At the same time as Freddy had picked up his second puncture that day, Melsham wiped tomato soup from his moustache with the back of a forefinger and picked up his wine glass. He waved it carelessly at Slipper, sloshing a few drops across the table cloth. “Slipper, move your things out of the Gate House, will you?” he demanded loudly “I’m putting your quarters in the North Wing now.” His voice rang around the cavernous dining room, causing Slipper to wince, as much at the Earl’s familiarity with servants at table as the import of the message. He paused in serving the potatoes and looked at his master with incomprehension. “Milord?”
“North Wing, man.” Melsham waved a hand vaguely. “Quick as you can. I’ve got some builders coming in on Monday. They’ll want a free run at the site.”
“But milord” Slipper queried, “the Gate House is not included in the plans, if memory serves. May I ask why you wish me to move?”
“Wasn’t included, Slipper, wasn’t.” Melsham took a huge draught of wine, gesturing imperiously for a refill. “Is now.” He watched, with satisfaction, the seething emotions fighting for supremacy behind the controlled mask of Slipper’s face. “Progress, Slipper.” He spitefully pushed home the barb. “Can’t afford to let grass grow. This place is costing me an arm and a leg. Got to get a return. Time is money.”
Of all expressions, the latter was one which Slipper execrated. Had it been true, then the hitherto unhurried pace of life at Staddon Hall should have ensured a comfortable existence for all its inhabitants for ever more: time had previously been everything. The hurry-scurry of the outside world had been another dimension, visited only infrequently for the essential perquisites not available at the Hall. Time, it appeared, was now overhauling Slipper with the inexorable finality of an Einsteinian equation. And, it now seemed, deprive him of his home in the process.
He looked coldly at Melsham. “As milord wishes” he said, taking a stranglehold grip on his serving spoons and placing the potatoes on the plates with a forced regularity that belied his state of mind.
From the other end of the vast expanse of table, a blue-rinsed Lady Melsham had caught little of what had passed. A childhood illness had left her with a perforated ear-drum, and the reverberations of clicking cutlery on china and Melsham’s booming tones echoing in the hollow confines of the Dining Room had confused her hearing. She could see by the set of Sliper’s jaw, however, that Archibald had just scored another point: a considerable one, if Slipper’s constrained attitude was anything to go by.
Her impaired hearing had left her very perceptive. She simply could not understand why Archibald insisted on antagonising the man so much. Bully-boy tactics might be all very well in the hurly-burly of the market place, but in the privacy of their own home a little more refinement wouldn’t have come amiss. Lady Melsham was very big on ‘refinement’ with a medial ‘a-i’ - and wished that her husband would adopt a little of Slipper’s gentility. She admired Slipper, even though he was just a servant. His aloof bearing appealed to her well developed sense of snobbery and, unlike her rough-cut husband, his aquiline features and immaculate manners were the epitome of English County life, for which she so vainly strived. Acceptance into the County set was still a very long way off, unless Melsham’s wallet made the introduction any the easier, but Melsham was not about to ingratiate himself with the local gentry at the expense of his bank account. And, anyway, that didn’t appeal to Lady Melsham at all. If she were to be accepted as a peer and equal to the County neighbours it would be by dint of her own ‘breeding’ and not her husband’s wealth. She had, sadly, as much chance as fly and the naivety not to realise it.
She was harmless enough, though, even if her ideas of genteel society were wide of the mark, and grated on Slipper more, if anything, than Lappit’s phlegmatic refusal even to pay lip service to the precepts of his Title. He grudgingly had to admit, though, that of the family, Lady Melsham was the least objectionable.
He served her potatoes, still fulminating over the exchange with her husband, causing him to deposit the vegetables onto her plate a little more fiercely than he had intended, and Lady Melsham, sitting in poe-faced silence in the approved manner, jumped, startled by the unexpected crack of spoon on plate. Slipper apologised to her, inclining his head in dignified rectitude, and placed the next spoon full with a more considered approach.
