Book: The Tea Planter’s Wife

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33

By the time Laurence arrived back at the Galle Face, Verity had gone and Fran still had not turned up. Gwen passed a restless night listening to the ocean and going over what Verity had said until, just before dawn, she fell asleep for an hour or so.

Later, when they left without Fran, Gwen was relieved to curl up in the back of the car, while McGregor and Laurence talked business in the front. Laurence had been annoyed that they’d had no word from Fran but, knowing what a free spirit she was, didn’t want to waste more time waiting. Gwen had not mentioned seeing Verity, nor her news about Fran’s supposed marriage. She just wanted to sleep, if only to forget, but about a mile or so away from the hotel, some kind of commotion stopped the traffic. Rickshaw riders were managing to squeeze past but the cars were at a standstill.

‘What the devil … ?’ McGregor said as he pulled up and then wound down the driver’s window.

The sound of shouts and whistles met them, as well as the usual smells and noises of the streets. It didn’t seem much. Just a few people chanting. The shops were still open and pedestrians were still shopping.

‘Can you see anything?’ Gwen asked.

He shook his head.

But when Laurence opened the door on the passenger side, the noise hit them with full force.

‘It’s more than I thought. There seems to be some kind of demonstration. I’ll get out and take a look. Nick, you stay in the car. You might get an opportunity to move it.’

‘Oh, Laurence,’ Gwen said. ‘After what you said! What if there’s trouble?’

He shrugged. ‘I’ll be fine.’

While he was gone, they waited. She felt stifled, stuck inside a hot car with so much going on in her head, and asked McGregor to unlock the door so that she could look for Laurence. McGregor refused, the tapping of his fingers on the steering wheel only increasing her feeling of claustrophobia. As the level of noise intensified, Gwen heard the thump of drums coming from somewhere behind the car. She twisted back to look and saw another group of people shouting some kind of slogan as they marched along the road towards the car. When she glanced out of the front window again in the hope of seeing Laurence, she saw that the first group had turned and were also streaming towards the car, brandishing sticks. Shocked to see shrieking schoolchildren, dressed in white, swarming behind the mob, she shrank back in her seat, realizing their car was now hemmed in between the two groups.

‘Make sure your window is wound up,’ McGregor said as a man thumped on the bonnet of the car and laughed. ‘Quickly. This isn’t against us, I don’t think, but you don’t want to get caught in the crossfire.’

‘What about Laurence?’

‘He’ll be all right.’

Now properly trapped in the car, they could only watch as the two groups faced each other just behind them. At the sound of breaking glass, Gwen looked through the back window.

‘My God, they are throwing bottles. I hope they get the children out of the way.’

Stones and lumps of concrete started to fly through the air. A couple of women screamed and there was the sound of a loudspeaker. A flare went up, and then another, followed by the sound of shopkeepers rolling down their shutters and people calling to each other as they fled into alleys and side streets. Smoke filled the air as somebody lit a bonfire in the street.

Gwen felt her neck and shoulders knotting up. ‘I’m frightened for Laurence.’

‘If he has any sense he’ll have taken cover.’

As she attempted to look for Laurence through the crowded street, three men ran up and leant on one side of the car, rocking it with their weight.

Gwen could hardly speak, her fear almost choking her. ‘McGregor!’

‘I’ll fucking kill the bastards! They’re trying to overturn us.’

Shocked by his language, Gwen saw McGregor take out his gun and point it at them. It was enough. One of the men pulled the other two away and they joined the mob as it slowly shifted further and further behind them. At last the street ahead of them had cleared a little and McGregor was able to edge the car forward. A few people cowered on the pavement, some with cuts and bruises, but the situation behind them was growing uglier.

‘Where are the police, for heaven’s sake?’ Gwen said.

She searched the street for Laurence, but it was only when they’d almost reached the school where it had all begun that she spotted him standing in a doorway with a woman who looked as if she’d been hurt. When they got nearer Gwen saw blood dripping from a cut on her forehead. She opened the window and signalled frantically. Laurence started towards them, guiding the woman by the elbow. By now, police on horseback had arrived and were threatening the mob with truncheons. Gwen breathed a sigh of relief to see the children being herded back inside the school.

