One day he received a message asking him to call on a Mrs Bestowe who lived at The Limes, a charming old house with a Georgian frontal, which was situated about half a mile from the remains of a Roman Camp.
Now Scholfield happened to be keenly interested in archaeology and The Limes had particularly intrigued him since the day, whilst standing on the elevated site of the Camp trying to reconstruct the appearance of the country as in ancient times, he had noticed, running across an adjacent field of corn, a band of darker colour (due, presumably, to shorter, slightly less mature or impoverished corn) which indicated the possibility of an old trackway running beneath it. Thrilled with the discovery and sighting along the line of this darker corn, he had seen that the track, if it existed, would have made for the nearest town in a direct line, but on its way it passed immediately under The Limes.
Scholfield had not yet met Mrs Bestowe, who was a widow and something of a recluse, but thinking that she might be able to answer some of the many archaeological questions that were teeming in his mind, he laid aside his more important work with less regret than usual and went to pay her a call.
The Limes faced the Camp, sheltered from the sometimes very high winds by a thick screen of shrubs and trees, among them, as might be expected, a few limes. The drive, describing an arc under this arboreal shelter, was dark, mossy and neglected, clearly very little used except one way as a footpath. This footpath, it was evident, did not lead to the front door, but turned off towards a side gate and then continued round to the back of the house.
Intending to explore a little first, Scholfield ignored the footpath and followed the untrodden drive to the Georgian portico, where he mounted the two steps. With his back squarely to the door, he could just discern the Camp through the trees directly ahead. The crop-mark, too, over what he believed to be an old track, was plainly visible, and ran directly towards him.
Perhaps he was to learn that there was nothing new in all this, but it was exciting to have discovered it for himself. He was about to leave the portico and retrace his steps to the back door (as became him in his role of humble servant) when quite a different interest claimed his attention.
On a ledge beside the door lay a large, expensive French periodical. Since this front door seemed almost never used, he wondered what the periodical could be doing there. The wind was blowing the pages over, and catching sight of a section apparently dealing with sculpture, his interest was quickened and he felt obliged to examine it. The pages fell open at a magnificent collotype plate of early Indian sculpture, and since he was always ready to imagine his own work in comparison with that of the masters, examined this with close attention. It represented a stone figure of the 2nd century -- a woman possessing the typical serpentine grace of the Indian, so felicitous, so nubile. At that time, he would have confessed, such a work signified for him almost the last word in sculptural perfection, and it was only with great reluctance that he was able to close the periodical on this lovely picture and replace it on the ledge.
Without further ado, Scholfield sought the back door and knocked, taking the opportunity, while he waited, to glance at the continuing path. It was encouraging to find that it ran straight on down the garden and joined a very worn and suspiciously old-looking paved way, which in turn led to an ancient and apparently disused well.
The door was opened by a maid whom he recognised as a girl from the village. She knew him, too, and asked him inside, but for some reason blushed as she turned to introduce him to her mistress who was sitting by the kitchen window cutting beans.
Mrs Bestowe put down her knife, wiped her hands and greeted him with some warmth.
‘O, Mr Scholfield!’ she said. ‘Thank you for coming. I have a little job for you if you’d care to take it on.’
‘At your service, madam!’ he replied, rising instantly to her mood which seemed easy enough and very friendly.
Her appearance was something of a surprise since he had been led to believe that she was a frumpish, rather elderly person, and this was not his impression at all. True, her hair was snow-white, taken back rather severely and secured in a bun. Her dress, too, was longer than was then fashionable, high at the neck and completely undecorated except for a fine cameo brooch placed centrally at exactly the right height on her bosom. This subtlely amused Scholfield, since women at that time would seldom wear anything that wasn’t asymmetrical -- a brooch could be on the shoulder somewhere, but never in the middle of the chest: a hat could be thrust well back on the head or pulled to one side, but never quite straight. To Scholfield, Mrs Bestowe’s manner of dress served to emphasise her attractiveness, as if from conscious understatement, while it bore a distinctly ‘period’ air to which he was susceptible.
‘If you will come this way, Mr Scholfield, I will show you what it is I want done.’
She preceded him to the dining-room which was furnished in a simplified, tastefully-selected late-victorian style. She removed the chenille cloth from the table in the centre of the room, revealing one of those expanding dining-tables that could be extended by the introduction of an additional leaf in the centre.
‘You know, of course, the principle of this kind of table?’ He nodded. ‘Well, the spare section is missing and I want to know whether you can make me another one to fit.’
Instantly, before he could reply, Scholfield’s attention was snatched away by a voice coming quite unexpectedly from the far end of the room:
‘O, mother -- no! For heaven’s sake -- not that!’
He then saw by the window and the lace curtains a head of rather overcurled red hair and a young female face peeping round from a high-backed armchair. He looked away from this rather startling vision to Mrs Bestowe and saw that her lips were compressed with anger.
‘Phyllis! I thought you were in your room. I won’t have you interfering in my affairs.’
Phyllis got up languidly from the chair and slung her book down on it.
