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1: A Room with a View

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Author Topic: 1: A Room with a View  (Read 32 times)
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« on: April 20, 2023, 11:35:51 am »

FRANCIS Pettigrew started guiltily as his wife came into the room. At his own particular request he had been left undisturbed for the whole morning in order to prepare his lecture to the Mid-Markshire Law Society on "Modern Trends in the Theory of Torts". Now he was uncomfortably conscious of the fact that for the last half-hour he had been staring out of the window.

"How is it going?" asked Eleanor with an air of solicitude in which her husband's quick ear detected a hint of irony.

"It is not going at all, and well you know it," he said.

"I don't see why I should know anything of the sort, Frank. You haven't had anything to disturb you, I hope?"

"Disturb?" Pettigrew looked up from his untidy desk and out of the window again. "Tell me, what did your uncle do while he lived here?"

"Uncle Robert? Well, nothing so far as I know. He had retired, of course. I know he always intended to write a book about his travels, but somehow it never got finished."

"You are wrong. It never got started. And I will tell you just why. Your Uncle Robert wasted the time he meant to have spent in writing just as I have spent this morning---looking at the view."

Eleanor laughed. "I believe he did," she said. "But Uncle Robert was a rather weak character, I'm afraid."

"So, no doubt, am I. But I don't believe any character, however strong, could stand up to a distraction like that. It is all nonsense to talk of surroundings like these being conducive to work. They are positively lethal to any kind of endeavour. That is why all the best writers have lived in garrets when they weren't in prison."

"Frank, you're simply making excuses for your idleness. You forget that Yew Hill is famous for its writers. Henry Spicer, for instance."

"Spicer proves my point exactly. He lived down there." Pettigrew pointed downwards to the valley beneath the window. "He went for long walks on the hill and then came back to his cottage in the bottom to write his poetry and his interminable romances. You can't see a hundred yards from his windows. If he had lived here he'd never have put pen to paper."

"It is a lovely view." Eleanor, too, was now gazing out of the window. After a long silence she said, "The wild cherry is beginning to show up wonderfully against the yews, isn't it?"

"There are three more trees out today than there were yesterday. I've been keeping count. . . . What's the name of that odd-looking house almost round the corner at the top?"

"The Alps. I don't know who lives there now. It used to be old Lady Fothergill when I was a child. She kept Great Danes which terrified us. . . . Look, Frank, there are some very odd-looking people coming down the slope now."

Pettigrew reached for the field-glasses which stood ready on his desk.

"Americans," he pronounced. "Poppa, Momma and two very weirdly dressed boys. Pop's got what looks like a guide-book in his hand. Momma's heels are much too high for comfort. I suppose they've left their car at the top."

"Do let me see." Eleanor took the glasses from him.

"What's the betting they're on a literary pilgrimage to Spicer's cottage? . . . There, what did I tell you? They've taken the path down to the left."

Eleanor had shifted her gaze to another part of the hill.

"Two people coming up the other way," she said. "They seem to be looking for something. One's carrying a vasculum. What do you suppose they can be after? It's much too early for the orchids. . . ."

She put down the glasses, and it could be observed that she was blushing slightly.

"I came in to say that lunch was ready," she said.

"There you are," said her husband brutally. "Now it is burnt, or chilled, or whatever happens to lunch when the cook takes times off to admire the view. If it wasn't for the lucky fact that the kitchen looks out at the back we should get no meals at all. I tell you, you should never have persuaded me to come and live here. It is utterly demoralizing for both of us."

In high good humour he followed his wife from the room. A draught from the open window scattered the pages of the unfinished lecture about the floor.


Yew Hill, Markshire, was well known to lovers of the picturesque long before Henry Spicer, that revered but now largely unread giant of Victorian letters, put it firmly upon the literary map of England. Since his day the growth of modern transport has made it accessible to the world at large, and it would be hard to name a better-known beauty spot anywhere within fifty miles of London. Spicer it was whose verses first associated the huge and ancient yew trees that fringe its sides with Druidic rites. Nowadays, the Druids Hotel, conveniently placed on the arterial road to Markhampton, is one of the best properties of its class in the southern counties. On any fine week-end the bare, grassy slopes of the hill are dotted with parties of happy tourists who would have driven that surly recluse to distraction, and the yews he celebrated spread their branches over couples contentedly unburdened by any acquaintance with the works of Spicer, and often occupied in rites considerably older than the Druids.

