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The two men stood at the window, contemplating the dreary January afternoon outside, and then by common consent turned to look at the room in which they were.
'Of course,' observed the elder of the two, a short, stout man with a thatch of grey hair and a craggy face, 'Norfolkthis part of rural Norfolkduring the winter months is hardly welcoming.' Despite his words he sounded hopefully questioning.
'I do not require a welcome.' His companion's deep voice had the trace of an accent. 'I require peace and quiet.' He glanced around him at the pleasant, rather shabby room, apparently impervious to the chill consequence to the house's having lain empty for some weeks. 'Today is the sixthI should like to come in four days' time. I shall have my housekeeper with me, but perhaps you can advise me as to the best means of getting help for the house.'
'That should be no difficulty, Mr van der Beek. There are several women in the village only too willing to oblige and should you require someone to keep the garden in order there is old Ned Groom who was the gardener here '
'Excellent.' Mr van der Beek turned to look out of the window again. He was an extremely tall man, heavily built and still in his thirties, with a commanding nose in a handsome face, a firm mouth and light clear blue eyes. His hair was so fair that it was difficult to see where it was already silvered with grey. 'I will take the house for six monthsperhaps you would undertake the paperwork.'
'Of course.' The older man hesitated. 'You mentioned that you required peace and quiet above all else. Might I suggest that you should employ someone: a general factotum, as it were, to relieve you of the tiresome interruptions which are bound to occurthe telephone, the tradespeople, bills to be paid, the tactful handling of unwelcome visitors, the care of your house should you wish to go away for a few days.'
'A paragon, in fact.' Mr van der Beek's voice was dry.
His companion chose to take him literally. 'Indeed, yes. A local person well known in the village and therefore someone who would not be resented and is the soul of discretion. Your housekeeper need have no fear that her authority will be undermined.'
Mr van der Beek took his time to consider that. 'It is probably a good idea, but it must be made clear to this person that sheit is a she, I presume?will come on a month's trial. I will leave you to make that clear and also to deal with the wages and so forth.'
'what wages had you in mind?'
Mr van der Beek waved a large impatient hand. 'My dear fellow, I leave that to your discretion.' He went to the door. 'Can I give you a lift back to Aylsham?'
His companion accepted eagerly and they left together, locking the door carefully behind them before getting into the dark blue Bentley parked in the drive before the house. Aylsham was something under twenty miles away and they had little to say to each other but, as Mr van der Beek drew up before the estate agent's office in the main street, he asked, 'You have my solicitor's number? Presumably the owner of the house has a solicitor of her own?'
'Of course. I shall contact them immediately. Rest assured that the house will be ready for you when you return in four days' time.'
They bade each other goodbye and Mr van der Beek drove himself on to Norwich and on down the A140 before cutting across country to Sudbury and Saffron walden, and, still keeping to the smaller roads, to London. It would have been quicker to have taken the A11 but he had time to spare and he wanted to go over his plans. It had taken careful planning to arrange for six months away from his work as a consultant surgeon; his meticulous notes had reached the stage when they could be transformed into a textbook on surgery and he had spent some weeks searching for a suitable place in which to live while he wrote it. He was fairly sure that he had found itat least, he profoundly hoped so.
The house agent watched him go and then hurried into his office and picked up the phone, dialled a number and waited impatiently for someone to answer. He didn't give the dry-as-dust voice time to say more than his name. 'George? Dr van der Beek has taken the Martins' house for six months. He wants to move in in four days' time. I'm to engage daily help and when I suggested he might need someone to help the housekeeper he's bringing with him he agreed. Will you see Patience as soon as possible? I didn't tell him that she was the niece of the owners, but in any case I don't think he will notice her; he wants complete quiet while he writes a book. Provided she can keep out of sight and get along with the housekeeper the job's hers '
Mr George Bennett coughed. 'It is very short noticethe paperwork.'
'Yes, yes, I know, but the Martins need the money very badly, and besides, Patience can add something to that miserable pension of theirs. It's a godsend.'
Mr Bennett coughed again. 'I will go and see Patience this afternoon. It is getting a little late; however I do agree with you that this is a chance not to be missed. Was the question of salary raised?'
'No, but he drives a Bentley and didn't quibble over the rent. I think it might be a good idea if she were to call and see the housekeepershe's coming with Mr van der Beek. I rather fancy that he will leave the running of the house to her.'
'Very well. I shall go and see Patience now and make sure that everything is in order by the tenth. Shall we leave it to her to engage the help needed?'
'I should think so. She is well known here and liked. There should be no difficulty.'
