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Gleaming rosewood panelling, and the woozy scent of snuff. Perhaps the best view of the grounds was the one to be seen through the window above the enormous desk: flower-garden in the foreground, shady woods just visible to the left, and dominating the tableau stood the rolling green hills, stretching out into the horizon. The room's purpose must have been decided with this view in mind, Rhyll thought later, a place for the man of the house to lean back in his desk-chair and survey all that was his. It had always been referred to as 'grandfather's library', and some years had passed before Rhyll had realised that the grandfather in question was not her own, but her father's; libraries were not places her own grandfather had found much use for, any more than her father, but still the girl Murrin shone the wood and scrubbed the windows until all the surfaces sparkled, as if it were still the sanctum sanctorum, silently restored to perfection before any other - better occupied - rooms were attended to. In proper use or not, it was not a place Rhyll ought to be found; but she knew the patterns of each day, knew when the odds might be in her favour if she nudged the door quietly and crept in. She was not a small child, but she could be almost inconspicuous in her movements - knew when to stop still, when to move rapidly and when to sidle past barely breathing, how to hold her face so it gave not the tiniest hint of her thoughts or plans. Some children resent their place in the shadow of a sibling, but Rhyll embraced it wholeheartedly. Freedom, she had decided, flowed directly from the relative lack of interest shown in her, and Edgecot was a very good place in which to possess such freedom.

Storing up silent timetables of the running of the house, Rhyll knew the intricate choreography of the maids' cleaning and polishing, the dull rota of the schoolroom, the daily monotony of being roused from her bed and sent marching in slippered feet to a tepid bath (not cold, Nanny would chirrup automatically, never cold for you dear, not the way it always had been for the boys). Several hours ahead of that formidable woman, she could glance from the window as she washed and predict whether lunch would be followed by one of Nanny's "bracing walks" in the grey wind; or (worse) a sedate game of tiddlywinks as rain streamed down the schoolroom window pane; or (blessed relief) a hasty command to "run along outside for half an hour in the fresh air" as Nanny withdrew behind the side door, tucking her voluminous cardigan more tightly about her. Her parents' doings were rather harder to make a pattern of, per se, but anything they did do was so loudly discussed in advance that it became every bit as predictable as the soothing recurrence of the life of the house - and in any case, her parents' activities had the least impact on her, what effects they did have being almost invariably welcome ones. Rhyll had particularly fond memories of the morning her father had breezed into the nurseries over breakfast, oblivious to Nanny's pursed lips, and told his two youngest that old Moredon's sow had had her litter in the night and wouldn't they like to come along for a quick look before the morning's lessons?

In the year Rhyll turned six, two things happened: the first was that Julian finally followed his two brothers to school, leaving her bereft of his near-constant companionship and into the bargain rather less free than she had been, now that Nanny, Miss Peters and her mother all had twice as much attention to focus directly on her; the second was that Ralph went off to France. To Rhyll herself, this meant little. Ralph - and Charles too - felt so very much older than her, almost more uncle than brother: the two would reappear each holiday in a flurry of top hats and woollen jackets, playing with their small siblings as an occasional ostentatious act of generosity before disappearing to mealtimes downstairs and, soon enough, back to school again. But for all both Ralph and the War were far beyond Rhyll's own world, she saw enough in the faces of others to understand that his departure on this occasion was important; perhaps as important to them as Julian's was to her.

Edgecot had not, of course, remained wholly untouched by war until Ralph joined the army. It was only much later that Rhyll was able to piece together her memories with Julian's, his three extra years making a great difference: unlike her, he remembered the rapid contraction in the house's staffing, the parties suddenly becoming more sombre and less frequent. Rhyll remembered only the garden, the decisive growth of the kitchen-garden at the expense of flowers, her mother's wince as azaleas gave way for vegetables. It was a cause of some sorrow to Rhyll that even in its expanded state, the kitchen-garden remained unseen from the window of the library. Here the view was surely still the same one her great-grandfather had looked out on, and probably his great-grandfather before him: the Devon countryside frozen reassuringly in stasis, unhindered by the passage of time and the changes it wrought. On those afternoons Nanny deemed too cold for herself but still health-giving for children, Rhyll took to idling near the gardens, watching at an unobtrusive distance when old Yates was at work and inching nearer when he was missing; the business of tending to the plants, and their definite changes day by day, forming yet more patterns to be noted and filed away in her mind.

In turn, Rhyll's memories of the big house in wartime enhanced Julian's, too; for the biggest change of all was one that happened while he was away at school, and while a much-depleted staff tried to attend to the practicalities in never-sufficient time. Nobody had time enough to spare for a child of nearly-eight, quietly lurking in corners as they worked, wordlessly taking everything in; standing in that forbidden polished room and staring determinedly through the window, learning every inch of the unchanging landscape framed there as if she knew she would not see it again.




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