Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

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Next: Chapter 8

7

In the mornings when she woke, and the light was pale and lemony, Gwen felt that life couldn’t get any better. It had been over a week now, and every single night Laurence had stayed with her. Something had released its grip on him and he was as passionate as he’d been before they arrived at the plantation. They made love at night and then they made love in the mornings too. While he slept, the sound of his breathing was comforting, and if she woke before him she just lay listening and marvelling at her luck.

She heard the sound of a distant cockerel and watched as Laurence’s lashes flickered.

‘Hello, darling,’ he said, opening his eyes and reaching for her.

She snuggled in to him, luxuriating in the warmth.

‘Shall we get food sent in and stay in bed all day?’ he said.

‘Really? Aren’t you going to work?’

‘No. This is a day entirely for you. So what would you like to do?’

‘Do you know what, Laurence?’

He grinned. ‘Tell me.’

She whispered in his ear.

He laughed and pulled a face. ‘Well, I wasn’t expecting that! Bored with me already?’

She kissed him hard on the mouth. ‘Never!’

‘Well, if you’re serious, I don’t see why you shouldn’t see how the tea is made.’

‘I knew all about making cheese at Owl Tree.’

‘Of course, I’ve tasted it … so you really want to get up now?’

He stroked her hair and neither of them moved.

He began to bite her ear. Every day Laurence seemed to find a new part of her body, and once he’d found it, she experienced feelings she’d never known were possible. Today, from her ear his mouth travelled all the way down past her breasts, round her waist and to the place between her legs, where she felt the shock of wanting him. But he ignored her as she pushed against him, and carried on to the soft sensitive place at the back of her knees. When he’d finished kissing them he examined the scars on the front of her knees.

‘Heavens, girl, what have you done to yourself?’

‘It was the Owl Tree. When I was a child, I used to look for the ghosts in the tree, but I kept falling out before I found them.’

He shook his head. ‘You are impossible.’

Whoever would have thought this would be so heavenly, she thought as they made love, and, feeling the warmth of his skin against her own, all thoughts of tea vanished from her mind.

Two hours later, with the rain holding off but a heavy mist still circling the land, Laurence walked her up the hill and along a track she hadn’t spotted before. When they could see the lake, Gwen noticed the water was still brown where red earth had washed down. The woods were unusually hushed, the trees dripping and ghostly, and for a moment Gwen believed in the devils that Naveena said still took cover there. All along their route, the rain had intensified the scent of wild orchids and the smell of the grass. Spew, who had become singularly attached to Gwen, ran on ahead, sniffing and snuffling.

‘What are those flowers?’ she asked, looking at a tall plant with white blooms.

‘Angel’s Trumpets, we call them,’ he said, and then pointed at a large rectangular building with rows of shuttered windows, high up on the hill behind their house. ‘Look, there’s the factory.’

She touched his arm. ‘Before we go in, I’ve been wanting to ask if you’d found out who did that to Tapper?’

There was a flicker of distress on Laurence’s face. ‘It’s hard to prove. They close ranks, you see. It’s not helpful when it becomes a question of us against them.’

‘So why was Tapper killed?’

‘Revenge over an old injustice.’

She sighed. It was so complicated here. She had been brought up to be kind to people and animals. If you were kind, people usually responded the same way.

When they finally reached the building she was out of breath, and watched dark-skinned men squatting on an exterior ledge and washing the multiple windows. Laurence opened the door to the sounds of Hindu worship in the distance, and ordered Spew to wait outside.

He showed Gwen in. There was the clunking noise of machines from the floor above, and a slightly medicinal smell.

He noticed her listening. ‘There are a lot of machines involved. Everything used to be powered by wood, and on many estates still is, but here, I’ve invested in fuel oil. Was one of the first, in fact, though we have our wood-burning furnace for drying. Blue gum wood we use. It’s a kind of eucalyptus.’

Gwen nodded. ‘I can smell it.’

‘The building is on four floors,’ he said. ‘Do you want to sit down to catch your breath?’

‘No.’ She scanned the spacious ground-floor room. ‘I didn’t realize it would be so big.’

‘Tea needs air.’

‘So, what’s happening here?’

His eyes lit up. ‘You really want to know?’

‘Of course.’

‘It’s a complicated process, but this is where the baskets of green leaves come in and get weighed. Though there are other weighing stations too. The women are paid by the pound, you see. We do have to keep an eye that they don’t include anything they shouldn’t to bulk up the weight. We only want the very tips of the bushes. Two leaves and a bud is what we say.’

