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Authors: Brenda Jagger

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Let
him
convince them of the good sense of this arrangement if he could, which she very much doubted, her own conclusion being simply this. Her husband had wished her to go on spending his money without taking responsibility for it, just as she had always done. And, in his tragically unavoidable absence, he had given her Benedict to be his deputy.

To Miriam it was as pleasantly straightforward as that.

One thing only had tended, for a while, to worry her. High Meadows, too, had been left to Benedict, not by his father on this occasion but by his long-dead mother, whose dowry had originally purchased it, Miriam retaining only a life tenancy. And Benedict had a wife who might have challenged Miriam's authority.

‘Nola, dear,' Miriam had murmured a month or two after the funeral, ‘should you care to be present in the mornings when cook brings in the menus? Eight o'clock?'

The younger Mrs Swanfield, a woman of lethargic habits who rarely left her bed before noon, had looked amazed, a reaction Miriam had seized upon with satisfaction, proceeding, from that moment, to organize her domestic empire entirely to suit herself, to do things
as they had always been done,
just as Aaron – she insisted upon that – would have wanted. And so wrapped up did she become in her tea parties and tea dances, her tennis and croquet parties, her dinners and suppers, her ‘dear children'and her ‘dear friends' that even the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914 meant little more to her, to begin with, than the annoyance of parlourmaids running off to the higher pay and shorter hours of the munitions factories in the middle of the garden party season. Such a nuisance. Until her son Jeremy had enlisted, long before the introduction of conscription would have made it necessary – and even then, surely, they could have got him an exemption? – and had been killed, with a quarter of a million others, in the three-day battle of Neuve Chapelle.

He had been twenty-one years old and her favourite child. Her elder daughter had always been too intense and rather too plain to please her. Her younger daughter was perhaps a shade too pretty. But Jeremy had been everything she believed a young man ought to be, brilliant enough to have taken a first at Oxford but not too academic to be amusing; gallant enough to have answered his country's call to arms without being in any way pompous about it; just old enough to have made a hasty, eve-of-the-battle marriage without her consent.

His wedding had seriously upset her. She had wanted a princess for Jeremy, if anyone at all, and certainly not the slip of a girl he had so astonishingly chosen, the stepdaughter of her own solicitor no less, perfectly respectable of course and
quite
suitable, as a wife, for the son of her bank manager or her doctor even: not her own. She had found it hard to forgive him and indeed had never really done so, his death, only three weeks later having made forgiveness irrelevant. But little by little – because, quite simply, one
does
– she had managed to submerge her loss beneath the minor wartime obsessions of food shortages, how to obtain enough coal and sugar; how to manage her large household when her butler, for reasons best known to himself – the mental processes of butlers being somewhat beyond her – had gone off and enlisted like her son, a gentleman, in 1914; when her chauffeur and all her gardeners had been ‘taken'at the start of forced conscription eighteen months later, and her last reliable parlourmaid had become the conductress of a Faxby tram. She had sacrificed most of her back lawn to potatoes and cabbages, had tended her own flowers and learned to live without regular deliveries of groceries and the cheerful ring of the postman six times a day. She had given orders for her teatime scones to be spread with margarine and, when the German blockade began to bite, had spurned the back door offers of food profiteers and sent her cook to wait in the sugar queues and meat queues like everybody else.

She had chaired committees to find homes for Belgian refugees and raised funds for the relief of British soldiers'wives who could not really be expected to live on the governmental allowance of twelve shillings a week; her benevolence even extending to the ‘war babies', the inconvenient but altogether predictable results of the temporary posting to Faxby of a battalion of fusiliers. And by keeping herself thus occupied she had had no time to brood on the fate and fortunes of Jeremy's young widow, who, instead of mourning him in a properly sedate fashion, had rushed off at once to drive an ambulance in London and then to be a Red Cross nurse in France.

