The woman put out her hand towards the brass plate to the side of the half-open door. She did not look at the name on the plate, which said, 'Alexander Armstrong & Son, Solicitors', but seemed to find support from it by touching its frame while she stood drawing in deep, shuddering breaths.
When she finally straightened herself and stepped through the doorway into a carpeted hall, she made her faltering way towards the desk to the left of her, behind which stood a young woman with her mouth agape.
The receptionist did not greet the visitor with a customary 'Can I help you, madam?' or 'Have you an appointment?' because, to her, it was instantly evident that this woman was a vagrant and had no business here; so she did not wait for her to speak but said, 'What d'you want? I...I think you've come to the wrong place.'
When the woman answered, 'Mis-ter Armstrong,' the girl was again surprised, this time by the sound of the voice, for it didn't match the woman's appearance. Although it was only a husky whisper it had, she recognised, a certain refinement about it.
But the appearance of the woman definitely outweighed the impression her voice made, for the girl now said abruptly, 'He only sees people by appointment.'
The woman pointed to her chest, then to her eyes and, opening her mouth wide, she brought out three words, 'He see me.'
'He's -- he's very busy.'
Again the head went back and the mouth opened, and the woman said, 'Mrs Baindor.'
Again the voice made an impression on the receptionist, so much so that she turned quickly and, pushing open the glass-panelled door of her office, she picked up the phone, at the same time watching the woman now turn from the counter and grope her way to a chair that was set near a small table on which stood a vase of flowers.
'Yes. What is it?'
'There's a...a person here.' Her voice was very low.
'What did you say? Speak up!'
'I said there's a person here. She...she looks like a vagrant but she says Mr Armstrong will see her.'
'A vagrant! What makes you think she looks like a vagrant?'
'Well, Miss Fairweather, you want to look at her yourself and see if my opinion is wrong.' The receptionist was daring to talk like this to Miss Fairweather, but she felt there was something very unusual about this woman.
'Did you get her name?'
'Yes, but it sounded funny, like Barndoor.'
'That's what it sounded like.'
At the other end of the phone Miss Fairweather sat pondering. Should she go downstairs and see who this person was who looked like a vagrant, or should she mention the name to Mr Armstrong to see if he knew any such person? She decided on the latter. She tapped on the door that separated her office from that of her employer and when that gentleman raised his head from reading a large parchment set out in front of him and said, 'What is it?' she coughed before saying, 'Miss Manning says there's an odd-looking person downstairs who says she wants to see you. Apparently she doesn't seem able to get rid of her. From Miss Manning's tone the woman appeared to think that you would know her name.'
'Well, what is it? I mean her name.'
'It sounded to Miss Manning, so she says, like Barndoor.'
'Well, that's what she said...Barndoor.'
Miss Fairweather was absolutely astounded at her employer's reaction to the mention of this name, for he jumped from his seat and shouted, yes, actually shouted aloud, 'Baindor, woman! Baindor! My God!'
She saw the parchment that he had been dealing with almost slide off the back of the desk as he thrust his chair back, then he ran across the room, almost knocking her over where she stood holding the door half open.
She had been with Mr Armstrong for fifteen years and had never seen him act like this. He was a placid, middle-aged man, strict in a way but always courteous. His excitement touched her. And now she was on the landing watching him almost leaping down the stairs.
When Alexander Armstrong reached the hall he stood for a moment gripping the stanchion post as he looked across at the woman, her body almost doubled up in the chair. He couldn't believe it: he couldn't and he wouldn't until he saw her face.
The woman did not lift her eyes to his until she saw his legs standing before her; then slowly she looked up and he gasped at the sight of her. The face might have been that of her skeleton, with the skin stretched over it, so prominent was the bone formation. Only the eye sockets tended to fall inwards and from them two pale, blood-shot eyes gazed up at him.
Two words seemed to fill Alexander Armstrong's mind and body and they kept repeating themselves: My God! My God! Then, too, was added the knowledge that sitting here looking at him with those almost dead eyes was a woman for whom he had been searching -- at least, for whom he and his business had been searching -- for twenty-five years. No, nearly twenty-six.
