Read an Excerpt
It was a crisp, starry October night and Professor van Kessel, driving himself back home after a weekend with friends in Dorset, had chosen to take the country roads rather than the direct route to London. He drove without haste, enjoying the dark quiet, the villages tucked in the hollows between the hills, the long stretches of silent road, the unexpected curves and sudden windings up and down. There was no one about, though from time to time he slowed for a fox or a badger, a hedgehog or a startled rabbit.
The last village had been some miles back and now there were no houses by the roadside. It was farmland, and the farmhouses lay well back from the road; there would be another village presently and he could take his direction from there. In the meantime he was content; the weekend had been very pleasant and this was a delightfully peaceful way of ending it.
The road curved between heavy undergrowth and trees, and he slowed and then braked hard as a figure darted from the side of the road into his headlights, only yards from the Rolls's bonnet. The doctor swore softly and let down his window.
'That was a silly thing to do,' he observed mildly to the anxious face peering at him, and he got out of the car. 'In trouble?'
The girl stared up at him looming over her small person. Her face might be anxious but there was no sign of distress or fear.
'Hope I didn't startle you,' she said, 'and so sorry to bother you, but would you stop at Thinbottom villageit's only a couple of miles down the roadand get someone to phone for a doctor or an ambulance? There's a party of travellers in the woods' She cocked her neat head sideways over a shoulder. 'One of them is having a baby and I'm not sure what to do next.'
A plain face, the doctor reflected, but lovely eyes and a delightful voice. What she was doing here in the middle of nowhere at eleven o'clock at night was none of his business, and considering the circumstances she was remarkably self-possessed. He said now, 'Perhaps I might help. I'm a doctor.'
'Oh, splendid.' She gave his sleeve an urgent tug. 'Have you got your bag with you? We'll need scissors and some string or something, and a few towels. There's a kettle of hot water ' She was leading the way along a narrow track. 'I told her not to push '
The darkness hid his smile.
'You are a nurse?'
'Me? Gracious me, no. First aid. Here we are.'
The travellers had set up their camp in a clearing close to the path, with a tent, a small stove, a few bundles and a hand-cart.
'In the tent,' said the girl, and gave his sleeve another urgent tug. 'He's a doctor,' she said to the two young women, and to the man and young boy standing there. 'Did you lock your car?' she asked the doctor. 'Because if you didn't Willy can go and stand guard over it.'
'I locked it.' What a little busybody the girl wasprobably some vicar's daughter. 'I'll have a basin of that water in the tent. With a towel, if there is one.'
He bent his large frame and edged inside, and a moment later the girl crept in with a saucepan of water and a none too clean towel to make herself small on the other side of the woman, waiting to be told what to do.
The doctor had taken off his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves. 'Something in which to wrap the infant?' He smiled reassuringly at the woman lying on top of a sleeping bag. 'You're very braveanother few minutes and you'll have your baby to hold.'
The woman let out a squawk. 'It's early,' she mumbled. 'We'd reckoned we'd be in Sturminster Newton.'
The doctor was arranging some plastic sheeting just so, and getting things from his bag set out on it. He glanced over at the girl. 'A blanket? Something warm?'
He whipped a spotless and very large handkerchief from a pocket as she took off the scarf wound round her neck and, urged on by the imminent arrival of the baby, she laid the one on the other just in time to receive a furiously angry infant.
'You'll have to hold her for a moment, then wrap her up tightly and give her to her mum. Right, now do as I say.'
He was quick and unflurried, telling her what to do in a quiet voice, making little jokes with the mother. Presently he said, 'Go outside and see if anyone has a clean towel or nightiebut they must be clean.'
She crawled out of the tent, and with the other women's help searched the bundles.
She came back with a cotton nightie. 'This one was being saved for when she got to Sturminster Newton.'
'Excellent. Roll it up neatly and give it to me.' In a moment he said, 'Now, put your hand just here and keep it steady while I phone.'
He took a phone from his pocket and dialled 999 and began to speak.
