Read an Excerpt
Cressida Bingley stood at the corner of narrow, dingy street in the heart of Amsterdam and knew that she was losttemporarily at least. She peered at the map she was holding without much success; the October afternoon was darkening, so that to study it was fruitless. She tried to remember in which direction she had walked from the Dam Square, but the city was built like a spider's web with canals for its threads, and she had wandered aimlessly, looking around her without noting her whereabouts. She bent her head and peered down once more, but the long, foreign names, only half seen in the gathering dusk, eluded her; she was frowning over them when someone spoke behind her and she almost dropped the map. Presumably she had been addressed in Dutch, for she hadn't understood a word. She sighed, for this was the third time that afternoon that a man had stopped and spoken to her; she had been polite with the first one, a little impatient with the second, but now she was vexed. She turned sharply and said in a cold voice, 'I can't understand you, so do go way!'
Her voice died as she saw him; he towered over her own five feet eight inches by at least another eight inches. But it wasn't only his height, he was large, too, blocking her way, and even in the poor light she could see that he was handsome, with a nose which dominated his face, its flared nostrils giving it an air of arrogance. She couldn't see the colour of his eyes, but the brows above them were winged and as pale as his hair. He wasn't quite smiling, his mouth had a mocking quirk, that was all.
'English,' he observed, 'and telling me to go away when you're lost.' His deep voice mocked her, just as his smile did, and it annoyed her.
'I am not lost,'she protested untruthfully. 'I stopped to look at the map there is no need for you '
A large, gloved hand took the map from her grasp and turned it right side up. 'Try it that way,' he suggested, 'and unless you are quite sure where you are, even in the dark, I suggest you put your pride in your pocket and let me show you the wayit will be night in another ten minutes, and,' he added blandly, 'this isn't a part ofAmsterdam which tourists frequentcertainly not young women such as yourself, at any rate.'
She could hear the amusement behind the blandness and her annoyance sharpened even while she had to admit that she was lost. The street was empty too, and even if someone came along they might not understand her; she would be at a disadvantage. She said stiffly: 'If you would direct me to the Rembrandt PleinI can find my way from there.'
He looked down at her, smiling quite openly now. 'Very well. Go to the end of this street on your left, turn right and take the second turning on the rightthere's a narrow lane half way down which will bring you out into a small square which has five streets leading from ittake the one with the tobacconist's shop on the corner; you'll find the Rembrandt Plein at the end of it.'
Cressida shot him a cold look. 'I think I'll do better if I find my own way, thank you, though I'm sure you mean to be kind '
He shook his head. 'I'm seldom that,'he assured her placidly, 'but I intend to take you as far as the Rembrandt Pleinit isn't far and I know all the short cuts.' He added silkily: 'You can always scream.'
The thought had crossed her mind too, so that she said very emphatically: 'I have no intention of doing any such thing; I'm very well able to look after myself.'
He smiled again and began to walk briskly down the street he had pointed out to her, and after a moment or so, made a few desultory remarks about Amsterdam and the weather, adding the kind of questions usually asked of tourists: had she seen the Dam Palace, Rembrandt's House, the Rijksmuseum She answered briefly, intent on keeping pace with his long stride, managing to steal a glance or two at him as they went. He was older than she had first supposed, well into his thirties, she would imagine, and dressed with a quiet elegance which, for some reason, reassured her. If they hadn't started off on the wrong foot, she thought belatedly, she could have asked him where he livedwhat he did 'Am I taking you out of your way?' she asked suddenly.
She got an uncompromising 'Yes,' and he added, 'but it's of no importance,' and at that moment they turned a corner and she saw the Rembrandt Plein not many yards away. 'I'm sorry,' she said stiffly. 'I must have taken up your timeI know where I am now.' She came to a halt. 'Good night, and thank you.'
'Don't be silly,' he spoke with amused impatience. 'Where is your hotel?'
Rather to her own surprise, she told him quite meekly, and fell into step beside him again while he crossed the square, its cafÃ©s and clubs still half empty before the evening crowds arrived, and took another narrow street on its opposite side.
'This isn't the way,'said Cressida, and stopped again.
'A short cut. My dear good girl, when will you realise that I am merely seeing you to your hotel as quickly as possible, and am not bent on getting to know youpicking you up is the expression, I believe.'
If she had known where to go, she would have left him then and there, but she didn't. She walked beside him, too furious to speak, until the street turned at right angles and opened into the broad street running beside a canal where her hotel was. At its door she wished him a chilly good night, offered even chillier thanks, and whisked herself in through its narrow door. The chilliness was wasted on him, though, for he laughed softly and didn't say a word. He was detestable, she told herself, as she ran up the precipitous stairs to the top floor.
The hotel was small and narrow, supported on either side by equally small and narrow houses hotels tooa dozen of them in a neat row, with immaculate curtains at their shining windows and semi-basement dining rooms where their guests breakfasted, and where they could, if they wished, have a snack in the evening. Cressida reached the top floor and went down the passage with its rows of doors. Her room was at the end, small, spotlessly clean and pleasantly warm. It was almost six o'clock. In half an hour she would go all the way downstairs again and have coffee and a broodje and then come back and pack her bag, but now she sat on the bed, still in her coat, suddenly doubtful about everything. If someone had told her two weeks ago that she would be staying in an Amsterdam hotel, en route for a job in Friesland, she would have laughed at the very idea, yet here she wasand looking back, she wondered at the quirk of fate which had hurried her along towards it, making everything so easy and giving her no time to think until she was here she took off her coat and started to unpin her hair and then sat brushing it, while she brooded about her future.
