Authors: Mary Burchell
OR EVER AND EVER
When Leonie Creighton was chosen as Claire Elstone’s companion on a voyage to Australia, she knew that the whole purpose of the journey was to separate Claire from a young man of whom
father disapproved. So it was a considerable shock to her to find, the first night out, that this very young man was aboard too in the capacity of Assistant Surgeon—and that he didn’t seem to be quite the villain that Sir James had pictured.
Leonie was extremely worried as to what to do; and she had troubles of her own as well, connected with the Senior Surgeon, who had, it seemed, thought her a silly little flirt in her hospital days and did not seem prepared to revise his opinion now.
But when an emergency arose on board, it was to Leonie that he turned for extra help in the ship’s hospital, and so began for her a happiness that was not to end with the voyage but to last
for ever and ever
oot-toot! Tooooot-toot! Toot-toot!” From far overhead sounded the call of the ship’s siren. And, as the long-short, short-short cry dominated every other sound on board, a faint shiver seemed to pass through the ship. Hardly a movement—only the suggestion of a movement. For a second all the gay, eager, excited chatter was stilled, and then it broke out with even more energy in cries of—
“We’re off!” “She’s moving!” “Goodbye—goodbye!” Leonie, whose own more personal goodbyes had been said in her mother’s house that morning, stood back a pace or two from the ship’s rail and waved decorously and gratefully to her employer on the wharf below. But, even as she did so, she was aware that he probably did not see her at all. For him, as he waved his very expensive, fine linen handkerchief, there was only one person on the ship. His daughter Claire, who stood beside Leonie.
“Goodbye!” Claire called, in her sweet, clear voice, and her dark eyes widened with sudden emotion, while the peach-like curve of her cheek flushed with feeling.
a pretty creature!” Leonie thought, with a sideways glance at what she was already beginning to regard as her charge. “No wonder he thinks the earth revolves round her.”
“Look! You can see the water between us now!” Claire Elstone turned to Leonie for a moment, her lovely face alight and quivering with an almost childlike joy which Leonie had not expected. “We’re really off. We’re safely started!”
“Safely” was not a word Leonie herself would have applied to the departure of so famous a liner as the
which, after all, must have accomplished this process rather often, but if Claire felt they had achieved something, that was all right with Leonie. So she just smiled reassuringly and said, “Yes—we’re off. First stop Gibraltar,” and waved once more to her employer, hoping that poor Sir James was not feeling utterly bereft as he saw his one adored chick sail away on the voyage which he had planned with such care.
That she herself should have been part of the plan was still something Leonie could hardly credit. And, as she stood there now, watching others make their more poignant and heartfelt goodbyes, her thoughts travelled back to that incredible bleak January morning when Sir James Elstone, head of Elstone Electrical Enterprises Ltd., had called her into his palatial private office and bade her be seated in one of the handsome mahogany chairs usually reserved for much more distinguished visitors.
Leonie was not even one of Sir James’s two private secretaries. She was merely the secretary of the principal private secretary. She had sometimes, it was true, done personal work for the head of the firm, and on two occasions at least she had received an Olympian nod of approval. But never had she expected him to face her across what looked like half an acre of gleaming mahogany and address her as though she were a board meeting. Rather an important board meeting at that.
“Now, Miss Creighton”—Sir James consulted some notes on the desk in front of him—”you have been with us two years, and daring that time you have given every satisfaction. This has prompted me to consider you for a somewhat—somewhat special assignment, which has great personal significance for myself.” He paused, and Leonie respectfully said, “Yes, Sir James,” just as though she knew what he was talking about, which she did not.
“Perhaps I might ask you a few questions?”
The head of the firm shot such a shrewd glance at her at this point that Leonie felt rather like an unsatisfactory shareholder, and hastened to say again, “Yes, Sir James.”
“You are”— he consulted the notes once more— “twenty-two?”
“Hm—pity you’re not older,” he muttered, thereby making Leonie feel that perhaps she should bloom, mellow and even wither very slightly, all in the space of a few minutes. But she remained looking very fresh and young and eager.
“You live with your family?”
“My mother and sister—yes. My father is dead.”
“And you have had some nursing experience?”
“I had two years’ hospital training, but I’m not a fully qualified nurse,” Leonie explained, wondering what this could possibly have to do with any job Sir James had in mind for her. “My father died, and it was necessary for me to earn money more quickly and more lavishly than one does as a nurse.”
“Quite so. Are you engaged to be married?”
“Why—no, Sir James.”
“N-no,” said Leonie, who would not have been surprised by now if he had wanted to know her size in shoes and the name of her favorite film actor.
“So that there would be no bar to your leaving England for a matter of some months?”
“Leaving England?” gasped Leonie. Suddenly this last question, in contrast to the purely academic ones, jerked her into the amazed, excited realization that Sir James’ inexplicable curiosity was leading up to something breath-taking. “Do you mean you—you want me to go to one of our offices abroad?”
“No, Miss Creighton. It has nothing to do with the office. It would be simpler perhaps if it had.” And suddenly Sir James passed his hand over his face and looked, incredible though it might seem, rather lost and unhappy.
“If there is anything I can do to help you—” Leonie began. Then she realized that these were somewhat peculiar words for a very minor secretary to use to the millionaire head of Elstone Electrical Enterprises Ltd., so she smiled shyly, blushed slightly and was silent.
“It concerns my daughter, Claire. She is my only child. Her mother died when she was ten. I never married again.”
Once more Sir James paused, and for a moment Leonie—who was sensitive and had a loving heart for those in distress—translated those few short sentences into a picture of loneliness and emptiness which no amount of money had been able to mitigate.
“Yes, Sir James?” she prompted gently, after a moment, and he roused himself from a most uncharacteristic reverie.
