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Нилс Бетти

Once For All Time

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THINKING ABOUT it afterwards, Clotilde could remember very little of the drive to Wendens Ambo. Dr Thackery had spoken seldom and then in a calm matter-of-fact voice which had hardly penetrated her bewildered thoughts. They weren’t really thoughts, anyway, just odds and ends of ideas which came to the surface and vanished again. Once when she thought of it she said: ‘I didn’t tell Staff about Mrs Perch’s daughter…’ and he had answered at once: ‘I’ll take back any messages you want to send,’ and she had thought: Anyone else would have told me not to worry—like Home Sister, who had helped her pack her case and given her tea to drink and told her over and over again not to worry.

Rosie met them at the door, her nice elderly face puffed with weeping. She gave Clotilde a worried look and then glanced at the doctor.

‘Rosie— I may call you that?—would you make a pot of tea? Then we’ll sit down and talk, shall we?’ And when she nodded, thankful to have someone to tell her what to do, and opened the sitting room door, he took Clotilde’s elbow and ushered her into the room.

Perhaps it was the sight of her mother’s work basket, standing on her little table, a piece of tapestry hanging from it, or the row of silver cups her father had won at various sports in his youth, which melted the ice inside her. Suddenly she was in floods of tears, her head resting on Dr Thackery’s enormous chest, his arms holding her close. She cried for a long time. Rosie came in with the tray of tea and sat down quietly at a look from him, and only the phone ringing stopped her. Dr Thackery made no haste to answer it. He mopped Clotilde’s eyes for her, sat her down in an easy chair and went into the hall to answer it.

‘The police, wanting to know who will take care of things,’ he told her, and handed her a cup and saucer. ‘Drink up, there’s a good girl.’ He sat down near her, smiled at Rosie and started on his own tea. ‘This has to be talked about,’ he said gently, ‘and you will feel better when you do. Have you a brother, uncle or anyone else in the family who can deal with the formalities?’And at Clotilde’s blank look: ‘Someone who can go over to France, identify your parents and arrange for them to be brought back here?’

Clotilde said in a tear-sodden voice: ‘I’ve an older sister; she’s married and lives in Canada and she’s expecting another baby in two weeks’ time. I’ve no uncles or cousins, and my god-father died last year.’

‘What about young Johnson? I imagine the authorities would allow him to cope with the necessary arrangements.’

She remembered Bruce’s voice—sympathetic but anxious not to be involved in anything which might spoil his chances with Sir Oswald. ‘He’s—he’s got his job, I don’t suppose he could get leave. Besides, he’s assisting Sir Oswald all next week while the Senior Registrar’s away.’

‘Ah yes,’ Dr Thackery’s voice was dry, ‘that makes it impossible for him to get away, doesn’t it? I wonder if I would do. I didn’t know your parents, but I imagine that your solicitor or even the local parson would come with me. I could make all the arrangements necessary for their return while you attend to matters at this end.’

He didn’t wait for her to answer but went on in the same matter-of-fact voice: ‘Now, there are several people to inform, aren’t there? Your solicitor, the parson, your sister—perhaps it would be best to tell her husband and he could decide if she is to be told? I’ll arrange for you to have leave from the hospital, and if you feel you can, write to Sally Wood and give her any instructions which might help her.’

He looked across the room at Rosie. ‘I’m sorry I shall have to leave you quite soon. Eat something, the pair of you, and then lie down for an hour or so. Before I go I’ll do some phoning, if I may. I’ll need some phone numbers.’

It was Clotilde who got up and fetched the telephone book for him. She felt curiously empty and tired. The shock was beginning to wear off now and she was aware of the sharp edge of pain. She said: ‘Do you have to go?’

‘Yes, but I shall be back this evening. Can you put me up for the night? I’ll be fairly late, I’m afraid.’

Rosie said eagerly: ‘You’ll want your supper, doctor. I’ll see and cook you something.’

