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Lady Dowley's Christmas party was in full swing, an event which achieved the very pinnacle of social life in the village of Little Estling, remotely situated as it was some nine miles from Aylesbury and well away from the main road. Remote though it was, it had more than its fair share of landed gentry and the retired professional classes scattered in and around the small place, carrying on tradition: cricket in summer, garden parties, church bazaars, carol-singing at Christmas
The large ornate drawing-room in Lady Dowley's Victorian mansion was full of people, not because she was especially liked in the neighbourhood but because she offered refreshments of a kind most of them were quite unable to afford: smoked salmon, Parma ham, delicious bits and pieces poised on minuscule scraps of toast. The wines were good too; her late husband had assembled a nice cellar before he died. She was an overbearing woman, still handsome in a middle-aged way and prone to interfere in other people's affairs and with a deep-rooted conviction that she was always right. It would have upset her very much to know that her friends and acquaintances pitied her and, despite not liking her over-much, would be prepared to go to her aid if it should ever be required.
Happily unaware of this, she surged to and fro, being gracious to those she considered a little beneath her socially and effusive to those she saw as her equals, and presently she fetched up before a middle-aged, thick-set man with a calm wise face and shrewd eyes.
'Dr Crawley, how delightful to see you.' She glanced around her. 'And your dear wife?' She didn't give him time to answer. 'And your lovely daughter?'
Dr Crawley said comfortably, 'They are here, Lady Dowley, no doubt having a good gossip with someone or other. You're keeping well? And Phoebe?'
'I told her that she simply had to comeI go to all the trouble of asking any number of interesting people.' She looked over his shoulder. 'You must excuse me; there is a very old firm frienddo remember me to your wife if I shouldn't see her Perhaps she will come to tea soon.'
Dr Crawley made a non-committal noise. His wife, a sweet-tempered woman with a retiring disposition, was none the less the granddaughter of an earl, therefore to be cultivated by his hostess. Dr Crawley, whose family had lived on the outskirts of the village for generations, and who knew every single inhabitant, gave a derisive snort and then turned to see who was tapping him on the shoulder.
His daughter Beatrice was a head taller than he, a splendidly shaped girl standing five feet ten inches tall in her bare feet and as pretty as a picture. She had light brown hair, long and straight and coiled in the nape of her neck, large grey eyes with sweeping lashes the same colour as her hair, a delicate nose and a wide, sweetly curved mouth above a determined chin. She was smiling.
'Father, cheer upwe'll be able to leave in another half-hour or so. I've left Mother with Mrs Hodge discussing knitting patterns.' She stopped abruptly as a pair of hands covered her eyes from behind. 'Derek, it is you, isn't it? Has the path. lab thrown you out at last?'
She put up a hand to her forehead. 'Don't you dare to make my hair untidy, it took me hours !'
The hands dropped and she was turned round, smiling, offering a cheek for his casual kiss, aware that there was someone with him. A man of vast proportions with grey hair cut very short and heavy-lidded blue eyes. It was an unpleasant shock to see that he was looking at her with a detached coolness so that her smile faded. He doesn't like me, she thought uncertainly, but we don't even know each other.
'Beatrice, this is Gijs van der EekerkGijs, this is Beatrice Crawley; we've known each other since we were trundled out in our prams. Years ago.'
She shot him a lookany minute now he would tell this man how old she was. She held out a hand and said, 'How do you do?' and had it engulfed in a firm grip. 'Are you visiting Derek?' she asked, wanting to hear his voice.
'For a day or so.' He stood, looking down at her, making no effort to hold the kind of social conversation she expected.
'You're Dutch?' she asked for the sake of something to say. 'You know England well?'
'I come over fairly frequentlythis is a very pretty part of the country.'
She agreed and wished heartily that Derek and her father would stop whatever they were saying to each other and help out with the talk.
'What a pity it is that convention prevents us from saying what we wish to say and forces us to make small talk about the weather.'
He had a deep voice and his English was faultless with only a slight accent. She stared at him, at a loss for words for a moment. Then she said, 'That wouldn't do at all.' She spoke sharply. 'But I think you would like to.'
