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Authors: Daphne Du Maurier

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

Rule Britannia (8 page)

BOOK: Rule Britannia
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“We mustn’t keep you,” he said. “I know you have a lot to do. Colonel Cheeseman’s compliments, though, and to tell you that he understands the local children missed their Guy Fawkes celebrations and their bonfire over the weekend because of the state of alert. He begs pardon for this, and would I tell you we’ll be building a bonfire for the local children tonight, and your boys will be very welcome. We will supply the fireworks.”

“How kind of Colonel Cheeseman,” replied Emma. “I’m sure my grandmother…”

She glanced nervously at Mad, without the slightest idea what the reaction would be, but to her surprise, and to her relief as well, Mad smiled at the lieutenant.

“How thoughtful of Colonel Cheesering,” she said. “As he is supplying the fireworks, my boys and I will bring the guy.”

Oh dear, wondered Emma, what on earth will she think up now, but Lieutenant Sherman seemed delighted and thanked her warmly.

But Martha Hubbard had not finished with Ben, who was still staring at her from over the pink and white rock. She wished to show that despite anything Britishers might think she, Martha Hubbard, Boston-born, had no color prejudice.

“You haven’t thanked me for the candy, honey,” she said, “but before you do, you’re going to give me such a hug, and you’re going to put those little arms right round my neck…”

Ben rolled his eyes and drew in his breath. “F…” he began, “f…”

Emma rushed forward and snatched him up in her arms. “He’s terribly shy of strangers,” she said quickly, “I’ll say thank you for him.” And before Ben could utter she had borne him out of the room and into the kitchen, where Terry and Andy waited expectantly.

“Did he say it?” asked Terry, eyes dancing.

“No,” shouted Emma, “he did
not.
And if there’s any more trouble from any one of you I’ll to straight to Madam and tell her what you’ve been teaching Ben, that is, as soon as the visitors have gone.”

“Don’t worry,” smiled Terry, “she knows all about it.”

Emma crashed the kitchen door behind her and found Lieutenant Sherman waiting for her in the hall.

“Your grandmother is very kindly going to show Mrs. Hubbard round the house,” he said, “and introduce her to the other kids.”

I can’t cope, thought Emma. None of the beds will have been made, Dottie will have her face on, and if the little boys don’t say something frightful the middle boys will.

“In that case,” she said, “my grandmother won’t need me. Would you like to come into the garden?”

“I sure would,” replied the lieutenant, his relief at getting away from the two women in the music room almost as great as hers, and then, as soon as they were safely outside, he added, “I wish you’d call me Wally. It sounds more friendly somehow than Lieutenant Sherman.”

“All right, I will,” said Emma, opening the side door that led to the shrubbery, and they ran full tilt into Joe with a wheelbarrow full of logs.

“Hi,” said the lieutenant.

“Morning,” nodded Joe.

He looks disapproving, thought Emma. How ridiculous, it’s not my fault if the place is swarming with marines.

“I’m just going to take the lieutenant to the end of the garden to show him the lookout,” she said unnecessarily.

A silly remark, considering he had flown over it dozens of times in the helicopter. Joe did not answer, but turned his wheelbarrow towards the kitchen garden.

“Anything wrong?” asked her companion. “He looks put out.”

“Oh, Joe’s always uncommunicative,” replied Emma, “quite different from Terry.”

“It could be,” suggested the lieutenant slyly, “that he doesn’t like you taking a walk with me?”

“Joe?” Emma stared at him, then laughed. “Listen, we’ve all been brought up together. You’ve probably noticed, it’s a funny household.”

They came to the walk overlooking the plowed field of unhappy memories. There was still a certain amount of activity around the warship in the bay.

“I’ll tell you something I have noticed,” said Wally, “and that is that none of us are very welcome here with your grandmother. She made it darn clear to everybody last night down in Poldrea.”

“Oh, she didn’t mean it,” said Emma hastily. “What I want to explain is that you know how old people get, so set in their ways, and you must admit that it’s all been terribly sudden and overwhelming, this USUK business. You can’t really blame her.”

“I don’t blame her,” he answered. “I only regret her attitude. You see, we’re here to help everyone to make the whole union go smoothly. And your grandmother is so well known in this district that a welcome from her would make our work that much easier. People would listen to her, locally.”

