by Marjorie Quarton
The auction on the following two days was going to be a big one. The furniture was numbered and grouped in the high-ceilinged Georgian rooms, the traps and carriages standing, shafts resting on the ground in the stable yard. Knots of customers walked about, consulting catalogues.
The attics were still being cleared and two Polish men were looking gloomily at a collection of cracked leather suitcases, broken lampshades, a boxful of damaged china and a bundle of rusty objects tied together with string. ‘Is there any point going through this lot?’ Paul asked.
‘We have to. That metal stuff and the cardboard must go in the recycle bin; the real rubbish is for the black sacks.’
‘What about the glass?’
‘Don’t know. Shovel it in with the rubbish.’ They swept a mass of odds and ends into a heap and filled their sacks. Alex stooped and picked up an oil painting which was leaning against the wall. The frame was broken, the canvas cracked across in several places.
Through the grime of a century, a picture was just visible – a woman riding a grey horse. ‘That must have been a nice picture when it was new,’ Alex said, flattening it out. Flakes of paint came away from the canvas and joined the mess on the floor.
‘It isn’t nice now.’ Paul scraped it into a sack, knotted the neck and pushed it through the door. The sack spun and bounced away down the back stairs, to join the others waiting to be loaded into the skip.
The rain had stopped for the moment and Tony Johnson was grimly pedalling up a hill. Damn and blast the ‘gentle Irish rain’ the poets were so keen on. This was the chilly kind of drizzle that comes drifting in from the north. Where was the bloody place anyway? He’d look foolish if he turned up at the wrong house asking for help with his bicycle. Anyway he was too damp and too cross to charm a beautiful heiress successfully…
A rattling, grinding noise disturbed his thoughts and the tyre bumped along the ground. Tony dismounted with the precise grace he had cultivated for years. So much for pneumatic tyres! He had intended to give the handlebars a slight sideways wrench and say he’d been thrown from the machine by… by what? Anything would have done. But now he was going to have to wheel the bally thing until he reached a suitable house…
If this was a romance, he reflected, the heiress would sweep round the next bend, driving a pair of matched bays. She would be so shocked by his predicament that she would throw convention to the winds and invite him to ride beside her to Peterstown House for some light refreshment, while some menial was found capable of mending a puncture.
He wondered how far he would have to push the bicycle. It couldn’t be much more than a mile. He’d asked three people how far it was and all of them had started on a history of the Peters family. But how far? They said, ‘not too far,’ or ‘up the road there,’ or ‘you’ll know you’re there when you see Peterstown church below. The one the lightning hit.’ Oh well…
The road, twisting and hilly, flanked by high hedges, straightened and widened as he reached a grassy plateau, where an iron bench stood for anyone needing a rest or interested in the view. Tony paused. The well-fenced fields were bounded by a river and sloped downhill for a mile or more to a village, where there stood a church with four miniature spires on the corners of its tower – one of them broken in half. Peterstown Church with its broken spire. In that case he was on Peterstown land already. He set off again, lugging the bike, which was heavy and unwieldy at the best of times. Shame he’d had to sell the grey horse, but a man must eat. And what a place to live! Paradise! A thousand acres of good grazing land, a trout stream, foxhunting in winter (he could handle any kind of horse over any kind of country) and all kinds of game for shooting (he was a crack shot). Tennis (he was hard to beat at tennis), in the summer. Add to that a lake for swimming (he was a champion swimmer) and he supposed, fishing. Fishing didn’t appeal. And, if his informant was correct, a beautiful young woman ready to inherit as soon as her elderly father passed away… Let it be soon, he thought.
Now the hedges gave way to a high demesne wall - famine work he supposed, which curved into a broad driveway, edged with beech trees, planted no doubt when the house was built a hundred years ago. Tony wasn’t interested in houses.
The gates were high, painted black and spiked. They were shut. There was a gate lodge of course, but it seemed to be deserted. He peered between the bars of the gates, wondering if he dared open them and go through. Supposing he met the father and made a bad impression right away, with his damp clothes and useless bicycle?
Tony assessed the horse she was riding before he noticed Sarah. She was just a girl with a cape of some kind over her habit, riding in the park. The brown three-quarter-bred, splendid mover, was too big and strong for her, he thought. He had summed up every detail of the brown gelding’s make and shape, priced it, considered where he might place it if it was for sale. Then as she turned in his direction, he realised that this must be the young lady he was so anxious to meet. But not, please God not, in damp tweed knickerbockers, standing beside a collapsed bicycle. She saw him, turned the horse and galloped down the field, pulling up with a slither in front of him. She caught a bar of the gate with the crook of her riding whip and pulled it open. ‘Hallo,’ she said, ‘Have you come to see Father? He’s gone to a funeral.’
Tony smiled pleasantly, removing his tweed cap, so that his longish dark hair fell becomingly over his forehead. ‘Miss Peters? How do you do? My wretched bicycle has broken down as you see. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting your father.’
‘He’ll be home soon. If you bring that thing up to the house, I’ll find Kennedy and he might be able to mend it.’ She swung her horse round and set off faster than before in the direction of the house.
Tony fastened the gate and followed. A pleasant girl, he thought, with a good figure and evidently a good horsewoman. Not a beauty though… Jim and Harry had said she was a real stunner. It was hard to judge on a wet day, when she was wearing a hard hat hiding most of her long dark brown hair. It was twisted and rolled into an untidy bun on her neck, with a hairnet to keep it from coming down. He trudged along, mentally trying to assess if it was worth marrying an attractive but certainly not beautiful young woman as a short cut to rearranging his financial affairs. He decided that it would be. She had an engaging smile. It never crossed his mind that she might say ‘no.’