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Eugenie Spencer, tall, splendidly built, dark hair, dark eyes and beautiful, put out a reluctant hand to turn off the alarm clock and got out of her bed. She dug her feet into slippers, dragged on a dressing-gown and went to the window and peered out into the early day. The April morning was misty, veiling the moorland and the great outcrops of rock, although the mist was slowly dispersing under the faint warmth of the early sun. She nodded in satisfaction. Driving her father to Exeter would be no problem; she could take the Moretonhampstead road across the moor. It was lonely for most of the way but she had been born and brought up on Dartmoor and was familiar with its vastness, its sudden mists and wild winter weather. Her father had been team rector for as long as she could remember, visiting the remote villages over a wide area, assisted by two fellow clergy. When she had gone away to train as a nurse and then take a post as ward sister at a London teaching hospital, she had returned home at every opportunity until his sudden severe heart attack had put an end to her career; for, after several weeks of hospital treatment, it was obvious that he wouldn't be fit for work for a long time.
He was sent home to recover slowly and she had given up her job and come home to help her mother, take upon her shoulders the mundane parochial jobs, nurse her father and cope with the Reverend Mr Watts who had been sent to act as locum to the parish. A zealous young man who, coming from one of the big inner cities, had no idea of village life and even less of village life on Dartmoor.
The villages were small and widely scattered, not to mention the remote farmhouses, frequently cut off inwinter. This morning, though, the moor was inviting, stretching away in grand loneliness as far as the eye could see. Eugenie nipped smartly across the landing to the bathroom to begin her day.
Presently, in a tweed skirt, a sweater over a blouse and sensible shoes on her feet, her hair piled rather haphazardly on top of her head, she went downstairs to the kitchen to open the door for Tiger, the elderly spaniel, and Smarty, the crotchety old cat, and then put on a kettle to make early morning tea.
The Rectory was a short distance from the village, midway between Dartmeet and Two Bridges, a solid house, capable of standing up to bad weather, its rooms comfortably furnished, the kitchen old-fashioned without modern fitments but with an Aga and a solid dresser laden with plates and china, rather haphazardly arranged. Eugenie moved to and fro at her familiar tasks, roused her parents and laid the table for breakfast. It was still early but her father couldn't be hurried and there were several small chores to be done before they could leave.
Her mother came downstairs first, a woman as tall as her daughter and still with the echo of youthful beauty in her face.
'You go and feed the chickens! She took the bowl of eggs from Eugenie's hand with a smile, and then added, 'Your Father's a bit edgyyou will drive carefully, darling?'
Eugenie opened the garden door. 'Yes, Mother dear, and we'll be back for tea.'
She lingered at the bottom of the garden after she had fed the chickens. Tiger and Smarty, anxious for their breakfast, wove themselves around her as she stood looking about her. The village was out of sight, round the curve of a steep hill, and the only other house in sight was a shepherd's cottage half a mile away. 'Very different from London,' said Eugenie to Tiger, 'and I wonder if I shall ever go back there? Not that I want to but I dare say I shall eventually.'
They had been good to her at the hospital and allowed her to leave on the understanding that she would return as soon as she could and work out the month's notice she hadn't been able to give. It all depended on what the doctors said when they examined her father later on that day.
The drive to Exeter was uneventful. The road was a B class and by no means busy; heavy traffic going to Plymouth and beyond used the fast road further south, skirting the moor, and there were few villages on their route. She had to slow down at Moretonhampstead, a small bustling market town, but after that it was an easy run into Exeter and the hospital.
She took her father straight to the cardiac unit, handed him over to the nurse there, and went to sit in the waiting-room and leaf through the out-of-date magazines there. Rather out of touch for the last few weeks, Eugenie, who loved clothes, found them entirely satisfactory.
Her father was tired by the time the examination was finished and she drove to a quiet restaurant and persuaded him to eat a light meal. The specialist had been pleased with himanother few weeks and he would be allowed to resume some of his lighter duties around the parish, something he was anxious to do after months of convalescence. He talked about it while they ate. 'Another month, my dear, and you will be able to return to your hospital. Do you suppose that you will get back your ward?'
Eugenie speared spring cabbage on to her fork and popped it into her mouth. 'Probably not, Father, but I would be quite glad of a change.'
Which wasn't quite true. She had forborne to tell her parents that once she had done her month's work she would have to leave. After all, the hospital had allowed her to take extended leavemore than two months alreadyand by now her post would have been filled. When she went back she would work out her month wherever she was needed and then leave. Time enough to tell them when that happened.
She drove home presently, thankful that the day was still fine although there was a bank of cloud in the west climbing slowly across the sky. It was still early in the year and the weather wasn't to be trusted
Her mother was waiting for them with the tea-table laid and a cheerful fire in the sitting-room, and presently Eugenie went along to the kitchen to cook supper. While she peeled potatoes and sliced vegetables she reflected upon her future. She was twenty-five and heart-whole. She had had more than her share of proposals, both honourable and dishonourable, but although she wasn't exactly sure what kind of man she would like to marry she was quite sure that she hadn't met him yet. Until then she would need to earn her living, this time at a hospital a good deal nearer home. She had talked to the specialist and he had warned her that her father might possibly have a second heart attack, in which case the Reverend Mr Watts would have to return. She did hope not; a nice enough man, she supposed, but with all the wrong ideas when it came to running her father's far-flung parishes. Besides, he had made it plain that he had taken a fancy to her and, from his point of view at least, what could be more convenient than that he should marry the daughter of his rector and, in due course, take over the parish?
