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Authors: Agatha writing as Mary Westmacott Christie

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BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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Of course Rodney was missing her!

Chapter Six

She arrived back at the rest house and the Indian came out and asked:

‘Memsahib have nice walk?'

Yes, Joan said, she had had a very nice walk.

‘Dinner ready soon. Very nice dinner, Memsahib.'

Joan said she was glad of that, but the remark was clearly a ritual one, for dinner was exactly the same as usual, with peaches instead of apricots. It might be a nice dinner, but its disadvantage was that it was always the same dinner.

It was far too early to go to bed when dinner was over and once again Joan wished fervently that she had brought either a large supply of literature or some sewing with her. She even attempted to re-read the more entertaining passages of Lady Catherine Dysart's
Memoirs
but the attempt was a failure.

If there were
anything
to do, Joan thought, anything at
all
! A pack of cards, even. She could have played patience. Or a game – backgammon, chess, draughts – she could have played against herself!
Any
game – halma, snakes and ladders …

Really a very curious fancy she had had out there. Lizards popping their heads out of holes. Thoughts popping up out of your mind … frightening thoughts, disturbing thoughts … thoughts that one didn't want to have.

But if so, why have them? After all one could control one's thoughts – or couldn't one? Was it possible that in some circumstances one's thoughts controlled oneself … popping up out of holes like lizards – or flashing across one's mind like a green snake.

Coming from
somewhere
 …

Very odd that feeling of panic she had had.

It must be agoraphobia. (Of course that was the word – agoraphobia. It showed that one could always remember things if one only thought hard enough.) Yes, that was it. The terror of open spaces. Curious that she had never known before that she suffered from it. But of course she had never before had any experience of open spaces. She had always lived in the midst of houses and gardens with plenty to do and plenty of people. Plenty of people, that was the thing. If only there was someone here to talk to.

Even Blanche …

Funny to think how she had been appalled by the possibility that Blanche might be making the journey home with her.

Why, it would have made all the difference in the world to have had Blanche here. They could have talked over the old days at St Anne's. How very long ago that seemed. What was it Blanche had said? You've gone up in the world and I've gone down.' No, she had qualified it afterwards – she had said, ‘You've stayed where you were – a St Anne's girl who's been a credit to the school.'

Was there really so little difference in her since those days? Nice to think so. Well, nice in a way, but in another way not so nice. It seemed rather – rather stagnant somehow.

What was it Miss Gilbey had said on the occasion of the leave-taking talk? Miss Gilbey's leave-taking talks to her girls were famous, a recognized institution of St Anne's.

Joan's mind swept back over the years and the figure of her old headmistress loomed immediately into her field of vision with startling clarity. The large, aggressive nose, the pince-nez, the mercilessly sharp eyes with their compelling gaze, the terrific majesty of her progress through the school, slightly preceded by her bust – a restrained, disciplined bust that had about it only majesty and no suggestion of softness.

A terrific figure, Miss Gilbey, justly feared and admired and who could produce just as frightening an effect on parents as on pupils. No denying it, Miss Gilbey
was
St Anne's!

Joan saw herself entering that sacred room, with its flowers, its Medici prints; its implications of culture, scholarship and social graces.

Miss Gilbey, turning majestically from her desk –

‘Come in, Joan. Sit down, dear child.'

Joan had sat down as indicated in the cretonne-covered armchair. Miss Gilbey had removed her pince-nez, had produced suddenly an unreal and distinctly terrifying smile.

‘You are leaving us, Joan, to go from the circumscribed world of school into the larger world which is life. I should like to have a little talk with you before you go in the hope that some words of mine may be a guide to you in the days that are to come.'

‘Yes, Miss Gilbey.'

‘Here, in these happy surroundings, with young companions of your own age, you have been shielded from the perplexities and difficulties which no one can entirely avoid in this life.'

‘Yes, Miss Gilbey.'

‘You have, I know, been happy here.'

‘Yes, Miss Gilbey.'

‘And you have done well here. I am pleased with the progress you have made. You have been one of our most satisfactory pupils.'

