The Top of the World - Ethel M. Dell - ebook

The Top of the World ebook

Ethel M. Dell

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This is another Ethel Dell novel. Sylvia Ingleton is left motherless at an early age. Her father remarried a woman who is not happy to share her household with Sylvia. Soon, Sylvia is entangled in webs of deceit to get her married off. Boldly, she announces to her father and would be suitor that she will rejoin her fiancé of five years in South Africa. The backdrop of South Africa’s wilderness, drought, cloud bursts and love triangles leaves Sylvia in a struggle to survive. In this thrilling adventure, she finds her way like a lost child to her „Top of the World”. It is an astonishingly melodramatic novel, with a plot that moves with such gusto from one strong emotional situation to another that you only occasionally pause to consider how very exaggerated and improbable it is.

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Liczba stron: 559

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Contents

PART I

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

PART II

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

PART III

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

PART IV

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

PART I

CHAPTER I

ADVICE

“You ought to get married, Miss Sylvia,” said old Jeffcott, the head gardener, with a wag of his hoary beard. “You’ll need to be your own mistress now.”

“I should hope I am that anyway,” said, Sylvia with a little laugh.

She stood in the great vinery–a vivid picture against a background of clustering purple fruit. The sunset glinted on her tawny hair. Her red-brown eyes, set wide apart, held a curious look, half indignant, half appealing.

Old Jeffcott surveyed her with loving admiration. There was no one in the world to compare with Miss Sylvia in his opinion. He loved the open English courage of her, the high, inborn pride of race. Yet at the end of the survey he shook his head.

“There’s not room for two mistresses in this establishment, Miss Sylvia,” he said wisely. “Three years to have been on your own, so to speak, is too long. You did ought to get married, Miss Sylvia. You’ll find it’s the only way.”

His voice took on almost a pleading note. He knew it was possible to go too far.

But the girl facing him was still laughing. She evidently felt no resentment.

“You see, Jeffcott,” she said, “there’s only one man in the world I could marry. And he’s not ready for me yet.”

Jeffcott wagged his beard again commiseratingly. “So you’ve never got over it, Miss Sylvia? Your feelings is still the same–after five years?”

“Still the same,” said Sylvia. There was a momentary challenge in her bright eyes, but it passed. “It couldn’t be any different,” she said softly. “No one else could ever come anywhere near him.”

Jeffcott sighed aloud. “I know he were a nice young gentleman,” he conceded. “But I’ve seen lots as good before and since. He weren’t nothing so very extraordinary, Miss Sylvia.”

Sylvia’s look went beyond him, seeming to rest upon something very far away. “He was to me, Jeffcott,” she said. “We just–fitted each other, he and I.”

“And you was only eighteen,” pleaded Jeffcott, “You wasn’t full-grown in those days.”

“No?” A quick sigh escaped her; her look came back to him, and she smiled. “Well, I am now anyway; and that’s the one thing that hasn’t altered or grown old–the one thing that never could.”

“Ah, dear!” said old Jeffcott. “What a pity now as you couldn’t take up with young Mr. Eversley or that Mr. Preston over the way, or–or–any of them young gents with a bit of property as might be judged suitable!”

Sylvia’s laugh rang through the vinery, a gay, infectious laugh.

“Oh, really, Jeffcott! You talk as if I had only got to drop my handkerchief for the whole countryside to rush to pick it up! I’m not going to take up with anyone, unless it’s Mr. Guy Ranger. You don’t seem to realize that we’ve been engaged all this time.”

“Ah!” said old Jeffcott, looking sardonic. “And you not met for five years! Do you ever wonder to yourself what sort of a man he may be after five years, Miss Sylvia? It’s a long time for a young man to keep in love at a distance. It’s a very long time.”

“It’s a long time for both of us,” said Sylvia. “But it hasn’t altered us in that respect.”

“It’s been a longer time for him than it has for you,” said Jeffcott shrewdly. “I’ll warrant he’s lived every minute of it. He’s the sort that would.”

Sylvia’s wide brows drew together in a little frown. She had caught the note of warning in the old man’s words, and she did not understand it.

“What do you mean, Jeffcott?” she said, with a touch of sharpness.

But Jeffcott backed out of the vinery and out of the discussion at the same moment. “You’ll know what I mean one day, Miss Sylvia,” he said darkly, “when you’re married.”

