Authors: Robert Barnard
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Chetton Hall, that splendid monument of Jacobean domestic architecture, lay basking in the early evening sun. The coolest place was under the elms of the Countess's Mile, where the wife of the fourth Earl had dallied on horseback with her groom, Richard Mont. Tiny breezes from the river drifted over Long Meadow, where the famous herd of Herefords, established by the sixth Earl, âFarmer Jack', warmed their velvety hides and moaned contentedly. The lovers from Chetton Lacey who lay on the haystack in Parson's Field felt the last ripples of the breeze on their burning flesh, and they too moaned in pleasure. But the breeze petered out long before it could reach the environs of the great house. Not a breath fanned the Dutch Garden, which looked frizzled and ill-cared-for. The great stone balustrade overlooking the fountain might, it seemed, have burned at a touch, and the steps leading down from it sent up a distorting curtain of heat haze. Only the fountain, where Charles James Fox had bathed when drunk, seemed to be actively enjoying the June warmth, dancing hectically in the sun's rays and scattering an ecstasy of shimmering light.
But the most splendid triumph of the sun was on the house itself. To turn from the fountain to the West Front was to be confronted with liquid gold. All the windows swam in light, and swayed like waters in a bay, flowing round the baroque splendours of the Queen's Entrance, through which Anne of Denmark passed on her progress to the West Country. Behind the Front, cooler as was fitting, lay the massive Blenheim Wing, added by the first Earl in the years after that battle, in which he had fought. But it was the glorious central block, begun in 1610 by Sir Philip Spender, the King's Secretary of Monopolies, that greeted the sun as an equal, confident in its beauty as any king's favourite, monumentally self-possessed, arrogant in the knowledge of what it had been, what it was, and what it always would be.
In the Green Drawing-Room the twelfth Earl of Ellesmere addressed his Countess.
âWould you like another cup of tea, Elsie? I think I can squeeze one from the pot.'
The Countess considered, her mouth set in a determined droop of discontent.
âNo-ow. It'll only be stone cold. Practically cold anyway, once you've trailed it through all them bleeding corridors.'
The Earl, a man of congenital good-nature and optimism, chuckled.
âYou're not far out. I don't know how they stood it here: nothing but half-cold tea and half-cold dinners. It's not what I'd call a life of privilege.'
âIf that's privilege, give me Clapham any day,' agreed the Countess.
âMakes you think how lucky we've been, eh, Elsie?' said the Earl, settling his comfortable girth back in the green and gilt sofa and gazing around him with a good-humoured expression. âOur own home, nearly paid for, everything just as we like it, neat and ship-shape and cosy as a Christmas cardÂ .Â .Â . I don't think this place could ever be cosy, do you, Elsie?'
âCosy?' said the Countess, gazing disparagingly round the long and elegant drawing-room, designed and furnished for the third Earl by James Wyatt (who had seduced his Countess the while). She eyed gloomily the straight-backed green silk sofas and chairs, the stucco reliefs, the ormolu clock, the classic mantel. She shook her head gloomily.
âNever in a million years. I can't think why they put up with it, your lot. Can't have been much like you, Perce. You always did hate a draught. But they existed in this draughty old barn, year in, year out. Nasty great hole. Cold as sin, even with the sun blazing away outside like now. Miles to walk, even if you only want to spend a penny. Nearest neighbour three miles or more away. Brrr. Gives me the shivers just to think of living here much longer.'
The Earl nodded, and drained his cup.
âRight you are, as usual, Elsie. If I want to walk miles I'd rather do it on Clapham Common.'
He placed his hand over the olive-green cardigan that covered his substantial tummy and gazed around him with unabated good humour. His face took on that reflective expression well-known to regular customers at the Clapham iron-monger's where he had worked prior to being summoned to his high destinyâfor he was a man whose homely philosophizing was appreciated in his own circle, where they had an old-fashioned liking for someone who could voice what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed.
âFrom now on, Elsie, this is going to make us count our blessings. Look
on the bright side. Not take things for granted. We're going to appreciate having had to go through all this when we get home.'
we get home,' repeated the Countess, whose expression had taken on new shades of lugubrious foreboding. She was well known in Haig Street, Clapham, as the Cassandra of the locality, with a relish for dissecting present discontents and a gift for the accurate prediction of woes to come. Few went to the bad in Haig Street, Clapham, without their downward path having been mapped out in advance by Elsie Spender. âWhen's the operative word. It's beenâwhat?âsix weeks already, and they've been the longest six weeks of my life. I want to see an end to it, Perce.'
âI'll talk to old Lillywaite tomorrow,' said the Earl. âGive him an ultimatum.'
