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RETURN TO BLYTHEBURN

 

Margaret Malcolm

 

Meg had always dreamed of visiting Blytheburn, the country village of which she had heard so much. Now her dream was coming true, and she was going to live there.

There was one fly in the ointment, though — the overbearing attitude of the local lord of the manor, Hector Heronshaw.

 

CHAPTER ONE

JUST ahead was a signpost which pointed to a side turning off the main road. Meg slowed the Mini down so that she might read it the more easily.

BLYTHEBURN 5 MILES

“Only five miles!” Meg exulted. “We’re nearly there, Uncle Andra!”

“Yes," he echoed contentedly. “Nearly there.”

The side road took them through some of England’s most dramatic country, but Meg looked straight ahead, seeing nothing but the road, and in her mind’s eye, the little township for which they were bound. She knew exactly what it was going to look like, although in fact she had never been there in her life before. But Uncle Andra had been born there and though he hadn’t been back for many years, in his heart it held a place with which no other could compete.

So, when Meg’s parents had been killed in an air crash and she had come to live with Uncle Andra and his sister, Aunt Ellen, her bedtime stories had not been about giants and fairies. They had been about Blytheburn and the real people who lived there until the place had become endowed with a magic quality to Meg and she felt that she knew the place like the palm of her hand. Nor did Aunt Ellen’s lack of enthusiasm for the little town where she, too, had been born have any effect on Meg, and her greatest ambition was that one day she would see this Arcadia for herself.

And now that was just what was going to happen— everything had conspired not only to make that possible but inevitable. Uncle Andra, a Harley Street consultant, had decided that the time had come for him to retire. Aunt Ellen, some fifteen years his junior, had met an old flame and they had decided that having already
wasted too much time, it was only wise to get married as soon as possible. And finally Uncle Andra had had a letter from a Northumberland solicitor telling him of the death of Miss Annie Sturt, at one time employed by Meg’s grandparents. And then the letter had gone on to say that Miss Sturt had left her cottage to Uncle Andra.

“Poor old Nanny,” Uncle Andra said regretfully. “She must have been a lonely old soul if she had no one nearer to whom to leave her little property."

“Or, on the other hand, she may have felt that it was the only honest thing to do, seeing that you’ve been helping to keep her all these years!” Aunt Ellen suggested drily.

“Seeing the loyal way in which she served our family for so long, it was the least I could do,” Uncle Andra said quickly. “But how I wish I’d gone to see her—”

“Well, why didn’t you?” Aunt Ellen asked sharply. “There was nothing to stop you, was there?”

To that Uncle Andra had made no reply, which disappointed Meg, for it was something which had always puzzled her. After all, if you know of a place which seems to you to be an earthly paradise, why stay away from it? But that was something she’d never liked to question Uncle Andra about, though Aunt Ellen had made no bones about telling Meg her interpretation of the phenomenon.

“Distance lends enchantment, Meg,” she’d said more than once. “To my mind, Andra is afraid that if he went back, he might be disappointed!” She shook her head. “After all, what is the place but a small, grey township with drab stone houses and a church that always seemed to me as if it frowned at one. A very few shops—and that’s all, except for the Big House and a few outlying farms. You’d soon tire of it, Meg. Better dream of it as Andra does, but stay away. That’s the way to keep your illusions!”

But her warnings had passed Meg by, for the Blytheburn he painted for her was not like that at all. It was a place of hills and even mountains; of sparkling streams where trout abounded. Then there were the birds and the small wild animals of which one might catch a glimpse if one waited, very patient and still. And there were such wild flowers as one never saw further south.

