A Very Midsummer Madness
Explanation behind why I named the main character Rachel Hobbes: Thomas Hobbes was the philosopher who argued that without a social condition, no matter how charitable or beneficial one's deeds may be, these deeds are ultimately done out of selfish reasons.
In which the reader is introduced to "the Hobbes girl".
The morning was still fresh in its shimmering dew when Rachel Hobbes, with her a satchel grasped in her right hand and a knapsack slung over her left shoulder, stopped at the crest of a hill, overlooking a lush, rich, green valley. It was down there, nestled in the soft halo of light, that the inhabitants of Barrisford threatened to break the morn. She had been told that though the valley was little populated, the community was full of activity and as rowdy as the summer, shop-lined city streets that Rachel had grown up in. Yet, standing here, as though she were looking down upon an atlas of a world without pestilence, the self-made writer, bearing all the blossom of her youth, could not choose to believe it. Pushing back a lock of short, chestnut-brown hair from her forehead, she thought about what the next three weeks would hold for her. What did she hope to attain by the time she returned with triumph to Sid's place? Were the Maud MacNeilly papers hers to discover?
Pulling out a map from her knapsack, she traced, with her finger, the route that would bring her to Lamb's Inn. Having spoken to her editor and friend, Sid, this was the place he had arranged for her to stay for the next several days; coincidentally, it was also an inn owned and run by Sid's brother and sister-in-law.
Wrapped in such thoughts, she clumsily folded the map together as she descended the steep mound, all the time unaware of an equally ignorant figure that was ascending from the foot of the hill. Before a second had passed, the two oblivious beings had crashed into each other, sending map, satchel, knapsack, and girl, flying.
"Pardon me," apologized the figure instantly. His voice, from what Rachel's sparse musical training could not have allowed her to discern, would have made a rich baritone. What Rachel could sense from his tone, though, was that of a sincere apology. Had she not noted this, she would have flown into an indignant fury, whether the other person looked, or did not look, like the actor of A Prayer on Wings---and her "assailant" did look a lot like the actor she admired.
"The fault was mine," said Rachel, scrambling to gather her things.
The stranger handed Rachel her map. "No, I didn't watch where I was going either. Are you a visitor to these parts?" he asked.
"I'm afraid this must give me away," said Rachel with a weak smile as she waved the flimsy map in her hand.
"Seeing relatives?" he asked.
Rachel shook her head. "Do you think you can tell me how to get to Lamb's Inn?"
"Lamb's Inn?" asked the stranger. "You mean Arthur Lamb's place? I'm not sure there is an inn in Barrisford otherwise."
Rachel was surprised. "But I'm sure there cannot have been a mistake. You see, I've arranged to lodge at Lamb's Inn for a few days." She stood still for a moment, unconsciously sketching his appearance in her mind until she became aware of the quizzical glance which he cast on her. Clearing her throat in embarrassment, she added, "That is, perhaps we mean different places altogether."
The stranger continued to look peculiarly at her. "I'm afraid that there is only one Arthur Lamb in Barrisford---But you need not worry over lodgings. His wife meant for it to be an inn, but no one who came to Barrisford ever required to take rooms." He turned, pointing his finger in the direction from which he came. "Well, if you set off, down to the very foot of the hill, and continue taking the main road, you'll come soon enough to it. It's got a great, big, whitewashed front, with blue trimmings. You can't miss it, because there isn't any other house like it here."
"Blue trimmings," repeated Rachel. The words had a flute-like ring to them. "Thank you for your help."
The stranger tipped his head in acknowledgement and continuing on his way.
Staring stupidly after him for a moment, Rachel scolded herself for not having asked after his name.
In which Rachel makes her first friends in Barrisford.
By Sidney Lamb's encouragement, Rachel had taken up his daring offer and undertook the challenge that no one else had yet done---to discover and hopefully retrieve the missing journals and other writings of the late Victorian novelist, Maud MacNeilly. Since she had been a child, Rachel had loved reading MacNeilly's novels---and they were the one source of what caused her to want to write. To be given this chance to play detective---the prize being recognition---was too much for Rachel to pass over.
Quarter to nine, she read from her watch. She had been walking for twenty minutes before she had found the house with the whitewashed front and blue trimmings. Staring uncertainly at the flourishes that framed the house like a tangle of blue vines, Rachel couldn't help but understand why Lamb's Inn had never welcomed any guests. Clean and neat as it looked, the cerulean décor was remarkably uncommon, and not even in a pleasing way. Taking a deep breath, she placed her satchel bag down at her feet, and rang the bell.
For what seemed like twenty-four hours, Rachel stood stupidly at the steps, waiting for someone to come to the door. Surely that man on the hill couldn't have led me on? She thought to herself suspiciously. Is this why no one came to stay at the inn? She'd begun to feel as ridiculous as someone jilted at the altar, and was about to depart, when the heavy oak door was thrown open, as though it had a weight of no more than a sheet of paper, and from space between the door and door frame, a pair of flashing green eyes returned her gaze.
"Do let me apologize at once," said the voice that came from that pale, freckled face. It had a smile too, with two stunningly white rows of teeth. "I was just upstairs clearing the things out in the attic, and had no idea of the time." Wiping her hand on her apron, and catching wisps of brown hair from her face, she opened stepped aside and let Rachel in.
"You must be Miss Hobbes," said the small woman. "My name is Edith, Sid's sister-in-law. I run this place with my husband, but he's out in the back tending to the roses. Have you left your car out on the drive? Oh, so you've taken the train and walked here? It's a long hike, isn't it? At least it's a beautiful day." She took a deep breath and sighed. "Well, I'll tell you, any friend of Sid's is a friend of mine---I hope. Will you let me call you Rachel? Yes? Good. Let me show you to your room then, Rachel."
Rachel was caught off guard by the chumminess that Edith expressed, all because she had been told by Sid that Rachel was his very special friend. Rachel, though, could fit in no words edgewise, and was only been able to give a few words, a few nods, here and there, as her host rambled on. She was soon led up a winding staircase, and into a sun-drenched room to the left of the hall.
"You should be snug in here, I hope," said Edith, clapping her hands together as though she were a nursery maid who had just tucked her charges in bed. "So, what do you think?"
The girl had hardly time to think of a response, having expected her host to continue in a line of easy speech.
"Very well," stammered Rachel, with a blush dusting her cheeks. "Thank you for arranging all this so quickly, Mrs. Lamb."
She was corrected in a flash. "Barkla," said her host emphatically, "I keep my maiden name. Or better yet, call me Edith---it's what everyone calls me. I don't believe in friends calling each other by Mister and Misses."
"Edith, then," said Rachel, finding herself slowly falling into the easy rhythm and pace of Edith's remarks. "I think it's lovely, and I know I'll have a good time here."
"Ah, not so quickly," said Edith, waving an index finger at her. "The rest of Barrisford, you'll find, is not as easily accepting as you would like to think. Sid's told me all about why you're here, and let me just say; you'll find a lot of inquisitive beings out here. Don't let on you're a friend of Sid's, or there will be a bit of nasty gossips going about you."
Rachel was glad to receive this bit of advice, and would have told Edith so, had not her host left the room hastily to organize the documents.
Soon after inspecting the room, Rachel returned downstairs, where the "dry business transactions" which no one liked to much dwell on, were discussed and smoothed over, and quickly enough, Rachel and Edith had settled down to some refreshments and easy conversation. They were joined by Edith's husband, Sid's brother.
In Arthur Lamb, Rachel tried to trace a resemblance of her friend, but found that she could not. The two men were two very different species. They had the same mousy brown hair and high cheeks. In Arthur's nose, Rachel thought she also saw a bit of the excited flare of the nostrils. But physical resemblance must end somewhere, and differences have a point of beginning. Where Sid was outgoing and boisterous, Arthur was reserved, almost to the point of passivity. Nothing ruffled Arthur, Rachel soon discovered, except the barking of his wife or the prospect of bad company, and even then, he often retired to his study to avoid a hot war.
Throughout most of tea, there was not much to be learned from Arthur's presence, and soon after sending Arthur back out to battle the jungle that was her rose bushes, Edith sat back in her chair and sipped her tea slowly.
"I suppose this will all be very interesting to unfold, this business of the MacNeilly papers," she said. "I've wondered myself whether they really existed, and whether someone in Barrisford could really have possession of them."
"Maud MacNeilly herself often said in her lifetime that she kept journals which she left behind in her hometown. Barrisford is the only place that anyone knows she had lived in as a young woman, before becoming published, so I guess there is a very good chance of them being here," said Rachel, accepting her host's offer of more tea.
Edith, sharp as usual, stayed on the course of her inquiry. "Sid told us that you were born here," she said.
"And where did you live?"
"I don't really remember. It wasn't the best of times for my parents," admitted Rachel. "They were never very happy here."
"At least you're not much a stranger to these parts after all," said Edith with an approving nod. "That will be a comfort for you. It's always easiest to accept natives than foreigners."
"I'm afraid, with my disappearance from here as an infant, I could hardly be considered a native," said Rachel.
"But you will make it by much easier than I did when I first came. As soon as you meet the first inhabitant of Barrisford, you'll see."
Rachel smiled a little. "I already had that chance this morning, and I'm afraid I made quite a mess out of it." Noting the expression of alarm on her host's face, Rachel quickly recounted all that passed that morning on the hill.
"And how did the man look to be? Old? Seventy or eighty?" asked Edith, leaning forward.
"No---" laughed Rachel, "I dare say, he could not have been much older than me."
"With light brown hair, or black?"
Rachel paused to ponder. "It was a very dark brown under the sun."
"Black, then it is," said Edith dismissively, "And in that case, you've run into the Finch-Briggs' boy. I wonder what he was doing so early. Well, he isn't the most practical boy in the world, that I tell you. Had the strange notion of becoming an actor, but was never very good at it. I'm afraid, he didn't get by much from it."
What a coincidence, thought Rachel. And yet, his name was Finch-Briggs.
"It's a good thing, though, that of all the people you ran into, it should be him," continued Edith. "Those of his parents' generation or older are mostly very conventional, here in Barrisford---old fashioned, you might say---and that boy promises to be something more above that, despite his impracticalities. If you had met with his mother, or one of the Braggs, you might have received a cool reception. Napoleon Bragg, for instance---you don't want to meet him first. He's very disapproving of young women working instead of finding a mate."
