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The room was large and well lighted, and by reason of the cheerful fire in the wide chimneypiece and the thick curtains drawn against the grey January afternoon, cosy enough. There were three persons in it; an elderly man, sitting at his ease behind a very large, extremely untidy desk, a thin, prim woman at a small table close by and a tall, broad-shouldered man sitting astride a small chair, his arms folded across its back, his square, determined chin resting on two large and well cared for hands. He was a handsome man, his dark hair silvered at the temples, and possessing a pair of formidable black brows above very dark eyes. In repose he appeared to be of an age approaching forty, but when he smiled, and he was smiling now, he looked a good deal younger.
Miss Trim paused in the reading of the names from a typed list before her and glanced at the two men. They were smoking pipes and she gave a small protesting cough which she knew would be ignored, anyhow.
'They sound like a line of chorus girls,' commented the younger of her two companions. His smile turned to an engaging grin. 'How do you like the idea of being nursed by a Shirley Anne, or an Angela, orwhat was that last one, Miss Trim? A Felicity?'
His elderly companion puffed a smoke ring and viewed it with satisfaction. 'We should have tried for a male nurse,'he mused out loud, 'but from a psychological point of view that would not have been satisfactory.'
'There are still a few names on the list, Professor Wyllie.' Miss Trim sounded faintly tart, probably because of the smoke wreathing itself around her head. She coughed again and continued to read: 'Annette Dawes, Marilyn Jones, Eliza Proudfoot, Heather Cox '
She was interrupted. 'A moment, Miss Trimthat name again, Eliza ?'
'Miss Eliza Proudfoot, Professor van Duyl.'
'This is the one,' his deep voice with its faint trace of an accent, sounded incisive. 'With a name like that, I don't see how we can go wrong.'
He glanced at the older man, his eyebrows lifted. 'What do you say, sir?'
'You're probably right. Let's hear the details, Miss Trim.'
Before she could speak: 'Five foot ten,' murmured Professor van Duyl, 'with vital statistics to match.' He caught the secretary's disapproving eye. 'She'll need to be strong,' he reminded her blandly, 'not young any more, rather on the plain side and decidedly motherly.' He turned his smiling gaze on Professor Wyllie. 'Will you like that?'
His companion chuckled. 'I daresay she will do as well as any, provided that her qualifications are good.' He gave Miss Trim a questioning look, and she answered promptly, mentioning one of the larger London hospitals.
'She trained there,' she recited from her meticulous notes, 'and is now Ward Sister of Men's Medical. She is twenty-eight years old, unmarried, and thought very highly of by those members of the medical profession for whom she works.' She added primly, 'Shall I telephone Sir Harry Bliss, Professor? He is the consultant in charge of her ward.'
'Good lord, woman,' exploded her employer, 'you don't have to tell me that! Of course I know it's old Harryknown him man and boy, whatever that's supposed to mean. Get him on the telephone and then go away and concoct the right sort of letter to send to this young woman.'
'You wish to interview her, sir?'
'No, no. There's no time for that; if Harry says she's OK she'll do. We go to Inverpolly on the tenth; ask her to come up there whichever way she likes to by the fifteenthexpenses paid, of course. See that she gets a good idea how to reach the place and add a few trim-mingsbenefit to mankind and all that stuff. Oh, and warn her that she must be prepared to look after me as well if I should have an attack.'
He waved a hand at Miss Trim and she understood herself to be dismissed as she murmured suitably, thanked Professor van Duyl for opening the door for her and went back to her own office, where she set about composing a suitable letter to Miss Proudfoot, thinking as she did so that the young lady in question would need to be tough indeed if she accepted the post she was couching in such cautiously attractive terms. Conditions in the Highlands of Wester Ross at this time of year would be hard enough, working for the two men she had just left harder still. Professor Wyllie was a dear old man, but after acting as his secretary for fifteen years, she knew him inside out; he was irascible at times, wildly unpredictable, and his language when he was in a bad temper was quite unprintable. And as for Professor van DuylMiss Trim paused in her typing and her rather sharp features relaxed into a smile. She had met him on several occasions over the last five years or so, and while he had been unfailingly courteous and charming towards her, she sensed that here was a man with a nasty temper, nicely under control, and a very strong will behind that handsome face. As she finished her letter, she found herself hoping that Miss Proudfoot was good at managing men as well as being tough.
