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Three for a Wedding

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Three for a Wedding Betty Neels

Dear Reader,

Looking back over the years, I find it hard to realise that twenty-six of them have gone by since I wrote my first book Sister Peters in Amsterdam. It wasn’t until I started writing about her that I found that once I had started writing, nothing was going to make me stop —and at that time I had no intention of sending it to a publisher. It was my daughter who urged me to try my luck.

I shall never forget the thrill of having my first book accepted. A thrill I still get each time a new story is accepted. Writing to me is such a pleasure, and seeing a story unfolding on my old typewriter is like watching a film and wondering how it will end. Happily of course.

To have so many of my books re-published is such a delightful thing to happen and I can only hope that those who read them will share my pleasure in seeing them on the bookshelves again … and enjoy reading them.

Three for a Wedding

Betty Neels

Table of Contents

Title Page










PHOEBE BROOK, Night Sister on the medical block of St Gideon’s hospital in one of the less salubrious quarters of London, raised a nicely kept hand to her cap, twitched it to a correct uprightness, and very quietly opened the swing doors into the women’s medical ward. Her stealthy approach to the night nurse’s desk might at first glance have seemed to be a desire to catch that young lady doing something she ought not; it was in actual fact, due to a heartfelt desire not to waken any of the patients. She had herself, when a student nurse, done her nights on the ward, and again when she was a staff nurse; she knew only too well that Women’s Medical, once roused during the night hours, could become a hive of activity—cups of Horlicks, bedpans, pillows rearranged, even a whispered chat about Johnny failing his eleven-plus, and what would Sister do if she were his mum—so it wasn’t surprising that the nurse sitting at the desk put down her knitting and got to her feet with equal stealth, at the same time casting a reproachful look at the clock. She was supposed to go to her dinner at midnight, and it was already half past, and that added on to the fact that she had been alone for the last hour, all of which thoughts Sister Brook read with ease and a good deal of sympathy, even though she had small chance of getting a meal herself. She whispered:

‘Sorry, Nurse, I got held up on Men’s Medical—a coronary. Come back in an hour.’

The nurse nodded, instantly sympathetic, thinking at the same time that nothing on earth would induce her to take a Night Sister’s post once she had taken her finals, and why Sister Brook, with a face like hers, hadn’t gone out and got herself a millionaire was beyond her understanding.

She crept to the door, leaving the subject of her thoughts to hang her cape on the chair and lay the pile of papers she had brought with her on the desk—the bed state, the off-duty rota, the bare bones of the report she would have to hand over to the Night Superintendent in the morning—she looked at them longingly, for it would be nice to get the tiresome things done before she left the ward, then she might have time to snatch a cup of tea and a sandwich. But first she must do a round. She went, soft-footed, past the first three beds, their occupants, recovering from their several ailments, snoring in the most satisfactory manner, but the occupant of the fourth bed was awake. Mrs Tripp was elderly and extremely tiresome at times, but the nursing staff bore with her because, having bullied the doctor into telling her just what was wrong with her, she was fighting the inevitable with so much gusto that Sir John South, the consultant in charge of her case, confided to his registrar that he wouldn’t be at all surprised if she didn’t outlive the lot of them out of sheer determination. Nonsense, of course; Mrs Tripp would never go home again to her ugly little red brick house in a back street near the hospital—she knew it and so did everyone else. The nursing staff indulged her every whim and took no notice when she showed no gratitude, which was why Sister Brook paused now and whispered: ‘Hullo, Mrs Tripp—have you been awake long?’

‘All night,’ said Mrs Tripp mendaciously and in far too loud a voice so that Sister Brook was forced to shush her. ‘And now I’m wide awake, ducky, I’ll have a …’

Sister Brook was already taking off her cuffs, musing as she did so that on the few occasions when she had to relieve a nurse on a ward, she invariably found herself hard at work within a few minutes of taking over. She stole out to the sluice, collecting two more requests on the way, and as all three ladies fancied a hot milk drink to settle them again, it was the best part of twenty minutes before she was able to sit down at the desk.

She had just begun the bed state, which didn’t tally as usual, when the doors were opened once more, this time by a young man in a white hospital coat, his stethoscope crammed in its pocket. He looked tired and rather untidy, but neither of these things could dim his slightly arrogant good looks. He took a seat on the edge of the desk, right on top of the bed state, and said:

‘Hullo, Phoebe—good lord, haven’t you got any nurses about tonight? I’ve been hunting you all over. That coronary, he’s gone up to Intensive Care, so that lightens your burden a bit, doesn’t it?’

