Authors: Mary Burchell
moment Kingsley Stour made no reply to Leonie’s challenging question. She thought because sheer surprise held him silent. But when he did speak, his voice was perfectly calm and pleasant, though she noticed that his handsome eyes narrowed very slightly at the corners.
“So you know quite a lot about me?” He spoke lightly, and smiled as he spoke. “I wonder what you think you know.”
“For one thing, that you came on this trip for a very special purpose,” Leonie said coolly.
“You are mistaken.” He was as cool as she. “I signed on as Assistant Surgeon because I wanted to go to Australia, and it was easier to work my passage than to pay for it.”
“But it had to be on this ship and for this particular voyage, didn’t it?”
He considered that, wondering, she felt sure, just what she did know and how far he had better be frank.
“I had friends on this trip and was glad to make it this one,” he conceded after a moment. “I don’t know that I’d say more than that.”
“Well,” Leonie said gently, “perhaps we need not say more than that. But it would be a mistake, Mr. Stour, to suppose that it is clever to pay exaggerated attention to me in the hope that I might not realize where your real interest lies.”
She had to admire him reluctantly for the way he took what must have been a breathtaking and quite unexpected blow. He frowned for a moment, as though not quite following her meaning. Then he laughed on a note of good-tempered protest and said,
“That I won’t let pass! Are you reproaching me with the suggestion that my regard for you isn’t genuine?”
“I’m not reproaching you with anything to do with me,” Leonie told him dryly. “That would be absurd, when we met only a few hours ago. What concerns me is how you behave to someone you have known very much longer.”
Again he considered this, and this time, she saw, he decided that she really had some claim to knowing a good deal.
“You’re speaking of Claire, of course?” His coolness took her slightly aback.
“Yes,” she said, with all the self-possession she could.
“Has Claire confided in you?”
“Then you’re a friend of her father, rather than of her?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Leonie said, with strict truth, for, after all, one did not claim to be a friend of the head of the firm. “I am a friend of Claire’s, and I am a good deal interested to see that she comes to no harm.”
“And you think she might with me?”
“That I don’t know.” Leonie turned her head and looked him full in the face. “I’m just—wondering.”
To her surprise, he did not break into protestations. Instead—and this impressed her—he said quietly,
“I suppose it’s natural to assume that a man’s a bit of an adventurer if he falls in love with a girl much richer than himself. There isn’t any answer to it, you know, Miss Creighton. He just has to look pleasant about it and hope that time will prove him not unworthy. But sometimes, in his efforts to seem at ease, he over-plays the part and looks too pleasant. It’s stupid of him, of course, and gives the worst possible impression. I suppose that’s what I did. And now”— he smiled ruefully —”you think me a plausible scoundrel.”
“No,” Leonie said, “I don’t. Quite frankly, I don’t know what to think. But I certainly disliked the way you seemed to elaborate the deception for the sheer pleasure of proving that you could do it.”
“Making a sort of game of it, you mean?” “Something like that.”
“Ye-es. I see now it must have looked rather bad.” His handsome face looked serious and more responsible suddenly. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know quite how to explain or excuse it. It was partly, I suppose, because I was so darned glad to see Claire again that I simply had to lark about. And partly—if you must know—I was nervous.”
He looked candid and troubled as he gave the explanation, so that she felt her sympathies lean towards him. And it
natural that he should have been both nervous and high-spirited on the first evening of his reunion with Claire.
But Sir James had not sent her on this journey—or paid her considerable expenses—to have her sympathize with Kingsley Stour. He had sent her to see that no harm came to his daughter.
“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely, “to appear to presume to judge you. And, believe me, I very much dislike the role of interfering friend. But I know that Claire’s father disapproved of her—friendship with you. And I naturally wonder with some anxiety why you and Claire arranged to be on this ship together.”
“Simply because we longed to see each other.”
“Rather an elaborate way of arranging it, wasn’t it?”
“The arrangements for keeping us apart were also elaborate,” he countered drily, and she had to admit to herself that this was probably true.
But she asked herself where all this could be leading, and on impulse she inquired.
“Do you propose to stay in Australia?”
“I, personally?—Yes, if I can land the very good job I am after there.” He was frank enough about that.
“And what about Claire?”
He frowned. And then he said quite simply, “I don’t know.” .
Aren’t you looking any further than the end of this voyage?”
