Nobody in Fairacre knows much about Miss Quinn, which is a rare state of affairs and much regretted by the villagers. Apart from the fact that she lives in the annex to Mrs. Benson’s house and that she works in Caxley, her past history and the amount of her salary remains a tantalizing mystery.
In fact, Miss Quinn is a highly efficient secretary to a Caxley businessman. She runs him, and her own affairs, with terrifying competence. She is completely unsentimental and plans to spend her Christmas exactly as she wants, without fuss or family.
But before the great day, her brother rings to say his wife has been rushed to the hospital, and could she come and cope with the children? Secretly dismayed, Miss Quinn sets out to do her duty.
She copes as capably with the turmoil of her brother’s household as she does with the office, and the regret for her lost Christmas is mitigated by the children's joy and the unexpected arrival of an old flame . . .
“Miss Read’s novels are sheer delight.” —Chicago Tribune
About the Author
Miss Read (1913–2012) was the pseudonym of Mrs. Dora Saint, a former schoolteacher beloved for her novels of English rural life, especially those set in the fictional villages of Thrush Green and Fairacre. The first of these, Village School, was published in 1955, and Miss Read continued to write until her retirement in 1996. In the 1998, she was awarded an MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire, for her services to literature.
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If you take the road from the downland village of Fairacre to Beech Green, you will notice three things.
First, it is extremely pretty, with flower-studded banks or wide grass verges, clumps of trees, and a goodly amount of hawthorn hedging.
Second, it runs steadily downhill, which is not surprising as the valley of the river Cax lies about six miles southward.
Third, it loops and curls upon itself in the most snake-like manner, so that if you are driving it is necessary to negotiate the bends prudently, in third gear, and with all senses alert.
Because of the nature of the road, then, a certain attractive house, set back behind a high holly hedge, escapes the attention of the passer-by.
Holly Lodge began modestly enough as a small cottage belonging to a farming family at Beech Green. No one knows the name of the builder, but it would have been some local man who used the materials to hand, the flints from the earth, the oak from the woods, and straw from the harvest fields, to fashion walls, beams, and thatched roof. When the work was done, he chipped the date "1773" on the king beam, collected his dues, and went on to the next job.
It is interesting to note that the first occupant of the cottage when preparing for Christmas in that year would be unaware of the exciting events happening on the other side of the Atlantic, which would have such influence upon the lives of his children, and those who would follow them, as tenants of the farmer. The Boston Tea Party would mean nothing to him, as he brought in his Christmas logs for the hearth. But a hundred and seventy years later, Americans would live under that thatched roof, in time of war, and be welcomed by the villagers of Fairacre.
By that time, the modest two-up-and-two-down cottage had been enlarged so that there were three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, and a large kitchen below. The lean-to of earlier days, which had housed the washtub, the strings of onions, and the dried bunches of herbs for winter seasoning, had vanished. Despite war-time stringencies, the house was cared for and the garden trim, and the owner, John Phipps, serving with his regiment, longed for the day of his return.
It never came. He was killed in the Normandy landings on D-day, and the house was sold. It changed hands several times, and, partly because of this and partly because of its retired position, about a mile from the center of Fairacre, Holly Lodge always seemed secret and aloof. The people who took it were always "outsiders," retired worthies from Caxley in the main, with grown-up families and a desire for a quiet life in a house small enough to be manageable without domestic help.
The last couple to arrive, some two hundred years after the builder had carved his date on the king beam, were named Benson. Ambrose Benson was a retired bank manager from Caxley and his wife Joan, once a school mistress, was a bustling sixty-year-old. Their only son was up at Cambridge, their only daughter married with three children.
Fairacre, as always, was interested to see the preparations being made before the couple moved in. The holly hedge, unfortunately, screened much activity, and the fact that Holly Lodge was some distance from the village itself dampened the usual ardor of the gossip hunters. Nevertheless, it was soon learned that an annex was being built at one end of the house, comprising a sitting room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen, which would be occupied by Mrs. Benson's elderly mother.