‘That would be kind, but don’t stay up for me. Something kept hot on the stove will suit me very well.’ His blue eyes studied Clotilde from under their lids. ‘If I might suggest that you both go to bed? I expect you leave the key under the mat?’

Clotilde nodded. ‘Everyone does. But you don’t need to come back, really you don’t. You’ve been so kind and helpful—you’ve done too much already. We’ll be quite all right.’

He only smiled gently, got up and went away to the telephone. Presently he came back. ‘Your vicar will be round very shortly and your solicitor will be down to see you in the morning. Remember what I said and have a rest after lunch.

’ He bent and kissed Rosie’s cheek, and at the door turned to kiss Clotilde too. ‘Look after each other,’ he said gravely. ‘I’ll see you, and I can let myself out.’

‘What a nice gentleman,’ said Rosie, ‘doing all that for us too—and him no more than someone at the hospital. What happened to Mr Johnson?’

‘He couldn’t get away.’ Clotilde busied herself putting the cups and saucers back on the tray. ‘Rosie, I can’t believe it, but we’ve got to go on as usual, haven’t we? I’ll go and make up a bed for Dr Thackery while you do something for lunch, I’m not hungry and I don’t suppose you are either, but he said we must have something.’

Rosie was crying again, and she went and put her arms round the dear soul. ‘Rosie, don’t, please don’t! The next few days are going to be awful and we’ve got to get through them somehow.’ She kissed her and Rosie said between sobs:

‘He kissed me too—so natural like, just as though he was a friend and really minded.’

‘I think he does mind. He’s always kind to his patients, and calm and quiet.’ Clotilde added thoughtfully: ‘But I don’t know what he’s really like.’

She made herself busy until the vicar came—an old man, and very shaken by the news. She gave him a glass of sherry because he looked as though he needed it, then poured one for Rosie and another for herself.

‘Your friend has everything in hand,’ observed the vicar. ‘You are most fortunate to have someone so helpful at such a sad time.’ He added inevitably: ‘Is Mr Johnson not with you?’

‘He’s unable to leave the hospital.’ Clotilde was filled with fresh unhappiness. The one person who could have consoled her wasn’t there. And he couldn’t help it, she reminded herself—an important engagement with Sir Oswald just couldn’t be missed; his future depended upon pleasing the great man. It wasn’t as if Bruce had known her parents well. They had met on countless occasions, but in all fairness there was only a mild affection between them. A tiny voice reminded her that Dr Thackery hadn’t known them at all, yet he was prepared to go to France for her.

She listened politely to the vicar making tentative arrangements and offering help. ‘The village will be shocked,’ he told her. ‘Your parents were well liked. You will stay on here, of course? We would not like to see you go.’

‘I hadn’t thought about it,’ said Clotilde, ‘but I expect Rosie and I will go on living here, at least until I marry. We’ll have to think about that later.’

He went away presently and she and Rosie had their lunch, sitting at the kitchen table, not talking much and not eating much either. They washed up together and then, obedient to the Doctor’s instructions, went and lay down, and surprisingly, slept.

They had tea, then Rosie busied herself making soup to keep hot on the stove and a caramel custard to follow it. ‘Because I’ll be bound he’ll be hungry when he gets here.’ She asked hesitantly: ‘When will he go to France, Miss Tilly?’

‘I don’t know, he’ll tell us, though.’ Clotilde went to answer the phone yet again; the news had got around and people were ringing up all the time.

They had their supper quite early and then because they couldn’t bear to talk anymore, said goodnight and went to their rooms. Clotilde didn’t undress at once but sat at her window, looking out on to the dark evening, not even thinking. It was much later when she got to her feet, cold now, and went to run a bath. She could hear Rosie snoring and uttered a thankful sigh; the poor dear had had a shock and she must be worn out with grief. She would have to go to bed herself, she supposed, and she took as long as possible undressing and bathing, brushing her long hair for ten minutes or more before at last getting into bed. It surprised her to see that it was already almost eleven o’clock. She was still making up her mind to put out the light when she heard the Bentley surge almost silently up to the front door. She had been dreading the moment when she must lie in the dark and try and sleep, now she seized on the chance to put that moment off till later. She got up, put on a dressing gown and slippers, and went silently downstairs.

