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‘Could you tell us something about this beautiful clock?’
The voice from behind made me jump. So engrossed in the stranger outside, I’d forgotten there were people looking around the room. ‘Yes. I would be delighted to help,’ I replied. After a final glance at the man outside, I walked across to the couple by the large fireplace.
‘The clock belonged to the first Lady Harlington. It was a gift from the French Court at the beginning of the eighteenth century.’ The American tourists were impressed and wanted to know more about the Manor, the family and their history. I told them how the house had been built for Lady Harlington as a wedding present from her adoring husband. Since then all the descendants of the family had lived there.
‘Gee, some wedding present,’ interrupted the woman in her thick American accent. ‘I only got a dishwasher from you, didn’t I, honey?’
‘Is the house still occupied by the Harlington family today?’ asked the man, swiftly changing the subject.
‘Yes and no. The last Lady Harlington died two years ago, her husband had passed away a few years earlier. Unfortunately they were not blessed with children. However, there is a nephew, Ralph. He’s the son of the late Lord Harlington’s younger brother, but he’s an explorer somewhere in the Amazon and…’
I broke off and glanced towards the window recalling the stranger. My stomach lurched. Could he have been Ralph? He certainly had the same blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and the air of authority Ralph held, even as a child.
‘Are you all right, dear? Should we call someone?’ The lady gently touched my arm. ‘You’ve turned a little pale.’
‘Err… I’m fine, thank you.’ I replied, quickly pulling myself together. ‘As I was saying Ralph Harlington is an explorer. He had no desire to take up the title, so decided to open the Manor to the public.’
‘Now that’s a real shame. I guess he mustn’t be married. I can’t imagine any woman not wanting to take up the title of Lady Harlington here in this lovely corner of Merry England. Can you, George?’
After a lengthy discussion about why Ralph didn’t want to take up the title, the couple moved on into the next room. I hurried back to the window hoping to catch another glimpse of the man, but although his car was still on the drive, he had disappeared.
The house was quiet today. It was late in the season and in a few short weeks the Manor would close for the winter. I always dreaded this time of year. I’d loved this house ever since childhood and hated seeing it all shut up during those long, winter months.
Absentmindedly, I trailed my fingers along the table, leaving a wavy pattern in the thin film of dust. It must be all of fifteen years since I’d last laid eyes on Ralph. As a young boy he had been a regular visitor at Harlington Manor when his parents went abroad on business.
I recalled how Ralph and I played together, while my mother helped out in the Manor. I smiled to myself when remembering how he had asked me to marry him. He’d been twelve years old and I was ten. When I solemnly agreed to his marriage proposal, he’d given me three red roses from his aunt’s favourite garden, telling me they were instead of a ring, as he didn’t have any money. Then he’d sealed the bargain with a kiss on my cheek. I had proudly accepted the roses, promising to keep them forever, – though they died a few days later.
During the summer months, we had been inseparable. We often watched the guests as they arrived for the lavish parties hosted by Lord and Lady Harlington. I had marvelled at the beautiful gowns worn by the ladies while Ralph’s interest lay in the large, flashy cars that pulled into the drive.
Two or three years later, his family moved abroad and I had missed him dreadfully. Even watching the guests arriving at the Manor had never been the same without Ralph.
‘As you can see, Lord Harlington, we have followed your instructions implicitly.’ The administrator’s voice rang out, interrupting my thoughts. ‘The Manor is exactly as it was when your aunt was alive.’
‘Yes, yes. I can see that. I assure you, Mr Andrews, I’m not here to spy on you. I’m looking for someone and heard she was a guide here.’
‘Oh, I see. I thought... Well, never mind what I thought. Who are you looking for, Lord Harlington?’
‘Sarah. Sarah Harper. Someone downstairs told me she was in one of the rooms up here. And by the way, it’s plain Mr Harlington.’
‘Yes. Sorry, I forgot. Miss Harper is usually…’
‘Sarah, there you are,’ Ralph broke in, peering into the room. ‘You haven’t changed a bit. I’d have known you anywhere.’
‘Ralph,’ I gasped. ‘How lovely to see you after all these years.’ Close up he looked amazing. Lean, rugged and bronzed by the sun, I was reminded of Indiana Jones.
The administrator, realizing he wasn’t needed anymore, disappeared back down the corridor.
‘I’m only in England for a short time, but I simply had to see you. I’ve thought about you constantly over the years. Before she died, my aunt wrote often and I was always hungry for any news of you. She told me that you had grown into a lovely young woman and I can see she was right. I kept planning to come back to see you, but time slipped away so quickly.’
At first I didn’t know what to say. I had no idea that Lady Harlington was writing to her nephew about me. But I was struck that Ralph had been thinking about me over the years. ‘Your aunt was very proud of you Ralph and read your letters over and over again. She told me of all your exploits.’
‘I miss her letters, though often the news was old, by the time they reached me.’ He grinned. ‘The postal system isn’t very good where I hang out.’ He glanced at her left hand. ‘I see you aren’t married – yet.’ I laughed. ‘No, but I expect the right man will come along one day.
'What about yourself? No Mrs. Harlington?’ I raised an eyebrow.
‘No, I doubt anyone would have me. I’m never in one place long enough to have any meaningful relationship.’ He coughed. ‘Sarah, will you have dinner with me tonight? I’m due back in London in a few days and I fly out at the end of the week, but I’d really like to spend some time with you before I go.’
‘Yes. I would love to have dinner with you.’ I gushed. It would be good to talk about old times.
‘I’ll pick you up at seven. You’re still at the same cottage, aren’t you?’
‘Yes I’m still there. Some things never change.’
