Articles

NEVER A DULL MOMENT AT THE LARCHES

Something was always happening in this Victoria boardinghouse. There were the evacuee twins who drank the Major’s whisky; Reggie Carstairs who got excited and proposed to Miss O’Hare; and Irma Grant who looked like a horse, but who could foretell the future

ELIZABETH ARMSTRONG October 15 1950
Articles

NEVER A DULL MOMENT AT THE LARCHES

Something was always happening in this Victoria boardinghouse. There were the evacuee twins who drank the Major’s whisky; Reggie Carstairs who got excited and proposed to Miss O’Hare; and Irma Grant who looked like a horse, but who could foretell the future

ELIZABETH ARMSTRONG October 15 1950

NEVER A DULL MOMENT AT THE LARCHES

Something was always happening in this Victoria boardinghouse. There were the evacuee twins who drank the Major’s whisky; Reggie Carstairs who got excited and proposed to Miss O’Hare; and Irma Grant who looked like a horse, but who could foretell the future

ELIZABETH ARMSTRONG

ONLY in Victoria, B.C., could my boardinghouse, The Larches, have existed. It was a very solid and rather dismal-looking house of peculiar and indeterminate architecture. When I went over to look at it, it was painted a dingy grey and looked rather like the half-submerged structure of a battleship. But after I took it over I had the front door and the shutters painted a bright blue, the roof red, and the rest of it a dazzling white.

Major Doncaster, my first boarder, tried to sketch it but, as he says, the architecture can only be appreciated from the inside. There are little flights of stairs going up and going down, and alcoves and small leaded windows pop up in the most unexpected places. All it really needed was a family ghost and it may have had one but I am not as psychic as my boarder Miss Grant with her Ouija board, so I may have missed it.

Dear old ladies from Cheltenham and pukka sahibs from India always felt right at home in The Larches, and it could have been transported to South Kensington or Ealing without causing a stir in the neighborhood. And so, indeed, could my boarders. At The Larches we ate our pudding with spoon and fork and had our little flutters when the dear King spoke or the birthday honors list came out or on the terrible occasion when an American visitor remained seated when the King’s health was drunk. There was seldom a dull moment at The Larches.

Our oldest boarder, Mrs. Barclay-Hodge (with the hyphen stressed), could always be relied upon to cause a little excitement. She once misplaced her pearl necklace. And our Miss O’Hare was quite a character, ready at the least provocation to recite her family tree, with all its branches, leaves and birds, from early Irish chieftains to herself. Like Mrs. Barclay-Hodge she was rather deaf and their conversations were a joy to listen to.

It was very seldom that a boarder left, but when one did the new arrival was subjected to close scrutiny.

(“He seems quite a nice young man, but I like a more conservative style in a gentleman’s dress.”) One wet November night I heard the front doorbell ring, and as my old nurse and helper Mary was out, I went across the hall to open it, knowing by the silence in Mrs. Barclay-Hodge’s room that she was on the alert. A tall good-looking man stood at the top of the steps, “Psymion me, Madam, for disturbing you at this hour, but the man at the drugstore said you might possibly be able to put me up. The hotel is full.” I did not quite know what to say as I never took in strangers. He must have guessed my thoughts for he said with a smile, “I can give you the address of my bank manager, or Dr. Ridley will vouch for me, I know.” On an impulse I asked him if he would like a cup of tea. Soon we were chatting away like old friends—it seemed to be understood that he was going to stay.

Poor Mrs. Barclay-Hodge must have spent an uneasy night as she knew a strange man had come

into the house and that he had not left. But. next morning I ended her suspense and told her that Mr. Willard had taken the room vacated by Captain Agnew when he left for England.

Mr. Willard breakfasted early and only Major Doncaster was down when he left the house. But the news of his arrival traveled round and the two old ladies appeared at dinner looking very spruce— Mrs. Barclaj'-Hodge sporting the heirloom pearls and Miss O’Hare in her best black silk dress. Miss

Richards, a teacher at the local high school, was present, also Ted and Terry Ewan, the youngest boarders. Terry worked in a bank and Ted was articled to a lawyer. Mr. Willard was the object of much covert scrutiny. Miss O’Hare asked him several leading questions, but these he parried beautifully.

We were all mystery fans at The Larches, even Miss O’Hare. She woke us all up one night, after she had read a particularly juicy thriller, by shouting in her sleep, “Don’t shoot, I’ll come clean!”

Terry took several detective magazines, in one of which were published the pictures of criminals who were “wanted.” At dinner one night, a week or so after Mr. Willard had come to the house, Terry was telling us all about a bank robber who was at large. In the middle of a sentence he looked at Mr. Willard and stopped.

