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Barsetshire in the war years. Miss Bunting, governess of choice to generations of Barsetshire aristocracy, has been coaxed out of retirement by Sir Robert and Lady Fielding to tutor their daughter Anne, delicate, sixteen years old, and totally lacking in confidence. When Anne makes friends with Heather Adams, the gauche daughter of a nouveau riche entrepreneur, her mother is appalled. Miss Bunting, however, shows an instinctive understanding of the younger generation - perhaps, having lost so many of her former pupils to the war, she is more sympathetic to their needs. She may be a part of the old social order, where everyone knows their place, but is wise enough to realise that the war has turned everything on its head and nothing will ever be the same again - even in rural Barsetshire. First published in 1945, Miss Bunting is a charming social comedy of village life during the Second World War.
Release date: November 17, 2016
Print pages: 277
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Among the villages or small towns on this line is Hallbury. It is on the Omnium property, but as the estate is now for the most part a limited company, it does not have with the Castle the friendly feudal relations of former days. Until the coming of the railway it had remained almost untouched by progress; a street of little dignified stone houses and equally dignified red brick, living its own life, viewing from the gentle eminence on which it stands mile upon mile of pasture land, a certain amount of arable and the downs in the distance. It was the rising land that saved it from the degrading suburbs that so often accompany the march of progress. The railway, with one angry look at the town, kept on its course across the level, avoiding the river Rising, here no more than a stream, and pursued its way to Silverbridge and so into foreign parts. In course of time some marshy land was drained and the local speculators began to build. Tradesmen and small business people from Barchester began to settle there, followed by people from London, who wanted to walk or fish at the weekend and were well served by the excellent trains before the war. The roads were prettily laid out and planted with flowering trees and shrubs, the architecture was just what we might expect, for Pattern and Son, the builder and estate agent, had what he called Ideas, which included every style of building from half-timbered and pebble-dash to Mixo-Totalitarian with semicircular ends and windows that rushed round corners. So far the foundations (not that there were any because Old Pattern, now succeeded by Son, said it stood to reason where you’d got a space under a house you got rats) had endured, and the present Mr Pattern was always ready to rehang a door that a warped jamb was causing to stick, or push a window-frame gradually extruded by the pressure of sagging brickwork back into place, or even to poke at a blocked waste-pipe with a mysterious upward bend.
As may be imagined, the town on the hill did not mix with the town beyond the railway, and society fell tacitly into two groups: the Old Town, consisting of the original inhabitants of the stone houses and the aboriginal cottagers and work-people, and the New Town, the status of whose citizens was almost indefinable, but may be expressed in the words of Engineer-Admiral Palliser at Hallbury House who, inarticulately conscious of a house at least five hundred years old in parts, held by his family since the Commodore Palliser who did so well in the matter of prize-money under Lord Howe, remarked that those houses on the railway line were always changing hands, and so dismissed the whole affair.
Admiral Palliser, a distant connection of the Duke of Omnium, was a widower. Deeply attached to the wife from whom the sea had separated him so often and so long, he sincerely mourned her and as sincerely believed that the best he could do for her, as she was now probably able to see from wherever she was exactly what he was doing and even know what he was thinking, was to carry on; to think as well of his neighbours as human nature would allow; to do all for them that a certain amount of money and a certain local influence could ensure. Both his sons were in the Navy, both daughters married to naval men. The elder daughter lived in Sussex and could rarely leave her young family. Lieutenant Francis Gresham, the husband of the younger daughter, had been missing since the loss of our battleships in the Far East, so Jane Gresham with her little boy Frank had come to live with her father. She would have liked to drown her sorrows in a factory or in the Wrens, but her father needed care, her little boy needed a mother, and she probably felt, as inarticulately as her father, that her mother, being rather unfairly in a position to know all that was being done or thought, would like to see that Admiral Palliser was being properly looked after and the old servants kept up to the mark.
