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The rain pouring down from a grey, sodden sky had turned the gold and red of the October afternoon into a landscape of gloom, with rivulets of water trickling on to the road from the high banks on either side of it and a never ending shower of leaves drifting down from the trees clustered behind them. But the girl squelching along the lane didn't in the least mind the weather; to be in the country, away from chimney pots and little mean streets of small dismal houses and the never ending noise, was contentment. She was going at a good pace, well wrapped against the weather, tendrils of bright chestnut hair hanging bedraggled around her pretty face, wet from the rain. She was a tall girl and well built and even the wringing mackintosh she wore couldn't disguise her splendid figure.
There was a dog with her; a black Labrador, his sleek coat soaked, plodding along beside her with evident enjoyment, tongue lolling, his eyes turned to her face every moment or so, listening to her quiet voice. 'So you see, Cuthbert, you'll not have me to take you for walksyou'll have to make do with Mike or Natalie when they're home. Of course, I'll come home whenever I can but Yorkshire is a long way.' She came to a halt and stared down at the devoted creature. 'I ought to be feeling very happy, but I'm not. Do you suppose it's wedding nerves? I've got the awful feeling that I don't want to get married at all. Oh, Cuthbert..' She bent right down and twiddled his wet ears, and he licked her hand gently.
Very few cars came along the lane and what with the noise of the rain and the wind in the trees, she hadn't heard the car coming up the hill behind them; a Bentley, sliding to a dignified halt within a few feet of them. She stood up then, hushed Cuthbert's indignant bark, and went to poke her head through the window by the driver.
'You should have sounded your horn,' she told the man at the wheel severely. 'You could have run us down.'
She found herself looking into two of the coldest blue eyes she had ever seen. His voice was just as cold. 'Young lady, I am not in the habit of running anyone or anything down. Is this a private road?'
'Lord no. It leads to Ridge Giffard from East Giffard and after that there's Tisbury.'
'I am aware of my surroundings. I was wondering why you had the effrontery to criticise my driving on a public road.'
Gently the girl's softly curving mouth rounded into an indignant O and her large grey eyes narrowed. A rat trap of a mouth in a rugged, handsome face; pepper and salt hair, cut short, and a commanding nose; she surveyed them without haste. At length she said kindly, in the tone of voice one might use to humour an ill tempered child, 'You're touchy, aren't you? And a stranger to these parts?' She straightened up. 'Well, don't let me keep you. You say you're aware of your surroundings, so I won't need to tell you that they'll be moving the cows across at Pake's Farm a mile along on the next bend.' She added, 'A pedigree herd, too.'
The man in the car gave a low rumble of laughter although he didn't look amused. 'No, you don't need to tell me, young lady, but I can see that it gives you a good deal of satisfaction to do so.' He asked to surprise her, 'Are you married?'
And when she shook her head, 'Something for a man to be thankful for.'
She wasn't in the least put out. 'That could be a compliment,' she told him sweetly. 'Mind how you go.'
The cold eyes swept over her before he drove away. It was like a bucket of cold water.
'Anyone else would have offered us a lift,' she told Cuthbert. 'Not that we would have accepted.'
She started walking again, the afternoon would soon turn into an early evening and they had another mile or so to go.
The pair of them negotiated a gate presently and took to the fields, going at a right angle to the road, to cross a stile at the end of the second field and come into a narrow lane running between trees. It went quite steeply down hill in a series of bends, passing a cottage or two on the way until the village appeared; a cluster of cottages, a shop or two and half a dozen larger houses, with ancient tiled roofs and eighteenth century fronts. The girl went past them all, waving once or twice to the few people in the street, and turned in through an open gateway at the end of the village. The drive was short, leading to an outbuilding used as a garage and then turning to broaden out before the low, sprawling house. It was built of red brick like most of the houses in the village but it had a thatched roof and mullioned windows and a very solid front door, ignored by the girl who turned down the side of the house, went through a tumbledown stone archway and opened a door leading from the garden.
The room she went into was small with a stone flagged floor, probably in earlier days a garden room, but now a repository for a collection of shabby coats and mackintoshes, shapeless caps and hats and an untidy row of footwear of all kinds. She took a towel from a peg on the wall, rubbed
Cuthbert dry and then took off her own mac and opened another door leading this time to a short passage which in its turn ended in the kitchen. A large, low ceilinged room with an old-fashioned scrubbed table in its centre, windsor chairs at either end of it, and a wooden dresser taking up most of one wall. There was an Aga Stove and a rag rug spread before it on the brick floor, occupied by a tabby cat who hardly moved as Cuthbert flung himself down with a contented sigh. There were a number of doors leading from the room, one of which was partly open.
'Josephine?' asked a muffled voice from behind it, 'is that you, dear? Where did I put the blackcurrant jamI thought it was on the top shelf..'
The pantry door was pushed open and Mrs Dowling came into the kitchen. They were very alike, mother and daughter, the one still showing signs of the beauty of the other, both with grey eyes and gentle mouths, although Mrs Dowling's hair was heavily streaked with silver.
