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The pale February sunshine shining through the window highlighted the pleasant room beyond: a room of restful colours, greens and blues and greys, chosen no doubt to dispel the unease of the patients who entered it. Such a one was on the point of leaving, escorted to the door by Professor Jason Lister, a large, very tall man, remarkably handsome with it. He shook hands now, gave the lady a reassuring smile, and handed her over to his receptionist before closing the door again and going back to his desk to pick up his pen and begin to write.
He had hardly done so when the door opened and the receptionist poked her head round it. The professor didn't lift his head. 'Later, Mrs Wells, I'm due at the hospital in half an hour '
'Yes, I know, sir, but it's Mrs Gault on the outside line. She says she must speak to you at once.'
He took off his reading-glasses and sighed. 'Very well.' He smiled as he spoke, and Mrs Wells, a middle-aged widow with a sentimental heart, beamed at him.
The voice at the other end of the phone was urgent and agitated. 'Jason? Is that you?' The voice didn't wait for an answer. 'I've just had a phone call from that place in Chile where Tom ishe's ill, and they want me to go there as soon as possible. I'm packing now. The children have half-term tomorrow and my flight goes mid-morning. I can't leave them here alone '
'Where is Patty?'
'She's gone home to nurse her motherI've been managing without her. Jason, what shall I do?'
'The children can come here; I'll find someone to collect them and look after them while you're away. I can't get to your place, I'm afraid, but I'll arrange something and phone you back. Don't worry more than you must.'
He put down the receiver, switched on the intercom, and asked Mrs Wells to come in.
'We have a problem,' he told her, his placid voice giving no hint of the size of it. And when he had finished telling her, he asked, 'Do you know of an agency where I can get someone at a moment's notice?'
'Yes, I do, sir. There's a very good onein Kings-way, I believe. I can look it up. Will you speak to them?'
'Please, and as soon as possible.'
The mellifluous voice at the agency assured him that a person suitable to his requirements would be sent immediately.
'After six o'clock,' he made the request, 'and this is the address. It must be someone who is prepared to travel down to Tisburythat is a small town in Wiltshireby the early-morning train.'
The professor put down the receiver, put his spectacles on again and resumed his writing, and presently took himself off to the hospital in his dark grey Rolls Royce.
When the phone rang, Araminta was peeling potatoes. She dried her hands and went to answer it, although her sister Alice was sitting within a foot of the instrument, but then Alice had been told two years ago that she had anaemia and must lead a quiet life, an instruction which she obeyed to the letter, encouraged by their father, who doted on her.
'Yes?' said Araminta, anxious to get back to the potatoes.
'Miss Smith? I have an urgent job for you. Short-term, I believe.'
The woman from the agency gave the details in a businesslike manner. 'After six o'clock, and Professor Lister is depending on you.'
She rang off prudently before Araminta could refuse to go.
'That's a job,' said Araminta. 'I'll finish the potatoes, but perhaps you could cook the supper. I may be gone for a few hours.'
Alice looked alarmed. 'But, Araminta, you know I'm supposed to take life easily.'
'I don't suppose it would harm you to grill the chops, love. We do need the moneyFather borrowed the housekeeping. I don't know what for.'
Alice looked awkward. 'Well, I did mention that I needed another dressing-gown, and he bought me one.'
Araminta turned round at the door. She spoke cheerfully, for there was no point in voicing her hurt that their father loved Alice dearly and regarded herself as the housekeeper and occasional wage-earner. He was kind to her and sometimes, when he remembered, he told her how useful it was that she was so handy around the house, as well as getting the occasional job from the agency. 'There's plenty of food in the fridge if I'm not back in a day or two.'
She finished the potatoes, changed into her tweed jacket and skirtsuitable for the occasion, she hopedmade sure that her hair was neatly coiled and that her nose was powdered, found an umbrella and went to catch a bus.
It was a long bus ride from her home in a narrow street near Warren Street station to the address she had been givena small street close to Cavendish Squareand it was already after five o'clock. Six o'clock had long since struck by the time she reached the house, one of a terrace of Regency houses, pristine in their gleaming paint and shining brasswork, and she paused a moment to take a good look before mounting the steps to its front door.