She smiled at him; she was a beautiful girl, and when she smiled she was quite dazzling. Before he had met her, he had always scoffed at descriptions of girls with sapphires in their eyes and corn-coloured hair, but he had been forced to admit that he was wrong, because Phoebe had both, with the added bonus of a small straight nose and a mouth which curved sweetly, and although she wasn’t above middle height, her figure was good if a little on the plump side. She was, he had to own, quite perfect; the one small fact that she was twenty-seven, three years older than himself, he did his best to ignore; he would have preferred it otherwise, but one couldn’t have everything … As soon as he had taken a couple more exams he would ask her to marry him. He hadn’t intended to marry before he was thirty at least, with a fellowship and well up the ladder of success, but if he waited until then she would be thirty herself—a little old, although she would make a splendid wife for an ambitious young doctor, and looking at her now, she didn’t look a day over twenty.

‘Any chance of a cup of tea?’ he wanted to know.

She didn’t bother to tell him that she had missed her own midnight meal; that she would get a sketchy tea into the bargain. ‘Yes—but you must be very quiet, I’ve only just got them all quiet again.’ She got up. ‘Keep an eye on the ward,’ she begged, and slipped away to the kitchen.

She came back presently with two mugs, a thick slice of bread and butter atop each of them, and handed him his with a murmured: ‘I haven’t had my meal.’

‘Poor old girl—I’ll take you out for a good nosh on your nights off.’

‘I can’t, Jack, I’m going home. Sybil’s got a week’s holiday, and I haven’t seen her for ages.’

Sybil was her younger sister, twenty-three and so like her that people who didn’t know them well occasionally confused their identities, which was partly why Sybil, when she decided to be a nurse too, had gone to another training school—a London hospital and not very far away from St Gideon’s—but what with studying for her finals and Phoebe being on night duty, they saw very little of each other. Soon it would be easier, Phoebe thought, taking a great bite out of her bread and butter, for Sybil had sat her hospital finals and the last of the State exams had been that morning. When she had qualified, as she would, for she was a clever girl, they would put their heads together and decide what they would do. The world, as the Principal Nursing Officer had told Phoebe when she had offered her the post of Night Sister, was her oyster. That had been three years ago and she still hadn’t opened her particular oyster —there were jobs enough, but she had wanted to stay near Sybil until she was qualified. Now perhaps they would go abroad together.

Her train of thought was interrupted by her companion, who put down his mug, squeezed her hand and went out of the ward. Phoebe watched him go, the smile she had given him replaced by a tiny frown. He was going to ask her to marry him—she was aware of that and she didn’t know what to do about it. She liked him very much, they got on well together —too well, she thought shrewdly —they had similar tastes and ideals, but surely, she asked herself for the hundredth time, there was more to it than that? And shouldn’t she know if she loved him? Was this all that love was, a mild pleasure in someone’s company, a sharing of tastes, a gentle acceptance of being a doctor’s wife for the rest of her days—for Jack, she felt sure, would expect her to be just that and nothing more, she would never be allowed to steal the scene. Would her heart break if she never saw him again, or if, for that matter, he were to start taking some other girl out for a change? She was older than he; she had pointed this out to him on several occasions, and more than that, being a softhearted girl she had never allowed the thought that she found him very young upon occasion take root in her mind.

The hour ticked away. She solved the bed state, puzzled out the off duty for another two weeks, and was dealing with old Mrs Grey, who was a diabetic and showing all the signs and symptoms of a hyperglycaemic coma, when Nurse Small came back. They dealt with it together, then Phoebe, gathering up her papers and whispering instructions as to where she would be if she was wanted again, went silently from the ward, down the long corridor, chilly now in the small hours of an April morning, and into the office which was hers during the night when she had the time to sit in it. She had barely sat down when her bleep started up—Children’s this time, and could she go at once because Baby Crocker had started a nasty laryngeal stridor. She had to get Jack up after a while; he came to the ward in slacks and a sweater over his pyjamas, and they worked on the child together, and when he finally went, half an hour later, she walked down the corridor with him, starting on her overdue rounds once more. At the end of the corridor, where he went through the door leading to the resident’s quarters, he gave her a quick kiss, said ‘See you’ and disappeared, leaving her to make her way to Men’s Medical on the ground floor, musing, as she went, on the fact that although his kiss had been pleasant, it hadn’t thrilled her at all, and surely it should?

