Hold Fast To Your Dreams

It had been Emily’s dream for such a long time. But could she let James do this for her?

The People's Friend - - News - by Deb­o­rah

LADY FAR­RING­TON looked at Hugh in alarm. What had come over him? She took a breath to speak, but her daugh­ter-in­law sud­denly stood up, bustling Malaika out of the room by the el­bow.

Thea was tak­ing charge again. How ex­haust­ing the girl was! Why, her con­duct was scarcely bet­ter than those ill-be­haved pup­pies of hers, chas­ing up and down the cor­ri­dors of Far­ring­ton House.

Lady Far­ring­ton sighed. If only Ber­trand had met some other girl – like that young woman they’d met a few weeks ago.

On the other hand, Lady Far­ring­ton mused, Thea, with her vast for­tune and her dread­ful rac­ing track, was their only hope now

that they faced ruin. It was no good dwelling on re­grets.

Ber­trand looked from his mother to his fa­ther and un­cle.

“I must talk to Thea. Please tell Runci­man I won’t be hav­ing cof­fee.”

“Fine, Ber­trand. But we’ll need to speak later on.”

Lord Far­ring­ton’s face was strained with the ten­sion that had ap­peared from the mo­ment Mrs Wig­gan had told them of Jenny’s tele­phone call, ask­ing for help, from the Brack­en­bury Ho­tel.

The men­tion of Or­chard End and the Bracken fam­ily had seemed to in­vade the room like a men­ac­ing cloud, turn­ing Hugh’s face to an ashen mask be­fore it drifted over Lord Far­ring­ton.

Lady Far­ring­ton sighed. It was all very wear­ing, and now she had to deal with Thea’s plan of send­ing a res­cue party to help the Cal­low girl. It seemed ridicu­lously dra­matic, sum­mon­ing the girl’s step­mother and whisk­ing Mrs Wig­gan off as well.

“Regi­nald, this won’t do. Of course I feel for the girl, but she’s noth­ing to do with us. I know she was once Thea’s lady’s maid, but she’s moved on, just as her sis­ter did.

“I will never un­der­stand Emily choos­ing to re­main in the ru­ins of Cal­i­for­nia when Ber­trand was will­ing to bring her back to Eng­land and the po­si­tion we had kept for her. After that, do we owe ei­ther of these Cal­lows any­thing?”

“Ju­lia, we will dis­cuss it later,” Lord Far­ring­ton said, his voice tremu­lous.

“What is it?” she asked fear­fully.

Lord Far­ring­ton looked from his wife to Hugh, then back again.

“It’s com­pli­cated, Ju­lia. Do you re­mem­ber I told you about the dread­ful chap who had tor­mented Hugh at school? It was Charles Bracken – the fa­ther of the man who now owns Or­chard End.”

“Yes, I re­mem­ber the name,” she said, feel­ing a guilty wave of re­lief.

Old wounds brought to light – it was this, then, that had caused the pale faces.

“An un­for­tu­nate co­in­ci­dence,” she said, turn­ing to Hugh. “It is painful re­call­ing dif­fi­cult times. But, of course, they were your school days, many years ago.”

“Not as long ago as that,” Hugh said, his voice heavy. “If my last sight of Bracken had been him laugh­ing into my face after he’d held my head un­der the wa­ter in the swim­ming baths, then I’d be a dif­fer­ent man to­day.

“But it wasn’t. I met up with him again – in Africa.” “How ex­tra­or­di­nary!” “Not re­ally,” Hugh con­tin­ued. “A lot of chaps made a bee-line for the di­a­mond mines in Kim­ber­ley.” His eyes clouded, lost in mem­o­ries; then they sud­denly flashed with anger.

“I’ll never for­get the sight of Bracken stand­ing there. I travel half­way across the world, and of all peo­ple, there he was, stand­ing in front of me at some bar.

“I’d been in the mines all day and was cov­ered in dust. Had a rag­ing thirst, and there he was, with a cold beer in his hand.”

His bit­ter laugh cut the air.

“Of all the many stupid things I’ve ever done – I trusted him. ‘Heard you were here. What a lark, eh? Well, I want to make amends, old chap,’ he said. ‘I know I didn’t treat you very well – let me make it up to you.’

