Authors: Mary Burchell
“No one will really dress for dinner the first night out,” she declared. “Cocktail dresses will do this evening. I hear we’re to sit at the Senior Surgeon’s table. I wonder what he’s like.”
“Rather forbidding,” Leonie said, before she could stop herself. “I used to work in the same hospital as he in the days when I was a nurse.”
“No! Not really. How amusing! Didn’t you like him?”
“One doesn’t like or dislike surgeons when one’s a nurse,” said Leonie, recovering her discretion. “One just stands in awe of them.”
“But you needn’t stand in awe of him now. You aren’t a nurse any longer. You’re my friend and you’re with me.”
Claire tossed her head slightly as she said that, but there was something so infinitely engaging and friendly about the way she evidently considered that she flung the mantle of her protection round Leonie that one could only be disarmed and touched.
“You’re sweet.” Leonie smiled across at the other girl. “I expect we’ll all get on remarkably well after the first day or two. But I rather wish we’d been put at the Assistant Surgeon’s table. I have an idea he would be more fun.”
“The Assistant Surgeon? Do you know him too?” Claire came further into the cabin and stood looking at Leonie with much keener interest, as the older girl went on with her unpacking.
“Not really—no. I happened to run into him when I was looking round the ship, just before you arrived. I thought he seemed extremely nice, and we got on well during the few minutes we talked.”
“You did?” Claire laughed and for some reason seemed to find that rather entertaining. “Well, I daresay, if you wanted it very much, we could get ourselves changed over to his table.”
“By no means!” exclaimed Leonie, straightening up from her suitcases and speaking with energy. “Mr. Pembridge would think I was behind the change and imagine that I was afraid to sit at his table.”
“And are you—just a little?” inquired Claire curiously.
“Not enough to matter,” Leonie declared, smiling. “Shall I help you now with your unpacking?”
But it seemed that Claire could complete that herself. At any rate, she returned to her cabin, and when she emerged again she was ready for dinner, wearing a black tulle cocktail dress, infinitely becoming to her fair hair, beautiful skin and dark eyes.
“It’s quite a while before dinner still. I’m going to have a look round the ship,” she told Leonie.
She did not suggest that Leonie should accompany her. But then she knew the other girl had already done her tour of inspection, and perhaps she was, in any case, anxious to make it clear that they were both free to go their own ways.
This also suited Leonie admirably. And so she only said,
“Put on something really warm over that dress. You don’t want to catch cold at the very beginning of the voyage.”
With charming docility Claire fetched a beautiful mink jacket, and thus protected against the cold, she went off on her own devices.
Left alone, and with her unpacking now completed, Leonie relaxed for ten minutes in one of the armchairs, looking round with infinite contentment and telling herself for the hundredth time that this was like living in a book. Then presently she had a leisurely bath and changed also into a cocktail dress.
Her dress was of midnight-blue lace, with a beautifully moulded bodice and a softly flaring skirt. The sort of dress she could never have hoped to possess without Sir James’ generosity. Her pleasure in it was all the more acute, and once more she reflected that
which she could do for him in connection with his daughter would be less than enough to express her gratitude.
Not that there was very much one could do for Claire at the moment. On board ship she could hardly get into much mischief—beyond a shipboard flirtation or two. And those might well have their value in curing her of the unfortunate attachment which had given Sir James such anxiety.
“I still wonder if he judged correctly,” thought Leonie. “But without knowing the man myself, I can only accept Sir James’ verdict. Well—she seems gay and high-spirited enough now. No signs of a broken heart.”
Indeed, for anyone used to all the luxurious details which afforded Leonie herself so much pleasure, Claire was displaying a degree of excitement and bubbling enjoyment which was rather surprising.
When Leonie was ready, it was still not time for dinner. And so—not tiring of her beautiful cabin, but yielding to the call of unknown attractions outside—she slipped on a warm coat and, stepping out into the corridor, made her way up the brass-bound stairway to the promenade deck.
All around her were people who seemed to be enjoying themselves, passing and re-passing, talking, inquiring, demanding or just, like Leonie herself, looking round.
The barely perceptible roll of the ship did not trouble her. She was—though she had not proved it yet—an excellent sailor, and she rather liked the sensation of balancing herself lightly against the slight sway as she walked along the deck.
Outside the air was raw and chill, so that it was difficult to believe that in a week or so one would be basking in the warm night air of a kinder climate. But to Leonie there was fascination even in the cold, hard twinkle of the stars overhead, and certainly in the intermittent beam which flashed from a lone, distant lighthouse, sole contact now with the England they had left behind them.
Presently, urged on by a delicious curiosity which embraced almost everything on the ship, she climbed the outside stairway to an even higher level, and found herself almost alone now on an open deck, with the great funnels towering away in front of her, and lifeboats swung high at the sides of the deck.
