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Authors: Agatha Christie

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“Pound and a half of rump,” said the butcher thrusting forth a parcel. “Now then, come along, who's next, please?”

Mrs. Hargreaves made her purchases and escaped to the street, thinking how really awful people were!

She went into the greengrocer next, to buy lemons and a lettuce. The woman at the greengrocer's was, as usual, affectionate.

“Well, ducks, what can we do for you today?” She rang up the cash register; said “Ta” and “Here you are, dearie,” as she pressed a bulging bag into the arms of an elderly gentleman who looked at her in disgust and alarm.

“She always calls me that,” the old gentleman confided gloomily when the woman had gone in search of lemons.

“‘Dear,' and ‘Dearie' and ‘Love.' I don't even know the woman's name!”

Mrs. Hargreaves said she thought it was just a fashion. The old gentleman looked dubious and moved off, leaving Mrs. Hargreaves feeling faintly cheered by the discovery of a fellow sufferer.

Her shopping bag was quite heavy by now, so she thought she would take a bus home. There were three or four people waiting at the bus stop, and an ill-tempered conductress shouted at the passengers.

“Come along now, hurry along, please—we can't wait here all day.” She scooped up an elderly arthritic lady and thrust her staggering into the bus where someone caught her and steered her to a seat, and seized Mrs. Hargreaves by the arm above the elbow with iron fingers, causing her acute pain.

“Inside, only. Full up now.” She tugged violently at a bell, the bus shot forward and Mrs. Hargreaves collapsed on top of a large woman occupying, through no fault of her own, a good three-quarters of a seat for two.

“I'm so sorry,” gasped Mrs. Hargreaves.

“Plenty of room for a little one,” said the large woman cheerfully, doing her best without success to make herself smaller. “Nasty temper some of these girls have, haven't they? I prefer the black men myself. Nice and polite
they
are—don't hustle you. Help you in and out quite carefully.”

She breathed good temper and onions impartially over Mrs. Hargreaves.

“I don't want any remarks from you, thank you,” said the bus conductress who was now collecting fares. “I'd have you know we've got our schedule to keep.”

“That's why the bus was idling alongside the curb at the last stop but one,” said the large woman. “Fourpenny, please.”

Mrs. Hargreaves arrived home exhausted by recrimination and unwanted affection, and also suffering from a bruised arm. The flat seemed peaceful and she sank down gratefully.

Almost immediately however, one of the porters arrived to clean the windows and followed her round telling her about his wife's mother's gastric ulcer.

Mrs. Hargreaves picked up her handbag and went out again. She wanted—badly—a desert island. Since a desert island was not immediately obtainable (indeed, it would probably entail a visit to a travel agency, a passport office, vaccination, possibly a foreign visa to be obtained, and many other human contacts) she strolled down to the river.

“A water bus,” she thought hopefully.

There were such things, she believed. Hadn't she read about them? And there was a pier—a little way along the Embankment; she had seen people coming off it. Of course, perhaps a water bus would be just as crowded as anything else …

But here she was in luck. The steamer, or water bus, or whatever it was, was singularly empty. Mrs. Hargreaves bought a ticket to Greenwich. It was the slack time of day and it was not a particularly nice day, the wind being distinctly chilly, so few people were on the water for pleasure.

There were some children in the stern of the boat with a weary adult in charge, and a couple of nondescript men, and an old woman in rusty black. In the bow of the boat there was only a solitary man; so Mrs. Hargreaves went up to the bow, as far from the noisy children as possible.

The boat drew away from the pier out into the Thames. It was peaceful here on the water. Mrs. Hargreaves felt soothed and serene for the first time today. She had got away from—from
what
exactly? “Away from it all!” That was the phrase, but she didn't know exactly what it meant …

She looked gratefully around her. Blessed, blessed water. So—so
insulating
. Boats plied their way up and down stream, but they had nothing to do with
her
. People on land were busy with their own affairs. Let them be—she hoped they enjoyed themselves. Here she was in a boat, being carried down the river towards the sea.

There were stops, people got off, people got on. The boat resumed its course. At the Tower of London the noisy children got off. Mrs. Hargreaves hoped amiably that they would enjoy the Tower of London.

Now they had passed through the Docks. Her feeling of happiness and serenity grew stronger. The eight or nine people still on board were all huddled together in the stern—out of the wind, she supposed. For the first time she paid a little more attention to her fellow traveller in the bows. An Oriental of some kind, she thought vaguely. He was wearing a long capelike coat of some woollen material. An Arab, perhaps? Or a Berber? Not an Indian.

What beautiful material the cloth of his coat was. It seemed to be woven all in one piece. So finely woven, too. She obeyed an almost irresistible impulse to touch it …

She could never recapture afterwards the feeling that the touch of the coat brought her. It was quite indescribable. It was like what happens when you shake a kaleidoscope. The parts of it are the same parts, but they are arranged differently; they are arranged in a new pattern …

She had wanted when she got on the water bus to escape from herself and the pattern of her morning. She had not escaped in the way she had meant to escape. She was still herself and she was still in the pattern, going through it all over again in her mind. But it was different this time. It was a different pattern because
she
was different.

