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Authors: Daphne Du Maurier

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

Rule Britannia (4 page)

BOOK: Rule Britannia
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“Mad thinks there will be some announcement at ten o’clock,” she said. “The soldier who brought Sam back told her to keep tuned in. He said there was a state of emergency throughout the country, and everyone has got to stay indoors.”

Now I am being calm, she thought, now I’m the one in charge. It’s like being deputy for Mad, but not in the ordinary way of every day. This is crisis.

“State of emergency?” questioned Dottie, her mouth agape. “Does it mean we’re at war?”

“I don’t know. The soldier didn’t say. He was American, by the way.”

“A Yank?” Terry, roused from his sullen mood, sprang to his feet. “Do you mean they were all Yanks there on the main road by the barricade? Well, what the hell were they doing? I mean, if the Russians land what’s the bloody use of a roadblock? It wouldn’t stop me, let alone a lot of Russkies.”

“It would stop you if the Yank on the other side of the barricade had a gun.”

Andy’s interruption was to the point, and for a moment Terry looked discomfited.

“Well, but why should a bloody Yank raise a gun at me?” he queried. “I wouldn’t be doing anything.”

“You might be running away,” said Andy, “like Spry.”

There was sudden silence. Everyone, in his or her separate way, was reminded of the morning’s unhappy incident. Even Colin looked thoughtful. When Joe had whispered to him, on his way upstairs with Sam, that there had been an accident, and the farm dog had been hurt, he hadn’t connected it with the roar of planes and Terry’s excited chatter about soldiers.

“Emmie,” he said slowly, “do you mean that some American soldier carrying a gun has been and shot at Spry?”

Andy answered for her. “Yes,” he said, “and what’s more, shot him dead.”

“It was an accident,” said Emma hastily, “the soldier came to apologize.”

“The question is, if we’re none of us supposed to go out and the telephone’s not working, how about letting Mr. Trembath know?” asked Terry. “He’ll be terribly upset, so will they all, especially Myrtle.” Myrtle was fifteen, and Terry’s girl of the moment. “Tell you what, I can slip down across the field, it won’t take five minutes.”

“No,” said Emma, “no…” Terry stared at her defiantly, then stuck his hands in his jeans pockets and kicked at the leg of the kitchen table. But before he could start arguing the music on the radio ceased and a voice said, “In a few moments, after the time signal at ten o’clock, there will be an important announcement.”

“This is it,” said Emma, snatching up the tray with the coffee. “You can all come through to the library, Mad said so, it will be on the telly. Shout for Joe and Sam, Andy.”

She hurried out of the kitchen, closely followed by Dottie and the boys. Her grandmother was seated in her armchair in her sanctum, long-distance glasses on the top of her head, ready to descend instantly upon her nose. The television set was turned on. It showed a picture hitherto unseen, of two national flags side by side, joined together at the base. They were the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes. Colin settled himself on the stool at Mad’s feet, with Ben between his knees.

“What’s it going to be, a Western?” he asked.

“Sh!” said Emma.

Joe came in, holding Sam by the hand, and they went and sat beside Terry and Andy on the window seat. Dottie, with a glance at Mad, drew up a hard chair. Emma perched on the arm of the sofa. The two flags faded, giving place to the face of the announcer, who looked nervous and harassed, unlike his customary debonair self.

“Good morning to all viewers in the southwest,” he said. “This is your local station at Plymouth. There has been no transmission this morning owing to circumstances beyond our control. The reason for this will be explained to you by Rear-Admiral Sir James Jollif, acting Commander-in-Chief, Western Approaches, who is in the studio now. Admiral Jollif.”

The cameras switched to the bald-headed Admiral who sent Mad Christmas cards and had once been to lunch. He appeared more forbidding in his uniform, with decorations, than he had done two summers ago, in shorts and a floppy T-shirt, playing badminton on the side lawn with the boys.

“It’s Madam’s old buffer friend,” cried Colin delightedly, and Ben, between his knees, began to clap. This time it was Dottie who said “Sh!” Mad’s face was inscrutable, but she placed her glasses firmly on her nose.

