Paul Craddock’s village in rural Devon has endured despite the heartbreak and sorrows of war. The landowner and his family have also known their share of loss. But now, as England struggles to rebuild in the aftermath of World War II, he and his wife, Claire, and their children confront new perils. With his livelihood threatened by emerging property laws and his family divided over the future of his beloved Shallowford estate, Craddock struggles to preserve his legacy. For his sons and daughter, the fifties and sixties will be a time of discovery and change that will resonate in the lives of their own children.
The final novel in Delderfield’s magnificent trilogy pays tribute to the courage and unflagging optimism of British villagers trying to keep step with modern times even as they cling to the traditions of a bygone world.
The Green Gauntlet is the third novel in R. F. Delderfield’s saga A Horseman Riding By, which begins with Long Summer Day and continues with Post of Honour.
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The Green Gauntlet
A Horseman Riding By Book Three
By R. F. Delderfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1968 R. F. Delderfield
All rights reserved.
Hit and Run
The gull, canting uncertainly into the wind, rose from its ledge a hundred feet above the landslip and flew along the tideline before turning inland over the first cottages of Coombe Bay, searching for its first circling point, Smut Potter's tall brick chimney, near the foot of the steep village street.
From the elevation of the Bluff the Valley was seen as a great gauntlet, a green and russet gauntlet of the kind falconers used centuries ago. The glove was left-handed, with the knob of the Bluff, the highest point of the coast, as the thumb. The forefinger, pointing due north, was the wooded Coombe, with its three farms showing as blood or rust stains. The less-soiled middle and third fingers were the green inroads of Shallowford Woods and the more open coppices of French Wood and Hermitage Clump. The little finger, crooked at a wide angle, was Blackberry Moor, now almost obliterated by the Royal Marine Camp and showing slate-green on the far side of the silver streak that was the River Sorrel. The back of the gauntlet, a great flatfish wedge extending between the Bluff and the western crest of the moor, was not as blotched as the fingers but seamed with age, here stubble fields showing as regular brown patches, there a pantiled roof or a sheet of corrugated iron suggesting older bloodstains, blood shed when the gauntlet was warm from the hand of a Tudor falconer.
The entire Valley was there, five miles across, six miles deep, and at two hundred feet it did not look over-populated, although the gull, foraging through its fifth winter, could detect many changes since the day it had made its first circuit. The centre of Valley activity had shifted. Before the war, when men still fished off the sandbars, and families picnicked on the white sands between Coombe Bay and the landslip, it had been unnecessary to fly inland in search of food. Gutted fish were abundant near the stone quay and the flotsam of picnic parties was taken out by the tide and washed round the Bluff to Tamer's Cove, where the sodden paper soon shredded away and strips of ham-fat and shards of crust caused squabbles among the herring gulls. But now these larders no longer existed. Nobody fished off bars that were laced with barbed wire and iron poles and picnickers were forbidden a beach reserved for the military. The younger gulls had taken to foraging further out to sea round the shores of Nun's Island, leaving inland picking to the lazy and the handicapped.
The handicapped gull had learned to exist on these pickings ever since the blob of oil had hardened on its wing tip, causing it to fly in a curiously lopsided fashion, as though permanently battling against an offshore gale, and when it landed and spread its wings, it staggered slightly, not only because its braking power was limited, but also because its left leg had puckered and bent under the stresses of the years. For all that it had survived. Like the Valley folk below it had come to terms with its limitations and it had forced the war to show a profit, for the presence of the great camp on the western flank of the estate meant waste and waste kept the painted bins behind the cookhouse and N.A.A.F.I. filled and overflowing.
