Man of the Trees, page 1
MAN OF THE TREES
When her father died, of course Ruth was sad—but she still had a lot to make her life pleasant: her work as an illustrator, her beloved home in the New Forest, her old friend Gareth. But a new Head Forester had had to be appointed to take her father’s place, and Ruth certainly hadn’t foreseen the upheaval in her life that would ensue when he arrived. For she and Ross Hamilton just couldn’t get on; they seemed to cross swords every time they met. Yet why did Ruth so dislike the idea of his close friendship with Linda Appleton?
Ross Hamilton’s name had gone well before him. So had his reputation. Every single person who lived in the New Forest seemed to know something about him and were talking about him. It was Ross Hamilton this, Ross Hamilton that, until Ruth was tired of hearing his name. He was a great disciplinarian, so it was said. At the same time he was well liked and respected by everyone who knew him, not least those who worked for him. He was one of the best Foresters in the country—indeed the best. He not only knew all there was to know about trees, he also knew how to get the best price for the timber that he grew. Added to all this he was fantastically attractive. The women up in Scotland, where he was coming from, all raved about him. He could have any woman he chose, yet strangely enough he had remained a bachelor.
‘I don’t know what you think,’ Ruth said to Gareth Williams with her usual candour, ‘but it sounds to me as though he’ll be full of his own importance. Well, I for one won’t be worshipping at his feet.’
Gareth laughed. ‘That’s the girl! I’m glad to hear it.’
She stripped off her painting smock. ‘Let’s go down and have a coffee. I’m starving.’
‘Good idea. I don’t suppose you’ve had any breakfast—as usual.’
‘I don’t rightly remember.’
They made their way down the step-ladder which gave access to Ruth’s attic studio. At present Ruth was painting forest scenes for a firm who specialised in high class calendars and Christmas cards. She knew she was regarded by some people as ‘merely’ a commercial artist, mostly by those who only thought they were artists, and who drooled sentimentally over the Greats. But Ruth did not mind. She had to eat, and she was at her happiest with a paintbrush in her hands. Whatever the subject or the size of the canvas—and Ruth was very versatile—she put her best effort into every picture she painted.
A log fire burned in the grate of the large, untidy living room, and when she had made the coffee, she sat in her favourite position on the hearthrug while Gareth took one of the old, comfortable chairs and stretched out his long legs to the blaze.
‘Well,’ he said, between his sips of coffee, ‘a few more days and we’ll all know what Ross Hamilton looks like, at any rate. Seeing that I also applied for the job, I don’t say much to the others because they’d only think it was sour grapes on my part, but I find all this talk about the man positively nauseating. I’ve never known anything like it in all my life! A certain amount of speculation about a new man is to be expected, but this is ridiculous. He couldn’t have done better if he’d sent his own personal P.R.O. ahead of him.’
‘Personal band of trumpeters, you mean. It’s enough to turn anyone off the man before he even gets here—although some of the women can hardly wait to meet him. Anyway, you should have got the job. You’ve got all the right qualifications and have had plenty of experience.’
He shrugged. ‘I suppose I should have known better than to apply for our own Beat. I’d stand a better chance if I applied in some other part of the country, I realise that, but I don’t want to leave here just yet.’
Ruth turned her gaze away from the flickering fire and smiled at him.
‘The Pinewood Beat wouldn’t be the same without you. All the same, you ought to try for promotion.’
He leaned forward and ran his fingers through her long dark hair.
‘You know what keeps me here. You.’
She shook her head and patted his knee. Gareth wanted to marry her, but somehow she did not feel she loved him well enough. Yet she valued his friendship and she liked him. Lately, however, he had been seen with Linda Appleton, daughter of a wealthy property owner who had a large number of acres of private forest land.
‘What about Linda?’ she quizzed him.
He pulled her towards him and kissed her. ‘Linda? I wouldn’t give a damn about her if I could have you. You’re all I’ve ever wanted, and I shall go on trying until I’ve worn down your resistance.’
She laughed as though not taking him seriously, but deep inside her, she knew he meant what he said. Wanting an excuse to move out of reach of his arms, she put another log on the fire.
They drank their coffee in silence for a minute or two, then Gareth said: ‘Anyway, to get back to this paragon of all the virtues who is going to descend on us, if he’s half as good a Forester as your father, he’ll do.’
Ruth’s eyes saddened. It was the sudden death of her father with a heart attack which had brought about this vacancy for Head Forester. Now she was virtually alone in the world except for a brother who had emigrated to New Zealand and had settled there.
‘Thanks, Gareth,’ she said huskily. ‘I suppose there’s one thing in favour of Ross Hamilton. He’s agreed to wait until I’ve got somewhere else to live before moving into this house.’
Gareth granted. ‘That was the least any man could do in the circumstances. I’d hardly give him top marks for that. I know this is the Head Forester’s house and goes with the job and all that, but it’s a bit ridiculous for a bachelor to live all by himself in a house this size. It was rather on the big side for you and your father, I should think, wasn’t it?’
