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The rain fell, soundless and gentle, veiling the dimming heather and all the rusts and reds and brown of the autumn countryside, and almost blotting out the distant mountains while it in no way detracted from their beauty. This view was not, however, shared by Miss Sappha Devenish, sitting behind the wheel of her red Mini. She had been halfway up a moderately steep hill when the little car had coughed, spluttered, hesitated and then continued its climb, only to come to a halt again. The road was a narrow one, the Mini had stopped squarely on its crown, and its driver, calculating her chances of steering it into the side, decided against it. The country was fairly open ahead of heranyone coming down the hill would see her in ample time to pull up, and anything climbing behind her would be, of necessity, travelling slowly. Besides, she had no mind to ruin her expensive suit and still more expensive shoessomeone would be bound to pass one way or the other, sooner or later. It seemed as though it would be later, she had been watching the rain for more than an hour, and now turned to study the map on the seat beside her.
She had left the main road at Torridon and had passed through Inver Alligin, which according to her reckoning meant that she was a bare five miles from her destination. She glanced at her watchit was already four o'clock, and her thoughts dwelt longingly on tea, though it was her own fault that she wasn't going to get it. She should have filled up at that last petrol station, but she had been in a hurry to arrive at her journey's end and she had thought that she could just do it. Foolish, and all the more so after her well-planned, effortless two-day trip from Londonalmost six hundred miles. Well, she had wanted to get as far away from Andrew as possiblethe hospital too; it looked as though she had achieved her purpose, for the countryside she was now in was indeed far away.
She had jumped at the chance her uncle had offered her to go as nurse to a patient of his staying in this remote district of the Western Highlands, but now, suddenly, she wondered if she had been wise. Viewed from faraway London, and with the bitter aftertaste of her break-up with Andrew still to be borne, it had seemed a splendid idea, but now, surrounded by distant mountains and an unfamiliar countryside made sombre by the rain, she wasn't so sure. She stared glumly out of the car's windows, beset by the feeling that she shouldn't have come; a feeling that was heightened by the nagging suspicion that she would probably be homesick for the ward she had left behind her at Greggs'.
She had been Sister of Women's Surgical for only a yearshe had been a fool to give it up; any other girl, less soft and silly than herself, would have put a bold face on things and stuck it out. She sighed, aware that however reasonable this argument sounded, she would remain soft and silly, although in the last few weeks she had succeeded in acquiring a cool impersonal shell to cover it. She interrupted her thoughts to consider the sound of a car coming up the hill, travelling rather faster than she thought either possible or wise. She turned in her seat and craned her neck to peer out of the rain-washed rear window. It was a Land Rover, coming towards her with a fine burst of speed which took no account of the possibility of there being other traffic. It came to a halt only a foot or so from her rear wheels and its driver did not immediately get out; when he did, his movements were irritatingly unhurried. He was a very tall man with broad shoulders, wearing, she observed, a shabby duffle coat and corduroy trousers stuffed into rubber bootsa farmer, she decided, then felt uncertain of this as he approached and she was able to take stock of him, for he didn't look like a farmer at all, not with that dark fierce face, haughty and hawk-nosed above a straight mouth; dark hair brushed back from a wide forehead and a pair of winged eyebrows, so arched and thick that they gave him the look of a satyr.
She wound down the window, feeling nervous and just a little sillyjustifiably so, as it turned out, for he said without preamble:
'Of all the fool places to stopI might have known it was a woman.' He had a deep voice with the hint of an accent and he spoke without haste and apparently without temper, which for some reason caused her own to rise.
'I'm out of petrol!' she snapped, and could have bitten out her tongue the next instant, for he said at once:
'Naturally.' His dark eyes studied her person in leisurely fashion. 'A stranger, of courseno one in these parts travels without a spare can, let alone allows the tank to run dry. You could have got to the side of the road, though.'
Sappha lifted her chin. Even though she was aware that she had been careless, she didn't much care for the way he was pointing the fact out to her.
'It's raining,' her glance went involuntarily to her shoeshardly made for a muddy road in the more remote parts of the Scottish Highlands. His gaze followed hers and his rather stern mouth curved for an instant. He said with perfunctory kindness:
'I don't suppose that you realised that tweeds'his gaze flickered over her beautifully cut suit, obviously he didn't mean that kind of tweed'and thick boots areermore suitable at this time of year.' He gave her an enquiring look. 'But perhaps you're only passing through? If you are, I should warn you that the road ends at Dialach.'
She stared at him, her brown eyes smouldering. 'I knowI have a map. I'm going to Dialach.'
He received this sparse information with an expressionless face, although she was aware of the glint in his eye as he straightened up, saying: 'In that case, I'll put some petrol in your tankunless you would like a tow?'
Sappha felt the stirrings of temper again and quelled them. After all, he was being helpful even though he appeared to find it tiresome.
