HOUSE TO LET
“If,” said Olive moodily, “we wanted a house with twenty bedrooms and ten bathrooms, we could pick and choose.”
“But,” remarked Bobby, a trifle nervously, for he was never quite sure to what lengths Olive might not be driven in her desperation, “we don’t, do we?”
Olive thought the remark superfluous and unhelpful. She said so. Then she said:
“What’s the good of being a what-d’you-call-it at Scotland Yard if you haven’t a roof to your head?”
“I am not,” said Bobby at his most dignified, “a what-d’you-call-it at Scotland Yard. I am temporary-acting-junior-under-deputy-assistant-commissioner—unattached.”
“Don’t use so many long words,” said Olive.
“Well, head cook and bottle washer might convey the same idea,” Bobby conceded, “but still we have got a roof to our heads, haven’t we?”
“An hotel roof,” Olive said. “What’s the good of that except to keep out the rain? Especially when all they want is to get you out so they can get in someone else who’ll pay more. Especially us, because they daren’t overcharge a—a cop,” said Olive, who knew wives should never allow their husbands to get above themselves. She added: “Old Mrs. Hague is being pushed off.”
“No loss,” grunted Bobby.
“She was rude to one of the chamber-maids,” said Olive, slightly awe-struck, “and the maid complained so Mrs. Hague has to go. The manager said he could have as many guests as he wanted but maids mattered.”
“Mrs. Hague was rude to us,” observed Bobby, and Olive pointed out that the manager didn’t mind that. Guests, he considered, could settle their own affairs, but he had to look after the staff, and to-day the staff is always right. Bobby said he supposed he must be going. He had a dull day before him, he said. Nothing but a lot of dry routine work. Any intelligent typist could do it just as well. Olive, who had been looking at the paper, gave a sudden startled exclamation and grabbed him by the arm.
“Bobby,” she gasped, all trembling excitement, “listen to this. ‘To Let. On a three-year term. Attractive country cottage. Four bed, two rec., garage. All services. Large garden. Twenty miles from town. Rail and ’bus convenient. References required. Apply: Box 3752.’ Oh, do you think. . .?”
“No,” said Bobby, “I don’t. Too good to be true. Practical joke, very likely.”
But Olive refused to think so basely of human nature.
“I am going to answer it,” she said firmly.
“What is one more twopence ha’penny stamp among so many?” Bobby asked and departed.
Bobby thought of it no more. Olive tried not to. No good indulging in wishful thinking. But two days later she found a letter waiting for her on the breakfast table. She opened it without expectation. She read it again to make sure. Then she gasped: “Bobby. Look,” but could get no further.
“What’s the matter?” asked Bobby, who had just arrived, fresh from shaving in cold water because there was no hot, as the hotel’s stock of coal had run out. He said: “The coffee can’t be any worse than usual and this isn’t the morning for bacon—or anything else much,” he added, surveying the bleak prospect on the breakfast table.
“It’s an order to view,” said Olive faintly.
“View what?” asked Bobby.
“That cottage. You remember? The advertisement I answered. There’s an order to view. It says how to get there. Look.”
Bobby looked. Doubtfully. He said:
“You can bet your life there’s a snag somewhere. Most likely it’s been bombed and repaired by the village carpenter. Or burnt down. Or the previous tenants all died of small-pox.”
“Bobby, be quiet,” ordered Olive.
“Or it’s haunted,” Bobby continued relentlessly. “A poltergeist very likely,” and Olive looked troubled, for recently they had both listened to a broadcast about poltergeists and Olive’s general faith in the stability of furniture in general and lumps of coal in particular was not yet fully restored.
But she rallied bravely.
“I don’t care if there is,” she said, untruthfully. “Better a poltergeist and a house than no poltergeist and no house. Ring up the Yard and tell them you can’t come to-day. ‘Urgent private affairs’ is what you say, isn’t it?”
“Just like that?” asked Bobby.
“Just like that,” said Olive firmly. “And do be quick. I expect there’ll be dozens and hundreds of people there and a queue miles long. Don’t let’s bother about breakfast.”
“My girl,” said Bobby, and now it was his turn to be firm, “you sit down and eat what there is to eat—if any.”
Olive sighed but obeyed. After all, even a husband must be humoured at times, and Bobby’s appetite was one thing that remained constant in a kaleidoscopic world.
“Only do be quick,” she urged.
“No good breaking our necks for nothing,” Bobby told her. “There’s sure to be a snag in it somewhere. No need to advertise if there wasn’t. Besides, I may not be able to get away.”
But he knew, and so did Olive, that there was not likely to be any difficulty. For at present his position at the Yard was undefined, his duties and responsibilities not yet clearly laid down. In a week or two there was to be a conference at which the work of the department would be re-organized. Bobby had an idea that his job would be largely advising, helping and directing both the new men joining a C.I.D. sadly depleted during the war, and those returning after six years in the forces. All would need instruction in the new methods available for fighting the new methods always being evolved in the underworld. It was a recent case he had managed to bring to a successful conclusion, so saving the Government of the day from the possibility of a few unpleasant moments at question time in the House, and even from the risk of the loss of votes in the country, that had earned him his present appointment. He had a feeling that perhaps it was really intended to keep him in reserve for emergencies. But emergencies are rare, even in these sadly troubled days, and no doubt he would find his time fully occupied with instructing and advising till the Yard could adapt itself to new peacetime conditions. So far, however, he had had little to do except routine work. Not that he minded. A period of comparative leisure was welcome enough while he himself settled down in new surroundings and while Olive wrestled with her housekeeping problems—or rather, tried to find a house to keep.
