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Authors: Sheila Ridley

Outpost Hospital

BOOK: Outpost Hospital
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OUTPOST HOSPITAL

Sheila Ridley

Katherine readily agreed to accompany Doctor Mark Charlton to Africa.
In fact, she would have followed him anywhere...

 

CHAPTER ONE

A slim, dark-haired girl walked slowly down the drive from the nurses’ residence of the Grinsley General Hospital. It was a cold evening in late September, and she turned up the fur collar of her coat against a gusty wind.

The sound of a car behind her made her step onto the grass verge to let it pass; but it pulled up beside her, and, with a sudden pounding of her heart, she recognized the driver. He was a powerfully built man in his early thirties, with thick, black hair, and a strong, handsome face. His eyes, she knew though it was too dark to see, were deep blue and long-lashed. It was Dr. Mark Charlton.

He opened the door and leaned out. “Nurse Marlowe? Ah, I thought it was you. Can I give you a lift?”

The thought of sitting so close to him made Katherine feel weak, and her voice sounded a bit shaky as she answered, “No. I mean, no, thank you, Dr. Charlton. I’m not going far and
I ...
I like walking.”

“It’s not a very nice evening for a walk, and I would like to talk with you, if you’re not in a hurry,” he told her.

Wondering what it could be he wanted to talk about, she climbed into the car, sitting as near to the door as possible.

Mark Charlton slammed the door and, starting up the car, said, “I’ll drive a little way along the seafront, shall I, and then we can talk.”

“Yes, all right,” said Katherine nervously. She clasped her cold hands tightly together to stop them trembling. It must be one of the patients he wanted to discuss, she decided. It would be unusual for a doctor to do such a thing, but what other explanation was there?

After driving in silence for a few minutes, he stopped the car on a patch of grass near the promenade. The sea was rough and soon the windows were covered in a fine spray of salt water. Katherine watched the leaping
waves as she waited for him to speak, but the silence went on. When eventually she turned to look at him, she was disconcerted to find his penetrating eyes fixed upon her.

“I expect you’re wondering what this is all about, Nurse?” he asked. His deep voice was friendly but detached, as if his main thoughts were miles away.

She nodded. “Is it about the pneumonia case, Mrs. Parsons? I haven’t seen her today, but last night her temperature was down to—”

“No, it’s not Mrs. Parsons,” he broke in, “it’s something quite different.”

He was still half-turned toward her but was looking beyond her now, out of the window. He was very close; so close that she could see the fine lines around his eyes and mouth. A faint smell of antiseptic clung about him. She found it as disturbing as men are supposed to find exotic perfume worn by a woman. The expression on his dark face was one of determination, as though he had come to an important decision about much serious thought.

“I’m leaving Grinsley,” he said at last. “I’m going to Africa, and I want you to come with me.”

Katherine stared at him. Had he really said what she thought she heard? “You want me to come with you ... t-to Africa?” she stammered. It couldn’t be true. Why, only an hour or two ago, she had been moping in her room, feeling sorry for herself. For somehow, after hearing that she had passed her State Final examination, she had become oddly depressed. It was as if, for the three years of her training, she had looked no further ahead than this examination, and, having passed, was left with nothing to look forward to. Rather like a climber who, having reached a summit, realizes there’s nowhere to go but down. And now...

The doctor was smiling at the swiftly changing expression on her pale, young face. “Well, that’s it in a nutshell,” he said, “but I suppose you’d like to know a little more than that. I’ll try to explain. You see, Nurse, I’m not satisfied with the work I’m doing here. In my practice I spend my time making out prescriptions for people, half of whom aren’t really ill, and sending those who are ill on to specialists. That’s not what I want. When I leave here there’ll be a dozen other men ready and able to take my place. I’m not needed here. But there are places where I could feel I was doing vital work. In West Africa, for instance, there are thousands of people without a chance of medical help when they need it. So that’s where I’m going—to Nigeria, in fact.”

As he spoke, Katherine noticed a burning light in his eyes that she had never seen before.

He went on, “I’ll need an assistant if I’m to do any good out there. Of course, I shall recruit African nurses to help, but I must have someone with me at the beginning.” He paused and turned to her. “I’ve been watching you for some time, Nurse Marlowe, and I think you’re the sort of partner I need. You’re a good nurse and fully trained. I know that; but I think you have compassion, too, which is harder to find. If I’m right, you’ll want to work where you can do most good.”

Still feeling dazed, she nodded. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to expect her to say much.

“You’ll need stamina, too,” he said, giving her a searching, professional look. “We’ll be starting from scratch, you know. There’ll be nothing like the Grinsley General where we’ll be going.”

Katherine smiled to herself. He was taking it very much for granted that she would go. “I’m stronger than I look, I think,” she said quietly. Her slight build and fine features did give her a fragile appearance that was deceptive.

“I suppose you must be, or you’d never have stuck out your training at the General. That’s no place for delicate plants, either. But, getting back to Africa, it’ll be hard going at first, especially until we get our hospital built, and even then we’ll have constant problems to tackle—the climate, prejudice, shortage of money and supplies. It’s not a very tempting proposition, is it?”

When she tried to speak, Katherine found her mouth was dry. With an effort she murmured, “I don’t know. I’ve never thought—”

“Of course, you want time to think it over. Don’t try to make up your mind now. There’s no great hurry. Let’s see.” He looked at his watch. “It’s only half-past seven. Have I spoiled your evening by keeping you here talking?”

