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The little town was small and snug, tucked in between the Cornish hills and cliffs, and the late afternoon sun shone on its slate roofs and brightened the whitewashed walls of the cottages clustered round its small harbour, although there was a chilly wind blowing in from the sea. It was not yet five o'clock, but the October afternoon was already drawing in, and the girl climbing the path from the harbour towards the car park at the side shivered a little as she paused to look back before she rounded the corner, to thread her way through the few cars there and then follow the cliff path.
It was a little late for a walk, she reflected, but she had been playing backgammon with her father all the afternoon, sitting in the lounge of the Lobster Pot Hotel, and she had stolen frequent glances out of the old-fashioned bow window overlooking the harbour and felt envy of the intrepid yachtsmen gowling briskly out to the open sea. It would have been nice to have gone sailing, but although several of the younger men staying in the little town had scraped the beginnings of an acquaintance with her, it had come to nothing; her father and aunt had absorbed all her leisure, and quite unwittingly; they were darlings and she loved them devotedly, but they tended to forget that she was all of twenty-five with a responsible job, a life of her own, and well able to take care of herself.
She turned her back on the harbour, left the car park behind and took the path along the cliff top. Round the next great headland of grey rock was Falmouth, but it might have been a hundred miles away, for there was nothing to see but the rough grass around her and the sea below. She stopped again to watch the gullswheeling in from the sea; the wind was freshening, but despite this there were still two or three sailing boats out to sea and she sat down for a moment on a tussock of coarse grass the better to watch them, pulling the high neck of her sweater closer and retying her long honey-coloured hair. She was a pretty girl, with large dark blue eyes fringed with honey-coloured lashes which she didn't darken and a straight little nose above a generous mouth; her long legs were encased in old slacks and when she stood up she showed herself to be a little above middle height and slim without being skinny.
The path was a narrow one, sometimes running close to the cliff edge so that she had a clear view of the sea surging amongst the rocks below, sometimes turning inland between trees and shrubs. She walked briskly, her thoughts busy. Tomorrow she would be leaving Cornwall and returning to London; to St Katherine's, where she was the Accident Room Sister, and in a way, she reflected, she wouldn't mind going back. She loved her father and Aunt Martha dearly, but they were elderly now, content to sit with a book or play cards and take a daily walk along the harbour, activities which weren't enough for her own youthful energy. But the week of doing almost nothing had done her good; she felt rested and relaxed, ready to tackle a hard day's work, and besides, there was another week's holiday to look forward to—just before Christmas, when she would go home to the pleasant little house in its small, well kept garden, tucked tidily into one of the narrow side streets of the Somerset village where she had been born and brought up. It was delightful once the summer tourists had gone, with its wide main street and Dunster Castle towering over it, and if she felt like it, she could walk down to the water to catch a glimpse of Wales on the other side of it, and if that wasn't enough, there was always Minehead a mile or so away.
The path had found its way back to the edge of the cliff once more and she slowed her pace to watch the clouds bunched angrily on the horizon. It would rain, but not yet. She had time to walk back to the hotel without fear of getting wet, and the faint sea mist beginning to creep up didn't worry her either; she had walked the path almost daily and knew it well enough.
She was on the point of turning back when her eye caught something moving far below her—something white. There was someone there, waving, and leaning precariously over the cliff face, she could hear a faint treble shout. She looked carefully round her; there was no boat within miles and certainly no other human being, and right before was an apology of a path, trickling out of sight down the rough cliff face. Someone had apparently gone down that way and was unable to get back. She could, of course, go back to the town and get help, but that would take too long; it would be dark by then and almost certainly raining. Whoever it was down there was unable to walk or climb and they would get soaked and cold. If she went down now, she and the unfortunate below would be back on the cliff top within fifteen minutes or so, and if they were injured and couldn't climb—well, all the more reason for her to go down and see what could be done.
The path was steep but perfectly safe, and she didn't find it too difficult; heights didn't bother her and she was surefooted enough. She was halfway down when she saw that it was a child on the little patch of sand between the sharp spines of rock, and she quickened her pace, for the child wasn't moving.
It was a girl, a little girl of eight or so, with a small face puffed and red with tears and one leg bent awkwardly beneath her. She was wearing shorts and it was her T-shirt which she had been waving.
She said at once in a hoarse little voice: 'I thought no one would ever come—what's your name?'
'Araminta Shaw—what's yours?'Araminta recognised that an exchange of names spelled security for the child, and smiled cheerfully at her.
'I'm Mary Rose Jenkins and I've hurt my leg—I fell…' She burst into tears, and Araminta sat down beside her and hugged her close and let her cry. Presently she wailed: 'I can't move it—I tried, but it hurts. What shall we do?' She looked round with an anxious face. 'It's getting dark.'
'Not yet, it's not,' said Araminta, and eyed the telltale bump, already discoloured, just above the child's thin ankle. A Pott's fracture, and how on earth was she going to find anything to splint it, and even if she found it, how were they going to get up the cliff again? Piggyback, if the child could bear the pain and she herself could manage the path with the uncertain weight of the child on her shoulders; she would tackle that problem when she came to it. Now she said cheerfully: 'Let's put that shirt back on, and then I'm going to do something about that leg of yours. You see, we must get it straight, poppet, before we climb back up that cliff path. I shall hurt you, I'm afraid, but you're a brave girl, aren't you?'
She dropped a kiss on the tangled brown hair, slid the shirt back on and studied their surroundings; surely there would be some wood lying around; an old box, a broken spar, even some cardboard. There was always flotsam and jetsam on the sea shore. 'Look, Mary Rose,' she explained, 'I want to find a piece of wood to tie to your leg—it won't hurt nearly as much then. Will you be OK while I look round? I won't go far.'