He went outside then, and presently the husband came in to bend awkwardly over his wife and daughter while the girl knelt awkwardly, cold and cramped, her hand stiff.
The father went away and the doctor came back, took her hand away gently and nodded his satisfaction. 'The ambulance will be here very shortly; they'll take you to Blandford Hospitaljust for a couple of days so that you can rest a bit and get to know the baby. Have you any transport?'
'Broke down yesterday.'
He went away again to talk to the husband, and came back with two mugs of tea. He handed one to the girl and helped his patient to sit up, and held the mug while she drank. 'If I might suggest it,' he said in his placid voice, 'it would be a good idea if your husband and family stayed for a day or two in Blandford. I think that I may be able to arrange that for youit will give you time to sort things out. You'll be quite free to go on your way, but you do need a good rest for a couple of days.'
'If Bert don't mind ' The woman closed her eyes and slept, the baby clasped close to her, its cross little face now smoothed into that of a small cherub.
The doctor glanced across at the girl, still kneeling patiently. She was smiling down at the baby, and when she smiled she wasn't in the least plain. When she looked up he saw how pale she was. 'Are you not out rather late?' he asked.
'Well, it was just after seven o'clock when Bert stopped me. I was on my way home on my bike, you know. There's not much traffic along here after five o'clock. Two cars went by and he tried to stop them, but they took no notice.'
'So you had a go?'
She nodded. 'She'll be quite comfortable at Bland-fordbut it's a bit late.'
'I'll go in and see whoever's on duty at the hospital.' He sounded so reassuring that she said no more, and they crouched, the pair of them, beside the woman, saying nothing. From time to time the doctor saw to his patient, and once or twice he went to talk to her husband. He was packing up their possessions and stowing them on the hand-cart. When the doctor returned the second time he told the girl that the boy and the young women would stay the night, sleeping in the tent. 'They say they will start walking in the morning.'
'If they stop at Thinbottom I think I could get someone to give them and the cart a lift to Blandford.'
'You live at Thinbottom?'
'Me? I'm the vicar's daughter.'
'I'll give you a lift as soon as the ambulance has gone.'
'No need, thank you all the same,' she said, and, in case that had sounded rude, added, 'What I mean is, you've been awfully kind and it must have been a great nuisance to you. You'll be very late home. Besides, my bike's here.'
'The boy can load it on the cart and drop it off tomorrow when they get to Thinbottom. Won't your family be worried about you?'
'I went over to Frogwell FarmGranny Coffin. Mother will think that I've stayed the nightshe's very old and often ill.'
'Nevertheless, I must insist on seeing you to your home,' he said, and, when she would have protested, added, 'Please, don't argue' He broke off. 'Ah, here's the ambulance at last.'
He went out of the tent to meet the paramedics, and when they reached the tent she slipped out and stood on one side while they undid their equipment and saw to his patient. Then, satisfied, he stood up and walked back to the ambulance with them, his patient and the baby and the father. As he passed the girl he said, 'Stay where you are,' in a voice that she couldn't ignore. In any case her bike was already roped onto the top of the hand-cart.
He came back presently. 'Shall we introduce ourselves?' he suggested. 'Gijs van Kessel.' He held out a large hand.
She shook it, feeling its firm grip. 'Margo Pearson,' she said, and then, 'That's not an English nameare you Dutch?'
'Yes. If you will wait a moment while I have a word with this boy.'
Once he had done so, he picked up his bag and, with the boy ahead of them with a torch, went back to the road and handed her into the car. Margo, sinking back against the leather softness, said, 'I've never been in a Rolls-Royce. It's very comfortableand large too. But then you're a very large man, aren't you?' She sounded very matter-of-fact.
'Yes, I am. Miss Pearson, forgive me for mentioning it, but was it not rather foolhardy of you to rush into the road and stop a strange car? There are quite a few undesirable people around after dark.'
'I would have screamed very loudly if you had been one,' she told him sensibly. 'And I dare say Bert or Willy would have come.'
He didn't point out that by the time they could have reached her she might have been whisked away in the car or maltreated in some way.
They soon reached the village and she said, 'It's here on the left, by the church.'
