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Viewed from the comparative comfort of the ambulance's interior, the Ml looked uninviting. Miss Julia Pennyfeather, too occupied with her patient to have bothered overmuch with the passing scenery, now realised that the motorway was becoming more and more shrouded in fog, which, coupled with the fast darkening sky of a December afternoon, boded ill for their chances of reaching their destination as early as they had hoped. She pulled her cloak closely around her, cast a quick look at her dozing patient and peered out once more. There seemed to be a lot of traffic surging past, at great speed and in a confusion of lights, a sight which made her thankful that she wasn't called upon to drive the ambulance. She frowned in thought, then, moving cautiously, opened the little glass window behind the driving seat and said softly to the man sitting beside the driver, 'Willythe fog, it's getting worse, isn't it?'
The man the back of whose neck she had addressed turned a cheerful face to answer her. 'Proper thick, Nurse, but it's not all that far. We're coming up to Newcastle now; it's about sixty miles to the Border and another twelve to the crossroads where we turn offand the house is another ten miles or so.'
'It's nearly four o'clock,' said Julia. 'We shan't get there much before nine '
'Just in nice time for a bit o' supper, Nurse, before we 'ands over the patient and goes to our warm beds.'
They were off the motorway now and almost clear of Newcastle; two hours' steady driving would bring them to the Border, and once they were in Scotland. She broke off her speculations as the girl on the stretcher asked, 'Where are we, Nurse?'
Julia told her, adding in a determinedly cheerful voice, 'We shan't be long nowthree hours at the most, perhaps less. I expect you'd like a drink, wouldn't you?' She unscrewed a vacuum flask and poured the milkless tea into a mug. 'As soon as we arrive, you shall have your insulin and your supperI'm sure they'll have it ready for you, for your nurse will have arrived some time this afternoon.'
'I hope I like her.'
Julia glanced at her patient. 'I'm sure you will,' she replied in a soothing voice, and privately hoped that she was right. Miss Mary MacGall hadn't been the easiest of patients eighteen years old, pretty and spoilt and a diabetic who somehow never managed to achieve stabilisation, she had been a handful the Private Wing of St Clare's Hospital had been glad to see go. In the two short weeks she had been there, having an acute appendix removed, and then, unfortunately, peritonitis, which naturally played havoc with the diabetes, she had been rude to the Matron, flirted outrageously with the young housemen, and exasperated the consultant staff; only with Julia was she amenable, and that was something neither Julia nor her fellow workers could fathom, unless it was that Julia's dark and striking beauty was such a magnificent foil to her own blonde prettiness. And Julia didn't fuss, but treated her with the pleasant calm that a well-trained nanny might have shown to a recalcitrant child. Not that Julia looked in the least like a nannyindeed, just the opposite, with her almost black hair and great brown eyes with their preposterously long lashes. Her mouth was a little large perhaps, but beautifully shaped and her nose was straight, with the merest hint of a tilt at its tip. She was well above average height, nicely rounded and refreshingly and completely natural. She was just twenty-two and had achieved State Registration only a few months previously. And only the day before she had left the hospital where she had spent several happy, busy years, not because she had particularly wanted to, but to look after her sister-in-law who had just had a second child and was suffering from depression. It had been, therefore, a happy chance that Mary MacGall should have demanded to be sent home by ambulance, and also demanded, at the same time, that Julia should go with her on the journey. Julia was due to leave anyway, and it would give her a couple of days' respite before she went home.
When next Julia looked out of the window it was snowing hard and the fog had become dense. The ambulance was travelling slowly now, with its blue light flashing, and Julia was uneasily aware that they were skidding from time to time. She opened the little window once more and said softly into Willy's ear, 'Is it freezing as well?'
He nodded without looking round.
'Are we lost?'
She heard his chuckle and took comfort from the sound. 'Not a bit of it, Nurse. We're over the Borderwe'll be at the crossroads soon.'
'Is Bert all right? Does he want to stop?'
She peered ahead, the visibility was down to about ten yards and that was obscured by driving snow.
