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Chapter One

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« on: June 16, 2023, 11:21:52 am »

THE village of Greenings lies about a mile and a half from the country town of Embank. Some day the town will swallow it up, with its picturesque old church set about with the graves of so many generations, its village street, its straggle of cottages, the Georgian Vicarage which replaced the one burned down in 1801, and its couple of small late eighteenth-century houses originally built for relatives of the Random family. But that day is not yet, because Halfpenny Lane, which connects it with Embank, does not really lead to anywhere in particular and is interrupted just beyond Greenings by a watersplash. The village is, in fact, extremely rural. A visiting artist once referred to it as “a haunt of ancient peace”. But into the quietest backwater a stone may fall, disquieting ripples may spread. Sherlock Holmes has exposed the myth of country innocence.

Greenings had had its share of happenings that would not bear the light of day. But things do not remain hidden for ever. A chance word, an unexpected move, the working out of an unseen plan, and the buried things are buried no longer. When Dr. Croft got a letter from Clarice Dean he had no idea that it would lead to anything of a disturbing nature. Miss Dean had nursed Mr. James Random during his last illness a year ago. She had also nursed him some years previously through an attack of influenza. A pretty, bright girl, and extremely efficient. She wrote to say that she had been out to Canada with a patient and had only recently returned. She had loved being at Greenings and would like very much to find work in that neighbourhood. If he knew of some chronic, elderly case, perhaps he would be so kind as to recommend her.

It did not, of course, take him any time at all to think of Miss Ora Blake. She enjoyed ill health, and her nurses never stayed. Clarice Dean wouldn’t stay, but she would tide Miss Ora over and stop Miss Mildred ringing him up three times a day and buttonholing him every time she met him in the village street. At least he hoped so. He rang Miss Blake, and listened to what she had got to say with as much patience as he could contrive.

“Nurse Dean? My dear Dr. Croft! Do you know, I always did think she was setting her cap at poor Mr. Random. Such a high colour---but all these girls make up nowadays----”

He laughed.

“Well, I think Miss Dean’s colour was natural.”

“Men always do,” said Miss Ora in her comfortable purring voice. “So easily taken in. You say she wants to come down here. Now I wonder why.”

“She has been out to Canada with an invalid who went on a visit to a daughter and unfortunately died there. It was quite natural that she should write to me for a recommendation.”

“Oh, quite. Especially if there was anyone in the neighbourhood whom she wanted to see. Perhaps it was not Mr. James Random in whom she was interested. There is Mr. Arnold Random, and Mr. Edward----”

Dr. Croft chuckled. When he did not have too much of her he could enjoy Miss Ora Blake.

“Now, now,” he said, “you mustn’t forget we’re on a party line. Suppose the Hall is listening in.”

“Arnold Random would be very much flattered,” said Miss Ora with what he was convinced was a toss of the head. “He’s quite a catch now---coming in for everything after his brother died. And he can’t be more than sixty---he was much younger than Mr. James. He’d be the one to make up to, not poor Edward. Though I don’t know why I should call him poor. People don’t run away and let themselves be thought dead and then come back and not tell anyone where they’ve been, unless they’ve got themselves into some kind of a mess.”

“Miss Ora----”

But her voice boomed against his ear.

“No, no, depend upon it, there was something very discreditable, and James Random knew it, otherwise he wouldn’t have altered his will---not after bringing Edward up as his own son instead of just as a nephew. And all very well to say he thought he was dead, but there is such a thing as the wish being father to the thought.”

“Miss Ora, do you wish me to engage Miss Dean for you?”

It appeared that she did wish it. She had not known Dr. Croft for thirty years without recognizing the point at which it was advisable to come to business. Mildred would write to Nurse Dean. But perhaps Dr. Croft would write too.

“My case---so complicated---and you can explain it all so well.”

Miss Mildred wrote. Dr. Croft wrote, and told Clarice Dean as much as he thought suitable about the complicated case of Miss Ora Blake. He had once described it to Emmeline Random as an indisposition to do anything for anyone else. Emmeline was of course perfectly safe, but he would not have let his tongue run away with him to that extent if he had not been exasperated beyond bearing.

He was scrupulously careful in what he said to Miss Clarice Dean. She wrote by return, and followed her letter two days later, arriving to take up her new position just twenty-four hours before Edward Random came down to stay with his stepmother.

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