Authors: Leonora Starr
For some years Alison Hamilton had devoted herself to the young Selkirks, the orphaned children of her cousin, knowing well that by the time they grew up her own chance of marriage would be slight. And when, in the quiet village of Market Blyburgh, where nothing ever happened, Logie Selkirk became engaged to Sherry McAirlie, Alison wondered wistfully whether she was too old to hope for romance. She had, indeed, no premonition of the happiness that was to be hers, just as Logie could not foresee that anything could mar the perfect happiness of her bright new world of wealth and sophistication.
No less than seven doctors in succession had made their home in Swan House, so that in Market Blyburgh it was more often given the name of Doctor’s House. For as long as the oldest inhabitant could remember, and many a long day before that, the people of the town and countryside had brought their cuts and coughs and poisoned fingers to the red-brick house, whose wide white door opened beneath its fanlight on to shallow steps and whose twelve-paned front windows had looked out across the market-place since Anne was queen.
In the last hundred years the changes that had taken place there were for the most part superficial. An Aga in the kitchen in place of a vast range, electric light instead of oil-lamps, one maid at most and sometimes none in place of three or four, new drugs and equipment in the surgery, telephone calls instead of notes delivered by hand, an Austin Twelve to take the doctor on his rounds instead of brougham or dog-cart. But still the stream of life flowed on essentially unaltered in the old house; still it held the atmosphere of kindliness and reassurance that had brought comfort to many an anxious heart.
Behind the house lay a walled garden with a lawn, and wide herbaceous borders and vegetables screened by raspberry-canes and gooseberry bushes, and neatly clipped box hedges and fruit-trees trained against the walls. Beyond the garden were the buildings that had formerly been coach house, stables, hayloft, and the living quarters of the gardener or coachman—or, more recently, a handyman who had combined the offices of gardener and chauffeur. Here it was that one big alteration was noticeable in the pattern of the life of Swan House. There was neither car nor carriage in the coach-house, which had become a dumping ground for bins of hen food, garden chairs, and pea stakes; no horses in the stables, whose only tenants now were hens. The loft had been incorporated with the one-time quarters of the coachman, which was now the home of the young Selkirks, children of the late doctor. With them lived Alison Hamilton, who had been at Swan House when their father’s sudden death, ten years ago, had left them orphans, and who had stayed with them ever since. The twins, Logie and her brother Andrew, were twenty, Jane was fourteen; and Alison, who was so much one of the family that to the others she was like an elder sister, was thirty-five. Only two of the Selkirks were left at home now, for Andrew was with his regiment in Palestine.
On a fine morning late in June, Logie was busy with the making of her bed. Her hair was her most striking feature. It had never needed to be cut, its natural length being no more than a couple of inches. All over her small, shapely head it sprang in honey-coloured feathery curls that caught the light and held it in a pale, shining aureole. Her brow was wide and square at the temples. Her skin was fair and fine, with a faint powdering of freckles on her short, tilted nose. She had grey, reflective eyes, set deep and wide apart, a square, determined chin, and lips whose curves were the soft pink of chestnut flowers.
There were two windows in her room. From one, had she looked out, she could have seen the tall blue columns of the delphiniums and the roses, gold and apricot, white and crimson, bordering the lawn of Swan House. From the other, at the end, she could have looked beyond the river, flowing smooth and silently below, to marshes, lit by gleams of flashing water, streaked with olive, emerald, chestnut, umber, and cinnamon, that roved away to meet the fields and woods where this morning hung the faint blue haze that heralds a hot day. Redshanks were making plaintive clamour and a thrush sang from a holly-tree, but Logie, deep in her own thoughts, did not hear them.
