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Authors: Mary Burchell

My Sister Celia

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MY SISTER CELIA

Mary Burchell

 

It was the happiest day of Freda’s life when she discovered that her sister Celia, whom she had always believed dead, was very much alive and delighted to be reunited with her. But her affection for her new-found sister was to be put to its sternest test when Celia became attracted to the man Freda herself loved
.
If
only, Freda thought, she could still dislike Laurence as much as she had when she
f
i
r
st met him!

 

CHAPTER ONE

The s
enior partner of Rossington & Trench, Solicitors, looked over his glasses warningly at Freda and said:

“Please don

t run away with the idea that it

s a particularly large legacy.”

“No.” Freda shook her head and moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. For, although she was not running away with any ideas at all at the moment, the Word “legacy” naturally induced in her that pleasant anticipatory thrill which most of us associate with the word.

“Now that the stock has been sold, the proceeds
amount in all to—let me see—” Mr. Rossington
shuffled maddeningly among the papers on his desk—“Yes—to seven hundred and two pounds and some shillings.”

His manner implied that a few shillings could be brushed off lightly and, in the circumstances, Freda supposed they could.

“But that

s wonderful!” She smiled slowly at him. And, as he took off his reading glasses and brought her into focus with his long-distance ones, the full force of that sparkling innocent gaze drew a slight smile from him in return.

“Is it?” He looked amused. For Mr. Rossington was the kind of solicitor who dealt with large estates, and most of his clients expected their legacies in terms of thousands—and very ungrateful some of them were even then. It was a refreshing change to face someone to whom a few hundreds sounded wonderful.

“Then there

s the cottage too, of course,” he went on, almost indulgently. “Though you won

t get much for that, seeing that it

s neither picturesque nor—”

“But I don

t know that I want to get much for it,” Freda interrupted firmly. “I may not sell it.”

“Hmmm—” Mr. Rossington pursed up his lips and shook his head—“There

s not much in property as an investment nowadays. Unless one is a tenant-owner—”

“I might be the tenant-owner. I might keep the cottage for myself.”

“But I thought you told me you were a short-hand-typist employed in the City,” said Mr. Rossington. “You could hardly live in a cottage fifty miles from London, on an indirect route.”

“I didn

t mean I could live in it all the time, Freda conceded. “I meant for holidays and—and weekends.”

“Weekend cottages are expensive luxuries, Miss Mersham,” the lawyer pointed out dryly. “And, as I was saying, it isn

t either picturesque or specially convenient. If I remember rightly, it

s an extremely ordinary little place on the edge of the estate. Not at all what is termed a desirable property.”

“You mustn

t run down my cottage, Mr. Rossington,” said Freda with a smile which made him blink again, now that he had his right glasses on.

You don

t know what a strange and—and moving experience it is to find you own a property, when you

ve always lived in a bed-sitter. Or an orphanage,

she added, without self-pity. “I

m ready to love my cottage in advance. And no one is going to talk me into selling it in a hurry.”

“My dear young lady! I shouldn

t think of doing such a thing,” exclaimed Mr. Rossington, shocked at having such indiscreet behaviour attributed to him. “I merely wished to warn you against any extravagant line of action which might seem practicable to you at the moment, in view of a legacy which in your experience, you may feel is larger than it in fact is.”


Yes—thank you very much, said Freda, impressed by the way in which he had negotiated all those dependent clauses. “I know you

re only giving me kindly advice. But I

ve never owned a property before,” she reiterated, “and the feeling is intoxicating!”

“Well, well!” Mr. Rossington smiled again as he reflected how much more was needed to intoxicate most of his clients. “Far be it from me to dim your pleasure in your modest good fortune. I must say it

s very agreeable to see anyone so grateful and happy over a relatively small legacy.”

“But don

t you think it

s absolutely wonderful of old Miss Clumber to have remembered me so kindly after all these years?” Freda said.

