Sonia’s guests spent the next few days in pleasant relaxation. They had the gardens, the tennis court, the croquet lawn, the library and the billiard room to keep them entertained, to say nothing of one another, and the sun shone every day. Towards the end of the week Sonia decided they should take advantage of the settled spell of weather and venture out to picnic in the surrounding countryside.
Meg and Diana were summoned after breakfast to Sonia’s small private sitting room to discuss the details. Sonia spent each morning here conducting the household business, discussing menus with Cook, paying tradesmen’s bills, issuing invitations and answering letters. It was a charming room, dedicated to Sonia’s sole use, the walls distempered in a dégradé style, pale rose at the top darkening to deep Venetian red at the bottom, and filled with tasteful items – a Sèvres bowl full of roses from the garden, a low divan scattered with silk cushions, a portrait of Sonia by Haddon on one wall, a pewter jug filled with poppies on a bleached wooden table by the long window. The individuality of the various items hinted at Bohemianism, but Sonia’s sense of style lent a distinct and beautiful unity to all.
When she had announced the picnic project, Sonia explained the arrangements to Diana and Meg.
‘I should like you two to give some thought to the kind of food we should bring along. I’m sure you can come up with something adventurous and delicious, more than mere sandwiches. Do you suppose quails’ eggs are to be had in August? And we shall have to ask the men to sort out which cars to take. I thought of asking the Davenports to come along – you remember Constance Davenport, don’t you, Diana?’
‘That girl with the face like a pig that Paul and Meg and I always had to play with during the holidays?’
‘She’s quite a pretty girl now – well, after a fashion. I thought if we motored over to the woods just beyond Cutbush Farm on the other side of Malton – there’s the loveliest clover field, with beautiful views over the Downs. Cook says the weather is set to hold for the week, and she’s always right.’
After some further discussion, the girls left Sonia to her menus and letters and wandered out into the summer sunshine. They found Dan lounging in a chair on the terrace, smoking a cigarette.
‘I hope you’ve come to relieve my tedium,’ he said when he saw the girls.
‘I’m all for tennis,’ said Meg.
‘Excellent idea.’ Dan glanced at Diana. ‘Can we persuade you and Paul to a game of doubles?’
‘Oh, no thanks,’ said Diana with a yawn. ‘Too warm for all that.’
Meg smiled at Dan and squeezed his shoulder lightly. ‘Just you and me, then.’
He returned the smile. ‘I’ll see you on court in ten minutes.’
As he went up to his room, he wondered whether Meg might not be as unattainable as he’d begun to think. Having set his sights on her at the beginning of the house party, he had lately abandoned any hope of bedding her, since in his experience the sweetly virginal ones required painstaking seduction, and time was not on his side. Besides, she seemed utterly enthralled by Paul, who behaved towards her with a cumbersome gallantry which Dan completely despised, to the point where he’d pretty much decided that if Paul was that keen, he was welcome. In the time left, it seemed easier to resume the promising dalliance that he and Eve had begun back in London. But the touch of Meg’s hand on his shoulder a moment ago, the look in her eyes – perhaps he should reconsider. It would be amusing to put Paul’s toffee nose out of joint by stealing his girl from under it, so to speak. And Meg was a more interesting challenge than Eve, who, he guessed, was there for the taking. With these noble thoughts coursing through his mind, he changed and strolled down to the tennis court.
Meanwhile, Madeleine had been despatched by Mrs Goodall to collect raspberries from the kitchen garden. As she wandered among the canes, her flaxen plait of hair swinging over one shoulder, methodically filling the large, white pudding basin that Cook had given her, Henry Haddon came across the courtyard, heading in the direction of his studio, and caught sight of her. Remembering what Dan had said the other day about what a wonderful subject she would make for a picture, he paused to observe her. After a moment he changed tack and headed towards the kitchen garden. Madeleine looked up, holding the basin with fruit-stained fingers as he approached, feeling her heart flare in the strange way it did every time she saw him.
