The thin spring sunshine had little warmth and the pale blue sky looked cold, but together they turned the row of old gabled houses into a charming picture. They faced a narrow canal, tree-lined, the water dark, the arched bridge at its end leading to a street busy with traffic.
The girl walking along the narrow pavement paused to look about her and then, studying the street plan she was carrying, hitched the small package she held under one arm and crossed the narrow street to stand under the budding trees and study the houses opposite.
They were impressive, two and three storeys high with small windows in their various gables, heavy front doors with fanlights above them and with a double flight of steps leading to the door. Some of them had numbers on their walls; one or two had a coat-of-arms carved in stone above the fanlight.
Satisfied, she crossed the street again and mounted the steps of a tall house with high wide windows on each side of its door and an impressive gable, and thumped at the heavy knocker.
The man who opened the door was old, very thin and very upright with a fringe of white hair and pale blue eyes. He was dressed neatly in a black alpaca jacket and striped trousers and he addressed her in civil tones but, unfortunately, in Dutch.
She held out the packet she had been carrying. 'I'm sorry, I don't understand Dutch. This is for Mr van Houben, from Corinna.'
The elderly face slowly wrinkled into a smile. 'I will see that he receives it, miss. Do you wish to give your name?'
'Nono, thank you. Corinna asked me to deliver it here since I was coming to Amsterdam.' She smiled nicely. 'How very well you speak English.'
He gave a grave inclination of the head. 'Thank you, miss.'
'Well, goodbye.' She smiled again and went down the steps. She ran down on to the bottom one as a dark blue Bentley drew up. She turned her head to look at it, took a step which wasn't there, and fell in an untidy heap on to the pavement.
She wasn't hurt, she assured herself, and then said so to the enormous man crouching beside her. 'So silly of me,' she added politely.
He took no notice of that. 'Arms and legs all right?' he asked, and it seemed perfectly natural that his English should be as good as her own. 'You have a graze on your armany pains anywhere?'
When she said no, he heaved her gently to her feet, dusted her down and urged her back up the steps.
'I've just been there,' she told him. 'There's no need to bother anyoneI'm quite all right
He had bright blue eyes in a handsome face dominated by a powerful nose. He studied her now, standing on the step by the door. 'You need a wash and your hair could do with a comb.' His voice was impersonal but kind.
The colour came into her face, made pale by the shock of falling. A pretty girl, she reflected bitterly, could get away with that, but she couldn't, she hadn't the looksa small tip-tilted nose, a wide, generous mouth and a great deal of light brown hair didn't amount to much, although her eyes were beautiful; grey, thickly fringed. She held her tongue and allowed herself to be ushered back up the steps and into the house.
The hall was impressive and so typical of the Dutch Interior paintings she had been at pains to study at the Rijksmuseum that for a moment she wondered if this house was a museum too. Apparently not. She listened without understanding while there was an exchange of Dutch over her head and the elderly man went away, to return in a moment with a middle-aged woman with a formidable bosom and a kind face who clucked over her in a kindly fashion and led her away to the back of the hall and into a cloakroom secreted behind the dark panelling, the very antithesis of the hall: comfortno, luxury with its elegant fittings, thickly carpeted floor and mirrored walls and a shelf full of just about everything needed to improve one's appearance. The girl washed her face and hands and the quite nasty graze on her arm and, since there was no help for it, took the pins out of her hair and combed it with one of the ivory combs on the shelf, and pinned it neatly again. A little lipstick and powder would have been nice, but she didn't like to use any of these, arranged so beguilingly on the shelf.
She looked awful, she decided, and went back into the hall, to the stout woman who led her into a room on the other side of the splendid staircase.
There was another unintelligible exchange of Dutch before she was asked to sit down.
'I'll take a look at that graze,' said her host, and, having done so, went and rummaged in a black bag on the enormous desk under the window, to return with gauze and strapping and a tube of something.
'A soothing ointment,' he explained, and added, 'Keep it covered for a couple of days.' When he had finished he asked, 'You know Corinna?! Fram tells me that the parcel you were kind enough to bring is from her.'
The graze felt much better but she was aware of several sore spots on other parts of her person. 'Yes, I know her.'
'You are a nurse too?'
'I'm not trained yet. Corinna has almost finished, but we've been working on the same ward.'
'Will you tell her that I'm delighted to have the book?' He had gone to sit behind his desk. 'I had better introduce myselfMarius van Houben.'
She said gravely, 'How do you do? I'm Caroline Frisby. Thank you for your kindness and you saw to my graze quite expertly; lots of people have no idea what to do even for the simplest cut.'
'One does one's best,' murmured her host. 'May I offer you a cup of coffee?'
She got to her feet. 'No, thank you, I must get back: there's a tour of the city this afternoon and I should like to go on it.'
He went to open the door and Fram was waiting in the hall. She shook hands, thanked the butler for opening the door, and went carefully down the steps and walked briskly away, very aware of the tender spots on her small, too thin person.
