Debutantes: In Love
Friday 1 February 1924
Poppy and Baz had been playing New Orleans Rhythms for an hour, but now there was silence in the little cottage. They sat gazing into the fire, sitting side by side together on the large, old sofa – threadbare, but beautifully soft and deep. Baz propped his bass against the table, where Poppy had laid her clarinet.
Music was Poppy’s security. Music had rescued her when the world had swirled into chaos on the death of her mother; it had brought order into that turmoil. Music had given her courage, but it was jazz that had set her free. The persistent beat had slowed the anxious fluttering of her heart, steadied her nerves and brought a thrill of happiness tingling through her veins. She smiled at Baz as he picked up his bass again and bent over it, an untidy lock of satin-smooth black hair falling over his forehead and fringing his large chestnut-coloured eyes. He was the boy next door, the youngest son of an earl whose lands fringed theirs in west Kent. They had known each other all of their lives, had played together, grown up together, even discovered a passion for jazz together. Poppy could not imagine life without him. The kitchen of the small cottage in the centre of the beech wood on this February day was warm and cosy with the heat from the ancient black range. Soon the other members of the jazz band would be here for their morning practice, but for the moment it seemed as though they were alone in the world.
She saw him look at her. An odd feeling, a sort of nervous tension that she had not previously experienced ran through her as she looked into his dark eyes.
‘If only we lived here and I didn’t need to go home ever again,’ she whispered. The cottage that housed her father’s young chauffeur was so much warmer than her own home. Beech Grove Manor was a beautiful, grand old building, but living in a house where the ceilings of the huge rooms were twenty-foot high and where a fire in one of the enormous fireplaces barely warmed those sitting directly in front of it was not so pleasant. And then there was her father’s gloom and Great-Aunt Lizzie who lectured the girls as though they were five years old.
Baz, as though he sensed her mood, put down the bass and stroked her hand gently. He said nothing but his eyes were full of understanding.
‘Do you remember when we ran away together when we were eleven?’ said Poppy, trying to smile at the memory. ‘We were going to live in the woods; and I left a letter on my pillow saying that I had gone away forever and ever, but Daisy tracked us with one of the hounds and persuaded me to come home.’
Typical Daisy, she thought. She had always been the more sensible one of the twins. At least they had thought themselves twins until last year when the true story of Daisy’s birth had been uncovered, although that had made no difference to them.
Suddenly Poppy stopped thinking about Daisy, stopped thinking about her troubles. Baz had put an arm around her shoulders – but not in the careless, half-affectionate, half-brotherly way of the past. Her heart racing, she turned her face towards him. His nearness seemed to be sending shocks through her. He reached out and put both arms around her, moved them up so that his wrists softly caressed the column of her neck, his face tilted towards hers. Poppy lifted her mouth and . . .
A log dropped with a clatter against the iron side of the stove and then flared up with a sudden flash of light. Poppy felt the warmth from the fire all over her body. Baz’s lips were warm and soft, gently pressing against her own. Her fingers ran over the shape of his shoulder blades, the warmth of the back of his neck, the satin-silkiness of his hair. After a long moment she broke off and laid her head against his shoulder, amazed at the way her heart was pounding. Baz laughed softly, untying her long plait of dark red hair, combing it out with his fingers and pressing his cheek against hers.
‘We could run away together now; needn’t live in the woods either – not now that I’ve got my own house in London. We could get married, Pops.’ He caught her eye and smiled tentatively; there was a tremor in his voice and his eyes were golden in the firelight.
‘Don’t,’ said Poppy, but it was too late. Reality had crept back into the little warm kitchen. They were no longer eleven. She was seventeen years old. It might be 1924, but her father and Great-Aunt Lizzie were still firmly rooted in the age of Queen Victoria – the days when an offer of marriage had to come before the first kiss and when a man had to show his future father-in-law how wealthy he was before he was allowed to talk of weddings. The chances of her father or her great-aunt allowing her to marry a seventeen-year-old boy, with no income and who had only just finished school, were nil.
‘You might have a house,’ she said trying to sound sensible, ‘but where would we get the money to buy food? In the woods, when we were eleven years old, we were going to live on beechnuts and blackberries and wild mushrooms. Not too many of these on the streets of London.’ Poppy tried to laugh, but she could hear a tremor in her voice so she bit her lip hard.
