Read Outrageous Fortune Online
Authors: Patricia Wentworth
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The August sun shone down upon the Elston cottage hospital. After a week of every possible kind of bad weather the English summer smiled its brief enchanting smile, charming away the memory of fog, cloud-burst, and storm. A handsbreadth of hyacinth-blue sea showed where a green cliff dipped and rose again. It was a blue halcyon sea. Impossible to believe that only four days ago it had flung its angry spray against that green hillside, had battered a ship to matchwood, and engulfed the wreck in the deep treacherous quicksands which lay beneath the sparkle and the ripple of its waters. After the storm, fog. And then, on a sudden, this exquisite perfect day.
The men's ward was on the ground floor, with a verandah that looked upon the garden. At two o'clock in the afternoon the day sister was getting the convalescent cases out, the light beds were being pushed along, and there was a good deal of chaff and banter.
“Sisterâcan't I have the place by the wall? Billy Button's a-going to grow up it like a creeper if he 'as it much longer.”
“Sisterâmy 'air wants cutting something crool. What's the young lady visitors going to say when they sees me on the verandah looking like this?”
“You can have an umbrella,” said the day sister. She had a pleasant voice with a north country accent. She turned back to an old man with a merry wrinkled face. “Now, Mr Giles, you'd better have that shawl your wife brought.”
“Don't want no shawl,” said Mr Giles obstinately. “Hot as hot it is.” He jerked his elbow towards the next bed. It had two red screens about it. A monotonous muttering sound came from behind them. “Keeps onâdoesn't he?” he said.
“Has he been saying anything?” said the day sister.
Mr Giles screwed up his face.
“He've said âJimmy Riddell' twicet, and Jimmy 'tis, sure as 'taters are 'taters. D'you think there'll be anybody a-coming to identify him?”
“I hope so,” said the day sister. “Now, Mr Gilesâif you're readyâ”
“I ain't,” said Mr Giles. “I want to tell you something first.”
“What did you want to tell me?”
“It wasn't 'arf funny listening to that there radio message last night, and him in the next bed. But Matron shouldn't 'ave put no more than just Jimmy Riddellâthose other names was all nonsense. It's Jimmy Riddell he keeps saying, and I'll take my Bible oath to it.”
“Now, Mr Giles, I can't stop talking here.”
Mr Giles screwed up his face until it was all wrinkles.
“And I'll tell you something else he said too.”
“Umâ” said Mr Giles. “Something most uncommon queer, sister.”
“Wellâwhat was it?”
Mr Giles chuckled.
“First he said, âJimmy Riddell,' and then there was something about being clever, and then he said, âGreenâlike a kid's beads.' Plain as plain that was. And then off he goes muttering again.”
“Oh wellâ” said the sister. “I can't stop talking here. I believe you're just trying to keep me, because you don't want to go out. You're a crafty old man, that's what you areâbut out you go.”
She pulled the bed away from the wall as she spoke, and taking it by the head, pushed it briskly down the ward.
Behind the two red screens the muttering voice went on. Outside, the sun streamed down.
Nesta Riddell got out of the car a little way down the road and stood for a moment with her hand on the door.
“Now, Tom, you'll wait here, and if it's Jimmy, and if they'll let him come, I'll come out and tell you.”
“And if it isn't?” said the man at the wheel.
He was so like Nesta Riddell that strangers took them for twins. As a matter of fact, she was three years the elder and very much the better man. Tom Williams did as he was told, and with no more than sometimes a sulky look, and sometimes a jerk of the shoulders.
Nesta slammed the door and walked up the road towards the gate. It was going to be really hot. She had been in two minds about wearing her new blue voile, but in the end she had chanced it. For all she knew, it might be the last opportunity she would have, because if this man who had been picked up in the fog wasn't Jimmy, then it was a hundred to one that Jimmy was drowned; and if Jimmy was drowned, she would have to go into black.
She lifted the latch of the gate, pushing it open with a brisk jerky movement, and walked up the gravel path. The garden was bright with autumn flowers. Big heads of pink, and white, and purple phlox sunned themselves, but the cornflowers and Shirley poppies had been beaten down by the heavy rain and sprawled untidily on the drenched earth.