‘But mother, why not getrid of the old thing? It’s old-fashioned and inconvenient. Buy a modern one! Anyone would think you couldn’t afford it!’
Scholfield could see that Mrs Bestowe was repressing intense annoyance.
‘Phyllis! will you kindly mind your business?’
Phyllis moved rapidly to the door without so much as a glance at Scholfield.
He caught a final glimpse of her tight, tidy red curls and flowered cotton frock before she slammed the door.
Mrs Bestowe sighed and seemed quite upset. She stood still for a moment, slightly bowed and breathing audibly.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m afraid my daughter and I fail to see eye to eye in many matters. She has a hairdressing business in T- - - and occasionally takes off the whole of her early-closing day to visit me and spend a night here. I hardly know why, since she really has so little interest in her home.’
Scholfield, bending over the table, soon took in all he wanted to know. It was a mahogany piece with a simple moulding at the edge. The leaf, when complete, would need a couple of dowel-holes on one of the flush sides for securing when butting-up.
He turned smiling to reassure Mrs Bestowe and to let her feel that his concern was solely with the table.
‘It won’t be a difficult job, Mrs Bestowe. I’ll take the measurements and make it up for you. I’ve got some old timber on hand that should work in beautifully.’
‘O, I’m so glad! I was afraid you might agree with my daughter that the table should be got rid of. I know it’s old-fashioned and without the value of an antique, but I’m fond of it.’
She was regarding Scholfield closely, anxious, it would seem, to confide in him, but still not wholly sure of herself.
‘This table,’ she said, ‘dates from my marriage. My husband and I entertained a lot in those days and we were constantly needing the table at its fullest extension. The strange thing is, however, that about the time my husband died, the spare leaf could not be found and the mystery was never cleared up. >From then on I had guests so rarely, the smaller adjustment sufficed for our needs, yet I found myself constantly on the look-out in the shops for a replacement, but never found one that quite suited.’
Scholfield, looking down at the table, his eye on the crack which divided it, began to feel a little uneasy. He found himself visualising the work which lay ahead of him and only half listening to Mrs Bestowe’s explanations.
‘It may surprise you, Mr Scholfield,’ she went on, ‘to learn that such a little thing should worry me, but of late my anxiety has become almost unendurable. And believe me, I have now asked for your help almost out of sheer desperation ...’
She stopped, perhaps wondering whether she hadn’t gone rather too far. But Scholfield, determined to see only the manifest content of her remarks, felt that he could meet the situation without embarrassment. He looked up from running his fingers along under the edge of the table and nodded understandingly.
‘Mrs Bestowe,’ he said with some gallantry, ‘I will undertake to make a perfectly-matching section for this really excellent table and to give you every satisfaction!’
She sighed very audibly, then smiled, and he could see that although her eyes were moist and her hands were trembling, his reassurance had given her great pleasure.
After a moment or two she ventured to say in a lowered voice,
‘You may not have been aware of it, Mr Scholfield, but I’m afraid I had been watching you for some time before I asked you to undertake this work. It was not, I assure you, from mere inquisitiveness, but simply to satisfy myself that you were a man I could trust. I know now that I have been unduly sensitive. I need not have worried!’
With his own thoughts about all this, Scholfield shook his head depreciatively at what he took to be a flattering remark and smiled encouragingly while he ran his rule over the job.
‘You know,’ she went on, still under the compulsion to confide in him and standing so close behind him that he felt her warmth, ‘I have only myself to blame for my daughter’s bad manners. She was a great pet of her father and I’m afraid I was rather jealous. But since his death I have tried hard to make amends. If he spoiled her then, I spoil her now! She wants for nothing, is always needing money and is seldom refused.’
Scholfield listened dutifully but without making any comment, simply nodding and smiling.
‘Now the width of the extension, Mrs Bestowe,’ he queried. ‘Shall it be one foot six -- two feet -- or more? Perhaps we’d better open it up and see how far it will go.’
Mrs Bestowe produced the handle and insisted on socketing it and winding it herself, although to do so caused her obvious agitation. Perhaps she seemed unwilling to see Scholfield associated in a task that might once have been her husband’s prerogative. As she turned the handle the table began to open up rather dramatically in the middle, the legs parting as they slid on the castors. But as she progressed it became clear that the thread was working hard and intermittent squeaks coming from it confirmed that it needed oil and was stiff from lack of use. Mrs Bestowe panted with the exertion and Scholfield could tell by the look in her eyes that he must take over. He pressed her shoulders gently as he moved her aside and she stood breathing hard, her hands trembling, as with a few final groans and squeaks he wound the table to its fullest extension.
‘There!’ he said, straightening up and appearing to be concerned with nothing but the table. ‘We can go another two feet six if you wish.’
‘Yes!’ she agreed. ‘I must have it wide. As wide as you can make it!’
‘Very well, Mrs Bestowe. I’ll get to work straight away. In a few days I’ll come for a fitting and finish here, if I may.’
Her hand was pressed to her heart.
