Tulips For Augusta. Boy did I love this one. Sometimes when you hit the used book store and pick up three or four Neels that you've never read before (as used to happen to me *tears*), you have a tendency to whip through them pretty quickly, lost in a Betty fog. Both Betty Debbie and I are finding that even with taking copious notes and a going at a plodding pace, these Neels books are holding their own and some of them (Tulips For Augusta, Grasp a Nettle, I'm looking at you...) are better (way better) then remembered.
Augusta Brown, 23, Staff Nurse at St. Jude's is in a bit of a snit. She's been summarily ordered to tend the patients of the private wing. Her steady date, Archie Dukes, won't get to see her as often (which is for the best as those with names like 'Archie Dukes' are, like Communism and Fascism, doomed to litter the ash heaps of history). And she'll have to consort with Private Patients--those who The Venerable Betty must have had only the scantiest affection for. These include, like the cast of a mystery who-done-it:
- Spoiled child and ineffectual mother. "Stop crying Marlene."
- An old man with a young wife--too young, sister observed darkly
- A film starlet Dawn Dewey (or is she Miss Scarlet?)--discontented and a little vapid
- a chronic alcoholic with a pretty, weak face and a gushing manner--we'll call her Mrs. Peacock
- The Brigadier (Colonel Mustard)--he and his leg will part ways in the morning. This reminds me of Benedict Arnold. In serving in the American Revolution, Arnold injures his leg but goes on to fight for 'the dastardly Tories'. Arnold's question, "What will the Americans do with me if they catch me?" A plucky officer replied, "They will cut off the leg which was wounded when you were fighting so gloriously for the cause of liberty, and bury it with the honors of war, and hang the rest of your body on a gibbet." Which story I find ghoulishly delightful.
- Lady Belway--fractured femur, lace nightcap and a marabou (!) cape
No, of course, I jest. La Neels only kills off inoffensive parents in order to cast our heroines adrift.
Lady Belway has the most interesting visitors. A tall man (a giant really) with straw hair and Miss Susan Belsize (a character like a cold sore--disfiguring but ultimately treatable. Also, she spends a lot of time in Paris--that's how you know she's rotten) who dazzles the work-a-day nurses with her up-to-the-minute fashion. Augusta just wants to pop in and grab the chart when the blonde giant's eye is caught by her carroty hair. Yes, he calls it carroty but you forgive him because it's as plain as the tip-tilted nose on your face that he's just lost his heart to a certain Staff Nurse.
Is he chatting her up is he merely curious? Augusta is puzzled and annoyed but not so off her head that she isn't glad to be wearing her new elegant slingbacks as she passes him in the forecourt. This somehow compensated for the fact that he drove a Rolls-Royce.
On a particularly hairy day she receives tulips from The Man. He catches her on the stair and says, "You make me feel so welcome. There's an old song; something about a lady sweet and...kind." The Venerable Betty expects us to be geniuses, I expect, and know to what he was referring. I offer the rest of the song which is from Thomas Ford's Music of Sundry Kinds:
There is a lady sweet and kind,
Was never a face so pleased my mind;
I did but see her passing by,
And yet, I'll love her till I die.
Her gesture, motion, and her smiles,
Her wit, her voice my heart beguiles,
Beguiles my heart, I know not why,
And yet, I'll love her till I die.
Cupid is winged and he doth range,
Her country, so, my love doth change;
But change she earth, or change she sky,
Yet, I will love her till I die.
Well that just about sums up The Man's feelings about his dear Miss Brown. You love him too, right?
Before you can say boo to a goose, Augusta is off to Holland for her holiday with two great-aunts. She's a quarter Dutch and speaks a fluent if verb-mangled tongue. While there she meets your standard-issue Dutch fink/fashion photographer Piet who tells her that she's too short for a midi-length dress. Okay, that's it, buster. Gloves are off. The Union Jack didn't come to fly over half the known world by taking petty jabs from fishy Dutchmen lying down.
"How dare you tell me what to wear and--and criticize my legs? Keep your shallow-brained remarks for the bird-witted creatures you purport to photograph."
"Perhaps you don't know that I have a very good knowledge of English?" he queried stiffly.
"Why I counted on that."
I fully expected Dutch fink to show up later for retribution. Neels baddies have such a way of repeating on one. But evidently Augusta planted him a facer that kept him belly down on the canvas--consorting with snakes and other low-bellied vermin in his natural milieu. Hm. I pity the fool.
One of the aunts has an angina attack in the middle of the night and Augusta rushes to call the doctor. Hey, but what about The Man? If a doctor shows up he'll be bound to steal Augusta's heart and upset the balance of the Force! The Karmic wheel solves that knotty problem by making The Doctor and The Man one and the same (Remarkable Fate!). Showing no surprise that it is Augusta who answers the door, Doctor Constantijn van Lindemann (33 and with a brother named Huib--please get me a Dutch pronunciation guide for this name! I'm reading it 'Heeb'.) calmly tells her that he recognized her the moment he heard her. I should know your voice anywhere... Hot Dutch Doctor to Fuddled Brit Girl translation:
Darling, the solicitors have been notified and will be bringing the marriage settlement papers over in the morning.
The rest of Holland is just awesome--chock-a-block with his endearments to her. (And one of the best kisses ever.) But she is still wary of him. See, her brother and family still call her Roly (Brit for 'tubby') and then there's the Chanel No5 malodorousness of Susan Belsize. What does she mean to him? Why won't he discuss it? Has he got a homeless graveyard in the backyard?