Mrs Riddell did not look at the flowers. She walked straight up to the front door, rang the bell, and then waited, with her hands clasped rather tightly upon the red handbag which matched her beret. She was rather a handsome young woman, with a high colour and dark hair that curled naturally. Her grey eyes were a little too small and a little too closely set, and there were lines between them, and other lines about her mouth which might spell temper. She wore large pearl earrings and the latest choker necklet, also of pearlsâenormous white ones. They made her throat look brown and rather stringy.
She had rung the bell, but the door stood open. She could see across the small lobby and down a long white-walled corridor. Two other passages went off to the right and left, and in a moment a fat, rosy-cheeked girl of eighteen, with a white cap and blue print sleeves rolled up, came flying round the left-hand corner.
Nesta Riddell began at once.
“I've come about the message on the radio.”
The girl opened blank round eyes.
Mrs Riddell's brows met in a straight line, a dark line like a frown.
“There was a radio message to say that a man had been picked up in the fogâ”
The rosy girl became rosier, and her eyes rounder. She was desperately interested and very nearly inarticulate.
She said, “I'll tell sister,” and bolted like a rabbit.
Nesta opened her bag, took out a sheet of paper, and waited. When the sister came, she would know whether Jimmy had been drowned or not. What did it matter if he had been drowned? She didn't care. There wasn't any manner of reason why she should care, only she wished that the sister would come and get it over. That girl was next door to a half-wit; she looked as if she didn't understand a word you said to her. She wondered at their keeping a girl like thatâbut then of course it was just a cottage hospital.
The day sister came round the cornerâdark blue, and an apron, and a much more becoming capânot young, but rather good-looking.
Nesta Riddell said her piece again.
“I've come about my husband. There was a radio message to say that a man had been picked up in the fog.”
“Oh yes. And you think he is your husband?”
“My brother wrote the message down,” said Nesta Riddell. “I haven't got a radio myself, but my brother wrote it down, and I've brought it along.”
She raised the sheet of paper and read from it:
“âWill the friends or relatives of Jimmy Riddell, Reddell, or Randal communicate with the Cottage Hospital, Elston, Sussex. This man was found unconscious near Elston and is believed to be a survivor of the wrecked coastal steamer
He appears to be suffering from loss of memory.' That's what my brother wrote down. Well, I'm Mrs Riddell, and I want to know whether it was my husband that was picked up, or whether it wasn't.”
“Well, Mrs Riddellâ”
Mrs Riddell took her up sharply.
“That's the point, Nurse. Riddellâthat's my name, and that's my husband's nameâJim RiddellâJimmy to his friends. And what I want to know is, what's all this about Reddell and Randal? Didn't he say who he was?”
Mrs Riddell took her up again.
“Well, if he didn't say, who did? I mean, why Riddell, or Reddell, or Randal? I mean, where do you get any of the names from?”
The day sister frowned. This was a pushing young woman.
“Was your husband on the
“He might have been. I don't say he was, and I don't say he wasn't. What I want to know is, how did you get hold of those three names?”
The day sister wasn't going to be hurried. North country people take their own way and their own time.
“Well, he was found on a ledge on that cliff just to the left of the gap over there. That's where the
broke up. She was driven in with the gale, and there the current got her and she smashed on the rocks. You must have read about it. It's a very bad bit of coast because of the quicksands. The lifeboat people picked up a few of the passengers, but this man wasn't found for getting on thirty-six hours. The gale went down very suddenly, and then there was a fog, one of the worst fogs I've ever seen. You couldn't see your hand before your face on the cliffs, and it wasn't till it lifted that they found him. He must have crawled up on to the ledge and then lost consciousness. Dr Sutherland thinks he's had a knock on the head. When he came round he didn't seem to know who he was or where he came from.”
“Then I don't seeâ”
The day sister just went on as if there had not been any interruption.
“But when he is asleep he keeps muttering, and one of the things he keeps saying is that name. The Jimmy is plain enough. That is to say, Matron says it is Jimâand she made out the message that was broadcastâbut when it came to the surname, Dr Sutherland said it was Randal, and I thought Riddellâbut Matron said Reddell, so she put in all the three. Anyway his linen's marked J.R.”
Mrs Riddell was folding the piece of paper with the broadcast message on it. She stopped for a moment, pinching the edge of the paper hard. Then all at once she asked what some women would have asked before.