'You read her, laughing, and want to do your best to protect her characters from any reality but their own' New York Times Mr Marling, of Marling Hall, has begun to accept - albeit reluctantly - that he will probably never be able to pass his wonderful old estate on to his children. The Second World War is bringing an end to so many things, but the Marlings carry on as best they can in the face of rationing and a shortage of domestic help. Into their world arrive Geoffrey Harvey and his sister Frances, who have been bombed out of their London home. Bohemian and sophisticated, they rent a local house, and it is not long before they begin to have an effect on their neighbours. Geoffrey begins to court Lettice, the Marlings' widowed daughter, but he finds he has rivals for her affections in dashing David Leslie and Captain Barclay. Observing everything and quietly keeping events on an even keel is the Marlings' sage old governess, Miss Bunting. 'The novels are a delight, with touches of E. F. Benson, E. M. Delafield and P. G. Wodehouse' Independent on Sunday
Release date: November 17, 2016
Print pages: 269
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Mrs Marling, who disliked her name, Amabel, but had never seen her way to do anything about it, was an Honourable, as anyone may see who cares to look her up in Debrett, and connected with most of Barsetshire. She had the tradition of service, the energy, capacity for taking pains and, let us frankly say, the splendid insensitiveness and the self-confidence that make the aristocracy of the county what it is. Her father, Lord Nutfield, was a highly undistinguished peer unknown outside Barsetshire, whose later days were seriously embittered by the arrival in the House of Lords of a new creation, indistinguishable from his own four-hundred-year-old barony except by one letter, and on this subject he was sometimes moved to speech, though otherwise a silent man.
Very properly the Marlings had two sons and two daughters. The elder son, Bill, who was a professional soldier and had a wife and family, had not as yet been sent abroad. The younger son, Oliver, who was not married, had been in a business firm in London. At the outbreak of war he had made frantic efforts to get into the army but had been turned down as being over age and having bad eyesight. After some waiting he got into the Regional Commissioner’s Office in Barchester, living at home and going into Barchester by train. His working hours varied from night duty to day duty, interspersed with a kind of dog watch that made his father say one never knew where Oliver was and, as a rider, that this war wasn’t like the last.
The elder daughter, Lettice, whose husband was killed at Dunkirk, was living with her two children in the stables which Mrs Marling with great foresight had converted into a self-contained flat in the autumn of 1939. The younger daughter, Lucy, lived at home and stood no nonsense from anyone.
Mr and Mrs Marling would willingly have taken their widowed daughter and her young children into their own home, but Lettice Watson, much as she loved her parents, felt that any personality her husband’s death had left her would be battered to death by her mother’s efficiency and her younger sister’s hearty contempt for anything that did not agree with her own standards, and preferred to make her home in the stables, though her old bedroom was kept for her at the Hall and she often spent a night there.
On the night previous to the opening of this story she had slept at the Hall to see as much as possible of her brother Bill, who was spending a short leave at his old home because he had not time to go to the North of England where his wife was living with her parents and children. Whenever Lettice Watson slept in her old bedroom she woke up in a dream, half believing that she was still a girl at home, yet oppressed with a foreboding that all was not well. As the echoes of her dreams died away she remembered, each time with a fresh pang, all that had happened in the last six years, her very happy marriage, her two little girls, her husband rejoining his ship, the sickening silence and suspense of that week in May and the news, confirmed by a friend and eye-witness, of her husband’s death while taking the retreating soldiers on board. With her inheritance of a practical point of view she admitted that many women were far worse off. Her husband had left her wealthy for her needs, her children were satisfactory, she had her parents and her old home as a background, and to be perfectly frank with herself she also admitted that time was dulling her sense of loss.
‘But there one is, alone,’ she remarked to her reflection in the mirror, eyeing her morning face with some displeasure, ‘and it seems so silly to be a widow; the sort of thing other people are, not oneself. Oh, dear. Well, there it is,’ with which philosophy she went down to breakfast.