Dr Thackery was in the kitchen, a saucepan lid in one hand, eyeing the soup. He looked up as she went in, said ‘Hullo’ in an unsurprised voice and then: ‘How about sharing some of this soup with me? I dislike eating alone.’

Clotilde came slowly into the kitchen, her face puffy with weeping, her hair hanging in a curtain down her back, her nose pink. All the same, she still looked quite lovely.

‘You didn’t eat your supper.

’ He wasn’t asking, just stating a fact, and she said quickly: ‘We did try, really we did.’

He turned and fetched two bowls from the dresser and added them to the neatly laid tray Rosie had left ready, while Clotilde went to the bread bin and got out a loaf and sliced some bread.

‘Have you been busy?’ she asked.

‘Yes, I saw Sally, and she sent a great many kind messages and you’re not to worry about a thing; she’s been sent extra help until you get back and all the patients are okay. She won’t bother you with phoning, but if you want to ring her, she’d like that very much.’

They ate in silence for a minute or two and presently he went on: ‘I’m going over to France tomorrow. I should be back in a couple of days at the latest. I’ve arranged things with the undertakers.’ He mentioned the name of a firm in the nearest town. ‘That’s all you need to know at present, I think. As soon as you feel that you can and you want to, you can take over.’

Clotilde got up and fetched the coffee from the stove and put the soup bowls into the sink. There was one of Rosie’s bacon and cheese flans on the table and she pushed it towards him. ‘Please have some, you must be hungry. I can’t thank you enough for all you’re doing…’

He smiled at her. ‘You would have done the same, I fancy. I’ve been high-handed, haven’t I, but the matter is urgent. Authority doesn’t like to be left hanging around.’

‘No. I— I wouldn’t have known what to do anyway.’ She drank her coffee and some of the burden of sadness seemed to have been lifted from her shoulders. ‘I still can’t believe it.’

‘That’s natural, and it’s nature’s way of protecting you until you can cope again.’ He finished his flan. ‘Now go to bed, Clotilde, and go to sleep. I’ll clear away these things. If you can’t sleep, come and say so and I’ll give you something. Where am I sleeping?’

He was as calm and matter-of-fact as a brother. ‘The first door on the left at the head of the stairs.’ Suddenly bed seemed a nice place to be; shock and grief had numbed her to a standstill and all she wanted to do was sleep. She said goodnight and went upstairs, and slept the moment her head touched the pillow.

Dr Thackery left soon after breakfast, but not before he had written a list of things to be done and which would keep her, and Rosie, for that matter, busy until his return. ‘I’ll phone you before we leave France,’ he told her. ‘Two or three days’ time, I expect—if there’s a delay, I’ll let you know.’ He went out to the car and Clotilde went with him, reluctant to see him go. ‘I’m going to St Alma’s first, and I’ll be in touch with your solicitor.’ He looked away from her, across the garden. ‘Perhaps Johnson could manage to come down and be here when I get back?’

‘I expect he’ll ring.’ Clotilde put out a hand and had it engulfed and held. ‘I’ll never be able to thank you enough. Oh, dear, I suppose I’ll say that whenever I see you!’

He smiled. ‘I daresay someone will do the same for me one day.’

She nodded. ‘I quite forgot to ask you; about money— I mean, it must be costing a great deal, I can…’

‘I’ll settle with your solicitor later.’ He bent and kissed her cheek. ‘Get Johnson down here as soon as he can manage it—someone can take over for him for a few days.’