“My dear girl, how can I? I’m not going to hustle Claire into a decision. I know her material interests are against her marrying me. On the other hand, I love her and I think she loves me. In London there was never a chance for us to meet in natural and unforced circumstances. Her father regarded me as a villain, and was pretty well prepared to put up iron bars between us. You must know that well enough if you know Sir James at all.”
“I don’t know him very well,” Leonie said calmly. “But I have a great regard for him. I would hesitate to dismiss any view of his as completely unreasonable.”
“Even where his daughter is concerned?”
“Perhaps he has some exaggerated sense of anxiety there. He loves her very much, you must remember.”
“Too much, in some ways.” The Assistant Surgeon sighed impatiently. “She was never free to think and act and feel for herself. You don’t really blame us, do you, for snatching this heaven-sent opportunity?”
Leonie was silent for a moment, taken aback by this direct appeal.
“Are you telling me,” she asked soberly, “that sheer coincidence brought you two together on this trip?”
“Not entirely—no. But to a certain extent it
coincidence,” he declared. “I had already decided to try my luck in Australia, where, as I said, I had hopes of an excellent opening. Then Claire s father suggested a sea voyage for her.”
“You were still in contact with each other in England?”
“By letter—of course.”
“I see,” said Leonie. So much for a father’s careful planning! “Please go on.”
“I applied for the post of Assistant Surgeon, and was lucky enough to be appointed almost at once. Meanwhile, Claire persuaded her father to think he had chosen this particular trip for her. Everything might have fallen through, of course, at more than one point. But—it seems the gods love a lover, Miss Creighton. I hope you aren’t going to do less.”
He smiled winningly at her as he said that, and Leonie immediately felt that only a sour, joyless creature would prevent the course of true love from running smooth.
On the other hand, her obligations to Sir James remaining unchanged—even if her sympathies had warmed considerably towards Kingsley Stour, as well as Claire.
She pushed back her hair with an anxious hand and strove to be impartial.
“If,” she said at last, “you mean that you want me to refrain from interfering, I must say there is very little I could do in any case at the moment.”
“Except cable for Sir James to meet the ship at Gibraltar or Naples,” he retorted shrewdly.
“I don’t see the necessity of doing that,” Leonie said quietly. “Yet,” she added.
“Is that a threat?”
“Certainly not. It’s an exact statement of fact.” “And with that I have to be satisfied?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well,” he conceded unexpectedly, “I suppose that’s fair. You want to see for yourself whether I’m a rogue from whom Claire should be rescued, or a not bad chap who deserves a break with regard to the girl he loves.”
She could not tell him that there was another element. That, far from being a wealthy, independent, free agent in this matter, as he supposed, she was being well paid by Sir James to look after what he considered to be his daughter’s interests.
So she smiled non-committally and simply said,
“I don’t propose to tell Claire anything of this conversation. I don’t know about you.”
“I shan’t tell her either,” he replied. And she thought he was relieved at this decision.
After that, he suggested they should return to the ballroom. But Leonie felt suddenly very tired. It had been an exacting day—with its early start, the excitement of departure, the shock of more than one discovery, and the not exactly soothing encounters with Mr. Pembridge.
She said she preferred to go to bed. And, bidding Kingsley Stour a brief but not unfriendly goodnight, she left him. .
He returned the way they had come, but Leonie continued round the promenade deck to the entrance on the other side, her thoughts still a good deal occupied with the conversation which had just taken place.
A few people still lingered on deck—but mostly in couples, who evidently specially wanted privacy and each other. She noticed the young Hadburys, sitting blissfully side by side in deck-chairs, and holding hands under one travelling rug, while they looked occasionally at the sea and stars, and very often at each other.
Leonie smiled sympathetically, and passed by unnoticed. Then, just as she was about to step inside, she noticed another couple, standing by the ship’s rail. Not so artlessly wrapped up in each other as the Hadburys, but sufficiently absorbed not to be noticing anyone else.
The man was Mr. Pembridge. And the woman, smiling up at him provocatively, was Renee Armand.
For no reason that she could possibly have justified, Leonie felt faintly chagrined. It was really no business of hers if Mr. Pembridge chose to smile lazily and attractively into another woman’s eyes. But it was, she thought, rather too much when the Frenchwoman reached up and lightly kissed the Senior Surgeon on the cheek.
After that, Leonie went in and down to her cabin. And if she looked round her charming room with rather less pleasure than she had at first, this was due, she told herself, to the very disturbing encounter she had had with Kingsley Stour.
