Read Miss Buncle Married Online

Authors: D. E. Stevenson

Miss Buncle Married (5 page)

BOOK: Miss Buncle Married
5.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

The color faded from Mr. Tyler's rubicund countenance; he staggered to a chair.

“What?” he said. “What? You are not Lady Chevis Cobbe?”

“No, I'm not—I have never even
heard
of her,” Barbara assured him.

“Oh dear! Oh dear me, this is dreadful, this is really dreadful!”

“I'm Mrs. Abbott,” continued Barbara, “Mrs. Arthur Abbott, and I came here to look at The Archway House.”

Mr. Tyler took out a handkerchief and mopped his face. “This is terrible,” he said. “This is truly terrible. I shall never get over this—never.”

“I'm very sorry,” Barbara told him (her heart was touched at the sight of so much suffering). “I really am awfully sorry, but I'd no idea—I mean I thought you knew who I was. You seemed to be expecting me.”

“I was expecting
her
,” said Mr. Tyler faintly.

“Oh, I
see
,” said Barbara nodding.

“Oh dear! Oh dear me!” lamented Mr. Tyler. “And her ladyship was so insistent on discretion—I shall never get over it.”

“Well, you'll be very silly, then,” said Barbara firmly. “There's no harm done so far as I can see, except that I've wasted an awful lot of time reading that silly document of yours.”

“You had no business to read it,” said Mr. Tyler, pulling himself together a little. “Surely you must have seen that it did not concern you.”

“I didn't want to read it,” retorted Barbara indignantly. “You told me it was necessary. You
said
I was to read it. You said you'd explain everything when you came back.”

“Because I thought you were her ladyship,” explained Mr. Tyler.

“How could you think that?”

“Because you're like her. I was expecting Lady Chevis Cobbe, and you're like her. I don't know her ladyship very well—my partner does all her business—and naturally I thought—oh dear, and she was so anxious that this will should be kept a complete secret.”

“I shan't tell anybody about it,” Barbara promised. She was really very sorry indeed for Mr. Tyler. He was quite broken. He had lost all his funny pompous manner, and had become quite human and not a little pathetic. “I shan't tell anybody,” she assured him.

“You will ruin me if you do,” said Mr. Tyler frankly.

“Well, I've told you that I won't,” repeated Barbara again.

“Did you actually—er—
read
the will?” inquired Mr. Tyler, a trifle more hopefully. “Ladies sometimes find our legal phraseology a trifle obscure, so perhaps—”

“Well, not very carefully,” Barbara replied, stretching the truth a good deal in her desire to comfort him, and feeling very uncomfortable about the whole thing. “The people were all just names to me. I don't know any of them.”

“That's true,” agreed Mr. Tyler eagerly, “you don't know any of them. Now, if it had been any of the local people it would have been quite different—it would have been disastrous, simply disastrous—but, of course, it could not have happened, because I know them. Yes. But you don't know anybody here—that's true.”

Barbara was glad to see Mr. Tyler recovering, not only because she was a humane woman, and took no pleasure in the sight of a fellow creature in distress, but also because she hoped she would be able to lead the conversation round to the subject of The Archway House. She had wasted far too much time already, drinking port and reading wills. I had better hurry, she thought, or I shall have no time to see the house properly, and I must see it properly, after coming all this way. So, after a few more soothing and consolatory words, Barbara came to the point and demanded the keys of The Archway House.

Mr. Tyler was only too happy to oblige. He decided that when Mrs. Abbott had gone he would mix himself a pretty strong dose of whisky and soda. Wine was all very well in its way, but, after a severe shock, such as he had experienced, whisky and soda was the best thing—his whole body craved the stuff.

“I will send a clerk with you,” he said, as he unlocked the safe and took out a large bunch of keys, somewhat rusty in appearance. “A clerk, yes. The gate may be a little stiff to open. Mr. Pinthorpe shall go with you and see that you have—ha—every facility. You will find The Archway House in slight disrepair, of course. It has not had a tenant for a considerable period, but the roof is sound—yes—the roof is—ah—sound.”

