Henrietta's Own Castle
Henrietta was doing rapid sums in her head. She had a little money saved, she was young and strong and could get a job whenever she needed one. She drew a breath and smiled at the old man. ‘You know, I think I’ll arrange to go over and stay there for a while—if I like it very much perhaps I could stay—you see, there’s nothing to keep me here.’
He nodded in agreement. ‘I believe your decision would have made your aunt very happy.’ He took off his glasses and polished them. ‘It is a long time since I last saw Miss Brodie, she went to live in Holland many years ago now, but she always wrote charming letters.’ He coughed. ‘I shall be happy to help you in any way, Miss Brodie. The estate is a small one and once we have arranged things with the Dutch authorities and so forth, it should be a simple matter to clear the matter up within a few weeks. Perhaps you will let me know when you wish to go and I will do my best to have everything in order by then. The money is in Holland, naturally. I take it that you would wish it to be left where it is, in the bank.’
‘Oh, please. I’ll be able to get it out?’
‘Yes, I will arrange for you to have a letter to present to the manager. You are unacquainted with the Dutch language?’
‘I daresay there’ll be someone there who speaks English? I expect I’ll pick up enough Dutch to get by once I’m there.’ She paused. ‘I suppose my aunt didn’t leave me a letter, or—or anything?’
‘I’m afraid not. She had seen you only once or twice, I believe, when you were a baby, but she seems to have retained an affection for you. Blood,’ observed Mr Boggett, ‘is thicker than water.’
Perhaps her aunt had been glad to have someone to whom she could leave her home; it struck Henrietta with some force that she herself had no one.
Too excited to drink more than a cup of coffee, she took an extravagant taxi back to St Clement’s and went at once to see Miss Brice. It was unusual for anyone to demand an interview at such short notice; the Admin. Sisters, sitting at their desks in the outer office, tried to fob her off with an appointment for the next day, but Henrietta, uplifted by the knowledge that she was now a woman of property, however small, and had means of her own, even smaller, refused to be put off. She walked into Miss Brice’s office, feeling a little topheavy with excitement and looking twice as pretty as she normally did because of it.
Miss Brice blinked at her Ward Sister’s blinding good looks, wishing to herself that she could look the same, and inquired as to the reason for Henrietta’s urgency. She listened while it was explained to her and only when it was finished did she say: ‘You appear to have made up your mind rather quickly, Sister. You are quite sure about it? You have a splendid job here with a good chance of promotion later on, and forgive me for saying so, but you tell me that you have no relatives, and in such circumstances surely it would be better for you to remain in secure employment?’
‘I’ve been in secure employment since I started nursing, ten years ago,’ Henrietta reminded her. ‘Ten years,’ she repeated with faint bitterness, ‘and I’ve not so much as gone on a day trip to Boulogne. I do not wish to be secure, Miss Brice.’
Miss Brice looked startled. ‘Well—I really don’t know what to say, Sister Brodie. I certainly can’t prevent you from doing something you wish to do. You say that you have two weeks’ holiday left from this year? Supposing you take those and let me know your decision during that period? You will, of course, have to forfeit your salary if you leave on those terms, and I hope that you will allow a reasonable time to elapse before taking your holiday.’
Henrietta was on her feet. ‘Would a month be long enough?’ she asked. ‘If I could have my holiday in one month’s time and then let you know about leaving—I shall know more about it by then.’
Miss Brice could lose gracefully when she had to. ‘That will suit me very well, Sister. If you do decide to give up your post you do realize that I shall fill it immediately? If you should, at some future date, apply for a post here, I shall always be pleased to consider you for it, though I must warn you that it might not be exactly what you wished for.’ She bowed her elegantly capped head in dismissal, and Henrietta, with a suitable murmur, almost danced from the room.
She went on duty looking much as usual. Certainly her manner was as calm and assured as it always was, only her fine eyes sparkled whenever she allowed herself to think of her changed future, but in the Sisters’ sitting room at tea time, she told her news to those of her friends who were sharing tea and buttered toast round the electric fire, and it was received with gratifying surprise and a good deal of speculation as well as instant requests to be invited to stay, and unlike Miss Brice, they agreed wholeheartedly that in her shoes they would have done exactly the same thing. ‘And probably,’ said a voice, ‘Miss Brice would have done the same if she’d been twenty years younger,’ a remark which gave rise to a short pause while everyone there thought how awful it must be to be as old as Miss Brice; fifty if she was a day.
‘How are you going, and when?’ asked some-one else.