Emma considered the matter. “I don’t think they would,” she said, “I mean, she’s not that sort of person. She really only lives for the boys nowadays.”

“And for you?”

“And for me.”

The lieutenant smiled. “I guess when your grandmother was young she looked a lot like you,” he said.

“Thank you,” said Emma, “you couldn’t pay me a greater compliment.”

They retraced their steps and waited in front of the house for the tour of inspection to finish.

“Tell me,” asked Emma, “without giving away security or anything, is it really necessary to have those roadblocks, and passes, and the ship out there, with the helicopters buzzing about, and all your men so thick on the ground? I mean, if we’re united now, what’s it for?”

Lieutenant Sherman looked grave. “For just exactly that,” he said, “to ensure that the union is solid, right from the start. We can’t afford to let it go wrong. There have been too many half-measures taken between nations during the past decade. See the mess they’ve got into in Europe falling out among themselves, although it hasn’t come to war yet.”

“They’re only in a mess economically,” said Emma. “That’s why we ratted on them, I suppose.”

“I don’t think you ratted on them, if that’s the way you put it, for economics alone,” replied the lieutenant. “You had strategic misgivings, or rather your government did. As I understand it, USUK is your only hope. We could get by on our own, but you couldn’t.”

Emma was silent. He seemed to be saying what she had read in the newspapers that morning. She felt suddenly perplexed, uncertain of everything. It sounded very much like what Mr. Trembath had said in the town hall to Mad the night before. “We’ve got to behave ourselves, or else…”

“Anyway,” said Lieutenant Sherman with a smile, “you’re far too young and far too pretty to concern yourself with grim things that may never happen. Will you come to our firework party down on the beach? We’ll give you a fine display, I promise you that.”

“Yes,” said Emma, “I’ll come, if it’s only to keep an eye on my grandmother.”

Mad and the lady from Boston came out of the house onto the path, and it seemed to Emma that Mrs. Hubbard’s smile was not quite so broad as it had been before the tour of inspection. She looked rather fatigued, and she was scribbling something in a notebook.

“Just one more thing,” she said to Mad. “Now, the name of your lovely home is Trevanal. You tell me Tre is the prefix for home, then what does vanal mean?”

“Oh, tithes,” explained Mad with a lavish gesture. “A tithe-barn is a skybervanal, but I thought skyber rather an ugly word, so I just kept the vanal. It was a barn, of course, in olden days.”

“But,” said Martha Hubbard, still scribbling in her notebook, “I thought you told me when we were upstairs that King Mark slept in your guest room, and the recess in one corner used to hold Isolde’s bridal bed?”

“It did,” said Mad, “but that was before the place became a barn. The recess was full of sacks when I bought the house twenty years ago. Grain everywhere. Oh, hullo, darling…”

She stared defiantly at her granddaughter. She knew, and Emma knew, that the lady from Boston had been accepting every word as gospel truth.

“I do hope and believe,” said Martha Hubbard earnestly, shaking her hostess’s hand, “that you and I have entered into a meaningful relationship, and if there is any further explanation you need about the work of our movement within USUK, you have only to let me know.”

“And you’ll bring the boys to the fireworks, and Emma too?” asked Lieutenant Sherman. “Not forgetting the guy?”

Emma’s grandmother smiled as she escorted them to the waiting jeep. “Not forgetting the guy,” she said.

No sooner had they disappeared up the drive than Mad called out, “Terry! Where are you?”

“What do you want Terry for?” asked Emma suspiciously. “He’s supposed to be helping Joe in the kitchen garden.”

“Then he can help me instead,” replied Mad, “and so can the rest of the boys. Didn’t you hear Lieutenant Sherman remind me to bring a guy?”

She looked suddenly thoughtful as Ben came into the hall, a piece of pink rock still in his mouth and a bunch of flags in one hand. Martha Hubbard must have given him a cracker, too, for in the other hand he grasped a sparkler that fizzed and emitted little bursts of light.

“H’m,” said Mad.

Emma glanced at her grandmother. There was always an inner meaning to her “h’m’s.” Sometimes it meant that she was miles away, caught up in the past, or else it could have some practical significance, a clue to a crossword, the answer to an acrostic.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

Mad watched the youngest of the brood advance towards her, his ebony face glowing with joy.

