Song of songs, p.43
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       Song of Songs, p.43

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  ‘Good, I’m glad to hear that Sis I mean, my lady.’ His face reddened, and, conscious of Letty at my elbow, I said recklessly, ‘Oh, please call me Lady Helena, Ben – after all, we’re old friends. And do let me introduce you to my sister Letty, this is Sergeant Holden – Ben, my sister, Lady Violet Girvan.’

  Letty said warmly, ‘How do you do?’

  ‘Pleased to meet you.’ They shook hands. There was a short silence and then Ben said, ‘Well, I’m right pleased to have seen you. Give my best regards to the Captain and tell him I hope…’

  I suddenly broke in, ‘Ben, why don’t you come to visit him at Hatton one afternoon? He’d be delighted to see you – and it would be a great kindness to him, he can’t get out at the moment – he had a nasty bout of chest trouble recently, and he does so like to talk over old times.’

  Ben looked at me for a moment, then he took a deep breath and said firmly, ‘I’d like to do that, my lady – Lady Helena – I’d like that fine.’

  ‘The station’s at Hareford, it’s only half an hour from Manchester.’

  ‘Aye, I know.’

  ‘Tell them to ring for a car for you, it’s a long walk through the estate. We’ll look forward to seeing you – you must take tea with us.’

  His face broke into a grin. ‘Aye, I’ll be there.’ He raised his cap again and clumped off to his waiting friends.

  Letty began to giggle. She was still laughing as she said, ‘Really, Helena – you are an old hypocrite! One minute you’re scolding me for being too familiar with the chauffeur, and the next you’re calmly inviting other ranks to tea – saying, “Oh, please call me Lady Helena – and this is my sister, Lady Violet”!’

  ‘You didn’t mind, did you, Letty?’

  ‘Of course I didn’t – but I’d love to see Mother’s face when he starts “Lady Helenaing” you all over the drawing room carpet! Oh, Hellie – was he one of the ones you put on a bed pan?’

  ‘I suppose he must have been – I really can’t remember, there were so many, and we did have male orderlies.’

  ‘Naturally – much more proper!’ Letty laughed again, then she suddenly stopped. ‘Helena – Sergeant Holden – but that’s the man who…’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Poor old Eddie – he must have been hard work to carry – he was taller than your Ben Holden. Oh well, I suppose Mother will have to forgive you this time.’

  All the way home in the car I remembered Eddie’s loved face and his voice as he had said: ‘Then he picked me up and carried me in, just like a baby.’ But it had been too late.

  Although I had stopped hunting I still rode regularly. Robbie would chase me out with, ‘You need some fresh air, Hellie and that mare will grow fat as a pig if you don’t exercise her.’ Letty came with me once or twice, looking very ungainly on her cross-saddle, but we did not have a lot to say to each other. I had seen so little of her over the last years that sometimes I felt she was a stranger. Alice had come up to stay for a few days in the autumn, but although we had become closer during the war I could not forgive her for her hasty remarriage – her new husband was a barrier between us. Besides, I had always chosen the company of my brothers. So now I rode alone.

  The week before Christmas I turned Gavotte’s head to bring her back across the drive from the Hareford Gate – and saw a small dark figure trudging up the slope beyond the lake. As I came nearer to the drive he stopped, and stood motionless on the gravel, staring at the point where the Hall rose above the trees. Then he pulled his shoulders right back and set off again; he walked with a barely perceptible limp, and now I was closer I realized who it was – Ben Holden. He stopped again, looking ahead, and seemed to half turn away. I urged Gavotte into a canter on the springy turf and as he heard the beat of her hooves he swung round and dragged his cap off – then stood very still, watching me. As I reined in beside him I noticed that his square face was clean-shaven again now. ‘Hello Ben, so you have come – Captain Girvan will be so pleased to see you. But surely you’re not lost – you can see the Hall from here.’

  ‘Aye, that’s what I’ve been looking at.’ He paused, then burst out, ‘Truth to tell – I were near turning round – going straight back – afore I saw you.’ He stared up at me, his face set, then he turned and looked ahead again. I followed his gaze: Hatton glowed golden above its ranks of green terraces, the long lines of windows glinting in the pale winter sun. It looked just as it always did. He flung a hand towards the rolling parkland. ‘I seem to have been walking for miles, since I come through that gate.’