Restless creature. What
had
become of her? Naturally, her stepfather, Mr Lyall, Miriam's solicitor, must know something about her. Just as naturally, and most conveniently, Miriam much preferred to forget. And she had, therefore, been considerably startled to learn, and more than a little offended by the off-hand manner in which Benedict had imparted the information, that this girl, this stranger who by virtue of a ten-minute civil ceremony had supplanted Jeremy's mother –
herself
– as his next of kin would now, with the war six months over, be returning home.

Home? Whatever could he mean? She knew full well, of course, but just the same, she put the question to him, raising candid blue eyes to his dark and thoroughly disinterested face. Dear Benedict. So exceedingly efficient. Always so busy and brusque and
quite
forbidding. How easily he could intimidate almost anyone, she supposed, with those dark glances; certainly his sister Polly and his sister Eunice and Eunice's husband, certainly the departmental managers at the Mills. Anyone. Not Miriam, though. And it did no harm, now and again, to remind him of that.

‘Oh dear I can hardly remember her,' she said, remembering her exactly. ‘How am I to receive her? It has been four years, Benedict. And the tales one hears about those military hospitals. My goodness! And we must not forget that your sister Polly is still single.'

She smiled at him quite sweetly, experiencing not the least difficulty with the double standard which decreed misbehaviour between common soldiers and housemaids at an army camp on the outskirts of Faxby to be one thing; the perfect innocence of her unmarried daughter and the possible effect on her daughter-in-law of exposure to large numbers of wounded but no doubt attractive men, entirely another.

‘Oh dear,' she repeated, her eyes growing bright with speculation. What
had
the girl seen during her four years overseas? What unsuitable tales might she tell? And, rather more to the point, could she possibly settle down again in a world which must surely be returning to the state Miriam cherished as ‘normal'? Tea on the lawn. Strawberries with cream and sugar. Good manners. Long engagements. No more hasty, untidy passion but delicately prolonged romance. Young girls who wore gloves and corsets and who had but one safe and sensible ambition: to be the virgin brides of gentlemen. A regular and willing supply of nursemaids and nannies, cooks, butlers, parlourmaids waiting discreetly in the wings; leafy, leisured days which now, in her memory of that pre-war world, seemed always to be luminous, rainless, vibrant with bird-song and golden with pure sunlight.

Miriam had assumed, naively but very firmly, that on Armistice Day or, just possibly the day after, all shortages and austerities would automatically cease. The hero would return to his cottage or his castle, take off his uniform and begin his life all over again. The dead would be laid out neatly beneath rows of white headstones strikingly garlanded with poppies. The wounded – and Miriam's mind could not translate wounds beyond an empty sleeve, a limp, possibly an eye-patch – would take up quiet lives somewhere in becoming obscurity. Shopkeepers would be obsequious again, tradesmen efficient. Order, not only among nations which did not really concern Miriam, but among the social classes, would be instantly-restored. And now, although sugar was still rationed, housemaids under the age of forty in short supply, and her butler having acquired a chestful of medals on the Somme and a commission after Passchendaele, had declined her offer of re-employment and gone off to manage a local hotel, Miriam felt that she had waited long enough.

She wished to entertain again this year, to celebrate her birthday in May with a garden party as she had always done, to give a few little dances and suppers with a view to finding some eligible young man who might take her daughter Polly off her hands. And in these days of increased opportunities for gentlewomen, which made it almost impossible to get anything approaching a decent secretary-companion, it had already occurred to her that ‘young Mrs Jeremy'could be of great use.

‘Really – one had only a glimpse of her. One scarcely remembers …' she murmured, closing her eyes the better to observe the perfectly retained image of the slender schoolgirl Jeremy had brought her, pretty enough if one cared for very dark brunettes, which Miriam did not, a quiet girl with serious, pansy-black eyes and a hesitant manner. Miriam, blonde, curvacious, effervescent, had not cared for that either. ‘Mother, this is Claire.' And he had had no need to say ‘I love her'with those rich vibrations in his voice, his young face aglow,
her
young face veiled in a radiant wonder which Miriam had recognized – oh yes, how could one fail to know it? – but had never actually felt since one needed youth to sustain such total enchantment, and Aaron –. Ah well. Aaron had given her other things. And if it had troubled her that Jeremy had chosen a bride so unlike herself in every possible way she decided to ignore it now.

