Abby Ch. 19


The front door to Lyney House was open when Abby got there. She had driven up preferring not to arrive hot and clammy from the walk up the hill. "Hello!" She called stepping forward just across the threshold. She was uncertain whether to proceed further. A door twenty feet away directly in line with the front door opened and a tall, slim, grey-haired lady, dressed in jodhpurs and blouse smiled at her.

"Hello, Abby. Do come through, I have just put the kettle on."

Abby advanced down the hall. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Comberford." For Abby was sure it was indeed Mrs. Comberford.

"Please call me Gwen. Come on in, I thought we could have tea on the patio at the back." The door led through into a large Breakfast room, with a French window which opened onto a paved area outside. Gwen extended her hand, and they shook hands. "It's so nice to meet you at last. I have heard a lot about you, but not from my son, I have to say. He seems most reticent on the subject."

Abby smiled. James had mentioned his mother's spies, and Gwen's comment seemed to bear out the efficiency of her network. "It's good to meet you. Can I do anything to help?"

"That's kind of you. Would you take that tray outside? There is a table and chairs. The table is a bit wobbly, but it should serve. I'll just make the tea and join you."

The table was indeed a bit wobbly, and Abby noticed that a folded piece of cardboard had been used to balance the leg. She adjusted the card and achieved a kind of stability.

Gwen appeared with the tea, and noticed that the table was more stable. "Oh well done. Everything around here either wobbles or is falling down. I have told James on many occasions to pull the whole place down, and build a small modern house. He won't of course. He doesn't seem to like modern things that much." Abby giggled. Gwen looked at her sharply. "You seem to have come to that conclusion too."

"Yes, I called him a throwback the other day. He actually agreed with me."

"Well wonder of wonders. He argues with me whatever I say. You must have the magic touch." Abby thought this last comment may have been said in a rather delving manner.

Gwen switched topics. "I was so sorry to hear that your mother was dead. You know that no-one here knew what had happened to her. CC made a lot of enquiries, but to no avail, she had vanished completely."

"CC?" Abby queried.

Gwen laughed. "Sorry, that was how I called Charles, James' father. CC, Charles Comberford."

"Well it was generous of him to make the enquiries."

"It was this damn valley. CC adopted a very patriarchal interest in everyone. It was his duty in a way, although he had a high opinion of your grandfather. He would have tried for his sake."

"I didn't think my granddad was that friendly to anyone?"

"Oh no. It wouldn't have been friendship. Charles admired your grandfather because of his sense of duty and his integrity. That was very important to Charles." She poured the tea, adding just a little milk to Abby's with half a spoon of sugar. Abby was dumbstruck! How did Mrs. Comberford know how she liked her tea?

"I understand that you don't spend too much time here?" Gwen shook her head.

"No, I have to confess, that unlike CC and James, I am not absorbed by the valley. I prefer to live in Berkshire. I have a lifelong friend there. She is widowed as well, so it suits us both. I only come back here to get some of the fat off Jason, and chivvy James, as he no doubt has told you."

"Yes, he did mention something like that."

"I would imagine that his comments were a little more barbed than just mentioned."

"Yes, perhaps a bit." Abby smiled.

Gwen took up the topic of Jason again. "But from what I hear, I shall not have to be exercising Jason as much in future?"

Abby blushed slightly. "Well I wouldn't say that. Gentle walking was all I managed with him, and I don't suppose that I shall be riding him again."

Gwen looked at her pensively. "Well if you are going to be a resident here, you may as well ride Jason whenever you wish. It will be doing me a favour." Abby picked up on Gwen's inflexion. There was an emphasis on the "here", almost as if Gwen meant Lyney House rather than the valley as a whole. Gwen tilted her head to the side and went on, pointedly asking Abby. "Another one becoming absorbed with the valley?"

"I wouldn't say absorbed."

"What would you say?"

Abby felt that she had to make some kind of explanation. "Mum grew up in the valley, and even though I was born in London and grew up there, I never felt that I was a Londoner. I lived and worked there, but that was all. I came here to see if there was a possibility that I had family I didn't know about, and found an intriguing story. I also found somewhere my family had been part of, in a very small way. Having no tie to anywhere else, this is the best I have got."