Bert answered for himself. 'I'm OK, Nurse. It's not far now and I think we'd do better to keep going. It might clear.'
She agreed softly, knowing that he had said that to reassure her, and closed the window, observing for the benefit of her patient, 'We've a dozen miles or so to go. Are you very hungry? I've some cream crackers here and there's plenty of tea.'
But Mary was disposed to be difficult. She said rather peevishly, 'I want a huge steak with lots of duchesse potatoes and creamed cauliflower and lashings of gravy and sauce, then Charlotte Russe with masses of whipped cream and a plate of petits foursthe gooey ones, and a huge whisky and soda oh, and Kummel with my coffee.'
Julia felt sympathy with her patient. After all, she was very young; she would be on a fixed diet for the rest of her life. It was a pity that she was so spoiled that she refused to accept the fact, and anyway, once she was stabilised, the diet wouldn't be too awful, for her parents were wealthy enough to give it the variety those in more straitened circumstances couldn't afford. She said kindly, 'You make me feel quite hungry too, but you'd pay for it afterwards, you know.'
The girl beside her scowled. 'Who cares? That's what you're forto see that I don't die in a coma.'
Julia looked at her reflectively. 'There's always the possibility that someone might not be there.'
'Oh, yes, there will,' declared Mary, and sat up suddenly. 'I suppose you wouldn't like to stay with meforever, I mean.'
Julia smiled, feeling a little touched. 'How nice of you to ask me. But I have to go home and look after my sister-in-law for a bit, then I thought I'd get a job abroad for a year or twoand I've still got my midwifery to do.'
'Marry a rich man instead.'
'Why rich? As long as he's the right one, the money doesn't matter very much, does it? You need enough to live on and educate the children.'
'And pretty clothes and the hairdresser and jewellery and going to the theatre and out to dine, and a decent holiday at least twice a year.'
Julia said soberly, 'Perhaps I'm not ambitious,' and turned away to look out of the window againa pointless act, for it had been quite dark for some time now.
When the ambulance at last stopped, Julia couldn't believe they had arrived, for the last hour had been a nightmare of skidding and crawling through the blanket of fog and snow and now there was a gale blowing as well. She stepped out of the ambulance into several inches of snow and then clutched at her cap as a gust of wind tossed her backwards as though she had been a leaf. It was pitch dark too, but in the ambulance lights she could just see the beginning of steps leading upwards. She stood aside to let Bert and Willy get into the ambulance and asked, 'Shall I ring the bell?' and thought how ridiculous it sounded in this black waste of snow and fog and howling wind. But Bert said cheerfully enough, 'OK, Nurseup them steps, and look out for the ice.'
She advanced cautiously with the beam of her powerful torch guiding her: it wasn't so bad after allthe steps ended at a great door upon whose knocker she beat a brisk tattoo, and when she saw the brass bell in the wall, she rang that for good measure. But there were no lightsshe peered around her, unable to see anything but the reassuring solidarity of the door before her, and that hadn't opened. She was about to go down the steps again to relay her doubts to her companions when the door swung open, revealing a very old man holding a hurricane lantern. She was still getting her breath when he spoke testily.
'Ye didna' need to make all that noise. I heard ye the fust time.'
Julia, who had nice manners, apologised. 'Is this Drumlochie House?' she asked through teeth which were beginning to chatter with the cold.
'Ayeye'll be the nurse with Miss Mary?'
'That's rightcould you turn on the lights, please, so that the ambulance men can bring her indoors?'
'No lights,' said the old man without annoyance. 'Wind's taken the electriccan't think how ye got here.'
Julia couldn't either, but it hardly seemed the right moment to discuss it. She said instead, 'Then would you leave the door open and we'll bring Miss Mary in.'
She didn't wait to hear his reply but went carefully down the steps again.
She followed the two men, with the carrying chair and Mary in it, between them, back up again, shudderi ng at the possibility of a broken ankle or two added to Mary's diabetes. But they achieved the entrance without mishap and went inside where the old man was waiting for them, his lamp held high. 'So ye're back, Miss Mary,' he was, it seemed, a man of few words, 'your room's ready.'