She noticed how warm and friendly he was with a man who came up and spoke in Tamil. After Laurence had replied, also in Tamil, he proudly put an arm round her shoulders.

‘Gwen, let me introduce you to my factory manager and tea maker. Darish is in charge of the entire manufacturing process.’

The man nodded rather uncertainly and bowed before heading off again.

‘He’s only ever seen one Englishwoman in here.’

‘Caroline?’

‘No, actually, it was Christina. Come upstairs and I’ll show you the withering tables. When there’s a large amount of leaf, Darish and his withering supervisor will be working from two in the morning, but because of the weather it’s quiet at the moment.’

To Gwen it didn’t seem quiet at all, but a medley of activity, movement and background noise. Whether it was the mention of Christina that made her feel uneasy, or the intoxicating smell of leaf, strong, slightly bitter and rather strange, she didn’t know. She told herself not to be silly. Laurence had said it was over.

They walked past piles of baskets and various bits of paraphernalia, tools, rope and the like, and then went on up the stairs.

‘These are the withering lofts where we allow the leaves to wither naturally,’ he said as they reached the top. ‘The tea plant is actually called Camellia Sinensis.’

Gwen looked at the four long platform tables on which the tea was laid out. ‘How long does it take to wither?’ she asked.

He put an arm round her waist and she leant against him, enjoying being with him in his world.

‘It depends on the weather. If it’s misty, as it is now, it withers slowly. The leaves need warm air to circulate through, you see. The temperature has to be just right. Sometimes we have to use artificial heat from the furnace to dry the leaf. That’s what you can hear. But in fine weather, if the shutters are properly adjusted, the wind coming through the open windows is enough.’

‘And what’s on the floor below?’

‘Once it’s withered adequately, it will go under rollers to bruise the leaves. Do you want to see?’

She watched as the withered leaf was sent down large chutes and into another machine on the floor below. As Darish joined them again, Laurence rolled up his sleeves and, striding around, checked the machines, looking so much in his element she couldn’t help smiling.

He said something in Tamil as he turned to Darish. The man nodded then shot off to do as he’d been asked.

‘Shall we go down?’ Laurence took her arm and they headed for the stairs. ‘The leaves will be compressed in the roll breakers.’

‘And then?’

‘A rotor vane chops the tea, then it will be sifted to separate the larger particles from the smaller.’

She sniffed the air, which now smelt rather like dried mown grass, and gazed at tea that looked like chopped tobacco.

‘It will be fermented in the drying room. It’s the fermentation that turns it black.’

‘I never realized so much went into my morning cup of tea.’

He kissed the top of her head. ‘That’s not the end of it. It’s fired to stop the fermentation, then it’s sifted into different grades, and then, only after the final inspection, is it packed and sent off to London or Colombo.’

‘So much to do. Your man must be very skilled.’

Laurence laughed. ‘He is. As you can see, he has assistant tea makers, and dozens of workers, but he’s been on this estate since he was a boy. He worked for my father before me, and he really knows the job.’

‘So who actually sells the tea?’

‘It’s auctioned, either in Colombo or London, and my agent fixes up my financial affairs. Now, I think the midday horn will be going off very shortly and you’ll find it unbearably loud from here.’

He grinned and she couldn’t help see what a powerful man she had married. He wasn’t just lean and strong from the physical work he did, he was also determined and very much in charge. And though he was having trouble implementing some of the changes he talked about, she had absolute confidence that he would succeed.

‘I love it that you’re interested,’ he said.

‘Wasn’t Caroline?’

‘Not really.’ He took her arm and led her out.

The mists had lifted and the sky had cleared. It almost looked as if it wasn’t going to rain.

‘Laurence, I was wondering, why hasn’t your sister married?’

He frowned, and a serious look came into his eyes. ‘I still have hopes.’

‘But why hasn’t she?’

‘I don’t know. She’s a complicated girl, Gwen. I hope you understand that. Men fall for her but then she pushes them away. It’s a mystery to me.’

Gwen didn’t say that she thought Verity sometimes seemed to set herself up to look unattractive to men. She took a breath and sighed.

When they were a hundred yards down the track, the horn blew. She clapped her hands over her ears and tripped over a branch that had fallen across the path.

He groaned. ‘I did say.’

She picked herself up and began to run. Laurence and Spew raced after her, then Laurence swooped down and lifted her into his arms.

‘Put me down at once, Laurence Christopher Hooper. What if someone sees!’