Abby had not explained herself well, and knew it, but found it difficult to put into words. Funnily it didn't seem a problem with James; he seemed to know instinctively what she meant.

Gwen gave her a smile. "So the valley will have one more resident. What will you do though? You are obviously an intelligent girl; I doubt that you will find anything as exciting as the life you have led, here?"

"I don't know at the moment. I think I will have more than enough to do with restoring the station and house. After that, I shall have to give it some thought."

"But you don't really have to work. Do you?" Gwen asked. Abby was not taken aback by this direct question. She was well aware that the valley was alive with gossip, and that Mrs. Comberford's spies would have passed this on.

"I cannot do nothing." She replied hoping that this would neither confirm or deny Gwen's question. The evasion only served to firm up Gwen's suspicions. If Abby had to find a job, there would be no reason to prevaricate. Abby continued "The only thing I do well is use the Banks money, and make them even richer than they were. I doubt that I can do that here."

"You may be surprised. When you go to the Ball, you should be prepared for some loaded questions." Abby had long ceased to be taken aback that everyone seemed to be aware of her movements, so Gwen's reference to the Hunt Ball was not worth comment.

"Oh and why would that be?"

"There will be some moneyed people there. Your position in the City is of interest, although no-one is actually sure of what you were doing, except that whatever it was you did it very well. You will find the need to fend off some indirect, even some direct questions. There are some who will always seek free advice, if they think you can give such advice.

Abby laughed at this. "Well, I don't think I will be able to help then. Moving millions of the Bank's money is a long way from advising on investments in the UK. I had to use a Stockbroker to make my own investments, and they are nothing like the sums I worked with."

Interesting, thought Gwen. More reason to believe that Abby, financially, was very comfortable. "Did you find the job interesting?"

Abby gave that some thought. She had never considered this before. "I suppose I did. Yes! It was a challenge. At least it was when I started, but looking back on how easily I gave it up, makes me wonder if I had not outstayed my time. I know there are those who would say I should have stayed and fought, tried to break the Glass ceiling. But another challenge beckoned."

Gwen smiled now. "Restoring the station and house?" That was what she said, but her thoughts turned to the possibility that James was the real challenge. She did not find this upsetting. Gwen felt none of the emotions that mother's were supposed to have about girls setting their sights on her son. In fact emotion played very little part in her life. She had married Charles Comberford because their families had all agreed that it was a good thing. She had never felt passion for Charles, just fondness, and having given Charles the son he needed, had absented herself from the valley as much as decorum would allow. To her mind it was immaterial if Abby and James should fall in love. Love didn't pay bills. It appeared to her that Abby did have the funds to pay bills, if they liked each other, so much the better. However there was something playing on her mind that would make all this speculation pointless. She got up. "I'll go and make some more tea, James will probably be here soon, and will want a cup."

"Can I help you?"

"No, but thank you for asking. Have a little wander round the garden. It's quite pleasant. Not as pristine as when we had a gardener, but James does a reasonable job keeping it tidy." Abby said she would.

As she strolled down the slight hill past beds of Roses set against huge Rhododendron bushes she realised that Gwen had learnt a lot about her, whilst giving away little about herself. She didn't converse so much as interrogate subtly. She laughed to herself. It didn't matter; it was just a little more to add to the gossip. She was disquieted a little as her hostess seemed to be examining her face very closely; Abby wondered if she had smudged her lipstick or something. Gwen on the other hand was quietly pleased. She had tried for years to get James to come with her to Berkshire, where he could have been introduced to girls who knew what their duty would be, and would comply without complaint. All in vain. Suddenly the valley had produced the right girl without any apparent effort on her part. There were one or two problems. To the first she would have to give much thought, the other was more simple although still a little vexing. Gwen was certain that Abby would not accept a marriage in the same way that girls of Gwen's circle would. She felt certain that Abby and James would want to be in Love. Why? She asked herself. Wasn't it enough that they were well suited? Why did they have to bring love into the equation? Whatever, none of it mattered until the first problem had been resolved, and that meant delving into the past. How tiresome!

