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Authors: Daphne Du Maurier

Tags: #Fiction / Alternative History, #Fiction / Dystopian, #Fiction / Political, #Fiction / Satire

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BOOK: Rule Britannia
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The jackdaw’s nest moved. So did a weapon. How on earth, Emma wondered, had Andy managed not only to climb the dangerous sloping roof but to carry with him one of the bows which all the boys were forbidden to touch, and which should by rights be standing with its fellows in the entrance hall?

“Given me by a field marshal,” Mad used to say. “Toxophily was his favorite hobby. He was one of my greatest fans for years.”

“Completely untrue,” Pa would whisper to Emma. “She bought them at the Battersea funfair.”

True or false, the arrows that went with the bows were lethal. Andy’s head and shoulders emerged from the chimney. He smiled engagingly at Emma.

“I only grazed the pigeon,” he called. “I didn’t mean to, I wanted to scare the aircraft, but they were out of my range. Several choppers came low, and if they’d only been a few hundred feet lower I might have got one of the pilots.”

“Bad luck for you,” scoffed Emma. “Now come along down, and put that bow back where you found it.”

“But it’s mine,” shouted Andy, wide-eyed. “Madam gave it me, didn’t you know?”

Emma shrugged, and withdrew from her precarious window ledge. It was quite hopeless to instill any sort of order. One of these days someone would be murdered, and it wouldn’t be the fault of herself or Dottie or the boys. Mad would be to blame. As for Andy, you would think that a child who was the only survivor of an air crash in which both father and mother and an elder sister had been killed—sabotage, a bomb had exploded soon after take-off—would have fought shy of the idea, however distant from reality, of bringing further aircraft and their crew to the ground in flames. Not so. Which only went to show… show what? Emma left the middle boys’ quarters and returned to the kitchen.

“I told you it’s one of these mornings,” observed Dottie, dishing up the eggs and bacon onto a long trestle table. “The telephone’s not working. I wanted to ring the butcher and the line’s gone dead. I don’t know what Madam will say. Will you take up her orange juice, dear? I don’t think I can face her at the moment. It’s one thing after the other. Half a mo’, I hear Terry with the post now.”

The inevitable skid of the bicycle, as it was thrown on the ground under the kitchen window. Then the clatter up the back stairs and Terry burst into the room, his cheeks aflame, the same color as his shirt. His looks were Byronic, clear-cut profile, tumbled curls, and, though barely seventeen, he was the heartthrob of all the girls within a ten-mile radius. The trouble was that his drug-taking mother, who couldn’t name his father, had slashed her wrists in a moment of despair and left Terry to be discovered by a neighbor. He had scampered from every Home until Mad rescued him. This was several years ago, of course. He was Mad’s first find, and didn’t let you forget it.

“You’ve no idea,” he said breathlessly, turning from Dottie to Emma. “I couldn’t get further than the top of the lane. There’re soldiers everywhere. They’ve got a great barricade across the main road. I couldn’t get within twenty yards of them—they waved me back. And all the time those choppers overhead creating a hell of a racket. It’s terrific, just like the real thing. Where’s Joe?”

The sound of sawing from the basement told him that his roommate was at his usual early morning ploy of filling log baskets for Madam’s fire. The skies could burst, helicopters land in the garden, Joe would carry on undeterred with his self-imposed task of ministering to Madam’s needs.

“Barricades, indeed!” exclaimed Dottie. “Whatever next? Did you see the post-van, Terry?”

Terry stared at her and snorted. “Are you crazy?” he said. “Do you think a post-van could get past that lot? A bunch of them are up the telegraph poles, too, doing something to the wires.”

He clattered downstairs once more in search of Joe, slamming the kitchen door.

“That explains why I couldn’t get the butcher,” said Dottie. “Madam is going to raise Cain when she hears of this. Here, take the orange juice.” She gave the neatly laid tray into Emma’s waiting hands. “It beats me why she hasn’t rung before now. Did you remind Andy to clean his teeth?”

Emma did not answer. Andy’s teeth were of secondary importance compared with the strange happenings without, all of which must surely have a direct and disastrous effect upon Mad’s early morning mood. She went upstairs slowly, disliking her mission, for untoward events, unless expressly designed to suit the purpose of the doyenne, could have unfortunate consequences for the household. She paused at the head of the stairs. The notice “Don’t Disturb,” which hung from the handle of the door, had been turned around to reveal its reverse. This was the quote from Dante’s
Inferno,
“All hope abandon, ye who enter here,” which one of Mad’s leading men, in days long past, had stuck up outside her dressing room as a warning to intruders.