The words he brought out were in a muttered stammer: 'M-M-Mrs Baindor.'
She did not answer but made a small movement with her strangely capped head.
He held his arms out to her now, saying, 'Come upstairs with me, Irene.'
When she made the attempt to rise she fell back into the chair and her body seemed to fold up again. At this he swung round to where Miss Fairweather was standing at the foot of the stairs and yelled at her, 'Call my son!' and when she answered shakily, 'He's out, Mr Armstrong; you know, on the Fullman case.'
'Then get Taggart -- anybody?'
The chief clerk Taggart's office was at the other end of the building, and Miss Fairweather ran back up the stairs and along the corridor. Within two minutes Taggart was standing beside his employer, saying, 'Yes, sir?'
'Help me to get this lady to my office.'
For a moment Henry Taggart hesitated while he took in the lady's garb. She was a vagrant, if ever he had seen one in his life. But he did as he was bidden. Not only did he help the weird long-coated bundle to her feet, but, seeing that she was unable to stand and there wasn't room for three of them on the stairs, he picked up what the boss had called a lady, carried her up the stairs into the main office and laid her, as directed by Alexander, on the leather couch that was placed next to the long window overlooking the square.
Then, again almost shouting at his secretary, Alexander said, 'Make a cup of tea...strong, plenty of sugar.' From a cupboard he took down off a shelf a brandy flask and poured from it a measure into the silver-capped lid. This he took to the couch and, kneeling down by the woman, he put it to her lips, saying gently, 'Drink this.'
She made no effort to stop him pouring the liquid into her mouth; but when it hit her throat she coughed and choked and her whole body trembled. He turned and said to the clerk, 'Go down to the office and get the girl to phone for an ambulance.'
It must have been the sound of the word 'ambulance' that roused the woman, brought her head up and a protesting movement from her hand. At this Alexander, bending down to her, said, 'It's all right, my dear. It's all right. Not a big hospital...I understand. I understand.'
She lay back now and stared at him; then he turned quickly from her and, going to the phone on his table, he rang a number. When, presently, a voice answered him, saying, 'Beechwood Nursing Home,' he said curtly, 'Get me the Matron, quick!'
'Never mind who's speaking, get me the Matron quick!'
'I'm sorry. I'm Miss Armstrong's brother.'
'Oh. Oh yes, yes,' came the reply; and then there was silence. As he stood waiting, he turned and looked at the wreckage of a life lying on his couch, and again his mind cried, 'My God!'
'What is it, Alex?' said his sister's voice.
'Listen, Glenda. I'm sending you a patient.'
'You're not asking if we've got any room.'
'You'd have to make room somewhere. This is important.'
'I cannot make rooms --'
'Listen, Glenda. Have you a room?'
'Yes, as it happens I have, Alex; and may I ask what is up with you?'
'You'll know soon enough. Get that room ready; there'll be an ambulance there shortly and I shall be following it.'
The voice now was soft: 'What is it, Alex? You sound troubled, very troubled.'
'You'll know why in a short time, Glenda. Only tell the staff that there must be no chit-chat about the condition of your new patient. I mean how she appears...is dressed. For the moment just get that room ready.' Then, his voice changing, he said, 'This is a serious business, Glenda, and I can't believe what I am seeing lying on my office couch. Bye-bye, dear.'
When he put the phone down and turned round, Miss Fairweather was standing with a cup of tea in her hand, looking as if she was afraid to touch the weird bundle lying there. He took the cup from her; then, kneeling down again, he put one hand behind the woman's head to where the cap affair she was wearing bulged out into a kind of large hairnet, which fell on to her neck. It had been half hidden by the large collar of her worn, discoloured and, in parts, threadbare coat. Lifting her head forward, he said, 'Drink this, my dear.'
Again she was staring into his face; but now she made no movement of dissent when he put the cup to her lips. After she had taken two gulps of the strong tea and it began to run from the corners of her mouth, he quickly handed the cup and saucer back to Miss Fairweather and, taking a handkerchief from his pocket, he gently dabbed the thin lips.
