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Overseas(8)
Beatriz Williams

“Oh, don’t…” I said, but it was too late. I tottered back to the sofa and sank down with my head in my hands. Everything seemed to be sliding into disaster; worse, I was wasting time, my most precious resource. Think, Kate. Think.

The door opened, and Julian walked back in, having disposed of the vase. I straightened and tried to smile, tried to push aside my embarrassment. It was easier than I thought; for one thing, I felt much better now that I’d thrown up.

“The doctor will be here soon,” he said.

“Really, it’s not necessary. I…” I broke off, not quite sure what to say.

“The landlady should be along shortly.” He paused and put his hands behind his back, standing there stiffly in the middle of the room, cap fixed to his head. As I watched, the faint shadow of his Adam’s apple rose and fell along the line of his throat, so fleeting I might have missed the movement with a single blink.

Something like relief eased through my body at the sight of his nervousness, at the suggestion that, already, I had gained some small power over him. I positioned my hands modestly in my lap. “Thank you so much for your kindness, Captain Ashford,” I said, in a dulcet voice, angling my head. His eyes caught for an instant on my exposed throat. “You’ve been wonderful.”

He hesitated. “I beg your pardon, but I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage. Have we perhaps met?”

I felt my mouth turn up in a half-smile. “Met? Not exactly.”

“And yet you know my name.”

“Yes, I do.”

He stood there expectantly, and I realized he was waiting for me to introduce myself. What was I going to say?

Someone entered the room with a creak of stiff hinges and a heavy tread. I looked to the door and saw a burly woman in a long faded dress and apron, holding a battered tray before her. She did not look amused.

“Une fille!” she scolded Julian. I could just make out the words, with my limited high school French. “You have brought a… a girl!” Words seemed to fail her. She crashed the tray onto the worn wooden table in the corner and glared at me balefully.

“Ça suffit, madame,” he said. “She’s ill; the doctor will arrive in a few minutes. Thank you for the tea.”

She left, grumbling, wiping her hands on her apron as though to brush away whatever illness I’d carried in with me.

“Now I’ve got you in trouble with your landlady,” I said. “I’m awfully sorry.”

“Quite all right. Would you like a bit of tea?”

“I’d love tea. Thank you.”

He poured me a cup. “Milk?”

“No, thank you.”

“Are you certain? There’s no sugar, I’m afraid.” He removed the leaves in a practiced gesture and offered me the cup. “Rationing and all that.”

“I don’t mind.” The china stung my cold fingers with divine heat; I raised it quickly to my lips.

“And bread, perhaps?”

“Yes, thank you.”

He sawed off a slice from the baguette and handed it to me. I tried to restrain myself, to eat calmly, but the nausea had been replaced by the most ravenous hunger, and I couldn’t disguise the eagerness with which I ripped into the bread.

“There now,” he said, sitting down in the chair next to the sofa. “Better?”

“I’m sorry. I must seem very mysterious to you.”

He inclined his head. “Not at all.”

“You want to know who I am, of course. You probably think I’m a spy, or worse.” I laughed hollowly. “Worse! I don’t see how it could possibly be worse. But I’m not a spy, Captain Ashford.” The teacup vibrated in my hands. “I’m…”

A knock sounded on the door. “Come in,” Julian said, not taking his eyes from mine.

I looked at the doorway. “Hello, Lieutenant Warwick,” I said. “Have you brought the doctor?”

He stopped short, stunned. “How the devil does she know my name? Who is she?”

“We haven’t got to that, yet,” Julian said, and turned to the other man, who’d followed Warwick through the door, right after the slight figure of Arthur Hamilton. “Vous êtes le medecin?”

“Oui. C’est la fille, là?”

“Oui.” Julian began explaining my symptoms, and the doctor came toward me, eyes narrowed in clinical concern.

“Monsieur, it’s nothing,” I said, in my halting French. “I’m just tired and hungry.”

“You’ve vomited?” he asked. That, at least, was what I thought he said; he made a brief motion with his hand that seemed to be the universal sign for throwing up.

“Yes, a little,” I replied. “It happens when I’m hungry.”

He gave me a sharp, wise look. I cast my eyes downward, trying to look modest.

“I will listen to your heart and lungs,” he announced, and removed a stethoscope from his black leather bag—a real leather doctor’s bag!—and did just that. I sat in my hollow of worn velvet, trying to breathe in a natural rhythm. He listened long and carefully, moving the cool metal of the stethoscope around my torso; he examined my eyes and throat and straightened to skewer Julian with a piercing stare.

“She’s as well as can be expected,” he said.

“Expected?” Julian asked.

The doctor opened his mouth.

“Because of hunger, isn’t it, monsieur?” I said.

He turned back to me with both eyebrows raised and studied my expression. “Yes, hunger. How long has it been since madame has eaten?”

“A day. I’ve been traveling.” I couldn’t remember the French word for travel, but I made walking motions with my fingers and the doctor nodded.

“She must eat,” he said, turning back to Julian, “and rest.”

“Fair enough,” said Geoff Warwick, in English. He looked at me. “Where are your friends in this town?”

“Well,” I said, “I’m afraid I haven’t any. But I’m quite well now. It was only the strain of the journey, just now, and I thank you both very much for your concern. If I may, however, before I leave, have a private word with Captain Ashford?”

They all looked at one another.

“Yes, of course,” Julian said. “Perhaps… but you must eat…” He addressed Warwick. “Why don’t I run her over to the Chat for a bit of breakfast? It should be open by now.”

“You’re serious, Ashford? She might be anyone, she might…”

“I beg your pardon.” I stood up with as much dignity as I could manage: long neck, back straight, shoulders back. “I wouldn’t dream of imposing on your kindness. I only wish a short word with Captain Ashford, and I’ll be on my way.”

“Warwick, you’re an ass,” Julian said, rising to his feet the instant my bottom had left the sofa cushion. “She’s a perfectly well-bred girl, as you can plainly see. The war’s imposed difficulties on us all, and I should think you’d show a little more humanity, of all people. I’m now going to see that she has a decent breakfast and decent lodging.”

“Really, Warwick,” said Hamilton. He’d been standing there diffidently, raindrops rolling away from his coat, watching the exchange; his expression wary, perhaps, but sympathetic. “I don’t see any reason for suspicion. Ashford’s only trying to do the right thing by the poor girl.” His accent was stiff, nasal: pooah gel.

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