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The restaurant was small, elegant and discreetly lighted by pink-shaded table lamps which cast a becoming glow on to the feminine occupants, most of whom were glad of it, although the girl sitting at a table for two in the centre of the room needed no such artificial aid. She was a young woman, though not in her first youth, but her lovely face was girlish in its freshness and her dark hair, arranged in an elaborate topknot, curled around it. Her eyes were dark too and heavily lashed and her mouth was softly curved under an exquisite nose; it was a face to be looked at twice and then again which made it all the more remarkable that her companion hardly glanced at her but applied himself to his coq-au-vin in a tight-lipped fashion.
"It isn't any good you looking like that." Alethea Thomas's voice was as pretty as her face. "I said I wouldn't and I won't, and if that's all you think of me then I can see no point in going on as we are, can you?"
She spoke without heat, waited in silence while the waiter took away their plates and proffered the menu, asked for a sorbet and when the man had gone asked: "Well?"
The man opposite her glanced at her angrily and then looked away. "You're such a fool, Alethea everyone goes away for weekends these days, why not you? Think yourself too good?" His voice held a sneer, his good looks marred by a frown. "You couldn't have imagined that I was going to ask you to marry me? Lord, it'll be years before I get a consultant's postI can't afford a wife, certainly not one without any money." He smiled suddenly and added coaxingly: "Come on, be a sport."
The waiter served them and retreated again. "I must be the most unsporting girl for miles around," observed Alethea calmly, and then somehow stayed calm as he suddenly got to his feet and without another word, walked away, hurrying between the tables so that people paused in their talk to stare at him. He went out of the restaurant without a backward glance and after a moment Alethea took up her spoon with a hand which shook slightly and started on her sorbet. She would have liked to have got up and left too, but the awful realisation that she had no more than a handful of small change in her purse prevented her. Presently the bill would be handed to her and she wouldn't be able to pay it, and it hardly seemed likely that Nick would come back. She spooned some more sorbet and swallowed it with difficulty; she mustn't cry, which was what she wanted to do very badly, and she mustn't look around her too muchand above all she mustn't appear anxious. She ate slowly, putting off the moment when the bill would arrive; she could spend at least fifteen minutes over her coffee, too; perhaps by then Nick would come back, although she was almost certain that he wasn't going to.
She had agreed to dine with him with such high hopes too. They had been going out together for some months now; the whole hospital expected them to get engaged, although she had never even hinted at it and she was sure now that Nick hadn't either. She had even bought a new dress for the occasion; a fine black voile patterned with a multitude of flowers, its low neckline edged with a narrow frill and its high waist tied by long velvet ribbons. It had cost her more than she could afford, but she had wanted to look rather special for what she had expected to be a special occasion. After all, Nick had told her that he had something important to ask her and she, fool that she was, she thought bitterly now, had expected him to propose. And all he had wanted was a weekend at Brighton.
She put down her spoon; she had spun out the sorbet just as long as she could She made the coffee last too, aware that those sitting at nearby tables were glancing at her with some curiosity and presently the waiter presented himself discreetly. "The gentleman is not returning? Madam will wish to pay the bill?"He laid the plate with the folded bill on it beside her and withdrew again, and after a minute Alethea plucked up the courage to peep at it. The total shocked her, and how was she going to pay it? Even if they allowed her to go to the hospital by taxi and fetch the money, where was she going to get it from? It was almost the end of the month, neither she nor any of her friends had more than a pound or two between them, and the banks, naturally enough, were closed. She stared stonily ahead of her, picturing the scene which was going to take place within the next few minutes. She would die of shame and she would never, never forgive Nick.
She had been attracted to him on the very first occasion of their meeting several months ago now; he had come to Theobald's as Orthopaedic Registrar and they had seen a good deal of each other, for she was Sister in charge of the Orthopaedic Unit. She had admired his dark good looks and his obvious intention to make his way in his profession and she had been flattered when he had singled her out for his special attention. Until she had met him she had never wanted to marry any of the men who had taken her out. She had had no very clear idea of what the man she would marry would be like; he was a dim, scarcely thought-of image in the back of her mind and she had known, even when she found herself attracted to Nick, that he bore no resemblance to that image, but that hadn't mattered; he had been attentive and flatteringly anxious to see as much of her as possible, but it was horribly apparent now that she had been mistaken about him. She shuddered strongly and felt sick and ashamed that despite the way he was treating her she still wished with all her heart that he would come in through the restaurant door at that very moment. And she would be fool enough to forgive him.
She closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them because she could feel that someone was looking at her. It only took her a second or two to see who it was; she hadn't looked around her until then; she had been happily engrossed in Nick's company and hadn't noticed anyone or anything else, otherwise, she had to admit, she couldn't have failed to see the man staring at her now. He was sitting to one side of her, sharing a table with a pleasant-looking couple and facing her. He was massively built with dark hair already greying at the temples and a strong good-looking face. She couldn't see what colour his eyes were in the one swift glance she gave him before turning her head away with what she hoped was cool dignity. It was a pity that this move meant that she looked straight at the waiter, who started towards her, obviously under the impression that she was about to pay the bill. She sat up a little straighter; in seconds he would be beside her, and what on earth was she going to say or do?
The man who had been staring must have moved very fast; he was there, standing in front of her, completely at ease, as the waiter came to a halt.
