Authors: E. M. Delafield
Tags: #Late and Soon
Late and Soon
E. M. DELAFIELD
The rain, slanting and silver, drove lightly across the terrace and down the grassy hollows of the park where nettles and docks and bramble bushes grew freely amongst the clumps of yellow gorse.
General Levallois stood leaning on his two sticks under the portico that jutted out beyond the garden door of Coombe and spoke to his sister, although gazing away from her as he did so.
“Better have the tennis-court dug over, I suppose.”
“I thought we wouldn't, Reggie. We've dug up the paddock, and the top field, and those other two and the old rose garden. Surely we can keep the tennis-court.”
“My dear girl, who do you think is ever going to play tennis here again?”
“The children,” said Valentine Arbell.
Her voice died away into silence, as though she foresaw the General's reply before he spoke it.
“What children?” he demanded derisively.
What children indeed.
Primrose was three-and-twenty and even before the war had never, once her school-days were over, wished to spend her time at home.
Jessica was seventeen and a half and was waiting to be called up for the W.A.A.F.
She would be gone long before summer came again.
Valentine Arbell had never had a son.
“I suppose you're right,” she acknowledged with the gentle Edwardian courtesy of tone and manner that betrayed her years far more surely than did her appearance. “It would hardly be worth while to keep up the poor old tennis-court for one's possible grandchildren.”
She smiled as she spoke and it would have taken someone more observant, and far more interested in
human reactions, than was the General to notice the real gravity â a kind of permanent, incredulous sadness â of her face.
“Grandchildren!” ejaculated the General. “You aren't counting on anything of that sort from Primrose, I imagine, and as for young Jess, I hope she's a long way from thinking of such nonsense as marriage with any of those shockin' fellers she romps round with.”
“I'm sure she is, Reggie. Anyhow, none of them are in earnest. They're all much too young to marry.”
“That doesn't stop 'em, nowadays. And they aren't necessarily thinking of marrying either, but I suppose Jess knows what's what, like the rest of the girls. What about coming in, old girl? It's turning wet.”
It had turned wet long ago. Small puddles had formed on the gravel beneath their feet, and the blue distant hills and the square tower of St. Martin's church rising from the town in the valley below were all obscured by mist.
“Come on in,” repeated the General, shuffling slowly round on his sticks.
“I must see to the hens. I'll come through the house and get my gum-boots.”
They went in at the garden door that was placed in direct line with the big front double-doors of the house affording a view straight across the outer and inner halls to the terrace.
Valentine adjusted her pace to that of her brother which might have belonged to a very old man, although he was in reality only fifty-six â twelve years her senior. He was the eldest, and she the youngest, of a large family of Huguenot descent, long established in England.
General Levallois had come to Coombe soon after the death of Valentine's husband, twelve years earlier, and had remained there, without any formal discussion on either side, ever since.
The house was large enough to accommodate many more people than were likely to live there again â until it
should be sold and turned into a school or an institution.
They crossed the inner hall that was coconut-matted, and very dark, with glass cases filled with stuffed fish and birds on every side, and passed into the hall proper.
This was large, furnished with comfortable, ancient armchairs and sofas covered in shabby, old-fashioned rose-patterned chintzes.
It lay under a glass cupola that had been painted a sinister dark blue in an effort to conform to the black-out regulations.
In January, nineteen hundred and forty-two, the paint had already begun to look thin and scratchy.
Out of the inner hall led half a dozen doors, each one badly in need of a fresh coat of cream-coloured paint â except one that was inadequately covered with shredded patches of red baize and obviously led to the domestic offices.
The other doors led respectively into drawing-room, dining-room, library, billiard-room and a small sitting-room that was still traditionally called the breakfast-room. Of these, only the dining-room and the library were now in use. The hall had a large open fireplace and it was there that Valentine had long ago established her writing-desk and there that she sat when she was not out of doors.
The General lowered himself into the largest armchair, nearest the fire, with his habitual hissing sound as of indrawn breath, long since become automatic.
He let both his sticks fall clattering to the floor as he always did, although it would subsequently cause him considerable discomfort to reach for them again, and he would be annoyed if anybody picked them up unasked and would probably enquire whether he was supposed to be a damned cripple.
Valentine went on, through the glass doors at the end of the room that opened into a small lobby where coats and mackintoshes and hats hung, walking-sticks and
umbrellas stood in a huge and hideous blue china receptacle, and an oak chest held old tennis racquets, old balls, still older croquet mallets and cricket-bats.
She remembered them, as she pulled a tall pair of gum-boots out of a corner and worked her slim legs and feet into them. Reggie was quite right.
The children were no more.
For twenty years her life had been conditioned by the existence of Primrose, and later on by that of Jess as well.
