The group of people straggled along the gravel track, their dark clothes in stark contrast to the white Jacobean front of the manor house ahead. Lucy Rossington was already climbing the shallow porch steps and as she reached the top the young man accompanying her pushed the heavy front door open and stood still, looking down at Lucy, whose slender figure barely reached his shoulder. 'This is going to be hard work,' he said grimly.
'Yes, I know,' she murmured ruefully as she entered the hall, which was gloomy in the late afternoon light. 'Leave the door open, David. Would you let Gina know we're back? It might be easier if we ply them quickly with plenty of tea and sandwiches.
He nodded and strode thankfully along the western corridor to the kitchen wing. Lucy pulled off her velvet hat and tossed it onto a shelf under the gallery stairs, then slipped out of her long coat and hung it carelessly on the crowded rack. She smoothed down the skirt of her black dress and ran her fingers through her chestnut hair, pushing it away from her face. Turning back towards the front door, she glanced in the gilt-framed mirror that hung on the wall, lifting her pointed chin and pinning a resolute smile on her lips.
She stood just inside the doorway, hidden in the shadows of the room, and looked out along the gravel track that led to the old priory buildings. Mike Shannon was almost at the foot of the porch steps and Lucy felt a spurt of amusement as she realised that the archaeologist was subduing his normally exuberant pace with some difficulty. His companion, a stout man in his late thirties, wore an expression of sombre disapproval with the ease of long practice and Lucy's brief sparkle died as her gaze fell on him. Beyond them the remaining mourners advanced singly or in constrained pairs towards the house.
For a moment Lucy felt they were all unreal, just silhouettes against the bare branches of the trees and the polished green of the rhododendron bushes. Sudden harsh cawing shattered the impression, and a flock of rooks appeared over the tower of the small church they had just left. Calling raucously to each other they circled the tall beeches and began to jostle for roosting space in the branches.
She pressed the main light switch, bringing to sudden glowing life the mullioned windows and the half-panelling on the stone walls. Mike, his voice abnormally polite, was encouraging his companion to enter the house, and she stepped forward, squaring her shoulders.
'Yes, do come straight in, Professor. It's rather chilly now the sun is going,' Lucy tried consciously to infuse a note of welcome into her voice.
'Indeed it is,' he responded, stomping across the threshold. 'Weather's on the turn if you ask me. We'll be having snow soon.' She took his hat and overcoat as he removed them and passed them to Mike, who looked at them blankly.
'Come through to the drawing room,' Lucy invited the older man, who was rubbing his hands briskly as he stared crossly at the empty hearth. 'Our housekeeper's lit a fire in there, so it will be warmer. Professor Shannon will bring the others through as they arrive.' She glanced meaningfully at Mike, who nodded vigorously and turned away to the coat rack. Professor Mersett hesitated, and Lucy smiled at him. 'Tea is on the way; I'm sure you could do with a hot drink and something to eat after your long journey.'
'One doesn't care to dwell on such things at a time like this,' he said pompously, 'but there's no denying that a little sustenance would be most welcome. No doubt the students will think so.' He trod firmly beside her towards the drawing room and Mike expelled his breath in a huge sigh, which was probably clearly audible in the passageway.
'Old fool,' he muttered, carelessly throwing the coat and hat he still held onto a carved chest as his attention was caught by the woman entering the hall. 'Liz,' he exclaimed, 'I've emailed Archison about that painting he's working on at Frenham. I only saw it briefly when I was over there, but I'm pretty certain the design is almost identical to what you've uncovered.'
'That will be interesting,' Liz said in her gentle voice, while she hung her coat up neatly. 'How soon do you expect to hear from him?' She pulled Mike's coat off his shoulders as she spoke and he shrugged out of it absently.
'This evening, of course.' He looked down at her, his blue eyes widening in surprise. 'There isn't any reason why he should dither about it. Either there's a strong similarity or there isn't.'
'Mmm,' Liz murmured, her eyes following the line of the shallow stairs up to the gallery that ran around the hall. 'This is what's mentioned in the architectural guides, isn't it?'
Mike grunted, and Liz unwillingly drew her gaze away from the upper floor. 'Where are we supposed to go?' she asked, glancing round the room. 'Do you know?'
'The drawing room,' Mike replied gloomily, gesturing vaguely towards the eastern end of the house. 'Lucy's already there with that fool Mersett.' He turned as the remaining mourners came into the hall, huddling together just inside the doorway. 'Ah, here you are at last. There's no need to hang around. Let's get this over.' He beckoned them to follow him and turned abruptly on his heel.
Liz gave up trying to tidy the soft hair she had tied into a loose chignon, and took Mike by the arm, steering him out of the hall. 'Dr Archison can probably give me some useful tips anyway. He is an expert in the field, after all.'
Mike snorted. 'Him! More like a fussy old woman. Still,' he added grudgingly, 'he does know his stuff, but I wouldn't have thought he could teach you much.'
