Following Mrs Hengrave, she went along the terrace and down some steps at the far side on to the lawn. She noted that the rockery was neglected and overgrown, and that most of the flowering shrubs needed pruning.
Mrs Hengrave murmured apologetically that the garden had been rather neglected. Only able to afford a man twice a week. And quite often he never turned up.
They inspected the small but adequate kitchen garden and returned to the house. Gwenda explained that she had other houses to see, and that though she liked Hillside (what a commonplace name!) very much, she could not decide immediately.
Mrs Hengrave parted from her with a somewhat wistful look and a last long lingering sniff.
Gwenda returned to the agents, made a firm offer subject to surveyor’s report and spent the rest of the morning walking round Dillmouth. It was a charming and old-fashioned little seaside town. At the far, ‘modern’ end, there were a couple of new-looking hotels and some raw-looking bungalows, but the geographical formation of the coast with the hills behind had saved Dillmouth from undue expansion.
After lunch Gwenda received a telephone call from the agents saying that Mrs Hengrave accepted her offer. With a mischievous smile on her lips Gwenda made her way to the post office and despatched a cable to Giles.
Have bought a house. Love. Gwenda.
‘That’ll tickle him up,’ said Gwenda to herself. ‘Show him that the grass doesn’t grow under my feet!’
CHAPTER 2 (#ulink_afbfe51f-136f-56e7-905d-62747ef50cc9)
A month had passed and Gwenda had moved into Hillside. Giles’s aunt’s furniture had come out of store and was arranged round the house. It was good quality old-fashioned stuff. One or two over-large wardrobes Gwenda had sold, but the rest fitted in nicely and was in harmony with the house. There were small gay papier-mâché tables in the drawing-room, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and painted with castles and roses. There was a prim little work-table with a gathered sack underneath of puce silk, there was a rosewood bureau and a mahogany sofa table.
The so-called easy chairs Gwenda had relegated to various bedrooms and had bought two large squashy wells of comfort for herself and Giles to stand each side of the fireplace. The large chesterfield sofa was placed near the windows. For curtains Gwenda had chosen old-fashioned chintz of pale egg-shell blue with prim urns of roses and yellow birds on them. The room, she now considered, was exactly right.
She was hardly settled yet, since she had workmen in the house still. They should have been out by now, but Gwenda rightly estimated that until she herself came into residence, they would not go.
The kitchen alterations were finished, the new bathrooms nearly so. For further decorating Gwenda was going to wait a while. She wanted time to savour her new home and decide on the exact colour schemes she wanted for the bedrooms. The house was really in very good order and there was no need to do everything at once.
In the kitchen a Mrs Cocker was now installed, a lady of condescending graciousness, inclined to repulse Gwenda’s over-democratic friendliness, but who, once Gwenda had been satisfactorily put in her place, was willing to unbend.
On this particular morning, Mrs Cocker deposited a breakfast tray on Gwenda’s knees, as she sat up in bed.
‘When there’s no gentleman in the house,’ Mrs Cocker affirmed, ‘a lady prefers her breakfast in bed.’ And Gwenda had bowed to this supposedly English enactment.
‘Scrambled this morning,’ Mrs Cocker observed, referring to the eggs. ‘You said something about finnan haddock, but you wouldn’t like it in the bedroom. It leaves a smell. I’m giving it to you for your supper, creamed on toast.’
‘Oh, thank you, Mrs Cocker.’
Mrs Cocker smiled graciously and prepared to withdraw.
Gwenda was not occupying the big double bedroom. That could wait until Giles returned. She had chosen instead the end room, the one with the rounded walls and the bow window. She felt thoroughly at home in it and happy.
Looking round her now, she exclaimed impulsively: ‘I do like this room.’
Mrs Cocker looked round indulgently.
‘It is quaite a naice room, madam, though small. By the bars on the window I should say it had been the nursery at one time.’
‘I never thought of that. Perhaps it has.’
‘Ah, well,’ said Mrs Cocker, with implication in her voice, and withdrew.
‘Once we have a gentleman in the house,’ she seemed to be saying, ‘who knows? A nursery may be needed.’