“How could I have be­lieved him? The long and the short of it was that he cheated me. I had a lead, you see, and he’d some­how found out about it.

“He said he knew things, too – we could pool our knowl­edge and make twice the killing. And by God, we did. But he dis­ap­peared. Took the lot – an enor­mous cache of stones.”

Ev­ery mus­cle in Hugh’s face was taut.

“If it hadn’t been for my dar­ling an­gel, Malaika, I swear I’d have gone mad.”

Lady Far­ring­ton was un­able to think of any­thing to say. She could hardly bear to see her hus­band so dis­traught by the sud­den ap­pear­ance of Hugh.

He’d never got over Hugh aban­don­ing and be­tray­ing him – for that was how it had felt.

Now there was the ex­tra­or­di­nary co­in­ci­dence of Charles Bracken and Or­chard End, though per­haps it wasn’t all that sur­pris­ing, since the school they had at­tended was lo­cated half­way be­tween the two houses.

A mem­ory drifted into her mind. It had been shortly after she and Regi­nald had re­turned from hon­ey­moon.

The head gar­dener, Mr Mott, had wel­comed her with a bou­quet of flow­ers grown spe­cially for the oc­ca­sion.

A young bride, she’d been ea­ger to build friendly but dig­ni­fied re­la­tions with the ser­vants. She’d stood there, her heart aglow with love for Regi­nald, breath­less with ex­cite­ment about her new life.

There would be par­ties to plan, new draperies to choose for the draw­ingroom, the nurs­ery to be re­fur­bished.

And it would all be just as she wanted.

She, the youngest of three daugh­ters and the least clever, had some­how charmed the shy and gen­tle Regi­nald Far­ring­ton.

“Thank you, Mott,” she’d said, smil­ing into his face. “They’re lovely. It was very thought­ful of you.”

“I’m hon­oured, my lady. Very glad those blooms came on so well. The weather’s been good to us. Hope it lasts.”

“In­deed. Do you have plans for the gar­den this sum­mer?”

“Yes, my lady, dig­ging a new bor­der along the west side. It looks like I’ll get it done sooner than ex­pected. I was due to go fish­ing with my cousin, Alf Dick­son. He’s head gar­dener at a big house called Or­chard End –some miles away.”

“How nice. And when will this be?”

“Sadly, it’s all been called off, on ac­count of the lord of the house, name of Bracken. He’d just got back from Africa – some­thing to do with di­a­mond min­ing.

“The poor man, rest his soul, suf­fered a stroke his sec­ond day back and died in­stantly.

“Lady Bracken is dev­as­tated, and Alf, well, he’s de­voted to the mistress. So he can’t leave – not now.”

“Oh, I am sorry, Mott. What a dis­ap­point­ment for you. I hope you and your cousin can go an­other time.”

“Thank you kindly, my lady. Who knows what will hap­pen now? I’m wor­ried for Alf, and his job, you see. Lady Bracken’s been left in a state. Money seems to have dis­ap­peared. Not sure how it’s hap­pened.

“I don’t like the sound of these di­a­mond mines and such like – try­ing to make money too quick. Sow in haste, re­gret in leisure, I al­ways say.”

Now the mem­ory ended rue­fully as she re­flected on their own sit­u­a­tion. It seemed Mr Mott had been right about risky ven­tures.

But Regi­nald had only done what he’d thought was right. She must re­mem­ber that.

And what other choice had there been? The chance to in­vest in the Ocean Shore Rail­way had felt like a god­send.

Of course, she had never trusted Char­lie All­bright. The brash New Yorker had cer­tainly not seemed an ideal fa­ther-in-law for Ber­trand.

But he’d wanted to help them, and his sug­ges­tion of Regi­nald pour­ing what they had left into the project hadn’t been fool­hardy.

It had been the earth­quake that had turned San Fran­cisco to ashes and plunged the railroad into the sea. Los­ing their for­tune was no-one’s fault.

A thought flashed through Lady Far­ring­ton’s mind.

“Hugh, did you ever won­der what Charles Bracken did with the di­a­monds?”

Hugh shrugged.

“I gather his widow strug­gled to keep up Or­chard End after he died, and to raise their son. If Charles had brought a fist full of di­a­monds back to Eng­land, then he must have lost them. Or per­haps they were stolen.”

