The old woman sat at her window, her usual position, and watched, waiting. It was noon in Langford, and if there was to be any activity on the high street (described as “one of the most beautiful streets in England” by DK Eyewitness, “picture-postcard perfect” in the Rough Guide, and “chintzy” in Lonely Planet), it would be at this time.
There might be a couple of ladies walking to lunch at the tea shop. Or some weekenders emerging from Knick-Knacks, one of the many gift shops that sold Medici Society note cards, chintz cushions, and “vintage” mirrors. Or perhaps a group of American tourists, rarer at this time of year, distressingly loud, having visited the house where Jane Austen spent several months staying with an old friend. (The house, formerly known as 12 St. Catherine’s Street, was now the Jane Austen Centre, a museum which contained a glove of the great author’s, a letter from her describing Langford as “neither incommodious nor invidious, yet I cannot like it,” and a first edition of Emma, inscribed, “To Lord Mortmain, in respect of his great knowledge, this little offering.” But since the author was anonymous until she died, it was generally agreed it wasn’t her inscription, anyway.)
Perhaps she might spot a bus trip taking people to Langford Regis, the famous Roman villa nearby (home to some of the best mosaics of Roman Britain and a new heritage trail promising a fun day out for all the family). Perhaps even a film crew: they were increasingly common in Langford these days. But whatever it was, Leonora Mortmain would have seen it before, in some form or another. For, as she was fond of telling her housekeeper, Jean, she had seen most things in the town. And nothing surprised her anymore.
She watched them walk past with a weary disdain: the tourists, lured from London or Bath for the day, even on this cold January morning, clutching their guidebooks, reading aloud to each other. And there was her old adversary, Mick Hopkins, the publican at the Feathers. He was putting a sign out on the road. Leonora couldn’t make out the bright chalk lettering, and her glasses were on the other side of the room, in the bureau. Something annoying, no doubt; some quiz night that would mean everyone became disgracefully inebriated and staggered out onto the street, calling names and making noise, waking her all too easily from a restless sleep. Leonora Mortmain sighed, and her long fingers briefly clutched her skirt. Sometimes she wondered, quite literally, what the world was coming to. The town she had known all her life was changing. And she didn’t like it.
There was a picture in the town hall (renamed the Civic Centre in the eighties, now mercifully re-renamed). Leonora had a copy too. It showed the Langford Parish Council on Easter Day 1904, outside St. Mary’s Church, behind the high street. Men in morning suits, top hats, and gloves, with walking sticks, their sepia faces serious and respectable, their wives demurely on their arms, expressionless and slim in pintucked, ruffled Edwardian dresses. Everything correct, respectful. The church noticeboard in the background was freshly painted. Even the urchin playing in the street in the foreground, unseen by the subjects of the photograph—even he was clean and presentable! The previous day, Leonora had watched in amazement and horror as a mother—she presumed she was the mother—pushed her child along the high street in a baby carriage with one hand. The woman was fat, red-faced, and sweating, holding a cigarette with the hand that steered the carriage and eating a meat pie of some description in the other. She was dressed in pink jogging bottoms; the child was filthy. And she was shouting at it as she went. “Shut the **** up, Tiffany!” she’d screamed, as the child screamed back. And then later that same day, as evening came, a troop of girls, no more than teen-agers, walking along toward the bus stop, wearing jeans and sneakers and tops that displayed more than enough of their cleavages, smoking and drinking out of cans. One of them—no more than fourteen, Leonora estimated—stopped and kissed, in a most unseemly way, a youth of the same age, whose hands had roved over her body like—like oil in a pan. And under her clothes! Leonora had watched it all from the window.
Extraordinary! Incredible! That the town had come to this, and Leonora increasingly had no remedy for it. O tempora, O mores, her father had been wont to say (although he disapproved of Cicero in many ways). Well, what Sir Charles Mortmain would have made of his beloved town now, she shuddered to think. She simply could not imagine. Leonora Mortmain shifted uneasily in her seat, and her hand restlessly stroked the bell that lay near her at all times.
Her father was a man who cast a long shadow: a passionate classicist, author of Roman Society (Heinemann, 1933), which expounded the virtues of Imperial Rome (its organization, its rules, its ruthlessness), omitting many of its more interesting vices (vomitoriums, poisonings, slave boys). Young Leonora (many doubted such a beast had ever existed, but it had) had lived in fear of him, desperate for his approval. He had died in 1952. She wondered, often, what he would have made of things now.
