Authors: Betty Neels
He turned back to the patient and explained, in a reasonable voice which brooked no contradiction, why the treatment was to be changed, and added: âAnd I should prefer it, Mr Dale, if you refrain from complaining about my colleagues without reason. Mr Raynard operated most successfully upon your hip, and, if you will allow it, your treatment is equally successful.' He smiled, the gentle smile Tabitha liked to see. âYou should join the team, not fight against it, you know.'
They were at the next bed when they heard Mr Dale chuckle, and Tabitha, who had been envisaging the horrors of getting traction on the recalcitrant old man, smiled and caught Mr van Beek's eye. Mr van Beek winked.
Mr Prosser welcomed them with all the pleasure of a host inviting old friends in for a drink, and a great deal of time was lost while he and Mr van Beek discussed the nutritional value of fish and chips and the psychological effect of eating them from newspaper. âAdds a bit of interest,' declared Mr Prosser. âTell you what, you bring Sister 'ere down to my place when I get 'omeâI'll give yer the finest bit o' cod you've ever 'ad.'
Mr van Beek said mildly: âWell, that won't be for a little while yet, you know, but I'll accept your invitation, as I'm sure Sister will.'
They both looked at Tabitha, who said hurriedly: âOh, yesâthat would be delightful,' because that seemed to be the answer they expected of her, although privately she was unable to visualize Mr van Beek doing any such thing, and certainly not in her company, but by the time Mr Prosser got back home the man standing opposite her would be lecturing in some other land, or at best, back in his own country. She wondered whereabouts he lived in Holland, a country about which she knew almost nothing. She was struggling to remember a little of its geography when Mr van Beek's voice, patiently requesting her to hand him an X-ray form, penetrated her thoughts. She said: âOh, sorry, sir,' and went rather a pretty pink,
causing Mr Prosser to remark: âYou look bobbish, Sisterâcome up on the pools, ducks?'
She laughed then, as did the two men with her as they moved down the ward.
Mr Bow, when they got to him, was looking considerably better. His plastered leg seemed to take up most of the bed and his face was pale, but his eyes were clear and as blue as ever. Tabitha had already seen him, of course, but she had left Mr van Beek to explain what had been done, which he did now, with a masterly absence of the more gruesome details and a good deal of humour. âI'll be back to have a chat, Knotty,' he concluded, âSaturday at some time.' He glanced at Tabitha as he spoke and she murmured: âOf course, sir,' while regretting bitterly that she would be at Chidlake and would miss him.
Mr Raynard was better too; his knee dealt with and encased in plaster, he had allowed himself to relax sufficiently to sample the pile of thrillers his wife had thoughtfully provided. He put his book down as Tabitha pulled aside the cubicle curtain and said: âTabby, where have you been? I've not seen you the whole morning.'
âI don't expect you have, sir,' she replied with composure. âYou were fast asleep when I came to see you at eight o'clock, and when I came back from Matron's office you had had your breakfast and had gone to sleep again.' She added kindly: âPlenty of sleep is good for you.'
He growled something at her and then said: âWell, come hereâ I've something for you,' and when she obeyed, he produced an envelope from under the bedclothes and offered it to her. âYour birthday present,' he said gruffly, âa day late, but I got Muriel to do something about it. Open it.'
She did so and gave a chortle of mingled pleasure and laughter. It was a year's subscription to
âit would be delightful to leaf through its extravagant pages, although her stepmother and Lilith would laugh at the notion of her taking any of its advice. But they didn't have to know and there was no reason why she shouldn't wear pretty clothes even if she were plain. She said warmly: âYou're a dear, sirâit's a gorgeous present. Thank you very much.'
âGlad you like itâdid you have lots of presents?'
Tabitha said: âOh, yes, heaps,' and looked up to see Mr van Beek's discerning eyes upon her, just as though he knew that the only present she had had was a scarf from Meg. She flushed guiltily and made
for the door saying: âI've just rememberedâsomething I had to tell Staffâ¦' and made her escape to the office, where she allowed her cheeks to cool before going back again, her usual calm self.