  I smiled at him. ‘But it is miles, Ben – that’s why I told you to ring for transport. But it’s not far now, so why…’

  He drew a deep breath. ‘It were stupid of me – I knew you were a lady, an’ all that – but I only ever saw you in uniform, save that once – so well, I never thought it ’ud be like this.’

  And at last I understood: Ben Holden, Sergeant-Major Holden, D.C.M., M.M. – who had marched calmly across No-Man’s-Land carrying my brother and ignoring German bullets – was afraid – frightened by Hatton. I wanted to laugh, it seemed so silly – but I managed to stop myself. ‘Look Ben, it’s just my home.’ He still looked so unhappy that I had to make him feel better, so I leant forward and patted Gavotte’s neck. ‘And you know, I’m nothing but a pauper, really – I haven’t a penny of my own. This mare, everything I’m wearing – they’re all provided by Papa – and the way he rants on about the income tax he won’t be able to do that much longer!’ I smiled down at him, and his face lightened – but then he glanced towards the hall again, and his eyes were uncertain, so I said, ‘I’ve finished my ride, I’ll walk in with you.’

  He moved quickly to the mare’s head, then hesitated, ‘I don’t know how to…’ I had been going to dismount on my own, as I usually did, but now I held out my hands to him. ‘Hold her head steady, Ben, and give me your other hand.’ I caught hold of his broad palm with my gloved fingers and jumped quickly down.

  As I rearranged the apron of my habit I saw that he was studying my saddle. He glanced round at me. ‘I never seen one of these afore – I didn’t know how you kept on.’

  ‘Oh, it’s much safer than a cross-saddle – especially when you’re jumping. Look, I put my right leg round the near head, here – so it’s flat on the horse’s shoulder.’ I touched the saddle, explaining as Gavotte stood obediently still, ‘and then I tuck the other knee well up under the leaping head – there’s only one stirrup, of course.’

  Ben Holden had relaxed now, absorbed in the technicalities. He moved his capable hands over the saddle, testing the strength of the heads and scrutinizing the fastenings of the stirrup. Then he stood back and nodded, satisfied. ‘I reckon I’ve got th’idea now – let’s be getting on, then.’

  I could not walk very fast in my tight-fitting riding boots, and Ben looked down at them and said, ‘Those are hardly meant to go on ground, I reckon.’

  ‘No, hardly. But I do like them to be well-fitted – I’m afraid I’m rather vain about my feet!’

  He turned and grinned at me. ‘Aye, I remember at No. 23 you always walked lighter than t’other sisters – so we knew when it were you coming in dark. That leather were over fine for them wards – must have worn out quick.’

  I laughed. ‘They did – but they were still heavier than I liked. Do you know, when I was very young Nanny told me once I was going to have a pair of “glassy” slippers. Cinderella was one of my favourite stories, so I was convinced they’d be made of real glass. I was so excited – I couldn’t sleep all night for thinking about them! And of course, when they came they weren’t glass at all, just glace kid.’

  ‘Were you right disappointed, then?’ He sounded quite worried.

  ‘Only for a moment – and then I thought they were so beautiful – they had silver buckles.’

  Ben said thoughtfully, ‘Aye, I reckon shoes made of kid must be real dainty. I don’t recollect ever having seen ’em. How’s the Captain been since I saw you in Manch
ester?’

  We walked on together, talking of Robbie and of No. 23 until we reached the garden gate. ‘Now I must take the mare round to the stables – you go through and ring the bell, Ben, and the butler will show you to Captain Girvan.’

  Ben stared across at the massive double doors between their tall flanking pillars, and beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. Then he offered, ‘I’ll come to stables with you – give you a hand with her.’

  ‘Come with me by all means, Ben – but the groom will see to the horse.’

  He reddened. ‘Of course – stupid of me.’

  I wanted to ease his embarrassment so I asked casually, ‘Do you ride?’ And then cursed my tactlessness – of course the working classes did not ride! But luckily he took my question at its face value. ‘I got me leg across the horses pulling the ammunition limbers once or twice – just to see what it were like, and I managed to hang on – but I didn’t feel too safe.’

