Read Miss Hargreaves Online

Authors: Frank Baker

Miss Hargreaves (9 page)

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‘At Oakham station,’ we heard her saying, ‘we have such exquisitely pretty flowers. The station-master is quite an expert horticulturist. Oh, yes, indeed!’

‘Shall I have all your luggage put on a taxi, Mum?’

‘Just wait! Kindly stay! A moment. Accept this shilling, I beg of you. I am a trifle short-sighted, porter–oh, did I give you a halfpenny? Here you are, then. Can you see a young gentleman anywhere about? If so, no doubt but it would be my friend Mr Norman Huntley.’

I flopped weakly on to a chair.

‘Can’t see no one, Mum,’ I could hear the porter saying.

‘Then let us wait! Do not go. What a handsome train–what a most handsome train! I wrote a sonnet to a railway train once. In my lighter moments, porter; in my more exuberant moments. My Uncle Grosvenor was good enough to say it recalled Wordsworth to him. Do you read at
all
, porter? Tell me. Tell me frankly.’

‘Well, Mum, I do read a bit. Detective stories, y’know.’

‘Indeed! It has always interested me what do these detectives–
detect
? And
why
? Quiet, Sarah–quiet–’ The Bedlington was yapping spitefully. ‘I am so interested, porter; I am interested in everything. Life, to me, cannot contain one dull moment. I do not believe in–but what
is
the matter, Sarah?’

Sarah was smelling me out; that was the matter with her. Tugging at her cord, she was doing her utmost to drag her mistress towards the refreshment room. They were only ten yards away from us now. Miss Hargreaves was scanning the platform through a pair of gold lorgnettes. I’d better try to describe her to you. She was very small, very slight, with a perky, innocent little face and alert, speedwell-blue eyes. Perched on top,
right
on top, of a hillock of snowy white hair: buttressed behind by a large fan-comb, studded by sequins and masted by long black pins, lay a speckled straw hat. Over a pale pink blouse with a high neck and lace cuffs, she was wearing a heathery tweed jacket; a skirt to match. Round her neck was a silver fur. Resting on one stick, she was holding the other, and the umbrella, on her arm; they were black ebony sticks with curved malacca handles.

I liked her expression. There was something mischievous and pensive, something very lonely, too, in the pursed-up lips and the fastidious little nose.

A feeling of pride stole over me. I couldn’t help it. She was perfect; absolutely perfect.

‘Henry,’ I murmured dreamily. ‘Pygmalion couldn’t have done better.’

He looked at me sharply.

‘Look here, Norman,
do
you know this old witch?’

I made the sort of mad reply you’d expect.

‘Should have known her anywhere. And please
don’t
call her a witch.’

Suddenly the Bedlington, frantic to make my acquaintance, broke from his cord and tore towards me. It was then I began to realize the awful danger of my position. If I acknowledged this old lady, even Henry would find it hard to believe I had actually never met her before.

‘For God’s sake, let’s get away,’ I muttered. ‘Quick! There’s still time.’

But there was not time. Miss Hargreaves had seen us. With a shrill, slightly coy cry, she tottered towards the refreshment room. From a luggage-truck, far down the platform, Dr Pepusch inspired, no doubt, by the immensity–of the occasion shrieked in a shrill tenor, ‘Were I laid–on Greenland’s coast, in my arms I’d hold my lass!’

I was face to face with my creation.

‘My dear, dear boy! How well you look! How brown! Oh, dear, oh, dear–! I am so excited. Hold me up, dear; hold me up! Porter, run and tell that silly old Dr Pepusch to be quiet–’

‘Yap, yap, yap, yap, yap–grrrrrrr–’

‘What shall I do with this ’ere bath, Mum?’

‘And I would love you all the day —’

‘Miss Hargreaves, I’m afraid you’re making some mistake. I –’

‘For God’s sake, Norman, don’t let her get away with it–’

‘You naughty boy, hiding there in the doorway to surprise me! Sarah knew you! Just
listen
to Dr Pepusch! What gaiety! What spontaneity! He knows. You can never deceive the animal-world.
Can
you believe there is not an after-life for the dear creatures? Can you?’

‘I tell you you’re making a mistake–’

‘Porter,
do
keep Dr Pepusch quiet. Look, here is a penny; run and buy him some chocolate, nut
and
fruit. Break it up for him. Norman, dear, give me your arm. I am quite exhausted. And who is this young man? Some friend?’

‘Over the hills and–over the hills and –over the Greenland coast–’

‘Dr Pepusch, stop that nonsense! Sarah, down doggie; down! Take her in your arms, Norman; she won’t bite–anyway, her teeth are
old
. Oh, dear, I am quite unable to remain calm at these moments of reunion. Have you ever considered, Norman, that a railway station is the scene of some of the most poignant moments in life? Yes? I can see you, too, are affected. Introduce me to your friend. Let us all sit in this dreadful refreshment room while the porter collects my luggage. Have you a taxi waiting for me? Yes?’