It passed through Mr. Rossington

s mind that, even as a child, this dark-haired, blue-eyed girl with the wonderful smile could not have been difficult to remember. But he merely replied.

“I don

t know how well she knew you, Miss Mersham. She merely states in her will that the legacy is in acknowledgment of some service you did her and the happiness you gave her when you were a child. The cottage, she adds, is yours in case you are still what she terms, with unusual sentimentality for her, a homeless orphan.”

“Then I
couldn

t
sell it! You must see that!” exclaimed Freda.

“Sentiment sometimes has to give way to convenience in this world, Miss Mersham,” the lawyer replied with a thin smile. “And one could exchange one home for another without violating the intentions of the testator. But I should be interested,” he
w
ent on, “to know what prompted my—I feel bound to say—my rather difficult client to act in this way. Although an extremely wealthy woman, she was not, in my experience, given to generous gestures.”

“No? Most people were afraid of her, I know.” Freda smiled reminiscently. “But I don

t think I ever was. I met her during the war, you know, when I and my twin sister, Celia, were evacuated to the country. We couldn

t have been much more than five, I suppose, and my mother came with us. Then Celia became ill and my mother took her back to London—to see a specialist, I think. I know I expected them to return in a few days. But they never did!”

“Do you mean”—Mr. Rossington looked shocked —”that your mother abandoned you?”

“Oh, no. They were both killed, along with my father. There was a direct hit on our London home. No one ever told me the exact story. Only, gradually, I somehow knew they were never coming back. I

m not quite sure where I got the detail of the direct hit. I think I must have overheard Mrs. Cant—with whom I lived—talking to some of the neighbours about it. I remember asking what a direct hit was—and the queer silence that fell before someone assured me, not very convincingly, that there was no such thing.

“I lived on with Mrs. Cant until the end of the war. She was a widow, and I think she would willingly have kept me. Certainly she was very kind to me. But then it seemed she was going to get married again and was leaving the district. I expect the new husband didn

t especially want someone else

s child around. So that was when I went to the orphanage.”

“A very sad story,” commented Mr. Rossington, clearing his throat on a note of professional sympathy.

“In a way—yes. Except that when the actual tragedy happened I was too young to understand. I was already settled in what seemed to me to be a new and satisfactory home. I never felt the impact of actual disaster, and I never felt entirely forlorn or lost.”

“Not at the orphanage?”

“Most certainly not at the orphanage! Of course, it was a bit impersonal there—but no more so, I suppose, than at a boarding-school. No one was ever unkind to me. I received
a good education. And now, in consequence, I have quite a satisfactory job which supports me reasonably well.”

“Most extraordinary,” muttered Mr. Rossington.

“What,” asked Freda curiously, “is extraordinary about it?”

“Your attitude, my dear,” the lawyer replied drily. “This is an age in which most people think the world owes them a very fat living, in return for remarkably little on their part. It is customary to be dissatisfied, rather than satisfied. I must confess I find it both moving and refreshing to meet someone who is not only satisfied with her lot, but grateful. However, you still haven

t told me how you came to know Miss Clumber.”

“Oh, no—I forgot that bit. During the two or three years I was with Mrs. Cant, of course I lived the life of an ordinary village child. Miss Clumber, as no doubt you know, owned quite a bit of the village, as well as her own big house, and she was very much the lady of the manor. We didn

t see her very often, but somehow her presence was very much felt.”

“Yes, yes,” murmured Mr. Rossington reminiscently. “It would be.”

“Then one day I found her big Persian cat, Belshazzar, caught in a trap. I managed to free him, and carried him all the way up to the big house. He seemed to weigh a ton by the time I got there, but he must have known I only wanted to help him, for he lay good and quiet in my arms all the way.