When he saw her make an effort to speak again, he said softly, 'It's all right, my dear. There'll be plenty of time to talk later.'
But she still continued to stare at him; and what he heard her say now brought his eyes wide, for she murmured, 'My son...tell my son...He will come.'
He knew he was shaking his head slowly. She thought her son would come to her after all these years? She could know nothing about him; yet her last words 'He will come' had been spoken in an assured tone. Poor soul.
There came a tap on the door now; and Taggart stood there, saying, 'The ambulance is here, sir.'
'Tell them to bring up a stretcher.' Alexander turned swiftly to his secretary, saying, 'Fetch that old travelling rug out of the cupboard.'
Although still amazed, Miss Fairweather was quick, and after taking the rug from her Alexander pulled it open and tucked it about the thin body of the woman, gently lifting her from one side to the other until it overlapped.
The ambulancemen picked up the wrapped body from the couch, making no comment, not even on the woman's head-gear, but asked politely, 'Where to, sir?'
'Beechwood Nursing Home.'
His description did not get any further before one of the ambulancemen said, 'Oh, yes; we know it, sir. Beechwood Nursing Home, Salton Avenue, Longmere Road.'
It was almost two hours later and brother and sister were in the Matron's private sitting room; and there Glenda Armstrong stood holding the long dark coat up before her, saying, 'Can you believe it?' And not waiting for an answer, she went on, 'I can't. I remember putting this on her. It was such a beautiful coat and very heavy. I thought that even then, for it was lined to the very cuffs with lambswool. But look now, there is not a vestige of wool left in the lining, just a mere thin skin. And the coat was such a beautiful dark green; made with such thick Melton cloth you couldn't imagine it wearing out in two lifetimes. Well, it has almost worn out in one, God help her! Where d'you think it has been?'
'I don't know. I haven't any idea, but it's been on the road somewhere. Yet, looking as she did, surely she would have been detected, especially with that hat or whatever it's supposed to be.'
Glenda now picked up the hat from a chair and said, 'It was very smart, French, a cross between a turban and a tam-o'shanter with a brim round it. Look, the brim is still in place.' She touched the almost bare buckram-shaped rim with her fingertips, then lifted the pouch at the back as she said, 'She must have had it made for her to fit the bun she wore low down on her neck. Look at the dorothy bag! That's the same one she had with her when it happened.' Glenda pointed to the patched handbag lying on the seat of the chair. 'Everything she owned was in that bag. I remember I made her take her rings with her for she had taken them all off, even the wedding ring; and there was a necklace and a card case.'
Glenda sat down now on the edge of the large chesterfield beside her brother. 'When we heard nothing from her I always blamed myself for not sending someone with her to Eastbourne. When I put her on the train I said, "Now, let me know, won't you, how things are, and I shall come and see you in a few days or so." And that's the last I saw of her. Do you remember when you told her husband she had gone to her aunt's, and he went for you for not seeing that I had obeyed his orders and sent her to Conway House? My God! If ever there was an asylum under the name of rest-home! Yet I would have liked to have pushed her aunt into that place when I got to Eastbourne the next day and she told me that she wouldn't give her niece house room and had turned her away. She said that Irene's place was at her husband's side, and she deserved all she had got for carrying on with other men. Dear Lord in Heaven!' Glenda now hitched herself on to the cushions as she repeated, 'Dear Lord! We know now that the poor girl dared not lift her eyes to another man, never mind carry on with him.' Then she went on, 'Oh, and the vest or the shift, whatever you like to call it. It was made by old Betsy Briggs. She used to clean for Irene's father after her mother died and Irene was still at school. It was one of Betsy's expert pieces, a long, slim, clinging woollen shift. It was more like the sort of dress girls wear today. She had knitted one for Irene's mother because she was afflicted with a weak chest, and then she made one for Irene. And what d'you think? She still had it on today, or the remnants of it, for although it was clean it was held together not with wool but mending threads of different colours. And on top of it she was wearing what was left of the rose red velvet dress she wore that night at the concert. You remember it?'