As Laurence helped the woman into the back of the car, where she sat with her head in her hands, a shot rang out.

‘Get us out of here, Nick,’ Laurence said. ‘Gwen, have you got anything to mop up the blood?’

Gwen squeezed the woman’s hand. ‘I’ve got this,’ she said, and began dabbing with her shawl.

The woman groaned, then glanced up at her. ‘I am a teacher. It was supposed to be peaceful.’

Laurence told McGregor to drive to the hospital, then spoke to Gwen. ‘It’s about which language should dominate in the classroom.’

‘Really?’

‘The educated Tamils have traditionally had the best government jobs and the Sinhalese think it’s unfair. They want Sinhala to be the dominant language.’

Gwen felt so upset, she couldn’t hide it. First Verity and now this. ‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Why the violence? Does it matter so much?’

The Sinhalese teacher looked at her. ‘When we have independence, which language is taught will matter very much.’

‘Can’t they both be taught?’

The woman shook her head.

‘Well, whichever it is, I hope it can happen without more bloodshed.’

The woman snorted. ‘This is nothing. Someone like you who has never had to fight for anything can have no idea.’

When they arrived home, Laurence said that in the wake of the riot he had letters to attend to and, so as not to disturb Gwen, he told her he would sleep in his own room. After a night during which Verity’s threat left her with intense, disturbing dreams, Gwen sat at her dressing table gazing at her reflection. With her hair uncombed and no lipstick or rouge, she looked pale. She gripped her hairbrush and brushed furiously, then dabbed some rouge on her cheeks. Her dark hair stood out like a mane and the rouge looked startling against the pallor of her skin. She rubbed it off and braided her hair, then kept rubbing and rubbing her cheeks, as if by doing so she could rub away the fear. The woman was wrong. She might not have had to fight for a privileged existence, but she’d had to fight to protect it, and now that Verity knew the truth about Liyoni, she faced the gravest challenge of her life.

She took out the box where Liyoni’s drawings had been hidden and, sure enough, when she looked for the key that she kept separately, it wasn’t there. She rattled the box. There was nothing inside. She fumbled in each of her drawers, picking out the private contents, then dropping them, until the floor was strewn with pins, combs and letters. She searched her desk, her bedside tables and then her various handbags. Not that it really mattered now, but Verity had kept the key. Blinking away tears, Gwen gripped the arms of her chair and felt so invaded she wished that she had pushed Verity down the stairs.

The next day Fran called. Deeply apologetic for not coming back with them, and saying she was in Hatton and would be with them very soon, she did little to actually explain, other than to say there had been a hitch. Typical Fran, Gwen thought. Her cousin had also said that she had a big surprise for them, and Gwen prayed it wasn’t that she was bringing Savi Ravasinghe with her.

While Laurence was downstairs immersed in his newspaper, reading about the riot, Gwen tiptoed into his dark bedroom. It smelt of him, soapy and lemony. She switched on the light and felt sad as she glanced round to see if the photograph of Caroline was still on the table. It was not, but Gwen still had the sense of Caroline being around, as if she had gone offstage and missed her cue to come back on.

She opened Laurence’s large mahogany wardrobe and felt the row of clothes hanging inside. Trousers, jackets, evening dress, shirts. She picked one of his starched white shirts and pulled it out. Nothing of him remained on it, so she opened a drawer instead and found a blue silk scarf still with his hairs on it. She sniffed. That was better. If she was going to be forced to tell Laurence the truth, she wanted something of his to hold on to at night.

The light flickered and went out. She pocketed the scarf, found her way to the door by the light coming in from the hall and slid her palm along the polished banister rail as she ran down. As she reached the bend in the stairs, she couldn’t avoid seeing Liyoni’s wheelchair in the hall. It had been received with such a mixture of disbelief and guilt that, since then, she hadn’t gone near it. She couldn’t stand the thought of the child’s young body being crippled by illness, and still prayed for a miracle.

