Gwen sent two houseboys up to the loft, instructing them to hunt for anything that might brighten up a party. While they were up there, she rummaged around a rarely used and rather shabby guest room. Under the bed she found the fireworks and, in a wardrobe, a pile of dusty paper lanterns. One or two were torn, but the others just needed a brush down with a feather duster.
When she looked in an old chest of drawers, she noticed a large flat package that had been pushed to the back. She took it out and laid it on the bed, then slid off the string and paper. The most beautiful red sari lay folded inside, made of silk and embroidered with silver and gold thread. She lifted it to the light and examined the intricate pattern of birds and flowers all along one edge. This was Caroline’s sari – the one she was wearing in the painting. She stared at it for a while, thinking of Caroline and Thomas, and felt a little unnerved as tears stung her eyes, but neither wanting to disturb the past, nor complicate the present, she wrapped it up again and put it back.
The boys brought down bunting. It looked dingy but Gwen told them to wash it and hang it out to dry. The gardener dug up flowers from the banks coming into bloom at the side of the garden and replanted them in tubs on the back terrace, and Naveena brought out satinwood bowls full of spices and incense to dot around the place.
Gwen turned her attention to the food. They would keep it plain, using the typical breads of the Ceylonese: flower bread, coconut rice bread, kiri roti and other simple dishes.
Once the household was sorted out, she considered what to wear. She wanted to look particularly nice for Laurence’s homecoming, and decided on a dress that exactly matched her eyes: a lovely shade of deep violet. Some time before, she’d bought the silk in Colombo, and had taken along a picture of a dress in Vogue magazine, and asked the Sinhalese man who made many of their clothes to copy it. The finished dress had yet to come back from Nuwara Eliya, but if she had no opportunity to collect it herself, she still hoped it would be delivered in time.
In the exciting build-up, the few days passed rapidly, filled with last-minute adjustments, decisions, a minor crisis and a servants’ quarrel to deal with. Naveena took care of Hugh, while Gwen oversaw where the flowers would go and how many candles should be lit. She hoped the party would raise everybody’s spirits, McGregor’s included.
When the day arrived, Gwen spent it nervously seeing to final arrangements and choosing what Hugh would wear to welcome his father. When she put him in the light of the window and tried to cut his fringe with her sewing scissors, he could barely sit still.
‘Don’t squirm,’ she said, ‘or I’ll have your eye out.’
He giggled and pretended to remove an eye.
She laughed. It was the longest any of them had ever been apart, and Hugh’s unrestrained excitement was infectious.
In the late afternoon, only an hour or so before the start time, Naveena rushed in with a large flat box. Gwen’s dress had arrived. She opened the box, unwrapped the white tissue paper then held her breath as she carefully lifted the beautiful silk creation out. It was perfect. Not too short, flared, and with a bodice beaded with tiny pewter pearls. She would wear her matching pearl earrings and necklace. Luckily, she’d paid for the dress before their financial losses had begun, so she couldn’t be accused of wasting money. She held it up against her and spun round.
Naveena smiled. ‘You will be looking beautiful, Lady.’
Gwen saw to Hugh as he played with his boats in the bath. When he was eventually persuaded to get out, she enveloped him in a large towel and pulled his warm body to hers, but – not a baby any more – he wriggled away. After he was dressed in a little white suit, just like a proper gentleman, she sat at her dressing table with a fluttering heart.
Bang on six, just as the light was changing, Gwen was dressed, with a spray of her favourite perfume in her pinned-up hair. The bunting was raised, the candles were lit, the punch concocted, and a delicate fragrance of burning cinnamon blew about in the air. As the guests began to arrive, the butler led them to the terrace and the outdoor room at the side of the house.
It wasn’t a large party, just other tea planters and their wives, some of Verity’s friends and Laurence’s pals from the Hill Club in Nuwara Eliya. By seven most had already arrived. People were milling about and standing in knots around the house and down by the lake. Hugh went among them, offering roasted cashew nuts from a silver bowl, and charming everyone with his perfect manners and beatific smile. The only person missing was Laurence – and Verity, of course. As they should have turned up well before six, Gwen began to feel apprehensive.
She played the part of a dutiful hostess, nodding at guests, helping them to mingle, asking Florence about her health and chatting with Pru. But as time went on, eight o’clock, then nine o’clock, her heart began to pound and she felt sick with nerves. The food had been served and there was still no sign of them. She now began to see that the evening might have been a dreadful mistake and struggled with the conflicting feelings going on inside her: her desire to see Laurence, her fear over what Verity might have said about the fire and the man’s death, and her worry about whether she was doing the right thing by having a party.
The roads were treacherous, especially at night, and Verity drove too fast. Gwen began to worry that something awful had happened to them. They were lying dead in a ditch after a collision, or upended in a ravine. With a panicky feeling, she sat down to gaze at the lake. Something about the timelessness of the lake flattened out her spiralling anxiety. And then, just as she was giving up the expectation that they would arrive at all that night, she heard a car pull up at the front of the house. This had to be them. No further guests were expected.
She ran round to the front of the house with a few guests in tow, Doctor Partridge, Pru and Florence among them.
‘There they are,’ Florence remarked.
‘Better late than never,’ the doctor said.
Gwen couldn’t speak. The sight of Laurence climbing from the car sent tears spilling down her face. He looked about stiffly and her heart seemed to still. She didn’t move and what could only have been moments felt like an age. While nobody spoke, she held her breath. Verity has blamed me, told him everything, and he’ll never trust me with anything again, she thought. Her whole life seemed to flash before her, hundreds of memories, thousands of moments. She clutched at excuses, tried to think of ways to explain her actions, but, when all was said and done, because of her a man lay dead.
