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The sun, already warmer than it should have been for nine o'clock on an August morning, poured through the high, uncurtained windows of the lecture hall at St Norbert's Hospital, highlighting the rows of uniformed figures, sitting according to status, their differently coloured uniform dresses making a cheerful splash of colour against the drab paintwork, their white caps constantly bobbing to and fro as they enjoyed a good gossip before their lecture beganall but the two front rows; the night nurses sat there, silently resentful of having to attend a lecture when they should have been on their way to hot baths, unending cups of tea, yesterday's paper kindly saved by a patient, and finally, blissful bed.
And in the middle of the front row sat student nurse Lucy Prendergast, a small slip of a girl, with mousy hair, pleasing though not pretty features and enormous green eyes, her one claim to beauty. But as she happened to be fast asleep, their devastating glory wasn't in evidence, indeed she looked downright plain; a night of non-stop work on Children's had done nothing to improve her looks.
She would probably have gone on sleeping, sitting bolt upright on her hard chair, if her neighbours hadn't dug her in the ribs and begged her to stir herself as a small procession of Senior Sister Tutor, her two assistants and a clerk to make notes, trod firmly across the platform and seated themselves and a moment later, nicely timed, the lecturer, whose profound utterances the night nurses had been kept from their beds to hear, came in.
There was an immediate hush and then a gentle sigh from the rows of upturned faces; it had been taken for granted that he would be elderly, pompous, bald and mumbling, but he was none of these thingshe was very tall, extremely broad, and possessed of the kind of good looks so often written about and so seldom seen; moreover he was exquisitely dressed and when he replied to their concerted 'good morning, sir,' his voice was deep, slow and made all the more interesting by reason of its slight foreign accent.
His audience, settling in their seats, sat back to drink in every word and take a good look at him at the same timeall except Nurse Prendergast, who hadn't even bothered to open her eyes properly. True, she had risen to her feet when everyone else did, because her good friends on either side of her had dragged her to them, but seated again she dropped off at once and continued to sleep peacefully throughout the lecture, unheeding of the deep voice just above her head, explaining all the finer points of angiitis obliterans and its treatment, and her friends, sharing the quite erroneous idea that the occupants of the first two rows were quite safe from the eyes of the lecturer on the platform, for they believed that he always looked above their heads into the body of the hall, allowed her to sleep on. Everything would have been just fine if he hadn't started asking questions, picking members of his audience at random. When he asked: 'And the result of these tests would be ' his eyes, roaming along the rows of attentive faces before him, came to rest upon Lucy's gently nodding head.
A ferocious gleam came into his eyes; she could have been looking down into her lap, but he was willing to bet with himself that she wasn't.
'The nurse in the centre of the first row,' he added softly.
Lucy, dug savagely in the ribs by her nervous friends, opened her eyes wide and looked straight at him. She was bemused by sleep and had no idea what he had said or what she was supposed to say herself. She stared up at the handsome, bland face above her; she had never seen eyes glitter, but the cold blue ones boring into hers were glittering all right. A wash of bright pink crept slowly over her tired face, but it was a flush of temper rather than a blush of shame; she was peevish from lack of sleep and her resentment was stronger than anything else just at that moment. She said in a clear, controlled voice: 'I didn't hear what you were saying, sirI was asleep.'
His expression didn't alter, although she had the feeling that he was laughing silently. She added politely, 'I'm sorry, sir,' and sighed with relief as his gaze swept over her head to be caught and held by the eager efforts of a girl Lucy couldn't stand at any priceMartha Inskip, the knowall of her set; always ready with the right answers to Sister Tutor's questions, always the one to get the highest marks in written papers, and yet quite incapable of making a patient comfortable in bed The lecturer said almost wearily: 'Yes, Nurse?' and then listened impassively to her perfect answer to the question Lucy had so regrettably not heard.
He asked more questions after that, but never once did he glance at Lucy, wide-awake now and brooding unhappily about Sister Tutor's reactions. Reactions which reared their ugly heads as the lecture came to a close with the formal leavetaking of the lecturer as he stalked off the platform with Sister Tutor and her attendants trailing him. Her severe back was barely out of sight before the orderly lines of nurses broke up into groups and began to make their way back to their various destinations. Lucy was well down the corridor leading to the maze of passages which would take her to the Nurses' Home when a breathless nurse caught up with her. 'Sister Tutor wants you,' she said urgently, 'in the ante-room.'
Lucy didn't say a word; she had been pushing her luck and now there was nothing to do about it; she hadn't really believed that she would get off scot free. She crossed the lecture hall and went through the door by the platform into the little room used by the lecturers. There were only two people in it, Sister Tutor and the lecturer, and the former said at once in a voice which held disapproval: 'I will leave you to apologise to Doctor der Linssen, Nurse Prendergast,' and sailed out of the room.
The doctor stood where he was, looking at her. Presently he asked: 'Your name is Prendergast?' and when she nodded: 'A peculiar name.' Which so incensed her that she said snappily: 'I did say I was sorry.'
'Oh, yes, indeed. Rest assured that it was not I who insisted on you returning.'
He looked irritable and tired. She said kindly: 'I expect your pride's hurt, but it doesn't need to be; everyone thought you were smashing, and I would have gone to sleep even if you'd been Michael Caine or Kojak.'
A kind of spasm shook the doctor's patrician features, but he said merely: 'You are on night duty, MisserPrendergast.' It wasn't a question.
'Yes. The children's wardalways so busy and just unspeakable last night, and then I had a huge breakfast and it's fatal to sit down afterwards,' and when he made no reply added in a motherly way: 'I expect you're quite nice at home with your wife and children.'
'I have not as yet either wife or children.' He sounded outraged. 'You speak as though you were a securely married mother of a large family. Are you married, Miss Prendergast?'
