In the week which preceded the outbreak of the Second World War – days of surmise and apprehension which cannot, without irony, be called the last days of peace – and on the Sunday morning when all doubts were finally resolved and misconceptions corrected, three rich women thought first and mainly of Basil Seal. They were his sister, his mother and his mistress.
Barbara Sothill was at Malfrey; in recent years she had thought of her brother as seldom as circumstances allowed her, but on that historic September morning, as she walked to the village, he predominated over a multitude of worries.
She and Freddy had just heard the Prime Minister’s speech, broadcast by wireless. ‘It is an evil thing we are fighting,’ he had said and as Barbara turned her back on the house where, for the most part, the eight years of her marriage had been spent, she felt personally challenged and threatened, as though, already, the mild, autumnal sky were dark with circling enemy and their shadows were trespassing on the sunlit lawns.
There was something female and voluptuous in the beauty of Malfrey; other lovely houses maintained a virginal modesty or a manly defiance, but Malfrey had no secret from the heavens; it had been built more than two hundred years ago in days of victory and ostentation and lay, spread out, sumptuously at ease, splendid, defenceless and provocative; a Cleopatra among houses; across the sea, Barbara felt, a small and envious mind, a meanly ascetic mind, a creature of the conifers, was plotting the destruction of her home. It was for Malfrey that she loved her prosaic and slightly absurd husband; for Malfrey, too, that she had abandoned Basil and with him the part of herself which, in the atrophy endemic to all fruitful marriages, she had let waste and die.
It was half a mile to the village down the lime avenue. Barbara walked because, just as she was getting into the car, Freddy had stopped her saying, ‘No petrol now for gadding about.’
Freddy was in uniform, acutely uncomfortable in ten-year-old trousers. He had been to report at the yeomanry headquarters the day before, and was home for two nights collecting his kit, which, in the two years since he was last at camp, had been misused in charades and picnics and dispersed about the house in a dozen improbable places. His pistol, in particular, had been a trouble. He had had the whole household hunting it, saying fretfully, ‘It’s all very well, but I can get court-martialled for this,’ until, at length, the nurserymaid found it at the back of the toy cupboard. Barbara was now on her way to look for his binoculars which she remembered vaguely having lent to the scoutmaster.
The road under the limes led straight to the village; the park gates of elaborately wrought iron swung on rusticated stone piers, and the two lodges formed a side of the village green; opposite them stood the church, on either side two inns, the vicarage, the shop and a row of grey cottages; three massive chestnuts grew from the roughly rectangular grass plot in the centre. It was a Beauty Spot, justly but reluctantly famous, too much frequented of late by walkers but still, through Freddy’s local influence, free of charabancs; a bus stopped three times a day on weekdays, four times on Tuesdays when the market was held in the neighbouring town, and to accommodate passengers Freddy had that year placed an oak seat under the chestnuts.
It was here that Barbara’s thoughts were brought up sharply by an unfamiliar spectacle; six dejected women sat in a row staring fixedly at the closed doors of the Sothill Arms. For a moment Barbara was puzzled; then she remembered. These were Birmingham women. Fifty families had arrived at Malfrey late on Friday evening, thirsty, hot, bewildered and resentful after a day in train and bus. Barbara had chosen the five saddest families for herself and dispersed the rest in the village and farms.
Punctually next day the head housemaid, a veteran of old Mrs Sothill’s regime, had given notice of leaving. ‘I don’t know how we shall do without you,’ said Barbara.
‘It’s my legs, madam. I’m not strong enough for the work. I could just manage as things were, but now with children all over the place . . .’
‘You know we can’t expect things to be easy in war time. We must expect to make sacrifices. This is our war work.’
But the woman was obdurate. ‘There’s my married sister at Bristol,’ she said. ‘Her husband was on the reserve. I ought to go and help her now he’s called up.’
An hour later the remaining three housemaids had appeared with prim expressions of face.
‘Edith and Olive and me have talked it over and we want to go and make aeroplanes. They say they are taking on girls at Brakemore’s.’
‘You’ll find it terribly hard work, you know.’
‘Oh, it’s not the work, madam. It’s the Birmingham women. The way they leave their rooms.’