The fact that his own daughter had been eventually forced, because of inheritance taxes, to sell Langford Hall in 1960, the Victorian Gothic manor house at the edge of the town, was something that still, nearly forty years on, gave her pause. Langford Hall was now Langford College, a private institution that at least taught respectable things, like history of art, French, the classics, of course, and so on. But no matter how respectable it was, she knew Father wouldn’t have liked it.
Leonora Mortmain took a deep breath. Thinking about her father brought back painful memories. She had been feeling older lately, and these days she kept thinking about the past. More and more. She had a final plan afoot—one that she knew was right, but which sometimes made even her quail at the thought of what she was doing . . .
Something caught her eye, and Leonora sat back in her chair. A tall, darkish blond boy—well, she supposed he was a man now. He appeared outside the pub and started chatting to Mick Hopkins. He clapped the older man on the back as they laughed about something, his wide, easy smile infectious.
Leonora knew them both. Mick Hopkins had been at the Feathers for more than thirty years now. They said he was a good landlord; Leonora had never been inside the pub, though she had lived opposite it for forty years. She supposed he was an inoffensive man in his way, compared to some of the people she was forced to watch on a regular basis, but she didn’t care for him. He was responsible for so much of the bad behavior she saw outside her window, and whenever she complained, he brushed her aside, politely, but she could tell he was laughing at her. She hated that, hated it.
Her eyes fell, almost greedily, on the man he was with. It was Adam Smith, Philippa Smith’s son. Leonora watched him carefully, knowing she was spying, but just for once letting her curiosity get the better of her.
When he was eleven, Adam had won the top prize at Langford Primary, for outstanding achievement. Leonora had offered to pay his school fees. It was the right thing to do. He was an extremely intelligent boy, he had been offered a part scholarship, as a weekly boarder, to —— School, and his mother couldn’t afford for him to take it up. Leonora had stepped in, enjoying the slightly surprised murmurs of approval that greeted the announcement that she was paying for his education. She would do it every year, she said, fund the brightest pupil from the school through to graduation, as a memorial to her father.
But to Leonora’s immense displeasure, Adam had gone bad. His mother had died, suddenly, when he was almost eighteen, dropped dead in the street of a brain aneurysm. A terrible thing and a shock to everyone, but Adam had gone to pieces. He had failed, soon after his mother’s death, to get the results he needed for Cambridge, and he had gone on failing ever since. He didn’t seem to care about that fine mind of his after that; he would rather loll about on the street chatting and laughing like a common idiot, not like the gentleman he should be. She had had such high hopes for him, had seen his education as her chance to create something out of nothing, and it had failed . . . Leonora Mortmain blinked, realizing she was staring rather too intently out the window at the young man.
She rang the bell with fury, shaking her head querulously. Too tiresome to think about all that now.
“Mrs. Mortmain?” Jean Forbes bustled into the room. “Are you all right, Mrs. Mortmain?” The “Mrs.” was a courtesy: no one quite knew why or where it had started, but no one dared call her “Miss” now. Much less “Ms.,” though some would have loved to have tried.
“I am well,” said Leonora, collecting herself once more. She looked out the window, searching for composure. Her eye fell upon a girl in jeans and a light blue top, ambling slowly along the street toward where Adam Smith stood with Mick from the Feathers. “Tell me, who is that?”
The inhabitants of Langford believed Jean Forbes put up with a great deal. Leonora Mortmain didn’t pay well, and she was an extremely difficult woman, who almost went out of her way to be unpleasant. Poor Jean, people said. That awful, dried-up old crone—imagine having to live with her! Did you hear, she tripped Ron Thaxton up with her walking stick, because he was in her way? She told Jan Allingham that she believed charity should be in the home and nowhere else, when she came round collecting for Cancer Research. The list went on and on.
For her part, Jean knew they said it; on certain days, she couldn’t blame them for saying it. But luckily for Leonora, Jean’s nature was good and kind and, most importantly, patient. “You rang very loudly. I thought you were—,” she began.
