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Authors: R. F. Delderfield

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BOOK: Post of Honour
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‘Now what the devil am I to make of that?’ demanded Paul angrily and Claire said they were both making too much of the matter, and that if he took Simon at his word, and left him behind next time, the boy would probably be disappointed.

‘I wouldn’t bank on that,’ Ikey said, quietly, and when they both looked at him, he added, ‘He’s got a natural sympathy for the fox. He always has given me the impression he’s signed on with the hunted!’

‘Sometimes, Ikey,’ Paul said, gruffly, ‘I wish to God you would stop favouring us with undergraduate drivel when you’re at home! It doesn’t suit you and it damned well irritates me!’

It was the first time Claire had ever heard him address Ikey sharply and she suddenly was aware that the clash between them went beyond Simon’s quixotic sympathy for a hunted fox. She said hastily, ‘All right, all right! Don’t let’s quarrel about it, it isn’t that important.’

‘It might be,’ Ikey said, ignoring her cautionary glance, ‘if the Gov’nor is determined to warp Simon into being the kind of person he isn’t, and never will be!’

‘Well he isn’t likely to do that,’ snapped Claire, feeling annoyed with both of them but she could not help noticing that Paul winced at Ikey’s remark as he said, sharply, ‘Look here, Ikey, I happen to think young Simon made an exhibition of himself turning his back on the field the way he did! I daresay the incident seems trivial to both of you but to my mind it was a blatant piece of showing off! If he really felt that way he could easily have made some kind of excuse.’

‘What kind of excuse?’ Ikey asked, and Paul replied, irritably, ‘Any kind! He could have pretended he wasn’t looking, or that he had just taken a toss!’

‘Yes,’ said Ikey, still quietly, ‘he could have done that and revealed himself as a liar and a coward when he’s neither.’

‘Oh do let’s get Simon down and forget it,’ said Claire but Paul said, ‘No, I’m damned if I will for I’ll not have Ikey trying to teach me how to bring up my own son! I tell you the boy was showing off and nothing more!’ whereupon Ikey growled, ‘That isn’t true and you know it, Gov’nor! It’s a damned pompous attitude and I’m hanged if I’ll sit here and listen to it! The kid was perfectly justified in doing what he did and as his father you ought to sympathise with him instead of bullying him!’ and he got up, nodded to Claire and strode towards the door.

He was stopped by Claire who shot out her arm as he passed and caught him by the wrist. She said, in a way that made them both feel slightly ashamed of themselves, ‘You can’t walk out on this now, Ikey! And neither can you, Paul! You’ve both said too much for my peace of mind and it’s quite wrong to begin an argument like this and then turn your backs on it!’

‘I wasn’t turning my back on it,’ Paul said, although he had in fact half risen. ‘All the same I can’t see any sense in prolonging it and upsetting everybody. You’d better go, Ikey, and I hope you mind your manners better than this in the mess!’

‘Stop it, Paul!’ Claire almost shouted, ‘just stop it and let me say something!’

They both looked at her then, Paul settling back in his chair, Ikey standing irresolutely by the door.

‘Now then,’ she said, trying hard to get her voice under control, ‘this is something we must have out here and now if only because I happen to be concerned. Very much concerned!’

‘I don’t see how,’ Paul grumbled but in a more reasonable tone. ‘What are you driving at, Claire?’

Claire looked at Ikey, realising that he was very well aware what she was driving at and went on, ‘Ikey is implying that Simon is . . . well, is his mother all over again! That’s what you meant, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, it is, Ma’am,’ he said, ‘and I’m sorry.’

‘You needn’t be sorry but for heaven’s sake do stop calling me “Ma’am”, as if I was someone who had usurped Queen Victoria!’ she snapped and a ghost of a grin plucked at the corners of his mouth and then vanished as he saw thunder in Paul’s glance.

‘I’ve never heard such damned nonsense in my life,’ Paul said but Claire, turning on him, said that it wasn’t nonsense and if he would have the patience to think about it he would see that it wasn’t. Paul said, helplessly, ‘But hang it, woman, Grace hunted twice a week! She was one of the best riders to hounds in the country.’

‘It isn’t simply a matter of hounds and foxes, Gov’nor,’ Ikey said, patiently, ‘it’s an attitude to life, an inherited attitude maybe. That’s what you meant, wasn’t it—Claire?’

