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Claudia leaned up, took another armful of books from the shelves lining the little room, put them on the table beside her and sneezed as a cloud of mummified dust rose from them. What had possessed her, she wondered, to take on the task of dusting her great-uncle William's library when she could have been enjoying these few weeks at home doing as she pleased?
She picked up her duster, sneezed again, and bent to her task, a tall, slim but shapely girl with a lovely face and shining copper hair, which was piled untidily on top of her head and half covered by another duster, secured by a piece of string. Her shapely person was shrouded in a large print pinny several sizes too big, her face had a dusty smear on one cheek and her nose shone. Nevertheless she looked beautiful, and the man watching her from the half-open door smiled his appreciation before giving a little cough.
Claudia looked over her shoulder at him. There was nothing about him to make her feel uneasyindeed, he was the epitome of understated elegance, with an air of assurance which was in itself reassuring. He was a big man, very tall and powerfully built, not so very young but with the kind of good looks which could only improve with age. His hair was pepper and salt, cut short. He might be in his late thirties. Claudia wondered who he was.
'Have you come to see Great-Uncle William or my mother? You came in through the wrong doorbut of course you weren't to know that.' She smiled at him kindly, not wishing him to feel awkward.
He showed no signs of discomfort. 'Colonel Ramsay.' His commanding nose twisted at the dust. 'Should you not open a window? The dust '
'Oh, they don't open. They're frightfully oldthe original ones from when the house was built. Why do you want to see Colonel Ramsay?'
He looked at her before he answered. 'He asked me to call.'
'None of my business?' She clapped two aged tomes together and sent another cloud of dust across the room. 'Go back the way you came,' she told him, 'out of the side door and ring the front doorbell. Tombs will admit you.'
She gave him a nod and turned back to the shelves. Probably someone from Great-Uncle William's solicitor.
'I don't think I like him much,' said Claudia to the silent room. All the same she had to admit that she would have liked to know more about him.
She saw him again, not half an hour later, when, the duster removed from her head and her hands washed, she went along to the kitchen for coffee.
The house was large and rambling, and now, on the edge of winter, with an antiquated heating system, several of its rooms were decidedly chilly. Only the kitchen was cosy, with the Aga warming it, and since there were only her mother, Mrs Pratt the housekeeper, Jennie the maid and, of course, Tombs, who seemed to Claudia to be as old as the house, if not older, it was here that they had their morning coffee.
If there were visitors Mrs Ramsay sat in chilly state in the drawing room and dispensed coffee from a Sevres coffee pot arranged on a silver tray, but in the kitchen they all had their individual mugs. However, despite this democratic behaviour, no one would have dreamt of sitting down or drinking their coffee until Mrs Ramsay had taken her place at the head of the table and lifted her own special mug to her lips.
Claudia breezed into the kitchen with Rob the Labrador at her heels. Her mother was already there, and sitting beside her, looking as though it was something he had been doing all his life, was the strange man. He got to his feet as she went in, and so did Tombs, and Claudia stopped halfway to the table.
She didn't speak for a moment, but raised eloquent eyebrows at her mother. Mrs Ramsay said comfortably, 'Yes, I know, dear, we ought to be in the drawing room. But there's been a fall of soot so the fire can't be lighted. And Dr Tait-Bullen likes kitchens.'
She smiled round the table, gathering murmured agreements while the doctor looked amused.
'Come and drink your coffee, Claudia,' went on Mrs Ramsay. 'This is Dr Tait-Bullen, who came to see Uncle William. My daughter, Claudia.'
Claudia inclined her head, and said, 'How do you do?' in a rather frosty manner. He could have told her, she thought, instead of just walking away as he had done. 'Uncle William isn't ill?' she asked.
The doctor glanced at her mother before replying. 'Colonel Ramsay has a heart condition which I believe may benefit from surgery.'
'He's ill? But Dr Willis saw him last weekhe didn't say anything. Are you sure?'
Dr Tait-Bullen, a surgeon of some fame within his profession, assured her gravely that he was sure.
'Dr Willis very wisely said nothing until he had a second opinion.'
'Then why isn't he here now?' demanded Claudia. 'You could be wrong, whatever you say.'
'Of course. Dr Willis was to have met me here this morning, but I understand that a last-minute emergency prevented him. I have been called in as consultant, but the decision concerning the Colonel's further treatment rests with his doctor and himself.' He added gently, 'I was asked my opinion, nothing more.'
Mrs Ramsay cast a look at Claudia. Sometimes a daughter with red hair could be a problem. She said carefully, 'You may depend upon Dr Willis getting the very best advice, darling.'