Emma coughed, knocked, and went in to her grandmother’s bedroom.

2

Mad wasn’t in bed. She was sitting up in her chair by the open window that overlooked the bay, field glasses to her eyes. She was fully dressed, if such a term could be used to describe her outfit, which was a combination of Robin Hood and the uniform worn by the late lamented Mao Tse-tung. It was certainly practical for early November on the Cornish coast, if the person wearing it was about to engage in an archery competition or clean a locomotive. Mad was destined to do neither, so far as her granddaughter was aware, but then you never could be sure what the day would bring.

“Dottie’s apologies,” Emma began. “It’s one of those mornings. I hope you haven’t been awake for hours. Those infuriating planes, and now Terry reports there are roadblocks at the top of the hill on the main road and soldiers everywhere. It must be a hell of an exercise. The post can’t get through, the telephone’s gone dead, and even the radio won’t work. Here’s your orange juice, darling.”

She put the tray down by the writing table beneath the window. Mad did not answer. She was too intent upon the view through the field glasses. Staring at the ships at anchor, before they entered port, was one of her favorite occupations. She liked to think she knew the nationality of every waiting vessel by its shape and design, quite apart from its flag, but today the test was harder. There were no merchant ships waiting to load clay. A warship was at anchor, too distant to decipher anything about it from its ensign, which was out of sight, or from its shape or superstructure. It was evident to Emma, even without the aid of field glasses, that the helicopters which were passing to and fro hailed from the parent ship in the bay.

“I still don’t see,” she continued, “why a naval exercise should have to disturb everyone ashore, interfere with radio, cut the telephone and stop post-vans delivering the mail.”

Mad lowered the field glasses and reached for her orange juice. Emma wondered why, instead of the usual exclamation of annoyance or impatience which the morning’s surprising events should have evoked, her grandmother seemed thoughtful, even grim. The clear-cut profile that in her youth, and indeed throughout her theatrical career, had stamped itself on postcards all over the world appeared suddenly aquiline and harsh. The cropped white hair, curling at the nape of the neck, gave her the appearance not of a famous beauty and actress who, when she celebrated her eightieth birthday in two weeks’ time, would finger nosegays and Interflora tributes with a graceful bow, but of an aged warrior, possibly a Roman legionary, who after long idleness and years of peace lifted up his head and scented battle.

“This isn’t a naval exercise,” she said, “nor even a combined forces exercise. If it was, we’d have heard about it. Jimmy Jollif would have rung me up days ago.” Admiral Jollif was the C.-in-C. at Devonport, and because he was the son of an old friend of hers, long dead, he and Mad were on Christmas card terms. He had even been to lunch. Emma thought it doubtful that the Admiral would have telephoned her grandmother to warn her of forthcoming postal and telephone delays, but you never knew.

“Perhaps, darling,” Emma ventured, “the exercise has to be realistic to make an impact. Otherwise it would be a waste of time. It’s a good thing they picked on half term, and the boys didn’t have to catch the bus to school—they’d never have made it.”

Mad turned and looked at her granddaughter. Her sudden smile was confident, the blue eyes bright. “Tell Dottie to serve them double rations of eggs and bacon for breakfast. It may be their last square meal for the day.”

“Oh, honestly, Mad…”

“I’m not joking. And keep them indoors. Not just the little ones, this goes for Joe and Terry too. Andy is not to climb the chimney, but he can help Sam clean up their room, as long as he doesn’t frighten the squirrel.”

“There’s a pigeon as well this morning,” murmured Emma, feeling like an informer.

“Oh, really?” Mad looked thoughtful again. “That’s interesting. It might be a carrier. Had it a note under its wing?”

“The wing was broken. Anyway, trailing.”

“H’m. Could be a sign…”

The trouble was, you never could tell whether Mad was acting or not. Her life nowadays was so frequently an elaborate game of make-believe, but whether to encourage the latent powers of imagination in the boys, or to amuse herself now the pulse of the blood was tame, Emma never could decide. Pa said it was neither, but from force of habit, like cleaning her teeth, his mother was obliged to give two performances daily to audiences long dead. Which was rather cruel, when you came to think of it, but then Pa, being a banker, had little time for sentiment.

