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Authors: Catherine Airlie

Strange Recompense

BOOK: Strange Recompense
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STRANGE RECOMPENSE

Catherine Airlie

She didn't even know her own name!

Panic gripped her at the realization

she had lost her memory! Confusion and loneliness threatened to overwhelm her...

Then she came under the care of Dr. Noel Melford, a kind, handsome man who fought to restore her awareness while making no secret of his increasing attraction to her.

She felt drawn to him, but dare she let herself fall in love? What about the gold wedding band among her possessions?

 

CHAPTER ONE

THE GREAT SHOULDER of Cader Idris loomed ominously through a curtain of rain which swept down to the rugged coastline, obliterating everything but the grey sea and towering cliff locked in the struggle of the elements, and the sound of rain and tide was a mighty roar of defiance flung back in the face of the wind. It seemed that no other sound would have been audible on such a night, dominated by the fury of the storm, but it came, fitfully, between the gusts of wind—the sound of a car being driven at speed along the narrow winding ribbon of a road topping the cliff. Then suddenly, out of the night and the greyness, two shafts of yellow light hovered uncertainly, dipping as the road plunged downward and rising again to the headland.

Even here, high up on the treacherous coast road, the car did not slacken speed, plunging on through the rain and darkness in the shadow of the Welsh mountains to an unknown destination with the wind whipping away the sound of it again and again until, with a screeching of brakes, it appeared to rear, arrested, like a terrified animal, before it plunged over the cliff into the angry sea below.

In that split second, as the dark shape hung suspended before that final plunge to oblivion, a figure was flung clear to lie, crumpled and still, on the coarse grass topping the headland. Wind and rain blew over it, a woman’s figure, thin and pathetically ill-clad for such a night, lying face downwards on the grass without movement, without any sign of life whatever.

As the first gleam of dawn broke over the bleak Cardigan landscape the storm abated, showing an opal-colored band of sky along the horizon far out into the Channel, and the rugged outline of the bay took vague shape in the rapidly strengthening light. The wind blew cold from the Atlantic, but the rain had ceased and the full fury of the storm had passed.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the figure on the cliff stirred, with roping movements of returning consciousness like those of a
b
linded person seeking the light. The girl turned on to her back and lay there.

Where am I? How did I get here? I can’t remember, and—I don’t know who I am!

Panic, sudden and terrible, took possession of her at that last thought, and shock reduced her mind to chaos. Desperately she sought about her for an explanation of her predicament, but nothing would come. The past was a reality over which she had no immediate control; the present was danger.

Wildly she looked about her, as if for some way of escape, but she was not imprisoned. There, before her, was the road winding down into the valley, although it ended somewhere behind her where she dared not look.

She would not look at the sea, although she could hear it pounding against the cliffs like an angry animal straining at a leash, and presently her eyes fastened on a narrow pathway straggling off across the moor.

She stood on the cliff top, torn between the two, watching the road almost as if she feared it, and then she plunged downwards through the wet gorse towards the path that led more directly away from the sea.

Quickening her pace as the sun rose and strengthened and the morning star paled above the hills, she covered distance unconsciously, almost running at times as if some stupendous force was compelling her away from the scene of disaster, away from memory, away, even, from final recognition. She had no memory of the accident. She had no memory at all.

“Dear God!” she prayed, “if I could only remember!”

She looked up at last, a desperate sort of courage in her eyes as she struggled to her feet, stiff and sore from the night of exposure behind her. The road was the only way, after all!

She had covered the best part of three miles before the road showed signs of leading anywhere, and then a van passed her bearing an unfamiliar name.

By the position of the sun she knew that it was mid-day, and hunger gnawed suddenly and fiercely. Instinctively she sought the road, walking close to the grass verge when she reached it, although there was no traffic to necessitate such caution, but when the car came up behind her she had no need to step aside.