‘You cannot be trusted to get down a hillside without scratching, grazing or cutting yourself, so I am going to carry you.’

That afternoon the sound of shouting distracted Gwen from the post-luncheon book she was reading. A nice little detective story. She reluctantly put the book down and got up to see what was going on.

She heard Laurence call for Naveena. Out in the hallway, he was attempting to comfort Fran, who was sitting with swollen angry eyes and tears streaming down her flushed cheeks.

Gwen went straight to Fran. ‘Darling, what on earth has happened? Is there bad news?’

Fran shook her head and gulped but, unable to speak, began to sob again.

‘It’s her charm bracelet,’ Laurence said. ‘It’s gone missing. But I have no idea why she’s so upset. I told her I’d buy her a new one, but it only made her cry the harder.’

Fran stood, turned on her heels and fled.

‘See what I mean.’

‘Oh, Laurence. You are an idiot. That was her mother’s bracelet. All the charms are individual and were collected over her mother’s entire lifetime. Every charm meant something to Fran. It is utterly irreplaceable.’

Laurence’s face fell. ‘I had no idea. Is there nothing we can do?’

‘Organize a search, Laurence. That’s what you can do. Get all the servants to search. I’m going to comfort my cousin.’

The next day, Fran had not turned up for breakfast, so Gwen knocked on her door and tiptoed in. In the room, the shutters were closed and the sour odour of overnight sweat hung in the air. She marched over to the window to let in fresh air.

‘Is something wrong?’ she said, glancing across at Fran. ‘You’re not even up. Didn’t you remember we’re going out for lunch?’

‘I feel awful, Gwen. Really awful.’

Gwen glanced at Fran’s full lips, her long lashes and the two spots of pink on her otherwise flawless complexion. How was it that Fran still looked lovely even when she was unwell, whereas at the first sneeze of a cold, Gwen looked ethereal at best and ghostly at worst.

She sat on the edge of the bed and put a hand on her cousin’s forehead. It was rare to see Fran looking sorry for herself.

‘You’re awfully hot,’ Gwen said. ‘I’ll get Naveena to bring you some porridge and tea in bed.’

‘I couldn’t eat a thing.’

‘Maybe not, but you must drink.’

Gwen couldn’t pretend she wasn’t disappointed. This was the day she and Fran were due to go to Nuwara Eliya to lunch with Christina and Mr Ravasinghe. She wanted to see Christina again, partly out of curiosity and partly to put her own mind at rest, but now that Fran had woken up feverish, they most certainly could not go.

‘It’s because you were so upset yesterday,’ Gwen said. ‘And the weather doesn’t help.’

Fran groaned. ‘I don’t think my bracelet will ever be found. It has been stolen, I’m sure.’

Gwen thought about it. ‘Did you still have it after the ball?’

‘Definitely. You know I wear it almost every day and I’d have noticed if it was missing.’

‘I’m so sorry.’

Fran sniffed.

‘Well, don’t worry about today. We can go another time.’

‘No, Gwen, you go. Savi is unveiling his painting. At least one of us must be there.’

‘You like Mr Ravasinghe, don’t you, Fran?’

Fran’s face coloured. ‘I do like him. Very much, as it happens.’

‘Trust you. I know he’s attractive, and it might be fashionable in some circles to patronize artists, but the parents will have a fit.’ Though she had spoken with a smile, her words were scolding.

‘Your parents, Gwen.’

There was a short silence.

‘Look,’ Gwen said. ‘I can’t possibly go without you. I don’t think Laurence would like it. I don’t know why, but he’s not too keen on Savi.’

Fran made a small gesture of irritation. ‘It’s probably just because he’s Sinhalese.’

Gwen shook her head. ‘No. I don’t think it’s that at all.’

‘Anyway, you don’t have to tell him. It would be dreadful to let Savi down. Please say you’ll go.’

‘And if Laurence finds out?’

‘Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something. Can you get back by suppertime?’

‘By train, possibly.’

‘Well then, you’ll be back. He probably won’t even notice.’

Gwen laughed. ‘If it means that much to you. And Laurence isn’t here for lunch today. But who’ll look after you?’

‘Naveena can bring me drinks and change the sheets. Other than that, the butler can call the doctor if need be.’

‘I suppose I could ask Verity to go with me.’

Fran raised her brows.

‘But then again, maybe not.’

Fran laughed. ‘You’re not telling me the angelic Gwendolyn Hooper is actually admitting to disliking someone?’

