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The May sun, bright but still tepid so early in the morning, shone down on the old house, so that the rose brickwork and the tilted gables glowed; it shone on the Albertine roses, already in bud, climbing its walls, and on the large neglected garden around it. And it shone too on the girl, idling to and fro on the swing under the great mulberry tree on the edge of the lawn at one side of the house.
She was a big girl, splendidly built, with a lovely face framed by dark curling hair, her creamy skin already faintly tanned by the spring sunshine. She was wearing beautifully cut slacks which had seen better days and a silk shirt with its sleeves rolled up above her elbows. That was well worn too but of excellent cut. She swung slowly to and fro, her dark brows drawn together in a frown, for once unaware of her beautiful surroundings. She said softly: 'Something will have to be done.' And the elderly labrador lying beside the swing cocked an ear and turned mild brown eyes to look at her.
The girl put up a shapely hand to push the hair away from her face. She looked around her, at the herbaceous border on the far side of a lawn which badly needed mowing, the hedge of lavender, the paved path leading to a half hidden pond, and beyond to the tumbledown fence and the fields. She sighed and allowed her gaze to dwell on the house, quite enchanting in the sunshine; a small Elizabethan manor house, a jewel of a place to the casual eye, but to those who lived in it a constant source of anxiety, with its leaky roof, woodworm in the beams, damp seeping up into the passages and old-fashioned kitchen. Nothing, she reflected bitterly, that couldn't be put right with money. Only there wasn't any of that; her father, absentminded scholar that he was, had drawn steadily on his capital for years now, and her mother, her dear, charming mother, hadn't economised; she had tried, with the best will in the world, but she had no idea how to set about it, and if Celine suggested that they should have a casserole instead of roast pheasant or salmon trout, her parent always had a ready answer, even if an illogical one.
Celine got off the swing and strolled back to the house and opened the door in the kitchen garden wall and went through to see how things were growing. Thomas, the very old gardener, did very little now, but he was still paid his full wages, it would never have entered anyone's head to have done otherwise, but they badly needed help. Celine did her best, but she was still the veriest amateur. The expensive boarding school she had been to and the finishing school in Switzerland hadn't taught gardening, and when she came home, it was taken for granted that she would stay there, doing the flowers, playing tennis with numerous friends in the neighbourhood, helping with the annual Garden Party and the Church whist drives, and going occasionally to London with her mother to buy clothes. Expensive clothes too, Jaeger and the better class boutiques, and Raynes or Gucci for shoes. And she hadn't given it a thought; her father had lived all his life in the old house, and his father and grandfather before him, and heaven knows how many forebears, she had rather taken it for granted that there was money enough, and when occasionally she had mentioned the leaky roof and the peeling paint, her father had looked vaguely surprised for a moment and had remarked that he really must do something about them. But he never had; she realised with a shock of surprise that she had been home for three years; it was only during the last few months that she had begun to notice things. Old Barney was still with them, but then he had been her father's batman during the war, and Angela, their cook, who had always been there too, but when Joan the maid had left to get married, she had been replaced by Mrs Stokes from the village who obliged twice a week, and several bedrooms had been shut up.
She bent and pulled a couple of radishes, rubbed the earth off them, and crunched into them. She should have done something about it, of course, and she felt bitterly ashamed. Here she was, twenty-two years old, nicely up in the social graces but a complete stranger to shorthand and typing, nursing, teaching the young, or even serving in a shop, and without any of these skills how was she to get money, because money was what was needed; her home had to be kept from falling to the ground. It was a pity that she had refused the wholesale manufacturer of cotton goods who had wanted to marry her; he was a rich man. Indeed, now she came to think about it, she had refused several comfortably off young men, under the impressionmistaken, she now sawthat one should marry for love.
She whistled to Dusty, stretched out on the grass path, and turned back to the house. Mr Timms, the family solicitor, was coming to see her father that morning; her mother had mentioned it and looked worried, but when Celine had asked what was the matter, she wasn't told anything. That was the trouble, she thought unhappily; she had been born unexpectedly when her parents were verging on middle age, and they still thought of her as a child to be shielded from anything unpleasant. Not that they had spoiled her, but she had been brought up in a kind of effortless comfort; money was never mentioned and she hadn't bothered over-much about it. She loved her home dearly. If she hadn't perhaps she would have trained for something and got a job by now
She went in through the kitchen door, stopped to talk to Angela whose elderly feet were hurting her, then went through the stone-flagged passage to the hall; there were flagstones here, too, and panelled walls and oak rafters and narrow latticed windows. She stopped to smell the lilac standing in a great vase in one corner and went into the dining-room.
Her mother and father were already there, her mother, a small, pretty woman with bright blue eyes, busy with her post, her father, tall and thin and scholarly, behind his newspaper. Celine kissed them in turn and took her seat at the table.
'What time is Mr Timms coming?' she asked. Her father didn't answer; she turned her lovely grey eyes on her mother, who looked up briefly.
'About ten o'clock, dear. We'd better have him to lunch.'
Celine poured herself some coffee and began on a boiled egg. 'Father, why is he coming?' And when her parent grunted: 'Is it about money? I've never bothered about it, I'm afraid, but now I think I ought to be told.'
He lowered the paper and looked at her over the top. 'There's no need
' he began.
She interrupted him gently. 'There is, you know. Father, are we broke?'
He looked uneasy. 'The truth is, my dear, I'm not quite sure. It is true there isn't a great deal of money left, and unfortunately I made one or two investments a couple of months ago and they haven't turned out quite as I had hoped.'
