Augusta Merton ordered a pot of tea, refused cakes with a firm shake of the head and settled in her chair with the sensation that she was indulging in a great luxury. It was so long since she had allowed herself anything beyond absolute necessities that it seemed almost decadent to be sitting here in the quiet wood-panelled tea-room, with its comfortable Windsor chairs and pretty flowered china, watching the busy shoppers beyond the window hurrying along in the blowy golden April afternoon. She smiled at the waitress who unloaded the tea things on to the table, glanced a little anxiously at the bill which was tucked under the water jug and patted at her gingery grey hair which was twisted back into a wispy knot. Her eyes kept straying to her belongings and to one bag in particular and, succumbing at last to temptation, she picked up the plastic carrier and peeped inside before depositing it on the chair beside her with a sigh. She noticed with pleasure that there was a tea-strainer placed in a slop bowl - Gussie disliked tea bags - and, giving the contents of the pot a stir, she gazed about her as she waited for the tea to draw. At the next table a striking-looking young woman was drinking coffee. She had an exhausted, flattened look about her as if even the act of raising the cup to her lips were almost too much for her. She looked faintly familiar and, catching her eye, Gussie smiled encouragingly.
Nell Woodward was surprised out of her weariness by the quality of understanding in Gussie's smile. It seemed that this stranger had grasped the fact of her inability to deal with life at the moment and was offering both sympathy and strength. Well, she was certainly tired. As a naval wife often years' standing Nell had done her share of moving house but now she realised that it was even more difficult to cope when one's heart and head were absolutely set against the move. During those ten years she had trailed from Gosport to Faslane, from Faslane to Chatham and then back again to Gosport with only the minimum of fuss. It was to be expected if you married a naval man: it was all part of the job. You may not want to go, you might hate the married quarter but there would probably be old friends to meet up with and the framework of the Navy was in the background to support you. The move to Bristol had been something else again. John's decision to leave the Navy was, in Nell's opinion, nothing short of madness. What if he had been passed over? He'd still had a worthwhile job, with a good salary, amongst people he knew. Now they were living in a rented flat in Bristol with nearly all his gratuity used up to buy a partnership in a friend's estate agency. What did John know about selling houses? Nell felt the now familiar thrill of anxiety at the thought of their future. She drank some more coffee knowing that she must pull herself together and go back to finish the unpacking. The flat still looked like a furniture depository despite the fact that they had been in now for more than two weeks. Nevertheless Nell sat on, unable to find the energy or willpower to move.
Gussie began to pour tea. Her thoughts, distracted for a moment by Nell whom she simply couldn't place, returned to the contents of the plastic bag. Of course, paisley was always suitable and if the hem were to be let down ... Her mind wandered a little as she sipped. How good it was of Henry to remember his elderly second cousin and invite her to his wedding. So kind. And an invitation to stay the weekend at Nethercombe. It would be wonderful to see the old place again. It must be years, oh at least fifteen, since she'd been there. Henry's mother, her cousin Louisa, had been alive then. Now, Louisa and her husband James were both gone and Henry had inherited Nethercombe Court with its farmland and its famous Devon Red herds. And now he was to be married.