Vine Manor

Chapter 6

Tessa Sanderson phoned the next day and they arranged for a visit in a few days time. Maria suggested to Paul that he might like to accompany them but he declined.

"No thanks, I'm sure you women will get on much better without me. I know women like to have these all girls tea parties."

Maria didn't try to persuade him. Though Paul still had not given Helena any driving lessons, they could take a bus from the village to a place near the Sanderson's home. Maria had been getting headaches for the past few weeks which she hoped would go away when she got her new glasses. On the day of the visit to Tessa's she had a severe headache and reluctantly told Helena to go without her.

Helena phoned Tessa who insisted on meeting her at the bus stop and giving her a lift to the old stone cottage where the Sandersons had lived since their marriage. They had a lot to talk about, Paul's return and Helena' s visit to her father in Paris. Nothing was said about the possibility that Paul was not who he claimed to be. It was just the two of them for tea as George had to spend the afternoon with an important client. The time flew by until suddenly Helena realised that she had to leave shortly if she was to catch the five past five bus.

"Take your time, Helena, I'll give you a lift to the bus stop, " Tessa offered. "If you like, I can give you a lift all the way home."

"No, Tessa! Thanks, a lift to the bus stop will be fine. It's only a short walk from the village and I need some exercise after all that delicious cake."

They got to the bus stop at exactly five. Helena waved goodbye as Tessa drove away and sat down on the wooden bench to wait for the bus. Then she noticed that the yellowing old timetable had been replaced with a new one. The times of the buses had changed while she was in Paris. The bus now left this stop at five to five and Helena had just missed it! Helena did not even consider sitting at the bus stop doing nothing for fifty minutes. It was a warm Spring day and to either side of the roads spread fields and woods. She decided to go for a walk. She had filled herself up with scones and cakes; it was true that she could do with some exercise. She had a watch and could make sure she was back by five to six when the next bus was due.

She walked along a footpath through the fields that led to an isolated cottage. She had been to this cottage once before, she remembered, to see the old woman who had lived there. Mrs Morgan was one of the local women who had contributed to Helena's study of herbal remedies. Helena had been introduced to her by the retired teacher Miss Forsythe, who had helped and encouraged Helena in her studies. Mrs Morgan had an excellent knowledge of the medicinal uses of many local plants. Although she was poor, she seemed better educated than many of the local women. A widow, living alone, she had died about a year ago and no other tenant had been found for her tiny cottage. As she neared the cottage Helena could see that some slates had fallen off the roof and one of the windows was cracked. Just on the other side of the cottage the footpath crossed a narrow country road. A car was parked by the side of this road, and Helena was amazed when she got closer to see that the car was Maria's!

When Helena was only a few yards away from the cottage, the door suddenly opened and Paul came out. He locked the door and went to the car. Helena was so surprised to see him come out of the cottage that for a moment she could not speak. Then she called out to him. At first she thought he hadn't heard, but just before he drove away he turned round and glared at her in anger. Then he sped down the road in the direction Helena knew led towards Vine Manor.

What was Paul doing in this lonely place? Obviously he had not wanted to be seen here. Helena was bewildered. She was also annoyed that Paul had not given her a lift home. Now she would have to walk back and get the bus. She glanced at her watch; it was time to start walking back to the bus stop. As she walked she thought about Paul's strange behaviour. She would not confront him the moment she got home and risk an argument which would upset Maria. No, it would be better to wait for a chance to ask Paul, in private, to explain his strange behaviour. Could it be possible that Eve Perry was right and he was using Mrs Morgan's cottage for a secret liaison with a married woman?

Helena arrived home only just in time for dinner. Maria and Mrs Perry had been worried as they knew she had been planning to catch the five past five bus and were on the verge of phoning Tessa to ask when she had left. Paul had apparently said nothing about seeing her on the footpath. Maria had taken some aspirin and said her headache was better, but Helena thought she was not her usual self. No one seemed to feel like talking and dinnertime was quiet and tense. After dinner Maria said her headache was worse and went up to her room. Helena went with her to help her find the new packet of aspirin. When she came downstairs she looked for Paul, thinking this would be a good chance to question him. She found him in the study.

Paul was sitting at the table with a bottle of red wine he had brought up from the cellar. Two full glasses of wine were on the table in front of him.

"I'm sorry I didn't give you a lift when I saw you earlier," he started as soon as he saw her, "but I thought Mrs Sanderson was with you. I know she has a car and I assumed she would be bringing you home."

Helena didn't think much of this excuse, but she was tired and didn't want to argue about it. It was too late to do anything about it anyway. She sat down with the latest issue of "The Herbalist".

"What were you doing in Mrs Morgan's old cottage? She died about a year ago, while you were away."

"Yes, I know. I just happened to be going past and I wanted to have a look at the place. Did you tell anyone you'd seen me there?" he asked.

Helena guessed there must be more to it than that, but she knew she was not likely to hear the truth from Paul. Definitely he must have something to hide.

"No, I didn't tell anyone. I thought I would ask you about it when I got home. Paul, I get the feeling you don't want anyone to know you've been there. If you've been doing something you shouldn't, Maria's going to be very upset when she finds out. For her sake, Paul, be careful! You know it's hard to keep secrets round here."

"I know you women are always gossiping together, and old Eve Perry is the worst of the lot. What has she been saying to you about me?"

"Nothing, except to say how good for Maria it is to have you back." Helena was certainly not going to repeat to Paul what Mrs Perry had said.

"Does anybody say I'm not really Paul Grayling?"

So he had been listening at the window when George Sanderson had been talking about this very subject!

"Maria knows you're really Paul, but George Sanderson still thinks we should have some kind of proof. He wanted to test you by asking you a lot of questions about the past, things that only the real Paul Grayling would know. Maria was against the idea, and George won't insist on it if she doesn't want it. But Paul, if you're worried that people might doubt your identity, why don't you take the test anyway? Then it would be proved. Everyone would have to accept you as Paul Grayling. The lawyers will recognise you as the heir to Vine Manor. Please let me phone George tomorrow and arrange it! That will put everybody's mind at rest."

"All right, Helena, if you think it's so important, I'll do it. Here, I've poured a glass of wine for you." He passed the nearer of the two wine glasses to her.

Helena took a sip. The wine tasted strong and bitter. She was surprised that Paul had agreed to the test so readily. She had expected indignation at her lack of trust in him. She would find it easier to trust him if he would trust her in return.

"Paul, won't you tell me why you went to that isolated cottage? Did you meet someone there?"

"Drink your wine, Helena, and maybe I'll tell you."

She drank more of the wine. The strange bitter taste was not to her liking, but if it gave Paul confidence in her that they were drinking together, then it was worth it. She remembered what Maria had said. Accept him; be his friend. She took a long drink of the wine. It must be very strong; she was already staring to feel the effects. She drank a little more. The room turned around her. She noticed that one of her specimen jars was out of place on the shelf. Rumex nigra. The jar was open and the lid was on the table, next to a crumpled leaf and a few petals, darker than blood. She felt her legs give way under her as the air was sucked out of the room and everything went dark before her eyes.

Read chapter 7