At first she thought she had only the screaming sea-birds for company. But then she saw, a little way ahead of her, a familiar figure. Claire, in her graceful dress and snug fur jacket, was moving along, rather slowly, almost as though she were looking for someone or something.
Leonie started forward to overtake her, when suddenly, without warning, someone stepped from the shadow cast by part of the superstructure and, with a little cry, Claire ran into his arms.
To Leonie, watching, the whole scene was so astounding, so utterly unexpected, that she went on observing it in dismayed amazement, with no thought that she was eavesdropping. Only the fact that she herself stood in shadow saved her from being observed. Or perhaps it was that the two people she watched were too deeply absorbed in each other to notice anyone else.
They kissed several times, laughing and speaking at the same time, like people who meet in rapturous circumstances after a long separation. There was such delight, such amusement, and such triumph in their whole bearing that Leonie could not doubt she was seeing the reunion between Claire and the man her father believed he had put out of her life.
Instead of half the world being set between them, they were here—together—on board the
. Happy in their shipboard intimacy, triumphant in the certainty that not a soul on board knew the connection between them.
The weight of responsibility which dropped on Leonie at that moment was so heavy that she almost literally staggered. And then, even as she watched, the other two turned and came slowly towards her, so that she had to draw back behind a jutting corner to escape the appearance of having followed to spy upon them.
They passed quite close to her, so that Leonie now saw them both clearly for the first time. And then it was that she received the second tremendous shock. Claire s companion was Kingsley Stour, the charming, amusing Assistant Surgeon, who had described himself as having “signed on for the voyage only.”
first panic-stricken impulse, after the discovery of Kingsley Stour’s identity, was to cable to Sir James, asking him to collect his daughter from the first port of call and relieve herself of a situation which had suddenly grown beyond her management.
After a few minutes, calmer counsel prevailed. But she was still trembling with anxiety and indecision when, having seen the other two leave the upper deck, she stepped from her hiding-place at last and followed them down the ladder—she believed at a safe distance.
But when she reached the bottom of the ladder, she realized that they were still lingering in happy conversation, much too near for safety. If they happened to see her now, they might well suspect that she, too, had been on the upper deck. And so, turning quickly, she hurried in the opposite direction.
Almost immediately she came up against the Senior Surgeon. Not quite literally. But sufficiently so to have him stop and say, with a touch of amusement, “Who’s been frightening you? You look as though you are running away from something.”
“Oh—Mr. Pembridge—” Even now she could think of little but the need to share her responsibility with her employer, and so she asked anxiously, “When do we reach Gibraltar?”
“Gibraltar, Miss Creighton?” The air of amusement deepened. “You surely don’t want to leave us already, do you?”
“No-no. Of course not.”
A little confusedly, she glanced back at the two who lingered near the ship’s rail, though she knew in a moment that this was the last thing she should have done, however great her anxiety.
Mr. Pembridge’s glance followed hers thoughtfully. And immediately a faint touch of scornful comprehension changed the quality of his smile.
“I shouldn’t worry,” he told her drily. “There are lots of other charming men on board besides my Assistant Surgeon. And it’s his business to be pleasant to everyone, you know.”
“What do you mean?” Anger and astonishment raised the color in Leonie’s cheeks, and made her blue eyes flash.
“Oh—I’m sorry.” He didn’t look at all sorry. “Did I draw the wrong conclusion? How stupid of me!”
“It was rather stupid,” agreed Leonie coldly. “But then you tend to be over-quick and inaccurate in your judgments, don’t you?”
And without giving him time to reply to that one, she walked off, though still with the quivering, inner feeling that he might call her back and tell her to report to Matron immediately.
Back in the suite, she tried to dismiss Mr. Pembridge from her mind, but he refused to be pushed further than the back of her consciousness, and from time to time he intruded strangely into her anxious consideration of the Claire situation.
“What am I to do about her?” thought Leonie. “What
I to do?”
At first she consoled herself with the idea that Sir James might have exaggerated things. Kingsley Stour might not be the unreliable adventurer Sir James evidently chose to think him. His connection with Claire might not be the disaster it had been represented to be.
But on this aspect Leonie felt she could not conscientiously build much hope. For, whatever the facts, she herself was here to represent her employer’s point of view. In duty bound, she must assume that it was in Claire’s best interests not to become deeply involved with the handsome young surgeon.
On the other hand, the first idea of the cable now seemed most distasteful, and to savor unpleasantly of spy reporting.
“It will have to be a letter, sent off at Gibraltar,” Leonie thought. “Something in which I can soften the one unwelcome fact of Kingsley Stour’s presence here. By then I may even have seen enough to modify my own view and make some sort of consoling suggestion to Sir James.”