Rachel's eyes began to light up in interest. "Are most of the people here very quaint in their ways?"
"Anyone my age and younger rarely holds onto the same tradition. Well, I don't really know about the Finch-Briggs. Strangely modern in their own way, and yet capable of the most outrageously straight conservatism."
Rachel smiled. "They have claims to it. Finch-Briggs is an aristocratic sounding name."
"Oh, yes, though you'd never repeat that in the presence of our good neighbour, Mrs. Winkstone," said Edith, pouring out more tea for her guest. "She takes it as a personal injury whenever someone remarks on that. Dora Finch-Briggs is a sort of enemy to her---or at least, she'd like to imagine so."
"If you're interested in uncovering the MacNeilly writings," said Edith at last, "I would say to go to Mrs. Winkstone first. The Winkstones or the Finch-Briggs, either family has the best chance of possessing those papers, you know. Long-established Barrisford folks."
"Would you introduce me to them for me?" asked Rachel guilelessly. "I don't know whether I ought to press my presence on them."
Edith laughed at that remark. "Forgive me," she apologized, "I couldn't help myself...I think I can assure you, Rachel, that you couldn't possibly force your presence on them. It's more likely they will bombard you with theirs before you have control of your senses...Don't worry dear, I'll bring you over to the Winkstones. Mrs. Winkstone has invited me to tea this afternoon anyway, and I'll make the introductions then."
Rachel smiled weakly in return. If this was the way things were going to work, she felt, it would be challenging to hold her own in Barrisford.
In which the mistress of Violet Mead is introduced.
The nearest neighbour to Arthur and Edith's home was Violet Mead, the quaint name which Mrs. Winkstone gave to her acreage upon the day of her engagement to the antiquated self-made country squire, John Winkstone. For thirty-seven years, Mrs. Winkstone brought more to her husband's home besides just its new name: the three, healthy, active, beautiful, children; the tastefully landscaped gardens; and the shingling of the house were all Mrs. Winkstone's doing. Most of all, it was Mrs. Winkstone's presence and first-class taste (and etiquette books) that gave Violet Mead an aura of elegance which existed nowhere else, save Kensington Palace.
This very woman, dressed in a floral-print summer gown, now capered elegantly down the well-trimmed lawn lined with well-pruned hedges and well-fertilized foliage. Her voluminous coif of hair did not move an inch in the breeze of the afternoon, and her strand of large pearls, so meticulously placed against her neck, screamed of their worth under the radiant sun. To those who knew, Mrs. Winkstone was sixty-one, but her undying notion of always appearing well made her seem as though she might never age, compared to other women with the same age and robust figure.
"My dear, what a pleasant surprise!" sang out Mrs. Winkstone, even though the visit had been pre-arranged by her very own hand. "I knew you could not wait to come and take tea with me, Edith."
Although the odour of the front garden had been both pungent and sweet, and not entirely bearable, the air about Mrs. Winkstone as she spoke was serenely polite. There was no choice but to be as civil as possible, despite the circumstances. Edith now smiled a little at Rachel before answering to Mrs. Winkstone's call.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Winkstone," said Edith. "I hope you do not mind my taking the liberty of bringing along my friend. This is Rachel Hobbes. She was born here, but her parents moved to town soon after her birth. She came back for a visit, and is staying with me for the summer."
"Excellent, my dear," cooed Mrs. Winkstone, though just as quickly, she had bent over to Edith and inquired after "her friend's age, lineage and occupation"---not having been aware that her whisper was still audible to Rachel's ears.
Once satisfied, Mrs. Winkstone directed a sociable smile in Rachel's bearing, and asked, "What is your name, dear?"
Rachel introduced herself, taking care not to fall for the urge to retort, "Edith's already told you, if you had only paid attention."
"Excellent, my dear," said Mrs. Winkstone briskly. "Do allow me to invite you to come have tea with me, Miss Hobbes. Any friend of Edith's, I always say, deserves a little civility from Violet Mead."
Rachel smiled back and entreated to be called by her first name, which Mrs. Winkstone would have settled on anyway, regardless of Rachel's supplication.
Once indoors, they were led into a brightly lit kitchen, where the two younger women were implored to sit down anywhere they liked.
"No, not there," Edith whispered quickly as Rachel proceeded to take the nearest chair at hand, "Mrs. Winkstone likes to have the seat facing the window."
Accordingly, Rachel moved.
"I've decided to set out my best china today," said Mrs. Winkstone, who had not heard this exchange. She was pulling things out of cupboards and drawers. "I decided that since my niece Magdalen is not here, my willow ware will be quite safe, don't you? I'm sure your friend here is not so very clumsy, is she? Rachel, you may not know my niece Magdalen, but Edith, you will remember her, having met her once before at one of my card parties, you recall? Magdalen is very intellectual---all the girls in my family were, you know, and she must have inherited it from her mother, who is my sister. Well, I must say though that despite her having done brilliantly at university, taking scholarships and other high academic standings, Magdalen is just all thumbs, always breaking something when she is here. I always say she inherited that from her father's side. The Tobans are all so dreadfully clumsy, you can't imagine them all packed into one house..."
Rachel, amused by the rambling of this family history, looked towards Edith to see how her friend took it. To her surprise, Edith was complacently drinking the coffee offered to her.
"One gets used to it," Edith whispered to Rachel at the first opportunity without their hostess overhearing.
"...As I was saying," continued Mrs. Winkstone, who now brought a tray of cookies and biscuits to the table, "You shall both have quite a stir. Magdalen arrives in Barrisford tonight. I suppose she missed her cousins, and her Aunty very dearly. Luckily for me, Magdalen is not entirely a Toban through-and-through. The Tobans all have such dreadful habits. Chamberlayne, Magdalen's brother, oh---well, surely you must have heard much of poor Chamberlayne, Edith."
Edith nodded. "Indeed, I have."
"The poor, poor boy," sighed Mrs. Winkstone. "He now takes it into his head that he'd quite like to take a hiking journey to see El Salvador. Yes, El Salvador. And to do what? To plant coffee beans and write poetry. I always told my sister he could not be quite right, since I discovered he liked writing poetry. There cannot be anything very respectable in poetry, can there? Of course, I am all agreeable on the subject of sonnets, but as to lewd limericks, such as the sort of thing that young people are always writing today...Why, I am half-tempted to say 'Lord knows why?', but that would be sacrilege, and a person of first-class breeding cannot be allowed to permit sacrilege under her own roof, is that not correct, Edith my dear?"
Rachel watched Edith nod.
Mrs. Winkstone sighed dramatically again. "Poor, poor Chamberlayne, I always say. But then, what is to be expected of a boy if he is to be called Chamberlayne? I could never figure out why my sister let her husband name their boy Chamberlayne. It all seems such a shame, I think. But then, I must not speak on poor Chamberlayne anymore. It always disheartens me so. My constitution is always so delicate and easily depressed."
"You must take care of it then, Mrs. Winkstone," said Edith. "It would not do to grieve yourself with such thoughts."
Mrs. Winkstone's face broke into a wide smile. "How very generous of you, Edith," she exclaimed. "How very, very kind of you to care for my constitution. I always knew what a charitable heart you have."
"I only say it out of consideration for your heart," said Edith.
"You are very, very kind."
Rachel was extremely diverted as this exchange went on. Mrs. Winkstone proved to be a great talker, and found no qualms in sharing every family anecdote, some of which should have been kept under lock in the family closet, but at last, Mrs. Winkstone, with her "first-class good breeding" found a new target.
"Well, Rachel," said Mrs. Winkstone, pouring out more coffee for her, "Are you here to visit friends then?"
"Mostly to see Barrisford again."
"Edith tells me you were born here."
"Indeed, I was."
"Well, you are a quiet one, aren't you? You are dreadfully shy, my dear. I know just the thing to cure it. I always find the perfect cure to shyness, and that is to face your fear full front. You really must make the acquaintance of my daughters. Caroline is full of self-confidence, and Celia---well, what can I say? She is what one would call, 'the flower of the family', and indeed, I am half as inclined as anyone to think that way." Mrs. Winkstone paused. "Now that I do think of it, I do not believe there ever was anyone in the Winkstone family that was much given to shyness. Shyness belonged more to the Tobans, though it is perhaps, one of the lesser of many possible faults. The only Winkstone I can think of whom might be what one would call bashful is my son Jemmy, but he has quite outgrown that by now---What lovely things he can do with his paintbrush! He's so serious a painter, never painting anything but seascapes, and boats, and nature. Yes, he is still a fresh child of the earth, even in his thirtieth year of life. I believe shyness was just a stage he went through in his teens---all teenagers do, don't they?---not wanting to appear in public with anyone, especially not his maman, you know."
It's no wonder he didn't want to, thought Rachel silently to herself. Outwardly, she nodded a little, to show that she was still listening.
"Well, Rachel," continued Mrs. Winkstone, "Have you made any new friends yet?" She said it as though Rachel was still a little girl who had just attended her first day at a new school.
"I only arrived this morning," explained Rachel. "I'm afraid Edith and Arthur are all the friends I have met with."
"Surely you must have run into someone by now," said Mrs. Winkstone in some astonishment. "I cannot imagine your not having met anyone else, since you have been here so many hours. You are not so very plain looking, though of course, Celia could teach you a bit here and there. But as I said before, you are not so very plain. You must never let your shyness interfere with the improvement of your connections, my dear. By the way, there are many first-class connections you can make in Barrisford. Mr. Braggs, you know, was a descendent of the illustrious Sussex family of the same name, I am quite sure of it, and we do have a daughter of a baron living right here in this little village---Lady Temple Conrad."
Unable to hold her tongue any longer, Rachel said, "I have run into someone from Barrisford earlier this morning, when I was asking for directions, and I believe he may have just as good a connection as anyone else." She had forgotten all about Edith's warning to her of not mentioning the Finch-Briggs. Immediately, she felt Edith kick her shin.
"Really?" asked Mrs. Winkstone, all ears now. Her eyes flashed with renewed curiosity, and there was no taking back Rachel's words. "And who was it?"
