Three For A Wedding

Three for a Wedding - Betty Neels


One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


The title of this Neels' book is a bit ambiguous/puzzling at first. Clarity comes when Phoebe and her sister, Sybil, are scheming about switching identities and planning Sybil's wedding. (Er, not that Phoebe will be switching places with Sybil, the bride-to-be. That's not a Neels' plot that I've run across. Yet.) Phoebe sees three magpies eavesdropping on their plans and recalls the old nursery rhyme of counting magpies: "One for anger, two for mirth, three for a wedding." There are many versions, but one has the unfortunate next line -"four for death", while another says it's "four for birth." I'm going for the more uplifting "birth" version since "wedding" precedes it in both versions, and this is, after all, a romance with a happy ending.


Sybil, Phoebe's younger sister, has a dilemma: she's committed herself to an exchange program, working in Delft for a few months with a renowned Dutch pediatrician specializing in treatment of fibrocystic children, but she has fallen in love and wants to marry as soon as possible. Papers have been signed, "t"s have been crossed, and "i"s dotted. There seems to be no way out except by persuading Phoebe to take her place in Holland while she, Sybil, remains in England doing her best bridezilla impersonation. Of course, there was another option - it's called being honest, laying it out on the table, and maybe just asking if perhaps her sister could go in her place. (But then there would have been 50 pages to fill with conflict and tension in some other way.) Anyway, both sisters think this cockeyed plan might work for two reasons: The renowned Dutch pediatrician, Doctor Lucius van Someren, is, according to Sybil, a bit absentminded and not very observant of people. Why, says Sybil, he appeared "half asleep", spent only a "couple of minutes" interviewing her, and she doubts if he even "noticed that [she] was a girl." Added incentive for success of this absurd plan is that Sybil and Phoebe are so very much alike physically that people have been known to mistake one for the other many times. No matter how preposterous it may sound, this is the setup for Three For A Wedding.


There's an old saying: still waters run deep. My favorite heroes are like those still, deep waters. The ones who are quiet, contemplative, seemingly boring until you look beneath that placid exterior. Take Jane Austen's Colonel Brandon in Sense & Sensibility, for example. I was more drawn to him from the beginning than I ever was to Edward Ferrars. In fact, I recollect thinking how much more fortunate Marianne was than Elinor in her chosen mate. He embodies those still, deep waters perfectly, a heady concoction of perfectly balanced emotion and reason. He's sensitive enough to share the same appreciation of music as Marianne yet deals with heartbreak and emotional trauma in a mature, praiseworthy manner. Clearly, he's intelligent, a good man to call "friend", a tower of strength when needed, gracious, chivalrous, and most importantly blessed with an ability to see Marianne with his heart, to discern who she really is beneath all the chatter. Or take Christy in Patricia Gaffney's To Love and To Cherish. Christy is not flamboyant nor tortured as Sebastian in To Have and To Hold. He's truly an honorable man, a good man whose quiet humor surprises and delights, a man whose optimism beckons Anne like a lighthouse. These are my heroes, the ones I hold close to my heart. Lucius van Someren is one of those quiet heroes, waters that are very still and very deep indeed.


Of course, Lucius knows immediately that Nurse Brook is NOT Nurse Sybil Brook, but is Nurse Phoebe Brook, but it takes another 15/16 pages for Phoebe to 'fess up and do some "splaining." Phoebe does experience a moment of clarity about Lucius, but only a moment, on their first meeting noting his "piercing blue gaze bent upon her" was "anything but vague", but pushes aside her doubts as "his face became placid, his eyelids drooping over eyes which seemed half asleep, his whole manner vague." Lucius reinforces her poor first impression as he admits he's "a little absentminded", so much so that he carries around a little notebook to write reminders for himself. By the end of their first day working together, Phoebe is more than a little interested in both Lucius's ideas and the man himself. She's at least recognizing the obvious facets of his character - his intelligence, his patience and compassion for his young patients, his determination to make their lives better, his respect for the other nurses. For the next ten days, before they leave for Delft, Phoebe learns he is also fair even if a "hard and exacting" taskmaster on the ward. She is a little concerned initially that Doctor van Someren has a disconcerting habit of staring at her, but dismisses it as his "being deep in thought and wasn't even aware of her." (Oh, Phoebe, thou art a foolish woman!)