Mr. Willet, caretaker at Fairacre School, sexton of St. Patrick's, and general handyman to the whole village, was the main source of such snippets of news about Holly Lodge as were available. The builder of the annex, although a Caxley man, was a distant cousin of Mrs. Willet's, and asked if her husband could give a hand laying a brick path round the new addition.
It was a job after Mr. Willet's heart. He enjoyed handling the old rosy bricks, matching them for color, aligning them squarely, and making a lasting object of beauty and use. All his spare time, in the month before the Bensons were due to take over, he spent in their garden at his task, humming to himself as he worked.
His happiness was marred only by his impatience with the dilatory and slapdash ways of the builders.
"To see them sittin' on their haunches suppin' tea," said Mr. Willet to his friend Mr. Lamb, the postmaster at Fairacre, "fair makes my blood boil. And that fathead of a plumber has left the new bath standing in the middle of the lawn so that there's a great yellow mark where the grass has been killed."
"Marvelous, ennit!" agreed Mr. Lamb. "D'you reckon they'll get in on time?"
"Not the way those chaps are carrying on," snorted Mr. Willet. "Be lucky to get in by Christmas, if you ask me."
Mr. Willet's contribution to the amenities of Holly Lodge was finished before the end of August. The Bensons had hoped to be in residence by then but, as Mr. Willet had forecast, they had to await the departure of the plasterer, the painters, and the plumber.
At last, on a mercifully fine October day, the removal vans rolled up, and Fairacre had the pleasure of knowing that the newcomers had really arrived.
Joan Benson was soon studied, discussed, and finally approved by the village. She was a plump bird-like little woman, quick in speech and movement, given to wearing pastel colors and rather more jewelry than Fairacre was used to. Nevertheless, she was outstandingly friendly. She joined the Women's Institute and made a good impression by offering to help with the washing up, a task which the local gentry tended to ignore.
Even Mrs. Pringle, the village's arch-moaner, had to admit that "she'd settled in quite nice for a town woman," but could not resist adding that Time-Alone-Would-Tell. Ambrose Benson was not much seen in the village, but it was observed that the garden at Holly Lodge was being put into good shape after the ravages of the builders' sojourn, and that he seemed to be enjoying his retirement in the new home.
Mr. Partridge, the vicar of Fairacre, had called upon his new parishioners and had high hopes of persuading Ambrose Benson to take part in the numerous village activities which needed just such a person as a retired bank manager to see to them. How Fairacre had managed to muddle along before his arrival, Ambrose began to wonder, as he listened to the good vicar's account of the pressing needs of various committees, but, naturally, he kept this thought to himself.
"A charming fellow," Gerald Partridge told his wife. "I'm sure he will be a great asset to Fairacre."
The third member of the household was rarely seen. Joan's mother was eighty-seven, smitten with arthritis, and had difficulty in getting about. But the villagers agreed that she did the most beautiful knitting, despite her swollen fingers, and smiled very sweetly from the car when her daughter took her for a drive.
When the Bensons' first Christmas at Holly Lodge arrived, it was generally agreed in Fairacre that the vicar might be right.
Ambrose Benson, his wife, and mother-in-law could well prove to be an asset to the village.
* * *
The winter was long and hard. It was not surprising that little was seen of the newcomers. Holly Lodge, snug behind the high hedge which gave it its name, seemed to be in a state of hibernation. Joan Benson was seen occasionally in the Post Office or village shop, but Ambrose, it seemed, tended to have bronchial trouble and did not venture far in icy weather. As for old Mrs. Penwood, her arthritis made it difficult to get from one room to the other, and she spent more and more time in the relative comfort of a warm bed.
"I shall be extra glad to see the spring," admitted Joan to Mr. Lamb, as she posted a parcel to her daughter. "My husband and mother are virtually housebound in this bitter weather. I long to get out into the garden, and I know they do too."
