Read an Excerpt
The rose bricks of the gracious old manor house shone warmly in the late August sunshine, and the small groups of people walking towards it paused to admire the pleasant sight; it wasn't one of the great country houses but it was early Tudor, still occupied by the descendants of the man who had built it and well worth a pleasant drive through the Wiltshire countryside on a bright afternoon.
There were still ten minutes before the door, solid wood in its stone archway, would be opened, and the visitors strolled around, studying the latticed windows and black and white plasterwork which presented a picture of enduring peace.
Appearances could be deceptive; behind its serene front there was a good deal of activity. The family had retired to their private wing, leaving a number of people to organise the afternoon. Mr Toms, the estate steward, was in charge; a small wiry man, familiar with the house down to its last creaking floorboard, he was counting small change into a box on the table just inside the door, ready for the vicar's wife, who would be issuing tickets. And disposed around the large square entrance hall stood the guides: Miss Smythe, the church school teacher, tall and thin with a ringing voice which allowed no tourist to dawdle or lose interest; Mrs Coffin, who ran the village stores and post office, and lastly Suzannah Lightfoot, whose aunt lived in the front lodge, offered to her for her lifetime after years of devoted duty to the family's great-aunt, who had lived to a great age and been something of a trial to them all. The family were seldom all there any more; the house was lived in by a peppery old uncle and his niece, a young woman of twenty-five or so, whose parents were living in America where her father had a diplomatic post. In the meantime the house was kept in good shape—helped by the modest number of visitors who came at weekends—ready for when the younger members of the family should return.
Mr Toms was frowning and tut-tutting. He had omitted to bring a spare roll of tickets with him, and there were barely five minutes before the door would be opened. He beckoned to Suzannah, gave her hurried directions and sent her off with an urgent wave of the hand.
She knew the old house well; two years ago she had been taken on as one of the house guides and, since she couldn't leave her aunt for any length of time, the small job suited her well enough. True, there was little money to be had from it, but what there was served to pay for her scant wardrobe and a few extras for her aunt, and she was a girl who made the best of what she had. Not that that was much.
She nipped up the worn treads of the oak staircase and along a wide corridor leading to the wing where the family lived and where Mr Toms had his office. It meant going through the picture gallery with its rows of paintings and dark oak wall tables and beautifully carved Jacobean chairs, isolated by crimson ropes, which she dusted twice a week. It was a gallery she loved, but she didn't waste time on it now, opening a little door in the panelled wall and hurrying along a small passage to Mr Toms' office. The roll of tickets was on his desk, so she picked it up closed the door behind her and started back again, a rather small girl with no pretentions to beauty, although her grey eyes were large and clear and her mouth, rather on the large side, curved up at its corners very sweetly. Her figure was pretty, but hardly showed to its best advantage in the checked cotton blouse and plain dark skirt; all the same, she was as neat as a new pin and her hair, richly red and shining, was tied back in a ponytail. She whisked through the door in the wall, closing it behind her, and then stopped short. Halfway down the gallery a man stood studying one of the portraits on the wall, and as she looked he began to stroll towards her. He was a large man, and tall, and certainly not in his first youth, for his hair was silvered at the temples and he had an air of assurance; he was also well-dressed in a casual way.
Probably sneaked in ahead of the rest, decided Suzannah, advancing towards him. She said politely, 'I'm sure you aren't aware that this part of the house is private? If you will come with me, I'll show you where the entrance is and you can join up with a guided party.'
He had come to a halt before her, studying her down his high-bridged nose with eyes as cold as blue ice. She bore this scrutiny with equanimity, although she went rather pink under it, especially when he asked indifferently, 'And what makes you think that I wish to be guided?'
She answered with tart politeness, 'It says very clearly at the door that visitors must take a guided tour, so perhaps you would come with me?'
'Are you a guide?'
'Yes.' She led the way through the gallery, paused at the end of the corridor to make sure that he was still behind her, and went down the staircase, where she left him with a firm, 'You may join any of the guided groups—you'll need a ticket.'
She turned away, but he put out a large, well-kept hand and took her gently by the elbow. 'Tell me,' he said softly, 'are you the local schoolteacher, or, if not that, the vicar's daughter?'
Suzannah lifted his hand off her arm and said with dignity, 'You are a very rude man.' She added with a tolerant matter-of-factness, 'Such a pity.'
The first of the visitors were being admitted; she handed over the tickets to the vicar's wife and went to stand in her appointed place to the left of the massive carved table in the centre of the hall. One by one she was joined by sightseers; each guide took from six to twelve visitors at a time, and today, with the summer holidays nearly over, there were fewer tourists; another month and the house would be closed for the winter. Suzannah, waiting patiently for the last of her group, allowed herself to worry about getting a job to take her through the months until the house opened again at Easter.
The guides were setting off, each on her own itinerary, and Suzannah counted heads, wished everyone a good afternoon and led the way out of the hall into the panelled dining-room, closely followed by an elderly couple, a stout man in a cloth cap, a thin lady in a hard felt hat, a pair of teenagers carrying a transistor radio and, last but by no means least, a tired-looking young woman carrying a fretful baby. Suzannah smelled trouble ahead, either from the baby or the transistor radio, but they had paid their money and they expected value for it. She exchanged a sympathetic smile with the young woman and took her stand by the table in the centre of the room. She laid a loving hand on its age-old patina. 'Elizabethan,' she began in her lovely clear voice, 'the carving is beautiful, and you will notice the bulbous legs, reflecting the clothes of that period; the oak cupboard is a court cupboard of the same period…' Her listeners crowded around as she pointed out the great silver salt-cellar, the engraved silver tankards and the silver sweetmeat boxes arranged on it. By the time they had reached the two-tiered chimneypiece they were beginning to show a faint interest and, much encouraged, she urged them to view the ceiling. 'Strapwork,' she recited, 'with a central motif of the ship of the Jacobean period. The same ship is carved above the door we are about to go through.'
