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It was a blustery October afternoon and the dark skies had turned the sea to a dull grey, its sullen waves eddying to and fro on the deserted beach. Not quite deserted, for a girl was walking there, stopping now and again to stare seawards, stooping to pick up a stone and hurl it out to sea and then walk on again. She looked small and lonely with so much emptiness around her, and certainly she was both, but only because there was no one there to see.
She marched along at a furious pace, making no attempt to wipe away the tears; they didn't matter; they relieved her feelings. A good weep, she told herself, and everything would be over and done with. She would present a smiling face to the world and no one would be the wiser.
She turned back presently, wiped her eyes and blew her nose, tucked odds and ends of hair back under her headscarf, and assumed what she hoped was her normal cheerful expression. Climbing the steps back onto the sea front of the little town, she waved to the porter of the Grand Hotel across the road and started up the narrow, steep main street. The season was pretty well over and the town was settling down into its winter sloth; one could walk peacefully along its streets now, and chat unhurriedly with the shopkeepers, and the only cars were those of outlying farmers and the owners of the country properties dotted around the countryside.
There were narrow lanes leading off the street at intervals, and down one of these the girl turned, past a row of small shops converted from the old cottages which lined it; chic little boutiques, a jeweller's, a tiny tea room and, halfway down, a rather larger shop with a sign painted over its old-fashioned window:'Thomas Gillard, Antiques'. The girl opened the door of the shop and the old-fashioned bell jangled.
'It's me,' she called ungrammatically, and pulled off her headscarf so that her nut-brown hair tumbled around her shoulders. She was an ordinary girl, of middle height, charmingly and unfashionably plump, her unassuming features redeemed from plainness by a pair of large hazel eyes, thickly fringed. She was dressed in a quilted jacket and tweed skirt, very suitable for the time of year but lacking any pretentions to fashion. There was no trace of her recent tears as she made her way carefully between the oak clap tables, Victorian Davenports, footstools and a variety of chairs: some very old, others Victorian button-backed balloon chairs.
Ranged round the walls were side cabinets, chiffoniers, and a beautiful bow-fronted glass cabinet, and wherever there was space there were china figurines, glass decanters and scent bottles, pottery figures and small silver objects. She was familiar with them all. At the back of the shop there was a half-open door leading to a small room her father used as his office, and then another door opening onto the staircase which led to the rooms above the shop.
She dropped a kiss on the bald patch on her father's head as she passed him at his desk, and went up the stairs to find her mother sitting by the gas fire in the sitting room, repairing the embroidery on a cushion cover. She looked up briefly and smiled.
'It's almost teatime, Daisy. Will you put the kettle on while I finish this? Did you enjoy your walk?'
'Very much. It's getting quite chilly, though, but so nice to have the town empty of visitors.'
'Is Desmond taking you out this evening, love?'
'We didn't arrange anything. He had to meet someone or other and wasn't sure how long he would be gone '
'Oh, well, he'll probably get back fairly early.'
Daisy agreed. 'I'll get the tea.'
She was fairly sure Desmond wouldn't come; they had gone out on the previous evening and had a meal at one of the town's restaurants. He had met some friends there. Being in love, she saw very little wrong with him, but some of his friends were a different matter; she had refused to go with them to a nightclub in Totnes and Desmond had been icily angry. He had called her a spoilsport, prudish. 'Time you grew up,' he had told her, with a nasty little laugh, and had taken her home in silence.
At the door he had watched her get out of the car and shot away, back to his friends, without saying another word. And Daisy, in love for the first time, had lain awake all night.
She had lost her heart to him when he had come into the shop, looking for glass goblets, and Daisy, being Daisy, twenty-four years old, plain, heartwhole and full of romantic ideas, had fallen instant prey to his superficial charm, bold good looks and flattering manners all of which compensated for his lack of height. He was only a few inches taller than Daisy. He dressed well, but his hair was too longsometimes, when Daisy allowed her sensible self to take over from romantic dreams, she did dislike that, but she was too much in love to say so.
He was a conceited man, and it was this conceit which had prompted him to invite Daisy out for dinner one evening, and that had led to more frequent meetings. He was a stranger to the little town, he had told her, sent by a London firm on a survey of some sort; he hadn't been explicit about it and Daisy had supposed him to be in some high-powered job in the City, and that had given him the excuse to get to know her.
She helped her father in the shop, but she was free to come and go, so that first dinner soon led him to being shown the town. His apparent interest in it had encouraged her to take him to the local museum, the various churches, the row of cottages leading from the quay, old and bowed down with history. He had been horribly bored, but her obvious wish to please him was food for his ego.
He'd taken her out to tea, plying her with witty talk, smiling at her over the table, and she'd listened to him egotistically talk about himself and his important job, laughing at his jokes, admiring a new tie, or the leather briefcase he always carried, so necessary to his image.
That he didn't care for her in the least didn't bother him; she served as a distraction in the dull little town after the life he'd lived in London. She was a stopgap until such time as he could find the girl he wanted; preferably with good looks and money. And a good dresser. Daisy's off-the-peg clothes earned her nothing but his secret mockery.
He didn't come that evening. Daisy stifled disappointment, and spent the hours until bedtime polishing some antique silver her father had bought that day. It was worn smooth by the years, and usage, and she thought how delightful it would be to eat one's food with such perfection. She polished the last spoon and laid it with the rest in a velvet bag, then put it in the wall cupboard where the small silver objects were housed. She locked the cupboard, shot the bolts on the shop door, locked it and set the alarm and went back upstairs. She had gone to the kitchen to make their evening drink when the phone rang.
