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Susan Barrie

Return To Tremarth

First published in 1969 by Mills & Boon Limited,

CHAPTER I

CHARLOTTE stood listening to the silence in the house, and it was the most impressive silence she had ever heard in her life. If the house had been empty for centuries it could not have been more deathly still and waiting for something to shatter it. If one cocked one’s head one could hear the solemn booming of the waves on the beach at the foot of the cliff on which Tremarth had been built, but this was purely background music… a serious dirge that went on and on and changed its tempo only with the changing of the weather.

Charlotte looked up at the portrait of Great- Aunt Jane above the fireplace in the hall. Great-Aunt Jane must have been painted at the phase of her life when she was abandoning all thoughts of getting married and sampling the wilder delights of living, and the grimness of her shapely lips indicated not so much resignation as a painful acceptance of an Unkind Fate. Undoubtedly Jane Woodford had been designed for matrimony, for she had an excellent skin and slightly sensuous curves, and her beautiful big brown eyes fringed with long and luxuriant eyelashes were the eyes that had been passed on to her great-niece.

Charlotte moved closer and looked up at the portrait intently. She could only very dimly remember Aunt Jane, but the little she did remember made her wish she could remember more. Aunt Jane had smelled of lavender water and had seemed amiable and indulgent enough to a five-year-old, but always unapproachable. She had bestowed sweets and a pat on the head occasionally, but had frowned at a raised voice and the sudden slamming of a door. She lived in a world where the carpets were thick and the long velvet curtains that hung at most of the windows imprisoned a good deal of the sound that went on around her, and fortunately for her there were no such things as motor-car exhausts in her day, or holiday-makers trailing caravans over the cliffs.

She would probably have protested violently at the sight of a party of holiday makers sunbathing at the foot of the cliffs if she had come upon them by accident; but again, fortunately for her, the beach below Tremarth was sacrosanct in her day. The only people who ventured near it were collectors of fossils and those interested in marine life- cultivated dilettante types who went on walking tours, and occasionally stayed at neighbouring houses.

But now Tremarth had been handed down to Jane’s great-niece, Charlotte Woodford… and in addition to the house Charlotte had inherited her jewellery and her trinkets, and indeed everything she died possessed of. The very gold cross she wore in the portrait – a gold cross studded with fine-quality pearls – was held close in Charlotte’s hand as she looked up at her.

Poor Great-Aunt Jane, she thought. For years she had lived in a kind of private nursing- home-cum-guest- house, owing to failing health, and Tremarth had been shut up and had stored away the silence that so impressed the new owner.

She walked swiftly through the house and returned to the great kitchen, where the enormous dresser was stacked with some very handsome china. It was all so vast and in a way pretentious that she wondered what she was going to do with it. There were so many rooms, and they were all filled with extremely valuable furniture, and most of those rooms had wonderful outlooks over the sea. Tremarth would undoubtedly make a wonderful hotel or guesthouse, but she couldn’t see herself running the place as a guesthouse. She had no experience, for one thing, and she had a kind of feeling that Aunt Jane would object very strongly.

She put through a telephone call to her friend Hannah Cootes, in London, and urged her to catch the next train down to Cornwall.

“It’s the sort of house you’ll love,” she told her, “and apart from that I don’t think I could bear to spend a night here alone. Every room is full of the sea, if you know what I mean. The light of the sea is on every ceiling, and the smell of the sea seems to be everywhere. In addition there is a strong odour of potpourri and decaying furniture. I’m very much afraid the woodworm has got at some of it.”

“What a pity… I mean, how wonderful! ” Hannah, at the other end, declared with fervour.

“You mean the woodworm?”

“No, the sea… and the house, of course! I’ve masses of work, but I don’t think I can bear to stay away. What are you proposing to do yourself? I mean, are you going to live there?”

“I’ll try it for a time, once you get here. I’ll spend to-night at the local inn.”

“You tempt me sorely. I can just picture you enjoying a candlelit dinner in some smuggling hostelry -”

“There may still be smugglers on this part of the coast, but I doubt it – And the landlord of the Three Sailors doesn’t look as if he’s the type who goes in for candlelit dinners. He’s probably famous for his lobsters, but I’ll know more about that by this time to-morrow. Do you think you could catch the morning train?”

“And bring my work with me?”

“Of course. You can have a suite of rooms to yourself… absolutely no one to disturb you. So long as you come!”

“I’ll come,” Hannah promised.

“Good.” Charlotte felt relief course through her. “I’ll meet you at Truro station. And now this place is getting a bit eerie, so I’ll make for the Three Sailors. Aunt Jane’s portrait is hanging above the fireplace in the hall, and she looks a bit ghostly in the gloom.”

“I expect the house is haunted,” Hannah said cheerfully at the other end.

“Don’t!” Charlotte exclaimed. Then she decided that if Aunt Jane haunted the place she’d learn to put up with her.

Nevertheless, once the telephone receiver had been returned to its rest and the unbroken silence of the house clamped down again she did feel a decided urge to escape as quickly as possible. The hall, with its mellow panelling and sombre portraits, great stone fireplace and tall windows – one of them inset with what looked like an armorial bearing – was gathering shadows so quickly that she could almost see them crowding in on her, while outside, in the brilliance of the early evening, the emerald lawns sloping down to the sea and the gay flower borders that had been maintained meticulously despite the owner’s absence might have been part of another world.

The sea, with the sparkle of western sun on it, the green-clad cliffs, the overhanging arc of blue sky, the snowy-breasted gulls circling the wide heavens… they were all calling to her, and calling to her insistently, and she gathered up her handbag and gloves and darted out through the gardens to her car, which she had left on the drive in front of the entrance porch. She didn’t even stop to make sure the French window by which she left the house was locked, and as she shot off down the drive she was uneasily aware that she had panicked, for no reason, except that the house was empty, and those shadows had seemed to want to engulf her.

Beside her in the car was Waterloo, her black spaniel, and she told him about the gardens in which he could roam when they moved in the following day, and she also told him that his Aunt Hannah was coming to join them. Waterloo who was a fairly old dog, more interested in humans than gardens, wagged his tail at the mention of Hannah Cootes, who was a prime favourite with him.

The landlord of the Three Sailors had already reserved a room for Charlotte. His wife showed her to it, and a cheerful Cornish waitress attended to Charlotte’s wants in the dining-room. There was no lobster on the menu, but the roast chicken was excellent, and Charlotte thoroughly enjoyed her meal.

Afterwards she carried her coffee into the small and rather stuffy visitors’ lounge, watched television for about twenty minutes, and then decided it was high time she did something about Waterloo’s evening meal. She went into the bar, where the landlord was dispensing liquid refreshment to various locals, and asked him whether he would see to it that the animal was properly fed.

The landlord beamed at her immediately, and assured her that his wife had already attended to Waterloo’s needs. Charlotte noticed a man at the bar, quite unlike the other customers, who were exchanging light badinage in

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