‘Raspberries for tea, eh?’ Haddon inspected her for a moment, then said, ‘Come with me.’ He took the bowl from her and set it on the ground. ‘Come along.’ He strode through the orchard to his studio, Madeleine following.
Once there, Haddon roamed around, selecting and discarding various props. In the end, he settled on a simple wooden chair with a cane seat, which he placed a few feet from his easel.
‘Now, sit yourself down here.’
‘You want to paint me?’
‘That is the general idea.’
Madeleine sat down awkwardly, not sure what was wanted of her.
‘No, no,’ said Haddon, ‘not like that. Put your ankles together, your feet on one side. Lift your chin.’ Madeleine made some ineffectual movements, failing to achieve what Haddon desired. ‘Look, like this,’ he said impatiently, rearranging her arms, moving her fingers and her feet until her pose was more graceful.
‘Let’s turn you to the light – so.’ He moved her around, then stood back. ‘A little further round – that’s right. I want you looking back.’ He moved her torso, his long fingers pushing her gently into position. ‘Now’ – he lifted her wrist – ‘one arm on the back of the chair, so. As though you were glancing over your shoulder. As though you were waiting for someone. Do you understand?’ Haddon continued to adjust her pose, all the while murmuring instructions in his deep voice. With the toe of his sandal he manoeuvred her feet so that one was tucked behind the other, then lifted Madeleine’s forearm from the back of the chair.
‘Put your hand beneath your chin. That’s it – but still leaning back. That’s excellent. Very good.’ He stared intently. She was wearing a yellow button-through cotton sundress, with narrow shoulder straps, and he realised how much better the effect would be if one of the straps were to fall a little way from her shoulder.
‘Unbutton the top two buttons of your dress,’ he ordered. Madeleine stared at him.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t look so alarmed.’ He stepped forward and deftly unfastened the buttons, tweaking the straps back a little way from her pale shoulders. Although he was deeply struck by the translucence of her skin and the wonderful contours of her face and neck as she tilted her head towards the light, every touch and thought was entirely without sensuality. She was merely an object to be arranged.
How different the experience was for Madeleine. As his hands grasped her body, moving her gently into position, tugging and shifting the folds of her dress, she felt her skin and her senses begin to glow with the warmth of being handled and moved by him, each touch lighting a small, soft fire within her. She felt a delicious inertia as he casually arranged her limbs and body.
Haddon stood back to survey her. She was perfect. He had posed her so that she was sitting half-turned, as though listening for some sound, a note of music, or some approaching footfall, the expectancy of her attitude touched with a light despair. He gazed at her for a moment, then came forward and lifted the plait of blonde hair from her shoulder. ‘How does this unfasten?’
Wordlessly, without losing her pose, Madeleine pulled off the ribbon, and let Haddon unplait her hair and spread it loosely over her shoulders. Her scalp prickled deliciously, and her skin felt silvery with sensation. She half-closed her eyes.
Haddon stepped back. ‘No, open your eyes. Look away. That’s right. Now, stay still.’
He sat on a stool, sketchpad on knee, and began to sketch with swift strokes. After ten minutes she felt her back begin to ache a little from the position she held, but each time she tried to shift to ease it, he would command her not to move. So she stayed as still as she could. She would steal a look at him from time to time, a warmth burning within the pit of her stomach. She felt an odd sense of power, posed as she was, while he drew busily, glancing up at her from time to time with an eagerness that seemed like hunger.
At last he put down his pad. ‘There. Excellent. You may sit round.’
Madeleine moved her body out of its pose. ‘Now,’ said Haddon, ‘I want you to come here each day and pose for me. I am going to paint you. Are you flattered?’
Madeleine hesitated. ‘Shouldn’t I ask Mrs Haddon first?’