“Yes, but stolen in Africa, or here?”

“Who knows?”

“So,” she pressed, “it is pos­si­ble that he brought the di­a­monds back to Eng­land.”

“I sup­pose, but as I said, there cer­tainly is no ev­i­dence that he did.”

“Un­less he put them some­where.” Her mind was rac­ing. “A safe de­posit vault, per­haps?”

“He’d have to have gone to Lon­don – there’s one in Vic­to­ria Street,” Regi­nald mused, “and the newer one in Chancery Lane.”

“But Charles Bracken died the sec­ond day after re­turn­ing from Africa, didn’t he?” Lady Far­ring­ton said. “He wouldn’t have had time to go off to Lon­don and in­ves­ti­gate safe de­posit vaults. Where would his ship have docked?”

“Southamp­ton,” Hugh said. “He could have gone to Lon­don be­fore mak­ing his way back home.”

“We could find that out, couldn’t we?” Lady Far­ring­ton ar­gued. “There would be records of the dates ships from Africa had docked, and it would be easy to find

Old wounds had been brought to light by hear­ing the name Bracken

out when Charles Bracken died.” “Where is all this go­ing, Ju­lia?” Regi­nald’s voice was edged with ir­ri­ta­tion. “If Bracken had re­turned with a cache of di­a­monds, wouldn’t he have told his wife where he’d put them? It doesn’t sound like she was left with much.”

“Per­haps he was about to tell her, but for some rea­son he wanted, or needed, to wait for a while.

“So he put them some­where safe. Some­where closer than Lon­don, where he could get to them quickly and eas­ily.”

Hugh pon­dered for a mo­ment, in­ter­est be­gin­ning to light his eyes.

“Are you sug­gest­ing he hid them some­where at Or­chard End? And then, hav­ing done the deed, the wretch died be­fore telling his wife?”

“It’s pos­si­ble, isn’t it? And if they were found,” she con­tin­ued, “then they be­long to you, Hugh.” Regi­nald scoffed. “This is pre­pos­ter­ous. If Bracken did bring them back, how could any­one ever find them? Be­sides, only half of them would be­long to Hugh. The rest would go to the young Brack­ens.”

“For heaven’s sake, Reg!” Hugh ex­ploded, his en­ergy rekin­dled with anger. “The man was a cheat.”

“Even if it were only half,” Lady Far­ring­ton con­tin­ued, “it would still be a for­tune.”

“But it could be that some­thing hap­pened to the di­a­monds while Charles was still in Africa,” Regi­nald said. “Maybe he didn’t bring them back at all.”

“Regi­nald, don’t you think it would be a good idea to try to find out?” Lady Far­ring­ton be­seeched. “At least to ask a few ques­tions.

“To find out who last saw Charles Bracken; who might have met him on the voy­age back, and who he talked to in that first cru­cial day after he ar­rived home? Aren’t you even a lit­tle cu­ri­ous?”

“It would be like look­ing for a nee­dle in a haystack,” Regi­nald said, shak­ing his head. “What is the point?”

Lady Far­ring­ton sighed. Feel­ings of hope­less­ness and fail­ure were be­gin­ning to colour her hus­band’s ev­ery thought.

She re­mem­bered the quiet strength and con­fi­dence that had cap­ti­vated her when they’d met, and the gen­tle au­thor­ity that had won the re­spect of ev­ery ser­vant who had ever been in his em­ploy.

As the years had gone by, her love for him had grown and deep­ened.

Now, it was her turn to be strong. She re­fused to let him be beaten down. She must grab ev­ery chance there was.

“Regi­nald,” she said, look­ing in­tently into his eyes, “I don’t think it would be wise just to ig­nore this. Par­tic­u­larly as this haystack is now be­ing looked after by Jenny.” She sat taller in her chair. “Upon re­flec­tion, Thea’s idea of go­ing to help the girl is ac­tu­ally rather a good one. And don’t you think it would be ad­vis­able, Hugh, for you to go along as well?”

****

The San Fran­cisco trol­ley rat­tled to a stop and James helped Emily on to the street.

“This is all very mys­te­ri­ous, James. Where are you tak­ing me?” “You’ll see.”