It was opened by an elderly, rotund man with a fringe of hair and an impassive face. When she stated her name he stood aside for her to go in, waved her to a chair in the hall, and begged her to wait.
It was a pleasant hall, not large but welcoming, with crimson wallpaper, a polished wood floor and ormolu wall-lights; there were no pictures on the walls, but on the small mahogany table there was a beautiful bowl full of early spring flowers. Araminta sniffed appreciatively.
She wasn't kept waiting; the rotund man came back within a few minutes and asked her to follow him to the end of the hall and through a door at its end. The room had a large bay window, its heavy velvet curtains not drawn; there would be a garden beyond, she supposed, as she crossed the carpeted floor to stand before the large desk in one corner of the room. The professor got slowly to his feet, the book he had been reading in his hand, a finger marking the page. He stood for a moment, looking at her over his spectacles.
'Miss Smith? Miss Araminta Smith?'
She took exception to the lifted eyebrow. 'YesAraminta because it makes up for Smith, if you see what I mean!'
He perceived that this rather dowdy girl with no looks worth mentioning might not be quite what she seemed. He put his book on the desk reluctantlyfor he had been relaxing with the poems of Horacein the original Latin, of course.
'Please sit down, Miss Smith. I was expecting someone of a rather more mature That is, your charges are young teenagers and, if you will forgive me for saying so, you lookerrather young yourself.'
'Twenty-three,' said Araminta matter-of-factly. 'Young enough to be able to understand them and old enough to be listened to.' Since he looked doubtful, she added kindly, 'Try meif I don't do you can find someone else, but the agency said that you needed someone urgently, so perhaps I could be of help until you do.'
She wasn't suitable but she would have to do, at least for the moment.
'It will be necessary for you to catch an early-morning train from Paddington. My nephew and niece are to stay here with me while their mother goes to her husband, who is ill. I have a manservant and his wife who live in the house, but they are too elderly to cope with teenagers. That will be your task.'
'For how long, Mr Lister?' She paused. 'Should I have said Doctor? The agency said you were in the medical profession.'
'Professor will do.' He smiled at her. She was nothing to look at, but he liked her sensible manner. 'Only for their half-terma week. My sister has a splendid housekeeper, who has unfortunately gone to her home to nurse her mother. She should be back, and probably my sister will have returned by then.'
Everything quite satisfactory, thought Araminta; the problem of making arrangements for Alice and her father at a few hours' notice would be dealt with presently. She bade the professor a staid goodbye, and he called her back as she reached the door.
'You will need some money for fares and expenses,' he pointed out mildly, and took out his notecase. The amount he gave her was over-generous, and she said so.
'I shall expect an exact account of what you have spent,' he told her.
She flashed him a look from her dark eyes. 'Naturally,' she told him coldly.
He ignored the coldness. 'Mrs Buller will have everything ready; perhaps you will phone her as to what time you expect to arrive here. My sister has the number.'
Araminta nodded her tidy head. 'Very well, Professor Lister. Good evening.' He had opened the door for her, and she went past him into the hall and found Buller there, ready to speed her on her way. He gave her a fatherly smile.
'Quite an upheaval, Missthe professor leads a very quiet lifebut I daresay we shall manage.'
She hoped so, and then concentrated on her own problems.
It was to be expected that Alice would be difficult. Araminta had been working for the agency for some time now, but always on a daily basis; now she was actually going to leave Alice and her father on their own.
'How am I supposed to manage?' stormed Alice when Araminta arrived at home. 'You know how delicate I amthe doctor said I had to lead a quiet life. You're selfish, Araminta, going off like this. You must say you can't go.' She lapsed into easy tears. 'You might think of me.'
'Well, I am,' said Araminta sensibly. 'There's almost no money in the house, there's the gas bill waiting to be paid and the TV licence, and Father's salary won't be paid into the bank for another week. If you want to eat, I'll have to take this job. There's plenty in the fridge, and you can go to the shops for anything you need. I dare say a little walk would do you good. Or Father can shop on his way home.'
