The Last Deception of Palliser Wentwood

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  • Format: Trade Book
  • Copyright: 1999-08-30
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
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A charming Irish rogue leaves his beautiful wife and daughters to search for a fortune to restore the prosperity of his farm and family. Alternately funny and sad, this story combines the pleasures of an old-fashioned novel with the delights of a contemporary heroine.


Chapter One

HERE IS Salomé Wentwood, relict.

    A prepossessing woman of forty-five, aspect of an archangel, hair of a gypsy, she is standing on a little stone bridge, in the middle of a swampy plain, with a shotgun in her hand. She holds this nonchalantly, as if she had picked it up by accident, mistaking it for a broom.

    Which is not far from the truth, because, although it is loaded, she has no idea what to do with it. Men deal with guns. Men go out to shoot. A gentleman is generally accompanied by his gun, and Palliser Wentwood, of whom she is the relict, is a gentleman to his very core.

    From which it may be deduced that Salomé Wentwood is not widowed but abandoned.

    Salomé positions herself and the shotgun where the bridge ends. It's an apology for a bridge, built of left-over stones, fitted together with excessive care, far too much care for the littleness of the bridge. Left-over stones which the builder rejected. A Palliser bridge per se .

    They are coming up the roadway towards her. Little black digits, dancing in the brilliant sunshine, could be spots in her vision rather than men. Easier to think of them like that -- black spots to be blinked out, wiped out. If she shut her eyes, she could blot them out.

    But they won't be blinked. They must be getting closer but she can't tell from the size of them. How many? Four. Abigail said she had seen four men at the gate. Is Salomé afraid of four men? She, who has ridden to the Lygon Hunt, afraid? Of course she is. This is more than life and death; this is livelihood and honour. This concerns her home, the only belonging left to Salomé, she who was once considered an heiress. How many shots in a shotgun? A woman should know those things.

    It has happened without warning. It seems to Salomé that one day she had been a girl, caught in an icicle, seventeen and lovely, Then twenty-three and handsome. So bored, so cold in the hotels of Europe. Needlework one did, and one played golf and croquet, and tennis. One drove about the place and took the waters. One wrote in one's diary and danced all night if one could manage it. And suddenly here one was, twenty-odd years later, half a world away, in a dress of very doubtful cleanness, on a crooked stone bridge clutching a shotgun with a sweaty hand.

    In between, Palliser intervened.

    She grows hot standing under the sun. In the southern hemisphere the sun is bare and bold; it gives no quarter, to gypsy or archangel.

    Hotels were always cold, even the grand hotels. They were forced warm by small armies of servants stoking the boilers relentlessly. You knew they were cold places though, the big stairways you hurried through, drawing the fur stole over your shoulders at dinner, even though the bright fireplace filled the other end of the dining room. Was it not a better life, standing on the left-over-stone bridge, gripping the shotgun you couldn't shoot, grey skirt stained with elderberry juice, four girls in careful darns behind, four black shapes of men coming up the road?

    Salomé Wentwood, whose earlier name is iced up somewhere in Europe, does not know. She does not recognise herself in the foolhardy woman on the bridge. She is aware of being alive, and furiously alive since the moment that Palliser Wentwood shook her out of slumber. When she met him she was a mannequin with cunning clockwork which ran for hours and hours. He blew into her life. She had never known pleasure like the fun he made for her, and for the taste of that alone she'd have followed him running barefoot across Europe. She was used to men filling in love with her, or, more precisely, falling in love with her father's money, but she didn't care if Palliser was after her money. When Palliser fell in love, it was not like other men; it was like grand opera crossed with pantomime. He turned up on her balcony at midnight with a black cape and a big bunch of roses, except that it wasn't Salomé's balcony, but the balcony of the room next door, inhabited by a retired judge from the Indian Civil Service, with whom he made friends and got drunk, at the acme of which friendship Salomé, in her night-gown, was roused out into the night by their singing, the judge with his white moustache, perfectly curled, waving his champagne flute and addressing her with far more passion than Palliser himself.

    `This is my new friend, Palliser, and he's a true gent, even if he is an Irishman. And he's in love with you.'

    It has always been so funny and touching and so quintessentially Palliser. But now it has ceased to amuse; it has become conceivable that all Palliser loved was indeed her father's money, neither more nor less, for now that the money is all gone, all completely, irretrievably gone, into ditches and fences and flat green land, which itself is almost gone, Palliser himself is also gone.

    It might be better if he were dead.

    The four little dots are distinct now. Still little and black, and mere smudges, but clearly four of them. Four men on foot, though Josiah Butler is pushing his bicycle. Hedler usually goes about in his dirty green utility, Philip Butterworth in his sleek black car. Four men against one woman and her daughters.