It was Desmond, full of high spirits, apparently forgetful of their quarrel. 'I've a treat for you, Daisy. There's a dinner-dance at the Palace Hotel on Saturday evening. I've been invited and asked to bring a partner.' He turned on the charm. 'Say you'll come, darling, it's important to me. There'll be several people I've been hoping to meet; it's a good chance for me '
When Daisy didn't speak, he added, 'It's rather a grand affair; you'll need a pretty dresssomething striking so that people will turn round and look at us. Redyou can't ignore red '
Daisy swallowed back excitement and happiness as she said sedately, 'It sounds very nice. I'd like to come with you. How long will it last?'
'Oh, the usual time, I suppose. Around midnight. I'll see you safely home, and I promise you it won't be too late.'
Daisy, who if she made a promise kept it, believed him.
Desmond said importantly, 'I'm tied up for the rest of this week, but I'll see you on Saturday. Be ready by eight o'clock.'
When he rang off, she stood for a moment, happy once more, planning to buy a dress fit for the occasion. Her father paid her a salary for working in the shop and she had saved most of it She went to find her mother to tell her.
There was only a handful of dress shops in the town, and since her father didn't have a car, and the bus service, now that the season was over, had shrunk to market day and Saturday, Totnes and Plymouth were out of the question. Daisy visited each of the boutiques in the high street and to her relief found a dressred, and not, she considered, quite her style, but red was what Desmond wanted
She took it home and tried it on againand wished she hadn't bought it; it was far too short, and hardly decentnot her kind of a dress at all. When she showed it to her mother she could see that that lady thought the same. But Mrs Gillard loved her daughter, and wanted her to be happy. She observed that the dress was just right for an evening out and prayed silently that Desmond, whom she didn't like, would be sent by his firm, whoever they were, to the other end of the country.
Saturday came, and Daisy, in a glow of excitement, dressed for the evening, did her face carefully and pinned her hair into a topknot more suitable for a sober schoolteacher's outfit than the red dress, then went downstairs to wait for Desmond.
He kept her waiting for ten minutes, for which he offered no apology, and her mother and father, greeting him civilly, wished that Daisy could have fallen in love with any man but he. He made a great business of studying the dress. 'Quite OK,' he told her airily, and then frowned. 'Of course your hair is all wrong, but it's too late to do anything to it now '
There were a great many people at the hotel, milling around waiting to go into dinner, and several of them hailed Desmond as they joined them. When Desmond introduced her, they nodded casually, then ignored her. Not that she minded that. She stood quietly listening to Desmond. He was a clever talker, knowing how to keep his listeners interested, and she could see that he was charming them.
She took the glass of wine she was offered and they made their way through the crowded foyer, stopping from time to time to greet someone Desmond knew, sometimes so briefly that he didn't bother to introduce her. They sat with a party of eight in the restaurant, and presently Desmond, already dominating the talk at the table, made no attempt to include her in it. The man on her other side was young, with a loud voice, and he asked her who she was.
'Came with Des? Not his usual type, are you? Cunning rascal wants to catch the eye of the guest of honourhe's an influential old fellow, very strait-lacedthinks all young men should marry and settle down with a little woman and a horde of children. The plainer the better.' He laughed. 'You're just the ticket, if I may say so.'
Daisy gave him a long, cold stare, suppressed a desire to slap his face, and instead chose a morsel of whatever it was on her plate and popped it in her mouth. If it hadn't been for Desmond's presence beside her she would have got up and walked out but he had impressed upon her the importance of the evening; his chance to meet the right people
She sat through dinner, ignoring the awful man on her left and wishing that Desmond would speak to her. Only he was deep in conversation with the elegant woman on his right, and, from time to time, joining in talk with other people at the table. Perhaps it would be better once they started the dancing
Only it wasn't. True, he danced the first dance with her, whirling her around in a flashy fashion, but then he told her, 'I must talk to a few people once this dance is over. Shan't be long; you'll get plenty of partners you dance quite well. Only do, for heaven's sake, look as though you're enjoying yourself. I know it's a bit above you, Daisy, but don't let it intimidate you.'
He waved to someone across the ballroom. 'I must go and have a word, I'll be back,' he assured her, leaving her pressed up against a wall between a large statue holding a lamp and a pedestal holding an elaborate flower arrangement. She felt hemmed in and presently, when Desmond didn't come back, lonely.
One side of the ballroom was open onto the corridor leading to the restaurant, and two men strolling along it paused to look at the dancers, talking quietly together. Presently they shook hands and the older man went on his way. His companion stayed where he was, in no hurry to leave, his attention caught by Daisy's red dress. He studied her at some length. She didn't look as though she belonged, and that dress was all wrong
He strolled round the edge of the ballroom towards her, vaguely wishing to help her in some way. Close to her now, he could see that she wasn't pretty, and looked prim, definitely out of place on the noisy dance floor. He stopped beside her and said in a friendly voice, 'Are you like me? a stranger here?'
Daisy looked up at him, wondering why she hadn't noticed him before, for he was a man who could hardly go unnoticed. Tall, very tall, and heavily built, with handsome features and grey hair cut short. He had a commanding nose and a rather thin mouth, but he was smiling at her in a reassuring way.
She said politely, 'Well, yes, I am, but I came with someonehe has friends here. I don't know anyone '
Jules der Huizma was adept at putting people at their ease. He began a gentle rambling conversation about nothing in particular and watched her relax. Quite a pleasant girl, he reflected. A shame about the dress
He stayed with her until presently he saw a man making his way towards them. When Desmond reached them, Mr der Huizma nodded in a friendly fashion and wandered away.
'Who was that?' demanded Desmond.