A Promise is Forever
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Fern Barrett is a girl of high principles, and such people are born to be tested. When she and her husband Terry are forced by circumstances to take employment servants in the household of powerful financier Quentin Dorey, a bachelor, her trials begin. Terry becomes increasingly self-centred and feckless, while Fern finds herself more and more attracted by the charm and sympathy of her employer. She also incurs the hatred of Quentin's embittered mother, who has guessed something about the girl's background which Fern is desperate to conceal. What is Fern to do? Because of her, alas, a promise is forever.
Release date: November 6, 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Print pages: 207
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A Promise is Forever
She would never forget that night.
Terry came home at seven o’clock. He had said he might be late because he was ‘having a drink in the City with a fellow who might give him a job’. There was always somebody who might give Terry a job. It had been that way since he and Fern first got married, a year ago. No one seemed to want him. Fern couldn’t understand it. Of course, she knew her darling Terry had no particular qualifications and that he was a bit on the lazy side. But she was so madly in love with him, she was quite sure he would eventually come out on top. She always believed in people until they proved themselves unworthy. Now, at last she was forced to remember a few of the remarks her father had made on the day she told him she had fixed the date of the wedding.
“I don’t think he’s really worthy of you, lovey. But if you want him so much—well, you must have him.”
Typical of Daddy, who had always spoiled her and tried to give her everything.
Mummy had put in her word.
“Of course, darling, I see things more from the woman’s angle, and Terry is absolutely charming. I admit it. But I do wonder just at times what lies under that charm. You must make sure, darling!”
Fern had laughed and disregarded the warning. She was sure. Terry could do no wrong. It wasn’t his fault that he had failed all those silly high-grade exams that other young men seemed to pass; or that he hated the idea of sitting in an office. She could understand it. He was fond of being out-of-doors, and particularly of driving (he was wonderful with cars). He had figured in one or two small rallies and won a trophy. And it wasn’t his fault either, she decided, if a year ago when he was twenty-three, his father—a widower—had died and left him penniless. Old Mr. Barrett was a Civil Servant whose job and pension had died with him. He left Terry nothing.
Anyhow, what did money matter? (What had it mattered to Fern at the time?) Her own father was a partner in a large, successful firm of stockbrokers. She had been brought up in luxury. She had never had to bother her head about £. s. d. But because she liked cooking enormously she had taken a Cordon Bleu course and used often to cook for Mummy’s big dinner parties.
Daddy was always so proud of his domesticated daughter. She wasn’t a time-waster, he used to inform his friends. She was industrious; a girl of real character. He used to boast in the office (and at his Club) that just before his daughter met Terry, she had come of age, and he had offered her a mink jacket, but she had refused it.
“I’d rather have a model kitchen—it’ll set you back a bit but I want it. Ours is right out of date,” she had laughed. They lived in one of those big old-fashioned houses in Hampstead. Mrs. Wendell, Fern’s mother, was the exact reverse of Fern. She loathed housework and cooking. She thought Fern mad when she induced her father to spend all that money on kitchen units and a new fridge and cooker.
“But just see what a good wife I’ll make with all this experience,” Fern had laughed.
During this last year that was what she believed she had been to Terry. A devoted wife keen on the cooking and housekeeping—taking an immense pride in their flat, which was at the top of a new block in Sloane Street. Nobody had ever, of course, suggested to Fern that Terry had married her as much for her money as for herself. She wasn’t the sort of girl to make an analysis of an emotional affair. When she fell in love she fell in love whole-heartedly. That was that. Anyhow, she was sure that Terry loved her and that the difference in their positions didn’t come into it.
Terry was always ‘talking big’.
“I’ll soon find the sort of job to suit me. I’m not going to chuck my talents away.” (Etc., etc.)
When he had turned down her father’s offer to go into the firm and teach him stockbroking, Fern had loyally upheld him. It didn’t really do (quoting Terry) to work for one’s in-laws. A young man must stand on his own feet. This seemed to her sensible, but he had spent all that he had ever had and they were already living on Fern’s allowance, although she never let anybody know it. She was confident that Terry would come back from one of his many appointments to tell her that he had really found a job this time.