"I didn't ask for his name," said Rachel reluctantly.
"Oh, so it was a young man, I gather?" said Mrs. Winkstone, smiling and looking as though she were in on a great secret. "Why did you not ask for his name? Why, judging from your silence, I would be willing to say that he must have been Colin Upton. You needn't be shy about that, my dear. He is considered to be quite the young man of Barrisford, you know. He's got a new car already, his father always willing to buy him new things each time he goes out to town. Yes, he may be one of those nouveau riche, but you can't count nature against him when the Uptons ought to have been an old established family by rights."
"In fact, it was not him," interrupted Edith at last. "I am sure it was the Finch-Briggs' boy."
Mrs. Winkstone looked slightly offended as she said, "How can you be so certain?"
"By Rachel's description of course," said Edith. "Oh, I am sorry to have given you such a shock, Mrs. Winkstone, but I couldn't mislead you on that point. Rachel tells me the young man had very dark brown hair, and you know, in Barrisford, only the Finch-Briggs have that shade of hair."
"No, no, of course not," said Mrs. Winkstone, sniffing a bit. She turned her attention back on Rachel. "If there is anyone you should not have come across in Barrisford, it is one of the Finch-Briggs. The Finches, by themselves, are tolerable, but not the Finch-Briggs. They are the very worst sort of people to meet with, so disagreeable they are. Those with double-hyphenated names seem to think they are worth more regard than the rest of us. Well, I say, they're not. You must avoid them, at all costs, Rachel. Do take this piece of advice from one who has had so fortunate a breeding as myself."
After that little speech, Rachel felt herself to be on safe enough grounds to mention the true cause of her visit here. Did Mrs. Winkstone, by any chance, knew the whereabouts of the Maud MacNeilly papers? She had been asked, hired, by her boss and editor to retrieve them, and subsequently, arrange for their editing and publication.
"The MacNeilly papers," said Mrs. Winkstone, drawing out her words dramatically. She shook her head. "I know very little of their existence. It's rather a fable more than reality. Don't you think this detective work ought to belong to someone more capable? One can hardly expect a young, unpracticed girl like you to search people's attics for them."
"I'm sorry you can't help," said Rachel, trying her best to contain her irritation at Mrs. Winkstone's words. "I suppose I shall have to try elsewhere."
When Rachel and Edith finally endeavoured to take their leave, Mrs. Winkstone was fully herself again, though, once safely out of Violet Mead, Rachel could not help remarking to Edith on their host's extraordinary reception of them.
"I can only say that I feel for her children," ended Rachel.
"At least all of them are grown-up, even if they are obliged to live at home."
"Is Mrs. Winkstone always so---domineering?"
"You will think that Mrs. Winkstone is an aggressively controlling woman," answered Edith, "And at all times, I would agree with you, I would feel sorry for her children, but there is one exception, for no woman, nor man neither, can be free of weakness." This last bit, Edith could not help pronouncing without a bit of mystery.
"And what can Mrs. Winkstone's weakness be?" asked Rachel, all curiosity.
Edith grinned. "It is a dreadful tale, but I believe it. Mrs. Winkstone's weakness is her first name. No one in this village knows what it is, not her niece, not her children, because she hates it so."
"Many people dislike their own names. I'm sure if I had my choosing, I would pick a different name for myself than Rachel."
Edith shook her head and continued to grin. "No, but you see, it goes much further than that. It is rumoured that Mrs. Winkstone's late husband never knew his wife's first name either, not until he was in his last illness, and when he successfully entreated her to tell him what it was, he laughed to death upon hearing it."
Rachel herself did not know whether to laugh or to express her sympathy as soon as she heard this. It was a tragic comedy that Mrs. Winkstone's first name should have suffered through such a farcical experience. The all-powerful Mrs. Winkstone, reduced to the indignity of a horrid first name? Why, even poor Echo, with her ill-fated love for Narcissus, could not have deserved more of Rachel's pity than Mrs. Winkstone received at this moment from the Hobbes girl.
In which several other characters are introduced
As they exited Violet Mead, Edith took Rachel's arm in a friendly manner. "That," said Edith, commanding her gaze towards the figure that was quite a distance away from them, "Is Mrs. Dora Finch-Briggs, coming in this direction."
"What should she be doing, passing Violet Mead?" asked Rachel in wonder. "Is she not the rival of Mrs. Winkstone?"
Edith shook her head. "Mrs. Winkstone may view her as a rival, but Mrs. Dora will never do such a thing. I might hazard to add, Mrs. Dora is the only one in Barrisford who dares to defy Mrs. Winkstone, but that won't make her into another Mrs. W."
Rachel quickly combed her fingers through her hair and prepared her face for a smile as Dora Finch-Briggs approached them.
"Good afternoon, Edith," said Mrs. Winkstone's rival. She was thin and slight in figure, and used her umbrella like a walking stick. Her hair, cropped short, just below the ears, was brown but had threads of silver weaving in and out of it. Her large, clear eyes observed Rachel with a sort of interest that reminded one of an inquisitive baby chimp.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Finch-Briggs," said Edith with a nod. "Allow me to introduce my friend, Rachel Hobbes. She is staying with me for the summer."
"How do you do," said Rachel with a friendly nod of the head.
Mrs. Finch-Briggs nodded her head in return, and though she had not the large, social smile practised and ready as Mrs. Winkstone had done, her expression was by no means sullen.
"Do you come from town?" she asked Rachel instantly.
Rachel nodded again.
Mrs. Finch Briggs tilted her head, as if taking in Rachel's entire appearance. "You bear great resemblance to Gil Hobbes' young wife."
Rachel smiled broadly. "That would be because I am Gil and Molly Hobbes' daughter."
There was a look of astonishment on the other woman's face. "Can it really be?" she asked. "How many years has it been?"
Mrs. Finch-Briggs seemed even more surprised to hear this, and murmured something to herself. "Are you here for pleasure or work?" she asked at last.
Rachel hesitated. "A bit of both, actually," she answered. "I am here to visit Edith, and see Barrisford, and I also plan to do a bit of writing."
"Writing?" repeated Mrs. Finch-Briggs in interest. "You are a writer? Just what Gil always wanted to be. Like Maud MacNeilly?"
"Yes, only not as talented," said Rachel eagerly. Perhaps Dora Finch-Briggs might know a bit about the MacNeilly papers, she thought to herself in excitement. "In fact," said Rachel carefully, "I have been wondering whether I could get some kind of inspiration in from being here. I'm a great fan of Maud MacNeilly's works."
"Are you?" said Mrs. Finch-Briggs, nodding her head in approval. She volunteered the desired information on her own accord. "A great reader is always important. I am no expert on Maud MacNeilly, but I do believe she is rumoured to have left some epistles of her writing in Barrisford. I always thought it was rather ridiculous, but then, I can't judge rightly. My niece and nephew, the Finches, they might know something. Their great-grandparents were acquainted for a short time with the writer."
Edith and Rachel exchanged glances.
"How long have you been settled here, Rachel?" asked Mrs. Finch-Briggs.
"I only arrived this morning."
"Well, let me invite you and the Lambs to come lunch with my Doady and me sometime. The weather promises to be fine that day, and it would be a shame to waste it." Mrs. Finch-Briggs adjusted her hat and gloves. "Good day to you ladies."
Rachel and Edith both said their good-byes.
"What do you think of her?" said Edith. "I can see that Mrs. Dora likes you already, or she would not be so ready with her invitations."
"Though I cannot see why she should take to me. Who is Doady, by the way?" asked Rachel.
Edith looked oddly at her friend. "Why, Doady is her husband, of course. Doady is really the nickname for David, but that is what they call their son, so the father is Doady to avoid confusion."
Rachel smiled to herself. "Doady and Dora. How very Dickensian that sounds."
"Yes, but Mrs. Dora is not at all a light-headed person, if that's the link you wish to make. No, I don't think Mrs. Dora could have ever been young, or if she had been, I don't believe she remembers it. As far as anyone is concerned, she has been sixty-four from the day of her birth, even though she is only sixty this year. By the way, before you mistaken, the Finches are not really her niece and nephew. They are very distant cousins of her husband."
Rachel, who felt herself particularly whimsical by this time, ventured to ask whether the Finch-Briggs were more Finch, or more Briggs.
"More Briggs," Edith declared. "They're not as flaunting in their ways as the Finches are, and they have more reserve, like the original Briggs. But the Briggs have all died out from Barrisford, and they are not to be confused with the Bragg family, which is of an entirely different lineage."
The two continued to talk about Mrs. Finch-Briggs and Mrs. Winkstone as they walked back to Edith's place, but they were stopped short by the sound of a car horn, followed by the squeals and giggling chatter of young fans. Parked on the street, in front of the inn, was a classy, vintage white convertible, the style of which reminded Rachel of the 1952 Buick Roadmaster Riviera that her father was so fond of, only her father liked it in cranberry red.
"By God, if that is not the village swain's car right now, acting as though he owned my land," said Edith, fury rising within her. "I hate any sort of spectacle like that in front of my house---it makes the place seem like a circus. What is that Colin Upton up to now?"
Rachel caught the name and remembered what Mrs. Winkstone had said to her during tea. The pair of squealing girls beside the white car must be his adoring admirers.
"Those Haggerston girls," Edith continued to fume, "I have a mind to tell their mother to keep a better eye on them. I'd certainly do so if they were my daughters. They're only sixteen and seventeen, but you'd never know it from the scandalous way they act around Colin Upton."
Picking up her pace in order to keep closely at Edith's heels, Rachel wondered what she was about to get herself into. She watched as a beautiful, ruddy-haired man, in about his late twenties, stepped out of the car, dressed in an immaculate white, cricket game outfit, a white suit jacket slung carelessly over his shoulder as he strode around to the sidewalk, where the Haggerston girls looked at him breathlessly.
"Colin," cooed the shorter, slighter one. Her cheeks were still rosy and round with baby fat. "Whatcha doin' here today? Prue and I thought you were going away to town."
"And weren't going to come back for a while," added Prue, who, although slightly taller than her sister, did not have a figure that promised to be slender. She swung back her mane of hair clumsily, and ran her fingers along her bangs to check them in place.
