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The Prince is coming by the one-forty-five. That means he'll be here in time for tea. Well, I do call that nice!'
No answer being made to this remark, the lady at the head of the table repeated it, adding: ‘I'm sure you'll like him. He's such a gentleman, if you know what I mean.'
Miss Cliffe raised her eyes from her own correspondence. ‘Sorry, Aunt Ermyntrude: I wasn't attending. The Prince oh yes! Then the big car will be wanted to meet the train. I'll see to it.'
‘Yes, do, dearie.' Mrs Carter restored the Prince's letter to its envelope, and stretched out a plump arm towards the toast-rack. She was a large woman, who had enjoyed, in youth, the advantages of golden hair and a pink-and-white complexion. Time had committed some ravages with both these adjuncts, but a lavish use of peroxide and the productions of a famous beauty specialist really worked wonders. If the gold of Ermyntrude's carefully waved hair was a trifle metallic, the colour in her cheeks was all and more than it had ever been. Artificial light was kinder to her than the daylight, but she never allowed this tiresome fact to worry her, applying her rouge each morning with a lavish yet skilled hand which recalled the days when she had adorned the front row of the chorus; and touching up her lashes with mascara, or (in her more dashing moments) with a species of vivid blue that was supposed to deepen the perfectly natural blue of her eyes.
The exigencies of this facial toilet apparently exhausted her matutinal energy, for she never put on her corsets until fortified by breakfast, and invariably appeared in the dining-room in a robe of silk and lace which she referred to as her négligé. Mary Cliffe, who had never been able to accustom herself to the sight of Ermyntrude's flowing sleeves trailing negligently across the butter-dishes, and occasionally, if Ermyntrude were more than usually careless, dipping into her coffee, had once suggested, with perfect tact, that she really ought to stay in bed for breakfast. But Ermyntrude was of a cheerful and a sociable disposition, and liked to preside over the breakfast-table, and to discover what were her family's plans for the day.
Mary Cliffe, who addressed her by the title of aunt, was not, in fact, her niece, but the cousin, and ward, of her husband, Wallis Carter. She was a good-looking young woman in the early twenties, with a great deal of common sense, and a tidiness of mind which years of association with Wally Carter had only served to strengthen. She was fond of Wally, in a mild way, but she was not in the least blind to his faults, and had not suffered even a small pang of jealousy when, five years before, he had, rather surprisingly, married Ermyntrude Fanshawe. The possession of a small but securely tied-up income of her own had ensured her education at a respectable boarding-school, but her holidays, owing to Wally's nomadic tendencies and frequent insolvencies, had been spent in a succession of dingy boarding-houses, and enlivened only by the calls of creditors, and the recurrent dread that Wally would succumb to the attractions of one or other of his landladies. When, during a brief period of comparative affluence, he had patronised a large hotel at a fashionable watering-place, and had had the luck to captivate Ermyntrude Fanshawe, who was an extremely rich widow, Mary, with her customary good sense, had regarded his marriage as providential. Ermyntrude was undoubtedly flamboyant, and very often vulgar, but she was good-natured, and extremely generous, and so far from resenting the existence of her husband's young ward, behaved to her with the utmost kindness, and would not hear of her leaving Wally's roof to earn her own living. If Mary wanted to work, she said, she could act as her secretary at Palings, and perhaps help with the housekeeping. ‘Besides, dearie, you'll be a real nice companion for my Vicky,' she added.
This had seemed to Mary to be a fair arrangement, although, when she met Vicky Fanshawe, a precocious schoolgirl, five years her junior, she could not feel that they were destined to become soul-mates.
Vicky, however, was being educated, at immense expense, first at a fashionable school on the south coast of England, and later at a still more fashionable finishing-school in Switzerland. During the last two years, she had spent her holidays abroad with Ermyntrude, so that Mary had hardly encountered her. Her education was now considered to be completed, and she was living at home, a source of pride and joy to her mother, but not precisely an ideal companion for Mary, who was alternately amused and exasperated by her.
She reflected, on this warm September morning, that the presence of a Russian prince in the house would be productive of all Vicky's most tiresome antics, and inquired in tones of foreboding whether the Prince were young.
