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Authors: Eleanor Farnes

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The Red Cliffs

BOOK: The Red Cliffs
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THE RED CLIFFS

Eleanor Farnes

Since she lived and worked in London, Alison did not really have any use for the delightful Devonshire cottage that had come to her after her brother's death. But as soon as she met the detestable, overbearing Neil Edgerton, who seemed to think he had some claim on the place as well, she determined to go to any lengths to stop him getting his hands on it!

 

CHAPTER ONE

The taxi drew to a halt before a tall, old-fashioned house which was now a hive of self-contained flats. In the darkened interior of the taxi, there was a short silence tinged with embarrassment before a girl

s voice said, slowly:


Well, then, this is goodbye.


I

ll carry your hags up for you,

a man s voice
answered.

As he took her suitcases, one
in each hand, he
asked the taxi-driver to wait, leaving his own bags behind. Alison pushed open the heavy front
d
oor for him, thinking that he
had never before asked a taxi-
driver to wait, never before been so anxious to set a limit on his time with her. There was no lift. She preceded him up the narrow flights of stairs to her own door and opened it with her key, and he followed her into the small hall and set down her bags.

Thank you, Ralph,

she said.

Once more there was constraint between them, a pause filled with embarrassment.

‘“
You mustn

t keep your taxi waiting, she said
stiffly.


No,

he agreed. He held out his hand to her.

I

ll give you a ring some time, Alison, shall I?

It was on the tip of her tongue to say:

Yes, do that,

and get rid of him quickly. Then she changed her mind.


No,

she said instead,

What would be the
good?

He shrugged his shoulders slightly.


Wouldn

t it be nice to meet occasionally and talk?


I think we

ve already said everything that needs to be said between us,

said Alison.

Ralph looked at her and saw that the hurt had gone deep.


I can

t tell you how sorry I am,

he said,

that th
ings turned out as they did...”


They turned out as you caused them to tur
n out. How can you say you are
sorry now?


But, Alison, it doesn

t have to be the end.


After what has happened, for me it is the end.


If you feel like that,
I

d better go,

said Ralph. He turned to the door, hesitated, and turned back to her again.

But no hard feelings, Alison?

he asked.

She looked at him in s
il
ence for a moment or two. Then, to put an end to an unsatisfactory conversation, she said:


No hard feelings, Ralph,

and took the
hand he once more offered her. The
n he had gone downstairs to his waiting taxi, Alison closed the door and walked into the living room. It was empty. The whole
flat
had a waiting air. Lucy Conway, with whom Alison shared the fiat, was not at home.

Alison put her gloves, bag and book down on the table. Then she pulled out a chair and sat down, with her elbows on the table and her face in her hands. Row that she was at home, alone, and Ralph was gone, there was no longer any need to hide behind the facade of calm indi
ffe
rence.

What a fiasco, she thought wearily, what a fiasco!

They had set off on their holiday with such high hopes, with gaiety and excitement and great anticipation. Behind them were eight months of getting to know each other, of slow
l
y ripening intimacy, from the moment of their first meeting to the moment when they took
off
from London Airport for Spain. Before them, two weeks of being constantly together, of walking and talking, dancing and dining, swimming and lazing in continual sunshine. Alison had thought it an apex in their relationship, a crucial time at which something new must happen. Lucy had said, seeing her off from the flat:

What

s the betting that you come back with a fine half-hoop of diamonds on your finger?

Alison had, in her heart, thought it a foregone conclusion. How wrong we were, she thought, her face still buried in her hands.

She was filled with desolation and weariness. Hurt pride, too, was there, a constant thorn in the flesh, but it was not the most important thing. The
important thing was that she had thought she knew Ralph, thought she knew to what their growing intimacy was leading, had allowed herself to look forward to something that did not exist, had let herself fall in love. She had known that he was ambitious and had seen herself helping and encouraging him, furthering his projects, a wife to be proud of, at his side. She moved impatiently, remembering it. What a fiasco, she thought again.

She seemed to be incapable of movement. As long as it was necessary, she had kept up the attitude of indifference, the pretence of not caring, but it had needed a great effort and been a great strain. Now she could let the pretence go, could let everything go, and all her energy drained out of her.

