In the first years of the twentieth century life at Northrop Hall - carries on as it has always done under the watchful eye of the dowager Lady Arndale. Her son Charles now runs the estate as his father had done before him, supported by his amenable wife Elspeth, who models herself on her mother-in-law. In a few years' time their eldest son, Teddy, now away at public school will return to learn the ways of the estate, which in due course he will inherit.
Lady Arndale does, however, have some worries; her younger son, William, has got himself a very beautiful but quite unsuitable wife. Selina has come from nowhere and Lady Arndale recognizes an adventuress when she sees one, even if poor William doesn’t. She disapproves of their gadding about in the fashionable London society created by King Edward, but now he has just died and the new King George is believed to share the strict morals of his grandmother, the great Queen Victoria, for whose passing Lady Arndale is still in mourning. So no doubt Selina will be influenced to change her ways.
All the same she is glad that it is Charles who will inherit and preserve the traditional way of life at the hall, the hierarchy where everyone knows his place and his duty. Witchart, the all-powerful butler, in command of the indoor staff, ensures the smooth running of the household while Jimson, the head gardener, ensures perfection in the grounds with an invisible army of undergardeners who must never be seen by the gentry as they stroll among the flower beds or wander in the park.
In the nursery Nanny Stone's rules as she did when Master Charles was a child. Now his younger children, Rupert and Laura, live with her in the nursery and no doubt when their elder brother Teddy finishes his education and comes home, he will marry and Nanny will look after his children too. Governesses come and go but Nanny Stone, in her black bombazine dress with jet buttons, is a permanent fixture, as unchanging as the nursery chimneypiece.
In the school which Lady Arndale founded forty-five years ago, the children of the estate workers are taught by Miss Poole who was appointed, at the age of fifteen, when the school was built. Here they learn to read and write and recite their catechism. The girls are taught needlework so that the best of them can be usefully employed as lady's maids up at the hall. The boys are taught to be obedient farm workers. They too know their place in the hierarchy; regularly they sing:
The rich man at his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high or lowly
And ordered their estate.
It is a well ordered, predictable existence in which everyone, master and servant alike, knows their place. But the storm clouds are gathering over Europe and soon the outbreak of "the war to end all wars" will turn their world upside down, destroying all their old certainties.
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