‘Well, I wouldn't say young,' replied Ermyntrude, helping herself to marmalade. ‘He's at what I call the right age, if you know what I mean. You never saw anyone so distinguished and then his manners! Well, you don't meet with such polish in England, not that I'm one to run down my own country, but there it is.'
‘I don't like Russians much,' said Mary perversely. ‘They always seem to talk so much and do so little.'
‘You shouldn't be narrow-minded, dear. Besides, he isn't actually a Russian, as I've told you a dozen times. He's a Georgian he used to have a lovely estate in the Caucasus, which is somewhere near the Black Sea, I believe.'
At this moment the door opened, and Wally Carter came into the room. He was a medium-sized man, who had been good-looking in youth, but who had run rather badly to seed. His blue eyes were inclined to be bloodshot, and his mouth, under a drooping moustache, sagged a little. In the days when he had courted Ermyntrude, his fondness for strong liquor had not made him quite careless of appearances, but five years spent in opulent circumstances had caused him to deteriorate lamentably. He was naturally slovenly, and his clothes never seemed to fit him, nor his hair to be properly brushed. He was generally amiable, but grumbled a good deal, not in any bad-tempered spirit, but in a gently complaining way to which none of his family paid the slightest heed.
‘Here you are, then!' said his wife, by way of greeting. ‘Touch the bell, Mary, there's a love! We couldn't have had a better day, could we, Wally? Though, of course, as I always say, to see Palings at its best you ought to see it when the rhododendrons are out.'
‘Who wants to see it?' inquired Wally, casting a lack-lustre glance towards the window.
‘Now, Wally! As though you didn't know as well as I do that the Prince is coming today!'
This reminder seemed to set the seal to Wally's dissatisfaction. He lowered the newspaper behind which he had entrenched himself. ‘Not that fellow you picked up at Antibes?' he said.
A spark of anger gleamed in Ermyntrude's eye. ‘I don't see that you've any call to be vulgar. I should hope I didn't go picking up men at my time of life! Alexis was introduced to me by Lady Fisher, I'll have you know.'
‘Alexis!' ejaculated Wally. ‘You needn't think I'm going to go about calling the fellow by a silly name like that, because I'm not.'
‘You'll call him Prince Varasashvili, and that's all there is to it,' said Ermyntrude tartly.
‘Well, I won't. For one thing, I don't like it, and for another, I couldn't remember it not that I want to, because I don't. And if you take my advice, you'll be careful how you say it. If you start introducing this fellow as Prince Varasash whatever-it-is, you'll have people saying you've been mixing your drinks.'
‘I must say it's a bit of a tongue-twister,' remarked Mary. ‘You'll have to write it down for me, Aunt Ermy.'
‘It'll be quite all right if you just call him Prince,' said Ermyntrude kindly.
‘Well, if that's your idea of quite all right it isn't mine,' said Wally. ‘Nice fool you'll look when you say Prince, and find the poor old dog wagging his tail at you.'
This aspect of the situation struck Ermyntrude most forcibly. ‘I hadn't thought of that,' she admitted. ‘I must say, it does make things a bit awkward. I mean, you know what Prince is! It would be awful if I went and said, "Get off that chair, Prince," as I don't doubt I will do, thanks to the way you spoil that dog, Wally, and Alexis thought I was speaking to him. Oh well, Prince will have to be tied up, that's all.'
‘Now, that's one thing I won't put up with,' said Wally. ‘It's little enough I ever ask, but have my poor old dog tied up for the sake of a Russian prince I don't know and don't want to know, I won't. If you'd asked me before inviting the fellow, I should have said don't, because I don't like foreigners; but, as usual, no one consulted me.'
Ermyntrude looked concerned. ‘Well, I'm sorry you're so set against Alexis, Wally, but honestly he doesn't speak foreign.'
Wally paid not the slightest heed to this, but said: ‘A set of wasters, that's what those White Russians are. I'm not surprised they had a revolution. Serves them right! What was this chap of yours doing at Antibes? You needn't tell me! Living on some rich woman, that's what he was doing!' He found that his ward had raised her eyes quickly to his face, and was flushing rather uncomfortably, and added: ‘Yes, I know what you're thinking, but I shall be a wealthy man one of these days, so the cases aren't the same. When my Aunt Clara dies, I shall pay Ermyntrude back every penny.'
