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GRACE MORLAND WAS SITTING on the terrace outside Stephen Pendock's house, putting the finishing touches to a wishy-washy sketch of the Old Church Tower in the Snow. To the left, the railway line made an interesting pattern, smudged abruptly across the plump white downs; to the right a factory chimney reared its sooty finger and a column of grey-black smoke rolled grandly against the wintry sky; but Grace Morland's eye was systematically blinkered against atrocities made by man. She ignored the chimney, put in the downs without the railway, and concentrated upon the church tower which, having been erected to the glory of God, could be relied upon to be picturesque.
It had other advantages than this, for it necessitated a fluttering request that she might be permitted to sit, as quiet as a mouse, upon Stephen Pendock's terrace so as to get the only perfect view. "I shan't be in anybody's way," she had promised, looking up at him with her yearning pale-blue eyes; "I shall sit as quiet as a teeny mouse, and be no trouble to anyone ..."
It was certainly unlikely that she would be very much in anybody's way, out on a snow-covered terrace in the teeth of a biting wind. "Why, certainly," Pendock had said, eyeing her with tolerant indifference; "as long as you like. But haven't you done it before?"
Of course she had done it before. The Old Church Tower in Bluebell Time, hung, even now, over her mantelpiece at Pigeonsford Cottage; the Church Tower, Autumn, was pushed away into the cupboard underneath Pendock's own stairs, to be produced whenever he had notice of her coming to the house and hung up on the dining-room wall. Spring, summer, autumn and winter she asked, twittering, if she might sit on the terrace and be no trouble to anyone; and spring, summer, autumn and winter she sat so late that he was obliged to ask her to tea or dinner before she went home, and, finally, whether he might not see her to her door; but spring, summer, autumn or winter, so far, he had never proposed.
Pendock was fifty: a tall, straight, good-looking man, with hair growing becomingly grey above his ears, and eyes of a quite amazing deep blue-green. Lying at the edge of a cliff looking down into the clear, cold water of the Cornish seas, you looked into the very depth and colour of Pendock's eyes. Kind eyes, good eyes, humorous, warm, friendly eyes; but not loving eyes; not sentimental eyes; not, anyway, for Grace.
She looked anxiously at her watch. Half-past four and the light was getting so dim that, really, she had no excuse for sitting out there any longer. She pondered the advisability of putting in a plea to be permitted to come again to-morrow; but to-morrow the remains of the snow would probably be gone. It was thick on the downs still, but down here in the valley it was rapidly melting away, and she had had to use a good deal of imagination, even as things were. Of course the wind was very cold—it might snow tonight ... But surely someone would come out of the house soon, and ask her to stay to tea. Perhaps they had forgotten her. Pendock had guests, she knew: Lady Hart, who had been a friend of his family from the days before he was born, who had stayed at Pigeonsford since his grandfather's time, was there now with her two granddaughters; and Henry Gold who had married Venetia Hart, one of the granddaughters; she imagined them all sitting indoors over a cosy tea—herself, forgotten, left out on the terrace in the bitter cold. There was no pretext for going back into the house, for if she were to keep to her promise of being no trouble to anyone, all she had to do was to walk down the steps of the terrace, pick her way through the melting snow on the lawn, nip over the little bridge that divided Pendock's garden from the orchards that surrounded the Cottage, and be having tea in her own drawing-room by a quarter to five. She began reluctantly to clean up her palette and put her brushes away.
Voices from the french window behind her considerably accelerated this process, and a sleek black dachshund arrived upon the scene and commenced investigations. Venetia Gold and her sister Francesca stepped out on to the terrace.
Miss Morland who had been expecting them for the past half-hour was, of course, quite overcome by surprise. "Oh, Mrs. Gold! Miss Hart! how you startled me! I was just going to pack up my things and creep away quietly to my little house. A teeny mouse, no trouble to anyone!"
"Wouldn't you like some tea before you go?" asked Venetia, politely speaking her piece. "Mr. Pendock said we must bring you in to tea."
"Can we have a look at your picture first?" said Fran, who had rather forgotten what Miss Morland's pictures were apt to be like. "Everything looks so lovely in the snow, doesn't it? Even these rather sloppy downs take on a bit more meaning with the trees so black and the railway line running up the valley and all that ..." They both moved round and stood before the easel.
