THE WAR HERO, THE FILM STAR AND THE FOOTMAN

When Frederick came home from work one day there was a strange bike leaning against the porch. He cussed; the last thing he wanted was having to be polite to visitors after a hard day in the fields.

As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom of the kitchen he found himself being stared at by a middle aged man. He was wearing a better suit than normally seen in the village and the best china was out. “They said you were a beanpole and they didn’t lie.” said the man approvingly. It was a local accent but flattened into slightly more refined tones.

His mother sprang up from the table and rushed over to him. “Fred, this is Mr Bishop.” Her voice dropped. “He’s butler at Stapleton Court.”

“Sit down lad. I’d like a talk with you.”

All Fred really wanted after the day’s work was a lie down but he dutifully sat at the table and drunk his tea out of a small cup.

“You’ll of heard of Captain Croft?” Fred nodded. Captain Croft the Great War hero. The man who had charged the Turkish guns at Suvla Bay and won a Military Cross. People said that if he had been killed it would have been the V.C. and his death would have bankrupted the estate with death duties. But he was alive and people were still being employed.

Mr Bishop put down his teacup. “The Captain’s gone and got himself married to a film actress over in Italy.”

His mother put her hands to her mouth in horror but Mr Bishop only smiled.

“No Mrs Merriman, it’s all right. She’s English. A Miss Elizabeth Dale if you’ve heard of her. Can’t say I have. The Captain’s only following in a family tradition. His father spotted his wife on the West End stage. The Captain saw Miss Dale in Presteigne Village Hall, on a film, decided that was the woman for him and went off and hunted her down. I don’t think she put up much resistance. Father is a chemist I am led to believe.”

The two older people considered in silence the way the world had gone to rack and ruin since the war.

“Anyway, the Court is going up in the world. It will all be glamorous parties now I should reckon. Then Walter Yemm decides to high-tail it off to London, chasing some wench and I’m looking for another footman. Someone tells me there’s a likely lad Wellington way and here I am. What do you say, Frederick my boy?”

Fred had no great love for slaving away in Farmer Rowland’s fields. He thought it a very good idea. His mother, who had a great fondness for the gentry, agreed.

While Captain and Mrs Croft honeymooned in the Italian Lakes, he was on his own honeymoon period, learning to be a lackey. He found he had an unexpected grace and he liked being around nice things. Mr Bishop decided that he had made a good bargain.

The Croft’s return to Hereford railway station brought the City to a halt. A loudspeaker was put up in High Town relating their progress through the city before they reached the car that would take them to Stapleton.

When Fred was introduced to the former Miss Dale his legs almost gave way beneath him; he had never seen anyone so beautiful.

Of course the new Mrs Croft must give up her film career but she was allowed to invite her old friends down to Stapleton Court for the weekend. As Mr Bishop had expected, it became the most glamorous house in the county, possibly in the whole of the West Midlands.

Instead of the horse-play of labourers, Fred had to put up with the gossip of the maids. From them he learned that Master and Mistress slept in the same bed rather than in the separate bedrooms that was usual. He found their tittering distasteful. Scandalously the Crofts even took their bath together, though the maids would have been instantly dismissed if it became known they had told anybody this. On occasions, in warm weather, Captain and Mrs Croft had taken a blanket out to the woods, with the firm order that no one was to go into the woods that afternoon. Mr Bishop did not approve, but told Fred, in the quiet moments they shared in the pantry late at night, that he saw no harm in it. He put it down to the former Miss Dale’s strange show business ways and because it brought some pleasure to the Master, who had been through so much.

Within a few months the news was even better. Mrs Croft was pregnant. The future of the Court was secure for the next generation.

Fred took to his duties happily enough. He found that being busy around rich people was something he enjoyed. Knowing that these important people could not function without him gave him a purpose in life. He took a pride in second guessing their next need, providing it almost before they thought of it. Mr Bishop said that he had made a good choice in Merriman and that, in due course, he would make someone a very good butler.

The baby was born, a girl. Not a great problem, as a boy would no doubt be born in the course of time. Even if not, the girl would eventually find a husband who would be able to keep the Court going.

The birth had not been an easy one. Mrs Stapleton had planned to have the baby at home but, a day into labour, an ambulance with its bell clanging took her to Radnor Hospital. Yet mother and baby came home safely.

Mrs Croft was tired, anyone could understand that. Someone of her sensibility being put through so much, she was bound to need time to recover. That she was too tired to take much interest in the baby, well, she was not like country wives. That she threw a tantrum when the baby was brought in to be fed, well, she would grow out of it. That she threw a silver hairbrush at Captain Croft when he attempted to come back into the marital bed, well, she was a little fiery and artistic. Motherhood would take care of that.

But time went on and relations between husband and wife did not improve. It became more difficult for the staff of the Court to put on the pretence to the outside world that nothing was wrong. Rumours began to circulate that there was a rift between Herefordshire’s golden couple.

Fred Merriman saw it all close at hand. Captain Croft would stay up late into the night in the library. While Mr Bishop brought the whisky, it was Fred who had to clear the debris in the early hours and also often had to help the Captain to find his room.

The Captain’s drunken steps were inclined to take him to his wife’s room . After leading the sad man to the solitary room he now occupied, Fred would go and lie on his own bed in the attic, unable to sleep.

Mrs Croft insisted that her old friends should carry on visiting for the weekend. It was the only time that she smiled.

