Joan got out of the cab. In her hand she gripped a bird-cage, containing Bobbie, well muffled for the journey. ‘That’s the ’ouse, miss’, said the driver, pointing with his whip. A large gate painted and grained, with ‘The Pines’ in bold black lettering across it. She pushed it open and walked up the drive Speckled laurels and rhododendrons, now damp and dripping, flanked her on either hand. The yellow gravel was soggy and ill-kept, with grass and moss growing over it. At a bend in the drive the house came into view; a large three-storied building of the Victorian era, with a wide lawn in front, and a porch with Corinthian columns. The house had once had the misfortune to be painted all over, and now presented the mournful appearance of neglected and peeling paint. As Joan rang the bell she got the impression of a great number of inadequate sash windows, curtained in a dull shade of maroon.
A middle-aged maid-servant opened the door. ‘Miss Ogden’? she inquired, before Joan had time to speak.
‘Yes, I’m Miss Ogden. Do you think my luggage could be brought in, please?’
‘That cabby should have driven up to the door’, grumbled the woman. ‘And he knows it, too; they’re that lazy!’
She left Joan standing in the hall while she lifted her skirts and stepped gingerly down the drive. Joan looked about her, still clutching the cage. The impression of maroon persisted here; it was everywhere: in the carpet, the leather chairs, the wallpaper. Even the stained-glass fanlight over the front door took up the prevailing tone. The house had its characteristic smell, too; all houses had. Glory Point, she remembered, had smelt of tar, fresh paint and brass polish; the Rodneys house had smelt of Ralph’s musty law books. Leaside had smelt of newspaper cooking, and for many years of her father’s pipes. But this house, what was it it smelt of? She decided that it smelt of old people.
The servant came back, followed by a now surly cabby, carrying a trunk
‘I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, miss’, she said less austerely.
A door opened at the far end of the hall, and a pleasant-looking old woman came forward. Her blue print dress and large apron were reassuringly clean, and she smiled affably at Joan. She spoke in the loud sing-song voice of the midlands. ‘I’m the cook-housekeeper; Keith’s my name’, she drawled. ‘I don’t know why you’ve been left standin’ like this, miss. I says to ‘er, I says, “Now you be sure an’ ask her into the drawing-room when ‘er comes, and let me know at once!” But Mary, ‘er be that queer, some days.’
‘Oh, it’s all right’, said Joan, tactfully. ‘She had to go and see about my luggage.’
‘Very impolite, I calls it; Mary should know better. Please to step this way.’
Joan followed her into a large, cold room, evidently seldom used, for the blinds were down and the furniture in linen covers.
‘And I says to ‘er, “Mind you ‘ave the blinds up and all,” and now just look at this!’ grumbled Mrs. Keith, as she struggled with a cord at one of the windows. ‘And now, miss,’ she continued, turning to Joan, ‘since you’re new to us and we’re new to you, I’d better tell you about the master. He’s a little queer like, childish, as no doubt you’ve heard. But he’s very gentle and quiet some days, and if as how you find him troublesome at first, please just come to I. He knows I and he be good with I. And when you goes in to him first, mind to take notice of his toys, if he asks you; he be just a great baby, although he’s a grey-haired man, and his toys is all the world to him. After you’ve been introduced to him, you come downstairs and I’ll explain about his diet and all his little fancies. He’s a poor, afflicted gentleman, but we’re all very fond on ’im. I’ve been here for thirty-five years, and I hope you’ll stay as long, miss, if I may say so. And now I’ll show you your room.’
They mounted the sombre staircase to a fair-sized bedroom on the first floor.
‘I’ll be waiting for you on the landing, to take you to Master Rupert when you’re ready’, said Mrs. Keith as she closed the door.
Joan put Bobbie’s cage down on the chest of drawers and took off his cover. ‘My dear little yellow bird,’ she murmured caressingly, ‘we must keep you out of the draught!’
She took off her hat and washed her hands. Going to her bag she found a comb and hastily tidied her hair.
‘I’m quite ready, Mrs. Keith’, she said, rejoining the housekeeper.
The old woman opened a door a little way down the passage. ‘This be his nursery’, she whispered.
The room was long and unexpectedly light, having three large windows; but it struck Joan with a little shock of pity that they were barred along the lower half, just as the window had been in the old bedroom at Leaside when she and Milky were venturesome little children. In front of the fire stood a tall nursery guard.
‘Here’s the kind lady, Master Rupert; ‘er what I told you about.’
A large, shabby man, with a full grey beard and a mane of hair, was kneeling in front of an open cupboard. As Joan came forward he looked round piteously.
‘I’ve lost my dolly, my best dolly’, he whimpered. ‘You haven’t hidden my dolly, have you?’
‘Now, now, Master Rupert!’ said Mrs. Keith sharply. ‘This is Miss Ogden, what’s come here to look after you; come and say “How do you do” to her, at once.’
