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Authors: Betty Neels

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‘That sounds nice.' Tabitha's voice was cool, hiding the delight
welling up inside her. She thanked heaven in fervent silence that she could swim.

The beach was almost deserted. Tabitha, behind a convenient rock, put on the despised suit, bundled her hair into a sensible white cap, and ran down to the water's edge, where she stopped because despite the heat of the day, the water felt unexpectedly cold; it was only Marius's voice calling to her from some way out that made her plunge in, to forget the chilliness of the water in the delight of swimming. She swam as she danced, with grace and energy; it took her no time at all to catch up with Marius, loitering in shallow water, she suspected, to see if she was up to his standard. Side by side, they swam strongly out to sea and then turning, swam back, more slowly now, to the beach, where they stretched out, the waves breaking over their feet. Tabitha took off her cap and her hair streamed down in an untidy mass, shedding pins. She lay quiet in the sunshine while Marius picked them up one by one and made a tidy heap of them beside her. She eyed them worriedly. ‘I'll never get my hair up again—it takes ages, and I've only a tiny mirror with me.'

‘Well, I'm not surprised. There's yards of it, isn't there? Can't you put it up when we get to Churston Court? Put it all back in again and I'll race you out to that dinghy.'

They swam for another half hour or so and finally left the water to lie down again, pleasantly tired, in the warmth of the sun. Presently Marius rolled over and propped his head on an elbow. ‘Nice,' he observed laconically. ‘Peaceful and warm and delightful scenery—what more could one want?'

Tabitha opened one eye and found him looking at her, his face a good deal too close for her peace of mind. She shut the eye again and said, for lack of anything else, ‘Um', thinking that Lilith would have known exactly what to say. Her stepmother had once told her that she had no sparkle and Tabitha, for once, agreed with her. She was still searching feverishly for some scintillating topic of conversation when Marius said:

‘You're peaceful too. I don't feel I have to be forever talking trivialities.'

Tabitha, without opening her eyes, said thank you, fuming silently. He made her sound like a feather pillow, or a middle-aged aunt, or anything else comfortable which could be ignored until wanted. She frowned and he continued: ‘Of course, you have mis
construed my meaning, but for the moment that doesn't matter. I like your eyelashes.'

This time Tabitha opened her eyes and sat up. ‘You what?' she queried in astonishment.

‘Like your eyelashes,' he repeated patiently. ‘Most women have black spiky ones, but yours are thick and brown and the length they are meant to be. They look like those camel-hair brushes artists use.'

She went pink, recognizing a compliment and hoping it wasn't just because she was Lilith's stepsister. ‘Thank you,' she said gravely. ‘I think I'll dress.' Marius got up and pulled her to her feet.

‘You don't believe a word of it,' he sounded resigned, ‘but of course these things take time.'

She was still puzzling out this remark when he caught her by the shoulders and kissed her without haste. The kiss was as gentle as his voice had been.

Churston Ferrers was near the river, between Dartmouth and Totnes. The restaurant was in a restored Queen Anne house, handsomely decorated and obviously expensive. Tabitha, in a powder room of sweet-smelling luxury, re-did her hair and her face too and went to join Marius in the bar, where over their Dubonnet they discussed what they should eat with the deep interest of people who were really hungry. They settled for prawn and oyster cocktails, filet steak with a salad, and strawberries and cream. The meal was delicious and they lingered over it, talking easily. They had reached the strawberries before Tabitha asked:

‘What part of Holland do you come from—that is, where is your home?'

Marius helped himself to cream. ‘Veere—a very small town on Walcheren island, that's in Zeeland, in the south. My family have lived there for many years—one of my ancestors married a Scotswoman during the reign of James the First, and since that time there have been other marriages with both English and Scotswomen. My father's brother is married to an Englishwoman—I was staying with them when I had Bill Raynard's telephone call.'

Tabitha asked quickly before he could talk about something else: ‘Have you a practice?'

‘No—a few patients come to the house, but I have rooms in Rotterdam. I'm on the staff of one of the Rotterdam hospitals and I have some beds in Middelburg hospital as well.'

‘Oh, a consultant.' Tabitha thought how unassuming his answer
had been, and like him more than ever, which although it had nothing to do with loving him was, to her mind, almost as important. Hadn't Mr Raynard said that he was embarked on a successful career? She remembered something else. ‘But you lecture—Mr Raynard said you were going…'

‘That's right. I've been over here to team up with some orthopaedic chaps who are on to something new. I went up to Ambleside afterwards—it seemed a good idea to have a holiday before I start my lectures again.'