‘I shall speak to her.’ Madeleine took her ribbon from the pocket of her dress and began to replait her hair. ‘I want you here every day at half ten. Now, off you go. Go on. Oh,’ he added, as Madeleine stood up, ‘I want you in that same dress each day.’
Avril was playing by the fountain when she saw Madeleine walking through the orchard from the direction of the barn.
‘Where have you been?’ she demanded.
‘Nowhere in particular,’ replied Madeleine.
‘Have you been in the place where Papa paints?’ Avril, who was forbidden to go to the studio for fear of disturbing her father, seized jealously on the possibility that Madeleine had somehow received special favour. The more her father ignored her, the more Avril longed for his time and attention. ‘Have you?’
Madeleine went over to the raspberry canes and retrieved the bowl of raspberries she had been picking.
‘Come on,’ she said to Avril. ‘It’ll soon be time for lunch.’ She took Avril’s hand and led her towards the house, while the child tugged at her hand, demanding to know what she had been doing in the studio and why. But Madeleine would not tell her, and eventually Avril gave up.
Distracted as he was by the pleasure of watching Meg’s lithe figure as she darted round the tennis court, Dan beat her by four clear games, towards the end winning point after point with perhaps unnecessary decisiveness.
‘Did you have to make such utter mincemeat of me?’ she asked, as they strolled back through the trees to the house.
‘What? Would you rather I’d let you win?’
‘And don’t you find that mildly irritating? Or is his tennis just not that good?’
They had stopped on the path.
‘His tennis is wonderful,’ said Meg spiritedly. ‘He’s a superb athlete. I don’t think there’s a thing he can’t do well.’
‘You don’t have to defend your hero quite so ferociously. I’m aware of Paul’s many virtues. I just thought you might find it a tad patronising, being allowed to win.’
‘Oh, he doesn’t do it in that way. He just believes in… well, treating women a certain way. And he’s not my hero.’
‘Fine, I’ll let you win every game we play from now on, if you like.’
Meg swiped at a dandelion clock with her tennis racquet. ‘I’m not sure there’s much point in our playing any more.’ If anything, she looked even more desirable in her mild sulk, her eyes dark and troubled, her mouth pouting slightly.
Dan reached out and broke off a spray of wild roses from a nearby bush. He handed it to her with a smile. ‘A peace offering. Please don’t stop playing tennis with me.’
She smiled and took the roses. Sensing his moment, Dan leaned forward and kissed her. She drew back at first, startled, but he persisted, and she gave in, melting into his arms with delightful enthusiasm.
In the long moment of their kiss, the first proper kiss Meg had ever known, it seemed to her that the world had shrunk to the little patch of dappled sunlight in which they stood, and all sound to the rustle of leaves and sleepy call of the wood pigeons. She felt as though she could happily stay with his mouth on hers for ever. A fire that felt like more than happiness flooded her body. Then from the house came the muffled clamour of the luncheon gong. Dan lifted his head. Meg remained motionless, her eyes still closed. Dan smiled and touched her nose lightly with his finger; her eyes opened
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘I’m ravenous. Let’s go in.’
For the rest of the day, Dan could sense Meg hovering. She behaved entirely normally, not seeking him out, not letting her eyes stray too often in his direction – but he was aware that she was thinking about him, waiting and hoping for another moment of intimacy. What interesting fires he seemed to have lit within her.
Teatime was a fluid affair, with tables and chairs laid out in the shade of the big horse chestnut tree, and people coming and going, idling over tea and sandwiches and cake, pausing in groups of conversation, then fragmenting and drifting off to the next pleasurable activity. The day was hot and still, with barely a leaf stirring.
Diana, not feeling like teatime chatter, took herself off to a nearby hammock with a couple of cucumber sandwiches and her book, where she swayed in happy solitude in the dappled afternoon light.
After a while the Haddons and Cunliffes departed, and Dan, Charles, Eve and Meg remained together on the grass, chatting. Paul was nowhere to be seen. Eve left the group and crossed the lawn to sit down on the grass by Diana’s hammock.