    His quiverful, he called them, his bright weapons against extinction, his hostages to fortune, he called them, and gave them quaint Old Testament names. If biblical names, why not the names of the feisty women, the fighting women, Rahab, Deborah, Judith, Jael?

    A Jael would be a mighty mainstay now, standing behind her on the bridge, instead of timid Jemima, so tall and yielding. Naomi is the fiercest, but she is no higher than the basket on a bicycle. What price a Jael, a tall girl, flashing fire from her eyes, slaying them with her beauty, slashing them with her tongue. And what about an Abishag, a girl who would know about guns, a crack shot maybe, with her own pistols. Instead she had Abigail, clever as a coon cat, writing her Latin and Greek on an old school slate. Curly characters, with little dashes and dots. No use against these black dashes, fast turning into men.

    Perhaps, after all, Bathsheba is her best defence. A baby, you could classify her as a baby still, if you were a soft man. A woman knows of course that she is a grown girl, clear on the shortest way to get what she wants, which is to make her sisters mad and adults into her slaves.

    Well, now, look at those girls! All of them wearing boots. So much for bringing up ladies (what would Mother say?). But they contrive to look proud and even stylish. How do they do that, that damned Palliser trick of looking good in everything? Jemima, now, she's wearing what you'd expect from Jemima, wellingtons, green ones, and a dress made of sacking -- it looks like sacking but it's something she wove herself and is very proud of. Over the top she wears a homespun jersey; she plucked the wool, spun it, dyed it and knitted the jersey. It's long and brown and baggy like a shirt, but Jemima is so tall and graceful she makes these poor sacks chic. Abigail wears boots too, but elegant laced-up numbers which could scarcely be called boots. She made the black suit herself, long jacket, long dress sliced up the side, smart as a lawyer, but very practical, doesn't show the mud or the chalk dust much, washed and ironed every Saturday, and still black and sharp. Naomi in laced-up boots like a farm boy; dressed like a farm boy, what was to be done with the girl? The prettiest of them all, though all of them have Palliser's beautiful mouth and nose, and Salomé's brown eyes and fierce cheekbones. And her narrow waist, a much prized feature. What could such girls not do, have done in the rich resorts of Europe? Imagine them sweeping in to the Grand Hotel at Nice. No, don't imagine that; it is another hemisphere, too far to contemplate.

    Bathsheba is astride Jemima's shoulders; Jemima grasps her bare legs. The little girl is beating her hands on the top of Jemima's head, calling out with excitement because she knows something's up. Luckily Jemima's hair, piled up in a big soft brown bun of sorts, takes any amount of brushing or disarranging without looking very different. Bathsheba is excited, so are the others, with varying degrees of understanding and therefore seriousness. Naomi's got the axe -- the axe, for heaven's sake! What is Naomi planning to do with the axe? Much the same perhaps as Salomé is planning to do with the shotgun, put up a show of fierceness. Naomi succeeds in looking fierce. Salomé wonders what she looks like herself.

    Abigail has been saying all along that you can only hope to settle matters in the courts or the bank manager's office. Shotguns and axes do no good, she says, but even so, she's striding out with the others, in her boots, to stand behind her mother on the bridge. If you would only explain the background, Mother, I am sure we could work it out. But how to make sense of Palliser's doings, let alone the mendacious flourishes of his commercial deals?

    Explanations. Why had she never asked for explanations, but laughed and accepted what he did as the very stuff of being? Now it was come to this.

    Where's Daddy? I want to show this to Daddy! I really don't understand, Mama, why you can't tell me where Papa is. You must have some idea where he went. I would like to write to him, Mother, surely you have a forwarding address? Is he dead, is he dead? Did he get murdered in a duel?

    What could she say to them, four different explanations, four different fairy tales. When she didn't know herself. Think I'll try my luck down south for a while make a few quid and set us up for good won't stay long old thing can't bear to be away from you as you very well know light of my lift dearest heart don't look downcast my darling my dearest I'll be back in the twinkling of an eye my own heart plenty of money to be made down south. Her litany, her penitential psalm. And this shall be for music when no one else is near, the fine song for singing, the rare song to hear! That only I remember, that only you admire ...

    How long ago was that? She knows to a detail the day and the circumstances of his leaving, but she has pretended to forget. The bitterness of that day has been overwhelmed by the bitterness of two Christmases come and gone and no word. No word except one postcard from Hong Kong, and an envelope for Naomi's last birthday. A crumpled five-pound note with a piece of English hotel writing paper. All my love, dearest girl. Make sure you waste this properly!!!!

    So he is not dead, he has simply run away and left her to face his creditors, without a friend in the world, for every friend of Palliser's is also his creditor.

    What would ye, ladies? It was ever thus. Men are unwise and curiously planned ...

    They have their dreams and do not think of us. They make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.

