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The girl at the table read her letter slowly, her neat brown head bowed over its single page, watched by everyone sitting with her. She came to the end and then started to read it over again, and the boy sitting beside her cried impatiently: 'Polly, what's it say? Do tell us, why
'Hush, Ben.'His mother, even more impatient than he was, spoke quietly. 'Polly will tell us when she's ready.'She added hopefully: 'Won't you, dear?'
The girl looked up and glanced roundthey were all there, her mother, father, two very pretty sisters and the twelve-year-old Ben. 'I've got the job,' she said, and beamed at them all in turn as she handed the letter to her father. 'Nine to five except Saturdays and Sundays, and a decent salary, too.'
'Darling, that's marvellous!' exclaimed her mother, smiling at her youngest daughterthe plain one of the family and the one with the brains. Cora and Marian had no need of brains; they were so pretty that they would marry just as soon as they could decide which of their numerous boy-friends would make the best husband. Ben was still at school and clever too, but it was Polly, twenty years old, with a clutch of GCSEs and A-levels and a natural bent for dead languages, who had inherited her learned schoolmaster father's clever head. And a good thing too, thought Mrs Talbot, for she had no looks to speak ofa slightly turned up nose, far too wide a mouth, even though it had soft curves, straight brown hair and a little too plump for her medium height. Her only good features were her eyes, large and brown, fringed by curling lashes which needed no mascara at all. They twinkled engagingly now. 'It's a lot of money,' she said happily, and indeed for the Talbot family it was for there wasn't a great deal to spare by the time Ben's school fees had been paid and the rambling Victorian villa they lived in, with its elderly plumbing and draughts, was always in need of some vital repair or other. True, Cora and Marian both had jobs, cycling to nearby Pulchester, one to work in the public library on three afternoons a week, the other to spend her mornings in one of the town's boutiques. She was paid a pittance, but she was allowed to buy her clothes there at a big discount and naturally enough all her money went on that, and since she and Cora were the same size and shape, she bought for her too, so that neither of them ever had a penny piece between them. But at least, as Mrs Talbot pointed out to her husband, they paid for their clothes and perhaps they would be able to find better jobs later on. Or marry, she added to herself hopefully.
'When do you start, dear?' asked Mrs Talbot.
'Next Monday.'Polly drew her straight brows together. 'I'll have to leave at half past eight, won't I? It's twenty minutes on the bike if I do go down Tansy Lane.'
'What will you wear?' asked Cora.
Polly pondered for a moment. 'A skirt and a blouse, I suppose, and a cardigan. It'll be a bit chilly in the morning
'Ne'er cast a clout till May be out,' quoted Ben.
Polly grinned at him. 'Sillyit's April for another two weeks. I must pop over to see the Vicar and borrow his Greek dictionary; Shylock had the last few pages of mine.'
And presently, closeted with that learned gentleman, she explained why she needed it. 'Sir Ronald Wise,' she explained, raising her quiet voice a few tones in order to counteract his deafness. 'He wanted someone to type his booka very learned one comparing Ancient Greek and Latin as languages, you know. And of course it'll be quicker if he has someone who understands a bit about it. I saw his advert in The Times and applied, and I've got the job.'
The Reverend Mr Mortimer nodded his bald head. 'That is excellent news, my dear. Your father must be proud of you.'
He fetched the dictionary. 'I shall be dining with Sir Ronald next week, he will doubtless tell me how you are getting on.'
Polly left him presently, did a little shopping at the village stores for her mother and started for home. The house was a little way out of the village, halfway up a short steep hill, beside a lane which wound its way in a nonchalant fashion to the next village. She wandered up it, not hurrying, for the spring sunshine was warm and her basket heavy. She was almost home when a Range Rover came over the brow of the hill and stopped squarely in the middle of the lane, leaving her no room to pass, and its driver addressed her.
'Wells CourtSir Ronald Wise's place?' He was polite, but he was also in a towering rage; that she could see easily enough. He was very good-looking too, in a dark, beaky-nosed fashion. Polly studied his face. Everyone knew everyone else in her part of the world; this man was a stranger.
Prepared to be friendly and in no hurry at all, she observed: 'Good morning. Are you lost? People will take the short cut from Pulchester, you know, it looks so easy on the map, but if you don't know your way around it's twice as long.'