If, on his own initiative, he chose to fly out to join the ship at any later port of call, that would be his own affair. But certainly, Leonie decided, it was too early to send him an S.O.S. before they were out of sight of England.
Hardly had she arrived at even this negative decision when Claire—flushed, starry-eyed and slightly out of breath—herself returned.
“Hello!” she greeted Leonie a trifle too effusively. “It’s wonderful outside! I mean”—perhaps she remembered suddenly that it was raw and wintry—”it’s so exhilarating, in the wind, on the upper desk.” Then she caught sight of herself in the mirror and, laughing, put her hands to her cheeks and exclaimed. “My! what a color I have. It must be the wind.”
“I hope you didn’t get too cold.” Leonie strove to make that sound natural, and not as though she in any way queried Claire’s rather artless deception.
“Oh, no. I’m perfectly warm—feel!” And Claire’s warm hand clasped Leonie’s with disarming friendliness. “And, Leonie—I can call you Leonie, can’t I?”
“Leonie, there’s something I want to make clear. You’re making this trip as my friend. Really my personal friend, I mean. I don’t want you even to mention anything to anyone about your being in my father’s office. Not to anyone. Just to please me.”
“But, my dear girl”—Leonie was both amused and touched—”I don’t think that’s necessary at all, though it’s sweet of you to think of it. I
one of the girls in your father’s office, and there isn’t the least reason for me to pretend—”
“No—please!” The other girl was both coaxing and imperious, and suddenly Leonie saw why her father found it so difficult to oppose her. “I have a special reason. And, anyway, you
my friend. Let’s just leave it at that. You haven’t mentioned any other situation to anyone, have you?”
“Well, no.—At least—” Leonie recalled her first brief conversation with Mr. Pembridge—”Yes, I think I mentioned it to Mr. Pembridge. The Senior Surgeon, you remember. The one I—I knew in hospital.”
“Oh, what a pity!” Claire frowned. “Well, perhaps it doesn’t matter. He isn’t likely to mention it to—”there was the faintest hesitation before she said, “anyone.” And Leonie was immediately and disquietingly sure that it was specially Kingsley Stour who was not to know that anyone in Sir James’ employment was on board.
Possibly, she thought a little cynically, he needed reassuring. But aloud she simply said,
“I won’t insist on going about making my position clear. But don’t expect me to make any actual misstatement if I am asked questions.”
“Of course not. But he—I mean, no one—is likely to ask questions.—Listen, that must be the gong for dinner. Shall we go? You look lovely in that dress.”
“So do you in yours,” Leonie replied warmly. “And I must say that I have your father’s generosity to thank for mine.”
“Oh—yes?” For a second Claire faltered, and a shadow crossed her lovely face. “He is a generous darling, I know. Only”—she sighed—”he doesn’t always understand everything.”
“Few people do.” Leonie smiled. “But I should usually be inclined to trust his judgment.”
Claire did not pursue this. And so they went out of the suite together, Leonie wondering if she were being very subtle and diplomatic, or merely shamefully neglecting to give an immediate warning to the man who was footing the bill for all this luxurious pleasure.
As they entered the great first-class dining-room, it was obvious that a good deal of sorting out and amiable direction was in progress. But almost immediately Mr. Pembridge—looking very distinguished and handsome in his dark blue uniform, Leonie was forced to admit— picked them out and came across to greet them and escort them to his table.
Feeling dreadfully conscious of her last remark to him, Leonie made the introductions as gracefully as she could, and saw Mr. Pembridge look at Claire with that penetrating but kindly glance which, she remembered now, he usually reserved for those who came under his professional care.
Five other passengers joined them at the table and there were further introductions, Leonie discovering that the interesting-looking man on her left was a Nicholas Edmonds, while on her right was a young man who introduced himself as Clive Cheriot, and looked as though he might have something to do with the lighter side of stage life.
Opposite her were a Mr. and Mrs. Hedbury, palpably a honeymoon couple who, though friendly, were not likely to take any great interest in anyone but each other. And, finally, on the left of Mr. Pembridge—who had put Claire at his right hand—there was an extremely attractive-looking woman, not specially young, whose dark eyes and wide, smiling mouth suggested that she knew how to make life yield most of the things she wanted.
Just as they sat down, Kingsley Stour came past, on the way to his table. And, though he bestowed on Claire no more than a slight conventional smile and bow, he greeted Leonie with such marked friendliness and admiration that she was both shocked and disquieted.
Not that she could not take as much friendliness and admiration as the next girl. But, knowing what she did, she could not doubt that the young Assistant Surgeon was indulging in a clever piece of camouflage, in marked variance with his apparent candor. And no one likes to be used for such a purpose. Particularly if there is also a risk of someone observing it all with a certain ironic amusement.