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Mrs Smith-Darcy had woken in a bad temper. She reclined, her abundant proportions supported by a number of pillows, in her bed, not bothering to reply to the quiet 'good morning' uttered by the girl who had entered the room; she was not a lady to waste courtesy on those she considered beneath her. Her late husband had left her rich, having made a fortune in pickled onions, and since she had an excellent opinion of herself she found no need to bother with the feelings of anyone whom she considered inferior. And, of course, a paid companion came into that category.
The paid companion crossed the wide expanse of carpet and stood beside the bed, notebook in hand. She looked out of place in the over-furnished, frilly room; a girl of medium height, with pale brown hair smoothed into a French pleat, she had unremarkable features, but her eyes were large, thickly lashed and of a pleasing hazel. She was dressed in a pleated skirt and a white blouse, with a grey cardigan to match the skirtsober clothes which failed to conceal her pretty figure and elegant legs.
Mrs Smith-Darcy didn't bother to look at her. 'You can go to the bank and cash a chequethe servants want their wages. Do call in at the butcher's and tell him that I'm not satisfied with the meat he's sending up to the house. When you get backand don't be all day over a couple of errandsyou can make an appointment with my hairdresser and get the invitations written for my luncheon party. The list's on my desk.'
She added pettishly, 'Well, get on with it, then; there's plenty of work waiting for you when you get back.'
The girl went out of the room without a word, closed the door quietly behind her and went downstairs to the kitchen where Cook had a cup of coffee waiting for her.
'Got your orders, Miss Trent? In a mood, is she?'
'I dare say it's this weather, Cook. I have to go to the shops. Is there anything I can bring back for you?'
'Well, now, love, if you could pop into Mr Coffin's and ask him to send up a couple of pounds of sausages with the meat? They'll do us a treat for our dinner.'
Emma Trent, battling on her bike against an icy February wind straight from Dartmoor and driving rain, reflected that there could be worse jobs, only just at that moment she couldn't think of any. It wasn't just the weathershe had lived in Buck-fastleigh all her life and found nothing unusual in that; after all, it was only a mile or so from the heart of the moor with its severe winters.
Bad weather she could dismiss easily enough, but Mrs Smith-Darcy was another matter; a selfish lazy woman, uncaring of anyone's feelings but her own, she was Emma's daily trial, but her wages put the butter on the bread of Emma's mother's small pension so she had to be borne. Jobs weren't all that easy to find in a small rural town, and if she went to Plymouth or even Ashburton it would mean living away from home, whereas now they managed very well, although there was never much money over.
Her errands done, and with the sausages crammed into a pocket, since Mr Coffin had said that he wasn't sure if he could deliver the meat before the afternoon, she cycled back to the large house on the other side of the town where her employer lived, parked her bike by the side-door and went into the kitchen. There she handed over the sausages, hung her sopping raincoat to dry and went along to the little cubby-hole where she spent most of her daysmaking out cheques for the tradesmen, making appointments, writing notes and keeping the household books. When she wasn't doing that, she arranged the flowers, and answered the door if Alice, the housemaid, was busy or having her day off.
'Never a dull moment,' said Emma to her reflection as she tidied her hair and dried the rain from her face. The buzzer Mrs Smith-Darcy used whenever she demanded Emma's presence was clamouring to be answered, and she picked up her notebook and pencil and went unhurriedly upstairs.
Mrs Smith-Darcy had heaved herself out of bed and was sitting before the dressing-table mirror, doing her face. She didn't look up from the task of applying mascara. 'I have been buzzing you for several minutes,' she observed crossly. 'Where have you been? Really, a great, strong girl like you should have done those few errands in twenty minutes '
Emma said mildly, 'I'm not a great, strong girl, Mrs Smith-Darcy, and cycling into the wind isn't the quickest way of travelling. Besides, I got wet'
'Don't make childish excuses. Really, Miss Trent, I sometimes wonder if you are up to this job. Heaven knows, it's easy enough.'
Emma knew better than to answer that. Instead she asked, 'You wanted me to do something for you, Mrs Smith-Darcy?'
