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Illingworth House: Chance Child, Part Two - 47

Young John Illingworth receives a cool welcome when he meets Miriam's strict and wealthy parents.

John Waddington-Feather continues his engaging story of the doings and misdoings of the Illingworths, a Yorkshire mill-owning family.

Waiting for him at the depot when he returned off leave was a letter from Miriam. Her parents had moved to Hove and she arranged to take him there on her way home from London. As he'd no car, she picked him up at Mareton the next day. She was wearing a new outfit and she'd had her hair cut short. It suited her well and framed her face in a mass of dark curls. As he looked at her, he felt the attraction at Oxford come flooding back stronger than ever. She was standing by her car outside the guard-room and lifted her face to his as they met Her eyes and smile said it all. He had an overwhelming urge to take her in his arms, but all he did was peck her on the cheek, before they got in and drove off.

She looked radiant but as they motored to Hove, she confessed how apprehensive she was. Her folks were strict Jews and not at all happy that she was seeing a Gentile boy. She wasn't sure how he'd be received. When she told her father she was bringing him home he clearly wasn't pleased.

She also told John they weren't her real parents. She was adopted, and he wondered if Rebecca knew, for she'd never mentioned it, never said anything about Miriam's family - nor how loaded they were!

She asked after Ann and he said she seemed much better now her mother was living with her. He said nothing about the will, only that his grandfather had died. As they spoke, their eyes never left each other and they chatted happily until they reached the gates of her parents' home. As they drove up the long drive, he had the same feeling he'd had as a boy the first time he'd gone to Illingworth House. Downs View was on the same scale.

Its high wrought-iron gates opened into a long sanded drive, which cut through a line of trees and shrubs to a massive Edwardian house. The drive curved round a green circular lawn as it reached the house. In the middle was a mature monkey tree and beyond, either side of the house, were more lawns with views to the rolling South Downs.

Miriam swung her car round the tree and parked it in front of the house. As she got out, a gardener touched his cap to her. She wished him good-day then took John inside. A butler came to take his case and carried it to his room, then her mother came to greet them, kissing Miriam warmly and embracing her. Lady Leff was a small dark-haired woman with deep brown lively eyes. She was immaculately dressed and heavily jewelled, speaking with an English accent which was decidedly upper-crustian. So was her husband's, Sir Samuel Leff.

Having greeted Miriam, she turned to John and shook his hand formally and coolly, regarding him closely. They moved to the lounge where like her husband she was pleasant enough but decidedly cool, but when Miriam spoke to John, her mother was quick to see in her daughter's face something deeper than friendship. The way she looked, the way she smiled, the way her eyes constantly drifted to John confirmed what her parents suspected and feared. Miriam was in love.

Her father was a small thick-set man, dark like his wife and daughter. He was much older than John anticipated and almost bald. He was well groomed and wore a heavy gold ring on his little finger and expensive gold fobs across his waistcoat. In that, he reminded John of his grandfather and he had the same air of authority as Sir Abe. He was used to giving orders; not receiving them. And he was very possessive of his daughter, as John discovered.

He soon switched the conversation to his friends' sons who'd been asking after Miriam, one in particular, a young doctor who'd taken her out once or twice in the past and was keen to see her again. She made some vague reply and after a while the conversation began to dry up. The small-talk became stilted and when it faltered, Miriam suggested she and John went for a stroll on the Downlands behind the house.

She felt hurt at her parents' antipathy towards him; although she'd expected it and knew how he must have felt. When they were alone she said, "I'm sorry, John. Mummy and daddy aren't exactly falling over themselves to be friendly, but I'm sure they'll warm up as they get to know you better." He smiled, but thought if they got to know his background better, they'd freeze him off altogether. He wasn't in their league at all.

They wrapped up well for their walk for it was cold on the Downs. There was no one out walking but themselves. In the distance they could see the grey smudge of the sea and the fret which was rolling in. What trees there were leaned inland, bent like the scrawny moorland trees at home. Here and there chalky outcrops pushed through the thin Downland grass as they walked towards Devil's Dyke.

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