“You could train that child to do anything,” she said.

7

The marines had cleared a piece of the waste ground between the marshes and the wire surrounding their encampment on Poldrea beach. A pile of driftwood held the center of the space. Crowds had already gathered to watch the entertainment that the troops had so generously offered to provide for them. Parents with their children, older boys and girls, the local traders, clay-workers, dockers, people from outlying villages and, of course, the marines themselves, good-humored, smiling, patting the various children on the head, chaffing the girls, and showing by their easy bonhomie what get-together meant, even if it was not so cultural as Martha Hubbard’s movement. The USUK flags were everywhere—Mr. Libby, the landlord of the Sailor’s Rest, had run up one of them on the pole beside the inn, and as it was a fine, clear evening, and mild for November, he had even brought out chairs and tables onto his frontage of mown grass, for his clients to drink their beer and enjoy the fireworks.

Excitement filled the air. Even Emma, who had felt rather superior before leaving home, and half-inclined to remain with Joe and Dottie, who had decided to stay behind, found the atmosphere stirring, somehow foreign, as though she was suddenly in Italy or Spain. All those marines, moving in and out among the local people, their uniforms, their faces, had a foreign cut about them—no, it wasn’t Italy or Spain, it was more like an old movie, an old Western, where there was talk of the “frontier,” and the Sailor’s Rest was the saloon bar with its swing doors. At any moment someone in a cowboy hat would come out with two guns slung in a low holster belt. Local youths, friends of Joe’s and Terry’s, called “’Lo, Emma” as they passed, and she said “’Lo” back to them, but she was used to them, they were just local boys, but these marines, they stared at her, they were… well, somehow aware. The look in their eyes, their slouching walk, the laugh and the nudge to one another, and the accent, it wasn’t like a great bunch of tourists visiting Cornwall, it was foreign, it was the swagger and appraisal of invaders, of conquerors. And somehow this wasn’t entirely displeasing.

She felt someone touch her shoulder and it was Wally Sherman, the lieutenant—the name no longer quite so absurd—and then he put his arm through hers.

“The boys have made a grand job of it, haven’t they?” he said, and he pointed towards the pile of driftwood.

For a moment she was muddled, thinking he meant their boys, Mad’s boys, but of course he was alluding to the marines.

“Yes, it’s terrific,” she replied. “I only hope the guy doesn’t collapse at once. My grandmother and Terry have been at work on it all afternoon. I wasn’t allowed to watch, needless to say. I imagine it’s dressed up in all the boys’ cast-off clothes, and my grandmother’s too.”

“Where is your grandmother? I don’t see her, or the kids either.”

He scanned the heads among the crowd behind, and so did Emma.

“She was by the inn a moment ago,” she told him, “waiting for the Trembaths—those are our farmer friends. Terry and Mr. Trembath were bringing the guy down in the Land Rover belonging to the farm. Apparently it was too big to get into the boot of our car.”

The lieutenant laughed. “Some guy,” he said, and then, steering Emma towards the fringe of the crowd, where the ground sloped away and the beach began, he murmured in a lower voice, “And some girl.”

The thing is, thought Emma, if he wants to start something, which he obviously does, now is the moment either to fob him off or let it rip. The question being, what do I want? A few wet kisses and a mutual fumble, and will it have to happen every time we meet, because honestly… She glanced to her left and saw two figures in the shadows under the overhanging cliff—there was a handy cave nearby—who were obviously one stage further advanced in the universal game. Oh well, why not, and Wally put both arms round her and the clinch began. It made for stimulation, because of the crowds and the feeling of excitement. And then bang… crash… the first rocket went up in the air, splintering the sky, lighting up the world around, and everyone stopped what they were doing and said, “Ah…!”

The lieutenant loosened his grip, the two figures to their left unclasped, and as the fragments of the rocket fell Emma saw that one of them was Myrtle Trembath, Terry’s girlfriend, and the other Wally’s subordinate, Corporal Wagg. All four suffered a simultaneous shock of recognition but feigned ignorance, the corporal with tact born of experience leading his prey yet further towards the cave, amid giggles and protests, but Emma, stuffing both hands into her anorak pockets, was aware of a sudden feeling of reluctance, of distaste. What she had been allowing to happen wasn’t exciting at all, it was off-putting, cheap, and she couldn’t decide whether the distaste had come about because of seeing Myrtle doing the same thing, which she knew was a snobbish reaction, or because Corporal Wagg and Lieutenant Sherman—Wally—had both taken the girls for granted and it was held to be one of their perks, the dues, to put it bluntly, of territorial occupation.