The village swain, as Edith had mockingly called him, leaned against his car in a lazy, but practiced way, and grinned at his pair of admirers. He began to chat with Pen and Prue Haggerston. The air around them filled with flirtatiously silly laughter.
"Hello, a large crowd today," interrupted Edith loudly as she and Rachel neared them. "What is the occasion?"
Colin cast them his signature idle glance---which he and his devotees presumed to be charming---and nodded his head at Edith in recognition. For a moment, his eye caught on Rachel. A new girl, a new interest, was always a priority with him. He took the effort to lift his hand and wave, which Rachel did not know whether to return or ignore, as he was a perfect stranger.
"Hello, Mrs. Lamb," said Colin, patting his perfectly arranged hair. He had taken care that day, as with every day, to gel it with exactly twenty millilitres of gel---not more, not less. The success was in the accuracy of measurements, he always felt, and he couldn't possibly let his followers down by not appearing with his customary coif. He allowed one corner of his mouth to curl up as he focused on Rachel.
Was that a grin directed at me? thought Rachel uneasily. Should I be charmed or flattered?
"Is that a friend of yours, Mrs. Lamb?" Colin asked, shaking out his jacket as stylishly as he could.
"Ms. Barkla, if you please," said Edith tensely. "Now, clear this wreck quickly and quietly from my lot, Colin, or I will be very tempted to use force."
Colin sighed. "I'm sorry you feel so strongly about this 'wreck'. I dare say, at least it is a vintage wreck. What's your name, stranger?"
Rachel shifted uncomfortably. Not only was Colin Upton coming across as a stuffed shirt in ignoring Edith's command, but his devotees now began to cast her looks of jealousy, undeserving of them as Rachel was.
"Pardon me?" Rachel warbled self-consciously.
"Hello, Mr. Upton," deterred Edith, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to interrupt your lovely conversation, but there really is no alternative." She took the liberty of striding over to the driver's seat and honking the horn long and loud.
The result of her action was all that Edith Barkla could have desired. Colin dashed to the protection of his car in a hurry, and did all he could to guard his precious heap of metal, stopping short of shoving Edith aside.
"Thank you, young man," said Edith, brushing her hands together. "Now, steer it clear away."
Colin winked at Rachel before sticking his key in the ignition. "Hey, you're new here, aren't you? Well, you haven't told me your name, but I'll find it out before you have time to say 'boo'." The engine whirred, and the rush of white metal faded into the distance.
"Oh, Ms. Barkla," exclaimed the Haggerstons simultaneously as Colin Upton drove away, "What did you do that for?"
"He was just beginning to chat with us and all," continued Prue, her wide, thick, pale lips forming a pout. "Now you've scandalized him away."
"The way you two act is quite scandalous," said Edith. "I don't see why you wish to make such a spectacle of yourselves, when you're still so young yet."
"Don't you think that Colin Upton is perfectly handsome?" prattled Pen, her cheeks becoming pinker at the thought.
"He's full too old for either of you," said Edith.
"Only nine years older than me," mumbled Pen under her breath.
"Now, forget about such silly things," continued Edith, not hearing this, "And come inside. I have something for you to bring home."
Meanwhile, Pen's sister had taken Rachel by the elbow as though she had known Rachel for a long time. "Who are you?" Prue asked. "Have you been here long?"
"I only arrived today," said Rachel, slightly bewildered by this preferential treatment.
"And you haven't known Colin Upton at all before this?"
Rachel shook her head, and felt Prue's grip on her loosen.
Prue sighed. "Do you think I'm fat?" she asked.
Rachel shook her head again. Prue might not be considered thin, but she was not, as Prue herself seemed to imply, grossly out of shape.
"Then why is it that guys don't ever pay any attention to me?" Prue snivelled. She was deeply out of humour after the failure of her encounter with the Barrisford flame. "It's not fair that all the smart ones, the good-looking ones, and the nice ones are taken."
Rachel bit her lower lip to prevent herself from laughing. "I am sure that if they can't see your merits, it better not to mourn over them," she said as sensibly as she could.
"You can talk," declared Prue, her tone taking on the semblance of a whine, "But that's because Colin Upton thinks you pretty enough to wink at. He's never winked at me before."
Rachel felt her skin crawl a bit upon hearing this.
"I've never been very good at school," sighed Prue. "I mean, I'm the most hard working person I know, and I try so hard, I even have a tutor, but I just don't do well. I put so much time and effort into my math project, and I got it back, barely passed. It's not fair. Now, not even Colin looks at me."
"If you spent more time studying than thinking about Colin Upton, you wouldn't be in such trouble at school," was what Rachel knew Edith would have liked her to say, but Rachel pushed her skepticism aside for a moment, and allowed her sympathy to flow. "I am sure that he must appreciate your company a little," she said, "Or he would not have stopped to converse with you as he did."
"But you don't know about that. He might have thought I was someone else from far away. Maybe he thought I was my sister."
"No, my sister Polly. She was an uncommon beauty, I heard someone say before. She was one of the finalists for Miss Teen Canada, you know." There was a mixture of pride and loathing in her tone, and Rachel took care not to trigger Prue's loath by showing her doubt.
"Maybe," said Rachel prudently, "You might set your hopes on someone else."
"Someone else?" repeated Prue as they entered Edith's house. "I don't think so. There is no one else quite as charming and nice as Colin Leighford Upton. Oh, the sound of that name. I'm sure I can't name any other young man better than him."
"What is all this talk about young men?" asked Edith, emerging from the kitchen. In her hand was a folded sheet of paper. "Now, I don't want to hear any more of this schoolgirl talk of boys from you or Pen. It's enough driving yourself crazy with school, and it's another, driving yourself with unworthy village swains. Now, this is a recipe that I promised to give to your mother, and I'm going to give it to Pen for safekeeping. Please be careful to deliver it safely to your mother's hands, because you're accountable for it."
Prue sighed, and squeezed Rachel's arm in an almost friendly manner, and she departed with her sister.
"What a headache those girls make," said Arthur Lamb, finally venturing to show himself at last. "Why did you bring them in, Edith? I always feel like a prisoner in my own house when you invite the Haggerstons."
"Well, I couldn't have them court a man outside our very house, could I?" said Edith defensively. "It would have looked as though I'd arranged the circus. Besides, they weren't here for more than a minute."
Arthur retreated to his study with a loud sigh, and Edith shrugged at Rachel. "When he can't beat me, he seeks refuge," she explained.
Her friend's words echoed in Rachel's ears, long after her first day at Barrisford had winded down to a calm. The wisdom was not lost on her. Perhaps, seeking refuge was what she ought to do next time she ran into the driver of '52 Buick.
In which Carr Winkstone pays a visit.
Rachel yawned as she dashed cold water over her face. She squinted at herself in the mirror. A good sleep, she had during the night, but some time in the morning, her eyes had begun to feel puffy and raw, as though they had decided with their own mind not to open. Now, propping her eyelids up, she groaned as she saw a pair of pink eyes glowering back at her. She couldn't go downstairs looking like this! Edith had promised to take her to see the village archivist for breakfast, and to inquire after the MacNeilly papers, but if she were to be introduced in this zombie-like state...Yesterday had been a fruitless day in the search for MacNeilly's journals. If she should fail in gaining the good impressions of the village archivist, and all because of her disreputable looking bloodshot eyes, she would have failed for an eternity in her goal to find MacNeilly's lost writings.
What could have caused this? Rachel wracked her brain furiously. There hadn't been the usual stimulants---no ragweeds, no pollen from pines, no dust bunnies been in her detection. No, Edith's housekeeping would have been too good for that.
"Mrs. Winkstone's garden," was Edith's verdict as soon as Rachel presented her case.
"Nonsense," appealed her husband, his nose in his newspaper.
"What do you know?" flashed Edith. Turning kindly to Rachel, she explained that Mrs. Winkstone's late husband himself used to have allergic reactions to the fumes of the fertilizer his wife used on her plants. Pink eyes was one of the symptoms.
"Well, I'm going to postpone that meeting with Angus Rouget," said Edith. "You can't possibly present yourself like this. I mean, you can, but I wouldn't. How does tomorrow sound?"
"This will pass in a few hours," said Rachel quickly, closing her eyes for a moment.
"Okay, then, we'll make it this afternoon instead." Edith was now peering outside her kitchen window. "Well, well, look who's walking up the walk right now. Magda and Carr. If I didn't know better, I would say that your pink eyes were timed perfectly. I know one of them will be sure to comment on it."
From his corner of the kitchen, Edith's husband groaned. "Oh, for goodness' sake, what does Carr Winkstone want now? Can't a man be entitled to some peace in his own house?" Arthur grumbled. So saying, he retreated to his study, coffee, muffin and newspaper in hand.
No sooner had he left, there came a smart rap on the back door and Edith opened it to reveal two women, one red headed, the other a brunette. They both looked to be about thirty, and at Edith's invitation, entered. Edith proceeded in making the introductions, and Rachel managed to smile awkwardly at both of them, although she could already feel their scrutinizing stares boring holes into her face.
"Have you been crying?" asked the brunette, the one who was Mrs. Winkstone's niece Magdalen. "You're not home sick, are you? Aunt Winkstone was telling us about how you're all tired and shy of company when she invited you to tea yesterday."
"It's Mum's garden," interrupted Carr, with the same judgment as Edith had given. "Da always had the same reaction to it. I recommend running some fresh, cold water over it. I've had the same sensation before after helping Mum with the fertilizer. You might consider eye drops too. Ede's got plenty, I'm sure, if you haven't brought any."
"Thanks," said Rachel, casting Edith a look that showed the very surprise she felt at hearing the name "Ede" used on her friend.
"You want some coffee?" Edith asked the visitors, ignoring Rachel's audacious look.
Magda shook her head. "Aunt Winkstone has just about made me quit coffee. How about you, Carr?"
Carr tilted her head from side to side as though exercising her neck, and stretched. "Sure, why not. Oh, it's just too early in the morning." She fished out a card from her jacket pocket and passed it into Edith's hand. "I came by to hand out Mum's invitation to you and Arthur and Rachel. Her party, tomorrow evening, at seven-thirty. Supper will be served promptly at eight."
