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There were two people in the room, facing each other across the breakfast-tablea small, elderly lady with iron-grey hair and very blue eyes in a pleasantly wrinkled face, and opposite her a girl with a charming face framed by curling russet hair and large hazel eyes, fringed by long, curling lashes.
"It's a splendid opportunity," observed the elderly lady in a coaxing voice, "and you would be doing a kindnessafter all, Mrs Wesley is your godmother."
Her companion frowned, her dark brows drawn together quite fiercely. She said in a no-nonsense way, "Aunt Maud, I've only just left one job, and that was because I wanted a changeI've set my heart on that Ward Sister's post in Scotland," she added as an afterthought. "Besides, there's Walter "
"Has he proposed again?" asked her aunt with interest.
"You've accepted him?"
The girl smiled at the eagerness in her companion's voice. "It's a funny thing, Aunt Maud, but I can't Perhaps it's because we've known each other for a long time and the gilt's worn off the gingerbread, or perhaps it's because Walter thinks I'm extravagant."
"Well, you are, dear," her aunt spoke mildly.
"I like clothes," said her niece simply. "Besides, it's difficult to find things to fit me. Everyone except me is size eight or ten."
She stood up, and indeed she was nowhere near either of those sizes. She was a big girl, tall and splendidly built, her long legs clothed in elderly slacks topped by an outsize jersey.
Her aunt studied her thoughtfully. "You won't marry Walter?" She sighed. "Prudence, he would make a good husband."
The girl frowned again. "I don't want a good husband, I want to be swept off my feet, plied with champagne and roses and jewelsI'd quite like to be serenaded, too." She glanced down at her magnificent person. "But you can see for yourself, dear Aunt, that it would need a giant of a man with muscles of iron to get me off the ground. Shall I tell Ellen to come in and clear the table? I'm going for that job, I shall apply for it and post the letter this morning."
Her aunt got up, too. "Very well, dear. At your age I would have been delighted at the chance to travel abroad and see something of the world, but I dare say you know your own mind best. Your godmother will be disappointed."
Her niece crossed the room and gave her a hug. "Dearest Aunt, I have travelled a bit, you know, when Father and Mother were alive" She paused a moment, and then went on steadily, "They always took me with them. True, I've not been to Holland, but I don't suppose it's much different from England. Mrs Wesley will be able to find someone only too eager to go with her."
Her aunt agreed meekly. It was barely half an hour later, as she sat in the sitting-room making out a shopping list, that Ellen announced a visitor.
Miss Rendell put down her pen and got up with every sign of pleasure. "My dear Beatrix, how providential! I've been sitting here wondering if I should telephone you. Dear Prudence is even now applying for a post in Scotland, but perhaps you might dissuade her? She has no real reason for refusing to go with you to Holland, you knowindeed, she's very fond of you, and a complete change might check her restlessness." She added vaguely, "She wants to be swept off her feet."
"And I know the very man to do it," declared Mrs Wesley. She sat down. "Let me have a try."
Prudence, nibbling her pen and frowning over her application form, listened to Ellen's request that she should join her aunt downstairs with some impatience. The Vicar, she supposed, wanting someone to take a stall at the church bazaar, or old Mrs Vine from the Manor bent on getting Prudence to fill a gap at her dinner-table. Prudence, who had made her home with her aunt in the small Somerset village ever since her parents had died in a car crash, knew everyone who lived there, just as they knew her, and when she went to London to train as a nurse she still returned whenever she had leave. She loved the place and liked the people living there, from crusty old Colonel Quist living in solitary state in one wing of the vast house at the end of the village to Mrs Legg, who owned the village stores and ran the Post Office besides. She loved her aunt, too, and the nice old house which had become her home, but she loved her
work as well; she had spent the last six years in London, first training as a nurse and then taking over a surgical ward at the hospital where she had trained. It was on her twenty-fifth birthday, a month or so previously, that she had decided she needed a move right away from London before she got into a rut from which so many of her older colleagues either could not or would not escape. Scotland would do nicely; she would be really on her own there and it would be a challenge, finding her feet in a strange hospital and making new friends. She let her thoughts wander as she went downstairs. Perhaps she would meet the man of her dreamsa vague image, but she was sure she would know him if they met.