Mary made no remark. Wally's Aunt Clara, who had been an inmate for the past ten years of a Home for Mentally Deficients, was well known to her by repute, having served Wally as an excuse for his various extravagances ever since she could remember.
Ermyntrude gave a chuckle. ‘Yes, we all know about this precious Aunt Clara of yours, dearie. All I can say is, I hope you may get her money, not that there's any question of paying back between us, because there isn't; and if you're trying to cast it up at me that I grudge you anything, you know I don't grudge a penny, except for what you squander on things which we won't mention.'
This sinister reference, accompanied as it was by a rising note in his wife's voice, quelled Wally. He hastily passed his cup to her for more coffee, and greeted, with frank relief, the sudden and tempestuous entrance of his stepdaughter.
This damsel came into the room on a wave of dogs. Two cocker spaniels, Ermyntrude's Pekinese, and an overgrown Borzoi cavorted about her, and since one of the cockers had apparently been in the river, a strong aroma of dog at once pervaded the room.
‘The Sports Girl!' remarked Mary, casting an experienced eye over Vicky's costume.
This consisted of a pair of slacks, an Aertex shirt, and sandals which displayed two rows of reddened toe-nails.
‘Oh, darling, not the spaniels! Oh, if Prince hasn't been in the water again!' exclaimed Ermyntrude distressfully.
‘Poor sweets!' Vicky crooned, ejecting them from the room. ‘Lovely, lovely pets, not now! Lie down, Roy! Good Roy, lie down!'
‘What's this idea of bringing a pack of dogs in to breakfast?' demanded Wally, repulsing the advances of the Borzoi. ‘Lie down, will you? You might as well try to eat in a damned menagerie!' He added, after a glance at Vicky's costume: ‘What's more, it puts me off my food to see you in that get-up. I don't know why your mother allows it.'
‘Oh, let her alone, Wally!' said Ermyntrude. ‘I'm sure she looks as pretty as paint, whatever she wears. Not but what I don't care for trousers myself. Time and again when I've seen some fat creature waddling about in them, I've thought to myself, well, my girl, if you could see your own bottom you'd soon change into a skirt.'
‘Darling! I practically haven't got a bottom!' protested Vicky, sliding into her place opposite to Mary.
‘Nor you have, ducky. That's one way you don't take after me!'
Vicky smiled abstractedly, and began to read her letters, while her mother sat surveying her with fond admiration.
She was indeed a very pretty girl, with pale corn-coloured hair, which she wore rather long, and curled into a thick bush of ringlets at the base of her neck; and large blue eyes that gazed innocently forth from between darkened lashes. Even the ruthless plucking of her eyebrows, and the pencilling of improbable arches perceptibly higher than the shadows of the original brows, failed to ruin her beauty. Her complexion varied in accordance with her mood, or her costume, but she had no need of powder to whiten a naturally fair skin.
‘I suppose you know about this prince coming to stay?' said Wally, in a grumbling tone. ‘What your mother wants with him I don't know, though I dare say you're as bad as she is, and think there's something fine about having a prince in the house.'
‘Oh, I think it's lovely!' Vicky said.
This artless response disgusted Wally so much that he relapsed into silence.
Ermyntrude had slit open another letter, and suddenly exclaimed ‘Ah!' in an exultant tone. A triumphant smile curled her lips. ‘There's nothing like a prince!' she said simply. ‘The Derings have accepted!'
Even Wally seemed pleased by this announcement, but he said, with a glance in Mary's direction, that he didn't think the Prince had anything to do with it. ‘I wouldn't mind betting young Bering's home,' he said.
Mary coloured, but replied calmly: ‘I told you he was, yesterday.'
Vicky emerged from the clouds of some apparently beatific dream to inquire: ‘Who is he?'
‘He's an old friend of Mary's,' said Wally.
‘The boy-friend?' asked Vicky, interested.
‘No, not the boy-friend,' said Mary. ‘His people live at the Manor, and I've known him ever since we came to live here. He's a Chancery barrister. You must remember him, surely!'
‘No, but he sounds frightfully dull,' said Vicky.
‘Well, he's a very nice young fellow,' said Wally. ‘And if he wants to marry Mary I shall make no objection. No objection at all. What's more, I shall leave her all my money.'
