The Lamp of Fate by Margaret Pedler
Chapter IX. The Back of Beyond
The season was drawing to its close. London lay sweltering under a heat-wave which had robbed the trees in the Park of their fresh June greenness and converted the progress of foot-passengers along its sultry pavements into something which called to mind the mediaeval ordeal of walking over hot ploughshares.
Even the garden at Friars' Holm, usually a coolly green oasis in the midst of the surrounding streets, seemed as airless as any back court or alley, and Coppertop, who had been romping ever more and more flaggingly with a fox-terrier puppy he had recently acquired, finally gave up the effort and flung himself down, red-faced and panting, on the lawn where his mother and Magda were sitting.
"Isn't it nearly time for us to go to the seaside, mummie?" he inquired plaintively.
Magda smiled down at the small wistful face.
"How would you like to go to the country instead, Topkins?" she asked. "To a farm where they have pigs and horses and cows, and heaps of cream--"
"And strawberries?" interpolated Coppertop pertinently.
"Oh, of course. Or, no--they'll be over by the time we get there. But there'll be raspberries. That's just as good, isn't it?"
Gillian looked up, smiling a little.
"It's settled we're going 'there,' then--wherever it is?" she said.
"Do you think you'd like it, Gillyflower?" asked Magda. "It's a farm I've heard of in Devonshire, where they want to take paying-guests for the summer."
Gillian, guessing from Magda's manner that the whole matter was practically arranged, nodded acquiescence.
"I'm sure I should. But will you?"--whimsically. She glanced at the sophisticated simplicity of Magda's white gown, at the narrow suede shoes and filmy stockings--every detail of her dress and person breathing the expensiveness and luxury and highly specialised civilisation of the city. "Somehow I can't imagine you--on a farm in the depths of the country! I believe you'll hate it."
"I shall like it." Magda got up restlessly. "I'm sick of society and the theatre and the eternal gossip that goes on in London. I--I want to get away from it all!"
Gillian's thoughts turned back to the happenings of the last few months. She thought she understood what lay behind Magda's sudden decision to bury herself in the country.
"Have you taken rooms at this farm?" she asked.
"Yes, I have"--shortly. Then, with one of those sudden flashes of affectionate insight which were part of her essential lovableness, she went on: "Gilly, are you sure you don't mind? I ought to have asked you first"--remorsefully. "I expect you'll be bored to death. Perhaps you'd rather not come?"
Gillian's quiet brown eyes smiled at her reassuringly.
"'Where thou goest--'" she quoted. "Of course I want to come. I've never been to Devonshire. And I know Coppertop will adore the pigs and cows--"
"And cream," put in Coppertop ruminatively.
"Tell me about the place," said Gillian. "How did you hear of it?"
"Through the prosaic columns of the Daily Post," replied Magda. "I didn't want a place recommended by anyone I knew. That doesn't cut the connecting line one bit. Probably the people who've recommended it to you decide to look you up in their car, just when you think you're safely buried, and disinter you. I don't want to be disinterred. I propose to get right away into the country, out of reach of everybody we know, for two months. I shan't give our address to anyone except Melrose, and he can forward on all letters." A small amused smile crossed her lips. "Then we can answer them or not, exactly as we feel disposed. It will be heavenly."
"Still I don't know where this particular paradise is which you've selected," returned Gillian patiently.
"It's at the back of beyond--a tiny village in Devonshire called Ashencombe. I just managed to find it on the Ordnance map with a magnifying glass! The farm itself is called Stockleigh and is owned and farmed by some people named Storran. The answer to my letter was signed Dan Storran. Hasn't it a nice sound--Storran of Stockleigh?"
"And did you engage the rooms on those grounds, may I ask? Because the proprietor's name 'had a nice sound'?"
Magda regarded her seriously.
"Do you know, I really believe that had a lot to do with it," she acknowledged.
Gillian went off into a little gale of laughter.
"How like you!" she exclaimed.
The train steamed fussily out of Ashencombe station, leaving Magda, Gillian, and Coppertop, together with sundry trunks and suitcases, in undisputed possession of the extremely amateurish-looking platform. Magda glanced about her with amusement.
"What a ridiculous little wayside place!" she exclaimed. "It has a kind of 'home-made' appearance, hasn't it? You'd hardly expect a real bona fide train to stop here!"
"This your luggage, miss?"
A porter--or, to be accurate, the porter, since Ashencombe boasted but one--addressed her abruptly. From a certain inimical gleam in his eye Magda surmised that he had overheard her criticism.
"Yes." She nodded smilingly. "Is there a trap of any kind to meet us?"
Being a man as well as a porter he melted at once under Magda's disarming smile, and replied with a sudden accession of amiability.
"Be you going to Stockleigh?" he asked. The soft sing-song intonation common to all Devon voices fell very pleasantly on ears accustomed to the Cockney twang of London streets.