She busied herself, filling a kettle and placing it on top of the Aga to boil. She was alerted to James' arrival by the racing diesel and crunch of the gravel as he brought the Land Rover to a stop in his usual manner. He came into the kitchen and briefly pecked her cheek. "Hello Mother, just making tea? Good! I need a cup."

"Good afternoon, Dear. Has it been a good day? I am well, just in case you felt the need to ask. Our guest is walking in the garden."

"Oh good. Has it been your usual interrogation? Or are you going soft these days? No thumb-screws and burning matches eh?" He had a smile on his face so Gwen did not take offence, in fact this was a very natural way for them to converse, and hiding the mutual love and affection they had for each other.

"I have been very kind to Abby, as she will no doubt tell you. She's very nice. Polite and good company, unlike some I could name." James groaned. He knew that the comment was barbed and aimed at him. He picked up the tray, and carried it out through the Breakfast room to the table. Gwen followed with the Tea. "Go and find Abby. Tell her the tea is ready, I'll get some cake for us." James did has he was bid, finding Abby sitting on a bench.

She looked up and smiled at him. "I understand that you are the gardener these days."

"Well I try. I keep the grass cut and occasionally prune the roses. But everything grows so quickly down here that it is a bit like the Forth Bridge. Finish the job and you have to start all over again." He looked around him and sighed. "I can see jobs here for me that I thought I had completed only last week. Never mind, tea is served Madam." His perpetual grin was there on his face.

"Thank you James, will you escort me back to the Patio?" Abby replied in the same mode.

Gwen was cutting the cake. "Would you like some cake, Abby? I know that James will."

"Just a small slice please, Gwen." She took a bite. "This is lovely. Did you make it yourself?"

James laughed and Gwen looked discomforted even a little bit offended. "No. I do not cook. To tell the truth, James made it!"

Abby was astonished, turning to James she asked. "You made it James? Is this another one of the talents you picked up from the Army?"

He shook his head. "No, I have to cater for myself a lot of the time, and got fed up with the usual Steak and Chips type of cooking, so I experimented a bit, picked up some ideas and tips from Mary and just progressed."

Abby was impressed. "Well done you. I am sure I wouldn't know how to even start cooking a simple meal, much less bake a cake. All I ever do is Microwave a packet of something."

Gwen was cheered to hear this. In her opinion cooking was no occupation for a Lady; they should have cooks to do that. "I keep telling James that he should employ a cook cum housekeeper, and a gardener, but he takes little notice of me."

James turned to his mother. "And I have to keep reminding you that there isn't the money for such luxuries." This was not said with rancour, only a resignation that comes from having the same discussion many times. Abby could see the affection between mother and son, but sympathised with James as it was evident that Gwen found it difficult to come to grips with present day realities.

Abby left about half an hour later, James saw her to the door. "I hope mother was not too much of a strain for you."

Abby shook her head. "No I enjoyed talking with her."

"Good." James seemed relieved. "Shall I see you this evening at the Inn?"

"I shall be there. But first I have to negotiate with Mary about the size of the meal she will want to give me."

She drove off with her thoughts tumbling around in her head. She liked Gwen, she had a feisty character that Abby applauded, but also had many ideas that to Abby were well out of date. She also felt that it hadn't been a conversation so much as an interview. For what position she could only guess, but whatever the situation, Abby was feeling that she hadn't really passed muster. If Abby had realised the turmoil in Gwen's mind she would have slightly different thoughts.

Gwen sat musing on the meeting. She had liked Abby instinctively. She had many times tried to persuade James to come to Berkshire with her. The plan was for him to meet suitable girls who would make an ideal wife and partner. James to her fury had rejected all her blandishments, and to his mother's despair had remained a bachelor with no sign of that ever changing. Now out of thin air a girl had come who was absolutely right for James, and to put the cream on the cake was seemingly wealthy as well. What more could a mother ask for? Gwen should have been ecstatic, but she wasn't. There was a horrible thought creeping insidiously into her mind. A thought that couldn't be brought out into the open, although the circumstance could arise that meant it had to be. It would destroy her hopes, James' hopes, and crush Abby.