'Me? noI'd be Mrs if I were, and who'd want to marry me? But I've got brothers and sisters, and we had such fun when we were children.'
His voice was icy. 'You lack respect, young lady, and you are impertinent. You should not be nursing, you should be one of those interfering females who go around telling other people how to lead their lives and assuring them that happiness is just around the corner.'
She tried not to blush, but she couldn't stop herself; she was engulfed in a red glow, but she looked him in the eye. 'I don't blame you for getting your own back,' she added a sir this time. 'Now we're equal, aren't we?'
She didn't wait to be dismissed but flew through the door as though she had the devil at her heels, back the way she had come, almost bursting with rage and dislike of him; it took several cups of tea and half an hour in a very hot bath reading the Daily Mirror before she was sufficiently calmed down to go to bed and sleep at last.
Lucy forgot the whole regrettable business in no time at all; she was rushed off her feet on duty and when she was free she slept soundly like the healthy girl she was, and if, just once or twice, she remembered the good-looking lecturer, she pushed him to the back of her mind; she was no daydreamerbesides, he hadn't liked her.
She had expected a lecture from Sister Tutor, but no word had been said; probably, thought Lucy, she considered that she had been sufficiently rebuked for her behaviour.
She went home for her nights off at the end of the following week, a quite long journey which she could only afford once a month. The small village outside Beaminster, which wasn't much more than a village itself, was buried in the Dorset hills; it meant going by train to Crewkerne where she was met by her father, Rector of Dedminster and the hamlets of Lodcombe and Twistover, in the shaky old Ford used by every member of the family if they happened to be at home.
Her father met her at the station, an elderly man with mild blue eyes who had passed on his very ordinary features to her; except for the green eyes, of course, and no one in the family knew where they had come from. He led her out to the car, and after a good deal of poking around coaxed it to start, but once they were bowling sedately towards Beaminster, he embarked on a gentle dissertation about the parish, the delightful weather and the various odds and ends of news about her mother and brothers and sisters.
Lucy listened with pleasure; he was so restful after the rush and hurry of hospital life, and he was so kind. She had a fleeting memory of the lecturer, who hadn't been kind at all, and then shook her head angrily to get rid of his image, with its handsome features and pale hair.
The Rectory was a large rambling place, very inconvenient; all passages and odd stairs and small rooms leading from the enormous kitchen, which in an earlier time must have housed a horde of servants. Lucy darted through the back door and found her mother at the kitchen table, hulling strawberriesa beautiful woman still, even with five grown-up children, four of whom had inherited her striking good looks, leaving Lucy to be the plain one in the family, although as her mother pointed out often enough, no one else had emerald green eyes.
Lucy perched on the table and gobbled up strawberries while she answered her mother's questions; they were usually the same, only couched in carefully disguised ways: had Lucy met any nice young men? had she been out? and if by some small chance she had, the young man had to be described down to the last coat button, even though Lucy pointed out that in most cases he was already engaged or had merely asked her out in order to pave the way to an introduction to one of her friends. She had little to tell this time; she was going to save the lecturer for later.
'Lovely to be home,' she observed contentedly.
'Kitty and Jerry and Paul, dear. Emma's got her hands full with the twinsthey've got the measles.'
Emma was the eldest and married, and both her brothers were engaged, while Kitty was the very new wife of a BOAC pilot, on a visit while he went on a course.
'Good,' said Lucy. 'What's for dinner?'
Her parent gave her a loving look; Lucy, so small and slim, had the appetite of a large horse and never put on an ounce.
'Roast beef, darling, and it's almost ready.'
It was over Mrs Prendergast's splendidly cooked meal that Lucy told them all about her unfortunate lapse during the lecture.
'Was he good-looking?' Kitty wanted to know.
'Oh, very, and very large toonot just tall but wide as well; he towered, if you know what I mean, and cold blue eyes that looked through me and the sort of hair that could be either very fair or grey.' She paused to consider. 'Oh, and he had one of those deep, rather gritty voices.'
Her mother, portioning out trifle, gave her a quick glance. 'But you didn't like him, love?'
Lucy, strictly brought up as behoved a parson's daughter, answered truthfully and without embarrassment.
'Well, actually, I didhe was smashing. Now if it had been Kitty or Emma they'd have known what to do, and anyway, he wouldn't have minded them; they're both so pretty.' She sighed. 'But he didn't like me, and why should he, for heaven's sake? Snoring through his rolling periods!'
'Looks are not everything, Lucilla,' observed her father mildly, who hadn't really been listening and had only caught the bit about being pretty. 'Perhaps a suitable regret for your rudeness in falling asleep, nicely phrased, would have earned his good opinion.'
Lucy said 'Yes, Father,' meekly, privately of the opinion that it wouldn't have made a scrap of difference if she had gone down on her knees to the wretched man. It was her mother who remarked gently: 'Yes, dear, but you must remember that Lucy has always been an honest child; she spoke her mind and I can't blame her. She should never have had to attend his lecture in the first place.'
'Then she wouldn't have seen this magnificent specimen of manhood,' said Jerry, reaching for the cheese.
'Not sweet on him, are you, Sis?' asked Paul slyly, and Lucy being Lucy took his question seriously.
'Oh, nochalk and cheese, you know. I expect he eats his lunch at Claridges when he's not giving learned advice to someone or other and making pots of money with private patients.'
'You're being flippant, my dear.' Her father smiled at her.
'Yes, Father. I'm sure he's a very clever man and probably quite nice to the people he likesanyway, I shan't see him again, shall I?' She spoke cheerfully, conscious of a vague regret. She had, after all, only seen one facet of the man, all the others might be something quite different.