* * *

She can recognise them now. Of course she knows who is coming. Josiah Butler. Hedler, Marcus Hedler. Philip Butterworth and Samuel Stokes. His cronies, his drinking buddies, his pals, his racing mates, his gambling partners, his shareholders and stake-holders and IOU-holders and mortgagees. His neighbours, his lawyer, his guarantors and his dupes. And then there is his wife, desperately positioned.

    If Palliser were here, matters would never have come to this pass. He would have headed them off with his talk long before. Digging deeper ditches to fall into, no doubt, but finding a way to vault out again, running rings round them with his talk and his tales, half believed but given benefit. Who could keep up in the labyrinth of his dealings -- in the warren of promises, promissory notes, mortgages, letters of intent, some drawn up by his lawyer Philip and some scribbled on beer-stained envelopes in the dregs of dawn?

    Where is he now, now that his melodrama has reached its climax? Why isn't he here, he who is not afraid of anything, neither shame, nor ridicule, nor poverty, nor even beauty? Why couldn't Palliser be like other men? Then he might have been afraid to build a tower in the middle of a swamp, to leave his family to fend without him, to go and seek his fortune without a penny in his pocket. He might have been afraid of God or government, of his neighbour's scorn, or of failure.

    Palliser, Palliser, how could a sane man be so mad? And how could she stay sane without him, when he was her life?

    Where are you, you lovely renegade, you scoundrel, tale-teller, womaniser, patriarch, clown, daddy-long-legged husk of handsomeness? In whose bed are you lavishing your seed, flaunting your highwayman's looks in whose hall? Does she recognise your misquoted poems or swoon at the melody of your voice? Is she young? Is she white and unsmirched, as I am brown and tattered? You have taken my everything, even yourself, and left me with four brave girls, a shotgun and your ditches.

    Palliser's ditches.

    `I have bought us a kingdom,' he said, bursting into their boarding house in the back streets of Sydney. `In the South Island of New Zealand, no less! In a place so beautiful it ravishes the spirit. Where the mountains tickle the sky and the seas go down into darkness. Kaikoura. The place of rich pickings. A piece of heaven snipped out and dropped to earth.'

    He did not tell her he had bought a swamp, land once rich and wonderful, drained and squared off into fields by energetic Victorians, but now slid into depression, the drains clogged, the fences broken, the fields squelchy with mud.

    `We'll drain the swamp once again,' he said, when the truth came out. `Drain it and lace the rich new land once more with dikes. Venice, Fenland, the Low Countries. I will make a castle just for you and me, of green days in forest and blue days at sea. I will make my tower and you shall keep your room, Where something flows the river, and golden grows the broom. And we'll build us a kingdom on an island in the middle, an island of green fertility surrounded by our moat. A home, a castle, but no Englishman's castle.'

    He said this rolling his consonants with exaggerated Irishness. Whenever Palliser grew more Irish, she waited for trouble. His accent told you who he was playing. When she met him, Palliser had spoken with English-public-school precision, animated by the melodiousness of the Irish. If he hadn't spoken so, she would never have been allowed to speak to him. How deceptive appearances could be, how wonderfully he fooled her parents, fooled her, fooled himself and all the world that he was -- sound. Well, his ditches. They were a wild fancy, at first, in keeping with his dream of a tower. A part of his medieval dream of a feudal world of which he might be lord. But it was fun, too, and good farming practice, as it turned out. The land they reclaimed, he and Marcus Hedler and Samuel Stokes, with much hard labour from Salomé and Jemima and the boys Albert and Piripi, the land turned out to be the best. Of course it flooded every year in spring and autumn, and the ditches required constant vigilance or they clogged up and fell in, but what gorgeous crops it grew -- maize and beet and turnips and rich red tomatoes and strawberries for the town market, and spectacular grapes.

    The ditches were pain and grief to her, day after day, Abigail playing in the mud, Jemima beside her toting buckets. The pumps furiously at work drawing off the water as they dug, trying to make progress before one of the pumps broke down and water flooded back around them. Up to their knees, sometimes up to their armpits in muddy water, tangled clumps of plants with no discernible name, waterbirds crossly displaced. And Palliser would come and work with her, wildly digging, singing non-stop, laughing and roaring with pleasure at their progress. How he enjoyed himself. And then the next day he would be somewhere else, about some scheme or other, too busy and important to dig. So Salomé dug, and Albert and Piripi dug, and Jemima toted buckets, and quite often Marcus Hedler and Samuel Stokes dug too. And when it seemed hopeless, the day when Salomé got out of bed and was violently sick and knew then that another beautiful daughter was imminent, a daughter not destined to receive a name from the Bible, or any name at all, that day, Palliser went down to the ditches, and started to work, and never stopped, morning, noon and night until they were restored.

