The following morning was pleasantly bright and as, one by one, the guests came down to breakfast, they were greeted by the full-face of the sun as it shone in shamelessly through the tall windows of the breakfast room, on the west wing of Rothermore House.Timothy, however, contrived to turn his back on it, as he arrived at the large round table at which everyone was invited to sit; for he rather disliked a direct confrontation with the Diabolic Alpha at this time of day, and trusted that it would be less harmful to his back than to his face.He didn't of course mention this to anyone, lest they thought him crazy.... Although Lady Handon half-divined what was on his mind by the eagerness and determination with which he had acquired himself this particular seat.She smiled ironically to herself and proceeded to sip the Chinese tea which the ageing butler had just poured into her dainty cup.Behind her, and therefore in front of Timothy, an open fire crackled forcefully in its hearth.The writer, for his part, preferred not to notice it.

†††† "Well, I trust you all had a comfortable night," said Lord Handon, as he took his place at table and briefly scanned the assembled faces, all but one of which had a noticeably pallid look.

†††† "Very comfortable thanks," admitted Sarah, whose candour caused Timothy a slight embarrassment at what seemed to him like an oblique allusion to his own contribution to it.

†††† "Good!" said Lord Handon in a business-like manner."As long as you all managed to get some rest after yesterday evening's physical exertions and don't find the first morning of January 1981 unduly oppressive ..."

†††† "Unfortunately I had a nightmare," Irene Myers interposed, slightly to everyone's horror.

†††† "Hardly the most auspicious start to the new year for you then!" Lady Handon declared over the rim of her steaming cup."I trust you didn't suffer a similar fate, Mr Byrne," she added, focusing her beady attention upon the rather washed-out face opposite, which, to her surprise, blushed perceptibly and shook its head.

†††† "Fortunately not!" he replied, all too conscious that he probably suffered a worse one in not getting any sleep at all.For it was so late by the time Sarah let him go ... that he had quite passed the point of sleep and could do no better than to doze fitfully in his solitary room, tortured by the incessant twittering of sparrows in some nearby trees.Now his head had something of the vacuity of an exploded shell about it, as though his brain had been removed and a dull void left in its place.He smiled with a kind of cadaverous leer which the hostess appeared not to like very much; for she sharply turned her face away.

†††† "And how about you, sir?" she inquired of Girish O'Donnell, noting the speed with which the Voice Museum's principal director was draining his cup of black coffee.

†††† "Oh, just a slight hangover," he drawled, falling victim to one of the most palpably obvious of understatements."Nothing to grumble about, really!"

†††† "You danced exceedingly well last night, Girish," opined Lord Handon, countering palpable understatement with no-less palpable overstatement."Indeed, you all danced very well, including you, Geraldine."

†††† His daughter couldn't prevent herself blushing at this remark, and cast Gowling an optimistic glance, as though expecting him to confirm it.However, the artist was preoccupied with the piled-up flaky contents of his cereal bowl and therefore didn't respond to her in any noticeable way.But she wasn't to be rebuffed by this fact and declared that she had probably danced better last night than ever before - a declaration which caused Gowling a comparable degree of embarrassment.

†††† "Really?" cried Lord Handon on a note of ironic surprise."That's putting it rather strongly, I must say!"

†††† Not surprisingly his wife preferred to say nothing about that, but tactfully switched the conversation to her guests' impending departures, now that their New Year's Eve celebrations were a thing of the past."I take it you'll all be able to return to your various destinations today, bearing in mind the reduced public transport," she said.

†††† All but two of them were destined to return to London, those being Nigel Townley and Irene Myers, who had homes in Sussex.

†††† "Yes, I don't suppose there'll be any trains running," Lord Handon remarked, endeavouring to qualify his wife's almost contradictory question.

†††† "Don't worry, I can take the others back in my car," O'Donnell declared."I have enough space in the old banger for at least half-a-dozen people."He was of course alluding to his Mercedes, which was parked in front of the house beside Irene's Porsche and Lord Handon's Rolls.It would be far better travelling back to town in that than waiting around for taxis or buses, and the relevant guests thanked O'Donnell for his offer and accepted without a qualm - especially Timothy, who hadn't much enjoyed the solitary journey down by train in any case.

†††† "Good, then that takes care of that problem," Lady Handon concluded with an air of finality, and she accordingly relapsed into a welcome silence.

