A country house romantic drama set in the Edwardian era. Lord Richard Devenish, heir to the great house of Pommeroy, has returned after the Boer War in which his lifelong friend Jack Brookes – gardener at Pommeroy – has been killed. Jack’s dying message to his sister Lily unearths a painful secret which ultimately breaches the class divide & creates, from heartbreak, reconciliation and a new love.
A few moments from Pommeroy:
“Will you agree to hear me?”
There was a moment of silence, then Leo nodded.
“Thank you, my dear. I won’t beat about the bush. I respect your intelligence too much for that. You’re by far the cleverest of any young girl I know – always have been. I can only guess, never being able to lay claim to any brains myself, that you sometimes find the rest of us rather dull. But the fact is that you’re one of us, and whether you like it or not you have a duty to maintain everything that we hold dear.”
Leo shifted impatiently, but did not speak. She had picked a white daisy from a nearby jardinière and sat looking down at it, twisting the flower in her hand.
“And that duty for a young lady means marriage. It means making the best, most advantageous and generally approved match that one can, to reflect the dignity of one’s own family and firmly cement one’s position in Society. And of course, above everything else, a girl must establish both her security and independence.”
“Independence? It hardly seems the way to do it to me, tying oneself to a man whom one must promise to obey.”
“My dear!” Lady Cynthia raised her eyebrows in amused surprise. “Nobody has the least intention of obeying – at least nobody that I’ve ever known. You really are too scrupulous, my dearest Leonora.”
It was on an afternoon of distant, growling thunder that he tucked the books under his arm and set off for the kitchen gardens. With storms brewing it was unlikely that she would venture far from home. He had not liked to send a message to advertise his coming: that seemed far too formal and high-handed. A friendly call on the off-chance that she was at home was what he desired. His heart was beating uncomfortably as he knocked the door of the head gardener’s house but that was surely because he had been walking rather quickly. He had acknowledged the respectful greetings of the men working nearby with perfect equanimity, as if calling on the head gardener’s daughter was all part of a day’s duties for the Earl’s son. The sound he had been hoping to hear – Ben’s excited barking – made his heart beat even faster. And there she was. A neat white collar on a dark blue dress this time, wiping her hands on her apron.
“I’m returning your books at last, Miss Brookes. Apologies for keeping them for so long.”
For a dreadful moment he thought she would simply take them from his hand, leaving him with no option but to turn stupidly away. But at that moment enormous spots of rain began splashing down, forerunner of the storm that had been threatening. Never had Richard welcomed the sight more gladly.
“Oh my word – you’d best come inside, I believe.”
He did not catch her meaning for a moment and the wild hope surged that he would not, for she knew instantly that this would completely incense him. “How dare you,” he said with icy menace. Leo picked up her other glove with a calm she now certainly did not feel. “How dare you mention that lady’s name with such vile insinuation. You will apologize immediately.”
She did not reply.
This was too much. She swung round to face him. “It seems I am to spend all my time apologizing to you for wrongs of which I am innocent. If you think you can make me into some kind of whipping boy you’re mistaken. I am perfectly prepared to be as good a wife to you as I can, but you must allow me to do that in my own way and not expect me to live by your arbitrary and irrational rules.”
“Yes, irrational!” She was really angry now. “How was I to know that you would arrive with your friends this afternoon when you never tell me what your movements are? The house, as you know, is always ready to receive whomever you as master choose to bring here, but I would have thought it was at least a token of respect that you could let your wife know when to expect you.”
He came towards her, thrusting his face close and speaking contemptuously. “I’ll arrive any time I damn well like at my own house.” She smelt the whisky on his breath, saw the perspiring brow, the lips drawn back in a snarl, the permanently flushed cheeks. “Do I make myself clear?”
When she had gone he moved to the great oriel window of the study overlooking the gardens and the park beyond. He had taken an unaccustomed cigar from the silver humidor, for as a rule he never smoked until evening. The weather was coming from the south: lofty, piled banks of dark cloud were drifting towards them, transforming the spring landscape into something sinister, incongruous. What a mystery one’s children were! Did any parent fully realize what a closed book they became, some time between their adorable infancy and early adulthood? A blink of an eye ago they were such fragile, dear little creatures in the nursery. He remembered them all so clearly, Louisa with her halo of fiery curls, Richard proud in his first small boy’s sailor suit, the chubby legs in their black stockings, the exposed backs of his knees for some reason so pathetically vulnerable. And Leonora, exquisitely dainty with her wide blue sash and satin slippers brought down for that precious half-hour after nursery tea, charming the company. At what point was it, he wondered as he drew on his cigar, that one’s children became one’s guardians, careful to protect, to keep from one any unpalatable truth no matter what the sacrifice, propitiating, placating, gently deceiving so that one could plod into old age with eyes blinkered and ears muffled, delusions intact? With delicate sleight of hand his own children had pulled that very trick on him.
She put down her work and crossed the short distance between them, sitting on a low stool before his chair and surprising him into looking up.
“Put down that book, Richard.”
Without a word, he did so. She took his hands. “Are you very unhappy, dear?”
The simple words cut through the miasma of misery in which he had been sinking, and on his reply depended whether he would shut out all help or open the door to the one sympathetic ear he knew would never judge him. He should be strong, pretend cheerfulness. But the prospect of relief was too alluring, his defences too low.
“Yes, pretty much, Lou. I’m afraid I am.”
“Can I do anything?”
He shook his head. “No, dearest. But thanks for trying.” He pressed her hands. “You are helping, actually. This is helping.”
She smiled. “I’m glad.”
“You know, Lou – I’ve been thinking. I’m wondering whether I should take myself off somewhere for a while. Visit Europe. There are so many places I haven’t seen, going into the army straight from Oxford.”
“That sounds an excellent idea. I’m sure papa would encourage you to go. I know he thinks you drive yourself too hard. Let’s face it – you’ve never had any time to unwind and look about you for years.”
“Maybe not. I quite like the idea of Italy. Venice sounds marvellous.”
“It is. You should go for a good long spell and not worry about anything – anyone – here,” she said carefully. He regarded her for a moment.
“All right. I’ll give it some serious thought.” She smiled her approval, watching the strained lines of his face begin to soften. “But look how late it is, Lou. Mother’s crowd will just be getting their second wind by now. Let’s call it a day, shall we?”
And as they parted for the night it struck him that he had not revealed what his sorrow was because she had not needed to ask.