‘We won’t need to buy food: we’ll have parties every night,’ continued Baz, taking her trembling hands in his. ‘We could ask people to bring something to eat and something to drink,’ he went on, ‘that’s the latest thing these days. When you are going to those Debutante parties with Daisy you’ll make lots of friends. They’ll all get tired of those stuffy affairs and they’ll be delighted to come to our parties which will be different and fun – and we’ll be playing jazz – which is latest thing at really wild parties, or so my sister Joan says. And when we’re married they’ll all keep coming and bringing food and drink with them. Bound to be enough left over to keep us going until the next party.’ He looked at her closely and asked, ‘You are going to have a season, right, Pops? You haven’t had bad news, have you?’
Poppy shook her head. ‘Not bad news; just no news. We had expected to hear from Elaine by now. She did promise to come back from India and take a house in London for the season and present us.’ Surely, she thought, Elaine would not let them down. She had been the only sister of Poppy’s mother, Mary. But as well as that – and Poppy knew the carefully-hidden secret – she was Daisy’s mother.
‘Well, if you don’t go to London, I’ll stay down here, too,’ said Baz in determined tones. ‘Mother wants me to go so that I can escort Joan, but I’d rather be . . . wherever you are.’ He smiled at her reassuringly. ‘But you might still hear. I saw the boy from the post-office cycling up the avenue to your house when I was coming over.’
‘Today might not be a good day,’ said Poppy with a sigh. ‘Father has to go to court this afternoon. Daisy is terribly worried about it because she’s convinced that things will turn out badly. It’s all too horrible. I don’t want to think about it now! Let’s play something instead.’ She picked up her clarinet and waited until he had his bass.
‘I say, Poppy, try this. It’s called ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.’ Baz played a few notes.
Poppy picked up her clarinet, looked blindly at the music and put it down again. She had no heart to play. Beech Grove Manor, splendid though it looked from the outside, was just so miserable these days. Violet, their eldest sister had got married last summer and rarely came near the gloomy place, and since their wealthy Aunt Elaine had paid for Rose, the youngest of the four Derrington girls, to go to school in Switzerland, only Daisy and herself remained.
Poppy felt guilty that Daisy was so often left to bear the double burden of her father and her great-aunt while she sneaked off to the cottage in the woods to play jazz. Still, Daisy had her own dreams of producing wonderful films and spent hours in the old dairy pantry with her camera, her film tank and developing dishes. Poppy admired the way that Daisy always made the best of things. Since she had no opportunity of working with real actors, she was shooting a comic film about hens where one young hen, called Jane, was being bullied by her cousins, a pair of aggressive Rhode Island Red pullets and their brother, a swaggering young cockerel.
‘Pops?’ Baz had stopped playing and was looking at her worriedly.
‘Tell me again about your grandfather’s house,’ she said softly. She knew all about it; Baz had talked of little else ever since his grandfather’s will had been read. The old man had bequeathed the small London mews house to his youngest and favourite grandson. Baz would have no money of his own as the main estate and the house belonged to his eldest brother and the rest of the family property had been handed to his older brothers as they had come of age. But finally Baz had a house of his own, and that house was filled with his dreams of setting up a jazz club. It had been built originally for a coachman, his large family and a number of stable lads, so it was surprisingly roomy.
‘Four bedrooms, a big, big basement for the jazz club and a coal-cellar absolutely chock-full of coal so that the place will keep nice and warm for years, great place for parties – right in the middle of the west end of London,’ recited Baz. ‘Oh, and, I’ve been thinking, Poppy. Those two big attics – they’ve still got iron bedsteads in them that were used for the stable lads – well, I’ll dig out some old mattresses from our place and get them up to London somehow or other – and then after parties people can sleep until daybreak if they like – one attic for the men and the other for the girls.’
‘Oh Baz, it sounds wonderful,’ said Poppy wistfully, ‘I just wish there was some way I could . . .’ she stopped herself, knowing it would be futile to continue.
Baz put down his bass and pulled her into his arms. ‘That you could set up the club with me?’ he finished the sentence for her. His voice shook nervously, but his eyes were full of love. ‘I say, Pops, will you marry me? I’m serious. Then it would be our house, our jazz club. Your father couldn’t object to that, surely!’