But if you had known Marling Hall before the war you would have wondered, for instead of going through the gallery and down the large staircase in the wing which was added about 1780, she turned to her left and going through a swinging door, threaded a maze of small passages and rather dark back stairs till she emerged near the door into the kitchen yard. Then opening a door on the right she walked into the room where her parents were already breakfasting. This room had been the servants’ hall, but when the war began Mrs Marling, seeing that servants would be increasingly difficult to get, had dismantled all the large rooms on the ground floor, made the pantry into a sitting room for the diminished staff and turned the old servants’ hall into a dining room with the advantage of being near the kitchen, which had naturally been built as far from the old dining room as possible.
As the servants’ hall overlooked part of the garden, the original builder had put the window at a height which prevented any one looking out. During the nineteenth century the very reasonable idea of treating servants like blackbeetles had led Mr Marling’s grandfather to plant a thick laurel hedge directly in front of the window, to keep the kitchen in its place. This Mrs Marling, who believed in fresh air, had cut down. To alter the window would have been too expensive, nor in truth did she greatly care if she could see out of it or not, having the very sane idea that a dining room was meant to eat in and one could look out of windows all the rest of the day if one wanted to. Her husband, who never meddled in the house, accepted the change with equanimity and apart from once saying that he felt as if he were in a loose box ate his meals contentedly. But Lettice, though she blamed herself for it, hated the tempered gloom and once complained to her sister Lucy that she felt as if she were in an aquarium, to which Lucy very truly replied that aquariums were full of water.
‘Well, a lions’ den,’ said Lettice, thinking of an engraving in the old nursery where Daniel with an unprepossessing white fringe at the back of his head and a long dressing-gown stood eyeing several lions who were cringing till their spines were bent nearly double.
‘You couldn’t keep lions in the servants’ hall,’ said Lucy kindly. ‘It’s only panelled with matchboarding and they’d rip it out in no time. Who do you think I saw in Barchester yesterday? Old Alec Potter. He says he’s got a cow in calf and the vet thinks she’ll have a bad time, so he’s going to ring me up and I’ll go and give a hand. Cows usually have a pretty easy time, but this one hasn’t enough stomachs or something, so it’s a marvellous chance. And his housekeeper makes the best parsnip wine I’ve ever tasted and I promised to give her that bit of sugar I saved off not having it in my coffee since the war.’
And Lucy went off on her own avocations leaving her sister, who had never before heard of old Alec Potter or his housekeeper, bewildered though full of affectionate if rather exhausted admiration for her omniscient younger sister.
But on this morning Lucy had either had her breakfast or had not yet come down, so Lettice kissed her parents and went to the sideboard to get her breakfast. Sometimes she wished she needn’t kiss them; not that she disliked them, but one does not always feel demonstrative at breakfast-time. But on the occasions when she had omitted this ritual, silent anxiety and blame flowed out in such waves that she at once had a guilt complex which lasted her for the rest of the day. So she made a dab at the top of each respected head and poured out her coffee.
‘Shall I give you some more, father?’ she asked.
Her father said half a cup, and when she put it down by him looked suspiciously at it and then glanced with a resigned look at his wife.
‘I know,’ said Mrs Marling, returning his look with a sympathetic moral shrug of her shoulders.
‘It disgusts me to have a whole cup when I say a half,’ said Mr Marling, and drank it to the dregs.
‘Sorry, father,’ said Lettice, who had no particular feeling herself about halves or wholes and at once felt that she was seven years old and in disgrace. Her parents exuded patience and resignation while Lettice felt, as she had so often feft, that it was quite useless to be grown up, the mother of two children, ‘and one that has had losses’, she said inside herself with a bitter amusement at the aptness of her quotation, if one was made to feel like a naughty little girl at nine o’clock in the morning. From past experience she knew that to speak or to be silent would meet with equal disapproval after the affair of the coffee, so she thought she might as well speak. But her mother, who to do her justice had thought no more of the affair, having shot her bolt, began to speak at the same time, so Lettice stopped suddenly in whatever she was going to say.
