i 57926919a60851a7 (30 page)

BOOK: i 57926919a60851a7
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"Well, you can do that anytime.

"What do you want to discuss?" He thrust his hands into his breeches pockets, and the attitude annoyed her and she said. her voice low,

"It's about the child, and I can't do it here. Come to my room."

"Huhl" He jerked his head upwards as he left the bottom step.

"The child!" And on this she grabbed his arm, saying, "What is the matter with you? This is something you've got to face. Like it or not, he's yours and he's got to have your name. This is about the only thing I'm in agreement with Father over."

"Oh! you are?" Their eyes held tor a second before he gripped her hand that was clasping his arm and jerked it away, and the action was as if he had cut the umbilical cord that had roped them together from birth;

and now he said grimly, "Then I'm afraid there's going to be two of you disappointed." And on this he turned from her and walked across the hall, picked a walking stick from the stand, then went out by a side door.

As she watched him go she gritted her teeth, and she wondered where that part of him had gone that she had loved; because the boy she had known to be timid and weak and easy-going was now none of these things, he had turned into a man that she almost disliked. The fact that he had no feeling for his son did not displease her, for this being so, he would have no wish to take him away from his grandfather's care and this house, even if he married, and she could see no sign of this happening because his manner towards women was dour, the exaggerated courtesy he showed them being little short of ridicule. But even should he marry she could not imagine his keeping the child in the same house as his bride. And that's where she came in. She had always seen herself as mistress of this house and slowly but very surely over the weeks she had made her position felt by gathering the reins of management into her hands. The servants were aware of this, even if her father wasn't.

If anyone had told her that within five short weeks she would come to love, with an irrational, compelling love, the child of that low, ignorant fell creature, she would have laughed at him, while wanting to slap his mouth with the back of her hand in the way her aunt used to slap hers in the early days in the stone house.

Even during the first two weeks of her acquaintance with the child she had remained obdurate against her rising affection for him. Then came the day when, with his arms tight around her neck, he had said, "Can you have two mamas. Aunt Isabelle?" And when she had laughed and replied, "Yes, that is possible; it your first mama dies you can have a second mama," he had hugged her dose and whispered,

"Then you are my second mama. Aunt Isabelle." And it was done.

Clive had spent some time in the stable examining the horse's fetlock, looking at the other mounts, and talking quite affably with Morris, the coachman, Bowmer, the second coachman, and Micky, the head stable boy.

He felt quite at home with the stable staff and they with him.

The verdict was, he was all right was Master Clive, come back a man and no mistake, and could hold his drink better than most. Now who would believe that when they remembered the nervous young stripling who had been transported, so to speak. , Half an hour later he strolled through the park, out through the North Lodge, then continued casually down the narrow road until he came to the oak tree. He had purposely put on a plain coat, the skirt of which came to his knees; and quickly now, after glancing up and down the road, he pushed aside the bramble door. Once behind it, he put it in place again, all as if he had done it many times before.

The passage to the wall was high enough to allow him to walk with only his head stooped forward, and when he reached it he made out, through the filtered light from above, that for some distance alongside it a way had been cleared. Thrusting his walking stick out in front of him and moving it from side to side, he walked slowly forward until he came to where the clearing ended. And there he stared down at what was a man-sized hole.

Well! Well! He nipped on his lip before slowly dropping on to his knees. But he had to lower his body still further before he could get through the hole, and now, still on his hands and knees, he peered about him. He was in a tiny clearing, the bramble roof held up here and there by props. He stared about him hi amazement . and recognition. This must be the very spot where, on that faraway day, the small boy had hidden. But that was four years ago. This place was still being used, he had seen the woman come in. Why? There were no rabbit traps that he could see, there was no outlet that he could see.

He turned once more on to his knees and crawled around the space, which at most was but three yards in length and two in breadth, and as he crawled he asked himself to what purpose it could be used. He was inside the grounds.

Why would anyone want to sit in here? They couldn't get out, that was acertainty. His eyes began to search the dark green screen, and then his crawling suddenly stopped. He was looking through a slit. His vision was obscured by tiny branches, but nevertheless he could see into the far distance, and in the distance he saw his father and the child and Isabelle. And now he sat back on his heels, and his hand, going to his mouth, tapped it slowly.

He was about to put his eye to the opening again when a slight sound, as if a rabbit were scurrying over dry leaves, came to him; then distinctly he heard the intake of a long drawn breath as happens at the end of a run.

From the position he was in now he was facing the hole and could be seen by the girl when she came in, for instinctively he knew it was the girl and he felt cold at the thought. He had already guessed the reason for this place.

Her scrambling through the hole, although almost noiseless, cut off the sound of the movement he made in shifting his position, and as her head and shoulders appeared and she looked upwards, his arm shot out and his hand across her mouth only just stifled her scream. As she began to struggle furiously, his other arm about her like a vise, he pulled her into the clearing where, losing his balance but still keeping his grip on her mouth and shoulders, he fell to his side, and she with him. And there they lay, their bodies close for a second time, their eyes staring into each other's, hers so terror-stricken, and her heart beating against his breast so rapidly that he wouldn't have been surprised if she had died there and then.

She was still now, lying stiff, frozen, like someone being hypnotized into terror; and into the silence, broken only by their mingled hard breaths, there came the sound of a child's high voice, crying,

"Watch.

Watch me. Grandpapa. " And on this her eyelids moved.

Slowly taking his arm from about her shoulders but not his hand from her mouth, he held his forefinger up to her and wagged it twice, indicating that she be silent, and accompanied this with a pursing of his lips into a "Ssh!" Now, drawing his hand from her mouth, he pulled himself away from her and on to his knees, and as he gazed at her lying crumpled on the ground he felt slightly sick, for she looked as she had done all that time ago just a second before his father had torn his flesh out of hers.