†††† Following breakfast, the guests retired to the drawing-room for a spate of informal conversation prior to their impending departures, Lord Handon encouraging those of them who could stand the sight of alcohol to sample a fresh glass as a leave-taking tribute.But most of them seemed in need of fresh air, and, perceiving this, the viscount offered to take everyone on a guided tour of his grounds, including the stables, gardens, and parkland.As the weather was so sunny that morning, most of the guests accepted with alacrity, and, before long, a little party of warmly-clad individuals had assembled in the spacious vestibule behind the north door, eager for exercise.

†††† Geraldine, however, was of the opinion that it would be better for them to divide into two groups rather than set off en masse across the lawns, like a herd of cattle.She accordingly offered, by way of example, to take a few of their guests round the west wing of the house and through the stables, while her father took the rest of them in the opposite direction, in order to meet-up with her group at some point to the south.The idea seemed a good one and consequently, with minimum deliberation, the party divided accordingly and set off in their respective directions.

†††† To his relief, Timothy found himself in Geraldine's group, which included Lawrence Gowling and Nigel Townley who, slightly to his amusement, smiled sheepishly at him from under sleep-heavy eyelids.Geraldine, clearly, had cornered most of the males, while her father, unaccompanied by his wife, had availed himself of the females, adding to their number the portly figure of Girish O'Donnell, who trailed along behind the others, like some kind of social outcast.It was a little disenchanting for Timothy to watch Sarah being led away in the opposite direction, but he couldn't very well complain.Besides, it might have proved embarrassing had she been with him instead, especially with Geraldine there.

†††† "Ah!" exclaimed Gowling, as he deeply inhaled and exhaled the crisp morning air."How refreshing to be out at this time of day!Just the way to clear away a hangover, what?"

†††† Geraldine smiled her acknowledgement of him, but made no comment.She had changed into a pair of pale-pink cords and was wearing a navy-blue anorak over a woolly jumper.Her hair was still pinned up, but less formerly now than the day before.Instead of forming a bun on the crown of her head, it rested in a loose rectangle at the back, making her look, if anything, slightly more attractive.There was a faint hint of make-up on her face, but nothing overtly seductive.Her eyes shone with pleasure as she led the men across the English garden and around to the West Front.No doubt, she was relieved to be free of her parents' restrictive company."Let's take a look at the goldfish," she said, pointing out a small artificial pond which stood in front of the front in question."My mother is rather keen on goldfish and I seem to have inherited an aptitude for them myself.A case of acquired characteristics, wouldn't you say, Mr Byrne?"

†††† The writer automatically raised wary brows, but graciously conceded her the benefit of the doubt.

†††† "My God, there must be hundreds of them in it!" Gowling observed, as they reached the goldfish pond."They're literally crawling over one another!"

†††† "Yes, it is rather a cramped environment," Geraldine admitted."Although we usually sell off a number of them every year and thereby maintain a fairly stable population.We're intending, anyway, to extend the size of our ponds soon - there's one like this, incidentally, in front of each wing of the house - so as to provide our little darlings with more privacy."

†††† "Privacy?" Townley repeated, with an ironic expression on his face.

†††† But Geraldine was more interested in staring at Gowling's reflection in the shallow water than justifying her use of words, while the artist, for his part, was too engrossed in the pond's contents to notice that he was being secretly admired.

†††† "Well, let's proceed, shall we?" Geraldine at length suggested, and, together, they continued in the direction they had been taking, on past the West Front.Here, too, Timothy couldn't help noticing that the Baroque features of the North Front were in ample evidence, particularly as regards the equidistant placing of Corinthian pilasters, and he noticed, moreover, that Townley was taking more interest in the general exterior of the house itself than in the surrounding grounds, which, for an architect, was only to be expected, or so he supposed.But this was only in passing.For soon they came upon the stables, no farther than a hundred-and-fifty yards away, and heard the sounds of horses neighing and champing - sounds which Townley couldn't help commenting upon as they drew near."Our approach has evidently excited them," he observed, raising his nostrils to inhale the smell of freshly-deposited manure."How many do you have?"