They were not the completely happy occasions they had been before the baby had been born. Fred came to hate them rather than think of the extra tips he would earn. The guests had to divide their time between the Captain, who wanted to be out of the house, shooting or any other country pursuit, and Mrs Croft, who wanted to stay in the drawing room talking.

Gradually the numbers who accepted their invitation started to fall. On what would prove the last weekend that they would have guests, Mrs Croft, with some bad grace, had agreed to walk out to have lunch al fresco with the shooting party. The weather was turning autumnal.

At the end of the morning’s shoot the Captain went back to the house to let his wife know they were ready. Mr Bishop had made Fred stay back so that he could be on hand, though he would have much rather be out in the fresh air. He was a pretty fast shotgun loader. Mrs Croft came happily enough, not causing a scene, which Fred had been dreading. and even walked arm in arm with her husband towards the wood where the rest of the party were waiting, Fred following behind with rugs and furs.

They missed their way slightly and found themselves blocked by some barbed wire. The Captain started fussing, but Mrs Croft seemed to take it well.

“It’s not a worry. The footman can lift me over.”

Nervously Fred draped the rugs over the wire and then lifted Mrs Croft up. She weighed almost nothing and smelled of violets. For a moment he looked into her very blue eyes and almost dropped her but his nerve held and he safely deposited her on the other side of the fence. She touched his arm and gave him the sweetest smile that made him blush. “My, aren’t you strong.” she said and her arm seemed to stay on his arm for a very long time.

He looked over to the Captain and the look on his employers face made Fred’s stomach churn. Fred was worrying about it for the rest of the afternoon. At the end of the shoot he picked up his courage and approached the Captain.

“Sir, I want you to know. Mrs Croft was just being kind. There was nothing in it.”

The Captain put his hand on Fred’s shoulder and Fred saw there were tears in his eyes.

“You’re a good man Merriman. I know that.” Fred breathed a sigh of relief.

“You know the Mistress wants to resume her acting career?”

“No sir.” There had been talk in the kitchen.

“She took great pleasure in telling me the film she has been asked to take part in involves her kissing another man. How would you like that?”

“I would not like it at all sir.” The Captain nodded and walked off.

That night Fred was clearing up in the library as usual when he heard shouting coming from upstairs. The noise directed him to Mrs Croft’s bedroom. She was standing in the doorway in her silk dressing gown, screaming at the Captain, who was trying to force his way through the door, barely being held back by the butler, who was still wearing his night shirt over his trousers.

Mr Bishop looked at Fred imploringly, so Fred rushed up and helped drag the Captain further down the corridor. “Come away sir.” said the butler quietly. “It will do no good.”

Mrs Croft left the next day with her friends and before long the word in the kitchen was that divorce was being talked about. The older servants were caught between shame and the belief that, with time, things would return to normal. Fred talked it over with the butler, who was a good deal more pessimistic in private than when talking in the kitchen.

“These things stick.” Tom Bishop said. “It will be difficult for you young people to find good positions now if you want to move on.”

“I’m alright here for a bit.”

“My brother is in the Metropolitan Police. I could have a word with him if you like. Big tall chap like you should not have any trouble.”

“Dunno.”

“You know there’s a war coming. If you don’t want to find yourself called up and being shot at by Germans, I would have a think about it.”

So Fred joined the police in London and, a few years later, war did break out. Fred found himself in not such a safe place as the butler had thought, being bombed rather than shot at, but got through it all without a scratch.

One night a complaint came in that the blackout was being ignored at a house in a poor side street. P.C. Merriman was sent to investigate. He knocked on the door rehearsing in his mind the strong telling off he was going to give the householder.

Fred recognised him as soon as he opened the door. He was also pained to see that the man recognized him.

“Merriman!” He had come to the door in a collarless shirt, with stains down the front. His hair had not been brushed.

“I’m sorry sir. You’re showing a light.”

“What?”

“There’s a gap in your blackout curtains. Don’t want the German bombers homing in on you, do you sir?”

The Captain looked through Fred for a moment, as if considering this option and not dismissing it as unattractive. Fred had learned to judge a house by the smell of its hall and, on that criterion, he would not liked to have lived here.

“Who the bleedin’ hell is it?”

Behind the Captain Fred could see down the hall into the scullery. A woman sat at a rough wooden table, lit by a naked electric bulb hanging from the ceiling. She was wearing a silk dressing gown that was not completely done up. If he had come across her in the course of his beat, Fred would have moved her on from respectable streets.

“I’m sorry Merriman. I’ll see to it.”

“Thank you sir.” A look passed between them, the one time lord of the manor and the one time footman.

Fred, who had his fair share of tragedy, always described it as the saddest moment of his life. Then the Captain seemed to recollect himself and his hands went to his trouser pockets.

“Let me give you something.”

Fred, who was not above taking a small back-hander in the interest of oiling the wheels of the community, felt only a wave of horror. “No sir, there’s no need for that. Just doing my duty.”

There was an awkward silence. “Thank you.” said the Captain and closed the door.

Fred turned and walked back to the station. They never met again. A couple of years later Fred heard that the drink had caught up with the Captain. At least he was at peace. Of Mrs Croft’s film career he heard nothing. Perhaps it had not been a success or the divorce settlement had been enough to dissuade her from the need to kiss strange men.

After the war he married a London girl who worked at Claridges, stayed a constable (he had never been ambitious) and had twenty good years of retirement before widowhood, disability and death caught up with him. He never talked about his police career, as if it had been uneventful, but, in later life, he often came back to that meeting, as though haunted by it.

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