The early morning scurry gave her little time to think about herself. Fortified by a pot of strong tea, she did her morning rounds, giving a hand where it was wanted and then retiring to her office to write the report and presently to take it along to her daytime colleague before paying her final visit to the Night Super. A night like any other, she thought, yawning her way to breakfast, where Sadie Thorne, Night Sister on the Surgical side, was already waiting for her. Night Super was there too, a kindly, middle-aged woman, whose nights were filled with paper work and an occasional sortie into which ward was in difficulties. She was good at her job and well liked, for she never failed to find help for a ward when it was needed and had been known to roll up her own sleeves and make beds when there was no one else available. But normally, unless there was dire emergency in some part of the hospital, or a ‘flu epidemic among the nurses, she did her work unseen, supported by Phoebe and Sadie and Joan Dawson, the Night Theatre Sister. She looked up from her post now as Phoebe sat down, wished her good morning just as though they hadn’t seen each other less than an hour since, and went back to her letters, while Phoebe made inroads on her breakfast, thinking contentedly that in another twenty-four hours’ time she would be going home. She caught Sadie’s eye now and grinned at her.

‘One more night,’ she declared.

‘Lucky you. Going home?’

Phoebe nodded. ‘With Sybil —she’s got a week off and goes back to night duty.’

Night Super looked up briefly. ‘I hear she did very well in her hospitals.’

‘Yes, Miss Dean. I don’t know how well, but I hope she’s in the running for one of the prizes.’

‘Like her sister,’ murmured the Night Super, and Phoebe, who had gained the gold medal of her year, went a becoming pink.

She packed her overnight bag before she went to bed, because on the following morning there would be barely time for her to tear into her clothes and catch the train. Then she washed her hair, and overcome by sleep, got into bed with it hanging like a damp golden curtain round her shoulders.

The night was fairly easy—the usual mild scares, the usual emergency admission, and hubbub on the children’s ward, because one of its small inmates was discovered to be covered in spots. Phoebe, called on the telephone by an urgent voice, made her way there as quickly as she could, sighing. It was early in the night, she still had her rounds to make.

The child was a new patient, admitted just as the day staff were handing over thankfully to their night colleagues, and not particularly ill. She was popped into a cot while the more urgent cases were attended to, presently she would be bathed, her hair washed, and tucked up for the night.

Phoebe, looking quite breathtakingly beautiful in her dark blue uniform, trod quietly down the ward with a nod to the nurses to get on with what they were doing and not mind her. The child was sitting on a blanket in its cot, eating a biscuit.

It looked pale and undernourished and was, like so many of the children who were admitted, too small, too thin and lacklustre as to eye—not through lack of money, Phoebe knew, but through the parents’ neglect; good-natured and unthinking, but still neglect. She smiled at the elderly little face, said brightly, ‘Hullo, chick, what’s your name?’ and at the same time peered with an expert eye at the spots.

There were a great many of them, and when she peeped beneath the little flannel nightshirt there were a great many more. She straightened up and spoke to the nurse who had joined her. ‘Fleas,’ she said softly, so that no one would hear save her companion. ‘Infected too. A mild Savlon bath, Nurse, usual hair treatment and keep a sharp eye open. Give her a milk drink and let me know if she doesn’t settle. She’s a bronchitis, isn’t she? She’ll be seen in the morning, but if you’re worried let me know.’ She turned away and then came back to say in a low voice: ‘And wear a gown.’ Her lovely eyes twinkled at the nurse, who smiled back. ‘And I might as well do a round now I’m here, mightn’t I?’

The night went smoothly after that. She was accustomed to, and indeed expected, the diabetic comas, coronaries and relapses which occurred during the course of it. She dealt with them as they arose with a calm patience and a sense of humour which endeared her to the rest of the night staff. She even had time for a quick cup of tea before she went to give her report.

She arrived at Waterloo with a couple of minutes to spare. There was no sign of Sybil—she would be on the train, a long train, and only its front carriages went to Salisbury; she jumped into the nearest door and started walking along the corridor. Her sister was in the front coach, sitting in an empty compartment with her feet comfortably on the seat opposite her, reading a glossy magazine. She was very like Phoebe, but her good looks were a little more vivid, her eyes a shade paler and her voice, when she spoke, just a tone higher.