"Well, well," he boomed in a genial voice, "how delightful to see you againI was coming over sooner, but I quite thought that you were dining with someone " He looked and sounded so genuinely puzzled that she almost believed him.
His gaze swept the table. "You've had coffee? What a pity, I intended asking you to join us. You're waiting for your companion, perhaps?"
Alethea felt her jaw dropping and stopped it just in time. "Yesat least, I think he may not be coming backI'm not sure I " Her eyes beseeched him to understand; he looked kind and he gave every appearance of being a safe port in a storm. Normally she wouldn't have allowed him to pick her up, for this was what he seemed to be doing, but every minute's delay helped; Nick might come back
He had picked up the bill and put his hand into his pocket. "In that case, shall I settle this for you? He can owe it to me until we meet next time." He put some notes on to the plate and gave the waiter a cool look and then smiled at her. "I'll see you home," he said easily. "My friends are leaving anyway,"he added quite loudly, "it is so long since we last saw each other we should find plenty to talk about."
Alethea managed a feeble yes and wondered why he had raised his voice and then saw that the people at the tables on either side were listening, so she smiled and said: "Oh, yes," and then heaved a sigh of relief. Once outside she could explain to him and thank him for helping her out of a nasty situation; he must have seen Nick getting angry with her and then leaving; it was a miracle that no one else had. The waiter smiled and bowed as she got up and went to the door, her lovely head high, very conscious of the man towering over her. He waited in the small lobby while she got her coat and then accompanied her outside into the April evening. They had walked a few paces along the pavement before she stopped and looked up at him.
"That was most kind of you," she said in a voice made wooden by embarrassment. "If you would let me know your name and address I'll send you a cheque first thing in the morning." And when he didn't answer her she went on a little desperately: "Hehe said he had to leave suddenlyso unfortunate. He's a surgeonhe quite forgot about the bill " Her voice tailed off into an unbelieving silence, and suddenly, staring up into the calm face lighted by the street lamp, she couldn't contain herself any longer. Rage and humiliation and fright boiled up together and combined into a sob. Worse, her eyes filled with tears and she, who almost never cried, was unable to stop them rolling down her cheeks. She wiped them away with an impatient hand and said in a voice made high by her feelings and the hock she had drunk with her dinner: "That's not true he left because I wouldn't spend the weekend with him at Brighton." She hiccoughed. "I thought he was going to ask me to marry him." Her voice rose even higher. "I bought a new dress!" she wailed.
Her companion didn't smile, he looked at her gravely and spoke just as gravely. "It is a very pretty dress." The way he said it made it sound like a delightful compliment. "I'm going to call a taxi and take you back to wherever you want to go. A hospital? You mentioned that yourercompanion was a surgeon."
Alethea gave a great sniff. "YesTheobald's, but there's no need for you to come with me, I'm quite all right now, and thank you very much "
"Nevertheless if you can bear with my company, I shall accompany you, Miss er ?"
"Thomas. Alethea Thomas." She took the handkerchief he was holding out and dabbed at her face. "But what about your friends?"
"They were about to leave anyway, we were saying our goodbyes " He lifted an arm and a taxi slid in to the kerb. "I think a cup of coffee on the way might be a good idea." He gave some directions to the driver as she got in and then got in beside her. "I asked him to pull up at the next coffee stall we pass."
They sat in silence until the taxi stopped and the driver enquired if that particular stall would do.
"Very well, and pray join us." So that Alethea had a double escort across the pavement, the two men chatting easily about the latest boxing match. Really, she thought, she might just as well not have been there, only to find herself mistaken; she was seated carefully on a stool and the taxi driver mounted guard over her while her rescuer fetched three thick mugs of rich coffee and then engaged her in undemanding conversation in which the taxi driver joined, carefully not looking at her puffy face and both of them standing so that no one else there could get a good look at her. Not all men were beastly, she reflected.
Neither man seemed to be in a hurry, and it was a good twenty minutes later when they climbed back into the taxi, and by then Alethea's face was almost normal and although she still felt dreadful she was hiding it successfully enough behind a calm which matched her companion's. They were almost at the hospital when she said: "I don't know your name."
"Van DiederijkSarre van Diederijk."
"Oh, Dutch. Your English is perfect "
"Thank you." The taxi had stopped and he got out, spoke to the driver and started to walk with her to the side entrance across the forecourt. She stopped then to protest. "I go in at that door, thank you. I can walk through the hospital to the Nurses' Home." She put out a hand, but he didn't shake it as he was meant to, but held it firmly and began to walk on again. "I'll see you to the Home," he observed, and took no notice of her murmur.
It was late, but not as late as all that; the night staff were still settling patients for the night; Alethea recognised the familiar sounds as they crossed the hall and started down a long corridor running towards the rear of the hospital; the soft hurried tread of the nurses, the squeak of trolley wheels, the telephone, the vague subdued murmur of a great many people as ward doors opened and closed. She turned a corner, Mr van Diederijk hard on her heels, and felt his hand close on her arm at the same moment as she saw Nick coming along the corridor towards them. He was still in his dinner jacket, strolling along, a cigarette in his mouth. He looked as though he hadn't a care in the world until he caught sight of them. He paused then and for one moment Alethea thought that he was going to turn round and go back the way he had come. But he thought better of it, hurrying past them as though he had something urgent to do, glancing angrily at her as he went.