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The steamer from Oban drew into the island's small jetty, deserted and unwelcoming, shrouded as it was in the chilly October rain and buffeted by an even chillier wind from the north. The few passengers it had brought over from the mainland disembarked smartly, bidding each other good-day as they went in cheerful voices which paid no heed to the weather. But the last passenger left the boat slowly, as though reluctant to exchange its shelter for the rain-swept quay. She was a young woman, obviously a stranger, sensibly dressed in a thick tweed coat and high leather boots. She carried a holdall over one arm and clutched the head scarf tied over her rain-drenched hair with a gloved hand. One of the passengers had carried her case for her; he put it down now beside her with a smile and she smiled her thanks in return, a smile which transformed her ordinary face, so that the man looked at her a second time with rather more interest than he had shown. 'Being met?' he asked.
She nodded, 'Yes, thank you,' and she didn't add anything, so that after a moment or so he said: 'Well, so long,' and walked away towards the huddle of houses around the end of the quay. Cassandra Darling watched him go and then turned her attention to her surroundings. She was quite a tall girl with a face which her mother had once hopefully described as jolie-laide, for her hazel eyes, while of a good size and colour, were fringed with unspectacular, mousey lashes, her nose was too sharp and too thin, which gave her rather an inquiring look, and her mouth, although nicely curved, was far too large. She was almost twenty-three, but seemed older than this, partly because she had formed the habit of screwing her pale brown hair into a severe bun, and partly because she was a quiet girl who enjoyed tranquil pursuits—not that this trait in her character had prevented her from having a great number of friends at the hospital where she had just completed her training, for although quiet, she had a sense of humour and a ready but not unkind wit.
She surveyed the scene around her now with calm eyes. Before her, straight ahead, there loomed a tree-covered hill, presumably quite inaccessible. At its foot, on either side of the village, there were roads, narrow and lonely, each disappearing around the base of the hill. She knew that her sister lived on the south-west side of the island, so it would be the road on the left—she stared at it patiently and was presently rewarded by the sight of a Landrover belting along towards the quay. It was her brother-in-law; he drew up exactly beside her, got out, embraced her with affection, flung her luggage into the Landrover, besought her to get in beside him, and almost before she had time to settle herself, had turned the car and was racing back the way he had come.
'Rotten day,' her companion volunteered. 'Good journey?'
'Yes, thanks, Tom. It seemed to go on for ever and ever, though. Are you and Rachel ready to leave?'
'Just about. It's nice of you to come, Cassandra—I hope the kids won't be too much of a handful.'
'But it's just what I wanted to do—it'll be lovely to have a month or two's break before I take my midder, and I need a change from London.'
He gave her a shrewd glance. 'Did they offer you a job?'
'As a matter of fact, they did.'
She went a little pink. 'Yes—Men's Medical, but if I'd taken it, I should have had to start straight away and stayed a year at least, and I might have got into a rut and not wanted to do midwifery. I think it's best to leave, don't you?'
Her companion swung the Landrover off the road on to a narrow winding lane with mountains towering to the right of them, and presently, the sight of a loch on their left. 'Yes, I think you're wise, and it's wonderful for us. You won't be lonely? The children love it, but after London '
'I shall love it too.' Cassandra looked around her. 'It must be beautiful in the summer.' She added mildly, 'But I daresay it's pretty super at this time of year too—when it's not raining.'
'It can be gorgeous. Anyway, the house is pretty comfortable, and I suppose you've brought your knitting with you.'
'Not knitting,' she assured him gravely. 'I'm doing a firescreen in gros-point and I've brought plenty of books with me too. Besides, there won't be all that time to spare, will there, not with Penny and Andrew for company. How's their school?'
'Excellent. Small, but the teaching is first class.'
'And the book?'
'Finished. Here we are.'
The road was running beside the loch now, pushed there by the mountains, and then the loch ended abruptly, leaving only a wild, narrow river in its place, which in its turn opened suddenly into a much larger loch and gave Cassandra her first glimpse of her future home for the next few weeks. The village was very small and scattered, with an austere church in its centre and a few fishing boats drawn up beside the jetty. Its one street contained a single shop, but Cassandra had no chance to do more than glance at it as Tom drove on, out of the village and along a track running up the hillside. He stopped after a half mile, however, turned in through a wide gate and pulled up before a well-built house with a grey slate roof and whitewashed walls. The door was flung open as Cassandra prepared to get out and the two children and their mother came out to meet her.