'Tell Cook I want my coffee in half an hour. I shall be out to lunch, and while I'm gone you can fetch Frou-Frou from the vet. I shall need Vickery with the car so I suppose you had better get a taxiit wouldn't do for Frou-Frou to get wet. You can pay and I'll settle with you later.'
'I haven't brought any money with me.' Emma crossed her fingers behind her back as she spoke, for it was a fib, but on several occasions she had been told to pay for something and that she would be reimbursed latersomething which had never happened.
Mrs Smith-Darcy frowned. 'Really, what an incompetent girl you are.' She opened her handbag and found a five-pound note. 'Take thisand I'll expect the correct change.'
'I'll get the driver to write the fare down and sign it,' said Emma quietly, and something in her voice made Mrs Smith-Darcy look at her.
'There's no need for that.'
'It will set your mind at rest,' said Emma sweetly. 'I'll get those invitations written; I can post them on my way home.'
Mrs Smith-Darcy, who liked to have the last word, was for once unable to think of anything to say as Emma left the room.
It was well after five o'clock when Emma got on to her bike and took herself off homea small, neat house near the abbey where she and her mother had lived since her father had died several years earlier.
He had died suddenly and unexpectedly, and it hadn't been until after his death that Mrs Trent had been told that he had mortgaged the house in order to raise the money to help his younger brother, who had been in financial difficulties, under the impression that he would be repaid within a reasonable time. There hadn't been enough money to pay off the mortgage, so she had sold the house and bought a small terraced house, and, since her brother-in-law had gone abroad without leaving an address, she and Emma now managed on her small pension and Emma's salary. That she herself was underpaid Emma was well aware, but on the other hand her job allowed her to keep an eye on her mother's peptic ulcer.
There was an alley behind the row of houses. She wheeled her bike along its length and into their small back garden, put it in the tumbledown shed outside the kitchen door and went into the house.
The kitchen was small, but its walls were distempered in a cheerful pale yellow and there was room for a small table and two chairs against one wall. She took off her outdoor things, carried them through to the narrow little hall and went into the sitting-room. That was small, too, but it was comfortably furnished, although a bit shabby, and there was a cheerful fire burning in the small grate.
Mrs Trent looked up from her sewing. 'Hello, love. Have you had a tiring day? And so wet and cold too. Supper is in the oven but you'd like a cup of tea first.'
'I'll get it.' Emma dropped a kiss on her mother's cheek and went to make the tea and presently carried it back.
'Something smells heavenly,' she observed. 'What have you been cooking?'
'Casserole and dumplings. Did you get a proper lunch?'
Emma assured her that she had, with fleeting regret for most of the sausages she hadn't been given time to eat; Mrs Smith-Darcy had the nasty habit of demanding that some task must be done at once, never mind how inconvenient. She reflected with pleasure that her employer was going away for several days, and although she had been given a list of things to do which would take at least twice that period it would be like having a holiday.
She spent the next day packing Mrs Smith-Darcy's expensive cases with the clothes necessary to make an impression during her stay at Torquay's finest hotela stay which, she pointed out to Emma, was vital to her health. This remark reminded her to order the central heating to be turned down while she was absent. 'And I expect an accurate statement of the household expenses.'
Life, after Mrs Smith-Darcy had been driven away by Vickery, the chauffeur, was all of a sudden pleasant.
It was delightful to arrive each morning and get on with her work without having to waste half an hour listening to her employer's querulous voice raised in criticism about something or other, just as it was delightful to go home each evening at five o'clock exactly.
Over and above this, Cook, unhampered by her employer's strictures, allowed her creative skills to run free so that they ate food which was never normally allowedrich steak and kidney pudding with a drop of stout in the gravy, roasted potatoescrisply brown, toad-in-the-hole, braised celery, cauliflower smothered in a creamy sauce and all followed by steamed puddings, sticky with treacle or bathed in custard.
Emma, eating her dinners in the kitchen with Cook and Alice, the housemaid, savoured every morsel, dutifully entered the bills in her household ledger and didn't query any of them; she would have to listen to a diatribe about the wicked extravagance of her staff from Mrs Smith-Darcy but it would be worth it, and Cook had given her a cake to take home, declaring that she had made two when one would have done.