“Good day to you all,” said Admiral Jollif. His tone was grave, but not unduly so, and at least it must mean, thought Dottie, that Buckingham Palace had not been bombed and the dear Queen was safe. “It is my duty to inform you,” he continued, “that since midnight the country has been placed in a state of emergency. Measures have been taken throughout the United Kingdom to ensure the safety of all members of the community, and to maintain power supplies and essential services. There will be no postal services, however, and after midnight trains will not be running for at least twenty-four hours, possibly longer. Telephone switchboards will be manned only for emergency calls. Except for those engaged upon essential work, everyone is instructed to stay at home until further notice, or to return there immediately if they have already left for work, or for any other purpose.

“I am not, I am afraid, empowered to tell you any more at this moment. I do, however, want to impress upon you all that there is no cause for alarm. I repeat that, no cause for alarm. The aircraft you have seen and heard passing overhead this morning are friendly to us. The American Sixth Fleet is in the English Channel. The troops you may have observed in the towns and ports belong to the combined armed forces of the United States, and are here in the United Kingdom with our full knowledge and cooperation. Keep calm, keep tuned in to the radio and television, and may God bless you all.”

His face faded. The two flags reappeared. And instead of “Land of Hope and Glory” the music started up with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Mad rose to her feet, removed her glasses and switched off the set.

“Is that all?” asked Colin, disappointed.

“For the present, yes,” said Mad, “and quite enough too.”

Everyone stood up. Somehow it was an anti-climax, for the younger members of the household anyway, as it was after the Queen’s speech on Christmas Day. What do any of us do now, Emma wondered. Sam came forward from the window seat and knelt beside the ancient Folly, who from the only comfortable chair in the room, apart from Mad’s, was endeavoring to scratch a lump of canker out of her left ear.

“It’s all right, Fol-Fol,” he said, “nobody’s going to shoot you. If any soldier as much as tries Andy will get him first.”

“Quite right,” said Mad, and her lips began to frame her soundless whistle. Oh no, thought Emma, don’t say she’s going to start that line with the boys, because if she does we’ll all be in trouble, God knows what will happen. She raised her eyebrows at Dottie, who began to marshal the little boys out of the room.

“Can I go to the farm and tell them about Spry?” asked Terry.

Mad threw him a look. A look Emma mistrusted. It spelled duplicity between her grandmother and the earliest of Mad’s adopted brood.

“Not yet,” she said. “Wait till I give the word.”

Emma wondered how long it would be before the telephone would work again, before the world returned to normal, or approximately normal, because the first thing to do then would be to ring up Pa in London and ask what was happening. He would know, he was in touch with so many high-up people, not just bankers but Cabinet Ministers, the Lot, and then he could be firm with Mad and warn her not to do anything outrageous. Because the frightful thing was that where her grandmother was concerned you never knew.

The infant Jesus, his hand firmly clasping that of his small black brother, paused an instant before he left the room.

“What I want to know is this,” he said. “Are the American soldiers baddies or goodies?” His question was directed at Mad.

She did not answer immediately. She began to whistle under her breath. Then she threw Colin a smile. Not the familiar picture postcard smile that her fans remembered, but the slow, craftier one of the Roman legionary.

“That, my boy,” she told him, “is what I intend to find out.”

3

The day wore on, but it followed no sort of routine pattern. Chores were done half-heartedly or unwillingly, everyone was on edge. Mad had gone back upstairs to her bedroom window, but she was in an uncommunicative mood and just sat there, humped, the field glasses on her knee. The warship was still at anchor.

“What do you suppose is happening?” asked Emma at length.

“Darling, if I knew, I’d say,” replied her grandmother. “Don’t ask silly questions. Get something to do.”

Emma didn’t know how Mad could sit there, with the terrible spattered remains of Spry still lying in the middle of the plowed field. Every time she put up the field glasses to watch the ship she must see them.

