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The early summer sky, so vividly blue until now, was rapidly being swallowed up by black clouds, turning the water of the narrow canal to a steely grey and draining the colour from the old gabled houses on either side of it. The two girls on the narrow arched bridge spanning the water glanced up from the map they were studying and frowned at the darkening sky. The taller of the two had a pretty face, framed by dark curly hair, her blue eyes wide with apprehension; the smaller of the two, with unassuming features, straight pale brown hair piled into a too severe topknot and a pair of fine brown eyes, merely looked annoyed.
It's going to rain, she observed, stating the obvious as the first slow, heavy drops began to fall. Shall we go back if we can, go on, or find shelter? She added in a matter-of-fact way, I haven't the faintest idea where we are. She began to fold the map, already wet, but before she had done so the rain came down in earnest, soaking them in moments. Worse, there was a sudden flash of lightning and a great rumble of thunder.
The pretty girl gave a scared yelp. Rose, what shall we do? I'm soaked.
Her companion took her arm and hurried her off the bridge. I'll knock on a door, she said, perhaps there's a porch
The brick road they were on was narrow and the houses lining it were solid seventeenth and eighteenth century town mansions built by wealthy Dutch merchants, their doors massive, their windows symmetrical, presenting an ageless calm in this backwater of Amsterdam, and not one of them had a porch. A second flash of lightning sent the smaller girl up the steps of the nearest house, to bang resoundingly on the great brass door knocker.
You can't, objected her companion; she didn't answer, only knocked again.
The door opened and she found herself staring into an elderly bewhiskered face; it belonged to a stout man, almost bald except for a fringe of hair with a stern expression and pale blue eyes. She swallowed and drew a breath.
Please may we stand in your doorway? she began. We're wet and lost.
Before the man could answer a door behind him opened and shut and a voice asked, English, and lost? and said something in Dutch so that the man opened the door wider and stood aside for them to go in.
The hall they entered was very impressive; its black-and-white tiled floor partly covered with thin silky rugs, its white plastered walls hung with paintings in heavy frames; the man who stood in its centre was impressive too, well over six feet tall, with great shoulders and the good looks to turn any girl's head. Any age between thirty and forty, Rose guessed, wondering if his fair hair was actually silver.
She hung back a little; this was the kind of situation Sadie could cope with admirably; her pretty face and charming smile had smoothed her path through three years of training at the children's hospital where they both worked; they could certainly turn things to her own advantage now.
Come in, come in. The blue eyes studied them sleepily. Very wet, aren't you? Give your cardigans to Hans, he'll get them dried for you and come into the sitting-room while I explain where you are.
He smiled at them both, but his eyes lingered on Sadie's glowing face, damp with rain, her curls no less attractive for being wet, whereas Rose's hair hung in damp tendrils, doing nothing to aid her looks.
He held out a large hand and shook their proffered ones firmly. Sybren Werdmer ter Sane, he said briskly. It was Sadie who answered him. I'm Sadie Gordon and this is Rose Comely. She smiled bewitchingly at him as he opened a big double door and ushered them into the room beyond.
It was a large lofty apartment, its ceiling was plaster with pendant bosses, and a central recessed oval with a border of fruit and flowers. The windows were large and draped with heavy swathes of plum-coloured velvet, and the same rich colour predominated in the needlework carpets strewn on the polished wood floor. The furniture was a thoughtful mixture of the old and the new. Vast display cupboards flanked the steel fireplace with its rococo chimney-piece and mirror, a pair of magnificent seventeenth-century armchairs, elaborately carved and velvet-cushioned, stood on either side of a small table inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A pair of William and Mary winged settees were on either side of the fireplace and there were a number of lamp tables and small comfortable easy chairs.
A delightful room, Rose thought, but Sadie said at once, I say, what a simply heavenly room--you'd never guess from the outside.
Er--no, I suppose not. Do sit down; I've asked Hans to bring you some tea and in the meantime tell me how I can help you.
Oh, Rose will explain; we're hopelessly lost--my fault, I wouldn't stop to look at the map.
Where are you staying?
Rose answered him in her quiet sensible voice. At a small hotel called 'De Zwaan', it's close to the Amstel Hotel, down a narrow side street. We got here yesterday, quite late in the evening, and we're leaving again in the morning. We're on a package tour; six of us, but the other four didn't want to explore. We were all right to start with, but these small streets are all alike, aren't they? Besides, they are so picturesque we just walked on and on.
It is so very easy to get lost! commented their host. But you aren't too far out of your way. Will your friends worry?
They went shopping and they won't be back at the hotel until the shops close. We have a kind of high tea at half past six.
Ah yes, of course, murmured Mijnheer Werdmer ter Sane; he had never eaten high tea in his life and indeed was a little vague as to what it was, but there was no need for him to comment further for Sadie, who had been frankly staring around her, wanted to know if the large painting of a family group wearing the stiff clothes of a couple of hundred years earlier were any relation to him. He led her over to take a closer look and when Hans came in a few minutes later with the tea tray, paused only long enough to ask Rose to pour out. What is it you say in England? 'Be Mother'.
She poured the tea from a silver teapot into paperthin china cups, reflecting that no one had ever called her motherly before; homely, plump, dull, uninteresting--all these, repeated so often that they no longer hurt; indeed anything her stepmother said to her now had no effect at all, and even though she was aware that there was truth in what she said, she enjoyed the friendship of a large number of people who didn't seem to notice her unassuming looks. The others sat down presently and she handed cups and as she did so admired her host's good manners, and when he turned to her and asked her what she thought of Holland, she answered him unselfconsciously in her pleasant voice. After a few moments she noticed that he was asking apparently casual questions, all of which she answered with polite vagueness, completely wasted from her point of view for Sadie broke in to give him chapter and verse about St Bride's, with a wealth of unnecessary detail about their training and how they had passed their exams not six months previously and now held Staff Nurses' posts. Rose is the gold medallist, she informed him, she's the only one of us with any brains; anyway she studied and we didn't. There were always other things to do in the evenings when we were off duty. She added ingenuously, You know, housemen and the senior medical students.
