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The January afternoon was already darkening and a mean wind was driving rain against the windows of a room which, in its cheerful comfort, defied the evil weather outside. It was of a fair size, with a log fire blazing in its old-fashioned chimney-piece, lighted by several table lamps and furnished tastefully if somewhat shabbily. Its three occupants were seated close to the fire: three girls, sisters, deep in discussion.
'It's absolutely certain that the house will sell at once it's got everything the estate agents like to boast aboutmodernised Georgian, adequate bathrooms, a tennis courtyou name it, we've got it. It should fetch a good price.'
The speaker was a handsome young woman, older than the other two but still worth a second and third glance. She was very fair, with hair cut short and meticulous make-up. She was dressed expensively but without much imagination. She glanced at her two companions and went on, 'Charles says it would be downright foolish not to sell. We should each get a share we shall invest ours, of course, so that James and Henry will have the proper schooling '
The girl sitting opposite her stretched her long legs and yawned. 'Thank heaven I can please myself! I shall buy a flat near the hospital and give myself a super holiday.' She added smugly, 'I've been promised a Sister's post in a couple of months.' She was sunk in pleased thought for a few moments. 'Where will you send the boys?'
The third girl sat between them, curled up in an easy chair. She hadn't contributed to the conversation so far, but no one had expected her to. Ever since she could remember, she, the middle sister, had been ignored in a kindly fashion. As a child she had been very much in their shadows; that they were fond of her there was no doubt, the fondness strongly mixed with kindly indifference, but from earliest childhood she had been the one who had needed to be helped over hedges and gates, who fell out of trees, who hung back behind her sisters when people called. And the ease with which she passed her O and A levels at school was quite eclipsed by their brilliance at sports and theatricals. Besides, she was small and plump, with a face which was only redeemed from plainness by large grey eyes, heavily fringed, and a wide, gentle mouth. And now, with Cora married to a young accountant with ambition and the mother of two small sons, and Doreen embarked on a career in hospitalbut only until such time as she could catch the eye of some eminent doctorshe had to admit to herself that she had nothing much to show for the last few years. True, she had stayed at home, largely because everyone took it for granted that she wanted to do so, and she had looked after her mother and after a year, she had taken over the housekeeping as well. She had, of necessity, become an excellent cook and a splendid housewife, helped by Betsy, who should have retired years ago but stubbornly refused, and by Mrs Griffiths, who popped in three times a week to do the rough work.
But now their mother was dead, her pension no longer paid, and there was precious little money save what their home would fetch. Cora and Doreen had never bothered overmuch about the pensionthey had taken it for granted that it was enough for their mother and Meg to live on and pay their way. In their fashion they had been generous dressing gowns and slippers and hampers at Christmasbut neither of them had suggested that Meg might like a holiday or even an evening out at a theatre Meg bore them no grudge; Cora had her own life to lead and her own home and family, and besides, she lived in Kent and came home but rarely. And as for Doreen, everyone who knew her said what a splendid nurse she was and what a brilliant future she had before her. Besides, being such a handsome young woman, she could pick and choose from among her men friends and their invitations to dine and dance and go to the theatre, which left her little time to go to Hertfordshire.
Meg had been content enough; Hertingfordbury, where they had lived all their lives, was a charming village, the main roads bypassing it so that it was left in comparative peace with its church standing in the steep churchyard, its pub, the White Horse, still doing good business since the sixteenth century, and the equally ancient cottages. There were larger houses too Georgian, built of rose brick, standing in roomy grounds, well cared for, handed on from one generation to the next. Meg's home was perhaps not as well cared for as other similar housesthere hadn't been the money during the last few yearsbut she had kept the garden in good order, and even if the outside paintwork wasn't as fresh as she might wish, she had done wonders with the lofty, well-proportioned rooms. Her sisters had good-naturedly dismissed her hours of careful painting and wallpapering as a pleasant little hobby to keep her occupiedto their credit, they had never realised that she had enough to occupy her without any hobbies. Their mother had had a worsening heart condition which, for the last few months of her life, had confined her to bed and couch, which meant a good deal of running to and fro and disturbed nights for Meg. And Meg, being Meg, had never complained. Not that she had ever felt downtrodden or put upon; she was a girl of common sense, and it was obvious to her that, since Cora had a home and family to look after, and Doreen had set her ambitious sights on becoming the wife of some eminent doctor, it was perfectly natural for them to pursue their own interests, since she had never exhibited any ambitions of her own.
She had those, of course, hidden away deep inside her to marry and have a home of her own, a clutch of children, animals around the place and a gardenand a husband, of course. She was a little vague about him, but he would have to love her dearly for ever At the moment, at any rate, there was no likelihood of meeting him. She had friends enough in the village, mostly elderly, and the young men she had grown up with had either got married or were engaged; besides, she had had very little time for the leisurely pursuits of her friends, and now that she was alone with time on her hands, she felt disinclined to join the activities in the village. Mrs Collins had died two months previously and Meg missed her sorely, more so because she had nursed her so devotedly for so long. She had gone on living alone save for Betsy, polishing the furniture, doing the flowers, tending the garden, taking it for granted that she would go on doing that for the foreseeable future. After all, it was her home, somewhere for Doreen to come when she wanted to, somewhere for Cora to send the boys to during the school holidays. She had a small annuity from her grandmother, just enough to live on and to pay Betsy and Mrs Griffiths.
