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Authors: R. F. Delderfield

Post of Honour

BOOK: Post of Honour
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“R.F. Delderfield is a born storyteller.”

Sunday Mirror

“[Delderfield] built an imposing artistic social history that promises to join those of his great forebears in the long, noble line of the English novel. His narratives belong in a tradition that goes back to John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett.”


“Sheer, wonderful storytelling.”

Chicago Tribune
on the saga A Horseman Riding By

“A thoroughly good story … His pace is excellent and his spacious chronicle completely absorbing.
The Avenue
fills a heartfelt need.”

The Bulletin

“Recaptures with refreshing simplicity the awkwardness, excitement and delights of youth … A charming novel.”

The New York Times Book Review

Post of Honour
A Horseman Riding By
Book Two
R. F. Delderfield

For Deirdre Gibbens
Sir Geoffrey Harmsworth,
both old friends,
with a genuine love
for the Westcountry.

Chapter One


hey were Squire Craddock’s vintage years, the brief, crowded period beginning immediately after the fillip given to the Sorrel Valley by the 1911 Coronation Jubilee, and moving on into the blazing summer of 1914 that, on looking back a little later, seemed as remote as the Middle Ages.

Some guide as to what occurred in and around the Shallowford Big House and its seven farms during these thirty-six months could by found in the Bible-bound estate record kept up to date by Squire’s wife Claire—‘the Derwent Maid’ as many Shallowfordians continued to call her, notwithstanding the fact that she had been Squire’s second wife for four years and had already presented him with three children and sometimes by Paul Craddock himself, particularly when he felt more than ordinarily complacent.

Into that great book, once used as a pornographic photographic album by Craddock’s predecessor, poured the trivia of the years, a tumultuous hotchpotch of births, deaths, marriages, crop records, boundary adjustments, structural alterations, floods, frosts, droughts and occasional unrehearsed farces, like Craddock’s short-lived addiction to the internal combustion engine. It was much more than an estate diary, for Paul Craddock did not see himself as a landlord to most of the hundred-odd people who lived between Blackberry Moor and the Sorrel outfall at Coombe Bay but as a kind of self-appointed tribal headman, part reeve, part mayor, part father-figure and friend. Nobody in the Valley contested this claim or would have wished to contest it, for not only did he perform the office efficiently but brought to it the thoughtful zest of a junior officer commanding his first platoon in the field. He grumbled a good deal and frequently cursed the responsibilities he had laid upon himself when he bought the estate back in ’02, but for all that he was so jealous of them that he begrudged his agent John Rudd a small share of the packload.

John would have told you that Paul Craddock made his own decisions and Claire, Paul’s plump, pretty and practical wife would have added that he enjoyed making them and even derived a certain gloomy satisfaction from his failures. Either one of these prejudiced witnesses could have told you everything worth knowing about this eccentric, generous, dedicated, self-opinionated young man, who had ploughed a fortune into the remote thirteen-hundred-acre estate between the main line and the sea but they would have preferred you to settle downalong and find out for yourself, the way everyone else had done in the years between the two coronations. For all the signposts were there, pointing across the river to Four Winds, down the river-road to Home Farm, over the shoulder of the hill to where the Pitts’ family farmed Hermitage, and across the great belt of old woods to the three Coombe Farms and the steep, cobbled street of Coombe Bay. He knew and he loved every tile and every sprig of yellow gorse hereabouts. He could tell you how many Friesians Norman Eveleigh of Four Winds numbered in his herd, how many pigs Henry Pitts of Hermitage marketed last year, how the half-gypsy Potter tribe were faring over at Low Coombe now that old Tamer had died a hero, and how many of his tenants’ wives were pregnant at any one time. He missed very little (unless it occurred under his nose on his own hearthstone) and because of this Claire found him far easier to manage than she had anticipated in view of his first and dolorous marriage to Grace Lovell. Two things only he demanded of her—identification with the Valley, which was his lifeswork, and a regular access to her ripe and blessedly complaisant body. Both demands were readily, not to say gaily fulfilled. Why not? She was Valley-born, deeming those born elsewhere deprived and luckless wights, and she had desired him as bedmate and helpmate ever since he had ridden into her father’s rickyard as a city greenhorn within a month of her nineteenth birthday. And by now, like every other Shallowfordian, she had come to terms with his first disastrous marriage even though it had cost her five frustrating years of her youth. After all, every dog in the Valley was forgiven a first bite even when they bit Quality and at least he had emerged from the unlucky encounter with a ready-made stepson who was easy to love.

