Authors: Kate Kingsbury
Bicycle Built for
A Manor House
By Kate Kingsbury
Copyright 2001 by Doreen Roberts Hight
Cover by Rachel High
This book is dedicated to the men,
women, and children of Great Britain
who kept the home fires burning during the
Second World War with unswerving humor,
unwavering courage, and the indispensable
cup of tea
And to Bill, who is and always has been my lifeline
The small formation of Spitfires swooped low over the eastern coastline. Their wings cast squat gray shadows across the wheat fields and the roofs of the tiny flint cottages perched on the cliffs below. The drone of their engines disturbed the quiet summer peace of the English countryside and raised the heads of cows grazing in farmer John Miller's pastures.
In the sloping main street of Sitting Marsh, housewives laden with bulging shopping bags paused to glance up at the aircraft. Reassured by the familiar blue-and-red circle painted on each wing, they continued trudging past the antiquated shops and narrow alleyways, their minds focusing once more on how to make a meal from the meager rations allowed them.
A little way out of town, in a twisting lane bordered by high hedgerows, a motorcycle wound its way around the bends. The woman riding it clung to a handlebar with
one confident hand and blew a kiss as the planes passed overhead. Lady Elizabeth Hartleigh Compton, along with the entire population of the beleaguered British Isles, harbored a tremendous pride and gratitude for the valiant men who flew those illustrious machines.
Still clinging with one hand, she shaded her eyes against the sun to watch the aircraft disappear into a fluffy bank of cloud. Her inevitable ache of nostalgia was becoming easier to bear nowadays. It had been almost two years since both her parents had died during the blitz on London. She would never again see a plane fly overhead without thinking about her loss.
The next turn came up sooner than she expected, and even with the sidecar bouncing alongside her, she had to grab the handlebars and lean rather far to the left to make the corner. She really should pay attention, she reminded herself. To be tossed off the motorcycle would not only smart, but it was bound to ruin the yellow silk frock she wore. As it was, the necessity of having to tuck the skirt up under her knees tended to put creases in the worst places.
There were times when she doubted the wisdom of riding a motorcycle. She'd had to replace the ornamental daisies on her straw boater at least three times, thanks to the wind. Violet, her aging housekeeper, kept badgering her to buy a motorcar. Violet considered it improper for a thirty-one-year-old woman of Lady Elizabeth's standing to be riding a vulgar motorcycle in public when she should be driven around in a Daimler. Violet was very good at suggesting ways to spend money. The trouble was, there was very little money to spend. Certainly not enough to lavish on a motorcar, let alone a chauffeur.
Elizabeth lowered her chin as a salty gust of east wind nearly lifted her hat from her head despite the anchors
of pins and the wide elastic band. Actually she rather enjoyed riding a motorcycle. It gave one a sense of utter freedom. Much like flying, she supposed. Not that she'd ever flown. Still, she could well imagine how it must feel.
At any rate, she knew very well that when she roared into town on her noisy steed, she commanded attention. If there was one thing Elizabeth considered important above all others, it was the ability to command attention. It was the only way to get things done.
Having so justified her choice of transportation, she chugged and sputtered up the hill toward the long driveway that would take her home to the Manor House. She had about a half mile to go when a few yards down the road a woman appeared at a white, latticed garden gate and frantically waved a large handkerchief at her.
Even at that distance, Elizabeth could tell that Winnie Pierce was distraught about something. Winnie's family had been tenants of the Wellsborough estate for as long as Elizabeth could remember. When she'd inherited the Manor House upon the death of her parents, she'd also inherited the cottages on the vast acres that went with it. Which was just as well, since her miserable ex-husband had gambled away every penny of her inheritance. The rent from those cottages was the only thing standing between herself and abject poverty.
Not that the tenants knew that, of course. It might weaken her authority if the residents of Sitting Marsh knew their chief adviser and protector was struggling to keep the Manor House and all its holdings afloat in a sea of debts.
Elizabeth was well aware that the seventeenth-century Jacobean mansion, with its warm brick walls and towering windows, was a symbol of stability in a world gone mad. The imposing ancestral home visibly dominated the
rural landscape, and the villagers looked upon those ancient walls as proof that the Old World still existed, and would go on existing, long after the Germans and their vicious Luftwaffe had done their worst.
Symbols as powerful as that had to be maintained, no matter the cost. She owed it to her people and to her family, whose traditions and heritage must be upheld. The residents of Sitting Marsh always came first. It was as simple as that.
Which was why she braked to a sudden stop in front of Winnie Pierce at great risk to her perilous control of the machine. The maneuver pitched her forward, and she bumped her chin painfully on the handlebar. She ran a tongue over her teeth to make sure they were all intact before climbing off as gracefully as one could manage under the circumstances.
Winnie flapped her apron up and down in front of her round face, which glowed like a ripe tomato. She smelled faintly of onions and garlic, and a smudge of flour adorned her left cheek.
Elizabeth immediately felt hungry. Having sampled the results of some of Winnie's delectable culinary skills in the past, she rather hoped her tenant would invite her to the midday meal. Violet did her best, but cooking was not one of her greatest achievements, and now that everything was rationed, the housekeeper's offerings were becoming decidedly insipid.
"I'm so sorry, Lady Elizabeth," Winnie said breathlessly. "I know I shouldn't have stopped you, but I've been so worried. I'm at my wits' end, really I am."
Concerned by the poor woman's obvious agitation, Elizabeth patted her plump shoulder. "It's quite all right, Winnie. Just calm down and tell me what's the matter."