“What did the bandit do then?” Ted asked in surprise.

“I don’t know,” Terry finished lamely.

The incident puzzled me, but I forgot all about it and, as we had arranged to play bridge, I went into the lounge to get the tables ready.

Just as I was putting out the packs Terry came into the room looking worried. “Mrs. Armstrong,” he said, “I may be mistaken—but do you know anything about Willard? I think he is the man I was telling you about, who was mixed up in the bank robbery in Vancouver.” I think he called him Lefty Smith, but it may have been One-eyed Pete.

My heart missed a beat. After all, we knew little about the new boarder and I had not bothered to take up the matter of his references, but I laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Terry, of course he isn’t. Mr. Willard is a friend of Dr. Ridley’s.”

As I was plugging in the percolator for coffee later Mr. Willard walked into the kitchen smiling. “Don’t let Terry scare you, Mrs. Armstrong,” he said. “I’m not a bandit. I was using the phone in the hall and couldn’t help hearing your conversation. As a matter of fact I came to Victoria to meet my brother who was supposed to arrive from China yesterday, but the boat is late. We have some business to transact before he goes back, but don’t tell Terry this, he is getting a tremendous kick out of it.”

But I was afraid that Terry might go to the police station so I told him. After that Terry and Mr. Willard became great friends.

The brother from China arrived, stayed awhile, then went back, but our Mr. Willard, as we called him, bought a piece of property with the intention of settling down in Victoria when he returned from a short trip to England.

MRS. ARMSTRONG ran The Larches (not its real name). Here, she has disguised her characters.

Reginald Carstairs was retired from the Indian Civil Service and was particular about the I.C.S. after his name. He was very much the pukka sahib—a tall red-faced man who dressed whenever the weather was suitable in immaculate white flannels with a scarlet cummerbund and a pith

helmet. But although very pukka he was quite a lady’s man and not above twirling his mustaches at a likely looking female. He was always ready with flowery old-fashioned compliments: “This is indeed a delightful dinner, Mrs. Armstrong, only to be excelled by our charming hostess.” To hear him warble “Alice, Ben Bolt” at a social gathering was a perfect joy to the young people.

Mr. Carstairs was by no means a teetotaler, as one could gather from his complexion, and he enjoyed his nightly peg before retiring. At times he downed quite a number of pegs. Then, indeed, he became more pukka than ever and returned to the house with flowers and chocolates for the ladies.

In one of his more expansive moments Reginald proposed to Miss O’Hare and she accepted him.

Next morning at breakfast she coyly addressed him as Reginald. The poor old boy was at a loss for a moment, then he remembered and made a hasty retreat. We all liked our Reginald and felt sorry for him. Mr. Willard rose to the occasion with a real brain wave and sent the chastened man a telegram advising him to take the next boat to Calcutta where his wife was seriously ill. Mr. Carstairs left for the mainland the next morning before Miss O’Hare was up and wrote to her explaining about his alleged wife’s illness, saying what a cad he had been, and, hinting at a broken heart, remained as ever hers, R. Carstairs.

Miss O’Hare wept copiously for a day or so, but believed him implicitly and spoke tenderly of “poor unhappy Reginald.” But she had had her romance

and felt that an undying but hopeless love was being lavished upon her. She bought a lipstick and had a permanent wave on the strength of it, to greet Reginald on his return.

He stayed with a friend up the coast for several months, then returned to The Larches, looking the picture of health. He gave Miss O’Hare to understand that his wife had recovered but was confined to a lunatic asylum, and tried to look sad and woebegone. But Miss O’Hare still addressed him as Reginald and he swore that he intended to sign the pledge, but he never did, though he avoided his cronies at the public house in Esquimalt for a long

Stephanie Richards, our high-school teacher, was a shy and rather

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retiring girl, but she had a keen intelligence and a quiet sense of humor. It was not for several years that we discovered she was the author of some clever thrillers, and when we did her stock rose because we were all mystery

On Ted Ewan’s birthday we had a party and among his numerous presents was a new shocker, “Scotland Yard Does It Again.” The hero, Detective Inspector Brown, had all Mr. Willard’s characteristics, but it didn’t strike us particularly, although we all read the book. We were discussing it one evening and I remarked that the Inspector Brown was always saying, “Well! well! well!” in moments of stress. Then I suddenly remembered that so did our Mr. Willard—and the secret was out. Miss Richards had written it. She admitted the fact with a scarlet face, and in less than a year she and Mr. Willard were married.