Chapter Six
The Archway House

Barbara was drawn to Mr. Pinthorpe from the first. She was drawn to him strongly, and for a particular reason with which all authors will sympathize. Mr. Pinthorpe was reading one of her books. It was
Disturber
of
the
Peace
(Barbara's firstborn, and secret favorite) and he was reading it with such intense interest and absorption that he did not notice the approach of the junior partner of his firm until that gentleman addressed him by name in a peremptory manner. It was fortunate for Mr. Pinthorpe that he had gained Barbara's heart with such suddenness and security, for Mr. Pinthorpe's appearance was so against him, that nobody, not (you would suppose) his own mother, could have been drawn to him by his looks. He was thin and tall, with long arms, and long thin legs, and a very small round nob of a head set on a long thin neck. His face was extremely unprepossessing owing to a sallow skin, an abnormally long and pointed nose, and very small black eyes, which were so completely socketless, that they reminded the beholder of the boot-buttons sewn onto the face of a rag doll. Mr. Pinthorpe possessed no eyebrows at all, and his hair, which he wore parted in the middle, was very thin and lank, and more than a trifle untidy.

“Mr. Pinthorpe!” exclaimed Mr. Tyler sharply.

The wretched youth leaped to his feet, and crammed his book into the pocket of his coat, which was large and baggy and had evidently been used for the purpose before.

“Have you nothing better to do—” began Mr. Tyler in a hectoring manner—but he got no further. Barbara was not the woman to stand aside and see her public bullied like this, besides how could he have found anything better to do than read
Disturber
of
the
Peace?
She held out her hand and smiled at Mr. Pinthorpe as if he had been the most handsome and delightful man she had ever seen.

“How do you do, Mr. Pinthorpe,” she said sweetly. “Mr. Tyler says you are going to be very kind and show me over The Archway House. I
do
hope it won't be a frightful bother for you.”

It is doubtful which of the two men was the more amazed at Barbara's advances. Mr. Tyler was struck dumb. Mr. Pinthorpe was almost too surprised to respond. But, after a moment's hesitation, and a questioning glance at the junior partner, he took her hand and shook it gravely. There was no other mode of action open to him.

“Mr. Pinthorpe,” said Mr. Tyler (this time in an entirely different tone of voice). “Mr. Pinthorpe, you will take Mrs.—ah—Abbott, you will take Mrs. Abbott and show her over The Archway House. Mrs. Abbott has an idea that the house may suit her requirements—ahem. You will give Mrs.—er—Abbott every facility—every facility and—ah—information. Here are the keys.”

Mr. Pinthorpe accepted the keys like a man in a dream, and, a few moments later, the oddly assorted couple was walking across the square while Mr. Tyler watched from the top of the steps.

Mr. Tyler was still feeling shaken. He had made a ghastly mistake—simply ghastly. He hoped that Mrs. Abbott would not like The Archway House. He thought it most unlikely that she would like it. The place was in appalling condition, and most people who went to look at it with a view to purchase took one dismayed glance at the desolation and fled incontinently, never to return. He hoped with all his soul that
that
was what Mrs. Abbott would do, because he never wanted to see her again. It would be too terrible if she bought it, and remained in Wandlebury; every time he set eyes upon her he would be reminded of his foolishness, of the dreadful blunder he had made. Mr. Tyler hated making blunders. When he blundered he remembered it with acute discomfort. He was aware that this blunder would remain in his mind for years and years.

Mr. Tyler pursed up his lips and blew them out—phew! He began to hum a hymn tune in harmony with his discomfort. It went something like this:

Through the night of doubt and sorrow (I shall never get over it—never)

Onward goes the Pilgrim Band (why on earth didn't I make sure who she was?)

Singing songs of expectation (I was expecting her, of course)

Marching to the Promised Land (and she is like her—no doubt of it)

Soon shall come the great awakening (and what if Tupper gets to hear of it)

Soon the rending of the tomb (that would be the end of everything)

Then the scattering of the shadows (but perhaps she won't like the house)

And the end of toil and gloom (and I shall never see her again)

Somewhat comforted by the optimistic sentiments of the last line, Mr. Tyler returned to the office and poured out his whisky and soda. If she seems keen on it, he thought, I must tell her about the rats. It has been empty so long that there are sure to be rats in it—yes—it would be only fair to warn her—only
fair.