“Silly old man!” said Sylvia, taking up the cluster of grapes for which she had come and departing in the opposite direction. Jeffcott was a faithful old servant, but he could be very exasperating when he liked.

The gardens were bathed in the evening sunlight as she passed through them on her way to the house. The old Manor stood out grey and ancient against an opal sky. She looked up at it with loving eyes. Her home meant very much to Sylvia Ingleton. Until the last six months she had always regarded it as her own life-long possession. For she was an only child, and for the past three years she had been its actual mistress, though virtually she had held the reins of government longer than that. Her mother had been delicate for as long as she could remember, and it was on account of her failing health that Sylvia had left school earlier than had been intended, that she might be with her. Since Mrs. Ingleton’s death, three years before, she and her father had lived alone together at the old Manor in complete accord. They had always been close friends, the only dissension that had ever arisen between them having been laid aside by mutual consent.

That dissension had been caused by Guy Ranger. Five years before, when Sylvia had been only eighteen, he had flashed like a meteor through her sky, and no other star had ever shone for her again. Though seven years older than herself, he was little more than a boy, full of gaiety and life, possessing an extraordinary fascination, but wholly lacking in prospects, being no more than the son of Squire Ingleton’s bailiff.

The Rangers were people of good yeoman extraction, and Guy himself had had a public school education, but the fact of their position was an obstacle which the squire had found insuperable. Only his love for his daughter had restrained him from violent measures. But Sylvia had somehow managed to hold him, how no one ever knew, for he was a man of fiery temper. And the end of if it had been that Guy had been banished to join a cousin farming in South Africa on the understanding that if he made a success of it he might eventually return and ask Sylvia to be his wife. There was to be no engagement between them, and if she elected to marry in the meantime so much the better, in the squire’s opinion. He had had little doubt that Sylvia would marry when she had had time to forget some of the poignancy of first love. But in this he had been mistaken. Sylvia had steadfastly refused every lover who had come her way.

He had found another billet for old Ranger, and had installed a dour Scotchman in his place. But Sylvia still corresponded with young Guy, still spoke of him as the man she meant to marry. It was true she did not often speak of him, but that might have been through lack of sympathetic listeners. There was, moreover, about her an innate reserve which held her back where her deepest feelings were concerned. But her father knew, and she meant him to know, that neither time nor distance had eradicated the image of the man she loved from her heart. The days on which his letters reached her were always marked with a secret gladness, albeit the letters themselves held sometimes little more than affectionate commentary upon her own.

That Guy was making his way and that he would eventually return to her were practical certainties in her young mind. If his letters contained little to support this belief, she yet never questioned it for a moment. Guy was the sort to get on. She was sure of it. And he was worth waiting for. Oh, she could afford to be patient for Guy. She did not, moreover, believe that her father would hold out for ever. Also, and secretly this thought buoyed her up in rare moments of depression, in another two years–when she was twenty-five–she would inherit some money from her mother. It was not a very large sum, but it would be enough to render her independent. It would very greatly increase her liberty of action. She had little doubt that the very fact of it would help to overcome her father’s prejudices and very considerably modify his attitude.

So, in a fashion, she had during the past three years come to regard her twenty-fifth birthday as a milestone in her life. She would be patient till it came, but then–at last–if circumstances permitted, she would take her fate into her own hands, She would–at last–assume the direction of her own life.

So she had planned, but so it was not to be. Her fate had already begun to shape itself in a fashion that was little to her liking. Travelling with her father in the North earlier in the summer, she had met with a slight accident which had compelled her to make the acquaintance of a lady staying at the same hotel whom she had disliked at the outset and always sought to avoid. This lady, Mrs. Emmott, was a widow with no settled home. Profiting by circumstances she had attached herself to Sylvia and her father, and now she was the latter’s wife.

How it had come about, even now Sylvia scarcely realized. The woman’s intentions had barely begun to dawn upon her before they had become accomplished fact. Her father’s attitude throughout had amazed her, so astoundingly easy had been his capture. He was infatuated, possibly for the first time in his life, and no influence of hers could remove the spell.

Sylvia’s feelings for Mrs. Emmott passed very rapidly from dislike to active detestation. Her iron strength of will, combined with an almost blatant vulgarity, gave the girl a sense of being borne down by an irresistible weight. Very soon her aversion became such that it was impossible to conceal it. And Mrs. Emmott laughed in her face. She hated Sylvia too, but she looked forward to subduing the unbending pride that so coldly withstood her, and for the sake of that she kept her animosity in check. She knew her turn would come.