"Won't be long now," comforted Mr. Lamb, looking at the bleak village street through the window.
But Mr. Lamb was wrong. Bob Willet, weather prophet among his many other roles, was stern in his predictions.
"We won't get no warmth till gone Easter," he told those who asked his opinion. "Then we'll be lucky. Might well be Whitsun afore it picks up."
"Ain't you a Job's comforter, eh?" chaffed one listener. But he secretly respected Bob Willet's forecasts. Too often he was right.
On one of the darkest days of January, when a gray lowering sky gave the feeling of being in a tent and Fairacre folk were glad to draw the blinds at four o'clock against such an inhospitable world, news went round the village grape vine that poor Ambrose Benson had been taken by ambulance to Caxley Hospital.
"Couldn't hardly draw breath," announced Mrs. Pringle, who had received the news via Minnie Pringle, her niece, who had had it from the milkman. "Choking his life out, he was. I've always said that anything attacking the bronichals is proper cruel. It was congested bronichals that carried off my Uncle Albert, and him only fifty-two."
The next day, the Bensons' daughter arrived, and the following day their son.
Gerald Partridge, the vicar, calling to offer sympathy and help, found the two ladies at Holly Lodge red-eyed but calm.
"He is putting up a marvelous fight, they tell me," said Joan Benson, "and he has always been very fit, apart from this chest weakness. We are full of hope."
"If there is anything I, or my wife, can do, please call upon us," begged the vicar. "You are all very much in our thoughts, and we shall pray for your husband's recovery on Sunday morning."
"You are so kind. We've been quite overwhelmed with sympathetic enquiries. Really, Fairacre is the friendliest place, particularly when trouble has struck."
True to his word, Mr. Partridge and his congregation prayed earnestly for Ambrose's restoration to health. But, even as they prayed, the sick man's life was ebbing, and by the time the good people emerged into St. Patrick's wintry churchyard, Ambrose Benson had drawn his last painful breath.
* * *
This tragic blow, coming at the end of a long spell of anxiety, hit Joan cruelly. For years, she and Ambrose had looked forward to his retirement. They had planned trips abroad, holidays in London where they could satisfy their love for the theater, and, of course, the shared joys of the new home and its garden. Now all was shattered.
In a daze, she dealt with the dismal arrangements for the funeral, thankful to have her son and daughter with her over the first dreadful week of widowhood.
Luckily, Ambrose's affairs had been left in apple-pie order, as was to be expected from a methodical bank manager, but it was plain that Joan would need to be careful with money in the years ahead.
When her son and daughter departed, after the funeral, Joan was thankful to have the company of her mother in the house. The old lady seemed frailer than ever, and Joan took to sleeping in the spare bed put up in her mother's room.
The annex had been planned on one floor, and during those nights when Joan lay awake, listening to the shallow breathing of her mother and the queer little whimpers which she sometimes made unconsciously as the arthritis troubled her dreams, she began to appreciate the charm of the new addition to Holly Lodge.
Sometimes she wondered if she might let it, and install her mother on the ground floor of the main house. Many a night was passed in planning rooms and arranging furniture, and this helped a little in mitigating the dreadful waves of grief which still engulfed her.
It was during this sad time that Joan found several true friends in Fairacre. Mrs. Partridge and Mrs.Mawne were particularly understanding, visiting frequently, and taking it in turns to sit with Mrs. Penwood so that Joan could have a brief shopping expedition to Caxley or a visit to old friends in the town.
She was met with sympathy and kindness wherever she went in the village, and became more and more determined to remain at Holly Lodge as, she felt sure, Ambrose would have wished.
Spring was late in arriving, as Bob Willet had forecast, and it was late in April that the first really warm day came.
"I shall sit out," said Mrs. Penwood decidedly. "Put my chair in the shelter of the porch, Joan, and I will enjoy the fresh air after all these months of being a prisoner."
"It is still quite chilly," said Joan. "Do you think it is wise?"
"Of course it's wise!" responded her mother. "It will do me more good than all the doctor's pills put together."