Edith took the invitation and began to peruse it.
"Remember what happened last month?" asked Carr. "What a joke it was. I'd been cat-sitting for Sheila Bragg's kitty, and just my luck, Mum went and invited Mrs. Gard'ner to the card party, even though Mrs. Gard'ner just hates cats. You can imagine what a fuss that created when Sheila's kitty fell in love with Mrs. Gard'ner's perfume and decided to cast her cat hair all over the poor woman's lap."
Edith laughed at the story, and even Rachel couldn't help but smile at this retelling, though she had not been present during the actual event.
"Anyway, if you haven't yet gone to one," said Carr, seating herself across from Rachel, "Then you haven't missed anything. Mum's card parties are as ludicrous as her miracle growing fertilizer. I always find them so droll, 'cause Mum will invite some remarkable guest of honour. She thinks it's a distinction of good class, but it always ends up rather as a hoot." Carr cast a quick, contemplating look at Rachel's outfit. "You'll want to be dressed in one of your best though. And no grey---it's too pallid a shade for Mum to like. She's overly particular with that kind of thing."
"Thanks for the warning," said Rachel, looking down at the t-shirt that she had thrown on while in a muddled state that morning. "I'll try my best not to shock Mrs. Winkstone."
"So, how are Celia and James?" asked Edith, luckily changing the subject. "Getting on?"
"With James, you know, it's always going to be the same---He doesn't much want to talk with you unless you've got something brilliantly witty to express. As for Celia, we hardly speak with one another these days." Carr took the cup of coffee handed to her and began stirring it. "Mum has been telling me that Celia is getting a dozen suitors all 'dangling' on a string, and though Mum's prone to exaggeration, I hardly doubt the truth of it this time."
"'The flower of the family'," quoted Edith with an amused grin on her face. "And you, Magda? It's good to see you again. Are you staying long this summer?"
The brunette shrugged. "As you said, I'm only here for the summer. Though that depends on how much longer Aunt Winkstone will let me break her china."
"Rachel here," said Edith. "Is staying here for the summer too. She's a writer."
"Oh, a writer," said Magda vaguely. "So is my brother. You should meet him some time, if I can drag him out here."
Rachel smiled weakly. "I'm not a very good writer, though," she said, distrusting the proud tone Edith had used in naming her profession. "Actually, I'm here more for some other business than writing. I wonder if you could help me?"
"Help?" interrupted Carr with interest. "I'd be more than willing to. Shoot."
"It's about the MacNeilly papers," said Rachel, slightly taken aback by Carr's abruptness. There was something dry and menacing about Carr's curtness, as chummy as Carr had meant to be.
"Well, what about them?"
"Have you heard of them at all?" asked Rachel. "Would you by any chance know of their whereabouts?"
To Rachel's distress, Carr laughed. "You speak as though you were seeking a lost child," Carr struggled between loud chuckles. "I'm not sure I can help you. Have you tried asking my mum?"
"I already have," said Rachel, trying not to sound miffed.
"Great," said Carr, tossing her head. "That should get you going then. So how 'bout it Mum's party? Will you all be coming by tomorrow evening?"
Rachel nodded her assented reluctantly, and Edith seconded the motion, taking the liberty to volunteer her husband's presence.
"Speaking of your husband, I don't see much of Arthur Lamb these days," said Carr, as she finished her drink. "What's new with him? I see he's still very contemptuous of our company." She glanced at her cousin, Magda, who returned the same expression of amusement.
"Arthur is just Arthur," said Edith by way of explanation.
"Taking his vacation from school well?"
"Must be tough, handling a class of kids who can barely talk."
"Arthur is a principal, and it's not just junior grade kids in the school."
Carr shrugged. "Well, should Arthur be a no-show, it's no matter. Mum's got a special guest of honour, and this time, it's not Temple Conrad, though she's coming too."
"Lady Temple Conrad," her cousin corrected her.
"Pah. She's not in Britain anymore," said Carr with an unconcerned wave of the hand.
"Not a citizen yet either," Edith said.
"Well, I'm not Mum. I'm not going to stoop to calling her Lady Temple every time I mention her name. It's ludicrous, really. I'd just as soon call her 'Pray', and see how she takes to it. That is what you do in a temple, isn't it?" joked Carr insensitively. She stood up and nodded at Magda. "Well, gotta run. More invitations to deliver. Nice meeting you, Rae. I think I'll like you. Come by some time, will you? Ciao."
Carr was out the door again, her cousin sailing closely behind her.
"That was a whirlwind exit," mused Rachel. "And I don't think I've ever been called Rae except by my parents' friends---former hippies."
Edith shook her head. "Ah, Caroline, 'Carr', Rachel 'Rae'. You see the connection? It's her way of saying, 'Let's be friends,' or, 'I like you.' Just like her mother in an odd way, but you'll find her rather more brusque."
"So you think 'Rae' is going to stick?"
Edith chuckled. "You had better hope for it. 'Art' certainly didn't, and you can see why. Arthur and Carr never liked each other's company very much."
"I wonder if that's how 'Sid' came about."
"You're right---Carr Winkstone and Sidney were friends all through school. It would have been hard to avoid, when they were living next door to each other."
Rachel pondered a moment. "Isn't it funny how Sid never mentioned that before? He rarely calls himself Sidney either."
"I'd be curious to know what Sid has mentioned to you," came the unwitting response, only it hadn't meant to come out. Its speaker quickly covered her mouth with a hand, but instead of pacifying the subject, the action only served to pique Rachel's curiosity.
"If there's something you wish to say," said Rachel, "You don't have to hide it."
Edith passed a hand over her brow. "Never mind, Rachel, it's all very silly."
Rachel looked quizzically at her friend. "Edith---"
"You never mind what I was going to say, Rachel. It is of no importance to what you're doing here. So, shall I fix the meeting with Angus Rouget for this afternoon then?" Edith hastily looked through a list of numbers posted beneath her phone. "Ah, there's his number. Well, I'll make the call now."
Rachel was not the least bit happy with the way Edith Barkla had steered the subject away from Sid so abruptly. Was there something she ought to know, that she didn't yet know about Sidney Lamb? However, she was unable to pursue the subject. The raw, itching sensation in her eyes had returned again, and Rachel excused herself from the table.
Cold water, she told herself, A dash of cold water is exactly what I need.
Lunch with Angus, Banter with Mr. Doulton, and an embarrassing episode.
Angus Rouget was perhaps the most normal inhabitant of Barrisford that Rachel had yet met with. When Edith and Rachel first arrived at his office, he was bent over some photographs that were spread out over his desk, but unlike what Rachel had come to expect of most Barrisfordians, Angus neither showed strange quirks as he looked up from his work, nor proved himself to be a motor mouth that was only too eager to spill out the past. Rachel thought with some conviction that he couldn't really belong in Barrisford.
"I don't belong to the village," Angus Rouget was quick to confirm. "I live in the neighbouring hamlet of Shirks, except during the summer."
"Well, I am glad that I am not the only one who doesn't really fit in," said Rachel, feeling free to express her relief. "How did you come about working here?"
"Well, my father was the archivist here before me. I took over when he retired. During the summer, I usually board with the Finch-Briggs, but this year, Mr. Doulton offered me his upstairs rooms, so I accepted."
"In other words," said Edith, "Angus is a migrating bird."
"You can call me a bit of that," said Angus, running a hand through his sandy hair. "Now, Edith's been telling me that you came out here specifically for something."
Rachel was only to happy to have allowed Edith to introduce the issue for her. "Maud MacNeilly's journals, letters, other writings. Do you think there is any chance of me getting my hands on them?"
"Not a problem, I believe, if you can discover in whose hands they are right now." Angus smiled as he observed Rachel's expression rise and fall with his words. "It really isn't as difficult as you think, Miss Hobbes."
"I'm sorry. Rachel. Yes, a little detective work, but I suppose that is what you would have expected in doing this assignment, and a little knowledge of each person's character will get you very far in Barrisford."
"Do you think you could give me some kind of lead?" asked Rachel. "I've actually never done this kind of work before. I've tried the Winkstones and Mrs. Finch-Briggs. Then, I've been told to ask the Finches, but I have not yet met them."
Angus shook his head. "Not the Finches. I doubt whether Toby or Daisy would know a thing about old valuables. If I were you, I would inquire after Mr. Doulton, of course."
"You mean Motley Doulton?" interrupted Edith in surprise.
Angus nodded. To Rachel, of course, Edith's wonder was meaningless, as she didn't know what there was to be surprised over the person mentioned, except perhaps Mr. Doulton's remarkable first name.
"Motley Doulton---he has become quite a cynical man," explained Edith, "since his brother died of a heart attack six years ago. It was induced by discovering that he'd won the lottery. Old Motley wanted to claim his brother's ticket, but as he struggled to wrench it out of the grip of his brother's corpse, it was torn into pieces. In other words, it truly was a death grip. Couple that with a regular dose of Mrs. Winkstone's etiquette lessons, and you can imagine the breadth and depth of his bitterness."
"But, he is also the oldest man in Barrisford," Angus reminded her, "And I am renting his rooms for a very fine price. I don't imagine it will be very hard to convince him to speak a little on the subject of the MacNeilly papers. Come, I'll take you both to lunch, and then we'll see what we can do about this."
Lunch was driving out to the nearest town and ordering at what was professed to be Angus' favourite restaurant. It was really a homey, comfortable diner that served food while still hot, and blended its own flavours of ice cream.
"This is what I call the best home," said Angus towards the end of the meal. "With me, home is where the food is."
"You'll form yourself quite a figure if you follow that mantra," said Edith with a laugh. She turned to Rachel and suddenly added, "I don't suppose I told you, Angus and I are cousins."
An "oh!" pronounced several octaves higher than usual, was all Rachel could express at first. Why should it startle her that Angus and Edith were cousins? After all, was not all of Barrisford precisely dotted with nieces, nephews, siblings and cousins?
"I'm surprised you didn't order a mullet today," said Edith, turning her attention back at Angus. "What, can't eat your own kind?"
She and her cousin laughed heartily together while Rachel looked from one to the other blankly.
"'Rouget' is French for mullet," Angus explained after catching his breath. "That's what Edith meant by her joke."
