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Authors: Mary Burchell

Reluctant Relation

RELUCTANT RELATION

Mary Burchell

 

Meg was strangely attracted to Leigh, but his presence was a constant reminder of her unhappy past. Besides, he still cared for the glamorous Felicity.

 

CHAPTER ONE

The little girl was sitting motionlessly by the side of the road.

That was the extraordinary thing about her, Meg thought instantly. The stillness and the absolute absence of purpose. She could not have been older than nine—an age when most children are active rather than reposeful—yet she sat there on the grass verge as though time and place meant nothing.

Meg glanced over the hedge behind the child, but no house or cottage was in sight. And on the other side of the road, she knew, was woodland, for she had just trekked through it. There was something so incongruous about the little girl that it became impossible to pass her without comment.

As Meg drew level with her, she stopped and said, “Hello. What are you doing all by yourself?”

“I’m thinking,” was the perfectly composed reply.

“About something interesting?”

“I’m thinking whe
r
e to go next.”

“Shouldn’t you perhaps go home? You must—” Meg glanced around again “—be quite a long way from home.”

“I’m not going home again—ever,” the little girl stated conversationally, then lapsed into silence.

If Meg was slightly taken aback, she concealed the fact. She had had enough experience with children to know that they will listen more readily to a calm person than an agitated one. So she sat down beside the little girl and asked, “What is your name?”

“Pearl.”

“What a pretty name. What’s your last name?”

“I’m not going to tell you.”

“Very well.” Meg smiled. “My name’s Meg Greenway, and I’m on a walking holiday. It’s rather fun. But it means carrying quite a lot of things.”

“Is that why you have that big thing on your back? Like a peddler in a fairy story?”

“I suppose so ... yes.” Meg smiled
again. “Except that I don’t have three wishes in my knapsack; in fairy stories they nearly always do.”

The little girl smiled at that. Then, leaning toward Meg, she said with endearing roguishness, “Are you sure you don’t have three wishes?”

“Well
... I don’t know. Perhaps we all have the answer to some of our wishes in ourselves or in our knapsacks,” Meg said, half to herself. And she realized it was her awareness of the child’s unusual intelligence that permitted her to give such a whimsical reply. “If I did have three wishes to offer you, what would you choose?”

“I think I’d have something to eat,” was the unexpected answer.

“Would you?” Again Meg had to hide the fact that she was taken aback; for this child did not look at all as though she came from a home where food was scarce. Her hair was well cared for, her shoes and socks were good, and her cotton dress was charming and exceedingly well made. “Are you hungry?”

The little girl nodded.

“Well, I think we can grant that wish,” Meg told her. She slipped off her knapsack, unbuckled it and took out a sandwich tin, the little girl all the time watching with an interest that confirmed her hunger.

When Meg offered her sandwiches, she eagerly accepted. But she said politely, “You have some too.”

So together they shared the sandwiches and fruit, and drank weak tea from Meg’s thermos flask.

“Was that your lunch?” inquired the little girl, when the meal was a thing of the past.

“Yes. But I had more than I needed. How about the second and third wishes?”

“I wish my father would come back.”

“Oh—” Meg saw she would have to go more carefully “—that might be more difficult. Has he been away a long time?”

“He went away last week.”

“Then perhaps he’s coming back soon.”

“No. He isn’t ever coming back. Mommy told me so.”

“I see.” Meg felt a sudden tightening of her throat, but she managed not to sound too emotional as she said, “I’m terribly sorry about that, Pearl. But you still have Mommy.”

“Yes,” agreed Pearl, with devastating indifference.

“And perhaps a brother or sister?”

Pearl shook her head.

“Just Mommy,” she said. “And Nanny. And I know what my third wish is. I’d like Nanny to turn into a frog and hop away somewhere. She looks like a frog, and she has a croaky voice. Only she can’t hop.” And, in the unexpected way of children, the little girl went into ecstasies of mirth at the thought of a transformed Nanny hopping.

