aisy paused at the top of the brick steps leading down from the terrace. The negro butler had said Lady Cheringham was to be found in the back garden, but there was no sign of Daisy's aunt.
On either side of the steps, roses flourished, perfuming the still air. From the bottom step, a gravel path cut across the lawn, which, shaded in part by a huge chestnut, sloped smooth as a bowling green to the river. The grey-green Thames slid past around the bend, unhurried yet relentless on its way to London and the sea.
Upstream, Daisy saw the trees on Temple Island, hiding the little town of Henley-on-Thames. Downstream, the white buildings of Hambleden Mill and the pilings dividing the boat channel from the mill-race marked the position of the lock and weir. Beyond the towpath on the far bank of the river, the Berkshire side, Remenham Hill rose to a wooded crown. On the near side, at the foot of the lawn, was a long, low boat-house half-hidden by shrubs and a rampant lilac-flowered clematis. From it, a plank landing-stage ran along the bank, with two bright-cushioned skiffs moored there side by side.
On the landing-stage stood two hatless girls in summer frocks, one yellow, one blue.
Daisy took off her hat with a sigh of relief. The watercooled breeze riffled through the honey-brown curls of her shingled hair.
The two girls were gazing upstream, hands shading their eyes against the westering sun, still high in a cloudless sky. From her vantage point, Daisy followed their gaze and spotted a racing eight emerging from the narrows to the north of the island. Foreshortened by distance, the slender boat crawled towards them like an odd sort of insect, oars rising and dipping in unison on either side. The cox's voice floated across the water.
“Got you!” The triumphant exclamation came from nearby, in a female voice.
Looking down, Daisy saw a spotted brown-linen rear end backing cautiously out of the rosebed, followed by a broad-brimmed straw hat.
“Hullo, Aunt Cynthia.”
“I keep telling him chopping off their heads won't kill them.” Lady Cheringham, straightening, brandished a muddy-gloved hand clutching a dandelion with a twelve-inch root. Her lean face, weathered by decades of tropic climes, broke into a smile. “Hullo, Daisy. Oh dear, is it past four already?”
Daisy started down. “Only quarter past. The train was dead on time and your man was waiting at the station.” On the bottom step, she nearly fell over a garden syringe.
“Careful, dear! I was spraying the roses, dealing death to those dratted greenfly, when I noticed the dandelion.”
“Not deadly poison, I hope? It seems to have dripped on your blouse.”
“Only tobacco-water, but perhaps I'd better go and wash it off. It does stain horribly.” Lady Cheringham dropped the dandelion's corpse by the sprayer. “Bister simply won't admit that hoes are useless against these brutes, but that's what comes of having a chauffeur-cum-gardener-cum-handyman.”
“I rather like dandelions,” Daisy confessed.
“Never fear, however many we gardeners slaughter, there will always be more.” She stooped to pick up a trug, loaded with pink and yellow cut roses, which lay on the grass at her feet. “As a matter of fact, I really just came out to deadhead and cut some roses for your roomâyou're sure you don't mind sharing with your cousin? The house is packed to the rafters.”
“Not at all. In fact it's spiffing. It will give me a chance to get to know her better. Now that Patsy's grown-up, that fiveyear gulf between us won't seem so vast.”
“Tish, dear. Patricia insists on being called Tish these days, Heaven knows why. I dare say I should be thankful they don't address each other by their surnames, she and her friend Dottie.” Lady Cheringham waved at the two girls by the river. “I gather that is the custom at the ladies' colleges, apeing the men. So unsuitable. I can't help wondering if it was quite wise to entrust Patricia's upbringing to Rupert's brother while we were abroad.” She sighed.
“I suppose being brought up in the household of two Oxford dons must have inclined Pat â¦ Tish to academic life.”
Daisy hoped she didn't sound envious. Neither family nor school had prepared her for university studies. In fact, the idea
had never dawned on her until the newspapers reported Oxford University's admission of women to degrees, just three years ago, in 1920. Already twenty-two and struggling to earn a living, she had recognised that her chance was past.