With difficulty, Joan settled her mother in the sunshine. She was swathed in a warm cloak and had a mohair rug over her legs, but Joan was alarmed to find how cold her hands were when she took her some coffee.
Mrs. Penwood brushed aside her daughter's protestations.
"I haven't been so happy since Ambrose —" she began, and hastily changed this to, "for months. The air is wonderful. Just what I need."
She insisted on having her light lunch outside, and Joan watched her struggling to hold a spoon with numbed fingers.
"Do come inside after lunch, Mother," she begged. "You've really had the best of the day, you know."
But the old lady was adamant. In some ways, thought Joan, as she washed up, it was far simpler to cope with half a dozen children. At least they recognized authority, even if they did not always obey it. Old ladies, however sweet-natured, did not see why they should take orders from those younger than themselves.
She returned to find her mother sleeping, and decided to let her have another half an hour before she insisted on moving her indoors. Carefully, she spread another rug over the sleeping form, tucking the cold hands beneath it. Already the air was beginning to cool, and Joan went in to light the fire, ready for a cheerful tea-time.
A few minutes later, she heard cries and groans from her mother, and hurried outside. The old lady appeared to be having a spasm, and made incoherent noises. The only word which Joan could understand was the anguished cry of "Pain, pain!"
Fear gave her strength to wrest the old lady, coverings and all, from the chair and to stumble with her to the bedroom in the annex. Swiftly she managed to put her, still fully clothed, into bed, and ran to the telephone.
Their old family doctor from Caxley arrived within the hour, examined his patient minutely, and shook his head.
"I shall give her an injection now," he told Joan. "Just see that she remains warm and quiet. I will look in again after this evening's surgery."
Joan nodded, too stricken to speak.
"Got a good neighbor handy to keep you company?" asked the doctor, knowing how recently she had been widowed.
"I will telephone the vicar's wife," whispered Joan.
"I'll do it for you," said the doctor.
Within five minutes, Mrs. Partridge arrived, and the doctor went to his car.
"I'm afraid Mrs. Pen wood is in a pretty poor way," he confided to the vicar's wife as she saw him off. "It's a sad task to leave you with, but I will be back soon after seven."
He was as good as his word. But when Mrs. Partridge opened the door of Holly Lodge to him, he saw at once that his patient had gone.
* * *
Joan Benson spent that night, and the next one, at the vicarage, and the bonds formed then between the two women were to remain strong throughout their lives.
After this second blow, Joan went to stay for a time with her daughter. The children's chatter, and their heed of her, gave her comfort, and she had time to try to put her plans in order.
She decided to stay. Holly Lodge might seem rather large for one widowed lady, but her children and grandchildren would need bedrooms when they visited, and she did not want to part with much-loved possessions.
But the annex, she decided, must be let. It was quite self-contained, and would make a charming home for some quiet woman in circumstances such as her own, or for that matter, for a mature woman with a job.
The Caxley Chronicle carried an advertisement in early June. Several people came to see Joan Benson but nobody seemed really suitable.
It was Henry Mawne, the vicar's friend and a distinguished ornithologist, who first mentioned Miss Quinn.
"She's secretary to my old friend Barney Hatch in Caxley," he told Joan. "I know she needs somewhere. Her present digs are noisy, and she likes a quiet life. Nice woman, thirtyish, keeps old Barney straight, and that takes some doing. Like me to mention it?"
"Yes, please. I would be grateful."
And thus it came about that Miriam Quinn, personal private secretary to Sir Barnabas Hatch, the financier, came to look at Holly Lodge's annex one warm June evening, breathed in the mingled scent of roses and pinks, and surveyed the high hedge which ensured privacy, with the greatest satisfaction.
"I should like to come very much," she said gravely to Joan Benson.
"And I," said that lady joyfully, "should like you to. Shall we go inside and settle things?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No Holly for Miss Quinn"
Copyright © 1976 Miss Read.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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