Sister Eugenia Smith, 26, Ward Sister at St. Clare's, has been walking sedately down the center aisle of her ward towards her Destiny for three years. Each meeting, she fetches up before it with an unruffled air, hands it her notes and precedes to do a round with it all to the lament of her stalwart right hand, Hatty. 'What a waste of all that attractiveness,' thinks Hatty. 'They ought to have fallen in love at first sight.'
Hatty the Handmaiden also thinks that Senior Consultant Surgeon Gerard "Destiny" Grenfell (36-ish) and Eugenia are both throwing themselves away on unsuitable fiancees. Eugenia has been engaged for one and a half parsimonious years to Humphrey Parsons, a man whose very name mirrors his smug and retentive nature. Hatty dismisses Gerard's fiancee' Miriam (yet another Miriam villainess! What gives, Betty?) as 'a beanpole of a blonde'. You, gentle reader, may also dismiss her. She speaks not one word anywhere and, if one takes into account her black sheath clothing and shadowy persona, there is a slim possibility that she might also be a ninja assassin.
Humphrey has been spending the last several years making Eugenia feel bad about spending her own money and feeding her on a steady diet of chicken and chips and beer. He has a deathly fear of the cheap, living-in-a-flatlet, Ikea phase of married life (Allenwrenchaphobia) which has turned him into a miser. His placemats will match and his reproduction Victorian furniture will shout in decorous tones "I have arrived and am running to fat already" but life with him will be un-fun. And then he has the cheek to tell her she's a bit heavy. (Oh no he didn't!) Not only does Eugenia need a Tums, she also needs to offload that ball and chain.
So when, one day, after a quiet ward round, Gerard (not Butler, but you're welcome) rips up the diet sheet that Humphrey painstakingly copied down with a 'Bunkum and balderdash!' she sits up and takes notice. When he follows that with a cryptic sounding, "Two safely engaged people, aren't we, Sister?...There is, of course, many a slip between the cup and the lip" we take notice. Where was the triggering event? What made him figure out, after meeting her sedately in the aisle for three long years that she was the girl for him--because that's what we've just learned. Neels implies that something set things in motion off-stage and that his dawning realization has already and recently occurred. This will be a follow-up post all its own.
Gerard, who, as established, is already smitten, is playing the long game. He invites her to accompany him to the Algarve to assist him on a V.I.P. surgery. Of course she will but when she drops the bomb on Humphrey (which I am tempted to spell Harumph-rey...okay, now I have to) he sulks. 'Mother wouldn't like it at all', he points out. If you're tempted to adopt a nasal-y baby-like voice and mutter 'Mother wouldn't like it at all' under your breath, you would find yourself in charity with Eugenia who is not much pleased with him.
They save a woman's life. Calloo-Callay!
They visit many tourist attractions together.
He asks her to call him Gerard which in Neels-land is definitely First Base. (In the world-at-large calling someone by their Christian name is more like warming up in the Bullpen but The Mighty Neels weights it fairly heavily in the trajectory of a relationship.)
He continues making delightful comments, chock-a-block with double-meaning: "I can assure you that Eugenia will not be wasted."
They save the life of another young man who has slipped and fallen into a cave. Gerard has just declared that he found heaven when they hear a moaning in the rocks. He laughingly pops down the hole and she pops down after him. That's when she hears the skittering in the dark. Eeek! One is tempted to mis-quote Indiana Jones. Rats. I hate rats. Why did it have to be rats? But some cajoling insults and one shredded belt later find them back on solid ground again where she quickly apologizes for her mild case of fear-of-having-her-limbs-chewed-to-bloody-stumps-by-rodents. "I'm sorry, Mr. Grenfell, what a wretched little beast I am. Shall I take his legs?" Is that aplomb I see? I know. You love her too.