    And the land they recreated was wonderful. So rich and fertile, with its symmetrical lines of ditches marching into the distance. Many of the ditches were dry for much of the year, but those around the homestead flowed deep and brown, a living moat around his rickety castle with its tower, necessary, he claimed in times of flood or invasion. He planted the homestead island with grass seed, to make a proper lawn. Salomé laughed at him, but even now she enjoyed the emerald of the lawn, what was left of it, after the chooks and the house sheep had taken their toll.

    The ditches were deep and unpleasant if you fell into them, and deadly during times of flood. She had them fenced on the island side, so that the babies wouldn't fall in and drown their silly selves. Good fences, for which she was now doubly grateful. The ditch was her defence, strong water you wouldn't want to fall into.

    Many waters cannot drown love. But maybe cold oceans can shrivel it up.

She watches the men walking towards her, along the farm road. She reckons Philip Butterworth and Samuel Stokes must have left their cars at the gate, rather than risk driving them over the potholes. The farm road is more pothole than road, really, nowadays. Hedler's old truck would cope, but it only has one seat. She has tried to keep the road mended, but some things are completely impossible. She doesn't require much from the road anyway, for she has no vehicles left, except her bicycle, which happily skirts round the holes on the rare occasions she goes into the township. Cows don't like them, but she has sold all the cows. Butler, with his mobs of cows, might need to repair the road, but Butler's cows haven't arrived yet. And never will if Salomé has her way. And her shotgun.

    Perhaps Philip Butterworth suggested that approaching on foot might seem less overbearing, more neighbourly. So if they left the cars at the gate, why is Butler pushing his bicycle? Then she sees why. They aren't specks now, they are distinguishable men, and the bicycle is quite plain. They have brought the bicycle to carry the papers. She can see the basket on the front of the bicycle. And in the basket are papers poking out, some with a red ribbon around them. Legal papers; and illegal ones to boot. But why are they bringing them out here? What do they hope to achieve?

    And what does she hope to achieve, standing in the bright sunlight barricading her little bridge? She doesn't know. She has run out of her resources, which, without Palliser, seem so few. She feels something is called for at this moment of confrontation, some grand, Palliser-like gesture.

    The four men approach Salomé, come up to the foot of the bridge and stop. They are in their best clothes, she observes, you could have called it their Sunday best, but she is not at all sure that these men observe Sunday in any meaningful way. They have on good shoes, nicely spattered with mud. Hedler has grown too fat for his best suit, and only one button meets, and that straining. Josiah Butler by contrast is too skinny for his smart jacket -- borrowed perhaps for the occasion? Philip Butterworth is impeccable as always, and even here melts into the background. You have to look at him hard to see him, but when she does, she sees his clothes are expensive, and he as neat and lovely as ever. As for Samuel Stokes -- he might sometimes look like a farmer in his best suit, but he will always look like a farmer. Salomé imagines him cowering before God on the judgment seat, looking just like a farmer.

    `When I was homeless, did you take me in, Samuel Stokes?'

    `Lord, when were You homeless in our parts? I'd sure have given You a bed, Sir.'

    `You did worse, Samuel Stokes, farmer, you threw an innocent woman and her children out into the ditch. Go and look after My cows for eternity.'

    `Yes Sir, yes Sir.'

    The trouble was, he'd be happy looking after the celestial cows for eternity.

    `Good morning, Salomé,' says Butler. Weasel words, Butler.

    She draws herself up tall, assuming the bearing handed down from generation to generation by the lords of the earth.

    `Mrs Wentwood to you, Mr Butler. And I won't Wish you good morning. I'll wish you goodbye. I'll thank you to remove yourselves from my property. Otherwise, I shall be forced to charge you with trespass.'

    `Now, Salomé ...' says Hedler.

    `Would you prefer that in writing?'

    `Salomé, please,' says Philip Butterworth, very apologetic. 'There is some question now as to the rightful owner of this property.'

    `Yes, Mr Butterworth, there is most certainly question, and while that question remains unanswered you have no right to come on to my husband's property. I'll thank you to remove yourselves, before I file a complaint against you.'

    `Salomé, dear Salomé,' says Hedler, beaming at her from inside his folds of fat, `we know how hard it is for you to manage without Palliser. We are here as your friends. We don't hold you responsible for his actions. Make it easy for yourself. Let us come in at least and discuss the matter. We have some papers here we think you should peruse.'

    `Now, Salomé,' says Butler, `if Palliser were contactable --'

    `I'd have a word or two to say to him,' says Stokes.

    `We have asked you to come in for a talk several times, Salomé,' says Philip Butterworth, `and I know you have received my letters. We don't want to force a sale. Please let us come in and discuss matters sensibly.'

    `It is not convenient,' she says.

