The Downsman family had farmed Midbourne Manor Farm for centuries. They were yeomen farmers under Lord de Laix until tragedy struck that family during the First World War. Both sons, young officers in the Wiltshire Regiment, were killed. Two of the Downsman sons in the same regiment were killed also. The third survived. Both families grieved and offered each other their condolences.
Lord de Laix with no male heir and his name dying out decided that the best legacy his family could leave was the Manor Farm in the hands of the Downsman family who would carry on a tradition. Having called him in he discussed it with Thomas Downsman who, while deeply touched, turned the offer down.
"Thank you, m'lord, but I can't afford to buy it from you even with a mortgage running into my grandson's lifetime."
Lord de Laix smiled at him. "I'm not asking you to buy it, Downsman. Your family would be in debt for years and years and neither of us would be popular with them. No, it's just that I'm deeply aware of what your family has done for mine and indeed the village for centuries. With my family gone, I'd like to think that its presence and its love for Midbourne will be carried on by yours so I shall be leaving it to you and your heirs in perpetuity."
Thomas Downsman's jaw dropped and he stared at Lord de Laix quite unable to speak. The latter smiled back at him.
"Thought it might surprise you a little," he said quietly.
"S-surp-prise me?" There was a long pause. "Bloomin' flabbergasted me!" He paused again and took a deep breath. "Thank you, m'lord, thank you f-from the bottom of my heart. Oh! When I tell my wife!"
He relapsed into silence staring at his landlord who smiled back at him.
"Excellent!" he said. "So, now that I'm no longer going to be your landlord, drop the m'lords and..."
"And I shall call you Mr Downsman."
"I-I'd prefer Tom, sir."
"As you wish, Tom, and thank you."
"Thank you, sir." He paused. "It's still a right bugger though. Jasper liked Sir Freddie very much and I think they'd have got on well after we'd passed on."
"Yes, Tom. So do I. Bloody war but I think we're both getting the best we can out of it."
That was it and a latent friendship developed. Tom made sure that his family understood what Lord de Laix had done for them and this was passed down through the subsequent generations.
Some two years later Jasper married. The de Laixes were present. A year after that Jasper presented himself at the manor and asked to see Lord de Laix.
"Sir," he said without preamble, "Nell and I have a son."
"So I heard Jasper. Excellent!"
"Well, sir, we plan to call him George but, um, I know this is very cheeky, in view of what you have done for my family, we'd like his second Christian name to be de Laix. At least the name would live on in the village."
Lord de Laix looked at him. "Did your father put you up to this?"
"No, sir, but when I put it to him he liked the idea." Jasper grinned. "Up to you though, he said."
Lord de Laix continued to look at him. "Thank you, Jasper," he said finally. "I'm honoured. Please invite us to the christening."
"Certainly, sir, and thank you."
The history of the legacy was passed on to Tom's great-great grandson, Hal. Christened Henry de Laix he had became Hal within days.
He was a sturdy boy and full of intelligence. Farming was in his blood and from an early age he shadowed his father, Nick. He went to the local primary school and then on to the grammar school at Pitsbury where he did well. He could, on his academic results, have gone on to university but he did not. His inbred love of farming and his loyalty to the de Laix legacy forbade that.
Like every teenage boy he had his crushes and with his rugged good looks, strong physique and ready smile he was not short of female attention. He took advantage but was not really attracted to any of his conquests. Having left school he went back to life on the farm and loved it. This took him away from many of the young he had known and he was not that impressed with those in the village. There were pretty girls in the village but either they were just silly, as far as he was concerned, or snobbish: just the farmer's son. That particularly rankled with his loyalty to the now departed de Laixes.
His indifference to girls was a source of concern for his mother, Helen. It was very important that Hal married and produced an heir. He was aware of her concern but at age twenty-three he was not going to be rushed into anything. "Plenty of time, Mum," was his standard response however veiled a suggestion she might make.
When Hal's younger sister, Jilly, turned sixteen, Helen started up a farm shop. She reckoned her children were quite capable of looking after themselves on a day to day basis although she continued to give her family breakfast and dinner. The shop became very popular in the valley selling home grown vegetables, and farm reared beef, pork and lamb. She also started a bakery which was equally successful. She became busier and busier and needed to take on a woman from the village to keep the housework under control as well as staff for the shop. Bessie was no spring chicken when she took the job on and after five years it started to prove too much for her and Helen advertised for a replacement.
A volunteer from SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors and Air Force Association) answered her advertisement and rang up. She did not beat about the bush.
"Good morning, Mrs Downsman, my name is Mary Sykes. I'm one of your shop customers but I'm also a SSAFA volunteer and have a young widow who might be the answer to your advertisement for a housekeeper."
"Good morning, Mrs Sykes. Tell me more."
"Her husband, a sergeant in the Yorkshire Regiment, was killed in Afghanistan three months ago. At present she is still in an army quarter but is coming under pressure to vacate it. Her parents live in Sheffield and she is most reluctant to go back there. Marrying her husband was an escape from poverty among other things. She has no children. Would you be able to give her a room as well as a job?"
"Ooph!" exclaimed Helen. "I'd never considered having a living in housekeeper but, coming to think of it, we have three spare rooms for her to choose one from. Why doesn't she come for an interview?"
"Thank you. That would be wonderful. When would suit you?"