‘You and Bill were very late going to bed last night,’ said Mrs Marling. ‘I heard the bath water.’
This was a favourite complaint of Mrs Marling’s, who had developed a sixth sense for hearing any bath being filled or emptied and suffering the pangs of insomnia in consequence, by which means she scored heavily over her children.
‘I had my bath before dinner, Mother,’ said Lettice, involuntarily defending herself. ‘And I think Bill did too.’
‘Then I do not know who it could have been,’ said Mrs Marling, ‘but whoever it was I do wish they would be a little more considerate, for the noise of the water running off always wakes me. You heard it, didn’t you, William?’
‘Heard what?’ said Mr Marling. ‘The bath? Oh, the bath. Can’t say I did. What was it doing?’
Mrs Marling transferred her look of resignation and her moral shrug of the shoulders to her daughter, implying rather than actually breathing the words, ‘Your father!’
‘Bill and I were talking about the children,’ said Lettice apologetically. ‘We did sit up a bit late because he had to go early this morning. Did you see him off, Mother?’
‘No sense in seeing people off,’ said Mr Marling, bursting into the conversation. ‘Get up early, don’t know how to fill in the time till breakfast. It isn’t as if he were on embarkation leave. I did happen to be up a bit before my usual time, but he had gone. He didn’t want anyone to see him off. Any coffee left, Lettice?’
His daughter took his cup and filled it carefully to a certain flower on the inside supposed to represent an Imperial Half Coffee-cup. Her heart suddenly felt heavy as she thought of the morning she had seen her husband off for the last time, but she discouraged the feeling and came back to the table.
‘That all the coffee?’ said her father. ‘Amabel, you might tell the cook to give us enough coffee. Not rationed yet as far as I know. Well, well, so no one saw Bill off. I remember my mater getting up at five o’clock to see me off in ’fourteen, freezing it was too, and —’
But an end was put to what promised to be a very dull story by the arrival of his younger daughter who opened the door in a shattering kind of way and stood there letting a roaring draught blow in from the passage.
‘Do you know what I did this morning?’ she said to no one in particular. ‘I saw Job Harrison going across the four acre, so I yelled to him to wait and Turk and I caught him up at the sluices and his wife is much better and the other twin’s going to live. Goodness, it was cold down at the sluices, not a bit like May.’
‘“Don’t cast a clout till May is out” my old pater used to say,’ remarked Mr Marling. ‘Sensible, those old sayings. People didn’t go about with nothing on in my young days.’
‘And Turk got a young rabbit,’ said Lucy. ‘Turk, Turk!’
At her call a large shaggy dog rushed into the room and began to bark.
‘Lucy dear, shut the door,’ said Mrs Marling, ‘and have your breakfast. Down, Turk, down.’
Encouraged by these words Turk walked round the table and pushed his large face at everyone, an attention from which Lettice shrank.
‘Lie down, Turk lie down,’ cried Lucy with the perfunctory voice of the dog lover who neither expects nor desires obedience from her four-footed owner. ‘The other twin, I mean the one that died, is to be buried tomorrow,’ she continued, as she poked about among the breakfast dishes. ‘Thank goodness the hens are laying now. Anyone want this egg? Job doesn’t know what to put on its tombstone because it only lived five days, but I said, “Well, it must have had a name,” so Job said it was christened Rezzervah. Sugar please, Mother.’
‘I thought you had given it up,’ said her mother.
‘So I have, Mother,’ said Lucy, whose mouth was very full of scrambled egg and toast, ‘but I collect it for old Alec Potter’s housekeeper, one lump for every cup.’
‘Rezzervah isn’t a name,’ said Mr Marling, who had been thinking over the subject. ‘Where did he get it? In the Bible, eh? Don’t remember it there.’
