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The house, one of a row of similar Regency houses in an exclusive area of London, gave no hint from its sober exterior as to the magnificence of its entrance hall, with its imposing ceiling and rich carpet, nor even more to the equally imposing room, the door to which an impassive manservant was holding open. Isobel Barrington walked past him and, obedient to his request that she should take a seat, took one, waiting until he had closed the door soundlessly behind him before getting up again and beginning a slow prowl round the room. It was a very elegant room, with watered silk panelled walls, a marble fireplace and some intimidating armchairs of the French school, covered in tapestry. The rest of the furniture was Chippendale with nothing cosy about it, although she had to admit that it was charming. Not her kind of room, she decided with her usual good sense; it would do very well for people as elegant as itself; the kind who thought of Fortnum and Mason as their local grocer and understood every word of an Italian opera when they went to one. She began to circle the room, looking at the profusion of portraits on its walls; gentlemen with unyielding faces in wigs and a variety of uniforms, all sharing the same handsome features; ladies, surprisingly enough, with scarcely a pretty face between them, although they were all sweet as to expression. Isobel, studying a young woman in an elaborate edwardian dress, concluded that the men of the family had good looks enough and could afford to marry plain wives. 'Probably they were heiresses,' she told herself, and sat down again. She might not match the room for elegance, but she shared a lack of good looks with the various ladies hanging on its walls. She was on the small side, with a neat figure and nice legs and a face which missed prettiness by reason of too wide a mouth and too thin a nose, although her skin was as clear as a child's and her blue eyes held a delightful twinkle upon occasion. She was dressed in a plain blue dress and looked as fresh and neat as anyone could wish. She put her purse on the small table beside her and relaxed against the chair's high back. When the door opened she sat up and then got to her feet with a calm air of assurance.
'Miss Barrington?' The man who spoke could have been any one of the gentlemen hanging on the walls; he had exactly the same good looks and forbidding expression, although his greying hair was cropped short and his clothes, exquisitely tailored, were very much in the modern fashion.
Isobel met his dark, impersonal stare with a steady look. 'Yes,' she said. 'And you are Dr Winter?'
He crossed the room and stopped before her, a very tall, largely built man in his thirties. He didn't answer her but observed coldly: 'The Agency assured me that they were sending a sensible, experienced nurse with a placid disposition.'
She eyed him with a gentle tolerance which made him frown. She said kindly: 'I'm a sensible woman and I have eight years' experience of nursing and I am of a placid disposition, if by that you mean that I don't take exception to rudeness or get uptight if things go a little wrong ' She added: 'May I sit down?'
The frown became thunderous. 'I beg your pardon, Nurse, please do take a chair ' He didn't sit himself, but began to wander about the room. Presently he said: 'You're not at all the kind of nurse I intended to take with me. Have you travelled?'
'No, but I've nursed in a variety of situations, some of them rather out of the ordinary way of things.'
'You're too young.' He stopped marching around the room and looked at her.
'I'm twenty-fivea sensible age, I should have thought.'
'Women at any age are not always sensible,' he observed bitterly.
Isobel studied him carefully. An ill-tempered man, she judged, but probably just and fair-minded with it, in all probability he was a kind husband and father. She said calmly: 'Then it really doesn't matter what age I am, does it?'
He smiled, and his face was transformed so that she could see that he could be quite charming if he wished. 'All the same' he began and then stopped as the door opened and the manservant came in, murmured quietly and went away again.
'You must excuse me for a moment, Misser Barrington. I shan't be more than a few minutes.'
She was left to contemplate the portraits of his ancestors on the walls, although she didn't pay much attention to them; she had too much to think about. It was a severe blow if he didn't give her the job she needed it badly enough. When she had left hospital to take up agency nursing, she hadn't had her heart in it: she had loved her work as Male Surgical Ward Sister and her bedsitting room in the nurses' home and going home for her weekends off. However, when her only, younger brother Bobby had been given the chance of going to a public school and her mother had confided to her that there wasn't enough money to send him, she had given up her post, put her name down at a nursing agency and by dint of working without breaks between cases had earned enough to get Bobby started.
She didn't really enjoy it. It was a lonely life and she had far less free time; on the other hand, she could earn almost twice as much money and she had no need to pay for her food and room. And she wouldn't have to do it for ever. Bobby was a bright boy, he was almost certain to get a place in one of the universities in four or five years' time and then she would go back to hospital life once more. She should have liked to marry, of course, but she had no illusions about her looks, and although she could sew and cook and keep house she had never got to know a man well enough for him to appreciate these qualities. It was a regret that she kept well hidden, and it had helped to have a sense of humour and a placid nature as well as a strong determination to make the best of things.
She braced herself now for Dr Winter's refusal of her services, and when he came back into the room looking like a thundercloud, she gave an inward resigned sigh and turned a calm face to him.