Claudia stared across the table at him, and he met her look with an impassive face. If he was annoyed he showed no sign of it.
'What do you advise?' she asked him.
'Dr Willis will come presently. I think we should wait until he is here. He and I will need to talk.'
'But is Great-Uncle William ill? I mean, really ill?'
Her mother interrupted. 'Claudia, we mustn't badger Dr Tait-Bullen.' She looked round the table. 'More coffee for anyone?'
Claudia pushed back her chair. 'No, thank you, Mother. I'll go and get on with the books. Tombs knows where I am if I'm wanted.'
She smiled at the butler and whisked herself out of the room, allowing the smile to embrace everyone there.
Back in the library, she set about clearing the shelves, banging books together in clouds of dust, wielding her duster with quite unnecessary vigour. She had behaved very badly and she was sorry about itand a bit puzzled, too, for she liked him. What had possessed her to be so rude? She had behaved like a self-conscious teenager. She ought to apologise. Tombs, she knew, would come and tell her what was happening from time to time, so when the doctor was about to leave she would say something polite.
She spent a few minutes making up suitable speechesa dignified apology, brief and matter-of-fact. She tried out several versions, anxious to get it right. She was halfway through her final choice when she was interrupted.
'If those gracious words were meant for me,' said Dr Tait-Bullen, 'I am flattered.'
He was leaning against the door behind her, smiling at her, and she smiled back without meaning to. 'Well, they were. I was rude. I was going to apologise to you before you left.'
'Quite unnecessary, Miss Ramsay. One must make allowances for red hair and unpleasant news.'
'Now you're being rude,' she muttered, but went on anxiously. 'You really meant that? Great-Uncle William is seriously ill? I can see no reason why I shouldn't be told. I'm not a child.'
He studied her briefly. 'No, you are not a child, but Dr Willis and I must talk first.' He came into the room, moved a pile of books and sat down on the table. 'This is a delightful house, but surely rather large for the three of you?'
He spoke idly and she answered him readily. 'Well, yes, but it's been in the family for a long time. Most of the rooms are shut up, so it's easy enough to run. Tombs has been here forever, and Mrs Pratt and Jennie have been here for years and years. The gardens have got a bit out of hand, but old Stokes from the village comes up to help me.'
'You have a job?'
'I did have. Path Lab assistantnot trained, of course, just general dogsbody. But London's too far off. I've applied for several jobs which aren't so far away so that I can come home often.'
He said casually, 'Ah, yes, of course. Salisbury, Southampton, Exeterthey are all within reasonable distance.'
'And there are several private hospitals, too. I didn't much like London.' She added chattily, 'Do you live there?'
'Most of my work is done there.'
She supposed that he hadn't added to that because Tombs had joined them.
'Dr Willis has arrived, sir.' He looked at Claudia. 'Mrs Ramsay is in the morning room, Miss Claudia. Jennie has lighted the fire there for the convenience of the doctors.'
'Thank you, Tombs.' She glanced at the doctor. 'You'll want to go with Tombs. I'll come presentlyI must just tidy myself.'
Left to herself, she took off her pinny, dragged a comb through her hair and went in search of her mother.
Mrs Ramsay was with the two men, making small talk before they began their discussion of their patient's condition. She was still a strikingly beautiful woman, wearing her fifty years lightly. Her hair, once as bright as her daughter's, was streaked with silver, but she was still slim and graceful. She was listening to something Dr Willis was saying, smiling up at him, her hand on his coat sleeve. They were old friends; he had treated her husband before his death several years ago, and since he was a widower, living in a rather gloomy house in the village with an equally gloomy elderly housekeeper, he was a frequent visitor at the Ramsays' house.
He looked up as Claudia joined them.
'My dear, there you are. Come to keep your mother company for a while? Are we to stay here, or would you prefer us to go to the study?'
'No, no, stay here. There's a fire specially lighted for you. Claudia and I will go and see to lunch.' She paused at the door. 'You will tell us exactly what is wrong?'
In the dining room, helping her mother to set the lunch, Claudia asked, 'Is Great-Uncle William really very ill, Mother?'
'Well, dear, I'm afraid so. He hasn't really been very well for some time, but we couldn't persuade him to have a second opinion. This Dr Tait-Bullen seems a nice man.'
'Nice?' Claudia hesitated. 'Yes, I'm sure he is.' Nice, she reflected, hardly described him; it was far too anaemic a word. Beneath the professional polite detachment she suspected there was a man she would very much like to know.
They were standing idly at the windows, looking out into the wintry garden, when Tombs came to tell them that the doctors had come downstairs from seeing their patient.
