Excerpt: 'Miss Hargreaves'

Miss Hargreaves
Miss Hargreaves: A Novel
By Frank Baker
Paperback, 336 pages
Bloomsbury USA
List price: $14

Speechless, I sat down at a marble table and faced the Woman I had Made Up on The Spur of the Moment.

Henry was doggedly sucking his pipe, and looking at both of us under his black brows. I think the old devil was enjoying the situation; he's rather a hard-hearted brute at times. Meanwhile, Miss Hargreaves talked. And when she talked there was no time for anyone else to get a word in.

'You cannot imagine how I have looked forward to this moment, dear. And I can see you, too, have looked forward to it. Pleasure is written boldly all over your face.'

Henry laughed sardonically. I scowled.

'It is such a very long time since we met; indeed, I cannot remember now when or where that was. My memory — alas! — works but spasmodically in this, the evening of my days. But what an evening! Oh, yes! It is no use disguising the fact; I am no longer young.' She leant forward across the table, tapped me on the chest with a silver pencil suspended from a chain round her neck. 'Eighty-three, Norman; eighty-three! Five reigns. And yet — I feel as though I had been born last week! Youth' — she declaimed, touching her heart — 'lives here. Not alone hope but also youth springs eternal. Shall we partake of a touch of refreshment? It will be dreadful food, of course, but still — Thank you, thank you! A little soda-water, perhaps one of those Chelsea buns. And who is this modest young gentleman who has never a word to say for himself?'

She whizzed round on Henry and examined him from tip to toe through her lorgnettes.

'He reminds me' — she spoke to me in a loud aside — 'of my dear Archer. He, too, had the Byronic black hair, the beetle brows. Ah, me! Time flies. What happened sixty years ago is as clear as crystal; yet, what happened yesterday — gone, gone!'

I handed her a glass of soda-water and a bun. 'Thank you, dear; thank you. But who is this young man?'

She did not seem to take to Henry somehow.

'My friend,' I said, 'Henry Beddow.'

'Beddow?' She wrinkled up her nose. 'Beddow? Grosvenor once had a parlourmaid by the same name. By any chance — ? No? So you are Norman's friend? H'm. It follows, Mr Beddow, that you are my friend.'

I smirked. 'Thanks very much,' said Henry.

'Ah, Mr Beddow! I wonder whether you can realize what Norman's friendship means to an old thing like me? Can I compare his appearance in my latter days to a shaft of pure sunlight warming the frail timbers of some old barn? Fanciful imagery, maybe! You need not blush, my dear Norman; you need not blush.'

'I should like to know,' Henry got in suddenly, 'just how long, Miss Hargreaves, you have known Norman?'

'I tell you, Henry — ' I began weakly. But she was off again.

'Oh — ' she waved her hand expressively. 'Years! I cannot remember. You must never talk of time, Mr Beddow. I am an old lady and an old lady does not care to be reminded of time.'

'H'm. I see.' Henry rose and knocked out his pipe. 'Well, I must be getting along. Very glad to have met you, Miss Hargreaves. I hope Norman'll show you the sights of Cornford.'

'Yes, yes, of course he will.'

It was unbearable, Henry's foul desertion of me. I ran out of the refreshment room after him.

'For God's sake, don't leave me alone with her,' I pleaded.

'Damn it, old boy,' he said, 'she's your friend; not mine.'

'You're as responsible for her as I am.'

He stared at me wonderingly.

'You surely don't expect me to believe in that rubbish any longer, do you? Why, anyone could tell at once that she's known you for years.'

'That may be. But I haven't known her for years.'

'You said yourself you'd have known her anywhere.'

'Yes — but that was — I meant — Oh, God!'

'I'm going along to the dance now. I'll tell Marjorie not to expect you.'

'No — no — ' I cried.

Excerpted from Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. Copyright 2009 by Frank Baker. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.

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