He drove off with a casual wave, and she stood watching him go, suddenly engulfed in unhappiness again. But there was no use in standing there feeling sorry for herself: there was that list to work her way through, friends to write to, to telephone, the vicar to see, as well as the house to run. Rosie had been given a list too, and Clotilde went back to the house to find her and read it. Dr Thackery seemed to have thought of everything. ‘We’d better tick things off as we see to them,’ said Clotilde.

And so the next two days went by somehow. She ate and drank and slept and worked her way faithfully through her list. Soon after Dr Thackery had left she rang the hospital and asked for Bruce, but he wasn’t available. ‘But I’ll get him to ring you as soon as he’s free,’ the sympathetic receptionist told her.

Which wasn’t till the evening. Worth waiting for, Clotilde told herself, just to hear Bruce’s voice asking how she was, telling her that he’d been up to his eyes all day. ‘But I’ll see you some time tomorrow,’ he promised.

It was only when she had hung up that she realised that he hadn’t asked her how she was managing. Perhaps he thought there was an uncle or cousin or old family friend. But tomorrow he would be with her, she told herself as she got ready for bed that evening. She needed him badly. She had no tears left, but there was a hard lump of misery in her chest which she had to conquer, and she didn’t think she could manage it by herself.

Bruce didn’t come. Rosie had cooked a proper meal that evening; they waited and waited, and it wasn’t until almost ten o’clock that he phoned—an emergency which Sir Oswald had asked him to deal with, and Clotilde, keeping her temper with an effort, longing to scream and rail at him, asked: ‘Aren’t I an emergency?’

‘Of course you are, darling, you must know how I long to be with you; but this poor chap…well, never mind that now. At least he’s going to recover.’

Clotilde felt mean and petty and ill-used at the same time. She was fighting to keep her voice normal when the operator broke in to say that there was an urgent call from France, and would she take it. She hung up without saying goodbye to Bruce and a moment later Dr Thackery was on the line.

‘You sound as though you’re crying,’ were his first words after she had mumbled a greeting. ‘We’ll be back tomorrow around tea time. I’ll see you then.’And when she didn’t answer: ‘You don’t want to talk, do you? Eat your supper and go to bed. Goodnight, Clotilde.’

She hardly slept that night, and nor, she suspected, had Rosie. They busied themselves around the house and Clotilde took Tinker for a long walk after their scratch lunch, leaving Rosie to have a rest and then make her preparations for a meal that evening. Dr Thackery and her father’s solicitor would be tired and hungry when they arrived.

It was going on for four o’clock when Bruce arrived and Clotilde, just for a while, found comfort in his sympathy and concern. She had gone to the kitchen to help Rosie with tea when she heard the Bentley stop outside the door, but before she could get there, Bruce had gone out to meet the two men. As she reached the door she heard him talking to them, for all the world, she thought indignantly, as though he had been there all the time, arranging things and looking after her and Rosie. What was more, as she joined them he observed: ‘I’m here to cope with everything now, I’m sure you’ll be only too glad to let me take over.’

Dr Thackery wasn’t looking at him, though, he was staring at Clotilde’s bewildered angry face. He said: ‘Hullo, Clotilde,’ and when he saw the tears sparkling in her eyes: ‘Everything’s all right, don’t worry.’ And then to Bruce: ‘I’m glad you managed to get here.’ His voice was dry and Bruce gave him an uncertain look.

There was a little pause before Clotilde said: ‘Well, do come in, we’ve just got the tea ready, and Rosie’s been busy getting a meal prepared for you—we weren’t quite sure when you would get here.’

They all went into the sitting room and Dr Thackery followed Clotilde to the kitchen. At the door he put a hand on her arm. ‘Just hang on for a bit longer,’ he urged her. ‘After tea we’ll have a talk, you and I and that will be the worst part over.’

He opened the door, put a friendly arm around a tearful Rosie and carried in the tea tray. He carried, metaphorically speaking, Rosie in as well, ignoring Bruce’s raised eyebrows, and sustained a conversation, not one word of which Clotilde could remember afterwards.

