Authors: Dodie Smith
She did not believe in omens but instantly knew this was a good one: the afternoon sun, coming from behind the clouds, had turned the grey of the glass dome to a shimmer of gold. Seen from this hill top where she had got out of her car to reconnoitre – and there could be no doubt that
Dome House – the effect was quite dazzling, and extremely cheering.
Only a moment before, her spirits had been low. The slate roof surrounding the dome was so large, the chimneys sprouting from the roof so numerous – and she had undertaken to do the housekeeping. That might prove to be a polite name for housework. One didn’t mind a reasonable amount; as a resident secretary one was usually roped in for it. But with a house that size …!
Now, in this sudden sunlight – and the rain, almost continuous during her fifty-mile drive from London, had completely stopped – she reminded herself there were said to be two excellent maids. What riches, for the nineteen-sixties! And Mr Carrington would need her secretarial services only when he came home at weekends. A pity one would see so little of him, and that he would not be there today. She had never liked a prospective employer so much. Strange that such an attractive man should have remained a widower for so many years …
Well, better take the plunge now. As usual before starting a new job, she was nervous – and very silly, it was, for one always got on well and Rupert Carrington had made his family sound delightful. And it would be pleasant to live in the country after three years in a dull London suburb working for a dull author and his even duller wife. All around her now were stubble fields, meadows, and woods already hinting at autumn, very beautiful in the mellow afternoon light. One hadn’t realized how unspoilt the Suffolk countryside was or how pretty the villages were. No doubt the village she could see half a mile or so beyond Dome House would be as charming as those she had driven through.
Then the sun went behind the clouds again and the smile faded from the landscape. She shivered slightly; it was cold up on this high ground. Surely that large glass dome would make the house very cold in winter – and hot in summer? And wouldn’t it be a gloomy house, with so many trees around it? One really ought to make a home for oneself, some cheerful place to return to every night. But she’d never felt capable of it, since selling up the house after her mother’s death. And one could save more if one took resident jobs. Her little car was an extravagance (but gave her such a feeling of freedom) and she did like good clothes – nothing showy, but nothing cheap. Still, someday perhaps, a small flat …
‘Jane Minton, you always think that, on your way to a new job,’ she told herself, getting back into the car to tidy her dark hair and repair her discreet make-up. She then pulled on her leather gloves; good gloves always gave her confidence. Now for it! Really, that dome looked almost sinister, without the sun on it. A good thing one didn’t believe in omens.
She drove down the hill, past the still-dripping chestnuts which screened Dome House from the road, and in through the open gate. The gravel drive curved through a plantation of trees and then through a shrubbery. This at last gave way
to lawns and the house sprang into view. She did not much care for its mottled grey brick but this toned well with all the pale green woodwork – window frames, slatted shutters, a pillared porch, and an unusual scalloped border just under the edge of the roof. The general effect was pleasing and she had never seen a house look so noticeably clean. The windows positively sparkled, particularly the two very tall ones which flanked the front door; through them she could see the flicker of firelight.
As she got out of her car, a fair, pretty girl came from the house, followed by a slight, sandy-haired young man. The girl spoke first but looked and sounded diffident.
‘I’m Clare Carrington and this is my brother, Drew. He’ll take your suitcase and your typewriter.’
‘And then, if I may, I’ll put your car in the garage,’ said Drew. ‘I’m a very gentle driver.’
His voice was more striking than his appearance; it was deep, with a curious break in it. Jane set great store by voices. As a rule she disliked letting anyone but herself drive her car but she had no hesitation in trusting Drew. And her nervousness vanished. She chatted easily about her journey as the three of them went into the house.
Indoors, she got a quick impression of a large square hall, rather too much upholstered furniture, and firelight reflected by white panelling. Then they were on their way up the wide staircase, to a gallery which ran round three sides of the hall and from which the bedrooms opened. High above, lighting both gallery and hall, was the glass dome.
She was shown into a back bedroom. Drew set her suitcase down, then went to garage her car.
‘Flowers! How nice!’ she said, enthusiastically and automatically. There always
flowers and she always praised them, while her practised eye noticed inadequacies as regards furniture. Here there were no inadequacies. She
saw there was plenty of drawer and cupboard space, a desk, a dressing-table in a good light, a comfortable armchair, an electric fire already on. And miracle of miracles, a fitted wash basin! She praised it warmly.
