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“Her brother’s arrived to live with her.”

“He wouldn’t happen to be a gardener, I suppose.”

Verity put down the tea-pot and stared at her. “You won’t believe this,” she said, “but I rather think I heard someone say he would. Mrs. Jim, it was. Yes, I’m sure. A gardener.”

“My dear! I wonder if he’s any good. My dear, what a smack in the eye that would be for McBride. Would it be all right to tackle Mrs. Black now, do you think? Just to find out?”


“Darling, you know me. I’ll be the soul of tact.”

“I bet you will,” said Verity.

She watched Mrs. Foster insinuate herself plumply through the crowd. The din was too great for anything she said to be audible but Verity could guess at the compliments sprinkled upon the Vicar, who was a good-looking man, the playful badinage with the village. And all the time, while her pampered little hands dangled from her wrists, Mrs. Foster’s pink coiffure tacked this way and that, making toward Mrs. Black, who sat in her bereavement upon a chair at the far end of the room.

Verity, greatly entertained, watched the encounter, the gradual response, the ineffable concern, the wide-open china-blue stare, the compassionate shakes of the head and, finally, the withdrawal of both ladies from the dining-room, no doubt into Syb’s boudoir. “Now,” thought Verity, “she’ll put in the hard tackle.”

Abruptly, she was aware of herself being under observation.

Mrs. Jim Jobbin was looking at her and with such a lively expression on her face that Verity felt inclined to wink. It struck her that of all the company present — county, gentry, trade and village, operating within their age-old class structure — it was for Mrs. Jim that she felt the most genuine respect.

Verity poured herself a cup of tea and began, because it was expected of her, to circulate. She was a shy woman but her work in the theatre had helped her to deal with this disadvantage. Moreover, she took a vivid interest in her fellow creatures.

“Miss Preston,” Mr. Nikolas Markos had said, the only time they had met, “I believe you look upon us all as raw material,” and his black eyes had snapped at her. Although this remark was a variant of the idiotic “don’t put me in it,” it had not induced the usual irritation. Verity, in fact, had been wondering at that very moment if she could build a black comedy round Upper Quintern ingredients.

She reached the French windows that opened on lawns, walks, rose-gardens and an enchanting view across the Weald of Kent.

A little removed from the nearest group, she sipped her tea and gazed with satisfaction at this prospect. She thought that the English landscape, more perhaps than any other, is dyed in the heraldic colours of its own history. It is there, she thought, and until it disintegrates, earth, rock, trees, grass: turf by turf, leaf by leaf and blade by blade, it will remain imperturbably itself. To it, she thought, the reed really is as the oak and she found the notion reassuring.

She redirected her gaze from the distant prospect to the foreground and became aware of a human rump, elevated above a box hedge in the rose-garden.

The trousers were unmistakable: pepper-and-salt, shapeless, earthy and bestowed upon Angus McBride or purchased by him at some long-forgotten jumble sale. He must be doubled up over a treasured seedling, thought Verity. Perhaps he had forgiven Sybil Foster or perhaps, with his lowland Scots rectitude, he was working out his time.

“Lovely view, isn’t it?” said the Vicar. He had come alongside Verity, unobserved.

“Isn’t it? Although at the moment I was looking at the person behind the box hedge.”

“McBride,” said the Vicar.

“I thought so, by the trousers.”

“I know so. They were once my own.”

“Does it,” Verity asked, after a longish pause, “strike you that he is sustaining an exacting pose for a very long time?”

“Now you mention it.”

“He hasn’t stirred.”

“Rapt, perhaps, over the wonders of nature,” joked the Vicar.

“Perhaps. But he must be doubled over at the waist like, a two-foot rule.”

“One would say so, certainly.”

“He gave Sybil notice this morning on account of health.”

“Could he be feeling faint, poor fellow,” hazarded the Vicar, “and putting his head between his knees?” And after a moment: “I think I’ll go and see.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Verity. “I wanted to look at the rose-garden, in any case.”

They went out by the french window and crossed the lawn. The sun had come out and a charming little breeze touched their faces.

As they neared the box hedge the Vicar, who was over six feet tall, said in a strange voice: “It’s very odd.”

“What is?” Verity asked. Her heart, unaccountably, had begun to knock at her ribs.

“His head’s in the wheelbarrow. I fear,” said the Vicar, “he’s fainted.”

But McBride had gone further than that. He was dead.


He had died, the doctor said, of a heart attack and his condition was such that it might have happened anytime over the last year or so. He was thought to have raised the handles of the barrow, been smitten and tipped forward, head first, into the load of compost with which it was filled.

Verity Preston was really sorry. McBride was often maddening and sometimes rude but they shared a love of old-fashioned roses and respected each other. When she had influenza he brought her primroses in a jampot and climbed a ladder to put them on her window-sill. She was touched.

An immediate result of his death was a rush for the services of Mrs. Black’s newly arrived brother. Sybil Foster got in first, having already paved the way with his sister. On the very morning after McBride’s death, with what Verity Preston considered indecent haste, she paid a follow-up visit to Mrs. Black’s cottage under cover of a visit of condolence. Ridiculously inept, Verity considered, as Mr. Black had been dead for at least three weeks and there had been all those fulsomely redundant expressions of sympathy only the previous afternoon. She’d even had the nerve to take white japonica.

When she got home she rang up Verity.

“My dear,” she raved, “he’s perfect. So sweet with that dreary little sister and such good manners with me. Called one Madam which is more than — well, never mind. He knew at once what would suit and said he could sense I had an understanding of the ‘bonny wee floods.’ He’s a Scot.”

“Clearly,” said Verity.

“But quite a different kind of Scot from McBride. Highland, I should think. Anyway — very superior.”

“What’s he charge?”

“A little bit more,” said Sybil rapidly “but, my dear, the difference!”


“Any number. They’re in his luggage and haven’t arrived yet. Very grand, I gather.”

“So you’ve taken him on?”

“Darling! What do you think? Mondays and Thursdays. All day. He’ll tell me if it needs more. It well may. After all, it’s been shamefully neglected — I know you won’t agree, of course.”

“I suppose I’d better do something about him.”

“You’d better hurry. Everybody will be grabbing. I hear Mr. Markos is a man short up at Mardling. Not that I think my Gardener would take an under-gardener’s job.”

“What’s he called?”


“Your gardener.”

“You’ve just said it. Gardener.”

“You’re joking.”

Sybil made an exasperated noise into the receiver.

“So he’s gardener-Gardener,” said Verity. “Does he hyphenate it?”

“Very funny.”

“Oh, come on, Syb!”

“All right, my dear, you may scoff. Wait till you see him.”

Verity saw him three evenings later. Mrs. Black’s cottage was a short distance along the lane from Keys House and she walked to it at six-thirty, by which time Mrs. Black had given her brother his tea. She was a mimbling little woman meekly supporting the prestige of recent widowhood. Perhaps with the object of entrenching herself in this state she spoke in a whimper.



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