Her hair was fine and silky and very dark, hanging down to her waist. Her brows were dark too, thick and well shaped above large brown eyes, generously lashed. Her nose was small and straight and her mouth curved delightfullya beautiful face, and she had a figure to match it. But although she was staring at her reflection in the small wall mirror, she didn't really see it. 'I must be mad,' she said out loud, and quite forgetful of her hair, put down the brush and did nothing at all while she looked back over the last week or so. Not too far back; she still couldn't think of her father's death and then her mother's so soon after without a deep grief which threatened to engulf her. Her father had been ill for only a few days; visiting a parishioner with 'flu, he had fallen a victim to it himself, and while the parishioner recovered, her father had died, and then, within a week, her mother, leaving her alone and desolate but with little time for grief, for the rectory had to be vacated, the furniture sold and a few modest debts paid, and when that was done, there was very little money over.
It had been a wrench to leave the village in Dorset where she had spent her childhood and all her holidays since she had taken up nursing; she had gathered together a few of her parents'most loved bits and pieces, packed her clothes, and gone to stay with her mother's elder sister, a small, bustling woman who lived alone in a minuscule thatched cottage on the edge of a village in the same county. It was while she was there that she decided to give up her job at the big London hospital where she was Sister of a medical ward, and until she could make up her mind about her future, take private cases. And Aunt Emily had agreed; change, she had observed wisely, was absolutely essential when one had been dealt such a severe blowand time, time to think about the future and come to terms with it. She thought privately that Cressida would certainly marry later on, once the icy grief which held her fast had thawed a little and she could laugh again and enjoy meeting people. But that was something she couldn't tell her niece; all she could do was to tell her to regard the overcrowded little cottage as her home and know that she was welcome there.
A couple of weeks' peace and quiet had helped Cressida a great deal. Armed with excellent references and a resolve to make a new life for herself, she went up to London and presented herself at an agency highly recommended by her hospital. The temptation to take the first job offered to her was great, but she still had a little money, enough to stay in a rather seedy hotel for a week, until a case turned up which would appeal to her, so she rejected the first few offered to her; a child film star with tonsillitis, a young drug addict, a wealthy widow who really wanted a slave, not a nurse.After the third day she wondered if she was being unduly fussy; some of the girls she met there came in, accepted a case, and were away again in five minutes. But there was another girl who was choosy tooMolly, a small, fair creature with a sweet, rather weak face, who confided to Cressida that she was waiting for a job as far away as possible because she had quarrelled with her fiancÃ© and never wanted to see him again. It was towards the end of the week when she told Cressida that she had got a job, and not through the agency. 'My uncle got it for me; at least, this doctor asked him to find a nurse who could type, and I can. You see, he's writing a book and he needs an English girla nurse who'll understand the medical termsso that she can help him with the English and type it tooand he lives in Holland, so I can get away from Jim.'
She skipped away in great good spirits, leaving Cressida to make the difficult choice between a case of delirium tremens and an elderly lady who wanted someone to see her through the brief trials of having all her teeth out. Cressida decided against them both, was treated to a brief homily by the agency clerk on being too fussy, and left in her turn, to walk in St James's Park and wish that the months could roll back and she could be on her way home for her holidays. She walked on steadily; she wasn't going to cry, she told herself firmly, not in the middle of a public park, at any rate. She had sat down on a bench and made a great business of feeding the birds with the sandwiches she had brought with her for lunch and didn't want.
She hadn't seen Molly on the following morning and hadn't expected to; probably she was on her way to Holland already. Waiting her turn, she promised herself that she would take the first case she was offered, but when she got into the office the clerk said briskly: 'Sorry, there's nothing todayif you'd been here half an hour earlier I could have fixed you up Better luck tomorrow.'
She smiled her bright, meaningless smile and Cressida smiled back, not sure if she was relieved or not. She was standing in the agency entrance, trying to make up her mind what to do with her empty day, when Molly came dashing towards her.
'I hoped I'd find you,' she cried breathlessly. 'I've a whole lot to tell you and it'll take a minute or two. There's a cafÃ© down the street, come and have some coffee.'
'You've made it up with your Jim,'declared Cressida. Molly caught her by the arm. 'Yes, I have, isn't it super? But that isn't all.'
She had dragged Cressida down the street towards the cafÃ©. 'That jobthe one I said I'd take in Hollandwell, I can't go now, can I? I mean, Jim wants us to get married straight awayso I thought of you 'She had paused maddeningly as they entered the cafÃ©, found a table and ordered coffee. 'You can type, you told me soand the job is about the alimentary system and its disorders, and you've had a medical ward don't you see? It's just made for you.'
'But I can't,' said Cressida. 'I don't know this doctor and he doesn't know me.'
Molly opened her handbag and dragged out a small pile of letters. 'Here are all the letters so's you can see that it really is a joband my uncle says if you could go and see himhe lives in Hampstead, he's got a practice therethis afternoon after surgery ' She had sugared her coffee and continued: 'Oh, you must! You wanted something interesting and different, didn't you? Uncle says it would take about six or seven weeks, and the pay's good. At least go and see my uncle.'