Saturday, 21 July 2007

Distant Thunder

This strangest and most disappointing of summers drags on. After two days of sunshine the rain has returned; the sky is leaden again, and I heard distant thunder this morning as I sat at the window of the attic, looking out over David Porteous’s gazebo, and Bill’s sodden vegetable garden. I miss Bill badly – and not only because I haven’t the smallest idea of what to do with his vegetables, which have the appearance now of small green islets adrift in a sea of mud. He appears to have forgotten about them, and though the lecture tour is drawing to its end, has no ideas of returning home immediately. He thinks of staying on in Sydney for a week or two, he tells me; and then of ‘going across to Adelaide’, where he has friends whom he has been promising to visit for years.

I don’t know why I should be surprised to hear that Bill has friends in Adelaide, or that they should be entreating him to come and stay. He has friends everywhere; most of them unknown to me, and many of them, it seems, women with whom he has at one time had relationships, and who have never quite gone away. Therein lies the secret of Bill’s success with women, it often seems to me – that he has loved a great many of them, but never for long, and never quite enough; yet that none of those he’s tried to love has held his eventual defection against him, or been willing, when it has happened, quite to relinquish him. So that no matter where he happens to be in the world at any given moment, there will always be some woman eager to take him in, or take him back.

It’s a system that has worked well for him for many years, but I believe it has made him lazy; and I further believe that if he means to try to apply it now to Belle Macauley, it will fail, and he will end by losing the only woman with whom he might have found a true and lasting happiness. I have no real grounds of course, for believing any of these things; I have only the strongest possible instinct that they are so. And if I had wanted reinforcement of that belief, I’d have found it almost daily since Bill’s departure, in the nature and content of the conversations I have had with him every evening on the telephone.

I am growing impatient with him however, and fear that last night I was deliberately obtuse. He had wanted as usual to know what was ‘going on’ – and what ‘that man’ seemed likely to be going to do next. And whilst I knew of course that he referred to David Porteous, and that somewhere implicit in his question was another one that pertained to Belle.... I nevertheless declined to take his point. I only told him rather sharply that I had not the least idea of what ’that man’ might be intending to do; only that he seemed to be playing some very deep game that was presently beyond my powers of wit or deduction to interpret – and that if Bill himself wanted to know what was going on here, he really ought to get on a plane and come home, instead of amusing himself at some poor woman’s expense in Adelaide!

Bill though, had only a laugh for it. “Oh well” he said; “If he’s playing some deep game, he’ll play it better with only women looking on. Far be it from me to come crashing in to spoil the fun.”

He wanted to know how Belle was holding out, for all that. And when I asked him “holding out against what, precisely?, refused to specify; saying only that he had an idea Belle was always made uncomfortable by close proximity with her mother’s protégés, and especially perhaps with those who had recently been separated from other women. Again though, I refused to help him out. I asked him instead if there were actually anything in the world he was prepared to stand up and fight for; and he told me, laughing again, that he couldn’t think what I was getting at, but that he’d fight for the right to lead a quiet life at any rate; particularly when it came to long-distance telephone calls ... At which point there was a tremendous clap of thunder directly overhead here, and the line cut out on us. Leaving me with the suspicion that David Porteous was probably not the only one playing some deep game – but that for the life of me, I couldn’t fathom quite what Bill’s might turn out to be.

Dogs will sometimes unearth things that have remained buried to humans however, and I had reason to remind myself of this when I returned this afternoon from a long, wet walk on the common with Belle. Walking Monty has been one of my regular duties in Bill’s absence, and I have been struck by the number of dog-walking women who have come up to me to inquire after Bill himself. Rose has always said to me that she thought Bill must have a regular little coterie out there among the female dog-walkers, and it seems she was right; though what she evidently hasn’t quite picked up on, and what has come as a considerable surprise, even to me, is that Monty himself seems to know who his real friends are – and that each day, when the walk is over, he has attached himself to Belle’s Labrador, Polly, and taken himself resolutely off, not in the direction of the gatehouse, but in that of the Macauley house, where with one long bound he has descended to the basement, and after a long gulp of water from a bowl that is evidently his own, has promptly settled down to sleep in a basket before the kitchen stove.