Slight confusion – ‘Oh – er – I'm glad, Miss Gilbey.'

‘But life opens out before you now with fresh problems, fresh responsibilities –'

The talk flowed on. At the proper intervals Joan murmured:

‘Yes, Miss Gilbey.'

She felt slightly hypnotized.

It was one of Miss Gilbey's assets in her career to possess a voice that was, according to Blanche Haggard, orchestral in its compass. Starting with the mellowness of a cello, administering praise in the accents of a flute, deepening to warning in the tones of a bassoon. Then to those girls of marked intellectual prowess the exhortation to a career was proclaimed in terms of brass – to those of more domestic calibre the duties of wifehood and motherhood were mentioned in the muted notes of the violin.

Not until the end of the discourse did Miss Gilbey, as it were, speak pizzicato.

‘And now, just a special word.
No lazy thinking,
Joan, my dear! Don't just accept things at their face value – because it's the easiest way, and because it may save you pain! Life is meant to be lived, not glossed over. And don't be too pleased with yourself!'

‘Yes – no, Miss Gilbey.'

‘Because, just
entre nous,
that
is
a little your failing, isn't it, Joan? Think of others, my dear, and not too much of yourself. And be prepared to accept responsibility.'

And then on to the grand orchestral climax:

‘Life, Joan, must be a continual progress – a rising on the stepping stones of our dead selves to higher things. Pain and suffering will come. They come to all. Even Our Lord was not immune from the sufferings of our mortal life. As he knew the agony of Gethsemane, so you will know it – and if you do not know that, Joan, then it will mean that your path has veered far from the true way. Remember this when the hour of doubt and travail comes. And remember, my dear, that I am glad to hear from my old girls at any time – and always ready to help them with advice if they should ask for it. God bless you, dear.'

And thereupon the final benediction of Miss Gilbey's parting kiss, a kiss that was less a human contact than a glorified accolade.

Joan, slightly dazed, was dismissed.

She returned to her dormitory to find Blanche Haggard, wearing Mary Grant's pince-nez, and with a pillow stuffed down the front of her gym tunic, giving an orchestral recital to an enraptured audience:

‘You are going,' boomed Blanche, ‘from this happy world of school into the larger more perilous world of life. Life opens out before you with its problems, its responsibilities …'

Joan joined the audience. The applause grew as Blanche worked up to her climax.

‘To you, Blanche Haggard, I say but one word. Discipline. Discipline your emotions, practise self-control. Your very warmth of heart may prove perilous. Only by strict discipline can you attain the heights. You have great gifts, my dear. Use them well. You have a lot of faults, Blanche – a lot of faults. But they are the faults of a generous nature and they can be corrected.

‘Life –' Blanche's voice rose to a shrill falsetto, ‘is a continual progress. Rise on the stepping stones of our dead selves – (see Wordsworth). Remember the old school and remember that Aunt Gilbey gives advice and help at any time if a stamped addressed envelope is enclosed!'

Blanche paused, but to her surprise neither laughter nor applause greeted the pause. Everyone looked as though turned into marble and all heads were turned to the open doorway where Miss Gilbey stood majestically, pince-nez in hand.

‘If you are thinking of taking up a stage career, Blanche, I believe there are several excellent schools of dramatic art where they would teach you proper voice control and elocution. You seem to have some talents in that direction. Kindly return that pillow to its proper place at once.'

And with that she moved swiftly away.

‘Whew,' said Blanche. ‘The old tartar! Pretty sporting of her – but she does know how to make you feel small.'

Yes, thought Joan, Miss Gilbey had been a great personality. She had finally retired from St Anne's just a term after Averil had been sent there. The new headmistress had lacked her dynamic personality, and the school had started to go down in consequence.