The subject of her thoughts, blithely unaware of the future hurtling towards her, was doing a round with Sir Harry Bliss, his registrarone Donald Jones, a clutch of worried housemen, and the social worker, a beaky-nosed lady with a heart of gold, known throughout the hospital as Ducky. And keeping an eye on the whole bunch of them was Staff Nurse Mary Price, an amiable beanpole of a girl, much prized by Sister Proudfoot, and her willing slave as well as friend. She sidled up to her now, bent down and whispered urgently, listened in her turn, nodded and sped away.
'And where is our little Mary Price going?' enquired Sir Harry without lifting his eyes from the notes he was reading. There was a faint murmur of laughter because he prided himself on his sense of humour, but Sister Proudfoot who had heard that one a dozen times before merely handed him the patient's chart as the housemen fanned out into a respectful semi-circle around the foot of the bed. 'It's time for nurses' dinner,' she said in a composed voice.
'Implying that I am too slow on my round, Sister?' He stared down at her over his glasses.
She gave him a serene glance. 'No, sirjust stating a fact.' She smiled at him and he rumbled out a laugh. 'All right, all rightlet's get on with the job, then. Let me see Mr Atkins' chest.'
She bent to the patient, a small, shapely girl with bright golden hair swept into a neat bun from which little curls escaped. Her eyes were unexpectedly hazel, richly fringed, her nose small and straight and her mouth sweetly curved. A very pretty girl, who looked years younger than her age and far too fragile for her job.
She was on her way back from a late dinner when the faithful Staff came hurrying to meet her. 'They've just telephoned from the officeMiss Smythe wants to see you at once, Sister.' She beamed down at Eliza like a good-natured stork. 'I'll start the medicines, shall I, and get old Mr Pearce ready for X-ray.'
Eliza nodded. 'Yes, do. I wonder what I've done,'she mused. 'Do you suppose it's because I complained about the shortage of linen bags? You know we have to be careful nowadays.' She added a little vaguely, 'Unions and things.'
'But you weren't nasty,' Mary reassured her, 'you never are.'
Eliza beamed at her. 'What a great comfort you always are, Mary. We'll have a cup of tea when I get back and I'll tell you all about it.'
She turned round and sped back the way she had come, up and down corridors and a staircase or so, until she came to the Office door, where she stopped for a moment to fetch her breath before tapping on it, and in response to the green light above it, entered.
Miss Smythe, the Principal Nursing Officer, was sitting at her desk. She was a stern-faced woman, but at the moment Eliza was relieved to see that she was looking quite amiable. She waved a hand at a chair, said, 'Good afternoon, Sister Proudfoot,' waited until Eliza had sat down and began: 'I have received a letter about you, and with it a letter for yourselffrom Professor Wyllie.'
Wyllie, thought Eliza, a shade uneasily, the name rang a bell; asthma research and heart complications or something of that sort, and hadn't someone told her once that he himself was a sufferer? She said cautiously:
'Yes, Miss Smythe?'
For answer her superior handed her a letter. 'I suggest that you read this for yourself, Sister, and then let me have your comments.'
Miss Trim had done her work well; the letter, while astonishing Eliza very much, could not help but flatter her. She read it to its end and then looked across at Miss Smythe. 'Well, I never!' she declared.
The lady's features relaxed into the beginnings of a smile. 'I was surprised too, Sister. It is of course a great honour, which will reflect upon St Anne's. I hope that you will consider it well and agree to go.'