Gwen gave her a poke in the ribs. ‘I don’t dislike her.’

‘Oi! I’m ill, you know. But if you are going, hurry up, or you won’t make the train.’ She paused. ‘One last thing.’

‘Fire away,’ Gwen said as she leant over to straighten Fran’s bedclothes.

‘Find out if he likes me, Gwen. Please.’

Gwen laughed as she stood up, but she had heard a pensive note in her cousin’s voice.

‘Please?’

‘No, honestly, I can’t. It’s ridiculous.’

‘I’ll be going back to England soon,’ Fran said, her voice firm again. ‘And I just want to know if I’ve got a chance, before I go.’

‘For what exactly?’

Fran shrugged. ‘That remains to be seen.’

Gwen stooped over the bed and took Fran’s hand. ‘Mr Ravasinghe is very lovely, but you cannot marry him. Frannie? You do know that, don’t you?’

Fran pulled her hand away. ‘I don’t see why not.’

Gwen sighed, and considered it. ‘For one thing, apart from me, nobody here would speak to you again.’

‘I wouldn’t care. Savi and I could live like savages on a remote island in the Indian Ocean. He could paint me naked every day, until my skin turned brown in the sun, and then we’d be the same colour.’

Gwen laughed. ‘You are quite ridiculous. One minute in the sun and you look like a lobster.’

‘You’re a spoilsport, Gwendolyn Hooper.’

‘No, I just believe in being practical. Now I’m off. Take care.’

Christina wore another black dress, with a plunging neckline, and black lace gloves that ended just past her elbows. Her green eyes glittered, and Gwen noticed how beautifully shaped her brows were. Her blonde hair was barely pinned up, but hung in loops down her back; interwoven with black beads, it gave the impression of effortless glamour. She had a heavily sequinned silver ribbon that lay across her forehead, jet drop earrings and a jet choker. Gwen, in a pastel day dress, felt eclipsed.

‘So,’ Christina said as she waved her ebony cigarette holder in the air. ‘I hear you met our ravishing Mr Ravasinghe before your feet even touched Ceylonese soil.’

‘I did … He was kind to me.’

‘Oh, that is like Savi. He is kind to everyone, aren’t you, sweetie? I’m surprised you didn’t head straight off into the jungle with him.’

Gwen laughed. ‘The thought did cross my mind.’

‘But then again, you have hooked the most eligible man in Ceylon.’

Savi turned to Gwen and winked. ‘Don’t take a blind bit of notice. Christina’s whole aim in life is to get under people’s skin, one way or another.’

‘Well, since darling Ernest popped off, what is there to do but make even more money, and annoy the hell out of everyone? He left me a bank, you know. How boring is that? Several years ago now, of course. But I shall stop right now. It isn’t fair on our new arrival. I hope we shall become immensely good friends, Gwen.’

Gwen said something vague in response. She had never met anyone quite like Christina, and it wasn’t just the strange New York accent that made her different. She had an unsettling thought that perhaps it was that very difference that Laurence had found attractive.

‘Why are you in Ceylon, Mrs Bradshaw?’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, don’t be bashful, call me Christina.’

Gwen smiled.

‘I’ve been here on and off for years, but I’m here now because Savi promised to paint my picture. I found him ages ago at a little exhibition of his work in New York. So intimate, his portraits. He draws the heart out of his sitter. I, for one, have fallen in love with him. We all do in the end. You must get him to paint you.’

‘Oh, I –’

‘Now I do hope you like duck,’ Christina interrupted. ‘We are having curried brinjal to start with, and then the most beautiful honeyed duck.’

As Christina led them into the dining room, Gwen stopped in front of a large mask hanging on the wall of the corridor.

‘What is that?’

‘A traditional devil dancer’s mask.’

Gwen gaped at the odious thing, took a step back and bumped right into Mr Ravasinghe, who patted her on the back. The mask was shocking. An abomination. Wild grey hair a foot long, a large open red mouth with bared teeth, and bright red ears that stuck out either side. It had ogling orange eyes and the nose and cheeks were painted white.

‘Your gorgeous husband gave it to me,’ Christina said. ‘A little gift. You know how appreciative he is.’

Gwen was dumbstruck, both by the gift and Christina’s attitude.

She thought back to earlier on when, after taking a carriage from the small station at Nanu Oya, she’d met Mr Ravasinghe at the Grand. She had waited for him outside in the street and had picked up the scent of eucalyptus drifting across from the cloudy Pidurutalagala ranges. With things now going well with Laurence, she’d felt embarrassed by her previous interest in the painter. Though she could remember little of what had passed, she did feel ashamed that she’d drunk so much champagne at the ball.

