Read The Hardie Inheritance Online
Authors: Anne Melville
On a summer morning in 1932 Grace Hardie rose early, as usual. For a few moments, stretching herself, she stared out of one of the windows of her tower bedroom, enjoying the stillness which surrounded her. No breeze rippled the trees; no clouds drifted across the sky. The sheep in the meadow were still asleep and even the birds were not yet on the wing.
All the land she could see was her own. The stone spires of Oxford and the ever-expanding factories of the Morris works were not far away, but were obscured from her view by a screen of mature woodland to the south and west. In terms of acres to be kept under control, the size of the estate was an anxiety; but at five o'clock in the morning it could be thought of simply as space: a guarantee of peace and solitude. She breathed deeply, savouring the silence.
Then it was time to throw off the mantle of a landed gentlewoman and prepare for a day to be spent in manual labour. She plunged her face into a bowl of cold water, pulled a comb through her short black hair and dressed herself in dungarees which were intended for a man but fitted her tall, straight figure well enough. It would have been true to say that she didn't care what anyone thought of her appearance; but there was a simpler truth than that. She didn't expect anyone outside her family to see her on what she assumed would be an uneventful day: a day like any other.
Few visitors came to the house which Grace shared with her mother and brother. No neighbours called to leave cards; no friends arrived by invitation for luncheon or dinner.
Greystones, the mansion on Shotover Hill which an elderly marquess had built for his great-granddaughter, contained a dining room in which a butler and full complement of footmen might serve twenty guests with a meal prepared by a cook and her kitchen maids. But the last indoor servant had left in 1922, and the three resident members of the Hardie family ate in the kitchen.
So no longer did any ladies withdraw after dinner to the large, light drawing room. No gentlemen retreated to the smoking room or chalked their cues in the billiards room. All the main entertaining rooms and most of the bedrooms had been covered with dust sheets, in order that pretty chintz covers and embroidered bedspreads should not fade, nor polished mahogany surfaces become scratched.
Yet the house, although for most of the time silent, was still alive. Only the top storey, where once servants slept, had been abandoned to damp and dirt. Each member of the family had chosen some part of Greystones to be converted into a private kingdom. Grace had taken over the large studio originally designed for her mother. Mrs Hardie herself nowadays painted her watercolours mostly out of doors, using for indoor work one of several pantries which led off the kitchen. Appreciating its north light, she ignored the lack of comfort.
For her private sitting room she used the boudoir which was part of the main bedroom suite. Her own paintings, covering the walls, provided memories of her husband, who had inherited his family's business but escaped to become an explorer. As she sat sewing or knitting she could rest her eyes on the scene of his grave in China, with the Himalayan mountains rising in the background; or enjoy the more cheerful picture of the valley of lilies which had made Gordon Hardie famous as a plant-hunter and had given his name to a new species.
Philip, the only one of her six sons who still lived in his childhood home, had inherited his father's interest in new plants, and so had appropriated not only the panelled library
which adjoined the drawing room but also the plant rooms which stood a little way away from the house. In these he continued practical experiments in grafting and hybridization, before planting out his experimental seedlings in the cold glasshouse or the walled garden.
In a manner which the architect who designed Greystones could never have intended, the kitchen had become the new heart of the house. It was here that the three Hardies assembled whenever they did not want to be alone, for it was always warm and cheerful with the smells of newly-baked bread or nourishing soups made from home-grown vegetables. Lucy Hardie had been born in a grand country house and brought up in an aristocratic family which hardly knew where its own kitchens were to be found â certainly never venturing inside them. But on finding herself widowed and almost penniless, unable any longer to afford the staff which all her life she had thought to be indispensable, she had set to work to acquire new skills. No longer was food always brought to the table tepid and overcooked. With no more ceremony than a good washing of hands, Philip and Grace could sit down at the scrubbed kitchen table and know that they would be sustained through days of hard physical labour by generous and tasty meals.
The three inhabitants of Greystones were not ashamed of their change of fortune. It was not through any conscious choice of their own that no visitors â except of course Jay, the youngest of Mrs Hardie's surviving children; and Midge, her sister-in-law â ever came to the house. None of them was by nature unfriendly. It was just an accident of life that they lacked friends outside their own family.