It was not an amusing life for her. She loved her father and Hallbury, but all was changed. Her father was as often as not in Barchester where he was on the board of a large engineering works, or in London on business connected with it. Nearly all her contemporaries were away on various war jobs. The girls came home on leave from time to time, the young men more and more rarely as their duties called them overseas. The houses formerly of friendly leisure in the Old Town, were mostly servantless and packed with relatives or paying guests, there was no point in going to Barchester as there was nothing in the shops and it was impossible to get lunch anywhere unless before 11.30 or after 2.30, she did not like to go to London and leave her little Frank, and to take him with her would have been foolish. So she stayed in her father’s home, glad of its shelter, always waiting to get away, and blaming herself for feeling depressed. And deeper than all these griefs was the knowledge, for she did not willingly deceive even herself, that the longer Francis Gresham was missing the less she minded. It was not that she didn’t love him, or that the dull ache at the heart, the dreary waking from dream to real life every morning grew any less; but the whole thing seemed so infinitely far away, and the longer he was absent the more difficult it would be, she feared, to begin their life again – if ever he came back. Sometimes she almost prayed to hear that he was dead. Then she blamed herself bitterly and knew she would die of joy if the door suddenly opened and he were there. But of course none of these things happened, and she sank into an almost painless monotony of life and always thanked charmingly the people who asked if there was any news of her husband.
‘There’s something you could do for me, Jane,’ said her father at breakfast one morning. ‘You know Adams.’
Jane Gresham had often heard of Mr Adams, founder and proprietor of the big rolling mills and engineering shops at Hogglestock. Her father took a great interest in his work on the board and usually told her what he was doing, for she liked to hear about what she called ‘real things’ and had even made one or two very intelligent suggestions, but she had never met the director.
‘It seems he wants a house outside Barchester for the summer holidays,’ said the Admiral, ‘not for himself, but his girl is going up to Cambridge in the autumn, and he wants a place where she can get some extra coaching. Apparently he has found a woman coach for her, but he says if she stays in Barchester she will be in and out of the works all day. He asked my advice so I said I would speak to you. He is a good enough fellow,’ said the Admiral, by which his daughter perfectly understood that Mr Adams was, not to put too fine a point upon it, by no means a gentleman, ‘and I’ve a great respect for his business methods. What do you think?’
Jane Gresham thought and gave it as her opinion that there was not a house to be had in Hallbury, and probably not even room for any more paying guests, but that she would go to Pattern and inquire.
‘He will pay anything so long as he gets value for his money,’ said the Admiral, getting up and taking the Times with him to read in the train, which always irritated his daughter, because more often than not he forgot to bring it back with him. And then he kissed her and went down to the station.
It was an unpleasant morning in July, though no more unpleasant than most, for Providence in its inscrutable incompetency had altogether given up the question of summer for the duration of the war. A winter of much wind and no rain had been succeeded by a windy and arid spring, followed in its turn by a chill summer of grey skies and drought, with the weary sound of wind still flapping aimlessly about. The rivers were low, many springs were dry; overworked and understaffed farms were having to water the cows and horses and sheep. At Grumper’s End over near Pomfret Madrigal water was being carted, and Sir Edmund Pridham, the local magnate, had had violent passages at arms with the Barsetshire County Council and the Water Company. No prayers had been offered for rain, for most people felt it was really safer not to interfere with Powers who had obviously let everything get out of their control. So gardens and fields lay cold and untidy, and everyone’s temper was daily exacerbated.
But not the temper of Master Frank Gresham, aged eight and a half, who had a snub nose, a wide grin and the best opinion of himself and the world, so that whenever his mother looked at him she felt that things weren’t so bad after all, and what a good thing it was that he didn’t remember his father well enough to miss him; for four years is a long gap out of eight and a half. In the autumn he was to go to the preparatory school at Southbridge, and at present attended a small class at the Rectory every day, coming home for lunch.
When she had done her share of the housework and talked with the elderly cook and parlourmaid, Jane Gresham took her shopping-basket and went out to do the shopping. No sooner had she closed the front door behind her and gone down the garden path into the street than a buffet of wind drove down on her, whirled her hair into confusion, tossed a few bits of paper and straw into her face and blustered itself away, thus setting the key for what she felt sure would be a difficult morning. Her one comfort was that she had admitted defeat at the very beginning of the day and put on a woollen skirt and cardigan instead of the washed-out summer frock that most of the other shoppers were wearing, so she would at least be warm.
