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Authors: Josephine Bell

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BOOK: The House Above the River
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They met no one on the walk up through the wood. As they mounted, the mist cleared, and the sun began to stream through the branches. When they came to a fork in the path, Phillipa pointed to the left.

“That goes up to the house,” she said. “It gets wider a bit further on, with rhododendrons and azalea bushes, and marvellous hydrangeas in flower. Very wild, though. We didn't see anything like a real garden, did we, Tony?”

“If you mean a lawn, no. But quite a lot of roses.”

“What about this path?” Giles asked, pointing to the right.

“That comes out on the road. It's the one we went up yesterday. It sort of peters out further up, and the brambles are wicked.”

Giles strode ahead on the right hand path. The delay in the cruise was infuriating, but there was nothing to be done about it. If the fog lifted he could take
Shuna
up the river on the engine later in the afternoon. In the meantime there was this village to explore. A meagre substitute for the day he had planned. But he accepted frustration. He had come to believe it was inevitable.

The path brought them into a rough field bordered by a bramble hedge. Beyond this a gate led into a narrow road. They climbed the gate and turned left towards the village.

“You see,” said Phillipa, pulling off her cardigan. “Bright clear sky, no wind, no mist. Glorious summer.”

“Hellishly hot,” grumbled Tony.

“Take off that thick sweater, then.”

“I haven't got a shirt on.”

“Penguerrec won't mind a naked torso. Just another mad Englishman. Anyway, Giles is respectable enough for two.”

Dear Giles, she thought, glancing sideways at him. He always manages to look marvellous in any circumstances. He was wearing fawn slacks and a thin russet-coloured shirt, that went admirably with his brown face and nearly black hair. No wonder the village girls turned to stare after him as they passed. Such a pity he never even wanted to speak to a woman if he could help it. Such a pity: such a waste.

The road dipped to the river, going round in a wide curve. They dropped back into the mist, through which the low roofs of the village appeared dimly.

“I want to get round to the hard,” said Phillipa, “and see if I can find some lobsters and what they call seafruit.”

“Judging by what you get in Tréguier,” said Giles, “you ought to find plenty of oysters and such. You go ahead. I must send off some postcards, if I can find any. Did you come across a post office yesterday?”

“Further on,” said Phillipa. “All the shops are in one wide street. The church is at the end of it. The post office is just beyond the shops. A grey front, with a few notices on it.”

“Right,” said Giles. “Are you going with Pip, Tony?”

“I'll go to carry back the homards,” he answered.

“More likely to be langoustines,” Giles told him. “Or spider crabs. You'll probably be given them alive, too.”

“Then I think I'll stick to oysters,” said Phillipa, shuddering.

She and Tony turned off along a road that seemed to lead on towards the sea, and Giles went up, climbing again into the sunshine.

He was writing the addresses on his postcards in the post office, when he heard a clear voice, in an unmistakably English accent, asking for stamps. He looked up. The girl with the shining hair, and it still shone, he noted, even in the subdued light of the post office, stood beside him, struggling with the currency.

Phillipa had said she was pretty, even beautiful, he remembered. She was not, by his standard. But then his standard had been fixed so long ago. Fixed for good; for bad, really. He ought to change it, by force of will, if possible. Phillipa said the girl was beautiful. Her hair was yellow, she probably had blue eyes to go with it, the cheek he could see was a clear gold-brown, the make-up pleasing. All right, then, she was pretty.

With a violent recoil from such a conclusion, he turned back to his postcards, but when he looked up again, she was still there, facing him now. He noticed, with pleased surprise, that the eyes were not blue, but amber, with dark lashes. She really was rather lovely.

She said, quite simply and naturally, “I saw you yesterday, didn't I, from the landing-stage? On your boat in the river?”

“Yes,” he found himself saying, just as easily. “I saw you, too.”

“It's very thick again today, isn't it?”

“Unfortunately. I wanted to get on to Lézardrieux this afternoon.”

She opened her eyes very wide.

“But you won't try it, will you?”