‘Of course not, Father,’ said Lucy with kindly contempt. ‘It’s because they live in Reservoir Cottages. I saw its coffin yesterday when I was in the village. Fred Panter was making it when I went into the shop to see about having those shelves put up in the Women’s Institute. He says it’s reckoned lucky to make coffins for twins, so long as it isn’t both. I’ll tell you what I’ll do at the Institute. I’ll get Fred to rehang that door into the little room where they boil the kettle. It’ll give us twice as much room if it opens the other way round. Bill thought it would be a good plan, too. I say, it was rotten of Bill to go off so early. I’d have got up if I’d known, but I had my bath very late last night in the blue bathroom and somehow I overslept. I say, what a noise the water does make going out of the bath. I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll —’
‘Lucy dear, one cannot hear oneself speak,’ said a quiet voice. ‘Good morning, Mrs Marling; good morning, Mr Marling; good morning, Lettice; good morning, Lucy. You might get me my coffee, dear.’
Lucy, checked in full career, got up meekly and went to the sideboard while a short, spare, grey-haired, elderly woman in a nondescript dark knitted suit, with a piece of black ribbon tied round her faded neck, sat down next to Lettice, who greeted her as Bunny.
Miss Bunting had spent forty years of her life in instructing the gilded early youth of England before it went to its preparatory school, sometimes residing in the country mansions of its parents, sometimes having classes at their town houses. Mrs Marling’s brothers had all been under her charge, as had in their turn her brothers’ various little boys. When London became an undesirable place for classes, Miss Bunting’s heart did for the first time in her life blench. Teaching is no inheritance, and an old age as a Distressed Gentlewoman appeared to be the only career open to her when Mrs Marling, who had the true feudal spirit about old retainers, asked her to come and live at Marling Hall till times were better. Miss Bunting gratefully accepted the offer and had gradually and with great tact become an invaluable cog in the machinery of the house, acting in a ladylike and non-committal way as housekeeper and secretary, and since Dunkirk as occasional governess to Lettice Watson’s little girls. She supervised the Red Cross stores that were kept in the dismantled drawing-room, she taught Diana and Clare Watson the name of every flower and bird at Marling, she sat up with anyone who was ill and could read aloud for ever, she knitted for all her ex-pupils now on active service, and her sitting room, which used to be the schoolroom, was a land of enchantment to Diana and Clare, where one could make pictures with brightly coloured chalks, sing nursery rhymes with Bunny at the little old upright piano, or, almost better, strum on it without check. Miss Bunting had that sense of her own worth that only the old governess and the old nannie possess, and many peers, including two marquises and a duke, would sooner have faced a revolutionary mob than Miss Bunting’s voice when she asked to see if their hands were clean, as was her invariable custom when she met old pupils.
Lucy brought her coffee and was silent for quite two moments while Miss Bunting spoke of the beauty of the May morning which reminded her, she said, of the wonderful weather one spring when she was holiday governess to Lady Emily Leslie’s youngest boy.
‘Lady Emily Leslie,’ said Mr Marling, looking up from his newspaper. ‘Funny thing you should mention her. I saw something in The Times this morning about Martin Leslie. Is he the one you mean?’
‘Oh dear, no,’ said Miss Bunting pityingly. ‘My pupil was David Leslie, Martin’s uncle. Such a clever boy, but he would not brush his hair and Lady Emily was really no help at all. However he improved wonderfully under my care. He is flying now. I have a little jug that he gave me when I left, in the shape of an owl. One pours the milk out of its beak. But it is at my married sister’s house with my other little treasures. Toast please, Lettice dear.’
‘I hope Martin’s name wasn’t in the casualty list, father,’ said Lettice, who had a private feeling which she tried to discourage that the name of everyone she knew would turn up as killed or missing sooner or later.
‘Couldn’t say, dear,’ said her father. ‘You know the way you see something in the paper and then forget what it was. Might have been on page seven, if there is a page seven today. Never know where you are with papers nowadays. No, that’s Company Meetings. Wouldn’t see young Leslie’s name in Company Meetings. Or page three. No, that’s Imperial and Foreign. Lord bless me, what we want with foreign news I don’t know. Quite enough trouble without that.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Lettice.