Miss O’Hare’s Big Day

The wedding took place at The Larches and Miss O’Hare was the bride’s attendant.

The best man was a real-life official from Scotland Yard, who was in the States on business and came across the border for the wedding—he had been a brother officer of Mr. Willard’s during the War. We enjoyed his visit very much. I*t was much more fun getting our detective stories at first hand than reading them, but the real detective said he got more of a kick out of reading Stephanie’s book.

The toast to the bride was proposed by a very resplendent Reginald and even Mary and my Chinaman Wong were called in to drink it. Miss O’Hare looked quite pretty in her new blue dress. A good many more toasts were drunk and Miss O’Hare became very flushed, but she was game and never refused one until, though her spirit was willing, her knees were weak and she keeled over.

The gallant Mr. Carstairs rushed to her rescue and, with a cry of “Reginald,” she passed out in his arms, her bracelet catching the lace tablecloth and dragging a large dish of trifle off the table on to the floor. Reginald placed his burden on the table and picked up the dish, murmuring groggily, “A mere trifle, dear lady, a mere trifle.”

Mary and I carried Miss O’Hare upstairs and the party continued till it was time for the happy couple to leave.

Just as Stephanie was being kissed determinedly by Reginald down the stairs staggered a rakish figure in a flannelette nightgown, with a fringed lamp shade on her head and a hot-water bottle under one arm, singing lustily and off key, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” It was certainly Kathleen O’Hare’s big day.

After the wedding things settled down to our usual routine, enlivened by such events as Mary frightening away a prowler who had forced open the kitchen window and was packing up the silver, and Mrs. Barclay-Hodge finding a mouse in her room and running down the hall shrieking just as the vicar had called.

One night, however, we had a little excitement. Mr. Carstairs, after a session at the pub, lost his key and was trying to open the front door with a corkscrew when a policeman flashed his lantern on the scene. Reginald spent the night in gaol and I had to go to the police station the next morning

to explain matters and bring him home. There was seldom a dull moment at The Larches.

If things did get quiet occasionally it seemed to always be just a lull before a storm. A friend of mine had taken in two evacuees from London, nine-yearold twins, a boy and girl—Alfred and Agnes, Alfie and Our Ag to each other. My friend had to go into hospital the day they arrived and I offered to keep them until she returned.

They had not been in the house an hour before they had explored it thoroughly. The upstairs bathroom door had the key stuck in the lock—why or how we never found out—and Mrs. Barclay-Hodge was having a bath. Alfie turned the key and put it in his

pocket, locking her in. When the poor lady wanted to get out she couldn't. We did not know what had happened to the key and Alfred had forgotten all about it in the excitement. We tried every other key in the house and eventually phoned the fire brigade. A fireman climbed up to the window and got in, but Mrs. Barclay-Hodge was in such a dither that she forgot she had nothing on and when she saw the man she went into hysterics.

The twins took a great fancy to Miss O’Hare, who gave Agnes a three-strand necklace of enormous pearl beads and a pair of pink silk stockings. “She’s a bit of orl right that one,” said Ag. “ain’t she, Alfie?” Alfred, who was wearing a

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discarded panama of Major Doncaster’s, answered, “Yuss, He’s orl right too.”

Fortunately they wanted to have their meals in the kitchen with Mary who loved them, and they both tried to help with the cooking—as when Agnes put some onions, which Mary had peeled, in a saucepan of apples, and Alfie seasoned the soup with sugar. But these were mere trifles. One day they put pepper in the sugar shaker and Miss O’Hare put it on her fruit and sneezed for half an hour.

Spanking For a Splurge

One night when Major Doncaster went up to his room he found the twins in his pyjamas, smoking cigars and trying to open a bottle of whisky.

But I think the worst day of all was when Alfred climbed to the spare wheel at the back of a car and was driven miles out into the country. We looked for him everywhere and even had his disappearance broadcast over the radio. When the driver of the car discovered Alfred the boy had forgotten where he lived so he ended up in the

police station, from where they phoned

Next morning I found a pair of handcuffs under Alfred’s pillow. When I returned them to a very astonished desk sergeant he roared with laughter, “The little son of a gun—how did he do it? Under my very eyes, too. He’s got a future, that one.” But the present was bad enough for me.

What with Reginald’s escapade, our kitchen prowler and Alfred I was becoming a familiar visitor at the police station and felt as though I should end by having my fingerprints taken.