Rachel was ten years older than her sister and had more than her fair share of good looks, although it was easy to see that they were sisters. She hugged Cassandra with real delight and then held her away to have a good look at her.
'Lovely to see you,' she said. 'You look as though you could do with a holiday, darling. I'm so glad you decided to leave hospital, even if it is only for a month or two—besides, it's wonderful for us to be able to get away on our own for a few weeks—these brats can't wait to see us go.' She smiled at the two children with her and they laughed back at her little joke. They didn't mind in the least being left with their Aunt Cassandra—she was clever at making things and talked to them as though they were intelligent people and not half-witted kids. Andrew, her nephew, offered a rather grubby hand and grinned at her, but Penny, who was only five, threw herself at her favourite aunt and hugged her.
Indoors there was a roaring fire in the sitting-room. Cassandra had her wet coat taken from her, was invited to take off her boots and her head-scarf, and sat before the blaze while her sister went to the kitchen to fetch the coffee.
'Anyone interesting on the boat?' Rachel inquired when she returned.
Cassandra wriggled her toes in the pleasant warmth. 'No, I don't think so—there weren't many people on board and they all melted away. You're a long way away from everywhere, aren't you?'
Rachel passed her a brimming mug. 'Miles,' she agreed comfortably. 'But the village is nice; you'll be absorbed into it in no time at all. You've got the Land-rover. You're not nervous of being alone at night, are you? You've no need to be.'
'I'm not—you can't think how marvellous it's going to be, going to sleep in peace and quiet without traffic tearing past the windows all night.'
'She was offered a Sister's post,' Tom told his wife as he sat down, and Rachel exclaimed: 'Cassy, how marvellous for you—you didn't refuse it because of us, did you?' She sounded concerned.
Cassandra shook her head. 'Of course not. I was telling Tom, if I had taken it, I should have got into a rut and stayed for ever and ever. Now I'm free to take my midder when I want. I've enough money to tide me over for a bit—besides, you've given me much more than I shall ever need.' She broke off. 'What do you do when you want to shop—I mean really shop?'
Rachel laughed. 'You park the kids with Mrs Mac-Donnell, the schoolteacher. She'll take them home for their dinner and you collect them when you get back from Oban. You can take the Landrover to the ferry and leave it near the quay and collect it on your way back— I've been doing that every few weeks.'
'Well,' said Cassandra, 'I don't suppose I shall want to go at all—I just wanted to know.'
Andrew, sitting beside her, said suddenly, 'There's a village shop—it's super, you can buy anything there.'
His aunt gave him an understanding look. 'Toffee?' she suggested. 'Crayons, pen-knives, balls of string and those awful things that change colour when you suck them? I've no doubt we shall do very well. What time do you leave?' She turned to her brother-in-law.
'Tomorrow afternoon. We'll all go to the ferry and you can drive the kids back afterwards, Cassy. Our plane leaves Glasgow in the evening—we'll spend the night in London and go on to Greece in the morning.' He stretched luxuriously. 'Six weeks' holiday!' he purred. 'I can hardly believe it!'
'You deserve it,' remarked his wife. 'This book's been a bit of a grind, hasn't it?'
He nodded. 'But at least I've got the Roman Empire out of my system for ever. I always wanted to write about it, but never again—too much research. The next one will be a modern novel. I daresay I'll get some ideas for it while we're away.'
Rachel groaned. 'Which means you'll write all day and I'll have to sit and knit.'
'I didn't know you could,' observed Cassandra.
'I can't, that's what makes it so difficult.'
Tom laughed. 'My poor darling, I promise you I'll only take notes—very brief ones.' He got up from his chair. 'How about taking Cassandra up to her room?'