Mr van Beek had begun a highly technical discussion with his friend into which he drew her at once, almost as though he hadn't noticed that she had been gone; she joined in, almost convinced that she had been oversensitive and that he hadn't given her that peculiarly penetrating look after all. By the time they were ready to go back to see Jimmy's now unplastered leg, she was persuaded that she had been rather silly.
The male members of the party, having viewed the leg, fell to a lively discussion on the game of Rugby football and she stood patiently listening until the smell of the patient's dinners reminded her that the round had taken longer than usual. She sent Mr Steele a speaking glance which Mr van Beek intercepted. âAh, dinners, Sisterâam I right?' He led the way to the ward door, where, probably unaware that the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were getting cold, he paused to thank her agreeably for her assistance and wish her a good day. She watched the three men walk away without haste up the corridor, Mr van Beek looming head and shoulders above his companions.
She saw him only very briefly the next day and in the evening she went to Chidlake.
It was a beautiful early evening, and because she was in no hurry, she took a cross-country route which led her along narrow, high-hedged lanes which wound in and out of villages well away from the main roads and still preserving an old-world charm quite hidden from the motorists on the highway. She stopped briefly at Ottery St Mary for petrol, and took a small back road which climbed steeply towards the coast, and after a while crossed the main coastal road into a country lane roofed with overhanging trees. The lane wound its way casually for a mile or so down to the village and although she couldn't see the sea yet, it was close by. Presently the trees parted, leaving the lane to go on by itself between fields and an occasional house or row of cottages. Tabitha stopped then, for now she could see Chidlake and, beyond its roof, the sea, with the Dorset coast spreading itself grandly away into the evening's dimness. The view was magnificent; she sat back and enjoyed it, longing to be going home to her mother and father, instead of to two people who had no love for her; no liking even. She was only too well aware that the only
reason she had been invited now was because her stepmother felt that it was the right thing to do.
Tabitha started up the car and went on down the hill towards her home. She wasn't looking forward to the next two days, but at least she would see some old friends at the dance, and that would be pleasant. She turned off the lane and up the short drive to the house, a pleasant Georgian edifice, not large, but roomy enough to shelter a fair-sized family in its rambling interior. She stopped in front of the rose-covered porch and got out, taking her case with her, and went indoors.
The hall extended from front to back of the house and she could see the garden through its open door, still colourful in the evening light, as she went into the sitting room. It was large and low-ceilinged with French windows leading to the lawn beyond. Its furniture was the same as Tabitha remembered from her earliest childhood; beautiful, graceful pieces which had been in the family for many years, and although her stepmother hadn't liked them, she had had to admit that they suited the house, so they had been allowed, mercifully, to stay. Her stepmother was seated by a window, reading, and although she put down her book when Tabitha went in, she didn't get up but said sharply: âYou're late. We had dinner, but I daresay there's something in the kitchen if you want it.' She eyed Tabitha with cool amusement. âThat's a pretty dress you're wearing, but what a pity it's wasted on you. I must say, Tabitha, you don't grow any better looking. What a good thing you have the sort of job where looks don't matter.'
Tabitha said dryly: âYes, isn't it?' and prepared to leave the room again; she had heard it all before, and would doubtless hear it all again at some time or other. She asked: âThe usual room, I suppose?' and when Mrs Crawley nodded, went upstairs. At the head of the staircase she crossed the landing, and passing the room which used to be hers but which her stepmother had argued was unnecessary to keep as hers now that she lived away from home, went on up a smaller flight of stairs to the floor above, where she went into a small room at the back of the house which she used on her infrequent visits. It was pleasant enough, simply furnished and with a wide view of Lyme Bay which almost compensated Tabitha for the loss of her own room. She unpacked her own things quickly, hung the new dress carefully in the wardrobe, and went back downstairs to the kitchen where the cook and her husband, the gardener and odd-job man, were eating their supper.