The sound of a key turning in the lock roused her at last. She turned her head to see Lucy coming into the room, and rose to greet her. Lucy Conway was small and plump and brown; brown-haired, brown
-
eyed and brown-skinned, with a ready smile and unbounded good nature, and a calm efficiency in planning and guiding her own affairs.


Alison! I wanted to be home before you. Have you been in long? Have you had a wonderful time? You

re beautifully brown, but, honey, you look tired.


I am tired,

said Alison.

No, I haven

t been in long.


Where is Ralph?


He didn

t stay.


And did you have a wonderful time?

repeated Lucy. There was a slight pause.

Not so wonderful?

She looked more attentively at Alison and toned down her exuberance.

Things didn

t go exactly according to plan,

she said more quietly.


N
ot exactly,

admitted Alison.


You haven

t even taken you
r
coat
off
yet. Look, darling, you go and freshen up, and I

ll have a meal ready for us as soon as you

re ready.

It

s all prepared in the oven. And then you can tell me everything.

Telling Lucy everything was a great relief. They sat opposite each other at the table by the window, eating their supper, while the story of Ralph

s dereliction was unfolded. Lucy had said, as she served the contents of a steaming casserole on to the plates:


No half-hoop of diamonds, Alison, after all?


No,

said Alison.

Nor is there likely to be, either now or in the future.


What could have gone wrong? You were always on such excellent terms—anybody would have thought you were both in love—you

ve been so happy together the whole summer.


I
know. T
he only thing that went wrong, the only fly in the ointment, was that I saw the holiday as a prelude to something—an engagement, marriage, oh, I don

t know—and Ralph had been seeing it as

well, as a honeymoon.


No! The cad! Oh, Alison, what a wretched holiday it must have been after all.


Not at first. It was wonderful, everything that I had hoped it would be. Until Ralph began to
l
ose patience and became rather pressing: and even then, poor fool that I was, I thought he was leading up to a proposal of marriage. But it was quite another kind of proposal, and after that, it was a struggle all the time between his ardour and my principles.


I wish I had never brought him here,

said Lucy, for it was Lucy who had met Ralph first and who had introduced him to Alison, and seen his immediate switching-over of attention with philosophic resignation.

I hope you don

t feel too terribly about it, Alison?

Alison could not hide the fact that she was feeling extremely wretched, although she attempted understatement.


A bit low-spirited, shall we say?

she said, and tried to smile at Lucy, but Lucy was not deceived.


Perhaps,

she suggested,

now that he knows how you feel, at some time in the future
...”

Alison shook her head.


I

ve sent him packing,

she said.

Obviously, I never saw him as he really was, and he couldn

t have seen me for what I am, or such a mistake would never have been possible. I can

t really understand how I was such a simpleton—I suppose it was the good looks, all that charm. I suppose I was flattered. Ah well, it

s over now.


Irrevocably?

asked Lucy.


Irrevocably. It will be a long time before I will trust another man.


You mustn

t judge them
all
by Ralph. Plenty of them are completely trustworthy; souls of honour.


How could
we tell that Ralph wasn

t? No, I

ve had enough of men.

Lucy did not argue, although she had mental reservations, but said:


Poor Alison. First your brother

s death and now this. I ho
p
ed that Ralph was going to be a consolation for Tom, but what a forlorn hope that was! This is a black patch for you, Alison, but I

m sure there must be brighter ones ahead.


I

m sorry to burden you with all my woes,

said Alison.

Let us forget them for a while. Tell me how you

ve been getting on.