“Monty is evidently very much at home here” I observed to Belle today; and was intrigued, though not altogether surprised, to see that she coloured a little before explaining, all in a rush, that yes, it had become a part of the little ritual of the daily walk, that Monty should head home with Polly, and that Bill must, almost as a matter of course, follow in his footsteps and then stay on to have a cup of tea with her in the kitchen. That this was suggestive of a degree of intimacy between Bill and her that I hadn’t as yet divined for myself, was clear – and I’d have done my best to follow it up with a carefully worded question or two; had not Rose at that moment come clattering down the basement stairs, with an urgent request from Lady Macauley that we should immediately forsake the dogs, and come up to the drawing room to help her with the entertainment of Mr Porteous and his daughters.

“You must come at once.” she said. “They have been here an hour already; the conversation has taken every kind of unexpected turn, and your mother has been growing very impatient for your return.”

Just so of course, are the most opportune moments for enlightenment in human affairs often arbitrarily snatched away; and though I had sensed that Belle was on the point of confiding something rather important to me, I was obliged to give it up, and follow her instead to the drawing room, where sat Lady Macauley in splendid state, with a Porteous girl on either side of her, and their father gazing thoughtfully out of the window at the rain.

“Oh, there you are at last!” Lady Macauley exclaimed. “Looking very much the worse for the rain of course, but no matter....though I think you might have removed your boots! We have been talking about the tapestries, which Imogen and Amy are going to be brave enough to try to repair for us. And now we are to go and have a look at the old chapel, to see what David thinks he might be able to do about that troublesome priest, whom some say lingers there...”

Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Not wiser, but sadder

It is characteristic of Frances that, having decided she is unable to find happiness with David Porteous herself, she should be anxious to do or say nothing that might spoil his chances of finding his own elsewhere. She can even find it in her heart to be glad that he has been taken up by Lady Macauley, whom she believes capable of doing a great deal more for him than she could herself. I confess that this is not the reaction I had hoped to see in her. I had hoped to see her rail against him a little. If she had come right out and told me that he was a cold-hearted egotist who had been interested only in spending her money and enjoying the comforts of her house, I’d have been well pleased. But this alas, is not her way, and she will say only that in the end nothing she could give him was quite enough.

“I was too old for him you see” she confided yesterday. “Oh, I don’t mean that I’m older than he is – in years of course, we are precisely the same. But the difference is that he had this chance to become young again – to shine, and grow great, and somehow live out all the dreams of his youth, that life had seemed to have taken away from him, probably forever. I had thought that I could give him that. I thought we could grow young again together, and that I could be of help to him in the realisation of his dream. But I see now that I was never young, not really - not in the sense that other girls were young. I was never given the chance to be, and now it’s too late to try. I have no greatness of soul either, you see. I could give him every kind of material comfort, but I couldn’t inspire him.... Nor could I even give him the kind of physical joy he craved. It seemed at first we could be happy together as lovers at least - but I watched him every day grow more disappointed in me, so that after a while he could scarcely bring himself to touch me, or even look at me any more, and I had to let him go...”

This was so very far from her initial glad shedding of the shoes that pinched, that I had to restrain myself from shouting aloud that she had been used and abused – that she had put all her faith in an unworthy cause, and that if anyone had let anyone down here, it was David Porteous, and not she herself! I have never wished so much that Bill was there to help me out, and I asked myself what Bill might have said to her to try to breach the gap between her generous intentions and her hopelessly exploited good faith. I’m not sure however that even Bill would have known how to show her the extent to which she has been, and remains mistaken; and I was obliged to leave her with her disappointment directed inwards, as always, upon herself - and her bright dream of the potential greatness of David Porteous more or less intact.

If there was any comfort to be derived anywhere in all this, I could find it only in the fact that she has not abandoned quite every one of her own dreams, but means at least to go ahead with the restoration plans that she and David had drawn up for the manor house. The scaffolding was going up even as I sat with her yesterday, and I believe she will find sufficient interest in the immediate future, just in watching the transformation as it unfolds. First, the roof is to be repaired; and then there are to be several additional bathrooms installed; a new bedroom suite for herself, which was to have involved a dressing room and study for David, though she seems to have relinquished that, and tells me that she will have the luxury of a walk-in wardrobe instead; and a complete modernisation of the kitchen.

The original plan had also been to create an extension of the existing conservatory to make a garden studio for Frances herself. It had been her idea that she would develop her interest in painting, so as to have something of her own to occupy her while David was busy in the library with his great book. And although I have no more faith in the idea of the book than I ever had – believing as I do that he is one of those who talks about his writing a great deal more than he ever actually sits down to accomplish it – I do hope that Frances will go ahead with the studio idea. I believe she will enjoy having a studio of her own, and that she will perhaps be able to create some kind of a little future life for herself around it.

