About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Some people call the Rydd Water a good-size stream; others call it a small river. It starts away up in the hills of the Scottish Border as a score of tumultuous burns that come leaping down the steep slopes between rocks and heather and creeping through pockets of bog, leaping, creeping, tumbling hastily down the hills to meet in the valley below. The valley of the Rydd is wide and open, a shallow bowl, tilted a little toward the south; there are farms in the valley and quiet villages, and big houses with fine gardens; there are stretches of meadowland and woods with tall trees-chestnut, oak, and beech. When it reaches the valley, the Rydd seems to lose its youthful impatience and begins to dawdle peacefully, wandering first this way and then that, as if it were loath to leave so pleasant a place...and one of its silver loops brings it within earshot of Dunnian House, brings it sweeping through the belt of woodland beyond the lawn. Sometimes the voice of the Rydd is loud and fills the whole house with a rushing sound; sometimes it is so soft that one has to listen to hear it...but it is always there, roaring, rippling, or whispering through the lovely old rooms: it is as much a part of the place as the solid gray stones of which Dunnian is built.
Generations of Dunnes, born and bred at Dunnian and afterward scattered to the four corners of the earth, are sometimes awakened at night by the rustle of trees or the roar of tropical rain and are transported home to Dunnian and childhood.
It was a lovely afternoon and Dunnian House slept peacefully in the sunshine; two or three of the tall chimneys were smoking idly, the smoke rising straight and hanging in little clouds in the still air. The main rooms in the house faced southwest with french windows opening onto a sheltered terrace with a stone balustrade...and here in the sunshine sat Miss Dunne, wrapped in rugs and shawls, her feet on a footstool and a cushion behind her head. The sun was warm, but old blood runs slowly and Miss Dunne was very old indeed.
For reading Miss Dunne required strong spectacles, but she needed no spectacles to see the hills...how green they were after yesterday's warm, soft rain! Her bright brown eyes moved from one well-known landmark to another; she knew every stone and every tree. She saw Rydd Hill with its girdle of dark green conifers and, to left and right, Garlesknowe and Timperton Law, and, beyond these rounded hills, peeping over Souden Gap, the sterner darker face of Winters Gill. The hills were always the same and yet they always looked different, for sometimes they seemed quite near and sometimes far away; sometimes they gathered clouds of mist about them and hid their faces; sometimes they smiled and sometimes they frowned. Today they were smiling-and no wonder-for the sun lit them so they glowed like jewels, and the cloud shadows moved over them slowly, caressing them.
How lovely they were, thought Miss Dunne, looking at them with deep affection, looking at them with her farsighted eyes. Here and there she saw a gleam of silver. The burns were up; yesterday's rain had filled them and they were filling the river, for she could hear the river's voice speaking to her from the dell. Closing her eyes for a moment Miss Dunne looked at the river with her "inward eye"-it was the easiest thing imaginable-and saw the bright water sliding past the roots of the trees, dimpling and sparkling in the sunshine; she saw the stepping stones, fringed with lacy foam, and the deep peaty-brown pools with movement stirring in their depths. She looked beyond the river to the woods, green and freshly washed, carpeted with hyacinths, lit by an occasional bush of blazing rhododendrons... Yes, the rhodies would be out now-past their best, of course, but still full of fire and color.
At this moment there was a heavy step on the gravel path and Miss Dunne's reverie came to an end abruptly. She sat up and her small face assumed a look of alertness, of interest and animation, for although she loved the hills she was fond of people too.
"Johnson!" cried Miss Dunne. "Johnson, I want to speak to you."
The man came forward and leaned his arms upon the balustrade and smiled at her. "Well now, it's real nice to see you, Miss Dunne. You're better then?"
"Much better," she replied, nodding at him. "Becky thought it wouldn't do me any harm to sit in the sun."
"It's a nice day for you, that's certain."
"A beautiful day. Perfectly beautiful. I feel much better already."
They were silent for a few moments; it was a friendly silence, for they knew each other so well that there was no need to speak unless they felt inclined. Johnson was almost as much a part of Dunnian as Miss Dunne herself. He had been born there, in the gardener's cottage, and had lived here all his life. Like her, he would die here-but not so soon. These thoughts passed through Miss Dunne's mind as she looked at him.
"I've peas today," said Johnson, lifting a basket of vegetables and showing it to her.
"So you have," she said. "Peas and radishes and a lovely crisp lettuce-"
"And new potatoes and green gooseberries," added Johnson.
"They're lovely," she told him, feasting her eyes upon the basket. "I think vegetables are as pretty as flowers in their own way. Look at the colors in them."
"They're not bad," he agreed, looking at them.
She stretched out a tiny, fragile hand and took one of the pea pods from the basket; it was a beautiful bright green and smooth and cool and shiny. ("Like jade," Miss Dunne said softly.) Inside was a little row of bright green beads.
"They're very wee," said Johnson.
"That's how I like them."
"I know that fine, but Mrs. Drummond will be saying they're too small."
