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Authors: Anne Melville

Lorimers at War

BOOK: Lorimers at War
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Lorimers at War


Part One






Part Two



Part One

The darkness of war had spread across Europe, but at Blaize, Lord Glanville's country house on the bank of the Thames, the chandeliers glittered as brightly as though the world for which they had been made could expect to endure for ever. Yet the ballroom they illuminated on this October evening was empty, and no sound disturbed the silence of the old house. It was the moment within the eye of a cyclone when the rushing wind suddenly holds its breath in an unnatural calm. The storm was just about to break.

For three days Kate Lorimer had looked on with admiration as the household bustled with activity, in preparation for the ball which would celebrate her brother Brinsley's twenty-first birthday at the home of their aunt and uncle, Lord and Lady Glanville. The idea that dancing and dining and drinking and flirting were unsuitable activities for a country at war was not one which was likely to occur to either the hosts or the guests tonight. England was fighting to preserve the values of a civilized society against the clumsy aggressions of a decaying Austrian empire, and a brash new German army and navy. Already young men were dying on the battlefields of France. It was necessary that gestures should be made, gestures of gaiety and defiance, to show that a way of life could not so easily be killed.

Amidst all the preparations of the past few days, only one small concession had been made to the fact that England was at war. The fragile silk curtains, intended to drape decoratively at the sides of the ballroom windows
rather than to cover them, had been stored away. Their replacements were made of a heavier fabric which would prevent any light from being seen outside. It was unlikely that a Zeppelin would waste its explosive load on an isolated country house when the whole city of London, further down the Thames, offered so much more tempting a target. But it seemed sensible to remove even the slightest cause for unease.

Not until midnight would the party supper be served to the guests, so the members of the family who were staying at Blaize had assembled for a light meal earlier in the evening. Most of them now had retired to their rooms for a brief rest or last-minute adjustment of hair or gown. Kate was alone as, dressed for the ball, she wandered through the suddenly silent house. The heavy doors of the banqueting hall were closed. With the secret pleasure of a child opening her Christmas stocking too early, she let herself into the hall so that she could inspect the tables set for the buffet.

The sumptuous display represented the culmination of a month of planning and several days of feverish effort. A patisseur had been brought from London. Out of spun sugar he had fashioned exotic birds and butterflies, creating a feast as much for the eye as for the palate. The wives of Lord Glanville's tenants, tying their aprons and rolling up their sleeves, had augmented the normal kitchen staff in a heroic baking of breads and tarts and hams. A last-minute whipping of cream and the dextrous dressing of cutlets in paper collars had been preceded by two days of steaming endeavour in which the kitchen hobs and ovens were organized with military precision. Lobsters boiled in cauldrons, salmon simmered in fish kettles and sucking pigs turned on spits which, although rarely used, had been maintained in good order for three hundred years.

When it was cold, the food had been arranged on Jacobean banqueting dishes to be glazed and decorated.
Sixteenth-century refectory tables were covered with eighteenth-century lace cloths. Waterford glass sparkled with the light reflected off highly polished Queen Anne silver. Starched drawn-thread napkins were piled beside stacks of Waterloo plates, each hand-painted with a different scene from the Duke of Wellington's battles. It was a measure of the secure foundations of Lord Glanville's heritage, as well as the extent of his wealth, that although it had been necessary to transport a certain amount of china and glass to the country from Glanville House in Park Lane, there had been no need to hire a single piece.

By now all the preparations were complete. In less than an hour, as the first carriage or motor car drew up outside the door, the inhabitants of Blaize would begin to move in their appointed tracks like wound-up clockwork figures waiting only for a lever to be pressed. Lord and Lady Glanville would appear to greet their guests, footmen would step forward, maids would hurry along cold back corridors. But now the house was as quiet as though it were uninhabited. The housekeeper had come from her hall, the cook from her kitchens and the butler from his pantry, to inspect the ballroom and the buffet for the last time and, satisfied in their own spheres, had retreated downstairs again. Blaize was at peace.

Moving along the table, Kate reached forward to pick out a cherry from a huge punch bowl and caught sight of her own reflection in the gleaming silver. Even distorted by the curve of the vessel, the face it showed her was familiar – freckled and green-eyed, with wide, strong eyebrows and cheekbones and a generous mouth – but it seemed to be attached to the body of a stranger. In a way she felt herself at this moment to be as artificial a creation as the swan which had been made out of meringue or the miniature trees whose fruit, on close inspection, proved to be not apples but sweetmeats. With the help of her aunt's maid she had been laced into a corset which
constricted her sturdy waist, and buttoned into a ball dress whose shot silk matched her sea-green eyes. She had refused to wear even the discreetest cosmetics, but had allowed the maid to pile her long, thick hair – the tawny colour of a lion's mane, and almost as unmanageable – elaborately high on her head. The strain of maintaining this edifice upright caused her to stand even straighter than usual.