***

Meanwhile Barbara, walking along by the side of her escort, could not help being conscious of the bulge in his pocket. She wondered how to attack the subject uppermost in her mind. She loved discussing her books; it was so interesting to hear what people thought of them, and Mr. Pinthorpe had evidently liked
Disturber
of
the
Peace
very much indeed, or he would not have been deaf and blind to the approach of his employer. Mr. Pinthorpe made no effort at conversation. He strode along the flagged pavement with strangely uneven steps. At first Barbara thought he must be lame, but, after a few minutes, she realized that he was stepping carefully in the middle of each flagstone, and, as the flagstones were alternately large and small, the effort to synchronize his steps to their dimensions was giving him some trouble. It was not the sort of amusement that Barbara had expected would appeal to a man who had the sense to appreciate her writings, but Barbara was willing to forgive Mr. Pinthorpe a good deal. Lots of people were odd, she reflected, and Mr. Pinthorpe had every right to his idiosyncrasies.

“Do you like reading?” she asked him at last.

“Some things,” said Mr. Pinthorpe darkly, and then he added, “He'd no call to get annoyed. I do all they give me to do, don't I? If they don't give me anything to do, have I got to sit and twiddle my thumbs all day? I'm better reading than twiddling my thumbs, aren't I?”

Naturally Barbara agreed—she agreed fervently (what better occupation could anybody have than reading the works of John Smith?).

“How do you like it?” she asked him.

“What? That book? It's pretty funny. Some bits of it are a scream. Have you read it yourself?”

Barbara said she had.

“I know people just like that,” said Mr. Pinthorpe, waxing quite confidential with all the encouragement he was getting. “There's a dame here the very spit of Mrs. Horsely Downs—might almost
be
her.”

“Really!” exclaimed Barbara.

“Mhm,” nodded Mr. Pinthorpe. “Funny, isn't it? And I'll tell you another funny thing,” he continued. “Talking of people being like each other—
you're
like somebody. You'll never guess who
you're
like.”

“Lady Chevis Cobbe,” said Barbara promptly.

The young man was rather disappointed at the success of Mrs. Abbott's first guess, but he had suffered many disappointments in his short life and was inured to them. “That's right,” he said, “it's Lady Chevis Cobbe. You
are
like her, and I should know. I was brought up on the estate, I was. We saw her ladyship ever so often. If you were a little more high and haughty and your hair was gray you might
be
her.”

“She's older than me?” Barbara inquired with her usual disregard of English grammar.

“Oh yes,” agreed Mr. Pinthorpe. “She's older—a lot older. You're more like what she
was,
if you know what I mean. She's a funny one,” he continued confidentially. “A bit barmy, if you ask me—bats in the belfry—
you
know.”

Barbara inquired with interest what kind of bats inhabited her ladyship's belfry.

“Oh well!” said the young man. “I suppose I shouldn't say, really. It's rather unprofessional, you know; but I don't see what harm could come of telling
you
. Her bats is making wills, and it's a pretty expensive kind of bats—not that
that
matters to her ladyship. She's forever quarrelling with her relations, and then down she comes to us, and out comes her will to be altered. Keeps us busy, I can tell you.”

By this time they had left the square, and were skirting a high wall built of gray stone blocks with a flat parapet of flagstones. Trees hung over the top of the wall—beech and oak, and horse chestnut—all in bud, and some with pale-green fronds waiting to be uncurled by the warm spring sunshine; and presently they came to a big wrought-iron gate, set in an archway, and Mr. Pinthorpe took the bunch of keys out of his pocket and fitted one of them into the lock.

“Is this it?” demanded Barbara, somewhat unnecessarily.

“Yes,” replied Mr. Pinthorpe. “My, this gate wants oiling,” he continued, wrestling with it fiercely. “It's just as well I'm here, or you'd never have got in. Old Mrs. Williams, who's supposed to keep the place aired—but doesn't—goes in the back way. I don't suppose this gate's been opened for years.”

“Why hasn't somebody bought it?” Barbara wanted to know.

“Ghosts,” replied Mr. Pinthorpe tersely. “At least, that's what I heard. Shouldn't have told you that, I don't suppose.”