He turned on his knees and pointed towards the slit in the brambles and motioned that she should look through it, but she made no movement, not even when she heard the stamp of the child's footsteps running past the edge of the thicket and his laughter filling the air.

It was not until Isabelle's voice came to them, calling, "Come, Richard. Come. Look, I will race you," that she moved her eyes from his and looked up at the green tangled roof.

Minutes later, when the voices and steps had faded into the distance, he motioned to her that she should come away; and he, going first, backed through the hole. But he had to wait almost three minutes before she put in an appearance, and when he went ahead walking close to the wall to keep his coat away from the loose bramble she did not follow immediately, and again he had to wait for her.

When he opened the screen door, he surveyed, as she did, the road both ways before walking on to it;

and when she was through she stood with her back tight against the oak staring at him as if he were the devil.

Now he kept his distance, almost two arms' length from her, and what he said was, "You have no need to fear me in any way." And when she made no answer he repeated, "Do you understand what I am saying? You have no need to fear me in any way, any way whatever."

He saw that she was petrified and he searched in his mind for some way to allay her fears, but he found none and went stumbling on.

"Go in there when you like, I won't give you away."

When she still made no effort to speak he said softly, "I'm not the devil from hell, don't look at me like that, girl. If ... if it's any consolation to you I'm deeply sorry for what happened on... on that day."

Still there was no word from her; and now he said with some impatience,

"If you care tor the child so much as to risk your neck going in there, for you could be shot at by the keepers, why did you let him go in the first place? Why did you sell him?"

"I, I didn't sell him." Her body jerked from the tree, then fell back against it again, and he was slightly startled at the vehemence of her reply.

"I'm under the impression that you did."

"Well, you're wrong, see." The top part of her body had again moved from the tree, but her hands at her sides were still gripping the bark.

"You are being paid twenty-five shillings a week, I understand. Is that right?"

"Yes, 'tis. But ... but I didn't sell him. If he said that he's lying."

"Well, if it wasn't for the money why did you let him go?"

There was a silence before she mumbled dully, her eyes cast down now,

"

"Twas because of Bella, my sister. She was in service and she got into trouble. She stole, she stole TWO HANKIES." Her voice was bit e ter again and she raised her eyes to his, "They were for sending her to the House of Correction, and ... and I couldn't bear it for she was only eight, and the man, the valet, said His Lordship would put things right for her on condition I let him have the child." She now leaned her head back against the tree and, her voice louder, she ended, "They had been at me for weeks, months, from he was born, but I wouldn't budge.

But ... but it was because of Bella, not the money."

Godi Two hankies. The House of Correction. Blackmail. His father had got the child on the strength of two hankies . Christ Almighty! He said to her now, "The child is three years old. Why is he still so important to you?"

Her head sank forward until he could see the crown from where the brown hair flowed in a clean shining circle, and when he heard her words soft and heart-felt saying, "He's mine; he's all I have of me own," he had an almost uncontrollable urge to grab her hand, run her to the Lodge and through the park, pick up the child and thrust it into her arms and say, "Therel Take your own." But after a moment, while he continued to stare at her, he said, "Remember what I've told you, you have no need to fear me in any way." And on this he turned abruptly and walked from her.

Perhaps it was. His Lordship thought, because Isa- belle was confined to her room with a chill that his son deigned to accompany the child and himself on their afternoon walk.

It was the first fine day tor almost a week, and as they strolled through the park, the child running before them. His Lordship, merely because he was finding his son's silence embarrassing, remarked, "I think we'd better have Stracey over to see Isabelle if her cold is no better by tomorrow."

The comment on this came almost absentmindedly from his son, "Oh ... oh yes."

"She's hardly ever indoors, out in all weathers. I think it's unseemly, this craze for shooting. It isn't a woman's place. But there, times have changed."

This remark bringing no response whatever. His Lordship glanced at the tall, hard thinness of the young man at his side, and he thought now as he had thought often over the past weeks that his son was almost unrecognizable to him. The boy Clive, the painter, the sensitive individual he had known and recognized as some small part of himself, but not this man. It was strange but he was finding himself more at ease in Isabelle's company than in his son's, and that was strange indeed. Yet Isabelle was deporting herself very well when all was taken into account, that is with the exception of her craze for shooting. Still Bellingham, or at least his nephew, seemed to welcome her presence. But above all, what pleased him most was that she had taken to the child, and the child undoubtedly had taken to her. Things never turned out as one expected. He had dreaded her return to the House, yet daily he had looked forward to seeing his son again, and yet here they were finding it difficult to carry on an ordinary conversation. That was until his son suddenly said, "About this business of inheritance. Father." He nodded towards the child.

"Yes."

"I've been thinking."

His Lordship waited, his eyes on his son's profile.

"I think perhaps after all' it would be a sensible thing to do; as it is, no one has any real claim to him,

have they? " Now Clive turned his head and looked at his father, and His Lordship moved his head slowly to the side and nodded twice before saying, " That is right. "

"Except of course the mother."

"Oh well, that could easily be seen to."

"How? You have nothing in writing from her."

"That's quite true, but she has taken my money for over three years; the courts would soon put her in her place. "

"I wouldn't be too sure of that. There was the Dunlop case you'll remember last month. They gave the custody of the child to the mother."

"Different thing altogether." His Lordship's head was wagging now.

"She was a lady; she had been going to marry the man but unfortunately he was killed. The mother in that case had a right to him."

"Even when the grandfather tried to prove he was the issue of his only son and without him the line would die?"

BOOK: i 57926919a60851a7
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