And after tea he carried Clotilde off to her father’s study, with the mild observation that the solicitor and Bruce could entertain each other for a short while, and once there, he sat her down in one of the elderly armchairs and gave her a sensible, down-to-earth account of his journey. But his sympathy was real and he dealt gently with her. All the same, she wept a little, snivelling into his shoulder, and he made no effort to stop her. At length she dried her eyes, mumbled that she was sorry and sat up straight. ‘What happens next?’ she asked.

He told her with a calm matter-of-factness which she had learned to expect, for it was his way. ‘You’ll come to the funeral?’ she asked finally.

‘Of course, if you would like me to. Have you any family at all?’

She shook her head. ‘My brother-in-law phoned— Laura, my sister, hasn’t been told. There isn’t anyone else, except friends, of course.’

He nodded. ‘There are some things I brought back with me. I’ll take them upstairs to your parents’ room, if I may—you can deal with those later.’ He pulled her gently to her feet. ‘Now we’d better go back, hadn’t we? Is Johnson staying the night?’

‘Oh, no. He’s got a list in the morning, but I’m sure he’ll come again.’ The doctor didn’t say anything, only opened the door and he ushered her out. Crossing the hall, he observed; ‘Mr Trent will want to go home, I expect, and since Johnson is here, I’ll not need to stay any longer.’

His words were a disappointment to her. There wasn’t any more to be said, she knew that, but he was such a comfort to have around the house and he knew exactly what had to be done and did it with a quiet competence which he made no effort to advertise.

‘You won’t stay to supper?’ she asked.

‘No need, with Johnson to keep you company; you’ll have all the evening together.’

Clotilde said ‘Yes,’ rather doubtfully and led the way back to the others.

Almost the whole village turned out for the funeral, although only a few people, about a dozen or so, went back to the house afterwards. Bruce had been there, of course, solicitous in his care of her, very much in charge, and she was grateful for that. Dr Thackery had been there too, a quiet figure in the background who had made his excuses once they reached the house again and gone off, brushing aside her thanks. ‘Don’t come back until you feel that you can cope—on the other hand, don’t stay here and mope. Is there anyone to keep Rosie company while you’re at St Alma’s?’

Clotilde was grateful for his concern for her loyal friend. ‘She’s got a niece— I’m sure she’d come and stay for a little while.’ She smiled at him. ‘You think of everything, don’t you?’ She offered her hand. ‘Thank you again, Dr Thackery. I’ll be back on the ward quite soon— I— I’ll need to fill my days.’

She watched him go with a pang of regret.

Mr Trent was waiting for her. ‘My dear, if you can spare ten minutes—people are leaving already, I see. There is the will…’

Half an hour later Clotilde left Bruce sitting by the fire and went with Mr Trent into the study. He sat himself down at the desk and when she had taken a chair opposite him, started to talk. He took a long time to come to the point, and she wondered why. A small legacy for Rosie, that was to be expected, and the remainder for her sister and herself. ‘Only it isn’t quite as simple as that,’ he observed cautiously. ‘This will was made many years ago and since then there have been changes. Rosie’s legacy is intact, I’m glad to say, but I’m afraid that the rest… Your father mortgaged this house up to the hilt, and unfortunately, your parents were only insured for the first week of their holiday. I have no idea why, but there it is. There is virtually no capital and of course there will be the foreclosure on the house.’ He added with sympathy in his dry old voice: ‘I’m afraid you are practically penniless, my dear.’

Clotilde sat and stared at him. The unexpectedness of it numbed her brain. ‘But I can’t be! Father said Bruce should have the money to buy a practice when we marry…’

‘Yes, he told me that, and in order to avoid making a new will, he put almost every penny of his capital into an enterprise started by an acquaintance of his. I warned him at the time, but if it had succeeded, the profits would have been substantial, and your father gambled on that.’