She hadn't expected to see her delightful godmother sitting with her aunt. She crossed the room and kissed the proffered cheek. Mrs Wesley was a formidable lady, not very tall but possessed of a well-corseted stoutness, a handsome face and a slightly overbearing manner. Prudence was very fond of her and said warmly, "How nice to see you, Aunt Beatrix. I thought you were in London."
"I'm staying there, my dear, but I've been the guest of Mrs Vine for a day or so, and I thought I'd call and see you both before I go back."
"Ohyou mean to Holland? But you aren't going to return there to live, are you?"
"Certainly not, but my sister is illdid your aunt not tell you? She has had a heart attack and needs great care, so I shall go to her and do what I can. I had hoped " Mrs Wesley paused and heaved a shuddering sigh. "But I expect we shall manage. In a few weeks I dare say she'll be stronger. It's a pity I've been told by my own doctor that I must take things quietly for a few months, but at such a time one doesn't think of oneself."
"Why, Aunt Beatrix, what's wrong?" Prudence felt quite shaken; she couldn't remember her godmother being anything but in the best of health.
"Diabetes, of all silly things, my dear. I spent a few days at a nursing home while they decided what I couldn't eat and explained that tiresome insulin to me. I'm not yet stabilised, they tell me, but when that's corrected I need only take tablets."
"You're having injections?"
"At the moment, yes. So tiresome, as I have to arrange for someone to come and give them to methe district nurse here has been most kind " She gave Prudence a quick look. "That was why I'd suggested that you might like to accompany me to Holland, but of course, you young people must lead your own lives."
Prudence shifted uneasily in her chair. She was being got at, and since she was a kind-hearted girl she could see nothing for it but to accept her godmother's invitation; the idea of Aunt Beatrix wandering around suffering from a condition she didn't fully understand, even in her own native country, wasn't to be entertained for one moment. She mentally tore up the letter she had just written to the hospital in Scotland, reflecting ruefully that here was one young person who was being thwarted from doing as she wished.
"When do you go?" she asked, and saw the pleased smiles on her companions' faces. "I had intended to apply for a job in Edinburgh, but I'll see if they might have a vacancy at a later date."
"Dear child!" Aunt Maud addressed her magnificently proportioned niece with no awareness of inappropriateness. "Your dear godmother will be safe with you, and I dare say this hospital will be only too glad to offer you a job later on."
Prudence smiled at her kindly; Aunt Maud, having lived her life in sheltered security, had no idea of the harsh world outside it and there was no point in disillusioning her. No hospital was going to wait while an applicant for a job waltzed off to Europe before taking up her job.
"How long do you intend to stay in Holland?" she asked.
"Oh, wella month, no longer, by that time my sister should be well again, should she not?" Mrs Wesley added, "She's in hospital, but if all is well she should be going home very shortly. I thought I might go next week."
Prudence remembered without much regret that Walter had invited her to an exhibition of paintings on either Tuesday or Wednesday of the following week. He had told her rather importantly that it depended on whether he could get away from his desk; he was a junior executive in a firm of stockbrokers and took his work seriously; he also fancied himself as something of an expert on modern art. Prudence, who liked paintings to look like something she could recognise, had done her best to go along with his views, without much success.
"We shall fly," observed her godmother, "and naturally we shall be met at Schiphol and driven to Dornwier. Whether we shall remain there or accompany my sister on a holiday in order that she may recuperate from her illness, I don't as yet know."
"You're sure your own doctor has no objections to you travelling, Aunt Beatrix?"