The moment it became aware of the chimney of the Potter bakery it dipped, coasting down on the edge of the wind and making a clumsy landing on the wall that separated Smut Potter's premises from the old brickyard at the bottom of his garden. Smut saw it land and grinned. Lame himself from two machine-gun bullets received in an ambush east of Valenciennes on the last day of the 1914–18 war (the 'First War' as they now called it), he welcomed a fellow cripple. He called, cheerfully, 'Youm scrounging again then' and tossed it half a pork pie that he had been munching whilst stocktaking in the store. Unfortunately for him his frugal French wife Marie saw the fragment soar through the air and came out of the kitchen screaming protests in her guttural English. The pie was only one of four dozen, surreptitiously baked from portions of a pig delivered after the blackouts were up by the genial Henry Pitts, of Hermitage, and a crate of eggs, delivered an hour later by Jumbo Bellchamber, joint master of Low Coombe, but they had cost her more than twice the price of pre-war raw materials. Even though the baking represented a net profit of something like six hundred per cent, she was not disposed to waste it on gulls, reasoning that if Smut did not want it now he could put it by until he did. For nearly a minute she stormed at him without effacing his grin and when she paused for breath he said, tolerantly, 'Giddon with 'ee! The poor bugger's gammy-legged like me! 'Er's got to veed on zummat, so get back to what youm at woman and stop your ole chatter!'
Marie obeyed, as she invariably did when Smut issued an order. Honour satisfied by her protest she retreated to the steamy kitchen, while Smut watched the gull dispose of the piece of pie and fly away in the general direction of the Coombe. It flew, he thought, like a damaged fighter-plane but not one of those seen nowadays skimming south from the Polish station ten miles inland. Its speed was more that of one of the banana-crate aircraft he remembered crossing the Somme trenches in 1916. The comparison brought him satisfaction for it led him, as he returned to his stocktaking, to weigh the hideous discomforts of the last war against the unimagined profits of its successor. He remained cheerful for the rest of the morning whistling 'Over the Rainbow' as he checked the strategic reserves of Marie's shelves.
The gull flew on up the deep Coombe to the nearest of the three farms built on the eastern side of the seam. Long ago, long before the gull was hatched, the old Potter homestead at Low Coombe had been a ready source of titbits for inland flying birds. The Potters of the previous generation had been a lazy, shiftless lot and their holding was habitually strewn with everything from drying washing to unscoured pigswill troughs. Nowadays it had order, for Brissot, the cork-footed French Canadian who had married one of the Potter harlots and shared the farm with his Cockney chum, Jumbo Bellchamber, was a conscientious farmer. All the gull got here was a glowering look from the plump, plodding Violet Bellchamber, née Violet Potter, who was feeding hens and paused defensively when she saw the gull hovering, so it flew on to the southern meadow of Deepdene where it saw old Francis Willoughby leaning on one of his gates and apparently feeding himself with a short tube, attached to a bulb. It seemed an odd way to take food and the gull made a sprawling landing on the handle of a plough close by in order to watch. It had no way of knowing that Francis suffered from asthma and was not eating but inhaling as he cast a lugubrious eye at his Red Devons grubbing among the kale. There was a stillness about Deepdene that was becoming more apparent as the winter passed. The gull could remember a time when this had been a noisy, bustling farm, with men calling to one another as they worked, but now there was only this silent man standing by the gate, feeding himself with a tube. No discarded scraps were visible so the gull gathered itself for flight again, took off into the wind, and circled slowly over High Coombe, the northernmost and largest farm of the cleft.
Here, by contrast, there was promise. The new man at High Coombe, a townsman with a large family, had none of the built-in prejudice of the traditional soil-grubbers against scavengers and ignored the gull when it settled on the angle of the farmhouse roof to make a brief survey. The blonde wife of the farmer was at her usual occupation, a strange one for a housewife with innumerable children. She was sitting on a canvas stool in the front patch sketching and two or three of the children were pottering about the yard, one of them clutching a jam sandwich. The farmer himself had just finished feeding the pigs so the gull watched where he dumped two buckets at the entrance to the barn and the moment he had turned his back flopped across the yard and spent a busy five minutes scooping swill from the rims. Then one of the children spotted it and shouted a welcome so that the gull, uttering one of its short, derisive laughs, took off again and drifted down the eastern sweep of the Valley and across the dense thickets of Shallowford Woods to the Mere, a long, oval lake with a smooth surface that looked forbidding in the absence of sunlight.