The hill lies in the parish of Yewbury, a village tucked snugly away in the valley and nearly a mile distant. Except for a solitary like Henry Spicer or an eccentric like the late Sir William Fothergill, nobody in the past would wish to build on the hill, where the soil barely covered the barren chalk and the water supply was problematical. The National Trust sees to it that nobody shall do so in the future. But on the other side of the valley, where the ground rises more gently towards the lesser eminence of Didbury Down, a small colony of houses---known unofficially as East Yewbury---has established itself in recent years, a beneficiary of the wreck of the bankrupt Earl of Markshire's once great estate. Agents are wont to advertise these houses as "commanding unrivalled views of Yew Hill". If Pettigrew's experience was anything to go upon, it was in fact the view that commanded them.

Francis Pettigrew was by habit and inclination an urban character. His working life had been spent in the Temple, where the prospect from his chambers was bounded by an elegant piece of seventeenth-century brickwork, twenty paces away. (When German bombs, by blasting away the opposite side of the Court, extended his view overnight to the further side of the river, he had felt as lost as a caged canary suddenly let loose in a forest.) His knowledge of the country was mainly confined to the Assize towns of the Southern Circuit, and a small house in the centre of Markhampton had seemed to him the obvious place to select for his retirement.

He had reckoned without his wife---the young woman whom he had so unexpectedly---and so fortunately---acquired as a pendant to his government service during the Second World War. More particularly, he had reckoned without his wife's aunt---a widow whom he had never met and of whom he had barely heard. When this lady eventually died, after lingering on the verge of imbecility for many years, it was found that she had left her niece, along with the rest of her property, the tiny house in which he now found himself. He had assumed that they would dispose of the place, and had come with Eleanor to examine it as a matter of form. He took one look from the study windows, wondered what he had been doing with his eyes all his life, and surrendered at discretion. The discovery of Uncle Robert's pair of Zeiss binoculars, still in excellent condition, completed his discomfiture.

"Unless something pretty drastic happens to me here," he remarked to his wife at lunch, "I am going to become completely torpid."

"Lady Furlong has rung up to ask if she can come to tea," said Eleanor. "Perhaps that will be drastic enough."

Lady Furlong was the doyenne of East Yewbury. Spiritually she belonged to the established community of Yewbury proper, and her mission in life was to see that any newcomers were brought in to play their proper part in parish affairs. A distant connection of Lord Markshire's family, she insensibly assumed proprietary airs in all that appertained to the neighbourhood, and long before tea was over Pettigrew found it difficult not to succumb to the illusion that he was a humble tenant under the inspection of his landlord, and not a landed proprietor---or at least the husband of one---entertaining another whose holding was scarcely larger than his own.

But Lady Furlong, if inclined to be dictatorial, was amiable enough, and the fact that Eleanor had come into her little property by inheritance and not by purchase was sufficient to raise her in her regard. When it further transpired that she had spent part of her childhood in the house with her uncle and aunt and had actually for a brief period attended the same infants' school as Lady Furlong's elder son the atmosphere became positively cordial. Eleanor had been "placed," and from that moment her ladyship was entirely at her ease. She spent a great deal of her time in an endeavour, becoming yearly more and more difficult in a world increasingly disturbed, to "place" people properly, and she was obviously overjoyed that in this case the task had been so easy, and the result so satisfactory. Accepting a third cup of tea, she settled down to business. Had Eleanor met the Vicar yet? No? The Vicar would call. He was a little concerned about helpers for the summer bazaar. Perhaps Eleanor would care to take charge of a stall? Well, possibly it was rather early in the day to consider that, but she must think it over. Lady Furlong was seeing Mrs. Pink that evening and they would run over the list of workers and see where she could be most useful. Then, of course there was the Women's Institute. . . .

Eleanor expressed an unexpected yearning to join the Women's Institute, provided its meetings did not clash with rehearsals of the Markhampton Orchestral Society, to which she remained faithful. Happily they did not, and Lady Furlong beamed with pleasure at her new recruit. Mrs. Pink would send her a list of meetings. She went on to press the claims of the Moral Welfare Association, and of the newly formed Friends of Yew Hill, designed to preserve that landmark from the vandalism of certain of the summer visitors.