'I'll do nothing of the sort,' she told the animals, as they waited patiently for their suppers.
It was raining when she got up the next morning, and the wind had got up during the night, sending low clouds racing across the sky. She listened to a cheerful voice on the radio telling her that there was bad weather from the Atlantic on the way. She went outside and sloshed around in her wellies, feeding the chickens and making sure that the various shed doors were securely fastened and the washing line was empty, and when she got back it was to be told by her mother that the Reverend Mr Watts had phoned to say that he had a heavy cold and could Eugenie possibly do some of his visits for him? There were several, and she decided to take the car and go to the more distant parishioners firstoutlying farms and an old man who lived by himself in a tiny cottage isolated from his nearest neighbours. There was a rough track leading to it and she decided to go there first, driving the Land Rover, and since the Reverend Mr Watts was vague as to the old man's circumstances she took a supply of milk and bread and various groceries which he might need. She took the local weekly paper too; if she remembered aright, he liked a good read.
Old Mr Bamber was quite well and delighted to see her. He was fine, he assured her, and looking forward to the warmer weather when he could get out more.
Eugenie offloaded the groceries and the newspaper, washed up the accumulation of dirty dishes in the sink, made them both coffee and sat down for a chat. He knew everyone in the village, so she passed on all the small gossip, promised to give the postman some new batteries for his radio and went on her way.
The farms were off the narrow moorland road but easier to reach; she drank more coffee, enquired after the children, listened patiently to lambing problems, admired new puppies and a litter of kittens, looked at knitting and took a handful of letters to post. It was lunchtime by the time she got home and it was still raining although the wind had died down.
The weather was no better the next day. It was the Mothers' Union in the afternoon and, since the Reverend Mr Watts was still feeling poorly, Eugenie went along to the small village hall, the centre of community activities, and made tea and handed round cake in a practised manner, saying the right things, admiring the babies and small children, listening to the small problems. I would, she reflected, make a good parson's wife.
The next morning the moors were shrouded in thick mist, a hazard to any stranger to them but to Eugenie, who had been born and brought up there, merely an inconvenience. True, she wouldn'tbe foolish enough to go too far from the village, but what to a traveller might seem a thick blanket with an occasional glimpse of bleak landscape was to her quite familiar. She had so often been on the moors and caught in a sudden mist but all one had to do, she had pointed out to her anxious mother, was to stay still and wait for a glimpse of the surroundingsshe knew every stone and tree and bush for miles around and had no fear of the profound silence the mist brought with it.
By the afternoon the drizzle had ceased but the mist was as thick as ever. It was almost teatime when the Reverend Mr Watts phoned. He had a small house on the other side of the village, perched off the narrow road on the steep side of the open moor, no distance away but awkward to reach, some way away from the first of the village cottages.
Eugenie, listening to his anxious voice, felt sorry for him. His cold was worse, he complainedif only he had some cough lozenges or even a lemon, and he had finished his aspirins.
'I'll come over with whatever you need,' said Eugenie, cutting short his unhappy complaining.
'You'll never reach me in this mist.'
'Oh, pooh,' said Eugenie, 'expect me in twenty minutes or so.'
She collected aspirins, a couple of lemons, throat lozenges and a small bottle of whisky from the cupboard where, from long experience, her mother stored them, got into her parka and wellies and went out into the darkening afternoon, urged to return as soon as she could. 'I know you can find your way,' said her mother. 'All the same, take care.'
Eugenie found her way unerringly to the village, where the lights from the house windows shone dimly, but once past them she began the climb up the road, keeping well to the bank, hoping that the Reverend Mr Watts would have the sense to switch on all the lights in his house. She began the climb up the narrow path away from the road and saw that he had.
She didn't like him overmuch, but she felt sorry for him, miserable with cold, obviously hating the house and the moor and everything else making life difficult.
'I don't know how you stick it,' he told her. 'If I had known what it would be like when I was sent here nothing but mist and wind and rain '
Eugenie had put on the kettle and was squeezing lemons into a jug. 'Oh, come now, you know how lovely it is here on a fine daythe peace and quiet and the gorgeous views and no traffic worth mentioning.'
She made a pot of tea and put an egg on to boil, offered him aspirins and turned up the Calor gas fire. 'You feel rotten, so everything's horrible. You'll be better in the morning. Now sit down and eat your tea and go to bed early and take two more aspirins.'
A practical girl as well as a beautiful one, she had set the table, filled a hot water bottle, taken it up to his bed and come down again to inspect the larder. 'There's plenty of food here, and as soon as the weather clears Mrs Pollard will be up to see to you. I'll ring you in the morning to find out how you are.'
'You don't need to go? Can't you stay for a while?'
'My dear man, have you looked outside? It'll be dark in no time at all and getting around isn't all that easy.'
'You've lived here all your life. Surely you must know your way around?'
'Just so. That's why I'm going now. Don't forget to take this aspirin.'
Making her difficult way back to the road, she reflected that he hadn't thanked her.
'Men,' said Eugenie, and slithered to a halt as she reached the road and bumped into a very large motor car.
Its door was open and an amused voice said, 'An angel from heaven. You are not hurt?'
A very large arm had steadied her and a moment later its owner was beside her. He had taken his arm away but she had the impression that he towered over her even though she could not see him at all clearly.
She said, 'No, I'm not hurt. You're lost?'
'Yes. I was steeling myself to spending a long night in the car. Now I'm hopeful of rescue. Unless you are lost also?'
'No, no, I live here. Well, not far away. The village is close by. Where do you want to go to?'