The house stood on a piece of land so cleanly semicircular, so strictly rounded, that it might have been a cake-stand left behind in the landscape by some refined society of giants. It was covered with deep, soft turf as one might lay a thick rug over a table, and all the busy pattern of fields, hedges, cows and villages scattered beyond, toy miniatures a child's imagination would produce.
From the front of the house, the edge of the gardens formed a ha-ha between order and free nature. It was bordered by a knee-high sharp-trimmed box hedge, lest dogs should rush at it and fall off. Small children had been known to topple, although happily the slope, on falling, was much gentler than it first appeared. Clovis and Emerald, when much younger, had used to take running jumps off the apparent precipice, terrifying visitors unfamiliar with the topography, only to emerge laughing hilariously, covered with dandelion fluff or mud or clinging claws of long couch grass.
Emerald walked along the curve of the low box hedge with her head bowed, like a lonely merry-go-round horse.
'This helpless grief over what amounts to a few rooms and a rather poor roof is irrational,' she began, 'and frankly ' she stopped walking, ' ludicrous.'
She turned her face to the house, the windows of which glowed variously. 'There's no use looking at me like that,' she said to it.
She crossed the gravel, and went towards the other part of the garden, where were the borders and sundial. 'And there's not even the excuse of ancestry!' she said out loud again, and indignant.
And it was true; no generations of Torringtons had lived at Sterne. No generations of Torringtons had lived anywhere particularly, as far as they knew. They were a wandering, needs-must sort of family, who made their livings disparately, in clerking, mills or shipping; travelled to France for work in tailoring, or stopped at home in Somerset, Shropshire or Suffolk, to play some minor role in greater projects: designing a lowly component of a reaching cathedral or a girdered bridge. Some had been in business, one or two in service; there was an artist, some soldiers, all dead. All dead.
Her father's life had been distinguished only by his having the daring to buy Sterne. The house and land had been purchased rashly at the peak of what transpired to be transient too harsh to call it flukish financial success when, first married to Charlotte and bathed in her adoration, he had thought Torrington might be the name of the sort of man whose family would live in such a house. Horace had loved Sterne as he loved Charlotte and later, his children: loyally, generously and gratefully. The children, too, feeling that they were at the end of a line, as children always do (for indeed, they are), loved Sterne as exhausted travellers with lifetimes of migration behind them might love their first and last home. Sterne was the mythology of their parents' marriage, their father's legacy, and it had given them the very best of childhoods. Beyond that, it was beautiful, and the effect of it on their souls was inestimable; once found, they were all of them loath to give it up. Unfortunately, Horace Torrington left business for agriculture, about which he was utterly ignorant, at precisely the worst moment he could have chosen. At his untimely death he was very deeply in debt. Emerald often thought it odd that such dire financial straits should be cheerfully nicknamed 'in the red'; black was a far likelier colour. Her father's increasing debt was a dark hole into which they all might yet fall.
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