âHmmm. You'll be lucky if you get a straight answer out of him. You know lawyers. I'm telling you, Perce, I'm not spending a winter in this great barn, not for all the tea in China. I'd have gone home long ago except it'd have meant leaving you here on your own. Two peas rattling around is bad enough, but one would have been ridiculous. You'd have gone off your rocker.'
The Earl looked at her with genuine, ripe affection.
âThat's my Elsie. Best wife a man ever had. Anyway, you can't go now. Not with the kids and the grandchildren coming. It's going to be the birthday party of a lifetime, and I'm going to enjoy every minute of it. It'll be a joy just to see their faces when they clap eyes on this place. Their eyes will popâeh, Elsie?'
Chuckling again, the Earl of Ellesmere ambled over to the tall windows that dominated the west wall of the drawing-room.
âNot to mention when they see the grounds,' he added. âSome garden, eh?'
He gazed with some complacency over his domain, over the formal gardens, the balustrade and steps leading down to the fountain, over the elegant avenue of trees and on to the meadows and fields beyond, stretching almost to the horizon. Perhaps he felt, in the pit of his stomach, some slight twinge that told him that to be master of Chetton was something.
âOne thing about this place,' he said at last. âThe kiddies will have plenty of room to play about.'
The Countess had shifted her motherly bulk from her chair, and now came over to join him companionably by the window. But she was not a woman who allowed her disposition to be lightened by her husband's sunnier one. She viewed the rolling prospect without favour.
âCountryside!' she said, witheringly. âI've always hated the countryside. I haven't said so because it doesn't do, but I have. I've always hated picnics: nothing but wasps and ants and creepy-crawlies. Of course the Common is different, because there's always people around. Country is miles and miles of nothing, with cows on it. I hate cows. And I'm not having the kiddies playing with them cows over there.'
âTrust Dixie for that,' said the Earl. âShe'll see they don't go anywhere near.'
At the mention of her daughter-in-law the Countess's lugubrious countenance became twisted into a
âHmmm,' she said, gazing ahead with vatic foreboding. âI don't think you're going to impress Dixie with this place, Perce. It's not her style at all. Remember her in the Brighton Pavilion?'
The Earl gave a reminiscent laugh.
âDon't I ever! Came on a bit strong, I must admit. Embarrassing. Still, it was only her fun.'
âFun! Dixie doesn't have an ounce of fun in her.'
âAnyway, you could be wrong about Dixie. You never can tell which way she will jump. She might be tickled pink with this place.'
âThat'd be a laugh. Can you imagine Dixie queening it here, Perce? Hobnobbing with the gentry? If she gets ideas of anything like that she can give them up sharpish. I don't like to say this about my own daughter-in-law, but Dixie is common. Common as dirt. She's worse: she's blatant.'
âI know what you mean,' admitted the Earl. âI have to admit that I prefer Dixie in small doses, though the kiddies are lovely kiddies, and always welcome. Still, Dixie won't worry us this weekend. There'll be all the others, and plenty of space to get away from her in, and the birthday party Saturdayâwe'll have too much to do to get annoyed by Dixie.'
âDixie'll make herself felt.'
âOnly if you let her, and get het up by her. Still, I admit it's a pity Phil couldn't be with her. Phil always seemed to dilute her, somehow.'
âHe'll be out in three weeks,' said the Countess. âIt's something that she'll be visiting him tomorrow. He's had precious few visits from her while he's been in, that I do know. It'll probably put her in a foul mood. Those poor little mitesÂ .Â .Â .'
Her face softened at the thought of her grandchildren. Like most grandparents, she indulged the smallest ones of her family, the more so as she very seldom saw them.
âThey need their dad,' agreed the Earl. âIt's been hard for them, him not
being there. Still, one thing you've got to hand to Dixie; they're well-behaved.'
âFrightened out of their wits, more like.'
âNo: be fair, Elsie. There's not many parents these days have the control over their kids that Dixie has.'
âControl's one thing, but I for one don't like to see kids too terrified to say a word when their mother's around. It's not natural. I know our kids weren't brought up like that.'
In silence they continued to gaze over the lustrous green and golden landscape, but their minds were far away from cows or haystacks. The thoughts of both of them were on their children and grandchildren, most of whom would be arriving the next day to celebrate the Earl's sixtieth birthday, his first in the state to which he had been called. Both of them were looking forward to the visit, as a relief from the grandiose monotony of Chetton Hall. But at the backs of their minds gnawings of doubt and uncertainty persisted. The Earl shifted from foot to foot, uneasily.
âIt's a pity about Phil,' he said finally.
As always when the subject of her favourite child came up, the Countess raised her defensive prickles. Her mouth became set in a firm line.
âPhil was unlucky,' she pronounced. âI've said it before, and I'll say it again. If there's any pity about Phil, it's that he married that Dixie. After they'd waited so long, too. You can dig a grave, but you don't have to jump straight into it yourself. But he's a good boy, Phil.'