The fish was visited, also the grocer, the little linen-draper and all-sorts shop, and the stationer. The fish after some fifteen minutes’ wait produced an anonymous piece of stiff whitish slipperiness called fillets, the grocer at last had in stock a little washing soda for which she had been waiting three weeks, the linen-draper’s had just got in its quota of non-elastic elastic and was able to let her have a yard, the stationer had one copy of the month’s local bus and train guide.
Her luck being for the moment in, she decided to begin her search for lodgings and went straight to the office of Pattern and Son.
The late Mr Pattern, founder of the firm, had always been, or so he said, one for practising what he preached. As no one knew what he preached, the accuracy of his practice was a matter for speculation, but he undoubtedly built as he would be built by. His office, for which he had been designer and contractor, was erected on a corner where some very picturesque cottages had stood. The cottages, it is true, were below ground level, insanitary, a home for rats and bugs, the thatch a mass of decaying vegetation, and it was high time they went. But while the gentry were beginning to talk of doing something, Mr Pattern, who though not exactly on the Council had a good many friends there, had got in first, bought the cottages and erected a stately pleasure dome to his own heart’s desire. And when we say pleasure dome it is not poetical licence, for the crowning feature of his resurrection-pie architecture was a pepper-box turret, precariously attached to the corner of the building, with a small wooden dome which he caused to be painted to look like verdigris’d copper.
Though the late Mr Pattern had built a great many houses in the New Town and owned many of them, he had never left the Old Town, preferring to live over the shop, thus earning the reputation of being one of the old school, though of what school no one quite knew. Young Mr Pattern, having married slightly above him into a bank manager’s family, preferred to live in the New Town and had let the upper part of the house at an excessive rent to various mid-European refugees who mysteriously always had plenty of money and got very good jobs, replacing local men and women who had been called up. Young Mr Pattern’s ambition was to build what are known to the trade as Californian bungalows on the banks of the Rising, and to make what is almost universally called a Lye-do, and it was only by the special intervention of the German Chancellor that his plan came to nothing. For in 1937, scenting trouble ahead, the Duke of Omnium’s agent Mr Fothergill had persuaded his employer to make over two miles of the River Rising with a wide strip of land on each side to the National Trust, and it was said that old Mr Pattern’s death was hastened by this deliberate waste of building land.
Often had young Mr Pattern cast a longing eye upon Admiral Palliser’s property, comprising a large garden, a small paddock for horses, and a field beyond, usually let for grazing to a farmer. But the Admiral was pretty well off, had no occasion to sell and would probably have been very short with anyone who had suggested it. So Mr Pattern continued to regard him with admiration as an old buffer who knew his own mind and with contempt as one who kept good money locked up in land. He would also dearly have liked Mrs Francis Gresham to become acquainted with his wife, but though the war had mingled all races and creeds, it had not as yet mingled Old Town and New. Why the Old Town butcher’s wife, Mrs Wandle, should attend working parties and committees at Hallbury House and the Rectory, while Mrs Pattern (as he called his wife) was never invited, he could not understand. Nor will he ever understand. We perhaps may.
After exchanging a few genteel commonplaces, Jane Gresham asked Mr Pattern if he knew of any house of a moderate size to let in Old Town, New Town or the neighbourhood, from the end of July for two or three months. After making a great show of running through the pages of a large book, during which Jane felt sure she heard him say: ‘Mrs Aggs, Mrs Baggs, Mrs Caggs, Mrs Daggs, Mrs Faggs, Mrs Gaggs and Mrs Gresham,’ he looked up with a fevered brow and said there was simply not a house to be had.
‘I know there isn’t,’ said Jane. ‘There never is now. But what I want to know is if there is one.’
This request Mr Pattern appeared to find quite in order.
‘Well, there is The Cote,’ said Mr Pattern, ‘and I dare say The Cedars might consider a let.’
‘I don’t think they would for a moment,’ said Jane. ‘They’ve got three ex-Land Girls each with a baby and her husband abroad, so things are quite comfortable. And The Cote is far too large. The friend who wants a house only wants it for his daughter and a governess, and he might come down at week-ends himself.’
‘Well, there is Mrs Foster’s house, Mrs Gresham,’ said Mr Pattern, warming to the game, as he always did. ‘Quite a small nest but cosy. She might be thinking of going to her sister at Torquay for the summer.’
