When she retires Gramarye will be closed.”

“I’m delighted to hear it, but I can’t bear to think of her going on in that unctuous way. It’s terribly bad for small children to be terrorised as those poor scraps are being. Besides, if she’s a liar, somebody ought to bowl her out.”

“Nobody’s ever managed to do it. There are plenty of people who have tried, and it’s they who have suffered. I tell you she would take your character away more easily than you could take hers. She has all the powers that be in this place on her side. Give her a wide berth and ignore her. She’ll die one day, in God’s good time.”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” said Anne. “Do tell me, why did she take a dislike to you?”

“Because I criticised her adversely. I thought she was---well, a tyrant and a bad influence in some respects. It was pointed out to me that I had no evidence and my opinion had not been invited. Oh, it was a sickening story. Don’t let’s talk about it.”

“All right. I won’t, but do tell me this. Is there nobody in the village who dislikes her?”

“Plenty of them, but they won’t say so. This village has its own peculiar character, you know. You’ll realise that when you’ve lived here a bit longer. At first one sees only its charm, everybody fitting together pleasantly, according to their station in life---but there’s more to it than that.” He broke off, laughing a little. “I’m getting prosy. I don’t want to bore you.”

“You’re not boring me,” said Anne. “I want to get this village in focus, and you can help me. Please go on.”

“Well, you’ve always got to remember its remoteness and its antiquity. Throughout the centuries, Milham in the Moor has been cut off from towns and society and affairs. Here it has been, on its hill-top at the edge of the moor, and it has flourished because it made itself into an integrated whole, in which everybody was interdependent. A small group of people living in such conditions are conscious of their interdependence. ‘Never make trouble in the village’ is an unspoken law, but it’s a binding law. You may know about your neighbours’ sins and shortcomings, but you must never name them aloud. It’d make trouble, and small societies want to avoid trouble.”

Anne nodded. “I think I follow. And applying what you say to the subject of Sister Monica, nobody will attack her because she’d hit back. And then there would be hell to pay.”

“There would, indeed. She knows everything about everybody, and quite a lot of people in this village don’t wish their affairs to be made public. Villages, as you may know, are not really more virtuous than towns. They only look more virtuous, and are more successful in coating the past with lime wash, as they do their cottages. What’s underneath is nobody’s business.”

“That’s a very good exposition,” said Raymond’s voice at the door. “Are you teaching Anne a bit about villages, Sanderson? She’s never lived in one before.” He came into the room and sat down happily in his favourite chair, while Anne fetched him a glass of sherry. “How nice all this is,” he murmured. “I’m enjoying our village. Apropos of what you said just now, Sanderson, people in villages don’t want their transgressions to be publicised. That’s true: but it’s also true that everybody knows where everybody else has erred, only it’s a convention that it’s never mentioned in public. That’s the very essence of village life---never noise it abroad.”

He turned to Anne. “And how about the tea party, angel?”

“A most elegant tea party,” she replied. “China tea in Rockingham cups and pre-war b. and b., cut like wafers and arranged on lace doyleys. I saw all over the house and it’s the cleanest house ever. I saw the children at tea. One of them recited a little po’me, and they sang a verse of a hymn. All very high-minded. It roused the worst in me, but Mr. Sanderson has given me a good talking-to, and I’m going to emulate village conventions. Say what you like, but say it within doors and let not your right hand know what your left hand doeth.”

--4--

“Wicked, my dear? Of course she’s wicked,” replied Miss Emmeline Braithwaite.

Anne Ferens was returning a call---the country still practised formal manners, she found---and she was sitting in the white-panelled drawing-room of Miss Braithwaite’s house. China tea again, good smoky Lap San Suchong, but the cups were Royal Worcester this time, and savoury sandwiches replaced thin bread and butter.

“Do help yourself. I always eat a good tea,” said Emmeline Braithwaite. She was seventy-ish, Anne guessed, very robust, very weather-beaten, brindled hair and an equine profile, but she had a delightful voice and said exactly what she meant.

“We’re all wicked in some ways,” went on old Emmeline. “I’ve been a mass of iniquity in my time, but that woman combines all the worst sorts of wickedness. I’d disregard her cant and humbug, but I can’t stomach the way she hypnotises those wretched infants. Like a stoat and a rabbit. Most unpleasant. Of course they kicked me out of the Committee. Very polite and all that, but a quite definite kick. I had a magnificent row with Etheldreda Ridding over it. Her name really is Etheldreda, by the way. We both said the most unpardonable things to each other, strictly in camera.”

“Why did they kick you out of the Committee?” asked Anne.

“Because I told the truth, and it’s an embarrassing habit. I said---and I maintain it---that some women get a kink as they age. Sister Monica’s kink is domination. She’s got to dominate something, so it’s the wretched orphans and those Borstal-faced maids. I think she was a competent, rather possessive creature originally. Very clever. Make no mistake about that. She’s had undisputed authority in her small realm for donkey’s years, and she’s become almost a megalomaniac. It’s so long since anybody has criticised her effectively, or interfered with her in any way that she feels she’s above criticism. And that’s a very dangerous state of mind for a woman who is in control of young things.”