There was nothing, absolutely nothing at all. She went back to where the child waited so patiently and sat down beside her and took off the knee socks she was wearing under her slacks; they were by no means ideal, but she could tie the little girl's legs together, using the sound leg as a splint. She told Mary Rose what she was going to do, begged her to keep as still as she could, and bent to her task. In hospital, she reflected, with everything to hand, the fracture could have been reduced and the leg put in plaster with the child happily unconscious under anaesthetic; now all she dared to do was to lift the little broken leg gently until it was beside its fellow and tie her socks above and below the fracture. Mary Rose screamed all the while she was doing it, but she had to shut her ears to that; all she could do when she had finished was to hold the child close and soothe her, and presently, as the pain dulled a little, Mary Rose dozed off.
Araminta sat awkwardly, the child's small body pressed close to hers, while she debated what to do next. To go up the cliff path was going to be so difficult that it would be almost impossible; but to stay there all night was impossible too, an opinion borne out by the first few drops of rain. They became a downpour within minutes, and the wind, still freshening, sent scuds of spray on to the small stretch of sand. Really, thought Araminta, it couldn't be worse. There was no shelter, and Mary Rose had wakened and was voicing her displeasure in no uncertain manner. Araminta, who didn't quail easily, quailed now. 'This,' she declared strongly, 'is the utter end!'
Only it wasn't; a yacht was coming round the next headland, still some way off, but at least sailing in their direction. She waved, wishing she had something colourful which the people on board might see more easily in the deepening gloom, told Mary Rose the good news, laid her down carefully and then went right to the water's edge and waved again. The yacht turned a little away from them, out to sea, giving the rocky coast a wide berth; probably those on board hadn't even seen her. But she went on waving even though her arms ached; she shouted too, quite uselessly, but it made her feel better. When the yacht turned again, inland this time, she hardly dared to hope that she had been seen. She watched anxiously to see what would happen next and shouted with delight when its slender nose was pointed towards land. She waved again and then went to reassure Mary Rose, who had rolled over on to her bad leg and was screaming with pain. Araminta bent over the child, doing the best she could, and when she straightened, it was to see a rubber dinghy nosing its way slowly through the treacherous water between the outcrops of rock. She ran down to the water again, peering through the driving rain, and splashed into the surf, already so wet that she hardly noticed the water round her ankles.
'Oh, what a blessing!' she cried happily. 'I've never been so glad to see anyone in my life—I thought we'd be stuck here…'
The occupant of the dinghy cut its motor, pulled it half out of the water and stood up. He was a big, heavily built man and very tall, with dark hair greying at the temples; his hawklike good looks wore a look of extreme ill-humour as he stood looking down at her. He was just as wet as she was, his thick sweater heavy with rain and sea water, his slacks sopping. He said harshly: 'You silly little fool—don't you know that these cliffs are dangerous?' He caught sight of Mary Rose. 'And what's that?'
Araminta eyed him with disfavour; he might have come to their rescue, but he didn't need to be quite so nasty about it. She said snappily:
'That is a little girl—she's broken her leg, I certainly shouldn't have waved to you otherwise; I'm perfectly capable of climbing the cliff path.'
He smiled nastily. 'My dear good woman, I'm not in the least interested in your climbing prowess. How do you know the child's leg is broken?' He was by Mary Rose's side now, sitting on his heels, not touching anything, just looking. 'A Pott's,' he murmured, and Araminta said in a surprised voice: 'Yes, it is—how did you know?'
'I'm a doctor,' he answered her blandly as he gently undid the socks, 'and how did you know?'
'I'm a nurse.'
'You surprise me.' He ignored her gasp of annoyance, and bent to see the extent of the damage. He retied the socks presently, saying coolly: 'Well, at least you had the sense to leave it alone. I'll get her on board and put in at Mousehole. She can go to Falmouth by ambulance.'
'Can't you sail back to Falmouth?' Araminta wanted to know. 'It's quite close…' He gave her a withering look. 'The wind,' he explained with a frosty patience which set her teeth on edge. 'We should have to sail into it and it would take twice as long.' He bent over the child again and his dark face was lighted by a smile now. 'We're all going back home in my boat,' he told her. 'Once we are there we'll get that leg seen to.' He touched Mary Rose's brown hair with a gentle finger. 'What a brave little girl you are!' He stood up and looked out to sea to where the yacht was anchored. 'Get into the dinghy,' he ordered Araminta, 'and sit down. I'll put the child in your lap.'
She did as she was told, seething silently. Now was hardly the time to tell someone—someone who was rescuing them from an unpleasant situation—that she considered him to be the rudest man she had ever encountered. She cuddled the little girl close during the short journey, and only when they reached the yacht did she wonder how on earth they were to get on board.
She need not have worried; there was someone waiting for them, a grey-haired, thick-set elderly man with powerful arms, who reached over the boat's side and lifted Mary Rose as though she had been a feather and disappeared below with her. Araminta watched the yacht dancing in the choppy sea and wondered what she was supposed to do. 'Hold the rail,' her companion advised her, 'and pull yourself aboard—it's quite easy. Wait until I say so.'
It didn't look in the least easy, but she was beyond worrying about it; when he said 'Right,' she pulled herself up and helped by an unexpected boost from behind, landed untidily on the yacht's deck. It didn't help at all to see the man spring lightly on deck beside her without any effort at all and proceed to tie up the dinghy. 'Go below,' he said over his shoulder. And she went.