The next day it poured and poured so I gave the children some magazines to amuse them so that they would not disturb Mrs. Barclay-Hodge, who was in bed with a cold. I forgot all about them till late in the afternoon and couldn’t find them anywhere. Passing the Major’s room I thought I heard a noise and went in. Alfred and Agnes were stretched out on his bed, fast asleep and snoring loudly, and the whisky bottle they had tried to open before was standing on the dressing table half empty.

We carried them to their rooms still

sleeping and the next morning I gave them each a thoroughly good spanking.

At last my friend left hospital and the children left The Larches to go to her home. Agnes was carrying a huge yellowhaired doll from Mary, her arms full of presents from the others. Alfred, resplendent in a Red Indian outfit, was dragging a yellow wagon, his cheeks bulging with bull’s eyes. They were very sorry to leave us and Alfred sniffled as he said to his sister, “They ain’t ’arf been nice to us, they ’aven’t, ’ave they, Our Ag?” And Agnes, pulling up her pink stockings, answered with a gulp, “No, not ’alf they ain’t.”

This was high praise indeed and we felt a bit sniffy as we waved them good-by from the porch.

After Miss Richards married and left we had a new boarder—a retired music teacher called Irma Grant. She was a tall well-built and handsome woman with coarse black hair, very thick and shiny, which fell to her shoulders in a straight heavy bob, and she had a very dark complexion. She generally wore black form-fitting princessstyle dresses, and was full of vitality and exuberance. When she walked she took eager prancing steps and looked

as much like a horse—a well-groomed black mare —as any human being could

When she walked her heavy black hair tossed from side to side like a mane and I was always expecting her to break into a gallop, wave a tail and neigh at me. Her face, too, was long and horsey, with protruding teeth, and if I ran into her unexpectedly I wanted to call out, “Giddup there.”

Irma Grant’s resemblance to a horse ceased at her appearance—she was a most brilliant musician. When she played the piano she made it sound like a huge church organ and many a time we sat till bedtime listening to her play. She was intensely interested in everybody and everything but, next to music, spiritualism was her chief hobby. She kept the old ladies entranced when she held forth on seances, ghostly visitations, and so on. and her Ouija board was an object of joy to them.

One night when she brought it downstairs I asked her if she could tell where my watch was as I had lost it. Thr answer was, “in a pocket.” Believe it o not, next day some clothes I had sen, to the cleaners came back with my

watch and a note saying they had found it in my coat pocket. Coincidences do happen but we began to have some faith in Irma’s board.

One stormy night we were sitting around in the lounge. Everyone was home except Ted Ewan who had gone to the mainland and whom we were expecting that evening. The Major turned on the radio for the 9 o’clock news. I was reading and not paying much attention, but I looked up and saw that everyone was listening intently to the account of a crash at the local airport. I put my book down.

Miss Grant had the Ouija board on the table in front of her and I heard the tapping. Suddenly she stood up white and trembling and we all looked at her in astonishment as she whispered, “Ted.” Taking her board with her she left the room. We kept the radio on and at 9.45 the local announcer made a special news flash—five local people, including Ted Ewan, had been killed in the crash.

Irma lost quite a lot of her prance after that and we never saw the Ouija board again. Not very long afterward she married a famous Viennese musician. When he performed in Victoria soon after the wedding we were all given tickets, and a right goodly show we made as we left The Larches in a couple of taxis, in our seldom-worn evening clothes. If there was a strong smell of moth balls emanating from our box we didn’t mind. We felt almost like royalty, especially when Mrs. BarclayHodge produced her lorgnette and gazed superciliously at the hoi polloi beneath.

Valerie’s Heart Trouble

After Miss Grant married I took, against my better judgment, a girl of 18, the daughter of a friend of mine on the Prairies. I had found that young girls were too much of a nuisance and a responsibility, but Valerie had been very well brought up and wanted to take an art course and I did not like to refuse.

She soon became a great favorite in the house, but was always falling madly in and out of love with some impossible person, such as the principal of one of the high schools, a married man with a large family—“such soulful eyes, he looks just like Byron”; or the doctor next door who often gave her a lift into town—“I just adore doctors, they are so antiseptic, if you know what I mean.”

In between these romantic episodes her heart was invariably broken and she was low in spirit—what Terry Ewan called “her celibate spells”—and we had some peace.

Then Valerie met a good-looking exrnaval officër called Dalrymple and we were entertained at meals with his marvelous exploits during the war. We had never seen this hero, but gathered he was simply supercolossal. One evening she rang up to say she would not be home to dinner, but when 11 struck and she had not returned I began to worry. Eventually I rang up the chief of police, whom I knew, and told him Valerie was out with a Captain Dalrymple and that I feared they had had an accident or something.