And then, the people. They might, as Aunt Ellen had said, live in drab-looking houses, but according to Uncle Andra, their lives were anything but drab. Originals, every last one of them, from Sir Gregory Heronshaw who owned the Big House—an easy-going man so dearly loved that he never had to worry about standing on his dignity and who had the endearing habit of carrying a few bright sixpences in his pocket to give to any child he might meet—to Miss Thurston who, liking to be different from other people, had sent to a distant cattery for a blue Persian cat, confidently anticipating that it would be at least as blue as her own Sunday hat, which was very blue indeed. Nor, when the cat turned out to be simply a soft, smoky grey, had she been at a loss. She had simply prepared a bowl of the brightest dye she could buy and had immersed the poor creature in it.

Of course, some of the folk must be so well on in years that even Uncle Andra admitted that they were probably no longer living, but in a place like Blytheburn, largely isolated by its position from other communities, habits and customs change only very slowly. The newer generation would be just as individual as their predecessors.

And so, inevitably, with a small house waiting for him, Uncle Andra was returning to Blytheburn, and just as inevitably, Meg was accompanying him. For one thing, she had no intention of being left out of this venture and, for another, since she had been her uncle’s secretary-receptionist, she was perfectly free to follow her heart. The two of them had just waited to play their part in Aunt Ellen’s quiet wedding and now here they were, only five miles—no, less than that now—from their objective.

“You’ll have to drive the length of The Street,”
Uncle Andra told her, quite unnecessarily since she knew the layout of the place as well as he did. ‘Then turn off to the right just past the church up the private road which cuts across the Big House grounds. I’ll tell you just before we get there.”

“All right, Uncle Andra,” Meg said tolerantly. Dear old pet, how he was enjoying himself! She certainly had no intention of spoiling his fun by reminding him that she’d known all about the by-road since she was five years old.

He was sitting forward now, his eyes bright with anticipation, but as they reached the south end of The Street, Meg's heart gave an uneasy little lurch. Aunt Ellen had been right—it was drab and grey. And the church, standing on a slight eminence, did seem to frown down at one. It wouldn’t have been so bad if only there had been a few people walking along the narrow pavements, but it was early closing day and almost teatime at that The Street was deserted.

Uncle Andra made no comment, but he leaned forward less eagerly, Meg thought, and when, just past the church, he told her to turn, he sounded quite subdued. Evidently he had taken it for granted that he would see at least a few familiar faces and was disappointed.

Worse was to follow. Meg had been warned to negotiate the by-road at a low speed because it was rather rough going, and it was as well that she remembered the warning, for she had hardly made the turn when she was confronted by a solidly made gate which was not only shut but chained and padlocked. Moreover, fixed firmly to it was a notice board which bore a blunt warning:

PRIVATE PROPERTY.

TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED

H.H.

Meg stopped the car and looked enquiringly at Uncle Andra.

“Now what?” she asked uncertainly.

Uncle Andra promptly exploded.

“But this is outrageous! It’s always been accepted— hi, you!” he shouted as a man emerged from the wood to one side of the by-road and prepared to cross it. “Will you kindly unlock this gate for me?”

The man looked at him curiously, then, without hurrying himself, he advanced to his side of the gate. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man and his well-worn tweeds gave him an even more formidable look. For the rest, he was wearing high leather boots and was carrying a gun under his arm. Probably a gamekeeper, Meg thought, but it was his face which caught and held her attention. He was very fair, and that contrasted strongly with his sun-tanned, weather-beaten face. He wore a neatly trimmed beard and his eyes—yes, it was his eyes which were his most remarkable feature. They were intensely blue and they had a curious, peering look about them which gave the impression of being able to see more than most people could.

“Sorry, I can’t do that,” he said quite civilly but none the less positively. “Against orders.”

“Against orders!” Uncle Andra spluttered, as near as Meg had ever seen him to losing his temper. “What the devil do you mean? It’s the shortest way to Rose Cottage—”

“That’s right, it is,” the man agreed, his interest in Uncle Andra obviously increasing. “You’ll be the new owner, I take it? Mr Ainslie, isn’t it?”

‘‘Yes, it is,” Uncle Andra confirmed, cooling down to some degree. “So if you’ll be so good—”

“Sorry, but the orders are that no exceptions are to be made,” the man explained doggedly.