‘Hullo, Phoebe darling, here by the skin of your teeth, I see. How are you —it’s ages since we saw each other.’ She was putting Phoebe’s bag on the rack as she spoke, now she pushed her gently into a window seat. ‘Here, put your feet up and have a nap. We can talk later. I’ll wake you in good time.’

And Phoebe, now that she had caught her train and greeted her sister, did just as Sybil suggested; in two minutes she was asleep. She wakened, much refreshed, at the touch on her arm and sat up, did her face, tidied her hair and drank the coffee Sybil had got for her, then said contritely: ‘What a wretch I am —I quite forgot. How about the hospitals?’

Sybil grinned engagingly. ‘The Gold Medal, ducky! I couldn’t let you be the only one in the family with one, could I? I don’t get the State results for six weeks, but I don’t care whether I pass or not.’ She looked secretive and mischievous at the same time, but when Phoebe said: ‘Do tell—something exciting?’ all she would say was: ‘I’ll tell you later, when there’s no hurry. Look!’

The carriage door was flung open and a horde of people surged in, making conversation impossible. The train shuddered, gave a sigh as though it disliked the idea of leaving the station, and continued on its way. At Shaftesbury, they got out; they lived in a small village close to Sturminster Newton, but Aunt Martha, who had moved in to look after them when their mother had died, and stayed on when their father died a few years later, liked to come and fetch them in the second-hand Austin which they had all three bought between them. She was on the platform now, in her tweed skirt and her twin-set, a felt hat of impeccable origin wedged on her almost black hair, only lightly streaked with grey despite her fifty-odd years. It framed her austere good looks and gave colour to her pale face, which broke into a smile as she saw them. She greeted them both with equal affection and walked them briskly to where the car was parked, telling Sybil to sit in front with her so that Phoebe, if she felt so inclined, could continue her nap undisturbed in the back.

Which she did without loss of time, waking after a blissful fifteen minutes to find that they were already going through East Orchard; at the next village, named, inevitably, West Orchard, they would turn off on to a side road which would bring them to Magdalen Provost, where they lived—a very small village indeed, which Phoebe had declared on several occasions to have more letters to its name than it had houses. It was a charming place, only a mile or so from the main road, and yet it had remained peacefully behind the times; even motor cars and the twice daily bus had failed to bring it up to date, and by some miracle it had remained undiscovered by weekend househunters looking for a holiday cottage, probably because it was so well hidden, awkward to get at, and in winter, impossible to get out of or into by car or bus because it lay snug between two hills rising steeply on either side, carrying a road whose gradient was more than enough for a would-be commuter.

Aunt Martha rattled down the hill and stopped in the centre of the village where the church, surrounded by a sprinkling of houses, the pub and the post office and village stores which were actually housed in old Mrs Deed’s front room, stood. Phoebe’s home stood a little apart from the rest, surrounded by a stone wall which enclosed a fair-sized, rather unkempt garden. The house itself wasn’t large, but roomy enough, and she loved it dearly; she and Sybil had spent a happy childhood here with their parents, their father, a scientist of some repute, pursuing his engrossing occupation while their mother gardened and kept house and rode round the countryside on the rather fiery horse her husband had given her. Both girls rode too, but neither of them were with their mother when she was thrown and killed while they were still at school, and their father, considerably older than his wife, had died a few years later.

Aunt Martha drew up with a flourish before the door and they all went inside. It was a little shabby but not poorly so; the furniture was old and well cared for and even if the curtains and carpets were rather faded, there was some nice Georgian silver on the sideboard in the dining room. Phoebe, now wide awake, helped bring in the cases and then went upstairs to change into slacks and shirt before joining Aunt Martha in the kitchen for coffee, regaling that lady with the latest hospital news as they drank it, but when Sybil joined them, the talk, naturally enough, centred around her and her success. It wasn’t for a few minutes that Phoebe came to the conclusion that it was she and their aunt who were excited about the results and not Sybil herself. She wondered uneasily why this was and whether it had something to do with whatever it was Sybil was going to tell her. Prompted by this thought, she asked:

‘Shall we go for a walk after lunch, Syb?’ and the uneasiness grew at the almost guilty look her sister gave her as she agreed.

