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The Nutcombe Tales


Sentimental Value

When the baker's wife, Helen Wetherby, discovered that the diamond ring was gone from the third finger of her right hand, she realised at once that it must have come off while she was kneading the dough earlier that morning. By then, however, the first batch of bread had already been baked. Indeed, some had already been sold, for a few customers regularly bought their breakfast rolls still hot from the oven as soon as the shop opened.

Her husband Bob was not sympathetic to her loss. How many times have I told you to sell the darned thing? he demanded. But would you have it? Oh, no! 'It was my mother's engagement ring,' you'd say. 'I would be betraying her memory,' you'd say. Well, now it's gone anyway, and you've got nothing to show for it. If you'd sold it like I told you, we'd have had the benefit of the cash.

Helen was still sniffling over her loss and her husband's criticism when a customer entered the shop. It was one of their early morning regulars, Rupert Thursby. He had already been in an hour earlier for his usual purchase, and Bob was surprised to see him again so soon. His return was explained when he opened his hand and held it out, a sparkling diamond ring lying on the palm.

Oh, Mr Thursby, you've found it! Helen delightedly exclaimed. I'm so glad!

I broke open my breakfast roll, and there it was, Rupert explained. I've found threepenny joeys in my Christmas pudding before, but never a diamond ring in my bread.

What have you done with the roll? asked Bob.

Why, I ate it of course. The ring had done it no harm.

Then you'll not be expecting a refund, declared Bob, and started to retreat into the bake house in the rear of the shop. At the door he turned and added, And there was never any reward offered!

When he had gone, Helen apologised for her husband's behaviour. He's not been himself lately, she explained.

Privately Rupert thought that Bob was being very much himself, his reputation for meanness being unsurpassed, but he kept this thought to himself. Instead he said gently, You should take good care of that ring, Mrs Wetherby. It really is quite valuable, you know.

It's sentimental value means more to me, Mr Thursby. It was my mother's engagement ring.

Rupert's eyebrows rose in surprise. Really? Has the stone been reset then?

Helen was taken aback by the unexpected question, and replied, Why, no.

Rupert lowered his voice and said, in a sympathetic tone, You know, my dear, you can tell the age of a ring from the hallmark, and the mark on your ring . . . At that moment, Bob came back into the shop. Rupert stopped what he was saying, added briskly, I am glad you got your ring back. Good day to you both, and left abruptly.

That afternoon, Bob went into town for supplies. As soon as he had gone, Helen shut up the shop and called on Rupert, who lived alone in a well appointed cottage. The village understood him to be a writer. He welcomed her warmly and led her into his study.

I wanted to thank you again for finding my ring, Helen said. I think you were going to tell me something about the hallmark.

Before I returned the ring to you, Mrs Wetherby, I cleaned it and examined it. I know a bit about these things, and I could tell it was a very fine stone of good size. When I looked at the hallmark, I saw that it had been made in 1938 - a little late to be your mother's engagement ring, I think.

Oh, I see. You are quite right. Thank you for being so tactful in the shop. I suppose I owe you an explanation.

You owe me nothing, dear lady.

All the same, I would like to tell you.

As you wish. Come, let's sit and make ourselves comfortable, and then you can tell me.

They sat down, and Helen told her story.

*****

The ring was given to me by Bob's brother. You didn't know Bob had a brother? I'm not surprised. Bob never speaks of him, even though they were twins. Not identical twins, you understand. Far from it. They were as unlike as you could imagine. Paul, Bob's brother, he was tall and strong, handsome in a manly way, but not conceited with it. He was good humoured, and always considerate. Everybody liked him. Rupert smiled inwardly, realising that in describing Bob's brother, Helen had unknowingly revealed her assessment of everything which Bob was not. She continued, I was in love with Paul, but he didn't know it. Felicity Harkness was his girl. I paired up with Bob, and we sometimes went out as a foursome. That was the only reason I took up with Bob, so that I might see Paul occasionally. When Paul and Felicity got officially engaged, I lost all hope, so when Bob proposed to me, I accepted without thinking. What else was there for me? Then the war came, and Paul and Bob joined up. They were both sent overseas, Bob first, and Paul soon after.

