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The long low room gleamed in the firelight and the soft light from several lamps, giving a patina to the few pieces of well-polished yew and apple wood and glancing off the beams, blackened with age, which supported the ceiling. The room was full of people; the steady hum of talk and the frequent laughter witness to the success of the gathering.
The two men, latecomers, paused in the doorway to look around them and the elder of them, a short stout man with a fringe of grey hair surrounding a bald head, gave a rich chuckle. 'Dear Alice, she only gives two parties a year, you know, and everyone for miles around comes to one or both of them.'
He turned to look at his companion, a tall man with broad shoulders but lean nonetheless, elegantly turned out too in a superbly tailored suit, which, while not drawing attention to itself in any way, caused the discerning to realise that it had cost a great deal of money. He was a handsome man too, with a narrow face and a wide forehead, dark hair silvered with grey, an aquiline nose above a firm mouth, and heavily-lidded blue eyes.
He smiled now and said in a rather sleepy voice: 'It was good of you to bring meI shall be delighted to meet Mrs Bennett.'
'And her daughters,' finished his companion, and waved to someone in the room. 'Here's Alice now.'
Mrs Bennett came towards them smiling; she was a small pretty woman in her mid-fifties but looking younger. She planted a kiss on the older man's cheek and said happily: 'Ben, how lovely!' Her eyes took in his companion. And you've brought someone with you.'
Ah, yes, my dearmay I present Professor Baron van Tellerinck,' he added simply: 'His name's Raf.'
'Dutch,' said Mrs Bennett, and beamed at them both. 'On account of the "van", you know. I shall call you Raf.' She shook hands and rambled on: 'You sound very importantare you?'
'Not in the least, Mrs Bennett,' he ignored the other man's look, 'and I shall be delighted if you will call me Raf.'
Mrs Bennett tucked a hand into each of their arms. 'Come and meet a few people,' she invited. 'I've three daughters and they're all here. Ah, Ruth my youngestshe's just become engaged so suitably too.'
Her daughter laughed and her mother added: 'This is Raf, dear, he's Dutch and says he's not important, but I don't believe him.'
Ruth shook hands. She was a pretty girl, on the small side, with brown curly hair and large hazel eyes. She said, 'Hullo, Raf, nice to meet you.' She put out a hand and caught hold of a girl on the point of passing them. 'Here's Jane.'
They were very alike: Jane had more vivid colouring, perhaps, but they were the same height and size. The Dutchman shook hands and they stood talking for a few minutes until Mrs Bennett said that he must meet more of her friends. 'Katrina is around somewhere,' she told him vaguely. 'That's my eldest, of course.'
She plunged into a round of introductions, saw that he had a drink and presently left him. She was back within a few minutes a tall, splendidly built girl beside her. 'Here she is; Katrina, this is Raf, he came with Uncle Ben.'
Katrina offered a cool hand and smiled politely, and then the smile turned into a cheerful grin as she saw the look of faint surprise on his face. 'I'm the odd one out,' she told him. 'Five feet ten inches and what's known as a large lady, no one ever believes that I'm one of the family. I take after my father, he was a big man and tall, almost as tall as you.'
She waited for him to speak and when he didn't felt disconcerted.
'Would you like another drink? I'll get '
'Thank you, no.' His sleepy eyes were on her face, a pretty face with regular features and dark eyes, heavily fringed with long lashes. It made her feel even more disconcerted, so that she turned to the window and looked out, away from him. Outside the chilly March day was giving way to an even chillier evening; the pretty garden already glistening with a light drizzle. Katrina sighed and the Dutchman said: 'Your English spring is unpredictable, isn't it?'
She looked at him over her shoulder. 'Yes, I suppose that's why it's so delightfulthough I prefer the autumn.'
His thick brows lifted and she went on, talking at random: 'Bonfires and apples and coming home to tea round the fire. Do you live in the country?'
'Oh yes, and I must agree about the bonfires and the apples; unfortunately we are not addicted as a nation to taking tea round the fire. I shall have to try it.'
She decided that he was difficult to talk to and sought feverishly for another topic of conversation and failed. 'I quite like the spring,' she observed idiotically.
His glance was grave, but she had the strongest suspicion that he was laughing at her. 'Ah, yes"Oh, to be in England now that April's there". And a much nicer bit about May following '
'"And after April, when May follows, and the white-throat builds and all the swallows,"' Katrina quoted.
'You like Browning?'
'Well, yes, though I'm not all that keen on poetry.' She answered warily; if he was going to throw an Anthology of English Verse at her she was sunk. She said quickly: 'Do you have any Dutch poets?'
'Several, but none of them are much good at writing about the weather.'
She saw the smile at the corner of his firm mouth and thanked heaven silently as someone called her from across the room. 'Oh, there's someone shall I introduce you to ?'
She looked up into his face and saw his eyes twinkling. 'I'm very happy to remain here. I enjoyed our little talk about the weatherto be expected, of coursean English topic and so safe.'
Katrina felt her face pinken and was annoyed; he was laughing at her again and because he was a guest she couldn't tell him what she thought of him. She looked down her beautiful straight nose and said coldly: 'I hope you enjoy the rest of your visit to England, Professor,' and left him, feeling surprise at her feeling of regret that she would never see the tiresome man again. Just so that I could take him down a peg, she told herself as she joined a group of young people all talking at once. Their conversation seemed a little brash after the Professor's measured observations, but then of course he was much older; at least thirty-six or seven; she would find out from Uncle Ben.