Restless, Gwen felt unable to remain in one place, but went to join Laurence. Everything had become so confusing. Part of her longed to see Fran, but so far she didn’t even know if it was true about the painter and her cousin. She picked up a magazine from the coffee table. It was the weekend and Laurence was still immersed in the paper, oblivious to Hugh getting under their feet.

Gwen prickled with irritation. ‘Laurence, can’t you take Hugh off to make a model aeroplane or something?’

He glanced up and tapped his newspaper. ‘It became a mob, you know, in Colombo. People were killed. Hope it’s not the start of things to come.’

She closed her eyes at the memory of the scene in Colombo. It had been awful, but right now she had other concerns.

‘On a lighter note, we’ll soon be seeing our tea advertised in here.’

‘The aeroplane, Laurence. Must it always be me who notices? Hugh is bored. Can’t you see?’

Hugh had three Hubley cast-iron planes, but while they’d been in New York, Laurence had bought one of the new die-cast toy planes and one in pressed steel. She knew he and Hugh were trying to copy them in balsa, a strong but easy-to-shape wood.

Laurence folded his paper. ‘You seem rather nervy, Gwen. Is anything wrong? If it’s the riot –’

‘No,’ she snapped. ‘Nothing that you getting Hugh out from under my feet won’t fix. I’m just excited to be seeing Fran again.’

He looked at her and nodded, but she could see he didn’t believe her. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘If you’re sure. Come on, Hugh. Boot room for us, old chap.’

She managed a half-smile.

After he’d gone, she continued to pick up one magazine after another, but couldn’t focus on the words. At a loss, and with time hanging heavily, Gwen decided to examine the wheelchair. The longer she left it, the more dreadful the ghost it seemed to represent. She went out to the hall again, then stroked the leather arms, touched the headrest and tried out the metal braking system.

The thought of what Laurence would say if Fran really had married Savi Ravasinghe sent the tension that had knotted in her shoulders during the riot to travel to her temples. She rotated her neck in an attempt to ease it, but felt as if she was sitting on a volcano that at any moment would go off, leaving the wreckage of her family in its wake.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell and, as she was already in the hall, she opened the door and found Fran standing on the step holding a small case. She wore a wonderful batwing coat, made up in a kind of tapestry fabric, and a ruby red hat, but with no gloves. Gwen looked at her ring finger. A diamond surrounded by sapphires and a narrow band of gold. Verity had been telling the truth.

Gwen couldn’t pretend surprise and glanced up at her cousin, seeing straight away that Fran’s face was subtly changed. She looked softer somehow, as if love had blunted the edges.

Fran’s smile faltered. ‘The bitch told you, didn’t she?’

Gwen nodded.

‘I asked her not to. I wanted to tell you myself.’

Gwen put her head on one side and scrutinized Fran’s face. ‘And of course there are no such things as letters or telephones or telegraph wires!’

‘Sorry.’

‘Look, Fran, I’m only confused why you didn’t tell me before you got married.’

‘I felt sure you’d disapprove. I couldn’t have borne to hear that in your voice when I was so frightfully happy.’

Gwen opened her arms. ‘Come here.’

After they had hugged, Gwen held her cousin at arm’s length. ‘You are happy?’

‘Blissfully.’

‘And you don’t mind about –’ She hesitated, not sure what she really wanted to say. ‘You don’t mind about –’

‘His chequered past? Of course I don’t. This is the modern age, remember. In any case, I’ve had my fair share of experience, and you can wipe that shocked look off your face, Gwendolyn Hooper. We are well matched, Savi and I.’

Gwen laughed. ‘Oh, Fran, I have missed you so much.’ She looked round. ‘Where is he anyway?’

‘He’s in Nuwara. I wanted to see how the land lay with Laurence.’

There was a pause.

‘And you’re not worried that Savi might be attracted to other sitters?’

‘Not at all. We’ve both had colourful pasts but now we just want to be together.’

‘Does Christina know?’