Professor Mersett broke off his conversation with Lucy as the group entered the drawing room, where golden flames rose from logs burning on the stone hearth, sending flickering shadows over the cream-coloured walls and russet curtains. He called across to a man with a liberally freckled face at the head of the small band of students, 'Ah, here you are, Hamilton. Come and meet Mrs Carey.'
Mike swung round from his animated conversation with Liz. 'Miss Rossington,' he said sharply, and Professor Mersett stared at him blankly. 'She's Miss Rossington,' Mike repeated, enunciating his words with insulting clarity.
The professor's heavy cheeks flushed, and Lucy intervened swiftly, 'Yes, I use my own name, not Hugh's.' She smiled at the men beside her. 'It confuses a lot of people to begin with, but they soon get used to it.'
Professor Mersett stared at her disapprovingly and restrained himself from commenting with a visible effort. 'Yes, well,' he said stiffly, 'I'd like to introduce Dr Hamilton to you. He's kindly agreed to take over the student party for the remaining months, so that Professor Shannon is free to concentrate on the excavation. It's particularly good of Hamilton, as he's in the middle of writing an important paper.' A loud snort from the direction of the window attracted his attention and he tightened his lips, before turning to say, 'Ah, Shannon, I believe you already know Dr Hamilton.'
'Of him, yes,' Mike said, turning to stare at the freckled man who was speaking quietly to Lucy. Mike carried on loudly, 'He wrote that paper about the Alam excavation.' His tone clearly expressed his opinion.
Professor Mersett pressed his lips together so tightly that they were almost invisible.' Yes, that's so,' he said. 'It put forward some very interesting ideas, and certainly makes him a strong contender for the chair of archaeology.'
Mike's expression was incredulous, but he was prevented from replying as Duncan Hamilton turned towards them. 'If that's so, it will be an interesting contest,' he said calmly, holding out his hand to Mike, who gripped it absently. 'I've looked forward to meeting you, Professor Shannon. I found your comments on my Alam paper interesting. Wrong, of course, but stimulating.'
There was a hushed silence in the room where everyone had been listening, openly or covertly, to the conversation between the three men. The group of students clustered by the long table in front of the window had been gazing with approval at its laden surface and now turned to stare at Dr Hamilton with awed faces. One of the girls beside David had a smile on her lips, but many of the others started visibly when Mike broke the silence with a terrific bellow.
He roared with laughter and slapped Duncan Hamilton's shoulder. 'Well, man,' he said when his laughter subsided, 'if you're wrong in your assumptions, that's certainly the way to carry it off.'
'I imagine it's the way you practise yourself,' Duncan said.
'Naturally,' Mike nodded, 'it would be, but I haven't had to yet. What you failed to grasp at Alam is one of the basic principles of excavation.'
Liz turned to the man who had just slipped into the drawing room and come to stand near her, nervously chewing his thumb nail. 'Well, that seems to be alright. Mike likes nothing better than a good argument about archaeological principles.'
The man stared at her in surprise. 'He likes to be right, that's all. He's incredibly overbearing,' he added resentfully, glaring across the room at Mike, 'and he can't ever let anyone else express an opinion. Do you know what he said to me the other day?' He broke off as Gina appeared, her brightly flowered pinafore fluttering around her as she wheeled in a trolley bearing large pots of tea and coffee. 'At last. I thought we were never going to get a drink.'
He walked quickly over to the table, waiting impatiently while Gina unloaded the trolley. He picked up one of the coffee pots and was about to pour from it when Lucy spoke, making him start and spill some of the coffee onto the white tablecloth. 'That's kind of you, Steven. Would you like coffee, Professor, or would you prefer tea?'
'Tea would be very nice, thank you, Mrs…er…mm. I don't really approve of all this coffee drinking. Not good for the nerves,' he said, glancing at the coffee stain on the tablecloth.
Steven sullenly poured out a cup of tea and handed it to Lucy, who passed it to the professor.
'How is your own work going, M…er….mm?' he asked her as they moved to stand close to the hearth, where he turned his back to toast against the flames. She stared at him in surprise and he smiled smugly. 'I was at a dinner party last week, and one of the other guests was Miles Raden. He was very enthusiastic about the project you're engaged upon. I gather the Trust sponsored you against a lot of competition.'
'I see.' Lucy's face lit up with enthusiasm. 'Miles is very good about it, because it's going to be rather a long-term project. It basically involves recording the types and locations of coastal flora in the south-western peninsula, and identifying the various fauna species connected with each plant. Once we have a clear picture of the whole ecosystem we'll have a better idea of which elements of it are in most danger. Then of course we can work out a viable means of management and conservation for those areas.'
Lucy broke off with a gesture of apology. 'I'm sorry. Once I get started I can talk about it endlessly.'
'Only natural, M…my dear.' Professor Mersett smiled benevolently at her. 'An important project,' he continued. 'I'm sure it will be most useful when you've completed the work. Are you based here?'
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