“It’s an extraordinary situation,” said Anne. “You feel she’s dangerous and a bit mad. I’m sure she is. John Sanderson feels the same----”

“Oh, John Sanderson---he knows all about it. He’s a very nice fellow,” said Emmeline. “I’ve always liked him. He had the courage to say what he thought at the time, and nearly got sacked for his pains.”

“But what happened?” asked Anne. “He didn’t tell me, and I didn’t like to ask.”

“It was a wretched story,” said Emmeline. “One of those miserable little maids at Gramarye drowned herself in the mill-race. It was all very distressing. The girl---her name was Nancy---was a very naughty girl. She’d been put on probation for stealing and she had a bad home. She was sent here because Sister Monica is said to be so good at dealing with difficult girls. She couldn’t deal with Nancy, and the girl got into trouble in the usual way. She wouldn’t tell who it was got her in the family way and so far as I could make out Sister Monica gave her a hell of a time---prayings and fastings and locking her in her room of nights. The result was that the girl broke out of her room and drowned herself. It was John Sanderson who found her body.”

Anne gave an exclamation. “Oh dear---how dreadful. So that was why he didn’t like seeing me brooding on that little bridge over the mill-race.”

“He certainly wouldn’t have liked it,” said Emmeline brusquely. “Finding that girl’s body gave him a shock. He’d been overseeing some work at Gramarye, and he knew that Nancy had been locked in her room. He stated that in his evidence at the inquest and was reproved by the coroner. The upshot was that Sister Monica confided to several people that she couldn’t believe that it was he who had seduced the girl. That is her method. She suggests slanders by denying them. It’s a subtle method.”

“But don’t the village people realise what she’s like?” asked Anne. “There are some very shrewd, sensible people in the village. Mrs. Yeo, for instance.”

“Yes, Mrs. Yeo. She’s Post Mistress. Without going into details, I don’t think it would be worth Mrs. Yeo’s while to make trouble for Sister Monica. You see, the woman has wormed her way into everybody’s confidence. She has always been willing to help with nursing the sick. Sometimes the district nurse is away for hours, out at midwifery cases on the moor, and Sister Monica volunteers to help with the aged, dying or the chronics. It’s marvellous how people chat to a sympathetic listener after a laying-out or a crisis in sickness. I’m not being macabre. I’m simply telling you how it happened. It’s been a slow and insidious process. She got herself trusted, she learned everybody’s secrets, and her own character had become steadily more dominating. The plain fact is that everybody’s afraid of her. Etheldreda’s afraid of her. Butter and cream, perhaps. But I’m being waspish. Have some more tea.”

Anne began to laugh. “Apart from being frightful, it’s so utterly preposterous,” she said.

“Utterly,” agreed Emmeline Braithwaite. “I wish I could explain to you how overjoyed I was when you and your husband came here to live. Two vigorous, intelligent, normal young people, absolutely fresh and untouched by all the ins and outs of this queer village. I love the place. I’ve spent my life here. Too many of us have done the same. The vicar’s been here for twenty-five years, Dr. Brown for over thirty years: the village people never change. You and your husband and John Sanderson are the only people from the outside world who have come here for about a quarter of a century.”

“About Dr. Brown,” said Anne suddenly. “I know he’s old now, but he was a good doctor once, wasn’t he? Why didn’t he see what Sister Monica was growing like?”

Emmeline Braithwaite did not reply for a moment or two. Then she said: “Did you know that his wife went out of her mind, poor soul. She had to be taken to a mental home.”

Anne stared back at the older woman’s face: it was a square, weather-beaten honest face, and an intelligent one, too.

“But what’s that got to do with Sister Monica?”

Miss Braithwaite sighed. “I think he got to rely on her. He said she was a tower of strength, and I think it was true that Sister could manage the poor demented creature better than anybody else before she was put in a home. I was terribly sorry for Dr. Brown. I wanted to say to him ‘Don’t rely on Sister too much. I don’t really believe she’s trustworthy.’ But how could I? Anyway, after his wife’s death, the doctor said he couldn’t be grateful enough to Sister, and since then, of course, he’s always upheld her through thick and thin. For instance, when she was turned sixty, one or two people suggested she should retire---I was one of them. Brown wouldn’t hear of it. When there was something approaching a scandal in the village over charitable collections which were never audited, Brown steered a way through the suspicions which gathered round Sister Monica---she has always organised all the collections. When Brown gave up his practice, he retained his work at Gramarye. There it is. It’s better you should know, because if you’re going to try conclusions with Sister---and I believe you are---you’d better realise how tough a proposition you’re up against.”

“It certainly is tough,” said Anne slowly. “I’m a doctor’s wife, you see.”

“Yes. Freemasonry is nothing compared to the determination with which doctor upholds doctor. Don’t wreck your married life over Sister Monica.”

“No. I shan’t do that, but I shall watch out.”

“Do, my dear. And one last word. You may be interested to know that if you walk up through the park with John Sanderson and ask him into your own house when your husband is out, Sister Monica is quite sure there’s nothing wrong in that.”

“Well, I’m damned!” said Anne.

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