Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

Previous: Chapter 23
Next: Chapter 25

24

It turned into a golden morning, full of delicate light, and with a pale blue haze drifting over the lake. It seemed strange that after such a terrifying night everything should be so still and normal at the lakeside, with the fresh wetness of the trees and the dew coating the grass. However, the smell of burnt cheese still hung about and at the side of the house, where the coolies were cleaning up, an air of desolation crept over the ash-covered yard. Gwen kept Hugh close to her and waited anxiously for McGregor to appear.

Verity came into the drawing room. ‘One of the kitchen coolies was hurt in the fire.’

‘How badly?’

‘I don’t know. The appu just told me. I’m going to find McGregor to ask if he knows.’

‘Tell me, won’t you?’

‘Of course.’

Just as Florence Shoebotham turned up with a bacon flan, Gwen spotted McGregor outside on the upper terrace, waving his arms about while he talked with Verity. Gwen bent her body back in an effort to see but not be seen, but when McGregor spotted her and stared without a smile, she tensed. It was as she expected.

Florence was the last person she wanted to see, but in a way, though she was worried about the injured man, Gwen was pleased to have a reason not to be bullied by McGregor just yet. They would speak soon enough, but in the meantime, she would not seek him out.

‘I came as quickly as I could,’ Florence said, her chins wobbling sympathetically. ‘I heard your entire side wing burned down.’

‘No. Actually, it was just the cheese room.’

‘I am sorry to hear that.’

Gwen was obliged to stay and entertain the woman, and on her instruction the butler brought tea served in the best china and a three-tiered cake stand. As Florence tucked in to dainties that only smelt faintly of smoke, Gwen felt increasingly anxious. She would have to ask McGregor about the injured man sooner or later.

‘Are we likely to be seeing your delightful cousin Fran again soon?’ Florence asked.

‘No, not soon, though she has promised another visit at some point.’

‘You will be missing her, and your husband, of course.’ The woman arranged her face to look concerned and lowered her voice. ‘I do hope everything is all right with Laurence. I did hear he suffered heavy losses in the Wall Street crash.’

‘You have no need to concern yourself, Florence. Laurence is fine, and so am I.’

It seemed to Gwen that Florence struggled to conceal her disappointment that the gossip wasn’t going to materialize in quite the juicy way she had hoped.

‘We are looking forward to him being back with us very soon,’ Gwen continued; she didn’t say that in fact Laurence had wired the agent that very morning, saying he might be away longer than expected, and that she had not passed on the information about the fire.

After Florence had gone, Gwen opened the window but with the smell of burning still lingering she rapidly closed it again, then went in search of Verity and Hugh. She’d wanted to keep Hugh with her, but he’d slipped outside during Florence’s visit. She wandered among the trees and bushes of the garden, calling him, and then stood on the bottom terrace, looking at the islands that dotted the water. A thin layer of mist still floated above the lake and a gust of wind chilled her. When she heard footsteps on the path, and the sound of Hugh’s voice, she spun round to see McGregor advancing, gripping Hugh by the hand.

‘Mr McGregor,’ she said.

‘Mrs Hooper.’ He released Hugh’s hand and the child ran to her.

‘How is the man?’ she said, making an effort to appear calm.

‘The pharmacist is with him.’

‘An unfortunate sequence of events,’ she said.

He shook his head. ‘Rather more than unfortunate. Deliberate destruction cannot be condoned. I hope that this is the end of it. I would advise, however, that for the time being you keep the lad close to you.’

‘Let’s hope it was nothing sinister. It may have been an accident, don’t you think? With all those flaming torches burning so close to the house.’

‘I doubt it. But you’re very lucky it was spotted in time.’

She drew in her breath.

He turned to go, took a few steps away, but then glanced back. ‘I knew something like this would happen. Lucky for you the man is still alive.’

She held her hands together to suppress her rising anger. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean that this is the sort of thing that happens when somebody interferes with the way of things.’

‘And by that, you mean me?’

He inclined his head and his face stiffened.

She took a step towards him and her efforts at keeping calm fell apart. ‘Actually, Mr McGregor, I do not think I did anything wrong in helping that little girl. Only a person with a heart of stone could think otherwise. It was not I who caused this, but you. The days of flogging a man over a trifle are over, and if they are not, well, shame on you.’

‘Have you finished?’

‘Not quite. You will be very fortunate if the Ceylon Labour Union do not pick this up. You are a mean-minded man who sees nothing but the bad in people. I believe in treating people kindly and fairly, whatever the colour of their skin.’

His face spasmed. ‘This is nothing to do with colour.’

‘Of course it’s to do with colour. Everything in this country is to do with colour. Well, mark my words, Mr McGregor, all this will come back to bite you one day, and on that day none of us will be safe in our beds.’

With that Gwen marched up the steps with her head held high and Hugh in tow. She would not give McGregor the satisfaction of seeing the tears that threatened to spill.

That night her dreams troubled her, with images of men brandishing flaming torches that seemed to rise from the surface of the lake. She dreamt of Laurence too, imagined he was there with her in the boathouse, a lock of waving hair falling over his eyes as he leant over her. The hairs on his arms shone in the moonlight and freckles peppered his cheeks. She put her arm round his neck and he cupped the back of her head with his hand, but then she realized he wasn’t looking at her at all – he was looking through her. It was a dark, unsettling dream and then, first thing in the morning, the news came that the man had died from his burns.

Gwen spent the day trying to find out who his family were, and wanting to see what she might do to help. She remembered the man in question, and it broke her heart to think of his life cut short in that agonizing way – he was not much more than a boy, with a ready smile and a willing nature – but when her path crossed McGregor’s in the garden, he insisted he would deal with it.

‘But he was one of my household coolies.’

‘Nevertheless, Mrs Hooper, I can’t allow sentimentality at this delicate stage. We can’t rule out further repercussions.’

‘But –’

McGregor didn’t reply but gave her a curt nod and walked off in the opposite direction. She gazed at the lake, not knowing what else she could do.

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Next: Chapter 25