“Old people and young children,” thought Emma, “they don’t feel things as we do. One begins to feel at eight or nine, like Sam, and everything goes on hurting until one’s about fifty, when it eases off, the person goes numb.”

But this meant that Mad had been numb for nearly thirty years, which couldn’t really be true. And Pa, who would be fifty in a year’s time, was on the brink. It must depend upon the individual, she decided. Numbness is inherited, perhaps, like going gray at thirty and getting cancer, like her mother, whom she could barely remember because she was always in and out of nursing homes, wearing a pink bed jacket.

“If she had lived,” Emma used to ask Mad, “would I have been different?”

“No,” said her grandmother. “Why should you be?”

“Well,” replied Emma, “that thing of a mother’s influence, a mother’s love.”

“You’ve had that from me.”

“Yes, I know, but still…” That poor woman in her pink bed jacket who surely must have been fond of her husband and child and was dragged panting out of life like Emily Brontë…

“You’ve never really said,” Emma asked one day, “but what was she like? I don’t mean in looks, but in ways?”

And Mad, with the fearful directness that was so much a part of her, looked her granddaughter straight in the eye and said, “She was a pretty little thing, darling, but, quite frankly, terribly stupid. I never knew what Pa saw in her.”

And so forever after, whenever Emma did anything foolish, or said something silly, or broke a plate or ran out of petrol, she felt she was being like her mother and that Mad despised her for it. Which made life difficult.

Later on, when she went through to the dining room to clear away Mad’s lunch (they generally had it together, but today it had seemed wiser to have it in the kitchen with Dottie, and help with the boys), she found that the dishes were still on the hot plate untouched, and the dining room was empty. Her grandmother must have gone back again to her bedroom, and with pangs of conscience—perhaps she wasn’t feeling well—Emma ran upstairs to see. The bedroom was empty too. Emma glanced out of the window, and saw the stooping figure of Mad out in the plowed field. She had Joe’s garden spade and she was digging. At least, she had been digging. She was turning the earth over now, and the thing that had been Spry was no longer there. She paused when she had finished, and, leaning on the spade, looked out to sea. The warship was at anchor still, and some of the helicopters had returned to their base aboard. A glimmer of sun peeked through the bleak November sky. The ensign at the quarterstaff in the stern was plain to see now, and it was the Stars and Stripes.

Mad turned, and began to walk slowly back to the gap in the field leading to the orchard. Emma went downstairs. Better to say nothing. Better to pretend she had not seen. She went and hid in the downstairs lavatory until she heard her grandmother come into the house, and kick off her boots in the cloakroom. Then she waited until she heard her calling to Folly in the library. Emma knew what was going to happen. Mad would cut up her lunch for Folly and say nothing about it, so that Dottie would think she had eaten it herself. Emma was right. When she emerged from her hiding place and went into the library, Mad was looking for her spectacles and Folly was licking her chops.

“Oh, there you are, darling,” said Mad. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Liar, thought Emma. Infuriating, deceitful, beloved liar.

“Tell Dottie the steak was delicious, but I couldn’t manage the veg—I’m not very hungry.”

Nor would I be hungry, thought her granddaughter, if I’d just buried a mangled dog…

“There was nothing on the one o’clock news,” Emma said. “Just a repeat of that statement by the Admiral, so we switched to the news from London and it was the same. Only this time the statement was made by the Commander-in-Chief Land Forces, General Something. Slightly different wording, but otherwise unchanged.”

“I know,” said Mad, “I heard it.”

“I wonder if things are frantic in London. What do you suppose Pa is doing?”

“Treading the corridors of power. If there is any power left,” said Mad.

Emma always found it curious that her grandmother indulged her adopted boys to the limit, aiding and abetting them in all misdeeds, but when it came to her only son she frequently disapproved. She used to say Pa boasted. And he didn’t, she insisted, get his conceit from her, or from his dramatist father who was always so original and amusing, but from a parson great-grandfather who had failed to become a bishop. Her son Victor, she insisted, always made out that he knew everyone and kept his finger on the pulse of the world, and that people at the top asked his advice about everything from banking to politics.