“Come on,” she said briefly, “we’d better rejoin my lot,” and she began to walk away out of the sand onto the firmer ground with the lieutenant saying nothing, just stumbling in her rear, and all the while the rockets and the showering stars kept blazing overhead.

It was certainly a fine display—the marines had done them proud. There were blue stars and red stars and green stars and white stars, the whole mass showering down upon the upturned faces of the watching crowd. It lasted a full twenty minutes and then slowly began to peter away, as is the nature of all firework festivals, and heads turned towards the bonfire which, once lighted, would become the grand finale to the evening’s entertainment.

“There’s your grandmother,” said the lieutenant, “standing over there with the little boys.” He realized he had somehow boobed, and he wanted to make amends.

“So she is,” replied Emma with relief, and to show she bore no ill feelings she linked arms once again with her companion. “And there’s Terry,” she added. “He’s got Andy with him, and some of his friends from the technical school. They’re carrying something pretty big, it must be the guy.”

It all happened very quickly. One moment the half-dozen boys were walking across the piece of waste ground bearing their load, and the next the stuffed figure was straddling the top of the driftwood pile, fixed firmly in position. It stood about six foot high, and it was not stuffed with Terry’s or Joe’s worn-out clothes, it was dressed as a soldier, in camouflage jacket and tin hat, with imitation rifle at the ready, and Emma, catching her breath, remembered the old dressing-up box that had lain stored in the basement for years, holding relics of heaven only knew what timeless past.

“Your grandma’s sure gone to town this time,” said Wally, in a tone half respectful, half ominous. “Where in the name of Moses did she raise that outfit, and what’s the little fellow going to do?”

Ben was advancing, or rather marching, to the base of the pile. He carried a flare in his left hand. He stood still for a moment and saluted. Then he bent, put the flare to the bonfire and retreated six steps backwards. A gasp of admiration rose from the crowd, the locals admittedly, with cries from the women of, “Oh, the little dear, see the courage of him!” The marines were silent, crowding together on the fringe, ready to snatch the child from harm should any sparks from the fire blow towards him. As to the guy itself, well, if this was British humor, fair enough. But more was to come. Nobody had noticed that from the rear quarters of the soldier image protruded a USUK flag, and when the flames licked the seat of the guy’s pants the flag was revealed in all its glory. There was a splutter, and an explosion, and as the flag shot into the burning pile so a rocket blew with tremendous force from the guy’s backside, and the guy itself toppled over into the flames.

The roar of laughter that rose with the rocket and followed it as it burst must have rung, as Jack Trembath said afterwards, from one side of the Cornish coast to the other, but best of all, he declared, was the sight of that little black fellow standing so solemnly at attention, for all the world like a general at a saluting base, and after that the expression on the face of the Marine Commander, who had arrived just in time to watch the finale.

Then, as parents and the middle-aged moved away, still wiping tears of laughter from their eyes, making for their cars parked outside the Sailor’s Rest or starting to walk back to Poldrea along the beach road, another series of explosions filled the air. Minor ones, it is true, but effective enough. Some joker had thrown lighted fireworks into Colonel Cheeseman’s staff car—his driver had evidently had his back turned to watch the bonfire—and there was a hiss and a splutter, and a smell of burning as the fireworks flared inside.

“Now see here,” said Lieutenant Sherman, letting go of Emma’s arm, “this just isn’t funny, it isn’t funny at all,” and he started running towards the car, followed by a handful of marines. The scuffle started when a marine saw a youth bending down to tie a shoelace and, thinking he was lighting up more fireworks, booted him over into the gutter. A yell of protest rose from the youth’s friends. Somebody picked up a stone and threw it haphazard. Unfortunately it smashed a window of the staff car. Then a bunch of marines charged, scattering people right and left. Women screamed, an old man was knocked over, and the tables and chairs outside the Sailor’s Rest went flying in all directions. Mr. Libby, white to the gills, tried to shepherd his clients inside the inn for safety.

