The Family at Flaxmere
by Philip Cheriton
I have known the Melbury family since the time when Jennifer, the youngest daughter, and I climbed trees and built wigwams together in the Flaxmere garden. I know enough about them, therefore, to set down as much of the history of the family as is necessary to an understanding of the general situation at that Christmas-time, 1935, when the Flaxmere crime was committed. At that date I had been engaged to Jennifer for three months, but her father, Sir Osmond Melbury, withheld his blessing, so the engagement wasn’t publicly announced. Luckily for us, he did not forbid me to darken his doors, or anything of that sort. About nineteen years earlier he had tried the stern Victorian father business upon his eldest daughter, Hilda, when she fell in love with a young artist. Hilda had eloped—with her mother’s connivance, it was said. So this time he tried a new method.
He evidently believed that I was a poor creature and that Jennifer would soon “see through me,” especially if I were shown up unfavourably by contrast with a more eligible suitor. So he merely refused to take our engagement seriously; scoffed at us as too young to know our own minds; insisted that in any case we must wait; that Jennifer must stay at home to cherish her old father in the few years remaining to him; she couldn’t possibly dream of leaving home; and so forth. Meanwhile he encouraged Oliver Witcombe to hang about the house and make himself pleasant to Jennifer.
I had been at school with Oliver and had always regarded him as a decent sort of fellow, though his film-star appear- ance put me off. One felt that there must be something wrong with a man who had such a perfect profile and such unnaturally natural waves in his crisp fair hair. Of course, Sir Osmond’s behaviour—always, as it were, pushing Oliver forward and making him show off and treating him as if he were a clever and very well-trained dog—created rather a strained situation. I think Oliver and I both tried to forget this, but I, at any rate, felt horribly awkward when I met him at Flaxmere. That was typical of Sir Osmond; he had a genius for awkwardness. I would back him to arouse envy, hatred, and uncharitableness in any perfectly harmonious party of people in less than twenty-four hours.
Jennifer was the only one of his children still living with him at Flaxmere. This solid and rather grandiose mansion had been built by Sir Osmond’s great-great-grandfather who had pulled down an Elizabethan house because he found it old-fashioned and cramped. It strikes me as one of the less fortunate products of the eighteenth century, but Sir Osmond considers it a fine old Georgian edifice.
Sir Osmond’s father lost too much money on the turf and there was talk of selling the property, when young Osmond scandalised the family by going into business. When he made a nice little fortune out of biscuits the family discovered that business—the manufacturing side, of course—was really quite respectable nowadays; the best people go in for it; no one should be ashamed of putting his talents to their best use, and so forth. But Osmond Melbury, retiring, on his father’s early death, from the atmosphere of biscuits to take his place in the county, had no idea of sharing out the profits of his bourgeois occupation amongst his gentlemanly brothers and uncles. He laid out some of his fortune in well- planned donations which secured, in time, the baronetcy he desired. He fitted the old house with electric light and sumptuous bathrooms, and he did it well. He also made it known to his children that they should be liberally endowed if they married suitably.
His plans did not seem to be working out very well when Hilda, at the age of nineteen, married the artist, Carl Wynford. I gather that Sir Osmond would have raised no objection to Hilda’s engagement provided that she didn’t marry Carl until it became quite certain that he was generally recognized as a great artist. Sir Osmond would even have given him commissions and helped him to get others. But Hilda was in love and in no mood to submit to this sort of bargain. Carl died about three years later, leaving Hilda with a baby daughter and a great many pictures. The art critics had already noticed Carl, and his death caused a bit of a boom in his pictures, which, at the end of the war, when people had money, helped Hilda a good deal. But she had worked pretty hard to educate her daughter, Carol, and her father had never helped her at all, except to invite her and the girl to stay at Flaxmere occasionally.
The queer part of all this is that Hilda, who was originally her father’s favourite, has remained fond of him. At any rate, she seems to be, though it’s nearly incredible. She must be nearly forty now and looks it, probably because of the hard times she’s been through. She will say: “I can see father’s point of view; the old simply cannot understand that the young can’t wait.” She will never say more than that, and one feels that she’d never fail in that sort of understanding herself, however old she might be. I’m certain that she can’t help feeling pretty sore that her father wouldn’t even fork out a few hundreds, which he’d hardly miss, to give her daughter Carol, who is now eighteen, the training she wants. The girl is keen to be an architect and that costs more than Hilda knows how to scrape together.
Four years after Hilda’s marriage, in 1920, Lady Melbury died. I was eleven then and I can just remember her as a lovely, gracious woman, who looked older than the mothers of most of my friends and yet was much less fussy and obstructive and easier to confide in. She left two-thirds of her small personal fortune to Hilda and the rest to Jennifer, as if she realized even then that Edith and Eleanor—the other two daughters—would earn their father’s reward for obedient children, whilst Jennifer might well be glad of the slight help that little portion could give her in escaping from Sir Osmond’s tyranny.