“Perhaps they do,” Emma would say in defense of her father.

“Nonsense,” said Mad. “If I ever ask Vic’s advice about anything it’s invariably wrong. He once made me buy some shares on the Stock Exchange and they immediately fell in value. I’ve never gone by him since.”

“But that was years ago.”

“I don’t care. His judgment’s unsound.”

They went together into the music room. It was called the music room because of the piano which nobody ever played, but it was also Mad’s favorite room, which she kept filled with flowers even if it was nothing but dried hydrangea heads. There were also photographs of herself dotted about the room, in various roles, which Emma secretly thought was rather conceited, but perhaps when you were old you liked to be reminded of your young days when you were famous.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Mad, as she threw one of Joe’s carefully sawn logs onto the fire. “I have the feeling that your Pa knew something was in the wind.”

“How do you mean?” asked Emma.

“When he telephoned a few nights ago it was rather odd. I meant to tell you at the time, and then I forgot. He kept on saying he wanted you and me to go up to London for a few days and stay at the flat with him, there were a lot of things to discuss, and when I suggested he come down here instead he said it was difficult, and he was—well, I can only say cagey. I told him it was out of the question, you and I couldn’t possibly leave Dottie all alone to cope with the boys, especially over the half term, and he said, ‘Damn Dottie and the boys. Well, I hope you don’t regret it.’ Don’t regret it… That’s the odd thing. Then he rang off.”

Emma considered the matter. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said slowly. “Pa does get fussed from time to time. Thinks you do too much. And you know he’s always been bored with the boys, that’s why he comes down so seldom.”

The helicopters were passing backwards and forwards again. One was much lower than its fellows, and its roar made further speech impossible.

“Look,” said Mad, or rather shouted, “I do believe it’s going to land.”

The helicopter had come in low over the plowed field, and had now skirted the hedge and was hovering above the grazing field which adjoined the garden and ran parallel with the drive. It came lower, lower, hovering like a hawk, blades whirring, the noise deafening, and then slowly, very slowly, descended and landed in the center of the field. The blades rotated for a few moments, then ceased. The door of the helicopter opened and six or seven men got out.

“They’re coming here,” said Emma.

Two of the soldiers began walking across the field towards the drive. The rest remained by the helicopter. The two men climbed over the wire and crossed the lawn towards the gate. Emma glanced nervously at her grandmother. At least she hadn’t got her peaked cap on, so she didn’t look too much like Mao Tse-tung. Actually, with her white hair brushed upwards like that she looked rather good. Formidable, in fact. On the other hand, it might have been better if she had been dressed to suit her near-eighty years, perhaps in a sensible skirt, and worn a soft cardigan around her shoulders, preferably pale blue, instead of that Robin Hood jerkin with leather sleeves.

“What are we going to do?” asked Emma.

“Play it by ear,” said Mad.

They advanced together to the steps before the front door, as they had done that morning, and the two soldiers passed through the gate and walked up the path. “Officers,” murmured Mad under her breath, “you can always tell.” The soldiers, officers, whatever, came to a halt and saluted. One had what Emma imagined to be a typical soldier’s face, long, rather lantern-jawed, his hair beginning to go gray under his service cap. His companion was younger, round-faced, with smiling blue eyes. Emma found it natural that he should look at her rather than at her grandmother. It was the elder man who spoke.

“Colonel Cheeseman, ma’am,” he said, “U.S. Marines. This is Lieutenant Sherman.”

Mad did not attempt to acknowledge the introduction, or to give her own and Emma’s name. She plunged at once into the business at hand.

“Have you come to apologize about the dog?” she asked.

Colonel Cheeseman stared. “Dog, ma’am?” he repeated. “What dog?”

“A posse of your men,” said Mad (and surely, thought Emma, posse was a term only used in Westerns), “a posse of your men crossed the plowed field early this morning, and one of them deliberately shot and killed the extremely valuable collie-dog from the neighboring farm, which, frightened by the appalling noise of the helicopters, was running for its life. The scene was witnessed by a household of young children under my care. They were deeply shocked.”

