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“But I don’t see Prue in the normal course of events.”

“Ask her to lunch, darling. Do.”

“Syb, she’d be bored to sobs.”

“She’d adore it. You know she thinks you’re marvellous. It’s odds-on she’ll confide in you. After all, you’re her godmother.”

“It doesn’t follow as the night the day. And if she should confide I wouldn’t hear what she said.”

“There is that difficulty, I know,” Sybil conceded. “You must tell her to scream. After all, her friends seem to hear her. Gideon Markos does, presumably. And that’s not all.”

“Not all what?”

“All my woe. Guess who’s turned up?”

“I can’t imagine. Not,” Verity exclaimed on a note of real dismay. “Not Charmless Claude? Don’t tell me!”

“I do tell you. He left Australia weeks ago and is working his way home on a ship called Poseidon. As a steward. I’ve had a letter.”

The young man Sybil referred to was Claude Carter, her stepson: a left-over from her first marriage in whose favour not even Verity could find much to say.

“Oh, Syb,” she said, “I am sorry.”

“He wants me to forward a hundred pound to Teneriffe.”

“Is he coming to Quintern?”

“My dear, he doesn’t say so but of course he will. Probably with the police in hot pursuit.”

“Does Prue know?”

“I’ve told her. Horrified, of course. She’s going to make a bolt to London when the times comes. This is why, on top of everything else, I’m hell-bent for Greengages.”

“Will he want to stay?”

“I expect so. He usually does. I can’t stop that.”

“Of course not. After all—”

“Verry: he gets the very generous allowance his father left him and blues the lot. I’m always having to yank him out of trouble. And what’s more — absolutely for your ears alone — when I pop off he gets everything his father left me for my lifetime. God knows what he’ll do with it. He’s been in gaol and I daresay he dopes. I’ll go on paying up, I suppose.”

“So he’ll arrive and find — who?”

“Either Beryl, who’s caretaking, or Mrs. Jim, who’s relieving her and spring-cleaning, or Bruce, if it’s one of his days. They’re all under strict instruction to say I’m away ill and not seeing anybody. If he insists on being put up nobody can stop him. Of course he might—” There followed a long pause. Verity’s mind misgave her.

“Might what?” she said.

“Darling, I wouldn’t know but he might call on you. Just to enquire.”

“What,” said Verity, “do you want me to do?”

“Just not tell him where I am. And then let me know and come to Greengages. Don’t just ring or write, Verry. Come. Verry, as my oldest friend, I ask you.”

“I don’t promise.”

“No, but you will. You’ll come to awful lunch with me at Greengages and tell me what Prue says and whether Charmless Claude has called. Think! You’ll meet your gorgeous boy-friend again.”

“I don’t want to.”

As soon as she had made this disclaimer, Verity realized it was a mistake. She visualized the glint of insatiable curiosity in Sybil’s large blue eyes and knew she had aroused the passion that, second only to her absorption in gentlemen, consumed her friend: a devouring interest in other people’s affairs.

Why not?” Sybil said quickly. “I knew there was something. That night at Nikolas Markos’s dinner-party. I sensed it. What was it?”

Verity pulled herself together. “Now then,” she said. “None of that. Don’t you go making up nonsenses about me.”

“There was something,” Sybil repeated. “I’m never wrong. I sensed there was something. I know!” she sang out, “I’ll ask Basil Schramm — Dr. Schramm, I mean — himself. He’ll tell me.”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Verity said and tried not to sound panic-stricken. She added, too late, “He wouldn’t know what on earth you were driving at. Syb — please don’t go making a fool of me. And of yourself.”

Tum-te-tiddily, tum-te-tee,” sang Sybil idiotically. “See what a tizzy we’ve got into.”

Verity kept her temper.

Wild horses, she decided, would not drag her to luncheon at Greengages. She saw Sybil off with the deepest misgivings.

ii

Gideon Markos and Prunella Foster lay on a magnificent hammock under a striped canopy beside the brand-new swimming pool at Mardling Manor. They were brown, wet and almost nude. Her white-gold hair fanned across his chest. He held her lightly as if some photographer had posed them for a glossy advertisement.

“Because,” Prunella whispered, “I don’t want to.”

“I don’t believe you. You do. Clearly, you want me. Why pretend?”

“All right, then. I do. But I’m not going to. I don’t choose to.”

“But why, for God’s sake? Oh,” said Gideon with a change of voice, “I suppose I know. I suppose, in a way, I understand. It’s the ‘too rash, too ill-advised, too sudden’ bit. Is that it? What?” he asked, bending his head to hers. “What did you say? Speak up.”

“I like you too much.”

“Darling Prue, it’s extremely nice of you to like me too much but it doesn’t get us anywhere: now, does it?”

“It’s not meant to.”

Gideon put his foot to the ground and swung the hammock violently. Prunella’s hair blew across his mouth.

“Don’t,” she said and giggled. “We’ll capsize. Stop.”

“No.”

“I’ll fall off. I’ll be sick.”

“Say you’ll reconsider the matter.”

“Gideon, please.”

“Say it.”

“I’ll reconsider the matter, damn you.”

He checked the hammock but did not release her.

“But I’ll come to the same conclusion,” said Prunella. “No, darling. Not again! Don’t. Honestly, I’ll be sick. I promise you I’ll be sick.”

“You do the most dreadful things to me,” Gideon muttered after an interval. “You beastly girl.”

“I’m going in again before the sun’s off the pool.”

“Prunella, are you really fond of me? Do you think about me when we’re not together?”

“Quite often.”

“Very well, then, would you like — would you care to entertain the idea — I mean, couldn’t we try it out? To see if we suit?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well — in my flat? Together. You like my flat, don’t you? Give it, say, a month and then consider?”

She shook her head.

“I could beat you like a gong,” said Gideon. “Oh, come on, Prunella, for Christ’s sake. Give me a straight answer to a straight question. Are you fond of me?”

“I think you’re fantastic. You know I do. Like I said: I’m too fond of you for a jolly affair. Too fond to face it all turning out to be a dead failure and us going back to square one and wishing we hadn’t tried. We’ve seen it happen among the chums, haven’t we? Everything super to begin with. And then the not-so-hot situation develops.”

“Fair enough. One finds out and no bones broken, which is a damn sight better than having to plough through the divorce court. Well, isn’t it?”

“It’s logical and civilized and liberated but it’s just not on for me. No way. I must be a throw-back or simply plain chicken. I’m sorry. Darling Gideon,” said Prunella, suddenly kissing him. “Like the song said: ‘I do, I do, I do, I do.’”

“What?”

“Love you,” she mumbled in a hurry. “There. I’ve said it.”

God!” said Gideon with some violence. “It’s not fair. Look here, Prue. Let’s be engaged. Just nicely and chastely and frustratingly engaged to be married and you can break it off whenever you want to. And I’ll swear, if you like, not to pester you with my ungentlemanly attentions. No. Don’t answer. Think it over and in the meantime, like Donne says, ‘for God’s sake hold your tongue and let me love.’ ”

     

 

2011 - 2018