    The girls are directly behind her. They push Bathsheba forward, with what end Salomé does not know. Naomi has put down the axe, but is busy with something else. Salomé raises the shotgun. The men's faces are a picture of alarm and concern; their expressions say clearly: Has she gone mad? Is she dangerous? Can she fire that thing? Is it really loaded? How dare they patronise her so -- daughter of grouse-hunters and a long line of colonels? And yes, it's loaded, oh yes! Naomi makes sure of that, just in case of robbers. Salomé cocks the gun as she has seen Palliser do.

    `O look, a swamp hen!' she says very clearly, and fires the shotgun towards the other side of the road, through the wheels of Josiah Butler's bicycle.

    The recoil and the noise take her by surprise. She steps back, and all is chaos around her.

    Naomi is up on the coping of the bridge, with her catapult. Bathsheba is running forward on a mission from her sisters.

    In his surprise, Josiah Butler has dropped his bicycle and the papers have spilled out of the basket into the mud. He kneels down to pick them up, hasty, discomfited. The others hesitate. Butterworth's suit is too good and Stokes and Hedler are too fat to leap to the task. It seems Butler is having some trouble picking up the papers. Small stones keep flying round his hands as he scrambles in the mud.

    `Yay, a swamp hen,' Naomi yells, every time she lets off a stone. `Another swamp hen!'

    Bathsheba runs forward as if to help Butler. Hedler tries to grab her out of the way, but she wriggles too much for him. She seizes the biggest bundle of papers by its red ribbon and throws it into the ditch. Naomi yells, `An eel, an eel!' and fires into the water.

    The bundle starts to sink. Philip Butterworth gets down, suit and all, on his knees and leans into the ditch, but he can't reach the parcel. Bathsheba, squealing, has evaded the attempts of the others to grab her and scoops up almost all the other papers, and runs back across the bridge to her sisters, throwing the armful of paper and mud into the water as she goes.

    Salomé waves the shotgun wildly and, scion of commanding officers, roars above the shouts and expostulation.

    `Remove yourselves from my property. At once, gentlemen, at once !'

    Jemima has lifted Bathsheba on to the coping of the bridge and is handing her big stones. She throws them into the ditch with force, and several of them land on the papers.

    Butterworth scrambles up, his knees covered with mud, and starts to call for a stick or a pole. Stokes remembers himself enough to hand him a walking stick, and Butterworth kneels down all over again in the mud and tries to reach the papers, still floating gently down the ditch.

    `Watch out, Mr Butterworth,' shouts Naomi, `there's a monster eel down there,' and she lets fly with rather a big stone, right by his hand.

    He pulls back in shock, loses his balance and falls into the ditch. Right up to his armpits. Salomé puts down the shotgun carefully and goes to his aid.

    With Hedler's help she pulls him ashore, but when she sees him standing on the road, she starts to shake with something which might be laughter or rage.

    `O Philip, how awful!' she says. `You had better come up to the house and change your clothes.'

    She leads the way across the bridge, and he walks behind her. The other men attempt to follow, but the girls, opening ranks for Salomé and Philip, close them again immediately.

    `Now look here, Salomé,' Hedler calls after her.

    But Salomé will not look here. She hears Josiah Butler calling out after them, a thin voice drifting on the breeze: `It's my land, you know. I'll have my cows on here tomorrow.'

    `His cows might not care for sling-shot pellets up the bottom,' she says over her shoulder to Philip, `and who can guarantee that the gates would stay shut?'

In this way, squelching up the flagstone path to the front door, Philip Butterworth took his first steps into a new and delightful era of his life.

    He had not visited the Wentwood farm since Palliser's departure. At first he had not known that Palliser was gone; then he began to notice that his friend had not telephoned or called or stumbled upon him with a new suggestion for entertainment; next he began to hear the gossip from the valley that Palliser Wentwood had scarpered. Finally his mother told him as gospel that his worthless buddy, the bounder Wentwood, had indeed bounded, leaving debts that you, no doubt, Philip, are more aware of than anyone! As weeks turned into months, it became awkward to call on Salomé without a reason, and then less and less politic to do so. When he met her in the street he raised his hat and chatted as if nothing were changed, but he saw her in the township less and less frequently. In the meanwhile, the clamour from Butler, Hedler and Stokes that he do something grew ever more insistent. Salomé ignored his notes and messages; the telephone was cut off. Salomé was seen no more in the township, neither in the post office, the cinema, the garage, the stock & station agents, the drapers, the church, the fish-shop nor the bottle-store. Salomé laid low in her requisitioned castle, and Philip Butterworth did not visit.

