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A MAN OF KENT

 

Isobel Chace

 

 

Sarah had willingly given up, for the time being, her promising career as an actress, and moved out to Kent to look after her invalid father — and it didn’t seem so much of a sacrifice when it all led to her meeting Robert Chaddox.

But that was before everything began to go dreadfully wrong . . .

 

CHAPTER ONE

SARAH BLANEY almost ran along the pavement. She scarcely noticed that the plane trees were now in full leaf and that the traffic was as unbearable as it can be when an important match is being played at Lords. If she had been listening, she could have heard the sound of the ball striking the bat and the soporific applause that floated through the heavy afternoon air. But Sarah was not listening. She skipped in and out of the cars, came at last to the door of her mother’s house and took the steps that led up to the front door two at a time. She was successful, sublimely successful! More, she had arrived! And she couldn’t wait to tell her parents all about it.

She waited impatiently for someone to let her in, keeping her finger on the bell in a way that she knew would irritate her stepmother into answering it. It did. Her stepmother, sleepy-eyed and frowning, pulled the door open and, seeing her, very nearly shut it again.

“Madge!” Sarah exclaimed. “I got it! I actually got it! I had to come and tell you about it!”

“Got what?” her stepmother asked, yawning.

“The part!”

“Do I know about it?”

Sarah surveyed her stepmother with amusement. “Of course you know all about it. I rang you up yesterday to remind you. I asked you. what Alec Farne was like as a producer. Now I can tell you! He’s fabulous! And I’ve got the part!”

“Oh,” said her stepmother, and then: “Oh, lord!”

Sarah’s smile faded. “Aren’t you pleased?”

“Delighted, darling—in a way. Quite a nice little triumph for you. It’s a pity you won’t be able to follow it up."

"What on earth are you talking about?”

“Darling, I’m sure I mentioned it to you—”

"Mentioned what?”

"Sarah, I can t bear it when you look cross like that. It makes you look so frightfully
plain
, and, God knows, you're no beauty at the best of times! So unfair, I’ve always thought, seeing that you did have quite a nice-looking mother, and your father was quite a heart-throb before—before—” She broke off, her eyes glinting with unshed tears. “I
know
I told you!” she declared.

Sarah sighed, her joy in her unexpected triumph dissipated. She should have known how it would be, for it had always been the same for as long as she could remember. She had come home bursting with some piece of news to do with herself and there had always been something more important to discuss, or another success of her stepmother’s that was so much greater than her own.

"I'll make some tea,” Sarah said. “Then you can tell me about it.”

"How sweet you are!” her stepmother breathed. "But of course I did tell you, only you’ve forgotten, you naughty one! Such a pity, now that you’ve caught Alec Farne's eye. Oh well, it can’t be helped! You’ll have to keep yourself in his mind somehow, by seeing him every now and then. That shouldn’t be beyond you?”

Sarah didn’t answer. She walked through the hall, pausing briefly beneath the portrait her father had once painted of her and wondered what she could have been so amused about at the time. He had caught her smiling and, as always, her face had reflected her amusement like a shaft of light. She had no particular beauty to recommend her, no outstanding feature, for even her hair was quite ordinary, cut short and worn in a cap, with a fringe in the front, rather reminiscent of an acorn. But for an actress, she thought, that was quite an advantage and, anyway, the gorgeous Madge Dryden would have hated to have had competition from her stepdaughter. Life was quite difficult enough without that!

She made the tea and took it into her stepmother’s private sanctuary, a room which she referred to as her study but which her husband called more accurately her boudoir. Madge Dryden was already posed on the chaise-longue, idly turning the leaves of a magazine.

‘‘Well, Madge?” Sarah said.

“Now, Sarah, there’s no need to look so accusing' Your father hasn’t been at all well—”

“I know,” Sarah said simply.

Madge moved restively. “I suppose you’ve kept up your lunch dates with him?”

“Of course.”

“I’ve never understood why you can’t come here to see him.
I
don’t stop you!”

“Of course you don’t! But when I come here, I come to see you. Poor Dad doesn’t get much of a look in when the distaff side of the family gets its tongue wagging. We do rather overwhelm him!”

"You mean that I do!" her stepmother said dryly. Well, I don't apologise for that! A man should hold his own, if he’s a man at all!”

"I think he does,” Sarah said gently.

Madge Dryden pulled herself together with an effort. "You're right as usual, darling. Don’t pay any attention to me, but I have to admit this whole business has put me out. It wasn’t
my
fault that Daniel couldn’t do the sets for my present show! It wasn’t my decision! But I'm sure he blames me for it. I always get the blame for everything m the family! Sometimes I wonder what you'd do without me you’d have to find someone else to blame, think of that!”

Sarah preferred not to think about it. “Dad has always done your sets,” she remarked.

Madge sniffed. “He thinks they’ve had a lot to do with my success—”

“They have,” Sarah said.

Madge looked decidedly cross. “Just because you think legitimate theatre is the only way to succeed, you underrate your poor stepmother’s efforts! Well, let me tell you that it isn’t! I have to be able to act just as much as you do for your kind of parts, and I have to be able to sing and dance
as well!”

Sarah looked amused. “And you excel at all three!”