She was standing again by Mrs. Chubb—poor Mrs. Chubb—She heard the story again only this time it was a different story. It was not so much what Mrs. Chubb said, but what she had been feeling—her despair and—yes, her guilt. Because, of course, she was secretly blaming herself, striving to tell herself how she had done everything for her girl—her lovely little girl—recalling the frocks she had bought her and the sweets—and how she had given in to her when she wanted things—she had gone out to work, too—but of course, in her innermost mind, Mrs. Chubb knew that it was not a gramophone for Edie she had been working for, but a washing machine—a washing machine like Mrs. Peters had down the road (and so stuck up about it, too!). It was her own fierce housepride that had set her fingers to toil. True, she had given Edie things all her life—plenty of them—but had she
thought
about Edie enough? Thought about the boyfriends she was making? Thought about asking her friends to the house—seeing if there wasn't some kind of party at home Edie could have? Thinking about Edie's character, her life, what would be best for her? Trying to find out more about Edie because after all, Edie was
her
business—the real paramount business of her life. And she mustn't be stupid about it! Good will wasn't enough. One had to manage not to be stupid, too.

In fancy, Mrs. Hargreaves' arm went round Mrs. Chubb's shoulder. She thought with affection: “You poor stupid dear. It's not as bad as you think.
I
don't believe she's dying at all.” Of course Mrs. Chubb had exaggerated, had sought deliberately for tragedy, because that was the way Mrs. Chubb saw life—in melodramatic terms. It made life less drab, easier to live. Mrs. Hargreaves understood so well …

Other people came into Mrs. Hargreaves' mind. Those women enjoying their fight at the butcher's counter. Characters, all of them. Fun, really! Especially the big red-faced woman with her passion for justice. She really liked a good row!

Why on earth, Mrs. Hargreaves wondered, had she minded the woman at the greengrocer's calling her “Luv”? It was a kindly term.

That bad-tempered bus conductress—why—her mind probed, came up with a solution. Her young man had stood her up the evening before. And so she hated everybody, hated her monotonous life, wanted to make other people feel her power—one could so easily feel like that if things went wrong …

The kaleidoscope shook—changed. She was no longer
looking
at it—she was inside it—
part of it
…​

The boat hooted. She sighed, moved, opened her eyes. They had come at last to Greenwich.

Mrs. Hargreaves went back by train from Greenwich. The train, at this time of day, the lunch hour, was almost empty.

But Mrs. Hargreaves wouldn't have cared if it had been full …

Because, for a brief space of time, she was at one with her fellow beings.
She liked people
. Almost—she loved them!

It wouldn't last, of course. She knew that. A complete change of character was not within the bounds of reality. But she was deeply, humbly, and comprehendingly grateful for what she had been given.

She knew now what the thing that she had coveted was like. She knew the warmth of it, and the happiness—knew it, not from intelligent observation from without, but from within. From
feeling
it.

And perhaps, knowing now just what it was, she could learn the beginning of the road to it …?

She thought of the coat woven in the harmony of one piece. She had not been able to see the man's face. But she thought she knew who He was …

Already the warmth and the vision were fading. But she would not forget—she would never forget!

“Thank you,” said Mrs. Hargreaves, speaking from the depths of a grateful heart.

She said it aloud in the empty railway carriage.

The mate of the water bus was staring at the tickets in his hand.

“Where's t'other one?” he asked.

“Whatchermean?” said the Captain who was preparing to go ashore for lunch.

“Must be someone on board still. Eight passengers there was. I counted them. And I've only got seven tickets here.”

“Nobody left on board. Look for yourself. One of 'em must have got off without your noticing 'im—either that or he walked on the water!”

And the Captain laughed heartily at his own joke.

In the Cool of the Evening

The church was fairly full. Evensong, nowadays, was always better attended than morning service.

Mrs. Grierson and her husband knelt side by side in the fifth pew on the pulpit side. Mrs. Grierson knelt decorously, her elegant back curved. A conventional worshipper, one would have said, breathing a mild and temperate prayer.

But there was nothing mild about Janet Grierson's petition. It sped upwards into space on wings of fire.

“God, help him! Have mercy upon him. Have mercy upon
me
. Cure him, Lord. Thou hast all power. Have mercy—have mercy. Stretch out Thy hand. Open his mind. He's such a sweet boy—so gentle—so innocent. Let him be healed. Let him be
normal
. Hear me, Lord. Hear me … Ask of me anything you like, but stretch out Thy hand and make him whole. Oh God,
hear
me.
Hear
me. With Thee all things are possible. My faith shall make him whole—I
have
faith—I believe. I
believe
! Help me!”

The people stood. Mrs. Grierson stood with them. Elegant, fashionable, composed. The service proceeded.

The Rector mounted the steps of the pulpit, gave out his text.

Part of the 95th psalm; the tenth verse. Part of the psalm we sing every Sunday morning. “It is a people who do err in their hearts, for they have not known my ways.”

The Rector was a good man, but not an eloquent one. He strove to give to his listeners the thought that the words had conveyed to him. A people that erred, not in what they
did
, not in
actions
displeasing to God, not in overt sin—but a people not even knowing that they erred. A people who, quite simply, did not know God … ​They did not know what God was, what he wanted, how he showed himself. They could know. That was the point the Rector was striving to make. Ignorance is no defence. They
could
know.

BOOK: Star over Bethlehem
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