Heads were lowered obediently as she led the way to the door, opened it and stood beside it to make sure that everyone went through. The last one was the man from the picture gallery, who despite his great size had managed to join the tail end of the group without her seeing him.
She gave him a chilly look as he went past her.
The dining-room led into the drawing-room, rather more William and Mary than Elizabethan, and here there was a good deal more to see. Suzannah went from the side-table with barley-sugar legs—these called forth a joke from the man in the cloth cap—to a Charles the Second armchair in walnut and cane, and a Gibbons chimneypiece. She loved the room and would have lingered in it, but her group were only vaguely interested, although they obediently followed her from one portrait to the next, commenting upon the opulent charms of the ladies in them and making outspoken remarks about the gentlemen's wigs, and all the while the man from the gallery wandered around on his own, but never so far that she felt that she must beg him to keep up with everyone else. A tiresome person, she reflected, leading her party across a handsome inner hall and into the ballroom.
It was here that the three guides met and passed each other and here, naturally enough, that the laggards wandered off with the wrong lot. Today there was the added complication of the baby beginning to cry. Its thin whimper gradually gathered strength until it was a piercing scream. Suzannah, gathering her little party together to move out of the ballroom and into the library, waited until the woman passed her.
'Look, why don't you sit down for a minute while I talk? We always allow a few extra minutes in the library, there's a lot to see.'
The woman looked very tired and pale. 'You don't mind?' she whispered and, rather to Suzannah's astonishment, handed her the baby.
It stopped crying at once, stared up at her with large blue eyes and sank into instant sleep. No one seemed to have noticed; she tucked the infant firmly against her shoulder and made her way from one visitor to the next, answering questions and pointing out the massive bookcases, the library steps and the enormous painting on one wall depicting the ancestor of the present owner, sitting on his charger, and staring in a noble fashion into the middle distance.
An eye on her watch told her that she was a little behind schedule; she nipped smartly to where the woman was sitting and handed back the baby and turned away to collect up the others. The man from the gallery was leaning nonchalantly against one wall, his hands in his pockets, watching her and smiling. It wasn't a nice smile, she thought, and to her annoyance she blushed.
There was only the inner staircase, the state bedroom and the boudoir to visit now. They straggled up the staircase, not really listening to her careful description of its wrought-iron balustrade, nor were they interested in the coffered ceiling, but the bedroom they enjoyed, admiring the great four-poster with its brocade hangings, and the silver jug and ewer on the little oak table with the silver mirror hanging above it. And the boudoir was admired as much and at even greater length, for it was furnished at a later period, with hanging cabinets, a chaise-longue, and some pretty shield-back armchairs. But at length she was able to collect everyone and lead them back down the main staircase to the hall, trying to ignore the man who, most annoyingly, wandered along at his own pace and, when they reached the hall, disappeared completely.
'And good riddance,' muttered Suzannah, wishing everyone goodbye.
The next group was already forming, a quite different kettle of fish, she saw at once: a donnish-looking elderly gentleman accompanied by a staid wife, and two stout ladies carrying books on antiques. It was nice to have an attentive audience, and she enjoyed herself, although just once or twice she found herself wishing that the strange man had been there too. But there was no sign of him. She escorted two more groups round the house before the door was finally shut and, after doing a round to make sure that everything was as it should be, and checking the takings with the vicar's wife, she walked down the drive, took a short-cut through the dense shrubbery half-way down its length, and reached the small grass clearing enclosed by a plain iron fence. She stood alongside the gate, a handsome edifice of wrought iron between two stone pillars, lichen-encrusted and topped by griffons. The lodge was a picturesque cottage, built for outward effect, and quite charming with its small latticed windows, miniature gabled roof and tall, twisted chimneys. Inside, the rooms were poky and dark, and the plumbing was in need of modernisation. All the same, it had been home to Suzannah for several years now, ever since her parents had died in a motoring accident while she was at boarding-school. Aunt Mabel had just retired and had offered her a home at once, and Suzannah had left the school and her hopes of a university and gone to live with her. Any vague ideas she had had about her future were squashed within a few months when her aunt became ill and it was found that she had a cerebral tumour. Inoperable, they had said, and sent her home again under the care of her doctor and with instructions to Suzannah not to tell her aunt what ailed her.
There was a small pension, plus Suzannah's small earnings to live on, and the cottage was rent-free; they managed very well, and the tumour, slow-growing, seemed quiescent except for the headaches it caused. Suzannah, now twenty-two, had accepted her life sensibly, thankful that her aunt was still able to potter around and take pleasure from their quiet way of living, and if sometimes she regretted the future she had planned for herself, she never gave a sign that it was so. Only now, as she opened the door, she was wondering how she could best find a job which would allow her to be with her aunt for most of the day. But nothing of her worries showed as she went inside. The door opened directly on to the sitting-room, simply furnished but comfortable with a door leading to the small kitchen beyond. Another door in the wall opened on to the narrow stairs which led to the two bedrooms above; a narrow shower-room and toilet had been built on behind the kitchen when her aunt had gone there to live, and beyond that there was the garden where between them they grew vegetables and flowers, which Suzannah heaped into buckets and boxes and left at the gate in the hope that the visitors might buy them. Which they very often did, but now the summer was beginning to fade there was little to sell.