The next morning the pattern of shipboard life began to shape itself. And, whatever her private anxieties and problems might be, Leonie began to enjoy it all to the full.
Already they seemed to have left the chill, dank weather behind, and, although no one could have described it as warm, a cool, bright sunshine, and a clear, pale sky gave promise of something more than winter ahead.
The ship’s movement was amazingly slight, and only the most determined invalids felt any ill effects. There were, of course, the inevitable few who swallowed pills and sat muffled in rugs, waiting for the end. But most of the passengers were out and about and ready to enjoy themselves.
In warm coats, with their hands in their pockets and scarves over their hair, Leonie and Claire tramped round the deck, laughing and talking and pausing from time to time to talk to acquaintances who already seemed to be near-friends.
From Claire’s manner, Leonie was certain Kingsley Stour had told her nothing of their talk. She was not a good dissembler, and would have been quite unable to be carefree and friendly if she had known the real situation. Consequently, their relationship remained very happy and, in spite of everything, Leonie began to feel an illogical conviction that somehow everything would come out all right.
She was not quite sure what she meant by this, but it enabled her to take full pleasure in the companionship, the games, and the lovely, lovely, unfamiliar leisure of the life which had so unexpectedly become hers.
During the early part of the morning neither Kingsley Stour nor the Senior Surgeon appeared, and Leonie guessed that they both had surgery duties to attend to. With a crew of six hundred and a passenger list of fourteen hundred, there must, she thought, be plenty for both surgeons and nurses to do.
Later, however, when Leonie was sitting on deck, drinking one of the cups of delicious soup which had been handed out, Mr. Pembridge came and dropped into the seat beside her and asked her with a smile how she was getting on.
“Wonderfully!” She smiled brilliantly at him in return—because, after all, he
looked after her, willy-nilly, all those years ago when she had been a silly pro. “Everything about this ship fascinates me.”
“Then you’d better come down and see our hospital sometime,” he said. “Or haven’t you a professional interest in that sort of thing any longer?”
“Of course I have. And I’d love to come.” She felt infinitely flattered. “Do you mean to say we really have a hospital on board?”
“Thirty-six beds,” he assured her. “Two surgeries, consulting-room, sluice-room, and everything complete.”
“How lovely! When can I come?”
“Now, if you like,” he said.
And, hastily handing her empty cup to a steward who passed with a tray, Leonie jumped up and declared herself ready.
Mr. Pembridge smiled again—perhaps at her enthusiasm—and escorted her indoors, down two flights of stairs and along to a part of the ship she had not yet seen. Here he opened a door marked “No admittance”, and she found herself in surroundings which immediately induced a feeling of half-amused nostalgia.
He took her first into the surgery, a beautifully equipped room, where he introduced her to Mr. Morley, the medical assistant, who was making up prescriptions. Then they glanced into the sluice-room, which made Leonie laugh reminiscently and say, “Shades of all the washing and sterilizing that I did in my time!”
“Was that why you gave it up?” he inquired suddenly. “Because of all the drudgery?”
“No, of course not! The rest was so rewarding that after a while the drudgery didn’t count—much.” Leonie smiled and then sighed, for a profession she had genuinely loved. “My father died, and my sister and I had to keep the home going. I needn’t tell you how little one earns as a nurse, particularly while training. I just had to do something else instead.”
“Pity,” he said briefly. “You had the makings of a very good nurse.”
“Had I, Mr. Pembridge?” For some extraordinary reason the almost curt accolade brought tears to her eyes. “I—I had no idea you thought that of me.”
“But of course. You had all the essentials. You were quick, you were quiet, and you knew how to carry out orders exactly. In addition, all the patients liked and trusted you.”
“But not all the surgeons.” She flashed a laughing glance at him, because she was secretly so moved that she had to be flippant.
“I can only answer for one of them,” was the cryptic reply. And before she could ask what he meant by that, he opened another door and ushered her into one of the “wards”.
Here, except for the portholes and the fact that the beds were double-tiered, Leonie could almost have thought herself in one of the smaller wards of St. Catherine’s. Everywhere was the same scrupulous, bright cleanliness, the same clear, cheerful light, even the same color scheme of fresh white and turquoise paint.
“It makes me feel homesick,” Leonie said, half laughing, half serious. “Even the color scheme is the same.”
“Yes. I had it that way, because I, too, liked to be reminded of St. Catherine’s,” he told her.