“What?” snapped Leonora. “I asked you who that”—she jabbed the window with a long finger, magenta-nailed and crowned with a thick gold and garnet ring—“was.”
Jean looked now as if she were about to say something, but she thought better of it and looked out the window. The girl and Adam had recognized each other and were embracing, laughing heartily as they did so. He patted her on the back and lifted her up so her feet were off the ground as Mick went inside, leaving them chattering happily together. Jean screwed up her eyes.
“Oh, my goodness,” she said, after a moment. “Isn’t that Frank and Emily’s daughter?”
“And who might they be?” asked Leonora Mortmain.
“Tess,” Jean said. “I’m sure that’s Tess Tennant. Ah! Bless her! Sweet girl. The doctor’s daughter. Dr. Tennant? He came when you had that problem with your foot. You used to like her, remember? She went off to become a classics teacher. She and Adam were such friends. Looks like she hasn’t seen him for a while.” She clapped her hands together. “Of course! Didn’t Carolyn Tey tell me that she’s joining Langford College in a couple of weeks? She’s the new Classical Civilization tutor there.”
“Is this true?”
Jean blinked. “Well, yes, of course it’s true. Do you remember, Derek what’s-his-name had to leave before Christmas, he got shingles? They’ve been desperate for someone ever since.” She looked at her employer, realizing she was gabbling, and sighed. “Carolyn’s signed up for a course, Mrs. Mortmain! They’re going on a trip to Rome in May!” Jean sighed. “Ooh. I’d love to go to Rome.”
Rome. Rome, in May. In the plans that Leonora had had when she was young, Rome had figured large. And it would mean she could go back to the house, legitimately go back once more, as a student, not as a young girl living there. Just once more, before she died. Leonora pretended to ignore Jean, leaning back toward the window, watching Tess, who was explaining something to Adam. He stood listening intently to her, hugging himself, his hands tucked under his armpits. Tess ran her hands through her black hair, and it stuck up a little at the back. Rome. Rome.
“Hm,” said Leonora. “Well, I don’t remember her.” She wrinkled her brow, as if searching for a memory.
“You do remember, Mrs. Mortmain,” Jean said. “She used to play with Adam—Adam Smith—all the time. Best of friends when they were little. It’s nice to see her again,” she said ruminatively. “Nice to have a young face move back to the town, isn’t it?”
“Ye-es,” said Leonora slowly, not really listening. Her gaze had slid from the girl to the poster she was now reading, stuck crudely onto the old blackened wood of the archway. “Jean, ah, what does that poster say?” she asked.
“ ‘Stop the Out-of-Town Superstores,’” Jean read slowly.“ ‘Shame on the Mortmains! Save Langford!’ Oh,” she said, realizing what she’d just said. “Oh, Mrs. Mortmain, I’m sure it doesn’t mean . . .”
Leonora stood up, leaning heavily on the windowsill. She was shaking. She peered forward, the better to see the poster:
STOP THE OUT-OF-TOWN SUPERSTORESSAVE THE WATER MEADOWS!!!!
SHAME ON THE MORTMAINS!
If YOU want to stop Leonora Mortmain from ruining OUR town with these plans for 2 megamarkets, a homeware store, and 4 other retail outlets, to be built on the historic Langford water meadows, which will make HER RICH and KILL THE TOWN AND OUR BEAUTIFUL WATER MEADOWS, come to the Feathers, March 15th, for a town meeting. Call Andrea Marsh, Ronald Thaxton or Jon Suggs for more information! Get involved!
“Oh, dear,” said Jean, as her employer sank back into the silk chair, breathing fast. “I didn’t want you to see it—”
“Don’t be stupid,” Leonora snapped. Her mind was racing, almost as fast as her heart. “It was bound to happen, sooner or later. And the sooner they realize it’s our land, to do with it what we wish, the better. The plans are already approved in principle.” She looked around her lovely sitting room and then out onto the street again, at the poster, as Tess and Adam walked away, still talking. Adam looked across, toward the house. Leonora shrank against the curtains. She did not want him to see her.
“So,” she said. “It’s started, then.” She paused. “Well, everyone needs to understand. It’s for the best.”
Jean Forbes said nothing as Leonora Mortmain turned to the window again and resumed staring out onto the street.
© 2009 Harriet Evans