He guided her along, past grim ru­ins of houses sit­ting be­tween shiny new shop fronts.

His pace slowed and he stopped, mov­ing her care­fully to­wards the edge of the pave­ment and turn­ing her to face a tall gabled house that sat back from the street on an el­e­vated site.

She stared, trans­fixed. There was a porch black­ened by fire dam­age, and the top step had col­lapsed. But the or­nate columns and the lacy gin­ger­bread trim were un­dam­aged.

There was a tur­ret at the right, with tall, south-fac­ing win­dows that re­minded Emily of a favourite pic­ture from the pre­cious book of fairy tales that she had grown up with.

As one of the few books that the fam­ily owned, the chil­dren had trea­sured it.

For a mo­ment she was dis­tracted, think­ing of them all and won­der­ing if Sarah had be­gun read­ing to lit­tle Joey from it.

“Well,” James said, “what do you think? Be­cause of the dam­age, the fam­ily has moved out and re­lo­cated in an­other part of the city, as so many have done. They’re rent­ing out the premises now.

“At the mo­ment the left side of the house is oc­cu­pied by a cou­ple of broth­ers. One runs a phar­macy, and the other a bar­ber’s shop.

“But the tur­ret is empty. There was some dam­age to one of the rooms, but noth­ing that can’t be mended.”

She looked at him, be­wil­dered.

“There are two rooms on the ground floor,” he went on, as if not notic­ing her con­fu­sion. “Nei­ther is very large, but there’s a fair amount of space and four small rooms above it.

“It’s all very light and airy – good for sew­ing, and your win­dow dis­play would be su­perb.”

“My win­dow dis­play?” She turned to him, her eyes huge with won­der and dis­be­lief.

“It’s yours, dear girl. That is, if you want it. Your dream shop, as well as a place to live, with room for your friend Becky and her grand­mother.”

She could scarcely breathe.

“But, James, how could I ever . . .?”

“Af­ford it? Well, I’m go­ing to ad­vance you what­ever you need to start with. After that it will be up to you to make ends meet.”

He as­sumed a look of sever­ity, like a stern fa­ther mak­ing a point to a child.

“I don’t know what to say!”

This had been her dream for such a long time. But how could she let him do this for her?

“You’ll have to move quickly,” he added. “I’ve talked to the broth­ers and they’re will­ing to hold on for a day, but no longer.”

She found it hard to meet his eyes. Her mother and James were the only peo­ple in her life who had ever truly be­lieved in her and urged her to reach for the stars. Of course Dad loved her, and Sarah, and her broth­ers and sis­ters.

But her mother’s love had been all-en­com­pass­ing. She had loved the whole of Emily, even those parts of her that had not yet been dis­cov­ered – the po­ten­tial for be­com­ing all that she could be.

In her heart she knew that James loved her, too. He’d all but asked her to marry him, that day when she’d vis­ited him in the field hospi­tal. But he’d also said he just wanted her to be happy, no mat­ter what. It was a gen­er­ous love.

Would she feel right, ac­cept­ing so much from him, and giv­ing him noth­ing in re­turn?

But she wanted this. She imag­ined it all – the whirr of the ma­chines; the hive of ac­tiv­ity; the ex­quis­ite win­dow dis­play that would light up the whole street.

She could feel his eyes on her, then his strong hand reached up and brushed a wisp of hair from her face.

Lift­ing her chin, he gazed at her.

“Emily, I know how much you want this – and de­serve it. And I also know why you’re not leap­ing at the chance.”

She took a breath, her heart pound­ing as she groped for the right thing to say.

“I want this for you,” he said softly. “All I ask in re­turn is for you to say yes to it. Any­thing else that I may wish for, or dream of, is ab­so­lutely sep­a­rate. Please be­lieve that.”

He took her by the shoul­ders, his eyes nar­row­ing.

“And you’re to make it a suc­cess of it, do you hear?”

Then he pulled her to him and hugged her like an old friend or a sis­ter.

“How about sleep­ing on it, and you can tell me your de­ci­sion to­mor­row? I’ll meet you at the sewing­cen­tre first thing in the morn­ing.

“By the way, I didn’t give those broth­ers an inkling as to what sort of es­tab­lish­ment their tur­ret was to be­come. They may have been ex­pect­ing a soda foun­tain!