Fran laughed. ‘Christina doesn’t want Savi.’

‘I know. She has a musician in tow now, but it was Laurence she really wanted. You know she has bought into the business too?’

‘Yes, I saw her in New York, during Savi’s exhibition.’

‘Christina didn’t say.’

‘I asked her not to. I wanted to tell you about Savi myself.’

They carried along the corridor to the room at the end, where Gwen flung open the door.

Fran threw her tapestry coat on the bed and looked round. ‘Fresh freesias. Mmm! And it has windows on two sides. How lovely.’

‘You can see the lake and the garden.’ Gwen paused, went to the chest of drawers and took something out, then held out her hand.

Fran grinned, took the bracelet and fastened it round her wrist. ‘You absolute darling, I could kiss you. Where did you find it? At the back of the sofa, no doubt.’

Gwen raised her brows and shrugged. ‘In a shop in Colombo, believe it or not. I can’t prove it but I suspect Verity took it.’

‘But why?’

‘I don’t know. To cause trouble perhaps. Who knows why Verity does anything?’

‘Well, never mind. I am just so happy to have it back. Thank you. Thank you. But why didn’t you go to Savi’s exhibition?’

‘I had a headache. In the end Laurence stayed with me.’

‘Savi thinks you’ve been avoiding him. Did he do something to upset you, Gwennie?’

Gwen swallowed and walked over to lean out of the window, but didn’t reply.

The following morning, a large brown parcel arrived for Laurence and now sat on the hall table, next to the ornamental ferns, waiting for his attention. Gwen thought he might not even have seen it, so picked it up and examined what looked like English postal stamps, though they had been so heavily rubber-stamped in Colombo, and wherever else it had passed through, she couldn’t be sure. Curious, she carried it to their sitting room and handed it to Laurence.

He got up from his chair, took the parcel with a nod and turned towards the door.

‘What is it, Laurence? It’s quite heavy.’

He glanced back but carried on walking. ‘I haven’t opened it yet.’

‘But do you know who it might be from?’

‘No idea.’

‘Why not open it now?’

He coughed. ‘Gwen, I am busy. I have business to attend to in my study. It’s probably something to do with tea.’

Perhaps it was his curt tone of voice, but suddenly she could not bear it. ‘Why didn’t you tell me Christina was still in love with you?’

He frowned, one hand on the door handle. It was just a moment of silence but it felt longer.

‘Gwen, my love, I’ve told you many times. Christina and I are long over.’

She chewed her cheek as he left the room, then looked out at the lake. She had wanted more reassurance than that.

Fran had gone for a long walk and didn’t appear for lunch, so after Hugh went for his rest, Gwen decided it was time to tell Laurence about Fran’s marriage to Savi Ravasinghe. He’d spent all morning enclosed in his study and the night before he had been out, so this was her first opportunity. She was surprised when he took the news in a better spirit than she’d expected, though he seemed preoccupied and she wondered if something else was bothering him.

It didn’t matter if Savi was not a welcome guest at their home; in fact, Gwen preferred it to stay that way. Fran said that the bright airy flat he owned in Cinnamon Gardens, in Colombo, was where she had stayed during her first trip to Ceylon in 1925. Since then, their affair had been on and off, during which time both had continued to see other people. Though she would have loved Fran to be living in Ceylon, Gwen couldn’t help feeling it would be better all round if they were as far away as possible.

She was lying on her bed thinking about it, when Naveena wheeled Liyoni through. It had become a habit for Naveena to bring Liyoni to her while the household was at rest. She lifted the child from the chair and placed her beside Gwen on the bed, then left the room. It was the one precious hour a day that they had alone together, and Gwen treasured it.

She began by reading Liyoni a story. She was working her way through all the fairy tales they had in the house; though Liyoni didn’t speak much, she understood a great deal, and when Gwen picked up the book of Andersen’s tales that Verity had once suggested for Hugh, Liyoni asked her to put it down.

‘I like you speaking the story, Lady.’