She shook her head. ‘Not really, though of course it’s meant as a family house. But Father and I like plenty of room. We like space to wander about in and to spread ourselves.’
Gareth laughed. ‘I’ll say one thing—your house always looks plenty lived in!’
‘By which you mean I’m untidy,’ she retorted, glancing around the room with its usual scatter of books, cushions, sketch pads, and even small items of clothing. ‘It wouldn’t suit everyone, I suppose, but it suits me. Once you start tidying up and putting things away, you can never find anything.’
‘Of course, if you had a place for everything—’
Gareth teased her.
‘And everything in its place? Yes, I know, but then it wouldn’t be me.’
Gareth got to his feet. ‘It certainly wouldn’t—and don’t ever change. I love you just as you are.’
She laughed. ‘Gareth, you’re impossible! What am I going to do with you?’
‘Marry me,’ he said promptly.
She had stood up, too, and she pushed against him playfully.
‘You’d better watch out. One of these days I might say yes, and you’d live to regret it. Who in their right minds would want to marry an untidy, undisciplined harum-scarum like me—smelling of turpentine and linseed oil?’
‘I would, and I shall go on asking you with monotonous regularity until you say yes.’
Suddenly she became serious. ‘Gareth, you mustn’t. One day you’ll meet someone who can really love you in the way you want to be loved, but—’ she broke off and gave a helpless little gesture, ‘I’m reasonably sure it will never be me.’
‘Never is a long time,’ he argued.
Ruth did not answer him. She was fond of Gareth, and at times allowed him to kiss her and hold her, but his caresses never did anything to her as they appeared to do to him.
Gareth glanced at the antique clock on the mantelpiece. ‘Good lord, look at the time! I must be off. There’s a heck of a lot to be done right now. The planting and sowing are way behind schedule with al
She walked to the door with him. ‘Maybe.’
He waved his finger at her. ‘If you don’t put in an appearance I’m likely to come and get you—in which case you might not get rid of me very easily.’
She laughed. ‘Brave words, my friend.’
She stood on the doorstep and watched him as he strode down the garden path—an attractive man with the fine physique of an outdoor man in his early thirties—then waved him off as he drove away in his estate car.
Ruth lingered for a few moments and gazed out on to the familiar view of closely packed trees of the New Forest. The house was built on a rise, deliberately so in order that the Forester could keep an eye on the Beat, particularly helpful in dry weather when there were increased risks of forest fires—something dreaded by all forestry people. It was said that it may take ten years for a tree to grow ten feet high, but only ten seconds for a forest fire to destroy it.
She turned to go indoors again. She would be sad to leave this house, really. She and her father had been happy here. Ruth could barely remember her mother, and her father had never married again. Until they had come to live in the New Forest about ten years ago, they had had a housekeeper, but when they moved here from the Forest of Dean they had decided to look after themselves. She had had her painting, and as well as his work, her father had his music and his garden.
At the door of the room they had used as a music room instead of the dining room, she paused. Sooner or later, she would have to find somewhere else to live, much as she hated planning for the future, but she would hate to have to sell her father’s grand piano. In any case, she played a little herself. Not as well as her father had, but she would miss not being able to sit down and play when the fancy took her, which it was inclined to do at odd times.
She sat down now and played a little of Beethoven’s Fur Elise. but after a few minutes she stopped, not feeling quite in the mood. She told herself she ought to go back and get on with her work, but with her hand on the fold-away step-ladder leading from the landing to her studio she paused. She didn’t feel like working now, either. She felt restless.
She would go for a walk. Without even stopping to put on a jacket she ran out of the house as though she were trying to escape from something.
Almost without thinking where she was going, she took old familiar paths, some of them not known to the general public. She plunged into the deep, dark, lonely places of the forest, crunching her way through the dead bracken and the thick undergrowth where scrub and hollies caught at her clothes; she ran across open glades where streams ran swiftly after the heavy rains, her long dark hair flying behind her like a horse’s mane.
At last, her cheeks flushed, her scalp damp with perspiration in spite of the coldness of the March day, which she had barely noticed, and her breath coming in short, painful gasps, she paused to recover in one of the pinewood inclosures, and leaned back on one of the tall trees.
‘Phew!’ she gasped out loud, and held open the polo neck of her sweater to let out some of the surplus heat.
‘Hello—someone chasing you?’
She gave a violent start and swung round in the direction of the voice, and there, leaning indolently against a neighbouring tree only a few feet away from her, was a man she had never seen before. He was tall and lean with thick dark hair and there was a faint smile of amusement on his face which did not seem to suit his rugged features. Loose-limbed as a film cowboy, he straightened and sauntered towards her.
‘All steamed up, are you?’
Swiftly, Ruth let go the neck of her sweater and stood up straight, her eyes fixing him coldly. At any other time she would have seen the funny side of it, but there was something about this man which got under her skin. It wasn’t even his easy familiarity. She was never one to stand on ceremony, even with strangers. But this man had a sort of air which oozed masculine superiority and self-assurance of the very worst kind.