    As he pattered behind Salomé to the house, his heart gave a little skip; not a leap or a jump, just a tiny chirrup of pleasure to be back again. No matter what jaunt Palliser had dragged him on, whether a trip to the races or a round of golf, their unfruitful expedition to Dunedin to buy a taxidermist's stock, the all-night poker games of which Philip was always only a bleary observer, their round-Lyttelton-harbour-with-a-crate-of-beer yacht race, the best part of all these expeditions was tumbling back to Wentwoods' to tell Salomé an edited version of the adventure, and to sit at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and a glass of beer, and see her smile and laugh and spark and flurry and laugh again. Not all adventures could be told, alas; Philip remembered the time when he had organised Palliser into a job of carpentry work for a friend of a friend in Christchurch, and how, when Philip had dropped round to see how Pally was getting on, the place turned out to be a brothel, and the girls were suggesting they pay Palliser in kind, an arrangement which vastly amused him, and he claimed he was inclined to accept. They did not tell Salomé that story.

    Now Philip noticed some differences about the place which distressed his tidy mind. Salomé's wonderful cottage garden, once as neat and pretty as a tea-tray, was higgledy-piggledy with herbs, vegetables and low-growing fruit -- gooseberries, rhubarb, raspberries, lemons. The hens scuffled around, and a large black tom shot out away from Salomé's flying foot. Around the house the sheds lay empty and dilapidated. No tractor, cars or horses; hardly a cow in sight. And Salomé's hair -- Salomé's hair.

    It would not be true to say that Philip Butterworth adored Salomé. He was not that kind of man. But had he been asked to imagine a perfect woman, Salomé's person would have floated into his mind. He did not think of her as beautiful, any more than he thought of a racehorse as beautiful; beauty was not a practical consideration, but when she was in the room he looked at nothing else. And he was distressed by the state of her hair.

    Salomé's hair was Palliser's trope. It signified magic and mystic things to him, which he could only express in song or poem, when drunk. But Salomé responded to his sacramental worship by lavishing attentions on the dressing of her hair. Sometimes it flowed out over her shoulders like silk; sometimes it was smoothed back on top of her head; sometimes it was looped into a web of plaits; sometimes it was crinkled like sand dunes after rain; sometimes it was caught up in a comb; sometimes it was coiled around her cheeks; sometimes it was laced with colours and ribbons -- and always in defiance of fashion.

    So when he saw her hair uncut, uncared-for, unkempt, pushed back behind her ears all anyhow, sadly in want of a comb, with strawed remnants of elderflower, he became nigglingly aware, as a tiny rupture of the cap slowly but irretrievably lets all the fizz out of a bottle, of the awfulness of Palliser's desertion.

    `I really shouldn't go inside like this,' he said, standing at the door in his muddy clothes.

    She looked at him and laughed. She leaned the shotgun against the door jamb.

    `O you poor thing!' she said. `Take off your shoes and socks, and we'll see to them.'

    Barefoot he padded into the familiar hall. Palliser and Salomé's house, a standing joke, had not Palliser made all the jokes himself before anyone else could. Spot the right angle, he would say, waving his glass around. You can plant a marble at my front door and catch it at the back. And he would, if he were drunk enough, attempt to demonstrate.

    He had built it himself on the simplest of principles -- rectangular, hall down the middle, bedrooms off each side, kitchen and living room at the back where the sun shone. Except for his follies -- the tower and the infamous morning room -- there was little to distinguish it from thousands of other weatherboard farmhouses all over the country. Inside, the hallway was dark, carpeted with a strip of cocoa-matting, harsh on pampered feet.

    The sporting prints were gone. The hall had been lined with a matched set of hand-coloured engravings showing sportive English chaps. They must have been worth a few quid. Palliser was fond of them; he claimed he had nicked them from his father's library when the old man was out for the count and replaced them with crude imitations culled from the pages of the Illustrated London News . No one believed this story.

    Salomé threw open the bathroom door.

    `I'll draw you a bath. There's plenty of hot water.'

    Salomé started the bath and went away, leaving the door open to signify her imminent return. Philip waited.

    He looked around the bathroom and realised he was in a house inhabited by women. No manly shaving tackle, but lipsticks and tweezers and pink plastic combs and powder and unidentifiable sweet smells. Nothing like this was to be found in the spartan bathroom he shared with his cosmetic-free mother.

    Salomé returned with two big clean towels, ragged, but burning white, and a neatly folded pile of men's clothes. She put these on the low white bathroom chair, uplifted a handful of cosmetics from the bathroom shelf, smiled at Philip and shut the door behind her.

    Philip Butterworth cautiously removed his suit jacket and laid it over the end of the bath. Then he considered that it might slip into the water, so folded it down the middle of the back, straightened the sleeves and placed it on the floor. It was not much muddied; a little brushing, perhaps the luxury of a visit to the dry-cleaners. But, if the trousers were beyond redemption, what use was the jacket? He unclasped the navy-blue braces from the waistband, front and back, unbuttoned the flies and stepped out of them to examine the evidence. They had assumed an awful bagginess, which was painful to Philip whose creases must be perfect. They dripped richly with swamp water, so that he felt obliged to roll them up in a tight ball over the handbasin. Greeny-brown water squeezed out on to the ceramic as he did this.