Her aunt said cheerfully, “Oh, Patricia has to swot like mad. She isn't really any more intellectual than I am. Luckilyâsince I suspect she has an understanding with Rollo Frieth. A charming young man but not brainy, though he's an undergrad at Ambrose College.”
“That's the crew you're putting up for the Regatta, isn't it?”
“Yes, Rupert's nephew rows for Ambrose. Christened Erasmus, poor boy, but everyone calls him Cherry.”
“I've met him, I'm sure, more than once but years ago.”
“Very likely. He's practically a brother to Patricia. You'll see him at tea, and meet the rest.”
“I think I saw them rowing this way.”
They both turned and looked at the river. The boat was a couple of hundred yards off, drifting downstream towards them, the rowers in their white shirts and maroon caps resting on their oars. Sounds of altercation reached Daisy's ears, though she could not make out the words.
“I must go and change, and deal with these flowers,” Lady Cheringham said hastily. “Do go on down and say hullo to Patricia, since she stayed home especially to welcome you. That's Dottie Carrick with her.”
Daisy walked down to the landing-stage. At the sound of her footsteps on the gravel, PatriciaâTishâand her friend looked round.
Tish was a pretty, fair-haired girl, just turned twenty. Slim in pale blue pique, a dark blue sash at the low waist, her figure
was admirably suited to the bustless, hipless fashion of the day, Daisy noted enviously.
She didn't know her cousin well. Sir Rupert Cheringham, in the Colonial Service, had left his only child to be brought up by his brother and sister-in-law, both lecturers at Oxford University. Visits between that academic family and Daisy's aristocratic family had been few and fleeting, though Lady Cheringham was Daisy's mother's sister.
To Daisy, Oxford was a railway station, or a place one motored through, between London and her ancestral home in Gloucestershire, now the property of Cousin Edgar. Daisy's brother, Gervaise, might have gone to Oxford had the War not intervened. His death had eliminated that connection. The death of her fiance had left her uninterested in any men who might otherwise have invited her to May Balls after the War, when demobbed officers flocked to the universities.
Gervaise and Michael were five years gone. The new man in Daisy's life had taken his degree at the plebeian University of Manchester.
“Hullo, Daisy!” Patricia greeted her. “You haven't brought Mr. Fletcher with you? Alec Fletcher is Daisy's fiancÃ©,” she explained to her friend.
“He can't get away till Friday night. He's booked at the White Hart.”
“Just as well. Mother would have to stuff him into the attics. Half the men are on camp-beds already, sharing rooms, with the cox in the linen-room because he's the only one short enough! Oh, you don't know Dottie, do you? Dorothy Carrick, a college friendâand she's engaged to Cherry. Dottie, my cousin, Daisy Dalrymple.”
Miss Carrick, round-faced, bespectacled, rather sallow,
her painfully straight, mousy hair cut in an uncompromising short bob, looked every inch the female undergrad. A frock printed with large, yellow cabbage roses did nothing for her stocky form. Daisy, always at odds with her own unfashionable curves, felt for her.
“How do you do, Miss Carrick,” she said. “Mr. Cheringham's rowing, isn't he?”
Dottie smiled, a boyish grin revealing even, very white teeth. “That's right. In both the Thames Cup and the Visitors'âthe eight and the coxless four, that is.” Her voice was a beautiful, mellifluous contralto. “The four won their heat this morning, and we're waiting to hear about the eight. You're here to write about the Regatta, Tish said?”
“Yes, for an American magazine. Harvard and some others often send crews over so the races get reported, especially when an American boat wins, but my editor wants an article on the social side of things.”
“Champagne and strawberries in the Stewards' Enclosure?” said Tish.