‘Oh, poor Father! There’s no chance…?’

‘None, my dear.’

‘I don’t know just how much it was, but Dr Thackery arranged everything—he must be paid, of course, even if I have to do it monthly out of my salary.’

Mr Trent coughed and shuffled the papers before him, remembering the conversations he had had with the doctor during their mission. ‘There will be sufficient funds to meet all expenses,’ he assured her blandly. ‘There are a few debts of a trifling nature, household expenses, you know. When they are settled there will be a few hundreds for you and your sister. I’m very sorry, Clotilde, indeed I am. There is one thing—these things take time; you will be able to live here for some months yet.’ He put his papers in his briefcase. ‘I shall, of course, keep in touch with you and you have only to let me know if you need advice or help. Your father and mother were good friends of mine.’

Clotilde said in a tight voice; ‘Yes, they had a great number of friends. They were happy here.’ She didn’t dare say more; the thought of leaving the old house almost choked her.

Mr Trent was in no hurry to go. He sat for a time, talking gently about nothing in particular, and she was surprised to see that he had been with her for an hour when he finally got up from his chair. She went with him to his car, thanked him for his kindness, assured him that she and Rosie would be all right, and stood on the step until he had driven sedately away.

She would have to tell Bruce. Her heart sank at the thought; it would be a bitter blow to him—to them both. Bruce had no family to offer to help and nor had she. It would mean that he would have to go as an assistant in a practice and she would have to go on working, even if they married. Certainly it put paid to Sir Oswald’s offer. She lifted her head and walked quickly into the sitting room. The quicker she told him, the better.

The room was empty and after a moment she went along to the kitchen; he might be there with Rosie. But he wasn’t. Rosie was sitting in her shabby old chair by the Aga with Tinker at her feet.

‘There you are, love. Dr Johnson waited as long as he could. He said he simply had to get back to the hospital.’

‘But he didn’t say…’ Clotilde didn’t finish what she was going to say; there was no point in feeling hurt and surprised. Bruce was a busy man, and his time was seldom his own. ‘Oh, well,’ she said with forced cheerfulness, ‘we’ll have that marvellous meal together, Rosie. There are some things I have to tell you too.’

She told Rosie everything, and why not? She had been with the family for so long that she was part of it. At first she refused the annuity. ‘Better you had it, Miss Tilly— I’ve got my niece to go to and next year I’ll have the old age pension.’

‘No, Rosie, Father and Mother wanted you to have it— I’ve got quite a good salary, you know, and I live at the hospital. There’s one thing, Mr Trent says we shan’t have to go for several months, that’ll give us time to get things straightened out.’

‘You’ll be getting married, no doubt. Nothing to wait for, is there?’

Clotilde hesitated. ‘Well, Rosie, it’s like this— Bruce wants to buy himself into a practice. It was all arranged, Father was going to give us the money when we married, but of course, that’s not possible now.’

‘Maybe not, Miss Tilly, but Dr Johnson’s got a good steady job, hasn’t he? And I suppose you could go on working until the babies come.’

‘Yes, yes, I suppose so. We’ll have to talk about it. I’ll be seeing him soon, I expect. Did he say if he was going to phone?’

Rosie shook her head. ‘Not a word. To tell you the truth, he was a mite put out because you were so long with Mr Trent. Said his time was valuable and he couldn’t hang around for hours.’

A bit different, thought Clotilde, from the Bruce who had been the picture of efficient, caring concern in front of all those who had come to the funeral. She checked her thoughts with something of a shock; he had been kind and thoughtful and he was a busy man, it must have been difficult for him to have got away from St Alma’s even for a few hours. She hated herself for being disloyal and promised herself she would ring him up presently and thank him for coming.