"Yes, to Storran of Stockleigh," announced Coppertop importantly.
The porter's mouth widened into an appreciative grin.
"That's right, young master, and there's the wagonette from the Crown and Bells waiting to take you there."
A few minutes later, the luggage precariously piled up on the box-seat beside the driver, they were ambling through the leafy Devon lanes at an unhurried pace apparently dictated by the somewhat ancient quadruped between the shafts. The driver swished his whip negligently above the animal's broad back, but presumably more with the idea of keeping off the flies than with any hope of accelerating his speed. There would be no other train to meet at Ashencombe until the down mail, due four hours later, so why hurry? No one ever appears to be in a hurry in the leisurely West Country--a refreshing characteristic in a world elsewhere so perforated by tubes and shaken by the ubiquitous motor-bus.
Magda leaned back in the wagonette with a sigh of pleasure. The drowsy, sunshiny peace of the July afternoon seemed very far removed from the torrid rush and roar of the previous day in London.
It was almost like entering another world. Instead of the crowded, wood-paved streets, redolent of petrol, this winding ribbon of a lane where the brambles and tufted grass leaned down from close-set hedges to brush the wheels of the carriage as it passed. Overhead, a restful sky of misty blue flecked with wisps of white cloud, while each inconsequent turn of the narrow twisting road revealed a sudden glimpse of distant purple hills, or a small friendly cottage built of cob and crowned with yellow thatch, or high-hedged fields of standing corn, deepening to gold and quiveringly still as the sea on a windless afternoon.
At last the wagonette swung round an incredibly sharp turn and rumbled between two granite posts--long since denuded of the gate which had once swung between them--pulling up in front of a low, two-storied house, which seemed to convey a pleasant sense of welcome, as some houses do.
The casement windows stood wide open and through them you caught glimpses of white curtains looped back with lavender ribbons. Roses, pink and white and red, nodded their heads to you from the walls, even peering out impertinently to catch the sun from beneath the eaves of the roof, whose thatch had mellowed to a somber brown with wind and weather. Above the doorway trails of budding honeysuckle challenged the supremacy of more roses in their summer prime, and just within, in the cool shadow of the porch, stood a woman's slender figure.
Gillian never forgot that first glimpse of June Storran. She looked very simple and girlish as she stood there, framed in the rose-covered trellis of the porch, waiting with a slight stir of nervousness to receive the travellers. The sunlight, filtering between the leaves of the honeysuckle, dappled her ash-blond hair with hovering flecks of gold, and a faint, shy smile curved her lips as she came forward, a little hesitatingly, to greet them.
"I am so glad to see you," she said. "Dan--my husband had to go to Exeter to-day. He was sorry he could not meet you himself at the station."
As she and Magda stood side by side the contrast between them was curiously marked--the one in her obviously homemade cotton frock, with her total absence of poise and her look of extreme youth hardly seeming the married woman that she was, the other gowned with the simplicity of line and detailed finish achieved only by a great dressmaker, her quiet assurance and distinctive little air of savoir vivre setting her worlds apart from Dan Storran's young wife.
"Will you come in? The man will see to your luggage."
June was speaking again, still shyly but with her shyness tempered by a sensitive instinct of hospitality. She led the way into the house and they followed her through a big, low-raftered living-room and up a flight of slippery oak stairs.
"These are your rooms," said June, pausing at last at the end of a rambling passage-way. "I hope"--she flushed a little anxiously--"I do hope you will like them. I've made them as nice as I could. But, of course"--she glanced at Magda deprecatingly--"you will find them very different from London rooms."
Magda flashed her a charming smile.
"I'm sure we shall love them," she answered, glancing about her with genuine appreciation.
The rooms were very simply furnished, but sweet and fresh with chintz and flowers, and the whitewashed ceilings, sloping at odd, unexpected angles, gave them a quaint attractiveness. The somewhat coarse but spotless bed-linen exhaled a faint fragrance of lavender.
"You ought to charge extra for the view alone," observed Gillian, going to one of the open lattice windows and looking across the rise and fall of hill and valley to where the distant slopes of Dartmoor, its craggy tors veiled in a grey-blue haze, rimmed the horizon.
"I hope you didn't think the terms too high?" said June. "You see, I-- we never had paying-guests before, and I really didn't know what would be considered fair. I do hope you'll be happy and comfortable here," she added timidly.
There was something very appealing in her ingenuousness and wistful desire to please, and Magda reassured her quickly.
"I haven't any doubt about it," she said, smiling. "This is such a charming house"--glancing about her--"so dear and old-fashioned. I think it's very good of you to let us share your home for a little while. It will be a lovely holiday for us."
June Storran had no possibility of knowing that this dark, slender woman to whom she had let her rooms was the famous dancer, Magda Wielitzska, since the rooms had been engaged in the name of Miss Vallincourt, but she responded to Magda's unfailing charm as a flower to the sun.