‘Mother – isn't she wonderful?' No. Miriam had not thought her wonderful. But if the girl should possess a capacity for devotion, as Jeremy had seemed to think – ‘She adores me mother. Aren't I the luckiest chap on earth?' – then why should she not now devote herself, in Jeremy's absence, to his mother? What could be more fitting, or more natural? Indeed, what better compensation could the girl offer for her impertinence in insisting that that pathetic little wedding, over and done with in ten mumbled minutes, had made her Jeremy's next of kin so that his personal possessions, his kit bag, his letters, his diary, the very telegram announcing his death had been sent to this wife of three weeks, instead of to
her,
his mother?

Yes, compensation certainly was due. Miriam had always believed that. And, after all, if the girl could stitch wounds she could certainly address invitation cards. If she could drive ambulances it seemed reasonable to assume that she could collect one's shopping, meet the London train for one's parcels, take a firm line with inconvenient callers, turn her hand to any number of helpful, essential,
tedious
things. And Miriam – it went without saying – would be very kind to her. What a splendid idea. Not, of course, that she was ready, just yet, to own up to it and thus spoil her little game of power and pretence with Benedict.

He had been a silent, surly child just five years old when she had married his father, tall for his age and with good bones but alarmingly thin and pale, his dark eyes with their oddly disconcerting stare reminding her that his life's experiences, until then, had been made up of the death of one parent and the neglect of the other. Being only thirteen years his senior Miriam had decided to play the bountiful elder sister, envisaging a delightful relationship based on
her
generosity,
his
gratitude. She had wished only to charm and amuse him, and because, beneath the excellent manners, the unnaturally cool exterior, he had remained uncharmed, unamused, had simply allowed her to be good to him – because his father would have thrashed him otherwise – she had felt disappointed to begin with, then hurt, then acutely resentful, accusing him in her heart of deliberately fastening upon her the role of ‘wicked stepmother', when she knew herself to be so suited in every way to play the ‘good fairy'. But the birth of her own children, who had instantly and obligingly adored her, had absolved her from all blame. The fault, clearly, had been Benedict's and Benedict's alone. He was not shy after all, as she had charitably pretended, but unsociable; not ungrateful precisely, but simply unable to appreciate all the pleasant things she had been so ready to do for him. Breathing a sigh of relief she had confined her activities thereafter to his feeding and clothing and had otherwise left him alone.

But, now that he had become a man, now that her husband had bequeathed him to her as a rock to lean on, how reassuring, how very pleasant it often was to lean for the fun of leaning – just to see how far he would allow her to go.

‘Oh Benedict, don't you see,' she murmured, noticing with satisfaction that he had already glanced at the clock on her drawing room wall. No doubt he had pressing, profitable engagements that morning, men of substance with not much time to spare waiting for him in the oak-panelled office that had been her husband's. Good. Then she would detain him for ten minutes and – if she managed it – would consider that she had won.

‘Forgive me, Benedict dear, but gentlemen do not always see the implications in these matters. The girl was a very prettily behaved little thing as I recall. But now …! Heavens – we cannot even be sure that she has been nursing officers.'

‘I imagine,' said Benedict curtly, dryly, his eyes straying once again to the parlour clock, ‘that the anatomy is much the same.'

‘Oh
that,'
she said, not in the least dismayed, a gesture of her plump hand relegating the entire question of male anatomy to a proper insignificance. ‘Dear boy, I was referring to the language – the attitudes – the things that a common soldier might be likely to say – or even
do.
You must know what I mean.'

He gave a brief smile, understanding her, she thought, perhaps all too well. Not that she minded that. Dear Aaron, who had loved her, had been so terribly easy to deceive. Whereas Benedict, who probably did not like her much at all, was far less inclined to be impressed by the mountains she so loved to construct from any little molehill which came her way. Such a provoking man, always so aloof and sometimes quite disdainful yet so much more of a
challenge.
She smiled at him, her eyelids gently fluttering.

BOOK: A Winter's Child
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