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Henrietta's Own Castle


She made the tea and rooted through her stores for a tin of baked beans and a packet of soup; a proper hot supper would have been nice, she thought wistfully, but he had offered it in much the same way as he might have offered a bone to a hungry dog. She ate her beans, drained the teapot and went upstairs to make her bed. It wasn’t late, but she was longing for sleep; she went downstairs again, made up the stove, had a shower in the tiny cubicle squeezed into the scullery, and went to her bed with both eiderdowns on top of her and a hot water bottle as well.

It wasn’t quite light when she woke, although her watch told her that it was eight o’clock. She got up and drew back the curtains to see what lay behind the house; a garden, small and brick-walled to a height of six feet, a mere plot of neglected grass with a tangle of rose bushes in one corner. The scullery roof was just below her window and beyond that there was a brick lean-to shed, where presumably her visitor of the night before had found the coal. But beyond that she could see very little; identical sized gardens on either side of her, incredibly neat, and a dense row of conifers, screening whatever lay beyond the back walls of the row of little houses. She would find out, she promised herself, dressing rapidly in sweater and slacks before going down to rake out the stove and make it up again and to the kitchen to get her breakfast. Tea and porridge and tinned milk; presently she would find the village shop. She washed up, made her bed, found her phrase book and, warmly wrapped against the weather, opened her front door. Charlie was still parked outside; she would have to find a garage for him very soon. She ran a woollen-mitted hand over his icy roof and jumped when Mr van Hessel said from behind her, ‘Yours, I presume.’ And when she wheeled round to face him: ‘I take it you believe in travelling on a prayer—your faith must be very strong if you pin it to this—er—car.’

‘Charlie is a splendid little car,’ she told him with dignity. ‘He may not look quite—well…’ she paused, unable to think of the right word. ‘He suits me,’ she finished with a snap.

Mr van Hessel was studying her once more, his magnificent head, with its dark silvered hair, on one side. ‘Charlie,’ he remarked reflectively. ‘You are a most extraordinary young woman.’ He allowed his gaze to ramble from her face down to her sensible boots and back again to meet her indignant eyes. ‘You’re still young—not yet thirty, I should imagine?’ He ignored her angry choke. ‘And even in your so suitable winter clothes you are quite unmistakably a woman.’

Her voice would have frozen anyone else. ‘I wish you would stop referring to me as a young woman!’

‘Ah, is young lady more to your liking?’

‘My name is Brodie,’ she pointed out.

‘Miss Henrietta Brodie—I had not forgotten. Have you a garage for this car?’

‘No, I’m just going to see about it.’

His eyes widened with laughter. ‘There is no garage in the village and those who have cars use outbuildings and sheds. I cannot think of anyone who could accommodate you. Perhaps you would allow me to house Charlie for the time being at least.’

He was a most extraordinary man, she thought crossly, being rude to her with every other breath and then being helpful—but she had to have a garage. ‘Thank you,’ she said stiffly, ‘I’d be very obliged, just until I can find somewhere permanent.’ She gave him a questioning look. ‘You have got room?’

He inclined his head. ‘Indeed yes. I have also asked your neighbour to chop wood for you—I daresay he will come this afternoon. He speaks no English, but I expect you will be able to manage.’

‘Thank you—how much should I pay him?’

Her companion looked astounded. ‘Nothing. He’s a neighbour, he would feel insulted. Have you done your shopping?’

‘I’m on my way—there must be a shop…’

‘A general store, I believe you would call it in English. We will go together, unless of course you have sufficient knowledge of our language to make your purchases?’

She was being overwhelmed with kindness, and yet behind his bland face she thought there was laughter lurking. ‘I can’t speak a word,’ she told him.

They crossed the cobbles, skirted the bandstand and turned a corner into an exceedingly narrow street, crammed with little houses and paved with cobblestones, too. The shop was half way down its length and there were quite a number of women inside, having, from the sound of their voices, a pleasant gossip. They fell silent as Mr van Hessel opened the door and ushered her in, and she had the strange idea that in a bygone age they would have dropped him a curtsey; as it was they chorused with respectful voices and waited to hear what he had to say. Of course Henrietta couldn’t understand a word, but he smiled at them as he spoke, and they smiled back, but still with respect, and after a minute of talking he turned to ask: ‘How much milk do you want?’

‘Oh, a pint each day.’

‘You forget, my good…I beg your pardon—Miss Brodie, that we do not have your pints here, only litres. I suggest a litre every other day.’

She nodded. At least he had remembered not to call her his good girl!

‘Bread?’

‘Well, I thought I’d make my own, but just until I’m settled, yes, please. Can I buy it here?’

‘No. The baker comes three times a week, his van is parked in the square and you fetch it for yourself.’ He stopped to speak to the woman behind the counter. ‘He doesn’t come today, but Mevrouw Ros will let you have half a loaf. What else?’

‘Bacon…’

‘No, most people don’t eat your sort of bacon. What else?’

‘Eggs, cheese, butter…’

‘Butter? That is expensive in Holland, not many people eat it.’

‘Oh, well, margarine, I suppose. Where do I buy meat?’

He said something or other to the woman. ‘The butcher comes twice a week, he will be here in half an hour or so—in the square. I will tell Mevrouw Ros that somebody must help you with the money and so on.’

‘Don’t you mean ask?’ she wanted to know. ‘You sound like a feudal lord.’