Rachel, delighted, saw behind the joke, and for a moment, Angus Rouget looked at her in the same curious way that the stranger on the hill had done the day before. An idea suddenly struck Angus.
"Have you ever wondered---" he asked "---what's in a name?"
"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?" said Rachel questioningly.
Angus shook his head. "No. I mean that Barrisford is full of interesting names. Finches, Braggs, Finch-Briggs, Winkstones. I believe there used to be Hobbes here too."
"That's because there were," said Rachel with a smile. "I was born in Barrisford. My father was the last Hobbes to live there, and then, when I was born, he whisked us off into the city. There were no more Hobbes in Barrisford after that."
The brief family history touched Angus' interest, and he made a mental note to himself that he would check on it when he returned to the office. The history of the Hobbes in Barrisford would be interesting, and who knew, but that one might trace it across the great Atlantic, to as far back as the time of the great philosopher himself?
Just as they were preparing to leave, Angus quickly ordered a slice of cherry cheesecake.
"What do you want that for?" Edith asked. "I thought you said you'd had enough. That's just perfectly indigestible."
"For Mr. Doulton, who enjoys perfectly indigestible food," explained Angus.
Sure enough, as soon as he ushered the ladies into the house he was staying at, he handed the cake gingerly to his landlord.
The owner was an old, shrinking, shrivelling man. With his surprisingly thick mop of white hair sitting on top of his scalp, and his knobby knees sticking out from beneath his robe of red tartan, eighty-nine year old Motley Doulton was a sight to be seen. He merely grunted when Angus greeted him jovially, and without so much as a nod in Angus' friends' direction, he took the offering made to him, and sat himself down at a table. Rachel noted to herself that of all the decrepit senile seniors whom she had ever met with, Motley Doulton was the one she would least like to become. This was not because of his physical attributes, but because she would rather have a weak health any day, than to share Motley Doulton's cynicism.
After helping himself to the treat that Angus had brought home, Motley smacked his lips in satisfaction, and asked rather brusquely after "the business of the woman and the girl".
"You know the woman is my cousin, Edith," said Angus, "And this is her friend, Rachel. They've come to say hello."
Old Motley peered carefully at Rachel, before declaring, with obvious deliberation, "She's not a very pretty one."
Angus looked embarrassed, as did Edith, but Rachel was quick to respond.
"Actually, sir," she said, "many people have told me I'm rather plain, so I thank you for the compliment you have just paid me, in at least calling me not very pretty."
Motley's pale, wrinkled face held an expression of awe and distrust. At last, he croaked, "Well, if you are plain in your looks, you're not at all plain in your mind."
"I shall take that as a compliment too," said the girl, much to Motley's exasperation.
"You are a haughty one," said Motley, hoping to hit his mark this time. "I've never known a girl in my life time to be as rude as you."
The girl did not even blush, nor wince! "I'm afraid, I'll have to say nearly the same for you, sir," the girl said. "Don't you think that perhaps some of the things you say are a little rude too?"
"That's what they're meant to be."
"Then you shouldn't try to act offended, if you like offending others so easily," was the girl's verdict.
Motley looked curiously at the girl. At last, he asked, "What did you say your name was?"
"I haven't told you my name yet. It was Angus who told," replied Rachel.
"All right, what did Angus say your name was then?"
"Rachel, sir, Rachel Hobbes."
"Sir Rachel Hobbes?"
Rachel pinched herself to prevent a smile from curling up. "No, sir, just Rachel Hobbes. I haven't been knighted."
"And that is your name?"
"I have been told so, yes, but if it doesn't suit you, you may call me whatever you like, and I shall try my best to answer to it."
Motley grunted. At least, it wasn't some frilly, preening name like Priscilla-Eustacia, and he told Rachel so. Rachel raised an eyebrow, not really understanding what he meant.
"That Haggerston girl," Motley said emphatically. "Priscilla-Eustacia. God help the Haggerstons, sending one daughter to a beauty contest to be humiliated, and naming their other child Priscilla-Eustacia."
"Oh, you mean Prue Haggerston," said Rachel. She began to feel a little devilish again. "Well, you know," she began, tilting her head a little in thought, "I think Priscilla-Eustacia is a very beautiful name, and even if Prue didn't like it, I'm not sure you can hold it against her. I've always thought a girl shouldn't have her name held against her just because it wasn't ‘Molly'."
By this time, Motley wasn't sure whether he ought to show his liking for this mere waif of a girl, or whether to bite back with a bit of sarcasm. He decided that he would much rather let the girl know he liked her. He liked to be amused, and she amused him. It was a rare thing that people ever tried to humour him nowadays. More often than not, they shrank back with uncertainty or fear, just as his denture-weary gums liked to do at night.
"Well, what's your business here?" asked Motley. "Nobody who comes to Barrisford comes for pleasure, that I can tell you. Anybody will tell you I'm wrong, but that's because everyone disguises their real reason for coming, under some pretense that they're here to pay a visit to their Aunt Mary Sue."
"Or Uncle Joe?"
"Or Uncle Joe. Now, speak up, Sir Rachel. What is your reason for coming here---not just here as in Barrisford, but here, in my home. If you don't explain yourself, I'll accuse you of trespassing."
"After I explain to you," said Rachel with a small hopeful smile, "You might still call me a trespasser."
"Go on, Sir Rachel. I won't accept that excuse after what you've proved yourself to be."
Rachel sat down next to Motley. "I'm not going to pretend to be a great writer, but I do make a living by writing. I've been inspired by the novels of Maud MacNeilly, and I was rather hoping to come and see if I can discover anything about her other works. Angus mentioned that you might be able to help...."
Motley was impressed with this young girl's composure and honesty as she explained everything concerning her search. Where other girls would have let their response disappear into vaporous monosyllables, this Hobbes girl was answering all his questions, point for point, without a flinch. But in the end, he couldn't help her, though he would have liked to. The look of hope on the girl's face, now replaced by the look of disappointment, struck him to the core.
"I'm sorry," he said with a sheepish look on his face. He swallowed. "I can't do more for you."
Rachel tried to smile. "It doesn't matter. You shouldn't be sorry just because you don't have the journals. I sometimes wonder myself whether they really exist." Her next line was even more surprising and good-natured than Motley had expected. Pulling out a sheet of paper from her jacket pocket, as well as a pen, she said, "Please, sir, may I have your phone number? I won't be in Barrisford long, but at least while I am here, I can call on you some time, and keep you company a bit."
"Are you taking pity on me?" he asked suspiciously. "Because I hate to be pitied."
"As a matter of fact, I do feel sorry for you. I feel sorry for you because you don't seem to like making friends. Well, don't think of me as a friend then. At least, don't deny yourself the chance to bicker and argue with a girl who doesn't know better." Rachel smiled and thrust the pen into his hand.
The old man was more than pleased. No one in his lifetime had ever asked so sincerely for his number. He believed in the saying that there was a first to everything, but he had long ago abandoned the belief that he should be blessed with a first in this. Shakily, he took the pen in his scrawny hand, and wrote down the seven digits in his spidery writing. How strange it felt that he should wish to look less like an invalid, and more sturdy and youthful like his tenant!
No bystander could have seen these feelings as they were born, especially not Rachel. Her intention had never been to attract the old man's admiration. She had only meant to befriend him by his own terms. On the other hand, the result of Rachel's audacity was not entirely unnoticed. As Angus drove the two women home, he had an inkling of a suspicion that old Motley Doulton must indeed have liked "Sir Rachel".
Soon after their return, Edith went upstairs, and Rachel resorted to the kitchen, where she knew she would find Arthur. For some strange reason, Rachel felt she had to share her latest discoveries with someone who wouldn't out-talk her, and Arthur, with his natural reserve, would make a more than willing ear.
Arthur's face feigned surprise when he learned he had been made Rachel's temporary confidante, but he did listen conscientiously to what Rachel recounted of her visit to see Motley Doulton.
"Though I would be careful befriending him," said Arthur. "He's a cynic, you know. And senile, to add to that. It would be such a shame if you were to become a cynic too. Only think of what my brother Sid would think of you then."
"Your warning will be of some comfort."
"I note your sarcasm, Rachel."
As he spoke this, the phone in the living room, and Edith, from upstairs, called for someone to get it.
"You go ahead," Arthur gestured at Rachel. "I have a premonition that it will be an unpleasant call."
Rachel raised her eyebrow in surprise, and went to the living room. It was the fifth ring when she finally spotted the phone and lunged at it. Picking up the receiver, she answered the call breathlessly.
"Is this Rachel Hobbes on the line?" said the voice on the other side.
Though the voice sounded a little higher in pitch than usual, the tone and greeting belonged undoubtedly to Sidney Lamb. Pleased to hear the voice of her friend, Rachel hurriedly said,
"I haven't heard from you for days! How is everything going with you?"
There was a pause, a hint of Sid's surprise, upon hearing her question. "You sound breathless, Rachel. Have you been running?"
Rachel shook her head, even though she was speaking into the phone. "Not really. I was just speaking with Arthur, and we were mentioning you."
Sid sounded impressed. "I hope it was flattering."
"Well, what do you think?" Rachel asked coquettishly. "So, what made you decide to finally call? By the way, Edith is a very nice person. I'm surprised you never mentioned that before."
"That's...because I never had the chance to," replied Sid. "Listen, I'm on my way back to Barrisford. How about I come by to pay you a visit?"
It was Rachel's turn to be surprised. That went against the grain of their deal---Sid was not to come while the MacNeilly papers were not yet in her hands. "No," she said slowly, and she began to narrate all that had passed since she was in town, adding, at the end, that Sid would be breaking his promise if he came to Barrisford now.
Rachel was slightly vexed to hear Sid answer, "Really? I had no recollection of getting that far into our conversation."
"You were the one who suggested it," Rachel retorted. "You're not going to go back on your own words now, are you?"
"Who do you take me for? Of course I won't go back on my words. But the only problem is that I don't recall making a promise not to see you on any condition. And why are you so anxious about the MacNeilly papers?"
Rachel was surprised. "How can you take your challenge so lightly, Sid?"
