Read an Excerpt
The sun, rising gloriously on the morning of Midsummer's Day, turned the swelling Dorset hills into a wide vista of golden green fields and clumps of trees under a blue sky. Miles away, traffic along the dual carriageway thundered on its way to the west, unheard and unheeded in the quiet countryside around the village of Hindley, its inhabitants for the most part still sleeping in their beds. Farm workers were already about their work, though; the bleating of sheep and the sounds of horses and cattle were blotted out from time to time by the sound of a tractor being started up; but on the brow of the hill rising behind the village these sounds were faint, the bird-song was louder.
Half-way up the hill a girl sat, leaning comfortably against the trunk of a fallen tree, a shaggy dog sprawled beside her. She had drawn up her knees, clasped her arms around them and rested her chin on them—a pretty, rounded chin, but determined too, belying the wide, gentle mouth and the soft brown eyes with their thick black lashes. Her hair was long and brown, plaited and hanging over one shoulder. She flung it back with a well-shaped hand and spoke to the dog.
'There—the sun's rising on the longest day of the year, Knotty. Midsummer Madness—the high tide of the year, a day for fairies and elves, a day for making a wish. Do you suppose if I made one it might come true?'
Knotty, usually obliging with his replies, took no notice, but growled softly, cocked his large, drooping ears and allowed his teeth to show. He got to his feet and she put a restraining hand on his collar, turning to look behind her as she caught the sound of steady feet and someone coming along, whistling.
Knotty barked as a man left the line of trees and came towards them. A giant of a man, dressed in an open-necked shirt and elderly trousers, his pale hair shone in the sunlight and he walked with an easy self-assurance. Tucked under one arm was a small dog, a Jack Russell, looking bedraggled.
He stopped by the girl, towering over her so that she was forced to crane her neck to see his face. 'Good morning. Perhaps you can help me?' He had put down a balled fist for Knotty to examine, ignoring the teeth.
'I found this little chap down a rabbit-hole—couldn't get out and probably been there for some time. Is there a vet around here?' He smiled at her. 'The name's Latimer—Oliver Latimer.'
The girl got to her feet, glad for once that she was a tall girl, and very nearly able to look him in the face. 'Beatrice Browning. That's Nobby—Miss Mead's dog. She'll be so very glad, he's been missing for a couple of days—everyone has been out looking for him. Where was he?'
'About a mile on the other side of these woods—there's a stretch of common land… The vet?'
'You'd better come with me. Father will be up by now; he's leaving early to visit a couple of farms.'
She started down the hill towards the village below. 'You're out early,' she observed.
'Yes. You too. It's the best time of the day, isn't it?'
She nodded. They had left the hill behind them and were in a narrow rutted lane, the roofs of the village very close.
'You live here?' he wanted to know. He spoke so casually that she decided that he was merely making polite conversation.
'My home is here; I live with an aunt in Wilton.' She turned to look at him. 'Well, not all the time—I'm staying with her until she can get another companion.' She went on walking. 'Actually she's a great-aunt.'
She frowned; here she was, handing out information which couldn't be of the slightest interest to this man. She said austerely, 'What a splendid day it is. Here we are.' Her father's house was of a comfortable size surrounded by a large, overgrown garden, and with a paddock alongside for any animals he might need to take under his care. She led the way around the side of the house, so in through the back door, and found her father sitting on the doorstep drinking tea. He wished her good morning and looked enquiringly at her companion. 'A patient already—bless me, that's Nobby! Hurt?'
'Nothing broken, I fancy. Hungry and dehydrated, I should imagine.'
'Mr Latimer found him down a rabbit-hole the other side of Billings Wood,' said Beatrice. 'My father,' she added rather unnecessarily.
The two men shook hands, and Nobby was handed over to be examined by her father. Presently he said, 'He seems to have got off very lightly. There's no reason why he shouldn't go straight back to Miss Mead.'
'If you will tell me where to go, I'll take him as I walk back.'
