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LAURA heard the car draw up outside the house while she was still in the kitchen cutting bread and butter for tea, but she didn't stop what she was doing. Her father and Joyce would be in the sitting room waiting for their visitors, and there would be a small delay while they were greeted and ushered indoors; she would be able to slip in at the last minute.
She started to arrange the slices on a plate, reflecting that it would be pleasant to see her godfather again; he had always come to England at least twice a year, but now, since his illness, he lived semi-retired from his medical practice and no longer drove a car. It was fortunate that there had been this old friend who had been coming to England anyway and had suggested that they might travel together. She laid the last slice in its place, washed her hands and went from the nice old-fashioned kitchen, down the back hall and into the sitting room. Old Doctor van Doorn de Pette was there, sitting in one of the large, rather shabby armchairs by the window, talking to her father, and she went straight to him and gave him an affectionate hug.
"Lovely to see you, Godfather," she exclaimed in her pretty voice. "You must be tired—tea's all ready."
He studied her, smiling. "Dear Laura—not changed, and glad I am of it. Tea will be delightful, but first you must meet my friend, Reilof van Meerum."
She had been aware of him, of course, talking to Joyce at the other end of the long, low-ceilinged room, but she hadn't looked at him. And now, crossing the polished floor to shake his hand, she hardly heard her godfather saying: 'My goddaughter, Reilof—Laura," for she was fighting bewilderment and delight and surprise all rolled into one, because at last here was the man she had been waiting for—standing in front of her, all six feet three inches of him, rather heavily built and no longer young—but then she was twenty-nine herself, wasn't she?—and so incredibly good-looking, with his dark hair silvered at the temples and dark eyes under heavy brows. With the greatest effort in the world she composed her ordinary features into a conventional smile of greeting, said 'How do you do?" with a calm she didn't feel and made some remark about his journey. He answered her politely, and when Joyce chimed in, turned back to her with every sign of interest—and not to be wondered at, conceded Laura, as she went back to her father to tell him that she would be bringing in the tea tray in a few minutes, Joyce was worth anyone's interest; pretty—very pretty and fair, with large baby blue eyes, and nine years her junior to boot.
She thought it without envy; from the moment that Joyce had been born, she had been the focal point of the household, and later, of their circle of friends, and although she had been spoilt by her parents, very few had ever discovered the fact. As for Laura, she had quickly come to take it for granted, for when her sister was born she had been a disappointingly gawky child of nine, with light brown hair, straight and fine and worn, for convenience's sake, in two pigtails, and her small face, its childish chubbiness lost, was already settling into its unexciting mould. Only her hazel eyes were fine, large and richly lashed, but even they stood no chance against Joyce's gorgeous blue ones.
It was natural enough that her mother and father should have been delighted to have such a pretty little girl, and she herself had been overjoyed to have a small sister; Laura had spoilt her too, and after their mother had died she had done her best to take her place, but somehow, by the time Joyce was twelve years old, she was already making it plain that she no longer needed Laura for a companion, and it had been a relief to them both when Laura went away to London to train as a nurse. Now, although she came home fairly frequently, she had grown used to Joyce's casual treatment and her assumption that when Laura was home she would take over the burden of the household so that Joyce might be free to go where and when she wanted.
She went back to the kitchen and picked up the loaded tray, and was faintly surprised when Doctor van Meerum crossed the room to take it from her, and caught Joyce's quick frown as he did so—so silly of her to be annoyed, thought Laura, when he was only being polite; surely his quick, impersonal smile made that clear.
The conversation became general during tea, but that didn't disguise the fact that Joyce had captivated their visitor, and indeed she was behaving charmingly. Laura, watching her, thought how nice it must be to attract people—men, she amended honestly— without any effort at all. She took very little part in the talk, but occupied herself with filling the teacups and passing plates of cake and sandwiches, replying to any remarks made to her in her unassuming way, and when tea was finished, sitting quietly beside her godfather, listening to him discussing the finer points of an article he had just had published.