He shook his head, smiling at her evident concern.

“My cousin tells such awful tales of the things that happen to boats among the rocks round this part of the coast,” she went on, flushing a little. “But of course you know all about it.”

“I've been in here twice before,” he said. By this time his postcards were stamped and he had paid for the stamps and was ready to go. There was no need to talk to this girl any longer. Perhaps just a word of thanks for the use of the landing-stage.

She accepted his formal little speech gravely. This should have been the end of the conversation, but he found himself saying, “I must pick up my crew at the hard. They are on an oyster hunt.”

“Oh,” she said. “But they won't find any there. I mean, the fishermen bring everything up to the village. It all goes into Tréguier in a van that comes out every day. Unless you order in advance.”

“Then we shan't be lucky. I'd better go down and find them and tell them so. How do I get there?”

She began to explain, and he realised that it was more complicated than he had thought, with the mist making landmarks invisible.

“It doesn't sound as if I'll find them,” he said, and added, on a sudden impulse, “unless you will very kindly show me.”

She looked at her watch.

“Yes,” she said, with the same straightforward simplicity. “I'd like to see them again. I told Henry, that's my cousin, Henry Davenport, about them, and the boat, and he said it was quite all right about the landing-stage.”

“Don't bother to come if you haven't time, Miss Davenport.”

“Oh,” she laughed. “I've all the time in the world, really I don't
have
to do anything. Francine, Henry's housekeeper, is too marvellous. There are maids, as well. It's unbelievable, after England. Quite feudal.”

They began to walk away down the village street. When they came to the end of it and moved off along the steep cobbled road to the hard, she said, as if there had been no break in the conversation. “And my name isn't Davenport, it's Brockley, Susan Brockley. Henry is my mother's nephew, though he's about twelve years older than me.”

They walked down the hill out of the mist of the village into a thick all-embracing fog. Guided by Susan, there was no difficulty in finding the hard, but Giles began to wonder if his crew had found it, and in any case how he was going to find them. For though he and the girl wandered up and down the grey stones, and though they asked several of the fishermen if they had met two foreigners trying to buy shellfish, they met with no response but brief shakes of the head and muttered negatives. Only one man condescended to speak to them, and he and Giles recognised one another.

“You passed me last evening, going down the river,” Giles told him, in French.

“You wanted to know if you were safe where you'd anchored. There is not much danger just there, in the
river
” the man grinned, implying a double meaning.

“I didn't want to go aground,” Giles explained, wondering a little.

“One always takes the ground.”

“With ‘legs', yes. I have no ‘legs' for my yacht. We don't need them in the English harbours.”

The man grinned again, pityingly. Giles and Susan turned away.

“No good telling them we don't have thirty-foot tides on our side of the Channel,” he said. “They expect to dry out here.”

She did not answer and they walked back up the hill in silence.

“I seem to have missed Tony and Pip altogether,” Giles said when they had walked the length of the village street, inquired at the shops, and drawn a complete blank.

“They probably gave it up and went back to the landing-stage,” Susan suggested.

“More than likely. I'd better get back there, myself. In any case it's getting on for lunch time.”

“I'll show you the quickest path,” she said.

They went into the grounds of the château by the main gates, and along a broad drive, marked by the wheels of cars, and bordered by a generous crop of weeds. The drive led them in a wide sweep round and up the hill. Below, on their right, the mist lay thickly in what seemed to Giles to be a clearing in a hollow. He pointed it out to his companion.

“Actually it's that creek off the river,” she answered. “The one that goes back from the harbour. Very shallow at low tide. Almost all a sort of muddy sand, which is supposed to be dangerous. There's a notice Henry put up, but of course the village people wouldn't think of bathing there at all. I like it, but it's rather a weird sort of place.”

They went on, climbing more steeply now, but the drive had been cut into the slope, and the way was not as steep as the path Giles had used earlier. The mist was left behind again, the sun shone brightly through the overhanging trees. But not with the clear, heartening warmth he had welcomed when he came out on the road with Tony and Phillipa. The air of the drive was motionless, hot, oppressive, smelling of damp and decay. The whole approach to the house had an uncomfortable air of neglect, of effort exhausted.