She would have liked very much to ask at that point why
had given up the wider field which had been at his command. She might even have found the courage to do so, but at that moment he said,
“So now you’re a business girl?”
“I’m a secretary,” Leonie agreed. “Nothing very grand or important.”
“Secretary to Miss Elstone’s father?”
“No. To the secretary of Miss Elstone’s father.”
He raised his eyebrows and whistled slightly.
“He’s as distinguished as that?”
“Oh, yes. He is Elstone’s Electrical Enterprises, you know, and must be one of the biggest men in industry.”
“And Miss Elstone is the only daughter?”
“The only child.”
“I see.” He rubbed his chin meditatively, and she thought he was considering something more complicated than Claire’s actual identity. “How long has she known Stour?”
“I don’t know,” Leonie said, quite truthfully, for she was not going to tell tales out of school, whatever her own private misgivings might be. “How long have
known him, Mr. Pembridge?”
“I met him for the first time when he signed on for this trip,” Mr. Pembridge said. And, from his tone, he, too, was not going to tell tales out of school, so she changed her line of talk and asked how long he himself had been a ship’s surgeon.
“About a year. This is my fourth trip. Possibly my last one,” he told her.
“Then you—you’ve had enough of it?”
“I wouldn’t say that. In many ways, I like the life. But I want to get back to my own line, which is the operating theatre. Naturally, except for an occasional emergency, one doesn’t get much real surgical work here.”
“That’s what I thought—” She stopped, afraid of sounding inquisitive. But then her curiosity got the better of her discretion, and she went on: “That’s really why I was surprised to find you on board, Mr. Pembridge. You were considered such a brilliant surgeon at St. Catherine’s. We all thought you had a big future in front of you. What made you change over to what amounts to a sort of general practice—however varied?”
“Partly,” he said slowly, “because I wanted that varied experience, in circumstances which would teach me to handle almost any emergency.” He paused, and she thought for a moment that he was not going to mention any other reason. Then she saw him set his handsome mouth rather grimly, and he added,
“And partly because of something which happened
in my life, and which made me feel I wanted to get away from all the familiar surroundings.”
“I see,” said Leonie, who did not see at all, and wished she did. For she thought she would very much like to know what circumstances or person could turn Mr. Pembridge from his chosen path.
There was the very slightest silence. Then he said, quite pleasantly. “Do you want to see my consulting-room?” And he showed her into a light, well-furnished cabin which might have been the consulting-room of any successful doctor on land.
“And that, I think, completes the tour,” he told her.
“Thank you very much,” Leonie said sincerely, as they mounted the stairs once more to the promenade deck. “I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it, or how thrilled I am to find there is such provision for sick people on board. It makes me feel I almost wish I were travelling as a nurse, instead of a passenger.”
“Don’t you believe it!” He laughed at that. “My two nurses have a very busy time of it. And you’ll be glad enough to be a passenger when we stop at various interesting ports and you want to go ashore. Sometimes both the nurses are almost too busy to go ashore, and one of them always has to stay on duty.”
“Well, that is a consideration,” Leonie agreed with a smile. “I don’t want to miss any of the shore expeditions. We have our first stop the day after tomorrow, don’t we?”
“Should do. Gibraltar. But it’s a very brief stop and hardly worth going ashore.”
I shall go! ‘The Rock’ is almost solid history, isn’t it?” Leonie said.
“I suppose you might say so.” He smiled at her eagerness, as he so often did. “It made not a bad start as one of the Pillars of Hercules, and was still making history in the last war.”
“Then I shall certainly go,” Leonie declared. “And I’m sure Claire will too.”
But when she spoke to Claire about it later, Claire, for all her friendliness, was rather evasive, and seemed disinclined to say whether she would or would not go ashore.
“Have you been there before?” Leonie wanted to know.
But Claire shook her head.
“Well, then, surely you want to see something of it?”
To this, however, Claire said something about waiting to see what other people were going to do, since it was only a very short stop. And suddenly it came to Leonie, with disagreeable certainty, that what Claire intended to do was to go ashore with Kingsley Stour, if he were off duty, but to go with him alone.
It was this which finally brought Leonie up against reality with an unpleasant jolt. For she saw, suddenly, that however safe the two might seem while they were on board the
at any one of the ports the situation was completely in their hands.
To leave the ship by the simple process of not returning on time might be a drastic proceeding. But two people in love, who had already so boldly planned for what they wanted, would certainly not stop at that, if they thought their happiness was involved.