‘Once upon a time,’ she said as she cast around in her mind for today’s tale, ‘there was a wicked stepmother.’

The child giggled and snuggled closer. Gwen brushed the hair from her daughter’s face and gazed at her. She swallowed hard and carried on.

Gwen usually locked the door and made sure that she didn’t fall asleep. Today she was so tired from the strain of worrying about Verity’s threat that she hadn’t remembered. She was thinking of getting up to do it when Liyoni fell asleep, and then she drifted too.

She woke to hear a knock on her door and, before she was able to answer, Fran had come in. She stopped just inside the door and stared in surprise.

Gwen stared back.

‘Gwennie, is that the ayah’s sick relative in bed with you?’

Her cousin’s voice sounded awkward, and Gwen, struggling with her feelings, felt her eyes moisten but couldn’t speak. She was unable to lie to Fran.

Fran came across and, with a puzzled expression, gazed down at the little girl. ‘She’s very beautiful.’

Gwen nodded.

Fran sat on the side of the bed and leant sideways to look in Gwen’s face. ‘What’s going on, darling? Why won’t you tell me what the matter is?’

A lump came in Gwen’s throat and she lowered her head, staring at the satin bedcover until it blurred.

‘Is it really so awful?’

There was a stretch of silence that went on too long.

‘I will tell you,’ Gwen eventually said as she looked up and brought her knees up to her chest. ‘But you must promise not to say a word, not to anyone.’

Fran nodded.

‘Liyoni is not a relative of the ayah.’

For a moment more Gwen struggled with her thoughts, until the urge to unburden herself took over and the words came rushing out.

‘She is my daughter.’

Fran gazed at her. ‘When I saw how beautiful she was, I think I had an inkling. But, Gwen, who is the father? It can’t be Laurence.’

Gwen shook her head. ‘No, but she is Hugh’s twin.’

‘Darling?’

Gwen felt a lump come in her throat.

‘I don’t understand,’ Fran said.

‘I can’t tell you any more. I would have before, but not now that you’re …’

There was a moment’s ghastly silence.

Then, with an appalled expression on her face, Fran’s eyes widened. ‘Oh dear God. It’s not Savi? Surely that isn’t what you’re concealing?’

Gwen bit her lip and saw the colour drain from Fran’s face as she rubbed her forehead in shock.

‘I can’t believe you slept with Savi.’

They stared at each other and, when Gwen saw the judgement in Fran’s eyes, her voice shook. ‘It isn’t what you think.’

‘Does Savi know about the child?’

‘Of course not. But please, Fran, it was before you two got together.’

Fran shook her head in disbelief. ‘But what about Laurence? How could you do that to him?’

Gwen’s eyes grew hot with tears. ‘I wish I hadn’t said anything. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I don’t know how it happened. I just can’t remember.’

Fran frowned and paced around the room, rubbing her wrists. There was a long pause during which neither spoke.

‘Fran? I know you’re angry, but please say something.’

‘I just can’t believe it.’

‘I can’t remember anything about it.’ Gwen hung her head for a moment then glanced at Fran as she spoke. ‘It was at that first ball after we danced the Charleston. I was terribly drunk. Savi helped me upstairs and I remember he stayed for a while, but what he did to me after that I don’t remember.’

Fran’s hand flew to her chest and she froze on the spot, her face rigid. ‘Jesus, Gwen! Do you realize what you’re accusing him of?’

‘I’m sorry.’

The skin bunched round Fran’s eyes and her face reddened as she headed for the door. ‘You’re wrong. Completely wrong. Savi would never do a thing like that.’

Gwen reached out a hand. ‘Don’t go. Please don’t go.’

‘How can I stay? He’s my husband. How could you?!’

‘I need you.’

Fran shook her head but remained standing by the door.

‘I don’t even know if it’s possible for there to be two fathers,’ Gwen said.

There was a long stretch of silence.

‘It is possible,’ Fran said in a small, tight voice.

‘How do you know?’

‘I read something about it.’

Gwen gazed at her.

‘It was a case where a woman had twins, by two different fathers, somewhere in the West Indies or Africa. It was in all the newspapers.’