Typical of the entries written into the estate record by Claire during this three-year halcyon period was one dated February 12th, 1912. It read:
‘Today. Doctor Maureen Rudd, M.D. wife of John Rudd, agent of Shattowford, delighted and astonished Sorrel Valley by presenting her husband with a bouncing boy! It was her first and she is, we think, more surprised than any of us, for she declares her age to be 39 although privately we think she is 37’.

Whether or not Maureen Rudd was indulging in a little blarney about her age Claire was not exaggerating when she wrote that ‘Lady Doctor’ (as her patients continued to call her) was quite astounded to discover that she was pregnant. She had dashed up and down the Valley inviting all and sundry to witness the miracle, and would say, when they hastened to congratulate her, ‘It’s the air in this damned Valley, so it is! It’s a forcing-house for women! Every woman, married or single, this side of the Teazel calls me out in the middle of the night sooner or later! And now who the Devil can attend me?’ They all laughed with her and reassured her, for she was one of the most popular figures in the Valley and the initial prejudice against her sex had long since disappeared, banished by her explosive laughter and her habit of cutting the cackle and coming straight to the point but John Rudd, who loved her dearly, had never quite recovered from the shock of having his diffident proposal accepted, voiced his anxiety to Paul after Maureen had returned from seeing a specialist in Paxtonbury.

‘She says Clifford Goreham has assured her everything will be all right,’ he said, ‘but it’s obviously a risk for a woman to have her first child at that age. If anything happened to her I’d never forgive myself.’

‘For God’s sake don’t say that to her,’ Paul told him, ‘or she’ll throw something heavy at you, John! It’s the kind of remark that would infuriate her if I know Maureen.’

‘Oh, it’s well enough for you,’ John grumbled, ‘Claire is only twenty-nine and she’s already had three children, but damn it I just couldn’t believe it when Maureen told me and, strictly between ourselves I feel a bit of a fool! After all my son Roddy is thirty and I’m not far off sixty!’

‘Obviously a young sixty,’ Paul joked, having been warned by Claire to laugh John out of his anxieties. ‘As for Maureen, she’s as fit as a fiddle, whether she’s thirty-nine or, as I’m inclined to believe, thirty-seven for it’s just like her to make the most of a situation like this! Believe me, John, everything is going to be all right, so let’s wet the baby’s head in advance.’

And so it proved when Maureen’s baby was born in a Paxtonbury nursing home ‘on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday’, as the almost incoherent father informed Paul and Claire by telephone. Maureen had had a stiffish time, he said, and was very tired, but Goreham who was attending her was pleased with her on the whole. The baby weighed seven pounds and they were going to christen him Paul, after his godfather!

‘How many godchildren have I got around here?’ Paul asked Claire, after he had passed the news to the anxious kitchen staff and Claire, after consulting the record, told him seven, four girls and three boys, and she would have to make a special entry in the back of the book so that he did not overlook anyone’s birthday. She kept her promise the next day and read the list to him over the luncheon table. The first, Sam Potter’s eldest daughter, was now nine and between Pauline Potter and Paul Rudd came one of Will Codsall’s boys, Eveleigh’s youngest daughter, a son of Henry Pitts, a child of Honeyman’s foreman at the Home Farm, and the daughter of a cottager employed by Edward Derwent, whose wife had died in labour.

‘Well, it’s enough,’ he said, ‘we’ll have to call a halt to this nonsense. How can I be responsible for seven children learning their catechism when I’m going bald and putting on weight? Maureen’s right about this Valley. Every woman who sets foot in it finds herself in the family way sooner or later.’

‘If they didn’t you’d be the first to complain about diminishing returns,’ Claire told him. ‘Who knows, I might have some interesting news for you myself in the spring.’

He looked at her so sharply that she laughed and said, ‘It’s all right, I’m only teasing but don’t look as if I could go about it without your enthusiastic co-operation! Sometimes I’m surprised we haven’t got as many as the Eveleighs! I do hope they’ve finished or we shall be saddled with the expense of extending Four Winds.’

Maureen returned to the Valley in early April and Thirza, who had been Simon’s nurse, was flattered to be taken on in like capacity at the Lodge, her place as parlourmaid-nanny being filled by a pert fourteen-year-old called Joy, the daughter of the eldest Timberlake girl.