“Miss Clumber never forgot that I saved Belshazzar

s life, as she put it. And he never forgot either. After that, I used to be asked to tea at the big house once a week, and Belshazzar always welcomed me like a long-lost friend and followed me about. Miss Clumber could be very sharp and intimidating, of course, but as I said, I was never really afraid of her. Mostly, I think, because I had once seen tears in her eyes—the time I staggered in, hot and very grubby, with Belshazzar safe.”

“Yes, I see.” Mr. Rossington rubbed his chin reflectively. “I understand about the legacy now. Well Miss Mersham, it

s pleasant to have our good deeds remembered. Particularly with seven hundred pounds odd and a cottage, even if it

s not a particularly desirable cottage.”

“I

m sure it

s lovely,” Freda declared.

“Do you remember it at all? It

s about half a mile beyond the church, on the part of the estate which borders the main road.”

“I can

t say I do,” Freda confessed. But
I

ll
go down and see it the first moment I can. When could I go
?”

“Whenever it is convenient to yourself. The place is yours.” Mr. Rossington underlined the delicious fact with solemn emphasis. “The keys are with Messrs. Jason & Merry, in the High Street. And, in the course of the next few days, we will send you a cheque for the monetary part of your
legacy.”

“Thank you
so
much,” Freda said fervently.

And then, realizing that the momentous interview was at an end, she shook hands warmly wit
h
Mr. Rossington and went out into the late May
sunshine.

For a few minutes Freda walked along Victoria Street, too deeply immersed in her own affairs even to realize where she was. Then she turned down a quieter side street, and presently found herself
in
St. James

s Park. Here she sat down on a bench under the trees and reviewed the astonishing change
in her fortunes.

To be away from the office in the middle of the afternoon was, in itself, a sufficiently pleasant novelty. But when she had received Mr. Rossington

s letter, asking her to call and see him, she had decided this was reason enough for her to take the odd half-day

s leave which was due to her. Now, with the interview over, she could sit here, in the shade of the trees, and savour afresh its implications.

Hitherto, Freda had divided a quiet, uneventful existence between her modest bed-sitting-room near Earls Court and the offices of the International Import & Export Company where she was one of twenty girls in what is usually described as a short-hand-typists

“pool”.

She got on well with her colleagues and had one or two good friends among them. But outside the office she lived a rather solitary life for a girl of her age.

Without indulging in any unnecessary self-pity, Freda did sometimes wonder, a trifle wistfully, what it was like to
belong
somewhere—to have a home and a home circle. And now, incredibly, Miss Clumber had reached out of the mists of the past and presented her at any rate with a home of her own.

It would have been nice, of course, if there had been someone with whom to share the excitement and joy of this wonderful occasion. But, since there was not, Freda did a little private rejoicing on her own, as she sat there, apparently calm and unruffled, on a seat in St. James

s Park. And then, suddenly, she made the decision that, as the next day was Saturday, she would go down to the village of Crowmain and inspect her property.

The journey next day proved conclusively that Mr. Rossington had been more than right when he stated that the cottage would not make a practical day-to-day residence. But, with the relaxed feeling of the weekend upon her, Freda hardly bothered about that.

A little more than an hour

s train journey brought her to the charming market town of Dalling, and from there she travelled by bus to Crowmain, which is one of the prettiest villages this side of the Cotswolds.

It was many years since Freda had left the place, but, as the scene began to take on an almost dreamlike familiarity, she had the curious and altogether delightful feeling that, in some strange way, she was coming home.

The High Street seemed completely unchanged, and although she had not actually remembered the name of Jason & Merry, she recognized their offices when she got there.

The singularly well-named Mr. Merry beamed upon her and, presenting her with the cottage keys, assured her that he remembered her as a little girl in a striped dress.

“Do you really? How nice of you,” Freda said. “I wish I could say I remember you too. But I don

t.”

“Ah, I was younger then,” Mr. Merry pointed out. “More hair, you know, and less here
...
” he patted himself discreetly in the region of his waistline. “Well, I

m glad the old lady remembered you to some purpose, anyway. You ought to get a tidy price for that cottage.”

