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Serena Lightfoot, awakened by the early sun of an April morning, rolled over onto her back and contemplated the ceiling; today was her twenty-sixth birthday. Not that it was going to be any different from any other day in the year; her father certainly wouldn't remember, Matthew, her younger brother, a curate living some way away and recently married, might possibly send her a card, and Henry, her elder brother, a solicitor and family man, wouldn't give her a thought, although his wife might possibly remember. There was Gregory, of course, with whom she had that old-fashioned thing, an 'understanding'
She got up then, wasting a few minutes hanging out of the window to admire the view; she never tired of itrural Dorset. Away from the main roads, the village was half hidden by a small wood, the hills were close by and beyond them lay the quiet countryside. The church clock struck seven and she withdrew her head and set about getting dressed, then skimmed downstairs to the kitchen to make the early-morning tea.
The kitchen was large, with a lamentable lack of up-to-date equipment. There was a scrubbed wooden table ringed around by sturdy chairs, an old-fashioned gas cooker flanking a deep sink and a vast dresser along one wall. There was a shabby rug in front of the cooker and two Windsor chairs, in one of which there was a small tabby cat to whom Serena wished a good morning before she put on the kettle. The one concession to modernity was a cumbersome fridge which, more often than not, ran amok.
Serena left the kettle to boil and went to the front door to fetch the post. There was a small pile of letters in the post box, and just for a moment she pretended that theywere all for her. They weren't, of course: bills, several legal-looking envelopes, a catalogue or two, and, just as she had expected, two birthday cards for herself. And no card from Gregory. But she hadn't really expected one from him; he had made it plain to her on several occasions that birthdays were scandalously overpriced and a waste of money. Gregory didn't believe in wasting money; her father and brothers approved of him for that reason. Serena wasn't sure of that, but she hoped in a vague way that when they married she would be able to change his frugal ways.
She went back to the kitchen and made the tea, offered milk to the cat and, as the clock struck the half hour, took a tray of tea up to her father's room.
This was a large, gloomy apartment with heavy old-fashioned furniture, closely curtained against the morning brightness. She tweaked one curtain aside as she crossed the room, the better to see the occupant in the vast bed.
Mr Lightfoot matched the room, gloomy and the epitome of a late-Victorian gentleman, whiskers and all. He sat up in bed, not speaking, and when Serena wished him good morning, he grunted a reply.
'A good morning for some,' he observed, 'but for those who suffer as I do, daylight is merely the solace after a sleepless night.'
Serena put the tray down and handed him his letters. That her father's snores shattered the peace of the house was something on which there was no point in remarking. She had long ago learned that the only way in which to live with him was to allow his words to flow over her head. She said now, 'It's my birthday, Father.'
He was opening his letters. 'Oh, yes? Why have the gas company sent me another bill? Gross carelessness.'
'Perhaps you didn't pay the first one?'
'Don't be ridiculous, Serena. I have always paid my bills promptly.'
'But it is possible to make a mistake,' said Serena, and took herself out of the room, wondering for the thousand and first time how her mother could have lived with such a tiresome man. She herself very often found life quite intolerable, living here with him, doing almost all of the housework, cooking and shopping and looking after him. He had for some time now declared that he was an invalid, and he led an invalid's life with no concern for her.
Since Dr Bowring had said that there was nothing wrong with him he had refused to see him again, declaring that he knew far better what was wrong with him than any doctor. So he had devised his own treatment for his illness, having declared that he was suffering from a weak heart and congestion of the lungs. He had over the years added lumbago to these, which gave him every reason to take to his bed whenever he wished to do so.
It hadn't been so bad when her mother had been alive.
They had had a housekeeper, and between the two of them Serena and her mother had devised a routine which had allowed them enough freedom; there had been a certain amount of social life for them. Serena had had her tennis parties and small dances at friends' houses, and her mother had been able to play bridge and enjoy coffee with her friends. Then her mother had fallen ill and died without fuss or complaint, only asking Serena to look after her father. And, since Serena had known that her mother had loved her despot of a husband, she had promised that she would. That had been five years ago
Her life since then had altered dramatically: the housekeeper had been dismissed; Serena, her father had declared, was quite capable of running the house with the help of a woman from the village who came twice a week for a few hours. What else was there for her to do? he'd wanted to know, when she had pointed out that the house wasn't only large, it was devoid of any labour-saving devices. Sitting in his armchair by his bedroom window, wrapped in rugs, with a small table beside him bearing all the accepted aids to invalidism, he had dismissed her objections with a wave of the hand.
Since she had to account for every penny of the housekeeping allowance he gave her each month she'd had no chance to improve things. True, there was a washing machine, old now, and given to rather frightening eruptions and sinister clankings, and there was central heating in some of the rooms. But this was turned off at the end of March and not started again until October. Since the plumber from Yeovil came each half year and turned it on and off, there wasn't much she could do about that.
Serena, recognising the brick wall she was up against, had decided sensibly to make the best of things. After all, Gregory Pratt, a junior partner in the solicitors' firm in Sherborne, had hinted on several occasions that he was considering marrying her at some future date. She liked him well enough, although she had once or twice found herself stifling a yawn when he chose to entertain her with a resumé of his day's work, but she supposed that she would get used to that in time.
When he brought her flowers, and talked vaguely about their future together, she had to admit to herself that it would be nice to marry and have a home and her own children. She wasn't in love with Gregory, but she liked him, and although like any other girl she dreamed of being swept off her feet by some magnificent man, she thought it unlikely that it would happen to her.
