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IT BEGAN leisurely, imperceptibly. It began with the coming of Toni Meridew to Winchingham to act as companion-secretary to old Mrs. Pendlebury of Hilltop House, The Rise, which is on the other side of the miniature river Winch and just past what the town is pleased to call its residential area. Hilltop House is practically the last dwelling on the very summit of The Rise; beyond it the white road falls again to open country.

Toni Meridew, christened Antonia. The train decanted her on to the platform one crisp autumn afternoon, a trim little figure with dark curling hair, enormous grey eyes fringed lavishly with long black lashes, and the pallor of London on her too-thin face. She stood looking about her and drawing deep breaths of fresh air.

“Hullo,” said a pleasant masculine voice behind her.

Toni turned and saw a young man regarding her with amusement. He was a slender, fair-haired young man, a year or two older than herself she guessed. He was clad in country tweeds and brown suede shoes, and his hair was so light in colour that above his sun-tanned face it had a curious bleached look.

“Hullo,” she answered.

“Doing deep breathing exercises?”

Toni laughed softly. “I’m just tasting the air.”

“And how does it taste?”

“It’s wonderful after London. I think we get it when you’ve finished with it in the country.”

“Well,” said the young man a trifle moodily, “you might have something there. That’s about all there is to do in this place—breathe the air . . . I hope I’m not making a mistake, you are Miss Meridew, aren’t you?”


“That’s good.” He eyed her approvingly in a manner that Toni felt was hardly necessary. “I’m Eric Pendlebury. The car’s outside, and mother’s waiting for you behind a whacking great pot of tea. This all your luggage?”

“Yes,” sighed Toni, picking up one of the two suitcases. “All I possess.”

They drove through quiet streets, and Eric Pendlebury turned into High Street, which is the main shopping centre of Winchingham. Toni looked about her with interest and appreciation.

“How lovely and peaceful this place is after London! Nobody seems to be in a hurry.”

“Dead-and-alive, you mean. There’s never anything here to be in a hurry about. Not even in this centre of fashion.”

There was some traffic in the street but, as Toni had observed, it was proceeding in leisurely fashion and it offered no driving difficulties. Later on, when the offices and warehouses closed, the streets would present a more animated appearance.

“Look!” said Eric. “See those two Chinks over there?”

Toni saw them; two impassive, incurious Chinese making their way steadily but without haste along the pavement on the other side of the road, both of them wearing round felt hats and dark nondescript suits.

“Our celestial allies. They belong to our mystery man, they’re two of his servants.”

“Your mystery man?”

“Yeah. We’ve got a hermit in Winchingham.” Toni noticed that he pronounced the name as if spelt Wincham. “Practically our next door neighbour. A newcomer, only been here a few weeks. Long enough for my Aunt Emmy to strike up a nodding acquaintance with him. I’ll let her tell you about him, he’s her chief interest in life at the moment. Bit quaint, my Aunt Emmy—goes in for esoteric thought and fancy religions and so forth.”

By this time they had left High Street behind them and were driving along a rather drab thoroughfare that Eric told her was Old Chipping Road. “And why it is, is more than I can tell you. If you ask any native, he’ll tell you it’s because it goes on to Steeple Thelming.”

Toni laughed. “And where’s that?”

“God knows. No one’s ever found it yet, but I rather fancy it’s the cross-roads at the foot of the hill beyond our place. Maybe thelming is Anglo-Saxon for something: a pub, or a woodchopper’s hut, or maybe just an accident. Maybe there was a steeple there in the year dot, and it fell down and brained Hereward the Wake’s batman. . . . This purling brook, by the way, is our famous river Winch.”


“Well, it’s the only one we’ve got.”

They crossed the little stone bridge over the river and drove along a wide, tree-lined avenue. Then the trees dropped behind, the houses grew fewer and farther apart, the bitumen paving ended abruptly and a hedge sprang forward from one side, narrowing the road to a white ribbon that ran directly up the low hill facing them. The purr of the engine took on a high, singing note as the modest black sedan tackled The Rise.

At the very top stood the house, a fair-sized two-storey dwelling commanding a view both ways, southward over the town and northward over rolling farm lands. Eric Pendlebury drove in through a pair of ornamental iron gates standing open in a spike railing fence sunk into a low brick wall, down the drive past shrubberies and lawns, and drew up under the portico at the front door.

There were two old ladies in the room into which he showed her, sitting one on either side of a tiled fireplace where a small fire was burning. It was a large pleasant room, but overfull of chairs and couches, little tables bearing silver ornaments and cabinets crowded with china. In one corner stood an upright piano with polished brass candle holders on either side of the music rest. A bay window looked out over the town, but the full view was rather spoilt by the trees that had been planted by an earlier Pendlebury; and a french window at the side opened on to a rose garden where a few late-blooming roses, of a pinched and despondent appearance, still clung to autumn-haggard bushes.