The next few days went by on dragging feet. There were a number of sad little jobs to do and when they were finished with she turned her attention to the garden. It was a charming place, her father’s pride, and it needed tidying up for the winter, although there were still masses of late summer flowers. But there were leaves to sweep up, and the last of the roses to deadhead, and the chrysanthemums to tie back. And there was Tinker to take for walks; a subdued dog these days, and Clotilde was beginning to worry as to what would happen to him. Thank heaven, she thought for the hundredth time, that they had a respite of a few months in which to plan the future for the best.

She found herself wondering about Dr Thackery and wished she knew him well enough to tell him of the turn of events and ask his advice. But he had already done enough, she decided, and Bruce would surely advise her.

She had telephoned on the day after the funeral, but he hadn’t been in the hospital and he hadn’t phoned either. At the end of a week she wrote him a brief letter, saying that she intended returning to work in two days’ time. She wrote to Sally, too, and the Senior Nursing Officer and Fiona Walters.

Bruce telephoned the next day. He had been rushed off his feet, he told her, but he would be down on the following afternoon to drive her back. There would be a lot to talk about, he added, they could discuss their future on the way.

Clotilde packed her few things, made sure that Rosie’s niece would be coming, arranged for the teenage son of a neighbour to take Tinker for at least one walk a day, then sat down to think what she was going to say to Bruce. It was going to be difficult and she dreaded it.

He arrived after lunch and his greeting was all that she could have wished for; the faint feeling of disquiet she had been experiencing about him must have been a result of the awful happenings of the last week or so. She bade Rosie goodbye, begged her niece to make herself at home, give Tinker a final hug and got into the car.

They drove for a few minutes in silence until Bruce said: ‘Well, it’s been a rotten time for you, darling. But now you must look ahead. I’ve been thinking, as soon as the will’s proved and the money free, I’ll buy myself in and we can get married. Sir Oswald’s willing to wait a month or two. It’s more than your father was going to give us, but I thought perhaps you’d put some of your own money into it.’ He gave a little laugh. ‘You shall have it back a hundredfold when I’m famous!’

‘There isn’t any money,’ said Clotilde dully. It wasn’t the way she had intended to tell him, but there was no help for it.

‘No money? Darling, if it wasn’t such a serious matter, I’d believe you were joking!’

‘I’m not. It’s true, there is no money—even the house has to go. I was going to tell you when Mr Trent went, but you’d gone, and it’s not the sort of thing one can shout down the telephone.’

‘Your father promised…’ persisted Bruce, and his voice had a peevish note.

‘Yes, I know. I’ll tell you exactly what Mr Trent said.’ She gave him the account of the interview word for word, talking into a silence which got colder and colder.

‘My whole future,’ burst out Bruce, ‘it’s ruined! Where am I going to lay hands on money like that?’

Clotilde’s head was beginning to ache. Bruce wasn’t behaving in the least like she had hoped he would. She had known that he would be bitterly disappointed, but then so was she. He could have made the best of it, and reassured her; now he was behaving as if she were to blame.

‘You could marry an heiress,’ she suggested tartly. It frightened her a little when he didn’t answer her.

He hardly spoke for the rest of the journey, but let her out at the hospital entrance, put her case inside the door, said briefly that he would see her later on, and drove off.

‘He’ll get over it,’ she muttered as she went over to the Nurses’ Home. ‘It’s the surprise after being so sure.’ She went into her room and found that someone had put flowers in a vase on her dressing table and laid out her uniform ready for the morning, and before she had time to unlock her case, Fiona came in with tea, strong and dark and well sugared.

‘Hullo, love,’ she said cheerfully, ‘we’re all so glad to have you back. Your Staff’s been out of her mind, says nothing on earth will ever induce her to take a Ward Sister’s post!’

She refilled their mugs and went to sit down in the bed beside Clotilde.

‘Look, if you don’t want to talk about it, okay, but if you do, we’ll all listen and help if we can—you know that, don’t you? We kept our heads down because Bruce will have been with you. I heard him telling Dr Thackery that he was seeing you every day and helping you get things sorted out.’

