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Authors: Celine Conway

Doctor's Assistant

BOOK: Doctor's Assistant
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DOCTOR

S ASSISTANT

Celine Conway

In her work as assistant to Dr. Ben Vaughan at the tiny town of Port Quentin, Laurette had never encountered any man who remotely stirred her heart—until one stormy day when Charles Heron skilfully sailed his uncle’s yacht into the tricky harbor.

When Laurette was bandaging Charles’ injured arm, she decided on the spot that he was an autocrat who thought too much of himself, and for his part it seemed that he could not forgive her the crime of being only nineteen; all of which provoked her into hostile reaction.

Unfortunately he got on well with her father, and Laurette found herself unable to avoid or ignore him. Then suddenly she realized she was in love with him—and she meant nothing at all in his life...

 

CHAPTER ONE

THE seasonal gale had been buffeting the Wild Coast for three days. At intervals it died down to an apologetic murmur, and Laurette, who had never before spent September in Africa, decided each time that at last the demons were tired and peace was about to settle back upon the hot, savage beauty of the coast.

Not that Port Quentin bore anything but a fraction of the wind’s vehemence. The tiny town nestled cosily beside the river whose exit to the sea was guarded by two gigantic wooded headlands known as the “Gates”. The houses sheltered behind the “Gates” and buried themselves in the sub-tropical foliage of poinsettias and tulip trees, frangipani and lush, purple-flowering bananas.

The Delaney bungalow was unpretentious. As houses go in such places it was old—it had been standing at least thirty years—and though it was smartly white with a green corrugated iron roof, a close inspection would have revealed peeled stucco and cemented cracks. It was the best the Delaneys had been able to afford when they had arrived five months ago, and they both loved it. For one thing, the Captain had never before owned a house, so this one had all the glory of blessed achievement; and for another, Laurette’s young life had been spent at boarding schools in the English Midlands and, during holidays, at the Edwardian house of a tiresomely strict aunt. The bungalow was heaven to Laurette, and her father was happier than he had been since before his wife had died at Laurette’s birth, nineteen years earlier.

The third day of the gale brought a degree of anxiety to Port Quentin. The town was almost inaccessible by road because of the folds of mountains which lay between it and the nearest inland town, eighty miles away, so food supplies were brought along the coast by steamer twice weekly. The coaster was now a day overdue, and though no one was perturbed by the threatened food shortage—there were fruit and fish in plenty on the spot—all felt worried about the safety of the thick-set, tanned little skipper, who was a personal friend of every one of three hundred white people of Port Quentin.

In addition, old Mr. Kelsey, the richest man in the town, stormed about with his telescope searching the mighty, heaving waters for a sign of the
Barracuda,
his own yacht which was being sailed round from Cape Town by his nephew.

At three o’clock that afternoon Mr. Kelsey stamped into the Delaney’s bungalow. His impeccable naval cap was pulled low over his red brow and his long-fingered hands steadied the telescope once more as he stood at the lounge window and peered beyond the gale-driven palms at the mounting breakers.

“Where’s your father?” he threw over his shoulder at Laurette.

Undisturbed by the old man’s abruptness, she answered equably, “He’s working, but I’ll call him if you like. I think you’re fretting unnecessarily about that yacht of yours. Your nephew will have put in to Port Elizabeth, and he’ll wait there till the wind has blown itself out.”

“You don’t know Charles!” he growled. “He was in command of a corvette in the Navy, and to him the bigger the seas the bigger the challenge. Anyway,” he added gruffly, “he’s the only relative I’ve got.”

“Surely he’d radio other ships if he had trouble?”

“He’d never get the mast up in this weather. Besides Charles, there are only two seamen on board.” He turned and looked into her smoky blue eyes. “I suppose you’d like to be out there with him, wouldn’t you?”

“I might.”

“Well,” said Mr. Kelsey triumphantly, “he wouldn’t have you at any price. He’s got no time for women, no time at all.”

“He sounds charming.”

The old man stared rather hard at the small vital face framed in short, yellow-brown curls. Then he laughed, because he and Laurette had been friends since the day she and her father had decided to make their home at Port Quentin, and he knew her to be high-spirited and not to be awed by talk of a man she had never seen.

“If he ever gets here you’ll be able to judge him for yourself. He’s still got about a month of his leave to go, so he’ll be around.”

Laurette had already heard much about Charles Heron. He had been on long leave in England, and had sailed back to Cape Town, to be met by a telegram from his uncle bating that the
Barracuda
had been refitted there and could, if Charles were so minded, be navigated the nine hundred miles round the coast to Port Quentin.

Charles Heron was a District Commissioner in Basutoland. Marvellous at his job, according to Mr. Kelsey, who seemed to think that the man could do no wrong.

Laurette halted in her reflections and pointed excitedly at the violent ocean. “Look! Isn’t that the yacht?”

It was. Relieved, yet furious that a naked eye had picked out the white vessel in the mist of rain before his telescope had spotted it, Mr. Kelsey banged the offending instrument on the window-ledge.