If I weren't already in love with Lucius, I would have fallen for sure when one of his small patients dies. He was there, on the ward, each night just because he liked the children, and he was there again "in the small hours of the night", as young Andrew passes away. Phoebe takes Andrew's death hard, proclaiming she'll "be no good for [his] scheme - I can't bear it when this happens - he was so little." To which Professor van Someren responds by making her a cup of tea and gently bracing her up with:


"'On the contrary, you will be very good, because you feel deeply about it." (p. 42)


He adds in a more harsh tone that he, too, is affected by these children's deaths but "soon we shall win our battle, you know."


Phoebe's day of reckoning comes much more swiftly than she (or I, for that matter) expected. As she and the doctor pass through Customs, she is distracted by "a good deal of talk in Dutch" and so when Doctor van Someren calls out "Phoebe" to get her attention, she responds. The jig is, as they say, up. She is much like a doe frozen in the headlights, but the good doctor is not and says thoughtfully:


"'Very interesting. I have been wanting to do that since we met." (p. 50)


Despite Phoebe's intentional deception, Lucius does not want to send her back or humiliate her or tear a strip from her hide. Instead he calmly tells her Sybil mentioned her in the interview, that she is an "admirable nurse, obviously more experienced than [she] wished him to believe", and is certain she had a "sufficiently good reason" for the deception. Phoebe is flummoxed as to how and when he found out. As for when, he tells her he knew when they met, and when Phoebe questions how he could tell them apart when most cannot unless they're together or only when people look at them "properly", he responds:


"'And your sister decided that I hadn't studied her for a sufficient length of time to make your substitution risky. You are not in the least like her." (p. 51)


To give her credit, Phoebe apologizes nicely, explains about the suddenness of Sybil's engagement, and admits:


"'It was a rotten thing to do. At the time, when Sybil - when I arranged to do it, it seemed OK. I hadn't met you then,' she added naively, and failed to see his slow smile and the gleam in his eye." (pp. 51-52)


And when the explanations are finished, Lucius doesn't belabor the events, or Phoebe's part in them; he merely states mildly he's glad they've cleared the air. Phoebe keeps her blinders cemented on with Super Glue for quite a long time. The catalyst for her clear-sightedness is a foil by the name of Maureen Felman, governess to Paul, Lucius's adopted son, aka Maureen the Maleficent, the evilest, vilest "other woman" in Neels' canon of work. (Yes, even worse than Wanda who slapped Florina in A Gentle Awakening.)


Maureen is yet another character not to be taken at face value, and is probably the weakest part of this book. I say, "weak" for two reasons: she is a little OTT in the Cruella de Vil department and Lucius is oblivious to the more malignant facets of her personality. She is "magnificently eye catching", but full of smug smiles, mocking laughter, and malicious intent. In this Garden of Eden, Maureen is the snake, a mistress of lies and innuendo. She poisons Paul's mind toward Phoebe, making him fear for his security and question whether his dear "Papa" will love him if he marries Phoebe. Phoebe's first meeting with Paul isn't particularly auspicious and pretty much goes south very quickly and stays there for a while. He rebuffs every gesture of friendship coldly and hatefully, even going so far as to lock her up in a deserted warehouse at one point.


Maureen is, of course, at the heart of his hostility and has told him that Phoebe is a "menace", " a canting hypocrite", and "a scheming old maid." (These are harsh words indeed for Betty Neels.) Maureen is a villainess without peer. Her perfidy, no, her villainy, her vile evilness, surpasses mere manipulation and easy camaraderie with deceit. Maureen, I believe, is sociopathic. How else can you explain beating a puppy nearly to death, a puppy that's already seen abuse by other hands, without any remorse? How else can you explain intimidating/manipulating an 8-year old child until he lives in fear each and every day? How else can you justify Maureen's second attempt, though thwarted, to ensure the puppy dies? When Phoebe walks in on Maureen beating Rex the puppy and physically restrains her, Maureen is nonchalant, without an iota of remorse:


