The Song of the Butcher Bird | 9 The Country House
A man who knows his horses
During the fifteen minutes it took the Rolls-Royce to travel from Chiddington Halt to the Park, Lord Saltwood’s under-chauffeur found himself pumped for so much information that he told the second groom later he thought his brains were going to be sucked clean out of his head.
The tall Australian never stopped looking around him and never stopped asking questions, from the moment he climbed into the Roller at the Halt until the moment he got out again under the Park’s massive stone portico.
On the way, Sid Kidman discovered that the vehicle they were riding in was one of the first of the new thirty horsepower motors to be made at the new Rolls-Royce factory in Derby. How far away is Derby? About, oh, more than a hundred miles north of here, I would say, sir. The chassis and engine had been brought down by train from the manufacturers, and the bodywork made and fitted by coachbuilders called Mulliner & Co in Mayfair, London, to Lord Saltwood’s own specifications. Yes, the best, sir. Lord Saltwood wouldn’t have anything less, and unique too, the only Rolls-Royce in the world with this particular separate, extended passenger accommodation, designed by his Lordship so he could work in the vehicle. The finished motorcar had cost a whopping nine hundred and twelve pounds sterling, and the chauffeur had spent a week in London being trained in its driving and maintenance. Yes sir, that certainly is a bucketful of money, about twenty years’ wages for an under-chauffeur, sir. The best kind of motor, sir? Many people who knew what they were talking about told him the Rolls-Royce was undoubtedly the finest motorcar in the world, but other chauffeurs he knew in London swore by whatever marques they drove. The Germans also claim to make the best motor, but how could it be as good as a Roller? Yes, sir, I certainly have heard of the Thornycroft. He believed it was made down in Hampshire, not too far from here. Well I never, sir, your wife’s cousin? That is a coincidence and no mistake, sir. You certainly must have a Thornycroft then, sir.
Why do they call us chauffeurs, sir? Well, I don’t rightly know but Mr Carpenter said once it was French, sir. Yes, sir, makes more sense to call us drivers, you’re right, sir. Good plain English, as you say, sir.
That old building on the right? That is the tithe barn at Hallam Oak, sir.
The chauffeur’s name was Hammond Brightwell Hammond after my mother, sir and he’d been working for Lord Saltwood ten years, starting in the stables at the age of fourteen, but he very much preferred the motors any day. No kicking and no shitting, begging your pardon, sir. Under-chauffeur, sir, to be accurate. The head chauffeur, Mr Carpenter, was always in readiness in case Lord Saltwood needed him. Was his father in this line? No, sir, his father was a tenant farmer on the estate over by Lessed. We call it Lessed round here but it’s spelled Lesstead, but he’d been fascinated by machinery from the day he saw his first steam threshing machine in the big farmyard at Lessed Manor. It was the shining future and he was hooked like a young trout. No, sir, my older brother Ted will take over the farm. Edward, sir. Two sisters, and a younger brother Billy. William, that is of course.
Sid Kidman arrived at the Park knowing that the tithe barn at Hallam Oak was six hundred years old according to the vicar, who was so old he might have helped build it. No sir, I am not pulling your leg, except about the vicar, who was actually reputed to be ninety-eight years old, very deaf, nearly blind and prone to calling out ‘Mildred?’ loudly at odd points during Sunday morning service – more odd since Mildred had not been the name of his long-dead wife or any of his relations anyone knew of. There were several buildings on the estate that old or older, including the church at Lessed Gabriel where Brightwell was baptised twenty-four years ago by the vicar, already considered ancient at the time.
He learned the chauffeur’s embryonic Fabian views on the concept of tithing, and that the barn, the hamlet of Hallam Oak and all the land they could see along this road and over that wood on the right, there sir, was part of the Chiddington estate, which stretched right the way over to Belbury where the Mill Brook turned east to join the Thames and was altogether reputed to be in the region of twelve thousand acres, give or take a hectare or two. My dad’s farm? Well, about a hundred and eighty acres, sir. Yes, sir, five of us to feed but that’s a fair sized piece of land, sir. How big are the paddocks? The paddocks at the Park stud, sir? Oh, the fields. I couldn’t rightly say sir. All different sizes. But the biggest field? Maybe as big as twenty acres, perhaps, if you don’t count the deer park around the Park itself.
Yes, sir, about a hundred head of deer in the park, at a guess, but you’d have to ask his Lordship, sir. No, sir, we don’t eat the deer, although sometimes the old ones have to be culled. No culled, sir. Well, yes, killed, as you say, it is the same thing. No, even then we don’t eat them, sir. They’re strictly ornamental. We have to go all the way north to that benighted shithole over the border to kill deer. Yes, perhaps it is a waste, sir, come to think of it. They water…they drink at the lake in the park, I think, sir. No, he had never heard we’ve ever had any problems with water on the estate. Not a lack of it, anyway.
As they turned off the Hallam lane and passed between the vast stone gate-pillars that marked the entrance to the Park park, Kidman took hold of the top edge of the windscreen and pulled himself upright in the open compartment to get a better view. He waved to the astonished lodgekeeper standing in his vegetable garden, and then clamped his free hand onto the top of his hat as the motorcar picked up speed.