Over dinner, Ralph spoke of his plans for the future. How he wanted to continue exploring for a few more years. ‘There’s still so much unknown territory out there. I can’t begin to explain how it feels to walk where no man has ventured before. The whole concept simply takes me over.’
‘Aren’t you afraid something dreadful may happen? That you might be attacked and eaten by some ferocious animal?’
‘No, I can’t say that it’s ever crossed my mind.’ He looked surprised at the question. ‘I never see the dangers, only the excitement.’
It was so good to chat to Ralph again after all this time. I had liked him as a boy and it was growing increasingly obvious to me that I liked him even more as a man. I was disappointed that he was going away so soon. If he had been staying a little longer, he might have grown to love the Manor again and not want to leave at all. However, he continued to speak of his adventures with such passion and I realised there was no way he would settle down here until he’d had his fill.
I, on the other hand, had grown accustomed to the quiet life. Once the Manor closed for the winter, I helped out in the local store for the run up to Christmas. Early March, I would be back at the Manor helping to get it ready for the Easter opening. In between, I did some charity work. A man such as Ralph would find my life very dull. Spelled out like that, it was dull. But the Amazon – that was a little extreme.
‘Tell me about yourself.’ Ralph interrupted her thoughts.
‘There’s not much to tell. My mother and I live very quietly, especially since my father died. I enjoy my work at Harlington Manor; I’ve always loved the old house and I couldn’t believe my luck when I got the job as a guide. And then...’ I shook my head. For heaven’s sake, get a grip. A man like Ralph wouldn’t be interested in the village store. ‘That’s about it, I’m afraid.’
Ralph looked down at the table. ‘I came back for you, Sarah. Come with me and we’ll explore new territory together.’ He looked up, his blue eyes shining with excitement. ‘You once said you’d marry me. Why not do it now? I love you, I always have.’
I was taken by surprise. It was the last thing I’d expected. ‘Ralph, I don’t know what to say.’
He took my hand. ‘I know it’s sudden. If I had more time I would court you in the usual way, go down on one knee and ask you to marry me. We’d probably have 2.4 children and live happily ever after. But I don’t have that time. At least promise me you’ll think about it.’
‘I’ll promise you that, Ralph.’ I said. ‘But I…’
He didn’t allow me to finish. Leaning across the table he kissed me and my thoughts flew back to that day in the garden when he’d given me the roses. He had kissed me then. But this kiss wasn’t a childish peck on the cheek. It was the kiss a man gave to the woman he loved and had I not been sitting down, I would have been swept off my feet.
Later that evening Ralph dropped me back at the cottage. ‘I’ve never stopped thinking about you Sarah, darling. I leave soon and I want you to come with me. Please say you will.’
‘Ralph, I don’t know… There’s my mother and Harlington Manor, everything I love is here.’
‘I see,’ he said. He looked away. ‘Well, it seems you’ve made up your mind already. There’s no point me staying here any longer, I’ll leave tomorrow. Thank you for a lovely evening.’ He kissed me and whispered, ‘Never forget that I love you,’ before walking back to his car.
In bed that night, I tossed and turned. His kiss still burned on my lips. My mother had been in bed when I got home so it was at breakfast when I told her about Ralph’s offer. ‘He’s leaving later today.’
‘How do you feel about that, Sarah?’ my mother asked, cocking her head on one side.
‘I’m sorry he’s leaving.’ I pushed my cornflakes around the bowl. ‘I believe I love him, Mum. When he kissed me I felt as though we belonged together. I’ve never felt like that about anyone before. But…’
‘There can’t be any ‘buts’ if you feel like that.’
‘We’re talking about the Amazon, here, Mum. Not Paris.’ I was amazed my mother was taking the news so calmly. Hadn’t she understood what I said? ‘How would I cope? You know what I’m like if I see a tiny spider in the house. Out there I’m likely to be eaten by one.’
‘You’re exaggerating, my dear,’ she laughed. ‘Spiders aside, you’ve always been the kind of person who adapts to your circumstances. You’ll be fine. Ralph will look after you.’
I wasn’t convinced. ‘But what about you, Mum, you’d be all alone. And then there’s the Manor.’
‘Sarah, I’m not in my dotage yet, besides, I have lots of friends. I’ll be okay and you can always come back to visit me. As for the Manor, Mr Andrews will take care of it until Ralph is ready to settle down. You’re still a young woman. You have your whole life in front of you and the man you love wants you to be with him. He won’t wait forever.’
‘I’m still not sure, Mum. Anyway, why couldn’t he have given me some time to get used to the idea?’ I began to clear away the breakfast dishes. ‘It’s a really big step for anyone to take. Surely he could see that.’ But in my heart I knew Ralph was a man of action. If something came up and it sounded good, he went for it. Even as a boy, he had never hung around waiting to get used to an idea.
A short while later, I was upstairs getting my things together for another day at the Manor. I slumped down onto the bed. What was I to do? Like I said to Ralph the evening before, everything I loved was here. Or was it? Glancing out of the window, I saw Harlington Manor, in the distance. ‘What do you think?’ I mumbled. ‘I wish you could tell me whether I should drop everything and follow him.’ Just then the sun peeped out from behind a large cloud and for a fleeting moment its rays reflected in one of the Manor’s windows. It was almost like a wink.
I only just managed to catch up with Ralph, as he was about to board the train. He looked delighted to see me. ‘I’m sorry I was so abrupt yesterday, but I was disappointed you weren’t coming with me. It’s nice of you to come to say goodbye.’
Flinging my arms around his neck, I kissed him. ‘My darling, Ralph, you don’t get it.’ I pointed towards the porter, who was hurrying towards us with my luggage. ‘Guess what…?’