‘Baz!’ cried Poppy, kissing him passionately for a moment before breaking off with a sob. ‘I wish I could!’
‘Why not?’ said Baz, smoothing her long hair away from her flushed cheeks.
‘Because you’re eighteen and I’m still only seventeen,’ said Poppy. ‘The law of the land says that we can’t marry without our parents’ consent until we are twenty-one. And you know that your mother wants you to marry money and I have none. And Great-Aunt Lizzie will have a fit if neither Daisy nor I make a good match this season. And Father . . .’ she trailed off, overcome with tears. He didn’t, she thought, quite understand how bad things were at home. Great-Aunt Lizzie had fallen for his boyish good looks and charming manners and was always in her best humour when he visited. Even her father made an effort to be normal when the youngest son of his old friend was around. Baz’s home was cheerful, noisy and fun; whereas hers was tense and unhappy. If it were not for Daisy, she would go mad.
‘Well, who cares about being married then?’ Baz chuckled softly, drying her tears with soft kisses. ‘Let’s just live together. After all this is 1924. We’re not back in the Victorian age. The old queen has been dead for more than twenty years – that’s half a lifetime, remember.’
Poppy lifted her head to look at him in shock. Could they really just go off together, to live in sin, as Great-Aunt Lizzie would put it? She tried to imagine being like her older sister Violet and her husband Justin. Although Great-Aunt Lizzie had been very disappointed that Violet, the beauty of the family, had not made what she would call, a good match, nevertheless she had to admit that Justin had a steady job working as a lawyer in London and was able to maintain a wife and family. Her sisters knew that Violet was very happy and had never regretted her choice.
Once again all her thoughts were forgotten as Bas lifted her chin with his fingers and kissed her deeply.
With a creak of ancient hinges, the door to the kitchen suddenly swung open.
‘Oh, Morgan,’ said Baz nervously, jumping up. ‘We’ve been waiting for you. Glad you’ve come.’
Morgan did not look pleased.
‘How did you two get in here?’ he asked.
Poppy gazed at him, surprise widening her unusual amber coloured eyes. ‘We took the key from under the flower pot. What’s wrong, Morgan? Normally, you never mind us coming in.’
Morgan frowned. ‘I don’t mind when it’s the whole lot of you; when George, Edwin and Simon are here, but I don’t want you two slipping in here by yourselves and using it as a place to kiss and cuddle, which is what you were doing when I came in, so don’t deny it.’
‘We weren’t doing anything – not really; you don’t need to worry,’ said Poppy, blushing furiously. She had little fear that Morgan would say anything – after all he was only a few years older than they were, but she added pleadingly, ‘Don’t mention this to Father, will you?’
‘Well, your father will give me the sack if he hears about it; that’s what worries me.’ Morgan bent down to put another chunk of wood into the range. ‘I don’t want to be forced out of my job because of you two,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘Where else would I find a place for a chauffeur that allows me to play my drums and disturb nobody?’
‘You could come and live with us at my house in London,’ said Baz. ‘I have plenty of spare bedrooms. Edwin and Simon are thinking of coming too.’
‘He means to live with him and his brother Tom,’ put in Poppy hastily. Even though Morgan wasn’t much older than they were, he was sometimes a bit old-fashioned.
‘And you and your brother will pay me a good salary, I suppose.’ Morgan did not wait for Baz to answer, but began filling the kettle and glancing through the ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ music. He tried out a few taps on the drums and Baz accompanied him with his bass and after a few minutes Poppy came in with her clarinet. By the time that they had played it through once, Simon with his saxophone, George with his trombone and Edwin with his trumpet had arrived, and the Beech Grove Jazz Band was in full swing. Morgan did not give them a moment to rest – only stopping once to say breathlessly:
‘I have to go at twelve so let’s make this last one the best.’
‘Where are you going, Morgan?’ asked Simon when the last chords died away and they all stretched and drank the cold tea from their mugs.
‘I have to take the earl into Maidstone,’ said Morgan briefly, his eyes on Poppy. ‘Your sister says that she’s coming too.’