‘When you get it,' said Ermyntrude, with a chuckle. ‘I'm sure I hope he will ask Mary to marry him, because it would be what I call a good match, and what's more, the man that gets you, my dear, will be very lucky, whatever his people may say.'
‘Thank you!' said Mary. ‘But as he hasn't asked me to marry him, I don't think we need worry about what his people would say, Aunt Ermy.' Conscious of her heightened colour, she made haste to change the subject, looking across the table at Vicky, and saying: ‘By the way, what got you out of bed so bright and early this morning? I heard you carolling in the bath at an ungodly hour.'
‘Oh, I went out to see if I could get a rabbit!'
Mary's lips twitched. ‘I thought this was a Sports-Girl Day! Don't tell me you weren't wearing sandals and painted toe-nails, because it would spoil the whole picture for me!'
‘But I was!' said Vicky, opening her eyes very wide.
‘You must have looked a treat!'
‘Yes, I do think I looked rather nice,' Vicky agreed wholeheartedly.
‘Did you shoot anything?'
‘Oh yes, very nearly!'
‘That's where you take after your father, ducky,' said Ermyntrude. ‘I never knew such a man for sport! Three times he went to Africa, big-game shooting. That was before he met me, of course.'
‘Well, if you call missing rabbits taking after her father, I don't,' remarked Wally. ‘As far as I can make out, her father never missed anything. It's a great pity he didn't, if you ask me, for if he had perhaps I shouldn't have had to live in a house full of bits of wild animals. I dare say there are people who like keeping their umbrellas in elephants' legs, and having gongs framed in hippo tusks, and tables made out of rhinoceros hides, and leopard skins chucked over their sofas, and heads stuck up all round the walls, but I'm not one of them, and I've never pretended that I was. You might as well live in the Natural History Museum, and be done with it.'
‘And the Bawtrys are coming too!' said Ermyntrude, who had paid not the least attention to this speech. ‘That'll make us ten, all told.'
‘I think Alan would like to come to the party,' murmured Vicky.
Ermyntrude folded her lips for a moment. ‘Well, he'll have to like,' she said. ‘I don't mean that I've got anything against him, nor his sister either, if it comes to that, but have Harold White here with the Derings and the Bawtrys I won't, and that's flat!'
‘Oh, I hate Mr White!' agreed Vicky.
‘Well, ducky, I can't ask Alan and Janet without their father, now can I? I mean, you know what he is, and this being a dinner-party, and him a sort of connection of Wally's. It isn't like asking the young people over to tennis, when he wouldn't expect to be invited.'
‘That's right!' said Wally. ‘Crab poor old Harold! I thought it wouldn't be long before you started on him. I'd like to know what harm he's ever done you.'
‘I don't like him,' said Ermyntrude. ‘Some people might say he's done me plenty of harm leading you into ways we won't discuss at the breakfast-table, let alone planting himself down in the Dower House.'
‘You never made any bones about letting it to him, did you?'
‘No, I didn't, not with you asking me to let him rent the place, and saying he was a relation of yours. But if I'd known what sort of an influence he was going to be on you, and no more related to you than the man in the moon-'
‘Well, that's where you're wrong, because he is related to me,' interrupted Wally. ‘I forget just how it goes, but I know we've got the same great-great-grandfather. Or am I wrong? There may have been three greats, not that it matters.'
‘Ancestors,' said Vicky.
Ermyntrude refused to follow a false trail she quite clearly perceived. ‘It's no relationship at all to my way of thinking, and you know very well that isn't what I've got against Harold White, however hard you may try to turn the subject.'
‘The Bawtrys are stuffy,' said Vicky suddenly.
‘Well, they are a bit,' confessed her mother. ‘But it's something to get the best people to come just for a friendly dinner-party, and I don't mind telling you, lovey, that they never have before.'
‘And the Derings are stuffy.'
‘Not Lady Dering. She's a good sort, and always was, and she's behaved to me more like a lady than a lot of others I could name.'
‘And Hugh Dering is stuffy,' said Vicky obstinately. ‘It's going to be a lousy party.'
‘Not with the Prince,' said Ermyntrude.
