Vine Manor

Chapter 2

"I wouldn't be in so much of a hurry to accept this man as your son, Mrs Grayling." This was the opinion of George Sanderson, the family solicitor. For many years Maria had depended on his sound common sense and expert legal advice; a phone call that morning had brought him at once to her side "Has he given any explanation of why he left home, without a word of warning, and stayed away for so many years?"

"No, Helena says when she asked him why he left, he just said he didn't want to talk about it. So I chose not to push him for an answer. Even as a boy, Paul could be quite obstinate at times."

"And why, in all that time, did he not write to you, or telephone?"

"I don't know, Mr Sanderson. He only wrote to me once from boarding school, and that was to say he hated it and wanted to come home."

"He was only at the school for a year, is that right?"

"Yes, I couldn't make him stay, when he hated it so much! It was my late husband's school and he felt very strongly that Paul should go there. Even though I was a widow by the time he was old enough to go, I thought his father's wishes should be honoured. But I missed my son very much, we had never been separated before, and when he wrote to me saying he hated the place, I decided that if he could not settle in by the end of the year I would remove him from the school."

"He left home soon after the end of the war, didn't he? Just too late to have joined the army?"

"Yes, thank God! At least I didn't have to worry that he'd been killed in the fighting. No, I always believed he was alive. I always hoped that one day he would return. And now, here he is!"

"If it is him, Mrs Grayling, we can't be sure of that yet."

"There he is now! Look out of that window, Mr Sanderson, and you will see him. He went for a walk this morning with Helena. Now you can meet him and see for yourself."

That evening over dinner, George Sanderson's wife was anxious to hear the whole story. Though she had lived in the village since their marriage seven years ago, she was still not fully accepted by the local gossips. Now at last she could be the first to hear all the details of an exciting item of village news.

"No-one knows why Paul left home," her husband told her, "he seemed to have a close relationship with his mother. He wasn't in trouble with the law or anything like that, or I would have known about it."

"Is that why Mrs Grayling adopted Helena? To replace her son?"

"No, not at all! Helena was already living at Vine Manor when Paul disappeared. Her mother was an old school friend of Maria's. She married a Frenchman, Pierre Colville, an army officer, and when war broke out she came to stay with Maria, bringing her little girl who was not much more than a baby at the time. A few months later she died tragically in a car accident. She had left Helena with Maria and taken the car to go shopping. So you see Maria was left quite literally holding the baby. There were no close relatives except the father so for the next four years Maria cared for the child, and grew to love her almost as a daughter. When at the end of the war the father came to Vine Manor to claim his child, Helena no longer had any memory of him or of her mother. She depended on Maria for the love and affection a small child needs. Pierre Colville stayed at Vine Manor for a few weeks, after which he and Maria both agreed that the best thing for the child's happiness was to leave her where she was. It was at about this time that Paul Grayling left, I remember."

"Was he jealous of the little girl?"

"On the contrary, he seemed very fond of Helena! She used to follow him around and want to join in whatever he was doing, and he was usually very patient with her. I would say they got on as well as any brother and sister, considering the big gap between their ages. Of course they are not brother and sister at all; against my advice, Maria decided not to go through the procedure of adopting Helena. Her father has never shown much interest in her and she's always seemed perfectly happy at Vine Manor."

"Did you meet Paul? Did you think it was really him?"

"Yes, I did speak to him briefly. He seemed reluctant to talk for very long and gave as his excuse his long and fatiguing journey the previous day. At first he didn't seem to recognise me, though I don't think I have changed that much! Strangely, though I would not have recognised him as Paul Grayling, I did have a feeling I had seen him somewhere before."

"So you do think it is really Paul?"

"My dear, it is impossible be sure."

Tessa Sanderson had to be content with that. It was a shame that Eve Perry's age and her bad knee prevented her from making regular trips to the village shops as she used to do when Tessa had first come to the village. The old housekeeper was an excellent source of gossip as she eavesdropped unashamedly and never hesitated to repeat a rumour.

After George Sanderson had gone, Helena went by herself to the study. This room, once the masculine domain of Maria's husband, had been rarely used since his death years before the infant Helena had come to Vine Manor, until she had taken to the study of medicinal herbs. Now the glass-fronted bookcases contained botanical volumes side by side with the leather bound sets of classic novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bought by the Grayling family. An old oak table at the centre of the room supported a set of scales, complete with brass weights, and a heavy stone pestle and mortar, used for crushing roots. The latest edition of "The Herbalist" lay open on this table, and a selection of similar journals was contained in a wooden rack. On a high shelf stood a row of specimen jars carefully labelled in Helena's neat lettering, filled with plant materials she had collected from the neighbouring woods, and from some of the old women of the area who claimed medicinal benefits from the use of these plants. Also kept here was a small selection of tightly stoppered bottles from the chemist, his untidy scrawl contrasting with Helena's hand. She used these in extracting the efficacious essences from the raw matter of the herbs.

But today Helena's thoughts were not of her latest rare plant specimen. She did not even glance at the eminent Dr Vogel's most recent article in "The Herbalist". Instead from between the pages of a large notebook she removed a letter. The torn envelope fell to the table, stamp and postmark revealing its origins in France, in Paris! She had already read it once, now she went through it a second time. She was glad she had hesitated to reply; just two days had made all the difference to her answer.

The letter was from her father, who she had not seen since she was a small child. She knew that Maria wrote to him occasionally, telling him of her progress. This was the first letter he had written to her and the first she had ever received from another country. He wrote to tell her of his recent marriage to a French woman many years younger than himself. Since the end of the war his army career had forced him to lead an unsettled life, never staying long in one place. He had never been able to find a woman he cared for until he had met his new bride. That, he wrote, was one reason why he had not felt able to take her to France to live with him. But now everything was changed; he was settled in an apartment in Paris and he longed to see his little girl again. His wife too was very much looking forward to meeting her. Would she like to visit them in Paris for perhaps a month?

Of course Helena wanted very much to go to Paris. She knew her father too little to miss him greatly, that was true, but she was curious to see what kind of a man he was, to meet the brave army officer, the daring war hero whose story Maria had told her when she as a child had asked questions. Even more she wanted to see Paris, the city of romance. She had only been away from Vine Manor once, on a short visit to London with Maria. They had travelled by train and the whole experience had been exciting, certainly, but this was another country and she would be crossing the sea! But how could she leave Maria, who depended on her so much and had no other company, alone for a month? She had never known Maria to be anything but kind and generous. She only had to ask and Maria would let her go, but she knew she would be greatly missed. So she had put off writing to her father and not told Maria of the invitation.

But of course now everything was different. Paul coming back had changed the situation. Maria would not miss her company so much, could not be lonely when she had her own son with her. If Paul would be staying at Vine Manor for at least a month, this would give her the perfect opportunity to go to Paris.

Read Chapter 3