‘Well, I haven’t a clue at the moment how to go,’ said Henrietta thoughtfully, ‘though I shall take Charlie.’ A very old Mini bought from one of the housemen three years previously, it had been second-hand then, and the man at the garage assured her each time she went for petrol that it was a miracle that Charlie went at all. ‘At least he’ll get me there,’ she added.
Whereupon they fell to discussing just what she would need to take with her and became so absorbed in this engrossing subject that they forgot the time and went back to the wards a little late.
The month went quickly; there was a lot to see to—passport, visits to Mr Boggett, Charlie to be overhauled, her few friends to be bidden a temporary farewell—and the ward was extra busy too, so that she was tired enough to sleep soundly each night and not lie awake wondering if she had been rash, exchanging a steady, safe life for an unknown one. True, she had read up a great deal about Holland, she knew exactly where the village of Gijzelmortel lay, even though she hadn’t an idea how to pronounce it, and she had bought a phrase book which she hoped would get her over the first few weeks. She had drawn some of her savings from the bank too, for it seemed logical that if she were going to change her life, she should change her wardrobe too. She bought a tweed suit in a pleasing shade of brown which went very well with her last year’s coat and she bought, amongst other things, a pair of sensible lined boots. They struck her as unfashionable, but if it were cold—and there was, after all, a good deal of winter left—she might be glad of them; the guide book had said that it could be cold in Holland and that skating was a national pastime, which led her to believe that there might be degrees of coldness, for it wasn’t a national pastime in England.
The guide book also advised the taking of cosmetics just in case one couldn’t buy that particular brand, so she stocked up lavishly and had her collection topped by a large bottle of Dioressence given to her by her friends. And being a practical girl she packed candles and matches and a powerful torch and enough food to keep her going for a day or so. Presumably there would be a village shop, and she would have Charlie, if he was still on his wheels, to take her to the neighbouring towns. She wondered uneasily about garages, but surely every village had one these days—anyway, she mustn’t start crossing her bridges until she came to them. She had never understood Charlie’s insides; the man at the garage had kept them working, and now it was too late for her to learn anything about them, but that was something she wasn’t going to worry about either—she wasn’t going to worry about anything, she was going to enjoy herself.
She began her journey on a cold, bleak morning whose sky promised snow before the day was out. She had booked on the Dover ferry and planned to arrive on the other side of the Channel in the early afternoon so that she would have several hours of daylight in which to travel. The ferry was almost empty and the sea was rough. Henrietta sat uneasily, hoping that she wouldn’t be sick, her eyes averted from the weather outside, and presently she slept for a little while and when she woke and staggered down below to tidy herself it was to hear that because of the rough weather they would be docking at least an hour late. She got herself a cup of tea and settled down to read, only to cast her book down and con her map once more, making sure that she knew the route she had to take. It looked an alarmingly long way, although she knew that once she landed at Zeebrugge it was barely forty miles to Breskens where she would have to take the ferry across the river Schold, and once at Vlissingen, it was only a little more than seventy miles. It would be well after two when they landed, she calculated, and it was dark by five o’clock, so provided she could get to Vlissingen by then it should be easy enough. It was towards her journey’s end that she would have to be careful not to miss the side road which would take her to Gijzelmortel. There was a landmark on the map, a castle, but in the dark she doubted if that would be of much use to her. She folded the map, determined not to get worried, aware that she would be glad when she was safely there.
It was sleeting when they docked, and bitter cold. Henrietta, one of the first away, drove carefully along the coast road which would lead her to the border town of Sluis and Holland. There was almost no traffic, something she was grateful for; the dark sky was closing in rapidly now and she could see that the hours of daylight she had reckoned on were to be considerably shortened. She ignored her desire to get as much out of Charlie as possible; the roads were treacherous and there were signposts to look out for as well as remembering to drive on the other side of the road.
She pressed on steadily, through the Customs post at Sluis and on to Breskens where the ferry was waiting. She breathed a sigh of relief as she got out of her little car and climbed the narrow iron stairs to the deck above. There was a brightly lit saloon there and a coffee bar at one end of it, doing a roaring trade. Henrietta pointed at what she wanted, handed over a note, received a handful of change and found herself a table where she drank her coffee, ate her cheese roll and examined the money. It seemed small, although when she looked at it carefully she could see that it was similar to the money at home, only the tiny silver coins were different. She stowed them away now that she had had something to eat. Her cheerful mood lasted as she drove off the ferry and took the N97, which would take her to Breda without any complications. She encouraged Charlie to a steady forty-five and kept doggedly on. Sleet was still falling, but the motorway was wide and well surfaced and she was a good driver, so in due time she found herself on the roundabout outside that city and heaved another sigh of relief. Not very far now and she would be there.
