"I hear congratulations are in order," said little Mrs Harris, setting her teacup down in the saucer with a clink. She looked up at Lady Monkhouse brightly, happy to be able to contribute something to the discussion for once. Fortunately or unfortunately, she failed to notice Mrs Gibson's frozen gaze. She was very new to the county, and her spirits were easily depressed by those who were older and wiser.
"Hah!" said Lady Monkhouse, not displeased by this. "Nigel's a wonderful rider – quite marvellous, when he goes his length! He doesn't often care to, in the measly little events we have here, but when he does, my word! He should have won the point-to-point, but when Charlton enters a wretched racehorse, what chance do us mere mortals have?"
There was a short pause, which Mrs Harris's good manners struggled to fill. "Good grief!" she said. "Did he really? How splendid! Do you know, I was thinking of something quite different. I believe – the Miss Foster whose marriage was announced in the paper – "
"Oh, that," said Lady Monkhouse. Mrs Harris had the sudden sensation of standing on the edge of an unmarked conversational well, looming deep and dark at her feet. "I don't know about that. Some Scot, I believe. I suppose that girl had to settle for what she could get, after Nigel would have nothing to do with her."
"I've only met her once," said Mrs Harris. "At the Women's Institute bazaar last month. I – really, she and Mr Monkhouse?"
"She was after him for years," said Lady Monkhouse reminiscently. "I told him! Ginger as a cat, she is – she'd have led him a merry dance. He had too much good sense to buy what she was selling, thank goodness!"
"Thank goodness," Mrs Harris echoed faintly. She was envisioning many things based on that speech, most of which Lady Monkhouse would have had little hesitation in terming vulgar. But then, Lady Monkhouse had very little hesitation in anything. It was, on balance, one of her better qualities.
"Yes," she said, raising her cup to her lips. The other respected members of the WI were relaxing, the storm had passed them by for today. "He's well out of that."
"Regent two-six-nine-four-seven-three. Irma Foster speaking."
"A personal call for you, Miss Foster, from Edinburgh. A Miss Foster wishes to speak – "
"Darling!" said her mother, cutting off the operator neatly. "I haven't heard from you in simply ages."
"Hello," said Mariella, a bit awkwardly. "I don't know if you've heard yet, from Aunt Carol or – or in the paper…"
"Hardly anything, ma cherie," said her mother. "Not since you came down for New Year."
Had it really been so long? Mariella blinked. Simply ages was how her mother described any stretch of time longer than an hour, but she hadn't thought – oh, well, it didn't matter. "I just wanted to tell you that I – well. I'm." She screwed her courage to the sticking-place. "I'm engaged."
There was a short, sharp silence. Then, devoid of affectation, her mother said, "Not that awful Monkhouse boy?"
"No!" said Mariella, surprise making her voice fill with laughter. "I don't – no, that's all over with long ago. It's – you don't know him, he's a friend of Jane's husband. His name's Robin. Robin Campbell."
"I'm sure he's delightful," said Irma briskly ("He is," confirmed the besotted Mariella). "What is he like?"
"Tall," said Mariella, "positively the tallest man I've ever met." She thought her mother would appreciate this; to a mind who thought in pas de deux, the taller the man the better. "He has the kindest face – "
"Is he good to you?" asked Irma.
"I – pardon?"
"Is he good to you?" her mother repeated. "One worries so, darling."
Mariella took the 'phone away from her ear and stared at the receiver for a moment, quite overwhelmed by this unlooked-for maternal solicitude. She said, eventually, "Yes, he is."
"Excellent!" said Irma crisply. She had retreated into her usual role and Mariella breathed a sigh of relief – very quietly. Her mother resembled nothing so much as a dreamy swan, but she could not abide mess, in any sense.
"We were thinking of having the wedding Christmas week," she said quickly, before her mother could startle her with any more unexpected emotional displays. "In Northumberland, of course – "
"Of course," said Irma, and from her frosty tone, Mariella imagined her paralysed at the thought of wading through all the mud that her mother inherently associated with the entire north of England.
"Guy suggested that we use the castle, but we're not certain yet," she said. "I'll write when we decide."
"It sounds lovely, darling," said her mother, and, without meaning a word, added: "Do come and visit."
"I would like it if you met Robin," said Mariella, intending no such excursion. She shuddered at the thought of London, which she could never think of without recalling the great unhappiness and strain she had been under whenever she had lived there. She and Irma both escaped the conversation unscathed, one of them having failed to extract a promise and the other having failed to offer it, and both of them thinking of each other with the kind of preoccupied affection seen in families whose only common interests were genetic.
How odd, Mariella thought, thinking over the conversation later. I wonder what brought that on.