She glared at him. ‘May I ask what you’re doing here?’ she asked in as haughty a voice as she could muster.
He came to a halt in front of her and folded his arms in the manner of one settling down to do battle.
‘I was about to ask you the same thing,’ he said in an authoritative voice. ‘You do realise that this is an inclosure and not open to visitors?’
She stared at him in utter astonishment. ‘I am not a visitor,’ she told him, highly affronted. ‘It so happens that I live here. You’re the one who’s trespassing.’
‘And it so happens that I have permission from the D.O.,’ he informed her.
‘Well, I don’t need permission from anyone!’ she flashed back. ‘I’ve told you—I live here.’ She glanced all around as if staking a claim right here in the pinewood.
‘I see,’ he said in a tone of voice which meant he didn’t see at all. ‘And I suppose your house is up in the trees?’
At this extraordinary piece of sarcasm she could have hit him. She drew an angry breath, framing a stinging reply, but suddenly she became uncomfortably aware that he was eyeing her up and down. His outrageously insolent look flicked from her long hair, now blowing across her eyes, and travelled from the old jazzy sweater she liked to wear when she was working, down to her faded blue jeans splattered with paint from the times when she forgot to wear her smock.
‘You certainly wouldn’t grace anyone’s drawing room,’ he said smoothly.
She drew in a swift breath and felt her cheeks flame. With uncontrollable anger now she brought up her hand to smack his face. But with a swift reaction which would have matched that of a professional boxer, he brought up his arm to ward off the blow and she found her hand up against what felt like a rod of iron.
She gritted her teeth, her anger at boiling point. ‘I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing here,’ she ground out furiously, ‘but if I ever set eyes on you again, I’ll swear to the D.O. that you tried to assault me!’
She turned on her heel and began to walk triumphantly away from him. But her heart was thumping, partly with anger and partly from frustration.
But the next minute he had caught up with her. He gripped her by the shoulders, his face set and his eyes narrow.
‘I’ve half a mind to do just that, you little savage. Then at least you’d be able to tell the D.O. the truth, wouldn’t you?’
‘If you dare lay a finger on me—’ she began angrily, but suddenly he let her go and she almost fell.
‘Go back to your house in the trees or wherever it is you live while you’re safe,’ he said scathingly, and turned and walked away from her with long, easy strides.
Barely able to contain her anger, she wished she had something handy to throw at his retreating back. He had had the last word, after all.
But then, all at once, she wanted to laugh. What an extraordinary thing! She had just had a most flaming row with a complete stranger, and in a way, she had enjoyed it. At any rate she had found it stimulating. Then back came her annoyance again. It was no laughing matter. She had never met anyone so insufferably rude. He was the very kind of man she absolutely could not stand, the kind who considered himself to be so vastly superior to everyone else, particularly women.
She walked back home and tried to dismiss the unpleasant character from her mind, but it was not easy. One did not often meet a person like that. He said he had had permission from the District Officer to enter the inclosure. Was he, then, a friend of the D.O.? Ruth hoped not. She never wanted to see that man again.
Back home, she became aware of the silence of the house in a way she never had before, and she couldn’t think why. She was well used to being in alone. Her father had been in the habit of coming home for his meals, of course, and had spent most evenings at home either playing the piano or talking or playing records. But during the day she had been accustomed to working alone.<
‘Oh, blow,’ she said to herself. Meeting that man had unsettled her. Ridiculous, of course.
She climbed up to her studio and tried to settle to work again. As a professional she had trained herself to be able to work whether she felt particularly inspired or not. But after a little while she flung down her brush. What was wrong with her this morning? It was not that she lacked so-called inspiration, she was simply not concentrating. It really was ridiculous.
She went downstairs again and discovered she was hungry, so she made some brown bread toast and scrambled some eggs, then sat on the hearthrug and ate. She had barely finished when she reached out for a sketchbook and began to draw—trees; tall trees. She loved them. Long, firm strokes, tips pointing into the blue sky—and leaning against one of them a man.
In disgust, she flung down the pad and pencil again. She really would have to get that horrible man out of her system.
She picked up the day’s local newspaper and started to look down the properties for sale. Her father had not left her without money. It was time she started seriously to look for a house. The new Head Forester would want this before long. It must be a house with a garden. She simply could not exist without a garden—somewhere to wander around in, to have meals in during the summer. And a house with a room big enough to hold her father’s grand piano. Gareth lived with his sister and her husband and they had suggested she might like to live with them, but Ruth wanted to be free. She would want a room she could use as a studio and her own articles of furniture around her, her own disorder.
After she had made note of one or two places, she felt better, and after lunch went upstairs again and worked for the rest of the afternoon. She had forgotten all about Gareth asking her to go to the Foresters’ Club that evening until the telephone rang about seven.
‘Guess what?’ Gareth said over the wire.
She grunted. ‘Surprise me, I’m no good at guessing.’
‘The new Forester has arrived. Ross Hamilton.’
‘Oh, really? Bully for him.’