Ruth Melford would have driven straight past the girl in the navy-blue coat that bright June morning, her mind preoccupied with her own affairs, if she had not been arrested by the vivid beauty of the wind-blown hair. As she drew level something made her turn to look at the girl’s face, and what she saw caused her to push her gear into neutral and bring the car to a standstill with a grinding of brakes, several yards ahead of the walker.

The girl drew abreast almost reluctantly, it seemed, her blue
eyes darkened by her obvious distress, her pale face and lagging step witness to her utter physical exhaustion.

“Good morning!” Ruth offered lightly. “Can I give you a lift into Glynmareth? I seem to be going your way.”

The girl stared back at her for a moment, her forehead puckered as if in an effort to remember, and then her whole expression broke up in confusion and the deep-set, dark-lashed eyes looked suddenly wild.

“I don’t know where I want to go,” she said desperately, pressing an ungloved hand to her brow. “I—I don’t know about anything. I can’t remember.”

Ruth leaned over and opened the off-side door of the car.

“Get in,” she commanded in her brisk, practical way. “You look desperately tired and—ill. Have you walked far?”

The girl seemed to recoil at the thought of entering the car, staring at it as if it might be some monster ready to devour her at a touch.

“I’ve been walking since—daybreak,” she said. “I must have come a long way, but—but—”

“Do get in!” Ruth urged making one of the sudden decisions so characteristic of her. “At least I can run you into Glynmareth and we can see what we can do for you there.”

After the barest of hesitations the girl obeyed her, shivering and drawing back into the corner of her seat as they came into sight of the red rooftops of Glynmareth. She appeared to shrink from contact with her kind, and Ruth refrained from further questioning, but her quick glance took in the crumpled dress and the mud-stained shoes which spoke so plainly of a night spent in the open that the first thing to think about was quite clearly food and warmth, followed by a long and healing period of sleep.

“You said just now that you did not know where you wanted to go,” she mentioned as the first of Glynmareth’s white-washed cottages slipped past and they were driving down the main street of the little town.

I wonder if you would let me take you home with me? You see,” she explained carefully, “my brother is a doctor and he may be able to help.”

The girl considered her suggestion, saying with a lucidity which made it quite clear that she was completely in command of the present:

“Why should I thrust myself upon you? We are strangers. I must go to the police.”

In spite of her effort, her voice trembled, and Ruth took the decision out of her hands.

“Let me see what I can do for you first of all,” she said. “The police might quite conceivably bring you to my brother in the long run. He’s Medical Superintendent at our local cottage hospital and—forgive me, my dear, but you look very much in need of his care.”

The kindness of tone and words stung tears into the girl’s eyes. She was clinging to Ruth now, to the idea of protection and shelter and warmth removed from the grim austerity of a police court.

“It may take time—remembering,” she said confusedly. “I really ought to remember—”

“Don’t try just now,” Ruth advised. “It will only have the effect of distressing you further.” She knew enough of medical practice to realize how near to collapse the girl was, how thin the line could become which marked the breaking point. “Once you have changed out of these wet clothes and had a good sleep you’ll remember all you want to know. Tiredness can make our minds blank—desperate tiredness.”

She was studying her companion without the girl’s being conscious of scrutiny, for the pale oval of the finely-boned face was reflected clearly in the windscreen before them, and she could see the sudden twitching of the firm young chin as her companion attempted to control emotions which were new and frightening. It was a face to command attention, she thought, with its widely spaced eyes, small, neat nose flaring a little at the nostrils, and the generous mouth held in check by that nervous biting of the lips, a face with the decided stamp of character about it.

Ruth turned the car in between the stone gateposts of the hospital grounds and drove off the main avenue towards her home wit
h
the conviction that here was no ordinary case of amnesia but one which carried a story with it which might be difficult to unravel.