It was quite a long way back to the hotel, but she had plenty of time. Aunt Meg had intended to do some shopping and had arranged to meet her at noon, when the hotel would provide them with coffee and sandwiches. It was a small hotel squashed into a narrow street near the Amstel River, very clean, the bedrooms small but the beds comfortable, serving a breakfast of rolls and cheese and jam and coffee each morning, coffee and sandwiches again if needed at midday and a substantial meal at night to its guests, who were for the most part quiet middle-aged couples with not much money to spend, content to roam the streets of the city, explore the museums and churches and gaze into shop windows. Caroline had come with her aunt because that lady hadn't liked the idea of going alone although she was determined to explore Amsterdam, a city she had always wished to visit. Caroline, with two weeks' holiday due, had willingly agreed to go with her; Aunt Meg had given her a home when her parents had died within a few weeks of each other of a particularly virulent flu. Not only had she done that, she had made her welcome, treated her as a daughter, strained her resources to have her educated and, when Caroline had decided that she would like to be a nurse, had encouraged her to leave the small house at Basing, a small village to the east of Basingstoke, and enrol at one of the London teaching hospitals. She had been there almost eighteen months now, and although she still missed the quiet life of the village it wasn't too far for her to go back there twice a month.
Her aunt was waiting for her, a comfortable matronly figure, sensibly clad in various shades of brown.
'Well?' she wanted to know. 'Did you find the house?'
'Yes, Aunt. It was one of those patrician town houses beside one of the small canals branching off from the Herengracht.'
'Who answered the door?'
'I suppose he was a butler. He was very polite and he spoke English.' She paused. 'I fell down the steps as I left. The cousin of Corinna's who was to have the package picked me up and put something on a graze
'Did you like him?' Aunt Meg never beat about the bush.
'Well, he seemed very nicekind, you know, and lovely manners. I felt a fool.'
'One always does. Never mind, dear, you're not likely to meet him again. Let us go and eat our sandwiches; I'm looking forward to this tour.'
The coach, with its guide, took them around the city: the Oude Kerk, the Nieuwe Kerk, the Koninklijk Paleis, a bewildering succession of museums, Anne Frankhuis and, finally, the Rijksmuseum. Caroline, a sensible girl, aware that she might never get the chance to see Amsterdam again, listened and looked and stored away a multitude of odd sights and sounds to think about later, and in between whiles she thought about Corinna's cousin. He had looked like a man of leisure and he lived in a splendid house; probably he did nothing muchsat on a few committees perhaps, lent his name to boards of directors. She didn't know Corinna well enough to ask. It was only by chance that Corinna had got to hear that she was going to Amsterdam and had asked her to take the package and deliver it. 'It's only books,' she had said, 'but they cost the earth to post and they might get lost.'
There was a trip to Alkmaar on the following day but her Aunt Meg hadn't had her fill of Amsterdam yet. She spent the day wandering up and down the narrow lanes and streets and Caroline, nothing loath, went with her. They got lost several times but that, as her aunt pointed out, was half the fun. It was a pity that their wanderings took them nowhere near the Herengracht; Caroline, keeping her eyes open for a dark blue Bentley, saw no sign of it.
It was a good thing, she told herself firmly, that they would be going back home on the following day.
Their return home was made on a drab and chilly day, a remnant of winter. From the coach windows Holland looked flat and dull and very wet, but England looked dull too, even if not as flat, as they sped Londonwards from the ferry. Caroline had two more days' holiday before she had to return to hospital, so once they reached Victoria and wished their fellow passengers goodbye she and Aunt Meg were able to take themselves off to catch the next train to Basingstoke and from there get a taxi for the two miles to Basing.
Aunt Meg had shopped prudently in Amsterdam, with forethought, and while Caroline lit the fire in the sitting-room and carried their cases upstairs to the two small bedrooms her aunt opened a Dutch can of soup, warmed rolls in the oven and made a pot of tea.
Tea made, they ate at the kitchen table since it was already evening and the journey had been tiring. 'Not that the coach wasn't comfortable,' observed Aunt Meg, 'and everyone in it very pleasant, but it's not the same as going on your own, is it?' She smiled across the table at Caroline. 'We could have done with that Bentley car you were telling me aboutnow that's the way to travel.'
Caroline, spooning the thick Dutch soup, agreed. The memory of Marius van Houben was still vivid; it was also a waste of time. 'We'll unpack in the morning,' she told her aunt. 'There'll be time to get the washing and ironing done before I go back.'
She was up early to make tea, load the washing machine and then go into the garden to take a look around her. Another week or so and it would be April; her aunt's flower-beds were bursting with green shoots and the rhubarb was coming along nicely under its bucket. It was a bit early to go across the street and collect Theobald, Aunt Meg's cat who had been boarded out while they were abroad, so she contented herself with poking around the seedlings in the tiny greenhouse before going back indoors and setting the table for their breakfast.
The meal over, she filled the washing-line at the end of the garden and went across to Mrs Parkin's for Theobald. The sun had come out now, and the village, so peaceful and quiet despite its nearness to Basingstoke, looked delightful. She paused to admire the small houses and cottages around her before thumping on Mrs Parkin's door knocker.
Theobald, an elderly tabby with a torn ear and handsome whiskers, was pleased to see her. 'Good as gold,' avowed Mrs Parkin. 'Got 'is wits about 'im, 'e 'as. 'As you 'ad a nice time in foreign parts?'
'Lovely, thank you, Mrs Parkin. Aunt Meg will be over to see you presently and she will tell you all about it.'
Caroline bore the cat back to his own home, pegged out the rest of the washing and, with her aunt having a chat over the coffee-cups with Mrs Parkin, took herself off to the village stores. There were several customers there, all of whom she knew, and all of whom wanted to know if the holiday had been a success.