So she hangs onto a shred of her dignity and doesn't tell him where she lives. Well, she does say something like, "In the shadow of the everlasting hills, by the banks of a mighty river..."
Back in England she goes back to work but manages to get a weekend off. Remember, her last vacation was a barrel of laughs--what with the angina and the sleeplessness and the Dutch fink. This one's got a quarry accident! Little Timmy, whose mother lets her six children (I expect a comment Betty Debbie) roam the countryside at will, has fallen into the abandoned quarry and Augusta slides down the shingles to the rescue, rips her petticoats (so much more romantic than cotton slacks and top) and shouts for rescue.
What to her wondering eyes does appear...? Constantijn! How did he come to be there?
"I wrote asking [the doctor] if he knew of a vet by the name of Brown who lived on the Somerset-Dorset border and owned a donkey named Bottom."
And if you're not in love with him yet you're past praying for. But then it gets even better than that! He follows her the next day to a jumble sale. Again, too many wonderful details to pick just one. But if I had to narrow it down (skipping, most regretfully, the spot of snogging in the vicarage kitchen) I'll mention the truly hideous-sounding fairings that he must have tracked down and bought (from the cold, dead hands of just the kind of parsimonious elderlies to frequent jumbles and buy ugly fairings) just because she'd off-handedly said she wanted them.
So we've got the second proof in as many days that he's paying scrupulous attention to everything she says (first the description of her home and then the knick-knacks). And now, the minor irritation of Susan Belsize erupts like a cold sore on a wedding day. Augusta is in love with Constantijn and someone--anyone--needs to explain the bubble-head taking up all the air in his life. But no one does.
Actually, that's not quite true. In a fit of misguided candor, Constantijn admits that she is his ward and that he had thought of marrying Susan about a year ago but it came to nothing...
Editorial Note: Girlfriend is pretty firm about needing to know about Cold Sore Susan but keeps getting headed off or, worse, snubbed. Of all the things to let fall about the highly decorative darling while you're wooing a once tubby sensible type this is not it.
But he not-quite saves things by calling her Roly and carroty and saying, "You know that I've fallen more than a little in love with you."--which phrase, no matter how nice, reminds me of Rocky Balboa proposing to Adrian (I was wondering if you wouldn't mind marryin' me.)
A hospital emergency disrupts her off-duty and when Constantijn collects her for tea the warden says, "He's yer young man, cos he said so." Now that's more like it.
She asks him again more particularly about Susan (which should clue him in to Susan's importance in Augusta's mind) and is told that he doesn't want to talk about it. (Well, make time, Buddy.) She tells him that she loves him (on a hammock--so put that cozy picture in your delighted brain) and is invited to Cold Sore Susan's 21st birthday party.
On the way back to London from a weekend at home, Constantijn proposes but she's trying desperately not to be disappointed at it's anti-climactic air. He did it in a half-filled restaurant! He didn't say he loved her! What does it all mean?
The pieces seem to fall into place with a sick little thud as she overhears an hysterical Susan tell Constantijn that she's in love too and hears Constantijn reply that he won't see 'this other girl' get hurt in any way.
That's the answer. It makes perfect sense. Roly (she has to think of herself as an unattractive alternative to Susan now) was just a diversion and Constantijn will feel duty-bound to marry her if she doesn't break it off. In a rage, Augusta fibs (poorly) about off-duty and free weekends. She must have time to think.
Constantijn is finally confronted with Augusta. Tears, heartache, recrimination! But he hardly says a word--just lets her get back into the car and drive off. It is up to Lady Belway and Mrs. Brown to sort out Augusta:
Cold Sore Susan was really Homewrecker Susan who wanted to steal Constantijn's best friend away from his sweet wife. Constantijn prevented it--but if a man can be captivated by a girl who might regularly don a white midi with a tapestry belt and T-strap lizard shoes (and handbag) then I give the marriage five years...tops.
Back Augusta goes to apologize and be kissed. A marriage is in the offing.
Rating: So totally a lashings of whipped cream that I don't know where to start. With the heroes' unabashed pursuit of his Darling Miss Brown? With The Venerable Neels particularly descriptive and delightful prose? With the quarry, torn clothing episode? With the nickname Roly?! I couldn't put a fifth of all the wonderfulness herein contained. Constantijn, unlike your more run-of-the-mill Neels hero, has zero problem letting everyone know that Miss Brown is the gal for him. The only part I don't care for is the very very end--I thought Augusta was justified in being in a rage and Constantijn has to let her sort it out herself? No helping? Thumbs down. But, then, if that was absolutely perfect then this novel would have earned itself right off the chart and we can't have that. Also, for reasons I can't figure out, I hate the name Augusta Brown. (Both fine without the other but together bug me.)
Food: Alkmaarse Jongens (a Dutch buscuit), Marquise Montmorency (a pudding that doesn't really float my boat), Mirabeau steak, lemon custard (and so help me you must try this, Betty Debbie sometime when I'm around) and a dry martini (since when does The Betty have heroines drink martinis?).
Fashion: Augusta's slacks (torn) and cotton shirt (also torn), a mid-length yellow lawn dress with long ballooning sleeves (that she wears for his proposal), a Terlenka pantsuit with a white tunic top, a blue and aubergine organza evening dress (that she wears to Susan's 21st).