Doris followed behind Slipper with the vegetable dish. She had had no chance to speak to him yet about the earlier incident and wondered whether the time was right anyway. Mr. Slipper had not seemed quite himself for a couple of days. Very withdrawn he had been. Any uncorroborated allegations against the master might not have received a willing hearing, notwithstanding the antipathy known to exist between the two, for his steadfast loyalty to his position was legendary. On balance, she decided, it was probably best to let things lie, just so long as the master kept his hands to himself.
The proximity of Doris’ pinafored bulk made that a fairly remote possibility from Melsham’s point of view. His hands clutched at the napkin crumpled on his lap in an effort to keep them from surreptitiously renewing their earlier intimacy with the meatier portions of the parlour maid’s anatomy. Doris recognised the signs and served the Earl’s vegetables hastily, anxious to be out of range of Melsham’s visibly quivering fingers. The action did not go unnoticed by Slipper, still discomfited by his own lapse, who threw a sharp little glance at Doris hurrying down the length of the table to serve Her Ladyship. The glance took in Lord Melsham, half darting forward in his chair after Doris’ quickly retreating bulk, and his eyes narrowed in surprise.
Melsham covered his unconscious reaction by bending down to pick up his napkin from the floor, where his spasmed hands had knocked it. He regained his seat, panting with exertion and with a fine beading of sweat on his brow.
Perceptive as she was, Lady Melsham failed to notice anything untoward, except that her husband looked a little more flushed than usual. Not that she would have noticed a great deal had he walked naked into the dining room with his coronet slung around his ‘doings’ - as she coyly called the apparatus - for Sylvia Lappit had long ceased to have any interest in what Archie did, or did not do, just so long as it didn’t interfere with her own blinkered aspirations. He provided the wherewithal, she - in her fondest imaginings - the credibility and social cachet. Only at rare intervals did she play the partner in the nuptial couch, and then out of habit more than anything else.
Where Archie obtained his own relief was a matter of supreme indifference to Lady Melsham. In fact, she often wished he would pick up a dose of something very nasty and leave her free to start her own life again, just so long as he was discreet about it. The prospect of reading Archie’s obituary in ‘Country Life’ was something which appealed to her. Even more, perhaps, than the fond hope that her daughter’s Studio photograph might one day grace the inside pages, announcing her engagement to one of Englands’ own: ’Carmen, only daughter of Lady Sylvia Melsham and the late Lord Melsham ” was the way the announcements usually read. It was quite incredible how many upper-crust fathers never actually got to see their progeny married off. England’s aristocracy, Lady Melsham thought in a rare flash of insight, must be run exclusively by a matriarchy of well-heeled widows.
She rolled that thought around like a rich Bordeaux across the palate and savoured the sensation. But, if the one possibility were remote at the moment, the other seemed to her virtually non-existent, as she looked up to see Carmen slouch into the dining room, pulling bits of straw from her hair, late again.
Slipper grimaced to himself in annoyance at Carmen’s late arrival. She managed to look, to him, a slut and a siren at the same time. The only photograph he could possibly visualize her in was the centre-spread of the dog-eared magazine he had confiscated from Harris some time ago, and now safely locked away in the bottom drawer of Slipper’s bedside cabinet.
In the cloistered confines of Staddon Hall, Slipper had never before had much experience of women. They were another race. To Slipper, the gender was divided into four distinct classes: wives or daughters of the gentry and, as such, inviolable; parlour maids and the like, and therefore sexless; the feminine half of the outside world, and utterly incomprehensible; and Fat Lil and her ladies of easy virtue, on whom Slipper took his bodily ease on Bank Holidays and on his birthday, never forgetting, of course to mentally scourge himself afterwards. It was one of the few perquisites of the outside world that even Slipper felt the urge for - although the urge had come rather late in life.