This was so directly contrary to Mr. Rossington

s expressed opinion that, instead of reiterating her decision to keep the cottage, Freda first asked curiously,

“What makes you think that?”

Mr. Merry winked slowly and with remarkable eloquence.

“It takes a nasty little bite out of the estate, just at the point where a bit of width is needed. Mr. Clumber should be willing to buy you out quite generously.”

“Mr. Clumber?”

“Laurence Clumber, you know. The great-nephew who

s just inherited the estate. Don

t you recall him? No—perhaps you wouldn

t. He

d have been at boarding-school most of the time you were here, I suppose, and I doubt if he visited his old auntie in those days. He came here a lot in later years, but I don

t know that I blame him for that. Where there

s money and a capricious old lady, it

s just as well to keep an eye on things.”

“I suppose you

re right.” But Freda spoke a little coldly, for immediately there had arisen before her mental vision an unlikeable picture of a grasping Laurence Clumber, sitting in the drawing-room at the big house, waiting for his great-aunt to die and leave him all her money.

It was possible this thought as much as her personal wishes made her add casually,

“I

m not sure that I

m going to sell.”

“No?” Again Mr. Merry permitted himself a slow wink. “Well, that

s quite a useful attitude to take up. You go and have a look at the place now. Past the church and straight on along the main road for half a mile. It

s on the right. You can

t miss it. An unpretentious little place. Rather dilapidated.” So Freda walked along the High Street, past the small, square-towered Norman church, and on along the main road. As she walked, she felt her heart beating unusually fast and, for some reason she could not quite define, she found there was a lump in her throat.

The main road curved sharply just outside the village, so that it was not until she was almost upon the place that she saw it. And then she stood still, entranced, amused and indescribably touched by the dumpy little place that was
hers.

No one would have called the cottage picturesque, and in such an attractive village as Crowmain it might well be despised as a plain and uninspiring erection, hardly worth the preserving. But its windows twinkled brightly in the sunshine, and the paint which was peeling from its doors had once been a gay shade of green.

The place was oddly reminiscent of a snub-nosed child with a cheerful grin, and a determination not to be overborne by much more attractive companions.

“You

re
sweet
!”
murmured Freda, as she pushed open the gate and went up the short, somewhat weed-grown path. “You want you
r
face washed, and a little time and love spent on you. But I wouldn

t part with you to any Laurence Clumber. He might pull you down.”

She put the key in the door, with the oddest sense of shaking hands with a friend. And, as though in comprehending response, the door swung open for her without so much as a squeak of protest or a hint of difficulty. Feeling much more excited than Alice when she entered Wonderland, Freda stepped inside the cottage.

From the outside it had looked ordinary, even to Freda

s partial gaze, but the inside was unexpectedly attractive in design. One large room covered all the ground floor, except for a pleasant little kitchen and a quite astonishingly up-to-date bathroom, built on at the back.

A plain but unexceptionable staircase led straight up from the main room, which had windows at either end. These were not high, but were unusually broad, and through those at the back Freda went and gazed out into an overgrown but large and pleasant garden.

Presently she tore herself away from the contemplation of her very own garden and went upstairs. Here she found two small bedrooms and a minute box-room, all of them rather square and unimaginative, but capable, she felt certain, of
some
kind of delightful development.

The place was completely empty, except for a large wooden box in one of the bedrooms, and on this Freda sat down, to gaze afresh on her domain. Already her imagination was busy with the modest pieces of furniture she would buy and the colour schemes in which she would delight.

She was used to making her own clothes, and the thought of making curtains and cushions and bedspreads for her home appealed to her not only as a very simple matter but an entirely delightful one.

“I

ll consult Mr. Merry about having the place done up,” she decided. “Nothing very ambitious or expensive. But, with some capital in hand, I can afford to have things nice. Fortunately, there are no structural alterations necessary. At least, I
think not
—”

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