Royston slowed as they came into another village. Just past the church was an unpleasant reminder of the invasion that had nearly happened, an Anderson shelter, with children playing, running in and out of it. Royston said nothing, but Carmichael felt the red tide of embarrassment burning on his cheeks. He hadn't meant the Germans, nothing had been farther from his mind, he'd been centuries away imagining Vikings or pirates descending on these smug sleepy peasants.
"I don't much care for bluebells myself," Royston said. "If we had to drive down this way, I'd have preferred to do it a few weeks ago in primrose season. Primroses are a beautiful colour, very cheering."
"I find them a bit on the soft side myself," Carmichael said. "Bluebells, now, we do have them in the North. I wouldn't have thought you cared for flowers at all, sergeant, I thought you were a strictly town man."
"Well, I was born and bred in London myself, but my mother's family lived in the countryside."
"Round here?" Carmichael asked.
"Kent. I have an aunt who still lives there, some of the family go down to see her at Easter and for the hop picking. Easter's when we used to see the primroses, when I was a boy. It's a good way east of here, but I suppose from the perspective of Lancashire it would count as these parts."
Carmichael laughed. "All these years, and I'd never have suspected you of having a Kentish aunt, Royston. You hide it very well."
There was a fork in the road ahead. Royston slowed to a halt to check the arms of the little signpost. "Would we want Farthing Green, Upper Farthing or Farthing St. Mary?" he asked.
"Castle Farthing." Carmichael checked his notes and his map without effect. There was an area on the map labelled unhelpfully _The Farthings_. "Head for Farthing St. Mary," he said, decisively.
"Yes, sir," Royston said.
Carmichael knew the first secret of command, which was making a decision, right or wrong, but going ahead without hesitating. He might have sent them off the wrong way and condemned them to an endless trek through the barely charted Hampshire countryside, but at least he had made a decision.
By pure luck he was right, the next sign offered "Castle Farthing" on one of its branches, and the lane it led down, with its heavy hedgerows, came at last to an end with a loop around a village green. There was a church, larger than most, a pub, the Eversley Arms, a row of cottages, and a high wall containing a pair of wrought iron gates with the word "Farthing" scrolling indolently across them as if there were no other possible Farthing, as indeed, for anyone beyond this little corner of Hampshire where people no doubt knew one Farthing from the next, there was not. Beneath the name was the ubiquitous robin, the obverse of the farthing coin, the political symbol of the Farthing set. With a start, Carmichael realized that considering the antiquity of the gates, a century if it was a day and probably more, this particular robin must pre-date the "Set" and was doubtless the prototype for the whole thing.
Meanwhile, the gates were closed. Judging from the ruts in the gravel, this was an unusual state of affairs. "Probably the local police shut them to close off the house from press and sightseers," Carmichael said, indicating the ruts.
"Sightseers? Here?" Royston's London face dismissed the possibility. "All the same, they should have left a bobby on the gates," he said, his tone reproving the absent local constabulary. "Shall I try if they're open, sir?"
"You do that, sergeant," Carmichael said. As a young officer he'd have got out to try them himself, and lost all his subordinate's respect in the process. Now he sat back and watched Royston crunch across the gravel.
Copyright © 2006 by Jo Walton
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