Thrills of apprehension rippled up and down Leonie’s spine at the thought of Claire going off with Kingsley Stour at Gibraltar or Naples or Columbo—and not returning. To her would fall the unenviable task of telling Sir James all about it, while she shouldered the dreadful sense of guilt that everything was her fault because she had failed to warn him in time.
Frightened by her own mental pictures, she decided that she simply must write
to her employer, even if it were only a casual hint, or an idle mention of the Assistant Surgeon’s name.
“It shouldn’t be so difficult,” she told herself.
But it was. Much the most difficult letter she had ever tried to write.
A dozen times she started, and a dozen times she tore up her attempt. And then Claire came into the cabin, terrifying her lest her purpose be discovered and, at the same time, making her feel a double-dyed traitor.
What Claire had to say did at least represent a reprieve. For it seemed that she had now quite made up her mind to go ashore at Gib—as everyone was now very airily calling it—and she hoped that Leonie would accompany her.
“Why, of course!” In her relief, Leonie sounded almost ecstatic, and she decided that perhaps she had been frightening herself unduly. “Mr. Pembridge says it’s such a brief stop that it’s hardly worth while going. But I certainly want to see anything we can.”
“Mr. Pembridge himself is going ashore,” replied Claire knowledgeably. And when Leonie asked how she knew, she replied rather briefly, “Because Mr. Stour is not. One of them has to stay on duty.”
“Does that mean,” inquired Leonie, as carelessly as possible, “that Mr. Stour will have his turn at Naples?”
“Not necessarily.” Claire shrugged. “I suppose the decision naturally rests with the senior man.”
Immediately—though perhaps illogically—it seemed to Leonie that the danger retreated. And because the letter to her employer represented such a problem, she rather guiltily put it off once more.
In the end, it was Mr. Pembridge who took the two girls ashore.
They had sighted Gibraltar first in the early morning—rising solidly on the horizon, sombre guard on one of the lifelines of the world. Leonie had not expected to be quite so deeply moved. But, as she stood at the ship’s rail with Claire, watching the stark outlines become more distinct, she thought again how “The Rock” was, as she had said, “solid history”.
And although one stood there on a bright sunny morning, in the twentieth century, remembering very gratefully how Gibraltar had been a key-point in Allied strategy so very recently, one remembered also with equal gratitude that, in the great struggles of the eighteenth century, British Gibraltar had held her own against all comers.
“Well—there’s your Pillar of Hercules.” Mr. Pembridge came to stand beside the girls and, as they drew nearer, to point out one or two landmarks, including the curious Moorish Castle, away on the hill, witness of a far earlier conqueror.
“I hear you are going ashore, after all,” Leonie said shyly.
“Yes,” Mr. Pembridge agreed. And then it was that he made his unexpected offer to take them with him.
They accepted eagerly. And not much more than an hour later they were stepping ashore, already feeling that it was strange to have firm ground beneath their feet, and that their natural state of living was on board the
In the limited time available, Mr. Pembridge hurried them through the town by car, and then out along the beautiful Europa Road. They passed the Trafalgar Cemetery, where Nelson’s comrades sleep, and then drove on to the famous Rock Hotel, where they sat on the terrace, sipping aperitifs and looking out over the lovely Alameda Gardens to the Straits beyond.
“I wouldn’t have missed this for anything,” Leonie declared.
“Well, it has its own special interest,” Mr. Pembridge agreed, with a smile. “But our next stop is one of the real beauty spots of the trip.”
And then Claire said softly, “I’m looking forward to Naples.” And a look came into her eyes which, suddenly and unaccountably, struck real terror to Leonie’s heart.
It was not that there was anything aggressive or determined about it. But, for a moment, the artless, innocent Claire seemed to become an enigma, with a secret of her own. She was withdrawn from everyone in the completeness of her private thoughts and intentions, and an invisible wall was erected between herself and anyone who might try to reach her.
In that moment, Leonie underwent a complete reaction against the passive role she had so far adopted.
“I can’t handle this thing alone,” she told herself, “I must have been mad to think I could!”
And it seemed to her now that the brief, grateful, but uninformative letter she had posted to her employer before leaving the ship was the stupidest piece of complacence it was possible to conceive. Somehow, some way, she must contrive to send off another letter before they left Gibraltar.
She thought she remembered that the post-box was supposed to have been closed. But she could not imagine that there was really no appeal against that—Or she might write a line now, from this hotel—