He smiled then, a small smile which made her feel foolish although she had no idea why. 'Indeed I would, and I must warn you that at times I do.' He paused. 'Speak my mind.'
'Then I am sorry for whoever has to listen to you,' she said with a snap. 'You'll excuse me? I see someone I want to talk to.'
She left him and he watched her go before joining her father and his friend.
She knew everyone there, going from group to group, exchanging gossip, and all the while knowing that she would have to find the wretched man and apologise for her rudeness. All the same, she reminded herself, she had meant it.
Her mother and father were on the point of leaving when she saw him again, talking to the Reverend Mr Perkins. She made her way slowly towards them, intent on getting the business over since they weren't likely to meet again.
The rector saw her first. 'BeatriceI've been wanting a word with youcome over to the rectory in the morning, will you.?' He looked apologetically at the man beside him. 'Christmas, you knowsuch a busy time.' He held out a hand. 'A pleasure meeting you, and I hope it may be repeated.' He beamed at Beatrice. 'I leave you in good hands; Beatrice is a sweet girl.' He trotted off, unaware of the effect of his words.
Her companion lifted his eyebrows. 'I'm delighted to hear that,' he said pleasantly, 'and, I must admit, surprised.'
Beatrice's magnificent bosom swelled with sudden temper. 'I might have known,' she said bitterly. 'I came to apologise for being rude, but I'm not going to now.'
He said to infuriate her still more, 'No, no, why should you? You have a very good expression in Englishto vent one's spleenso very apt, I have always thought. Besides, bad temper suits you. Pray don't give a thought to apologising.'
'Well, I won't. It is a very good thing that we are never likely to see each other again, for we don't get on.'
'Apparently not.' He sounded uninterested, waiting for her to end the conversation.
'Goodbye,' said Beatrice. If she had known how to flounce she would have done so, but she didn't, so she walked away with her chin up and a very straight back. She looked just as delightful from the back, the man reflected, watching her go.
Beatrice, sitting beside her father as he drove home through the scattering of houses and up the hill on the other side to where they lived, replied rather absent-mindedly to her mother's comments about the party, while she reflected, very much to her surprise, that she wished that she could meet Gijs van der Eekerk again. Not because she liked him, she hastened to assure herself, but to find out more about him.
Her mother's voice interrupted her thoughts. 'Will you see Tom tomorrow?'
'Tom?' Beatrice sounded vague, 'Oh, I don't know '
Mrs Crawley's maternal instincts were at once on the alert. 'What a charming man that was who came with DerekI wonder where he comes from and what he does.?'
Beatrice muttered, 'I've no idea,' and her father made no effort to enlighten them; instead he made some placid remark about the evening.
Christmas was only two days away. George, the Crawleys' son, a medical student nine years younger than his sister, would be coming home for two days' leave and two elderly aunts would be arriving in the morning to spend Christmasthere was more than enough to keep Beatrice busy what with helping her mother prepare for Christmas and helping with the flowers at the church. Making mince pies and arranging holly wreaths made a welcome change from her job at St Justin's Hospital in the heart of the East End of London. She liked her workbeing responsible for the smooth running and maintainance of the extensive laboratory attached to the hospital. She had gone there straight from her domestic science course and gradually worked her way up to her present jobas high as she could go. Sometimes the thought that she would be there for ever crept into her mindtwenty-eight was no longer the first flush of youth and despite several offers of marriage she had felt no urge to accept any of them. There was always Tom, of course, who tended to behave as though he had only to beckon and she would come. He was ambitious, working his way ruthlessly to a consultant's status, and she sometimes suspected that the love he professed for her was a good deal less than his anticipation of a path smoothed for him by a father-in-law who knew all the right people. He was a pleasant companion and she saw a good deal of himhad even invited him home for a weekend. Her mother and father had been hospitable and friendly but she was aware that they hadn't liked him.