“She is twenty now, and I don’t mind admitting that all my fondest hopes are wrapped up in her. I’ve tried to do my best for her and give her everything I thought she should or could need. But towards the end of this year—last year, I mean—she was very ill with pleurisy and pneumonia, and she has been much too long recovering. Now the doctors strongly advise a long sea voyage. She seems to like the idea of going out to visit her Australian cousins, but I can’t possibly get away just now, and in any case she needs a companion more of her own age. And that is where you come in.”
Sir James?” Astonishment and a sort of wild, heart-searching excitement took hold of Leonie, though she still held on to her common sense. “But she must have lots of personal friends who would be a more obvious choice.”
“They have no nursing experience.” Sir James looked suddenly rather like a very distinguished mule digging its heels in.
“But—please don’t think I’m not grateful and overwhelmed by your suggestion,” Leonie said earnestly, “but it doesn’t sound to me as though your daughter would need someone with nursing experience so much as a personal friend. There would be nurses and a doctor on board, you know. Or you could send a trained nurse with her—”
“No, no. Nothing which suggests I am anxious about her health.”
Leonie hesitated. Not because she did not long to snatch at this incredible, unheard-of opportunity with both hands, but because she had the curious and not altogether comfortable conviction that she could not have been told the whole of the situation.
“I can’t really suppose,” she said at last, “that my rather limited nursing experience would make me a more suitable companion for Miss Elstone than one of her personal friends. I feel, Sir James”—she groped for the most tactful way of saying what she felt—”that there must be rather more to the situation than that. Won’t you please be a little franker with me?”
For a moment she saw him frown, and she was terribly afraid that she had cast away the most wonderful, the most fairy-tale offer ever likely to come her way. But then his expression cleared and, apparently not displeased, he said, “Well, I see you have judgment and some common-sense caution. I suppose I should be glad of that.” He sighed impatiently. “There
more to the situation. But what I’m telling you now is in the strictest confidence, and on the understanding that my daughter never knows I mentioned the matter to you.”
“Of course! And please don’t think me inquisitive. But, if the situation is a delicate one, I’m afraid I must know about it before I agree to be involved. I suppose” —Leonie smiled at her employer—”there is a man in it somewhere?”
Sir James nodded, and pressed his lips together. “That was largely what delayed her recovery,” he conceded. “Fretting after him, I mean. He was quite unsuitable, and I had to put my foot down. He was almost a nobody—though that, in itself, would not have mattered so much. What did matter was that he was an unreliable type too.”
“Are you quite sure?” asked Leonie doubtfully.
“How do you mean?—am I sure?” inquired her employer, in the tone of one who was always sure. “Of course I’m sure. You don’t suppose I’ve become the head of this business without knowing how to judge men, do you?”
“N-no. But sometimes, the more affectionate and anxious a parent is, the less he is able to judge for a young daughter,” Leonie ventured to point out.
Again Sir James gave her that shrewd glance.
“You mean he tends to value money and position above affection? Well, that isn’t so in my case, Miss Creighton. I loved my own wife too well not to know what really matters in a marriage.”
He said that with a slight sigh, and with such simple frankness that immediately Leonie felt herself on his side.
“But this man my girl wanted was no good. I knew that, and refused to entertain the idea of her marrying him. She’s used to her own way, and there was a lot of trouble. Then she was very ill, and that made things worse. I think and hope she has got over him now—or is getting over him. But I don’t know which of her friends encouraged this business or who was in her confidence. That’s why I don’t want one of them to go with her. I want someone who can act as a companion, but who will keep her wits about her and see my girl doesn’t make a fool of herself again.”
“I see.” Leonie passed in rapid mental review her probable duties and responsibilities. “I shouldn’t, you realize, have any real authority over her. And, equally, Sir James, I couldn’t undertake to play the part of even the most well-intentioned spy.”
“Good God, of course not! Just keep your eyes open and act towards her as you would with any girl friend whose interests you had at heart.”
“That, of course, I could do,” Leonie said, with her most open smile. “And I would do it very willingly. But how, exactly, are you going to explain my presence to her?”
“You will be described as going out to the Sydney office on business. You won’t need to go into details with Claire. I shall merely tell her that one of our girls is going out to Australia, which will give her an excellent chance to have a companion.”
“To Australia!” repeated Leonie slowly and incredulously. “To Australia? This is a serious suggestion that I should go out to Australia with your daughter?”
For the first time, Sir James smiled with a sort of indulgent amusement.
“I don’t think it will be necessary to go further,” he said.
“Further?” gasped Leonie.
one go further?”
“Of course. Most of the ships on the Antipodean Line go cruising in the Pacific after the Australian run,” explained Sir James, as though he were talking of a trip to Southend and a few excursions up and down the coast. “If Claire chooses to go on, and you think she will be happily and harmlessly employed doing so, you can leave her there and fly home. The Sydney office will have instructions to arrange everything.”
“W-will they?” murmured Leonie, not quite believing that all this was really happening.
“On the other hand, if Claire wants your company on the way back, you can either continue with her on the cruise, or stay on in Australia while she visits her cousins—whichever she chooses. In either case, as you will realize, I am putting a good deal of confidence in your judgment and good sense.”
“More than I feel I deserve,” Leonie exclaimed sincerely;
“Well”—again Sir James smiled—”as I told you, I consider myself a good judge of people. And Mr. Collier also gave it as his opinion that you were the right girl for the job.”
he?” Leonie was surprised to learn that her rather silent immediate employer had ever given her so much thought. “I’m very grateful to him. And to you even more so. I can’t tell you how—how exciting—how unbelievable it all seems! But I
do my best to justify your trust in me, Sir James.”