On the last day of Mrs Smith-Darcy's absence from home Emma arrived in good time. There were still one or two tasks to do before that lady returnedthe flowers to arrange, the last of the post to sort out and have ready for her inspection, a list of the invitations accepted for the luncheon party.
She almost fell off her bike as she shot through the gates into the short drive to the house. The car was before the door and Vickery was taking the cases out of the boot. He cast his eyes up as she jumped off her bike.
'Took bad,' he said. 'During the night. 'Ad the doctor to see 'ergave her an injection and told 'er it were a bug going roundgastric something or other. Alice is putting 'er to bed, miss. You'd better go up sharp, like.'
'Oh, Vickery, you must have had to get up very earlyit's only just nine o'clock.'
'That I did, miss.' He smiled at her. 'I'll see to yer bike.'
'Thank you, Vickery. I'm sure Cook will have breakfast for you.'
She took off her outdoor things and went upstairs. Mrs Smith-Darcy's door was closed but she could hear her voice raised in annoyance. She couldn't be very ill if she could shout like that, thought Emma, opening the door.
'There you arenever where you're wanted, as usual. I'm illvery ill. That stupid doctor who came to the hotel told me it was some kind of virus. I don't believe him. I'm obviously suffering from some grave internal disorder. Go and phone Dr Treble and tell him to come at once.'
'He'll be taking surgery,' Emma pointed out reasonably. 'I'll ask him to come as soon as he's finished.' She studied Mrs Smith-Darcy's face. 'Are you in great pain? Did the doctor at Torquay advise you to go to a hospital for emergency treatment?'
'Of course not. If I need anything done I shall go into a private hospital. I am in great painagony ' She didn't quite meet Emma's level gaze. 'Do as I tell you; I must be attended to at once.'
She was in bed now, having her pillows arranged just so by the timid Alice. Emma didn't think that she looked in pain; certainly her rather high colour was normal, and if she had been in the agony she described then she wouldn't have been fussing about her pillows and which bed-jacket she would wear. She went downstairs and dialled the surgery.
The receptionist answered. 'Emmahow are you? Your mother's all right? She looked well when I saw her a few days ago.'
'Mother's fine, thanks, Mrs Butts. Mrs Smith-Darcy came back this morning from a few days at Torquay. She wasn't well during the night and the hotel called a doctor who told her it was a bug and that she had better go homehe gave her somethingI don't know what. She says she is in great pain and wants Dr Treble to come and see her immediately.'
'The surgery isn't finishedit'll be another half an hour or so, unless she'd like to be brought here in her car.' Mrs Butts chuckled. 'And that's unlikely, isn't it?' She paused. 'Is she really ill, Emma?'
'Her colour is normal; she's very cross.'
'When isn't she very cross? I'll ask Doctor to visit when surgery is over, but, I warn you, if there's anything really urgent he'll have to see to it first.'
Emma went back to Mrs Smith-Darcy and found her sitting up in bed renewing her make-up. 'You're feeling better? Would you like coffee or tea? Or something to eat?'
'Don't be ridiculous, Miss Trent; can you not see how I'm suffering? Is the doctor on his way?'
'He'll come when surgery is finishedabout half an hour, Mrs Butts said.'
'Mrs Butts? Do you mean to tell me that you didn't speak to Dr Treble?'
'No, he was busy with a patient.'
'I am a patient,' said Mrs Smith-Darcy in a furious voice.
Emma, as mild as milk and unmoved, said, 'Yes, Mrs Smith-Darcy. I'll be back in a minute; I'm going to open the post while I've the chance.'
There must be easier ways of earning a living, she reflected, going down to the kitchen to ask Cook to make lemonade.
She bore the refreshment upstairs presently, and took it down again as her employer didn't find it sweet enough. When she went back with it she was kept busy closing curtains because the dim light from the February morning was hurting the invalid's eyes, then fetching another blanket to put over her feet, and changing the bed-jacket she had on, which wasn't the right colour.
'Now go and fetch my letters,' said Mrs Smith-Darcy.
Perhaps, thought Emma, nipping smartly downstairs once more, Dr Treble would prescribe something which would soothe the lady and cause her to doze off for long periods. Certainly at the moment Mrs Smith-Darcy had no intention of doing any such thing.
Emma, proffering her post, got the full force of her displeasure.