She wanted to ask where he was going, but didn't; instead she asked:

‘You like that? More than surgery?'

He smiled slowly, his eyes crinkling nicely at their corners. ‘It suits me very well at present, though I imagine that when I marry I shall give up a great deal of the lecturing and concentrate on consultant surgery. You see, I should like to see as much as possible of my wife and children.'

Tabitha blinked her paintbrush eyelashes. ‘Yes, of course. Will you tell me some more about Veere?'

But presently, when they were in the car again, she found that they were talking about Chidlake and Mrs Crawley and Lilith. It seemed to her that he wanted to know a lot about Lilith, which, she reminded herself, was only to be expected—probably he'd brought her out for that very reason—so she was careful to colour her answers in Lilith's favour, because even though she knew that she loved him so much that she would never want to marry anyone else—supposing that anyone else should ask her—she couldn't stand in his way. She considered that Lilith wouldn't make him a good wife, but that was hardly her business, so that when he wanted to know why Lilith wasn't earning her own living, Tabitha made haste to point out that she was only just eighteen and hadn't quite made up her mind, whereupon Marius wanted to know if she herself had made up her mind at that age, to which she hastily replied that yes, she had, but that had been different, and was shocked into silence by his bland: ‘Ah, yes—Cinderella.'

They crossed Dartmoor, pausing often to admire the scenery, and stopped at Chagford for tea. By now they had stopped talking about herself and her family and to her relief the conversation became the pleasant exchange of ideas and opinions. She was a voracious reader herself; it was nice to find someone who shared her
pleasure in books and whose tastes were similar to her own. She discovered, too, that they enjoyed the same music and admired the same pictures too; it seemed inevitable that they should dislike the same things in life. They were still comparing notes on this interesting discovery when they arrived at Meg's sister's house, and as they went up the garden path together Tabitha was conscious of regret that they wouldn't be able to finish their talk.

They went inside to wait while Meg got ready to leave and stayed for a cup of tea while flowers were picked from the garden and the best of the young peas and beans were gathered for them to take home. It was seven o'clock by the time they were on the road again, with Meg in the back seat, telling them about her day in her soft Dorset voice and asking questions about theirs. Outside the flat Tabitha turned to thank Marius for her day, but he cut her short by saying in the pleasantest possible manner: ‘Oh, but I'm coming in if I may', and did so. They all went into the kitchen where Podger was waiting anxiously for his supper, and Marius sat quietly while the beast was petted and fed, and only then did Tabitha remember her manners sufficiently to say: ‘Oh, I do beg your pardon, only he was hungry—I'll make some coffee and we can go into the sitting room.'

Mr van Beek didn't move. ‘It's a lovely evening,' he observed. ‘I know of a nice place at Dulverton where we could have dinner.'

He glanced as he spoke at Meg and smiled and she said instantly: ‘Now that's a good idea, Miss Tabby—you go along, that'll give me a chance to do one or two things.'

‘What things?' asked Tabitha with faint suspicion.

‘Now, love, you leave that to me.' Meg sounded exactly as she had used to do when Tabitha had queried something that wasn't her business when she had been a little girl and Tabitha responded unconsciously to her old nanny's firm voice. She turned to Marius and asked: ‘But aren't you tired?'

He said blandly: ‘After such a delightfully relaxing day? Not in the least. Shall I wait here and talk to Meg while you go and powder your nose?'

She powdered her nose; she would have liked to change her dress too, but felt it would hardly do because he was in slacks and a sports shirt and they weren't likely to go anywhere grand, although she was sure she had seen a jacket on the back seat. She was ready in ten minutes, looking as neat and fresh as when they had set out that morn
ing. The only concession to the occasion she allowed herself was a careful spraying of Fleurs de Rochelle, which maybe accounted for his ‘Very nice,' when she went back into the kitchen.

They talked shop all the way to Dulverton, which was only a little more than half an hour's drive away; they talked about Mr Bow too, although Marius gave her no inkling as to what he intended to do about his old friend when he was fully recovered. By the time they drew up outside the Carnavon Arms she was still none the wiser and had discovered that if her companion didn't want to answer a question he had a gentle but firm way of not doing so. But she forgot this in the pleasure of his company; he could be an amusing companion when he chose and seemed intent on making her evening an enjoyable one. They dined off lobster Thermidor and a crême brulée and washed these delicacies down with a dry white Burgundy, followed by brandy with their coffee, which must have accounted for Tabitha's feeling of well-being as they drove back to the flat, a feeling which evaporated slowly as he bade her a pleasant good night at the front door, refusing her offer of more coffee and making only the most conventional remarks about their day together.