Meanwhile Fern was happy. She was naturally of a happy disposition. She lived on faith and her passionate absorption in the man she had chosen for a husband. They got on very well and were physically right for each other, which is important in marriage.
Yesterday had been a lovely May day. The trees in the London parks were green with the new delicate leaves. Spring was in the air. Fern dreamed of a country cottage. Then Fate cut her dreams in two.
She was reeling under the first blow when her husband came home and dealt her the second.
He walked into the kitchen where she was preparing one of her special dishes for the evening meal and started to make his usual excuses.
“Bit of a sell, darling, but the ruddy fellow offered me a salary I wouldn’t dream of taking. I want to be able to keep my wife in the manner to which she is accustomed.”
He didn’t look particularly upset. He grinned at her. Fern, who knew him now, could tell that he had been drinking. He was flushed, and his handsome hazel eyes were a little defiant. He was finishing a half-smoked cigar. Who had paid for it, she didn’t mean to ask. She stood straight and silent while he put his arms around her and kissed her. Her heart was heavy. Deep woe—so new to her—had taken all the colour out of her small, determined face. Slowly, nervously, she wiped her hands on a tea-towel. For the first time in her life she did not respond to Terry’s kiss. Usually she flung her arms around his neck and returned the kiss rapturously. Tonight she did not even hear half he said as he uttered the usual slick, meaningless excuses.
At last she turned from him.
“Come and sit down with me, darling, in the lounge. I’ve got some bad news to tell you and I need all your support.”
(That was before the pillar crumbled.)
In their delightful elegant lounge, Fern stood with her back to the fireplace, pale, unsmiling, smoking a cigarette, and told him what had happened. Mummy and Daddy (which included herself, of course) were ruined.
“Sunk, darling,” she said, with an attempt to laugh, which ended in tears. “Absolutely sunk.”
Terence Barrett blinked at her a little stupidly. He took the cigar from his mouth and held it between his fingers. He exclaimed:
“I say—what do you mean?”
She tried-to speak but could not. She was trying not to cry. She looked rather like a schoolgirl courageously facing disgrace, in that short sleeveless cotton frock. She was boyishly slim. Her hair, short-cut, springing crisply up from a broad intelligent forehead, was the brown of autumn leaves—with a trace of gold and red in it. Her eyes were of a clear periwinkle blue, thickly lashed. Those exceptionally blue eyes, the delightful way her hair grew, and her large attractive mouth made Fern a most desirable young woman. Terence Barrett had found her very desirable indeed (from all aspects, including the social and financial). He, and he alone, knew that if he had not met Fern at that dance a year ago, he might now have been in pretty poor straits. He had spent the small sum his mother had left him on having a good time. He might have had to settle down to a really dull, hard job of work instead of going on being a play-boy. It would have been fatal to Terry if his good looks and his charm couldn’t get him a rich man’s daughter for a bride.
Now, as he heard Fern’s story, he learned that he was no longer married to an heiress. She had nothing now, like himself. Except her furs, a few bits of jewellery which her parents had given her, and the contents of this flat.
Right before his shocked gaze, Terence saw his cosy, easy life vanishing. The handsome house of his in-laws, filled with valuable furniture and paintings, would have to be sold, Fern was telling him. And his father-in-law, Bernard Wendell, was a criminal, wanted by the police.
Fern did not actually use that word. It was in Terry’s mind. Staunchly, she was defending the father she adored. He was an innocent dupe, she said. He had known nothing of what was going on. The senior partner of the firm, Mr Boyd-Gillingham, was the real criminal. Daddy’s firm had been acting for some big Trust. The stockbrokers had used money that did not belong to them in order to buy shares that had gone down instead of up. The original shareholders were demanding restitution. The firm was to be hammered. Boyd-Gillingham, himself, was now seriously ill at his home in Gerrards Cross. And Fern’s father, Bernard Wendell, had disappeared.
“I’ve spent the whole day with Mummy,” Fern finished wearily. “You know what she’s like—terribly helpless, poor darling, even in ordinary times. She’s quite prostrate over this. Fortunately Aunt Pam has come up to spend tonight with her. Tomorrow you and I will have to look after her interests.”