‘There’s one in every bedroom,’ said Clare. ‘My grandmother had them put in. They’re ugly but useful. The bathroom’s just next door – you share it with my sister and me; the boys use Father’s. I suppose you don’t happen to prefer your bath at night?’
‘Any time at all,’ said Jane, who had lived in houses where it was hard to come by two baths a week. ‘Night suits me perfectly.’
‘Oh, marvellous – because my sister and I like ours in the morning. Now I’ll leave you to unpack. You’ve half an hour before tea. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.’
The door closed behind her. Jane, having bounced on the bed and found it satisfactory, looked around gloatingly. Such comfort! Not that she admired the massive Victorian furniture. But she was, admittedly, a snob about furniture, only caring for valuable antiques – perhaps because she owed so much to the few good pieces she’d inherited, the sale of which had seen her right through her secretarial training.
If anything, this room was too hot. She then discovered the radiator – all this and central heating too! Blithely she turned off the electric fire and began to unpack.
She had cleared her suitcase and was shaking out dresses from her trunk, sent on in advance, when there came a knock on the door. Jane called ‘Come in’ and a tall, brown-haired girl entered. In spite of her height, Jane took her to be only in her early teens.
‘I’m Merry,’ she announced. ‘That’s short for Meriella. Unusual name, isn’t it? Mother got it off a tombstone.’
‘Charming as well as unusual,’ said Jane, smilingly. This child wasn’t as pretty as the elder sister but her lively intelligent face was most attractive.
‘I only get called it at school but I may use it when I go on the stage. Have you been to any theatres lately?’
Jane was glad she could say she’d been to several. Merry at once extracted brief information about them, then said, ‘You must meet my friend Betty and give us full details. She’s going on the stage too, though her fat legs may hold her back. She’s pretty fat all over really, and terribly busty. My bust’s a bit late on its cue but it’s started at last. What a good figure you have, slim but not bony. And you’re much younger than I expected. Father thought late thirties.’
‘Very late,’ said Jane. ‘In fact—’ She was pleased to be interrupted.
‘Really? I’d have said thirty-four. You still look quite girlish. Oh, is that rude? Do you mind personal remarks?’
‘Not when they’re as complimentary as that,’ said Jane.
‘You look a bit sad, too – in an interesting way. Rather Chekhovian. Betty and I are working on Chekhov at present. Are you ready for tea? If you want to pop in next door I’ll wait for you.’
Jane availed herself of this kind suggestion and was then taken by the arm and steered towards the stairs, to the accompaniment of: ‘What a lovely soft sweater! Real cashmere, isn’t it? Oh, don’t grab the handrail – that looks awful when a staircase has two and is right out in the middle of a hall. You must sail down as if the audience was over the front door.’
‘But I shall fall,’ said Jane, wobbling.
‘Well, the carpet’s very soft. I fell twice when I was learning to run down full tilt without looking at my feet. Would you like to see me roll from top to bottom as if I’d been shot? It’s just a knack – I could teach you.’
They reached the foot of the stairs safely, to Jane’s relief. Drew came to meet them and Merry went on without interruption. ‘Very unusual looking, isn’t she, Drew? Such a
pale, clear skin. But don’t you think she should use a darker lipstick? Her face needs a clove carnation gash. It’s all right, she doesn’t mind personal remarks.
Drew, settling Jane by the fire, said: ‘You may find Merry a bit overpowering but I believe she’s right about a darker lipstick.’
‘I’ll get one,’ said Jane.
‘It’s such a bore I can’t use make-up myself except in private,’ said Merry. ‘I can look almost glamorous – and years older. And I do some good character make-ups. My best is the young vampire, with blood running down her chin.’
‘Not at tea, Merry,’ said Clare, who was already pouring out.
‘Why not? Vampires have blood for tea. They can’t help it. I do think people are unfair to vampires.’
Clare asked Jane how she liked her tea and Drew brought it to her.
‘Shall I go and get Richard?’ said Merry.
‘My elder brother,’ Drew explained to Jane. ‘He has a music room out in the barn and is apt to forget his meals when genius burns. It’s all right, Merry; I can hear him.’