‘If anyone wants to know what I think, which I don't suppose they do,' interpolated Wally, ‘this Prince of yours will just about put the finishing touch to it. However, it's nothing to do with me, and all I say is, don't expect me to entertain him!'
Ermyntrude looked a little perturbed. ‘But, Wally, you'll have to help entertain him! Now, don't be tiresome, there's a dear! You know we arranged it all weeks ago, and honestly I know you'll like Alexis. Besides, you won't have to do much, except take him out shooting, like we said.'
Wally rose from the table, tucking the newspaper under his arm. ‘There you go again! If I've told you once, I've told you a dozen times that I don't like shooting. And now I come to think of it, I lent my gun to Harold, and he hasn't returned it yet, so I can't shoot even if I wanted to.'
This was too much, even for a woman of Ermyntrude's kindly disposition. She said hotly: ‘Then you'll tell Harold White to return it, Wally, and if you don't, I will! The idea of your lending poor Geoffrey's gun without so much as by your leave!'
‘I suppose I ought to have sat down with a planchette, or something,' said Wally.
Ermyntrude flushed, and said in a tearful voice: ‘How dare you talk like that? Sometimes I think you don't care how much you hurt my feelings!'
‘Oh, I do think you're quite too brutal and awful!' exclaimed Vicky.
‘All right, all right!' Wally said, retreating to the door. ‘There's no need for you to start! If a man can't make a perfectly innocent remark without creating a scene now, stop it, Ermy! There's nothing for you to cry about. Anyone would think Harold was going to hurt the gun!'
‘Do get it back!' said Vicky. ‘You're upsetting mother simply dreadfully!'
‘Oh, all right!' replied Wally, goaded. ‘Anything for a quiet life!'
As soon as he had left the room, Vicky abandoned the protective pose she had assumed, and went on eating her breakfast. Ermyntrude glanced apologetically at Mary, and said: ‘I'm sorry, Mary, but what with that White, and him being so tiresome, and then my poor first husband's gun on top of everything, I just couldn't help bursting out.'
‘No, he's in one of his annoying moods,' agreed Mary. ‘I shouldn't worry, though. He'll get over it.'
‘It's all that Harold White,' insisted Ermyntrude. ‘He's been worse ever since he got under his influence.'
‘I don't think he has, really,' said Mary, always fair-minded. ‘I'm afraid it's just natural deterioration.'
‘Well, all I can say is that I wish the Whites would go and live somewhere else. They've spoiled the place for me.'
‘One does seem to feel White's influence,' said Vicky, with an artistic shiver.
Mary got up, ‘Don't mix your roles!' she advised. ‘That one doesn't go with the Sports-Girl outfit.'
‘Oh, I'd forgotten I was wearing slacks!' said Vicky, quite unoffended. ‘I think I've had enough of the Sports Girl. I'll change.'
Mary felt disinclined to enter into Vicky's vagaries at such an early hour of the morning, and, with a rather perfunctory smile, she gathered up her letters, and left the room.
It was part of her self-imposed duty to interview the very competent cook-housekeeper each morning, but before penetrating beyond the baize door to the servants' quarters, she collected a basket and some scissors, and went out into the gardens to cut fresh flowers for the house.
It was an extremely fine morning, and although Palings, as Ermyntrude had said, was best seen in springtime, when its rhododendrons and azaleas were in bloom, neither the sombre foliage of these shrubs, covering the long fall of ground to the stream at its foot, nor the glimpse of Harold White's house upon the opposite slope, detracted, in Mary's eyes, from its beauty. Ermyntrude employed a large staff of gardeners, and besides lawns where few weeds dared show their heads, and acres of kitchen-gardens and glass-houses, there was a sunk Italian garden, a rose-garden, a rock-garden, with a lily-pond in the centre, and broad herbaceous borders in which Ermyntrude's own taste for set-effects had never been allowed to run riot.
Mary reflected, with a wry smile, that Ermyntrude was the best-natured woman imaginable. Even in her own house she allowed herself to be overruled on all matters of taste, and not only did she acquiesce in the decisions made for her, but she quite seriously endeavoured to school her eye to appreciate what she believed to be good taste. But although she felt a certain pride in her slopes of rhododendrons (which were, indeed, one of the sights of the county), Mary knew quite well that in her heart of hearts she thought this wild part of her garden rather untidy, and very much preferred the view of formal beds, and clipped yews, and impeccably raked carriage-drive, which was to be obtained from the front windows of the house. From these windows, moreover, no disturbing glimpse of the Dower House could be caught.