After Lady Melbury’s death Sir Osmond’s unmarried sister went to live at Flaxmere and to preside over the social functions which were so important because they were to provide Edith—then aged seventeen—and later Eleanor, with suitable husbands, and George, who was just twenty- one, with a dutiful wife. Aunt Mildred did her work well. Edith, generally known as Dittie, married Sir David Evershot amid great, but decently restrained, family rejoicing. But although they have now been married ten years there are no children, a fact of which Sir Osmond strongly disapproves. Dittie says they can’t afford children; what she means, of course, is that they might not be able to manage Kitzbühl and Cannes and Scotland every year for a few years. Sir Osmond has threatened to cut them out of his will if they don’t produce offspring; he has a theory that what he calls “good stock”—that is to say, Melburies—ought to do their best to counterbalance the too numerous progeny of the less worthy. It is rumoured that there’s some kind of lunacy in Sir David’s family and that Edith is afraid it might come out in his children. I don’t know the truth of that, but only for some pretty strong reason would she deliberately risk her share of Sir Osmond’s fortune.
Eleanor, the third daughter, married Gordon Stickland, who is something fairly important in the City. Eleanor always had a flair for doing the right thing. When Gordon Stickland was drawn, by clever Aunt Mildred, to Flaxmere and turned out to be the completely desirable husband, in Sir Osmond’s eyes, for one of his daughters, Eleanor was very charming to him, duly accepted his proposal, and produced quite a passable affection for him. She bore a son, immediately declared by everyone to be “a thorough Melbury,” and christened him Osmond. There is also a daughter, Anne, who promises to be as beautiful as her grandmother. Eleanor knows all the right people, always wears the right clothes, is always seen at the right functions, and does it all much more economically than Edith.
George, the only son, married Patricia, a daughter of Lord Caundle, a girl with a good deal of money and rather glutinous charm, who kicks up an atmosphere of fuss about her like a cloud of dust, and whom Sir Osmond considers to be a thoroughly suitable daughter-in-law. They have three children, who are brought up to believe that they are the salt of the earth.
Aunt Mildred, having satisfactorily disposed of Sir Osmond’s son and two daughters, was dismissed from Flaxmere in 1931, when Jennifer came of age. This was not Jennifer’s doing, though I think Aunt Mildred always suspects that Jennifer had a hand in it. Aunt Mildred is certainly trying, with her sham humble attitude of “This is what I would advise, but I don’t expect you to take any notice,” but Jennifer was used to her and, moreover, was glad to have her there to companion Sir Osmond, who always expected some member of the family to be at hand to talk to him when he wasn’t busy.
Probably the chief agent in the ousting of Aunt Mildred was Miss Portisham—the Portent, as Hilda and Jenny call her. Grace Portisham was the orphan daughter of someone at the place where Sir Osmond made his biscuits—a manager, I think—who came to Flaxmere as Sir Osmond’s private secretary when she was a girl of twenty, four years before Aunt Mildred left. I don’t think the secretarial work ever demanded very great talents; Miss Portisham was quick, neat and tactful and Sir Osmond was delighted. Then, during some absence of Aunt Mildred on a visit, Miss Portisham began to develop a perfect genius for looking after household affairs. She ran everything so perfectly that no one noticed that anyone was running things. Jennifer, who isn’t at all a good housekeeper, was only too glad to leave everything to the secretary. Miss Portisham, having tasted power, and realizing how well she could exercise it, wanted to get the reins permanently in her own hands. So she unobtrusively planted and cultivated in Sir Osmond’s mind the idea that it would be suitable for Jennifer when she reached the age of twenty-one, to preside over her father’s house free from the guardianship of a maiden aunt.
None of the family took much notice of Grace Portisham during the first four years of her stay at Flaxmere. Jenny realized that it was a blessing to have her there; she was always willing to take responsibility, always understood Sir Osmond’s wishes, and generally helped to make things run smoothly. But after Aunt Mildred left, in the summer of 1931, Miss Portisham began to make herself felt, though still gently and tactfully. During the next Christmas house-party
Edith and Eleanor and George noticed changes. The ten- year-old Daimler and the old coachman-turned-chauffeur had given place to a modern Sunbeam with a smart young Cockney at the wheel. Eleanor was the first to protest.
“I suppose you needed a new car, Father, but I don’t like that young man; I don’t like his attitude; it wouldn’t surprise me to find that he’s a Socialist. I very much doubt whether Jenny will know how to keep him in his place.”
“And what’s happened to Ashmore?” George inquired. “Gave me quite a nasty feelin’, not seein’ the old fellow at the station.”
