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4: The Prodigal Mother

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Author Topic: 4: The Prodigal Mother  (Read 46 times)
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« on: April 21, 2023, 04:27:41 am »

A NARROW, winding lane runs off the main road past Henry Spicer's cottage. Thence it climbs the valley that divides the north face of Yew Hill in two, by a slope too steep for a bicycle ridden by any but the most athletic boy. Godfrey did not pretend to be particularly athletic. He dismounted at the first bend and wheeled Sir Guy d'Harville up the hill. He was in no great hurry and treated himself to a breather at the second bend. He was already late for tea, but his mother was not likely to make a fuss about that. As he had told Mrs. Pink, he did not know his mother very well; but in the last few days he had learned that whatever her shortcomings fussiness was not among them. That was certainly a point in her favour.

When one came to think of it, Godfrey told himself, letting his eye travel over the dark tops of the yews towards the vale of the Didder below, his mother had quite a number of good points---far more than one would have guessed from the hints which his father had dropped from time to time. In his methodical fashion he set himself to enumerate them. First and foremost, she was extremely attractive. Nobody, not even his father, had ever been able to deny that. Moreover, she was intelligent. It was a pity, he reflected coolly, that she had never been taught to apply her intelligence properly, but for all that she was no fool. Finally, she was undoubtedly good-natured. That was the most important point of all, and affected more significant things than whether or not he was expected to be home punctually for tea. It was not everything, of course, but it was enough to go on with. On the whole, there was no reason why the Easter holidays should not be a success. At all events, the experiment should prove interesting. He picked up his bicycle and resumed the climb.

Marian Ransome, at that moment, was sitting placidly in her drawing-room, smoking a cigarette and contemplating a glass of sherry. She was thinking about Godfrey, but, as he had justly estimated, she was not fussing about him. In a highly variegated career, she had seldom made a fuss about anything. When her marriage to Professor Ransome had proved a lamentable failure she had quietly abandoned him in favour of one of his junior colleagues at the university. The ensuing fuss, which was considerable, she had left to be made by others. If she had regretted leaving her two-year-old son behind, she had not said so. The ups and downs of the next fifteen years had in no way impaired her equanimity; and when, on the Professor's sudden death, Godfrey had been inspired to propose himself as her guest for the holidays, she had, as always, been ready to accept the offer of a new experience. Up to now, she had not regretted it, deriving a certain bewildered satisfaction from observing what a severely academic upbringing could do to her own flesh and blood.

Her glass was nearly finished when her son finally appeared.

"Well, Godfrey," she said in her lazy, purring voice, "you look as if a glass of sherry would do you good. Tea's been done and cleared away long ago."

"Actually, I don't care for sherry very much," said Godfrey. "I'll ask Grethe to make me another pot."

"Well, you'll be careful, won't you? You know how temperamental these Austrians are. She'll give notice as soon as look at you."

"That will be quite all right," said Godfrey confidently. "I shall tell her a funny story in German and she'll do anything."

He was away some time before he returned with a laden tray. Mrs. Ransome looked at it enviously.

"She told me there were none of those cream-cakes left," she observed. "I suppose she was keeping them for herself. Was it a very funny story, Godfrey?"

"She seemed to be amused by it. She told me two of her own back. One of them"---he frowned as he attacked the cakes---"was not very proper."

"My poor Godfrey, that must have been painful for you. But what a lot I miss by not knowing German! You'll have to teach me some day. Don't spoil your appetite for dinner. That nice little Mr. Wendon dropped in just now with a joint of pork. Grethe is going to do something very continental with it."

"If that nice little Mr. Wendon goes in for illicit pig-killing, Mother, do you really think you ought to encourage him?"

Mrs. Ransome opened her fine eyes wide in surprise. "Good gracious!" she exclaimed. "Do they teach you that sort of thing at school? I thought it was all Greek and Latin and so on."

"They don't teach us pig-killing, naturally," said Godfrey seriously. "But it's only common sense that when a man drops bits of pork at people's back doors he's liable to get into trouble."

"Well, I'm disappointed, that's all. I'd planned the pork as a pleasant little surprise for you, and now I suppose you'll refuse to eat it on principle----"

"I never said I wouldn't eat it, Mother. I was only pointing out----"

"---though I should hardly have thought that taking a bit of meat that was going begging was any worse than worming cream-cakes out of Grethe by telling her dirty stories."

"Really, Mother! I----" Godfrey looked up to find that his mother was laughing at him. He stopped abruptly, looking and feeling rather sheepish.

"I'm sorry, Godfrey," Mrs. Ransome said kindly. "You mustn't mind my pulling your leg now and then. So far as the pork goes, I know it was very wicked of me, but I am a wicked woman, and you'll have to get used to it. I felt so sorry for poor Mr. Wendon. A horrible judge has just told him that he has to pay a lot of money he doesn't really owe, and we can't blame him for trying to make it up somehow. It isn't as if he was an ordinary pigman, anyway. He was at your school."