“I’m not sure what they’ll make of a cou­turier from Eng­land. They may take some con­vinc­ing.” “James . . .”

“Shh. We’ll talk about it to­mor­row. Speak­ing of soda foun­tains, shall we go and find one?”

****

Jenny stood at the win­dow, watch­ing for the car­riage that would take Sarah and Mrs Wig­gan back to the train sta­tion at Brack­en­bury.

The morn­ing sun­light daz­zled through the glass, for it seemed that, only hours after they’d stepped in the door, the ladies had started scrub­bing, pol­ish­ing and cook­ing up a storm to make ready for Eleanor Bracken’s guests.

The res­cue party – for that was what it had felt like to Jenny – had ar­rived at Or­chard End four days ago, along with the ex­tra­or­di­nary sur­prise of Lord Far­ring­ton’s brother and his ex­otic wife, who had come along and stayed for the du­ra­tion at the Brack­en­bury Ho­tel, mak­ing fre­quent vis­its to Or­chard End.

Jenny had been trans­fixed by the beau­ti­ful African woman’s re­gal car­riage and richly em­broi­dered clothes.

But she found Lord Hugh a puz­zling man. He was charm­ing, to be sure, but there was some­thing about him she didn’t trust.

She was sure she’d seen him rum­mag­ing in the draw­ers of old Lord Far­ring­ton’s study, and Ben had men­tioned see­ing him walk­ing round the grounds and try­ing to force open the door of the old ice house that had long been aban­doned.

If only there had been more time to talk to Sarah. There was so much that Jenny had wanted to hear about, so much ad­vice she’d wanted to ask.

But Sarah and Mrs Wig­gan had come with a mis­sion, and it had been a suc­cess. Eleanor’s week­end guests had been fed and ac­com­mo­dated and, pe­cu­liar a group as they had been, each had been pleased.

“Well, that’s it, then.” Mrs Wig­gan’s voice rang out from the land­ing, and Jenny hur­ried up the stairs to help.

“There’s no sign of the car­riage yet,” she told them, “but it’s still a lit­tle early. Here, let me take that, Mrs Wig­gan.”

She took the case. “Leave your case, Sarah. Ben will carry it down.”

“I’ve hardly seen the lad.” Sarah frowned.

“I know,” Jenny said apolo­get­i­cally. “I’m sure he’ll come and say good­bye, though. I haven’t seen Lady Bracken yet this morn­ing. I asked last night what time she’d like morn­ing tea, but she said to let her sleep.”

“I’ve been in­side for too long,” Mrs Wig­gan re­marked. “Since the car­riage isn’t here yet, I’ll go out for a breath of air.”

“Shall we come with you, Mrs Wig­gan?”

But Mrs Wig­gan waved her hand in the air.

“No, I’ll just have a bit of peace,” she said, but Jenny well re­mem­bered what a soft heart she had, un­der­neath the brusque­ness. “You two have a lit­tle chat, and I’ll be back shortly.”

She took her­self off, and Jenny smiled at Sarah.

“I’ll put the front door ajar and we’ll hear the car­riage.” She led Sarah into the draw­ing-room, clear­ing away Eleanor’s cig­a­rette holder.

“I’m so glad we have a lit­tle more time,” Sarah said, as they sank into a bro­cade chaise.

She gave Jenny’s hand a squeeze.

“You’ve been do­ing a fine job here, love,” she said.

“Oh, Sarah, do you re­ally think so? It was so strange, find­ing ev­ery­thing in such a state, and not hav­ing any idea what was ex­pected of us.

“I re­ally have tried my best, but I just felt over­whelmed by the prospect of the party. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“There’s nowhere I’d rather be than help­ing you, sweet­heart. And the Far­ring­ton House par­ties have al­ways been a joint ef­fort. Mrs Wig­gan has been in her el­e­ment, though she’d never ad­mit it!”

Not trust­ing the Or­chard End kitchen to be up to her stan­dard, Mrs Wig­gan had brought along a trunk filled with cop­per ves­sels and fluted moulds em­bossed on the bot­tom with the Far­ring­ton House crest, along with her pre­cious note­book of recipes.

“That chap with the long beard couldn’t get enough of her beef in jelly. Where was he from, any­way?” Sarah asked.