“By Jove, she’s tossing! How did he do it? What will he do now—drift till the wind drops? That’s safest...” He broke off, then let out a despairing exclamation. “He’ll never make the river mouth—the current’s against him and the seas are mountainous. He’ll be driven straight into the headland.”

Laurette was seized with nervous excitement. Heart in her throat, she saw the ship keel and become half-submerged by huge, raging waves, saw it lying in a trough before another great sea miraculously pushed it upright.

Quiveringly she said, “Can’t we send help? Couldn’t the boat be towed in some way?”

Mr. Kelsey gave a harsh bark of laughter. “It’s a ship, not a boat, and what would we use—one of the native cockle-shells? No, Charles has got her so far and he must do the rest. The best we can manage is to be on hand at the nearest point, and warn the doctor that his services may be needed.”

“He’s away today at the mission.”

“Then you’ll have to come. A bit of a nurse is better than nothing at all.” Which was the old man’s way of requesting her services.

Laurette ran to her bedroom for a raincoat and a scarf to tie about her hair, poked her head into her father’s workroom and told him the yacht was sighted, and hastened out to the porch to follow the stringy, striding figure of Gilbert Kelsey.

She battled along at his side, climbing the bushy hillocks against the wind, sliding on the wet grass and blinking the mixture of fine rain and sea-spray from her eyes. The glowering sky seemed singularly unmoved by the angry elements. The wind roared, the sea reared tumultuously, trees thrashed and sand was whipped up from the beach, yet the sky remained unchangingly sullen.

Laurette tightened the knot of her scarf under her chin and stood beside Mr. Kelsey on a green hump which was partly sheltered by a thicket of sea-willow. The wind tore at her coat, the rain stung her cheeks, but the combined effect was exhilarating. After the long months of flawless sunshine she could have been happy, if there had been no small yacht out there being flung about by ruthless seas. Charles Heron, of course, must be mad.

The old man at her side kept muttering snippets of nautical information which meant very little to Laurette. She knew that the yacht was gradually approaching the “Gates” and she prayed with all she had that it would reach them at the right second; otherwise there were two great dangers—the silt bar and the headlands themselves.

For a few minutes it looked as though the
Barracuda
would cautiously ride a middle course; then a twenty-foot breaker caught her bows and wrenched her broadside. Mr. Kelsey let out a strangled cry, and Laurette closed her eyes tightly. For long, agonized moments she stayed thus, then her companion gripped her elbow and swung it fiercely.

“He’s done it! He’s inside the “Gates”. Come on, you silly mouse—down to the jetty!”

The white-crested waves at the river-mouth were doldrums compared with the seas beyond. The sturdy little yacht rode them smoothly, and as she neared the jetty there were many people, both black and white, to throw ropes and manoeuvre the vessel into the tiny harbor. The
Barracuda
was no sooner tied up than Mr. Kelsey stepped aboard, and as he was still grasping Laurette’s sleeve she had to go with him.

“Where’s Mr. Heron?” he demanded testily to a grimy and bedraggled seaman.

“He’s getting into a jacket, sir,” came the grinning reply. “He says a man should never display scars of war—they’re anti-climax.”

“Is he hurt?”

“Just his arm, sir. It was a grand trip.”

“I’ll bet it was, Laurette, you’d better come to the cabin with me.”

She followed him along the slippery deck and paused while he thumped at a teak door. The door opened and she stared with a vague sense of annoyance at the tall, bearded man with a head of rough wavy hair and preposterously white teeth. His face was darkly tanned and smiling, and his grey-green eyes glittered from recent victory. He’d actually revelled in the experience!

“Hullo, old chap,” he said to Gilbert Kelsey. “How are you?”

“How am I!” came the explosive reply. “You rattle toy craft to pieces and then have the infernal nerve...”

“Come, now,” Charles said soothingly, “she’s a wonderful tub and not in bad shape, either, considering everything.” He smiled politely at Laurette. “Have we met before?”

“Don’t be insulting,” put in his uncle. “You know darn well that if you’d met her before you wouldn’t have forgotten. You chaps who don’t care for women have a remarkable memory for a pretty face. Laurette, this is my nephew ... Laurette Delaney, Charles. Let her look at your arm. She’s not a nurse, but she helps the doctor and knows how to dress a wound.”

Charles shrugged. “It’s only a scratch. I’ve bound it up myself. Care for a drink. Miss Delaney?”

“No, thanks.”

His straight black brows rose at her tone. “Angry about something?”

“Not at all. I came here to do a job, but if you don’t need me I’ll go.”

“So that’s how it is.” He rubbed at the beard. “Not very prepossessing, is it? I ought to have anchored midstream and had a shave before showing myself.” He winced rather ostentatiously, as if with pain. “Maybe you’d better have a go at my arm, after all. I gashed it yesterday, so by now it may be infected.”

Somehow, Laurette knew he was getting at her, but she decided to behave as if he were now acting sensibly. She drew off her coat and went to a shelf to lift down a grey tin box painted with a red cross. He helped her, and obligingly produced a bottle of antiseptic and a new roll of cotton-wool. While Laurette washed her hands and refilled the basin, Mr. Kelsey fired questions about the long and hazardous journey through squalls and thunderstorms, and Charles lazily answered them.

