Excerpt from Chapter One
Miss Allison thought that Silas Kane's sixtieth birthday party was going off rather better than anyone had imagined it would. Such family gatherings for the Mansells, through long business partnership with Silas, might almost be ranked as relatives were, in Miss Allison's sage opinion, functions to be attended in a spirit of considerable trepidation. Nor had this one promised well at its inception. To begin with, Silas was at polite variance with old Joseph Mansell. Their disagreement was purely on a matter of business, but although Joseph Mansell, a husband and a father, had existence outside the offices of Kane and Mansell, Silas and his business were one and indivisible. He was not, at the best of times, a man who contributed largely to the gaiety of an evening party. He was invariably civil, in an old-world style that seemed to suit his neat little imperial and the large stock-ties he wore, and he would listen as patiently to a discussion on Surréalism as to the description of the bird life on the Farne Islands which was being imparted to him at the moment by Agatha Mansell. Both subjects bored him, but he inclined his head with an assumption of interest, smiled kindly and coldly, and said Indeed! or Is that so? at the proper moments.
Miss Allison, glancing from his thin, pale face, with its austere mouth and its calm, aloof eyes, to Mrs Mansell's countenance, wondered whether a realisation of her host's complete indifference to her conversation would shake Agatha Mansell's magnificent assurance. Probably it would not. Mrs Mansell had been to college in the days when such a distinction earned for a woman the title of Blue-Stocking and the right to think herself superior to her less fortunate sisters. She had preserved through thirty years this pleasant feeling of superiority and an alarmingly cultured voice which could make itself heard without the least vulgar effort above any number of less commanding accents.
'We were disappointed at seeing no gunnets,' announced Mrs Mansell. 'Of course, when we were on Ionah last year we saw hundreds of gunnets.'
'Ah, is that so indeed?' said Silas Kane.
'I saw a film about a lot of gannets once,' suddenly remarked young Mr Harte. He added disparagingly: 'It wasn't too bad.'
Neither Silas nor Mrs Mansell paid any heed to this contribution to the conversation, and young Mr Harte, who was rising fifteen, returned unabashed to the rending of a drum-stick.
Young Mr Harte was not really a member of the family, but his mother, by reason of her first marriage with Silas's nephew James, ranked in the Kanes' estimation as a Kane. James had been killed in the Great War, and although the Kanes bore no ill-will towards Sir Adrian Harte, they could never understand why Norma, who was left in comfortable circumstances, had taken it into her head to marry him.
Neither Norma nor Sir Adrian was present at this gathering. Norma, who had developed in her thirties a passion for penetrating into the more inaccessible parts of the world, was believed to be amongst pygmies and gorillas in the Belgian Congo, and Sir Adrian, though invited to the party, had excused himself with a vague and graceful plea of a previous engagement. He had sent in his stead, however, his son Timothy, in charge of Jim Kane, his stepson, who was even now trying to catch Miss Allison's eye over the bank of flowers in the middle of the table.
Timothy had come to stay. Jim had brought him down in his cream-coloured sports car with a charming note from Sir Adrian. Sir Adrian had providentially remembered that Silas, upon the occasion of Timothy's last visit, had said that he must come again whenever he liked and for as long as he liked, and Sir Adrian, confronted by the task of amusing his son during the eight weeks of his summer holidays, decided that the day of Timothy's liking to visit Cliff House again had dawned. Miss Allison, sedately avoiding Jim Kane's eye, wondered what young Mr Harte would find to do in a household containing herself in attendance upon an old lady of over eighty years, and Silas Kane. He enlightened her. 'Are there any decent films on in Portlaw this month, Miss Allison?' he inquired. 'I don't mean muck about love and that sort of thing, but really good films, with G men and gangsters and things.'
Miss Allison confessed ignorance, but said that she would obtain a list of the entertainments offered.
'Oh, thanks, awf'ly; but I can easily buzz into Portlaw on my bike,' said Mr Harte. 'I sent it by train, and I dare say it'll be at the station now, though actually when you send things by train they don't arrive until years after you do.' He refreshed himself with a draught of ginger beer, and added with a darkling look across the table: 'As a matter of fact, it was complete drivel sending it by train at all; but some people seem to think nothing matters but their own rotten paint-work.'
Jim Kane, at whom this embittered remark was levelled, grinned amiably, and recommended his half-brother to put a sock in it.
Miss Allison glanced down the long table to where her employer was seated. Old Mrs Kane, who was over eighty, had been carried downstairs to grace her son's birthday party, not against her wishes (for she would have thought it impossible that any function should be held at Cliff House without her), but firmly denying any expectation of enjoyment. 'I shall have Joseph Mansell on my right and Clement on my left,' she decreed.
Miss Allison, who filled the comprehensive role of companion-secretary to Emily Kane, ventured to suggest that more congenial dinner partners might be found than the two selected by her employer.
'It is Joe Mansell's right to take the seat of honour,' responded Mrs Kane bleakly. 'And Clement is senior to Jim.'
So there was Emily Kane, sitting very upright in her chair at the end of the table, with Joe Mansell, a heavy man with gross features and a hearty laugh, seated on one side of her, and on the other, her great-nephew Clement, the very antithesis of Joe Mansell, but equally displeasing to her.