Colour came back into her cheeks and through the fog of the issue that had them snapping at one another she saw that, for the first time since they had sat around this table together, they were of a single generation, no longer a man, his wife and a boy but three adults, each equally involved. She said, more calmly, ‘Yes, Ikey, that was exactly what I meant, and because of it I entirely agree with you! It would be quite wrong of Paul to bully Simon into hunting against his will, or looking on him as a ninny because he wouldn’t! I don’t like saying this, Paul, but you can be very stupid about some things and you’re being stupid now, because your pride as the local M.F.H. is involved.’

Ikey looked at her admiringly and for a moment nobody spoke. Then, when Paul moved as though to get up, and they both made sure he was going to storm out of the room, the door opened and Simon came in, silently taking his place and helping himself to vegetables. Claire said, gently, ‘You really must come when I call, Simon, we’ve all been waiting for you,’ and the boy, looking slightly startled, said, ‘I’m sorry, Mother, I was changing,’ and began to eat with catlike deliberation.

It was the strangest meal they had ever sat through but any prospect of further discussion was averted by Ikey’s tact for he talked to Simon about one thing and another and occasionally included both Paul and Claire in the conversation so that Claire, whose heart was still beating an uncertain rhythm, had cause to be grateful to him but wondered bleakly what Paul would say to her when they were alone.

After about twenty minutes Paul rose, saying, ‘Run along and give Chivers a hand rubbing down, Simon, he’s on his own this afternoon,’ and the boy slipped off, glad to be out of it so cheaply.

‘Well, I’m not exactly climbing down,’ Paul said, as soon as he had gone, ‘but there might be something in what you say. It’s worth thinking over at all events because if it is so then it will need tackling one way or another! To have Simon go Grace’s way wouldn’t bring him much joy, would it? Or us either?’ and with that he stumped out. Ikey said, ‘I’m sorry I let you in for that, Claire. If I had to open my big mouth I shouldn’t have done it in your presence!’

‘It’s just as well you did,’ she told him, ‘for there’s little enough you could have done on your own, Ikey. Paul is hard to drive but I do flatter myself I’ve learned how to lead him.’

‘Yes,’ he said, with a grin, ‘I’m quite sure you have!’ and he thought, ‘Grace certainly knew her business when she urged me to write that letter, for Claire understands him better than any of us, yet he can manage her when he wouldn’t have managed Grace in a thousand years!’ He moved across to the window, looking across the paddock under its green and gold autumn mantle.

‘Are you depressed by the prospect of exchanging this for India?’ she asked him suddenly but he said no, on the contrary he was relieved but he did not add why. She said, after a pause, ‘Well, if ever you want to talk, Ikey, I’ll listen and do anything I can to help. We’ve at least made that much progress today.’

He came back to her then, holding his head slightly to one side as though considering. And then he did something he had never done in the ten years she had known him. He bent and brushed her cheek with his lips and was gone before she could decide what had prompted the gesture. When she thought of him afterwards, however, it was not as the brash, affable young man of whom she had once been so wary, but rather of a youth as confused and uncertain as any of them, despite a convincing show of self-containment.

IV

C
laire was learning about him. The shifts of his life had taught him how to deceive most people, to cod them into believing that he had all the self-confidence necessary to make a place for himself wherever he went, but he had stopped deceiving himself long ago, soon after finding himself in a straitjacket tighter than any he had worn at High Wood or Shallowford. Yet he still might have worn it comfortably had it not been for Hazel Potter who stood squarely between past and future and was always there, clutching her rags and freedom no matter how many new friends he made, how many cadet sprees he embarked upon, how enthusiastically he threw himself into the business of learning to be a gunner. He would see her in his mind’s eye at odd times of the day and night, when his thoughts should have been engaged elsewhere and it was not only his body that yearned for her. She had the power to make everything he did seem profitless, sometimes almost fatuous, as if she alone was the one substantial force in his world and everything else—the ritual of mess life, the airs and opinions of instructors and fellow cadets, the menace of the great tools he was learning to use, were toys in a nursery of men and women clinging to the fantasies of childhood. Yet he did not accept this duality without a bitter, inward struggle for he sensed, somehow, that it would bring him down in the end whichever way he turned and he was still tormented by the demands of loyalty to the Squire, the man who, from the kindest of motives, had turned him loose in this desert. But it was Hazel Potter who triumphed. Only a day or two after he had returned home for his first leave his good intentions were forgotten. Shedding his fashionable clothes with his army drawl he slipped off into the woods to find her and here, so long as they were alone, he was happy again, his tensions miraculously eased.