'Who is to make the beds and cook and do the housework?' wailed Alice.
'Well, I expect you could manage between you for a few days.'
'You're hard,' cried Alice. 'All you do is think of yourself.'
Araminta bit back the words on the tip of her tongue. She was, after all, a normal girl, wishing for pretty clothes and money in her pocket and a man to love her, and she saw no hope of getting any of these wishes. She went upstairs to her small bedroom in the little terraced house and packed a bag. Her wardrobe was meagre; she folded a sober grey dresshalf-price in the sales and useful for her kind of joba couple of sweaters, blouses and undies, dressing-gown and slippers, a tweed skirt and a rainproof jacket. Almost all she had, actually, and as she packed she could hear her father and sister talking in the sitting-room downstairs. She sighed a little, and made sure that she had all she needed in her handbag before going to join them.
It took the rest of that evening convincing her father that she really had to go. He was an easygoing man, spending money when he had it and borrowing when he hadn't, but even he had to admit that there was a shortage of cash in the house.
'Well,' he said easily, 'you go along and enjoy yourself, my dear. Alice and I will manage somehow. I'll use what money there is, for you'll bring your fees back with you, I suppose?' He smiled at her with vague affection. 'Our little wage-earner.' He got up. 'I'll make a pot of tea before we go to bed.'
'Not all the fees, Father,' said Araminta in a quiet voice. 'I need a new pair of shoes '
She was up and dressed and eating a hasty breakfast when Alice came yawning into the kitchen. 'You might have brought me a cup,' she said plaintively.
'No time,' said Araminta, her mouth full. 'I'll phone you in a day or two when I know how things are going. Say goodbye to Father for me, will you?'
She dropped a kiss on her sister's cheek and flew out of the door with her case, intent on catching a bus to Paddington.
The train was half-empty and she sat in a window-seat, watching the wintry landscape, glad to have the next hour and a half to herself. She had few qualms about the job; she had been working for the agency for more than a year now, although this was the first time the job was expected to last as long as a weekperhaps not even that if Professor Lister found her unsatisfactory. She wasn't sure what to make of him; he hadn't approved of her, that was evident, but he had been pleasant enough in a rather absent-minded manner. Hopefully he would be out of the house for most of the day; she would only need to keep the children out of his way in the early mornings and the evenings.
When she got out of the train at Tisbury she was thankful to find an elderly taxi parked outside the station. The driver was pleasant and chatty and, when she gave him the address, said at once, 'Oh, Mrs Gaultpoor lady. Worried sick, she is, with her husband ill on the other side of the world. Come to give a hand, have you? Half-term and all.'
The house was at the other end of the little town: a red-brick dwelling in a large garden. There was nothing elaborate about it; it was roomy, with large sash windows and a handsome front door with a splendid fanlightwhat Araminta supposed one would describe as a gentleman's residence. She paid the taxi-driver, took her case and rang the bell, and then, since no one came, banged the brass knocker.
The door was flung open then by a youngish woman with untidy dark hair and Professor Lister's blue eyes. 'Oh, good, you're here. Do come inyou have no idea how glad I am to see you.' She held out a firm, friendly hand. 'I'm Lydia Gault.'
'Araminta Smith. What would you like me to do first?'
'You're heaven-sent, and sensible too. My taxi comes for me in just two hours. I'm trying to get the children organisedyou've no idea You'd like a cup of coffee, I expect?'
Araminta put down her case and took off her coat. She was wearing a tweed skirt and a blouse and cardigan, and the sensible shoes which needed replacing. 'I'd love one. If you will show me where the kitchen is, I'll make coffee for everyone, shall I? And, while we drink it, you can tell me what you want me to do.'
'Through hereeverything's in the cupboard in the corner. I'll see how the children are getting on with their packing. It's only for a week.'
Mrs Gault disappeared and Araminta put on the kettle, found coffee, sugar and milk, assembled four mugs on the kitchen table and opened a tin of biscuits, and when that was done she got her notebook and pen from her handbag and laid them on the table too. She had a good memory, but she imagined that Mrs Gault would have a great many instructions to give her.