She was thinking how she longed for something to look forward to. Life seemed to stretch monotonously ahead, unbroken by the prospect of some entertaining happening—such as the posting of a regiment to Blakeley Camp, so long deserted, or an invitation to spend a week-end at a country house with an amusing party, or the arrival in the neighbourhood of a family with members of her own age; for the pleasures of contemporary companionship were hers only at rare intervals, when a son or daughter came to spend leave or a week-end with parents in the neighbourhood. Logie enjoyed these interludes, but they were apt to leave her feeling restless and unsettled, and longing more than ever to go to London to be trained for work that might eventually lead to travel or at least to meeting interesting people. But there was no money to be spared for any training, and, besides, she couldn’t possibly leave Alison, who had done so much for them for years, to go on shouldering the burden by herself.
So there seemed no alternative to her present programme. Every morning and most afternoons since she had left school two years ago she had worked in Dr. Sinclair’s surgery and dispensary. It wasn’t an exciting job, but it brought in a little money to the family’s exchequer, and Logie liked her contacts with the patients: elderly women whose faded eyes were anxious, thin old men with wrinkled hands, happy young expectant mothers, weary housewives bringing the new baby to be vaccinated. Perhaps the crisp white overalls she wore invested Logie with an air of authority, for they one and all consulted her as though she were an oracle while waiting for their turn to see the doctor. Gravely she would listen to the recitation of their symptoms and the stories of their lives, and often offerings were brought to her, of eggs and flowers and honey and an occasional rabbit, in token that they appreciated her concern and sympathy. She liked them, and she knew that they liked her. It was a cosy feeling.
But where, she wondered, was it all going to end? Must she spend all her days in Market Blyburgh listening to the tales of major happenings in other people’s lives, yet knowing only minor happenings in her own? Sighing, she smoothed the bedspread, then went to fetch the mop and dusters.
As she passed Jane’s door it opened and her sister came out, wearing a blue dressing-gown and carrying a towel. No one would have taken them for sisters. Jane was taller than Logie. Her soft brown hair hung in two long plaits over her shoulders, framing her oval face. Her skin was pale, her eyes were very dark blue, and her features were more regular than Logie’s.
“I’m not late—and if I were it’s Saturday. No school,” she said defensively.
“Who said you were late, anyway?”
“I just thought prevention might be better than cure,” said Jane demurely, looking sidelong to see how this was received. “
It isn’t fair—it isn’t fair. They ought to let me cut my hair!” she chanted, swinging her pigtails out of reach as Logie grabbed at one of them.
“When Alison said you could, you didn’t,” Logie reminded her.
“Well, it was such a shock when she gave in after I’d been pestering her for years. Besides, it’s fun to have a grievance.”
“Oh, if you want a
!” Logie dived at her.
Jane crossed her fingers. “Not that sort of grievance. Pax,
tickle a person before breakfast!”
“That’s just where you’re wrong.”
Squealing, Jane escaped her sister’s probing fingers, dived beneath her arm, and fled for sanctuary to the bathroom.
Logie went on along the narrow passage. Her own room lay at one end, three more bedrooms and the bathroom also opened off it. At the other end a door had been made through the wall to what, before the Selkirks came to live here, had been a loft, lit only by a skylight. Alison had had this plastered over and part partitioned off to make the kitchen premises, small but compact, and opening conveniently into the living-room, which was large and airy and full of character owing to the angles of the roof and the three dormer windows Alison had had built out, each with a cushioned window-seat. Two of them looked down into the garden of Swan House; the third, opposite them, looked out on old tiled cottage-roofs and twisted chimneys where lichen grew, and beyond them to distant fields. The sloping roof was not so steep as to cause inconvenience.
The kitchen door was open, and an appetising smell of coffee greeted Logie. Alison was by the electric cooker, frying bacon and tomatoes. She looked up, smiling. Her smooth brown hair was combed close to her head and pinned in a neat roll. About her ears it broke into soft, feathery tendrils. Her face was round, her nose was short and rounded at the tip, her mouth was sweet and generously curved. She had a pale, clear skin and friendly brown eyes.