I left her yesterday quite happily involved with settling in her little team of builders; who have arrived only lately from Poland, whose tenuous grasp of English will no doubt tax her ingenuity in the weeks to come, but who are to be provided with every possible convenience while they work, and whom I saw yesterday enjoying their first cups of tea in the spacious recreation room that she has provided for them in one of the larger out-buildings.

For the moment then, I think she will be all right. And I shall find some interest myself, it has to be said, in watching to see how David Porteous comports himself as the spurned and disappointed lover. I daresay he will find some entirely new and original way of demonstrating the part - though he seems to have been very quiet about it to date. Rose talked of his going constantly to the Macauley house, but I believe she has been exaggerating wildly as is her wont; and that as a matter of fact he has been lying rather low in his own house, with only his daughters for company. The girls have given up the idea of the shop in Baker Street, apparently: the lease was too high, or the likely profit margin too slim, something of that general sort – and they are presently staying with their father while they look about for something else to do. Frances takes a great interest in them, and tells me they are very talented; especially Imogen, whose painting shows much promise, and whose quick little line drawings of people she encounters on the street are worthy of publication in a book of caricatures.

I believe that Frances will be perfectly capable of making her new studio freely available to the Porteous girls in the future; it would not surprise me in the least to hear that she had made their artistic development a new and ardent cause. Nothing much can come of that at the present moment however - and in the meantime, though I bear the girls themselves no personal ill-will, I do hope most sincerely that their father is experiencing every kind of inconvenience and difficulty in being obliged to share his house with them.

Sunday, 15 July 2007


The Pattern Changes

A great deal can change in the course of just two weeks. I had been feeling quietly pleased with the results of my little party; it seemed to me I had achieved most of the things I set out to achieve – and one or two that I hadn’t, into the bargain. Lady Macauley had been brought in contact with David Porteous after all - and the heavens hadn’t exactly fallen as a consequence! Not even for Belle, it appears. Though Bill warns me not to be complacent in that respect: he evidently still sees cause for concern, and his final words to me before departing last Thursday for a two-week lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand, were “Don’t over-water my tomatoes. Expect surprises from Frances - and keep an eye on Belle!”

I think I know what he meant. The reference to Frances is rather cryptic, of course; and one never knows precisely what he’s getting at when it comes to Belle. But even so, I take his points, and shall maintain a certain vigilance on his behalf where Belle is concerned. Rose tells me though, that so far from feeling threatened by the new association, Belle has begun to talk of the invigorating effect it’s already having upon her mother, who has taken to planning little teas, and lunches, and suppers in the gallery; all with the idea of having David Porteous and his daughters come to them, and quite as if she were fifty again, instead of eighty plus.

For Belle herself – well, the heavens haven't fallen for her either, apparently. She is glad of course, that the presence of Frances, as fiancee, will act as a curb upon her mother's wilder match-making flights; but she now sees that the association with Mr Porteous is probably not going to turn out to be quite the personal ordeal by fire that she had anticipated. I don’t know if Bill would find reassurance in this; but I think that on the whole I’d best say nothing to him about it for the present, when I email.

Then too, there’s Pamela, who has been gathered into the Macauley fold in the most unexpected, yet seemingly natural way. Rose tells me she is still basking in the pleasant afterglow of the encounter; that her conversations are embellished these days with little references to ‘Lady and Miss Macauley’, and that she scatters intimations wherever she goes that Roland is likely at any moment to be summoned to the Macauley house, for a meeting with Lady Macauley’s solicitor in the matter of her financial arrangements. This is the social high ground indeed, for Pamela; and I believe Rose when she says that she goes about the village these days with her head held high, and her shopping basket almost at the angle of jauntiness.

Rose told me all these things from the position of her favourite stool in my kitchen this morning. She arrived at ten o’clock, having come, she said, for a good, long mulling-over of events. There was much to talk about, didn’t I think? Especially since she had it on good authority that David Porteous had lately moved out of the manor house, and back into his own; and that so far as she had been able to gather, Frances had not gone with him. This was disturbing news to me, but I did my best not to seem startled by it. I merely asked Rose what her authority was, and was not greatly reassured when she told me it was the best there was - which was to say the evidence of her own eyes. Anyone going from the manor house to old Miss Porteous’s must pass her own, she pointed out; and she had lately seen David Porteous take that route on several occasions, carrying suitcases, and bags of books - and notably unaccompanied by Frances.