Tears began to slide down Gwen’s cheeks.

‘Didn’t you talk to Savi?’ Fran said. ‘At the time, I mean. Didn’t you want to know exactly what had happened?’

Gwen wiped her eyes and sniffed. ‘I didn’t think anything had happened, at the time. It was only when the twins were born and I saw that Liyoni wasn’t white. I had to decide what to do about Liyoni immediately. How could I confront Savi about it, so long afterwards?’

‘I would have.’

‘I’m not you.’

‘And so all these years you’ve assumed such a terrible thing about a decent man, when there has to be another explanation?’

‘I had hidden the child away. What difference would it have made? In fact, it might have made things worse. If I had spoken to Savi he might have told Christina, and before long Laurence would have known too.’

‘It would have settled your mind.’

‘Anyway, even if I had confronted him, he could have lied about it.’

Fran’s face twisted in anger. ‘So now he’s a liar too?’

Gwen shivered and bowed her head for a moment. ‘I’m so sorry.’

As Fran rubbed her hands together and took a few steps towards Gwen, her eyes were moist. ‘Look, I know Savi. Sleeping with a drunk or senseless woman is not him. He may have had affairs, but he has morals.’

Gwen opened her mouth to speak.

Fran held up a hand. ‘Hear me out. I know his morals may not be the same as yours, but he has them. In any case, I spent half that night talking to him, the night of the ball, Gwennie, after you’d gone to sleep. Do you really think he would have done that to you and then spent time with me? No. Believe me, it can’t have been Savi. He’s sensitive to women, that’s why we like him.’

‘So what then?’

‘So if we discount Savi – and we must, Gwen, we really must – how did this actually happen?’

Liyoni coughed and Gwen put a finger to her lips. ‘Don’t wake her.’

Fran continued speaking in a whisper. ‘There has to have been some colour in the bloodline. It’s the only answer.’

Gwen felt her heart lift and gave a shaky laugh. ‘Do you really think so? Is it possible?’

‘Yes.’

Gwen thought about it for a moment. ‘I did find an article in a magazine in New York, all about the interbreeding between black slaves and white plantation owners in America.’

‘Well, it can skip a generation or two. People don’t like to admit it. The British try to pass it off as continental ancestry or they hide the person away.’

Gwen gave her cousin a weak smile. ‘Oh, Fran, I hope you’re right. But surely I’d have heard something about it if it was true?’

‘Maybe, maybe not … but I do wish you’d confided in me sooner, or told somebody.’

‘Everyone would have assumed an affair, just like you did at first. People would never have accepted the child.’

‘I jumped to the wrong conclusion. I’m sorry.’

‘Exactly, and so would everyone. It would destroy Laurence if he believed I’d slept with another man, especially so soon after we married.’

‘Nevertheless, something in the blood has to be the answer. We both know there is nothing in our family to explain this.’

Gwen sighed. ‘Do we?’

Fran put her head on one side and a thoughtful look came into her eyes. ‘When I go back to England, I’ll do all I can to find out.’

Gwen checked her cousin’s face for doubt. ‘But you still believe it has come from Laurence’s side?’

‘I don’t know. What I think is that you have to talk to him.’

‘I can’t. Not without evidence. I’ve already said that he’d believe I’d had an affair. He’d never forgive me.’

‘You don’t have much faith in his love for you, do you?’

Gwen thought about it. ‘He loves me. It’s just the way things are here. The shame. The disgrace. It would be the end of us as a family. I’d lose him, I’d lose my home and I’d lose my son.’

She swallowed hard and Fran leant over to hug her.

‘There’s something else.’

‘Take your time.’

She gulped and fought back tears. ‘Verity has guessed and is threatening to tell Laurence if I don’t persuade him to reinstate her allowance.’

‘Good God, that’s blackmail. She’ll have you where she has always wanted you. If you give in, there will be more demands. It won’t stop, Gwennie. You’ll live in fear of the wretched woman for the rest of your life.’ Fran got up and threw open the window. ‘Lord, I need air.’