There was a pause. Then, Sid roared with laughter on the other line, startling Rachel so much that she had to hold that phone away from her ear for a moment. She had never, in her knowledge of Sidney Lamb, heard him laugh in that way. When he heard a joke, he snickered; when he slyly stole a kiss from her, he was a chuckler; and for all the other times, he was a smirker. When had he learned to roar?
It was just at that moment that her gaze fell on the caller identification screen on the phone---No! This was a farce!---and she turned ghastly cold.
The number displayed was not Sid's number. Nor the number of his office or cell.
"Are you calling from a public phone?" asked Rachel faintly.
"I'm calling from my house in town of course," said the voice on the other line. "Hello? Hello, stranger? Are you still there, Rachel?"
The only thought that ran through Rachel's mind now was that she'd heard that voice before. Who else but Colin Upton said, in exactly the same tones, "Hello, stranger"? She had been talking with Colin Upton, all the time thinking that the other person had been Sid? Wrapped up in her embarrassment, and not knowing what else to do, she blurted out an excuse and slammed the receiver down in a hurry.
"Who was that?" asked Arthur as he spotted Rachel pass the kitchen doorway.
Blushing, Rachel murmured, "I don't know." Her answer was met with a blank stare, and swallowing, she explained that she had thought the caller was Sid, only to discover that it was not.
The words, "Hello, stranger," stood out boldly in her mind again. She shivered, thinking of the next time she should have to run into the village swain.
She sat down at the kitchen table and buried her face in her arms in mortification. How was she to live through the humiliation of her stupid mistake? She recalled all that she had said over the telephone, and felt tense as she remembered one particularly uncharitable remark she made about Mrs. Winkstone's garden. To have mistaken a stranger for her friend Sid was already bad enough in itself, but that the stranger should be Colin Upton was utterly, unimaginably degrading. If only there was some kind of self-purgation she could employ, some means by which to cleanse and irrigate her soul!
Fortunately for her pride, Arthur was too collected to burst into laughter. "Though it ought to teach you a lesson that you should have learned at age eight. Never assume you know who is other the other line," he said, as gravely as possible.
Rachel could have taken any lecture from Arthur. She noted rather dryly that any lecture would have been better than having to face Colin Upton again.
As soon as Rachel stepped through the door of Violet Mead, she felt as though she had been pushed into the threshold of a new dimension. Here was a house that was very different from the one that she had known the day before yesterday. "Transformed" was an adjective to be applied lightly for the ornamentally-cluttered space that once used to be Mrs. Winkstone's living room.
"I had to bring out all my best ornaments, you see," said Mrs. Winkstone, guiding her guests inside. Rachel reluctantly followed Edith and Arthur inside, trying not to pay attention to Arthur's snort.
"This," continued Mrs. Winkstone, gesturing up at an imitation baroque-style clock hanging from the archway, "is a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Ashlington. They are friends of ours from London. I mean the very best part of London, England, my dear. They have an aunt who once lived on Downing Street. And Mrs. Ashlington was ever so generous with this---it's apparently a discarded wedding gift. Only think of what other wonderful trinkets they must have in their home if they could bear to part with this pretty little one. Their spare room must be filled like a gallery at Versailles!"
Upon hearing this, Rachel could not help but smile at the ugly brass piece in question.
Mrs. Winkstone, not reading Rachel's thoughts, smiled also. "See how that pendulum twirls about, as though it were spiralling like a dancer. I quite like this piece, don't you? I thought it would be just the perfect touch, you know, to remind Lady Temple Conrad that fine taste is not lost completely in this little neighbourhood."
Edith and Rachel had to laugh politely in return. Mrs. Winkstone continued to show them other objects of equally questionable value, and neither women knew how to best interrupt their host.
Rachel excused herself as soon as she could most conveniently do so. She had noticed Mr. Doulton sitting uncomfortably under an afghan. He looked not at all pleased to be conversing with Carr Winkstone. His displeasure convinced Rachel that she would have to "rescue" him in some way.
"Oh good, Sir Rachel, you're here," said Mr. Doulton in a touchy tone, as the girl approached them. "You've been caught in the trap too?"
"Hello there, Rae," said Carr in her brusque way. "Nice to see you could come. Sit down. We've been having a great chat over amalgamation."
"Amalgamation?" repeated Rachel, raising her eyebrows towards Mr. Doulton in mock interest. "I'm afraid I know very little about it."
"Well, you must know the next town wants Barrisford to amalgamate with them," said Carr, not at all noticing Rachel's sarcasm. "The day Barrisford becomes a part of Shirks is the day I die."
"That won't be many years yet," said Mr. Doulton, "Or you want to die young."
"Knock on wood," Carr shot back, and promptly doing so. "No one here plans on doing any dying soon. But I merely wanted to point out a given fact. Sooner of later, Barrisford will be no more, and anyone with some clout ought to do something about it."
Rachel looked blankly from Carr to Mr. Doulton. "Of course," she said at last, "If you feel so strongly about amalgamation, you should voice your opinion. It can't be hard to rouse everyone in the community to back a common interest."
Carr tossed her hands up dramatically in the air. "That's what I'm always saying to James---'Do something with your art. Do something that will rouse the people out of their beds, and into the streets!' Speaking of whom, I should introduce you to my brother, shouldn't I? God, I wonder where he is?"
"I remember Mrs. Winkstone mentioning that he's an painter," said Rachel. "Does he ever display any of his works?"
"Pardon me," Carr replied, lowering her voice as though she was imparting a secret, "But James is quite a shy boy, and he'd hate to have his paintings gawked at. The truth is, no one understands his paintings."
"I don't know much about paintings," said Rachel, trying to make amends, "But I should hope that I'm not one to dismiss art."
"Sure, of course not. But, wouldn't you say it would be more agreeable if he'd only take up photography? I mean, really. He started out in photography you know, with one of his old pals. I forget whom, but that's what James used to like. Now, he's got a stranger mind than even Van Gogh. His oil paintings? Blech. Give me a photo any day."
"Have you heard of any French photographers then?" asked Rachel eagerly, for here was something she could really appreciate. "Perhaps Robert Doisneau? I love his works. He makes candid pictures seem so effortless, and yet it's really a talent."
This was not the kind of reaction that Carr Winkstone had been expecting. Her intention had only been to stretch out, slightly exaggerate, her feelings on the subject of her brother's failure. Her intention had certainly not been to express or pursue an interest in photography, an interest which Carr never had in the first place. "Um?" she asked, trying not to seem flustered.
"Caroline Winkstone," interrupted Mr. Doulton, clearing his throat loudly, "do you mind fetching me another blanket? My legs feel cold."
The woman did as Mr. Doulton bid, only too thankful to get away. Motley Doulton looked at Rachel with a smirk on his face. His large, white dentures seemed to do the same. "You've done a good job, Sir Rachel," he said, choking with laughter, "You've really stunned Caroline Winkstone into speechlessness. If I do say so for myself, I think you're a queen at beating Caroline in her own game."
Derision and scorn were not ordinarily things that Colin Upton associated with the other half of the population, but as he accepted a drink at Mrs. Winkstone's card party, his dissatisfaction with his recent nonsuccess bordered on contempt of womankind. He was not used to brooking disappointment in the matters of the ladies---he never had to. They either admired him from afar, or fawned on his presence with the same devotion that little girls paid to pretty dolls. Even those who seemed to dislike him...Well, he always believed that hate was akin to love. Why would one salvage an abhorrence of him, if not out of jealousy for his attentions?
But, he noted bitterly to himself, there was one woman, one girl in his large circle of acquaintance, whose admiration he had yet to claim. She neither loved him, nor hated him. He had thought that she might have favoured him when he spoke with her on the phone, but when she called him by the name of Arthur Lamb's blasted brother---
He had been mistaken for unkempt, uncouth, uncultured Sidney Lamb? He had to laugh. His wounded vanity knew no other way to let out its distress. He could not show that he had been hurt. He would pass it off as a prank, a teasing joke; but in truth, his pride was bleeding.
Rachel Hobbes, he acknowledged, was neither delicately pretty like Celia Winkstone, nor chillingly stylish like Lady Temple Conrad. It drove him mad to think that such an ordinary girl should not hone her feelings with the same enthusiasm of Pen and Prue Haggerston. Her indifference was the hardest to stomach. One could not mold indifference into a shape; it was as amorphous as liquid, as immovable as a rock, and as relentless as day was day and night was night.
There she was too, at Mrs. Winkstone's party, chatting with old Motley Doulton, who was Mrs. Winkstone's "guest of honour". What did old Motley have that charmed the girl so? In his lifetime, Motley may certainly have had his share of wealth and looks, but both of these had well declined (or shrivelled) over the years---over the last century, more like. He need not dwell on the common knowledge that Motley Doulton had both the disposition and character of a lethal beetle.
In the midst of these uncharitable thoughts, a fair, pretty flower of a lady tip-toed and patted his hair, thus interrupting his reverie.
"That is something," smiled Celia softly, the daughter of the party's illustrious hostess. "How do you do that, Colin?"
Colin broke into his best social laugh. "How do I do what?"
"Your hair. It looks so natural, but feels as sturdy as a helmet."
"Gel. Twenty millilitres exactly." He set off his gear. "You look very pretty tonight, Celia. That is a new dress, is it not? The blue sets off your eyes angelically."
Celia beamed radiantly at him and, ever so demurely, brushed her soft, flaxen hair behind her ear. "Well, what have you been up to, Colin? Mum has been telling me that you were hopping to and from town. You hardly drive by in your Riviera these days."
"Did you want to go for a spin with me?" Colin responded suavely. "I can drive you anywhere you like in my car tomorrow. All day, if that is your desire."
Celia's thickly lashed eyelids drooped down in modesty, and then were lifted again to reveal her soft, limpid blue orbs, an action which gave an assurance of Colin's victory. And yet, when she opened her mouth to speak, the words that fell out were cruelly the opposite.
"I'm afraid I can't," she said, lowering her voice expertly. "Someone is coming round for me tomorrow morning. Toby Finch, to be exact."
He felt as though he'd walked into a glass door and bruised his nose. But a bruise was a bruise, he told himself, and not worth the bawling. It wasn't as though he'd broken his bones. He would try again, only he couldn't make himself sound desperate, because, after all, what was the need for his anxiety? Colin Leighford Upton never had to chase after girls---quite the other way around! If a new girl wouldn't have him, all was well and good. If Celia Winkstone, belle of Barrisford, refused to prioritize him on her list of beaux, all was still well and good.