“Slow down a bit, son,” he called down to the under-chauffeur. “I’d like to get a good look at these horses. My word. Are these Lord Saltwood’s horses?”
He leaned down to hear the chauffeur confirm that they were just some of Lord Saltwood’s horses. “These are the horses in work, sir, and some of the hunters, sir. Over there, no, over beyond the chestnut tree, there, sir, you can just see some of the brood mares at the stud.”
“I’ll tell you something, Hammond Brightwell,” Mr Kidman was leaning down towards the chauffeur again, and his eyes were alight. “Any one of these would fetch top price at my sales at Kapunda by a country mile, any year. My word they would. Your boss has got a fine eye for a horse. I like a man who knows his horses.”
The young under-chauffeur almost laughed out loud at the notion that anyone would actually presume to like Lord Saltwood. Could anyone like Lord Saltwood? Servants coming into contact with his lordship did exactly what they were told, spoke briefly only when spoken to and avoided eye contact at all times. Maybe above stairs it was different. Maybe Lady Saltwood liked him. Not much in one respect, if the gossip in the servants’ hall was anything to go by.
From the impression Lord Saltwood had made on Sid Kidman when they had met at Lord Saltwood’s offices in the City, it had seemed unlikely to the Australian that his Lordship was the sort of man he would want to share a drink of tea and a yarn with beside a drover’s camp fire. Too British. Too jolly buttoned up. Too many small signs that however much land Sid Kidman might own, to an English aristocrat he was still a colonial, a hick, a bush wallah. But that was before he’d seen Lord Saltwood’s horses. A man with horses like that was a man he could do business with. Absolutely no doubt about it. This chap had clout and more money to invest than you could shake a stick at, but it was the horses that clinched it, as Sid Kidman wrote later to his business manager, Walter Will, back in Adelaide.
Kidman sat down as the Rolls-Royce swept out of an avenue of elm trees and the Park appeared in front of them.
The Kidmans had arrived wide-eyed in London in March of that year, and in the six months since they had grown used to the scale of the buildings in the imperial capital. Bel and the girls now breezed without a second thought into the palatial luxury of the Savoy Hotel for afternoon tea, or up the moving staircase in Harrods’ vast new emporium, or into the lobby of the Adelphi Theatre for one of the musical comedies they loved. But the size of Chiddington Park and the knowledge that it was a private residence for just one man and his family, reduced them all to silence.
The chattering conversation the girls had struck up under the skilful prompting of Lord Saltwood’s secretary ebbed away, and Bel Kidman pursed her lips resolutely in her best effort to look as though arriving to stay at a gigantic stately home was something she did every week at home.
“My word,” said Sid Kidman softly again, gazing up at the doric columns of the portico, and along the apparently endless frontage of sunlit stone, marching away on either side. He glanced across at Brightwell and grinned at the chauffeur’s obvious enjoyment of the impression his master’s house had made on the visitors. “You sure this is all one place, son? We’ve got towns smaller than this back in South Australia.”
If she had not been so down to earth, Bel Kidman would have described their arrival at Chiddington Park as the closest she was ever likely to come to starring in her own, personal theatre production.
The butler who greeted them on the steps, she told her friends in Kapunda later, was about seven feet tall and even grander than that ridiculously stuffy director of the Bank of South Australia, and made you feel that small and silly despite calling you ‘mahrm’ every other word. But the housekeeper, Mrs Talbot, was charm personified, although she would have passed for nothing less than a duchess in the swankiest house in the snobbiest part of Melbourne. It was Mrs Talbot who led Bel and her three awestruck daughters across the echoing hall, up the sweeping stone stairway, along the upper gallery and through a bewildering maze of wide, endless corridors to their bedrooms. You could have fitted our first married house at Unley Park into my bedroom, Bel recounted, and about ten times over into the great hall below.
Waiting in Mr and Mrs Kidman’s sumptuous bedroom was a maid Mrs Talbot introduced as Rydal – Bel winkled her first name out of her, Hannah, as soon as they were alone – and a footman called Blair, who would act as lady’s maid to Mrs Kidman and valet to Mr Kidman respectively for the duration of their stay. And their luggage had somehow been spirited up secret flights of back stairs to arrive in their rooms before them. How they had managed that was a mystery to Bel, mainly because she could not know that the carriage had taken a shortcut on the old farm lane across the park, but there they were, two of the trunks and two suitcases. Rydal and Blair began quietly unpacking the Kidman’s clothes as Mrs Talbot showed Bel the wide-open spaces of the attached bathroom and the discreet, separate water closet. Lord Saltwood had updated all the plumbing in the Park and the London house just last year, said the housekeeper. The very latest modern conveniences throughout.
The girls were shepherded along a wide corridor that ran at right angles from the gallery into the depths of the Park by the Assistant Housekeeper, Mrs Percivale, an altogether more motherly body with a comfortable Berkshire burr, who disarmed the girls by making a funny face at them when they asked anxiously how they would ever be able to find their way back to their parents’ quarters. “My dears, you’ll get to know the place like the back of your hand in a trice. Anyway, if you ever find yourself puzzled just sing out to one of the servants and ask for me. If there is anything you need or any questions you have while you are here with us at the Park, you just ask me.”
10. A bite like a crocodile