Resolutely, she changed the subject, but although she had said that they would forget her troubles, she could not forget them. The tragic death of her brother Tom nearly two

months before had been a stunning blow, and it was Ralph who, with great sympathy and tact, had helped her over it. Without him, it would have been much harder to bear. He had gone with her to the Highlands of Scotland where Tom had been killed as he drove his car along a mountain road at night, had arranged the funeral and stayed with her for it, and had brought her back to London, looking after her with loving care throughout, His consideration for her then made his later defection the more difficult to understand. He had been constantly at hand to take her to dinner or drive her into the country, so that she had had less time to grieve or brood about Tom. Not that she had seen very much of Tom in the last few years. If he happened to be in London, he would call at the flat for a meal or take
Alison out, but he was the only
relative she had in England, and they were precious to each other for that reason. She had a brother Christopher, a qualified engineer who had emigrated to Australia, married and prospered there, and an aunt in America, but, apart from this flat she shared with Lucy, there was
n
o place that she could call home. Like most homeless people, she had a fervent wish to have a home of her own, and thought that most people happily ensconced in them did not sufficiently appreciate their good fortune.

When they had washed the supper dishes, Alison and Lucy made coffee and carried it into the living room. So that Lucy could put the tray on the small coffee table, Alison removed a carved wooden head of a boy from it, and kept it in her lap as she sat down, running her hand over the smooth texture of the wood, looking at the carving.

This is rather nice,

she said reflectively, studying it.


An understatement,

said Lucy.

One of the best things you ever did. One of my most valued possessions. I
w
ish you

d do some more.


The flat is full of it already,

smiled Alison, were a Madonna and child on the chimney
-
piece, the head of an old woman on the bookcase. Their bedroom also had its carved figures. Alison put the boy

s head down on the hearth as she took her coffee cup.


You still have a week before you get back to your grindstone,

said Lucy.

What will you do with it?


I shall go down to Tom

s farm and start sorting out his things,

replied Alison.


Alone?


Yes, alone.


Is that wise? I wish I could come with you. You

ll be miles from anywhere, feeling low anyway, feeling more miserable because of the job you

l
l be doing
...”


Nonsense. I shall be busy. And it must be done.
I can

t put the house up for sale until I

ve been down and seen what is there and got everything sorted.
I
suppose the furniture will have to be sold though if there is anything really attractive, I could put it in store, or we could bring it here. I thought I would go down on Monday morning
...”

On Monday morning, Lucy left for her office at the usual time and Alison made the final preparations for her journey to what, had been her brother

s farm, until his untimely death had made her the owner. She brought her own small car from the garage and loaded her suitcases into it, and. she prepared a lunch and a flask of coffee which she could enjoy when she pleased at the roadside. She put into a briefcase all the papers she had had from the solicitor concerning Tom

s property, and the letters from his brother-in
-
law Neil Edgerton, and tucking it under her arm, she dosed the door of the flat behind her, went down to her car and began to drive through the London traffic westward.

She was not sorry to leave the flat. There were too many reminders of Ralph there, and Lucy

s sympathy, unspoken but only too obvious, was the strongest of them. It would be good to get away and absorb herself in something new, for the weekend had shown her all too plainly how much she had grown to depend on Ralph. It was second nature now to expect the ringing of the telephone to herald a call from him, and to spend most of her free time in his company; and the blank caused by his going would be a long and dreary one to
fi
ll.

She had always liked driving alone. Her mind was more than ordinarily active at such times, and as soon as she was free of the London traffic and the open road was before her, she settled down contentedly for her day-long drive.

At first it was Ralph who filled her thoughts. It was difficult to keep him out, and she wanted to know, moreover, where
she
had gone wrong, why she had not realised what his intentions were. But no amount of soul-searching, or going minutely back over their relationship, revealed to her why he had imagined that anything less than marriage would ever do for her. Only when she realised that her
thoughts were behaving
lik
e a squirrel in a cage, going around and round
and getting nowhere, did she banish Ralph from her mind an
d
begin to think about Tom.

Of her two brothers, she had always loved Tom more, and sometimes wondered if it was because she had unconsciously realised that he needed love more. Christopher was always so competent, so determined to succeed. They had all three known that they had only themselves to depend on in the struggle to exist, and Christopher had seen his way clear ahead of him. He had studied in the evenings and worked on engineering projects by day, and had not rested until he was fully qualified. He had also kept in touch with Alison, taking an interest in all she did, and never came to see her without bringing her a present. Even now, from Australia, he wrote to her regularly and often invited her to go there to meet his family.

