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Sister Sophia Greenslade wrinkled her straight little nose under her muslin mask and thought longingly of her tea. The theatre list should have been finished an hour ago, but an emergency splenectomy had had to be fitted in during the afternoon. Now the last case, a simple appendicectomy, was on the table. The RSO, Tom Carruthers, put out a gloved hand to take the purse string she had ready. She fitted a curved, threaded needle into its holder, and glanced at the clock. Five minutes, she calculated, and she'd be free. Staff had been back on duty for more than half an hour; she could hand over to her. She passed the stitch scissors at exactly the right moment; nodded to the junior nurse to check swabs, and started to put the soiled instruments into the bowl of saline nearby, pausing only to put a threaded skin needle into the mute demanding hand of the RSO. Raising a pair of nicely-shaped eyebrows at a watching nurse, who had been long enough in theatre to know what the gesture signified—to whisk the bowl away—Sister Greenslade got down from the small square stool behind her white-draped trolleys and stationed herself by the houseman opposite Tom Carruthers, ready to clap on the small piece of strapping over the neatly stitched wound. This done to her satisfaction, she said 'Porters, please' in her nice, unhurried voice, and followed the RSO over to the sink, stooping to pick up his gown and cap which he had shed as he went. Inured to the ways of surgeons, she said nothing, but put them wordlessly into the bin and stood quietly while a nurse untied the tapes of her own gown, then took off her theatre cap and mask, revealing a pleasant face, redeemed from plainness by a pair of magnificent eyes with very dark lashes. Her nose was nondescript, and her mouth too large; her complexion was good, and her hair, drawn severely back into a coil on top of her head, was a delicate shade of mouse. She was barely middle height, but her figure, which was charming, more than compensated for her lack of inches.
She joined the two men at the sinks in the scrubbing room, and they stood in a row, relaxed and friendly, all of them anxious to be gone.
'What's the time?' asked Tom.
Sophia went on scrubbing. 'Almost six,' she said. 'If you hurry and your wife's waiting and ready, you'll just about get there as the curtain goes up.'
She smiled up at him, and he thought for the hundredth time that her smile transformed her whole face. He was a happily married man himself, he couldn't understand why Sister Greenslade hadn't been snapped up before now. He started to dry his hands.
'What about you? Got a date tonight?'
She turned off the taps and said with a twinkle, 'They're falling over themselves to get at me—it's my fatal beauty.' She chuckled at her own remark, and went away to hand over.
Ten minutes later, she was on her way home. The early October evening was already chilly, but after the warmth of the theatre she welcomed its freshness. The hospital was in a pleasant part of London; the houses around it were for the most part elderly and terraced and well cared-for. There were lighted windows in most of them as she hurried towards her own home. She had been a very small girl when her father, a consultant at the hospital, had bought it. When he and her mother had been killed in a road accident, she had been just twenty-one, newly registered, and staffing in theatre. Her parents' death had been a sorrow she had been forced to bury deep under the responsibilities she had shouldered. The three younger children had still been at school then, and somehow she had been able to keep the home together, dividing her busy life between the exacting roles of mother, housekeeper and nurse with a success which had been earned at the expense of a much curtailed social life. In this she had been greatly helped by Grandmother Greenslade, who lived with them, and Sinclair, who had been her father's batman in the army during the war, and had somehow attached himself to his household when they had been demobbed. Indeed, he was the staunch friend of the whole family, and stood high in their affections.
She turned the last corner into the street where she lived. The house was half way down; she could see it quite clearly, even in the dusk. She could also see a small boy standing on the pavement—her younger brother, Benjamin. She frowned, and walked faster. Ben had a habit of getting into scrapes, which was probably why the tall gentleman with him was holding him so firmly by one shoulder. As she reached them, her mouth was open to utter some soothing phrase. She was forestalled, however.
'Ah, Sister Sophy, I fancy.' The voice sounded impatient and faintly mocking. She took a look at the speaker; he was not only tall, but big, with an air of self-confidence, almost arrogance, which made his good-looking face seem older than it probably was. He returned her look with the coldest blue eyes she had seen for a very long time.
Sophy listened to the sudden thump of her heart. She was, she told herself, very angry.