‘Has it started raining?’

‘It’s blowy. But you’ve been cooped up inside for too long. You’re terribly pale. We both need fresh air. Forget about it for now. Let’s do something. A walk. You, me, Hugh and his sister in her chair. I take it Hugh and Liyoni have no idea?’

The little girl began to cough again, this time waking up, and as Gwen murmured to her and felt her forehead, she thought about what Fran had said. Her cousin was right: the only thing she could possibly do was to talk to Laurence before Verity did. But without proof to back up the idea, the thought of doing it made her head spin.

A few days later, just as they were finishing breakfast, the first package of tea arrived. Laurence unwrapped the parcel then held it up for them to see. It looked even more stunning on the packet than it had at the design stage.

‘I think your husband’s artwork has transferred well to the packet,’ he said, looking at Fran. ‘I hope we might see him here for supper in due course.’

Gwen and Fran exchanged surprised looks.

‘Thank you, Laurence,’ Fran said. ‘I really appreciate that. I know –’

Laurence held up his hand. ‘I shall be happy to welcome Mr Ravasinghe to our home. I’m sorry we missed his exhibition in New York. We shall make every effort to attend the next, wherever it is, won’t we, Gwen?’

She managed to smile, but felt confused. Why had his attitude towards Savi changed so unexpectedly, especially as he still seemed so subdued?

After breakfast Laurence suggested a walk, while the rain held off. ‘I’ll meet you at the front of the house,’ he said to Gwen.

First Gwen prepared herself, then went to the nursery and found Liyoni sitting up in bed, drawing a waterfall.

‘She cannot draw for long,’ Naveena said. ‘But she did stand up for ten minutes to look at the lake.’

‘That’s good. Can you help me put her in the chair? She needs fresh air before it rains.’

‘She is wanting to see the waterfall.’

Ever since Hugh had mentioned the waterfall, Liyoni had been pestering to see it.

‘I’m afraid that is out of the question.’

Once Liyoni was in the chair with a blanket tucked round her legs, Gwen got ready to wheel her out. At the sound of a car leaving she glanced through the window and her heart jumped. Verity. She must have arrived earlier on and had come to carry through her threat. Gwen kept watching and saw Laurence pacing back and forth in front of the porch, raking his fingers through his hair. She felt her palms begin to sweat, but then an odd sensation swept through her and she realized it was actually a feeling of relief. If it was all over, there would be no more lies.

Laurence frowned when he saw her coming and he spoke stiffly. ‘Leave the child here in the porch. Naveena can take her back in. We’ll walk up the hill.’

All the way up, he didn’t speak. When they reached the top and turned to look back, the view took her breath away, just as it had done on her first morning at the plantation and every other time since. Everything glittered. She inhaled the scented air and gazed at the luminous green of the plantation hills, now extending even further than they had before. She took in the ‘L’ shape of the house, the back of it parallel with the lake, with the outdoor room on the right and, on the other side, the courtyard and the path that disappeared into the wall of tall trees.

‘Was that Verity I saw?’ she eventually said.

He didn’t speak, just nodded.

‘What did she want?’

‘Her allowance, of course.’

‘Laurence, I –’

‘If you don’t mind,’ he interrupted, ‘I’d rather not talk about my sister.’

There was a pause. She took a deep breath as she turned towards the view again.

‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘The most beautiful place in the world. But are you happy at the moment, Gwendolyn?’

‘Happy?’

‘I mean with McGregor running things here, and me being in Colombo so much.’

‘Of course I’m happy.’

‘But something has been bothering you, hasn’t it? It’s as if I don’t know you any more.’

In Gwen’s sigh, her weariness revealed itself. This might be her best chance to tell him the truth, but when she squinted up to look at him, the sadness on his face almost unhinged her. And the fact was, although Verity had already been at the house earlier, Gwen didn’t actually know what had or had not been said.

‘It isn’t Christina, is it?’ he asked very gently and drew her to him. ‘There’s really no need.’