Clotilde took a long breath. ‘Oh? It was nice of Dr Thackery to enquire.’

Fiona gave her a puzzled look. ‘Well, he sent all those messages via Bruce, you must have had them. I expect you’ve had so much to do you’ve forgotten.’ She hesitated. ‘We were wondering—when you have days off, if you’d like one of us to come with you, just for a bit, you know.’

Clotilde’s hard-won calm broke, she gave a great sniff, too late to stop the tears. ‘Oh, you are dears, all of you. I can’t think of anything I’d like better. There’s an awful tale to tell you, but if you don’t mind I’ll wait a bit.’

Fiona poured more tea. ‘Drink up, love. You talk when you want to and not before, see? Now you’re going to wash your face and powder your nose and we’re taking you out to supper. Tomorrow’s time enough to go to the dining room.’

Clotilde had half expected Bruce to give her a ring, even to arrange to see her, but there was no word. She went with her friends and ate the supper they ordered for her, then went to bed and, strangely, to sleep.

Breakfast was something of an ordeal, but once she had taken the plunge it wasn’t too bad, and the ward, once she was back on it, hadn’t changed all that much. A few new faces and no Mrs Perch, but Miss Knapp was still there, having had a few bad turns hours before she was due for discharge.

Clotilde sat in her office, reading the reports for the last week, listening to Sally and gradually gathering the reins together again.

‘And it’s Dr Thackery’s round,’ Sally reminded her.

‘Good lord, I’d quite forgotten! Is there anything special I should know?’

She was brought up to date, given a cup of coffee and told not to worry. ‘He’s been an utter darling,’ said Sally. ‘I mean, all sorts of things went wrong because you weren’t here, but he never said a word. Would you like me to come with you when you do your round?’

‘Yes, please. Thank heaven we don’t have such a quick turnover as the surgical side.’

‘More coffee?’ asked Sally, and then: ‘I’ve not said anything, Sister, but we’re all ever so sorry, only we thought you’d rather not talk about it just yet.’

‘You’re all very kind—and you’re quite right, Sally, I don’t want to talk about it for a bit. Coming back to work will help enormously.’

Clotilde did her round, picking up the threads easily enough so that when the ward doors opened and Dr Thackery and his team came through them, she was as calm and cool as she always was, only her pretty face was far too pale, and there were shadows under her eyes; very unhappy eyes.

He greeted her quietly, for all the world as though they had never met other than on the ward. He made his unhurried way from bed to bed and finally went to her office as he always did, to have his coffee and talk over anything he saw fit to discuss. Dr Evans, as usual, hung on every word he uttered, looking adoringly into his face, something which he quite obviously didn’t notice. He got up at length, nodding goodbye and strode off to Men’s Medical, leaving Clotilde feeling vaguely hurt.

She tidied the papers on her desk and told herself briskly that she was being sorry for herself, and that was a waste of time. I’ll feel better when I’ve seen Bruce again, she decided, the uncertainty of not knowing just how he felt was doing her no good at all. If only he would come!

The door opened and she looked up, thinking like a child that her wish had been granted. It was Dr Thackery.

‘I’m glad to see you back,’ he told her. ‘What’s the matter, Clotilde? Johnson told me you were fine, making plans for the future, that he was seeing you each day. What’s wrong?’

She stared back at him, determined not to cry. He looked so kind and understanding and she had to talk to someone. After a moment she said stonily: ‘Everything’s gone wrong, but if I tell you now, I’ll start to howl.’

He smiled faintly. ‘In that case, we’ll make a date, shall we? When are you off?’

‘At five o’clock.’

‘I’ll be outside at half past five. Do you want to bring Johnson along too?’

‘No, oh no—you see, it’s partly to do with him.’

Ah, just so!’ There was a gleam, quickly hidden in his eyes. ‘We’ll talk later.’


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