"Mariella getting married?" said Margot Summers in some surprise. "I can't picture it at all, you know!"
"I can," said gloomy Valerie. "She's awfully pretty."
"Yes, but before grad? She's always been terribly keen. I thought she'd outlast you, at any rate."
"Thank you very much," said Valerie, piqued. "I'm fairly annoyed myself, that makes five girls so far, and a class full of boys! We need some leavening in the lump."
"We need another flatmate next year," said Margot darkly. "Or new digs. I'll plump for that, if it makes no odds to you. The landlady gave me such a look when I came in late last night! I was only at Clara's."
"She does do that," said Valerie thoughtfully. "It's Mariella she really likes, not us."
"I've half a mind to ride it out," said Margot, with the sort of bloody-minded implacability that let her sit at the table with the gentlemen long after the ladies had retired to the drawing room. "Do you think Mariella will stay up here? – No, I don't, either, she was homesick as hell the first couple of months."
"I wonder what he's like," said Valerie. "If she's going to give up all this!" She waved her arm at Margot's somewhat Spartan room.
"Oh, shut up," said Margot, and began to laugh.
"I'm so glad you'll be here," Jane said, curling her feet beneath her in the over-stuffed armchair. "I've missed you so – it's funny how different it is now, I never worried about you so much when I lived in London. I wonder if it's geographical?"
"Perhaps," said Mariella, laughing.
"I don't know," said Jane meditatively. "I hardly know anyone in Edinburgh, of course, so that might be it."
"Yes," said Mariella, "and – well." She dropped her eyes to her tea and didn't look up, even when Jane said:
"I'm awfully glad you're marrying Robin."
"So am I," said Mariella.
"Nigel is the most terrible bully – I still shake in my boots now whenever he comes here about a horse. Guy is wonderful," Jane went on, somewhat irrelevantly, "he always backs me up when I pretend I have to go away."
"Guy is very good about that sort of thing," Mariella agreed. There was a short silence, in which Jane contemplated with dissatisfaction the number of sugars she'd put in her cup. It wasn't as if it mattered terribly, not the way it had when she was still dancing, but old habits died hard.
"Jane," Mariella began, as if she'd quite built up her courage, "do you ever miss the Wells?"
"No," said Jane. "Well – a little, I suppose. I can dance anywhere, but…I do miss the applause, even if I sound most awfully vain for saying it. And hiding backstage and whispering to people just before you go on – it was rather exciting, in its own way. It doesn't matter, not really. I'm happier here. Why do you ask?"
"I was thinking about uni," said Mariella ruefully. "Just wondering. It seems rather a waste, you know, all that work – but I'll be able to use it! And you're the only blushing bride I could really ask – I mean, could you imagine asking Veronica Weston if she'd regret giving up her career for Sebastian's?"
Jane spluttered into her tea, giggling. "Her face! When I told her I was marrying Guy, she warned me that the train fares down to London would be astronomical if I were going so often. I don't think Aunt Irma's ever really forgiven me, either."
"No," Mariella corrected her. "Mother has never forgiven Guy. Talk about putting the blame in its proper quarter!"
"Oh, but it really was me," said Jane. "I knew the game was up, if you see what I mean…Uncle Oscar did, too, I think."
"I don't know that not being the best is a reason to stop doing it," said Mariella. "I mean, you don't really get prima veterinaria assolutas, do you?"
"It was for me," said Jane.
Mariella was prosaically-minded, but she responded to the wistfulness of Jane's tone, reaching across to squeeze her hand. "It's different in ballet, I know that. You have to be marvellous, or no one will even look at you once you're too old. I mean, Mummy is, but not everyone…"
"Not me," said Jane. "They all said what a shame it was, Irma Foster's daughter giving up her career at its height and all that rot, but they were happy enough to swap me for Vivien, and Vivien for – I'm not sure, actually – is it Ellen Grey?"
Mariella shrugged. "Ask Mummy! And I'm sure there's a rising star now, just waiting to take her place – it's all rather horrible, isn't it? I wonder who'll succeed Veronica."
"No one," said Jane, with total certainty. "Veronica is eternal. That was it, really – I was just filling in for her, and it struck me how futile it all was. I could never have been her, even if I'd tried all my life."
"You didn't have to be," said Mariella, looking at her.
"I think I did, really," said Jane. There seemed to be nothing to say to that, so Mariella busied herself with pouring another cup.
"Did they all think you were her daughter?" she asked eventually.
"Well, not Uncle Oscar, obviously," said Jane. "He said I wasn't nearly as underfoot as you were."