Beatrice had poured the tea into two mugs. 'Have some tea first,' she offered. 'Do you want to phone anyone? This must have delayed you…'
'Stay for breakfast?' suggested her father. 'My wife will be down directly—I want to be well away before eight o'clock.' He glanced up. 'Far to go?'
'Telfont Evias—I'm staying with the Elliotts.'
'George Elliott? My dear chap, give him a ring and say you're staying for breakfast. It's all of three miles. Beatrice, will you show him where the telephone is? You can take Nobby back while breakfast is being cooked.'
Miss Mead lived right in the village in one of the charming cottages which stood on either side of the main street. Trees edged the cobbled pavement and the small front gardens were a blaze of colour. Mr Latimer strolled along beside Beatrice, Nobby tucked under one arm, talking of this and that in his deep voice. Quite nice, but a bit placid, Beatrice decided silently, peeping sideways at his profile. He was undoubtedly good-looking as well as being extremely large. Much, much larger than James, the eldest son of Dr Forbes, who had for some time now taken it for granted that she would marry him when he asked her…
She decided not to think about him for the moment, and instead pointed out the ancient and famous inn on the corner of the street and suggested that they might cross over, since Miss Mead's little cottage was on the other side.
Miss Mead answered their knock on her door. She was tall and thin and elderly, and very ladylike. She wore well-made skirts and blouses, and covered them with cardigans of a suitable weight according to the time of year, and drove a small car. She was liked in the village, but guardedly so, for she had an acid tongue if annoyed.
But now her stern face crumpled into tearful delight. 'Nobby—where have you been?' She took him from Mr Latimer and hugged him close.
'You found him. Oh, I'm so grateful, I can never thank you enough—I've hardly slept…'
She looked at them in turn. 'He's not hurt? Has your father seen him, Beatrice?'
'Yes, Miss Mead. Mr Latimer found him down a rabbit-hole and carried him here.'
'He seems to have come to no harm,' interpolated Mr Latimer in his calm voice. 'Tired and hungry and thirsty—a couple of days and he'll be quite fit again.'
'You're so kind—really, I don't know how to thank you…'
'No need, Miss Mead. He's a nice little chap.' He turned to Beatrice. 'Should we be getting back? I don't want to keep your father waiting.'
A bit cool, she thought, agreeing politely, wishing Miss Mead goodbye and waiting while she shook hands with her companion and thanked him once again. Perhaps his placid manner hid arrogance. Not that it mattered, she reflected, walking back with him and responding politely to his gentle flow of talk; they were most unlikely to meet again. A friend of the Elliotts, staying for a day or two, she supposed.
He proved to be a delightful guest. Her mother sat him down beside her and plied him with breakfast and a steady flow of nicely veiled questions, which he answered without telling her anything at all about himself. That he knew the Elliotts was a fact, but where he came from and what he did somehow remained obscure. All the same, Mrs Browning liked him, and Beatrice's three sisters liked him too, taking it in turns to engage him in conversation. And he was charming to them; Ella, fifteen and still at school, Carol, on holiday from the stockbroker's office where she worked in Salisbury, and Kathy, getting married in a few weeks' time…
They were all so pretty, thought Beatrice without rancour; she was pretty herself, but at twenty-six and as the eldest she tended to regard them as very much younger than herself, partly because they were all cast in a smaller mould and could get into each other's size tens, while she was forced to clothe her splendid proportions in a size fourteen.
Mr Latimer didn't overstay his welcome; when her father got up from the table he got up too, saying that he must be on his way. He thanked Mrs Browning for his breakfast, bade her daughters goodbye and left the house with Mr Browning, bidding him goodbye too as they reached the Land Rover parked by the gate and setting off at a leisurely pace in the direction of Telfont Evias.
'What a very nice man,' observed Mrs Browning, peering at his retreating back from the kitchen window. 'I do wonder…' She sighed silently and glanced at Beatrice, busy clearing the breakfast-table. 'I don't suppose we shall see him again—I mean, Lorna Elliott has never mentioned him.'
'Perhaps he's not a close friend.' Ella, on her way to get the school bus, kissed her mother and ran down the drive.
