Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 18
Next: Chapter 20

19

For three days Gwen felt terrible. Furious with Laurence for involving the doctor and depriving her of her sleeping draught, she refused to speak to him. She took what little she ate in her room and felt very black indeed, so much so that even the sight of Hugh didn’t cheer her up. More than anything she wanted to be at home with her mother and, wishing she had never met Laurence, she shed angry tears.

While she had been taking the medication, she’d had no worries and no headaches, but now something seemed to have got hold of her. Her head hurt so much she couldn’t think, her hands were constantly clammy and, with sweat running down between her breasts, she had to change her nightdress three times a day. She hardly knew where she was, her body ached in every joint and, with a feeling of needles prickling her skin just under the surface, her muscles were so tender it hurt to be touched.

On the fourth day, in an effort to try to restore some semblance of sanity, she took out all her mother’s letters and cried as she re-read all the news. As memories of home flooded back, the gentle early sun danced a mosaic of light on the sheets of notepaper lying on her desk. She missed England: the frosts in winter, the first snowdrops and the sweet summer days at the farm. Most of all she missed the young girl she used to be: the one who had been so full of hope, and who had believed that everything about life was going to be lovely. When she had done with crying, she had a bath, washed her hair and felt a little better.

On the fifth day, still with shaking hands, she decided to get dressed and, not without qualms, take lunch in the dining room. She made an effort to appear to be her normal self and wore a pretty muslin dress with a long matching chiffon scarf. The dress fitted more loosely than before, but it moved nicely as she walked and gave her a pleasant floating sensation.

It was well past midday, but she decided to quickly check the supplies cupboard again, and when she unlocked the huge doors she was surprised to see the shelves groaning under the weight of rice, oil and whisky. The appu had watched her do it, and while she frowned at him, he shrugged and muttered something she didn’t understand. She scratched her head. It didn’t make sense. What was wrong with her? Had she been so tired that she had imagined that the supplies weren’t there when she had looked before? She shook her head, hating to feel so out of control.

The rains had not yet started, and because the weather had turned bright, Gwen went back to her room before going to the dining room and opened the window to freshen what, she realized, was very stuffy air. As she did so, she heard the gardener whistling in another part of the garden. Inside the house the phone rang, and someone started singing. It all seemed normal. As she left her room, she felt more confident that her abandoned bargain with God had become a thing of the past, had even begun to question whether she had a faith at all, but realized it mattered, for who else was there to forgive her?

In the dining room, lunch was laid for four. Laurence, Mr McGregor and Verity were already there, and two of the houseboys were hovering.

‘Ah, here she is,’ Laurence said with a wide smile.

As soon as Gwen was seated, they were served at breakneck speed.

‘Apparently the soufflé will spoil,’ Verity said. ‘It’s never very good at the best of times.’

Over the meal, the talk was about tea, the upcoming auctions and Laurence’s mortgage on a neighbouring plantation. Verity seemed in a good mood, and Laurence was happy too.

‘Well, I’m pleased to report the recent incidents in the labour lines seem to have settled,’ McGregor said.

‘Is Mr Ghandi due to visit Ceylon again?’ Verity asked.

‘I doubt it. But if he does, it won’t trouble us. None of the workers will be allowed to go.’

‘Maybe they should go,’ Gwen said, turning to Laurence. ‘What do you think?’

He frowned and Gwen had the impression this was a point of conflict between the two men.

‘The question is hypothetical,’ McGregor said.

‘What was the latest unrest about?’ Gwen asked.

‘The usual,’ McGregor replied. ‘Workers’ rights. Union agitators come along, get the workers all riled up, and I’m left to pick up the pieces.’

‘I had hoped the new Legislative Council might have been enough,’ Laurence said. ‘And the amount of money and time the Department of Agriculture has spent teaching people how to improve their methods of farming.’

‘Yes, but that doesn’t help our workers, does it?’ Gwen said. ‘And John Partridge once told me he thought big changes lay ahead.’

Laurence puffed out his cheeks. ‘You’re right. The National Congress doesn’t think enough has been done.’

‘Who knows what they think.’ McGregor pulled a face and laughed. ‘Or even if they think! It’s all these intellectual types trying to ignite the workers. It’s one thing giving women over the age of twenty-one the vote in England, but would you be happy to give the vote to ignorant natives?’

Gwen was intensely conscious of the butler and houseboys hearing this exchange, and it embarrassed her that McGregor should speak in such a tactless and unfeeling way. She itched to say something to counter it, but found in her fragile state that she dared not.

Over the remainder of their lunch she tried to find her way back to normality, but only managed it in flashes. She joined in the conversation, following the thread, but then, when it moved on, her concentration lapsed and she floundered. She kept her eyes on Verity and McGregor, watching for signs that they might say something more about the drawing, but her brain still didn’t seem to be working properly and nothing made much sense. The men discussed the political situation a little longer, but she was very relieved when a gorgeous-looking trifle was brought in, and the atmosphere in the room changed.

‘How lovely,’ Verity said, clapping her hands.

There was silence as the trifle was eaten.

‘Will you come for a walk, Gwen?’ Laurence said and smiled.