"Oh, yes, he quite saw my point of view." Which was Aunt Beatrix's way of saying she had browbeaten the poor man into agreeing with her.
"Do you want me to meet you in London," asked Prudence, "or at the airport?"
"Perhaps you would come to my flat the day before we leave? Then we can travel to Heathrow together. Shall we say Tuesday of next weekprovided I can get a flight then. I dare say you may have one or two things to see to before you leave."
Clothes, thought Prudence and then, as a guilty afterthought, Walter. He would be annoyed: he didn't believe in young women being too independent. A woman's place, he had told Prudence on many occasions, was in the home.
Which was all very well, she had pointed out, but whereabouts in the home? Lying at ease on a chaise longue in the drawing-room, covered in jewels and pure silk, would be nice Walter had no sense of humour; he had told her, in his measured tones, not to be foolish. It struck her suddenly that she didn't love him, never had, and that this invitation from her godmother presented her with an opportunity to make Walter understand that once and for all she really did not want to marry him. They had known each other for years now, and she wasn't sure when they had drifted into the idea of marriage. Certainly he had shown no overwhelming desire to make her his wife; on the other hand, she had been expected to tag along with him whenever she was at home, and in the village at least they were considered to be engaged.
She said now, "If you'll let me know when you want me to come, Aunt Beatrix, I'll be there. There's nothing of importance to keep me here."
She thought guiltily that Walter would be very annoyed to be designated as nothing of importance.
Ellen came in with coffee and the next half-hour was pleasantly taken up by Aunt Beatrix's plans; she had obviously got everything organised to suit herself, and Prudence wondered just how she would have reacted if she hadn't got her way. Aunt Maud was looking pleased with herself, too; Prudence looked at her two elderly companions with real affection, and when her godmother got up to go, bade her a warm goodbye.
"Tot ziens," said Aunt Beatrix, who occasionally broke into her native tongue.
Prudence replied cheerfully, "And tot ziens to you, Aunt Beatrix, though I'm not quite sure what that means! I must try and learn some Dutch while I'm staying with you."
Walter called in that evening on his way home from his office in Taunton. His greeting of, "Hello, old girl," did nothing to make her change her mind about going away.
He sat down in the chair he always used and began at once to go into details about an argument he had had with one of the partners that day. Prudence sat opposite him, listening with half an ear while she took the chance to study him carefully. He was an inch or two shorter than she was and already showing a tendency to put on weight, but he was good-looking and, when he chose, could be an entertaining companion with charming manners. Only, over the years, the charm and the manners weren't much in evidencenot with her at any rate. She said suddenly, cutting through his monologue, "Walter, when did you last look at meI mean, really look?"
He gave her stare of astonishment. "Look at you? Well, I see you several times a week when you're here, don't I? Why should I look at you? Have you changed your hair-style or lost weight or something?"
"I don't need to lose weight," she said coldly. "I sometimes feel, Walter, like your daily newspaper or the old coat you keep behind the back door in case it rains."
He gave an uneasy laugh. "My dear girl, what's got into you? You're talking nonsense. It's a good thing you're going to this new job, you've been too long at that hospital of yours in London."
"You've asked me to marry you several times."
"Yes, wellthere's time enough for you to make up your mind about that, in the meantime you need to be occupied."
"You don't want to sweep me off my feet? Rush off with me and get married?"
She felt sorry for him, because he was quite out of his depth; stockbrokers didn't like to be rushed.
"Certainly not; marriage is a serious undertaking."
Prudence nodded. "Yes, it is. Walter, I don't want to marry you. I'm sorry if it puts you outI mean, you expected me to marry you when it was convenient, didn't you?"
"I say, old girl, that's a funny way of putting it!"
"But it's true." She got up and wandered over to the window. "I'm going to Holland for some weeks to stay with an aunt who's ill."
"You haven't any aunts in Holland." She heard the tolerant amusement in his voice.