"How exquisite they are!" thought Grace wistfully, for though Venetia was safely married to that dreadful little Jew, Henry Gold, Francesca was only too free, only too free, thought Grace darkly, and so very, so painfully, pretty. Venetia was like her name, all Gold: a golden cobweb that looked as if it might, at any moment, to be blown away by the lightest breath of wind to some enchanted land where it really belonged; but Fran, as slim and tall and delicately built as her twin, with the same little hands and narrow, high-arching feet, had yet a look of staunchness about her, a look of courage and resolution as though she would match herself against the world and come out, lightheartedly, the victor. She was as dark as her sister was fair, with black, soft, curling hair and bright, dark eyes; with a generous mouth, generously smeared with scarlet lipstick, so that she looked like a tropical flower blooming in this English garden. Flowers! thought Grace. Cobwebs! If Grace were like a flower, it was a thoroughly British one, a bluebell that looked all right in a wood, but faded and drooped when you came up to it; if she were like a cobweb, it was just an ordinary, dusty grey cobweb, with never a glint of gold. And what chance had she against all this riot of colour and beauty, all this youth and life and gaiety that the Hart sisters carried with them in their shining eyes and eager, exquisite hands; what chance, at thirty-eight, what chance had Grace?
They stood before the picture, hugging their arms because they were cold. "Aziz darling, not on Miss Morland's easel," they said to the dachshund; and Venetia, always polite and kind, turned back to the painting and added: "It's awfully pretty, Miss Morland. The church tower. How—how pretty!"
There was a sort of ruthlessness about Fran. She faced the truth so squarely for herself that she could not be hypocritical for others, even to be kind. She struggled to say something nice about the water-colour, but round the edges of her goodwill the truth came bursting forth; she said abruptly: "But why do the church tower, when it's so particularly hideous?"
Poor thing! Just unable to appreciate beauty, that was all. Useless, Grace knew, to try to explain to those that could not see for themselves, the artistic values of a church tower peeping through an orchard, with the little round copse on the right and her own snug cottage pairing off so nicely on the left. Just the roofs visible above Mr. Pendock's fruit trees, no troublesome perspectives at all ...
"And besides," said Francesca, peering at the sketch in the gathering dusk, "isn't that the wood where the kitchen-maid was killed?"
A kitchen-maid—not Grace's kitchen-maid or Pendock's, but just a kitchen-maid—had parted with her lover one evening in the previous summer and had subsequently been found in a truly appalling condition: for her hands had been bound behind her with her own belt, and her head severed from her body with one sweep of a large, sharp scythe which lay by her side; and body, head and weapon had been thrown carelessly at the foot of a tree as though the murderer had suddenly grown tired of his ghastly work and abandoned it without care or concealment. It was this very lack of precaution that had made it so hard for the police to find anything to go upon; there was no grim parcel done up in laundry-marked clothes, no surgical dismemberment, no tell-tale length of rope, no sailors' knots. The lover had, of course, been sought out and questioned exhaustively, and friends and relatives had been interviewed again and again, but to no avail. Such few poor shillings as the kitchen-maid had possessed, had remained untouched in her handbag; a tawdry brooch had been torn from her frock, examined perhaps and found to be worthless, and tossed back again on to her breast; beyond this, beyond the pitiful body at the foot of the tree, there had been no sign of what had passed during that night of horror in the little wood. Maniac, avenger, thief?—her assailant had gone his way and left no trace.
Fran led them back through the french windows, into the drawing-room. "Come on, Aziz darling. Oh, look, sweetie, you've got your feet all wet and mucky!" She hoicked the squirming dog into her arms and dried his paws with her handkerchief. "Here's Miss Morland," she announced to Pendock, who stood with his back to the big log fire. "She's been doing the most gruesome picture of the wood where the kitchen-maid was found."
Pendock shuddered, for he had been among the first to be called when a terrified local had stumbled over the girl's body in the copse. "Poor child," he said. "It was a ghastly business; I shall never forget her parents, what a state they were in, and the wretched young man ... and her—her head ..." He went very white and added, as though to turn his thoughts away from the dreadful vision: "It's past clearing up now, I suppose. Some tramp; hoped she might have money ..."
"What an upheaval there was in the village," said Fran, tenderly depositing Aziz upon one of the drawing-room chairs. "Detectives and photographers and reporters swarming all over the place. I shouldn't think there's ever been such an excitement here before."
"I hope there never will be again," said Pendock devoutly.
"Were you staying here at the time, then?" asked Grace of Francesca, making ineffectual little dabs at Aziz, who had immediately jumped off the chair and now sat staring disconcertingly into her face.
"It was just at the end of our holiday," explained Venetia. "Fran and Granny were staying with Mr. Pendock as usual, and Henry and I were here for the last week of our honeymoon. It wouldn't have seemed like summer, if I hadn't spent at least part of it with Pen." She smiled at him affectionately.
"And how is dear Lady Hart?"
"Oh, she's all right; she'll be down in a minute. Did you know James Nicholl was here?"