She saw such warmth in his eyes it made her feel stronger. ‘I’d like that. I’ll just fetch my wrap. I can’t quite make out if I’m hot or cold.’

‘Take your time. I’ll wait for you on the terrace.’

She went to her room, opened out her favourite wrap and threw it round her shoulders. Originally from Kashmir, with the beautiful design of a peacock woven into the paisley patterns on the back, it had been one of her mother’s, though the green and blue wool had worn a little thin now. She was just about to close her bedroom window when she heard Laurence talking to somebody in the garden. The thick walls kept out the extreme heat and noise, but people never seemed to realize that when her window was open, she could hear what was said from as far as the garden room, and from that side of the garden itself.

‘You mustn’t take it personally,’ Laurence was saying.

‘But why can’t I come too?’

‘A man likes to spend time alone with his wife sometimes, and she has been ill, remember.’

‘She’s always ill.’

‘That is nonsense. And, quite frankly, after all I’ve done for you, it pains me dreadfully to hear you speak like that.’

‘Everything you do is for her.’

‘She is my wife.’

‘Yes, and she never lets me forget it.’

‘You know that’s not true.’ He paused while Verity muttered something.

‘I give you a generous allowance. I’ve transferred the deeds of the Yorkshire house to you, and I allow you to stay here for as long as you like.’

‘I’m polite to her.’

‘I’d like you to love her.’

Don’t think, Gwen told herself as tears came to her eyes. Don’t move. And even though she felt truly stung, she remained where she was.

‘After Caroline died, I had you to myself.’

‘Yes, you did. But you have to build your own life. It’s unhealthy, this clinging to me. Now, apart from saying it really is high time you did your best to find a husband, I’m not going to discuss this further.’

‘I wondered when you’d get on to that, but you know very well there is only one man I wanted to marry.’

During a long pause when neither Laurence nor Verity spoke, Gwen closed her eyes. Then she heard her sister-in-law again.

‘You think I’m left on the shelf?’

‘It seems to be where you have placed yourself.’ His voice was sharp, but hers, when she replied, was petulant.

‘I have good reason. You think you know everything, but you don’t.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘You know. Caroline … and Thomas.’

‘Come on, Verity, there’s no reason anything like that should ever happen to you.’

‘You may be my older brother, but there are things about our family you don’t understand.’

‘You’re being melodramatic. Anyway, I think you’re hanging around here far too much. It’s time you did something else.’

‘Say what you like, Laurence, but …’

They moved away, their voices fading, and Gwen did not hear what else was said. She inhaled, then exhaled slowly through tight lips. After all the effort she’d made with Verity, she felt hurt. As she was walking back and forth thinking about it, Laurence appeared at her door.

‘You look lovely, Gwen.’

She smiled, pleased he had noticed. ‘I heard you talking to Verity, while you were in the garden.’

Laurence didn’t answer.

‘She doesn’t like me. I’d hoped she might, after all this time.’

He sighed. ‘She’s a complicated girl. I think she has tried her best.’

‘Who was the man she fell in love with?’

‘Her fiancé, do you mean?’

‘No, I’m talking of the one who didn’t reciprocate.’

His brow furrowed. ‘It was Savi Ravasinghe.’

Gwen stared at the floor and kept her face rigid to conceal her shock. In the long silence that followed, the past came rushing back, and with it the image of her silk knickers on the floor.

‘Did he encourage Verity?’ she eventually asked.

Laurence shrugged but his body tensed as if there was something he couldn’t bring himself to say. ‘He met her when he painted Caroline’s portrait.’

‘Where is the picture, Laurence? I’ve never seen it.’

‘I keep it in my study.’

When he looked at her, she saw deep pain in his eyes, but also anger. Why? Was he angry with her?

‘I would like to see it. Have we got time before our walk?’

He nodded, but didn’t speak as they walked along the corridor.

‘Is it a good likeness?’ she asked.

Again, he didn’t answer, and when he unlocked the door his hands were shaking.

Once inside, she scanned the room. ‘I didn’t realize it was on display. It wasn’t there last time I came in here.’

‘I’ve taken it down a couple of times but always end up hanging it again. Do you mind?’

Gwen wasn’t sure what she felt but shook her head and studied the painting. Caroline was portrayed wearing a red sari enhanced with silver and gold thread, and with a pattern of birds and leaves embroidered all along the section that fell from her shoulder. Ravasinghe had brought out Caroline’s beauty in a way that hadn’t been so apparent in the photograph Gwen had seen, but something fragile and sad in her face affected Gwen deeply.

‘It’s real silver, the thread,’ he said. ‘I’ll take it down. Should have stored it away long ago. Don’t know why I haven’t.’

‘Did she always wear a sari?’

‘No.’

‘For a minute there it seemed as if you were angry.’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Is there something you’re not telling me?’

He turned away. Maybe he was angry with himself, she thought, or perhaps he still felt guilty that he hadn’t had Caroline hospitalized? She knew very well how guilt could chew up your insides, how it could stick to you, invisibly at first, but gradually fester until it took on a life of its own. She was saddened by the feeling that Laurence might never fully recover from his first wife’s tragic death.

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Next: Chapter 20