“I suppose,” she said now, as impatiently she watched Bobby chewing his way through what the hotel management called ‘omelette aux choux’ because they thought it sounded better in French, “it wouldn’t be any good sending a telegram or something to say we’re taking it?”
“It would not,” said Bobby. “For one thing there’s no ’phone number and no address, except the cottage itself and most likely that’s empty. For another, there’s sure to be a snag in it somewhere and probably a pretty big one. Something fishy somewhere.”
“I don’t know how you can be so horrid,” Olive protested. “If there is,” she added ominously, “I don’t suppose I shall ever forgive you. For goodness gracious sake, hurry up and tell the Yard and get the car out. There isn’t a moment to lose,” and in her mind’s eye she saw an ever-lengthening queue outside that attractive cottage, with themselves always at the far end. “It’s no good looking for the marmalade,” she added, “we finished the preserve ration the day before yesterday, and besides, you can’t possibly want to eat any more.”
“More?” asked Bobby, surprised. “Did you say ‘more’? Oh, well, I suppose ‘more’ is a relative term.”
However, he went off then to get the car and make sure there was enough of the petrol ration left for the needs of their trip. Fortunately, when they arrived at their destination, it was to find all Olive’s gloomy anticipations of mile-long queues totally unfounded. A quiet and peaceful scene, with no sign anywhere of the eager, clamouring crowd they had both expected. The house itself really had, just as the advertisement said, an attractive appearance. It stood well back from the road in a large well-tended garden and the design was simple and pleasant. There was a tiled verandah on which on warm days it would be possible to sit out. There were convenient-looking outhouses, a garage large enough for two cars, which meant ample room for all the impedimenta cars collect by some deep-seated law of attraction. In front were flowering trees and shrubs, at the back were fruit trees, and Olive said:
“If we come here, we shall have fruit—fruit,” she said again, her voice lingering lovingly on a word of which she had almost forgotten the significance.
“We aren’t here yet,” said Bobby.
“Wet blanket,” said Olive.
They fell silent then, sitting there and looking round, absorbing the quiet beauty of the surrounding scene. At a little distance was visible, above tree tops, a church tower, and they heard the clock slowly chime the hour, the sound gentle and muffled in the distance. Nearer, showed the chimneys of a large house, the building itself hidden by a row of tall poplar trees. No other habitation was in sight, except for a smaller cottage they had passed two or three hundred yards further down the road.
“I suppose,” Olive said, drawing a deep breath, “it is real, isn’t it?”
“It looks a jolly little place,” Bobby admitted, and quite forgot to add that there was sure to be a snag in it somewhere.
“You might pinch me, will you? so I can be sure I’m awake . . . ai—ee, you beast, I didn’t mean a hard pinch, I meant a teeny-weeny one.”
“I wanted you to be quite sure,” Bobby explained.
“I wonder,” said Olive, letting, in spite of herself, doubt creep into her mind, “I wonder what the kitchen’s like? I don’t suppose there would be any hope of a resident maid. They want cinemas and things. I might be able to get someone from the village to help.”
“We aren’t here yet,” Bobby reminded her. “Time enough to worry about maids and help when we are. What do we do now? No one about. No ‘To Let’ board, nothing to show where you get the key. And the garden gate padlocked.”
He sounded his horn in the hope of attracting attention. The only result was that Olive gave him a reproachful glance.
“Oh, don’t,” she said, “not with everything so quiet and lovely. Couldn’t you go and look for someone to ask? They would know in the village most likely or there’s a house over there. You can see the chimneys behind that row of poplars. Or that cottage we passed down the road. They might know there.”
“I suppose we have come to the right place,” Bobby said doubtfully.
“If we haven’t,” Olive told him, “I shall probably die of heart failure on the spot. Serve you right, too.”
Bobby was studying the directions given on the order to view they had received.
“Seems all right,” he said. “It says, ‘Fern Cottage, Steep Lane.’ This is Steep Lane and there’s the name on the garden gate. It’s empty, too.”
“Oh, look, someone’s coming,” Olive said.
Walking up the road towards them was a tall woman, dressed entirely in black, a sombre spot in the bright sunshine, her shadow dark before her on the white and dusty road. She came slowly, not looking at them, her gaze directed straight down the road, far into the distance, but not as though there were anything there it watched; a strange abstracted gaze, as of one who lived only either in the past or in the future, or indeed it might be in some other world. A handsome, stately figure she presented in her slow progress towards them, and yet one that seemed, as it were, alien to and apart from all that lay around.
It seemed at first as if she meant to pass them by unheeded, almost indeed as if she failed to distinguish them from their surroundings. Bobby, overcoming an odd reluctance to question one who seemed so much apart from common things, began to alight from the car, with the intention of speaking to her as she passed. But it was she who spoke first, and her voice was deep and strange in its suggestion of unheard, undetected undertones as she said:
“Is it Mr. and Mrs. Owen? Mr. Fielding asked me to say he was sorry he had been obliged to go to town. He asked me to look out for you and give you the keys. When you have finished, will you please lock everything up just as it was and return me the keys. I live at the cottage down the road.”
When she had spoken she turned without waiting for a reply and went back as she had come with the same slow, measured step, with the same strange manner of being somehow apart and aloof and separate, In a way nothing could have been more commonplace and ordinary than this production by a neighbour of the keys of the house they had come to look at. None the less, both Bobby and Olive felt they had been through an experience beyond the ordinary, an experience fraught with meanings, implications, inferences that were beyond their apprehension.