This effect of stateliness was not one which came naturally to Kate. She had only recently qualified as a doctor, and her years of hard work as a medical student had allowed her little time for society entertainments of this kind. In any case, she had no taste for them as a rule. But she and her brother Brinsley were very close and she was anxious that he should not be ashamed of his sister's appearance in this celebration of his birthday.

Kate turned away from her study of the buffet tables, licking her fingers, and found that she herself had been under observation. Brinsley rose from the window-seat of one of the mullioned windows of the Tudor hall and stepped down to take her hands.

‘You really do look absolutely ripping, Kate,' he said. ‘I like the dress.'

‘You should have said that before, when Aunt Alexa was listening. It's the one she gave me two years ago for my own twenty-first. It makes me feel a little like Cinderella – as though at midnight the clock will chime and all these trappings will disappear. But I must return the compliment. You look absolutely ripping yourself.'

Brinsley was wearing his new second lieutenant's uniform, still as smartly pressed as when the tailor first delivered it. But he had made no attempt to sleek down the exuberant curls of his golden hair in the approved military style, and his eyes sparkled with high spirits which were equally unsubdued.

‘You approve, then?' he asked.

‘Oh yes, very smart,' said Kate. ‘How I wish that
Mother and Father could see you. You must have a photograph taken to send to them. They'll be thinking of you at this moment and wishing you were with them.'

‘Could we take a walk?' asked Brinsley abruptly. ‘Would you be too cold?'

‘I'll fetch a wrap.' Kate was strong, and normally unmindful of the weather. But her ball dress was cut low at both back and front and she guessed she would feel the chill as soon as she moved away from the blazing log fires of the house.

She took Brinsley's arm as, a few minutes later, they made their way down the stone steps and strolled towards the river. Had the war not imposed a need for darkness, their Aunt Alexa would certainly have ordered the carriage drive to be illuminated with oil lamps, the front of the ancient house to be decorated with coloured lights, and spotlights to be fixed on the roof to pick out the twisting patterns of the sixteenth-century brick chimneys. As it was, a full moon provided a romantic substitute for all these. The woodland paths along which Kate and Brinsley wandered were dappled with the moving shadows of the trees, but were lit clearly enough for them to move without hesitation.

For a little while neither of them spoke. Kate guessed that Brinsley, like herself, would be thinking of their parents and of their childhood home in Jamaica. Hope Valley, the village community in which their mother worked as a doctor and their father, a Baptist missionary, as pastor, had been Brinsley's home until he was sent to England for his schooling. Kate had remained longer with her parents in the West Indies, but her wish to become a doctor like her mother had been so strong that when she was eighteen she too had been allowed to go to England to study.

The past five years had been satisfying ones for Kate, but she guessed that her parents must often have been lonely without their two elder children – for two of their
other children had died in infancy and the youngest, still living at home, was a cripple. On this evening in particular they would be upset not to have Brinsley with them. Kate knew that her brother, coming down from Oxford in June without distinction but without disgrace, and then enjoying two leisurely months of playing county cricket, had planned to set sail for Jamaica in September, ready to celebrate his coming-of-age in his old home.

Two shots in a Sarajevo street were to change the lives of a whole generation. A birthday party in Jamaica was hardly a significant casualty. Brinsley had shown no interest in politics, and Kate felt sure that the rapid exchange of declarations of war across Europe must have taken him by surprise. Both at school and at university, however, he had been a member of the Officers' Training Corps, so he was one of the first to volunteer and to be commissioned. Now he was awaiting the summons to join his regiment, and it could not be very much longer delayed.

Their walk brought them to the bank of the River Thames. The moon, escaping from the net of the trees, was brighter here, reflecting in the broad band of water which scarcely rippled on this calm night as it swept steadily towards the sea. Peaceful and powerful at the same time, the movement hypnotized them into stillness at first. Then Kate surprised herself by laughing at an incongruous thought. Brinsley's questioning look made it necessary to explain.

‘I was thinking, if we were in Hope Valley, we'd both have sat down on the bank of the stream without giving it a second thought.'

‘When we lived in Hope Valley we were both shabby, all the time,' said Brinsley. ‘No beautiful ball dress to be spoiled by mud or grass stains.'

‘And no elegant uniform.' It was true that in Jamaica they had been allowed to run wild. Their mother had cared nothing for her own appearance and felt no need to
dress her own children more smartly than those of her patients. In a tropical village, clothes were required for decency and not for either warmth or fashion. ‘All the same, this birthday would have been a very special day for Mother and Father. They must be disappointed that you're so far away.'

BOOK: Lorimers at War
5.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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