"It will be lovely for us, too," she replied. "Do you know, we were so frightened about putting in that advertisement you answered! Dan was terribly against it." A troubled little frown knitted her level brows. "But we've had such bad luck on the farm since we were married--the rain spoilt all our crops last year and we lost several valuable animals--so I thought it would help a bit if we took paying-guests this summer. But Dan didn't really approve."
"I can quite understand," said Gillian. "Naturally he wanted to keep his home to himself--an Englishman's home is his castle, you know! And I expect"--smilingly--"you haven't been married very long."
Mrs. Storran flushed rosily. She was evidently a sensitive little person, and the blood came and went quickly under her clear skin at the least provocation.
"Not very long," she acknowledged. "But we've been very happy--in spite of our bad luck on the farm! After all, that's what matters, isn't it?"
"It's the only thing that really matters at all," said Gillian. Her eyes had grown suddenly soft with some tender recollection of the past. "But you mustn't let us give you a lot of trouble while we're here. You don't look over-strong." Her glance rested kindly on her hostess's young face. In spite of its dewy blue eyes and clear skin with the tinge of wild-rose pink in the cheeks, it conveyed a certain impression of fragility. She looked almost as though a vigorous puff of wind might blow her away.
"Oh, I'm quite well. Of course I found looking after a farmhouse rather heavy work--just at first. I hadn't been used to it, and we can't afford to keep a servant. You see, I married Dan against the wishes of my people, so of course we couldn't accept any help from them, though they have offered it."
"I don't see why not," objected Magda. "They can't feel very badly about it if they are willing to help you."
"Oh, no--they would, gladly. But Dan would hate it in the circumstances. You can understand that, can't you?"--appealingly. "He wants to justify himself--to prove that he can keep his own wife. He'd be too proud to let me take anything from them."
"Storran of Stockleigh appears to be considerably less attractive than his name," summed up Gillian, as, half an hour later, she and Magda and Coppertop were seated round a rustic wooden table in the garden partaking of a typical Devonshire tea with its concomitants of jam and clotted cream.
"Apparently," she continued, "he has married 'above him.' Little Mrs. Storran obviously comes of good stock, while I expect he himself is just an ordinary sort of farmer and doesn't half appreciate her. Anyway, he doesn't seem to consider her much."
Magda made no answer. Characteristically her interest in June Storran had evaporated, pushed aside by something of more personal concern.
"This is the most restful, peaceful spot I've ever struck," she said, leaning back with a sigh of pleasure. "Isn't it lovely, Gilly? There's something homelike and friendly about the whole landscape--a sort of intimate feeling. I feel as if I'd known it all for years--and should like to know it for years more! Don't they say Devon folk always want to come home to die? I'm not surprised."
"Yes, it's very beautiful," agreed Gillian, her gaze resting contentedly on the gracious curves of green and golden fields, broken here and there by stretches of ploughed land glowing warmly red between the ripening corn and short-cropped pasture.
"I believe I could be quite good here, Gillyflower," pursued Magda reflectively. "Just live happily from one day to the next, breathing this glorious air, and eating plain, simple food, and feeding those adorable fluffy yellow balls Mrs. Storran calls chickens, and churning butter and--"
Gillian's ringing, whole-hearted laughter checked this enthusiastic epitome of the simple life.
"Never, Magda!" she asserted, shaking her head. "I'm quite expecting you to get bored in about a week and to rush me off to Deauville or somewhere of that ilk. And as to being 'good'--why, it isn't in you!"
"I'm not so sure." Magda rose and together they strolled over the grass towards the house, Coppertop skirmishing happily behind them. "I really think I might be good here--if only for the sole reason that there's no temptation to be anything else"--drily.
As she spoke a gate clicked close at hand. Followed the sound of quick, striding steps, and the next moment a man's figure rounded the tall yew hedge which skirted the foot of the garden and came towards them.
He was a big giant of a man--at least six foot two in his socks, and proportionately broad and muscular in build. There was something free and bold in his swinging gait that seemed to challenge the whole world. It suggested an almost fierce independence of spirit that would give or take as it chose, but would never brook dictation from any man --or woman either.
Instinctively Magda and Gillian paused, and Magda held out a slim hand, smiling, as he overtook them.
"I'm sure you must be Mr. Storran," she said.
He halted abruptly and snatched off his cap, revealing a crop of crinkly dark-brown hair thatching a lean sunburnt face, out of which gleamed a pair of eyes as vividly blue as periwinkles.
"Yes, I'm Dan Storran," he said simply. "Is it Miss Vallincourt?"
Magda nodded and proceeded to introduce Gillian. But Storran's glance only rested cursorily on Gillian's soft, pretty face, returning at once to Magda's as though drawn thither by a magnet.
"I'm sorry I couldn't meet your train myself to-day," he said, a note of eager apology in his voice.
Magda smiled at him.
"So am I," she answered.