A tall, very dark young man came in. Jane thought him handsome but his pale, classically featured face struck her as austere. And though he spoke to her politely enough, both his manner and his voice seemed to her a little aloof. After a few conventional civilities, he dropped out of the conversation.
Drew, having waited on everyone, sat down beside her, bringing a three-decker brass cakestand with him.
‘Oh, a curate’s aid!’ she said. ‘That takes me back to my grandmother’s At Home days.’
‘I bid for it at a sale
grandmother took me to,’ said Drew. ‘I was ten years old and already knew I was fated to be the family hander-rounder; Richard never did bestir himself. I’d quite like to be a curate – as regards the social side. I couldn’t stand the church work.’
The whole tea, as well as the curate’s aid, reminded Jane of her childhood. Never since then had she seen such a spread of toast and jam, hot scones, and thickly marzipanned fruit cake. Yet, they’re all so slim, she thought, watching the young Carringtons steadily munching. Conversation continued easily but with no help from Richard. He seemed oblivious of them all and had to be asked three times if he wanted a second cup of tea.
‘His head’s like the island in
,’ Merry told Jane. ‘“Full of noises, sounds and sweet airs” – well, perhaps not sweet airs; he doesn’t often compose a tune.’
‘The lot of a young composer’s so hard,’ said Drew. ‘If his music is understandable it’s probably old-fashioned; and if it isn’t, one needs so much faith.’
‘What’s your special instrument?’ Jane asked Richard politely.
But he had taken his tea and was already preoccupied again. Merry answered for him. ‘He can play four instruments but he very seldom does. Did you know composers can work without so much as striking a note? It’s all in their minds. Well, perhaps it’s only like writing a play without saying the words aloud. I’ve written two plays. Writing’s my second string – and Drew’s first. He’s planning a novel. His second string is piano playing.’
‘Only a little gentle Chopin,’ said Drew. ‘And I make it sound too gentle even for Chopin.’
‘Rubbish,’ said Richard, suddenly, returning to the conversation. ‘You play admirably – far better than I do. Would you excuse me now, Miss Winton?’
‘Minton,’ said Clare. But he was already on his way.
‘He’s often more normal by dinner time,’ said Merry. ‘Have you got us all straight now? I act and write. Drew writes and plays the piano. Richard only composes and Clare only paints.’
‘I don’t really paint,’ said Clare.
‘Oh, you do, Clare darling.’ Merry turned to Jane. ‘She does lovely flower studies with all the stamens and things. They were always being pinned up in the studio at school. Is there anything else you’d like to know? Perhaps our ages. Richard’s twenty-three, Clare’s twenty-one, Drew’s nineteen and I’m fourteen and almost six months.’
‘Thank you, that’s very helpful,’ said Jane, slightly dazed. ‘Well, you’re certainly a talented family.’
‘That remains to be proved,’ said Drew. ‘At present it’s just a belief our doting grandmother fostered – probably to keep us occupied on long wet afternoons. She brought us up here; our mother was always in London with Father. I rather think they were laying us down, like wine, to enjoy in middle age, but poor Mother didn’t live long enough. She died not long after Merry was born.’
‘Nearly a year after – and I was in no way to blame,’ said Merry. ‘Well, I must go and work now.’
‘Homework?’ Jane inquired.
‘No, school doesn’t start till next week. I’m memorizing Nina in
. Oh, you could come and hear me.’
‘Not now,’ said Clare. ‘I want her to meet Cook and Edith.’
‘Do you really have a cook who’s called Cook?’ said Jane.
‘Isn’t it archaic? But they were my grandmother’s maids.’ Clare rose and picked up the cakestand. ‘It’ll save Edith a trip if we carry something.’
A door at the back of the hall opened into the flagged passage which led to the kitchen. Jane, following Clare in, saw two elderly, white-overalled women sitting in front of a fire burning in an old-fashioned kitchen range. They rose, as did an elderly Golden Labrador sitting between them.
Cook was short and stout, with red hair well on its way to white. Edith was tall, gaunt and grey-haired. Jane set down the scone dish and shook hands, conscious that her
grandmother would have thought this incorrect; she hoped Cook and Edith didn’t. They greeted her pleasantly and then encouraged the dog to offer a paw.