Laurence took a few steps round the car and she felt so small she wanted to turn on her heels and run, or else for the ground to open up. She just could not bear for Laurence to think so badly of her. She brushed the tears from her cheeks then looked at him properly. His face was soft and his eyes creased up as he broke into a wide grin. She released her breath and, instead of running away, she ran to him. He wrapped his arms round her, then lifted her into the air and spun her round.
‘I have missed you so much,’ he whispered in her ear.
Gwen still could not speak.
‘I see you have got me up a little welcoming party,’ he said as he put her back on the ground. ‘I ought to change. It’s been an arduous journey.’
‘Never mind that,’ she said and hugged him again through his dirty sweat-soaked shirt. ‘There are more people round at the back.’
‘Wonderful,’ he said. ‘The more the merrier.’
Verity, standing on the other side of the car, looked on expressionless, but Gwen breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was going to be all right.
Later that night when Laurence and Gwen were alone, he told her how things had gone. Though the copper-mining shares were currently worthless, a partner had been found to invest in the new plantation. They were not out of the woods by any stretch, and the times ahead might be tough, but as long as they made the necessary changes, it looked like they would survive.
‘You didn’t tell me how bad it really was, did you?’ she said.
‘I couldn’t, Gwen, and to be honest I didn’t really know.’
‘So all that talk about never selling up …’
He put a finger to her lips.
‘I thought you said an investor couldn’t be found in the current climate.’
‘And that was true, but this is someone you know well.’
She raised her brows. ‘Surely not my father? He doesn’t have that kind of money; he’d have to sell Owl Tree.’
‘Not your father.’
She put a palm to his unshaven cheek, feeling the roughness as she stroked. ‘Then who? Tell me.’
He grinned. ‘My new partner is your cousin, Fran.’
She pulled a face. ‘I don’t believe you. Why would Fran invest? She knows nothing about tea. She doesn’t even like it.’
‘One day she’ll get a good return, but she did it for you, Gwen. So that we wouldn’t lose the plantation. She’s only investing in the newly acquired part, not my old family plantation, but by investing in the new plantation, it means I don’t have to sell this one, and our home with it.’
Gwen’s relief was overwhelming. ‘Did you ask for her help?’
‘No. We met for lunch, I told her about our situation, and there and then, she offered. Anyway,’ he said as he stroked her hair, ‘enough of that. How have you been here?’
‘There was some trouble. I –’
He tangled his fingers in her hair and gently pulled her head back so that he could look in her eyes. ‘If it’s about the fire, Verity’s already told me.’
She inhaled sharply. ‘Verity hasn’t been happy. I’m worried for her.’
‘She seems all right. A bit unsettled maybe. But I am actually very proud of you.’
‘Gwen, you helped an injured child in the only way you knew how. You are a good, kind woman.’
‘You didn’t think I was interfering in labour business?’
‘It was a child.’
‘You know about the kitchen boy then? The one who died.’
‘Any death on the plantation must be taken seriously, and it was very unfortunate –’
‘It was awful, Laurence.’
‘But not your fault. You acted from your heart, and I shall speak to McGregor in the morning.’
‘I think he’s struggling too.’
‘As I said, I shall speak with him. Sometimes events spiral out of control in ways we cannot foresee. It isn’t necessarily a case for blame, but for realizing that even a slight lack of judiciousness can trigger something terrible.’
‘My lack of judiciousness?’
‘No, Gwen, I don’t think it was.’
She felt so relieved he wasn’t angry that all the frazzled nerves and anxiety of the past weeks finally seemed to unlock. He held her while she wept, and afterwards when she looked into his eyes, she saw they were damp too.
‘It has been a difficult time for all of us, and loss of life is always very upsetting. I think my biggest task will be improving morale, beginning with you.’
She smiled as he removed the pins from her hair and the ringlets fell past her shoulders.
‘I tried so hard, Laurence.’
She touched the cleft in his chin and felt the stubble again.
‘Shall I shave?’
‘No. I want you just the way you are.’
‘You look very beautiful tonight,’ he said as he wrapped a ringlet round his middle finger.
At first Gwen held back, feeling self-conscious in the way that she had been when they first met all that time ago in London. She smiled, thinking of that, then yielded, allowing him to undress her.
He was gentle and tender, and they took it very slowly. Afterwards they lay in each other’s arms and, at last, she felt her heart settle in stillness.
‘You are precious to me, Gwendolyn. I don’t always express myself as I might wish, but I hope you know that.’
‘I do, Laurence.’
‘You are such a tiny thing, aren’t you? Even after everything, as slim and sweet as a girl. You always will be my girl, no matter what.’
She noticed his voice had taken on a serious tone, and with his eyes inches from hers, he seemed to be scrutinizing her.
Laurence summoned such a depth of love in her and that mattered more than anything. She smiled at the thought of those minute tokens of their life together: his warm hand when she was worried in the night, his off-key singing when he thought he was alone, and the strength of his trust in her. When he touched her heart in the way he did, she felt safe and completely protected against all misfortune. To think if she had not met him she might never have known what it was to love, and with that love she had flourished as a person and as a wife. The struggle had been worthwhile, and now they would face whatever lay ahead together. It would be a new start. She didn’t ask if he had seen Christina while he was away.