His politeness was icy now. 'I should be obliged if you would spare me your observations on rural communications. I realise that living in theseerrustic conditions, time is not of paramount importance to you, but it is to me. Wells Court, if you would be so good
Polly gave him a pitying look. Poor man, in a rage about nothing, and in such a hurry, too. 'You need a rest and a cup of coffee,' she said kindly. 'I daresay you've come a long way. Turn left at the bottom of this lane, cross the village square and into the lane beside the church. Wells Court is a mile along the roadyou can't miss it.' She added a friendly goodbye.
His own goodbye held more than a hint of mockery, but she didn't see that.
She forgot all about him in the small bustle of preparation for the new job, and when Monday morning came she set out on her bike, very neat in her navy pleated skirt, one of Cora's blouses, a little too big but very suitable with its prim round collar and silky bow under her chin, and her own cardigan would do very nicely, as she wouldn't need to wear it in the house.
She parked the bike beside the imposing front door and rang the bell. She knew the man who opened it by sight, for he went to church and sat in the pew reserved for Wells Court, but if he recognised her, he gave no sign. His, 'Miss Talbot? You are expected,'was uttered in a voice devoid of expression, although he frowned slightly at the sight of the bicycle. 'I will ask the gardener's boy to put your bicycle in the shed at the side, miss,' he told her austerely, and stood aside for her to go in.
She had been in the house on one or two occasions; when it had been opened to the general public in aid of some charity or other, but never further than the entrance hall and the big reception rooms on either side. Now she followed the man along a passage at the back of the hall and waited while he tapped on a door at the end of it.
Sir Ronald's rather fruity voice bade them enter and Polly did so, slipping neatly past her guide, who shut the door behind her, leaving her to cross a broad expanse of polished floor to the desk at the far end of the room where Sir Ronald was seated.
'Ah, good morning, young lady. What's your name? Talbot?'
'Yes, Sir Ronald. Polly Talbot.'
'Yes, yes, of course. I've met your father somewhere clever chap.' He glanced up at her, standing composedly in front of the desk. 'Got a couple of pretty sisters, haven't you?' He chuckled. 'But you've got the brains, eh?'
She wondered if this was a compliment. She said calmly: 'It's just that I like Greek and Latin. Sir Ronald, I'm not clever at anything else.' She almost added: 'And not pretty either,' but decided against it.
'Well, there's plenty of work for you, Polly. I've finished the glossary and it needs careful checking as you go along.' He leaned back in his chair and rather belatedly invited her to sit down. 'Greek and Latin,' he told her with some smugness, 'a comparison, if I may so describe itas far as I know, there's been precious little written about the subject since Beeton's Classical Dictionary, although my work is no dictionary.' He turned to nod over one shoulder. 'There's a desk and typewriter and all you may need through there. You can start as soon as you wish.'
Polly got to her feet. 'Is there a time limit?' she asked.
'What? The publishers want it as soon as possible. You had better let me know how you're getting on at the end of the week. Now
' He fussed with some papers on his desk, and she prudently went through the door he had indicated and shut it quietly behind her.
The room was small and little used, she judged, but there was a fair-sized desk in it with a comfortable chair, a typewriter and a stack of paper and carbons, and of course the manuscript. She sat down and began to read it slowly. The first chapter was written in English and merely detailed the contents of the book. Without looking further, she typed it out; it took her most of the day with a break for coffee and then lunch, which were brought to her there on a tray. A friendly maid led her through a door back into the hall and showed her a downstairs cloakroom, and she lingered a while, glad of a chance to move around a little. The house was very quiet as she strolled round the hall, wishing she dared to go outside for ten minutes; tomorrow she would ask
She finished the chapter by four o'clock, and since there was still an hour to go, she began to study the second chapter. A very different kettle of fish, she was soon to discover. Sir Ronald had plunged deeply into his subject, and although she was confident that she could type it correctly she had very little idea of what he was getting at. A tray of tea was a welcome relief, and presently, her day's work done, she laid her work on the desk in the study, and went into the hall. Someone would have to be told she was leaving; she was wondering who when the maid came through the service door at the back.
'I'm going home now,' said Polly. 'My bike's been put in a shed
can I get it?'
'You wait there, miss, it'll be fetched for you.' The girl went away again and Polly sat down in one of the massive chairs ranged against the wall. A cold unlived-in house, she decided, looking around her, probably because Sir Ronald was a widower with grown-up children living away from him. It was nice to get out into the garden again, jump on her bike and cycle home through the quiet lane.
Going in through the kitchen door presently, she could smell hot buttered toast and the wood fire in the sitting room and gave a contented sigh. Never mind the shabby furniture and the threadbare carpet in the hallthis was home, warm and welcoming. She washed her hands at the kitchen sink and hurried to the sitting room where the family were gathered round the fire having tea.