"You'll have an answer for her, no doubt," replied Miss Dunne dryly.
Johnson chuckled. He watched her eat the peas one by one. It reminded him of a bird. He thought, not for the first time, that Miss Dunne was very like a bird, like the robins that came and sat on the handle of his barrow and watched him digging.
"The sweet peas are coming on nice," said Johnson, "and the herbaceous border near the potting shed that I sorted last year. I'd like fine if you could see it, Miss Dunne."
It was a temptation, and she hesitated for a moment before she refused. "Another day," she said with a sigh of regret. "Another day, Johnson, you shall give me your arm and I'll walk down to the garden, but not today-I mustn't tire myself today."
He nodded understanding. "They were telling me," he said, with a jerk of his head toward the kitchen premises. "They were saying that Mr. Humphrey is expected."
"Yes, he'll be here quite soon. He'll enjoy your peas, Johnson."
"It will be nice seeing him again. He's not been here for a long time."
"He's been abroad."
"Aye, he'll be glad to be back, no doubt."
"He's a lieutenant-commander now," continued Miss Dunne. "He's thirty-five, you know." She made this statement with an air of surprise, for it seemed very odd that Humphrey should be thirty-five. He was the grandson of Miss Dunne's youngest brother and she had always thought of him as "quite a boy," but she had looked up the date of his birth and there was no doubt about it...
"Aye, he'll be about that," Johnson agreed. "He's ten years younger than me and I'll be forty-five come September. The years slip past. They're saying he's married too."
Miss Dunne had long since ceased to marvel at the fact that her servants knew almost as much as she did about the affairs of her family. "Yes," she replied. "He's been married for six years and he's got three children-one son and two daughters."
"Is that so?" Johnson asked politely, but she was aware from his manner that it was no news to him. (He probably knows their names, she thought with a small smile.)
"His ship was stationed at Hong Kong," she continued. "It was there that he met his wife. Two of the children were born there."
"It's a far cry from Hong Kong to Dunnian," said Johnson thoughtfully.
This statement seemed to mark the end of the conversation, and after a moment's silence Johnson lifted his basket. "I'll be going along now," he said.
"Perhaps you'd better," agreed Miss Dunne. "I'll come see the garden soon-in a day or two."
"When you're stronger-like." He nodded, touching his cap and turning away.
He was smiling as he went down the path, for there was nothing he liked better than "a wee crack" with Miss Dunne. It put a different complexion on the day. "They" had been saying that Miss Dunne was failing, and Johnson, when he heard it, had felt a queer stirring of his heart, for he could not imagine Dunnian without Miss Dunne. She had always been here; she was part of the place. Johnson had felt sad and he had also felt apprehensive, for he did not like Mr. Maurice Dunne at all, and Mr. Maurice was Miss Dunne's nephew and her heir. He did not like Mrs. Maurice either-stuck up, that's what she was. She thought she knew everything and had a long Latin name for every flower. Johnson didn't know the Latin names (catmint and wallflower and love-in-a-mist were good enough for him), but he knew how to grow the flowers and the vegetables too. Mrs. Maurice couldn't teach him anything about his job...but she would try. Oh yes, she would try. There would be changes at Dunnian when the Maurice Dunnes came and Johnson was quite sure the changes would not be for the better. He had considered it carefully and had come to the conclusion that it might be a good plan to look about for another place. It would be a sad wrench to leave Dunnian, but maybe it would be worse to stay and see everything altered...
But there was no need to worry, thought Johnson. Miss Dunne wasn't failing. It wasn't true what they were saying; her eyes were as bright as ever and her brain as clear. She had been ill, of course, but now she was better and soon she would be on her legs again, pottering about the garden in her old black hat, chatting to him, picking the flowers. She wasn't failing-not her: she was good for another ten years-well, five years, anyway. "They" talked too much, and wildly at that. Johnson whistled cheerfully as he walked across the yard to the kitchen door.
"You're spry today," Mrs. Drummond suggested as she took the basket from his hand.
"Aye, I'm feeling fine."
"That's nice for you," Mrs. Drummond declared with sarcasm.
"It's grand for me," Johnson agreed innocently.
"Maybe you wouldn't be so spry if you had my work to do. D'you call those peas?"
"Peas!" echoed Johnson. "These are pet-its poise."
"What's that?" inquired Mrs. Drummond, raising her eyebrows.
"They're French and quite the latest thing."
"They look to me like half-grown peas."
"I'm surprised you don't know pet-its poise when you see them, Mrs. Drummond. Maybe you'd like me to show you the way to cook them."
"You can come shell them for me, Mr. Johnson."
"Can the kitchen maid not manage it?" Johnson inquired with an air of surprise. "You should train her to prepare the vegetables, Mrs. Drummond."
This battle of wits was one of many; in fact, such encounters were of almost daily occurrence. They were always conducted with complete gravity and an outward show of politeness. Usually Mrs. Drummond was the victor, for she had a quicker brain than Johnson and a caustic tongue, but today Johnson felt that the honors lay with him.