“No. I was going to see a film, that’s all,” she told him.

“In that case, you’d better come and have a meal with me, if we can find something in this dreary place that’s open at this late hour.”

He drove slowly along the sea until he saw a small
café
sign, lit by a yellow bulb.

He stopped the car. “It doesn’t look very inviting but we’ll try it,” he said, opening the door.

Inside, the cafe was also lit by small yellow bulbs, and though it didn’t look very attractive, it was clean and warm. At one side were several booths separated by high, wooden partitions, and at the other, was a counter covered with red and white cloth. The place seemed to be empty.

Dr. Charlton took her coat and hung it up near the door.

Then he went to buy some cigarettes, while Katherine sat down in the first booth. There was a large mirror on the wall, and she was glad of the chance to tidy herself before he returned. The wind had ruffled her dark hair out of its usually neat page-boy, and she ran her comb quickly through it. She chose this style because it went well with her nurse’s cap; it was incidental that it also showed off her best features, a wide, smooth forehead, dark well-shaped brows and large, clear gray eyes.

Then she retouched her lips, at the same time trying to think calmly about Mark Charlton’s suggestion.

It had come as such a tremendous surprise; not only that he should ask her to go to Africa with him, but that he should want to leave England at all. He had given her an explanation, but it didn’t entirely satisfy her.

When he came back and offered her a cigarette, she took it, though she smoked very little. She felt she needed its soothing quality.

“Coffee and omelette all right?” he asked. She nodded. “Good. There wasn’t much choice. Now, we won’t talk any more about what I’ve proposed. I don’t want you to feel I’m trying to persuade you to agree,” he said, and then contradicted his words by adding, “though I admit I’ll be very disappointed if you say no. I think I’ve told you enough for you to make up your mind, unless there’s anything you want to ask me?”

Katherine was sure there were dozens of sensible questions she ought to ask, but at that moment she could not think of a single one. No doubt they would occur to her as soon as she was alone. Anyway, there would be time to ask them later when her mind was clearer.

“I don’t think so, Doctor,” she said. “There’s my father, though. I mean, I know he’d like to meet you, if I decide to go to Africa, that is.”

His black brows lifted. “Oh, your family, yes, of course. I hadn’t thought of them, I’m afraid,” he said, and Katherine felt slightly nettled. Did he imagine she had no life apart from the hospital? Perhaps he thought she was born in a cap and apron! “We’ll
arrange a convenient time for me to call on your father, then.”

“If I decide to go,” she reminded him firmly.

He looked put out for a second; then he nodded, “Yes, naturally. Shall we meet here a week from today at about the same time, and you can give me your answer?”

The omelettes and coffee were very good, but Katherine had to force herself to eat and drink. It was a relief when the time came to leave the cafe.

She wondered at her disappointment, though, when Mark drove her straight back to the hospital.

Back in her room in the nurses’ residence although it was still early, she got ready for bed. There was nothing else to do. In her housecoat, she sat at the dressing table to brush her hair, but instead of the brush she picked up a photograph. It showed a group of doctors and nurses and had been taken at the last hospital staff dance. At the back, obviously bored, was Mark Charlton, taller by two or three inches than any of the others; and next to him stood Elizabeth Frayne.

The black-and-white print did not do justice to that young woman’s beauty. It could not show the bright, coppery sheen of her hair, the brilliant green of her wide-apart eyes or the grace of her slim body.

Gazing at the picture, Katherine could remember, in every detail, how these two had looked when they had danced together that night. How she had envied Elizabeth Frayne: not for her beauty or for her cleverness—she was a doctor, too—but for the adoration in Mark Charlton’s eyes. It was clear to everyone watching that he saw no one else.

It was general knowledge in the hospital that Dr. Charlton had wanted to marry Elizabeth Frayne and that she had refused in order to concentrate on her career. And now he was to leave England.

Resolutely picking up her hairbrush, Katherine brought her mind back to the question she must answer. Should she agree to go to Africa with him? To work beside the man she loved—she might as well admit it. There was no sense in trying to pretend to herself—to work in primitive conditions, among dangers she could as yet only guess at, in the intimacy that these factors would cause—no, it was impossible! How could she bear to be so close to him, loving him as she did and knowing him to be in love with someone else?

That was why he was going to Africa, of course.

Katherine had no doubt that he was sincere in his desire to help those in the greatest need, but that was not his only reason. If Elizabeth Frayne had not refused to marry him he would never have thought of making this change in his life. No, he wanted to get away, even though Dr. Frayne had left Grinsley, from the place where they had met and parted.

And he had asked her, Katherine Marlowe, to go with him. He had said he needed her. Well, to be needed was the next best thing to being loved. Yet it seemed a poor substitute, especially when all that is needed is one’s professional skill.

She sighed, put down her brush and stared dejectedly at her reflection in the glass. What to do? Stay behind without even the comfort of their brief meetings on the ward and with the added anxiety of knowing him to be in so foreign a country?

It was so difficult to decide.

Irresistibly, her eyes went back to the photograph, and she smiled. Why was she pretending to consider the matter, when she knew already, and had known for several hours, that her mind was quite made up?

 

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