  I laughed, ‘There you are, Ben – it’s as I told you, side-saddles are much better. Though my sister’s always telling me I should change – that I’m being old-fashioned.’

  Ben paused a moment, then said loudly, ‘Don’t you take no notice of ’er, Lady Helena. When you came galloping towards me there you looked just like a princess – I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.’

  By the time he had finished speaking his face was a dusky red. I was warmed by his simple compliment – and the obvious effort it had cost him to deliver it. ‘Why, thank you, Ben. Here she is, Jenkins – I’ve walked her already, so she’s cooled off by now.’

  ‘Thank you, my lady.’

  I took Ben Holden in by the family entrance. Seen through his eyes I suppose even that seemed rather awe-inspiring. I rang for Cooper. ‘Please take Sergeant Holden to Mr Robbie – he’ll be in the small drawing room – and then send Norah up to me.’

  ‘Very good, my lady.’

  ‘I must go and get changed – I’ll be down shortly, Ben.’ For a moment his face looked like Daniel’s at the entrance to the lions’ den, then he straightened his back still further and marched resolutely after Cooper. I found I was smiling a little as I ran up the oak staircase.

  As Norah helped me off with my habit I said, ‘Bring me my silver glace kid slippers, please.’

  ‘But my lady…’

  ‘I’m going to wear them with my afternoon frock – just for today.’ When she brought them to me I eased them gently on, and twirled one shining foot – admiring it.

  Robbie and Ben Holden were already deep in conversation when I came into the small drawing room. Ben looked quickly round and began to rise, but I motioned him down before Robbie could try to get up too. As I advanced across the carpet I took little dancing steps, and then held out my right foot. ‘There you are, Ben – a glassy slipper!’

  He flushed and put out one tentative hand, then drew it quickly back. ‘Well, I am learning a lot today, and no mistake. First it’s side-saddles, then slippers. Were them what Cinderella really wore?’

  Robbie shook his head. ‘I don’t think so, Holden. Our governess told us there was some confusion in the translation from the French to explain that story – the English got muddled between “verre” meaning glass, and “vair” that meant fur. Cinderella wore fur slippers – and Hellie would never even touch those, let alone wear them.’

  Ben Holden raised his eyebrows in a silent question. I answered it. ‘Because of our first governess.’

  Robbie grinned. ‘I’ll tell you the whole story, Holden – but I must warn you that it doesn’t reflect much credit on my lady here! It was when Nanny had to go away unexpectedly and we were pitchforked into the arms of this wretched Frenchwoman.’ He shuddered. ‘She was a sadist of the first order and she bullied all three of us, but especially me – so in the end big sister here decided to act.’ He grinned across at me affectionately. ‘You wouldn’t believe this, Holden, to see her sitting there looking so demure – but she literally threw herself at this woman and sank her teeth into her hand – she hung on like a terrier with a rat – Eddie and I were petrified by her daring. But when the woman had finally prised Hellie’s jaws apart she marched her off’ – Robbie closed his eyes for a moment. ‘We thought she’d taken her away to kill her – stupid of us, but one’s not very rational when one’s young and frightened.’ He stopped for breath, then went on, ‘Anyway, to get back to the slippers: Mamselle shut Hellie up in Mother’s fur cupboard, and showed her one of the neckties – with a head and teeth – and told her it would bite her if she dared to move. So my sister’s never been very keen on fur since – or small furry animals.’

  Ben said, ‘Like rats.’

  Robbie grinned. ‘Yes, she wrote and told me how you’d helped her out there, old man – did you ever manage to house train that ginger tom?’ And now we were all laughing together.

  Ben and my brother sat chatting to each other about men they had known and sectors they had fought in. I listened with half an ear, glad to see Robbie so engrossed and happy. After a while Cooper came in, and told us her ladyship would be pleased to receive Sergeant Holden for tea in the main drawing room. Robbie pulled himself up. ‘Just time for your usual sing-song then, Hellie – we’ll go through to the music room.’ He staggered a little as he reached for his stick and Ben Holden moved forward, but he saw the slight shake of the head I gave him and stopped at once. It was only too obvious Robbie could not both walk and talk and I was grateful when Ben Holden began to speak, telling us he was on the footplate again, firing trains into Manchester sometimes, or driving on shunting turns.