Relieved to see her companion react in this much more childlike manner, Meg laughed, too. “But I expect she’s a nice frog at heart?” she suggested.

“No. She’s a horrid frog. That’s why I’ve run away.”

“But what about your poor mommy? She’ll be terribly worried,” Meg pointed out.

“Oh, no. She won’t notice.”

“But, darling, of course she’ll notice! You can’t have a little girl and not notice she’s missing.”

“Mommy can. She’s on location.”

“She’s what?” Meg looked mystified.

“On location. She acts in movies. When they work indoors it’s called the studio, and when they work outside it’s called on location,” explained Pearl.

“Oh, I see. So Nanny looks after you?”

“She doesn’t look after me. She drinks gin,” declared Pearl with disconcerting knowledge, “and smells horrid. Then she gets red in the face, then quite pale, and sometimes she falls asleep. She went to sleep this morning, and that’s when I ran away.”

Meg blinked at this graphic description of what appeared to be a lamentable situation. But she controlled her inward indignation and asked, “Was there no one else in the house with you, Pearl?”

“No. Mrs. Parker should have been there, who comes to clean, but she couldn’t come today because her daughter’s sick. And Cecile—that’s Mommy’s maid—went on location with her.”

“Then I think I’d better come back to the house with you,” Meg stated firmly.

“But I’m not going back to the house,” Pearl reminded her, though a shade less confidently in the face of Meg’s matter-of-fact assurance.

“We have to, you know.” Meg smiled and shook her head. “For one thing, I think it’s going to rain. And, for another, I couldn’t possibly just go away, now I know about your trouble. It would spoil my holiday completely if I thought I’d left a little girl sitting alone by the roadside, wondering what to do next.”

“Would it?” Pearl looked both pleased and impressed.

“Of course. Besides, we’ve eaten all my food, and I think it would be nice of you to ask me back to tea with you.”

“I suppose
... it would.” Pearl got slowly to her feet. “And anyway, I could always run away another day.”

“You could. But it’s not a very good idea,” Meg said. “It never works. I tried it once, when I was your age.”

“Did you?” Pearl was evidently staggered by the discovery that the momentous inspiration was not hers alone. “What happened?”

“Oh, I didn’t get far before it began to grow dark, a
n
d I was scared stiff and kept on thinking of my nice cosy bed. So I turned around and rushed home again. My mother was just saying to my father, ‘I can’t think where that child’s got to,’ when I sneaked in the back way and could smell the lovely hot soup for supper.

“My father said, ‘Hello, chicken, where have you been?’ And I felt so silly that I pretended I’d just lost my way, because suddenly it didn’t seem such a good idea to run away.”

There was a short silence while Pearl pushed a small pebble about with the toe of her shoe. Then she sighed, “Perhaps it’s not a good idea. It’s a better idea if you come home with me instead.”

“Very well.” Meg smiled. “Is it far?”

“Miles,” declared Pearl cheerfully. “Perhaps we’d better start.”

Meg agreed that perhaps they had. She let Pearl help her strap up her knapsack again and hoist it onto her back. Then they set off across a field, Pearl stepping lightly and almost eagerly now.

The distance was not exactly “miles.” But they did have quite a long walk before they came in sight of the most enchanting, small country house with a very pretty flower garden set back from the road. In the distance, about half a mile away, Meg could now see the outskirts of a village, which appeared to cluster around an old Norman church, in the manner of so many Northumbrian villages.

“This is where we’ve been living while Mommy’s on location,” Pearl explained, as she pushed open the gate and led the way up the path. “She goes out very early every day with Cecile. Then Nanny—”

But before she could say anything else, the front door flew open and a tall, slightly disheveled-looking woman with an unnaturally pale face stood in the doorway.