Today, outside the Grand, he had smiled deeply as if nothing had happened at all, then he’d taken her arm to assist her across a road crammed with bullock carts and rickshaws. At that point a high-pitched voice had called out.

‘Hello. How are you?’ the woman asked and stared with her nostrils flaring. Gwen was beginning to think of Florence as the voice of conscience.

‘Very well, thank you,’ she said.

‘I hope your husband is well, dear.’ The word ‘husband’ was pointedly emphasized.

‘Florence, it is lovely to see you, but I’m afraid we can’t stop to natter. We’re on our way to luncheon.’

Florence’s nostrils flared again, and her chins shook. ‘Without Laurence?’

‘Yes, he’s busy all day. Some business about the rollers.’

‘No doubt God will take care of you, dear,’ she added, narrowing her eyes at Mr Ravasinghe.

After that they’d passed a small photographer’s shop. Gwen glanced in the window and, intrigued to see a photograph of a wedding ceremony between a European man and a Sinhalese woman in traditional dress, she thought of Fran.

Mr Ravasinghe noticed her looking. ‘It wasn’t unusual, you know, in the early days. Up until the mid nineteenth century, the government actually encouraged mixed marriage.’

‘Why did it change?’

‘A lot of reasons. In 1869, once the Suez Canal was open, that made it easier for Englishwomen to get here quickly. Up until then they’d been scarce on the ground. But even before that the government wanted to claw back power. They were worried the Eurasian offspring of mixed marriages wouldn’t be so loyal to the Empire.’

Now, as they seated themselves at the small dining table and Gwen kept a watch on Christina, she wondered if she might have been a little sharp with Fran about Mr Ravasinghe.

‘Ah,’ Christina said and clapped her hands. ‘Here comes the brinjal.’

The waiter served something Gwen did not recognize.

‘Don’t look so worried, Gwen,’ Savi said. ‘It’s only aubergine. It absorbs all the garlic and spices. Delicious. Do try.’

Gwen forked a piece up. The texture felt strange in her mouth, but the flavours were lovely, and she was suddenly ravenous. ‘It’s very nice.’

‘How well mannered you are. We will have to change that, won’t we, Savi?’

Mr Ravasinghe gave her another warning look.

‘Oh, all right. Savi, you are a bore.’

Gwen concentrated on polishing off her brinjal, while the other two talked. This foreign food was growing on her, but Gwen felt a little intimidated by Christina. A familiar sinking feeling took hold of her and she found it hard to swallow the last forkful as she began to wonder about Laurence and Christina again. Devil dancing indeed! Had Laurence given it to her to mean something in particular, or did people in Ceylon just go around giving each other hideous presents? She didn’t want to reveal her ignorance, but she did, however, decide on one vital question.

‘You’ve known my husband for a long time?’ she said.

Christina paused before answering, then smiled. ‘Ah yes. Laurence and I go way back. You’re a very lucky woman.’

Gwen looked across at Mr Ravasinghe, who just inclined his head. He hadn’t looked especially put out when she’d turned up alone, and with his normal civility, they had set off together for the villa Christina was renting. His clothes were immaculate – a dark suit and white shirt that shone against the colour of his skin – and he’d walked so close she could smell the cinnamon. Yet she wondered why he had stubble on his chin as if he’d risen late and not had time to shave or, indeed, as if he hadn’t even been to bed at all.

‘I am so very sorry about your cousin,’ he said, seeing her looking at him. ‘I do hope she makes a rapid recovery. I was thinking of inviting her for a boating trip on the lake at Kandy, now that the rain is holding off a little. Kandy is the Hill Capital.’

‘Fran would love that. I’ll pass on the invitation.’

He nodded. ‘Actually, if Fran is still here in July, you might both enjoy a candlelit, full-moon procession in Kandy. It’s called the Perahera festival, and is rather spectacular. They decorate the elephants in gold and silver.’

Christina whistled. ‘Do come. The procession celebrates the tooth of Gautama Buddha. Have you heard the story?’

Gwen shook her head.

‘Centuries ago, a princess is said to have smuggled the tooth over to Ceylon from India, hidden in her hair. And now it’s carried through the streets, to the sound of drums and followed by garlanded dancers. Let’s all go,’ Christina said. ‘Will you ask darling Laurence, Gwen, or shall I?’