“Oh well, it could be anything of course.” I rather vaguely replied. “It’s only lately after all that Mr Jessop has finished re-furbishing his house – David might simply have been returning some of the things he no longer needed at the manor house ...”

As explanations went it fell very short, I knew; and Rose was quick to capitalise on its inherent flaws. “In the first place” she retorted; “one would have expected him to be moving things out of, not into his own house, if it was his intention to remain permanently at the manor house with Frances. And in the second - well, how do you account for the fact that he is evidently spending his nights, as well as his days, in his own house? I have seen him coming in and out repeatedly – and I can tell you that if he goes anywhere in the afternoons, it is to the Macauley house, and not to that which contains his erstwhile beloved!”

I was unable to account for any of these things, and I disliked intensely the idea that Rose was probably going about the district spreading rumours of this sort. Her facial expression is one of scarcely contained glee – I won’t go quite so far as to call it malice – when she relates such stories. There is nothing she likes better than a good, half-founded conspiracy theory – and though one’s every instinct is to discount them if one can, the unhappy truth is that Rose’s conspiracy theories, like those of the tabloid newspapers, generally turn out to contain a degree of truth.

She had a good deal more to tell me. I was conscious that she had begun to talk about the Porteous daughters, and the fact that Frances seemed to have developed an almost motherly fondness for them... But I found that I wasn’t listening to her any longer; I wanted her to leave, so that I might go at once to visit Frances, and discover the truth of the situation for myself. She did depart, finally; and I waited only long enough to see her disappear around the corner of the common, before making a quick check of my appearance, and hurrying off in the direction of the manor house; taking my way by the back lanes, lest I should encounter Rose again on the high street.

That there would be surprises for me there I fully anticipated; but what I hadn’t, couldn’t possibly have anticipated, was that it would be Mrs Meade who came out to wrestle with the pair of tall black gates to let me in. I was taken very much off guard by her re-appearance there, and hardly knew what to say to her, except to murmur that it was ‘very nice’ to see her back again. She gave me a look which said she would take that as she saw fit - which was with a heavy dollop of scepticism. And there was that about her demeanour, her very gait, as she led me across the courtyard and into the house, that told me more clearly than words could have done, that she believed herself to have been ill-used indeed; but that she was re-instated now, so that I, and all Miss Fanshawe’s other so-called friends, had better try to make the best of it we could.

Frances was sitting in the shaded conservatory before her easel, and the first thing I noticed about her was that she was dressed as she had used to be in the early days of our friendship, in paint-stained smock and crumpled trousers. She wore no make-up, and her hair was dishevelled; but the smile with which she greeted me was unstrained, and I took comfort - I can hardly say why – from the fact that on her feet were the old, familiar, curiously boat-like shoes.

“I can see from your face that Rose has been to see you, and that you must have heard my news” she very quietly said. “I had hoped to tell you myself, but more or less expected that Rose would have got in first. It’s perfectly true anyway – I have released David from his engagement, and he has returned to his own house for good. Please don’t try to say anything dear – there’s really nothing very much to say ....... It was Bill you know, who gave me courage to do it in the end. I had confided in him and he said “Do the thing that makes you comfortable”. And I knew that the only thing that would make me comfortable again would be to have my house, and my old life back.... So here I am, right down to the old shoes – I can’t tell you how the new ones pinched! And the wonderful thing is, that when once I’d stopped crying about it, I began to smile – and have hardly been able to stop smiling since!”

It may have been a bravura performance on Frances’s part, but somehow I didn’t think so. Nor did I seek to press her for any more about the separation than she seemed disposed, at this stage, to tell me. I spent another hour with her, during which time I learnt that one of the first acts of her freedom had been to send for Mrs Meade. Not as a gesture of defiance, as she put it; but more in the spirit in which she had taken to wearing her old shoes again - simply because they didn’t pinch!

I’m sure I shall hear more as the days and weeks go by; but for the moment it is enough to know that she has made the break, and will be able to live with it. I immediately sent a text to Bill saying “Frances has done it and is OK". To which he texted back "Excellent! Now have an eye for Belle."