He owed this latter lapse to the late Earl who, in a state of advanced intoxication one day, had prevailed upon him to deliver a package to the county town of Rossiter. Having been given the wrong address, Slipper found himself embroiled in the welcoming embrace of Fat Lil, divested of his clothing without a by-your-leave, and well and truly rogered in no time at all by two ladies of ample proportions who thought he was someone else. When the truth came out, and the rightful client arrived, Lil had been profuse in her apologies and Slipper, in a severe state of shock and post-coital exhaustion, despatched by taxi back home to Staddon Hall.
Pemberton Horrocks had been overcome with mirth and remorse in equal, drunken, proportions at the incident: and Slipper with a melancholia assuaged only by another trip to Rossiter on the next Bank Holiday to resume where the previous occasion had left off. From then on, Slipper’s sexual exploits assumed a regular, if strictly rationed, pattern and despite his moral outlook, Fat Lil had become something of a friend and confidante.
Carmen would have been a natural contender for top saleslady at Fat Lil’s Emporium, and one to mark down in Slipper’s private little black book, had circumstances been different. As the daughter of a Peer of the Realm, circumstances could hardly have been any more different. No daughter of any Peer of the Realm had any right to look or act as Carmen. Slipper disapproved: and the conversation taking place across the table between father and daughter heightened that disapproval.
Melsham was glad of the distraction. He was aware that his slip had almost shown him in a publicly embarrassing light, and gave vent to his confusion in a blustering attack on his daughter’s late arrival.
Carmen retorted in like fashion, flashing fire from her eyes that was more than a match for her father’s pungent diatribe. She had inherited his vitriolic nature, which had sharpened the loquacious tongue that was the legacy of her mother: they made Carmen a force to be reckoned with.
At the sudden commotion, Lady Melsham roused herself from her reflections on widow-hood. Unable to make herself heard, she rapped on the table loudly with a silver candelabra to restore some semblance of dignity. Unfortunately, the heavy base catapulted a serving spoon through the air. Bouncing off the fruit bowl, it caught Doris, already in a skittish mood, a ringing ‘thwack’ across the withers.
“Oo’er!” she screamed, thinking his Lordship at his tricks again and, in instinctive reaction to cover the target area with her hands, dropped the serving bowl, which smashed on the floor. The crash of shattering china cut across everything and silence fell as all pairs of eyes turned in Doris’ direction. Staring aghast at the scattered remnants of the Crown Derby, she turned and fled to the kitchen, wailing, with her pinafore clutched to her face.
Slipper looked on in disbelief, with mouth uncharacteristically agape, and Lady Melsham, taking advantage of the lull, dismissed him from the room, anxious that servants should not be party to a family brawl. He hurried after Doris, who could be heard wailing down the corridor leading to the kitchen, and the squabble broke out behind him again.
Melsham now had two women to contend with, neither of whom, he knew from past experience, was likely to give any quarter. So, choosing retreat as the best strategic manoeuvre in the battle of the sexes now arraying against him, he withdrew, firing one last fusillade at his daughter as he left. “And don’t you forget, young lady, I can stop your allowance any time I like. So a bit more respect in future, or you’ll find yourself out on your fanny looking for a job - and see how you like that!” He stormed out of the dining room, Doris’ withers temporarily forgotten.
The colour rose to Carmen’s cheeks in two flaming red spots and her heaving breast threatened to scatter the buttons on her blouse across the dining table. The threat was always the same. Buying affection at the cost of a few paltry quid. But Carmen was, by now, so used to the financial support of her father, and he to the idea that fiscal provision was adequate recompense for witheld affection that the threat was effective. In truth, did she but know it, Melsham could not trust himself to express his feelings in that direction, since Carmen evidenced too much of the qualities he so admired in the ladies of his choosing. Whilst he drew a wavering line at actual incest, the temptation was always tantalisingly and wobblingly within a hand’s grasp that the strain of keeping within the bounds of acceptable behaviour told in the relationship.