“Look,” said Mad suddenly, pointing to the plowed field beyond the garden wall. “There are some men coming up from the beach, they must have landing craft of some sort, I’ve forgotten what they’re called these days—they used to be dukus or dugs, or something. Run down at once and give my strict orders that no one, repeat no one, is to leave the house. I’ll be down myself in a moment to supervise, as soon as I see where all these men are going. And whatever you do, don’t let Folly out.”

Folly was the Dalmatian bitch, now fourteen years old, blind in one eye and partially deaf, who lived on a chair in the corner of the library and seldom stirred, except to crouch, twice a day, on a plot of grass that had become dried and barren from her attention.

Emma flung one last look over her shoulder, and stopped in astonishment. Her grandmother was right. There
were
men, soldiers, wearing that idiotic camouflage they all wore no matter what army they represented, coming up across the field, spread fan-wise, rifles at the ready, tin hats on their heads.

“I know,” said Emma, and she laughed, because it suddenly seemed so obvious, “it’s a film, they’re making a film, they’re here on location. And those men at the top of the road mucking about with the telegraph wires weren’t soldiers at all but the camera crew. Oh no, they mustn’t frighten the dog…!”

Spry, the farm collie, a wizard with his master’s sheep but terrified of all explosive sounds, from thunderstorms to aircraft flying low, must have escaped from his safe lair at the farmstead over the hill, and was now running as if for his life across the field in front of the advancing soldiers. One of the men paused and took aim, but did not shoot. Then, as another helicopter roared low over the roof, Spry, in panic, turned at bay towards the advancing soldier, barking fiercely as was his wont with strangers upon his territory, and this time the soldier fired.

“God rot his guts!” cried Mad.

Spry was no longer the guardian of his master’s flock but something bleeding and torn, not even a dog. Mad put down her field glasses, rose from her chair and walked across the room.

“Did you say a film?” she flung at Emma, and preceded her downstairs.

It isn’t true, thought Emma, bewildered. It can’t be true. Soldiers don’t shoot animals, they have them as mascots, they love them, and then before Mad had reached the bottom of the stairs Emma heard her call sharply, “Sam, come here!” There was the sound of the front door being thrown open, and from the top of the stairs Emma saw the small flying figure of Sam running across the lawn to the gate, out onto the driveway and the orchard and so to the field beyond. Sam had seen what had happened. Sam had gone to the rescue of his friend the collie-dog Spry. Hysteria, panic, qualities hitherto unknown, seized upon Emma. If the men shot animals, they would shoot children too.

“Sam!” she screamed, tumbling down the stairs. “Sam…”

Then she felt Mad’s hand in hers. Restraining, hard and cold. “Don’t worry,” she said, “they’ll turn him back. The man who shot Spry won’t repeat his mistake. He’ll be in trouble anyway from his platoon commander, or whoever is in charge of this fantastic outfit.”

The tears were coursing down Emma’s cheeks. The sudden horror of seeing the dog destroyed, the dog they all knew, who came courting poor old Folly when she was on heat, and Sam running headlong into murderous fire, this did not belong to the world she knew, this was nightmare.

“How can you be so calm?” she sobbed. “How can you?”

She looked out across the orchard field. Sam had reached the gap in the hedge, and was about to climb through the gap when one of the men, approaching from the opposite side, came swiftly forward and spoke to him. He put his hand on Sam’s shoulder. Sam turned and pointed towards the house. The man appeared to hesitate a moment, then shouting some order to the soldiers behind he climbed through the gap in the hedge, with Sam beside him, and both of them walked slowly across the orchard towards the house. The rest continued to advance up the plowed field, some making for the woods, others for the paddock that led to the lane and the main road beyond. Raised voices, arguments, children’s high-pitched questions arose from the kitchen. An agitated Dottie appeared in the hall, closely followed by Terry.

“What’s going on, Madam?” she flustered. “We heard a shot and Sam said something about a dog. It’s not Folly, is it? Sam went tearing through to the front and I couldn’t stop him.”

“I’ll get him,” interrupted Terry. “Those chaps are everywhere, just look at them crossing the paddock. Of all the bloody cheek! You leave it to me, Madam, I’ll sort them out, I’ll…”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” said Mad. “You’ll do as I tell you. Get back to the kitchen and stay there. You too, Dottie. Send Joe to me. Sam is going to need someone to comfort him. There’s been an accident. None of the other boys are to come through to the front without my permission.”