Grace, who was thirty-five years old, had no schoolfriends with whom to keep in touch because she had never been to school. She was educated â after a fashion â by a governess at home, and her brothers and the son of the head gardener had provided sufficient companionship during her childhood.
In normal circumstances she would undoubtedly have been introduced into a wider social life when she reached the age of eighteen; but by that time the war had started. The young men who should have been partnering her to dances were dying on the Western Front, and the mood at home was sombre. It was no time for parties. Grace had made a way of life for herself in which she was happy and had not allowed the coming of peace to change it. It was a solitary life, but she had adjusted herself to it so well that she never felt lonely.
Her brother Philip became solitary for different reasons. The end of the war in 1918 found him still shell-shocked and with lungs damaged beyond repair in a gas attack. The fourteen years which had passed since then failed to heal either his body or his spirit completely. He spent most of the daylight hours out of doors, because every shallow breath he took must be of the freshest air, but the impression of good health created by his sun-tanned face was a deceptive one.
Although by now he had recovered well enough to converse normally if he chose, the first years of convalescence, spent in a silent community, seemed to have robbed him of any wish to speak. Smiling and nodding, he listened to the conversations of his mother and sister, but rarely contributed to them. The friends he had made at school or in the army had for the most part died in battle. Those few who survived understood his need for silence: they wrote letters from time to time, but did not intrude on his privacy.
Their mother's approach to self-sufficiency took a more individual route. Her pedigree â for she was the granddaughter of the eleventh Marquess of Ross â should have opened the doors of county society to her; and Greystones would have provided a suitable setting for her skills as a hostess. But she had married into trade. The highest class of trade, admittedly, for there was a difference between a vintner and, say, a butcher: but trade nevertheless. The county stayed away and Lucy Hardie, rearing her large family and running the household
during her husband's long absences, held her head high and refused to notice its coldness. At the same time, the grandeur of her connections perhaps daunted those members of Oxford's other family businesses who might otherwise have welcomed her into their own circle.
Whatever the reasons, she had never since her marriage enjoyed much social life. In the prosperous days before 1914 she was content to live surrounded by her family; and when, after the war, The House of Hardie came near to bankruptcy and her income disappeared almost overnight, she was too proud to look for any sympathy or company except that of her children.
They had settled down together, Mrs Hardie and Grace and Philip, in a manner which brought them satisfaction. They each had time in which to indulge their different enthusiasms, whilst contributing equally to the care of the house and the cultivation of the land around it â working as their own domestic servants and farm labourers in the interests of self-sufficiency.
So it was that as Grace ran down the spiral staircase from her round tower bedroom that morning, her mind was on nothing more exciting than the list of jobs to be done. Waving a cheerful hand at Philip, who was already milking the goats, she carried buckets of swill and scrap towards the pigsties and the henhouse. She was a tall, strong woman, accustomed to carrying heavy loads. Later, after breakfast, she intended to pick many pounds of raspberries: some for her mother to preserve; some for Philip to use in wine-making, a few for the family to eat, and many more for Frith to carry down to a greengrocer to be sold as local produce.
Frith had been the head gardener at Greystones in the days of the family's prosperity, ruling over his own staff of journeymen and boys. Rather than lose the lodge cottage as well as his job when Mrs Hardie found it no longer possible to pay staff, he had agreed to continue working without wages in
return for the right to sell surplus produce and keep a proportion of the profit for himself. It was only as she started picking the fruit that Grace noticed the gardener's absence and remembered that he had not been in good health for the past few days. Later, she promised herself, she would go down to the cottage and make enquiries. But there was no cause for anxiety, so far as she knew: his non-appearance was worthy of note only because it was so rare for there to be any variation on the day's usual routines.
And so, as she picked and tasted the juicy ripe berries, Grace allowed her mind to wander to the work she would do on her own account once her day's chores were accomplished. Not that she thought of it as work, for her all-absorbing activity brought her nothing but satisfaction. She was a maker of shapes.
Sometimes she carved wood and sometimes stone; sometimes she modelled clay; but always the work which emerged deserved no name except that of a shape. People, animals, flowers, objects of any kind â none of these things inspired her to copy them. The forms she created came out of her own imagination and satisfied her own eye: that was all she cared about. This afternoon, since the weather was fine enough for working out of doors, she would return to a piece that she was making from stone. She allowed her thoughts to dwell on curves and planes and spaces. More than anything else Grace enjoyed creating spaces.