By the time she was in bed, the evaporation was complete. Looking back over the day, she was unable to recall one single remark that she had made that had been witty, clever, funny or even faintly interesting. No wonder he hadn't wanted to come in; he must have been glad to be rid of her. She fell asleep, convinced that she might just as well scrape her hair back and not bother with her make-up. She woke in the night, suddenly and piercingly aware of how much she loved him and, if he married Lilith, just as aware that she would have to go away because seeing them together would be more than she could bear, just as meeting him would be impossible. He would call her Tabby—probably Old Tabby, in a horribly kind brotherly fashion. She went to sleep much later, her cheeks still damp where she hadn't bothered to wipe away her tears.

CHAPTER FOUR

I
T WAS DURING
the next morning, while George Steele was doing a round, that Tabitha learned that Marius would be operating on four days that week, and when she enquired why, George mentioned that Mr van Beek was due to go on a short lecture tour in five days'time and intended to clear as much of the waiting list as he could before he went.

‘Oh,' said Tabitha, ‘he's not coming back! Will you be able to manage on your own, George?'

She didn't really care in the least if George could manage or not, but she had to say something—anything, to take her mind off the fact that Marius was going away and she wouldn't see him.

‘Of course he's not going,' said George patiently. ‘Only for a week—Sweden, I believe—it was arranged long before he heard from Mr Raynard. He'll come back and take over again until the Old Man's on his feet.'

The Old Man himself substantiated George's statement himself when Tabitha paid him her morning visit. He was sitting up in bed, surrounded by an untidy welter of case notes, screwed-up pieces of paper, several lists and a calendar. He thrust an impatient arm out as she approached the bed and shot most of the clutter on to the floor.

‘Tut-tut,' said Tabitha severely, ‘you're by far the untidiest patient we've ever had.' She picked everything up, sorted it neatly and laid the little pile back on the bed.

He glowered at her. ‘Stuff,' he tapped the lists with an impatient finger. ‘I want to get these sorted out for Marius—you've a busy week ahead of you, my girl, so make up your mind to that.'

Tabitha tucked a pillow in exactly where he needed it most. ‘I don't mind,' she said sunnily, and gave him a broad smile because Marius was coming back and so the day had turned into something wonderful; a week would go quickly enough, and however hard Mr Raynard tried, he wasn't going to be fit to return to work for quite a while yet.

Mr Raynard gave her a suspicious look. ‘What have you got to look so pleased about?' he demanded. ‘Had a weekend in Paris?'

Before Tabitha could reply to this pleasantry, Marius spoke from the door.

‘Not Paris, or for that matter, a weekend. Just a very delightful day swimming and doing nothing. We enjoyed ourselves.' He smiled and gave her a friendly nod and then ignored her, going over to the bed to pick up the lists scattered upon it. He cast his eye over the first of them and asked: ‘Which days shall you want me to operate? I'd rather like to be free on Thursday.' He looked at Tabitha as he spoke. ‘Sister?'

‘That's fine,' she said quickly. She had a day off herself on Thursday. She stood silently, wondering how he was going to spend his day. Mr Raynard did more than wonder; he asked: ‘Got plans, eh? What are you going to do?'

‘That is something I shall leave my companion to decide,' said Mr van Beek smoothly, and gave Tabitha the ghost of a smile. She went away presently, a prey to chaotic thoughts. Could he possibly be going to ask her out again—he could have found out that she was free on Thursday easily enough; the off duty list was in the office. Even as she savoured this delectable idea, her common sense told her that it was extremely unlikely. She went into the office and stared at her face in the mirror on the wall.

‘What a fool you are,' she chided her reflection. All the same, she decided to buy the bikini that very day; if she missed dinner she would have time enough.

She got back to work with a bare minute to spare to find Marius in the office, sitting at her desk. As she went in he got to his feet, remarking idly: ‘What a lot of housekeeping you appear to do—doesn't it bore you?'

She took the sewing book, the repair book and the request for repair book from his hand. A little breathless, she stammered: ‘No—not at all—at least…'

He didn't allow her to finish. ‘You've been shopping?'