Just before Paul left, during his embarkation leave, Felicity ditched him. It was so cruel. She sent him a telegram saying that she had married someone else. Poor Paul, he was heart-broken, and turned to me to see if I could explain what had gone wrong. Well, I comforted him as well as I could - some might say too well. But Felicity had almost finished him, and in those few days I saw to it that he came alive again. He gave me this ring, and said that we should get married after the war. We agreed that it wouldn't be fair for me to send Bob a 'Dear John' letter while he was away fighting, particularly when the other man was his own brother, but when they were both back safe and sound, Paul and I were going to tell Bob as gently as possible what had happened, and hope that he would understand. Excuse me. She paused and dabbed at her nose with a small handkerchief, stifling a sob.

Composing herself, she continued quietly, But they didn't both come back safe and sound - only Bob did. Being Bob's fiancée, I was often at their mother's house. I was there in April 1945 when Mrs Wetherby got the War Office telegram telling her that Paul had been killed in action in Italy. When Bob returned, I married him. What else could I do? Nothing mattered to me anymore. But I kept Paul's ring. My mother had died during the war, and had left me a few pieces of trumpery jewellery. I told Bob that the ring had been hers. So now you know why it means so much to me. It's a relief to be able to tell someone about it after all this time, despite what you must think of me.

My dear Mrs Wetherby, I have always held you in the highest regard, which your story has not diminished in the least - quite the contrary. You have nothing to reproach yourself for. Your husband is a very lucky man. I envy him. I am not sure he realises how lucky he is. What you did for Paul, even if done from selfish motives, was noble and compassionate. You restored his faith in the love of a woman, and saved him from dying bitter and disillusioned. Everybody needs love.

Helen stood up. I must go now. I am not supposed to shut the shop.

Rupert rose and accompanied her to the door. She held her hand out, and he took it in both of his, keeping hold of it as he spoke. Remember, everybody needs love. If I can ever help you in any way, Mrs Wetherby - Helen - may I call you Helen? She nodded shyly. If I can ever help you in any way, Helen - advice, a shoulder to cry on, anything - do not hesitate. You know where I am.

She blushed slightly, and whispered Thank you. I shall not forget, but it is not easy for me to get away.

Ah, I must think about that.

As she walked back to the shop, she wondered what he had meant by his last remark.

*****

On her way home, she was passed by a pre-war Hispano-Suiza bearing CD plates and driven by a uniformed chauffeur of Teutonic appearance. In the back an elderly lady, dressed in formal Edwardian style, sat bolt upright, looking straight ahead, both hands clasped on an ebony cane. It was an odd sight, but not an unfamiliar one. The pair lived in the cottage adjacent to Rupert's, where they were visited regularly every month by a black Humber Super Snipe limousine bearing official insignia. They were the subject of much rumour and speculation in the village. He spoke excellent English, but with a marked middle-European accent. She was never seen out except on her occasional jaunts in the car. The relationship between the two was not known. He acted as if he were her servant, but some had it that he was her son, while others thought that they were lovers. She was variously believed to be a retired silent film star, a former royal mistress, or a Romanoff in exile, even the Grand Duchess Anastasia. He wore a full set of whiskers, naval style, which gave him a slight resemblance to his late Majesty King George V. This supported the theory that he was a royal bastard, but not necessarily of the House of Windsor, since both Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II bore the same resemblance.

Rupert knew that none of the stories was true. His two neighbours were from Poland. They were Boris Borkowski and his sister, Sofia. Boris had fled Poland in 1938 and had served with distinction in the RAF Polish Fighter Squadron 303. Sofia had remained in Poland, but in the final days of the war had managed to escape from both Germans and Russians, and make her way to England to join her brother. They worked as translators and advisers on Polish affairs. Officially they were accredited to the French Embassy, but actually were employed by British intelligence. Every month they were brought fresh documents to translate, mostly intercepted messages to and from the Polish embassy in London. Boris and Sofia were both well aware of the stories which circulated about them, and they shamelessly played up to them for their own amusement.