“Dalrymple,” the chief shouted, “I know him—his real name is Perkins. He’s no more a naval officer than you are. Where did they go?”

I thought of the Poodle Dog, Valerie’s favorite cafe, and in a few minutes the chief’s car was outside and we were speeding toward the cafe where we made enquiries. Valerie and Perkins had been there and had phoned for a taxi to take them to the dock. We dashed out and got there just in time. They were about to board the night

boat for Vancouver—both carrying suitcases.

A tearful Valerie returned home with me, bu not for long. I wired her mother to come and fetch her the next

You can never judge the people of Victoria by their appearance. The shabbiest-looking man or woman often turns out to be the owner of a proud title, or a person of world renown.

I was waiting for the bus one day when I saw a well-known retired doctor sitting on the curb reading a paper. He had probably been gardening and was dressed in a pair of shabby dungarees. An American visitor (or so I gathered from her accent), feeling sorry for the poor old man, was just getting a bus ticket out of her bag to give him when I stopped her.

Rolls Royce and Mahogany

Another time I was in the public library and noticed a tall aristocratie but shabby old lady looking around the library shelves while her chauffeur stood by to carry her books.

I once got into conversation with a dowdy little woman in rusty black and she asked me if I wouldn’t come and have a cup of tea with her one day. I went, but instead of the shabby room I expected to find I was ushered into a veritable mansion set in beautiful grounds, with a Rolls Royce in the driveway. The house was simply wonderful and I could hardly take my eyes ofF the wonderful mahogany furniture and exquisite rugs. Mrs. St. John Corbyn had lived for many years in India and had traveled extensively, and I spent a pleasant and very interesting afternoon.

I got to know her very well and enjoyed many visits to her home. We loved to have her dine with us at The Larches and, although she was nearly 89, she kept us all entertained. She may have looked dowdy when I first met her but in her old-fashioned evening gowns and magnificent jewelry she looked just what she was, a cultured, educated lady.

A horse of another color was a woman whom Miss O’Hare met at a bridge party and brought to The Larches. She was Mrs. Montgomery, a wealthy widow who, according to Miss O’Hare, “was most interesting, knows the very best people and her diamond rings . . In spite of Miss O’Rare’s descent from the Kings of Ould Ireland, she was a bit of a

One night soon after the widow rang up Miss O’Hare and asked if she might come and stay with her for a few days as the water pipes in her flat had burst and it would take at least a week to fix them. Miss O’Hare was in such a dither that I agreed to have her friend at The Larches. The widow arrived with six pieces of luggage, from steamer trunk to shopping bag, and these the cab driver carried to Miss O’Hare’s already overcrowded room.

Cocktails With a Charge

At dinner that night Mrs. Montgomery appeared in all her glory, literally studded with diamonds. We were all a bit dazzled at first and then she started talking. How that woman could talk! Any daring soul who tried to get in a word edgeways was promptly contradicted and there was nothing to do but sit and listen. By the time we were through with the second course Mrs. Montgomery was still at her soup and we sat in silence while she caught up.

Mary, handing her the potatoes, was so dazzled by the diamonds that she dropped the dish. Terry gave a squeal,

tried to cover it with a cough, and started choking. He got up quickly and left the table to bolt from the room. I heard him laughing with Mary for a long time afterward.

We were all worn out by the end of the meal and decided that a little bridge might refresh us. As we were putting out the cards the “Queen of Diamonds,” as the Major called her, sailed in and said brightly, “Oh! How about a little game of bridge?” The room was cleared in record time— everyone had a pressing engagement. Next morning Miss O’Hare looked worn out, and no wonder for Mrs. Montgomery had talked incessantly until 3 a.m.

Another ghastly day and night passed, then Miss O’Hare had a violent fit of hysterics and we had to send for the doctor, who ordered her to bed with absolute quiet. So that evening after dinner Mrs. Montgomery and her

luggage departed from The Larches.

As soon as the front door slammed behind her everyone trooped downstairs and into the lounge. Mr. Carstairs appeared with a bottle under each arm and joyfully shouted that this called for a celebration. He mixed some potent cocktails which he called the “Charge of The Light Brigade,” and they certainly carried a powerful charge.

I was completely worn out and after my second drink found myself reciting “Excelsior” in a very spirited manner.

Then the door opened and in walked Mrs. Montgomery—she had left behind her umbrella. I can well imagine how the bridge club lapped up the tale of our drinking orgy, but I took another cocktail and finished “Excelsior” amid loud applause.

There was, as I say, never a dull moment at The Larches. ★