Mijnheer Werdmer ter Sane's blue eyes rested fleetingly on Rose's face; what he saw there caused him to say kindly, I imagine that a gold medal is worth at least half a dozen housemen, your family must be very proud of you.
This tactful remark didn't have the effect he expected; Rose's face flooded with colour and then went pale and she mumbled something, luckily lost in Sadie's chatter. That's why we're here, she explained, we've been saving up for months to have a holiday--to celebrate, you know. Only a week. She sighed dramatically. Back to work in two days' time.
She turned blue eyes to him. You speak perfect English. Have you been in England?
His voice was smooth. Yes, from time to time. We are, of course, taught it in school; Dutch is a difficult language so we need to be proficient in the more widely used tongues.
You sound like a professor, declared Sadie.
Oh, I do hope not. Now shall I explain your street map to you?
A nicely worded hint that they should think of leaving; Rose got to her feet at once and followed him to the table between the windows and handed him her map, and he took a pen from his pocket, marked a cross on it and then inked in their return route. So that you will know exactly where you had got to, he pointed out, but I hope you will allow me to drive you back to your hotel--there's always the chance that you will get lost again. He handed Rose the map and tugged an embroidered bell-rope by the fireplace and when Hans came, spoke to him in his own language.
Hans came back almost at once with their cardigans and their host said easily, It's a bare ten minutes drive; Hans will fetch the car round.
He helped Sadie into her cardigan and answered her light-hearted chatter good naturedly and then turned to Rose. But she was already buttoned neatly into hers, standing quietly with the map in her hand.
We are very grateful, she told him gravely. It's quite frightening, being lost--and then the storm but there's no need for you to drive us back, now we know how to follow the map we can walk quite easily.
I am sure that you could, you seem to be, if you will forgive me for saying so, a very practical young lady, but I should prefer to take you back; besides I have enjoyed the company of both of you--the gratitude should be mine for helping me to pass a dull afternoon in my own company.
Oh, very polished, thought Rose, even if he doesn't mean a word of it.
They went out into the hall and before Hans opened the front door, she had time to have another quick look round. The staircase was at the back of the hall, thickly carpeted, with barley sugar balusters, curving up gracefully to the floor above; there was a massive chandelier above their heads and a great carved oak table against one wall. It was tantalising to have a glimpse of such a fine house before they were out on the narrow pavement and being ushered into the dignified dark grey Rolls-Royce motor car standing there.
Sadie slid into the front seat, exclaiming prettily that it had always been her ambition to travel in a Rolls, and Rose got into the back, quite content to do so, only half listening to her friend rattling on about one thing and another while she looked out of the window, trying to see both sides at once; she wasn't likely to come to Amsterdam again for some time, indeed if ever, and she wanted to see as much as could be crowded into their brief stay.
At their hotel they bade their host goodbye, thanked him once more, and Sadie said, I hope you come to London and we see you again; don't forget where we are--St Bride's. She gave him a beguiling smile as they shook hands. I think you'd be much more fun to go out with than any of the housemen I know!
He made some laughing reply and opened the hotel door for them.
Inside Rose said doubtfully, Sadie, weren't you a bit-- you know.? After all he is a complete stranger.
Sadie laughed. Look who is talking--who knocked on his door, then?
Well, we had to get in out of the rain and I didn't know he was living there, did I? They began to climb the steep stairs to their rooms on the top floor. The others will be back and I'm famished.
The rest of the party were milling around the small, plainly furnished rooms gossiping about their day. As Rose and Sadie reached the top landing they surged out of doors, full of questions.
Where have you been? demanded a lanky girl with a long face. We've been getting worried; after all, Rose, you've got all the plans for tomorrow and the money for the hotel.
Rose began mildly and was cut short by Sadie's exuberant voice. We walked miles and got lost and then there was that awful storm so Rose knocked on the door of a simply huge house and we had tea there and came back in a Rolls-Royce.
The lanky girl goggled at her. You're making it up.
It's quite true, said Rose composedly. We did get lost, Alice. Did you have a good time shopping?
I'll say, a girl with red hair interpolated, a good thing you've got the money to pay the bill here, Rose, I'm skint.
I'll pay this evening, we don't leave until after lunch, so if there's any money over we'll share it out.
The little group dispersed to tidy for the evening and Rose went into her own room and changed her damp dress for a cotton jersey and did her hair again. Which done she made up her face and then stood peering into the very small looking-glass which hung on the wall. She was undoubtedly a plain girl; not, she conceded, hopelessly so, her skin was good, she had nice eyebrows and her eyes were passable, only her nose was too short and turned up very slightly and her mouth was too wide, and as for her hair fine and silky reaching to her waist but most uninterestingly pale brown. She pinned it severely to the top of her head and went to join the others. There was no point in her being sorry for herself and indeed she seldom was, but today it had struck her forcibly that no man, certainly not one as handsome as Mijnheer Werdmer ter Sane, would bother to look at her twice. Not that he had ignored her; his manners had been beautiful but she thought that they would have been just as beautiful if she had been an elderly aunt or a chance acquaintance he wasn't likely to see again.