Blanche had been right, Miss Gilbey had been a tartar. But she had known how to make herself felt. And she had certainly, Joan reflected, been quite right about Blanche. Discipline – that was what Blanche had needed in her life. Generous instincts – yes, possibly. But self-control had been notably lacking. Still, Blanche
was
generous. That money, for instance, the money that Joan had sent her – Blanche hadn't spent it on herself. It had bought a roll-top desk for Tom Holliday. A roll-top desk was the last thing in the world that Blanche would have wanted. A warm-hearted kindly creature, Blanche. And yet she had left her children, gone off callously and deserted the two little creatures she herself had brought into the world.

It just showed that there were people who had simply no maternal instinct whatsoever. One's children, thought Joan, should always come first. She and Rodney had always agreed on that. Rodney was really very unselfish – if it was put to him, that is, in the right way. She had pointed out to him, for instance, that that nice sunny dressing-room of his really ought to be the children's day nursery and he had agreed quite willingly to move into the little room overlooking the stable yard. Children should have all the sun and light there was.

She and Rodney had really been very conscientious parents. And the children had really been very satisfactory, especially when they were quite small – such attractive, handsome children. Much better brought up than the Sherston boys, for instance. Mrs Sherston never seemed to mind what those children looked like. And she herself seemed to join them in the most curious activities, crawling along the ground as a Red Indian – uttering wild whoops and yells – and once when they were attempting a reproduction of a circus, giving a most lifelike imitation of a sea lion!

The fact was, Joan decided, that Leslie Sherston herself had never properly grown up.

Still, she'd had a very sad life, poor woman.

Joan thought of the time when she had so unexpectedly run across Captain Sherston in Somerset.

She had been staying with friends in that part of the world and had had no idea the Sherstons were living there. She had come face to face with Captain Sherston as he emerged (so typical) from the local pub.

She had not seen him since his release and it was really quite a shock to see the difference from the old days of the jaunty, confident bank manager.

That curiously deflated look that big aggressive men got when they had failed in the world. The sagging shoulders, the loose waistcoat, the flabby cheeks, the quick shifty look of the eyes.

To think that anyone could ever have trusted this man.

He was taken aback by meeting her, but he rallied well, and greeted her with what was a painful travesty of his old manner:

‘Well, well, well, Mrs Scudamore! The world is indeed a small place. And what brings you to Skipton Haynes?'

Standing there, squaring his shoulders, endeavouring to put into his voice the old heartiness and self assurance. It was a pitiful performance and Joan had, in spite of herself, felt quite sorry for him.

How dreadful to come down in the world like that! To feel that at any moment you might come across someone from the old life, someone who might refuse even to recognize you.

Not that she had any intention herself of behaving that way. Naturally she was quite prepared to be kind.

Sherston was saying, ‘You must come back and see my wife. You must have tea with us. Yes, yes, dear lady, I insist!'

And the parody of his old manner was so painful that Joan, albeit rather unwillingly, allowed herself to be piloted along the street, Sherston continuing to talk in his new uneasy way.

He'd like her to see their little place – at least not so little. Quite a good acreage. Hard work, of course, growing for the market. Anemones and apples were their best line.

Still talking he unlatched a somewhat dilapidated gate that needed painting and they walked up a
weedy drive. Then they saw Leslie, her back bent over the anemone beds.

‘Look who's here,' Sherston called and Leslie had pushed her hair back from her face and had come over and said this
was
a surprise!

Joan had noticed at once how much older Leslie looked and how ill. There were lines carved by fatigue and pain on her face. But, otherwise, she was exactly the same as usual, cheerful and untidy and terrifically energetic.

As they were standing there talking, the boys arrived home from school, charging up the drive with loud howls and rushing at Leslie, butting at her with their heads, shouting out Mum, Mum, Mum, and Leslie after enduring the onslaught for some minutes suddenly said in a very peremptory voice, ‘Quiet! Visitors.'

And the boys had suddenly transformed themselves into two polite angels who shook hands with Mrs Scudamore, and spoke in soft hushed voices.

Joan was reminded a little of a cousin of hers who trained sporting dogs. On the word of command the dogs would sit, dropping to their haunches, or on another word dash wildly for the horizon. Leslie's children, she thought, seemed trained much on the same plan.

BOOK: Absent in the Spring
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