†††† "Just four nowadays," Geraldine replied, with a hint of regret in her voice."We used to have six, but, since my older sister went to live elsewhere and my younger brother got killed in a plane crash, we decided to part with theirs.... This one's called Smoky," she revealed, patting a large grey stallion on the nose."It's the favourite of my father, who owns the stallion on the right, too.But this one's mine."His name was Badger, and he was a dark-brown horse of slightly less than average height.He seemed to like having his mane fondled and Geraldine was keen to oblige."The remaining horse belongs to my mother," she continued, drawing attention to a black mare to Badger's left, "and her name's Stella.But since mother doesn't ride very often these days, she's mostly entrusted to our groom, who is a reliable horseman."

†††† "So what's the name of your father's other horse?" asked Timothy, who happened to be standing directly in front of it.

†††† "Dapper," said Geraldine."Because he is, see?"

†††† There was an uprush of amusement among the three men, who eyed the dapper-brown stallion in question with admiring looks.For his part, Dapper neighed gently and stared back at them with a nonchalance bordering on contempt - or so it seemed.Inscrutability was, after all, a hallmark of the horse!

†††† "Do you ride regularly?" Gowling asked Geraldine, following a short pause in their conversation.

†††† "Whenever I'm here I do, which is mostly during the vacations," she replied, smiling."Unfortunately, being away at college means that I don't now ride as often as before.But I shall probably come down here for the occasional weekend, during the months ahead, and wrench my horse away from our groom for a few hours.What about you - do any of you ride?"

†††† Gowling admitted to an occasional tendency in that august direction, while both Timothy and Townley shook their respective heads, the architect adding that he would welcome an opportunity to do so - a sentiment not shared, however, by the writer, who had never ridden a horse in his life and had no desire to, largely because he found the idea of intimate contact with a large beast repugnant.... To be sitting on a horse somewhere in the country - no, that was definitely not for him!He almost shuddered at the thought of it.On principle, he could never have given-in to complacency on a beast in the country.He simply wanted to aspire towards God by expanding his spirit.But how could one possibly do that seated on a horse, with nature airing its mundane prejudices all around one?Impossible!No, horses were definitely not for him!

†††† However, Townley was interested and Gowling fairly proud of the fact that he occasionally rented a horse for the day.After all, horses were the most noble of beasts and not at all bad company.Yet when Geraldine said she would like to see him ride, poor Gowling quite blushed with shame at the connotation with sex to which the word gave rise in his vulnerable imagination!For it seemed to him that the young lady was deliberately provoking him.He could have sworn he detected a mischievous gleam in her eyes."You don't mean now, do you?" he gasped, in his perplexity.

†††† "No, of course not, silly!" she retorted."Some other time."

†††† He mentally sighed his relief and wiped some imaginary sweat from his brow.

†††† "Well, now that you've all seen the horses, let's explore a bit farther afield, shall we?" suggested Geraldine, leading the way out of the stables and on across the open parkland to the left of the South Front, in the general direction of a thick wood beyond.

†††† "No sign of the other group from here," Gowling observed, looking across to his right, where he had vaguely expected to sight Lord Handon's four followers.

†††† The others cast a glance in the same direction and Geraldine explained how that was probably because her father had turned into the wood on the far side of the house, in order to explore the river which ran through it."He's recently had a few fancy wooden bridges installed, which he's probably keen to inspect and show off," she went on."But don't worry, we'll doubtless bump into them before long."

†††† The parkland stretched on quite some distance to either side of them and had the appearance of being well-kept, despite the ugly proximity, every now and then, of copious weeds, which had sprouted in the otherwise bare flower-beds, and of overgrown hedges, bent forward under the oppressive weight of their evergreen foliage.A number of saplings were propped-up on wooden supports against the inclemency of winter, intended, no doubt, to form a new avenue of trees in due course.For it was apparent, from a brief inspection of the area, that Lord Handon liked to have his saplings planted in rows, like soldiers or, rather, cadets on parade.Less ordered, however, was the wood towards which Geraldine was now leading them.It had a rough path through it but no sign of any intentional cultivation, and the prospect of his having to traverse this intensification of nature wasn't at all to Timothy's liking!Indeed, he wasn't particularly happy to be exploring the parkland anyway, even its most cultivated parts, which still struck his transcendental mentality as evil, if relatively less so than the patently uncultivated parts.But it was into the wood that Geraldine led them, and he just didn't have the nerve to back out or object.Gowling and Townley would probably have thought him mad were he to do so, not being on his spiritual wavelength.All he could reasonably do was to brave it, and this he endeavoured to do as they came upon the beaten path at the entrance to the wood and passed over into raw nature.