They did not become lovers again, or not on that first occasion, for as long as their association remained innocent he could hold the door on the other world ajar but when he came home again in the spring the temptation to slam that door and go to Heaven or hell with a flower in his mouth was too strong for him; and having once recrossed into her world he had no regrets, although he sometimes wondered what would become of them both and how loud the crash would be when it came.

He no longer felt shame or fear when he parted from her but he took great pains to ensure, as far as possible, that the woods kept their secret, riding out on his chestnut mare, Bella, and unsaddling and haltering her below the hill where Hazel kept her little house. As long as he went out mounted Paul and everyone else would assume him to be riding for exercise and sometimes on his return he would describe the imaginary route he had taken. Chivers might have noticed that Bella always looked fresh when he stabled her but Chivers was an unimaginative soul and would have found it difficult to believe that horse and rider had gone no further than the north side of the mere, there to part company for an hour or longer.

Hazel received him gladly but without excitement. She was aware of the obligations he owed the world beyond the screen of the woods and had long grown accustomed to his erratic comings and goings at odd times of the year. Whenever she saw him emerge from the rhododendrons and begin to climb the hill she would slip down from her rock, mend the fire and, after propping the polished tin lid on a niche, shake out her hair, crooning softly to herself and admiring her reflection in the surface. Then she would fill her battered kettle at the spring and put it to boil, for he always liked her strong bitter tea and the honey she gathered to spread on bread baked in her Dutch oven.

There was nothing urgent or impetuous about these occasions. Sometimes, after they had kissed in greeting, they would sit together and look out over the Valley and she would tell him of her trivial encounters since he was last here, of lumbering badgers visiting one another’s sets on the slope, or another attempt of the stoats to rob the woodpecker’s nest and the struggle that followed. There were always fresh flowers in a jam jar on her ‘table’, not only the more homely flowers of the woods, bluebells, harebells, primroses, foxgloves and campion, but much shyer plants that she alone knew where to find and had gathered to give brief splendour to the cave. Then, when they had talked and sipped their tea, he would sometimes stroke her hair, caressing it with a gentle, unhurried touch and looking at her as if he never ceased to wonder at the texture of her skin, the lights in her hair, or the suppleness of her limbs tanned nut-brown by sun and wind. Whenever he spoke to her he used her familiar burr but without selfconsciousness, for it seemed to him an affront to talk to her as he talked to the cadets and the people up at the Big House. He would say, stroking her breasts, ‘Youm beautiful, Hazel! Youm the prettiest creature yerabouts, that you be! An’ I loves touching ’ee, do’ee know that?’ and she would smile a gratified, vacant smile and shiver under his hand or lift her own to trace a path down the side of his face with a forefinger, as though to assure herself that he was real. Then, without explanation, he would be gone again and she would busy herself renewing the bracken on the floor, or scouring her battered pots, or would resume her aimless movements about the Valley. She was always happiest in the hour when he had gone for then her memory of what passed between them was fresh and she could compose one of her long, rambling prose poems in which they ranged the woods and river valley together but soon she would half forget him until some sixth sense told her he was home again and it was time to resume her vigil on the rock. They had tried to coax her back to the Dell or to take service with one of the farmers but she resisted their persuasions, disappearing completely for days at a stretch so that, short of locking her up, there was no way of stopping her wandering. Meg saw her and talked to her from time to time, but Meg did not join the crusade to tame her; she alone, with the single exception of Ikey, understood what freedom of movement meant to the only true gypsy in the family and would do nothing to threaten it.

Two or three days after the dispute about Simon, Ikey set out across the woods on foot in the dusk of a dry autumn day. He did not hurry for he was depressed at not having had the courage to tell her that he would be gone in the morning, this time for at least three years. He knew that she took little heed of time and that even if he told her the truth she would not be much concerned but the finality of the occasion weighted on his mind nevertheless. It was almost dark when he threaded his way through the rhododendrons but she heard twigs crackle under his feet and lit a candle to guide him to the screen of the gorse at the mouth of the cave. He was a long time coming up and the kettle, which had been simmering, was boiling when he reached her little house.

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