Speechless, I sat down at a marble table and faced the Woman I had Made Up on The Spur of the Moment.

Henry was doggedly sucking his pipe, and looking at both of us under his black brows. I think the old devil was enjoying the situation; he’s rather a hard-hearted brute at times.

Meanwhile, Miss Hargreaves talked. And when she talked there was no time for anyone else to get a word in.

‘You cannot imagine how I have looked forward to this moment, dear. And I can see you, too, have looked forward to it. Pleasure is written boldly all over your face.’

Henry laughed sardonically. I scowled.

‘It is such a very long time since we met; indeed, I cannot remember now when or where that was. My memory–alas!–works but spasmodically in this, the evening of my days. But
what
an evening! Oh, yes! It is no use disguising the fact; I am no longer young.’ She leant forward across the table, tapped me on the chest with a silver pencil suspended from a chain round her neck. ‘Eighty-three, Norman; eighty-three! Five reigns. And yet I feel as though I had been born last week! Youth’–she declaimed, touching her heart–‘lives here. Not alone hope but also youth springs eternal. Shall we partake of a touch of refreshment? It will be dreadful food, of course, but still Thank you, thank you! A little soda-water, perhaps one of those Chelsea buns. And who is this modest young gentleman who has never a word to say for himself?’

She whizzed round on Henry and examined him from tip to toe through her lorgnettes.

‘He reminds me’–she spoke to me in a loud aside–‘of my dear Archer. He, too, had the Byronic black hair, the beetle brows. Ah, me! Time flies. What happened sixty years ago is as clear as crystal; yet, what happened yesterday–gone, gone!’

I handed her a glass of soda-water and a bun.

‘Thank you, dear; thank you. But who
is
this young man?’

She did not seem to take to Henry somehow.

‘My friend,’ I said, ‘Henry Beddow.’

‘Beddow?’ She wrinkled up her nose. ‘Beddow? Grosvenor once had a parlourmaid by the same name. By any chance–? No? So you are Norman’s friend? H’m. It follows, Mr Beddow, that you are
my
friend.’

I smirked. ‘Thanks very much,’ said Henry.

‘Ah, Mr Beddow! I wonder whether you can realize what Norman’s friendship means to an old thing like me? Can I compare his appearance in my latter days to a shaft of pure sunlight warming the frail timbers of some old barn? Fanciful imagery, maybe! You need not blush, my dear Norman; you need not blush.’

‘I should like to know,’ Henry got in suddenly, ‘just how long, Miss Hargreaves, you have known Norman?’

‘I tell you, Henry–’ I began weakly. But she was off again.

‘Oh–’ she waved her hand expressively. ‘Years! I cannot remember. You must never talk of time, Mr Beddow. I am an old lady and an old lady does not care to be reminded of
time
.’

‘H’m. I see.’ Henry rose and knocked out his pipe. ‘Well, I must be getting along. Very glad to have met you, Miss Hargreaves. I hope Norman’ll show you the sights of Cornford.’

‘Yes, yes, of course he will.’

It was unbearable, Henry’s foul desertion of me. I ran out of the refreshment room after him.

‘For God’s sake, don’t leave me alone with her,’ I pleaded.

‘Damn it, old boy,’ he said, ‘she’s your friend; not mine.’

‘You’re as responsible for her as I am.’

He stared at me wonderingly.

‘You surely don’t expect me to believe in that rubbish any longer, do you? Why, anyone could tell at once that she’s known you for years.’

‘That may be. But I haven’t known
her
for years.’

‘You said yourself you’d have known her anywhere.’

‘Yes–but that was–I meant–Oh, God!’

‘I’m going along to the dance now. I’ll tell Marjorie not to expect you.’

‘No–no–’ I cried.

‘Norman! Norman!’

Miss Hargreaves was standing in the doorway, calling me. Before I knew what I was doing, I had allowed myself to be led back into the refreshment room.

‘A nice young man,’ she remarked. ‘But I confess I am glad that he has gone. Now we can have a cosy little chat together, before we return to your dear parents’ house. Won’t you have a glass of beer, dear? I like to see you enjoying yourself. I have never been against a simple glass of beer. My uncle’s staff, the
male
members, that is, always had their own barrel of beer in the kitchen. I always think–’

As she continued to pour out her torrent of talk, the hideousness of the situation came home to me. I had accepted her. Over and over again I began to tell her that she was making some ghastly mistake; that I didn’t know her, that my letter had been a foolish joke. But the devil of it was I couldn’t convince
myself
. It seemed to me that I
did
know her. She never allowed me to say much, anyhow; always dismissed my remarks with a wave of the hands. Or else she completely ignored what I would begin to say. It was obvious that nobody in the world would believe I had never met her before; even father would find it hard to swallow. What was I to do? What would you have done? Run away, you say run away and left her there in the refreshment–room? What good would it have done? She would only have ordered a taxi and driven to my parents’ house; and that, at all costs, I was determined to avoid.

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