Dr Willis went straight to Mrs Ramsay and took her hand. He was a tall, thin man, with a craggy face softened by a comforting smile as he looked at her. He didn't say anything. Claudia saw her mother return his look and swallowed a sudden surprised breath. The look had been one of trust and affection. Don't beat about the bush, Claudia admonished herself silently. They're in love.
There was no chance to think about it; Dr Tait-Bullen was speaking. Great-Uncle William needed a triple bypass, and without undue loss of time. The one difficulty, he pointed out, was that the patient had no intention of agreeing to an operation.
Claudia asked quickly, 'Would that cure him? Would he be able to lead a normal lifebe up and about again?'
'The Colonel is an old man, but he should be able to live the life of a man of his age.'
'Yes, but '
'Claudia, let Dr Tait-Bullen finish ' 'Sorry.'
She flushed and he watched the colour creep into her cheeks before he said, 'I quite understand your anxiety. If Dr Willis wishes, I will come again very shortly and do my best to change the Colonel's mind. I feel sure that if anyone can do that it will be he, for they have known each other for a long time. I can but advise.'
He glanced at the other man. 'We have discussed what is best to be donethere are certain drugs which will help, diet, suitable physiotherapy.'
'I'm sure you have done everything within your power, Doctor,' said Mrs Ramsay. 'We will do our best to persuade Uncle William, and if you would keep an eye on him?' She looked at Dr Willis. 'That is, if you don't mind, George?'
'I am only too glad of expert advice.'
'Oh, good. You'll stay for lunch, Dr Tait-Bullen? In half an hour or so.'
'I must return to London, Mrs Ramsay. You will forgive me if I refuse your kind invitation.'
He shook hands with her, and then with Dr Willis. 'We will be in touch.'
'Claudia, take Dr Tait-Bullen to his car, will you, dear?'
They walked through the house together, out of the door and across the neglected sweep of gravel to where a dark grey Rolls-Royce stood. Claudia stared at it reflectively.
'Are you just a doctor?' She wanted to know. 'Or someone more important?' She glanced at his quiet face. 'Mother called you Doctor, so I thought you were. You're not, are you?'
'Indeed, I am a doctor. I am also a surgeon.'
'So you're Mr Tait-Bullen. You're not a professor or anything like that, are you?'
'I'm afraid so.'
'You might have said so.'
'Quite unnecessary. Besides, being called a professor makes me feel old.' 'You're not old.'
He answered her without rancour. 'Thirty-nine. And you?'
She had asked for that. Anyway, what did it matter? 'I'm very nearly twenty-seven,' she told him.
He said smoothly, 'I am surprised that you are not yet married, Miss Ramsay.'
'Well, I'm not,' she snapped. 'I've not met anyone I've wanted to marry.' She added pettishly, 'I have had several proposals.'
'That does not surprise me.' He smiled down at her, thinking how unusual it was to see grey eyes allied with such very red hair. He sounded suddenly brisk. 'You will do your best to persuade the Colonel to agree to surgery, will you?'
When she nodded, he got into his car and drove away. His handshake had been firm and cool and brief.
Claudia went back to the morning room and found her mother and Dr Willis deep in talk. They smiled at her as she went in, and her mother said, 'He's gone?
Such a pleasant man, and not a bit stiff or pompous. Dr Willis has been telling me that he's quite an important surgeonperhaps I shouldn't have given him coffee in the kitchen.' She frowned. 'Do you suppose Uncle will take his advice?'
'Most unlikely, Mother. I'll take his lunch up presently, and see if he'll talk about it.'
Great-Uncle William had no intention of talking to anyone on the subject. When Claudia made an attempt to broach the matter, she was told to hold her tongue and mind her own business. Advice which she took in good part, for she was used to the old man's irascible temper and had a strong affection for him.
He had been very good to her mother and to her when her father died, giving them a home, educating her, while at the same time making no bones about the fact that he would have been happier living in the house by himself, with his housekeeper and Tombs to look after him. All the same, she suspected that he had some affection for them both, and was grateful for that.
It was a pity that on his death the house would pass to a distant cousin whom she had never met. That Great-Uncle William had made provision for her mother and herself was another reason for gratitude, for Mrs Ramsay had only a small income, and after years of living in comfort it would have been hard for her to move to some small house and count every penny.
They would miss the old house, with its large rooms and elegant shabbiness, and they would miss Tombs and Mrs Pratt and Jennie, too, but Claudia supposed that she would have a job somewhere or other and make a life for herself. Somewhere she could get home easily from time to time. Her mother would miss her friends.