"He would!" said Mariella. It was strange, to think of Jane as her mother's daughter. They even looked alike, with big dark eyes and beautifully-modelled heads. She was not a jealous person, but she suffered an ache sometimes, looking at them together. They were perfectly in tune with one another; had probably lived in utter harmony even through Jane's adolescence. It probably really would have been much better if –
"You didn't tell me about your flower girls," said Jane, breaking in on her thoughts, and Mariella was a little relieved to change the subject.
"Oh!" said Ella, sounding a little surprised. "Patience, look!"
"What is it?"
Ella held out the copy of Ballet Weekly to her. Patience scanned the page and then said, with some pride, "I've been waiting for that announcement. Mariella wrote to me last week to tell me – I didn't think it'd be in the Weekly, though. Won't she be surprised! They do ask after her, sometimes – I suppose they put it in because of Oscar. Annette!" she added as Annette Dancy, eschewing the grace one might expect of a member of the European Ballet, plonked herself into a chair by the café window. "Mariella Foster's getting married!"
"Is she?" said Annette. She looked politely blank.
Ella hastened to explain. "Patience knows her," she said. "They've been friends for years and years." She smiled hopefully, but this tidbit left Annette unmoved.
Patience, who knew how Annette's mind worked, said: "Irma Foster's daughter – Jane Foster's cousin – you remember Jane Foster, she was prima at the Wells a few seasons ago – "
"Oh," said Annette, with magnificent narrow-mindedness. "Yes, her. Josef Linsk's partner!"
Patience snorted, and failed badly at hiding it. "She's marrying a Highlander by name of Robin Campbell, if you please – " and, glancing sidelong at Ella, ticked off the seconds: five, four, three, two, one –
"Like in La Sylphide?"
Ella was a nice girl and did not laugh, not least because she shared Annette's language in a way that Patience did not. "I don't think so," she said instead.
"I should say not!" said Patience, verging on irritation. "Anyone less like the Sylph I can hardly imagine!"
"I do want to dance her some day," said Annette dreamily, clasping her cup of tea in both hands. "I'd have a grand pas, just for me – "
"Anyway, Mariella doesn't care much for ballet," said Patience, turning to Ella. "It's a bit of a shame, really, she's a lovely dancer – "
"I didn't realise," said Ella, casting her mind back frantically over the only time she'd met Mariella. Had she said anything terrible? She couldn't think, but no – surely – they'd only spoken for a couple of minutes, and then there had been Timothy, sitting sprawled at her feet and smiling up at her like she really was a princess. He had a big smile, Timothy, like the rest of him, good-looking in a loose-limbed sort of way. So she couldn't have said anything too awful, it was difficult enough to talk at all when Timothy was there.
"Irma Foster's daughter doesn't dance?" said Annette. She looked utterly horror-struck, as if all three of the pet kittens her landlady wouldn't let her have had died at once of bubonic plague.
"It's true," Patience said. Ella knew Patience was very sweet and gentle, really, but she half-suspected that she took great joy in horrifying Annette. It wasn't her fault, thought Ella, hurrying to make excuses. It was such a temptation.
"Wait, no," said Annette, frowning. "Hang on. I thought Jane Foster was Irma Foster's daughter – "
"Have you been listening to anything we've been saying?" Patience demanded.
"I was thinking about my entrance," said Annette.
Of all the ways Nigel had thought he'd meet Mariella again, seeing her at the bus stop in Hordon wasn't how he'd imagined it. She was sitting there with her bag at her feet, staring off into the distance with that mopey look on her face, the same expression that had annoyed him so much on Jane back in the day. He slowed his engine and parked in the bus lane.
"Ho, there, Mariella!" he said. As opening sallies went, its bonhomie was calculated to a decimal point and presumed friendliness and intimacy without innuendo.
Mariella glanced up, wide-eyed and startled. "Hello, Nigel," she said.
That was a good sign, Nigel thought. She was a remarkably pretty girl, Mariella, and even lovelier with the flush creeping up her neck. He was pleased to see he'd affected her, though he hadn't doubted that he still had the power. Not the sort of thing that went away overnight.
"Been visiting old Jane?"
"Yes," said Mariella, "and Lady Jane, too – Guy's going to lend her to me for the gymkhana in August."
"Oh, is he?" said Nigel. Charlton had been surly enough when he'd approached him about it. Didn't he have half a dozen horses of his own, he'd asked, as if there'd been something underhand in the request. Couldn't he get in touch with his old chum Jock? But then, Charlton palled around with Robin Campbell, and both of them had an unpleasantly straitlaced streak in the soul.
"Yes, he is," said Mariella tranquilly.
Recalled to himself, Nigel said with all the warm affection he could summon, "Well, all that aside, old girl, do you want a lift?"
"But you don't know where I'm going," said Mariella.
"I'll take you there," said Nigel. "Least I could do for a pretty girl, don't you think?"