Another entry in the record, dated
‘March 1st, 1912’
told of Paul’s acceptance of the mastership of the combined Teazel Vale and Downland Farmers’ Hunt, on condition that he was not expected to hunt more than three days a fortnight and could hand over to Rose Derwent on alternate hunting days. The invitation originated from Lord Gilroy, who, despite their political rivalry, flatly refused to perpetuate his father’s feud and took little or no interest in country activities.

The Teazel Vale pack was sadly run down but the Downland farmers, who hunted the country east of High Coombe where the Shallowford boundary ran inland from the sea, were only too anxious to halve their expenses by bringing in new hounds and combining the two hunts, renamed the Sorrel Vale Hunt and housed in kennels built on to some old outbuildings belonging to the Hermitage. Gilroy provided his own huntsmen and Eveleigh’s eldest boy was engaged as whipper-in and kennel-man, so that after a shaky start the new hunt settled down to a lively season in the autumn of 1912.

To see the motley field move off on a fine autumn morning and draw one of the Hermitage coverts, or cross the moor in a north-easterly direction to the rough country behind Shallowford Woods, was like watching a column of mosstroopers embark on a border foray. It was by no means a fashionable hunt for Paul was no stickler for etiquette and most of the followers wore corduroys, leggings and hard, low-crowned hats. Only Rose Derwent and one or two of the wealthier freeholders were well-mounted but there was an easy familiarity about a company where most of the field addressed one another by Christian name and once they were in full cry over the open country there was often some hard riding and a good deal of rivalry to be in at the death. Paul, who considered himself no more than a competent horseman, was outclassed by the small group of thrusters to whom a day in the saddle was the breath of life. Always up with the leaders, and usually in advance of them, was Rose Derwent, who would ride straight at the most formidable fence; not far behind whenever he was home on furlough, was Ikey, with young Gilbert Eveleigh, Gottfried Scholtzer, the son of the German historian, little Pauline Potter, Sam’s eldest daughter (who was Rose Derwent’s chief apprentice), and two or three others. Paul himself, Chivers his groom, Henry Pitts, Edward Derwent and Eveleigh when he could spare the time, usually followed in a pounding bunch, with stragglers sometimes as much as a quarter-mile in the rear, those who turned out for the exercise like John Rudd, old Arthur Pitts and even, on occasion, the German professor himself, who splashed along on a barrel-chested cob, his Teutonic passion for tidiness requiring him to see the last of the cavalcade out of a field and make sure every gate was shut and fastened. Rose Derwent had taught every child in the Valley to ride, accepting fees from no more than half of them but relying on their services as stable-hands during school holidays and week ends. Claire came out occasionally but, unlike Rose, who shocked some of the older members of the hunt, preferred to ride side-saddle. Whenever she appeared at a meet Paul noticed the sad, proud look in her father’s eye and guessed that he was comparing her with her mother, who had died in a gully across the Teazel more than twenty years before. Although he did not take his mastership very seriously (it was difficult to think of the Sorrel Vale and Southdown Farmers’ in terms of the Quorn or Pytchley) he always enjoyed himself and felt better for the day out. He liked best, however, the long treks home to Shallowford when the deep goyles intersecting the moor were bowls of blue dusk and the smell of wet leaves came out of the woods. Sometimes he would ride partway home with Eveleigh, or Henry Pitts, and they would discuss the day’s run, chuckling over John Rudd parting from his cob at a jump or telling each other that young Gilbert Eveleigh and little Pauline Potter would make first-class steeplechasers in the years ahead. For there always seemed to be so many years ahead and whenever he was alone on the final stage along the river road or crossing the shoulder of the Bluff, Paul was aware of the timelessness of the Valley, and the rhythm of its seasons that seemed unrelated to the passage of time elsewhere. When Claire was with him they would sometimes talk of the future and speculate on the probable careers of Simon, the twins, Andy and Steve, and their daughter Mary, but secretly, and sometimes a little guiltily, Paul preferred to make these homeward journeys in solitude, for then he could kick his legs free of the stirrups and let his thoughts range back across the years to the days when he first ambled over this familiar ground, surely the greenest and possibly the luckiest landowner in the Westcountry.

BOOK: Post of Honour
10.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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