“Are you never off duty, Fiona?” Francis said, as his brother left the room. “I’d have thought you’d have had enough nursing for today, after an afternoon at that free clinic of Matthew Usher’s over in Govan.”
“Free clinic?” Constance Cunningham had tried very hard to be grateful to Fiona for the changes she had brought about in Francis’s fragile health, and this she managed, usually by attributing the greater part of it to Dr Usher. Constance tried to be grateful, too, for the change in Francis himself, who was rarely ill-tempered these days, and had a new zest for life, but in this Constance had signally failed.
The truth was, she was jealous of the way Francis confided in Fiona, envious of the friendly banter between them, of the way they were so at ease in each other’s company, far more like sister and brother than patient and nurse. Constance had never shared that closeness with her son, not even when he was a sickly baby. She did not like herself for it, but she found every opportunity to pick fault with Fiona, whose independent airs she had taken against from the start.
“I would remind you, Fiona, that you are paid to be a nurse companion to my son, not to waltz around the slums of Glasgow dispensing charity. These people are filthy and no doubt disease-ridden. Goodness knows what you are exposing us all to.”
“I help Doctor Usher only in my spare time and during my days off, Mrs Cunningham,” Fiona replied curtly. “And most of these people pride themselves on their cleanliness, though it takes an enormous effort, let me tell you, with such little money as they have, and having to fetch water from the street pumps,
and . . .”
Constance covered her ears and shuddered dramatically.
“I will not have the subject of the great unwashed sullying my home, and I do not want you going to that place again, do you understand? You are my servant, I will not have you ”
“Mother!” Francis exclaimed. “Fiona is not a servant. What she does in her spare time is none of our business.”
“And no doubt she manipulates you to ensure she has plenty of spare time,” Constance replied.
Fiona could no longer restrain herself. Her employer’s antipathy she tried hard to tolerate, having a fairly good understanding of its origin and pitying the woman whose wealth and luxurious lifestyle seemed to lack that most basic of things, love.
“What do you mean by that?” she demanded.
Constance’s sneer was remarkably like Roddy’s.
“Do you think I don’t know what’s going on under my very nose? It was you, I have no doubt, who has been encouraging Emily Paterson to visit my son. And you, I expect, who suggests in that winsome wee lilt of yours that they spend time alone, thus leaving you free to go off and do your good deeds in the slums.”
“Mrs Cunningham!” Fiona’s voice was trembling with indignant anger. Hot slashes of colour flushed her cheeks. “I would never abuse my position in this household. Francis is my first and foremost concern, as I believe I demonstrated time and again back in the early days when first I arrived here and he was very sick. But he’s improved dramatically, thanks to Doctor Usher, and he no longer needs or indeed wants a nurse dancing attendance on him day and night. As for my encouraging Francis to seek Miss Paterson’s company he’s a grown man, for goodness’ sake, and he has a mind of his own.”
“He may be improved, but he most certainly is not cured,” Constance said imperiously. “I won’t have you encouraging Francis into a relationship with this girl that can only end in tears.”
As her temper rose, Fiona struggled not to lapse into her native Gaelic, which possessed a lively selection of curses she would happily have rained down on her employer’s head. She rarely lost her temper, but when she did, she was mindless of the consequences.
“Well, I won’t have you casting any more aspersions on my character. I won’t stay where I am not trusted, I won’t have you belittling Doctor Usher’s work, either, and what’s more, I won’t have you speaking in such an offensive way to your son. Francis’s condition is much improved. Would you deny him hope, and the right to think of the future?”
“Precisely, I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Francis interrupted, glaring furiously at his mother. “And my future is with Emily, if she’ll have me. Fiona is right, I have every right to look forward, and you have no right to deny me it. I will expect you to receive Emily courteously the next time I invite her to tea, and right now I expect you to apologise to Fiona.”
Constance looked outraged.
“I most certainly will not.”
“There is no need,” Fiona said indignantly. “I am leaving. I resign my position.”
“No!” Francis took her hand. “No, please stay,” he urged. “For my sake, Fiona. My mother will apologise, and she’ll promise not to interfere with what you do in your spare time.” He turned towards his parent, a new, steely look in his eyes, which made him seem much older. “My mother will do so because it is what I wish, and she will not want us to be any further estranged.”
Constance faltered under his unwavering gaze.
“Very well,” she said stiffly. “I may have been slightly hasty. I apologise for any offence.”
Fiona was torn, for it was obvious to her that Mrs Cunningham was not at all contrite, but the pleading look Francis gave her, and the knowledge that salving her pride would not pay her wages, swayed her.
“Very well,” she said, her tone and words mimicking her employer. “I accept your kind apology.”