The motorway skirted Tilburg too. Henrietta left it soon after, and in another seven or eight miles saw what she was looking for—the signpost to Gijzelmortel. She turned into the exit point, swung the little car under a flyover and joined a narrow road on the other side, where presently another signpost directed her into a still narrower lane. After that there was no sign, no houses, no lights even, only her headlamps cutting into the sleety darkness. She should be there, she told herself, and discovered that she was, for there was the village sign on the side of the road and a few yards further she saw the first house. The road curved away to the left and she followed it, to discover that the village—and Mr Boggett had been quite right, it was very small—was a mere circle of houses round a cobbled square with a bandstand in its centre. There were one or two narrow lanes leading away from it, but he had told her that the house was in the centre of the village. She slowed the car to a crawl round the square, cheered by the sight of the lighted windows around her, and presently reached a massive gateway, with lanterns on its brick posts, and just a few yards further on a row of tiny houses. There was a wall plaque on the first one with Dam written on it. The third house along was number three. She was there!
HENRIETTA took the house key from her handbag and got out of the car, savouring the moment despite the sneering wind and sleet, so sluggish now that it was almost snow. Oblivious of these discomforts, she stood back to survey her property—a very little house in the middle of a row of six similar dwellings, all exactly alike, built of bricks with one large window beside a solid front door and another window above, crowded into its steeply gabled roof. She stood a little further back and by peering beyond the lights above the gateway was able to see another row, exactly similar beyond the further gate post. Possibly a park, she speculated, for the wrought iron gates were open. The sight of them triggered off a highly improbable daydream, in which she saw herself on a hot summer’s day, roaming its greenness, possibly with a dog… A nasty little flurry of snowy wind took her breath and brought the daydream to an abrupt end and she crossed the narrow flagged pavement and turned the key in the lock.
The hall was a tiny square from which the stairs ascended steeply, and there was a door on the right. Henrietta shone her torch and found the light switch and pressed it, but nothing happened—she had half expected that, although she had hoped that she wouldn’t need the candles which she had thoughtfully brought with her. She went back to Charlie and carried in her overnight bag and her case; to get to the candles was the first necessity.
The house seemed all at once warmer by reason of the small flame; she opened the door and with the candle held high, went inside. The dining-room, she judged, nicely furnished with an old-fashioned round table and pretty Victorian chairs; there was a small sideboard too and pictures on the walls, but she left these for the moment and went into the room beyond—without doubt the sitting room, as small as the dining-room and even in the chilly dimness, cosy, its armchairs with shabby covers drawn up on either side of an old-fashioned iron stove, a couple of small lamp tables, another chair or two and one wall almost entirely taken up by an upright piano. There was a window and door on the third wall; presumably the back garden was beyond, but she turned away from the bleak darkness outside and opened the door to the kitchen. Small, too, as was to be expected but as far as she could see by the light of the wavering candle flame, adequately equipped; a sink with a geyser above it, a small table with two gas rings and shelves of saucepans and cooking utensils. She put down her candle carefully and tried the geyser hopefully, but there was no gas, neither was there any water when she turned on the tap.
She went back to the hall, looking for the meters, retracing her steps slowly without success. She was kneeling in the kitchen again, peering hopefully under the sink, when she heard someone enter the house. She got to her feet slowly, her heart beating an uneasy tattoo, eyeing the man who was standing at the kitchen door, looking at her. She was a big girl, but he more than matched her for size—a head taller for a start and with broad shoulders, massive in a sheepskin jacket, and as far as she could see in the dim light, exceedingly handsome. She waited uncertainly; she had been a fool to have left the front door on the latch, but probably he was just a casual passer-by. She said coolly: ‘I have no idea who you are, but this is my house and I must ask you to leave it.’
He came right into the kitchen. ‘A very hoity-toity speech,’ he remarked in an English as perfect as her own, ‘quite wasted on me and useless to anyone else around here—they wouldn’t have understood a word of it.’
‘Who are you?’ She stood her ground although the instinct to move back was strong, but she was annoyed at being called hoity-toity, so that she lifted her pretty, determined chin and looked down her fine nose at him.