She went faintly pink, although she kept her voice matter-of-fact enough.

‘Yes. On theatre days I always have an evening, you see, and the shops are shut by the time I get away.'

He nodded and then pointed out. ‘But you have days off, don't you? Surely you could shop then?'

She wasn't going to tell him that she spent those, or the greater part of them, helping Meg to give the flat a weekly clean. Meg wasn't old, but neither was she all that young any more. Without the subject being mentioned between them, Tabitha had gradually taken over the heavier jobs, which weren't all that arduous in the little flat, but they took time, and when they were finished she usually took Meg out for a run in the car. Her days off weren't exciting, nor were they wholly her own.

Marius was at the door. ‘Nice of you not to make a fuss about Thursday,' and when she lifted her nondescript brows in surprise, he went on: ‘Oh, you could have done, you know. Not enough staff—altering the off duty, laundry not back—I can think of a dozen good reasons why you should object if you wish.'

Tabitha examined the laundry book in her hand with great care. ‘But I don't object,' she stated calmly—far more calmly than her heart was beating. ‘As it happens it's most convenient, as I have the day off myself.'

Marius put his hands in his pockets. He said suavely: ‘Yes—I know. I looked at the list. What do you think of Knotty?'

The change of subject was so abrupt that she took a few seconds to adjust her thoughts. ‘He's doing very nicely. There's still a little discharge around the stitches, but he has almost no pain, and begs for crutches.'

Marius took his hands out of his pockets and opened the door.

‘Yes, he's mad keen to get on his feet again. I should like him X-rayed, this week and—er—Mr Raynard too. Leave a couple of forms out, will you, and ask George to do the necessary.'

He nodded rather vaguely and went out, shutting the door gently behind him, and Tabitha sat down at her desk, still with the books clutched in one hand and the bag containing the new bikini in the other. She had been greatly daring telling him about her day off, and he had known all the time. If he had wanted to take her out, he had certainly had the opportunity to say so. But he hadn't. She cast the books on the desk with a thump and flung the bag pettishly into the corner of the little room.

The next two days were busy; the lists were long and heavy, and, she thought wearily at the end of the first day, she might just as well not be there for all she saw of Marius. It was true he paid a visit to the ward after he had finished the list, but then he was his other self—the surgeon intent on his patients and nothing else; there was
no trace of the placid, almost lazy man who talked idly about anything under the sun other than his work.

Wednesday was worse, because one of the student nurses had a sore throat and had to go off duty, and an emergency was admitted who died before anything other than emergency treatment could be done for him. Marius and George were operating when the case was admitted and although Marius had come down almost immediately, there was really nothing to be done. Tabitha, consoling the young wife as best she could over cups of tea in her office, was seized with frustration at the futility of their efforts, and when the girl's mother arrived and she was able to hand her over to someone else's care, she took the tea tray to the kitchen and washed up the cups and saucers, giving vent to her feelings by crashing and banging the crockery. She had just smashed the teapot into wet tea-leafy fragments all over the floor when Marius came in. She gave him a furious look, said ‘Oh, damn,' and on the verge of tears, bent to clear up the mess. He bent to help her and after one look at her unhappy face, said gently:

‘I know how you feel. I'm sorry there was nothing to do for that poor chap.' He shoveled the bits tidily into the bin under the sink and went on with deliberate briskness:

‘That first case—he bled a lot in theatre—I think he'll be OK, but keep an eye on him, will you? George has all the details.'

He walked to the door and held it open for her and then went to the ward door and opened that for her too. She thought that he was going in with her, but he stayed where he was. He spoke casually. ‘I shall be seeing Mrs Crawley and Lilith tomorrow—have you any message for them?'

She remembered then that the next day was Thursday. She might have known that he would go and see Lilith, but all the same, disappointment left its bitter taste in her mouth. She had been a fool, indulging in wishful thinking; she wouldn't do that again. She found her voice and was glad to hear its normality.

‘No, I can't think of any, thank you. I hope you have a pleasant day.'

She gave him a brief glance and a smile that barely curved her mouth and flew into the ward.

