Rhodesia, 1927: Keeping Up Appearances

She found her way along the dark corridors to the library, where a lively fire was burning. Her husband was nowhere to be seen. Instead a servant whose name she had forgotten appeared as if from nowhere and led her wordlessly downstairs to the dining-room, where the long table had been set for dinner with one place setting at either end. [Stewart] Gore-Browne was standing at the window with his back to her, one arm folded behind his back and one hand in his pocket, but turned and came forward to take her hand as she entered. He was dressed stiffly in black lounge suit and white tie and looked as if he was fighting off an urge to look at his watch.

Nodding to a waiter who held out a chair for her at one end of the long table, Gore-Browne took a bottle of Pol Roger from a silver bucket on a side cabinet to celebrate their first night. There was no ice in the bucket and he apologized for it not being chilled, though the cellar kept bottles fairly cool. He always opened champagne himself, as the house servants tended to get so carried away shaking the bottles that guests ended up having a shower. Popping the cork with the suavity of one who has done so many times, he wrapped a white cloth round the neck of the bottle and poured it into two crystal flutes. Taking his place at the opposite end of the table, he waited for Jackson the servant to serve them, then lifted his glass in a toast. ‘Chin, chin, my dear Lorna. To life at Shiwa.’

‘Chin, chin.’ She raised her glass and drank, the tiny bubbles tickling her nostrils.

Another servant entered, mincing uncomfortably in the black patent shoes which Gore-Browne insisted all waiting staff wore, and bearing a silver tray in his white gloves from which he served slices of chicken liver pate on to their gold-rimmed Meissen plates. It must have made an odd scene, the husband and wife so far apart, the large silver candelabra in the centre casting shadows on the white linen cloth, the room silent except for the grind of their cutlery on the plates and the loud tick of the grandfather clock in the hall. Various oil-painted ancestors looked down on them from the walls. In the centre was Gore-Browne’s grandfather, Sir Thomas Gore-Browne, Ethel’s late father, who had been Governor of St Helena, New Zealand, Tasmania and Bermuda, and whose prominent nose had clearly been inherited by his grandson. Next to him was a chubby-faced man in bishop’s robes, Gore-Browne’s uncle Wilfred Gore-Browne, the first Bishop of Kimberley. On the other side of Sir Thomas was his wife, the beautiful raven-haired Lady Harriet, Gore-Browne’s late grandmother from the Campbell family of Craigie in Ayrshire, whom he had always called Grammy.

Having cleared away the first course, Jackson and another servant entered with silver platters of wild duck in orange sauce, sweet potatoes and green peas. The servants were always forgetting to warm up the plates, to the irritation of Gore-Browne, who found cold plates a particular dislike, even noting the event in his diary. His rebuke unnerved Jackson, who was already having difficulty manipulating the serving fork and spoon with the tight-fitting gloves. Nervous herself, and not used to champagne, young Lorna must have found it hard not to giggle, but she had been warned to behave by her uncle Major Goldman, who had always complained that she was an unruly creature, and she was eager to impress her new husband and show him that she was a worthy mistress of this great house.

SOURCE: The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and His African Dream (HarperCollins, 2004), by Christina Lamb, pp. 143-145

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