It never failed, complimenting Mariella, and as the red on her cheeks darkened, he knew he'd won.
"I'd rather not, if it's all the same to you, Nigel," she said.
"You'll be waiting ages for the bus!" Nigel opened the passenger door invitingly. "I'll be a perfect gentleman, I promise."
The last time he'd said that, he'd been out to dinner with Imogen at a rather nice little restaurant in London. She was excellent company, Imogen – lovely and charming and polished – but it had fallen rather flat, because a woman at the next table had turned and given him a distinctly chilly glare. He'd wondered what on earth had been so offensive about that, except that from the back she looked so much like a black-haired Mariella that he'd been thrown off balance for the rest of the evening. Imogen had departed with a dry kiss on the cheek and he'd over-tipped the waiter, the consequence of which being that he had to borrow funds to pay for his hotel.
Not an evening to be treasured, in any case, and he resolved to forget it. "Anyway, it's only Monks Hollow, isn't it? I need to nip over there and ask Aunt Carol about buying Jasmine Flower."
"No," said Mariella, pushing her hair out of her face. "No, it's not as far as that." She seemed to have regained herself, Nigel thought with a pang of irritation. "And Aunt Carol isn't selling Jas."
"No?" he echoed. Might as well point it out, he thought. "Does Campbell have room for a horse like that in his surgery, then, my dear?"
The flush returned with a vengeance, flooding her neck and face. My dear, Nigel thought, that's a good one. "Not that it's any of your business, but Guy and Jane are taking her to Hordon Castle. Guy thinks Jane could do with a livelier mount."
"You're pulling my leg, dear girl!" Mariella's hands closed, but she looked at him steadily enough. "You're not the sort to live off Charlton's charity your whole life. You really could do better."
"Actually, I really couldn't," she said.
"Just think of what you'll be missing," he said.
"I have," she said, with a glimmer of humour. "It turned out not to be that much, after all – there's my bus, Nigel, could you pull out of the lane, please? I need to catch this one if I'm going to Robin's surgery before he closes up for the night. It was nice seeing you."
Nigel grimaced, as if he'd been unexpectedly swatted on the nose by a kitten, and ground his engine back to life. Was that all she had to say to him? The conversation had been curiously unsatisfying.
Never mind. He'd see her again.
"You're early, mo chridhe," Robin said, looking up from the prescription he was writing. Mariella stood in the doorway, watching him.
"I just thought I'd come and see you," she said.
"You're always welcome here," he said, putting the paper aside and crossing the room to take her into his arms. Mariella was a tall girl but he was taller, so that the top of her head brushed his nose. She pressed her face into his shoulder, enjoying the warmth which radiated from him. "Is Jane well?"
"She's fine," Mariella said.
"Were you getting the answer to your question, then?" he asked, and Mariella sighed into his shirt. She'd hoped, with a bit of cowardice which didn't come naturally to her, that he wouldn't enquire so soon.
"I don't know," she said slowly, pulling away to look at him. He let her go easily, secure in her return. "Jane is happy enough, but ballet is different…and I don't really know anyone else I could ask, do you?"
"Did you know no one at university who married?"
"Not very well," said Mariella uncertainly. "Only Pat, and she lives in Canada, now. It's not really that," she added. "Only, it does seem a waste!"
"I am not thinking it is a waste, to marry a woman with training," said Robin lightly. "Come and sit down, dearest."
She did, sliding into one of the chairs in the makeshift waiting room. It was empty at this time of day, since most of Robin's patients required care at egregious hours; a fact Mariella knew from experience. Robin put the kettle on, and when he was satisfied that the water was heating, he came back and took her hands in his.
"If you were happy, it was not a waste," he said, as if this were self-evident to him.
"Maybe," Mariella allowed. "Of course, Margot would have it that doing my degree and then giving it up was the wrong thing, but…"
"Is it, then?"
"I don't know! I don't know anything, which is infuriating." Mariella gave him a rueful half-smile. "I like to be sure of myself, you see."
"That is something everyone would like, I think," said Robin.
"I was happy," said Mariella. "But I know I'll be happy with you, too."
"Thank you," said Robin simply.
"So really I suppose it comes down to which I want to do more," said Mariella.
"If that is what you are wanting," said Robin. "I will be waiting. I would wait a very long time, if I had to."
"You are a dear," said Mariella, her words wholly inadequate to the rush of tenderness that accompanied them. He saw it in her expression and squeezed her hands tightly.
"This is no decision to be making all in a summer's eve, I think," he said.
"Well, I have until September, I suppose," said Mariella. "Will you wait that long for me, Robin?"
"Much longer, mo chridhe," he said.
"Thank you," she said simply, and turned her face up to kiss him.