He was playing down his undoubted skill at the helm, thought Laurette. He had gathered that his audience were witnesses of that final piece of seamanship and was clever enough to leave it like that. An objectionable character, she decided.

He sloughed his jacket and stretched out a forearm bound up with strips of face towelling which, on the inner side, were heavily bloodstained. He must have seen the red lips tighten, for he said calmly,

“It’s not so bad as it looks. Would you like me to take it off?”

“I can manage,” she answered.

Old Mr. Kelsey went to the door. “While that’s happening I’ll take a look round. We’ll let her dry out before we clean her up.”

When he had gone Laurette stood at the basin, soaking off the makeshift bandage. Her arm was under Charles’, her fingers spread to support the muscular forearm and her head bent over the task.

To end the silence she asked, “How did you do it?”

“The deck hand was thrown overboard by a gust and it wasn’t too easy to haul him back, even though he’s a strong swimmer. When it was over I’d got this cut on my arm.” He paused. “So you’re living here now? Did you come from England?”

“We left about eight months ago, when my father retired from the Army.”

“Staying in South Africa for good?”

“Probably.”

“Port Quentin is not much of a place for a girl.”

“No?” she said coolly. “I like it.”

“There’s little here except scenery and good fishing. What do you do with your time?”

“Mr. Kelsey told you that I assist the doctor. That keeps me busy.”

The gash lay revealed, five inches of raw, jagged, purplish flesh. Her teeth clamped, Laurette drenched it with antiseptic. The pain must have been terrific yet the wrist lay perfectly steady in her hand, and only Laurette’s brow was damp.

“It needs several stitches,” she said. “You’ll have to see Dr. Vaughan as soon as he returns. I’ll bandage it now.”

He moved with her to the table. “What does your father do now that he’s out of uniform?” he enquired conversationally.

“Something he’s always longed to have time for. He’s a modest poet in the Kipling manner and he’s compiling a book of comic verse about soldiering, and illustrating it with pen-and-ink drawings. He sells a few cartoons to a syndicate, too.”

“A soldier poet-cartoonist. He must be a personality.”

Without needing to think she said, “He’s the grandest person in the world.”

“Are you his only offspring?”

“Yes, but I’ve a brother my parents adopted before I was born. He’s twenty-five—a welfare officer in Nigeria.” Aware suddenly that he was asking a great deal and divulging nothing, Laurette went on expertly bandaging till she was able to snip off the tied ends. Methodically, she replaced the things she had used in their compartments in the box. Then she held his jacket. He was so tall that he had to stoop slightly to get his wide shoulders into it.

“Thank you,” he said, with a faintly mocking inflection. “How about that drink?”

‘Td rather have a cigarette.”

He gave her one, took one from the case for himself and flicked on a lighter. He stowed away the medicine box and gave a comprehensive and critical glance round the cabin.

“I’m sorry my sea trip is ended,” he said. “I sometimes wonder if I did right to put in for service in Basutoland. Been there yet?”

“We haven’t travelled far inland—our bus is small and second-hand. Do you go up by car?”

He nodded. “I left it at my uncle’s place.”

“What does a District Commissioner do?”

He smiled. “With the help of other officers he runs the district, and acts as magistrate and repository for grievances. He’s a starchy sort of chap.”

Looking at him, at the mahogany-tanned face, dark beard and rough dark hair, the stained navy jacket, and slacks which had obviously been rolled to the knees for the past week or so, she had to give back a smile. “What’s this—a revulsion from duty?”

“Why not? A man needs to relax from officialdom. I’ve spent most of my leave at sea.”

“Didn’t you go to London?”

“I did the theatres for three weeks, but after that I was bored.”

“I see. You’re one of those egoists who find places more satisfactory than people.”

His eyes were sharp and amused. “That’s right,” he said, and went on smoking tranquilly.

Against her will she watched him as he leaned negligently upon a bunk and gently blew smoke rings towards the large, closed porthole. He looked about thirty-five, but a shave would probably knock off a couple of years. He had a thin, beaky sort of nose—like a buccaneer’s, she thought—and his cheekbones were rather high. There was something about him which lent even his storm-stained garments an air of distinction; she defined it as arrogance, and felt a new wave of annoyance.

“I must go,” she said.

“I was
giving
you time to finish your cigarette,” he mentioned, thereby disclaiming any particular joy in her company. With a loose, casual movement he straightened. “My turn to help you with your coat. Set? Come on, then.” They stepped from quietude into uproar. His fingers closed about her upper arm, and he half-pushed her ahead of him to the small gangplank which lea on to the jetty.

Mr. Kelsey was already there, his oilskin flapping about him as he shouted instructions to the two Africans who would be in charge of the
Barracuda
while she lay in harbor. He turned and walked at his nephew’s side. Nothing was said till they had rounded the hillocks and were cut off from the worst of the wind.

Then Mr. Kelsey pointed, “Laurette lives up there. That’s Captain Delaney waving at the window.”

“I’ll run on,” she said. “Goodbye.”

She heard Charles murmur, “So long ... Laurette,” and then she was away from them, winging her way up the earth path towards her father.

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