Eric performed an introduction ceremony after the manner of a boxing referee. “Presenting Miss Antonia Meridew. On the left, my mother, and on the right my aunt, Miss Forbes.”

“There you are, my dear!” said Mrs. Pendlebury heartily. “Come on up to the fire and get warm. I always think—Eric, give it a poke and make it blaze up—I always think there’s a treacherous nip in these autumn days.”

Protesting that she was not in the least cold, Toni shook hands with the old lady. Mrs. Miriam Pendlebury was a vigorous-spoken woman of sixty, with a determined chin and a pile of snow-white hair. Her sister, Miss Emmeline Forbes, was three years younger, taller, thinner, and a little faded; but her eyes, behind spectacles in honey-coloured frames, were still bright, and her mind alert and questing.

“Bless me, child!” added Mrs. Pendlebury sharply. “How old are you?”

“I’m twenty-three,” replied Toni earnestly. “Nearly twenty-four.”

“You don’t look it. You look about seventeen.” By the side of her chair was an ivory-handled walking-stick. She picked up this stick and poked her son in the ribs with it. “What are you grinning at?”

Eric moved out of range of the prodding stick. “I was waiting for something like that. I was comparing Miss Meridew with the departed Aggie Hayes.”

“Oh, you were, were you? Well, Aggie Hayes was a very good companion to me, even if she did hang strings of beads all over herself, and we can’t all be born with the looks and figure of this child. . . . Sit down, my dear, and we’ll have tea. You look as though—Eric, press the bell—as though you could do with some country food, and some country air.”

Toni sat down in the chair indicated by the stick, and pulled her skirt down over her slim knees. A moment or two later the door opened and a tea-wagon was trundled in by a maid in a black frock with touches of white at neck and wrists.

“This is Thora,” Mrs. Pendlebury informed Toni. “Thora, this is Miss Meridew.”

“Yes’m,” said Thora, a strapping country wench with the roses of exuberant health in her cheeks. She smiled widely at Toni, disclosing a perfect set of teeth. Toni smiled back and politely asked her how she did.

“Nicely, thank you, miss,” returned Thora, who was a literal-minded soul.

Mrs. Pendlebury snorted. She said: “Wait a minute, Thora. . . . Where’s this child’s luggage, Eric?”

“In the hall. Two suitcases.”


Eric shook his head. “For a lady’s luggage, remarkably reasonable.”

“Um . . . Thora, on your way back take Miss Meridew’s cases up to her room.”

“Oh, but I can take them up myself,” protested Toni hastily. “I don’t want to be a nuisance—”

“Nonsense!” interrupted the old lady brusquely. “You’re not being a nuisance. It does Thora good running up and down stairs, keeps her figure in a bit of shape. She could manage those two cases of yours under one arm, and you under the other—couldn’t you, Thora?”

“Yes’m,” said Thora placidly, and went out. Mrs. Pendlebury sighed. “That girl! She’d be the perfect maid if I could only stop her from calling me ‘yessum’. How do you like your tea, Miss Meridew?”

“On the weak side, please, and no sugar. I think she’s a splendid advertisement for country life.”

“Thora,” said Miss Forbes, taking a sandwich from the plate that Eric was holding out to her, “is an anachronism. She’d be at home in one of those old coaching inns they had a hundred years ago, in a mob cap and a bunched-up apron. She always reminds me of Sam Weller’s girl friend, the housemaid at Mr. Nupkins’s.”


Eric Pendlebury came to himself with a start. “Yes, mother?”

“Don’t stare at Miss Meridew like that! Pass her something—can’t you see her plate is empty . . .?”

After tea, Mrs. Pendlebury reached for her stick and levered herself upright. She was not infirm, she was not even unsteady on her feet; but she was a little slow and deliberate, and the use of a walking-stick had now become second nature to her. “Well, Miss Meridew, I suppose you would like to go up and see your room and get settled in. I’ll go with you, I want to talk to you—Eric, open the door.” She had a habit of barking instructions at her son, generally a second or two after he had anticipated them and moved to do them—he was already at the door when his mother spoke. Miss Forbes, with a smile at Toni, had taken up a treatise on Buddhism and composed herself to read.

“I’m getting old and awkward,” went on Mrs. Pendlebury, tucking her arm in Toni’s as they crossed the hall to the staircase, “but I can still manage stairs . . . Eric, ring for Thora to clear away. Then you’d better put the car away. . . . Now, child, I’m too old and you’re too young for me to keep on calling you ‘Miss Meridew’. What do they call you at home? Not Antonia, I’m sure. I know it’s very rude of me, but Antonia makes me think vaguely of ice-cream and long black moustaches and ear-rings . . .”

Eric watched the two of them go up the stairs with an amused smile on his pleasant features. The bulky figure of his mother, with its crown of white hair and somewhat ponderous tread, contrasted oddly with the neat dark head and the lithe grace of the dainty one beside it.

“December and May,” he commented as he went back into the room to ring for Thora.

“Call it November and April,” said his aunt, turning over a page.

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