‘Martin has been awarded the George Medal for doing something very meritorious with a bomb,’ said Miss Bunting. ‘I heard it on the eight o’clock news.’
‘I say, Bunny, you always get the juicy bits,’ said Lucy with frank admiration.
‘Juicy is hardly the word I would use,’ said Miss Bunting. ‘I simply use my ears and my intelligence and remember what is of interest. I acquired the habit when my dear father was so ill. He was nearly blind and very deaf and not altogether in his right mind, so naturally any little scraps of news interested him. And there was no wireless in those days,’ she added, appearing to take some merit to herself for this fact.
‘I wish I could do something with a bomb,’ said Lucy. ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Next time we get an unexploded bomb I’ll get Captain Barclay to let me see them explode it. He explodes bombs up the other side of Pook’s Piece, where the old quarry is.’
‘Pook’s Piece?’ said Mr Marling, re-emerging from The Times. ‘That’s all National Trust now. Bond and Middleton had that meeting about four or five years ago and got it put through. You remember, Amabel. That meeting we couldn’t go to. Can’t explode bombs on National Trust land. No one will leave land to the National Trust if the military are going to explode bombs on it. Sort of thing Hitler would do.’
‘I’ll tell you what Hitler would do, father,’ said Lucy. ‘He’d jolly well collect the bomb and chuck it somewhere else where it would blow up a factory or something. If I was Hitler I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d —’
‘We have heard enough, Lucy dear, of what you would do,’ said Miss Bunting, putting the lid back on her private butter ration which she kept in a little earthenware pipkin with a snail on its cover, gift of Lord Henry Palliser, aged eight, and kept back owing to its great beauty from the treasures that were at her married sister’s house. ‘The National Trust, as I understand it, holds a trust for the nation, and I fail to see how the exploding by the military of German bombs can in any way be said to contravene its aims. The Duke of Omnium was on the Committee and presented Matchings to the Trust. I often took Lord Henry and Lady Glencora there on Sunday afternoon. It made a nice walk.’
‘Matchings?’ said Mrs Marling, who had been reading her business letters and scribbling answers on them for Miss Bunting to deal with later. ‘That is a very bad bit of land. The Duke tried to sell it to my father, but he wouldn’t look at it. What is everyone doing today?’
Lucy fidgeted in her chair, for this daily question of her mother’s, savouring as it did of interference by parents, annoyed her independent spirit, though she did not dare to make a vocal protest. Miss Bunting put on the pince-nez which had quelled many members of the present House of Lords and looked at her. Lucy subsided.
‘Bench at Barchester,’ said Mr Marling. ‘I have to go to an Agricultural Committee at three, so I’ll lunch there. Do you want the car, Amabel?’
Mrs Marling said she didn’t and to be sure to ask if there was a message from Oliver at the Club.
‘Oliver, eh,’ said Mr Marling, who appeared to have forgotten who his younger son was. ‘What does he want a message for?’
‘A message from Oliver,’ said Mrs Marling patiently. ‘You know quite well, William, he was at Pomfret Towers last night and he might like to come back in the car with you instead of by train. And don’t forget to call at Pilchard’s for the cook’s mattress that was being re-covered. And you might look in at Pinker’s to see if Bill’s riding breeches that he left there are ready. I’ll write it all down for you.’
‘Oh, all right, all right,’ said Mr Marling with a show of ill-temper that did not impress anyone. ‘Suppose I’m a kind of carrier nowadays. But why no one could get up and see Bill off, I don’t know. I’d have been down myself, but the boy didn’t say when he was going. Daresay he didn’t get any breakfast either. Don’t know what the country’s coming to. Here, Bunny.’
He got up, pushed The Times across the table at Miss Bunting and went towards the door.
‘Dear Bill ate a very good breakfast,’ said Miss Bunting, rather ostentatiously refolding The Times, which in Mr Marling’s hands usually looked like an unmade bed. ‘I slipped on my warm dressing-gown, the one that the Duchess sent me at Christmas, and my blue boudoir cap, and we had a cosy little tête-à-tête over his egg in my sitting-room and he left his best love for everyone. By the way, Mr Marling, he took your library book to read in the train. I said I was sure you would not mind.’