George arrived soon after breakfast on Christmas Eve, laden with a bag of washing, a crate of beer and a great many parcels. 'Presents,' he explained cheerfully, 'but I've not had time to wrap them upI know you'll do it for me, Beatrice.'
'I'll be sorry for your wife when you get one,' said Beatrice good-naturedly and filled the washing-machine before going in search of paper and labels. He sat at the kitchen table drinking mugs of coffee and telling her what to write on the labels in between answering his mother's questions about his work. He was just starting his second year and had passed his first exams; he loved it, he assured her, and Beatrice, who had a very good idea of a medical student's life, smiled at him. They got on well together despite the difference in their ages and, perhaps because of this, he had always confided in her.
She finished the presents, cut him a hunk of the big fruitcake on the dresser and went to answer the doorbell.
It was the aunts, elderly and rather old-fashioned, having been driven from Aylesbury in a hired car. They were sitting in the back, very erect, their faces composed under formidable felt hats. Beatrice greeted them and the chauffeur, asked him to bring in the luggage and went to help her aunts out of the car. They were both quite capable of helping themselves but it never entered their heads to do so. They never spoke of the lordly head of the family but they didn't forget him either. Certain standards had to be maintained; they reminded each other of this from time to time and they had no intention of altering a way of life which had been normal in their youth, but despite their stiff manners they were dear old thingsBeatrice loved them.
She eased them out carefully, kissed the proffered cheeks and led the way indoors.
Later that morning, the old ladies settled in and the chores done, Beatrice got into the elderly cloak hanging behind the kitchen door and worn by everyone in the family and took herself off to the church to find Mr Perkins. He was putting a plug on the fairy-lights on the Christmas tree and making a bad job of it. Beatrice took it from him, rearranged the wires, screwed them down and handed it back to him. He was a nice old man, everyone in the village liked him, but he needed a great deal of looking after since his wife had died.
He thanked her warmly. 'I asked you to come and see me but I'm afraid I can't remember why.' And before she could suggest anything, he said, 'What a very nice man that was with young DerekI wish I had had more time to talk to him. I trust we shall see him again.'
'Well, I shouldn't think so,' said Beatrice. 'He's Dutch, you know, and only here on a visit.'
'A pity. Ah, I've remembered what I wished to ask you, my dear. If you could give a hand with the children during the blessing of the crib?'
'Yes, of course. Six o'clock this evening, isn't it?'
'So kind. When do you go back to your work, Beatrice?'
'Boxing Day, in the evening. It's lovely to be home for Christmas. I must flythe aunts and George are staying with us, and Mother needs a hand in the kitchen.'
'Yes, yes, of course.' He smiled gently. 'Run along
It seems only the other day that you were a little girl. How old are you now, Beatrice?' 'Twenty-eight.'
'You should be married with children.'
'As soon as I can find a husband I'll do just that, and you shall marry us.' She laughed as she spoke, but really, she reflected as she sped home, it was no laughing matter. She hadn't lacked for prospective husbands but somehow none of them had touched her heart. 'I dare say I shall make a splendid aunt,' she said to Horace, the elderly cat who had invited himself to live with them some years ago and had been there ever since.
Horace jumped down off the wall and followed her into the house. He had long ago realised that when she was at home he could be sure of getting his meals on time. Her romantic future was of no concern to him.
She hadn't been home for Christmas for three years and she enjoyed every moment of it, especially the blessing of the crib with the children milling around, some of them dressed in curtains and their mothers' dressing-gowns and gold paper crowns, enacting their own little play round the crib. Beatrice, nipping smartly to and fro, shushing the noisiest of them and rearranging the curtains which had come adrift, thoroughly enjoyed herself. She went home to supper when it was all over and listened to her aunts' gentle reminiscences of their youth and presently slipped out of the room to join George and listen to his account of his life at the hospital. She gathered that it wasn't badhe was clever and when he chose worked hard and didn't mind the long hours of study. He had friends too, and his social life, as far as she could gather, was a lively one.
'What about you?' he wanted to know. 'Isn't it about time you got married?' He added, 'What about Tom?'