‘That wouldn’t do a bit,’ said Jane. ‘You know there are only two bedrooms and an attic where no servant would sleep even if you had one. Well, I’ll have to try Barchester.’
‘Just one moment, Mrs Gresham,’ said Mr Pattern. ‘Slow and sure wins the day as they say. I suppose your friend wouldn’t care to try the New Town, or further afield?’
As Jane had already mentioned both Old and New Towns, not to speak of the neighbourhood, she only said she thought he would. Mr Pattern, with damped forefinger, then made an excursion through various large books and loose-leaf holders, while Jane wondered if a woman would do it better, and came to the conclusion that she would probably do it far more quickly and efficiently, but would also wreck herself in the process, and this Mr Pattern was quite obviously, and perhaps rightly, determined not to do. So, being quite used to waiting for nothing to happen, she waited.
‘Ah!’ said Mr Pattern, shutting a large book with a lordly gesture, but keeping his finger in the place he wanted, ‘here we are, Number 28 De Courcy Crescent, three bed, one large sit. with alcove dining, kitchen and usual offices. Bath is in kitchen, Mrs Gresham, but it’s a luxury bath, with a splendid cover that your friend could use for an ironing-table or for the sewing-machine.’
Jane said she didn’t think her friend would want to iron or use the sewing-machine as he was in Barchester all day, and she was sorry Mr Pattern had nothing suitable. Besides, she added, De Courcy Crescent had the railway on one side and the gasometer on the other, and everyone knew the smuts were dreadful, especially when the washing was out.
‘Of course if I’d known the gentleman wished to wash at home,’ said Mr Pattern, sibilantly and pityingly.
‘Well, thank you so much, and you’ll let me know if you hear of anything,’ said Jane, getting up.
‘Now, just one moment, Mrs Gresham,’ said Mr Pattern, who was enjoying to the full the age-old conventions of bartering. ‘There’s a house just come in this morning in Riverside Close.’
Abstracting her mind from an unbidden vision of a peripatetic house – perhaps on chicken’s legs like Baba Yaga’s – Jane said she would look in another time.
‘Three bed, two sit., lounge hall, lock-up garage, constant hot water, fridge, tiled bath and ekcetera,’ said Mr Pattern with a resolute display of his fine uppers.
‘I can’t wait now,’ said Jane. ‘But if you’ll give me the address again I might look at it. Is there anyone there or shall I take the key?’
‘Well, Mrs Gresham, there is someone there,’ said Mr Pattern. ‘I don’t think I made it quite clear that it’s not to let, Mrs Gresham, at least, not as a house if you see what I mean. The owner, Mrs Merivale, takes paying guests. She is a widow and she always makes everyone very comfortable. Canon Banister’s mother was with her for some months before she died, and I know some of Mrs Crawley’s daughters have been there with their children during the war.’
The mention of Canon Banister and the Dean’s wife, both old Barchester friends, made the whole affair seem much more possible. Jane took the address, thanked Mr Pattern and, for much time had gone in shops and at the house agent’s, had to hurry to the Rectory to fetch Frank home to lunch. This was not really necessary, for Frank had taken himself to and from school unaccompanied since he was quite small, but it was a pleasant diversion for her before lunch, and as Frank had not yet reached the stage of being ashamed of her, she profited by his tolerance.
Hallbury Rectory was a modern building by Hallbury standards, certainly not earlier than 1688. The original Rectory, which stood on the north side of the church and almost against it, naturally got no sun from the south. Owing to a thick screen of clerical vegetation such as dark conifers, ilex, a kind of cypress and high laurel hedges, it got little or no light from the east or west, and on the north looked across a wall on to a large barn. As there was also a well in the cellar, fed mostly by the town drainage, the incumbents and their wives and families had died off like flies until a lucky fire one Guy Fawkes Day had reduced it to a blackened shell. The Rectory was then moved to a commodious brick and stone house and produced quantities of valuable children, among whom was the Augustus Palliser who had served under Lord Howe and bought Hallbury House. As a thank-offering for this mercy the special prayers for Guy Fawkes Day were regularly read on the Sunday nearest to November the Fifth, and though, owing to a deplorable access of broadmindedness, the Rev. the Hon. Reginald de Courcy had suppressed them in the eighteen-thirties, many of the old prayer books still had them, and Admiral Palliser always made a point of reading them to himself with some ostentation during the sermon on the appointed day.