“And where, may I ask, is Papa?” demanded Terence in a stiff, shocked voice.
“Nobody knows. He left Mummy a private note to say that he’d be safely out of the country before the storm broke and that he would do everything in his power to make amends, and that we must all believe in him.”
“But why didn’t he face the music? I think he’s acted most foolishly,” said Terence in a lordly way, as though he, personally, would have done better in similar circumstances.
Fern explained that Daddy had relatives—very wealthy ones—in America. Mummy believed that he had flown over to solicit their help, in order to clear his name. He would never have been able to do it here. He had sworn that he, personally, had absolutely nothing to do with the fraud. It had all been a ghastly shock to him.
“I know it’s true,” Fern declared loyally, her eyes full of burning tears. “Daddy’s proved it by telling us to sell everything we possess, and to use every penny we have in the world to help pay back the shareholders who have lost their money in this disaster. He thought only of those poor people.”
“And what about his own family?” asked Terry, using the drawl that he liked to adopt when he wanted to be haughty.
“Well, he knows that Mummy has a few hundreds a year of her own and that she can live on it, even if it only means existing in some small hotel. And he knows that I’ve got you. He said-how thankful he was that I was married.”
Then Terence laughed. It was that laugh which brought Fern out of her stupor of misery and jarred every nerve in her body. It was such a hateful laugh.
“Married to me! And that pays all the bills, of course. It must be your father’s idea of a joke,” he jeered.
She felt the tears dry on her lashes.
“A joke?” she repeated, blinking.
Terence looked away from her big blue eyes. She had an uncomfortable habit of looking at one as though she could see right into one’s mind, he reflected irritably.
“My dear Fern, you know I haven’t got a sou!” he said.
She stared at him.
“But you’re expected to support your wife. You’ve been saying it is your dearest wish. And you’ve been looking for a job for ages—haven’t you?”
Terry poured himself out a drink. Then he turned round and looked back at his wife through half-shut eyes.
“Without much success, I’m afraid, sweetie. Of course I can take to tramping the streets and answering small ads or apply to the Labour Exchange,” he said, with a shrug. “I’m sure I’d find something like road-mending.”
Fern’s heart seemed to wither within her. For a moment she could not speak. Her cigarette burned to a long ash between her fingers. The second blow had fallen and this time it was a death blow to her romance—the old sweet blind belief in Terry. She suddenly saw him for what he was. Mean-spirited, lazy, utterly unreliable. The realisation made her feel sick.
“No,” she whispered the word to herself. “Oh, no!”
It had been bad enough at home with Mummy all today. Poor Mummy, who was a clinging vine and had always let Daddy do everything for her. So pretty still, although in her fifties, so smart. Fond of her bridge, her dinner parties, her holidays in France or Italy or Jamaica. Lapping up flattery.
(“You look so young for your age, Mrs. Wendell!”)
(“You’re so lucky with your wonderful husband and home, Vivien!”)
That was Vivien Wendell. Weeping and terrified, she had clung to her daughter—bemoaning her lot. Fern must take her father’s place, she said. She was so like her grandmother—that first Fern who had been a great character—born in Carolina—one of those strong American women who could face any disaster and master it. Young Fern had inherited a lot of that determination and capability despite her ‘little-girl loveliness’. Now Fern would have to be all things to her mother.
Bad enough, Fern thought, as she faced her husband, to know that Daddy had vanished overnight as though an earthquake had swallowed him up, and that tomorrow everybody would know the truth. Grim to have to realise that not only was Mummy going to be reduced to a meagre income, but that Fern’s own allowance would stop immediately. But at the back of it all, Fern had clung gratefully to the thought of Terry. He was her husband. He would comfort and help her mother. He was only a boy and perhaps too fond of the bright lights—but she had always been certain he was fundamentally good and that love could make any trouble, physical or mental, easier to bear. She had longed for his return so that she could find that love and support in his arms.
But there he stood, telling her that he couldn’t possibly ever hope to pay the rent of this flat or keep his wife in anything but cheap ‘digs’. Then he added sullenly that he had been cheated.
That word was for Fern the coup de grâce.