Her mother looked up as she went in. 'Darlingjust in time, how nice. Did you have a good day?'
Polly took a great bite of buttery toast. 'I think so. The first bit's easy; I just had time to look at the next chapter and that's going to be a bit tricky, but I like it.'
She answered a string of questions, helped clear the tea things and offered to take Shylock for his walk. Cora and Marian were both going out that evening and Ben had a pile of homework, so, as so often happened, Polly took the dog out far more often than anyone else; her sisters went out a good deal in the evening and could never find the time. And Shylock was a large unwieldy dog who needed a good deal of exercise. The pair of them went off happily, walking briskly in the chill of the spring evening, Shylock's large woolly head full of the pleasure of rabbit hunting, Polly's happily occupied with the delights of having money to spend.
But before that she had to work for it, and work hard. She was not unfamiliar with the Greek and the Latin so that she was able to keep at a fair speedall the same, it took her three days to type the second chapter. She laid it before Sir Ronald halfway through the morning and sighed with relief when he glanced through it with evident satisfaction.
'Very nice, very nice, Polly. I shall go through it carefully later today. You have started the next chapter?' Without waiting for her to reply he added: 'You have all you want, I hope? Your meals and so on?'
'Yes, thank you, Sir Ronald. Would you mind if I went into the garden for a few minutes during my lunch break?' She hesitated. 'It will take me longer to type the rest of the book, Sir Ronald; I have to study each page
He nodded. 'Of course. Just so long as it's well done. There's no time limit, Polly.' He added to contradict himself: 'As soon as possible, you understand?'
He waved a vague hand at her, and she went back to her desk and spent an hour frowning over the next chapter.
Lunch was a welcome break; she ate it quickly and hurried into the garden, to sit on a sheltered seat and feel the midday warmth of the sun on her face, and presently went back to work. It dealt with Greek and Latin proper names with a long explanation of the vowel sounds; she was halfway through this when the door opened and the driver of the Range Rover walked in. He looked at her with surprise. 'Good God, the rustic chatterbox! I'm looking for Miss Talbot.'
'Me,' said Polly, her colour heightened and her voice tart. She was neither rustic nor a chatterbox; he was insufferably rude, whoever he was.
He crossed the little room and leaned against the desk, a large, very tall man. 'Well, well, as my nanny so often remarked, wonders will never cease. Are you the paragon who's typing Sir Ronald's manuscript?'
'I am not a paragon, nor am I a rustic chatterbox. I'm typing his work, yes. Why do you want to know?'
Polly poised her hands over the keys in the hope that he would take the hint and go away. A friend of Sir Ronald's, she supposed, indulging in idle curiosity. She thought it unlikely that he would answer her question, and she was right, he ignored it completely, just went on standing there looking at her. 'You don't mind if I get on?'she asked frostily. 'I daresay someone will find Sir Ronald if you want to see him
The gentleman in question came through the door as she spoke, already talking. 'There you are, Sam. Been having a look at the manuscript, have you? Polly's doing a good job of the typing. A clever girl, is Pollyit isn't everyone who can read both Latin and Greek and type them intelligently as well.' He beamed at her. 'And that reminds me that your wages are on my desk, collect them as you go, will you?'
He took the other man by the arm. 'There's a most interesting book I want you to look at,' he told him as they walked to the door. 'I found it in Pulchester of all places, in a poky secondhand shop
' His voice faded as he went through the door, followed by his companion. Neither of them took any notice of Polly. She hadn't expected them to do so.
It was at the end of the afternoon, her wages safely stowed in her pocket, wheeling her bicycle away from the house, that Polly encountered the man again. He came out of the shrubbery bordering the long drive just as she was about to pedal away.
'Going home?' he asked idly. 'You live in the village?'
'Yes,' she answered politely. 'Good evening.'
She rode off fast, anxious to get away from him. She wasn't likely to see him again; the Range Rover had been parked on the sweep before the house, ready for him to leave. She wondered who he was and where he lived and why he was so abrupt in his manner. 'Downright rude,' she said out loud, then forgot him in the pleasure of deciding what she would do with the money in her pocket. There was, she estimated, about six weeks' work ahead of her, perhaps two months. She could save it up, of course, and have an orgy of spending at the endon the other hand, she needed some new clothes and she could buy Ben the football boots he wanted for his birthday, and give her mother some housekeeping money too. She had made up her mind to that by the time she reached home; she could save something each week, and perhaps visit Aunt Maggie's in Scotland when she had finished.