The church, one of the many beautiful and unpretentious stone churches of these parts, with a tower and battlements, was called St Hall Friars. The origin of this name was rather obscure. Early local antiquarians with simple enthusiasm had decided that Saint here stood for Holy or Blessed, and referred to a supposititious hall or lodging house for monks from the great abbey at Brandon, now utterly lost. As there was known to have been a church on that spot in one form or another since the conversion of Wessex, and no indication of the monks from Brandon Abbey having ever lodged there or anywhere but in their own house and in any case monks are not friars, this theory was held up to ridicule in the Barchester Mercury (one of England’s oldest provincial papers, now incorporated with the Barchester Chronicle) in about 1793 by a notorious freethinker, Horatio Porter, Esq., who subsequently died of a stroke while having a debauch in his kitchen with his cook. Such was Mr Porter’s profligacy, and such the weakness of the owner of the Mercury who was heavily in his debt over cards, that his letter was printed entire, with an ingenious suggestion that for Hall Friars, Hell-Fire should be read. Mr Porter’s death (accompanied by a violent thunderstorm and the birth of a calf with six legs at Brandon Abbas) so shocked the public that the whole matter dropped until a disciple of John Keble, digging among old papers in the Bishop’s library at Barchester, found that a certain rude Saxon swineherd named Ælla had been slain by the bailiff of the monastery to which he was attached for refusing to drive the pigs afield during Lent, owing to which saintly action, most of the pigs (six weeks being a long period) had died of hunger and thirst, while the swineherd was in due time canonized. As there was no corroboration of any kind for this story it obtained great credence and even caused a weak-minded young gentleman of good family to draw back from Rome. Under the influence of Bishop Stubbs a variety of further research was made, leading nowhere at all, and there the matter rests. It is true that the Hallbury branch of the Barsetshire Mothers’ Union has a banner heavily embroidered in gold representing St Ælla in mauve and green robes with a shepherd’s crook, but the present Rector, Dr Dale, is rather ashamed of it and keeps it reverently in tissue paper in case the gold should tarnish.
When Jane Gresham got to the Rectory she passed the front door and went through a gate in the wall into the old stable yard. Here what used to be a stable with grooms’ quarters above had been converted into a light and airy two-storey building with a furnace to heat it, and from it came a chirruping of young voices, high above which Jane, with mingled love and irritation, could hear that of her son. She looked cautiously through an end window, but her caution was not necessary, for the whole school of seven or eight little boys was tightly clustered round a young man who was showing them something. She sat down on a stone mounting-block and looked about her. A deceptive gleam of sunshine lit the stable yard, though with no warmth in it; the smell of horses and leather still lingered in the air, she could almost hear the rustle of straw, the pleasant jingle of harness, the steady champing of oats, almost hear the clank and splash of buckets being filled at a pump and the hissing of the grooms at work. Then the half-hour after noon sounded from St Hall’s tower. The babel inside was suddenly stilled, a little boy ran out and began to pull the wrought-iron handle of the yard bell and out came the whole class, nearly tripping up their master.
‘Hullo, Robin,’ said Jane Gresham.
‘Hullo, Jane,’ said the young man, and sat down on the horse-block beside her.
‘What was all the noise?’ said Jane.
‘I promised I’d show the boys how my foot fastens on,’ said the young man, ‘and now I can’t get the foul thing fixed again. Do you mind?’
Without ostentation he pulled up his right trouser leg and busied himself with his artificial foot. Having accomplished the job at last to his satisfaction, he smoothed the crease in his trousers.
‘Ass,’ she said. ‘One day you’ll do it once too often. Anyway, they’ve all seen your foot about a hundred times.’
‘I know,’ said the young man. ‘I expect it’s showing off. It isn’t everyone who has a foot like mine. I remember when I was little I had a book called Otto of the Silver Hand, with illustrations, woodcuts I think, rather grim and frightening, and always wished I had one. I didn’t think of a foot. But a silver one would be a bit heavy.’