"Well, not today or tomorrow but any time the day after would be fine."
"Wonderful. How about ten?"
"Right! I'll be giving her a lift but no more than that. I'll wait in the car while you talk together."
"That sounds excellent. You'd better give me your phone number in case I have a crisis but I look forward to seeing you both."
Mary gave it and rang off.
Helen was watching out for them when they arrived and went out to meet them. She was inwardly amused that Mary looked the epitome of an army officer's wife, neatly and tidily dressed in skirt and blouse with a cardigan. With her was quite a tall young woman; five foot nine or so Helen guessed. She was slim with brown hair and brown eyes and was also tidily dressed.
"Good morning, Mrs Downsman. May I Introduce Diana Barton?"
Diana held out her hand and smiled shyly. "How do you do, Mrs Downsman," she said quietly.
Helen shook her hand returning the smile. "Nice to meet you, Mrs Barton," she replied. "Are you sure you want to sit in the car, Mrs Sykes? You're more than welcome to wait for us in the sitting room. Besides, there's a table you can put your coffee on," she added with a smile.
"That's kind. I've got some paper work I can do. Just a mo." She pulled a brief case out of her car.
Helen led them in and, having shown Mary into the sitting room, took Diana to the kitchen.
"Coffee making," she smiled. "I didn't want to make it earlier in case you were a bit late."
Diana smiled back. "Army wives? Well trained."
Helen chuckled and put the kettle on.
"I was very sorry to hear your sad news," Helen went on.
"Thanks. It's a risk you take marrying a soldier but we had ten good years together which I wouldn't have missed for the world."
Helen smiled warmly. She was beginning to like this girl already. She looked you straight in the eye, had a sense of humour and had clearly accepted her loss bravely.
"You clearly come from Yorkshire."
"Yes, Sheffield. My Dad's a steel cutler."
Helen looked blank.
"He makes cutlery."
"Oh how stupid of me. Of course, Sheffield made its name for it. Oh golly! I never asked Mrs Sykes how she likes her coffee."
"White with two sugars," replied Diana with a grin.
"Thanks!" Helen could not help but grin back. "What about you?"
"Same again, please.
Helen took down mugs, added sugar to all three. "A couple of more minutes," she said. "What did Mrs Sykes tell you about us?"
"That you owned the Manor Farm and ran a successful farm shop."
"Not a lot. I have a son, Hal, aged twenty-three and a daughter, Jilly who's twenty-one just. Hal works on the farm and Jilly is studying to be a vet. She's still got some way to go. Right! Coffee's ready."
She poured it and Diana rose from the table and stood beside her. "I'll take Mrs Sykes hers," she offered.
"Hang on a mo," said Helen and handed her the biscuit tin.
Diana was quickly back and both women sat down at the table.
"So," said Helen. "Tell me a bit more about yourself. Have you got any qualifications that you're not using?"
Diana shook her head. "No, I left school at sixteen and got a job as a shop assistant and did a bit of waitressing. Dad was still working but woollen manufacturing dried up and my mum became redundant. She never worked again. It was getting to me so I decided to join the army and went to the recruiting office. That's where I met my husband. He was a corporal at the time and we started going out. I joined the army and was trained as a driver. I pushed and pushed to be posted to the Yorkshire Regiment and got it. Garry'd been posted back to the battalion by then and we took up where we'd left off in Sheffield. We got married a couple of years later."
"But no children."
Diana shook her head.
"Was that because you didn't want them?"
"Did you get tested? Sorry I'm being very personal."
"No." Diana smiled sadly. " With all Garry's postings we were never in one place long enough to go through the tests and have treatment so we just shrugged our shoulders and got on with it. He'd have been coming out next year and then we might have done something about it."
"Oh, Diana, I'm sorry. I've been poking my nose in too. Please forgive me. That must have been quite unpleasant."
Diana shook her head. "Sad but facts of life."
"Come on then. Let me show you round."
They did that including choosing a room that would be Diana's and finally returned to the kitchen.
"So what do you think? Could you manage to keep the place clean?"
"Easily. It's big but eight hours a week max. What else would you like me to do because I'd have plenty of time if I was living in?"
"Would you trust me?"
"I think so but I'd want to see all the bills, certainly to start with."
"Help in the shop?"
"Sure! What about pay?"
"Ten hours a week housekeeping and shopping plus thirty hours in the shop at nine quid an hour is three sixty a week but I need to knock off a hundred for board and lodging and another forty for a day off. Two twenty a week?"
"You want to take me on?"
"Yes. You've impressed me." Helen grinned. "And I can always sack you."
"Yeah!" Diana smiled back. "OK."
"Great! When can you start?"
"The day after tomorrow? It won't take me long to get out of the quarter seeing how they're pressing me. It's clean as a whistle and I haven't much to pack. It'll depend a bit on Mary being able to give me a lift."
"We can help with that."
They went back to the sitting room and told Mary what they had agreed. She was thrilled. She suggested that if the quartering authorities were difficult she would deal with them and if necessary come and collect Diana for the actual handover. Diana could not help herself. She hugged her in gratitude.
Helen was moved. Diana had shown herself to be a strong personality. Clearly the months since her husband's death had been an enormous emotional strain but she had and was showing real character. Mary Sykes had done a wonderful job too.