"Well, I don't rightly know, m'm. It's Beryl, you see."
Elizabeth took a moment to smooth out the folds in her skirt. Beryl was Winnie's sixteen-year-old daughter, an only child and thoroughly spoiled. Beryl's promiscuous activities were the hot topic of the town and a source of great worry for her poor parents. Elizabeth had taken it upon herself to talk some sense into the child, whose overdeveloped attributes drew attention from the boys like flies to a dustbin. Beryl had listened politely and completely ignored the proffered counsel.
Half afraid to ask, Elizabeth murmured, "I do hope she isn't sick?"
"Oh, no, m'm. At least, I don't think so."
To Elizabeth's dismay, the poor woman burst into tears. It was a moment or two before she'd sufficiently recovered herself enough to speak. "She's missing, m'm. She's been gone since Sunday. That's two whole days."
The news appeared worse than Elizabeth had anticipated. But then, Beryl was quite capable of causing her mother distress simply on a whim. "Perhaps she's hiding out with a friend somewhere," she said soothingly. "Are any of her clothes missing? Did you have an argument with her?"
"No, nothing like that." Winnie uttered a shuddering sigh accompanied by a loud sniff, but at least she seemed to have stopped crying for the moment. "The last time I saw her, which was Saturday afternoon, she went out of here as happy as a lark. Said she was going to meet Evan. Only Evan says she never turned up."
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. "She's still going out with Evan? I thought that had finished weeks ago."
Winnie shook her head. "It's been on again, off again since then, but Beryl seemed really keen to see him on Saturday. She even left early. Evan said they weren't
supposed to meet until seven o'clock, but Beryl left here about half past five."
"Did she say where she was meeting him?"
"Never said a word. You know our Beryl. I'm surprised she even told me that much. But Evan told me they'd arranged to meet outside the Tudor Arms. He was going to take her to the dance in North Horsham."
"What did he do when she didn't arrive?"
"Went off in a huff, that's what. Never even bothered to find out what happened to her. I had to go down to the farm on Sunday night and ask if he'd seen her. That's when I found out she hadn't turned up." Winnie twisted her hands in her apron. "Wherever she went on Saturday night, it wasn't with Evan. I didn't see her come in, but I heard her all right. I was half asleep, but I called out to her. She never answered me, little bugger."
"Did she say anything the next morning?"
Winnie shook her head. "She was gone by the time I got up. Never made her bed before she went out neither. Strange, really. Our Beryl never can get up in the mornings without me yelling up the stairs until I'm hoarse. Whatever got her out of the house that early on a Sunday must have been really important."
It was Elizabeth's considered opinion that Beryl was allowed far too much freedom for a young girl, which was bound to have adverse effects. She refrained from voicing the sentiment, however, and tried to be practical about the problem. "Have you had a word with George? He might have seen her on his rounds."
She actually saw Winnie's face turn white. "The police? Oh, no, m'm, I couldn't. I don't want to get my Beryl into trouble. Not more than what she is already, anyhow."
As far as George Dalrymple was concerned, Elizabeth
didn't really think of him as being "the police." Along with his colleague, Sid Goffin, he'd been brought out of retirement when the younger, and considerably more efficient, constables had been called up for the army.
George had been very happy pottering around his little garden all day and had not taken kindly to being hauled away from his well-earned peaceful existence. Faced with the demand to do something for the war effort, however, he'd been powerless to refuse. His services were given grudgingly, at best. And as infrequently as he could manage.
"I don't think George would make trouble for Beryl," Elizabeth assured Winnie.
"Maybe not," Winnie said firmly, "but I don't want to do anything that might hurt my Beryl's reputation."
It was on the tip of Elizabeth's tongue to point out that it was a tad too late to worry about the child's reputation. She held her silence while Winnie stared down the road as if expecting to see her errant offspring appear at any minute.
"If only Stan was here," Winnie murmured unhappily. "He always knew how to handle our Beryl. She's been such a handful since he left to join the navy. A young girl needs a father around, that's what I always say."
At a loss for any brilliant suggestions, Elizabeth shook her head. "It's a hard time for all of us. Wartime demands sacrifices from all of us, and we just have to make the best of it, that's all."
"Yes, m'm." Winnie gave a loud sniff. "I wouldn't be surprised if all this didn't have something to do with them Yanks."
Elizabeth blinked. "The war? Oh, I don't think the Americans had anything to do with it. It's Hitler's fault. He started it all."
Winnie looked startled. "No, m'm. I mean Beryl disappearing like that. She's always talking about the Yanks and going to the base. I've strictly forbidden it, of course. A young girl of her age wouldn't stand a chance out there with all them barbarians, from what I've heard. It's no wonder girls get a bad name if they're seen talking to 'em. I wouldn't let my child near 'em."
Elizabeth's sense of justice could not let that go by without some form of protest. "I'm sure they're not as bad as people like to make out. They are young men, after all, who have come very far from home to help fight this dreadful war, and we should be grateful for their presence here."
Winnie gave her a sly look. "Would
go out with one, m'm?"
Appalled by the very idea, Elizabeth lifted her chin. "Certainly not."
Winnie nodded. "That's what I thought. All I'm saying is that Sitting Marsh hasn't been the same since they moved into that airport. What with all them girls coming in from the town, and the Land Army girls elbowing them out the way, there's no room in the Tudor Arms anymore for those what live here. The pub's always full of strangers. Noisy ones at that." She glanced at Elizabeth out the corner of her eye. "At least, that's what they tell me," she added hurriedly. "But then, as you say, it's wartime and we have to make the best of things."