Abby had slipped down to Gallow Farm quite frequently, and was now reasonably proficient in the basics of the waltz, quickstep, and the foxtrot, although she remained concerned of her ability. Mavis recognised her fears and put her mind at rest. "There will be so many couples on the floor that you will be shuffling rather than dancing. I doubt that they will play too many foxtrots, or if they do people will not do it properly, but dance a slow quickstep." Abby thought that a shame, as the foxtrot seemed to her a particularly graceful dance.

She was cheered by Sam telling her that she would not make a fool of herself. "You can do those steps better than most people will, so don't worry, and you have a good sense of time, that for most people is the hardest part of the foxtrot." She had enjoyed her lessons and had asked Mavis if it would alright for her to continue coming after the Ball, to learn more. Mavis was delighted, and Sam was looking very pleased as well.

Immediately he started making plans to further her skills. "We will start adding more steps to the basics, which makes the dance much more interesting." To demonstrate he had taken Mavis in his arms and danced the foxtrot in a way that got them around the floor without ever having to do the same steps twice. They glided and turned as one, elegantly and smoothly. Abby was enthralled, and longed to be able to dance like that herself.

Now the Ball was but three days away, and Mavis had vanished while Sam was taking Abby round the room in a quickstep. She re-appeared with a large cardboard box. "Abby, I know you have your dress and shoes all sorted, but have you thought about a coat? It may be a little chilly that evening, especially in the early hours, when you leave." Abby hadn't given that any thought at all, she shook her head. Mavis looked relieved. "Well if you are not offended, I would like you to look at this Cape." She opened the box and produced from the layers of tissue paper inside a black velvet hooded Cape. "My mother bought this for me years ago, and it has been stored properly. I checked it the other day, and aired it thoroughly. No Moth or creasing at all. Would you like to use it?" Abby's face was all the answer she needed. Smiling with satisfaction Mavis draped the Cape over Abby's shoulders settling the large hood carefully down her back. It was lined with a dark blue silk, and once she had settled the Cape, Abby twirled delightedly. She was slightly taller than Mavis so the bottom hem came just above her ankles, but as this was where her dress would fall, it was perfect. As Mavis said it had been aired thoroughly, with just a pleasant fragrance of Lavender lingering.

"Damn, girl." Remarked Sam. "You look just as attractive in that as Mavis did."

"Oh Sam!" Mavis's voice had a bite to it.

"Well almost as attractive." Sam qualified his words to sooth Mavis's ruffled feelings. Abby took the sting out of the atmosphere.

"It's beautiful, Mavis. Oh but I couldn't borrow this. I would be frightened if I spoilt it."

"Abby. If you don't use it, it will go back into storage, and probably never be used again. So you take it. It will give me and Sam a lot of pleasure to see you in it."

Abby kissed them both. "I will be very happy, so thank you both very much, for this and all your help in teaching me to dance."

Later, when Sam had gone to the Combe Inn, Abby sat down with Mavis for a while and Mavis made some tea. Abby explained that she was having her hair done in Paverton earlier on the Saturday of the Ball, and would be back at the Inn about three o' clock. Mavis said she would be there shortly after, and would help if there was anything Abby needed.

"Just moral support, Mavis. I shall be a bag of nerves, I know."

"Nonsense Abby. You will be fine."

"Don't you believe it. I have never been to any function like this before."

Mavis was shocked. "You're not serious?"

"Yes I am. All I know is business meetings, and seminars. Standing around sipping sherries and talking money. I mean how do I address a Lord Lieutenant?"

Mavis shook her head and then said. "Well I am sure I don't know. If I were you I should just follow James' lead. He will know, that's for certain." This thought gave Abby some confidence.

"I am looking forward to seeing James in Evening Dress though." Mavis shook her head.

"Oh no. I suspect that James will be in his Dress Uniform."

Abby was surprised. "But I thought he had left the Army?"

"He did, but he was a Captain, and even though he resigned his commission, he is still on reserve, and entitled to wear uniform. He does so on Remembrance Day, medals and sword as well."

Abby giggled. "I trust he won't have his sword with him on Saturday. He would have trouble trying to dance."

Mavis smiled at the thought as well. "Have you finished your tea? Good. Give me a lift back with you, would you? I want to have a little chat with Mary." The box was placed on the back seat, and Mavis got in beside Abby. She looked around. "This is a lovely car."

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