†††† "If we're in luck, we might get a glimpse of some of the deer that roam about in here," said Geraldine.

†††† "How many deer are there?" asked Townley.

†††† "About fifty at the last count," the young lady revealed."Mostly deeper into the wood of course, and more over to the far side.You can see quite a lot of wildlife in here though, including foxes.Look, there's a squirrel scampering up a tree over there!Can you see it?"

†††† Halted, the men followed her finger in the direction indicated, and for a moment Timothy had a recollection of Sarah doing the same thing in the passageway outside his room the previous night."Quite clearly," Gowling admitted, as the squirrel came to a sudden halt half-way up the tree trunk, as though in suspended animation."One can see how this wood must be something of a naturalist's paradise, during certain times of the year and under the right conditions."

†††† Geraldine smiled warmly before trudging on again.Only Timothy refrained from showing signs of pleasure here.For the fact of this wood being a naturalist's paradise could only mean it was a transcendentalist's hell, and he needed no reminding.... Not that it was the worst of earthly hells, since a tropical jungle would have been far worse, to his way of thinking.And even this place would, in his opinion, have been worse in the middle of summer than at present, deprived of all but its bare bones, so to speak, in the heart of winter.Still, even in this depleted context, it was a place he would have preferred to avoid.

†††† "We used to have hunts here at one time," Geraldine was saying, principally for the benefit of the others, as they continued along the path, Timothy at the rear.

†††† "What, deer hunts?" Townley surmised.

†††† "Sometimes deer and sometimes foxes," Geraldine confessed."At any rate, my grandfather was keen on hunting and used to run with the pack, as they say, across the park and into this wood at various points, usually to emerge again on the far side and continue the chase across open country.But my father preferred shooting grouse to hunting animals, so I never got to see more than an occasional deer or fox hunt."

†††† "Does he still shoot?" Timothy asked, over Townley's shoulder.

†††† "Oh yes, quite often," Geraldine replied."Mostly pheasants, of course.Why, do you object to blood sports?"

†††† "Yes and no."

†††† "What do you mean by 'yes and no', you ambivalent man?"

†††† "Well, 'yes', because I'd rather people spent their time doing better things than chasing about after wild animals or birds," Timothy informed her, "and 'no' because I'd rather men made war on beasts than worshipped them.In the final analysis, I don't object to people preventing the lower creatures from becoming too populous.Though I suppose it would be better if society was arranged in such a fashion that either the State or some other authority could take greater responsibility for keeping their numbers in check, by having trained professionals do the job of culling them, in order to make the business less a sport than a moral and ecological obligation."

†††† "Ah, I see," said Geraldine."Well, you won't find the lower creatures too populous around here, I can assure you!Not unless you're also alluding to ants, beetles, worms, sparrows, and other such lowly creatures?"

†††† Timothy made no comment, but contented himself, instead, with a private reflection on the sad fact that the lowest of all creations, viz. raw nature, was far too populous or, at any rate, abundant here, even in the heart of winter.

†††† Yet if Geraldine half-divined his thoughts she didn't let-on, nor draw attention to the impracticality of greater state responsibility in the matter of culling wild animals professionally while land was still in private ownership, but continued to lead the way and talk about her father's shooting abilities, which were of quite a high standard apparently.

†††† "I'd love to have a crack at shooting grouse myself one day," Gowling revealed, in due course.

†††† "Well, perhaps we can arrange that for you," Geraldine commented, and, as she briefly turned towards him, the artist found himself becoming embarrassed again for no apparent reason or, rather, for reasons best known to himself."That would be most kind of you," he averred, slightly to Timothy's distaste.

†††† The path wound on into the distance but, mercifully for Timothy,didn't stray too far into the wood, so that it was possible, every now and then, to glimpse part of the South Front of Rothermore House away in the distance, as one came upon a small clearing between the trees and bushes to one's right.Glimpsed from this distance, the house seemed quite small.But it was still a vaguely reassuring spectacle for anyone who preferred civilization to nature, and provided Timothy with a brief reprieve from the gloomy thoughts which surged through his nature-stricken consciousness, like doom-besotted ghosts.Overhead, the regular flapping of wings attested to an abundance of bird life here, and Gowling must have looked-up at the startled creatures, from time to time, with more than a vague desire to pull the trigger of a gun and send one or two of them crashing beak-foremost to earth.Geraldine, however, had other things on her mind.

