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The winding stone staircase in the corner tower was gloomy excepting for the regular patches of sunlight from the narrow slit windows set at intervals in its thick stone walls, but the girl running up the worn steps thought nothing of the gloom; she was well accustomed to it. She paused now, half way up, to peer out of one of the windows, craning her neck to look along the back drive to Dimworth House. It was almost two o'clock and the first of the visitors were already driving slowly down the narrow, ill-made lane which ran for a mile or more on its way from the main road.
The girl turned her bright coppery head to look down at the wide gravel path bordered by lawns and herbaceous borders, to where, beyond the open gate at its far end, the field used as a car park was waiting, empty, for the cars to fill it. It promised to be a good day in terms of entrance fees; although Dimworth House was one of the smaller stately homes open to the public, it was doing quite nicely, although it meant hard work for the family, and indeed, for everyone connected with the estate. The girl left the window presently, ran up the last curve of the narrow staircase, and pushed open the arched door at its top. It led to a small circular lobby, panelled and empty of furniture. She crossed this, opened the door in the opposite wall and entered a short, carpeted corridor, the walls hung with paintings and with a number of doors in its inner wall. There was a rather fine staircase half way along it, leading to the floor below, and a long latticed window lighting the whole, although not very adequately. The girl hurried along with the air of one familiar with her surroundings and knocked on the end door, and on being bidden to enter, did so.
The apartment was large, low-ceilinged and panelled, furnished with a variety of antique furniture, presided over by an enormous fourposter bed, and was occupied by a very upright elderly lady, sitting at a writing table under the window. She looked up as the girl went in, said: 'Ah, Jenny,' in a commanding voice and laid down her pen.
The girl had a charming voice. 'I found Baxter, he was in the water garden. He'll do the ticketshe's putting on a tie and washing his hands, and Mrs Thorpe says she'll take over from me at four o'clock.' She glanced at the carriage clock on the desk. 'I'd better get down to the hall, the cars are starting to arrive, Aunt Bess.'
'Dear child!' declared her aunt. 'I can't imagine what we shall do when you go back to that hospital tomorrow.' She coughed. 'I'm afraid it hasn't been much of a holiday for you.'
Her niece smiled. 'I've loved it,' she assured her relation, 'it's been a nice change from theatre, you know. I'm sorry I can't stay here for the rest of the summer.' She had wandered to the window to look out, and the sunshine shone on her bright hair, tied back loosely, and her pretty face, with its hazel eyes, thickly fringed, little tiptilted nose and generous mouth. She was of average height, nicely rounded and gloriously tanned with a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
The Hon. Miss Elizabeth Creed, her mother's sister and a lady of forceful disposition, smiled as she watched her, for she was the only one, bar her great-nephew, for whom she had any affection. Jenny had never allowed her aunt's caustic tongue to worry her; and although she had been left an orphan at an early age, she had never once asked for money or help of any kind. True, she had a quite adequate income of her own from the trust set up for her by her parents, as well as her salary, but that was chickenfeed compared to the annual revenues enjoyed by her aunt and the very generous allowance given to her dead cousin's widow and small son, Oliver, who would one day inherit Dimworth and a handsome fortune with it. In the meantime, however, his mother chose to live in Scotland with her parents, and the house was run by his great-aunt until such time as he was considered old enough to do this for himself.
Jenny, who spent her holidays with Aunt Bess, thought it a great pity that the little boy didn't live at Dimworth, for it was a beautiful place and peaceful, and her cousin, who had died in an air crash a year or so after his marriage, had loved it dearly and would surely have wanted his son to have been brought up there, but Margaret, his widow, had never liked it over-much; she came to stay from time to time, but always made it clear to the rest of the family that she was glad to go again. She would be coming within a few days, bringing the little boy with her, and Jenny had every intention of spending all her days off at Dimworth while he was there, for the two of them were the greatest of friends, and Margaret, beautiful and languid and not particularly maternal, soon tired of his youthful high spirits.
Jenny, leaving her aunt to her writing, skipped down the staircase, crossed the landing below and opened a carved oak door on to a richly furnished sitting room overlooking the front of the house, and through which she threaded her way without loss of time, to go through a small, very old arched door cut into one of its walls. It led to another staircase, a very small one, down which she trod, to open an even smaller door at the bottom opening directly into the entrance hall of the house. There was a large table set in the centre of this vast area, laid out neatly with brochures, postcards, small souvenirs, pots of homemade jam and the like, and she made for the chair at its centre and took her seat just as the first of the visitors poked enquiring heads through the open doors.
The next two hours went fast. Jenny had been right, there were a good number of visitors, and when she had done her stint in the hall and Mrs Thorpe, the vicar's wife, very correctly dressed in her best summer two-piece and a good hat, had taken over from her, she went across to the old stables, converted into a tea-room, and found that it was nicely filled with family parties, tucking into their cream teas. Florrie, the indispensable housekeeper, and her niece Felicity were managing very well between them, so Jenny made her way back to the house, to enter it by a small door at the side, which led via a back hall into the last of the chain of rooms on view to the publicthe dining room, sombre and panelled in oak, its refectory table and massive oak chairs protected by crimson ropes, and the silver goblets and plates on the great table protected by a burglar alarm which no one could see; they gleamed richly against the dark wood.
