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Authors: Robert Barnard

The Skeleton in the Grass

BOOK: The Skeleton in the Grass
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CONTENTS

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

CHAPTER 1

A
sudden chill breeze from the river caught Sarah as she leant through her bedroom window. She drew her cardigan around her, wishing it wasn't a fawn cardigan—wondering, indeed, whether a cardigan was the sort of garment you wore at a house like Hallam. Mummy had always been very insistent on cardigans: they were to be worn in all except the hottest of weathers. Here they seemed drab and utilitarian, particularly ones in fawn (Mummy's choice).

Sarah's bedroom had been distinctly grander than she had expected, and she didn't feel quite comfortable in it yet. The bed was a solid structure, the furniture good and abundant. Only a slight air of mustiness had made her open the window. But Sarah knew that these old houses always had hanging over them a light shroud of must.

Out on the lawn the family seemed to be gathering for tea. She had seen Mr. Hallam come out from his study, still carrying a book, the one she had seen him reading when she had been taken in to be introduced. Now Pinner the manservant was bringing out a collapsible table, the dog playing around his feet. Mrs. Hallam and Elizabeth were already there, one sewing, the other reading, in a companionable peace that Sarah had never managed to achieve with her own mother. She wondered whether Mrs. Hallam really expected her to join them. She had said so, certainly, but it had seemed an odd invitation to give to a
new nursemaid-cum-governess. Except that Mrs. Hallam had stressed that she was
not
to be that: was a friend and helper with whom little Chloe was to grow up. Yes, on consideration it did seem as if Mrs. Hallam expected her to go down to tea on the lawn. Perhaps it would be better to go before the sons arrived. To walk across the lawn under too many strange gazes would be an ordeal best avoided.

In spite of that occasional breeze the sun seemed to be quite hot. It was, after all, July. Sarah decided not to wear her cardigan, but in an unconscious obeisance to her mother she folded it up neatly and put it away in the drawer for woollens. Then she patted her hair before the long mirror inside her wardrobe, and went out into the bewildering maze of corridors.

For Hallam seemed, this first time she was alone in it, all dark wood panelling and irregular corridors. As long as she kept to them she knew she could not be intruding on anybody, but when she had descended the broad, intimidating staircase—lightened by a modern portrait that she thought must be of Mrs. Hallam—she found herself in the square, oak-panelled hallway which she had been impressed by when she had arrived. The main door to the house was certainly not the one she should use to get to the garden, but which of the rooms should she go through to find that side entrance? Fortunately Sarah had a well-developed sense of direction, and the second door she tried revealed a booklined sitting-room, at the far end of which she saw a door—a post-Elizabethan addition—that led out to the lawns. Nervously she tried it, and stepped out into the little terraced garden. She dallied through its prettiness, but there was no avoiding the walk across the lawn, and when she had embarked upon it she found it every bit as difficult as she had feared. The expanse was so huge, and so exposed, for it only gained a softening of trees as it sloped
down to the river. How, even in flat, sensible shoes, could one walk naturally? What did one do with one's arms? Did one
smile?
And if one couldn't smile all the way over, how did one contrive to look agreeable and contented?

But when she finally approached the little group, Mrs. Hallam behaved perfectly, as Sarah had known she would.

“Sarah! How nice. Just in time. I won't be silly and ask if you've made yourself at home, because I know it will be some time before Hallam is anything like home to you. But being unpacked and settled in is something, isn't it?”

Elizabeth had smiled a brief but friendly smile, and Mr. Hallam had taken his pipe out and patted an empty deckchair. But it was Mrs. Hallam who was responsible for that surge of warmth in Sarah that she recognized as something close to love. She was so beautiful, there in the sunlight: her pale auburn hair drawn back; the oval face, the slim, graceful body that one could hardly believe had borne four children, the first more than twenty years before. And her beauty was not a cool sort of loveliness, but warm, concerned. She was a woman who made herself loved.

“And such a confusing house it is, too,” she was saying. “Rambling isn't the word for it. Positively maze-like. But I've never known any Tudor house that was anything else.”

“But Sarah was brought up in a vicarage, wasn't she?” said Mr. Hallam, looking up from his book with interrogative eyebrows. “Most of them are pretty large and warren-like.”

“Actually ours is quite small,” said Sarah, her voice coming out as a little squeak. “It is a poor parish.”

Small. And cold. And with that little worm of meanness and ill-temper at its heart. Her father.

“Ah yes—it is in Derbyshire, isn't it? That's where you were brought up? And did the munificence of the Dukes of Devonshire not extend to your parish?”

“Oh no. We are well outside his sphere of influence. Though my father was invited to Chatsworth once.”

“Now
there's
a house. I reviewed a book on Chatsworth and the Dukes of Devonshire last year. I seem to remember I came down hard on the old boys' sense of
noblesse oblige,
but some of them were really rather endearing old birds.”