Mr Marling did not shut the door in time to prevent his family hearing the loud Damn with which he relieved his feelings. Mrs Marling went away with her letters.
‘Oh, Bunny, you are mean!’ said Lucy. ‘Bill promised he’d wake me up and say goodbye.’
‘He did, Lucy dear, but you went to sleep again,’ said Miss Bunting. ‘And you had better go, dear, if you are to get to the Cottage Hospital in time. You know Matron doesn’t like you to be late. Lettice and I will do the table.’
‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do —’ said Lucy.
‘No, dear, not now. You will be late,’ said Miss Bunting, and Lucy left the room, banging the door just so loudly as might be construed by a friendly advocate as pure accident.
As the indoor staff at Marling Hall, which used to be eight, was now reduced to four and a woman from the village who often found herself unable to oblige, it had become a habit that some member of the family should clear away the breakfast things and stack them neatly on a service trolley. Though Lucy was full of good will, her readiness to help had broken more china and bent more forks than her family could bear, so it had been tacitly agreed that Miss Bunting should be in command. Oliver helped as a rule before he went to the Regional Commissioner’s Office at Barchester, and Lettice if she was spending the night at the Hall. This morning she and Miss Bunting cleared the table in silence. Lettice had never talked much as a child or as a girl and Miss Bunting sometimes wondered why she was so unlike the rest of her family, but finally attributed it to her grandmother, Mr Marling’s mother, who had made the lamp-room into a kind of lay chapel when electric light was installed. Under the present Mrs Marling’s rule the chapel, which really only consisted of a blue and white Della Robbia plaque, some Morris hangings and some rush-bottomed chairs, had been allowed to relapse. While the children were small their perambulators, outdoor toys, and, later, bicycles were kept in it and there all their secret societies met. At present it was being used as a supplementary coal cellar against the winter, but through all its changes it had been stubbornly called the lamp-room. Miss Bunting remembered old Mrs Marling very well and saw in Lettice the distinction she had admired in her grandmother and the air of being as it were withdrawn from what was going on about her. Not altogether a good thing for a young woman with children Miss Bunting thought, but did not feel called upon to say so.
Both ladies were neat and swift in their movements and the breakfast things were quickly stacked. The only difference of opinion was over three clean saucers and one unused plate which Lettice, with what Miss Bunting secretly admired as a lordly manner, though her better judgement was against it, was heaping with the dirty things when the old governess, driven by conscience, interposed.
‘Those saucers separately, Lettice dear,’ she said, ‘and I think that plate has not been used.’
‘I didn’t notice,’ said Lettice.
‘Well, it is only one or two crumbs,’ said Miss Bunting. ‘I will just whisk them off on to the plate that had the egg on it. I always say one can help the servants in so many little ways, and keeping the clean and the dirty things separate is one of them.’
‘Sorry, Bunny,’ said Lettice, with as little show of feeling as when her father had spoken about his half cup of coffee.
Miss Bunting suddenly wished that Lettice would lose her temper, or argue. It would be more natural, she felt, in a young woman of the present day than accepting the little fads of an old woman. She looked at Lettice, thought of speaking, and held her peace.
‘Do you want to come to Rushwater this afternoon, Bunny?’ Lettice said. ‘It’s the children’s dancing class.’
Miss Bunting accepted gratefully.
‘It’s lucky I’ve got enough petrol for their dancing and their gym,’ said Lettice. ‘Still, one doesn’t really want to go anywhere now. I must go through the Red Cross stores this morning, but I’m going down to the stables first. See you at lunch. Bunny.’