Meantime, she concentrated all her energies upon the father, and with such marked success that within two months of their meeting they were married. Sylvia had gone to that wedding in such bitterness of soul and seething inward revolt as she had never experienced before. She did not know how she had come through it, so great had been her disgust. But that was nearly six weeks ago, and she had had time to recover. She had spent part of that period very peacefully and happily at the seaside with a young married cousin and her babies, and it had rested and refreshed her. She had come back with a calm resolve to endure what had to be endured in a philosophical spirit, to face the inevitable without futile rebellion.

Girt in an impenetrable armour of reserve, she braced herself to bear her burdens unflinching, so that none might ever guess how it galled her. And on that golden evening in September she prepared herself with a smiling countenance to meet her enemy in the gate.

They were returning from a prolonged honeymoon among the Italian lakes, and she had made everything ready for their coming. The great west-facing bedroom, which her father had never occupied since her mother’s death, had been redecorated and prepared as for a bride. Sylvia had changed it completely, so that it might never again look as it had looked in the old days. She had hated doing it, but it had been in a measure a relief to her torn heart. It was thus she rendered inviolate that inner sanctuary of memory which none might enter.

As she passed along the terrace in the golden glow, the slight frown was still upon her brow. It had been such a difficult time. Her one ray of comfort had been the thought of Guy, dear, faithful lover working for her far away. And now old Jeffcott had cast a shade even upon that. But then he did not really know Guy. No one knew him as she knew him. She quickened her steps a little. Possibly there might be a letter from him that evening.

There was. She spied it lying on the hall table as she entered. Eagerly she went forward and picked it up. But as she did so there came the sound of a car in the drive before the open front door, and quickly she thrust it away in the folds of her dress. The travellers had returned.

With a resolutely smiling face she went to meet them.

CHAPTER II

THE NEW MISTRESS

“Here is our dear Sylvia!” said Mrs. Ingleton.

She embraced the girl with much empressement, and then, before Sylvia could reach her father, turned and embraced him herself.

“So very nice to be home, dear!” she said effusively. “We shall be very happy here.”

Gilbert Ingleton bestowed a somewhat embarrassed salute upon her, one eye on his daughter. She greeted him sedately the next moment, and though her face was smiling, her welcome seemed to be frozen at its source; it held no warmth.

Mrs. Ingleton, tall, handsome, assertive, cast an appraising eye around the oak-panelled hall. “Dear me! What severe splendour!” she commented. “I have a great love for cosiness myself. We must scatter some of those sweet little Italian ornaments about, Gilbert. You won’t know the place when I have done with it. I am going to take you all in hand and bring you up-to-date.”

Her keen dark eyes rested upon her step-daughter with a smile of peculiar meaning. Sylvia met them with the utmost directness.

“We like simplicity,” she said.

Mrs. Ingleton pursed her lips, “Oh, but there is simplicity and simplicity! Give me warmth, homeliness, and plenty of pretty things. This place is archaically cold–quite like a convent. And you, my dear, might be the Sister Superior from your air. Now, Gilbert darling, you and I are going to be very firm with this child. I can plainly see she needs a guiding hand. She has had much too much responsibility for so young a girl. We are going to alter all that. We are going to make her very happy–as well as good.”

She tapped Sylvia’s shoulder with smiling significance, looking at her husband to set his seal to the declaration.

Mr. Ingleton was obviously feeling very uncomfortable. He glanced at Sylvia almost appealingly.

“I hope we are all going to be happy,” he said rather gruffly. “Don’t see why we shouldn’t be, I’m sure. I like a quiet life myself. Got some tea for us, Sylvia?”

Sylvia turned, stiffly unresponsive to her step-mother’s blandishments. “This way,” she said, and crossed the hall to the drawing-room.

It was a beautiful room aglow just then with the rays of the western sun. Mrs. Ingleton looked all around her with smiling criticism, and nodded to herself as if seeing her way to many improvements. She walked to the windows.

“What a funny, old-fashioned garden! Quite medieval! I foresee a very busy time in store. Who lives on the other side of this property?”

“Preston–George Preston, the M.F.H.,” said her husband, lounging up behind her. “About the richest man about here. Made his money on the Turf.”

She gave him a quick look. “Is he young?” she asked.

He hesitated, “Not very.”

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