The officer looked taken aback. “Make a note of that occurrence, lieutenant,” he said. “I’m extremely sorry, ma’am, to hear of your distress. There will be an enquiry into the incident, of which I had not been informed. I have come about quite a different matter.”

“Yes?” enquired Mad.

“You heard the announcement over the radio?”

“No, on my television. I know Admiral Jollif very well. He has lunched here several times.”

“Ah well, ma’am, that makes my request much easier. You have a stable block right adjacent to your property here, it appears.”

“I have.”

“We should like to make use of it, ma’am, with your cooperation, for twenty-four hours, possibly longer, depending upon the situation becoming stabilized, which it will undoubtedly do very shortly.”

Colonel Cheeseman’s tone was courteous, even deferring, yet firm.

“What you mean is,” said Mad, “you want to requisition it. As the owner, I have no choice in the matter, I take it?”

Colonel Cheeseman cleared his throat. “That’s putting it rather baldly, ma’am,” he replied. “There would be no inconvenience to yourself or to your household. It is a matter of communications. My intention is to set up a temporary post in the building, with Lieutenant Sherman here in charge.”

“I see.”

The colonel was clearly getting little encouragement. The younger officer glanced apologetically at Emma, who smiled nervously.

“There’s no telephone in the stables, and only one electric light bulb,” said Mad, “and my car is kept in the garage alongside. If your men intend to sleep in the stables they must watch out for the garden manure which is stored there. It wouldn’t make very comfortable bedding.”

Emma had a sudden vision of scores of American soldiers coming to the side door with requests for a bath, or even asking Dottie to wash their clothes.

“No problem, thank you, ma’am,” said Colonel Cheeseman. “We have our own equipment.”

“I see,” repeated Mad.

“I am sure,” continued Colonel Cheeseman, risking, for the first time, a brave attempt at a smile, though it was more in the nature of a grimace, “that I am extremely obliged to you, and that your good friend Admiral Jollif will feel as I do when he hears of your cooperation.”

“I presume,” said Mad, “that Admiral Jollif, like me, has to do what he’s told.”

The colonel stiffened. And now, of course, Emma thought, she’s doing her fatal thing of going too far, of putting his back up, and instead of everybody being friendly and polite it will get awkward, the man will start requisitioning the house and we shall be put in the stables.

“Ours is a joint enterprise, ma’am,” replied Colonel Cheeseman. “Our forces are in this together, as you will have heard on your television. The state of emergency will not last one moment longer than is considered necessary for your safety, and for the safety of your fellow-countrymen. Meanwhile, I will not detain you. Good day to you.”

He saluted, and so did his companion, but as they turned to go Mad did a dreadful thing—she was always doing it, in front of shopkeepers, or people who asked for autographs, or anyone who suddenly bored her, and that was to say something derogatory about them before they were safely out of earshot. “Pompous ass,” she said, her voice much too loud and clear. Emma went scarlet and withdrew to the hall, while her grandmother continued to stand by the front door until the two American officers had closed the gate behind them. Then she returned to the house.

“Call Joe, darling, will you,” she said to Emma, “and tell him to get my car out of the garage and tuck it away in the corner under the kitchen window.”

Emma shouted for Joe, who was still steadily chopping wood in the basement. He came up the little stairway that connected with the hall, closely followed by Terry. Mad explained briefly what had happened, and Joe vanished at once to obey her instructions. Not so the Byronic Terry, his eyes bright with excitement.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked. “Shall I take out the fuse that works the stable light, and turn off the outside tap?”

“No,” said Mad thoughtfully, “they’d know what to do. Anyway they’re self-contained. I tell you what, though. Go to the stables after Joe has brought round the car, wait there until they arrive, and then put on your charm act and say you are there to be of any assistance. Don’t overdo it. Just play it cool. Try and find out what’s going on.”

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