Pettigrew's head began to whirl. He had pictured Yewbury as a haven of rest, but it seemed that instead it was a vortex of activity beside which a beehive would look positively stagnant. Before long, he learned that, unlike a beehive, Yewbury exacted work from both sexes. The British Legion had a branch there. Lady Furlong would mention Pettigrew's name to Colonel Sampson, just up the lane. He was just the type they would welcome on the committee. The Colonel was the local secretary, a most valuable man. So conscientious, too. He had even taken typing lessons to try to keep up with his work. Fortunately that was no longer necessary, now that Mrs. Pink had taken on the clerical side.

"Who is Mrs. Pink?" Pettigrew ventured to ask. He had noticed that she was the branch secretary of the Moral Welfare Association, besides being treasurer of the Friends of Yew Hill. "She seems to be a very important person. Is she the Vicar's wife?"

"Good gracious, no!" Lady Furlong permitted herself a short laugh at his ignorance. "The Vicar is a bachelor---thank goodness. As to important---I should hardly call Mrs. Pink that. But she is a very good, worthy, useful person." (If Mrs. Pink isn't placed after that series of adjectives, thought Pettigrew, she never will be.) "Indeed I don't know how I ever managed without her. She has only been in the village three or four years, but already she has made herself quite indispensable. A widow, of course, and entirely given up to good works."

Mrs. Pink disposed of, Lady Furlong rose to go. Pettigrew showed her out.

"You have quite a good view from here," she observed with a touch of condescension from the porch. "It is not quite the same as mine, of course. From my windows I see much more of the Druids' Glade and rather less of the bare slope. I think it is preferable, seen that way. One is less conscious of the trippers."

"That reminds me," said Pettigrew. "Who lives in the house at the top of the hill---The Alps, I think it is called?"

"Oh . . . Mrs. Ransome," said Lady Furlong. "I don't somehow think your wife will want to meet her. Goodbye, Mr. Pettigrew. So very glad to have made your acquaintance."

She climbed into her antique two-seater, leaving Pettigrew in no doubt whatever that Mrs. Ransome, so far from being placed, was low down among the also ran.

"By the way," Lady Furlong called from the car, "I forgot to mention it to your wife, but if you require a chicken at any time Mr. Wendon is your man. The smallholding at the bottom of the hill."

"I think I have seen him," said Pettigrew. "A rather weedy type with fair hair?"

"That is the man. Mention my name and he will look you out a good one. I like to help him when I can. It's odd to think, isn't it,"---she lowered her voice to reveal the distressing fact---"that he was actually at Harrow with my nephew."

Shaking her head sadly at a state of affairs in which people failed so dismally to keep their place, she drove away.

Pettigrew was still admiring the effect of the evening light on the hill when he heard the telephone ring. He turned to go indoors and met Eleanor coming out for him.

"Somebody wants to speak to you," she said. "He says he's the Lord Chancellor's office."

She seemed to be impressed by the august name, but her husband shrugged his shoulders indifferently.

"Once upon a time a message like that would have sent me crazy with excitement," he said. "But at my age it's too late to expect anything much from that quarter. However. . ."

He went in and picked up the receiver.

"Pettigrew here. . . . Oh, is he? I'm sorry to hear it. Not bad, I hope?. . . I see. Yes, I can manage it all right. Where, did you say?. . . Didford? That's quite accessible. I'll be there. . . . Yes, I'll let you have an account of my expenses. . . . Very well. Goodbye."

He rang off with an odd expression, half bitter and half amused. Then he sat down and burst out laughing.

"What is all this about?" asked Eleanor.

"Jefferson is ill. They've just rushed him off to hospital with a duodenal ulcer."

"That doesn't sound terribly funny. Who is this poor Mr. Jefferson?"

"He's not a mister. He's the County Court Judge of this district. They want me to sit as his deputy. Seven guineas a day and expenses, starting at Didford tomorrow. As you say, it's not a bit funny. But all the same----"

Pettigrew blew his nose, wiped his spectacles and became serious again.

"Twelve---no, thirteen years ago I put in for that job," he said. "They turned me down, largely, I believe, because I was getting a bit long in the tooth and was considered rather a crock. If they'd taken me instead of him I should have nearly earned my pension by now. And now Jefferson has cracked up and they want me to sit for him. Isn't life odd?"

He looked out of the window at the long ridge of Yew Hill, hard and clear against the darkening sky.

"I shall miss this while I'm in court," he said. "But, anyway, it will be one way of meeting some of our neighbours."

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