They walked round another bend into a broad sweep of rough gravel. The house, half in shade, stood on the far side.

It was quite an attractive place, Giles thought. The two small conical towers, one at each end, were in the tradition of the châteaux; the warm yellow-grey stone of the walls carried on this style, though the size and general appearance of the rest of the building did not suggest any great age.

But the ubiquitous air of neglect hung over the house. Tall weeds pressed against the foot of the stone walls, filling what might have been flower beds on either side of the door. A climbing rose, unpruned for years, covered the corner of the house. Its weight had broken it away from the wall and new shoots had thrust their way into a laurel bush nearby, and were festooned across a path that led from the drive round the hidden corner. Giles noticed, with amused disgust, that a new path had been trodden in the grass round the laurel bush in order to avoid the obstructing rose.

He saw that Susan was watching him intently.

“Your cousin has a very big place to keep up,” he said.

She shook her head sadly, understanding what he meant.

“He doesn't. I wish he would. But he's been so worried …”

Giles looked at his watch, and said quietly, “You must tell me where I go from here. Tony and Pip will be wild if I'm late for lunch. Pip has great plans for it.”

“I don't think they will,” Susan exclaimed, in quite a different voice. “I think they are here at the moment, talking to Henry!”

She pointed towards the house, and Giles, who was trying to find a path from the drive, turned back again. As his eyes swept the windows in turn, looking for his friends, his attention was drawn upwards by the sudden movement of a curtain. For a few seconds a face, chalk-white, staring, looked out at him. Then it was gone, leaving him breathless with shock.

It could not possibly be a face he remembered! It must be an hallucination, brought on by the irritating frustration of the fog, the queer, depressing, suspended atmosphere of the way into this place.

“Look,” said Susan, who had begun to walk forward. “They're waving to you. We'd better go in.”

“Where?” asked Giles. Bus voice was unsteady, and the girl turned to him in some surprise.

“The window beyond the door. What's the matter?”

“I saw someone upstairs—looking out.”

She frowned. He was behaving very strangely. Did he not want to meet his friends again? Was something wrong on the yacht, between these three strangers? After all, she did not know them in the least; she only knew that this man was more attractive than anyone she had ever met.

“Probably Francine,” she said. “The housekeeper.”

As they reached the door it was opened by a stoutish, elderly woman in a neat black dress, unmistakably French, who told Susan that Mr. Henry had taken the English lady and gentleman to the library and would be pleased if they would join him there.

“Thank you, Francine,” said the girl, moving ahead.

Giles followed. It had not been the stout housekeeper at the upper window. His uneasiness grew. The experience had been as new as it was shocking. For eight years he had been blotting that face from his memory, by every effort of will and reason, by every acceptance of growing disregard. He had even welcomed, this morning, the arrival on the scene of Susan Brockley. While he was persuading himself to admire her fresh looks, he had not once remembered, had not once compared her, with that earlier standard of perfection. And yet that face had appeared to him again, in an unnatural distortion, livid, horrible, and he wondered if he were going out of his mind.

Henry Davenport came forward as Susan and Giles entered the room. He was a shortish man, stockily built, but with a thin, pale face and dull eyes. A sick man, Giles thought, or an unhappy one. Perhaps both. However, Henry greeted the newcomer with some degree of warmth and turned away to supply him with a drink.

The room was low-ceilinged and panelled in dark wood. The chairs, the tables, even the books on the shelves, wore the same neglected air as the grounds outside the house. It was as if their owner had ceased to be able to see them, had failed entirely to notice their slow creeping decay. Some strange preoccupation must cause this total indifference, Giles thought. For the bearing of the French housekeeper had been brisk and alert. She did not look the sort of woman to allow slatternly habits among her staff. And yet the covers on the very English upholstered easy chairs were faded and worn, and though there was no dust on the tables, there was no polish, either.

BOOK: The House Above the River
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