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My Surgeon Neighbour
 

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My Surgeon Neighbour


  MY SURGEON NEIGHBOUR

  Jane Arbor

  When Nurse Sarah Sanstead inherited an old house in the country and decided to turn it into a convalescent home for children, she did not guess the complications which would ensue.

  Her new neighbour, the surgeon Oliver Mansbury, wanted the house as an extension for his next-door nursing home, and did not hesitate to express his scepticism about Sarah’s plans. He queried the depths of her dedication: “Aren’t you really only waiting to be collected as some man’s wife, the mother of his children?” Sarah was indignant.

  But little did she realize that a time would come when she would hope against hope that she might become Oliver Mansbury’s wife and the mother of his children.

  CHAPTER ONE

  WITH a sigh which expressed all she felt so far about Great Aunt Lydia’s legacy, Sarah Sanstead flung open the door of yet another cupboard and peered within.

  It was as she had feared, if not worse. From floor to ceiling the wide shelves were full of an assortment of jumble which, mixed deliberately, would have been fun, but which to Sarah was merely baffling and rather pathetic.

  Gingerly she put in a Little Jack Horner finger and hooked from beneath a pile of black lace a flat wicker fish basket, to the handle of which was caught by a tarnished gold cord a feather fan in the last stages of moult. With deft fingers she disentangled it, then sneezed explosively at the dusty fluff which rose towards her nostrils. As a fan it would flutter no more.

  Carrying her other prize Sarah crossed the bare boards of the room. By the light of the uncurtained window she examined the fish basket, the smile in her dark humorous eyes questioning its right to be where it was.

  Why on earth had it found final sanctuary in a bedroom cupboard, along with fans and lace and photographs in red velvet frames? But it was typical of all the rest of her week’s experience in turning out the moms and cupboards and cellars of “Monckton” which, by her great aunt’s will was now to be Sarah’s own property. Miss Tint had been eighty and at her death the place must have housed nearly as many years’ possessions and memories to match.

  Sarah looked out over the stone pillared porch to the semi-circular sweep of grass-grown gravel, the crescent of dripping laurels and the wide carriage gate beyond. It was dismal. It was Victorian. But it was hers. And it spelt freedom!

  Feeling a little more cheerful, but in need of a break in her labors, Sarah flung the fish basket back into the cupboard and turned the key upon it and the rest of the junk. She deserved a cup of tea and so did Martha, toiling away in the kitchen regions. At least the gas stove still worked, even if there wasn’t a whole incandescent mantle in the house.

  Her heels tapped emptily as she went down the broad shallow steps of the main staircase and then down the shorter one which led to the kitchen. As she had hoped Martha, who had been in service with Miss Tint for thirty years, was already setting out two cups and saucers upon the bare table while the kettle boiled.

  Sarah picked up a cup, saw the fight gleam through the fine china and set it down again gently.

  “Great Aunt did have some lovely things,” she said with a sigh.

  “A’plenty,” agreed Martha, watching the kettle. “We knew how to take care of things. Not like now. Buy a thing. Throw it away. Spend, spend, spend. And find yourself in the workhouse, like as not. Don’t tell me.”

  Sarah bit her lip to check her giggle at the memory of the fish basket and the naked fan, the preservation of which had presumably kept Great Aunt Lydia from vagrancy. It was obvious that in this matter of hoarding, Martha was on the same side.

  She asked quietly, “How are you getting on down here? Have you nearly finished?”

  For answer Martha nodded towards two tin trays piled high with rubbish. “That’s the end of the scullery cupboards,” she said. “No room for it in the bin, but the men said they’d come back for another load on their way to the tip. Trust ’em not to,” she added gloomily as she poured the tea.

  As Sarah stirred hers she wondered yet again whether the day would dawn when she could stand back and look at her property uncluttered, as it were, by Great Aunt Lydia. But that was ungrateful. For if it hadn’t been for Great Aunt Lydia...

  Her thoughts checked as she noticed Martha’s critical glance. “Excuse me, Miss, but have you seen your face?” she asked.