'Yes. Yes, Glenda,' Alexander said wearily. 'I remember it. How did you manage to get her undressed?'
'Without much protest, until we came to the vest. Then her strength was renewed for a time, because she grabbed at it, at least at the waist part. When I reassured her she could keep it by her, but that I must take it off for the present, she allowed us to do so. And when we put it into her hands she grabbed at the middle of it and, slowly, she turned it inside out, and pointed to a small brown-paper-covered package about two inches square. It was pinned to the garment, top and bottom, with safety pins, and she attempted to undo them. After ! undid them for her she held on to the package. She held it to her bare chest, then let us take the flimsy woollen garment away from her. She made no resistance when the sister and nurse washed her. The sister said after: "It was eerie, like washing a corpse." Yet her body is covered with little blue marks, faint now but which at one time must have been prominent, you know, like the marks left on a miner's forehead from the coal.'
'Has she still got the package?'
'Yes. We left it in her hand, and she seemed to go to sleep. That was until Dr Swan came in. He stood looking down at her where she lay with her hair now in grey plaits each side of her face. I had already put him in the picture because he had attended her -- you remember? -- all those years ago. At the time, he was a very young man and must have had hundreds of patients through his hands since, yet he remembered her. "Dear Lord!" he said.
'It was when he took hold of her wrist that once more she seemed to be given strength, for she pulled her hand away and pressed it on top of the other, which held the little parcel. And although his voice was soft and reassuring when he said, "Don't worry, my dear, I'm not going to hurt you," there was fear in her eyes and her whole body trembled. His examination was brief, and she trembled violently throughout.
'When we were outside he said, "Her chest's in a bad way, but it's malnutrition that'll see her off. She can't have eaten properly for God knows how long. I've never seen a live body like it. Where has she been all these years?"
'"I don't know," I said to him. "That's what we hope to find out. But she has difficulty in speaking. It's as if she doesn't want to speak." Anyway, he said he'd call back later and we'd have a talk.'
Musingly, Alexander said now, 'I wonder what's in that package? Perhaps it might give us a lead.'
'Well, we'll not know until we can take it from her, or she gives it to us, which I can't see her doing as long as she's conscious.'
He turned to her and said, 'You know who her son is, don't you?'
'Yes, of course I do. And he'll have to be told: it's only right he should be. But how we're going to do it, and how soon, I don't know. The latter, I think, will depend on Dr Swan's opinion, and for the present all we can do is get some food into her. But it'll have to be slowly.'
Now Alexander rose to his feet, went to the fireplace and put his hands up on the marble mantelpiece. He looked down into the fire as he muttered, 'I'm shaking. I...The last two hours have brought the past rushing back at me as if it had happened yesterday.' He lifted his head and, turning towards her, he said, 'D'you think I might have a drink?'
'Of course; we both need one. Brandy or whisky?'
Glenda went into an adjoining room, and brought back with her a tray on which stood a decanter of whisky and two glasses. She poured out a large measure for her brother, a comparatively small one for herself.
After taking two gulps from his glass, Alexander said, 'I'd better get back to the office and put James in the picture. He, of course, knows nothing about this business; he was only a small boy when it all started.'
'Yes, I understand you must tell him, but you must also emphasise at the same time that he says not a word about it to anyone. Otherwise it'll be in the papers by the end of the week.'
His voice was serious as he answered her, 'Well, Glenda, that goes too for your staff. You must tell them that this must not be talked about, because if a hint of it got round that old scandal would erupt and no matter what the great-I-am did, he would not be able to buy off justice this time, and as much as I would like him to get his deserts there is the son to think about.'
'Don't you worry. This won't be the first secret my girls have kept.' Then she added, 'Will you come back to dinner later on?'
'No. I'm sorry, Glenda, I can't, but I'll phone before I go out because it'll be too late when I get back. All right?'
'All right; but I don't expect there'll be much change in her before then.'
Copyright © 2001 by The Trustees of the Catherine Cookson Charitable Trusts