CHAPTER 1: Change of Life
"Very nice," said Rupert Fiennes, licking his tongue delicately around his lips. "Boiled is easily my favorite way of having an egg."
"The easiest, anyway," said his cousin Mary-Elizabeth rather grimly, as was her wont whenever anything even remotely connected to their new and only comparative penury came up. "Mrs. Tower always said it was a very poor sort of breakfast."
"Oh, Mrs. Tower was devoted to bacon and sausages, to mushrooms and black pudding," said Rupert. "We had to have them because she enjoyed them herself. I always hated piled-high breakfasts in the army, and I hoped for something simpler when I got out. Croissants, maybe, or cold meats and cheeses. As so often, Walbrook Manor defeated me."
"Don't be disrespectful of Walbrook. You know it pains me to the heart that we have lost it."
"It doesn't pain me to the heart, but I'll try to be silent in my rejoicings in future."
They were just finishing the washing-up when Mary-Elizabeth looked at her watch.
"Oh goody! There's time to read the papers. I haven't got to be at the vicarage until eleven o'clock."
"Now you see what a wonderful thing running hot water is," said Rupert. "You'd still be waiting for the kettle to boil if we were living at Walbrook Manor."
Mary-Elizabeth said nothing. That was always the way to get the best of Rupert. She settled down to the bits and pieces in the Times' Arts supplement and was well advanced with the sudoku when she checked her watch again and then hurried into the hall and put on her outdoor coat.
"Ah, Mary. Just a word before you go," said her cousin, coming out from his study. He didn't speak to her as a cousin, much more like a brother, which is how she regarded him. "Got all your papers for your meeting read and digested?" he temporized.
"We don't have much paperwork in the Women's Institute committee. Now what is it, Rupert?"
"I've been thinking — it troubled me — about your sorrow at losing Walbrook."
"Well, don't. Really, Rupert — "
"I think sometimes you throw a pretty pink halo around the place, forgetting how horribly inconvenient it was."
"I am quite aware of that. I have reason to be."
"Of course you do. But I was wondering, would you like a position — well, a job, to be frank — in Walbrook when the place is really open to the public on a full-time basis?"
A smile burst onto Mary-Elizabeth's usually rather glum face.
"I can think of nothing I'd like better. But be careful, Rupert. The other members of the Walbrook Trust Board might condemn you as wanting to keep control even when you've handed the house over to them. No — there's no might about it: some of them certainly would."
"I'm aware of that. I will go very carefully. And you must go carefully and not try to glamorize the place's past. There were very ugly sides to the days when our family ran the manor and almost everything around it. The Trust, quite rightly, would expect a degree of balance in how the house's history is presented to the public."
"And they'd get it from me. I do appreciate how much easier life is in this flat. Everything works, everything is convenient and saves us no end of trouble. We can concentrate on what interests us, not on the grind of everyday living. So in many ways we're both better off than we were."
"Of course we are. I knew you must see that," said Rupert, his relief showing in his voice.
"Still, this place is a bit lacking in style, history, people's loves and struggles and dilemmas, isn't it?"
With that Mary-Elizabeth made her way out of the front door, being careful not to bang it.
A few minutes later Rupert passed his cousin as she was gazing into the window of Mrs. Borden's secondhand-book shop (OPEN THURSDAYS AND SATURDAY MORNINGS the sign said), and he stopped and broached to her what he had been thinking on his walk.
"You know, I wonder whether instead of a job it wouldn't be easier to get you into one of the vacant places on the Trust Board. No payment involved — but we can't pretend we are in need of money."
"No . . . a place on the board sounds glorious, Rupert. We'd make a great team."
"Ah . . ." Rupert gave every appearance of having been caught out. "I was thinking instead of me, not in addition to," he said, and resumed his walk to the manor.
That was typical of Rupert, his cousin thought. He floated ideas, then shut down any discussion of them, assuming that he, and his interlocutor, needed time to sort things out in their own minds. It was a surprisingly effective way of proceeding. But this time he momentarily turned back.
"The meeting today is going to discuss the matter of the rolling exhibitions on the first floor. At the moment the plan is for a new exhibition each year, with a wide range of topics."
"I'd support that," said Mary-Elizabeth. "Something is needed to get the crowds in."
"The choice for the first exhibition is between one on the First World War and its poets and one on our great queen consorts."
Mary-Elizabeth thought for a few seconds.
"Well, you know me: I'm a glutton for royal. But not for the first exhibition. Not serious enough. How can you be a great queen consort? And people won't lend their royal pictures to an untried organization. I'd back the war poets. Pathos and tragedy, and the odd story of heroism. And you'd get lots of school parties. It would get Walbrook's education department off to a good start when it is finally put together."
Rupert nodded and went on his way. He was impressed by his cousin's grasp of practicalities. She would make a much better representative of the family on the board than he did. And it would give him, finally, freedom from the burden of Walbrook. It was something "devoutly to be wished" — had been for more than twenty years.
The lawn sloped gently down to the river, with, dotted around, a shrub pretending it had grown there quite casually. Felicity would have liked to play games with Thomas — let go of the pram and then chase it, then repeat the joke. But Thomas was a serious baby and could carry for life the conviction that his mother was a potential infanticide. Quite enough crime in the Peace household, thank you. Felicity turned back into the weed-covered rose garden, enjoying a rather tentative second flowering, and then round toward the front of the house and the main entrance.
From here the old manor house looked its best, with its plethora of windows regularly reflecting the Yorkshire sun, and Felicity was longing to go inside to see whether the interior was similarly welcoming and well planned. The early-eighteenth-century builder who had designed and delivered this house to its first owner must have had a modicum of sheer genius in his makeup.
The notice said HOUSE OPEN TUESDAY AND SATURDAY MORNINGS. Today was Saturday, the time was eleven o'clock, but when she tried to enter, she was politely told that she could not take Thomas.
"But I thought there was some kind of creche for young children," she said.
"Oh, there is," said the woman with an all-purpose smile, "but only for the Tuesday openings and bank holidays. That's not very convenient for families we know, but the fact is we can't get volunteers to staff the creche on Saturdays."
"I see. I guess you're really just testing the waters at the moment, aren't you?"
"We are. The house is run by a charitable trust, and the people on the governing body all donate their time. Do come back some Tuesday. Or bring your husband."
Felicity had to fight the suspicion that the woman saw that her husband was black (not difficult by looking at Thomas), and she assumed that he would therefore not be interested in the treasures of Walbrook Manor and could be left to mind the baby. No point in rummaging round for possible prejudices though. And at least the woman had presumed a father was in the picture. Felicity smiled and said she was sure there was plenty to see in the garden.
From A Charitable Body by Robert Barnard. Copyright 2012 by Robert Barnard. Excerpted by permission of Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.