She sat quietly now, filled with cold surprise and uncertainty. When Cora had finished explaining where the boys were to go to school, she asked, 'What about meand Betsy?'
They turned to look at her, smiling reassuringly. 'Why, darling, you'll have your share, enough to buy a little flat somewhereyou could get a jobyou'd like that after the quiet life you've been leading.'
It would be a waste of breath to ask what job; she wasn't trained for anything and it was a bit late to start at twenty-three. 'And Betsy?'
'Remember there was something in the will about those shares Mother had? They were for Betsy. They'll top up her state pension nicely.'
'Where will she live?'
Doreen said lightly, 'There must be any number of people in the village who'd be glad to let her have a roomshe knows everyone for miles around.'
She got up and sat on the edge of Meg's chair and flung an arm around her shoulders. 'I'll get everyone looking for a flat for you, darling. You'll love London, and you'll make heaps of friends. You must be lonely here in this big place.'
Meg said in a wooden voice, 'No. I miss Mother, but it's still home, and there's plenty to keep me busyand the garden even in winter.'
'We'll find you a basement flat with a paved area; you can fill it with pot plants.'
Meg let that pass. She said in her matter-of-fact way, 'I'll have to train for something,'and then, 'I suppose I have to leave here?'Neither of her sisters heard the wistfulness in her voice.
'Shorthand and typing,' said Cora, 'jobs going all the time for shorthand typists '
'Receptionist?' suggested Doreen vaguely. She didn't say what for. 'Anyway, that's settled, isn't it? Let's get the estate agents on to it, Corathere's a flat near the hospital which I rather like. There is no point in waiting, is there?'
'What about the furniture?' Meg had a quiet voice, but it brought them up short.
'Sell it?' essayed Cora.
'Put it in store? I could use itsome of itin my new flat when I get it.'
Meg said slowly, 'Why not sell it with the house?' At the back of her mind there was an idea taking slow shape. She wasn't quite sure of it at the moment, but it would need thinking about later.
Cora looked at her approvingly. 'That's not a bad idea. We'll see what the agents say. I must flythe boys will be back and Natashathe au pairis no good at all. I'll have to find someone else.'
They kissed Meg goodbye, went out to their cars, and got in and drove away, and Meg went back into the house and sat down in the gathering gloom to think. If it were humanly possible, she didn't intend to leave her home, and certainly not to leave old Betsy to live out her days in a poky bedsitter. Presently Betsy came in with the teatray and Silky, the rather battered tomcat Meg had found skulking round the back door, had fed and sheltered and, since he had obviously made up his mind to become one of the family, had adopted. He got on to Meg's lap now, and Betsy put the tray down and said, 'Well, they've gone, then?' There was a question mark behind the words which couldn't be ignored.
'Cora and Doreen want to sell the house,' said Meg. 'And everything in it. But don't worry, Betsy, I've an idea so that we can stay here.'
'Marry a millionaire, like as not, Miss Meg.' Betsy's cockney voice sounded cheerfully derisive. 'What's to happen to us, then?'
Meg said hearteningly, 'It takes weeksmonthsto sell a house. I'll do something about it, I promise you.'
Betsy was only too willingly reassured; she trotted back to the kitchen and Meg sat drinking her tea, thinking about the future. Of course it would be marvellous if a very rich man came along and bought the house and fell in love with her at the same time, but that only happened in books What was needed was someone elderly who needed a housekeeper or companion and a good plain cook and who didn't object to an elderly tomcat. Meg, who was a practical girl, thought it unlikely, though there was no harm in hoping.
Her sisters wasted no time. Within a week a pleasant young man from a London estate agent came to inspect the property. He walked round, with Meg beside him explaining about the old-fashioned bathrooms, the central heating, the Aga stove and why the large drawing-room was icy cold.
'There's only me,' she pointed out, 'there's no point in having a fire there just for onemy sisters are seldom here. We switch on the central heating twice a week, though, because of the furnitureHepplewhite, you know.'
He nodded, rather at sea; he knew a lot about houses but not much about furniture. He felt vaguely sorry for the rather mouselike girl who was showing him round with such a self-possessed air. He spared a moment to wonder where she would go when the house was sold, for sold it would be, he could see that. Fine old Georgian houses with a generous spread of garden were much sought after. He accepted the coffee she offered him, agreed with her that people wishing to view the house might do so only with an appointment, and took his leave.
The first couple came within three days. In the morning, because Meg was on the committee which organised the Church Bazaar and that would take the whole afternoon.
Mr and Mrs Thorngood arrived in a splendid Mercedes and Meg, rarely given to criticising anyone, disliked them on sight. She led them round her home, listening with a calm face to their loud-voiced remarks about old-fashioned bathrooms, no fitted cupboards and a kitchen which must have come out of theArk. They didn't like the garden, either: no swimming pool, all those trees and outbuildings which were of no use to anyone
'We use the end one as a garage,' Meg pointed out. 'Well, that wouldn't do for uswe've three carswe'd need to build a decent garage.' The man looked at her angrily as though it were her fault, and presently the pair of them drove away.