‘Your landlord.’ He laughed without amusement and she said at once:
‘You’re mistaken, this house is mine. My aunt, Miss Brodie, left it to me.’
He sighed loudly. ‘I have neither the time nor the patience to mull over the intricacies of leasehold property. Take my word for it that I own the lease of this house, Miss Henrietta Brodie.’
She gave him a startled glance. How had he known her name was Henrietta? she longed to ask, but instead, ‘You still haven’t told me who you are,’ she reminded him coldly.
For some reason this amused him. ‘Van Hessel—Marnix van Hessel.’
‘And how did you know that I was here?’
‘My dear good young woman, this is a very small village. Willemse the greengrocer was putting his van away when he saw you arrive—he came to tell my housekeeper, who told me. In a community of this size we all tend to mind each other’s business.’
She was annoyed again. ‘Or indulge your curiosity.’
His eyes—grey, she thought, but wasn’t sure—narrowed. ‘You have a nasty sharp tongue,’ he observed. ‘I am not in the least curious about you—why should I be? But since it was I who ordered the electricity and gas and water to be turned off, it seemed that the least I could do was to come and turn them on again.’
He stood quite still, staring at her, and after a moment or two she said awkwardly: ‘Well, thank you…I should be glad…it is a little chilly…’
He gave a short laugh. ‘It’s damned cold.’ He walked past her into the scullery and she was aware once more of his great size as he bent to go through the door. She stood still, holding the candle aloft while he opened a cupboard high up on the wall. ‘Try the lights,’ he advised her.
The little kitchen sprang into instant view and she looked around her with relief and a good deal of interest, but she was given no time in which to indulge her curiosity. ‘Turn on the gas,’ he commanded. That worked too, and so, presently, did the water. Tea, thought Henrietta, a hot water bottle and bed, while aloud she said civilly: ‘Thank you very much, I can…’ She was interrupted.
‘I’ll get the stove going, there should be coal and wood outside.’
She tried again. ‘Please don’t bother, I shall…’ and was silenced by his: ‘Of course it’s a bother, but I wouldn’t leave a dog to shiver to death on a night like this.’
She bristled, her dark eyes sparkling with temper. She said in a voice made high by her strong feelings: ‘I’m obliged to you for your help, Mr van Hessel, but I can manage very well—don’t let me keep you.’
He flung open the back door, his torch cutting a swathe through the blackness outside, the icy wind rushing in to set her shivering again. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ he said pleasantly as he went out. ‘Go upstairs and unpack.’
Over the years of being without a family she had achieved a fine independence, so it was all the more surprising to her to find herself climbing a miniature staircase with her overnight bag. There were two bedrooms, she discovered, with a large landing between them. They faced front and back and she chose the back room, pleased with the simplicity of its furnishings; a narrow bed, a chest of drawers with a mirror above it, a basket chair, well cushioned, and bright rugs on the polished floor. The curtains, she noted as she pulled them to, were shabby now, but the fabric had once been good. The other room was almost identical; she pulled the curtains here too and lingered to explore the landing. There was a cupboard built into one of its walls, full, she discovered to her delight, to its brim with bed linen, blankets and everything she could need for the house, there were even two old-fashioned eiderdowns, a little faded but whole. Henrietta sighed with deep satisfaction and went back downstairs.
Mr van Hessel might be an ill-tempered man, but he was handy at lighting a stove. It was crackling well and already its heat was taking the sharp chill off the room. There was a scuttle of coals too and as she entered he came in with an armful of small logs which he stacked tidily in a corner. When he had done this, he stood up, studying her in a cool way which annoyed her very much. ‘You look as though you could do with a good hot supper,’ he observed.
‘I stopped on my way here.’ She had spoken too quickly and he had seen that. He moved to the door. ‘And that’s a lie if ever I heard one,’ he told her, ‘but as it’s obviously intended to warn me off inviting you to a meal, I’ll take the hint. Good night.’
He had gone, and the room looked bare without him. She went into the kitchen, found the kettle and put it on to boil for a cup of tea while she considered her visitor—a large, domineering man, used to giving orders and getting his own way, and if he owned the lease of the house, why hadn’t Mr Boggett told her about him? She knew very little about ground rents and such things. She wondered now, a little uneasily, if she would be able to afford to pay it. Presumably she would have to ask Mr van Hessel how much it was. It seemed likely that she would see him again; he must live close by, for he had come—and gone—on foot. Perhaps he lived on the other side of the square where the houses, as she had passed them in the dark, had appeared larger, though it was hard to imagine him in a small village house.