Later that evening she runs into him again as she's leaving the dining room. "I considered taking you to supper, but decided against it...I think that in the circumstances it would be a stupid thing to do." Naturally she gets into a snit. She had rather hoped that he would want to take her to dinner after heaving her bodily up through a hole. (I know I'd expect dinner.) And she's puzzled to pinpoint the moment when her view of him changed from a benign lack of interest (and faint pity, as he was going to marry a ninja assassin) to being piqued by his desertion.
Still, when she returns to London she can't wait to find Harumph-rey. But like opening the last can of Root Beer and discovering it's gone flat, Eugenia's eager anticipation fizzles. Harumph-rey has to be coaxed and managed and ego-massaged back into good humor--or what passes for good humor--with more chicken and chips and beer.
The Pay Packet:
When Eugenia receives an unexpected wind-fall, she knows just what she ought to do. She ought to take it straight away to the bank where it can carefully, prudently, cautiously accrue interest which she will withdraw only on the eve of her wedding to pay, in-full, for a tumble-dryer or stiff-backed parlor couch in a distressing shade of powder blue. But Gerard tells her to blow it on a dress for the Spring Ball. Even Father and the twins (oh, did I not mention them?) tell her to blow it. How can Harumph-rey mind when it isn't even part of her regular salary?
So she buys a dream of a dress with a distant neckline and a full skirt and slippers to match. Mr. Grenfell will be dazzled. Harumph-rey is predictably scandalized. Any good ladies-man worth his stipend will tell you that it is impolitic to begin a compliment with a question. i.e. 'Where did you get that?' 'What on earth are you wearing?' 'How much did it cost?' etc. It leaves so little room for retrenchment.
She all but beans him with a slipper and marches off to the dance where Mr. Grenfell, there with his black-sheathed Little String-Bean, wastes no time whisking her off to dance and dine. A lovely night.
Harumph-rey is not only suffering under the handicap of Bad-Personality Disorder (BPD--'If you or any of your loved ones are suffering from BPD...Side effects include nausea, vomiting, incontinence, loss of spine...') but also from Suffocating Mother Syndrome. Mrs. Parsons flutters and twitters over her boy like a rescue chopper over a ship wreck. Eugenia loathes it but endures silently until the day she finds out that Mother intends to move in with them after they marry. (Comesaywha...?) So, let me just get this right, Harumph-rey. (pinches forehead) Eugenia has been scrimping not only for her beans-on-toast future you offer but for a cozy retirement for Mother as well?
Cast into turmoil and gloom, Eugenia turns to her father for advice. It's original, I'll give him that. But pinning your marital happiness on the death of a close relative might lead one to being marched off to the clink and having late-night interrogations regarding accidentally fatal drug interactions.
And where is Gerard during all of this? Just when she needs a vast, attractive shoulder to cry on he's gone missing. Though I am editorializing a bit, I think it's clear that he's decided to let her work out her own salvation without his interference.
But that doesn't last too long. Soon he's back again, captivating her family, walking her through his bluebell wood and violently flirting with her. Lovely bits, each.
Harumph-rey continues his (to quote The Founders) 'long train of abuses and usurpations' when he barges into her ward during an emergency to demand that she come to the theatre with him as their free (ugh) theatre tickets expire in 30 minutes. (I'm seeing a three-year-old having a very noisy tantrum in the candy aisle here.) It is the perfect storm of parsimony, selfishness, and disregard for her career. A Trifecta of Ruin.
Later, after a typically awful visit with his mother, she walks smack into Gerard. Seeing she is in a bad temper, he suggests a moonlit drive and takes her to his cottage where he fills her arms with lilacs. (Pause. Deep cleansing breaths. In. Out.) Lilacs.
By now, it is clear to her that her life is upside down and in one last bid to right it again she makes a scandalous proposition to Harumph-rey.
BRIGHTON! (dum, dum, dum, dum!)
'This is that one!' Betty Keira shouted to her confused Mijnheer van Voorhees. 'This is the one where she asks him to go away for the weekend to have implied non-conjugal relations!' This means that Heidelberg Wedding qualifies, hands down, as the raciest novel in the entire Neels canon. Harumph-rey's only response is, 'I don't agree with pre-marital relationships. I'm glad Mother didn't hear you say that, she would have been profoundly shocked!'