    He felt uncomfortable standing in a women's bathroom in a state of undress, so leaving the rolled-up trousers in the sink, he unknotted his tie, smoothed it and placed it with the jacket. The tie was unscathed. He removed his mother-of-pearl cufflinks, put them on the sill of the frosted glass window, unbuttoned and removed his shirt. He held it up for inspection. Alas, alas, this fine American cotton shirt, special purchase, was stained swamp green with uncertain borders, like a map of the Antipodes before the voyages of Cook. Material concern conquering modesty, he experimented with the shirt tail to see how removable the stain might be.

    Relieved on that score, he swiftly removed his underclothes. He was a compact man of thirty-five, pale, hairless and lean. He had no compunctions about his body, but never felt any desire to linger over it or even to glance at it in a glass. He tested the temperature of the water and lowered himself into the bath.

    A bath fit for a king -- Palliser had on occasion held court in his bath, sherry in one hand, loofah in the other. A tall man, Palliser required a long deep bath, and filled it with style. Philip had sat on that same white chair, while the dust of the day's expedition soaked into the warm foam of Palliser's bath and Abigail or Jemima trailed in and out at their father's behest, refilling glasses and supplying towels.

    Philip at home made do with a shower, which, it was felt, had cost so much to install that it must be made to pay for itself. The pleasures of the bath, much praised by Palliser in the same breath as other pleasures of the flesh, did not leave Philip cold so much as unengaged. He enjoyed a bath when the occasion arose, and he was certainly enjoying this one, but the occasion did not often arise.

    The discomfort of his ducking soaked slowly and deliciously away, leaving him only with the nagging issue of his suit. If it were ruined, would his insurance cover accidents of a watery nature? In making a claim would he have to write a full description of the circumstances, and how accurate should this be?

    It was not so much the money involved, it was the untidiness that offended Philip. He was careful with money as he was careful with his possessions and actions and with himself, not because he was mean-spirited, but because tidiness was the core of his being. Palliser had represented his escape-valve, the one massively untidy area in his life; there had been many times, especially of late, when Philip Butterworth had rather regretted that he had let such mayhem into his life. But when Palliser was present, Philip's reservations lost their voices; at home with his mother, or alone with his papers in one of his three offices, they proclaimed loud and long that Palliser Wentwood was an unnecessary mess who should be mopped up at once.

    Lying in Palliser's bath, in Palliser's bathroom, he was in two minds. His life was orderly now; even the puddle Palliser left behind was slowly being dried out, though no one had told Salomé this. But he missed the fun; he missed the household; and he missed Salomé. He recognised that his life had grown quite dull; his conscious mind suggested that a chap should have friends whose company he enjoyed, and a certain variety of entertainment, while his unconscious self longed for the pure exhilaration of Palliser's company, so different from the rounds of golf and whisky at the club, breakfast with Mother, encounters with clients and meetings of the board.

    How pleasurable it was to lie in this bath, but how necessary it was to get out and get moving.

    Palliser's clothes did not fit him in any particular. Salomé had provided a pair of bottle-green corduroy trousers, voluminous white underpants, a collarless striped shirt, black woollen socks, and a dark blue Guernsey. The trouser legs and the sleeves of the shirt were far too long for him, but by dint of shortening his braces and pulling the Guernsey down over his shirt he contrived a passable figure, although his hair stuck up rather. He put his cufflinks in his jacket breast pocket, made a neat stack of all his wet garments, rinsed the handbasin and the bath, and folded the towels. Then went to find Salomé and pay her homage.

    Salomé was in the kitchen, sun streaming in through the windows and on to her hands as she worked.

    `Stay to lunch,' she said.

    She was transformed. She had changed into a clean white blouse and a full brown skirt, nylons and smart brown shoes with stocky heels. She had applied a little powder and little lipstick. She was wearing tiny gold earrings. Best of all she had brushed her hair and fastened it back in a tortoiseshell comb.

    `Stay to lunch,' she said, and he was happy to accept.

    Jemima brought Bathsheba in, washed her feet, and set her to draw with her pencils by the hearth. The papers, she said, were all accounted for. Naomi and Abigail had fished them out of the ditch with the eeling net, but they were not in specially good shape. She said this without any sort of devilment. When Naomi came in to apologise, however, she did so with a grin that belied her words.

    `There was an eel, Mr Butterworth,' she said, `but I am sorry you fell in.'

    Philip looked sadly at the wet sack they had deposited on the linoleum before their mother told them to take it outside. It doubtless contained sole copies of agreements drafted late at night on cigarette packets, scribbled notes of promise and IOUs, worthless if illegible, as they now would be. A legal mess made messier.