It had been so even in her husband's lifetime. She had loved Humphrey, but had put the children first â the child really, since Primrose had been the only one for six years.
When she and Humphrey had married, whilst he was on sick leave in nineteen hundred and seventeen, they had both been in love â Valentine imaginatively and Humphrey physically.
It had lasted longer with him than with her.
Wrestling with the slippery boots, Valentine thought back across the years as she so often did.
She had been thirty-two when Humphrey was killed out hunting and, whatever anybody might say, she knew that nothing in her had been destroyed by that shock and sadness.
Destruction, if there were any, had been accomplished during the placid, matter-of-fact years of her married life.
The romantic impulse that had once been the moving-spring of her nature moved her no longer. At Humphrey's death the strong strain of realism that is the concomitant of true romanticism had told her that she had nothing to gain by changing her way of life.
Coombe was her own, it was home, changeless and unchangeable to Primrose and Jess, and at Coombe she had remained, the months and the years divided into school terms, Christmas holidays, Easter holidays, the long summer holidays, the visits that she had paid to the children at their school on the East Coast.
Suddenly, as it seemed, all that was over. But it wasn't really sudden.
Primrose had left school at eighteen and said that she wanted to go to College and had been sent there â with difficulty, for there was hardly any money. Had she been happy there?
Valentine felt that she would never know. When once she asked the question Primrose had said: It's all right, thanks â with a slightly more discontented expression than usual on her always discontented face.
No one had expected her to take more than a pass degree, nor did she.
Since then, Primrose had spent most of her time in London, sometimes picking up a job, more often without one. She stayed with College friends or, very occasionally, with one of the Levallois' relations.
When she came home it was to sleep until luncheon-time every morning, strew soiled and torn underwear all over the bathroom and ask why one of the maids couldn't attend to it, and engage in endless and unexplained telephone calls that occupied her most of every evening.
With the outbreak of war Primrose had gone straight back to London. She had done a variety of war jobs, had scarcely been home at all, and now was driving a Mobile Canteen.
Primrose was gone â gone beyond recall, and it wasn't the war that had taken her.
Jess had come home when her school had been evacuated into Wales, begging and imploring to be allowed to volunteer for the W.A.A.F.
She was gay and eager and full of enthusiasm, and had declared candidly that there wouldn't be anything whatever to do at home, now that there was nothing to ride, and that she'd be wretched there â simply wretched. Any day, now, Jess might be called up.
Meanwhile she worked nearly every afternoon and evening at the Canteen in the village, and made friends
with very young soldiers and asked them to Coombe.
When they came, she introduced them as Bill or Michael or Tony, and they had tea downstairs and then went up to the schoolroom with her or, more occasionally, played romping games in the hall.
Jess was only waiting for the moment when she should join up.
Come back she might or might not, but the words “the children” held no more meaning at Coombe, or for its mistress.
She stood up, fastened her tweed coat and went out, followed by Jessica's puppy â a leggy mongrel â and General Levallois' fat spaniel.
The hens, who should have been in the orchard, were straggling, wet and shabby-looking, on the oval grass plot before the house.
She made an encouraging sound and they lurched along behind her, squawking and clucking, as she walked to the stable yard that stood a little way off, built at right angles to the house.
Regardless of the rain, and with deliberation, Valentine fed them and shut them up in their dilapidated coops.
Then she went slowly back to the house.
Coombe was an old house, that had been often added to â three-storied, slate-roofed and stone-built. An open-sided lichen-spattered tower rose above all the irregular and numerous chimney-stacks, and in it hung a large bell, cast in the reign of Elizabeth.
Stone pillars, moss-grown and out of the true, supported, over the double-doors of entrance, a lead roofing shaped like an inverted V.
Against one of the pillars now leant a dripping bicycle, and Valentine saw a tall youthful-looking figure in battle dress reaching out to pull at the rusty iron chain that hung beside the door.
She hastened her step although knowing that she could not get to him soon enough to avert the minor
disaster that experience warned her to expect.
As she had foreseen, the chain immediately broke in the young officer's hand and he was looking at the detached length of rusty links with some dismay when she reached his side.
“It's quite all right â it's been done before. It doesn't matter at all.”
“I'm terribly sorry,” said the young man. “I can't imagine how it happened. I didn't think I'd been so violent.”
“I'm sure you weren't. The chain is very old, and every time it breaks somebody hooks it on again without mending it properly. Is there anything I can do for you? Won't you come in?”
“Thanks very much. I wondered if I could see Lady Arbell for a few minutes?”
He looked at her questioningly.
“I am Lady Arbell. Do come in.”
The officer, who was apparently shy, muttered something about being very wet and scraped his boots with prolonged violence on the iron scraper at the door.