'It's a long way away.'
Miss Smythe's voice was smoothly persuasive. 'Yes, but I believe that you have a car? There is no reason why you shouldn't drive yourself up there, and Professor Wyllie assures me that the whole experiment, while most important to him, will take only a few weeks. Sir Harry Bliss thinks that you should avail yourself of the opportunity, it may be of the utmost advantage to you in your career.'
Eliza frowned faintly. She had never wanted a career; somehow or other it had been thrust upon her; she had enjoyed training as a nurse, she had liked staffing afterwards and when she had been offered a Sister's post she had accepted it with pleasure, never imagining that she would still be in it five years later. She wasn't a career girl at all; she had grown up with the idea of marrying and having children of her own, but despite numerous opportunities to do this, she had always hung back at the last minute, aware, somewhere at the back of her mind, that this wasn't the right man. And now here she was, as near as not twenty-nine and Miss Smythe talking as though she was going to be a Ward Sister for ever. She sighed. 'May I have a little time to think about it? I should like to see exactly where this place is and discover precisely what it's all about. Am I to be the only woman there?'
'Yes, so I understand. That is why they wanted a somewhat older girl, and a trained nurse, of course. As a precaution, I believe; Professor Wyllie is a sufferer from asthma as well as having heart failure; his health must be safe-guarded. Over and above that, he seems to think that a woman nurse would be of more benefit to the patients. There will also be a number of technicians, the patients, of courseand a colleague of the professor's. A Dutch Professor of Medicine, highly thought of, I believe.'
Eliza dismissed him at once; he would be learned and bald and use long words in a thick accent, like the elderly brilliant friend of Sir Harry Bliss, who had discussed each patient at such length that she had had to go without her dinner.
'Let me know by this evening, Sister Proudfoot,' advised Miss Smythe, 'sooner if you can manage it it seems that Professor Wyllie wants an answer as soon as possible.'
An observation which almost decided Eliza to refuse out of sheer perversity; she was by nature an obliging girl, but she didn't like being pushed; there were several things she wanted to know about the job, and no chance of finding out about any of them in such a short time. She walked back through the hospital, her head bowed in thought, so that when she narrowly avoided bumping into Sir Harry she was forced to stop and apologise.
'Deep in thought,' pronounced that gentleman, 'about that job my old friend Willy Wyllie has offered you, eh? Oh, I thought sotake it, girl, it will make a nice change from this place, put a bit of colour into those cheeks and a pound or two on to your bones.'
Eliza stared at him thoughtfully. 'Probably,' she agreed amiably. 'You seem to know all about it, sir, but I don't, do I? I mean the bare facts are in the letter, but where do I live while I'm there, and what about time off and how far away is it from the shops and shall I be expected to do night duty?'
'Tell you what,' said Sir Harry, 'we'll go and telephone someone this very minute and find out.'
'But I'm on duty. And you, sir, if I might remind you, are expected in Women's Medical 'She glanced at her watch. 'You were expected ' she corrected herself demurely, 'fifteen minutes ago.'
'In that case, five minutes more won't be noticed.'He swept her along with him to the consultants' room, opened the door and thrust her inside ahead of him. 'Well, really,' began Eliza, and seeing it was hopeless to say anything, watched him pick up the telephone and demand a number.
He talked for some minutes, firing questions at his unseen listener like bullets from a gun, and presently said: 'Hold on, I'll ask her.'
'Two days off a week, but probably you won't get them, three hours off a day, these to be arranged according to the day's requirements.You will have a little cottage to live inby yourself, close to the main house. There will be an opportunity to go to the nearest town and shop if you should wish to, but it's only fair to mention that there isn't much in the way of entertainment.' He barely gave her time to absorb this sparse information before he barked: 'Well, how about it, Eliza?' He grinned at her. 'I recommended you, you can't let me down.'
She gave him a severe look. 'Did you now, sir? Miss Smythe said that I could think it over.'