Her mother, when she'd been alive, had told her that she was a jolie laide, but her father had always been at pains to tell her that she was downright plain, an opinion upheld by her brothers, so that she had come to think of herself as just thata round face, with a small nose and a wide mouth, dominated by large brown eyes and straight light brown hair worn long, in a rather careless knot on top of her head. That her mouth curved sweetly and her eyes had thick curling lashes was something she thought little of, nor did she consider her shape, pleasingly plump, to be much of an asset. Since Gregory had never, as far as she could remember, commented upon her appearance, there had been no one to make her think otherwise.
She went back to the kitchen and boiled an egg for her breakfast, and put her two cards on the mantelpiece. 'I am twenty-six, Puss,' she said, addressing the tabby cat, 'and since it is my birthday I shall do no housework; I shall go for a walkup Barrow Hill.'
She finished her breakfast, tidied the kitchen, put everything ready for lunch and went to get her father's breakfast tray.
He was reading his paper and didn't look up. 'I'll have a little ham for lunch, and a few slices of thin toast. My poor appetite gives me concern, Serena, although I cannot hope that you share that concern.'
'Well, you had a splendid breakfast,' Serena pointed out cheerfully. 'Egg, bacon, toast and marmalade, and coffee. And, of course, if you got up and had a walk that would give you an appetite.'
She gave him a kindly smile; he was an old tyrant, greedy and selfish, but her mother had asked her to look after him. Besides, she felt sorry for him, for he was missing so much from life. 'I'm going out for a walk,' she told him. 'It's a lovely morning '
'A walk? And am I to be left alone in the house?'
'Well, when I go to the shops you're alone, aren't you? The phone is by the bed, and you can get up if you want and go downstairs for a change.'
She reached the door. 'I'll be back for coffee,' she told him.
She fetched a jacketan elderly garment she kept for gardeningfound stout shoes, put a handful of biscuits into a pocket and left the house. Barrow Hill looked nearer than it was, but it was still early. She turned away from the road leading down to the village, climbed a stile and took the footpath beside a field of winter wheat.
It was a gentle climb to start with, and she didn't hurry.
The trees and hedges were in leaf, there were lambs bleating and birds singing and the sky was blue, a washed-out blue, dotted with small woolly clouds. She stopped to stare up at it; it was indeed a beautiful morning, and she was glad that she had rebelled against the routine of housework and cooking. No doubt her father would be coldly angry when she got back, but nothing he could say would spoil her pleasure now.
The last bit of Barrow Hill was quite steep, along a path bordered by thick undergrowth, but presently it opened out onto rough ground covered in coarse grass and strewn with rocks, offering a splendid view of the surrounding countryside. It was a solitary spot, but she saw that today she was going to have to share it with someone else. A man was sitting very much at ease on one of the larger rocksthe one, she noticed crossly, which she considered her own.
He had turned round at the sound of her careful progress through the stones and grass tufts, and now he stood up. A very tall man, with immensely broad shoulders, wearing casual tweeds. As she went towards him she saw that he was a handsome man too, but past his first youth. Nearer forty than thirty, she reflected as she wished him good morning, casting a look at her rock as she did so.
His 'Good morning,' was cheerful. Am I trespassing on your rock?'
She was rather taken aback. 'Well, it's not my rock, but whenever I come up here I sit on it.'
He smiled, and she found herself smiling back. He had a nice smile and it was unexpected, for his features were forbidding in reposea powerful nose, heavy-lidded blue eyes and a thin mouth above the decidedly firm chin. Not a man to treat lightly, she thought.
She sat down without fuss on the rock, and he sat on a tree stump some yards away. He said easily, 'I didn't expect to find anyone here. It's quite a climb '
'Not many people come up here for that reason, and, of course, those living in the village mostly go to Yeovil to work each day. In the summer sometimes people come and picnic. Not often, though, for they can't bring a car near enough '
'So you have it to yourself?'
She nodded. 'But I don't come as often as I would like to '
'You work in Yeovil too?'
He asked the question so gently that she answered, 'Oh, no. I live at home.'
He glanced at her hands, lying idly in her lap. Small hands, roughened by work, not the hands of a lady of leisure. She caught his glance and said in a matter-of-fact way, 'I look after my father and run the house.'
'And you have escaped? Just for a while?'
'Well, yes. You see, it's my birthday '
'Then I must wish you a very happy day.' When she didn't reply, he added, 'I expect you will be celebrating this evening? A party? Family?'
'No. My brothers and their families don't live very close to us.'
Ah, wellbut there is always the excitement of the postman, isn't there?'
She agreed so bleakly that he began to talk about the country around them; a gentle flow of conversation which soothed her, so that presently she was able to tell him some of the local history and point out the landmarks.
But a glance at her watch set her on her feet. 'I must go.' She smiled at him. 'I enjoyed talking to you. I do hope you will enjoy your stay here.'
He got up and wished her a pleasant goodbye, and if she had half hoped that he would suggest going back to the village with her she was disappointed.
It had been pleasant, she reflected, going hurriedly back along the path. He had seemed like an old friend, and she suspected that she had talked too much. But that wouldn't matter; she wasn't likely to see him again. He had told her casually that he was a visitor. And now she came to think of it he hadn't sounded quite English
She reached the house a little out of breath; her father had his coffee at eleven o'clock each morning and it was five minutes to the hour. She put the kettle on, still in her jacket, and ground the beans, then kicked off her shoes, smoothed her hair, laid a tray and, once more her quiet self, went up to her father's room.
He was sitting in his great armchair by the window, reading. He looked up as she went in. 'There you are. Gregory telephoned. He has a great deal of work. He hopes to see you at the weekend.'
'Did he wish me a happy birthday?' She put down the tray and waited hopefully.