He turned and started to walk across the hall towards the staircase discernible in the gloom, and the ambulance men, still with Mary between them, followed him with Julia bringing up the rear, shivering a little partly because she had got cold waiting at the front door and partly because her surroundings were, inadequately lighted as they were, a trifle forbidding. They seemed to walk a great distance before the old man at length opened a door and they entered Mary's bedrooma large apartment with a fire burning in its open fireplace and most pleasantly furnished. Julia, looking round her, heaved a sigh of relief. If their rooms were half as comfortable they would have nothing to grumble about.
'Where's the nurse?' she asked the old man.
He stood and thought, his head on one side, for an aggravating moment. 'The nurse? Weel, she's to come from Edinburgh, but it's been snowing a blizzard since daybreak hereabouts. There'll be no nurse.'
'No nurse!' Julia looked at him with something like horror. 'But I'm going back to London with the ambulance in the morningI can't leave my patient. Where's the telephone?'
'The wind's had it.'
The wind, thought Julia bitterly, was answerable for a lot.
'There must be some way of getting a messageto the village or a doctoror the police.'
He didn't even bother to say no, just shook his head. 'Snow's deep,' he observed without emotion. 'There's Jane the cook and Madge the maid gone to Hawick yesterday to shop for Miss Mary's return. They'll not be back for twa days, maybe.'
Julia's dismay was smothered in a flood of practical thoughts.
'Food?' she asked. 'Hot water, candles?'
'Food's enoughcandles and lamps we've gothot water, now, that's another matter. I've no call for hot water, stove's gone out.'
'If you could possibly light it for us again? Miss Maryall of us, we need to wash at least. Are there any rooms ready for us?'
He shook his head. 'No. Madge was to have done that, and me thinking ye'd not get here in this weatherI didna' light the fire.'
'Never mindcould the ambulance men come and help you? They're tired and hungrythey must have a meal and a good sleep. If you'd give them the bedlinen I'm sure they'll make up the beds, and I'll come down to the kitchen and cook something.'
He looked at her with a glimmer of respect. 'Aye, do that if ye will. Miss Maryshe's all right?'
'Once she has had her supper she will be.' Julia smiled at him and went to fetch Bert and Willy.
There was food enough once she could find it in the vast semi-basement kitchen. She pottered about, still wrapped in her cloak, while the men made up beds and lighted fires, making Mary's supper as attractive as possible.
It was getting on for midnight when Julia removed the supper tray, and Mary, still grumbling, had consented to go to bed. Julia left an oil lamp the old man had produced in the room, wished her patient a good night and went in search of Willy and Bert. She found them, after a great deal of tramping up and down draughty corridors, very snug in a little room on the floor above.
'Nothing but fourposters downstairs,' Willy explained. 'We've found you a nice room below, Nurse, got a fire going an' all. First left at the bottom of the stairs.'
She thanked them, warned them that she was about to cook supper and went in search of her sleeping quarters. The room was reasonably near her patient's, she was glad to find, and at the head of the stairs, and although there was a piercing draught whistling round the hall below, the room itself looked pleasant enough. She sighed with relief, went to look at Mary, who was already asleep, and made her way downstairs once more. The old man had disappeared; to bed probably, having considered that he had done enough for them. She set about frying eggs and bacon and boiling the kettle for tea, and presently the three of them sat down to a supper, which, while not being quite what they had expected, was ample and hot.
The three of them washed up, wished each other good night, and crept upstairs, bearing a variety of candlesticks and yawning their heads off. Julia, with a longing eye on the comfort of the bed, undressed with the speed of lightning, unpinned her hair, brushed it perfunctorily and went to find a bathroom. There were several, none supplying more than tepid water, so she cleaned her teeth, washed her face and hands with the same speed with which she had brushed her hair and, after a quick look at the sleeping Mary, retired to her room, where, without daring to take off her dressing gown, she jumped into bed. And as she closed her eyes the front door bell rang.