'That was the nursing agency,' he said shortly. 'They wanted to know if I was satisfied with you for the job I had in mind, and when I said I'd expected someone older and more experienced they regretted that there was positively no one else on their books.' He cast her an exasperated look. 'I intend to leave England in two days' time, and there's no opportunity of finding someone else in forty-eight hours.I shall have to take you.'
'You won't regret it,' she assured him briskly. 'Perhaps you would tell me exactly what kind of case I'm to nurse.'
'An old lady crippled with arthritis. My old nurse, in fact.'
The idea of this self-assured giant of a man having a nanny, even being a small boy, struck Isobel as being faintly ludicrous, but the look that he bent upon her precluded even the faintest of smiles. He sat down at last in one of the Chippendale chairs, which creaked under his weight. 'She married a Pole and has lived in Gdansk since then. Her husband died last year and I've been trying since then to get a permit for her to return to England. I've now succeeded and intend to bring her back with me. You will understand that I shall require a nurse to accompany me; she's unable to do much for herself.'
'And when do we get back to England?' Isobel asked.
'I shall want your services only until such time as a suitable companion for her can be found.' He crossed one long leg over the other and the chair creaked again. 'We fly to Stockholm where we stay the night at a friend's flat and take the boat the following day to Gdansk, we shall probably be a couple of days there and return to Stockholm and from there fly back to England. A week should suffice.'
'Why are we not to fly straight to Gdansk? And straight back here again?'
'Mrs Olbinski is a sick woman; it's absolutely necessary that she should travel as easily as possible; we shall return by boat to Stockholm and spend at least a day there so that she can rest before we fly back here. And we spend a day in Stockholm so that the final arrangements for her can be made.'
He got up and wandered to the window and stood staring out. 'You have a passport?'
'No, but I can get one at the Post office.'
He nodded. 'Well, this seems the best arrangement in the circumstances; not exactly as I would have wished, but I have no alternative, it seems.'
'You put it very clearly, Dr Winter,' said Isobel. Her pleasant voice was a little tart. 'Do you want to make the arrangements for the journey now, or notify the agency?'
'I'll contact the agency tomorrow.' He glanced at the watch on his wrist. 'I have an appointment shortly and can spare no more time. You will get your instructions, MisserBarrington.'
She got to her feet. 'Very well, Dr Winterand the name is Barrington, there's no er in front of it.' She gave him a vague smile and met his cold stare and walked to the door. 'You would like me to wear uniform, I expect?' And when he didn't answer, she said in patient explanation: 'It might help if you had any kind of difficulties with the authorities.'
'You're more astute than I'd thought, Miss Barrington.' He smiled thinly. 'That's exactly what I would wish you to do.'
He reached the door slightly ahead of her and opened it. 'Perhaps you would confine your luggage to one case? I'll fill in details during the flight.'
The manservant was hovering in the splendid hall. 'Oh, good,' said Isobel cheerfully. 'One wants to know something about a case before taking it on. Goodbye, Dr Winter.' She smiled kindly at him and made an exit as neat and unremarkable as herself.
She took a bus, a slow-moving journey of half an hour or more, back to her homea small terraced house on the better side of Clapham Common. It looked exactly like the houses on either side of it, but in the narrow hall there was a difference. In place of the usual hallstand and telephone table there was a delicate wall table with rather a nice gilded mirror above it, and the small sitting room into which she hurried was furnished with what their neighbours referred to disparagingly as old bits and pieces, but which were, in fact, the remnants of furniture saved from the sale of her old home some ten years earlier. She never went into the little house without nostalgia for the comfortable village house she had been born and brought up in, but she never mentioned this; her mother, she felt sure, felt even worse about it than she did.
Her mother was sitting at the table, sewing, a small woman with brown hair a good deal darker than her daughter's, the same blue eyes and a pretty face. She looked up as Isobel went in and asked: 'Well, darling, did you get the job?'
Isobel took off her shoes and curled up in a chair opposite her mother. 'Yes, but it's only for a week or two, though. Dr Winter isn't too keen on me, but there wasn't anyone else. I'm to go to Poland with him to fetch back his old nanny.'
Her mother looked faintly alarmed. 'Poland? But isn't that ' she paused, 'well, eastern Europe?'
'He's got a permit for her to come to England to live. Her husband died last year and she's crippled with arthritis, that's why I'm to go with him; she'll need help with dressing and so on, I expect.'
'And this Dr Winter?'
'Very large and tall, unfriendlyto me at any rate, but then he expected someone older and impressive, I think. He's got a lovely house. I'm to be told all the details at the agency tomorrow and be ready to travel in two daysin uniform.'
Her mother got up. 'I'll get the tea. Is he elderly?'
Isobel thought. 'Well, no; he's a bit grey at the sides, but he's not bald or anything like that. I suppose he's getting on for forty.'
'Married?' asked her mother carelessly as she went to the door.
'I haven't an idea, but I should think soI mean, I shouldn't think he would want to live in a great house like that on his own, would you?'