Terry turned on his heel, muttering under his breath. Dottie hesitated a moment, murmured, “Yes, Madam,” and retreated. Mad’s lips were pursed in a soundless whistle, a danger signal to all who knew her. The soldier, Sam at his side, had crossed the orchard. Soon they would reach the gate separating the front lawn from the drive. Emma felt someone touch her shoulder. It was Joe. He said nothing, but his eyes questioned her. Joe, now nineteen, was the eldest of Mad’s adopted brood, and the most dependable. His open, honest face would have been handsome but for the irregular features and long upper lip and the scar beside his right eye. He was neither an orphan nor illegitimate. An only child, his fault had been that he had never learned to read or write—a disability that was still little understood when he had started to go to school—and his parents, both schoolteachers, had been unable to cope with the situation and had emigrated to Australia, leaving Joe in the care of a grandparent who had since died. “If it were not for Joe,” Mad sometimes said, “I would give up. He is the only person, except for myself, who can be relied upon.” Mad never wasted a flow of words on Joe; he understood, and followed, all instructions.

“They’ve shot Spry,” she said. “Sam won’t understand, and will be distressed. I want you to take him upstairs at once to his room away from the others and stay with him there. Help with the pigeon that has the trailing wing. I’ll deal with the man.”

She seized a stick from the stack of walking sticks in the hall, and for one terrible moment Emma wondered if her grandmother was going to attack the soldier, who by now had opened the gate and was walking up the garden path.

“Do be careful,” she said involuntarily.

“Don’t worry,” replied Mad. “If they don’t shoot boys they won’t shoot old women… yet.”

She descended the steps to the garden, Joe at her side. Emma, curiosity overcoming panic, stared at the man. Apart from his fighting gear and his gun he looked quite ordinary. Strained, perhaps, a bit on edge. Sam wasn’t crying. He seemed in a state of shock. Joe walked down the path, picked him up in his arms and went back to the house without a word. The soldier came to a halt. He even stood to attention and saluted. It must be basic training, thought Emma, because he couldn’t have expected someone as old as Mad to come down the steps, looking like Mao Tse-tung.

“Sorry about your pet, ma’am,” he said. “An error of judgment on the part of one of my men.”

Surprising. The accent was American. Then it
was
some sort of combined operation. Emma glanced at her grandmother, who showed no emotion.

“It’s not my pet,” she said. “It belongs to Mr. Trembath, the farmer, and is, or was, a very valuable dog.”

“The farmer will be compensated, ma’am,” replied the soldier. “All reports of damage will be dealt with speedily and effectively. Meanwhile, I would advise you to keep indoors, and remain indoors until you have notification to the contrary. Thank you, ma’am.”

He saluted once again, but his courtesy was wasted on Mad. She advanced a further step down the garden path so that the soldier, to save his dignity, was obliged to retreat.

“Would you mind telling me what this is all about?” she asked, her voice ringing loud and clear as though she was addressing the back row of a theater gallery.

“Sorry, ma’am, I can only inform you that there is a state of emergency throughout the country. Keep tuned in to your local radio or television station. They should be on the air within the hour. Thank you, ma’am.”

He clicked his heels, then turned and walked down the path, shutting the gate behind him, and walked smartly up the drive towards the main road. His companions-at-arms had all disappeared in the same direction.

“What does he mean, a state of emergency?” asked Emma.

“Just that,” said Mad dryly. “Go and make me a cup of coffee, and tell Dottie to carry on with breakfast. It’s exactly 9:35. If that man knew what he was talking about, there may be some announcement at ten o’clock. Switch the radio on in the kitchen, just before the hour. I’ll do the same with the television. If there’s anything doing I’ll give you and the boys a shout. This is something we’ve all got to share, children and adults alike.”

Emma was without appetite, even for cereal. She could not forget the sight of the frightened dog turning at bay, then becoming instantly—nothing. The line upon line of men advancing up the hill. Sam’s state of shock…

Breakfast was proceeding in the kitchen, but the atmosphere was tense. Terry, sullen because of Mad’s brush-off, wore his moody expression, his handsome face dark with resentment. Andy, banished without explanation from the room he shared with Sam, was plainly upset. Dottie, seated at the head of the table, wore her set look. Emma leaned over to the kitchen radio and switched it on. They were playing “Land of Hope and Glory.”

BOOK: Rule Britannia
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