Tom was as different from this as two brothers often can be. It seemed that all his life he was dogged by an unkind and inexorable fate. He had never been studious, he had no qualifications and no particular talent. With all the charm in the world, he had no staying power; so he relied on the charm and it often let him down. He drifted from one job to another, never able to settle down anywhere for long. While Christopher kept an eye on Alis
o
n, Alis
o
n kept an eye on Tom; and as Christopher brought presents for Alison, so she was always lending sums
of money to Tom.

So it was until he married Evelyn Edgerton, and then luck seemed to have turned for him, for Evelyn had a good deal of money of her own, and was passionately in love with Tom. She could refuse him nothing. They took a most attractive flat in London, and as Evelyn had perfect taste and original ideas, they bought an interior-decorating business and threw themselves into it with enthusiasm. They were babes in arms, however, where business was concerned, and from the first were fighting a losing battle. Evelyn would not give up, and went on fighting until most of her money was gone and they found themselves with a flat full of expensive furniture which realised far less, when it was sold, than it had cost. Both of them took run-of-the-mill jobs until Evelyn found that she was going to have a baby, and then her brother Neil had stepped in.

Alison had never met Neil Edgerton, but all that she knew or had heard of him predisposed her not to like him. He had disapproved of his sister

s wedding and wanted to tie up her money so that Tom should not touch it, but Evelyn had held out against this, perhaps unfortunately. He had disapproved of the extravagance of the London flat, but had been more horrified by the miserable place they lived in after the disastrous venture into interior decorating. And when he knew that Evelyn was to have a child, he insisted on taking her back to the country; and since she was still so passionately attached to Tom, Neil had made ever to Evelyn the small farm to which Alison was now driving. It was true that his actions had been generous, but they had been prompted by disapproval, moral rigidity and a determination to wean Evelyn away from Tom.

The farm had been part of his own large property, and by handing it over to Evelyn, he had been able to keep an eye on all that went on. Tom had put it differently. He drove to town occasionally to see Alison and invariably confided his problems to her; and he told her that Neil was domineering and overbearing, interfered in their affairs unpardonably and never ceased trying to turn Evelyn against her husband. It had been a bad move, from the point of view of their married happiness, to live at the farm.

Alison had never seen Evelyn again. They had liked each other, but there seemed to be all their lives before them to improve their acquaintance. The distance between them was too great to make short visits practicable, and Alison

s holidays had been taken elsewhere. Tom, indeed, had seemed anxious that she should not visit the fa
rm
, and Alison had wondered once or twice if the marriage, which had started off so promisingly, was beginning to fail, and Tom did not wish her to realise it. But that

Tom, at least, was
s
till wholeheartedly devoted could not be doubted when Evelyn died and her baby with her, for he was a broken-hearted man and he never recovered from it, He could not bear to stay at the farm, he could not settle anywhere, but was driven from place to place, despair at his heels, caring so little for life that he could throw it away on a mountain road in Scotland. Not that there was the slightest suspicion of suicide—that was not in Tom

s character—but that unhappiness had made him reckless.

So, in an entirely unexpected, a most improbable fashion, Alison had become the owner of Combe Russet Farm. Neil Edgerton had not given the property jointly to husband and wife; he had deliberately made Evelyn the owner, wanting her child to have
some
security. He could not have foreseen the tragic turn of events; that, with no children to follow Evelyn, the property would become Tom

s, and that Tom would leave it to a complete stranger to Neil (and one, moreover, hard
l
y likely to recommend herself to him),

Alison had a great curiosity about Combe Russet. Tom had liked the place at first, setting out with great enthusiasm to install all the latest improvements, but the disadvantages had not been long in showing themselves.

I
t

s too big for a smallholding and too small for a farm,

Tom had said,
‘“
and it

s the devil

s own job to make a paying concern of it.

He had added:

And I bet that fiend Neil is sitting back and laughing at my efforts.

She knew that Tom had never taken kindly to criticism. She knew of the dislike between the two men and could sense the bitterness, and the drawn-out feud. She had made up her mind to sell the place, and could feel no real pleasure at the windfall that had come her way,

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