While she listened she glanced from time to time at Joyce and Doctor van Meerum, sitting a little apart, deep in a talk of their own. They made a striking pair; Joyce, her cheeks faintly pink with excitement, her eyes wide, had the big, rather silent man beside her already ensnared. Laura told herself that if they were mutually attracted, there was nothing to do about it; he might be the man she had dreamed about for so long, but that didn't mean that she could expect him to fall for her; in any case, while Joyce was around that was so unlikely as to be laughable.
She started to put the tea things back on the tray very quietly, so as not to disturb the conversation, wondering if it might not have been better never to have met Reilof van Meerum than to have found him now only to see him bowled over by Joyce's lovely little face. She went into the kitchen again and washed up, fed Mittens the cat and started to get the supper ready. Presumably the doctor would stay, and anyway one more would make no difference.
She put the soup she had made that morning on to heat, for the April evening was chilly, and started on a cheese soufflé. She had made a trifle that afternoon and there was plenty of cheese, and now she poked round in the old-fashioned larder for ingredients with which to make a salad; apples and a tomato or two, a lettuce and a providential head of celery— she mixed a dressing for it, put the soufflé into the oven and went to lay the table.
The dining room looked cosy, for she had had the forethought to light a small fire there; its rather shabby old-fashioned furniture looked pleasant in the light of the shaded lamp over the big mahogany table, the silver shone in it too, and when she had finished she looked at it with satisfaction and then ran upstairs to her room to tidy herself before putting out the drinks. Her room was at the back of the house, square and airy and furnished with the white-painted furniture of her childhood. She sat down before her dressing-table glass, making no attempt to do her face or hair, but staring at her reflection with a critical eye. She wasn't exactly plain, but she wasn't pretty either. Her mouse-brown hair was fine and silky and very long, but as she usually wore it piled on top of her head, its beauty was scarcely seen, and although her eyes were nice they weren't in the least spectacular. Her nose and mouth were just ordinary, and although her figure was pretty she was barely of middle height, and as she tended to dress in an unassuming manner it was seldom that anyone took a second glance at her.
But her mouselike appearance was deceptive; she was a clever girl and a splendid nurse, holding a Ward Sister's post at St Anne's hospital in London, highly prized by the people she worked with and for. Besides, she was a good housewife and cook, got on well with animals and children and was liked by everyone. But she also had a fine temper when roused to anger, which wasn't often, and could be, on occasion, extremely pig-headed. She had long ago come to terms with herself and accepted life as it came, and if it wasn't quite what she had hoped it would be, no one heard her say so. She spoke to her reflection now:
"It's a good thing that you're going back to St Anne's in the morning, my girl, before you start getting silly ideas into your head—out of sight, out of mind, and don't you forget it.'She nodded sternly at herself, smoothed her hair, powdered her undistinguished nose and went back downstairs, where she was greeted with the news that Doctor van Meerum had accepted Joyce's invitation to stay the night and go on to London in the morning. It vexed her very much to hear her sister declare: 'You can give Laura a lift," with the certainty of one accustomed to having her every wish granted; she wasn't in the least deceived by his polite agreement to do this—he wanted to please Joyce...
Laura had plenty of opportunity to observe Doctor van Meerum during supper. His manners were nice and he had undoubted charm; he maintained a steady flow of small talk without monopolising the conversation, said very little about himself, gave his full attention to any remarks addressed to him and showed a sense of humour which delighted her. All the same he was unable to prevent his dark eyes dwelling upon Joyce whenever the opportunity occurred, and his smile, when their eyes met, would have set any girl's heart beating faster. It annoyed Laura that she had no control over that organ and was forced to suffer its thumping and jumping. It almost stopped altogether when they had finished their meal at last and she began to clear the table as the company dispersed to the sitting room, for he turned round at the door to look at her and then walked back into the room, saying, "You must let me help you..."
She had no chance to say yes or no, for Joyce had turned round too and cried with careless affection, "Darling, I'll wash up, you've had all the chores to do—Reilof will help me." She turned a laughing face to his. "You will, won't you? Although I don't think you do it at home."