“The best smell in the world—coffee and bacon,” Logie said, sniffing happily. Suddenly she abandoned her intention of setting her room to rights, as usual, before breakfast. For once she’d leave it. She must talk to Alison.
“Alison, how old were you when you took us on?” she asked.
“Twenty-five. Getting on for twenty-six when we moved over here.”
“M’m ... Five years older than I am now. Young to be loaded all of a sudden with a half-grown family!”
Alison said nothing. Her small, square, capable hands were busy with the frying-pan, turning squares of fried bread.
Logie leaned against the table. “Didn’t you miss being with girls of your own age? And men?” she pursued.
Alison made no answer for a moment. Then her eyes met Logie’s, smiling. “There’s not much time to miss things when you’re busy! The coffee’s ready. Will you take it through?”
Logie carried the coffee and hot milk into the living-room without realising that her question had not been directly answered.
Mechanically Alison dished up the bacon, crisp and crinkled, the bread, fried golden brown, and the tomatoes, firm still but well cooked. Her mind was far away, back in the past that seemed like yesterday, yet at the same time separated from the present by a lifetime.
Alison had first entered the lives of the young Selkirks when their mother, her distant cousin, had fallen ill nearly eleven years ago. It had meant giving up her post as secretary to an Edinburgh firm of accountants, but there was no one else to supervise the inexperienced young maids, look after the children, and help with nursing. She had been glad to be able to repay in some small measure Mary Selkirk’s kindness in having her for holidays when she was a motherless schoolgirl, her father, since dead, in India.
Early that autumn, after an illness of three months’ duration, Mary had died in her sleep, with never a thought that she would not recover. There had seemed no alternative but that Alison should stay on for the present at Swan House. The doctor and his wife, each an only child, had been singularly lacking in relations; neither friend nor relative, save herself, had been available to take up the reins Mary had dropped. So she had remained, feeling that it would be time enough when the spring came to suggest that she might find a housekeeper and go north again to take up the broken threads of her own life.
But before the days began to lengthen death had come a second time to Swan House. Robert Selkirk had come home on a bleak evening with a heavy cold. Alison persuaded him to go to bed as soon as he had eaten, with aspirins and a hot drink. Soon after midnight there had come an urgent summons to a woman who was having her first baby, and he had got up from his warm bed, knowing well enough that his temperature must be soaring, and gone out into the bitter night. Three days later he was dead.
The day before he died, knowing he would not recover, he had sent for Geoffrey Baynes, who was the local lawyer and an old family friend, and had arranged that he and Alison should be the children’s guardians and trustees until they came of age. The twins, Logie and Andrew, were ten and little Jane only four; it would be years before they could be expected to fend for themselves. He had slept an hour or two after the lawyer had gone, and when he woke had sent the nurse for Alison. “You don’t ... mind? I’m afraid they’ll be ... a heavy burden. Too much ... responsibility. But there’s ... no one else ... You’re the one person ... Mary would have liked ... you to have ... the care of them.”
His sunken eyes had watched her anxiously, pleading for reassurance. Alison’s brown ones met them steadily. “
It’s the greatest compliment you could possibly have paid me. They shall always be as happy as it’s in my power to make them. You
The look of strained anxiety had left his eyes. “Yes. I…know.” Then he had slept again. He had died twelve hours later as the skies paled for the coming of the dawn.
After the funeral Alison and the lawyer had a long talk together while the children played in the vicarage garden. Geoffrey Baynes was troubled, not knowing what to suggest for the children’s future. Alison had lain awake most of the night turning the problem over in her mind, and she was ready with a plan. She it was who had suggested that instead of selling the stables with Swan House, it might be a good scheme to convert them into a new home for the young Selkirks and herself. “There would be room enough for us to live there if a door were made through to the loft, so that it made an extra room.”
The lawyer raised his eyebrows. “ ‘Us’? Then you propose to throw in your lot with theirs?”