They went to their favourite haunt—a copse well away from the road, with a clearing near its edge where a fallen tree caught the spring sun. They squatted comfortably on it and Phoebe said: ‘Now, Sybil, let’s have it. Is it something to do with St Elmer’s or about your exams?’

Her sister didn’t look at her. ‘No—no, of course not—at least … Phoebe, I’m giving in my notice at the end of the week.’

Phoebe felt the uneasiness she had been trying to ignore stir, but all she said was: ‘Why, love?’

‘I’m going to get married.’

The uneasiness exploded like a bomb inside her. ‘Yes, dear? Who to?’

‘Nick Trent, he’s the Medical Registrar. He’s landed a marvellous job at that new hospital in Southampton. We’re going to marry in two months’ time —he gets a flat with the job and there’s no reason for us to wait.’

‘No, of course not, darling. What a wonderful surprise—I’m still getting over it.’ Phoebe’s voice was warm but bewildered. They had discussed the future quite often during the past six months or so and Sybil had never so much as hinted … They both went out a good deal, she had even mentioned Jack in a vague way, but she had always taken it for granted that the two of them would share a year together, perhaps in some post abroad. Sybil had known that, just as she had known that Phoebe had stayed at St Gideon’s, waiting for her to finish her training. She asked in a voice which betrayed none of these thoughts: ‘What’s he like, your Nick?’

‘I knew you’d be on my side, darling Phoebe.’ Sybil told her at some length about Nick and added: ‘He wanted to meet you and Aunt Martha. I thought we might fix a weekend—your next nights off, perhaps.’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘He’s got a car—we could all come down together.’

Phoebe smiled. ‘Nice—I shall be able to snore on the back seat,’ and then, quietly: ‘There’s something else, isn’t there, Syb?’

‘Oh, Phoebe darling, yes, and I don’t know what to do unless you’ll help me. You see, a few weeks ago I was chosen to take a job in Holland …’

Phoebe had her head bowed over the tree-trunk, watching a spider at work. She said placidly: ‘Yes, dear—go on.’

‘Well, it’s some scheme or other cooked up between St Elmer’s and some hospital or other in Delft—there’s a professor type who specialises in fibrocystitis—he’s over here doing some research with old Professor Forbes, and the scheme is for a nurse from Delft to come over here and me to go there for two months. But first I’m supposed to go to the hospital where he’s working—you know that children’s hospital where they’ve got a special wing—the idea being that I shall be so used to his ways that it won’t matter where I work. I thought it would be fun and I said I would, and then Nick … we want to get married.’

‘Of course, but you could get married afterwards, dear. It would only be a few months—not long.’

Her young sister gave her a smouldering glance. ‘Yes, it is,’ she declared. ‘I won’t!’

‘Well, tell your people at hospital that it’s all off.’

‘I can’t—all the papers and things are signed and the hospital in Delft has made all the arrangements. Phoebe, will you go instead of me?’

‘Will I what?’ uttered Phoebe in a shocked voice.

‘Go instead of me.’

‘How can I possibly? It couldn’t be done—it’s absurd—they’d find out.’

‘You know you’re dying to leave and get off night duty and try something else for a change. Well, here’s your chance.’

‘But I’m not you.’

‘Near enough, no one need know. No one’s ever seen us at the children’s hospital, nor in Delft, have they? Even if they had, we’re so alike.’

‘I thought you said the Dutch doctor had seen you?’

‘Pooh, him—he looked half asleep; I don’t think he even looked at me, and we were only together for a couple of minutes, and I hardly spoke.’ She added persuasively: ‘Do, darling Phoebe! It sounds mad, doesn’t it? but no one’s being harmed and it’s not really so silly. And don’t worry about the man, I doubt if he even noticed that I was a girl.’ She sounded scornful.

‘He sounds ghastly—I suppose he speaks English?’

‘So well that you know he’s not,’ explained her sister, ‘and he’s got those vague good manners …’

‘I’ll not do it,’ said Phoebe, and was horrified when Sybil burst into tears.

‘Oh, dear,’ she wailed through her sobs, ‘now I don’t know what I’ll do at least, I do. I shall run away and hide until Nick goes to Southampton and we’ll get married in one of those pokey register offices and n-no one will come to the w-wedding!’