‘Bored?’ asked Diana.
‘I came to escape the game-playing between Dan and your ingénue friend, Meg. It’s getting a mite tedious.’
‘You sound peeved.’
‘I am, rather. I had hopes of him.’
Diana was aware that there had been something of a flirtation between Eve and Dan in London, so it was hardly surprising that Eve was put out to discover she had competition – particularly in the form of Meg. Diana brushed the crumbs from her book and closed it, and contemplated Dan, who was sitting cross-legged in his shirtsleeves, a plate of strawberries on his knees. The sun of the past few days had given his skin a light, golden tan. She had known Dan for over ten years, and she had to admit that from a scrawny, lanky schoolboy he had grown into the most astonishingly attractive man.
‘You know, darling, Dan Ranscombe may be desirable,’ she reflected, ‘but he’s quite unsuitable. Apart from what he earns, he’s hardly got a bean. One needs someone who can afford dinner and the theatre and taxis, that kind of thing. And who has prospects, of course. Who wants a husband without money?’
‘I’m not looking for a husband. The fact is, I’m absolutely sex-starved, and I hoped this house party might provide some light relief.’ She gave Diana a knowing smile.
Diana returned the smile. One of the ties that bound her in friendship to Eve was that both of them were rather more worldly than most girls of their age, particularly in matters of sex. Two years ago Diana had been introduced to its pleasures by a charming Italian whom she had met while on a trip to Europe with an elderly aunt – who would have been scandalised if she’d known what Diana was up to in the warm, small hours of the Mediterranean night. Eve herself, now twenty-three, had already had a couple of older lovers, men in their forties, and she and Diana had spent enjoyable hours together comparing notes.
Diana yawned and swatted away an errant bee. Both women watched as Dan picked a particularly luscious strawberry from the plate, pretended to be about to put it in his mouth, then held it out to Meg, who ate it, laughing.
‘Honestly,’ said Eve, ‘I could slap his face for him. After the way we were in London.’
‘Let’s give it a minute or two, then go and put a spoke in his wheel,’ said Diana.
Meg sat alone with Dan, the plate between them empty of strawberries. The maids were clearing away the tea tables, Charles had gone for a walk, and Diana and Eve were talking together on the other side of the lawn. She had Dan all to herself. But now that she was alone with him, Meg could think of nothing to say. She stared at the grass, parting it with her fingers and pretending to scrutinise insects. Dan, lounging on one elbow, regarded her with lazy-eyed pleasure. She really was the least opaque creature he had ever met. No longer able to sustain her interest in beetles, Meg glanced up. She caught his amused expression.
‘Why are you smiling like that?’
‘Because you’re a funny thing.’
‘You’re adorable,’ murmured Dan. ‘I haven’t been able to think of anything for the past few hours except how much I want to kiss you again.’
Meg’s inexperienced ear missed the casual yet practised manner in which this was delivered. She heard only the words, and her heart began to beat very hard.
Dan put out a hand and stroked the back of hers. ‘What do you say we go for a walk somewhere?’ Meg brushed a dark curl from her eyes and nodded. They rose from the grass, and at that moment Diana and Eve came strolling across the lawn.
‘Come on, you two,’ said Diana. ‘The oldsters are frowsting indoors with books and newspapers, and everyone else seems to have disappeared. How about a game of croquet?’
Meg glanced at Dan. He didn’t return her look, simply said, ‘Wonderful. We were boring each other to death, anyway.’
Meg couldn’t disguise her pique as she followed them to the croquet lawn. It took her a full round of croquet to emerge from her bad mood, and it was only later that night, when she was in bed, that she realised how naïve she had been.
