Authors: Betty Neels
The woman eyed her with indulgent scorn. âTill 'is rent's due I'll lock it. After that it's out with 'is things. I can't afford to leave me rooms empty.'
Tabitha put a gentle hand on Podger's bull neck. âYes, of course. I'll come back tomorrow eveningâperhaps something could be arranged.'
She made her escape, and as she settled the trustful Podger beside her in the car her mind was already busy with the problem of what was to be done. The old man must be hard up, even though some of his possessions, if sold, would keep him in comfort for some time. She started the car, and still pondering the problem, went back through the city to the quiet street where she had her flat.
As she parked the car outside the little house, she could see Meg standing in the open door, and as she crossed the road, Podger under one arm, she heard her soft Dorset voice. âMiss Tabby, where have you been? It's all hoursâand what's that you've got with you?'
Tabitha shut the street door firmly behind them and opened the door into the flat, then crossed the minute hall and went into the kitchen, where she put Podger on a chair. She said contritely: âMeg dear, I'm so sorry. I'll tell you what happened, but I must feed this poor creature.' She rummaged around and found some cold ham and gave it to the cat, explaining as she did so. When she had finished, Meg clucked her tongue just as she had always done when Tabitha had been a very little girl and she had been her nanny.
âWell, what's done can't be undone,' she remarked comfortably, âpoor old man. Did you get your supper?'
âNo,' confessed Tabitha, ânot all of it,' and was prevailed upon to sit down immediately at the table and given soup while Meg made sandwiches. With her mouth full, she said: âYou spoil me, Meg. You shouldn't, you know. You could get a marvelous job with an earl or a lord or someone instead of being cooped up here with me on a wage Father would have been ashamed to offer you.'
Her erstwhile nurse gave her a severe look. âAnd what would I be doing with earls and lords and suchlike? Didn't I promise your dear mother that I'd look after you, and you didn't think that I would stay behind when you left home, now did you, miss?'
Tabitha offered Podger a morsel of cheese and jumped up to hug
Meg. âI'd be lost without you,' she declared soberly, and then: âI don't want to go to Chidlake on Friday.'
âYou must, Miss Tabitha. It's your stepsister's birthday party, and though I know there's no love lost between you, nor yet that stepmother of yours, you've got to go. When you left Chidlake after your father married again you did promise him you'd go back, Christmas and birthdays and suchlike.'
âOh, Meg, I know, but Father was alive then. Stepmother and Lilith don't really want me there.'
âMaybe not, but it's your home, Miss Tabby dear, whatever they sayâyou belong there and they never will. You can't leave the old house to strangers.'
Tabitha went over to the sink with her plate. She loved her home very much; Meg was right, she couldn't leave it completely. She said heavily: âOf course I'll go, Meg. Now we'd better go to bed. I'll take Podger with me, shall I, in case he's lonely. And don't get up early, Meg. I'm on at eight and I'll have plenty of time to get something to eat before I go.' But Meg was already laying the table for breakfast; Tabitha knew that whatever she said, the older woman would be down before her in the morning, fiercely insisting that she ate the meal she had cooked. She yawned, suddenly tired, âToday's been beastly,' she observed.
Meg gave her a shrewd look. âTomorrow's always a better day,' she stated firmly. âGo and have your bath and I'll bring you up some hot milkâthere's nothing like it for a good night's sleep.'
But hot milk or not, Tabitha found sleep elusive, perhaps because she had been talking about her home, and doing that had awakened old memories. She had had a happy childhood, accepting her happiness with the blissful, unconscious content of the very young. She had had loving parents, a beautiful home and no cares to spoil her days. She had been happy at school too, and because Chidlake had been in the family for a very long time, she had known everyone in the village as well as a great many people in nearby Lyme Regis. She had been fifteen when her mother died and almost twenty when her father married again, and by then she was a student nurse, living in hospital in the cathedral city some thirty miles away, so that she came home only for days off each week. At least, it had been each week to begin with, but she had come to dread them, for her stepmother made no pretence of her dislike of her and lost no opportunity of poking sly fun at Tabitha's lack of looks and young men, so that
Tabitha, whose placid nature could turn to a fiery rage if sufficiently badgered, had made the journey home less and less frequently, and finally had thankfully qualified and with her increased salary and the small annuity her mother had left her, had set up house for herself in the tiny flat near the hospital. Her father had allowed her to choose enough furniture from Chidlake to take with her, and had raised no demur when Meg had announced that she had appointed herself housekeeper of the small menage.