“You naughty girl,” she cried, addressing Pearl and ignoring Meg entirely. “You naughty, naughty girl! Where’ve you been?” The slight slurring of the syllables, and the fact that she seemed to find it necessary to steady herself with a hand on the side of the door, were not lost on Meg. At any other time she might have put this down to fright over the disappearance of her charge. But, remembering Pearl’s circumstantial report, she decided that this woman was still suffering from the aftereffects of drink. Indeed, in her anxiety, she had perhaps resorted to further artificial bolstering of her morale.

“Pearl seems to have become rather scared on her own; she went off on too long a walk,” Meg said crisply. “I understand you were asleep.”

“Thass a lie! I only closed my eyes for five minutes. I felt odd. I do sometimes feel odd. Everybody feels odd sometimes.” The woman seemed to realize that she was repeating herself unnecessarily and she levered herself away from the door, and spoke with great and solemn dignity. “I’m in charge here. What do you want?”

“Pearl has kindly asked me to tea,” Meg told her pleasantly but firmly. “She and I will sit in the garden for a little while. And if you still feel odd, you’d better go and lie down again. We’ll get tea for ourselves.”

“Who saysh you’ll get tea for yoursh ... yourselves?” said the woman belligerently.

“I do,” Meg told her. And, although she was a fair, rather slight girl, there was something about her dark, uncompromising glance that evidently pierced even this woman’s muddled consciousness.

“Very well,” she muttered. “Very well. I’m not one to quarrel. But ’smost irregular. Irregular.”

Then she turned and went indoors, leaving Pearl—who had not uttered a word during this conversation—and Meg to exchange a glance.

“You see,” Pearl said.

“Yes. I see. But there’s no need for us to talk about it.” Meg had no intention of allowing this incident to impress itself upon the child more than was necessary. “Shall we go and sit over there under the trees? It looks as though there are some comfortable chairs.”

Pearl was only too willing. And as soon as she and Meg were ensconced in chairs, she demanded, “Now tell me about you. You know about me.”

Meg smiled. “Well, I’ve told you my name and that I’m on a walking holiday,” she said. “What else would you like to know?”

“Where do you live, have you got any children, and are you married? Where are you going when you leave here, and—?”

“Wait, wait!” Meg laughed. “Let’s start with the first questions. Up till now I’ve lived in the south of England, in a seaside town. I’m not married and I don’t have any children—”

“Do you have a mother and father?”

Meg hesitated, then said, “I have a father. My mother died some years ago. And quite recently my father married again.”

“Then you have a stepmother?” Pearl looked ghoulishly impressed. “Is she a wicked stepmother?”

“Oh no! Certainly not.” One could not possibly describe Claire as wicked. Just selfish and acquisitive and disconcertingly coldhearted.

“What’s she like, then?” Pearl pressed.

“She’s very beautiful. And young. Only five or six years older than I am.”

“Do you like her?” inquired Pearl.

“Quite honestly, no.” Meg laughed a little deprecatingly. “But I suppose it’s always difficult to be fair to someone who takes your place. Particularly if your affections are involved.”

She was speaking more to herself than to the child, really. But Pearl seized the point with unusual acumen.

“You mean you had your father all to yourself, and now she has him and they don’t want you?” she suggested, simplifying the situation in a way that made Meg gasp—partly with surprise, partly because it hurt to have the position defined with such innocent clarity.

She was silent. After a moment, Pearl asked, “When did she marry him?”

“Two weeks ago,” said Meg, reflecting with wry amusement that unknowingly, the little girl had put the situation in the right terms.

“Only two weeks ago?” Pearl looked intrigued. “Then have you sort of run away too?”

“Not quite.” Again Meg was struck by the child’s uncanny instinct for defining a situation. “I would have had to go anyway. My father is a very busy and popular doctor, and I’d run his home ever since my mother died. But obviously when he married again, there was no real place for a grown daughter any more. And, even though he was very nice about it—”

“Was she?” Pearl’s cool, thoughtful gray eyes were fixed on Meg.

“Not very. But that’s between you and me. Even my father didn’t know about that, and I wouldn’t want him to. The whole thing boiled down to the fact that it was time I broke loose and made my own life.”

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