“I'm not frightened of ghosts,” said Barbara stoutly.

The drive was muddy and deep in last year's leaves; it was like a tunnel, curving away into the unknown, a tunnel made of the closely overhanging branches of the trees. Brambles trailed across the paths; nettles rose like pale-green sentinels from the damp yellow undergrowth; rabbits scuttled away hastily at the sound of human steps.

“It seems awfully neglected,” said Barbara in dismay. She had built so much upon The Archway House. All the hindrances that she had encountered had only served to whet her curiosity. She had made up her mind that The Archway House was the end of her search. But this was dreadful, this desolation, this air of neglect that hung about the place—how
awful,
she thought, how
awful
if this place won't do either!

“It hasn't been lived in for years,” agreed Mr. Pinthorpe casually, “years and years and years. Don't know when it was lived in last. We keep the place wind and watertight for the owner, but that's as much as he can do. Poor as a church mouse, he is, just crazy to sell, but
we
can't find a buyer with the place in this condition.”

They went on through the tunnel. Yellow sunlight fell through the budding branches and flecked the ground with yellow light. Barbara was excited…she caught a glimpse of stone ahead and hurried forward.

The house burst upon her view. It was a rectangular building after a design by Adam, not very large but beautifully proportioned. It was two stories high. The front of the house (which Barbara was looking at) had a door in the middle and three windows on each side (this was on the ground floor, of course); above were seven windows, tall and unornamented. The door was so high that it looked narrow, and three broad, flat steps led up to the porticoed doorstep. As Barbara emerged from the tunnel, the roof came into view; it was flat, ornamented by a plain cornice of Roman Tuscan molding, which was supported by flat pillars between the windows. Above the cornice, from the hidden roof, rose squat chimney stacks (one at each end of the house) with their rows of blackened pots.

Barbara opened her heart to the house then and there—she liked the bold, simple lines, she liked the dignity of its design; her eyes, tired of the fussy meanness of modern architecture, the red roofs, the steeply sloping gables, the Jerry-built brick disguised by whitewash, rested gratefully upon the plain façade of The Archway House. Here was a sturdy rectangular building of solid stone, a building with no nonsense about it. The house sat firmly upon the ground, it was surrounded by green lawns and shady trees, the sunshine streamed upon it like a benediction. It was almost her vision—almost the house that Arthur's words and gesture had conjured up before her eyes—and, even as Barbara looked at The Archway House, the vision faded, and the real house took its place.

Mr. Pinthorpe fitted a key in the lock and opened the door. He hurried in and began to open the shutters and pull up the blinds. Barbara thought that the house seemed to welcome the sun, it had been empty and darkened for so long; and the sun seemed glad to be welcomed back, it streamed in through the tall windows onto the bare floors, it explored the walls from which the faded paper hung down in curling strips. The dust floated in the air, it eddied and swirled as Mr. Pinthorpe strode about, so that the whole place seemed full of golden smoke.

The hall was square, with white pillars, very slim and tall; a winding stair with a graceful wrought-iron balustrade curled upward to the bedroom floor. On Barbara's right was the drawing-room, beautifully proportioned, with a carved mantel-piece of Adam's design. On her left was the dining-room, with three tall windows looking on to the drive. Before her a green baize door led to the kitchen premises at the back.

From the very first the lofty ceilings pleased Barbara (it was “nice and airy”), and she liked the giraffe-high windows which let in quantities of light. She could see, in her mind's eye, long curtains hanging from the pelmets in gracious folds; they must be velvet, she thought, soft and warm, and richly colored. There was little doubt in Barbara's mind now, it was the house she had been looking for—her house and Arthur's. The dirt of the place, the neglect, the desolation of torn wallpapers and rotted blinds, the red rust on the door handles and fireplaces and balustrade left her undaunted. These were things that could be put right, mere details, and, as such, of no account. Barbara saw the house as it would be when these trivial matters had been attended to, she saw the house as she was going to make it.

BOOK: Miss Buncle Married
5.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

High-Stakes Affair by Gail Barrett
A Hero's Bargain by Forrest, Rayne
Spirit of the Mist by O'Kerry, Janeen
The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman
The Wedding Dress by Rachel Hauck