They were a nice enough couple whom her stepmother had engaged after her father's death, when the old cook and even older gardener had been dismissed by her as being too elderly for their jobs. They had gone willingly enough, for Tabitha's father had remembered them generously enough in his will, and now they lived in the village where they had spent their lives and Tabitha made a point of visiting them each time she went to Chidlake and remembering their birthdays and Christmas, for they had loved her parents and home almost as much as she did herself. Now she accepted a plate of cold ham and salad and carried it into the dining room, where she ate her solitary meal at the rosewood table which could seat twelve so easily. It had been fully extended; no doubt there would be people to dinner before the dance.
She took her plate back to the kitchen, wished her stepmother good night and went to her room, where she spent a long time doing her nails, which were pink and prettily shaped and one of her small vanities. This done to her satisfaction, she sat down before the mirror, loosened her hair from its tight bun and piled it high. It took a long time and she lost patience several times before it was exactly as she wanted it, but when it was at last finished, she was pleased enough with the result. She would do it that way for the dance, she decided, as she took it down again and brushed it slowly, thinking about Mr van Beek. She was still thinking about him when she got into bed; he was nice, she wanted to know more of him, though there wasn't much chance of that. She supposed he would stay until Mr Raynard could get back to work once more, and if Mr Raynard chose to clump around in a plaster, that wouldn't be long. Then, presumably, he would be off on his lecturing tour and she would never see him again. She sighed, wishing that she was as pretty as Lilith, for if she had been, he would probably have taken her out just for the pleasure of being seen with her. As it was she would have to be content with their brief businesslike trip to Mr Bow's room. She remembered that he had said that she was a restful girl and smiled, and smiling, went to sleep.
There was a lot to do the next day. Lilith, who didn't appear until halfway through the morning, was taken up with the hairdresser, countless telephone calls and endless discussions as to her appearance, which meant that Tabitha had to run several errands in the village, help with the flowers and then assist her stepmother to her room because her head ached. It was lunchtime by then, a hurried
meal over which Tabitha and Lilith wasted no time; they had little to say to each other, and beyond remarking that Tabitha looked tired already and pointing out several grey hairs she was sure Tabitha hadn't noticed for herself, Lilith had nothing of importance to say. Tabitha knew about the grey hairs, and ignoring the remark about her tired looks, she got up from the table saying she had several things to do for herself, and made her escape.
It was a pity she couldn't like Lilith; she had tried hard at first, for Lilith was exactly the kind of young sister she would have liked to have; small and dainty and blonde and so pretty that everyone looked at her twice at least. It had taken Tabitha an unhappy year to discover that Lilith was shallow by nature, spiteful by instinct, and only spoke the truth when it suited her. Also she hated Tabitha. Tabitha thought about that as she took out the present she had brought with her for Lilith's birthday. It was an old silver locket and chain and she had chosen it with care because although she had no affection for Lilith, it would still be her birthday and nothing should spoil it.
She spent the afternoon with Jenny and Tom in their little cottage, drinking strong tea and talking about old times, and then walked along the top of the cliffs and over the fields to the house. It looked beautiful in the sunshine and would be even more lovely later on in the evening, for the roses were well out and the balcony at the back of the house had been decorated with masses of summer flowers. She went indoors to the drawing room, cleared for dancing and just as lavishly decorated. She went through the double doors at the end of the room and up the staircase and met Lilith on the landing. âThere you are,' said her stepsister. âHow untidy you look! I hope you'll do better than that this evening. I'm coming to see your dress.'
Tabitha paused at the foot of the little stairs. âI don't think I want you to,' she said quietly. âI promise you it's quite suitable and I shan't disgrace you.'
She went on up the stairs and Lilith followed her. âCome on, Tabitha,' she wheedled, âit's my birthdayâI'm supposed to be happy all day, and I shan't be if I can't see your dress.'
Tabitha sighed. âVery well, though I assure you it's nothing to get excited about.'
She took it out of the cupboard and laid it on the bed, and Lilith said instantly in a furious voice: âYou can't wear itâyou can't!'