'I'm a bit shocked myself,' replies Eugenia, who, if she were running a shop, would be reported to the Better Business Bureau for fraud. False advertising at least. She isn't that kind of girl and she knew Harumph-rey isn't that kind of boy. It was a safe offer and would be safely rejected. Still, he brought up his mother! Uncool, dude.
Gerard asks her, since she seems interested in a holiday, to go to his cottage with his housekeeper (who is recovering from an illness). She agrees and sees neither hide nor hair of Harumph-rey (which doesn't fuss her much) or Gerard (which does).
When he collects her at the end of the week, she is rested and bonny and almost...almost swimming into the rocky shoals of dawning realization.
She endures one more tortuous date with Harumph-rey wherein his discussion of lowered interest rates extended by his building society kill any withering feelings of love stone dead. The blight of his insufficiency has ruined her potato crop for the last time.
Only days later, she sees Mr. Grenfell and knows that a bony String Bean would not do him at all. If anyone is going to love him to distraction, Eugenia would rather it be herself.
Which makes breaking her engagement a necessity. "I'm not surprised," commented Mr. Grenfell placidly. "You're not a girl to marry one of the Humphrey's of this world." I'll say.
And so we come to Heidelberg at last--evidently the Las Vegas of Europe. They save a life, nursing techniques are discussed, and castle ruins are explored. While in the castle chapel he leads her into a discussion about weddings and adds how easy, if you have the money (150 pounds), it is to get married in this Wee Chapel of Love...
He also finds out that pomp and circumstance is not important to her when she marries--that she loves the small-ish chapel enough to daydream a little.
Her:"Why do you look like that?"
"Smug! As though you'd thought of something nice."
"Nice, nice--what an inadequate word, rather let's say shatteringly delightful!"
He tells her later that Miriam the Silent Assassin has been dispatched by an American Tycoon (the best kind of tycoon for taking String Beans off a fellow's hands), then surprises her with a proposal and abrupt (3 minutes later!) walk down the aisle. I used to hate that ending but find that, upon re-reading, it's grown on me. Gerard is awesome enough to carry it off and I rather like the idea of the news of their nuptials springing on Harumph-rey with the speed and ferocity of a mountain wolverine.
Rating: I loved Gerard--everything about him. The change jingling in his pocket, his paperback thrillers, his career enthusiasm for changing things around in the ward, his stealthy courtship of her family...He is so fleshed out and so awesome. He laughs all the time (though he trots out the bland face too) and has a ton of fun. We get so much more of his perspective than an occasional glint in his eye so that when he does haul her off unceremoniously to the alter it is easy to forgive him. I loved her too. She takes a long time to figure out her feelings but The Great Betty has handled the transition from Harumph-rey to Gerard so deftly that Eugenia doesn't seem inconstant or lame. Father and the twins, though in a lot of scenes, still feel shadowy to me and La Neels doesn't wrap their story up at all--they still live in London, where they don't want to live, at the end. Shrug. Queen of Puddings! I left so so so much wonderful material from this book out of the review because there was too much. This one will get a much better rotation from me in the future.
Fashion: The rich burgundy taffeta with the neckline that Harumph-rey hates (and Gerard loves). Miriam in the predictable black satin sheath. Nurse's uniforms. A jersey dress and cardigan.
Food: chicken Marengo, chicken and chips and beer (with Humphrey), octopus in tomato sauce (that he doesn't tell her about until she pronounces it good--dirty pool, I say), Madronho, boiled cod and shrimp sauce, Yorkshire pudding and roast beef (with Humphrey's unimaginative mother), chocolate cake oozing cream, rhubarb jam, custard tarts, shepherd pie, bacon and eggs, fishcakes, roast chicken, bread sauce (???), baked potatoes