  “No. What’s wrong with it?” Sarah laughed as she held up the square mirror from her bag and dabbed the long streak of dirt running from her forehead to her chin. “My badge of office,” she said lightly.

  Martha looked at her across the table, her old eyes finding an appeal in Sarah’s youth which even a grimy face could not conceal.

  Sarah wore a red-and-white gingham overall over a navy shift, the white collar of which sat, schoolgirl fashion, over the neck of the overall. So, she looked younger than her twenty-five years; her dark hair was sleek beneath a broad Alice band and her eyes were bright with the health and self-confidence which all young things should have. Between her and Miss Lydia Tint lay two generations and a world of difference in outlook. But in the girl’s service Martha believed she might find equal satisfaction with that which she had known with her old mistress—if she were going to be asked to serve Sarah.

  She said brusquely, “Well, pardon me if I’m too forward, Miss. But if you could tell me how long you’ll be wanting me now, then I’d know how soon I could go to another place?”

  She was smoothing her apron and her lip was trembling. And Sarah felt a rush of pity as she said quickly, “Another place? But won’t you stay with me, Martha? For I’ll want you if you will. You see, I’m keeping on the house and staying myself.”

  Martha stared. “But it’s too big for you, Miss Sarah! An unmarried girl like you in a great place like this!”

  “Well, Great Aunt Lydia was a spinster too, wasn’t she? And she lived in it. But I don’t mean just to live here. I couldn’t afford to, anyway. But I’ve been thinking and planning. Listen.”

  Sarah pushed aside the tea things and propped her elbows on the table, cupping her face in her hands. “This is what I want to do,” she began. But at that moment there was a warning jangle and Martha glanced up at the old fashioned bellboard in surprise.

  “Front door,” she said, getting up.

  “Who on earth?”

  “If it’s them dustmen,” warned Martha darkly. “Think they can use the front, just because we’re empty.” Sarah could hear her grumbling to herself as she went up the stairs and across the hall. There was a pause and then the sound of another voice, a man’s.

  Martha came back. “A gentleman to see you, Miss.” Her tone was as formal as if she were bearing a card upon a salver.

  “To see me?” Sarah’s swift glance at her overall was very feminine.

  “It’s the doctor from next door, Miss. You know, Greystones Nursing Home. Mr. Mansbury his name is.”

  “Mr.? Oh, you mean he’s a surgeon. But what does he want, do you suppose? Is it a formal call or is he just being neighborly?”

  Martha’s ignorance was that of a well-trained servant. “He just said he wanted to see you, Miss Sarah. I put him in the drawing room.”

  ‘I put him in the drawing room.’ Dear Martha! Doing the correct thing by a visitor, even in a half empty house! Thus ran Sarah’s thoughts as she hurried up the kitchen stairs and into the big room on the right of the front door.

  By now the winter dusk had fallen and her caller’s figure was a mere silhouette against the bare window. Sarah tripped over the lintel and put out a tentative hand towards the fight switch.

  But of course! There were no light switches in the house. You had to strike a match and fight the gas at the bracket over the mantelshelf. And she had brought no mat
ches with her.

  “I’m so sorry. You’re in the dark. Martha should have told me. I suppose you haven’t a match, Mr.—er?” was her greeting.

  Her visitor produced a box of matches, and by the sudden flare of the unshaded gaslight Sarah saw Oliver Mansbury for the first time.

  His looks did not betray what age he might be. A crop of dark hair stood up boyishly from his head, but in his face there were hard lines of experience; his lips were firmly set and his chin stubborn. His eyes were shrewd, his glance analytical. He was thirty-five? Sarah could not say.

  “Won’t you sit down?” she invited, wishing that he could have postponed his call until she could have been sure there was something on which he could sit. Fortunately however, the turning out of the drawing room was not yet complete. Four spindle-legged chairs were still ranged forlornly against one wall.

  She seated herself on one of the two he brought forward at the signal of her glance at them, but he did not take the other. He stood behind it, holding on to its tall back and looking at Sarah in the cruelly hard light.