She looked up at him, feeling uncertain.

He ran his fingers through her hair as he gazed at her, one arm round her waist. ‘Darling, really –’

Gwen interrupted. ‘In New York she told me it was all over before I even arrived here.’

‘Exactly what I told you.’

‘And I believed her, but really she still wanted you, didn’t she, even then?’

‘When?’

‘Like I said. In New York. Isn’t that what the phone call was about?’

He looked puzzled. ‘What call?’

‘Just before we went to bed on our last night.’

‘Darling, that call wasn’t from Christina. It was Verity.’

Gwen took a step back and stared at him. ‘But Christina told me that she had hoped to continue as your mistress after we were married.’

He pulled a face. ‘That was never an option. I know that she tried to give the impression there was still something between us, and she does like to provoke, but I swear there was no chance after I married you.’

Gwen felt tears burn her eyelids.

‘That’s why, after our wedding, I was happy to travel back to Ceylon ahead of you. To put a stop to it.’

‘So it wasn’t because of business?’

‘She had been good for me after Caroline. I was a mess. She propped me up. I had to let her down gently.’

‘You didn’t love her?’

‘I was fond of her but it wasn’t love.’

‘But why were you so distant with me when we first arrived here?’

‘Because I did love you and I was afraid.’

‘Of what?’

‘I’d lost Caroline. I felt I didn’t deserve a second chance. I suppose I was afraid of losing you.’

She swiped at the tears of relief that now dripped down her cheeks and then pinched the skin at her hairline where another headache was beginning. This was the moment. It was her turn. He reached over to brush her tears away. She held his hand then opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated, and in that moment, in the split second which is all it takes to change a life, she knew she simply could not do it.

The world hung silently, but for the cry of a lone crow. Dismayed at her cowardice, she sniffed the woody smell of the trees and tried to think. She just couldn’t speak out and then watch everything fall apart. He had trusted her, had trusted her with his deepest feelings, his fears, his needs, his grief. But then something else occurred to her.

‘Why have you changed your mind about Savi coming here?’

He took a breath. ‘I may have been wrong about him, that’s all.’

She glimpsed a look on his face that disturbed her; a look that suggested he was really hurting.

‘Are you all right?’ she asked.

He swallowed and turned away.

She weighed up what Fran had said. If Fran was right and Liyoni really was not Savi’s child, then she would be able to tell Laurence the truth, but maybe not yet. After all these years she longed to shout out that she was a good woman and had not done the terrible, terrible thing she’d believed she had. But she needed to wait a little longer, just until she could find a way to prove it.

She touched his shoulder, feeling more certain that Verity could not have carried through her threat; after all, if Laurence already knew he would hardly be treating her so lovingly. ‘Actually,’ she said, ‘I was thinking it might be a good idea to reinstate your sister’s allowance. It’s clear she won’t be going back to her marriage and she’ll need something to live on.’

He gave her a twisted smile. ‘Do you care? After all she has done …’

‘She’s still your sister. We could make going back to live in the house in England a condition.’

There was a rumble of thunder and she glanced up.

He nodded slowly. ‘Once the brand takes off, it might be possible. But you do know the house in Yorkshire is rented out?’

‘Yes, but when the lease runs out.’

Gwen glanced up at the clouds again and then down at her feet. It was almost November and late for the monsoon to begin. She stubbed the toe of her shoe in the dry ground. Soon it would be squelching underfoot.

‘I received a letter yesterday. The English tenants have indicated they might like an extension on the lease.’

She decided to push him over Verity’s allowance. ‘Might we find a way to give Verity her allowance before the brand takes off?’

He gave her a long quizzical look. ‘I could raise a loan, I think, if you really believe I must.’

Gwen hesitated. She didn’t want Laurence to have to incur more debts before they’d even got off the ground with the brand, but it would be a way to get Verity off her back, and for now, at least, it would give her time.

Laurence glanced up. ‘Come on, time to scoot. The rain’s here. Let’s talk about Verity later.’

Previous: Chapter 32
Next: Chapter 34