Phoebe sat watching her sister’s lovely face. Even while she cried she was beautiful and very appealing and she loved her dearly besides, she had promised her father that she would look after her. She said now: ‘Don’t cry, love —I’ll do it. I think it’s crazy and I’m not sure that if I’m caught I shan’t get sent to prison, but it’s only for a couple of months and if you don’t go someone else will, so it might as well be me. Only promise me that you’ll have a proper wedding, the sort Mother and Father would have liked you to have. And are you sure about Nick? I mean really sure —it’s for the rest of your life.’

Sybil smiled at her through her tears. ‘Oh, Phoebe, I’m sure—I can’t explain, but when you love someone like I love Nick, you’ll know. You’re a darling! We’ll fix it all up while we’re here, shall we? Just you and me—Nick doesn’t know, I was so excited and happy I forgot to tell him and when I thought about it later I couldn’t. And Aunt Martha …’

‘We won’t tell anyone at all,’ said Phoebe. Now that she was resigned to the madcap scheme she found herself positively enjoying the prospect of a change of scene. ‘I’m quite mad to do it, of course. Now begin at the beginning and tell me exactly what it’s all about. Are you sure this doctor didn’t get a good look at you?’

‘Him? Lord, no, Phoebe. I told you, he’s the sleepy kind, eyes half shut—I should think that half the time he forgets where he is. You’ll be able to twist him round your little finger.’

‘What’s his name?’

Sybil looked vague. ‘I can’t remember. I’ll find out for you, and the name of the hospital and where he lives and anything else I’m supposed to know.’

‘Which reminds me—I don’t know an awful lot about fibrocystic disease—hasn’t it got another name?’

‘Mucoviscidosis, and you can forget it. The treatment hasn’t changed much in the last year or so and you know quite enough about it—I remember telling me about several cases you had on the Children’s Unit …’

‘Three years ago,’ murmured Phoebe.

‘Yes, well … I’ll bring you up to date, and what does it matter anyway, for the whole idea is that I—you should be seconded to this hospital so that you can learn all about this man’s new ideas.’

‘And afterwards? Am I supposed to go back to St Elmer’s and spread the good news around?—then we are in the apple cart.’

‘No, nothing like that. I’m free to do what I like when I come back from Holland. As far as St Elmer’s goes, they think I’m giving in my notice so’s I can get a job somewhere else when I get back to England.’

‘My passport,’ hazarded Phoebe suddenly. ‘Supposing this man sees it? Or don’t we travel together when we go?’

‘Oh, yes, that’s all been arranged, but remember the British and the non-British split up when they get to the Customs. Anyway, he’s hardly likely to breathe over your shoulder, he’s not that sort.’

‘He sounds a dead bore,’ Phoebe said slowly. ‘I’m not sure …’

‘You promised —besides, there are bound to be other people around —housemen and so forth.’ She paused. ‘I say, there’s nothing serious between you and Jack, is there?’

Phoebe shook her head and said thoughtfully: ‘And if there was, this is just what’s needed to speed things up —I can’t quite make up my mind …’

‘Then don’t,’ said Sybil swiftly. ‘Phoebe love, if it were the real thing, you wouldn’t even stop to think—you’d know.’ She grinned and got up. ‘You see, this is just what you need, away from it all you’ll have time to decide.’

Phoebe got to her feet. ‘Perhaps you’re right, love. Now tell me, you and your Nick, when do you want to get married?’

They spent the rest of their walk happily discussing wedding plans and clothes. Phoebe had a little money saved, but Sybil none at all.

‘Well, that doesn’t matter,’ declared Phoebe. ‘There’s enough to buy you some decent clothes and pay for the wedding,’ and when Sybil protested: ‘I’m not likely to marry first, am I?’ she wanted to know soberly, and then broke off to exclaim: ‘Look—three magpies, they must have been eavesdropping. What is it now? One for anger, two for mirth, three for a wedding …’

They giggled happily and walked home arm-in-arm.

By the time Phoebe returned to St Gideon’s from her nights off, she and Sybil had their plans laid, the first step of which was for her to resign immediately. It would work out very well, they had discovered; she would be due nights off before she left, time to go home, explain to Aunt Martha that she had taken a job with this Dutch doctor and would be going to Holland, collect the uniform Sybil’s hospital were allowing her to keep until she returned to England, and make her way to the children’s hospital, where, according to Sybil, she was expected. The one important point to remember was that for the time being, she was Sybil and not Phoebe.