“Cheated!” she echoed in a-suffocated voice. “You’ve been cheated? … But how? …”
He looked ashamed, and made haste to withdraw the abominable word.
“I don’t really mean that, darling. I just mean we’ve both been sort of cheated, thinking that your father was a man of his word and that his position and ours were secure.”
Fern went on staring at Terry as though she could not recognise him. Yet there he was, slim, tall, exceedingly good-looking with his thick fair hair and bright hazel eyes and that elegance which was an essential feature of Terry’s personality.
“Daddy is a man of his word,” said Fern trembling, “and he is going to prove that he isn’t personally responsible for this awful thing. Oh, Terry, how can you be so unfeeling … so … so …” Her voice broke off. Suddenly she dropped down into a chair and put her face into her hands. She could bear no more.
Terence Barrett tossed down his drink, swore under his breath, then knelt down beside his wife and set about the task of getting himself back into favour. He didn’t want Fern to be angry with him and it didn’t suit him to be despised, or if it came to a matter of that, found out. He knew that she thought the world of him and had in fact married him against her parents’ wishes. For her love and loyalty he was, in his weak fashion, grateful. He was not all bad. As far as he was capable of love—he loved Fern. He admired her character. She was so ‘full of guts’, as he often expressed it. And she was beautiful. He had been physically faithful to her since they married—quite crazy about her in fact—and never wanted anybody else. But let’s face it, he thought, I counted on her inheriting a small fortune from the old man. I thought the firm of Boyd-Gillingham, Price & Wendell as safe as the Bank of England. It only goes to show that one can’t rely on anything but hard cash in one’s own keeping.
As for old man Wendell being innocent, what did it matter whether he was or he wasn’t? … his firm was implicated, he’d quit, and there wasn’t a bean left. Terry had to confess that Fern without a bean behind her was not quite so attractive as the other Fern whom he had so gaily led to the altar.
Now he tried to put on some sort of show of love and penitence. He was not unkind at heart and he could see that the poor little thing was badly shocked. He hugged and kissed her. He implored her not to misunderstand him, or anything he had said. It was all because he, too, had had a blow. But of course he would get a job now—by hook or by crook. He could drive any car. He might get taken on by some car-firm, as a salesman—or driver.
“We’ll battle through, my sweet. Don’t despair,” he said, warming up to his part. He remembered with relief that there was at least one more bottle of whisky in the drink cupboard.
Gradually Fern thawed. She had been quite frozen by the way her husband had originally taken her news. But as he talked and talked and made all his new big promises and plans and assured her that he adored her, she tried to believe in him again. But she felt confused and so tired that she couldn’t think straight.
God knew, she thought, she didn’t want to believe Terry was just a fortune-hunter. She was only too thankful to accept any explanation he gave. She shuddered away from cold, harsh facts. She let him make love to her—gently exploring her body with his caressing fingers until she turned wholly to him—on fire for him again. At last she pulled herself out of his arms and pushed her hair back from her hot, damp face.
“My darling Terry—what a pair we are,” she said in a shaky voice. “I must look grim!”
He straightened his collar and tie and smoothed back his hair. His handsome face bore the smug self-satisfied look of the male conqueror. He knew Fern could never resist his lovemaking. He had her where he wanted her again. And he was still mad about her. She was devilishly attractive. He eyed her greedily as she put on her cotton frock again. She was a pretty thing—her skin was like peach-velvet, and her waist incredibly small. It wasn’t all the money—he did love her for herself. He only wished to God old man Wendell hadn’t wrecked the boat.
“Your dinner will be ruined, darling. I’d made you something lovely. I expect it’s all burnt,” said Fern, smiling at him in her sweet shy way. She had never quite grown used to Terry’s crazy outbursts of passion at all hours.
“Never mind, darling, I’ll take you out to dinner.”
“What on?” Fern asked with a shaky laugh.
“Oh, I won a tenner at Sandown this afternoon.”
She was too happy again to start wondering why Terry had been to the races instead of keeping business appointments, but she said:
“No, I’ll make you one of my mushroom omelettes. Let’s keep the money, darling. We’ll need it.”
He followed her into the kitchen, wondering gloomil. . .
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