To her discredit, Lady Melsham did not recognise the signs, but a cloistered upbringing, and a storybook romance with the young Archibald, leading to a whirlwind courtship and early marriage, had hardly prepared her for the grossness of human nature. On the other hand, it had done a great deal for the growth of Lappit’s little empire, for his new wife’s father was persuaded to throw in his small chain of shops with his ambitious son-in-law, only to be chewed up and spat out some years later as Lappit assumed total control of the one-sided partnership that had arisen. By that time Sylvia was revelling too much in playing the society hostess to her husband’s meteoric career to have noticed anything underhand in the treatment of her family. It was only at the birth of their daughter that she realised, with some surprise, her parents had become somewhat alienated. Although the grandchild papered over a few of the cracks, things were never the same again. The strain and disillusionment doubtless contributed to their early demise, and a dry-eyed Sylvia was left wondering what their life had really been about.
To amortize the latent guilt, she had thrown herself even harder into the role of provincial society hostess, neglecting her growing daughter in the process and allowing her to find her own way in life, whilst her husband had gradually taken his own particular direction. At the time that Lappit’ s inheritance had become established, Sylvia was just beginning to realise what a fool she had been, but too late to salvage the remnants of self-respect she had left. So, she compounded the muddle by pretending to be the Lady she patently was not, nor could ever be.
Carmen had never really analysed the situation. To her, parents were an irritating necessity, but not having the intellect or the presence to make much of herself, had relied on her sensuality to win acceptance. In that facet of her life, at least, she could claim some success but, like her father, was finding life in rural Dimpset a bit more restricting than the lusty North, although she had done her bit to try to transpose the libidinous themes of D.H. Lawrence to the southern clime. Harris’s Mellors to her Chatterley promised to set the moors alight in time - if Harris could stand the pace. She stood, and petulantly flounced out of the dining room, leaving her mother presiding over the remains of the meal.
Lady Lappit sourly surveyed the table and, resolutely remaining in her seat, rang for Slipper to serve the sweet.
In the gathering gloom outside, Harris paused on his weary way home to witness the row taking place. He was grateful for the chance to rest. “That Carmen’s all right” he thought, “But ’er ain’t ’alf a goer!” His eyes crossed at the memory of their recent efforts in the hay loft. At one point he had actually feared for his life as Carmen’s ponderous breasts had jounced and jostled across his breathing apparatus in their frenzied quest for gratification. Consequently, he was feeling delicate and jaded, and badly in need of six pints of Guinness at the local pub.
He sank down on a mounting block outside the dining room window to watch the drama unfold. It was all but over by the time he had settled himself: Melsham had stormed out of the room and Carmen had followed shortly afterwards, with a set about her features that boded ill for anyone she might encounter. Harris had seen her in that mood before, and wanted no part of it. But he was a bit late off the mark to avoid it.Throwing open the courtyard door in her anger, Carmen ran out, and caught Harris four-square in the eye with her left breast, causing him to emit a muffled “whmmpff!.” Grabbing the startled gardener as the answer to a prayer, she led him off to the stables, protesting, while the buttons on her blouse finally gave up the ghost.
If Harris had thought that the events in the hay loft had proved enervating, those which followed had him begging for blessed release. Carmen was like a woman possessed: possessed, at one moment, of his right ear, clenched between teeth that seemed capable of tearing it from his head: at the next, clutching his genitals with a ferocity that made his eyes pop, and his body rigid with the fear that any sudden movement on his part might make all Carmen’s efforts at arousal a complete waste of time. Gurgling, he emerged red-faced from beneath her writhing body, and opened his mouth wide in a vain attempt to suck in some precious air.
Mistaking the intention, Carmen promptly inserted a nipple from which the horses’ tack ranged around the stable walls, could easily have hung. He spat it out, squawking, and sank his hands amongst the rippling flesh to push Carmen off. The urgency of his touch electrified her. With a shuddering cry, her body stiffened against his for agonising seconds, before she collapsed, as though shot.
Harris lay beneath her, whimpering in defeat and smothered by what amounted to a mound of pink marshmallow. Slowly he extricated himself from the yielding mass, and leaving Carmen to sleep off her excess of zeal, crawled off to his own bed, Guinness now forgotten in favour of a comforting cup of Ovaltine.