She went to the office to resign on the morning after her return, to the utter amazement of the Chief Nursing Officer. She was a nice woman, interested in her staff and anxious to know what Phoebe intended to do—something, of course, which Phoebe was unable to tell her, for most of the big hospitals knew each other’s business and probably the exchange scheme at St Elmer’s was already common property. Miss Bates would hear sooner or later via the hospital grapevine, that Sybil had left to get married, probably she already knew that she had been seconded for the scheme, she wasn’t above putting two and two together and making five.

‘I haven’t quite decided,’ Phoebe told her, playing safe. ‘I think I shall have a month or two’s holiday at home.’

If Miss Bates considered this a curious statement from a member of her staff whom she knew for a fact depended upon her job for her bread and butter, she forbore from saying so. She thought Phoebe a nice girl, clever and remarkably beautiful. She hoped that she would marry, because she deserved something better than living out her life between hospital walls. Miss Bates was aware, just as the rest of the hospital, that the Medical Registrar fancied Night Sister Brook, but she was an astute woman, she thought that the affair was lukewarm and Sister Brook, despite her calm disposition, was not a lukewarm person. She sighed to herself, assured Phoebe that she would always be glad to see her back on the staff should she change her mind, and hoped that she would enjoy her holiday.

Phoebe didn’t see Jack during her first night’s duty; he had gone on a few days’ leave and wouldn’t be back for two more days—something for which she was thankful, for it seemed a good idea to let the hospital know that she was leaving first. The news would filter through to him when he got back and he would have time to get used to the idea before they encountered each other, as they were bound to do.

They met over the bed of a young girl three nights later—an overdose and ill; there was no time to say anything to each other, for the patient took all their attention, and when he left, almost an hour later, he gave her some instructions to pass on to the nurses, and walked away. Ten minutes later Phoebe left the ward herself. She had done her first round, thank heaven, so she could spare ten minutes for a cup of coffee. She opened the door of her office at the same time as the junior nurse on the ward arrived with the tray and she took it from her with a word of thanks, noting with a sinking heart that there were two cups on it—presumably Jack intended to have a cup with her. She pushed the door open and found him inside, standing by the desk, glowering.

He said at once; ‘I’m told you’re leaving. Rather sudden, isn’t it?’

Phoebe sat down, poured coffee for them both and opened the biscuit tin before she answered him. ‘Yes, Jack. I—I made up my mind while I was on nights off. Sybil’s leaving too.’

He looked slightly mollified. ‘Oh—you’re off together somewhere, I suppose. For how long?’

‘No—I’ve decided to have a little holiday, staying with relatives.’ The idea had just that minute popped into her head and she hated lying to him, but after all, it wasn’t his business. ‘I feel unsettled.’

He stirred his coffee endlessly, looking at it intently. ‘Yes, well, I suppose if you feel you must—I shall miss you, Phoebe, but I daresay you’ll be ready to come back by the time I decide to marry. I shall ask you then.’ He glanced up briefly. ‘Everything has to be just as I want it first.’

That jarred. Was she not important enough to him—more important—than the set pattern he had laid out for them both, and without first finding out if she wanted it that way? She could see it all—the engagement when he was suitably qualified and had his feet on the first rung of the consultant’s ladder, the wedding, the suitable home, suitably furnished, all the things that any girl would want, so why did she feel so rebellious?

It was all too tepid, she decided. It would be nice to be swept off her feet, to be so madly loved that the more mundane things of life didn’t matter, to rush off to the nearest church without thought of the right sort of wedding. She passed him the sugar and sipped her coffee. If Nick could marry Sybil on his registrar’s pay and find it wonderful, why couldn’t Jack feel the same way? She began to understand a little of what Sybil had meant about loving someone, and she knew at that moment that she would never love Jack—like him, yes, even be fond of him, but that wasn’t at all the same thing.

She said quietly: ‘Jack, I can’t stop you doing that, but I don’t think it’s going to be any use.’ She stared at him over the rim of her mug, her lovely eyes troubled.

‘I’ll be the best judge of that,’ he told her a shade pompously, ‘and until then I prefer not to discuss it.’

He was as good as his word; they discussed the patient they had just left until, with a huffy good night, he went away.

She should mind, Phoebe told herself when she was alone. She had closed the door on a settled future, and just for a moment she was a little scared; she was twenty-seven, not very young any more, and although she could have married half a dozen times in the last few years, that was of no consolation to her now. She sighed and pulled the bed state towards her. It seemed likely that she was going to be an old maid.


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