“Rus­sia, I think,” Jenny said. “I re­mem­ber there was a lady who came to lunch at Far­ring­ton House a long time ago – she was thought to be a Rus­sian princess. She had the same sort of ac­cent.”

“A shame about that lady in the shiny py­ja­mas – the one who re­cited all that po­etry. She wouldn’t touch the beef, or the pot­ted pi­geon.”

“She’s a veg­e­tar­ian.” Sarah laughed lightly. “Even Mrs Wig­gan has never had to cope with that be­fore! All I can say is, thank heav­ens you swal­lowed that pride of yours.” Her voice soft­ened.

“You never ex­plained in your let­ters how things were here. I had a feel­ing that Or­chard End wasn’t quite what you’d hoped for.”

Jenny nod­ded.

“I’m just wor­ried about Ben. He’s ter­ri­bly dis­ap­pointed and ashamed, though he has no rea­son to be. But that’s why he’s been avoid­ing you these past days.

“You see, Robert Bracken won’t put up the funds for Ben to do what he’d set his heart on. Ben’s work­ing him­self to the bone, try­ing to clear the grounds, and dig­ging some beds.

“But when I think of the grand plans he had! It’s just ter­ri­ble for him. I feel he could ex­plode at any mo­ment – just walk out and . . .”

“Now, we mustn’t think such things, love. We need to re­mem­ber that there’s al­ways a way round a sit­u­a­tion, but some­times it means adapt­ing and chang­ing, and think­ing in a dif­fer­ent way.

“Your dad has trou­ble with that. He’s never had to do it, so I think it scares him.

“I ex­pect every­one wants the same thing in some ways – to make the most of what­ever there is. But it can be jolly hard find­ing a way to make that work for every­one at the same time!”

Jenny sighed heav­ily. “Some­times Ben gets that look in his eyes – it re­minds me of when he first came to live with us.”

She looked up at Sarah, know­ing she didn’t have to elab­o­rate.

It had been nearly three years ago that Sarah had ar­ranged for her nephew to come to live with the Cal­lows, but it felt like a life­time.

Ben had been headed for noth­ing but trou­ble, and his brush with the law had been dev­as­tat­ing for his mother, Sarah’s sis­ter.

He’d been an an­gry, un­pleas­ant lad when he’d ar­rived, but the hard farm work with Joe, and Sarah’s strict but kind fam­ily val­ues, had done him a world of good.

It was ob­vi­ous from the start that he’d fallen in­stantly in love with Jenny. Sarah had feared this would be the end of him, as at first Jenny had hardly been able to bear him.

“He was a very dif­fer­ent young man

“There’s a way around ev­ery­thing, but we may need to adapt”

then, love.

“And you were a dif­fer­ent girl, if I may re­mind you!”

It had been some­thing of a mir­a­cle, the way Ben and Jenny had grad­u­ally come to un­der­stand each other, kin­dred spir­its that had in­ter­twined into a firm belief in one an­other.

Ben had been able to see into Jenny’s heart, and she had fi­nally lost hers to him.

Jenny smiled, a lit­tle em­bar­rassed to re­mem­ber how dif­fi­cult she’d been.

“I felt so frus­trated and out of place, I sup­pose. Emily was good at ev­ery­thing, and seemed so sure of what she wanted to do at Far­ring­ton House. I wanted some­thing spe­cial for my­self, too.”

“But you were a huge suc­cess at Far­ring­ton House,” Sarah in­sisted. “The count­ess was de­voted to you, and still is. And Emily couldn’t have done what she did with­out you. You be­came a team, with the de­sign­ing and sew­ing.

“You and Ben are a won­der­ful team, too. Some­how, it will work out.”

****

Eleanor’s head ached from the mo­ment she opened her eyes. The pil­lows had be­come hot and mat­ted, and she turned her face from the sliver of blind­ing sun­light that shone through a gap in the cur­tains.

Thank heav­ens she’d told Jenny not to dis­turb her. The sight of that perky, smil­ing girl would have been too much to bear.

What a hu­mil­i­at­ing dis­as­ter it had all been. Oh, yes, her guests had en­joyed them­selves – there was no ques­tion about that.