  His thoughts were asking the same question as had her own. He had expected Miss Tint’s great-niece to be someone older than this child in an overall. And yet she had something of an adult’s poise as she sat opposite to him, her hands folded, her head high. Had he to deal with a child or a woman? He could scarcely say. But evidently she was waiting for him to tell her the reason for his call.

  He began, “You’ll forgive me for intruding while you are in process of moving out, Miss Sanstead. Miss Tint’s maid will have told you that my name is Mansbury, Oliver Mansbury, and that I own the property next door?”

  Sarah nodded. “So Martha told me. What can I do for you, Mr. Mansbury? It was nice of you to call, but as you can see, we’re still in the most frightful muddle...”

  He smiled. “I realized you would be. It was just that I needed to be first in the field. That’s why I persuaded the agents to let me sidetrack them and come to see you personally.”

  “But—first in the field at what?” puzzled Sarah.

  For a moment he looked taken aback. Then, “I’m sorry! Haven’t I told you? I want this house. I want the first option on your sale or rental of it.”

  “This house?” Sarah shook her head. “I’m sorry too. For I’m not selling it or renting it to anyone. I’m keeping it myself.”

  “You mean it’s not in the market? But the agents said...”

  Sarah was beginning to enjoy herself. “I haven’t instructed any agents,” she said demurely.

  He had the grace to look abashed. “Well, as a matter of fact, Finder and Son said as much. I saw Richard Finder and he told me that, lacking any instructions from you, it was all highly irregular, but that as you would certainly need to sell the place, he saw no harm in my jumping the queue.”

  At the name of Finder and Son, Sarah had seen the light—a red one. So Dick Finder was trying to run her life for her still, as he had done years ago when, among other sage advices he had given her, he had tried to influence her expenditure of both her sweet coupons and her pocket money! When she had been eight and he ten, her family had left Fareborough and for years she had not seen him. Yet here he was again, telling strangers what she would ‘certainly’ do. Let young Richard Finder beware!

  She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, there it is,” she told Oliver Mansbury. “I’m sorry, as I said. But I’m not selling and no one, not even Richard Finder whom I used to know well, has any right to suggest otherwise.”

  She might not have spoken. For he went on urgently, “Look, I’ll be frank with you, put you in the picture. I own Greystones, the property itself, that is. I have my own quarters there and I practice in the theatre as well as having some other Consultancies. But the Nursing Home itself, the goodwill and the proprietorship, you understand, belongs to my widowed cousin, Mrs. Kate Beacon, who acts as Matron and on whose behalf I’ve come to you now. For she needs this house badly for the extensions she plans, and in fact I’ve already been in preliminary touch with an architect about it.”

  Sarah barely suppressed a gasp. The impertinence of the man, laying plans already for property which was not his and never would be! She said with a touch of irony, “You know, I don’t think you should go ahead from here with any hope of your buying this house for extensions to your own. For I really am keeping it for my own use. I mean to turn it into a Convalescent Home for young children, an ambition of mine for quite a long time.”

  Oliver Mansbury’s glance implied that any long-term ambition on her part must have been conceived in her cradle. He echoed, “A Convalescent Home? A private one? I suppose you do realize the red tape, the licences, permits and so on, you need to cut through in order to set it up? For instance, with convalescent facilities already available under the N.H.S., you’d need to put a strong case to both the Regional Hospital Board and the County Council to get your licence; then there’d be the colossal adaptation the place would call for, and I suppose I needn’t mention that your professional qualifications would have to be above reproach?”