†††† "Look!" she cried, bringing the men to a sudden halt again."There's a fallow deer over there.D'you see it?"

†††† The pale-brown deer, a doe, had certainly seen them and now kept a watchful eye on the intruding humans from where it stood, some seventy or so yards to their left.

††† "How pretty she is!" Townley observed, instinctively dropping his voice to almost a whisper."And so small really!"But the doe had seen enough of them by now, and suddenly made off deeper into the wood.

†††† "Perhaps she has a mate waiting for her somewhere," joked Gowling as they got under way again.

†††† "She might have," Geraldine responded, smiling slyly, "although we're not exactly in the heart of the rutting season at present and, as such, the bucks tend to be somewhat aloof ... like certain men at this time of year," she added, a shade ironically.

†††† Gowling experienced a painful recrudescence of his former embarrassment and endeavoured to hide his face from Geraldine by looking in the opposite direction ... across towards Rothermore House.It was evident that she was teasing him again!Timothy, on the other hand, smiled faintly and offered no comment.Recalling to mind his intimacy with Sarah the previous night, he felt confident that Geraldine couldn't very well have been alluding to him - at least not as far as he was concerned.For he had seen more than enough female flesh to last him a good few nights to come!

†††† To be sure, the recollection of his pulling down Sarah's little white nylon panties and placing an exploratory kiss on her pubic hair caused his smile to expand slightly, in spite of the uncongenial environment in which he still found himself.Because he was walking just behind the others, however, this smile went unnoticed and he didn't have to justify it.No doubt, Geraldine, in particular, would have been intrigued!Anyway, he was relieved that it was Lawrence Gowling and not himself the young lady was especially interested in, since he had no real desire to fraternize with the aristocracy.Perhaps Gowling was suffering a scruple of conscience on that account too, and was accordingly afraid of what he would be letting himself in for, if he became Geraldine's lover?It was possible though by no means guaranteed, considering the extent of the artist's bourgeois pedigree.Perhaps, on second thoughts, he would have welcomed closer association with her, but was simply afraid to take the initial plunge and risk being identified, in her parents' eyes, as some kind of unscrupulous social climber?Poor fellow!If that was the case, then he deserved pitying.Social climber indeed!The thought was enough to make Timothy smile again.But by now they had come upon a stream which ran through their part of the wood, and Geraldine was explaining that it merged into the river farther down."And that's where we'll probably run into the other group, since they've probably been dawdling on one or other of the new wooden bridges, watching the fish swim by," she added for their benefit.

†††† "Do you get many fish here?" Townley asked, as they stared down into the gently-flowing stream which glistened with myriad patches of sunlight, like some kind of kaleidoscope.

†††† "Not in the stream itself," Geraldine replied."For, as you can see, it's rather shallow and stony.But certainly in the river.My father has caught more than a few salmon there over the years.Quite large ones, too.After grouse shooting, it's his next favourite sport."

†††† "Oh, really?" Townley responded, his face aglow with polite interest."I used to do a spot of fishing myself at one time.On the Wey, in Guildford."

††† "How lovely!" Geraldine exclaimed."They tell me there are some ideal spots for fishing, along the Wey."

††† "Ideal if you discount the counter-productive influence of passing rowing boats," Townley retorted, with a faint good-natured chuckle."They often scare the fish away.And sometimes the less-accomplished rowers have a fatal tendency to get their oars entangled in one's line, which can be pretty frustrating, I can tell you!"

†††† A chorus of sympathetic humour erupted from his listeners, before Geraldine assured him that there weren't any boats on their river, so one could fish in peace."My brother used to catch tiddlers in this stream," she remarked nostalgically, as they continued to skirt its edge.