*****

When Rupert visited the baker's shop the day after finding the ring, Bob Wetherby served him and complained about his wife's carelessness. Could have sold that ring long ago, she could, and got something out of it, instead of her silly sentimental nonsense. And what if someone had choked on it? They might have sued me! She's just as slap-dash with the books. All kinds of trouble I have with the tax man because of her mistakes.

Rupert suggested tactfully that Bob could employ a bookkeeper.

What, pay out wages to a stranger while my missus sits doing nothing? The business won't stand it, Mr Thursby, and that's a fact!

Well, Mr Wetherby, suppose your wife got a spare time job somewhere else? Then you could use her wages to pay a part-time bookkeeper.

The only trouble with that, Mr Thursby, is I can't imagine anyone else wanting to employ a useless article like her.

The following morning, Boris called in at the baker's. Could you please display this postcard in your window, Mr Wetherby?

That'll be a shilling a week, minimum four weeks, in advance.

Boris knew that the baker's normal rate and minimum period were only half what he was being charged, but he paid the four shillings with a smile, and left.

When he had gone, Bob looked at the card. It read Wanted. Part time cook for private household. Must be good with cakes. 8 hrs per week. Tuesdays & Fridays, 1 to 5. Good rate for right person. Apply Rose Cottage, Nutcombe.

He did not put the card in his window, but instead showed it to his wife. Look at this, love. Suit you down to the ground. Why don't you apply? If you get it, we can use your wages to hire a bookkeeper, and you won't have to do the books no more.

Oh, I'm not sure, Bob. Rose Cottage? Isn't that where those Russians live?

Yes, that's the place, but so much the better. Them foreigners don't understand English money. They'll probably pay over the odds.

The next morning Helen was behind the counter when Rupert came in for his breakfast rolls, and she asked him whether he thought it would be safe for her to work at Rose Cottage.

Quite safe, he assured her. They are nice people. I know them well. I play chess with Boris every Tuesday and Friday afternoon.

Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon? exclaimed Helen. Why, that's when they want a cook for!

Rupert stepped back with a look of mock surprise. Is it? My goodness! What a coincidence! Then with a grin on his face he added That job might almost have been made just for you.

For a moment, Helen was puzzled, but then she covered her mouth with her hand and opened her eyes in astonishment. Mr Thursby! Oh, Mr Thursby! She blushed and lowered her eyes.

That evening Helen said to Bob You are quite right, dear. I should go after that job. I can't let my own foolish fears stand in the way of such a good opportunity.

*****

And so every Tuesday and Friday at a few minutes before one o'clock, Rupert would go round to Rose Cottage and play chess with Boris for an hour or so. Every Tuesday and Friday at one o'clock, Helen would arrive at Rose Cottage and bake pies and pastries in the kitchen for an hour or so. Rupert would leave Rose Cottage at about five o'clock. Before leaving he would give Boris an envelope containing some banknotes. A few minutes later Helen would leave. Before she left, Boris would hand her an envelope containing some banknotes, her wages for four hours. It invariably contained more than the agreed rate, but when Helen queried it the first week, Boris shrugged it off. Thereafter Helen passed the agreed amount to Bob and kept the surplus for herself. Bob was delighted with the arrangement. He calculated that the money that Helen received for two afternoons a week would, at the rate he was prepared to offer, pay a bookkeeper for three.

He did wonder why one small household needed so much baking. I hope they're not setting up in competition to me!

Helen reassured him that he had nothing to worry about on that score. It's not plain cooking, she explained. It involves a lot of fancy foreign concoctions, Viennese and Danish and so on. It's not just 'put it together and bung it in the oven'. There's a lot of preparation. I'm having to learn all sorts of continental techniques.

*****

A few weeks after these arrangements came into force, Mrs Wagstaff reported a curious incident to her ladies. As they sipped their coffee, she said, You'll never believe what I saw in the village the other day. Helen Wetherby was walking in front of me, when along came that great big foreign car with the Duchess in the back, as usual staring straight ahead as if there was a bad smell under her nose. Then as the car approached, it slowed down, and the Duchess lifted her veil, looked towards Helen Wetherby, and - you're not going to believe this, ladies - she looked at Helen Wetherby, and winked! As sure as I am sitting here, she winked! What do you make of that? And none of them knew what to make of it.

*****


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