‘It’s all very strange for them at first. We must do all we can to help. As soon as they settle down and get used to our ways . . .’ but she saw it was hopeless while she spoke.
‘They say they want girls at Brakemore’s,’ said the maids.
In the kitchen Mrs Elphinstone was loyal. ‘But I can’t answer for the girls,’ she said. ‘They seem to think war is an excuse for a lark.’
It was the kitchen-maids, anyway, and not Mrs Elphinstone, thought Barbara, who had to cope with the extra meals . . .
Benson was sound. The Birmingham women caused him no trouble. But James would be leaving for the Army within a few weeks. It’s going to be a difficult winter, thought Barbara.
These women, huddled on the green, were not Barbara’s guests, but she saw on their faces the same look of frustration and defiance. Dutifully, rather than prudently, she approached the group and asked if they were comfortable. She spoke to them in general and each felt shy of answering; they looked away from her sullenly towards the locked inn. Oh dear, thought Barbara, I suppose they wonder what business it is of mine.
‘I live up there,’ she said, indicating the gates. ‘I’ve been arranging your billets.’
‘Oh, have you?’ said one of the mothers. ‘Then perhaps you can tell us how long we’ve got to stop.’
‘That’s right,’ said another.
‘D’you know,’ said Barbara, ‘I don’t believe anyone has troubled to think about that. They’ve all been too busy getting you away.’
‘They got no right to do it,’ said the first mother. ‘You can’t keep us here compulsory.’
‘But surely you don’t want to have your children bombed, do you?’
‘We won’t stay where we’re not wanted.’
‘That’s right,’ said the yes-woman.
‘But of course you’re wanted.’
‘Yes, like the stomach-ache.’
For some minutes Barbara reasoned with the fugitives until she felt that her only achievement had been to transfer to herself all the odium which more properly belonged to Hitler. Then she went on her way to the scoutmaster’s, where, before she could retrieve the binoculars, she had to listen to the story of the Birmingham schoolmistress, billeted on him, who refused to help wash up.
As she crossed the green on her homeward journey, the mothers looked away from her.
‘I hope the children are enjoying themselves a little,’ she said, determined not to be cut in her own village.
‘They’re down at the school. Teacher’s making them play games.’
‘The park’s always open, you know, if any one of you care to go inside.’
‘We had a park where we came from. With a band Sundays.’
‘Well, I’m afraid I can’t offer a band. But it’s thought rather pretty, particularly down by the lake. Do take the children in if you feel like it.’
When she had left the chief mother said: ‘What’s she? Some kind of inspector, I suppose, with her airs and graces. The idea of inviting us into the park. You’d think the place belonged to her the way she goes on.’
Presently the two inns opened their doors and the scandalized village watched a procession of mothers assemble from cottage, farm and mansion and make for the bar parlours.
Luncheon decided him; Freddy went upstairs immediately he left the dining-room and changed into civilian clothes. ‘Think I’ll get my maid to put me into something loose,’ he said in the voice he used for making jokes. It was this kind of joke Barbara had learned to recognize during her happy eight years in his company.
Freddy was large, masculine, prematurely bald and superficially cheerful; at heart he was misanthropic and gifted with that sly, sharp instinct for self-preservation that passes for wisdom among the rich; his indolence was qualified with enough basic bad temper to ensure the respect of those about him. He took in most people, but not his wife or his wife’s family.
‘He has joined a special corps d’élite that is being organized. They are going to do great things.’
‘He has actually joined?’
‘There’s nothing I can do to help him?’
‘Dear Jo, always so kind. No. Basil has arranged it all himself. I expect that his excellent record at the War Office helped. It isn’t every boy who would settle to a life of official drudgery when everyone else was going out for excitement – like Emma’s silly girl in the fire brigade. No, he did his duty where he found it. And now he is getting his reward. I am not quite sure what they are going to do, but I know it is very dashing and may well have a decisive effect on the war.’
The grey moment was passed; Sir Joseph, who had not ceased smiling, now smiled with sincere happiness.
‘There’s a new spirit abroad,’ he said. ‘I see it on every side.’
And, poor booby, he was bang right.
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