†††† "Tiddlers?" echoed Timothy and, smiling inwardly, he recalled his own rather frustrating efforts, as a small boy, to catch either tiddlers, tadpoles, or aquatic insects in his fishing net at Bagshot Ponds or off the tiny wooden bridge in the park at Farnham.Mostly he just caught weeds and stones.It was enough to put him off fishing for good (long before mature reflection, as an adult, led him to conclude that fishing for pleasure was on a par with blood sports and therefore no less reprehensible from a moral standpoint).However, disillusioned as much by the nature of his catch as by the humble means employed, he later gravitated to feeding monkeys on the Hogs Back.It was a slightly more rewarding occupation than waiting for non-existent or extremely recalcitrant tiddlers!But the Wey?He smarted with repressed indignation at the indirect insult just received from the unsuspecting Nigel Townley, who, it seemed, objected to boating there.Had not he, Timothy Byrne, spent many a pleasant afternoon rowing down the Wey without disturbing a single fishing enthusiast or noticing a single fish, except the occasional dead one floating on the water's surface, compliments, in all probability, of the rod fraternity?And had he not been inconvenienced himself, on a number of occasions, by fishing lines cast too far out and necessitating an abrupt change of direction, which usually resulted in one's colliding with the nearest bank?God knows, there were so many sharp bends and unexpected twists-and-turns in the Wey, that it was difficult enough to avoid clashing with one or other of its banks at the best of times!But for this bloke to complain about the inconvenience caused by rowers!

†††† However, Timothy had no real desire to drag up his childhood or youth by the banks of this little stream, even though, in the circumstances, it wasn't entirely irrelevant.As a child one was always, after all, something of a savage, and thus more partial to the barbarous influence of nature's predatory instincts.A miniature pagan, at the furthest possible moral remove from God, or very nearly so.For it was probably truer to say that the very earliest children, in the childhood of the human race, so to speak, had been at a still-further remove from the Holy Spirit than were their latter-day counterparts - bad enough as they generally were!

†††† By now, however, Geraldine's group had come upon sight of Lord Handon's in the distance, and, together, they quickened their pace to approach them.Yet if the former had spotted the latter, it was hardly the case that a reciprocal spotting had taken place with the other group.For they stood with their backs to the approaching quartet and were staring down into the water which ran beneath the sturdy wooden parapet upon which they all leant.Or so it appeared for an instant.For as Geraldine's group got a slightly better view of the bridge, thanks to a narrow clearing beyond the path, it soon became apparent that only Girish O'Donnell and Irene Myers were actually leaning on the parapet, since, much to Timothy's surprise, the remaining two guests were leaning against Lord Handon, one on either side of him, while he held a supporting arm round their respective waists.Yet this, too, was an optical illusion or, at any rate, only a very transient posture.For, on closer inspection, it soon became evident that Lord Handonís hands weren't exactly static, but actively roaming backwards and forwards over their respective behinds.

†††† "Shush!" hissed Geraldine, bringing them to a sudden standstill, the better to spy on the proceedings farther afield.Then, following the inevitably excited pause, she whispered: "Can you see what I can?"

†††† "Plainly," Timothy admitted on a note of disgust.

†††† Townley sniggered softly and shook his head in amazement."It seems that you were perfectly right to say this place must be a naturalist's paradise, Lawrence," he at length remarked, for the artist's dubious benefit."Everything would seem to point in the direction that Lord Hand-on would be a more apt accentuation of Han-don, and that he's doing his damnedest to live-up to his surname."

†††† Geraldine had put her hand on Gowling's arm in involuntary response to her father's actions and was causing him to blush anew, despite his manifest interest in the occupants of the bridge."Gosh, we could certainly do with some binoculars now!" he managed to say.

†††† In point of fact, binoculars would not have taught them much they didn't already know.For, from where they now stood, they could even see the smiling faces of Sheila and Sarah frequently turning up towards the viscount, as he whispered or murmured something evidently endearing into their eager ears.A smile, and then another little bout of hand roaming on Lord Handon's part.Another smile, followed by more of the same.And then, quite unexpectedly, a spurt of more adventurous caressing in relation to Sarah, as the hand nearest to her caught the rim of her minidress and gently lifted it up, thereby exposing the greater part of her pale-stockinged legs to the rapt attention of Geraldine's group - an action which precipitated a fresh wave of amazement, not to say amusement, among them.

†††† "My goodness, what will the old sod do next?" Geraldine was asking in a patently rhetorical fashion.

†††† "Are you sure that wasn't the wind which blew it up?" queried Gowling, who was slightly myopic in any case.

†††† "Positively," Geraldine assured him."I always knew my father was a lecher, but really...!"She cast him a sort of reassuring glance, before adding: "I don't think I ought to watch this any longer."