“With special reference to me?” Uncle Andra demanded, breathing heavily.

“With special reference to anyone who might want to come through,” the man replied discreetly, but from the way he said it it was clear that he had been given very explicit orders with just this situation in view.

“But in Sir Gregory’s day—” Uncle Andra protested.

“Ah yes, that’s true enough,” the man conceded. “And for that matter, in Sir John’s as well. But not now. Times have changed.”

“I knew Sir Gregory well, and Sir John,” Uncle Andra said slowly. “Though it’s a good time since I saw either of them. Am I to understand that Sir John is also dead?”

“That’s right,” the man nodded. “Some two years ago or so. Sir Hector’s at the Big House now.”

“Hector?” Uncle Andra repeated. “You mean Sir Gregory’s grandson—I remember him as a child. Something of a handful, as I recall!”

“As to that, I couldn’t say,” the man replied cautiously, though Meg thought that he looked faintly amused. “But of course he isn’t a child now. Somewhere in his thirties.”

“And it’s he who’s had this gate put up,” Uncle Andra mused. “I can see I shall have to have a word with Sir Hector!”

“That might be advisable,” the man agreed gravely. “But if I might make a suggestion, I’d make an appointment if I were you. He’s a busy man.” And with a half sketched salute he turned his back on them and strolled off.

“Damned impertinence!” Uncle Andra growled, regarding the retreating back with dislike. “Did you notice that he didn’t call me ‘sir’ once? Not that that worries me. I never have been one to want people to kow-tow to me, but in this case—” he shrugged his shoulders. “Pretty clearly it’s a case of like master, like man! ”

“I expect you’re right,” Meg said soberly. “Uncle, you said that when Sir Hector was a boy he was a handful. In just what way?”

“Oh—well, I must admit, he wasn’t afraid of anything—or anybody, for that matter. Except his grandfather. He had to toe the line there. But as regards anyone else, even his father,” Uncle Andra shook his head, “he just went his own way without caring a damn for anyone’s opinion! And the worst of it was that
though he was such a young devil, he looked downright angelic with his fair, curly hair and exceptionally blue eyes—great Scott! ”

Uncle Andra came to an abrupt halt and his jaw dropped.

“That
was
Hector!” he said in a strangled voice. “The beard put me off, but I ought to have recognised him all the same—even the way he carries himself— just like both his grandfather and his father!”

"You must be wrong!” Meg said incredulously. “Seeing that you knew the family, if he was Sir Hector, surely he’d have said so—”

“Would he?” Uncle Andra questioned grimly. “If you ask me, he’s got his knife into me and he was thoroughly enjoying having me on! Conceited young puppy, who the deuce does he think he is, defying established custom like this? What right has he to go setting himself up to make new rules and regulations —to "say nothing of being downright rude to a man much older than he is! ”

“It is infuriating,” Meg agreed feelingly. “But I suppose he’s within his legal rights? I mean, you spoke of this as being a private road, so I suppose there’s no question of it being a public right of way?”

“No,” Uncle Andra admitted reluctantly. “It was never that. But in a place like Blytheburn, if something has been allowed, even encouraged, for years, it becomes a custom that’s in some ways more binding than any law can be. Laws are imposed by an authority higher up which may know very little about local conditions and requirements and consequently are not infrequently resented on that account—and evaded if possible. But a custom is something which has developed naturally because it suits everyone concerned. Young Hector must know that!”

“Well, whether he does or not, this particular custom apparently didn’t suit him,” Meg reflected. “I wonder why?”

“That’s something which I intend to find out as soon as possible,” Uncle Andra retorted ominously.

He was silent after that and after giving Meg brief instructions how to get on to the roundabout road, took no interest in their surroundings. Even when they passed the stately wrought-iron gates which were the main entry to the Big House estate, neither of them made any comment, though they were actually extremely beautiful work. To Meg it seemed that something of the sunshine of the day had been utterly lost.

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