It was later, when all the guests had gone and they were sitting round the fire drinking tea and eating the left-overs from the party for their supper, that Ruth observed: 'That was quite someonethe man Uncle Ben brought with him. If I weren't engaged to Edward I could go for himhe's a bit old, though.'
Katrina, to her surprise, found herself protesting. 'Not all that old, love. I daresay he's on the wrong side of thirty-five '
'He's thirty-eight,' said her mother, 'I asked Ben. What were you talking about, Kate?'
'The weather.' Three pairs of blue eyes looked at her in surprise, and she frowned. 'Well,' she muttered, 'I'm so largemen don't chat up big women '
'But you looked quite small beside him,' comforted her mother, 'and it must have been very nice for him not to have to bend double in order to talk to someone.' She looked puzzled. 'But the weather, darling?'
'I found him difficult to talk to.' Katrina yawned. 'Let's do the washing up and then I'm for bed; I must be off early in the morning.'
'When is your next holiday, dear?' Her mother piled cups and saucers and smiled across at her.
'Well, I can't be quite certain; Uncle Ben's got a backlog as long as my arm and as fast as there are a couple of beds empty they're filled by emergencies. I expect I'll wait until he's worked off most of his cases and decides to take a holiday himself.'
Katrina got to her feet and carried the tray down the stone-flagged passage to the kitchen where Amy, who had been with the family since she could remember, sat dozing by the Aga. She woke up as Katrina went in and said crossly: 'Now, Miss Kate, there's no call for you to be doing that.' She got out of her chair, a small round person with a sharp nose and small boot-button eyes.
Katrina put the tray down and gave Amy a hug. 'Go on with you!' she declared robustly. 'I've been standing around all the evening; a bit of washing up is just the exercise I need. Go to bed, Amy dear, do, and for heaven's sake call me in good time in the morning.'
Amy made only a token remonstrance. 'And you'll not go before you' ve had one of my breakfasts,' she declared. She sniffed. 'I daresay they starve you at that hospital.'
Katrina peered down at her splendidly proportioned person. 'Not so's it shows,' she observed.
She left soon after eight o'clock, driving herself in her rather battered Mini. The rain had ceased and it was a chilly morning with a pale sky holding a promise of spring. The house, standing back from the narrow street, looked delightful in the clear light, its grey stone walls softened by the ivy climbing them, its garden showing colour here and there where the daffodils were beginning to open; Katrina was reluctant to leave it and still more reluctant to leave her mother and sisters; they had always got on well, doubly so now that her father was dead. She waved to the various heads hanging from windows and turned into the street. There was no one much about; she passed the boys' school and turned into the main street through the town and presently joined the A30. London wasn't all that distance away and she had all the morning. She slowed through Shaftesbury and took the Salisbury road; she had done the trip so often that she knew just where she could push the little car to its limit and where it was better to slow down. She had time in hand by the time she reached Salisbury, and once through it, she stopped at Winterslow and had coffee, and not long after that she was on the M3, on the last leg of her journey.
Benedict's was an old hospital in name but very modern in appearance. The original building, empty now and awaiting demolition, lay on the north side of the river, strangled by narrow streets of ugly little houses, but now it was housed in a magnificent building, very impressive to look at, and fitted out with everything modern science could conceive of. It was a pity that there wasn't enough money left to staff it fully, especially as the nurses complained that it took them all their time to get from one part of the building to the other, for its corridors were endless and staff weren't supposed to use the lifts.
Katrina, in charge of the men's surgical ward on the fourth floor, glanced up as she swept the Mini into the forecourt and housed it in the roomy garage to one side. It would be take-in week in the morning, she remembered: The ward had been full when she had left two days ago for her days off. Just for a moment she thought longingly of her home in the placid little Dorset town, which only bustled into life once a week on market day, but she had chosen to be a nurse and to train at a London teaching hospital, and she loved her work enough to stay in the city even though she disliked its rush and hurry.
She got her bag from the boot and crossed to the side entrance, to climb to the second floor and cross by the covered bridge to the nurses' home. She had a bed-sitting room there in the airy corridor set aside for the ward Sisters with its own door to shut them away from the student nurses, and a tiny kitchen as well as a generous supply of bathrooms, and above all, it held a nice sense of privacy. Katrina unlocked her door and went in. She had time enough to change, time to go to lunch if she wished, but she wasn't hungry; she set about the business of turning herself from a well-dressed young woman to a uniformed ward Sister, and while she did it, thought about the man Uncle Ben had brought with him to last night's party. She hadn't meant to think about him, and it annoyed her that somehow he had managed to pop into her head and wouldn't be dismissed. She forgot him presently, though, going back on duty a little early so that she could have a cup of tea before plunging into the rest of the day's work.
The ward was still full; true, two patients had gone home, but three had been admitted, which meant that there was already one bed in the middle of the ward and with take-in imminent, it would certainly be joined by several more.
Her senior staff nurse, Julie Friend, was on duty and Katrina breathed a sigh of relief; her second staff nurse, Moira Adams, was a tiresome creature, a self-important know-all, who bullied the nurses whenever she had the chance and irritated the patients, Katrina found her much more trying than all the patients put together and had told her so on various occasions, she had told the Senior Nursing Officer too, and that lady, although sympathetic, had pointed out that Adams would be leaving in a couple of months' time to take up a post in a surgical ward and she needed all the experience she could get. Katrina had thrust out her lower lip at that and wanted to know why the girl couldn't be transferred to the female block, only to be told that Adams would ride roughshod over Sister Jenkins. Which was true enough; Jilly Jenkins was a small sweet person and a splendid nurse, but she could be bullied