  Once he was safely sitting down Robbie asked, ‘Where are you living now, Holden?’

  ‘I’m back where I started – though I’m in lodgings now otherwise it’s all t’same, same job, same shed – up at Ainsclough.’

  Robbie caught my eye – Ainsclough! Ainsclough where Miss Nellie Girvan had once sung so light-heartedly. I sat down at the piano and, almost without thinking, began to play the opening bars of Edward German’s ‘Daffodils’ – and now I sang again that song I had sung a lifetime ago. As I played the last notes I saw that Ben Holden’s gaze was riveted on me. ‘Are you fond of music, Ben?’

  It seemed to take him a long time to find an answer, and then he said simply, ‘Aye, I am.’

  I turned back to the keyboard and began to play Arne’s lively setting of Ariel’s song. I heard the door open as I was singing the last: ‘Under the blossom, which hangs on the bough.’ My fingers continued to travel over the keys in the closing notes and then we all stood up.

  We followed Cooper to the big drawing room, where both my parents were waiting beside the tea things. Papa was affable, Mother gracious, Ben awestruck. Mother knew what was due to Eddie’s Sergeant Holden and though it must have cost her an effort to pour tea for an ex-NCO footplateman in her own drawing room she knew the debt we owed and paid it scrupulously. After tea Papa insisted that Ben Holden must be driven back to the station in the Delaunay-Belleville, and when, as he took his leave, Mother heard him say, ‘Goodbye, Lady Helena,’ she scarcely winced. I was sorry Letty was not there to see her.

  After Christmas my young sister decided to go to Paris for a few weeks with a schoolfriend, and Robbie handed her a cheque before she left. She flung herself on him in delight, but as she hugged him I saw his face stiffen in pain, and felt a sharp pang of fear. But Ben Holden came to see him twice in January, and his visits seemed to do Robbie good. I did not see Ben myself as each time I was in Manchester at a singing lesson; I was sorry to have missed him on the second occasion – it was bad luck as Madame Goldman had had to change my usual time at the last minute.

  At the end of January I received a letter with a German stamp – I held it gingerly in my hand, as if it would explode. When I opened it I found that it was from Frau Reinmar, in Munich. She was very distressed to trouble me, but she said there was no one else she could turn to: little Franzl had lost an arm in the war – they were very badly off now and they could not afford
an artificial one – not even a hook – could we, please, help?

  I showed it to Robbie and he wrote out a money order at once; when I replied I enclosed a short note to Franzl – it was difficult to write to him, even just simple news – but I did so want to make contact with him again; he had been like another brother to me. Frau Reinmar sent my note back unopened. She had not dared to even show it to Franzl – he was so bitter against the English; she had lied to him as to the source of the money. It was not for himself that Franzl minded so much, but for Kurt, Kurt his beloved elder brother who had been killed on the Somme. She was so very, very grateful – but please, I must never ever write to Franzl again. After I had read it out to Robbie he looked at me tiredly and said, ‘They did lose, Hellie – it makes a difference.’ I remembered Franzl, laughing on the ice beyond the Englischer Garten with my two tall twins – then I crumpled up the letter and threw it on the fire.

  Chapter Four

  Letty came back from France early in February. She seemed to have spent most of Robbie’s present on clothes, some of them very odd indeed. She boasted that she had rationalized her underwear and showed me a curious garment which was like a chemise, but with a loose flap which buttoned between one’s legs so one could dispense with wearing knickers. She pressed three pairs on me, made of satin: one in peach, one in pale blue and one in eau de nil – and she insisted that I take a set of black lace garters as well. I thanked her and put them away in a drawer. As I pushed it to, I began to laugh to myself – if I’d been wearing these frivolities when I was a girl, instead of my corset, I might have escaped three years of banishment! I wondered where Conan had got to – I could not even pronounce the names of the places on his postcards.

  Robbie was due for a medical board in London soon after Letty got back. Dr Craig asked to see me one day when he had left Robbie upstairs so I took him into the library. He said abruptly, ‘Look, are you going up to London with your brother?’

 

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