But she might as well have been in­vis­i­ble. She’d tried to talk to each of them, but some­how she’d been un­able to think of a thing to say.

After be­ing asked if she’d read this book or that, or been to this play or that po­etry read­ing, and hav­ing to an­swer no to ev­ery ques­tion, she’d fi­nally given up.

She re­mem­bered be­ing taught at school that, if you couldn’t think of any­thing to say, then be­ing a good lis­tener was the best op­tion.

But she hadn’t un­der­stood any­thing that was be­ing talked about, and the long recita­tions and dis­cus­sions had bored her.

In be­tween, it seemed that Jenny, along with her step­mother and that for­mi­da­ble cook – who seemed to have ap­peared at the door like magic – had been as happy as larks, laugh­ing and chat­ting, filled with end­less en­ergy and de­light with the pro­ceed­ings.

And the ex­tra­or­di­nary cou­ple who had swept in with them, un­in­vited, had stolen the whole show.

What a beauty that African woman was. And her dash­ing hus­band seemed un­able to take his eyes off her, his hand round her waist as he con­stantly ad­mired her and sang her praises.

How would it feel to be the ob­ject of such ado­ra­tion?

Tears welled up in Eleanor’s eyes, spilling over and wet­ting the sheet.

Why had she done it – in­vited all those peo­ple she scarcely knew, and spent so much money en­ter­tain­ing them? She hadn’t thought how she would ex­plain it all to Robert.

And not one of them had come in or­der to spend time with her. Some barely had enough money to live on, and had sim­ply come know­ing they’d be well fed.

Eleanor took a deep breath, try­ing to steady her­self, wish­ing des­per­ately for a cup of tea.

She didn’t want to get up – her head ached too much – but she also didn’t want to ring down­stairs.

She eased her­self up­right, wrapped her­self in her dress­ing-gown and, so as not to be heard, tip­toed bare­foot to the land­ing.

Ear­lier she’d heard the ladies up­stairs chat­ter­ing, and Jenny was doubt­less busy­ing her­self tidy­ing up.

All seemed quiet now, and with luck, she might be able to get to the kitchen with­out be­ing dis­cov­ered. In any case, she had to take the chance.

Tak­ing hold of the rail, she gin­gerly made her way down­stairs.

Now she heard voices from the draw­ing-room – it sounded like Jenny and her step­mother.

She stopped, her heart pound­ing.

“Poor Eleanor Bracken didn’t seem to en­joy her­self very much.”

Eleanor gripped the ban­nis­ter, then slid slowly to a sit­ting po­si­tion on the stair.

“Poor Eleanor Bracken.” She’d been poor Eleanor as a child, and then later on at school, when she seemed un­able to achieve any­thing.

Poor Eleanor was who she’d al­ways be.

“She seems, I don’t know – lost, I sup­pose.”

“What does she do all day?” the other voice said.

Their voices be­came muf­fled and Eleanor strained to lis­ten. It was so painful hear­ing what they thought of her, and yet she couldn’t stop her­self.

“I keep think­ing about what you said about find­ing ways round prob­lems, Sarah. Do you re­mem­ber, when you ar­rived?

“You were talk­ing about Dad and Ben, and how some­times peo­ple need to think dif­fer­ently.” “Yes.”

“Well, this week­end, I had an idea. Sarah, I just can’t stop think­ing about it!

“I think it could make ev­ery­thing bet­ter – for Ben, for me, and for Eleanor Bracken; for every­one, re­ally.

“I don’t know Eleanor, but there’s some­thing about her.”

“What’s that?” There was a si­lence, and Eleanor felt a sin­gle tear roll down her cheek.

“There’s some­thing about her. She re­minds me, in a way, of my­self.” “Of you?”

“Yes. She seems so un­set­tled – like she’s search­ing in­side her­self for some­thing. I wish I could get to know her.

“There’s some­thing about her that I re­ally like, even though she doesn’t think much of me.

“I wish I could help her. This idea I’ve had – oh, Sarah, I think it could change ev­ery­thing!”

Eleanor be­came aware that the pound­ing in her head had stopped.

She set­tled her­self more com­fort­ably on the stair, the fear of be­ing dis­cov­ered com­pletely for­got­ten as she waited, and lis­tened . . .

To be con­tin­ued.

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