There was nothing intrinsically objectionable about the Dower House, but its temporary inmate, Harold White, had, during the course of two years, invested it, in Ermyntrude's eyes, with such disagreeable attributes, that she had not only been known to shudder at the sight of its grey roof, visible through the trees, but had lately carried her dislike of it to such a pitch that she would sometimes refuse even to stroll down the winding path that led through the rhododendron thickets to the rustic bridge that crossed the stream at the foot of the garden. It was a charming walk, but it was spoiled for Ermyntrude by the fact that from the little bridge an uninterrupted view of the Dower House, situated half-way up the farther slope, smote the eye. The bridge had been thrown across the stream to provide an easy way of communication between the two houses, a circumstance which, however convenient it might have been to the original owner of Palings, filled Ermyntrude with annoyance. She had more than once contemplated having the bridge removed, and had compromised, a few months previously, by erecting a wicket-gate on the Palings side of the stream. But although this might, as she confided to Mary, have seemed pointed enough, it had no apparent effect on Harold White, who continued to stroll across the bridge to call on Wally whenever he chose, or had opportunity to do so.
Fortunately, this was not often. Unlike Wally, White was not a gentleman of leisure, but the manager of a small group of collieries in the district. His daughter, Janet, kept house for him; and he had one son, a few years younger than Janet, who lived at home, and was articled to a solicitor in the neighbouring town of Fritton. Before Wally's marriage to the rich Mrs Fanshawe, White, whose salary never seemed to cover his expenses, had lived rather uncomfortably in a small villa in the town itself; but when Wally came to live at Palings, it had not taken Harold White long to discover that he was remotely related to him. The rest had been easy. Wally had found a kindred spirit in his connection, and had had very little difficulty in persuading Ermyntrude to lease the Dower House, which happened, providentially, to be unoccupied, to White, at a reduced rental. From this time, insisted Ermyntrude, Wally's increasing predilection for strong drink, and, his flights into the realms of even less respectable pursuits, might fairly be said to date. Harold White encouraged him to drink more than was good for him, prompted him to back horses, and introduced him to undesirable acquaintances.
Mary, who disliked White, yet could not agree with Ermyntrude that he was Wally's âme damné. Having lived with Wally for many more years than had Ermyntrude, she suffered from fewer illusions, and had long since realised that his character lacked moral fibre. He gravitated naturally into low society, and could be trusted upon all occasions to take the line of least resistance. While giving him due credit for having behaved to her with great kindness during the years of his guardianship, Mary knew him too well to allow herself to be blinded to the fact that the small income, advanced quarterly by her trustees to pay for her upkeep and education, had been extremely useful to Wally. Nor could she help regretting sometimes that her father, Wally's uncle, had not chosen to leave her a ward in Chancery rather than the ward of his one surviving relative.
This slightly shamefaced thought was in Mary's mind as she carried her basket of roses into the house. Wally had been a handicap to her during her schooldays; now that she was grown up, and marriageable, he was proving a still greater handicap.
She had denied that any understanding existed between herself and Mr Hugh Dering, but, although this was strictly true, she could not help feeling that Hugh's interest in her sprang from something more than long-standing acquaintance. There was a bond of very real sympathy between them, and although Dering's residence was in London, where he might be presumed to encounter girls prettier, more attractive, and certainly more eligible than Mary Cliffe, none of these unknown damsels seemed to have captivated his fancy, and whenever he came to stay with his parents, one of his first actions was to seek Mary out. What his mother, who was notoriously easy-going, thought about his predilection for her society, Mary did not know, but that Sir William Dering regarded Wally Carter with disfavour she was well aware. She had been surprised to hear of the Derings' acceptance of Ermyntrude's invitation, for although they were, like everyone else in the neighbourhood, on calling-terms with the Carters, they had never until now accepted nor extended invitations to dinner-parties. Mary wondered whether Hugh was indeed at the bottom of it, for she could not suppose that the presence of a Georgian prince would prove as tempting a bait as Ermyntrude so firmly believed. In this, she slightly misjudged Lady Dering.