“He’s been well-treated,” Sir Osmond assured them. “Wouldn’t have been safe to trust him with that car. Bingham is a far better driver and a trained mechanic as well. Miss Portisham’s idea—the change. She’s a smart girl.”
From that time, Edith and George were accustomed to advertise their disapproval of Miss Portisham’s choice by not letting Sir Osmond know beforehand the times of trains by which they were arriving at Bristol, and engaging old Ashmore—who had set up in the hiring business—to drive them to Flaxmere.
They found, too, that rooms had been done up in new colour schemes and there were various innovations in household organization. Edith expressed her disapproval of the changes and hinted at a lack of good taste. Always Sir Osmond pooh-poohed her criticism, boasted how economically everything had been done, and lauded Miss Portisham. Edith and Eleanor and George became increasingly anxious about Grace Portisham. She was a schemer—and how far was she prepared to go? They would gladly have seized any opportunity to discredit her, but she was so discreet, so tactful, that she seemed invulnerable. Each Christmas they arrived in a greater state of anxiety, and soon after each New Year’s Day they returned to their homes with their anxiety unallayed by the obvious facts that Miss Portisham greatly increased the comfort of life at Flaxmere and was never seen by anyone to presume above her station.
Sir Osmond, when he dismissed Aunt Mildred, also decided that Jennifer was not to marry but was to stay at Flaxmere as long as he lived. This might well be for twenty years; he was then sixty-six and seemed fit and tough. There was no earthly reason why Jennifer should throw away the best part of her life in order to decorate his household. With all her tolerance and good temper, she only got on with him by keeping her real opinions and interests to herself. She developed some sort of life of her own by working in the Women’s Institutes, but these activities were hampered by Sir Osmond, who disapproved of what he considered the Bolshevist tendencies of the movement. He would have been happy for her to give the members a treat in the Flaxmere grounds every summer, with plenty of tea and buns and perhaps a conjuror. But he considered it unfitting for his daughter to drive thirty miles along country roads on a wet night to play games—games, indeed!—with “a batch of village women.” The local school teachers ought to superintend that sort of nonsense, he declared; what are they paid for?
Aunt Mildred, of course, would have been only too happy to remain in the luxury of Flaxmere. Or, if Sir Osmond really wanted one of his daughters at home to act as hostess and be a companion to him, there was Hilda. She would have accepted the office gladly; thirteen years older than Jennifer, with love and aspirations and hard work behind her, she was ready to settle down to a peaceful middle age; she managed Sir Osmond well and she could have entertained his prosy old friends and their complacent wives with at least a superficial graciousness which Jennifer found it impossible to maintain at Sir Osmond’s dinner parties.
But here you see Sir Osmond’s cussedness again. He set his face against the obviously easy arrangement, which would have made everyone happy—even including himself, if he would allow himself to be happy. He had shown no objection to me or my family in the days when I had frequently stayed at Flaxmere in the school holidays. When I turned up again, after a gap of some six years, he only worked up his disapproval of me after Jennifer and I broke it to him that we wanted to get married quite soon. Oliver Witcombe, on the other hand, seemed willing to wait for an indefinite number of years, but I had a suspicion that if only I could be removed from the picture and himself installed as the accepted suitor, he meant to find some means of fixing a marriage date not too far ahead.
I have said that when Jennifer first told her father that she meant to marry me—in the summer of 1935—he was a very fit man for his age. He had always taken good care of himself. But in August he had some sort of heart attack, supposed to be a slight stroke, which aged him a good deal. His doctor, however, said that the old man might still last for many years, if he took life easily and was subject to no sudden shock or strain. He always seemed to thrive on the atmosphere of distrust and discomfort which he had such a knack of creating and although the Melbury family was riddled with feuds and jealousies, these were always conducted in a polite manner, with sarcasm and innuendo but never a healthy row. So, although Sir Osmond looked older and his memory began to get vague, Jennifer and I still thought of him as a man likely to live for many years. At the end of August, as soon as Eleanor, Edith and George had news from Jennifer of their father’s illness, they, and George’s wife, all swooped down on Flaxmere like birds of prey. They hovered around, with flutterings and solicitous inquiries after his health, which thinly disguised their anxious peering and pecking after any shred of evidence as to the likeliness of his sudden death and the possibility that he was reconsidering his will.
“Very nice of you all to be so fond of me!” Sir Osmond sneered. “Now you can go back to your grouse and think no more of me until Christmas!”
That was all they got out of him. No one knew exactly how he would leave his money. He had been accustomed to say to his children when they were growing up: “If you show proper discretion in choosing husbands—or a wife, George—I’ll see that you’re properly dowered. If you don’t, you can wait for my money till I’ve done with it myself.”