The Melford villa had been built at the same time as the hospital and looked across a well-stocked garden to the larger building with its wards and sun-balconies, which was Glynmareth’s pride. Reached through a well-planned shrubbery, it had all the privacy the Superintendent could desire in what little leisure time he permitted himself, without isolating him from his work, and Ruth drew up at the front door with a sigh of relief.

“Here we are!” she observed briskly, seeing that her companion
had drawn back into the shadow of the car as they approached the door. “You had better come in with me and have something to eat while I contact them over at the hospital. They may not even want to take you in there, once you’ve
h
ad a good night’s rest,” she added encouragingly.

The girl slid from her seat and stood uncertainly in the sunlight. A faint sound, like a cry of protest, broke from the girl’s lips as she stretched out her hand to steady herself, and Ruth was just in time to catch her before she fell. Her dead weight was as much as Ruth could cope with and with a sigh of relief she caught the gleam of an apron flitting along the path beyond the berberis hedge.

“Nurse!” she called loudly. “Can you come in here a minute?”

“Do you think you could open the sitting-room door for me?” she asked. “I’ve picked this girl up on the moor road and she seems to have been caught in all that rain last night. It rather looks as if she might be the victim of an accident.”

“We’ll lay her down on the settee,” she decided, pushing cushions aside as she spoke. “Once I’ve got her settled I’ll slip across to the hospital and see Matron. This may be more serious than I imagined at first.” She straightened, looking down on the pinched white face among the cushions. “See what you can do about bringing her round, Nurse,” she suggested before she turned away. “There’s brandy in that corner cupboard over there. I’ll dash across for help, and you could go through her pockets and see if you can find any evidence of identification.”

The idea behind Ruth’s directions was to find her brother, although she realized that he might not be at the hospital at that hour. He had spoken of a consultation somewhere in the town while they were having breakfast together and, as she re-crossed the shrubbery in the direction of the hospital, the thought struck her that she was seeing less and less of Noel these days as he buried himself more and more in his work. Apart from breakfast and a late supper together, their days were spent apart. Lunches he ate out, an
d
sometimes she wondered if he ever found time for dinner at all. He was wrapping himself up in his profession to the exclusion of all else, studying in any spare time available for the extra degrees he coveted and putting in far more hours at the hospital than he need have done.

Left alone with her charge, the seventeen-year-old probationer set to work with four months of experience behind her and a sudden grim fear in her heart. She had never been left alone with anyone who looked so desperately ill before, and she was quite sure that her patient was about to die.

She lifted the brandy and poured a little through the parted lips, but her patient did not appear to respond in any way, and the short period of her training went down before a native superstition. This was something unusual, a stranger brought in from the moors! She was most definitely dying. The fear of death was still very strong in Jill’s heart, and in her experience these things happened with terrifying suddenness. She caught at the unresponsive hands, trying to rub warmth and life into them, and after a minute or two the girl stirred and opened her eyes. She looked at Jill and gave her a wan smile, and then she slipped back into unconsciousness again and fear stood once more in Jill’s heart.

“You could go through her pockets and see if you can find any evidence of identification.”

A senior’s words were law to Jill, even although Miss Melford was not actually one of the hospital staff. She was the doctor’s sister—the Super’s sister, no less, so that she was to be obeyed almost as if it had been Matron herself who had given the order.

There was nothing very much to go on, nothing to establish anyone’s identity, she thought, as she laid the articles she found on the table, one by one. A good quality linen handkerchief, crumpled a little, but still clean; a small suede purse with some money in it; a powder compact with a blue enamel lid and—a wedding ring.

Jill looked at the last item as if it were the most important of all, as indeed it must be. It was a nice ring, she thought, reminding her of her mother’s solid, substantial gold, and it was evident that it belonged to the girl lying so motionless against Ruth Melford’s velvet cushions.

She was quite convinced now that the stranger on the settee was about to die. Little gasping sounds were coming from between the girl’s pale lips and the slim fingers were clutching spasmodically at the edge of the improvised bed. Jill had seen those clutching fingers before.

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