James Nicholl was a young man who kept a sailing-boat in the bay, and spent most of his holidays at the local pub. She remembered him best as a vague, rather droopy, very untidy undergraduate; latterly he had taken a somewhat indifferent interest in his family business and become a little less untidy, though remaining as dreamy as ever. He was under the guardianship of his uncle, a stern old man who had kept a careful eye upon his nephew's more or less blameless activities, until the first threat of war had sent him scuttling off to America; and much good that had done him, thought Grace with self- satisfied irony, for only yesterday she had seen his obituary notices in the papers. No doubt Mr. Nicholl would come in for a nice fat fortune; and she had heard that he was in the Army too ...
"What a pleasure; and I hear he is in uniform now?"
"Yes, definitely our Brave Boy in Brown," said Fran, gently mocking. "He doesn't know which hand to salute with or who to salute, and I'm sure he's always stepping off with the wrong foot, but otherwise he's tremendous. Mr. Pendock's doing his bit by having him here for his seven days' leave; aren't you, Pen darling?"
Thank goodness for that, anyway, thought Grace, toasting her frozen feet at the fire. Perhaps Francesca would turn her attentions to young Nicholl, now that he had come in for a bit of money, and leave Mr. Pendock alone. Pen darling, indeed! She wished that tea would arrive.
"Here's Granny," said Fran, and the two girls went to the door. "Hallo, darling; have you had your snooze?"
Their grandmother was an old lady whose tiny head looked like nothing so much as a pea perched upon a goodly cottage loaf. She rolled joyously into the room, beaming at them all. "... and here's Miss Morland," said Venetia.
"She's been painting the copse where that girl was killed last summer," said Fran, who could not get over this singular choice on the part of the soulful Grace.
Lady Hart looked mildly surprised, but under cover of Grace's protestations sank into a chair. "Thank goodness, here are Henry and James," she said. "I want my tea."
At first glance you would have said that they were an oddly assorted couple to be such close friends. Henry Gold was, without having the characteristic features, unmistakably Jewish. He was a small, slim, ugly man, with a friendly, rather puck-like smile that lit up his face into eagerness and gave him a quite overwhelming charm. James Nicholl, standing in the doorway beside him, was nearly a head taller, with stooping shoulders and heavy- lidded, sleepy eyes, and the rather vacant look of the intellectual mind withdrawn from the teeming personal life without. Henry, beneath a veneer of super-sophistication, was vividly and immediately interested in even the simplest things that made up life; James accorded to time on the wing only the courtesy of a sleepy, mocking, self-deprecatory smile. He alone of the three men was in uniform.
Grace Morland was thrilled. "How splendid to see you, Mr. Nicholl, and in khaki! Or should one say Captain?—or Major? All those lovely pips! I feel quite honoured to shake hands with you."
"Do you?" said James, surprised.
"And were you in France during all that dreadful time? Dunkirk? Do tell me about your adventures. Or perhaps ..." she lowered her voice to a sickening whisper—"perhaps you'd rather not speak of it?"
James was perfectly willing to speak of it, but not to Miss Morland. "He spent the entire time crouching under a pier," said Henry, to rescue him, "reading a pocket edition of 'Love's Labour's Lost.'"
Jealous, of course. These Jews! "I see that you're not in uniform, Mr. Gold," said Grace.
"Henry happens to be in a reserved occupation," said Venetia, flaming at once in defence of her husband. "He offered himself at the very beginning of the war, but they made him stick where he is."
Henry grinned behind his hand. Dear Venetia! As if he cared two hoots what this ridiculous old spinster thought of him; but deep down in his heart his casual dislike took on a sharper form.
Aziz removed himself, apparently in disgust, and embarked upon a complicated toilet in the middle of the hearthrug. "Darling, not here," said Fran, upsetting his equilibrium with the toe of her shoe. "It's rude."
Quite extraordinary, thought Grace, who had been lost in contemplation of a distant object, drawing attention to it like that. She said, for want of something to fill up the gap, which nobody had noticed but herself: "Aziz! what an odd name!"
"It's because he's our Black Boy," said Venetia, as if that explained everything.
Miss Morland looked blank. "After the little doctor, in 'Passage to India,'" explained Henry courteously. "His mother was called Esmiss Esmoor."
Grace assumed her Boots's Library look, tapping her front teeth with her thumb-nail, rolling her faded blue eyes. "'Passage to India—Passage to India.' No! Haven't come across it." That dismissed 'Passage to India'; but she added affectedly: "Odd; because I'm so fond of travel books."
There was a rather appalling silence; she could see that she had gone wrong somewhere, and sought to cover it by saying brightly: "Fancy having, a dachs-hund! I don't think I should care to; not in war-time, anyway."
"Wouldn't you? How silly!" said Fran. Lady Hart suggested mildly from her arm-chair that they could hardly put Aziz into cold storage until the war was over.
"Oh, of course I know that some people get very fond of a dog," said Grace hastily. "I'm sure he's a dear little fellow. Where did you get him from?"
Excerpted from Heads You Lose by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1988 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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