The court case, thought Poppy and for a moment felt ashamed of herself. She had woken with the thought of it in her head, but somehow it had gone, swamped by her rush of feelings for Baz. This court case was being brought against her father by the heir to the Beech Grove Estate – Denis Derrington, or Dastardly Denis as her youngest sister, Rose, called him. He was suing the Earl for cutting down woodlands without his agreement. It could be very serious if the judge could not be brought to see that her father had no other choice in these bad times. Optimistically, the family hoped that the judge might order Dastardly Denis to give permission for a few farms to be sold. Other families had done this, but other families had sons to inherit their estates. Michael Derrington only had four daughters so his heir was a distant cousin. Now everything depended on whether the judge was sympathetic to her father’s situation.
‘Do you want to come as well?’ Morgan asked her and Poppy shook her head decisively.
‘No, he’ll be better with Daisy; she calms him down; I seem to put him in a bad mood these days.’ She avoided the chauffeur’s eyes. Deep down, she knew that she was her father’s favourite among his four daughters, but it was true that she agitated him. Although they shared a great love and talent for music, he felt guilty about not being able to afford music lessons for her any more and was irritable about her wasting her talents on jazz. Also, since she was the image of her dead mother, she reminded him of how he had squandered the fortune of Mary Derrington on an ill-advised mine in India. With Daisy he was at ease, viewing her film-making with amusement and even allowing her to advise him from time to time.
‘We’ll stay and practise,’ said Simon, his voice breaking into her thoughts. ‘We’ll manage without you, Morgan. The rest of us don’t know this piece as well as you do.’
‘I’ll have to go soon, too,’ said Poppy. ‘Great-Aunt Lizzie will be expecting me.’
I need to be careful, she thought as she packed away her clarinet. Her feelings for Baz and his for her must remain hidden, or Father and Great-Aunt Lizzie might stop her from going to London for the season – should the invite ever arrive. Worse still, they might even forbid her from playing in the jazz band ever again. To miss out on having a season would be terrible, but to lose Baz and the jazz band would be unendurable.
Poppy made her way back along the well-trodden path between the cottage and house, pushed open the door into the hallway and was struck, as usual by the icy chill of the place. Without bothering to change she strode into the dining room where Great-Aunt Lizzie had already taken her place.
Great-Aunt Lizzie had brought up the orphan sisters, Mary and Elaine Carruthers, had looked after the considerable fortune that the sisters had shared, and had come to live at Beech Grove Manor House when Mary Carruthers had married Michael Derrington, eldest son and heir to the Earl. She had remained there with the younger sister, Elaine, when Mary and Michael had gone out to India – and, apart from a brief visit to India to get Elaine safely married to a wealthy Anglo-Indian gentleman, she had stayed at Beech Grove Manor House ever since. She was there when the news came that Michael’s younger brother, Robert, had been killed in the Boer War, and had been there when the old Earl, Poppy’s grandfather, had died and Michael had come back to his inheritance in England. And then when Mary Derrington, in turn, died, leaving four motherless daughters ranging from twelve-year-old Violet, through the two ten-year-olds, Poppy and Daisy, down to five-year-old Rose, Great-Aunt Lizzie took over the care and education of the four girls.
And yet, thought Poppy. None of them loved her very much – all wanted to escape her rule. She eyed the stately old lady with apprehension. She knew what was coming as soon as she saw the look of incredulous fury on the lined face.
‘Poppy! How dare you come into lunch looking like that! Go straight to your bedroom!’
‘Very well,’ Poppy instantly turned on her heel and went out through the door almost knocking down the elderly butler.
‘Sorry, Bateman,’ she said remorsefully as she saw his worried old face. She waited until he had gone into the dining room. Once the door closed behind him, she moved fast. Not up to her bedroom, where she would have to change into some shabby and darned frock, deemed suitable for lunch by Great-Aunt Lizzie; where she would be expected to comb and brush her unruly hair and bind it into two braids, and then to reappear meek and full of apologies and sit through a long lecture on her untidiness and bad manners.
No, Poppy slipped out through the front door, ran down the steps and across the weed-filled gravel to the stables. Quickly she saddled her pony and within a few minutes was galloping through the beech woods along the pathway that led to the boundary between Beech Grove Manor and the Pattenden estates.
She knew a place where she would be welcome to lunch.