"He was at Harrow," said Godfrey loftily.

"Well, it's the same thing, isn't it? I mean, it's just as good. . . . No, Godfrey, don't jump down my throat. I ought to have remembered there are some things too sacred to make jokes about. Now tell me about your doings this afternoon. Was the brass-rubbing a success?"

"Quite successful. Would you like to look at it?"

Mrs. Ransome shook her head. "Better not," she said. "I should only annoy you by saying the wrong thing, and I've plagued you enough for one day. You can show it to Grethe, if you like. Perhaps she would find something improper to say about it."

"I met someone while I was in the church---a Mrs. Pink."

"Mrs. Pink? Yes, I know her---poor, dear Mrs. Pink."

"I thought she was rather nice."

"So she is. The very pink of perfection. Altogether too good for me, I'm afraid. Did she try to sell you a raffle ticket in aid of the church roof or something?"

"Not exactly. But she did mention the midsummer bazaar. The Vicar wants to know if you would help with the refreshments."

"The Vicar must be in his dotage! I never heard such nonsense. Seriously, Godfrey, can you imagine me selling lemonade at a Church bazaar?"

"I don't see why not," said Godfrey gallantly. "I'm sure you'd look jolly nice."

"Of course I should look jolly nice, as you put it. And all the ladies of Yewbury, who will certainly look jolly awful, would have a fit at the sight of me. Because I am not respectable, Godfrey, do get that into your head. I am not fit to associate with Lady Furlong and Mrs. So Long and all the rest of them. Surely your father must have mentioned it to you at some time or another?"

"Well---yes," said Godfrey, pink with embarrassment, "I suppose, in a sort of a way, he did."

"Very well. Then don't try to pretend facts aren't there because they're uncomfortable, which was a weakness of your father's, who was remarkably like you in some ways, and much too good for me," said Mrs. Ransome breathlessly. "Now I'm going upstairs to lie down before dinner, which is another thing no respectable woman does nowadays. Here's something to amuse you meanwhile---the Times Literary Supplement. The boy must have delivered it by mistake."

"As a matter of fact I ordered it," said Godfrey. "I hope you don't mind."

"Mind? Of course not, so long as you don't want to read me any of it aloud. It will be quite like old times. I haven't seen the dreary old rag for years."

She kissed her son affectionately on the top of his head and vanished.

---

"By the way," said Mrs. Ransome some time later in the evening. "I've asked a friend to stay. I ought to have mentioned it sooner. Are you sure it won't upset your plans?"

"Why should it?" said Godfrey, who after an excellent meal of illicit pork was feeling at peace with the world.

"Oh, I don't know. I just thought it might, that was all."

"Is it a male or female friend?"

"Male, of course. I haven't any female friends---surely you've gathered that by now. You're not shocked?"

"My dear mother, I hope I am sufficiently broad-minded----"

Mrs. Ransome giggled uncontrollably. The boy was really ludicrously like his father. Then she became serious again. "His name is Rose," she said deliberately, "Humphrey Rose."

"Yes?"

"You haven't heard of him?"

"I can't say that I have. Ought I to know the name?"

Mrs. Ransome looked relieved at his ignorance.

"Oh well, it was a long time ago---you must have been quite small. But he was rather---celebrated once. I hope you'll like him."

"I'm sure I shall." There was something about his mother's manner that brought a little doubt into Godfrey's voice. "When does he arrive?"

"I'm not quite certain when he will be---at liberty to come. Possibly tomorrow. In a day or two, anyway. I don't suppose he will bother you much. He's really coming for a rest."

They talked of other things, and shortly afterwards Godfrey went up to his room. Before undressing he removed one of his mother's favourite watercolours from the wall and pinned Sir Guy d'Harville up in its place. In bed, he lay awake for some time reading the Times Literary Supplement. It is the charm of that periodical that the reader never knows from column to column what aspect of learning he will encounter next. Godfrey, with the omnivorous gusto of his age, read successively a leading article on Nineteenth-century Nonconformism, a severe review of a restatement of Ricardo's Theory of Rent and an appreciative notice of a new edition of Higden's Polychronicon. Thence he turned to lighter fare—a group of books of reminiscence reviewed together. He was already half asleep when a name that he had heard recently caught his eye. Jerking himself awake, he read the sentence once more:

"Among much that is of minor interest, Sir John adds a valuable footnote to contemporary history when he reveals the part played by the future Prime Minister in exposing the scandal which brought the career of Humphrey Rose, M.P., to an abrupt and shameful conclusion."

The reviewer did not explain further. Obviously the affair of Humphrey Rose was the sort of thing one was supposed to know about without being told---like so many other things, thought Godfrey resentfully. But he had said enough. This man Rose---his mother's intended visitor---was a ruffian. Godfrey's imagination, always active, conjured up half a dozen lurid crimes of which his proposed fellow guest might have been guilty. Really, he told himself, he was fairly broad-minded, but there were limits! He must speak to his mother very seriously in the morning.

He switched off the light and was asleep at once.

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