And after that no one had much more to say about him; there was the washing-up to do, beds to make, rooms to Hoover and dust and lunch to plan, and as well as that there were the dogs and cats to feed and the old pony in the paddock to groom.
Mr Browning came back during the morning, saw several patients, just had his coffee and then dashed away again to see a sick cow; and at lunch the talk was largely about Great-Aunt Sybil who lived in Wilton and to whom Beatrice was acting as a companion until some luckless woman would be fool enough to answer her advertisement. Beatrice had been there three weeks already, and that, she pointed out with some heat, was three weeks too long. She was only at home now because the old lady had taken herself off to London to be given her yearly check-up by the particular doctor she favoured. She was due back the next day, and Beatrice had been told to present herself at her aunt's house in the early afternoon.
'If it wasn't for the fact that she's family, I wouldn't go,' declared Beatrice.
'It can't be for much longer, dear,' soothed her mother, 'and I know it's asking a lot of you, but who else is there? Ella's too young, Carol's due back in two days' time and Kathy has such a lot to do before the wedding.'
Beatrice cast her fine eyes to the ceiling. 'If the worst comes to the worst, and no one applies for the job, I'd better get married myself.'
There was an instant chorus of, 'Oh, has James proposed?'
And Kathy added, 'I mean properly, and not just taking you for granted.'
'He's not said a word,' said Beatrice cheerfully, 'and even if he did I wouldn't…' She paused, quite surprised that she had meant exactly that.
Until that very moment she hadn't bothered too much about James, while at the back of her mind was the knowledge that when he felt like it he would ask her to marry him, or at least allow his intentions to show, but now she was quite sure that she wouldn't marry him if he were the last man on earth.
'Oh, good,' said Kathy. 'He's not at all your sort, you know.'
'No. I wonder why I didn't see that?'
'Well, dear—he may never ask you,' observed her mother.
'That's just what I mean,' went on Kathy, 'you would have dwindled into a long engagement while he deliberated about the future, and then got married without a scrap of romance.'
'Great-Aunt Sybil offers an alternative, doesn't she?' Beatrice laughed. 'I only hope she liked this doctor she went to see. And wouldn't it be wonderful if there were dozens of replies to her advert for a companion? Then I can come back home and help Father.'
Her father drove her over to Wilton the next day after an early lunch. 'I'm sorry about this, love,' he said as they drove the few miles to the town, 'but your great-aunt is my mother's sister, and I did promise that I'd keep an eye on her.'
And quite right too,' said Beatrice stoutly. 'Families should stick together.'
Her aunt's house was Georgian, its front door opening on to the street which divided a square, tree-lined and ringed around by similar roomy old houses. Beatrice kissed her father goodbye, picked up her case and pulled the bell by the door. Mrs Shadwell, the sour-faced housekeeper, answered it and stood aside so that she might go in, and with a final wave to her father Beatrice went into the dim and gloomy hall.
Her aunt hadn't returned yet; she went to her room and unpacked her few things, and went downstairs again to open the windows and the glass doors on to the garden at the back of the house; her aunt would order them all closed again the moment she came into the house, but for the moment the warm sun lit the heavily furnished room. Too nice to stay indoors, decided Beatrice, and skipped outside. The garden was quite large and mostly lawn bordered by shrubs and a few trees. She went and sat down with her back to one of them and allowed her thoughts to turn to Mr Latimer. A nice man, she decided; a thought dreamy, perhaps, and probably he had a bad temper once roused. She wondered what he did for a living—a bank manager? A solicitor? Something to do with television? Her idle thoughts were interrupted by a sudden surge of movement within the house. Her aunt had returned.
Beatrice stayed where she was; she could hear her aunt's voice raised in umbrage and she sighed. It wouldn't have been so bad if she were paid for her companionship—if one could call it that: finding things, running up and down stairs with knitting, books, a scarf, answering the telephone, reading aloud to her aunt until that lady dozed off, only to wake a few minutes later and demand that she should continue reading and why had she stopped? Companion, Beatrice decided after a few days of this, wasn't the right word—there was no time to be a companion—who should have been someone to chat to and share jokes with and take little jaunts with on fine days. The word was slave.