Friday and Saturday followed the exacting pattern laid down by Tuesday and Wednesday. When she spoke to Marius, and that seldom, it was to do with the patients and nothing else, and on the Saturday evening when he came to do a final round after theatre
and spent quite some time with Mr Bow and Mr Raynard, she was careful to be busy as far away from him as possible. So she only had herself to blame when from behind Mr Prosser's curtains she heard Marius enquire from Betts where she was, and when Betts told him, his voice, telling the nurse not to disturb her but to convey his regards. She took so long over Mr Prosser afterwards that that astute gentleman actually fell as silent as she had become; only as at length she pulled the curtains back did he say: ‘Well, Sister, we'll miss that Dutchman—a nice chap even though 'e's a foreigner. I 'ear 'e's coming back.'

Tabitha paused at the foot of the bed. ‘That's right, Mr Prosser—he's only going for a week.'

She was conscious, as she spoke, that she had said that as much to comfort herself as to enlighten Mr Prosser. Later on, when she was home, sitting with Podger on her knee, she had to admit to herself that as things were, it could make no difference whatsoever to her whether Marius was away for a week or a year. At least, she corrected herself, it could make no difference to him.

The week was unending, and made worse by a visit from Lilith one evening, ostensibly to bring some fruit from Chidlake—something she had never done before, and it was obvious to Tabitha within a very few minutes that it was more than the fruit which had brought her stepsister. Lilith settled down in her chair, accepted the cup of coffee she was offered and embarked on a meaningless chatter which Tabitha considered a waste of time. But she sat quietly, listening to Lilith's talk forced as she did so to admit to herself that Lilith looked prettier than ever in a dress that must have cost a great deal of money. Tabitha sighed soundlessly; if only her father had left her provided for… She roused herself to hear Lilith say: ‘It was gorgeous—Marius is such fun even though he's so much older, and we get on so well, just as though we'd known each other all our lives. He's sweet with Mummy too, but of course it's me he comes to see.' She gave Tabitha a sharp look and Tabitha steeled herself to look serenely back.

‘Yes,' she agreed, ‘he seems very nice. But isn't he a little old for you, Lilith?'

She shouldn't have said it. Lilith smiled, a smile very like her mother's and one which Tabitha dreaded. ‘Sour grapes?' she queried on a little laugh. ‘Poor Tabby, it must be ghastly to be as plain as you are.' She studied Tabitha with her head on one side. ‘You've
done something to your hair and I do believe you've got makeup on your eyes—how Mummy will laugh when I tell her! About Marius—I'm going to get him, you know. I'm not quite sure about marrying him, not until I know if he's got enough money, but he's marvelous at taking a girl out, and he looks at me—you know,' she laughed again and murmured cruelly, ‘No, of course you wouldn't know. He's very interested in Chidlake too—he thinks I love it, but you just wait, if I do decide to marry him, we'll never go near the place again. He can work in Wimpole Street or wherever it is.' She broke off to ask: ‘How much do doctors earn—I mean doctors like Marius?'

A wave of rage swept over Tabitha. Here was Lilith coolly considering marriage with Marius and she didn't know the difference between a doctor and a surgeon! She said evenly:

‘Mr van Beek is a surgeon—he specializes in orthopaedics. I have no idea what his income might be.' She couldn't resist adding: ‘How should I? I'm not in the habit of being on such friendly terms with the consultant staff.' As she said it she recalled the Sunday she had spent with Marius; that at least was something Lilith didn't know about. She said slowly: ‘Aren't you being mercenary, Lilith?'

Her stepsister laughed. ‘What a fool you are, Tabby. Why shouldn't I have an eye to the main chance? You're quite soft with your silly out-of-date ideas. I shall marry someone with plenty of money, and if he's as good-looking as Marius, so much the better.' She got up and stretched. ‘I'm off—you're not exactly lively company, are you, Tabby?'

‘Why did you come?' Tabitha asked with curiosity.

Lilith giggled. ‘Oh, my dear, I should have thought of it, but when Marius was at Chidlake the other evening, we walked round the garden and he remarked that of course we kept you supplied with stuff from the garden. I said yes—I should have been a fool to have said anything else, shouldn't I? Now I can tell him that I took you a whole basketful and he'll think that I'm a sweet, thoughtful little sister and fall in love with me just a little bit more.'

Tabitha had nothing to say to this, although she longed to speak her mind, but if she did, there was the danger of Lilith guessing that Marius was something more than just another consultant. She held her tongue until Lilith had got into her sports car and driven away, and then went into the kitchen, where to her own surprise she burst into tears and mumbled the whole sad story into the ample comfort
of Meg's bosom. She felt better when she had told the whole; and sniffed and gulped for a little while before she spoke.

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