‘I will,’ Gwen said, and forced a laugh to mask her irritation at the way Christina was implying she still maintained a certain familiarity with Laurence.

After the pudding had been cleared away, Christina lit a cigarette, then stood. ‘I think it’s time to unveil your canvas, Mr Ravasinghe, don’t you? But first, I need to powder my nose.’

She came round to Savi’s chair as he stood and Gwen caught a trace of Tabac Blond by Caron, an American perfume that Fran had worn. How appropriate it was here, muddled in with cigarette smoke. Christina kissed Mr Ravasinghe’s cheek, then raked his long wavy hair with her varnished nails. As Mr Ravasinghe turned to Christina, Gwen studied his profile. He was a very good-looking man, perhaps made more so by the hint of danger behind his eyes. He lifted the American’s hand from his hair and kissed it with such tenderness that it unsettled Gwen.

She had been avoiding the issue of asking Mr Ravasinghe if he liked her cousin, but now that Christina had left them alone it seemed like the perfect opportunity. And though she had told Fran she wouldn’t do it, now she felt it important that she did.

‘Talking of Fran,’ Gwen said.

‘Were we?’

‘Earlier, yes.’

‘Of course. And what do you want to say about your delightful cousin?’

‘What do you think of her, Mr Ravasinghe?’

‘You must call me Savi.’ He paused and smiled warmly, looking into her eyes as he did. ‘I think she is perfectly lovely.’

‘You like her then?’

‘Who could not? But then, I would like any cousin of yours, Mrs Hooper.’

She smiled, but his reply had only created more doubt. He did like Fran, but would have liked any cousin. What kind of an answer was that?

As Christina came back into the room, he held out his hand for Gwen and they all walked through to a well-aired room at the back of the house. Two tall windows overlooked a terraced wall garden, and the canvas, covered by a sweep of red velvet, leant on a large easel in the middle of the room.

‘Now are we ready?’ Christina said, and she pulled the drape of velvet away with a flourish.

Gwen gazed upon Christina’s likeness then glanced up at Mr Ravasinghe, who smiled and held her gaze without blinking as if in expectation of a comment.

‘It’s unusual,’ she said, feeling hesitant.

‘It’s more than that, darling Savi. It is sublime,’ Christina said.

The trouble was, Gwen wasn’t sure. It wasn’t that she didn’t like his painting, but she had the feeling that he was somehow laughing at her. That they both were. He was a perfect example of polite well-bred manhood, but there was something about him, and it was more than the fact that he’d seen her in such a tipsy state, more than the fact that he had stroked her forehead and helped her into bed.

‘It’s not what you can see that’s bothering you,’ Christina said.

Gwen looked at her and frowned.

‘You’re frightened of seeing what might happen next.’

Savi laughed. ‘Or what has already happened.’

Gwen looked back at the canvas, but a second look only served to underscore her reservations. Christina’s cheeks were flushed, her hair tangled, and all she wore was a black jet necklace and a knowing look. The portrait ended just beneath her naked breasts. She knew she was being ridiculous but she hated to think that Laurence had seen Christina like that.

‘Savi painted your husband’s first wife, you know.’

‘I haven’t seen it.’

‘I imagine Laurence might have taken it down after she died.’

Gwen thought for a moment. ‘Did you know Caroline?’

‘Not well. I got to know Laurence afterwards. Savi was all set to paint Verity too, before her big day, had even made some preliminary sketches, but then she upped and bolted back to England. Nobody knew why she ditched her poor intended chap. He was something in government, and rather sweet, I heard. What do you make of your sister-in-law?’

‘I don’t know her very well.’

‘What do you think of Verity Hooper, Savi? Do tell us.’

Mr Ravasinghe’s slight frown was enough to communicate disapproval, though whether it was disapproval of Verity herself, or simply disinclination to hear Verity as the topic of conversation, Gwen wasn’t certain.

‘Well,’ Christina carried on, ‘in my opinion Verity is a troublemaker and, apart from her brother, horses are all she cares for. Or they were when she lived in England.’

‘She is a troubled soul,’ he said, and paused to take out a small sketch pad from his jacket pocket. ‘Would you mind if I made a sketch of you, Mrs Hooper?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. Laurence …’

‘Laurence isn’t here, darling. Let him do it.’

Mr Ravasinghe was smiling at her. ‘You are so remarkably fresh and unspoilt. I’d like to try and capture that.’

‘Very well. How do you want me?’

‘Exactly as you are.’

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