  Still enjoying herself, Sarah smiled. “Taking your objections in order,” she said, “I’m already in process of fighting through the red tape. Of course it helps that I have the blessing of my late Matron, who likes the idea of a ‘homely’ Home for her convalescents, as opposed to an Institution, and she assures me quite a lot of parents will pay in reason for individual convalescent care of their children. As for the alterations to the house, they shouldn’t be too formidable I think. And I qualify, I assure you. I’m London trained—St. Anselm’s—State Registered and C.M.B.; I’ve done a year as staff nurse and nearly another as children’s night Sister at Cranbourne General. And it’s Miss Turton-Ives, the Matron there who—”

  “Yes, yes,” her companion cut in. “I see you’ve an idea at least of the position. But qualifications and sponsorship apart, I’m convinced you haven’t fully faced the adaptation of the house and that you’d be wise to take the offer I’m prepared to make for it. I can promise you it will better any other you might get, and I’ll buy or long-lease, as you please. Surely it is worth your reconsideration of the whole scheme?”

  Sarah shook her head. “No,” she said finally, “I’ve no intention of reconsidering it. I know what I’m about.”

  The back legs of the chair on which Mr. Mansbury had been leaning came down with a minor crash upon the bare floor boards. He straightened, his eyes glancing upward at the ornate cornices of the ceiling, then towards the dark square of the window beyond which the depressing outlook was mercifully hidden by the dark.

  He said stiffly, “Well I suppose I must wish you success—and happiness.”

  Sarah laughed as she rose. “You sound as if you doubt whether I can achieve either.”

  “I mean, rather, that I think you’re burdening yourself with an unnecessary handicap at the outset. Somewhere more modern—”

  “But don’t handicaps make achievement all the sweeter when it happens?” she riposted provocatively.

  He looked her up and down. “I see you think you’ll succeed,” he said. “But may I suggest that if you are actually looking for handicaps at the beginning of a career, you must be very, very young indeed?” With which retort he bowed slightly, making it clear he had accepted his dismissal.

  When she had shown him out Sarah returned slowly to the big room in order to turn out the light. With her hand upon the gas tap she paused, thinking of the interview with mixed amusement and chagrin. All through it she had felt herself to be mistress of the situation—until the end. And then, in a few belittling words, her neighbor had succeeded in disturbing her, his doubts making her feel like a child throwing out an unnecessarily foolhardy challenge to fate. He had made her feel small.

  Then her customary self-confidence took charge once more. So he didn’t think she could do it? Well, she would, she would!

  To Martha in the kitchen she returned with a twinkle in her eye and a puckish smile upon her lips.
<
br />   “What did he want?” queried the old woman, for once forgetting her role as well-trained servant.

  “Something,” said Sarah cryptically, “he didn’t get. My—future!”

  The next morning’s pale winter sunshine saw her, hatless and in a swinging coat of navy blue, approaching the ornate glass doors of Number 10, Market Chambers, Fareborough.

  A typist came forward as she entered. “Good morning. You are Miss Sanstead for Mr. Richard Finder? He said you were to be shown to his office as soon as you arrived. This way, please.”

  Sarah followed along a corridor, past a glass-walled room from which the clacking of typewriters told of the prosperous busyness of the estate agency game, and so to another door which bore the name ‘Mr. Finder (Jun.)’

  At her guide’s knock Dick Finder—a grown-up Dick—was on the threshold, holding out both hands in greeting.

  “Sarah! After all this time! You don’t know how I’ve looked forward to seeing you again!”

  Sarah grinned at him. He was just the same Dick, enthusiastic, demonstrative, someone for whom in his absence you could work up a thorough ‘hate’, only to find it seeping away before that devoted, shaggy spaniel air of wanting to do you service which was his strongest point. You couldn’t fight with Dick, any more than you fight a—a blanket. She knew, having often tried.

  He was babbling eagerly. “Sit down. Smoke? No? Then may I? Look here, Sarah love, I am glad to see you!”

  “Well, I’ve been in Fareborough for a week,” she reminded him.

  “Yes, well, I didn’t like to bother you. I guessed how busy you would be. The loss of your great aunt and all that—you know how it is—I hardly liked to intrude—”

  His voice trailed away vaguely and Sarah was silent, abashed before this imaginary picture of her inconsolable grief over the death of Great Aunt Lydia, almost a stranger to her since her schooldays. However, Dick cheered up and went on, “Besides, you know, I was hoping you’d take the first step—that you’d be coming to see us, professionally, I mean.”

 
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