"Maureen fling herself in a chair. 'Oh, shut up,' she said roughly. 'Just my filthy luck for Else to go out and leave the door unlocked. Another few minutes and the little brute would have been dead. Take it away, Miss do-gooder, and I'll think up some tale or other about it running away.' (...) 'Do you think I care about that kid's feelings? Do you imagine I enjoy being a governess? You're so dim. It serves my purpose, that's all - it keeps me near Lucius.'" (pp. 193-194)


Can you say "Bad Seed"? Sometimes evil just is, without rhyme or reason. Of course, Maureen's continued presence in Paul's life and home made me question if Lucius was an idiot. At times he seemed to have a blind spot as far as Maureen's shady friends, ignoring her lolling around, drinking and thumbing through glossy magazines, instead of "governessing" little Paul. More importantly, how could he allow this psychotic women near a child he loves?


Lucius is not as forgetful or unobservant as Phoebe believes, but his work does consume him a lot of the time. Sometimes it is all he can see, hear, breath, or taste - which means he is, at times, in his own world. He isn't completely cognizant of the extent of Maureen's unsuitability in his house, near his son. Additionally, Lucius was convinced by Paul (and poor Paul was forced to continue this obscene charade by Maureen's constant playing on Paul's fears and insecurities) that he liked Maureen and she, him, that she was kind to him. To Lucius, Paul's happiness was more important than any of the less than stellar facets of her personality he had noticed. And, to be fair, Lucius was not made aware of all the facts either by Phoebe. He had no idea that Maureen beat Rex, and Phoebe, for reasons I'm not completely comfortable with, never tells him that Rex's life was in danger. I understood Lucius's rationale, even if I didn't agree and longed to snatch that little notebook away from him and shout "Pay attention! Maureen is evil!"


Phoebe's dawning realization that she loves Lucius van Someren after her sister's wedding is followed by a several mini dawning realizations that he is not as "unobservant" as she thought, "despite [his] notebook." On one outing with Lucius and Paul to Noordwijk, seeing him lighthearted and teasing, Phoebe wonders:


"how she could ever have found him absent-minded and vague. Was this his true self, she hazarded, or had he been like this all the time and she hadn't noticed because she had started out expecting him to be exactly like Sybil had described him? She filled the tea cups again, reflecting that it really didn't matter; she loved him whatever he was." (p. 184)


Phoebe gradually has come to see Lucius van Someren with her heart, not just with her eyes, just as the Little Prince sees his rose with his heart. Toward the end when Phoebe and Lucius are at odds once again over Maureen's duplicity, Phoebe learns more about Lucius when his old nanny Anna shares cherished photographs with Phoebe. Phoebe sees Lucius as a small boy, leaning against his father's knee, Lucius in a student's gown, "looking vaguely at the camera as though his thoughts were far away", and then an older Lucius with a group of "earnest-looking men outside the hospital." Though the exchange between Phoebe and Anna is silent, Anna has helped Phoebe see even yet another side of this quiet reserved man - as a son, a brother, a student, a young physician.


It's among the pots and pans at Bijenkorf that Phoebe and Lucius begin their happy ever after, when Lucius explains why he was angry with her:


"'...you see while I had been in England I had dreamed - oh, a great many dreams - of you, of course, and then when Maureen told me that you had made it up with this young doctor in England and pointed out that you were so very English and I was so very Dutch - and wrapped up in my work, and perhaps a little old - it seemed to me that I had dreamed too much.' He turned to look at her. 'It was like coming back to a nightmare - you gone, Paul gone, I could think of nothing else, and then I found you...'" (p. 217)


Lucius, bless his heart, does a stellar job of apologizing and declaring his intentions amidst the saucepans:


"'I may be absent-minded and perhaps a little blind to what is going on around me, but there are some things of which I am very sure - my love for you, Phoebe; you are my life and my future. Do you suppose you could surmount the difficulties of marrying a Dutchman and bear with my occasional lapses of memory?'" (p. 219)


Lucius's little notebook is a running thread throughout Three For A Wedding and many times he pulls it out to check if he's asked her to dinner or invited her to visit a museum or to spend the day with him and Paul at the beach. Phoebe is always seeing him jotting things down in it. It's endearing and appropriate to learn at the end that one of his notes written very early in their acquaintance, in his "neat, rather spidery hand" reads: "A darling English girl. I shall marry her." Because he does.