Celia Marsdon, young, rich and unhappy, sat huddled in a lounge chair at the far end of the new swimming pool vaguely listening to the chatter of their weekend guests.
Across the pool, above the privet hedge and the rose-laden pergola, sprawled the cluttered roof line of the Sussex manor house, Medfield Place. Richard’s home. Her home, now. “Lady of the manor,” a manor which had seen centuries of these ladies.
In the 1200’s some Marsdon—Ralph, was it?—had built himself a small stone keep close by the River Cuckmere. The stones he used were still incorporated in the walls of what looked to be a Tudor mansion of gables, twisted chimney pots, blackened oak half-timbering amongst peach-toned bricks. But there were later touches, too, a Georgian bay window added to the dining room, improbable fanlights cut over doorways, and—most shocking of all to the humorless young architect who had come down from London to supervise repairs—two crassly Victorian additions. Sir Thomas, the only Marsdon baronet who could be called wealthy, had prospered during Queen Victoria’s reign owing to his wife’s inheritance of collieries in County Durham. During this brief period of affluence, Sir Thomas had tacked on a large pseudo-Gothic library wing, as well as a glass garden room which the young architect had wished removed at once.
Richard had been adamant. No matter the period, every brick and beam of Medfield Place was dear to him, and, indeed, the house triumphed over any architectural incongruity. It nestled placidly, as it always had, between two spurs of the South Downs—those quiet, awesome hills looming purplish-green against the East Sussex skies.
Celia, who was wearing a discreetly cut turquoise bikini, took off her dark glasses, shut her eyes and tried to relax in the sunlight while fighting off a fresh attack of anxiety.
Why should one be frightened? Why again, as often of late, a lump in her throat which could not be swallowed, and also a sense of suffocation?
This was one of England’s rare perfect June days, fluffy clouds scudding across the blue, a faint breeze riffling the leaves, and, said Celia to herself, You have everything a woman could ask for.
She had been told this a hundred times, especially by her mother, Lily. Celia opened her eyes and glanced along the pool-side towards her mother, who was rapt in conversation with one of those exotic characters she was always finding.
Yet, this particular find was different. True, he was a Hindu and practiced Yoga, but he had firmly refused to allow Lily to introduce him as a guru; he was a doctor of medicine and wished no other title. He had pleasant, modest manners unlike that dreadful, lecherous swami Lily had briefly lionized in the States. This Hindu, whose name was Jiddu Akananda, did not wear bunchy robes; his English clothes were well tailored; he had studied at Oxford and then at Guy’s Hospital, so long ago that he must be sixty. Yet his brown face was ageless, and his lean, supple body as now revealed by swimming trunks was like that of a young man. Celia had had little chance to talk with Dr. Akananda after his arrival the night before at the manor, but she had noted wise, kindly eyes and a sense of humor.
I rather admire him, Celia thought in astonishment. She had not admired most of her mother’s collection of swamis, numerologists, astrologers and mediums. Lily was given to sudden enthusiasms and had a certain naivete which her daughter regarded with indulgence.
Lily Taylor was past fifty and did not look it. Expert tinting kept her hair blond, while constant dieting kept her natural plumpness from spreading to fat.
When excited, Lily lost her unconscious attempt at an English accent, and her Midwestern voice rose now in emphatic agreement with something the Hindu said. “But, of course,” Lily cried. “Every intelligent person believes in reincarnation!”
“Well, I don’t,” remarked the elegant Duchess of Drewton, fitting a slim cigarette into a white jade holder. “Lot of nonsense,” she added with her usual smiling assurance.
Celia felt suddenly chilly. She shivered and pulled on her gold beach robe while examining the Duchess. Dowager Duchess, actually, though Myra was barely thirty; her old Duke had recently died of a coronary and the title had passed to a nephew. Myra’s willingness to combat anyone’s statement, as she had Lily’s, was one of her ways of being provocative. And she was provocative, Celia admitted, that long gleaming auburn hair caught back in an amber clasp, and the wide sensual mouth. Celia noted that Myra glanced often towards Richard.
Celia, too, with an indrawn breath looked at her husband. He had just executed a perfect swan dive and was toweling himself while blandly ignoring the guests’ applause.
Yet, perhaps, with a sidelong glance he did respond to Myra?
One never knew with Richard any more. He had stopped showing any emotions, especially towards her. The world, and Lily, who had come over on an extended visit, thought Richard a model of charming courtesy. He also had a beautiful smile. It seemed to occur to nobody but Celia that the smile never reached his long-lashed hazel eyes, which remained aloof, a trifle wary.
I love him so desperately. Celia’s hands clenched on the chromium armrests. I think he still loves me, though something has gone wrong, very wrong.
Her heart gave one of its unpleasant thumps as she forced herself to examine what had happened.
It seemed to begin with a visit to Midhurst last fall. Hallowe’en it was; in the woodlands, the leaves had turned yellow and russet—so much quieter than the blaze of American maples—and the roads were dappled with fallen leaves and rolling acorns. A smoky violet haze drifted through the folds of the Downs; there was a tang in the air. She and Richard had been so happy that afternoon as they set forth in the new Jaguar to meet acquaintances of his at the Spread Eagle Inn.
They had made love the night before, with ecstatic fulfillment even more joyous than during their honeymoon in Portugal, where for all her inexperience Celia sensed something withheld in Richard, the faintest lack of total involvement. But their mutual love last night had been flawless. Especially the aftermath, when she lay naked in his arms, her head on his shoulder, both of them murmuring contentment and watching the starlight filter through the mullioned window.
The glow still enclosed them as they left Medfield and started towards Lewes. Richard drove slowly, for him, and after a while remarked lazily, “I’ll be glad to see old Holloway again, friend of my father’s, and your romantic little American heart will be charmed by the Spread Eagle.” He swerved into a hedge-lined byway to avoid the main road. “It’s frightfully ancient, all half-timbering, dim passages and smugglers’ hideaways.”
“My romantic heart is charmed by Sussex, by England, and especially by my husband,” Celia said, laughing. She cuddled against him.
He rested his cheek against the top of her curly brown hair for a second. “Foolish poppet,” he said. “It’s not quite the thing to be in love with a husband, not done, my dear.”
“Too bad,” she murmured. “Oh, look, da...