He drew up at an open gateway. The house beyond was large and solid, a relic from the days when the parsonage had housed a cleric's large family, and overshadowed by the church a stone's throw from it. It, like the rest of the village, was in darkness, but as the doctor drew up a light shone through the transom over the front door.
'Thank you very much,' said Margo, and undid her seat belt.
He didn't reply, but got out of the car, opened her door and walked the few yards to the house with her. By the time they had reached the door it had been opened to reveal the vicar in his dressing gown.
'Margothank heaven. We had just phoned Frog-well Farm and been told that you left hours ago. You're all right? An accident?' He opened the door wide. 'Come in, both of you '
'Father, this is Dr van Kessel, who kindly gave me a lift. There's been no accident but he has been of the greatest possible help.' She turned to greet her mother, a middle-aged replica of herself, as he and the vicar shook hands.
'My dear sir, we are in your debt. Come into the sitting rooma cup of coffee? Something to eat?'
'Thank youbut I'm on my way to Blandford to the hospital. Your daughter will explain. I am glad to have been of some help!' He smiled at Mrs Pearson. 'You have a very resourceful daughter, Mrs Pearson. I regret that I cannot stay and tell you of our evening's adventure, but I'm sure Miss Pearson will do so.'
He shook hands all round again, and Margo, having her hand gently crushed, had time to study him in the dim light of the hall. He had seemed enormous back there in the woods and he didn't seem any less so now. Not so very young, she decided. Mid-thirties, with fair hair already silvered, a commanding nose above a thin, firm mouth and startlingly blue eyes. She thought she would never forget him.
That he would forget her the moment he had resumed his journey went without saying; she had been a plain child and had grown into a plain young woman, and no one had ever pretended that she wasn't.
Her father had assured her that one could be beautiful as well as being possessed of mediocre features, and her mother thought of her lovingly as a jolie laide, but even George Merridew, who, in village parlance, was courting her cautiously, had told her with a well-meaning lack of tact that she might not have much in the way of good looks but she had plenty of common sense and was almost as good a cook as his mother.
A remark which Margo had found unsatisfactory. Surely if George was in love with her he should think of her as rather more than a cook and a sensible pair of hands? Or was that what he wanted? He was a good farmer and a prosperous man and she liked himwas even a little fond of himbut such remarks did nothing to endear him to her. And now this man had appeared from nowhere and gone again, and had left her feeling uncertain.
She related the night's happenings to her parents over a pot of tea and slices of bread and butter with lashings of jam. Caesar, the family cat, had curled up on her lap, and Plato, the elderly black Labrador, had got into his basket and gone back to sleep. She gobbled the last slice and sighed.
'I'm so sorry you were worried, but I couldn't leave them there, could I?'
'No, love, of course not. You did quite the right thing. They will bring your bicycle in the morning?'
'Oh, yes. I'm going to ask George to lend me the trailer, then they can put their hand-cart on it and go to Blandford.'
'Will George do that?' asked her father mildly.
'Well, he won't be using it until Wednesday, when he hauls the winter feed.'
Margo got up and tucked Caesar into Plato's basket. She put the mugs in the sink and said, 'It's after two o'clock. Don't either of you get up in the morning until I bring your tea. It's your morning off, isn't it, Father? I'll get the breakfast before I go to see George.'
It was still early when she drove over to George's farm in the worn out old Ford her father owned. His laconic, 'Hello, old girl,' was friendly enough, but hardly loverlike. He listened to her request without comment, only saying when she had finished, 'I don't see why not. I'm not needing it for a couple of days. But mind and drive carefully. Will you be at the whist drive this evening? Mother's going.'
Margo, who didn't like George's mother all that much, said that she'd see, and waited while he and one of his farmhands attached the trailer. She drove it carefully back and then parked outside the vicarage in the main street, where the boy and the two young women would see it. She had just finished her breakfast when they came, pushing the hand-cart with her bike on top. They sat, the three of them, in the kitchen, drinking the tea her mother offered and eating bacon sandwiches, saying little.