The next day a middle-aged woman with an overbearing manner came. She was looking for suitable premises for a school, she explained, but it took her only a short time to decide that the house wouldn't do at all. 'Most unsuitable,' she observed to Meg, who was politely standing on the doorstep to see her off. 'All those plastered ceilings, and none of the bedrooms would take more than five beds.'
Meg liked the next couple. They were young and friendly and admired everything wholeheartedly. It wasn't until they were drinking coffee with her in the sitting-room that the girl said suddenly, 'We can't possibly buy this place; actually we live in a poky little flat in Fulham, but when Mike's between jobs, we go around inspecting housesit's fun, seeing how the other half live. I hope you don't mind.'She sighed. 'It must be nice to be rich and live in a lovely old house like this one.'
'Well', began Meg and decided not to go on. 'I'm glad you like it, anyway. It's been in the family for a fairly long time.'
There were quite a few viewers during the next week, but none of them came back a second time, although one man made an offer of slightly less than the price the agents had set. Instantly rejected, of course.
Then no one came at all for four days. Meg breathed a sigh of relief; perhaps no one would want to live in her home and she would be able to stay on there. She knew it was silly to think that; she would have to go sooner or later to some tiny basement flat unless she could find something to do locally. That wouldn't be easy, since she had no skills.
As each day passed she felt more and more lulled into false hopes; she ceased listening for the phone, put in hours of work in the garden and went for long walks. The weather had turned nastyperhaps that was why no one came, but it made no difference to her. On the afternoon of the fourth day she came home from a muddy wet walk, kicked her sensible boots off at the back door and was met by an agitated Betsy.
'There's a gentleman,' said the old lady, all agog. 'The estate agent rang just after you'd gone and said he was on his way. I had to let him in He's in the drawing-room.'
'Is he now? Well, he'll have to wait a bit longer, won't he, while I get tidied up? Bother the man!'
She had sat down on the floor of the back lobby, the better to pull off the old socks she wore inside her boots, and at a kind of gulping sound from Betsy, she turned her head. There was a man standing in the lobby doorway. A towering, wide-shouldered giant with black hair and even blacker eyes. Very good-looking too, thought Meg, and frowned fiercely at him. He had her at a disadvantage, and the nasty little smile on his thin mouth made that apparent.
'I must apologise,'he said in a voice which held no apology at all, and waited for her to speak. She sat there looking up at him. There was not much point in getting up until she had the socks off; for one thing she guessed that he must be over six feet and she was a mere five foot three; he would still look down on her. She disposed of the socks, stood up and pushed her feet into a shabby pair of slippers and flung off her wet raincoat, dragged off the scarf she had tied round her hair and addressed him coolly. 'No need,' she told him. 'You weren't to know that I wasn't at home.'She tossed back her damp hair, hanging untidily round her damp face, rosy from the wind and rain. 'You would like to see round the house?'
'You are right, that was my object in coming,' he informed her.
Oh, very stuffy, decided Meg, and led the way to the front hall which was, after all, the starting point. She had the patter off by heart now: the Adam fireplace in the drawing-room, the strap work on the dining-room ceiling, the rather special Serpentine scroll balustrade on the staircase, and as they wandered in and out of the bedrooms on the first floor she pointed out the quite ugly cast-iron fireplacewrithing forms, a mid-Victorian addition which her companion pronounced in a cold voice as frankly hideous. But other than that, he had little to say. She thought it very likely that the sight of the old-fashioned bathrooms with pipes all over the place and great cast-iron baths sitting on clawed feet in the middle of the rooms left him bereft of words. She was quite sure that it was a waste of time taking him round; she took his final comment 'A most interesting house'as a polite way of getting himself out of the door. Not that she considered him a polite man; he should have stayed where Betsy put him, in the drawing-room, until he could have been fetched at the proper time and with suitable dignity.
She stood with him on the steps outside the front door, waiting for him to go. Only he didn't. 'You live here alone?' he asked.
'NoBetsy lives here with me.'
He glanced at her ringless, rather grubby hands. For a moment she thought that he was going to say something more, but he didn't. His, 'Thank you, Miss Collins,' was brisk and impersonal as he trod down the steps and got into the dark grey Rolls-Royce parked on the sweep before the house. He didn't look round either, but drove away without so much as a backward glance.
''andsome man,' remarked Betsy, coming into the hall as Meg closed the door. 'Nicely spoken, too. P'raps 'e'll buy '
Meg said quite vehemently, 'I found him a rude man, and I hope never to see him again, Betsy.' Whereupon she flew upstairs and took a good look at herself in the pier glass in what had been her mother's room. Her reflection hardly reassured her; her nose shone, her hair was still damp and wispy and the serviceable guernsey and elderly tweed skirt she wore when she was gardening hardly enhanced her appearance. The slippers completed a decidedly unfashionable appearance.