Gwenda blushed. She looked round the room. A nursery? Yes, it would be a nice nursery. She began furnishing it in her mind. A big dolls’ house there against the wall. And low cupboards with toys in them. A fire burning cheerfully in the grate and a tall guard round it with things airing on the rail. But not this hideous mustard wall. No, she would have a gay wallpaper. Something bright and cheerful. Little bunches of poppies alternating with bunches of cornflowers … Yes, that would be lovely. She’d try and find a wallpaper like that. She felt sure she had seen one somewhere.
One didn’t need much furniture in the room. There were two built-in cupboards, but one of them, a corner one, was locked and the key lost. Indeed the whole thing had been painted over, so that it could not have been opened for many years. She must get the men to open it up before they left. As it was, she hadn’t got room for all her clothes.
She felt more at home every day in Hillside. Hearing a throat being ponderously cleared and a short dry cough through the open window, she hurried over her breakfast. Foster, the temperamental jobbing gardener, who was not always reliable in his promises, must be here today as he had said he would be.
Gwenda bathed, dressed, put on a tweed skirt and a sweater and hurried out into the garden. Foster was at work outside the drawing-room window. Gwenda’s first action had been to get a path made down through the rockery at this point. Foster had been recalcitrant, pointing out that the forsythia would have to go and the weigela, and them there lilacs, but Gwenda had been adamant, and he was now almost enthusiastic about his task.
He greeted her with a chuckle.
‘Looks like you’re going back to old times, miss.’ (He persisted in calling Gwenda ‘miss’.)
‘Old times? How?’
Foster tapped with his spade.
‘I come on the old steps—see, that’s where they went—just as you want ’em now. Then someone planted them over and covered them up.’
‘It was very stupid of them,’ said Gwenda. ‘You want a vista down to the lawn and the sea from the drawing-room window.’
Foster was somewhat hazy about a vista—but he gave a cautious and grudging assent.
‘I don’t say, mind you, that it won’t be an improvement … Gives you a view—and them shrubs made it dark in the drawing-room. Still they was growing a treat—never seen a healthier lot of forsythia. Lilacs isn’t much, but them wiglers costs money—and mind you—they’re too old to replant.’
‘Oh, I know. But this is much, much nicer.’
‘Well.’ Foster scratched his head. ‘Maybe it is.’
‘It’s right,’ said Gwenda, nodding her head. She asked suddenly, ‘Who lived here before the Hengraves? They weren’t here very long, were they?’
‘Matter of six years or so. Didn’t belong. Afore them? The Miss Elworthys. Very churchy folk. Low church. Missions to the heathen. Once had a black clergyman staying here, they did. Four of ’em there was, and their brother—but he didn’t get much of a look-in with all those women. Before them—now let me see, it was Mrs Findeyson—ah! she was the real gentry, she was. She belonged. Was living here afore I was born.’
‘Did she die here?’ asked Gwenda.
‘Died out in Egypt or some such place. But they brought her home. She’s buried up to churchyard. She planted that magnolia and those labiurnams. And those pittispores. Fond of shrubs, she was.’
Foster continued: ‘Weren’t none of those new houses built up along the hill then. Countrified, it was. No cinema then. And none of them new shops. Or that there parade on the front.’ His tone held the disapproval of the aged for all innovations. ‘Changes,’ he said with a snort. ‘Nothing but changes.’
‘I suppose things are bound to change,’ said Gwenda. ‘And after all there are lots of improvements nowadays, aren’t there?’
‘So they say. I ain’t noticed them. Changes!’ He gestured towards the macrocarpa hedge on the left through which the gleam of a building showed. ‘Used to be the cottage hospital, that used,’ he said. ‘Nice place and handy. Then they goes and builds a great place near to a mile out of town. Twenty minutes’ walk if you want to get there on a visiting day—or threepence on the bus.’ He gestured once more towards the hedge … ‘It’s a girls’ school now. Moved in ten years ago. Changes all the time. People takes a house nowadays and lives in it ten or twelve years and then off they goes. Restless. What’s the good of that? You can’t do any proper planting unless you can look well ahead.’
Gwenda looked affectionately at the magnolia.
‘Like Mrs Findeyson,’ she said.