There were plenty of fish in the Mere but there was also competition so the gull did not descend in the vicinity of the forester's cottage as it sometimes did in summer, when Sam Potter, the woodsman, was at work hereabouts. Sam was tolerant with gulls, not ranking them as vermin, and in its time this gull had been given scraps in and around the henhouse. Today neither Sam nor his wife Joannie was around, so the bird set course south-west, crossed the Mere and the steep escarpment of oaks, beeches, sycamores and limes and drifted down into the paddocks of the Big House where it lurched to a standstill on the iron fence and studied the landscape. In the Home Farm meadows, between house and sea, no-one was ploughing so there was no hope of worms and up here, near the house, there was no livestock to be fed apart from the two horses, Squire Craddock's grey and one pony, and both were in the stableyard. There were, however, scraps sometimes to be found in the forecourt, for in previous seasons the gull remembered that the gravel turn-around had been a busy place, with any number of cars coming and going and sometimes large flakes of pasty dropped by talkative huntsmen when there was a meet in the forecourt. No hunters had gathered here for some time, however, and the old house sat on dreaming of the lively past, its red creeper hanging in tatters along the entire façade sadly in keeping with the winter landscape.
It was puzzling and a little disturbing to guess at what had happened over here lately. No more than half-a-dozen people seemed to inhabit the great, rambling place, the Squire, his wife, a small boy who appeared and disappeared at intervals, and two or three servants. A kind of decline had set in over the past two winters. It seemed to be waiting for something to quicken it into life again and even the old Squire himself had lost something of the spring in his step when he came out of the garden door of his library and stood on the terrace looking south to the sea. Leaves fluttered down from the ranks of avenue chestnuts and the gull, sensing failure, took off again and flew due east as far as Hermitage Farm where the ground began to dip towards the Sorrel. Here, on a long, sloping field, David Pitts was breaking soil with a chain harrow and showed no interest at all when the gull plopped into a shallow furrow and picked up a worm or two.
It was not much for such a long, circular flight but there was luck awaiting it at Periwinkle, the next farm on, where the Squire's daughter and her husband lived in their neat little house. Their child, Jerry, who seemed to live in the open, had been collecting eggs. Stalking his progress the gull picked up half a cropful of grain before the exertions of the morning began to advertise themselves and it rose and flew low over the edge of the plateau, across French Wood, across the Sorrel to the sprawling buildings of Four Winds, then due west to the camp, the area where, of late, the main activities of the Valley seem concentrated.
Unhurriedly, for no-one ever bothered it here, the gull patrolled the vast rectangle, giving vent to an occasional sardonic cark as though to echo the distant shouts of the drill-sergeant bellowing at recruits on the square. Smoke rose from the kitchens and as it watched the gull saw a white-overalled cook emerge from the big hut and empty slops into one of the bins. Using the angle of the cookhouse as cover, it dropped down and made its lopsided landing on an iron bracket, slithering madly until balance was restored. Then, wondering perhaps why it had not flown here direct, it began to gorge itself on offal, ignoring the staccato shouts flung into the wind by the sergeant fifty yards further west. Take-off, on a distended crop, was a slow, difficult business but when the cook came out with more waste it managed it somehow, taking advantage of a slight shift in the wind to flap south to its private crevice above the landslip. Reconnaissance over for another twenty-four hours it made its clumsy landing and perched, staring bleakly out across the shallows to the unsightly criss-cross of rusting iron that garnished the sandbanks.