His lips twitched. ‘Unpardonable of me,’ he murmured. ‘Vegetables? Willemse takes his van round every day except Sunday, he comes to the door and you can buy what you want from him. I should point out that we have not moved with the times here, we cling to our old habits. In the big towns and modern villages, the shopping is done much as it is in England—although I imagine that you have not had much experience of that—St Clement’s has a large nurses’ home, and very likely you lived in.’

She gaped at him. ‘However did you know?’ she began, to be halted by his impatient: ‘Oh, later, later, I have no time now. Do you wish to pay for these things now or will you have an account?’

‘I’ll pay now, please.’

She opened her purse and handed him the money he asked for and he paid it while she smiled round at the interested faces watching her. ‘I didn’t realize that it would be so foreign,’ she declared as they left the shop.

He had her basket, and from the surprised glances from the women they passed in the street, he wasn’t often seen with a shopping basket. They crossed the square together and at her door she took it from him. ‘I should like to see you about the ground rent,’ she began. ‘Mr Boggett didn’t tell me about it. Do I pay you, and how much is it?’

‘I haven’t the least idea,’ he told her blandly. ‘We’ll look into it some other time.’

‘Very well, but I should like to know, so that I can…’ She stopped; she wasn’t going to tell him that she had to be careful with her money. ‘Where do you live?’ she asked. ‘Perhaps I could come and see you about it.’

He took the basket from her once more and set it down on her doorstep, and without speaking took her arm and walked her to the big gates.

‘Here,’ he said, and stopped midway between the great pillars. Henrietta hadn’t gone that way until now, they had walked to the shop along the other side of the square. She stared before her at the short drive, leading straight as a ruler from the gates, and at its end a square-walled castle, surrounded by a moat. There was a bridge spanning it so that cars could reach its great wooden door exactly facing the open gates, and a sweep of gravel just sufficiently large to allow of them to turn. The castle’s whitewashed walls rose straight and solid from the steel-grey water and were capped by a tiled roof like a clown’s hat, and there were a great many small windows. On either side of it, half way round the moat and almost out of sight, she could see two smaller bridges, connecting the castle with the drive which encircled the outer edge of the moat. She could think of nothing to say; this then was the castle the guide book had mentioned and which she had mistakenly assumed was a ruin—but this was no ruin, it bore all the signs of care and money lavished upon it, and when she looked around her she saw the coat of arms engraved on each pillar. No wonder the women in the shop had been so polite to Mr van Hessel!

‘Are you the lord of the manor?’ she wanted to know.

‘Well, we don’t call it that.’ He was amused again.

‘But you do own these houses?’ She pointed to the neat row of houses on either side of the gates. ‘Almshouses, are they?’

‘My dear good…Miss Brodie, they are not almshouses—the leasehold is mine, certainly, but the houses are given as gifts, usually for the recipient’s lifetime. In your case your aunt’s house was given to her together with the right to leave it to any member of her family, should she wish to do so.’

Henrietta stared up at him, wishing she could read his face; there was a great deal she wanted to know. She had opened her mouth to ask the first question when he said: ‘Forgive me, I have an urgent appointment,’ and was gone, stalking up the drive to his own front door—from his back she thought it probable that he had forgotten all about her.

She spent the day cleaning her little house, tidying cupboards and polishing furniture. Some of it, she discovered upon closer inspection, was very old and probably valuable. There was a rosewood davenport in the sitting-room, and the dining table was a magnificent example of marquetry, and when she took the loose covers off the easy chairs it was to find that they were upholstered in a rich red velvet, as good as new. She left the covers off and brushed the velvet with care; the little room looked quite beautiful now—she would need flowers, though; she would go to Tilburg in the morning, see the bank manager and give him Mr Boggett’s letter and then do a little shopping. She wound the Friesian clock hanging on the dining-room wall and the small carriage clock on the sitting-room mantelpiece and, well satisfied with her work, went to make herself some belated coffee.

She had just finished it when there was a knock on the door; the neighbour, come to chop the wood; there was no doubt of that, for he swung a nasty-looking axe from a hamlike hand. They smiled and nodded in speechless friendliness as she ushered him out to the shed and went back to answer the door once more. One of the women who had been in the shop this time, smiling and pointing across the square where a van had parked. Henrietta remembered the butcher, put on her coat and walked with her guide across the cobbles and bought her meat. It was amazing how one could manage without speaking a word, she reflected, receiving change from the butcher, exchanging smiles and nods from the other customers as she went back across the square to find the greengrocer at the door. And this was even easier; all she had to do was walk round the van pointing to what she wanted and when she had made her choice he kicked off his klompen and carried her purchases through into the kitchen for her. Everyone was kind, and it surprised her a little, and Mr van Hessel had been the kindest of them all—which reminded her about Charlie. Perhaps she should give him a clean before he went into the garage Mr van Hessel had offered—and where would that be? she wondered looking about her. Probably through the big gates, but then where? And was she expected to go and find out? She was standing looking up at the grey sky, threatening sleet again, when a small elderly man with a wizened face came rapidly through the gates and stopped beside her. ‘Car, miss,’ he said, and grinned nicely so that she could have hugged him with relief.

‘Oh, good—and you speak English, too.’

He smiled again and nodded. ‘I take car, miss.’ He put out a hand and she cried: ‘Oh, yes, of course you want the key,’ and when she had fetched it: ‘Where are you taking it?’

But this was beyond him; he shook his head, still smiling, and then asked: ‘Tomorrow?’
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