'No thanks,' she said politely. 'I'll be OK., if I could just have the petrol,' and watched while he fetched a can and filled her tank. When he had finished he came back to stare at her through the window once more, and she asked: 'How much did you put in?' and reached for her handbag. 'I'd like to pay ' to be interrupted brusquely by his 'My dear good girl!' uttered in such a tone of mocking arrogance that she coloured faintly and snatched her hand away from her handbag as though it was red hot, and when he made no further attempt at conversation, she said awkwardly: 'Well, thank you very much,' and switched on her engine, praying that she would make a smooth start. Anything else under those dark mocking eyes would be the last straw, but to her relief the Mini pulled away without a hitch, gathering a little speed as it breasted the hill, and at the corner, between the dripping birch trees Sappha looked in the car mirrorthe man was still standing in the middle of the road watching her.
She forgot about him in the next instant, allowing the little car to run steadily while she took her fill of the scene before her. Below and a little to her left she could see Dialach tucked cosily into the trees which lined the loch. It was a small place, with its houses crowded together around the tiny harbour and a scattering of larger houses on the hill behind it. There was a causeway on the left of the town, running out across the rain-smoothed water of the loch to a little island that supported a huddle of dwellings. Sappha, straining to see them clearly through the rain, concluded that they and the causeway were in ruins, and turned her attention to the church, its square grey tower standing in Dialach's centre. Her patient was a guest at the Manse, her uncle had said, so presumably if she made for the church it would be the quickest way of getting there.
She allowed the car to dawdle to a halt and sat, no longer looking at her destination below her, but straight ahead at nothing at all, a little pucker of unhappiness between her beautiful brown eyes. Despite the despondency of her expression, she was an extremely pretty girl, with an oval face framed by naturally dark curling hair, which although confined in a french pleat, had escaped in soft tendrils on either side of her cheeks. Her nose was straight and a little on the short side, and her mouth, released from its present downward droop, was soft and mobile. Her good looks were offset by the clothes she worewell cut and fashionable, although not excessively so, and her hands, free of her driving gloves, were nicely shaped and beautifully kept. She leaned her rather determined chin on them now, thinking about her new job. When her Uncle John had offered it to her she had accepted without thought. To stay in London in the same hospital as Andrew was unthinkableit offered a means of escape from an untenable position. She had given a sympathetic Matron her notice, and after a month in which she had learned to hide her real feelings under a cool, impersonal manner she hadn't realised she possessed; she was free. She thought wearily back over the last few months, wondering where she had gone wrongif, indeed, she had been at fault.
She and Andrew had been engaged for several months, and although the actual date of the wedding had never been discussed, everyone had taken it for granted that it would be soon. She ignored the first spiteful whispers about him; she was sensible enough to know that in a hospital the size of Greggs', there would always be someone ready to start rumours of that sort, and when they had persisted, she had even joked about them with Andrew, because Staff Nurse Beatty, although possessed of a lush blonde beauty, was hardly his type. He had laughed with her and agreed with an apparent sincerity which had made it all the harder to bear when she had come across them in a deserted Outpatients Department. Their embrace had been so close and so long that she had gone away without them even noticing she had waited two terrible days for him to tell her about it, during which time it had become common knowledge throughout the hospital, and when he did, making out that it had been no more than a momentary impulse on his part and certainly the same on the part of Beatty, she had swallowed her pride and forgiven him, turning a stubbornly deaf ear to her friends' guarded hints, and a still more stubborn ear to her mother's thinly veiled warnings. She had known Andrew for more than a year; they loved each other and she trusted him She shifted a little behind the wheel and laughed ruefully; at least she was wiser nowit would be a long time before she trusted any man again.
She hadn't believed the Sister from Men's Medical when that young lady had told her, with tact and kindness, that Andrew and Beatty had been seen time and again together in various places by various peopleit seemed that London, for all its size, wasn't big enough She had hotly denied it, because Andrew had told her that he was attending a series of post-graduate lectures, but in the end she had been forced to believe it, for she had seen them together coming out of Wheeler's one evening as she was on her way back to Greggs' after visiting her mother, who was staying with friends in Cumberland Terrace. She had got off the bus to cut through the complexity of small streets to reach the hospital and came face to face with them. This time she didn't wait for Andrew to come to her; she waylaid him on the way to Outpatients the next morning and with almost no words at all had handed him back his ring and then gone straight to Matron's office and resigned.
It was her mother who had enlisted the help of Uncle John without telling Sappha that she had done so, and in any case, Sappha couldn't have cared less what she did. She took the job he offered her so providentially and here she was. She sighed, switched on the engine, and drove down the winding road to Dialach.
The Manse was easy to find, for it stood foursquare beside the church; a solid roomy house surrounded by a pleasant garden in which the autumn flowers and trees made a splash of colour even on such a grey day as this. Sappha drove up its neat short drive and had barely turned off the engine before the front door was opened and the minister appeared on his doorstep. He was a friend of her uncle's, but she hadn't expected quite such a warm welcomeit acted like a tonic upon her downcast spirits, she resolutely tucked her own troubles away in the back of her mind and greeted him with a quiet friendliness of her own which lighted up her face to a quite breathtaking loveliness.
'You're tired and chilly, I daresay, my dear Miss Devenish,' said Mr MacFee. 'My wife has tea waiting for you, and presently, when you are rested, you may like to go and see our district nurse, Miss Perch, so that she may tell you everything there is to know about Baroness van Duyren.'