†††† "Frankly, I don't think there'll be much more to watch," said Timothy, conscious, now he had got over his initial shock, of a feeling of jealousy in relation to Lord Handon's liberties.

†††† "Maybe that's what you prefer to believe," Geraldine retorted, an ironic smile on her lips.

†††† He shot her a withering look, but almost immediately regretted it, and relapsed, instead, into a morose silence.

†††† "I'm surprised that Girish and Irene aren't more intrigued by their guide's familiarities with the others," Gowling declared to no-one in particular.

†††† "They appear to be more interested in themselves," Townley observed."Arm-in-arm and talking quite volubly, by the look of it."

†††† "A pity we can't hear what they're saying from here," Geraldine murmured."But if we go any closer, they're bound to see us."

†††† Timothy was beginning to feel the cold."In all probability, they've only got their arms about each other to keep warm," he opined.

†††† "It's not that cold!" Geraldine objected.

†††† "Yet even if that applies to Girish and Irene," conceded Townley, "it hardly explains or justifies the posture, as it were, of the others."

†††† "Quite," both Geraldine and Gowling confirmed simultaneously.

†††† "Unless, of course, your father is endeavouring to keep his right hand warm by using Sarah's dress as a glove," Townley rejoined, in an attempt to elucidate his objections.

†††† "I must say, she does have a nice pair of legs," Gowling declared half-humorously.

†††† "So does Sheila, incidentally," the architect revealed.

†††† "Oh? And just when did you discover that fact?" Geraldine asked.For Sheila's legs were still modestly hidden beneath her outer garments at that moment.

†††† "Whilst I was dancing with her last night, if you must know," Townley replied, divulging only a part of the truth.

†††† "I see," sighed Geraldine, and a slightly-pained expression crossed her face.For she had hoped that Lawrence would have become better acquainted with her own not-unattractive pair of legs by now.Unfortunately her attempts to lure him into her bedroom, following the dance, had quite failed, with a consequence that she had spent the greater part of the night thinking about what she was missing, conscious of the difference between a thoroughly pleasurable night and the rather less than thoroughly pleasurable one which she had been obliged to experience, thanks or no thanks to him!But perhaps she would get what she wanted before long?

††† Meanwhile, however, it was her father who appeared to be getting what he wanted from the two young women on either side of him.Evidently his wants were not as exigent as Geraldine's but, nonetheless, they were of a sufficiently sensuous nature to be of some concern to Timothy, who watched, with growing resentment, the liberal caresses Lord Handon was permitting himself at Sarah's expense.For his right hand had now slipped under her dress and was more intimately exploring the opera singer's rear, gliding backwards and forwards across what appeared to be the very same pair of panties which Timothy had had the privilege of removing only the night before.However, to the latter's relief, Sarah must have realized that Lord Handon was taking extra liberties with her, and decided there and then to put a stop to it.For the hand that wasn't wrapped round his waist suddenly came to the rescue of her modesty and set about restoring the dress to its former, more orthodox position, thereby obliging her assailant to adopt a less intimate caress again.In fact, Timothy almost heaved a sigh of relief at this point, but, realizing that Geraldine's attention was partly on him, he checked the impulse to do so at the last moment and endeavoured to fake a light-hearted smile instead, as though the proceedings farther afield were only of humorous interest.If Geraldine saw through him, too bad!

†††† "It looks as if our little peep-show is about to come to an end," Townley remarked, a shade disappointedly.

†††† "So it does," Geraldine confirmed.For the arms of the two young women on the bridge had now dropped to their sides, as Lord Handon turned away from the parapet and began to walk towards the couple to his left.

†††† "They'll be coming in our direction now, won't they?" Gowling surmised at the top of his whispering voice.

†††† And, sure enough, the other group was leaving the bridge and heading towards the beaten path on which they were still standing, as though locked in suspended animation.

†††† "I feel like turning back," Timothy confessed, in the throes of a momentary panic.

†††† "Don't be such a bloody fool!" cried Geraldine."They'll be expecting us to bump into them shortly in any case, so we must go on.But when we do meet them, try not to look guilty or amused.Otherwise they're bound to realize that we've been spying on them.Try, if anything, to look surprised."

†††† "What, you here?" joked Townley, smiling.

†††† "Yes, something of the sort," Geraldine smilingly agreed, as they continued along the path and thence out into the less thickly-populated stretch of wood beyond.



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