'Yes, my name is Sophy,' she said coolly. 'Though I can't imagine why you should be so ill-mannered and—and familiar.'
He put his handsome head a little on one side—the street lamp's thin light turned his grey hair to silver—and said silkily, to madden her, 'My dear good madam, why should I wish to be familiar with you? I used your name merely as a means of identification.'
Sophy choked, drew a long calming breath, and turned to her brother.
'What have you done, Ben?' she asked resignedly. Then, as she saw his white face, 'Are you hurt? What happened?'
Ben looked at her with relief mingled with a twelve-year-old boy's revulsion of making a scene.
'I bumped into this gentleman's car…'
The gentleman interrupted crisply, 'You should teach your brother that it's unwise to run across a street before looking to see if it's empty.'
It was at this moment that Sophy became aware of the gleaming Bentley drawn up at the kerb. She thought it unlikely that it had been damaged, it appeared to be perfection itself.
'I expect you were driving too fast,' she said outrageously.
He laughed with real amusement.
'I think not,' he said, the laugh echoing in his voice. 'I'm not in the habit of driving recklessly; and may I remind you that it's I who have the right to be annoyed, not you? I dislike being forced to avoid small boys and large dogs—'
Sophy stared at him, and repeated 'Large dogs?' in a rather thin voice, and then—'The Blot!' in a tone of consternation. She whipped off a glove, put two fingers into her mouth and whistled piercingly, causing her two companions to wince, then turned to her brother.
'Ben, I told you not to let the Blot cross the road without his lead!'
'I didn't, truly, Sophy. But Titus went with us and sat down in the park and wouldn't come back; so of course the moment I took the Blot's lead off, he went back for him.' He paused. 'I had to go after him, didn't I?'
Sophy considered the point gravely, her eyes on the stranger's well-cut tweed jacket. 'Yes,' she conceded, 'I suppose you did.'
She stopped talking to watch a large black dog, who from his appearance had been richly endowed by a large variety of unknown ancestors. The dog crossed the road with all the care of a child who has recently learned his kerb drill; his liquid black eye fixed on the man, as if to challenge him to think otherwise. The dog was closely followed by a nondescript cat, whose obvious low breeding was offset by a tremendous dignity.
Sophy heaved a sigh of relief. 'There they are,' she cried unnecessarily. 'They're devoted to each other,' she added, as an afterthought and in a tone of finality, as though that fact could explain away the whole episode. She heaved a sigh of relief which turned to a gasp. 'They didn't damage your car, did they?'
She looked up at the silent man beside her, and tried not to see how very handsome he was. The Blot had reared himself on to his hind legs, intent on making friends. The man patted him absent-mindedly, and looked down with resignation at Titus, who had wreathed himself around one elegant trousered leg. He shifted his gaze to Sophy, and said, 'Bentleys don't—er—dent very easily.'
'I say, is she really yours, sir?' Ben's enthusiasm had overcome his fright.
The black eyebrows rose. 'Most certainly.'
The boy looked at the graceful sweep of the car's bonnet.
'Well, I'd rather be run down by a Bentley than anything else,' he stated. 'Excepting a Rolls-Royce, of course.'
'If I only I'd known,' murmured the tall man, 'I would have done my best to oblige you.'
Sophy, deprived of her tea, and anxious to be gone from this strangely disturbing man, said sharply, 'What a great pity it is that you aren't driving your Rolls today.' And then stood abashed at his grave agreement and casual explanation that he seldom brought it to England. 'The Bentley is usually sufficient for my needs,' he concluded gently.
Sophy felt the colour surge into her face, and was thankful for the gathering darkness. She said in a stiff voice, 'I beg your pardon. If you're sure that Ben has done no harm, we'll go… Ben, will you apologise for upsetting this gentleman?'
'Do I look upset?' He was smiling openly at her, and her cheeks caught fire anew. He listened to Ben's apology and then put out a hand and tweaked the boy's ear gently. 'Goodbye,' he said, and turned away to his car, then, his hand on the door, looked over his shoulder.
'Blot,' he said. 'Escutcheon or Landscape?'
'Landscape,' said Sophy. 'We haven't got an escutcheon.'