There were a dozen people there, standing about staring at the treasures around them, gazing without a great deal of interest at the dark oil paintings on the wallsfamily portraits, and not very colourful ones, although if any of them had studied them closely they would have noticed that most of them portrayed a variety of people with coppery hair, just like Jenny's.
The next room leading from the dining room was crowded, as it usually was; it was a small apartment, its walls lined with bookshelves, and arranged on a number of small tables was the collection of dolls which Aunt Bess had occupied herself in collecting over the years. This small room led in its turn to the blue drawing room, lofty and rather grand with its ornate ceiling and silk-hung walls, and furnished with gilded chairs and tables and a magnificent harpsichord. The little anteroom leading from it was far more to Jenny's taste; panelled in pinewood and rather crowded with Regency furniture, surprisingly comfortable to sit on. The family sometimes used the room in the summer, but once the evenings became chilly it was more prudent to stay in the private wing, for a small staircase led from the anteroom, up and down which the wind whistled, leaving anyone silly enough to sit there chilled to the bone.
Jenny didn't pause, but went up the staircase to cast an eye over the three bedrooms on view. No one had used them for very many years now. Their fourposters were magnificent, the heavy tables and mirrors and chests worth a fortune, but they held little comfort. There were quite a few people here too; she mingled with them, answering a few questions and cautioning people that the stone staircase leading down to the hall was worn in places and needed care before slipping away again, this time to go through yet another of the small doors which peppered the house, into the private wing. It was cosy here, with thick carpets underfoot, damask curtains at the mullioned windows, and a nicely balanced mixture of period furniture. Jenny's room was down a narrow passage, a roomy apartment with a small sitting room adjoining it and a bathroom on its other side. She had always occupied it, ever since, as a small child, she had spent her holidays at Dimworth.
She went straight to the wall closet now, gathered an armful of clothes and began to pack with speed and neatness. She intended leaving early the next morning, driving herself in the Morgan two-seater which Aunt Bess had given her for her twenty-first birthday; she had had it for four years now, and drove it superbly, making light of the journey to and from London, a journey she made at least twice a month. She would have liked to have spent all her days off at Dimworth, but she had a great many friends in and around the hospitalbesides, Toby Blake, the elder son of Aunt Bess's nearest neighbour, might feel encouraged to propose to her yet again if she went down there too often. She frowned now, thinking about him; she supposed that sooner or later she would marry him, not because she was in love with him, but because they had known each other for such a long time and everyone expected them to. She was aware that this was no reason to accept him, but he did persist. 'Water wearing out a stone,' she commented to the room around her as she shut her case, took a cursory look in the mirror and went to find her aunt.
Tea was a meal which, on the days when the house was open to the public, was a moveable feast in the small sitting room on the ground floor. Anyone who had the time had a cup, and old Grimshaw, the butler, made it his business to tread to and fro with fresh tea as it was required. He was on the lookout now for Jenny and as she gained the lower hall, said in his fatherly fashion: 'I'll bring tea at once, Miss Jenny,' and disappeared through the baize door beside the stairs, kitchenwards.
Jenny called after him: 'Oh, good,' and added: 'I'm famished, Grimshaw,' as she opened the door and went in. Her aunt was sitting by the open window, her tea on the sofa table beside her chair.
'I must have an aspirin,' she declared in a voice so unlike her own that Jenny hurried over to her. 'I have the most terrible headache.'
'You've been working too hard, Aunt Bess. I'll get them in your room?'
Her aunt nodded and she sped away to return at the same time as Grimshaw with the teapot. She poured her aunt another cup and shook out two tablets and offered them to her. 'Do you often get headaches?' she enquired, casting a professional eye over the elderly white strained face.
'I've never had a headache in my life before,' observed Miss Creed sharply, 'only these last few weeks '
And aspirins help?'
'Not really.' She was sitting back in her chair, her eyes closed.
'Then let's get Doctor Toms to see you.'
Miss Creed opened her eyes and sat up very straight. 'We will do no such thing, Janet. I'm never ill. You will oblige me by not referring to it again.'
'Well,' said Jenny reasonably, 'if you have any more headaches like this one, I shall certainly refer to it. Probably you need stronger glasses.'
Her aunt turned her head to look at her as she stood at the table, pouring herself her tea. 'H'mperhaps that's it. You're a sensible girl, Jenny.'
Jenny smiled at her; her aunt always called her Janet when she was vexed, now she was Jenny again. They began to talk of other things and her aunt's indisposition wasn't mentioned again that day. Only the next morning when she went along to her aunt's room to wish her goodbye did that formidable lady declare: 'If ever I should be ill, Jenny, I should wish you to nurse me.' And Jenny, noting uneasily the pallor of the face on the pillows, said hearteningly: 'You're never ill, my dear, but if ever you are, yes, I'll look after youyou know that.' She bent to kiss the elderly cheek. 'You've been father and mother to me for almost all of my life, and very nice parents you've been, too.' She went to the door. 'I'll be back in ten days' time and I'll telephone late this evening unless anything crops up.'