“Well, yes, I do.” Madge preened herself, half-smiling. “I wish he had done the sets for this show,” she went on, sounding anxious. “It’s a bad show and the sets are quite frightful! I don’t wish to sound in the least bit conceited, but if Madge Dryden weren’t in it, it wouldn’t have a prayer of succeeding!”

“Why didn’t Dad do the sets?”

“You wouldn’t appreciate it if I told you. Enough said that Daniel Blaney has a reputation for being awkward about things. We couldn’t do with perfectionism this time round.”

“I think Dad was hurt about it,” Sarah hazarded.

Madge shrugged. “He shouldn’t blow these things up in his mind. It’s very tiresome for me! And now we have all this business about his asthma.”

Sarah sighed. “It’s worse, isn’t it?”

“That’s what I’ve been telling you!” At any other time Madge’s irritable expression would have made Sarah smile, but for once she felt at odds with her charmingly selfish stepmother. She had been worried about her father for some time. “Sarah, even allowing for the way he fusses about his health, it seems he’s really quite ill. I had a word with the doctor and he advises that Daniel should get out of London and away from the pressures of work for a while. He has to live quietly in the country, somewhere where there are no fumes and nobody to irritate him.”

“Oh, Madge, I am sorry! You’ll hate that!”

“I?"

“Are—aren’t you going with him?”

“Darling, what on earth would I do in the country?”

Sarah was at a loss. “But he can’t go on his own,” she objected reasonably.

“I knew you’d see it that way,” her stepmother said with a satisfied air. “As you say, someone has to go with him, and even if I would be of any use to him, I can’t possibly leave the show at the moment. It
depends
on me ! No, dear, you will have to go with him !”

Sarah’s hands trembled, spilling her tea into the saucer. “I can’t!” she said abruptly. “I can’t give up my part either. It means everything to me! It’s the West End, Madge! I—I can’t say I won’t take the part.”

“You haven’t started rehearsals,” Madge retorted. “I admit that it’s a bit of a problem to have to face Alec Farne
and
keep him sweet for future occasions, but we can think about that in a minute. Your father and I have never asked anything of you before, dear, and I think you owe us this one little favour.”

Sarah swallowed. “Dad is always miserable apart from you,” she murmured.

Madge smiled, looking quite, quite lovely. “It was his idea that you should go with him. I shouldn’t have dreamed of asking you if. there had only been myself and my little affairs to consider, darling, but Daniel said at once that he wanted to have you with him for a while. We haven’t seen much of you since you grew up—”

Sarah wondered how her stepmother managed to look both noble and sacrificing at the same time as she relentlessly pressed home her advantage to get her own way.

“I had to be myself, Madge! If I hadn’t found a room of my own, I’d have been Madge Dryden’s shadow all my life!”

Madge considered her stepdaughter for a moment. “Darling, you don’t look in the least like me!” she said, not without truth, for Sarah had taken after her own mother, and had her cast of features. “But whatever your reasons were, your father felt it very much, and now I think you ought to make it up to him. It isn’t asking very much. If Alec Farne thinks you’re good enough for a West End part, so will someone else. It will only mean a
delay
in your plans. You don’t have the welfare of a whole cast, to say nothing of my own reputation in the theatre, on your shoulders. No, Sarah, it’s all arranged and I won’t hear another word from you about it. Daniel is so happy that you’re going to be with him and I won’t have his pleasure spoilt! I forget now where he said he was going, but he’ll tell you all about it. He’s in his room because I simply can’t bear to watch him struggling for breath—it might affect my voice straining away in sympathy with him! It’s a good thing you’re not as sensitive as I am and won’t mind half as much!”

Sarah bit back an angry retort. “I’ll go and see Dad now,” she said tonelessly.

Madge smiled graciously. “I knew you’d see things my way!” she exclaimed.

Sarah gave her a quizzical look. “I only hope I shall sound as convincing when I tell Alec Farne!” she sighed.

“Nonsense!” her stepmother rallied her. “Confess, darling, you have that young man on a string!”

Sarah blushed helplessly. “I scarcely know him,” she breathed. “He looked decidedly formidable from the other side of the footlights. I don’t relish telling him that I’m turning down die part after all. He hasn’t any reason to pull his punches as far as I’m concerned!”

“If he sees you looking frightened and vulnerable it will appeal to his gallantry,” Madge gurgled happily. “I’ll have a word with him too, if you like?”

Sarah muttered something quite unintelligible and fled before her stepmother could make any more uncongenial suggestions. She paused for an instant in the hall to collect herself, determined to show her father a more cheerful face. Whatever happened, she would not have him knowing that she was reluctant to go with him. Indeed, at any other time she would have fallen over herself for the opportunity to spend some time with him alone, but not just at this particular moment when the first plum of her career was there, waiting to fall into her eager hands. She had spent more than four years working towards this part, and now it was to be snatched away from her, it was difficult not to blame her stepmother for doing it to her.

Her father was seated in a chair by the window of his room. He looked up when she knocked at the open door, his face creasing into its familiar smile.

“I thought I heard your voice, my love. I suppose Madge has told you all my news?”

Sarah nodded. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” she said.

Daniel Blaney coughed spasmodically, his distaste for his own weakness written clearly on his face. “I’m sorry too. Did you get the part?”

Sarah smiled at him. “How did you hear about that?”

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