"Any day you like, my angel," said Colin, "Whenever you wish." He looked carelessly at his glass, and remarked upon its empty state. "I'd better go for a refill."
Pleased with his smooth escape, he approached the punch table again, spying out, this time, Lady Temple Conrad, leaning against the counter, enshrined completely in her Snow Queen-like solitude. She didn't warm immediately towards him, but that was expected. It was true that she only made allowances for him once, but it was also true that she had denied all her other suitors, even connections of her late father, a baron; knowing this, Colin Upton was not easily discouraged by her coldness.
"Temple," he called her, audaciously ignoring her title. "Glad to see that you're well in spirit."
Temple Conrad looked at him and tightened her lips to hide a smile.
Colin took a swig at his drink, looking slyly sideways at her ladyship, correct in thinking that he was already en route to winning Temple's attention that night. Something in the way Temple pressed her lips together seemed to indicate that he was not going to be wrong with this lady.
"A fine thing he is," he commented, "Mrs. Winkstone's guest of honour."
"It is only Mr. Doulton," Temple said, tossing her fine bob of platinum blonde hair. She maintained her strictly London accent, but her upper lip loosened a little around the corners. "I would have thought Mrs. Winkstone's taste was shamefully neglectful, if this was the first time I met her."
"Dissatisfied with the party already?" asked Colin, handing her a glass of punch, which she took without thanking him. "The company tiring you out? It's no wonder though, this collection of guests is hardly what you would call 'refined'."
"Who is that girl over there?" asked Temple, directing her gaze towards the lady speaking with Mrs. Winkstone's guest of honour. "I have been watching her these last twenty minutes, and old Motley Doulton never tires of her. She bears all his remarks with a sort of complacency that makes see what a loss it is that her kind were not more far and wide."
"She's Edith Barkla's young friend, Rachel Hobbes," answered Colin detachedly. "Proud, and worse, not of our class. She works as a writer, apparently."
"Is that so?" Temple remarked, with an overacted dubiousness. "What do you make of her then?"
"Why, she is a very plain girl, in my opinion."
If Colin didn't know better, he would have thought Temple had smirked, but it was a generally accepted fact that few Conrads ever found humour in anything, and therefore, a smirk would be foreign to their countenance.
"In other words," said Temple coolly, "she is the first girl to not seek you out directly."
"I should not care whether she does or not," said Colin as nonchalantly as possible. "I do not care for her looks."
"There is nothing remarkable in her appearance," Temple agreed. "Her complexion is fair, her height of average tallness, but her hair decidedly plain. How old is she?"
"I imagine, about twenty-one or twenty-two."
"About seven years my junior, then?"
"Well, I thought she was younger. She would have been too raw for my society if she were of the age that I supposed her to be."
Temple finished her drink in one draught, and thrust her glass on the counter. She now turned her gaze on Celia in her yellow chiffon dress. "Celia Winkstone looks quite beautiful this evening," said Temple. "I wonder that you did not try to secure her attentions for the night. She is, after all, the daughter of the host, and is bound to be a charming dance partner."
Colin laughed adroitly. "I think you must be trying to make a fool of me tonight, Temple. If you must know, she thought she was above me." He placed a practiced hand over hers.
"Am I making you a fool?" asked Temple, almost coquettishly. "I should be flattered to think so. I sometimes think it's the other way around." Without another word, she let Colin kiss her, and then, withdrawing herself directly, she added, "There, are things foolish enough for you?"
Colin was pleased that Temple had so quickly succumbed. Although her lips had been as smooth and cool as marble, her simple offering had been significant, cold though it was. It was a gesture, really, an action to indicate that she approved of his intentions.
"You are as reserved as the snow queen," said Colin.
"And as perilous too?"
"I can't say for sure." Colin also looked at Celia now, and was satisfied in seeing her turn a shade purple. Just in time, he caught her glance, and blushing harder, Celia turned her attention back on Toby Finch.
"That is one good duty done for you," interjected Temple, for she had seen the look on Celia's face too, and understood what it meant.
"Was it really a duty?" Colin answered nonchalantly.
Temple Conrad met his gaze with her stunningly cool blue eyes, and Colin took the advantage again.
Pulling herself away once more, Temple took hold of her purse from the counter behind her. "Let's dash," she said calmly. "I've had enough of this party. Supper, cards, and this..."
"Let's get going," said Colin triumphantly.
Hand in hand, the two of them swept past the crowd, with a pomposity fit to don a monarch.
It was afterwards, while drinking at St. George Ballroom that Colin, with Temple warmed by her cocktail, ran into Toby Finch and Celia. Celia was no longer in the yellow chiffon that she had worn earlier, but was instead rigged in a white mini-dress that had been calculated to kill daggers. Toby, who had not been aware of Celia's and Colin's snubbing of each other, called out eagerly to Colin and Temple, inviting them to join him. Several minutes later, to any stranger, they would have made the picture of four sophisticated friends, having a good time together. Unfortunately, it was only Toby who was enjoying himself. It was no wonder, for with two attractive young women and a wealthy corporate prince all seated at his table, who would not have been pleased?
Perhaps his drink also contributed to his pleasure. He'd never been one to drink much, and the whisky was making him feel strangely light and free. He babbled on without hindrance, no one caring to stop him, though he sensed Celia sometimes slipping her hand into his under the table. Each time she did this, the more convinced Toby was of their mutual love.
During one of these episodes, Toby for some reason thought of the Finch-Briggs, his distant relatives, whom he called his uncle and aunt. Laughing a bit, he began to loudly narrate the story behind their names, all the time unaware of the fact that he was droning on worse than a choir of bagpipes.
"Doady and Dora," he said, concluding the tale with a broad grin. "It's hard to believe they could settle on that."
"It's from David Copperfield," said Lady Temple Conrad coolly.
"The magician?" Toby chortled in confusion.
Lady Temple regarded him with a look he couldn't decipher. Was it condescension? Oh, all those English women were the same, weren't they? Severe, strict, scornful. At least, that's what Toby had heard someone say before.
"I mean the novel," said Lady Temple. "By Charles Dickens."
"Oh, of course, Charles Dickens is...a very good novel."
"You mean novelist, Toby," said Celia, placing a caressing hand over his brow. "Come, we're all tired. Don't you think we'd better call it a night?"
She had begun to stand up when Colin Upton pressed a hand over her shoulder and asked that she sit down again. Toby didn't quite catch all that Colin said, but it was to some degree that they wait. Wait for what? Toby wondered. But Celia's grip on his arm had relaxed now, and leaning back, Toby smiled at Celia in his woozy stupor.
"Want to go for a spin in my car?" Colin was asking him now in a voice distinctly louder than the rest. "Remember, Toby, how you always wanted to ride in it? You like the Riviera, remember?"
"Are you sure there's enough room?" Celia was asking dubiously.
"Why not?" someone said---must have been Colin Upton again---"It can seat four---quite modestly, of course. You and Toby can sit in the back."
A pair of hands was now clutching each of Toby's arms, and although he hadn't felt quite ready to leave his chair---it had been a very comfortable chair---he tried to pick up his feet. They felt surprisingly heavy, as though someone had chained his ankles to metal weights.
"Get them off," he murmured. "Aunt Dora doesn't do that to Uncle Doady." For some strange reason, he remembered his car. "What about my car?" he asked, and then wondered why he was tongue felt so dead.
"Hush," said Celia, kissing him. "You can get it in the morning."
He was thrust onto cool, leather upholstery, and a woman, Celia, had climbed in next to him, the scent of honey and chamomile enveloping him. Nestling himself next her, Toby thought of what sweetness it was to spend another evening with Celia Winkstone, and he soon fell asleep.
Embarrassment was good, Colin thought, darting a quick glance at the reflection in his rearview mirror. Celia Winkstone, pretty and delicate as she was, was undoubtedly embarrassed and sorry. Well, that came of choosing plain, simple Toby Finch. Toby may well have been Colin's childhood comrade, but that didn't put Toby on his level. Hadn't Colin offered Celia more? Of course he had, but Celia had been too foolish to acknowledge his worth. She had tried to be coy, and now she plainly saw her folly.
Naturally, after depositing the heap that was Toby Finch into his house, at Toby's sister's feet, Colin returned to his car to drive Celia and Temple home. Celia was the first to go, and silently so. Colin was satisfied in seeing her head hang with a languid air as she stumbled out of his car. He knew his triumph, and embraced it fully.
Lastly, was Temple. Something in the quick eagerness of her eyes made Colin feel too tired to kiss her good night, even though she had been far more pleasant than usual. Perhaps Temple was offended, but she was too proud to acknowledge the loss, and she exited the car without Colin's help. The chilly, marble-like Lady Temple Conrad who had left Conrad Bower that afternoon was the same chilly, marble-like Lady Temple Conrad who entered it now.
Some hearts will be broken, some will be frozen, Colin rhymed lamely to himself, as he watched Temple close the front door behind her. Not bothering to wait for her to signal a goodbye from the window, Colin drove off.
His efforts for staying out late were not met with failure. Through Toby Finch's self-degradation, there had escaped some very interesting knowledge that Colin would not otherwise have acquired. For instance, Drunken Toby spoke a great deal of his aunt, Dora Finch-Briggs, and his aunt's efforts to help Rachel Hobbes. Now, Colin fully understood why Rachel was here in Barrisford. She wanted to find the journals and stray writings of Maud MacNeilly---and by deduction, Colin knew they had to be worth some value. But why would she try to find them, and for someone as calculating as Sidney Lamb? If only Sidney Lamb wasn't tied in all this, Colin would be more than willing to help a damsel in distress.
Conscious of such feelings, Colin stopped his car in front of Arthur Lamb and Edith Barkla's house and looked up to the second floor, where he knew the guestroom was. He watched for a moment, hanging his arm over the car door. The lights were still burning brightly in that room upstairs, although no shadows made a pass. Silently, Colin willed for poor Rapunzel to come to the window and blow him a kiss.
© 2001 Copyright held by the author.