Tabitha had continued to go to Chidlake from time to time, but after her father's death she went less and lessâand only then because she had promised her father that she would and because she loved the old house so dearly. Sometimes she wondered what would happen to it, for her stepmother disliked it and Lilith hated it; probably it would be sold. When Tabitha allowed herself to think of this she longed to have the money to buy it, for it was, after all, hers by rights and she had been given to understand that her father had asked her stepmother to leave it to his elder daughter when she died. But Tabitha was only too well aware that that would be the last thing she would do, for she had bitterly opposed Tabitha's inheritance of a few small pieces of furniture and family silver and had ignored his request that she should make provision for Tabitha, although she had been powerless to prevent the payment of Tabitha's annuity and Meg's few hundred pounds.
Tabitha sat up in bed, switched on her bedside light and thumped her pillows into greater comfort. It was past twelve o'clock and she had to be up soon after six, but she had never felt so wide awake. She gazed around the room, soothed by its charm. Although small, the few pieces of furniture it contained showed up to advantage and the pink shade of the lamp gave the white walls a pleasant glow. She began to think about the weekend. Lilith's party was to be a big affair, and although she disliked Tabitha almost as much as her mother did, she had invited her with an outward show of friendliness because, after all, Tabitha knew a great many people around Chidlake; they would find it strange if she wasn't present. At least she had a new dress for the occasionâa green and blue shot silk with a tiny bodice, its low-cut neck frilled with lace and the same lace at the elbow-length sleeves. She had tried it on several times during the last week and had come to the conclusion that while she was unlikely to create a stir, she would at least be worth a glance.
Tired of lying awake, she rearranged her pillows once more, and
Podger, who had settled at the end of her bed, opened a sleepy eye, yawned, stretched and then got up and padded across the quilt to settle against her. He was warmâtoo warm for the time of year, but comforting too. She put an arm round his portly little body and went to sleep.
She went to take a look at her newest patient as soon as she had taken the report the next morning, and found him more himself. He stared at her with his bright old eyes and said quite strongly: âI've seen you beforeâI'm afraid I wasn't feeling quite myself.' He held out a rather shaky hand and she shook its frail boniness gravely. âJohn Bow,' he said.
âTabitha Crawley,' said Tabby, and gave him a nice smile. âI'm glad to hear that you've had quite a good nightâthe surgeon will be along directly to decide what needs to be done.'
He nodded, not much interested. âPodger?' he enquired.
She explained, glossing over the landlady's observations and telling him that they would have a little talk later on, before she crossed the ward to Mr Raynard's cubicle. He greeted her so crossly that she asked:
âWhat's the matter, sir? You sound put out.'
âMy knee's the matter. I've hardly closed my eyes all night.'
Tabitha looked sympathetic, aware from the report that he had wakened for a couple of short periods only, but there was no point in arguing.
âI expect it seemed like all night,' she observed kindly.
âBah! I told that fool of a night nurse to get me some more dope and she had the temerity to refuse because it wasn't written up.'
Tabitha took up a militant stance at the foot of his bed, ready to do battle on behalf of the night staff, who was a good girl anyway and knew what she was about.
âNurse Smart did quite right, and well you know it, sir. A fine pickle we'd all be in if we handed out pills to any patient who asked for them. And you are a patient, Mr Raynard.'