They came in at wave-top level, driving out of the sea-mist like three starving hawks; unlike hawks they did not hover over their target but skimmed up into the wind currents that slipped between the Bluff in the east and the slope of Blackberry Moor to the west. Then they parted company, all three disappearing into low cloud but reappearing again within seconds, this time heading separately out to sea, perhaps to their base at Le Mans, perhaps further east to Orleans. In the meantime, at about five hundred feet, they had dropped six 250-pounders that erupted like six small volcanoes, casual visiting cards of a race of grey toads currently squatting on every province between Biscay and the Caucasus.
Four of the bombs fell on stubble or in hillside thickets, two on Home Farm land, two more on the lower slopes of the moor. Each dug a fifteen-foot crater, blasting every blade of grass and every shred of bracken within fifty yards but all they killed was a rabbit that had run under the lip of a heather terrace as soon as it heard the roar of the engines, a sound it had mistaken for the juggernaut approach of Farmer Pitts' tractor. It was a different matter with the two other bombs. One scored a direct hit on Periwinkle Farm, half-way up the second fold of the moor, the other blew Harold Eveleigh to pieces seconds after he had left the ditch he was digging to relieve flooding in the yard of Four Winds and had crouched, staring skywards, against a stack halfway between his farm and the brown flood of the Sorrel.
It was odd that Harold Eveleigh should be the first civilian casualty of the Valley in World War II because, as a boy of seventeen, he had survived some of the most murderous fighting on the Western Front in World War I, emerging with no more than a flesh wound. After that he had gone to Palestine and fought Turks and had been decorated for gallantry before he was twenty. He was now forty-two, the father of a family of two boys and a girl, and one of the most dedicated farmers in the Valley, even though he did not return to the soil until he was a casualty of the 1931 Slump. A war had claimed his brother Gilbert as long ago as 1916, and now Harold had met an almost identical death, for Gilbert had died from the blast of an inexpertly-thrown grenade without even getting to France. Their mother, who dabbled in spiritualism, might have seen the finger of fate in this coincidence but she had died in the first winter of the Second War.
There was another coincidence about that hit-and-run raid of February 12th, 1942. The only other casualty in the Valley was another of the long family of Eveleighs, who was also killed outright over at Periwinkle. Rachel Craddock, née Eveleigh, had been there by chance, sharing the farm with her sister-in-law, Mary Palfrey, elder daughter of Squire Craddock. Rachel's husband, Simon, was an infantry sergeant, serving somewhere in Britain, and he had sent Rachel to the west for safety and also to give her something to do while the war lasted. Rachel was reputedly the brainiest of the Eveleigh tribe and had an economics degree, but Valley folk said she had not made much use of it having spent a rather cheerless life campaigning for Socialism in the drab citadels of the Industrial North and Midlands. Then, when these curious activities were seen to be as profitless as Valley folk had always considered them, she came home and helped Mary and Mary's husband Rumble Patrick, about the farm, not exactly digging for victory but at least poultry-rearing to the same end.
Now she lay under a pile of rubble a mile north of her brother's unrecognisable corpse and everyone came running, convinced that the bomb had also killed Mary, her only child Jerry, and possibly Rumble Patrick as well. They were relieved to learn that Rachel had died alone, washing eggs at the scullery sink. They discovered this as soon as they scrambled into the yard, calling to one another through a fine rain of cob-dust, for Mary, clutching her six-year-old son, crawled from the ruins of the small barn, her dark hair powdered with dust, her overalls in ribbons. Both she and the boy were unmarked but they were shuddering from the effects of the shock. David Pitts and his wife from Hermitage, on the further slope, shouted with joy when they saw mother and child stumbling towards them but Mary only pointed distractedly to the pyramid of cob and splintered timber that had been her home since her eccentric young husband had come home from Canada and rebuilt the old Codsall smallholding with his own hands.
Excerpted from The Green Gauntlet by R. F. Delderfield. Copyright © 1968 R. F. Delderfield. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Following Paul Craddock life was a total joy. One of the best trilogy I have ever read!