Sarah nodded intelligently, thankful that she knew quite a lot about the Dukes of Devonshire. It was really quite thrilling to hear Mr. Hallam talk about books. The Hallams of Hallam had a certain local fame, and it had even penetrated as far as Derbyshire: when Sarah had applied for the job her mother had heard of them, and had contributed a few details about the family's history. But it was the reviewing, the weekly column in the
Observer,
that had made Dennis Hallam's name a household word—at any rate in intellectual and politically aware households. The reviews were urbane, witty, learned—or on occasion trenchant and almost Swiftian in their scorn for time-servers, muddled thinkers, or those on the make. The subjects that moved him were cruelty, war, and the destruction of the British heritage. She knew he was a great campaigner for the League of Nations, and had lent his fervour and his handsome presence to meetings up and down the country. His promotion of the League's aims had led to trouble, frequently, with Fascist mobs. She knew too that he had been wounded in the Great War—and she suspected that the scars were as much mental as bodily.

“Ah, here are the sandwiches,” said Mrs. Hallam. “They look lovely. I'll go and fetch the cake, Mrs. Munday.”

“Bless you, madam—a cream cake out in this heat?” said the cook, who was ample in that way that Sarah had always imagined country house cooks ought to be. “That'd do it no good at all. I'll bring it out when you've done with the sandwiches.”

“You are kind. Oh good—here's Oliver coming.” Mrs Hallam smiled at the approach of her elder son. “I don't think we can expect Will. He's busy conspiring with one of his friends in his room.”

“I fear the boy will be a politician,” said Dennis Hallam, with a sceptical smile.

“Shall I take the boys something?” asked Mrs. Munday.

“No, certainly not,” said Mrs. Hallam. “If they want tea they can come out here and have it with us. Ah, Oliver: this is Sarah. Come to help with Chloe.”

Oliver, the heir to Hallam, was inclined to be plump, though certainly he could not yet be called fat. He had a kind, comfortable smile, and an air of being intelligent without being an intellectual. He had travelled and worked in the Middle East after school, and was now about to begin his Finals year at Oxford. He greeted Sarah pleasantly, and sank into a chair.

“Will is solving the unemployment problem with public works,” he said, “and undermining the Nazi government through a network of
agents provocateurs.
By tomorrow we shall either see a Red Dawn, or the end of civilization as we know it.”

The tea was wonderful, Sarah thought. There were cucumber sandwiches, of course, and sandwiches with what she decided must be relish, and a variety of others made with what Mrs. Munday must have had around in the kitchen, all of them cut so delicately and presented so imaginatively that the everyday became a treat. No crusts to be eaten up, either—Sarah's childhood had been dominated by crusts to be eaten up, and waste not want not. Only the cream cake, when Mrs. Munday brought it, seemed to Sarah excessively rich—but then she had been frugally brought up, and the Hallam children hadn't: they tucked into it with a will, especially Oliver. Red squirrels darted over the lawn from tree to tree, and Bounce, the Hallam
retriever, chased anything that moved with an amiable determination not to catch it. The conversation ranged over books and politics and personal concerns, and sometimes Mr. Hallam talked quietly to Sarah about her background, and the doings in her father's parish. This last subject was a little embarrassing. Sarah could say nothing about her father's alienation from his flock—by his lack of vocation, his meanness, his petty rages—but she said something about his “difficulties.”

“I can imagine,” said Dennis Hallam. “People talk about changes in country life, even a revolution, but they don't know what they are talking about. The changes are only skin-deep, and at the heart there's the same darkness and superstition that there always was. I'm afraid we are quite alien here. They look up to us because we are the family at the big house—which is the last thing we'd want. But if I talk to them about the things that really concern me, I meet a wall of dogged, dumb resistance. I expect your father finds the same.”

“Something of it,” admitted Sarah, conscious of meeting openness with reticence. “My mother gets through to the local people better. Perhaps Mrs. Hallam—does too.”

“Oh, absolutely. Helen—please call her Helen. And I'm Dennis. But Helen only gets through to them on a domestic level, and only to the women. If she starts talking about the things we have close at heart—and she's as concerned about them as I, though she loathes public meetings—then she meets the same blank wall. Really we should live in town, though I only feel at peace in the country.”

“You'd fit in in town, Father,” broke in Oliver, “because there you'd find plenty of earnest, right-thinking citizens like yourself. If you talked to the char, or the man digging up the road outside your house, you'd find just the same resistance.”

“A few like-minded souls wouldn't go amiss,” said Dennis Hallam, with a wry smile. “At least they'd be an improvement on Cousin Mostyn—who for our sins we have to visit tomorrow.”

“Not to mention Major Coffey, who will doubtless also be gracing the occasion,” said Helen Hallam. “Though that odious man was hardly spawned by the countryside.”

“Oh God,” said Oliver. “Cousin Mostyn is one thing, but Coffey I can't abide. I think tomorrow will be devoted to concentrated revision of 18th-century history.”

BOOK: The Skeleton in the Grass
13.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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