He glared at her. âWhen I'm on my feet I'll wring your neckâ¦' he began, and stopped to laugh at someone behind her. She turned without haste; it would be George Steele, zealously coming to enquire about his chiefâprobably the new man had let him know what time the list would start and poor old George had had to get up early. It wasn't poor old George but a stranger; a tall, well-built man with a craggy, handsome face, pale sandy hair brushed back from a high
forehead and calm grey eyes. He was wearing slacks and a cotton sweater and she had the instant impression that he was casual to the point of laziness. He said âHi there' to Mr Raynard before his eyes moved to meet hers, and then: âHave I come all the way from Cumberland just in time to prevent you committing murder, Bill?'
Mr Raynard stopped laughing to say: âI threaten the poor girl all the time, don't I, Tabby? This is Marius van BeekâMarius, meet Miss Tabitha Crawley, who rules this ward with a rod of iron in a velvet glove.'
Tabitha looked at him, her head on one side. âYou've got it wrong,' she observed. âIt's an iron hand in a velvet glove.'
Mr Raynard frowned at her. âWoman, don't argue. Your hand isn't ironâit's soft and very comforting, if you must know.'
Tabitha said with equanimity: âWell, I neverâhow kind,' and turned belatedly to Mr van Beek. âHow do you do, sir?' She half smiled as she spoke, thinking how delightful it would be if she were so pretty that he would really look at her and not just dismiss her with a quick glance as just another rather dull young woman wrapped up in her work, so she was all the more surprised when he didn't look away but stared at her with a cool leisure which brought a faint pink to her cheeks. He said at length in an unhurried deep voice that held the faintest trace of an accent:
âHow do you do, Miss Crawley. You must forgive me for coming without giving you proper notice, but I was told it was so very urgent.'
He glanced at Mr Raynard, his sandy eyebrows raised, and Mr Raynard said hastily:
âIt isâyou're a good chap to come, Marius. Tabby, go away and whip up your nurses or whatever you do at this hour of the day and come back in half an hour. See that George is with you.'
Tabitha took these orders with a composure born of several years' association with Mr Raynard. She went to the door, saying merely: âAs you wish, sir. If you should want a nurse you have only to ring.'
She went away, resisting a desire to take a good look at Mr van Beek as she went. Half an hour later she was back again, her neat appearance giving no clue as to the amount of work she had managed to get through in that time. She stood quietly by George Steele, nothing in her plain little face betraying the delightful feeling of excitement she was experiencing at the sight of Mr van Beek, leaning against a wall with his hands in his pockets; he looked incapable
of tying his own shoelaces, let alone putting broken bones together again. He half smiled at her, but it was Mr Raynard who spoke.
âTabby, let me have my pre-med now, will you? The list will start at ten o'clock, so take MarâMr van Beek to see the other cases now, straight away.' He winced in pain. âRemember you're coming to theatre with me, Sister Crawley.'
When he called her Sister Crawley like that she knew better than to answer back, even mildly. She said: âOf course, sir,' and after passing on the news to Rogers, led the way into the ward with George Steele beside her and Mr van Beek strolling along behind as though he had all day.
She went straight to the cases which were already listed because she knew how Mr Bow would need to be talked over and looked at before it was decided if and when he was to have his bones set. She didn't think they would keep him waiting long though, because now that he had come out of shock it would be safe to operate. Surprisingly, Mr van Beek, despite his lazy appearance, seemed to have a very active mind, for he grasped the salient points of each case as they were put forward, so that they were standing by Mr Bow's bed much sooner than she had dared to hope. The old man opened his eyes as they approached the bed and a look of such astonishment came over his face that Tabitha glanced at the two men with her to find the reason, to find the same expression reflected upon Mr van Beek's handsome features. He said an explosive word in a language which certainly wasn't English and exclaimed: âKnotty, by all that's wonderful! It must be yearsâ¦.' He put out a great hand and engulfed Mr Bow's gently in it and went on:
âThe last time I heard from you wasâlet me see, five years agoâyou were in Newcastle, because I wrote to you there and never had an answer.'
Mr Bow smiled. âAnd now I'm here, and I hope you will be able to stick me together again.'
Mr van Beek gave him a long, thoughtful look. âYes, we'll have a long talk later, but now tell me what happened to you.'