Joan still felt antagonistic to Miss Asprey; but they had barely gone a dozen yards before an incident occurred which made her veer round like a weathercock. A little boy was dragging along a puppy, on a lead, with such careless jerks that a rare visitor stopped to reprove him.
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He merely stared at the stranger blankly, and pulled on the puppy again. I promised I would buy one, if you were gentle with it. But, as you've been rough, it's going to be given to a kind little girl. At her imperious wave, Ada ran out of the garden and listened to her instructions. Picking up the puppy, she carried it back to 'The Spout', laughing and ducking her head as the dog tried to lick her face. Miss Asprey looked down at the boy's quivering lips. But I am going to give you a toy dog, to teach you to be gentle with a real one, later on.
I warn you that if you kick it, or throw it down, I shall take it away. Miss Asprey walked away, having dispensed justice to the general happiness. Bertie was beaming with dumb pleasure, while Miss Mack waved a smiling farewell, from the gates. Ada made even the pup wag a paw to her mistress, and Joan repented her own disloyalty.
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After all, Miss Mack must have known about those envelopes. I should have to stay in, to get out an Appeal. After all, we're paid to do our jobs. They soon passed through the sleepy village—gold-powdered, with dusty-blue shadows—and reached 'The King's Head', where the road looped to meet the highway to London. Here the rolling sea of green fields sloped, gently and imperceptibly, upwards to the low eminence of the Downs. Joan became conscious that she was leading, and fell back, with an apology. Then I'm afraid I am a back-number. I follow the example of the Roman Legion.
Their pace was three miles an hour, up hill and down dale, and they never hurried or slackened. Especially myself. Curbing her own impatience to push on towards the ridge of the Downs, Joan tried to surrender herself to the delights of the country. There was the hum of insects, the scent of hot grass, the singing of larks quivering in the blue air.
Little yellow butterflies flitted across the path. The fields were ripe for hay, with coral and white flashes of sorrel and moon-daisies, and the hedges were laden with may, beginning to brown. Joan lit a cigarette, but Miss Asprey did not stop while she performed the usual business of shielding the flame.
When the girl looked up, the grey figure was several paces ahead. She smoked a couple of cigarettes, but the trend of the path was always upwards, and the sun blazed down fiercely on her uncovered head. I'll soon catch you up. Joan did not find her plan the anticipated success, for the ground proved too bumpy and stubbed her toes.
When she had put on her shoes and stockings again Miss Asprey's tall grey figure was some distance away. She enjoyed her run to catch up with her companion, for she worked off some of her steam of suppressed irritation; but the uphill sprint winded her, so that she was forced to appeal to the inexorable grey back.
There was a flicker of mockery in her smile which put Joan on her mettle. She walked on instantly, without stopping to rest. But the ridge appeared as far off as before—a thin green line against the fierce blue sky. Miss Asprey seemed unaffected either by heat or exertion. It was obvious that she was trying to find subjects which would interest Joan, for she broke off a lucid analysis of the International Debt problem, to talk about Swiss winter resorts.
It was with mingled envy and surprise that Joan noticed that while she, herself, occasionally gasped for breath, Miss Asprey's voice was entirely under control. She made a spectacular spurt, but Miss Asprey continued to walk at her usual pace, and Joan fell back again. In order to take her thoughts off her growing discomfort, she tried to lead the conversation to a subject of more human interest. Joan mopped her face and glanced at Miss Asprey. It seems to me pretty damnable to dress them in hideous uniforms and set them to wash other people's pretty things. And rich women naturally expect their maids to do their private laundry.
So, you see, our girls had not to undergo that special refined mental torture that you are inventing for them. The ground now rose before them at a sharp gradient, so that she was forced to stop talking, in order to reserve herself for the last stiff pull. When she reached the summit she threw herself, panting, down on the short turf, while Miss Asprey looked at her with a smile of gentle compassion. You should have rested. She shut her eyes and lay still, until Miss Asprey, who was standing like the statue of a saint erected to guard the encircling countryside, glanced at her watch.
True to her declaration, she continued to walk at her three miles an hour, while Joan ran down the slopes with a sense of joyous freedom. It was good to feel that every step was taking her nearer home, for a walk in the company of a Roman legionary had proved only a penance. In the glow of her sudden warmth, she remembered poor little Miss Mack.
There was a perceptible pause before Miss Asprey spoke. Instead of replying to Joan's question, she, in her turn, asked another. And I'm so lucky. Lady d'Arcy gives me such a lot of freedom.
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And it would be a terrible reflection on myself But I'm going to ask you not to invite her again to accompany you on any of your excursions It's not good for her. I don't want her to be over-excited—or grow restless. Believe me, I have her welfare at heart. Joan gazed resentfully at the ivory profile against the burning blue sky. It was so bleak, so purged of human passion—that she was reminded of the mental detachment of the Inquisition, when it tortured bodies to gain souls.
It may be on the top, where you lay down. We'll go back and search for it. As you're so tired, sit down, and I'll go back for it. She saw that I resented Miss Mack—and she is going to punish me. She's not a saint. She's cruel. AS Miss Corner had a sheltered garden, with a southern aspect, her strawberries were first in the neighbourhood to ripen.
This was her signal to give the opening garden-party of the season. Directly she received her gardener's report, she sent out her invitations. There were no refusals, and even the Squire did the novelist the rare honour to be present. He was a big, burly man, both blustering and sentimental, who advertised his loyalty, during the War, by decorating his car with the Union Jack, and who erected grave-stones over the pets whose death had not caused him a pang.
He had the moral support of the entire male population, while there was a full muster of ladies. Joan Brook stood by herself on the path beside the raised Kelway border, on purpose to watch the scene, for this form of typical country entertainment was new to her, and she wanted to see the village in its party frock. Everyone wore new summer finery, reserved for the occasion. The small tables dotted about the lawn displayed the dishes of strawberries, which gave the 'signature' to the party. An imported string-orchestra played 'Valses from Vienna', and the weather was perfect, with fountains of white cloud spouting up into a vivid blue sky.
Miss Julia Corner, in pale pink chiffon, stenciled with enormous roses, and a flopping crinoline hat, felt the thrill of a successful hostess as she beamed on her guests.
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As far as she could estimate from her rough count of heads, nearly everyone had arrived. Her loud laughter rang out and her petals seemed to expand visibly in the warm air, as she gave the signal for the tea to be carried out on the lawns. The poor soul had no knowledge of an unbidden outsider—a dark, shapeless blur—which slunk outside the gate, awaiting its opportunity to steal inside. Joan, too, was unconscious of any shadow, or threat of impending trouble, as she lingered by the delphiniums and columbines, for her attention was held by Mrs.
Although the doctor's wife looked, as usual, beautiful wreckage, it was clear that she possessed the essential quality of attraction, for most of the men were clustered around her. Even the Squire was indulging in a heavy flirtation, for which, afterwards, he would be furiously angry with the lady.
She always manages to convey the impression of an Evelyn Brent adventuress, which is quite clever of her. The sad truth is, she concentrates exclusively on her babies. Aren't you lucky?
You know, my family has lived in this place for centuries But why are you perched up here, alone? I'm also a spectator of the Divine Comedy. But—I should place you on the stage.
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