The big, untidy man stood up. He eyed Joan with suspicion, fingering his beard. ‘I don’t like you,’ he said thoughtfully, ‘I don’t like you at all. Go away, please; I believe you’ve hidden my dolly.’
‘Can’t I help you to look for her?’ Joan suggested. ‘What’s this one; is this the dolly?’ she added, retrieving a dilapidated wax doll from under a chair.
‘That’s my dolly!’ cried the man in a tone of rapture. ‘That’s my dear, darling dolly! Isn’t she beautiful?’ And he hugged the doll to his bosom.
‘Say “Thank you”, Master Rupert’, admonished Mrs. Keith.
But the man looked sulky. ‘I shan’t thank her; she hid my dolly. I know she did!’
‘Oh, you must thank her, Master Rupert. It was her who found your dolly for you. Come now, be good!’
But the patient stamped his foot. ‘Take her away!’ he ordered peremptorily. ‘I don’t like her hair.’
‘Come downstairs’, murmured Mrs. Keith, pushing Joan gently out of the room. ‘He’ll be all right next time he sees you; you be strange to him just at first, but presently he’ll love you dearly, I expects.’
In the housekeeper’s room the old woman became expansive. Obviously nervous lest the patient had made a bad impression, she tried clumsily to correct it by entertaining Joan with details about her predecessors, of whom Mrs. Keith had apparently known four. Seated in the worn arm-chair by the fire, Joan listened silently to this depressing recital.
At last Mrs. Keith came to Joan’s immediate predecessor, Miss King, who had stayed for twenty years. She had been such a pretty lady when she first arrived, yellow-haired and all smiles. She had only taken the post to help her family of little brothers and sisters. But when they were all grown up and no longer in such pressing need of help, Miss King had still stayed on, because, as she said, she had grown used to it, somehow, and didn’t feel that she could make a change after all those years. Master Rupert, had loved her dearly, for she had understood all his little ways and had played with him for hours. She used to read aloud to him too. He liked fairy stories best, after ‘Robinson Crusoe’; Miss Ogden would find that he was never tired of ‘Robinson Crusoe’, it would be a good book for her to start reading to him.
Master Rupert used to beg to have his little bed put in Miss King’s room, he was so afraid of the dark. But of course she couldn’t consent to this, for he was a full-grown man, after all, though he didn’t know it, ‘Poor afflicted gentleman, being all innocent like.’ When Miss King had had to go in the end, she had been very unhappy at leaving. But her old father had become bedridden by that time, so her family had sent for her to look after him.
‘Hard, I calls it,’ said Mrs. Keith, ‘for her to have to go home for that, after all the years of toiling with Master Rupert; but then you see, miss, her was a spinster like, and so the others thought as how her was the one to do it.’
From the discussion of Joan’s predecessors, Mrs. Keith went on to speak of Master Rupert himself. She explained that his mind had only grown up to the age of six. ‘Retarded something or other’, she said the doctor called it. His parents had died when he was twelve, and his guardian, not knowing what to do with him, had sent him to a home for deficient children. But after a time he had grown too old to remain there, and so, as he had been left quite well off, poor gentleman, his trustees had bought ‘The Pines’ for him to live in, and there he had lived ever since.
Mrs. Keith explained at some length the daily routine that Joan must follow, and went into the minutest details regarding the patient’s menu. ‘He do be greedy, a bit’, she remarked apologetically. ‘Them as is mentally afflicted often is, the doctor says. The way he eats would surprise you, considering how little exercise he takes! But his stomach is that weak, and he’s given to vomiting something awful if I’se not careful what he gets; so the doctor, ‘e says to me, ‘e says, “Better give him light meals in between times,” ‘e says, “so as to fill him up, like.” He’s a poor afflicted gentleman,’ she repeated once more, with real regret in her voice. ‘But he’ll be all right with you, miss, never fear; I knows ’im and he’s that fond of I, it’s touching. You see, miss, I’se known ’im for thirty-five years.’
‘If I want advice I shall certainly come to you, Mrs. Keith’, Joan told her gratefully. ‘But I expect I’ll get on all right, as you say.’
She felt very tired after the journey and longed painfully to lie down and rest. Her brain seemed muddled and she was so afraid she might forget something.
Was it Benger’s at eleven and beef-tea at four, or the other way round?’ she asked anxiously.
‘It were the other way round, miss; don’t you think you’d better write it down?’
‘Perhaps I had’, Joan agreed, fishing in her jacket pocket for her little notebook.
Now, then’, she said, trying hard to speak brightly. Now then, Mrs. Keith, we’d better make a list. Hot milk coloured with coffee, that’s when he wakes up, I understand; then beef-tea at eleven o’clock, and his cough mixture at twelve-thirty. He has Benger’s at tea-time and again before going to bed. Oh, I shall soon get into it all, I expect. I’m used to invalids, you see.’
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Last updated Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 22:02