‘Yes,’ she said, rather vacantly. ‘Yes, of course...’
There seemed nothing more to do but end the interview. As he turned to leave she said hastily,
‘Forgive me for behaving so stupidly, Mr Scholfield. My daughter, you know... I get so upset...’
‘Why, certainly, Mrs Bestowe. I understand.’
As she opened the door her manner changed abruptly. She resumed the easy, almost vivacious exterior with which she had first greeted him and no longer seemed the rather pitiful, lonely person worried unnecessarily over a table.
She led Scholfield back into the kitchen and there insisted on shaking hands with him. The maid lifted the latch of the door and opened up. There seemed nothing in the atmosphere that was not cordial and promising for the future. But in looking out of the doorway and glimpsing the garden with the old well beyond he remembered something he had wished to ask Mrs Bestowe. Would it savour too much of an anticlimax to ask her now?
Rashly determined to take everything on its face value, he turned on the threshold.
‘By the way, Mrs Bestowe, I hope you will forgive my curiosity, but I have developed a theory (although this may well be known already, of course,) that your house stands right over a primitive trackway. Have you ever heard mention of such a possibility?’
Her face became curiously blank.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I can’t say that I have.’
He waited, disappointed. Then it seemed that she might not be lacking in information but that she hesitated to impart it.
‘True, my husband, who was born here, often mentioned that the shell of this house is immensely old and there are traces of at least two buildings prior to it.’
She spoke as though she couldn’t care less. Scholfield found the information most encouraging, but hesitated to draw her out further.
‘And I suppose I might mention,’ she went on, ‘that some fragments of Roman pottery were found near the well in the garden.’
Scholfield found it difficult to restrain his enthusiasm.
‘Better and better! And as I stand in this doorway, looking towards the well, I calculate that the town is ahead of us in a direct line!’
Mrs Bestowe put a hand to her head and said wearily,
‘Whatever that might mean! Certainly there is a footpath in the field at the bottom of our garden that does run to town in a fairly direct line.’
With reluctance Scholfield felt that he could not pursue the matter further. He hated to face it, yet he knew that the circumstances of his visit had a certain equivocal significance and that what Mrs Bestowe demanded was an assurance that he appreciated her deeper meanings. His straightforward manner and insistence on the obvious had been accompanied by sympathy and understanding, yet it was clear that she had expected more than courtesy which might only hide deceit. Her doubt had been aggravated by his interest in her house, the Roman occupation and the ancient British trackway, which she seemed to regard as digressive and unwarranted when he should have been concerned solely with her own problem. Not only did it spoil the pattern, it indicated a boorish mentality difficult to excuse. Yet in hiding her disappointment and preserving her dignity, she could tantalize him further.
‘I have some notes in my possession written by my husband. They may have some bearing on your enquiry. I must get them out sometime.’
He thanked her cordially. And since he was now really going, she smiled again, though wryly. He knew very well that he had lost his opportunity with this woman. She would never produce those notes. Just then he was a carpenter whom she had entrusted with a certain commission, no more. But could he be sure even of that?
His farewell glimpse of the maid took in her embarrassed red cheeks. As he turned onto the path and out of the gate he stopped for a moment as the thought went through his mind again. If Mrs Bestowe was not to be taken literally, could he be sure that she really wanted to additional leaf for her table? Would it not be better to postpone work on it until she actually enquired about it?
Something had gone wrong. He was puzzled. What had Mrs Bestowe really wanted? Not, surely... Thinking back over what had not happened he saw her bent back in ecstacy over the middle line of the table while he ravished her. He laughed uncomfortably at the thought and with a feeling of incompetence and frustration turned into the drive.
His mind had already gone on ahead to the unfinished sculpture which lay in his workshop when he remembered the French periodical that he had left on the ledge of the portico. In that book (what would it be doing there, anyway?) was a reproduction guaranteed to rouse the spirits of the most disconsolate struggling artist! He would take one more look at it.
The pages of the periodical were still flicking over in the wind. Indeed the wind was now getting up quite strongly, pressing heavily overhead upon the loaded, rocking branches of the tall trees and rustling their leaf-masses together with a hiss like shingle flung up by waves onto a beach. He picked up the periodical and turned up the collotype plate of Indian sculpture which so appealed to him. As if to aid and abet a secret intention he found the plate loose. Putting down the rest he held the fine reproduction in his two hands, steadying it from the wind as he took a long eager look at it. What a magnificent thing it was! The spontaneous unity between dream and reality expressed by the ancient sculptor was what struck him now. Today we were too cerebral, too self-conscious, too much divided against ourselves. He mused on his own humble efforts. If only he could create something only half as fine as this!
Just then the front door opened -- most unexpectedly, since the door had the appearance of not having been opened for years.
Scholfield’s astonished gaze jerked round to see Mrs Bestowe standing there. At the same time the opening of the door caused a terrible draught to sweep through the house.
As he noted the look of hatred on her face, so the current of air swept through his fingers and tore the beautiful collotype clean out of his grasp.