Miss Bunting looked after her with some displeasure. A young woman of Lettice’s age oughtn’t to say she didn’t want to go anywhere, even if she was a widow. There was Lady Peggy Mason in the last war, who had lost two husbands and married a third before the Armistice, and one would hardly have guessed she was a widow even for the brief periods when she was. But it was no good expecting Lettice to be like Lady Peggy, who was as hard as nails. Besides, Lady Peggy wasn’t really what you would call race, not with that very common grandfather on her mother’s side, and Lettice was County right through.
‘If only Lord Richard were alive,’ said Miss Bunting aloud to herself. But Lord Richard was not alive; at least he had last been seen at Calais and by this time no news must be bad news and sure news: and so many of Miss Bunting’s pupils were dead now, and so many more would be dead as time went on. Two wars do not keep one’s old pupils alive. Miss Bunting sometimes had a dream that she flew – not in an aeroplane, but with invisible wings – to Germany, and alighting in Hitler’s dining-room just as he was beginning his lunch, stood in front of him and said, ‘Kill me, but don’t kill my pupils because I can’t bear it.’ The dream had always tailed off into incoherence, but it came again and again, and Miss Bunting had a sneaking feeling, which she condemned firmly as superstitious and even prayed against on Sundays, though not with real fervour, that if only she could keep asleep till Hitler answered, the war would somehow come to an end. But so far she had always woken too soon.
Lettice went out by the side door, for the front door with its steps, its elegant pilasters and its fanlight was not used now that the living rooms were shut up. The stables were about a furlong from the house, giving the coachman ample room to get his horses to a spanking trot up the rise and wheel them round smartly at the front door, where they pawed and champed and fretted their necks like swans against the bearing rein. Tradition had it that Mr Marling’s father in his young days, being an autocrat in the matter of punctuality and given to the good old tradition of swearing at the men servants from time to time, had once been at the front door when the landau and pair, ordered for three o’clock, had drawn up at the steps before the mellow stable clock had chimed three. Upon this he had damned and swore somethink hawful, as the coachman subsequently related, not without pride, to a select audience at the Marling Arms, and had ordered him to turn the horses and bring them up again on the stroke. Lettice’s father had equally insisted on punctuality, though without the swearing, but that was before the war when they had the big Daimler and the two smaller cars and two chauffeurs. Now the chauffeurs had gone to munitions, the Daimler and one of the smaller cars were laid up for the duration, and only the smaller family car was being used. Oliver and Lucy each had a disreputable runabout. Mrs Marling had always refused to learn to drive, so if none of her family were free to drive her she stayed at home or walked. Lettice was able to help her mother with her own car which, as we have seen, was otherwise used chiefly for the children’s classes, and on other occasions she walked, or bicycled, a mode of progression which frightened her very much.
The stables were built in an L shape, the larger wing of which had been altered to make the flat. The roof over hay lofts and grooms’ quarters had been raised, gas and electric light installed, and Lettice was the mistress of a fairly large drawing-room, a small dining-room, a smaller kitchen, a bedroom and bathroom for herself, a tiny spare room, a day and night nursery and a bathroom for nurse and the children. To Diana and Clare’s intense delight the entrance was up a real stable staircase, very narrow and almost perpendicular, which to them represented the height of romance, though nurse felt it due to herself to complain at intervals that one couldn’t get a pram up. But as the perambulator had a nice dry loose box to live in just under the nursery no one was really sorry for it.
The Misses Watson, aged five and three, were blissfully engaged at the old horse trough which, with its pump still in working order, stood in one corner of the stable yard. With them was their great friend Ed Pollett, at present almost the only able-bodied man about the place. Ed was for some years porter at Worsted Station, owing to family influence, his uncle, Mr Patten, being the station-master, but his real genius was with cars, a genius quite undimmed by his being distinctly half-witted in other ways. At a moment of crisis a few years previously he had been lent as temporary chauffeur to Lord Bond and had given such satisfaction that he had been taken on permanently at Staple Park as second chauffeur. When, at the outbreak of war, Lord and Lady Bond had let Staple Park to a public school and gone to live in the White House next to their friend and tenant Mr Middleton at Laverings, Ed had been transferred to Marling Hall as general util. . .
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