Jane Gresham looked at him. Robin Dale whom she had known all her life, the Rector’s only son by a late marriage, had been a junior classical master at Southbridge School just before the war. Then he had gone into the Barsetshire Yeomanry, got a commission, fought all through Africa and Sicily, and finally had his right foot so badly shattered in the Anzio landing that it had to be amputated, and he had been discharged. Southbridge School would willingly have taken him back, but he still felt too crippled and self-conscious to face the school life. His father, a widower for many years, living alone, wanted Robin to stay at home for a time. Robin had done his best to be valiant, but he moped sadly till Admiral Palliser, who did not like to see people mope and found work a cure for most evils, suggested that he should give little Frank some tutoring before he went to Southbridge. The tutoring was a success, other little boys in the Old Town joined the class. The Rector, who had private means, managed to get the stables altered and the furnace installed, and Frank Gresham was the first pupil. When we say that the horses’ racks and the original narrow box staircase to the grooms’ quarters had been left untouched, as had the rather terrifying kind of gallows over which sacks of oats and bales of straw were hauled up to the loft, the reader will realize what an unusual and delightful school Frank and his fellow scholars had.
‘I think a silver foot would be horrid,’ said Jane. ‘You’d have to keep it clean and if there’s anything I loathe it’s the feeling of plate polish on my hands.’
‘There was Götz with the Iron Hand,’ said Robin, entering enthusiastically into the subject, ‘but I daresay it got rusty and anyway it wasn’t a foot. And Nez-de-cuir; but that was his nose, so it’s different. I never heard of a Leather Foot.’
‘No,’ said Jane, thoughtfully. ‘There was Leather Stocking, but he had a leg inside. And there are leather-jackets in the garden, beastly things. Oh, Robin, I do wish it hadn’t happened.’
‘However much you wish it, I wish it more,’ said Robin. ‘Any news of Francis?’
Very few people asked Jane this question now. Partly they thought it might wake painful thoughts (‘thinking of the old ’un,’ she said sardonically to herself), partly they had honestly forgotten about it, for the whirligig of time has so bruised and stunned us all that yesterday is swallowed in oblivion almost before to-day has dawned. Jane did not want inquiries, nor did she resent them. Her surface self responded pleasantly to the kindly and sympathetic and was unmoved by the forgetters. As for her inner self she did not quite know what it thought, and sometimes wondered if it knew itself. A sense of duty made her say to Frank from time to time that they would do this and that when father came home: and what this meant to him she did not know and had no means of knowing. And as he was very cheerful and ate enormously and slept like a dormouse, she saw no reason to delve deeper.
‘No, no news,’ she said. ‘But I don’t expect any. It will come some day. Or else it won’t.’
At this moment Master Gresham came up, bursting with suppressed giggles.
‘I say, mother,’ he began, ‘do you know this poem?
“It was the miller’s daughter,
Her father kept a mill,
There were otters in the water,
But she was ’otter still.”
Tom Watson told it me. There are a lot more verses. Shall I tell them you?’
Horrified at the resurgence of this hoary and vapid echo of early Edwardian humour, Jane said they must hurry up or they would be late for lunch.
‘But, mother, isn’t it funny,’ said Frank, dancing from one foot to another.
‘I know a much better one,’ said his mother, ‘in Latin.’
‘You don’t know Latin, do you, mother?’ said Master Gresham, obviously incredulous.
‘Not as well as Robin, but much better than you,’ said Jane, manfully. ‘Can you read this?’
She took a pencil out of her bag and wrote something on the back of an envelope.
‘Caesar adsum jam forte,’ Frank read. ‘That’s not Latin, mother. I mean it doesn’t mean anything. Sir,’ he added, appealing to his master, ‘it doesn’t mean anything, does it?’
‘If your mother says it does, it does,’ said Robin not wishing to commit himself.
‘Mother, it’s nonsense, isn’t it?’ said Frank. ‘It is nonsense, isn’t it, mother?’
‘What you tell me two times is true,’ said his mother enigmatically to her son. ‘I’ll say it to you. “Caesar had some jam for tea!”’
It touched and amused her to see her son’s round face, temporarily serious, his soft brow puckered, his eyes remote, till the light of reason began to dawn and he broke into a joyful smile with a toothless gap at one side of it.
‘Oh, mother,’ he shrieked. ‘I’ll tell Tom in afternoon school. I’ll bet him I know Latin better than he does.. . .
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