“Yes, that sort of stuff. Ascot hats, and watching the fireworks from Phyllis Court. A friend of my father's is a member, and the husband of a friend of mine is a member of the Stewards' Enclosure, and they've both kindly invited me. I'm going to throw in a bit about the fun-fair, too.”
share of the social side,” Dottie observed. “Jolly good. I'll help you do the research. I've been dying to go on the Ferris wheel.”
Tish shuddered. “Rather you than me! But I'm a dab hand at a coconut shy. Let's talk Cherry and Rollo into going with us after tea.”
“Rollo?” said Daisy disingenuously.
“Roland Frieth.” Tish's fair skin flushed with delicate colour, as good as confirming her mother's report to Daisy. “He's Cherry's chum.”
“And the Ambrose captain,” Dottie put in. “Here they are now.”
“Keep out of their way while they get the boat out,” Tish advised. “It's serious business.”
Head bobbing, a solitary moorhen scurried for the safety of the middle of the river as the boat nosed gently in alongside the landing-stage, behind the two skiffs tied up there. The cox, short and wiry, with bare, sun-tanned knees knobbly beneath his maroon rowing shorts, jumped out. He held the stern steady while his crew counted off.
“Bow.” Daisy recognised Tish's cousin, Erasmus “Cherry” Cheringham, a fair, serious-looking young man much larger and more muscular than she remembered him.
“Two.” Another large, muscular young man, dark-haired. He gave a quick, cheerful wave. Daisy assumed they had won the heat.
“Stroke.” In contrast to the rest, the stroke looked sulky. Otherwise, apart from varying hair colour, they could have been septuplets for all the difference Daisy could see.
On the cox's command, eight large, muscular, perspiring young men stepped out onto the planks, making them bounce beneath Daisy's feet. She hastily moved backwards onto solid ground.
Bow and stroke held the boat while the other six laid the oars out on the grass. Then all eight oarsmen bent to the boat.
“Hands on,” ordered the cox. “Ready. Up!”
With one smooth motion, the boat rose from the water and swung upside-down over their heads.
The elongated, many-legged tortoise tramped towards the boat-house. “We took the trick,” it called gaily as it departed. “Be with you in a minute, ladies.”
Tish and Dottie each picked up one of the maroon, green, and white banded oars and followed. Eyeing the twelve-foot length and dripping blades of the remaining sweeps, Daisy decided against lending her aid.
The cox also stayed behind, staring after the rowers with a scowl on his face.
“I thought you won?” Daisy said with puzzled sympathy.
“What? Oh, yes, we won all right.” Orotund Oxfordian contended uneasily with a flat, nasal whine straight from the Midlands. “We may be a small college and we wouldn't stand a chance in the Grand, but we've a good shot at the Thames Cup.”
“You don't look very happy about it. Oh, I'm Daisy Dalrymple, by the way, Patricia's cousin.”
“Horace Bott. How do you do, Miss Dalrymple? Of course I'm glad we took the heat,” he went on gloomily, “but even if we win the final, I'll still be an outsider.”
“Because you don't row?”
“Because I haven't got the right family, or accent, or clothes, or instincts. When I won the scholarship to Ambrose, I thought all I had to do was prove I'd earned it, but I could
take a hundred Firsts with Honours and my father would still be a small shopkeeper.”
“There's nothing wrong with being a shopkeeper,” Daisy encouraged him. “Napoleon said the English were a nation of shopkeepers, but we beat him all the same.”
“Nothing wrong as long as we know our place,” Bott groused, “which isn't at Oxford competing with our betters. âBetters,' my foot! Half the stuck-up snobs who treat me like dirt only got into Ambrose through their family connections, and with all the private tutoring in the world they'll be lucky to scrape by with Pass Thirds.”
Daisy didn't care for his peevish tone, but she suspected he had reason for his disgruntlement. If Gervaise had gone up to Oxford, it certainly would not have been on the basis of academic brilliance, nor with the intention of excelling academically. She rather thought he would have scorned those who did, and he had certainly not shared her willingness to hobnob with the lower classes.