'And Titus? One feels that it should have some Latin significance… but I'm at a loss.'
'He likes porridge.'
His shoulders shook. 'How slow-witted I've become; or perhaps my knowledge of your history is becoming a little rusty.' He got into the car. Above the restrained purr of the engine they heard his voice wishing them a goodnight.
Sophy closed the door behind her small party, took off her coat in the hall, warned Ben to wash his hands, and went straight to the kitchen. Sinclair glanced up as she went in, and then went on pouring water into a comfortably sized tea pot.
'You're very late, Miss Sophy. Thought I heard you talking outside in the street,' he went on innocently. The kitchen was at the back of the house, a point Sophy knew was not worth the mentioning.
'Ben ran in front of a car—we stopped to apologise to the driver.'
'Annoyed, was he? Ought to know better, these fast drivers; running innocent children down…'
Sophy perched on the edge of the kitchen table.
'Oh, Sinclair, it wasn't like that at all. It was Ben's fault, and this man was… very nice,' she ended tamely. Nice wasn't at all the right word… She thought of a great many adjectives which would describe him. He had annoyed her, and mocked her, and made her feel silly, as though she had been a brash teenager; but she knew, without having to think about it, that if Ben had been knocked down he was the man she would have wished to be first on the scene.
She asked on a sigh, 'What's for supper, Sinclair? I missed tea.'
'Your grandma said a nice cauliflower cheese, miss. You go and have a cuppa, and I'll get it on the go for you.'
The three occupants of the sitting room all looked up as Sophy entered. And they all spoke simultaneously.
'Sophy, what is all this about a man and a car?
'He wasn't English, was he, Sophy? Even though he did understand about Titus… He said he had a Rolls, didn't he? Penny says I'm fibbing.'
'He looked gorgeous!' This from her sister, Penelope, in the tones of a love-sick tragedy queen.
Sophy put down the tea tray, poured herself a cup, and answered the questions without hurry or visible excitement. She smiled across the room at her grandmother, sitting comfortably by the fire, solving the Telegraph crossword in a leisurely fashion.
'Ben was almost knocked down by a car—it was his fault. We stopped to apologise to the driver. He was very nice about it.'
Her grandmother looked up, her pretty, absurdly youthful face full of interest. 'Well, well. A man? Very good-looking, Penny says.'
Sophy replied composedly, 'Yes, very. And I think Benjamin's right in supposing him to be a foreigner.'
Penelope sighed gustily. At fifteen, she was full of romantic notions which at times made her very difficult to live with.
'He was a smasher. I couldn't see him quite clearly from the window. You might have asked him in, Sophy. Why didn't you?'
Sophy looked surprised. 'I didn't think about it,' she replied honestly, and then took pity on the pretty downcast face of her young sister. 'He wasn't very young,' she ventured.
'I'm old for my years,' Penny insisted. Age doesn't matter where true love exists.'
This profound remark drew forth general laughter in which Penny quite cheerfully joined, and then she said, 'Well, perhaps he was a bit old for me, but he would have done nicely for you, Sophy. You always said that you wished a tall handsome man would load you with jewels and furs and carry you off to his castle.'
Sophy looked astonished. 'Did I really say that?' Half-forgotten dreams, smothered by the prosaic daily round of her busy life, made her heart stir. She shook her head and said briskly. 'That must have been years ago.'
She was almost asleep in a sleeping house, when she remembered that he had said goodnight and not goodbye. She told herself sleepily that it meant nothing at all; but it was comforting all the same.
The tide of early morning chores washed away all but the most commonplace of her thoughts. Even on her short walk to the hospital her thoughts were taken up with her elder brother, Luke, who was in his last year of medical school at Edinburgh Royal. He was twenty-two, almost four years younger than she; and clever. What money there was she used ungrudgingly to get him through his studies. Another year, and he would qualify, and the money could be used for Penny, and later, for Benjamin. The darkling thought that by then she would be in her forties dimmed her plans momentarily, but she wasn't a girl to give way to self-pity, and she was cheerful enough as she went along to the scrubbing room, and then into the theatre. Staff Nurse had already laid up—the theatre was ready.