They all trooped upstairs, Tom ahead with the luggage, the girls arm in arm and the children darting from side to side and getting in everyone's way. Her bedroom was in the front of the house with a view of the sea, and if she craned her neck out of the window, the mountains as well. It was most comfortably furnished and pleasantly warm, with cheerful carpeting to match the cherry red curtains and bedspread. She began to unpack with everyone sitting around watching her as she handed out the small presents she had brought with her. They had been difficult to choose because she hadn't a great deal of money and Tom was able to give Rachel and the children almost everything they could want. All the same, everyone exclaimed delightedly over their gifts and finally Rachel produced one for Cassandra—a thick hand-knitted Arran sweater. 'To wear around,' she explained. 'I expect you've got some thick skirts and slacks with you—the children are great walkers and so are you, aren't you? And there's nothing much else you can wear here. Have you got some stout shoes?'
For answer Cassandra unearthed a sturdy pair from her case. 'And my boots, and I suppose I can borrow someone's Wellies.'
They all trooped downstairs then and had lunch, then did the last-minute packing while Mrs Todd, who came in to help, did the washing-up.
The rain had ceased by the time they had finished and Cassandra changed into her new sweater and a pair of slacks, tied a scarf over her hair, and joined her relations for a walk. They went first to the village, where she made the acquaintance of Mrs MacGill, who owned the shop, and on the way out of it, the pastor, an almost middle-aged man, very thin and stooping, with hair combed tidily over the bald patch on the top of his head, and thick glasses. He shook hands with Cassandra, expressed himself delighted to make her acquaintance and hoped that she would go to the Manse one day and take tea with himself and his sister. He added, a little sternly, that he would see her in church on the following Sunday, and walked away rather abruptly.
They were well clear of the village, going along a rough track winding up the wooded hillside, when Tom observed, 'You've made a hit, Cassy—I've never known old John Campbell issue an invitation to anyone until at least a month after he's met them.'
'Will you marry him?' inquired Penny. 'I don't think I should like that, Aunt Cassandra.'
'No, well—I don't think I should myself, poppet, and as I don't suppose there's the slightest possibility of that happening, I think I'll forget about it and concentrate on a prince in shining armour.'
'So awkward,' murmured Rachel, 'the armour, I mean. However did they manage to give a girl a good hug, do you suppose?'
This interesting point held everybody's attention for some time, it certainly lasted until they had reached the brow of the hill where they were met by a splendid wind and a vast expanse of grey sea and sky.
'No view at all,' said Tom in disgust, 'and it looks like bad weather. We'd better get back, I think. We can go down the other path.'
They got home before the rain, glowing from walking fast, and the sitting-room looked very inviting as they crowded in. They made toast and ate a great deal of cake as well, and drank quantities of tea from an enormous teapot. It was nice, Cassandra reflected, that Rachel had never allowed Tom's success and money to interfere with the happy home life she had achieved for them all. The house was roomy, well furnished and there was every comfort one could reasonably wish for, but the children weren't spoilt; there was no obvious luxury, although she knew that Rachel could have anything she wanted and more besides.
She looked with affection at her sister, sitting curled up in one of the armchairs. She didn't look her age; her pretty face was smooth and happy and contented—she was a dear; since their parents had died, she had, in the nicest possible way, looked after Cassandra, inviting her for holidays when they went abroad, giving her the pretty things she couldn't quite afford to buy for herself, but only at birthdays and Christmas, so that Cassandra had never felt patronized. She had even contrived several meetings with young men when she and Tom had been living in London, so that Cassandra should have the opportunity of making their acquaintance. But this hadn't been entirely successful; there were too many pretty girls around for the young men in question to waste more than a polite few minutes with her. Perhaps if she could have been a sparkling talker she might have achieved something, but she wasn't, and she had never felt quite at ease with them.
She bit into another slice of cake, thinking how fortunate it was that she could repay Rachel and Tom a little for their kindness by minding the children while they took a holiday. They had wanted to go away together for some time, she knew, but neither of them would consider it unless the children could be looked after by someone they trusted. There were no grandparents now, and Tom's sister, who lived in London, was heartily disliked by his children—that only left herself, and she had been able to say yes when Rachel had written and asked tentatively if there was any chance of her having a holiday and if so, could she bear to spend it looking after her nephew and niece. She had written back at once and offered to stay as long as they wanted her to, glad of the opportunity to get away from hospital life for a little while.
Posted October 21, 2014