    Bathsheba presented Philip with a drawing, and started on the next.

    `How do you write DAD?' she asked him.

    The kitchen and living area, contiguous, though the latter was carpeted in dull maroon, were strikingly different from his memory, in that they were extraordinarily tidy. Gone were the piles of paper and the pyramids of empty bottles, the scattered clothes and loaded ashtrays. Gone was the varied tackle -- fishing rod, life-jacket, golf clubs, tools. Gone was the pervading smell of cigarette smoke and alcohol. Gone was the prized collection of pewter mugs which had hung under the kitchen shelves.

    Lunch was laid. But before serving it Salomé disappeared into the storeroom adjoining the kitchen. Knowing what it contained, Philip went after her, for a surreptitious reminder of happier days. This was her haven, this was her treasure house. The walls of the windowless room consisted of wooden racks built by Palliser, and the racks were almost full, floor to ceiling with dark brown bottles, innocent in appearance, but lying in wait. Salomé's fruit nectar -- her elderberry, her blackcurrant, her apricot and pear, and her terrible parsnip.

    `What shall we have, Philip, which of these little darlings? The '54 blackcurrant?'

    She seized a bottle, dusted it on her skirt. She opened it there in the storeroom, and sniffed it carefully, as if afraid some demon might have entered it. Philip smelt the elusive herbal wilderness. She poured a little into a glass; the colour was almost as spell-binding as the bouquet. Heraldic, velvet, ruby red, the colour of the blood of princes. He let out a sigh.

    `You ought to sell this wine,' he said. `People would pay the earth for it.'

`Salomé,' he said after lunch, `we must be serious.'

    `O Philip, I was so much hoping for some fun.'

    Salomé and Philip sat sedately either side of the fireplace with their tea. Bathsheba and the specially favoured house cats sat between them. The elder girls were washing the dishes. Naomi was elsewhere.

    `I believe we can renegotiate all the mortgages. It may be possible also to call in all the outstanding provable debts under one umbrella, and discharge them, leaving a single loan to be repaid over a fixed period, say twenty-five years. I mean by that, all the surviving IOUs, Palliser's so-called shares in the farm, issued, if you recall, in lieu of payment to workers, the informal chattel mortgages ...'

    Perhaps she was listening. He ploughed on, setting the truth and all the options before her. It was his duty; if he bored her, then so be it, he must be tedious.

    `Philip,' she said at last. `Do you know why I have done nothing? No, of course, you don't. You're not a married man, and so the behaviour of we women who have turned into wives is a mystery to you. I have done nothing, because none of this was ever my business. Palliser had the ideas, Palliser made the promises; I was not consulted, I simply went along for the ride -- no, I was taken along for the ride, and I didn't mind that because, really, it was lots of fun. Then suddenly I was driving the car and it was out of control. But I never learned to drive this sort of car, if you know what I mean. I didn't know about any mortgages; I didn't know about the shares, or the loans. You can say I was a fool, but you must understand the way we are brought up. I thought it was Palliser's business to deal with land and money, as it was my business to bring up the children and put meals on the table. Not that I was bred to domestic work, but I did see it as a reasonable division of labour. I let him think for me, I suppose, and you might say that was terrible, but I dare say you might expect to think for your wife if you had one. I also trusted him, Philip, against my better judgement. My heart trusts him, though my head has begun to lose faith. My heart, I suppose, refused to let my head attend to the matter of the mortgages.'

    `So what would you prefer me to do?'

    `I have to make a decision? I can't remember when I was ever asked to make a decision. Except to marry Palliser, and that was not so much a decision as a foregone conclusion.' She laughed so merrily that he must smile also.

    He tried to explain what she might do, repeating himself tiresomely, determined that she should understand. He wanted not to be like Palliser in any respect, except in being regarded by Salomé.

    `... so you see, if you cede them to Hedler, and the bank is prepared to ... we could call in ... some of the more dubious notes ... not stand up in court ... probably illegible ...'

    `You are lovely, Philip,' she said.

    She walked with him down to his car, carrying one of his dripping sacks. She put her arm through his, and he leaned towards her, feeling the warmth and weight of her arm on his. She had agreed with his favoured plan, she had agreed to cede certain lots to Hedler, to lease other fields to Stokes for a peppercorn, to buy off Butler with a new loan, which he had her permission to negotiate with the bank.

    She stood by his car, as he settled himself in the driver's seat and prepared to light his afternoon's cigarette. She seemed to stroke the bodywork, as if she longed for his car rather more than for himself.

    Nonetheless, as he drove away, new ideas were forming up in his mind, dancing little jigs among the tidy stacks. He opened the car window and breathed in sea air, and his chest filled up with promise. Dare he, dare he?

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