She buttered some toast. Her insides were cold, she could hardly get the next question out for very fright. 'We shan't have to leave here
'Unthinkable,' declared her father. 'In any case, who would buy the place? It's falling down.'
'But Father, isn't there anything to be done? I mean, couldn't we patch it up a bit where it needs it most?'
Colonel Baylis was on the whole a mild, rather dreamy man, but he could, on occasion, return to the parade-ground manner. 'There's no need for you to concern yourself about such things,' he told her severely. 'We shall come about; Mr Timms will advise me
' He retired behind his newspaper once more and Celine turned to her mother.
'Mother' she began.
'Your father is always right, darling,' said Mrs Baylis, and Celine sighed and went on eating her egg. Her mother was a darling, but she was impractical, she had no idea how to be economical, and it was a little too late in life to begin now. She wondered what Mr Timms would have to say.
Whatever Mr Timms had to say was for her father's ears alone, it seemed. The two gentlemen retired to the Colonel's study as soon as he had arrived and didn't emerge until it was almost time to have lunch, when they joined Mrs Baylis and Celine in the drawing-room; low-ceilinged, panelled walls, and shabby but still grand furniture. They drank their sherry and made polite conversation, then they crossed the hall to the dining-room, equally low-ceilinged but a good deal smaller, its chintz curtains faded to the pale pastel colours of the Savonnerie carpet, its dark oak furniture adequately dusted but unpolished.
The lunch was excellent; Angela was a good cook, and Celine, who had learned to cook to Cordon Bleu standard at the finishing school, had whipped up a delicate soufflé to follow the p té and toast, with a fruit tart to follow. But however excellent the fare, it did nothing to dispel Mr Timms' severe gloom; even the Chablis the Colonel had fetched from the cellar hadn't helped. Celine, taking her part in the talk, bided her time.
She had her opportunity presently, when after a decent interval drinking coffee, Mr Timms prepared to leave. He had taken the village taxi from the station, but now Celine said quickly: 'I'll run you down in the car, Mr Timms,' and was on her way to the garage before anyone could object.
There were two carsa far from new but beautifully kept Jaguar and a Mini. The Jag soaked up petrol, but somehow she couldn't see Mr Timms squashed into the Mini. She drove the big car round to the front of the house where she found him waiting outside the open door with her parents.
As she turned out of the gates at the bottom of the short drive she asked: 'Will you tell me what it's all about, Mr Timms? And I'mnot just being curious; Father has hinted
it's so hard on them both. They can't change their ways now, you know, but perhaps there's something to be done.'
'I don't know
' began Mr Timms primly, then looked astonished as Celine stopped the car on the side of the lane. 'If you tell me quickly,' she said sweetly, 'you'll be in nice time for your train.'
'This is quite improper' he began testily as she turned to look at him. She was a lovely girl, her enormous eyes be-seeched him. For once he stifled his professional feelings. 'The truth of the matter is,' he began, 'your father has almost no capital leftand barely enough from the rents of his property in the village and the farms to cover his rates and taxes. He invested against my advice, a good deal of money over the last few years, with disastrous results.' He paused and asked anxiously: 'Should we not be driving to the station?'
Celine started the car and went slowly ahead. 'Go on, Mr Timms,' she begged.
'The house is in a woeful state of repaireven if your father were to put it on the market I doubt if anyone would buy it, and then at a sum far below its value
'We can't leave,' declared Celine, and despite all her efforts her voice shook a little. 'It's been home for generations. Has Father any income at all?'
'Over and above the rentsthey will take care of taxes and so forthhe has a small income of' and the sum he named made Celine gulp.
Her father had given her mother a mink coat at Christmas; it had cost a little more than that. 'If I could think of a way to earn some money, how much do I need to get by? I don't think we can count on Father's income
The station was in sight and she heard Mr Timm's sigh of relief. 'Just to live,' he stated, 'food and fuel and Angela's and Barney's wages and the very minimum of upkeep would take a certain amount each week, and that would be cheeseparing indeed. You do of course grow your own vegetables and fruit, do you not, and you have hens?
'And plenty of wood for fires, only they make a lot of work. But work is what I'll have to do, isn't it, Mr Timms?' Celine smiled at him and he found himself smiling back at her, wondering why such a lovely girl hadn't found herself a rich husband. Rich or not, he'd be a lucky man.
'Thanks for telling me,' said Celine, and bent forward and kissed his cheek.
'There's really nothing you can do,' he assured her.
She looked at him with bright eyes. 'I've been doing nothing for a long time,' she told him gently. 'I think I'll try something else for a change.'
She didn't hurry back but dawdled along the lanes pursuing impossible schemes for making money in a hurry and abandoning them in turn. It was as she passed the last cottage on the very edge of the village that her eye caught the Bed and Breakfast sign Mrs Ham was hanging in her front window. It was like watching sudden fireworks or opening a door on to something breathtaking as the thought struck her. She accelerated and swept through the open sagging gate. 'If Mrs Ham can, so can I,' said Celine loudly.
She put the car away and went in search of her parents, whom she found sitting in the drawing-room, her mother bent over her tapestry, her father standing with his back to the french window with Dusty beside him.
They both looked at her as she went in, but before either of them had a chance to speak she began cheerfully: 'It's all right, I prised it all out of Mr Timmsand don't be angry, Father, I have every right to know. Most girls like me are pinning down good jobs and paying their own way, but I've just been living here and costing you moneynow it's my turn. I think I know a way in which we can go on living here, even if we do have to cut down a bit.' She studied their upraised faces and thought how elderly and tired they looked and how much she loved them.