'Nice walk?' she asked, forgetting the jam.
'Lovely. I can't think why I work in London, Mother, when I could spend my days here '
'Well, you won't be there much longer, darling. In another month or two you'll be married to Malcolm and I daresay the Yorkshire Moors are just as beautiful as our bit of the country.'
Josephine cut a slice off the loaf on the table and began to eat it. She said thoughtfully, 'Well, yes, they're beautiful, but they're a long way away.'
'You'll have Malcolm's mother and father,' her mother pointed out.
'So I shall,' Josephine agreed slowly. She had fought a long hard battle with herself over her future mother-in-law; they didn't like each other and never would. Josephine, voicing her doubts to Malcolm, had come up against an easy-going amusement which refused to recognise her difficulties. They would settle down nicely, he had assured her, half laughing, it was because they didn't know each other very well, all that would be changed when they saw each other daily. A prospect which made Josephine shudder; Malcolm was going into his father's practice and was perfectly content to live within a stone's throw of his parents' house; it was one of the things which worried her, especially if she were to wake in the night and think about it, although in the morning her worries seemed rather silly.
She said, 'The jamit's on the bottom shelf, right at the back. I'll get it.' She emerged presently from the cupboard and put the pot on the table. 'I met a man while I was out. In a BentleyI've never seen him beforeis there someone staying up at the Manor?'
Mrs Dowling was cutting bread and butter. 'Not that I know of, but the Vicar's wife mentioned someone saying they were staying over at Branton House. She didn't know anything about him, though she'd heard that he was a foreigner.'
'Never an Arab going to buy the place?'
'Heaven forbidthe Forsyths have been there for hundreds of years. I daresay your father will know.'
But presently, sitting round the fire in the comfortable, shabby drawing room, she forgot about him. Her father, the local GP, had been at Salisbury Hospital, visiting a patient and an old friend after lunching with colleagues, and the talk was of them and their doings. Presently he got up to take evening surgery. Josephine cleared away the tea things and washed the delicate old china and rubbed up the silver spoons which her mother had always used each day, and then started to prepare the supper. Tomorrow evening, she thought with a sigh, she would be back in London, sitting in her office writing the report; it would be a busy daytheatre daythe gyny ward was always full but the turnover was brisk and for the most part the patients were very cheerful. She loved her work and she was going to miss it when she married Malcolm. It was only recently that she had had niggling doubts; things that hadn't seemed to matter too much now mattered a great deal; Yorkshire was a far cry from Ridge Giffard and she was essentially a home loving girl. She had always been content, living in the old house, coming home from boarding school and then leaving it to train as a nurse, but even then she had come home on her free days, and now, a Ward Sister and the possessor of a second-hand Mini, she found it easy enough to drive to and fro when she had her free weekends. She would miss Mike and Natalie, she didn't see much of them these days for they were both away from home for a good part of the year, Natalie at school taking her O levels and Mike in his first year at medical school. And the house she and Malcolm were to haveit was small and modern and had what she considered to be a pokey little garden. It worried her that she minded that so much. Surely, if she loved Malcolm, it shouldn't matter?
She fed Cuthbert his supper and Mrs Whisker, the tabby, and fetched the lamb cutlets from the fridge. She liked cooking. Now she set to work cooking cucumber gently in a big pan, egg and breadcrumbing the cutlets and adding them to the cucumber and while they were simmering gently, she put on the potatoes and peeped at the celery braising in the oven. Her father would be hungry; the waiting room had been full and the phone had been ringing often enough; by the time he had done his evening rounds it would be eight o'clock or half past. Apple crumble and cream would make a nice afters; she set to work happily.
Putting her pie in the oven presently, she wondered idly about the man in the Bentley; he would be hundreds of miles away by now and would have forgotten her entirely. It surprised her that she felt vague regret about this.
He wasn't hundreds of miles away; he was a bare half dozen, having a drink before dinner with his host and hostess at Branton House, exchanging polite conversation about the weather. During a comfortable pausefor they were old friends and didn't need to keep up an unceasing chathe remarked idly, 'I met a girl as I was coming here. A strapping creature with a lovely face and enormous grey eyes. She had a Labrador with her and they both appeared to be enjoying the weather. She gave me a sound telling off for not sounding my horn. I might add that she and the dog were standing in the centre of the road and seemed to consider it to be theirs.'
His hostess laughed. 'Josephine Dowlingshe's a darling, the eldest of our doctor's three children. She's a Ward Sister at St Michael'sI daresay you'll meet her.'
The man's eyes were half closed. 'I look forward to that. But perhaps she won't recognise me.'
'Don't be silly, Julius.' His hostess smiled widely. He was a tall man powerfully built and dressed with a quiet elegance; moreover, he had a face which a woman wouldn't forget easily. She had no doubt that when Josephine saw him she would know him at once. A pity she was to be marriedshe might have taken Julius's mind off his recently broken engagement.