Patience Martin, standing at her bedroom window with a pile of freshly ironed linen in her arms, watched Mr Bennett coming along the street, his elderly person sheltering under an umbrella. The street was narrow and quiet, lined with small flat-fronted houses, all exactly alike, and he was obviously making for her aunts' front door. She put down the linen and ran downstairs in time to prevent him thumping the knocker; her aunts were dozing before their tea and they were too old and frail to be wakened to listen to bad news. For that was what it would be, she reflected; ever since they had lost almost all their capital in a company which had gone bankrupt her aunts regarded old Mr Bennett as the harbinger of bad news it was he who had warned them that they would have to leave their homesell it or rent it and live on the proceeds, and that frugally. Having lived in moderate comfort for all their lives they had been quite bewildered but uncomplaining, moving to the poky little house he had found for them, quite unable to appreciate the situation. It was Patience who had coped with the difficulties, paid bills and shopped with an economical eye, contriving to give them their glass of sherry before lunch and Earl Grey tea, extravagances offset by the cheaper cuts of meat skilfully disguised and cod instead of halibut
She reached the door in time to open it before Mr Bennett could knock, and she ushered him inside. In the narrow hall she took his umbrella, helped him off with his coat, informed him in her quiet voice that her aunts were asleep and ushered him into the sitting-room. It was a small room, overfurnished with her aunts' most treasured pieces but cheaply carpeted and curtained. Mr Bennett took an outsize armchair upholstered in worn brocade and put his briefcase down beside it.
'If it's bad news perhaps you'll tell me first,' suggested Patience in a matter-of-fact voice.
Mr Bennett, not to be hurried, studied her as she sat down opposite him. A pity that she was possessed of such unassuming features, he thought; lovely grey eyes fringed with black lashes, long and thick, were the only asset in her face with its too short nose, wide mouth and hair brushed firmly back into a careless bun. Very abundant hair, and silky, but most definitely mouse.
'My dear Patience, for once I bring good news. Your aunts' house has been let at a very good rent for six months, payable monthly in advance, which should allow you to live without worries for the time being.'
Patience, thinking of the small pile of bills waiting to be settled, sighed with relief. 'When does the new tenant come?'
'In four days' time. A Mr van der Beek, a surgeon who needs time to write a book of reference. He emphasises that he must have complete quiet while he is working and has chosen your aunts' house for that reason. He is bringing his housekeeper with him but he has asked Mr Tomkins to find help in the village for the household and, since he was so emphatic about being left undisturbed while he writes, Mr Tomkins suggested that he might like to employ someone to act as a buffer between him and any hindrancesthe telephone, tradespeople, unwelcome callers and so forth. He agreed to this and Mr Tomkins told him that he knew of just such a personyourself, Patience, although he made no mention of your name or of the fact that you had lived in the house. It is suggested that, if you are agreeable, you might call on the housekeeper and introduce yourselfI feel that her goodwill is importantso that you may allay any fears she may have concerning her position as head of the domestic staff. Presumably you will come under that category. Your working hours have yet to be arranged, also your pay, but, from what I hear, Mr van der Beek is not a mean man. I shall be seeing him when he comes for the keys and will make sure that you are fairly treated.' Mr Bennett held his hands before him as if in prayer. 'I do not need to advise you to keep a low profile, Patienceto be neither seen nor heard should be your aim.'
'Well, I'll do my best, Mr Bennett, and thank you and Mr Tomkins for all your kindness. I am most grateful and a paid job will be more than welcomeI must get some money saved to tide us over until we can let the house or sell it after this Mr van der Beek has gone.' She smiled widely at him. 'Would you like a cup of tea?'
'No, my dear, I must get back and deal with various matters. I should like to call on your aunts tomorrowthere will be papers to signwhich is the best time of day?'
'About eleven o'clock, if you can manage that? May I tell them what you have told me or should you wish to do that yourself tomorrow?'
'Tell them by all means, my dear.' He got to his feet and presently left the house and Patience skipped upstairs on light feet and put away the laundry, humming cheerfully. Now the small outstanding bills could be paid and she could order more coal. She fell to wondering how much money she could expect for her services and then sobered a little at the thought that the housekeeper might take a dislike to her.
She went to the kitchen presently and got a tea-tray ready and, when she heard her aunts' slow progress down the stairs, made the tray ready and carried it in to the sitting-room.
The two old ladies were sitting one each side of the small fire, turning serene faces to her as she went in. They were a handsome pair, upright in their chairs, with identical hairstyles and dressed in similar dark brown dresses which conceded nothing to fashion. They were in fact Patience's great-aunts and her only living relations and she loved them dearly. She poured tea, offered the scones they enjoyed with it and sat down between them. As they always did, they asked her if she had had a pleasant afternoon, the opening which she had been waiting for.
They received her news with dignified delight, although they were both doubtful as to her accepting the job Mr Bennett had offered.
'It seems most unsuitable,' observed Aunt Bessy, the elder of the two ladies. 'Little better than domestic service.'
Patience hastened to reassure her. 'More a secretarial post,' she fibbed boldly, and Aunt Polly, a mere eighty years old and four years her sister's junior, agreed with her in her gentle way.
'It would be nice for Patience to have an outside interest,' she pointed out, 'and money of her own.'
Aunt Bessy, after due thought, conceded this, both old ladies happily unaware that any money their great-niece would earn would probably be swallowed up in the housekeeping purse. Over second cups of tea they pronounced themselves satisfied with the arrangements and willing to receive Mr Bennett when he called on the following day. This settled, they fell to speculating as to their tenant.
'Oh, probably elderly and set in his ways,' said Patience. 'Mr Bennett said that he was very emphatic about having complete quiet in the house while he works. Probably an old despot,' she added, 'but who cares, since he's paying quite a handsome rent and didn't quibble at the idea of hiring me as well?'