“It’s those damn hooligans of boys,” he kept saying. “It’s not the marines at all. They deserve to be shot, the whole bloody lot of them.”

Men were clutching their womenfolk and children. Stray dogs, already frightened by the fireworks, barked and ran across the road. There were shouting and whistling and angry voices raised, more scuffling and thumping between the marines and a further bunch of boys, and then somebody started throwing not stones but sand, the loose, gray-brown sand that was the feature of Poldrea beach from end to end. In a moment the sand was flying through the air, without point or purpose, blinding the eyes, filling nose and throat. It was chaos. It was hell.

“Mad,” shouted Emma, “Mad,” and she ducked her head to avoid the shower of sand flung by some boys. “Andy,” she called, “Colin, Ben…” but they were nowhere to be seen, nor her grandmother either. There was nothing but a swaying crowd, bewildered, angry, none of them knowing why they were angry except that somebody said an old person had been knocked down, a child had been smothered, a dog had been run over… And all the while the remains of the bonfire glowed and spluttered, while the blackened tin hat of the guy hung from the iron spike that had formed its base.

“You all right?”

It was Mr. Trembath, his hair blowing, a great smear of dirt on his left cheek, his raincoat torn, and he put his arm round Emma and gave her his own handkerchief to wipe the sand out of her eyes.

“Oh, thank heaven for you,” she said, clinging to his arm. “Where’s my grandmother, where are the boys?”

“Don’t worry,” he told her, “they’re safe in your grandmother’s car behind the Sailor’s Rest. I’m going to drive you home, then come back for my own family.”

He led her past the gauntlet of onlookers to the car park. Mad was sitting in the front seat, and the four boys, Andy, Sam, Colin and Ben, were packed together in the back. Mad was smoking a cigarette. She hadn’t smoked for twenty years. Directly she saw Emma she threw the cigarette away, out of the open window of the car.

“Oh, darling,” said Emma, near to tears, “I’ve been so worried about you. I called and called, and there wasn’t a sign.”

“We did the same,” replied Mad briefly, “and when someone shouted that a girl had been knocked down I feared it was you. All over now. Jump in, you’ll have to sit on my lap, you’ve done it before in days gone by. Mr. Trembath, I’m more than grateful to you. Shall we go?”

Neither had reckoned on the roadblock, and instead of one sentry to examine passes there were four, and an officer in charge. The crowds by the beach were quieter now, but no one was permitted to leave without a rigorous examination of their passes. Men and youths had to turn out their pockets, women and girls their handbags.

The officer by the barricade examined the yellow ticket on the windscreen of the car. Then he asked for the adults’ passes. Then the names and addresses of everyone else in the car. Tonight Mad allowed Jack Trembath to answer for her and give the details.

“Out of the car, please,” commanded the officer. “We want to search it.”

No one said anything as they all got out. The officer stood by while two of his men turned up the seats of the car, examined the pockets, lifted the floor rug, and finally inspected the boot.

“What are you looking for?” asked Jack Trembath.

“Explosives,” replied the officer. “O.K., you may go.”

They climbed back into the car and the farmer started up the engine.

“Explosives!” he exclaimed. “Where in the world would we find explosives? Weren’t we asked to their darn firework party?”

“Perhaps,” said Mad, “according to their way of thinking fireworks are explosives. They can use them but we can’t.”

“That’s about the size of it,” replied Jack Trembath. “Well, I’ll say one thing. We may all have had a bit of a scare just now when things turned ugly, but when the guy exploded in the hindquarters I had the biggest laugh I’ve had in years. And the Yanks didn’t like it either.”

He began laughing again as he turned off the road and into the drive, and when he set the party down before the house he said to Mad, “Don’t worry about that practical joker Terry. I’ll pick him up directly when I pick up Myrtle. He can sleep at my place tonight and bring your car back in the morning.”

It was not until he had driven out of sight up the drive that Emma remembered Myrtle had not been with Terry, but with the corporal on the beach. After the fireworks started both had disappeared towards the cave, and during the mêlée that followed anything could have happened. Should she tell Mad, or wasn’t it her concern? Mad went into the cloakroom to take off her boots, and the boys ran excitedly into the kitchen to give an account of the evening to Joe and Dottie. All but Andy, who appeared thoughtful.

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