From that, everyone supposed that Hilda would receive her share when her father died, but there was a good deal of speculation as to whether—after George had received enough to keep up Flaxmere—the rest would be divided equally among the girls, or whether the amounts which Edith and Eleanor had already received would be counted as part of their share. Edith, who had turned down a young man she was really fond of in order to please her father by marrying Sir David Evershot, had once been heard to remark that if, after all, she got less than Hilda when the old man died it would be grossly unfair. The others didn’t express themselves so crudely, but probably held the same view.
George had less cause for anxiety than the others because Sir Osmond held strong views on the rights of the son and heir. But the increasing importance of Miss Grace Portisham disturbed even George and worried George’s wife a good deal. They all considered that Jennifer’s presence at home was some safeguard and after Sir Osmond’s illness they felt this even more strongly.
“I do think father’s right in wanting you to stay at Flaxmere,” Eleanor told Jenny that August. “I wouldn’t like to think of him left alone with Miss Portisham. You know one can’t trust a woman of that class; she hasn’t the same standards as we have. Oh, yes, of course she is clever and has acquired a superficial culture, but I don’t think she’s honest at bottom.”
“Men of father’s age, especially when their faculties are impaired by illness, sometimes do very foolish things,” Edith had urged. “Look at Lord Litton Cheney’s marriage, only the other day, to a woman who was nothing more than his daughters’ governess! It’s a dreadful thing for those girls!”
“Father’s comment on that,” Jennifer told them, “was that there’s no fool like an old fool!”
“That proves nothing,” said Edith. “I agree with Eleanor that you ought to be here. Father needs someone to look after him.”
“And I’m no use for that, you know quite well,” retorted Jennifer.
Edith ignored that and continued: “And it’s no hardship for you. You’ve got every luxury; you’ve got your Women’s Institutes that you’re so devoted to; you can live your own life and have nothing to worry about.”
“I can’t live my own life; that’s just the trouble!” Jennifer protested. “Father won’t let me drive the Sunbeam alone at night, though I’m perfectly competent. He won’t let me have a small car of my own and he always seems to arrange things so that Bingham isn’t available when I want to go to a meeting.”
“Those are details!” declared Edith, dismissing them airily. “You can’t expect to have everything perfect and the fact remains that you ought to be here for the next few years.”
As soon as Sir Osmond had recovered from his illness and the family had dispersed, Jennifer and I discussed the situation and decided to be married in the spring. When Hilda came to Flaxmere for Christmas we were going to tell her our plans and urge her to think out some way acceptable to Sir Osmond of installing herself in Jennifer’s place. That wouldn’t be easy, because Hilda was too proud to beg her father to give her a home. Of course the arrangement, if it could be brought about, would solve some of Hilda’s problems, but she was so accustomed to the impossibility of getting any help from her father, that she would find it difficult to believe in a change of fortune.
I believe that Hilda, as well as Jennifer, was genuinely unconcerned about the question of how much Sir Osmond would leave and how he would allot it. She had given up any hope that money might come from him just when she most desperately needed it for Carol’s training, and was not very interested in what might come later on. She was too fond of her father to allow herself even to think how his sudden death might help her daughter, and she accepted Jennifer’s judgment that their father was likely to live for many years. Jennifer and I realized that if we married in the spring we should be throwing away all chance of a dowry, but that couldn’t be helped and we tried not to think of it though, goodness knows, we couldn’t afford to turn up our noses at it. Jennifer said: “It’s no good thinking about it, because there simply isn’t any money as far as you and I are concerned. For us it’s non-existent. It may come along by the time we are middle-aged and probably we, like Hilda, shan’t want it then.”
My salary in the publishing firm would be considered by many people as a nice little income for a young married couple, but it wasn’t going to provide an easy existence for Jennifer “in the state to which she had been accustomed.” Her little inheritance from her mother, which she had saved carefully, would help and she had decided that economy would be amusing, and was ready to make a good job of our new life.
This was the state of affairs at Christmas, when all this crowd gathered at Flaxmere. It was the usual custom. Sir Osmond thought that a family gathering was the correct thing at Christmas and no one dared to object, though they generally had a pretty grim time. Aunt Mildred was always included in the party and was probably glad enough to enjoy the luxury of Flaxmere again for a short time. Oliver Witcombe was there, too, and even I was invited, partly because there was a preponderance of women in the party anyway and partly in pursuance of Sir Osmond’s policy of comparing me unfavourably with Oliver. I guessed that the old man would be planning for one of the evenings some sort of diversion at which Oliver would be sure to shine and I would not; an easy matter, for Oliver is full of party tricks. Hilda, with her daughter Carol, was coming as usual.
I believe Sir Osmond liked to have her there, both from a genuine affection for her—though that’s hard to believe in the light of his meanness to her—and also to throw it all in her teeth, as it were. “Just see what you’ve missed by going against my will!”
So there we all were; and, as we were so unpleasantly forced to realize later on, nearly all of us with good cause for wishing Sir Osmond dead and few with any cause to wish him long life.