She lay in bed, her book open and unread, going over it all, and realising that Dan could hardly have behaved otherwise. She blushed to think how easily Diana and Eve must have read her disappointment, and would now no doubt tease her remorselessly for the rest of her stay. She liked Eve well enough, but she could be quite sharp-tongued. Meg’s intuition also told her that Eve had something of a thing for Dan herself, which didn’t help matters.
The thought of it all made it impossible to concentrate on her book. The room suddenly seemed hot and airless, and she got up to open the window as wide as possible. She leaned out, hoping to drink in some refreshing coolness, but the air outside was heavy and lukewarm. A full moon silvered the silent gardens. She set the window open on its hasp, and as she passed her dressing table on the way back to bed, she saw lying there the spray of roses that Dan had given her after their game of tennis, the moment before he had kissed her. She had dropped it there before lunch, and now the petals and leaves were limp. She broke off one of the blooms, and carried it back to bed. She inspected it for a while, marvelling at the blush-pink silkiness of the petals, then opened her book and placed it between the pages. She switched off her lamp, closing her eyes and trying to conjure up the memory of Dan’s mouth on hers, before falling fast asleep.
She had no idea whether it was minutes or hours later when she heard a light tapping on her door. Who on earth would come to her room in the middle of the night? Perhaps Avril, having a bad dream? No – she would be far more likely to go to Sonia or Madeleine.
She swung herself out of bed, groping for the light switch. ‘Just a minute,’ she called.
Outside in the corridor, Dan winced at how clearly Meg’s voice carried. He would have expected her to be more discreet. Although he hadn’t been able to get her on her own in the interval between dinner and bed, he thought he’d pretty much made it understood that he’d be along to her room later, when everyone had turned in. He had left it until one o’clock to be on the safe side.
Meg opened the door, wearing nothing but a thin silk nightdress that left nothing to the imagination. It was all Dan could do not to let his eyes linger on the arousing curves of her breasts. With her hair loose about her shoulders, she looked utterly delectable.
Meg stared at him in astonishment. ‘What is it?’
Dan swallowed a laugh and gave a quick glance along the corridor. ‘Um – may I come in?’
Meg hesitated, then stepped back. Dan came inside and closed the door. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t understood and hadn’t been expecting him. He was here now. He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her long and hard, his tongue seeking hers. Her response was tentative; beneath it he could feel uncertainty, and even slight fear. He moved his body closer to hers, his hand cupping her buttocks. After a few seconds she pushed him away.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘I honestly don’t think you should be here at this time of night.’
He laughed. ‘When else am I supposed to get you alone? At least no one’s likely to come along and suggest a game of croquet.’ But when he tried to kiss her again, she backed away.
‘Dan, it isn’t right.’
‘But going into the woods with me this afternoon would have been?’
She stared at him, the colour rising in her face. ‘That was just for a walk. In the daytime.’ She struggled, her voice breaking to a whisper. ‘This afternoon I only wanted… I only wanted to be kissed again.’
The way in which she said this, her pitiful struggle between shame and dignity, had a peculiar effect on Dan, and regret instantly washed away desire.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be beastly.’ He gazed at her in bemusement. Clearly he wasn’t going to make much headway tonight. ‘I should go.’
Meg put a hand on his arm and smiled hesitantly. ‘I would like to be kissed again. Nothing else.’ She lifted her face with tender expectancy, as though she were offering something sacred. The gesture seemed to Dan both ridiculous and profound.
‘By Jove, yes,’ he murmured, and put his mouth to hers. Without any expectation of the fulfilment of desire behind it, the kiss was strangely potent. Something seemed to give way within him. He had kissed many women in his time, but never had the experience made him feel so vulnerable.
When it was over, he held her for a moment, running his hands lightly over the satin softness of her skin.
‘I need to go to bed now,’ said Meg.
He kissed her lightly on the forehead and left the room, aware of some disquieting emotion, which he attributed to unsatisfied lust. He would have to wait till they got back to London, but the signs were all very promising. And it would be a delightful piece of unfinished business to look forward to.