Authors: Mary Burchell
“I don’t want to hurry you,” Mr. Pembridge said at this point. “But time is getting short and I’m afraid we must go.”
So they returned to the car, with the letter still unwritten.
The drive back seemed much longer than the drive out to the Rock Hotel, and inexplicably there was some delay about their re-embarking. But at last they were treading the decks of the
again, and, with brief but heartfelt thanks to Mr. Pembridge, Leonie fled to her cabin.
Strangely enough, she had in her mind at last exactly what she wanted to write to her employer. Perhaps the urgency of the situation had suddenly prompted her. And, pulling out her writing case, she went to the attractive little writing desk under the window.
But here she suddenly came to an abrupt stop. For lying on the blotting-pad was a letter addressed to herself. It was marked “Air Mail” and “Express” and “Urgent”, and it was typed on the firm’s stationery.
Without even waiting to sit down, she ripped open the envelope and abstracted the single sheet of paper. The letter was signed by Mr. Collier, her immediate employer and Sir James’ principal private secretary, and it was brief.
“Dear Miss Creighton,” she read, “I think I should let you know that Sir James suffered a severe heart attack just after you and Miss Elstone left England. He rallied well, and is now out of immediate danger, but he must, of course, be kept quiet and free from all excitement.
“His own wish is that you should continue on your journey, and even that you should not tell Miss Elstone anything. What I wish to emphasize is that you should be very careful to write cheerfully and mention nothing which might cause him any excitement.
“I trust you are enjoying yourself, and that the weather is considerably better than what we are experiencing at the moment. Yours sincerely, Arthur Collier.”
Leonie sat down at the writing desk, and for the second time she read Mr. Collier’s letter. Then, leaning her head on her hand, she shut her eyes and tried to see the situation as it now was.
The responsibility had become entirely hers. The ball had been passed to her. Whatever she feared or suspected between Kingsley Stour and the girl she already liked and wanted to protect, no advice and no support could come from England. On her would rest the necessity of doing the right and wise thing.
Symbolically, she closed her writing case. No letters would be any good now. And, strangely enough, she felt calmer now that she knew she must handle the situation alone. At least she no longer needed to vacillate between the duty of telling Sir James and the sympathy with the lovers which held her silent.
Even as she made this discovery, she became aware of some subtle change in her surroundings. Faint movement was perceptible. Distant shouts and a sound of activity penetrated the quiet of her cabin. The
shuddered into life once more. They were leaving the land and were on their way again.
At dinner that evening, Leonie looked around and observed with rather different eyes the various actors in the drama.
The minor characters, like Nicholas Edmonds and Renee Armand, had not changed much, of course. Even Mr. Pembridge played no very different role in the fresh situation which had arisen. But, as she looked at Kingsley Stour—charming and amusing at the head of his table—she thought,
“If only he knew, Sir James is out of the combat for the time being. And the only thing standing between him and whatever designs he may have on Claire is my not very formidable self.”
“You look,” said Nicholas Edmonds beside her, at that moment, “as though you gathered a few cares on your shoulders when you went ashore at Gibraltar.”
“Oh—no.” Leonie laughed and colored slightly. “I was thinking hard about something. I’m sorry did you speak to me?”
“No. I was merely turning over in my mind whether I would interrupt your thoughts,” he told her with a smile.
“Well, please do,” Leonie said, glad of some distraction. “Did you go ashore at Gibraltar?”
But he shook his head, and said impatiently,
“Too strenuous for me in the short time available. But at least we shall be receiving letters some time this evening, I suppose.”
“Letters? I’ve received one already,” Leonie said. “Oh—but that was one marked ‘Express’ and ‘Urgent’.”
“How exciting!” Nicholas Edmonds replied languidly. “I imagine the regular distribution will be after dinner.”
She thought he looked so melancholy and disillusioned that he could not be expecting anything very enlivening. So after dinner she devoted herself to him, sitting beside him in a sheltered part of the promenade deck and making herself as amusing and friendly as she could.
It was while she was sitting there that Claire—a little pale and wide-eyed—came up to her, holding a couple of letters in her hand. Close behind her came Kingsley Stour but he stood very slightly to one side, an observer, rather than an actor, in the scene.
“Leonie—here’s a letter for you”—Claire pressed into her hand an air-mail letter addressed in her mother’s handwriting. “And I had one too. Not from Daddy, but now I know why. This is from my Aunt Ethel, and she says Daddy had a heart attack just after we left.”
Silently, Leonie wished the unknown Aunt Ethel could have shown more discretion and control. But aloud she said,
“I know. Mr. Collier wrote and told me.”
“You knew?—But you didn’t tell me!”
“Your father didn’t specially want you told, Claire. He thought you might worry and spoil your trip. But Mr. Collier says he made a good recovery, so I don’t think you need be very anxious.”
“But of course I’m anxious!” Until that moment Leonie had not realized how strong Claire’s affection was for her father, and the discovery cheered her. “A heart attack can be very serious. Can’t it?” She appealed suddenly to Kingsley Stour, who was thus drawn into the conversation.
“It can also be quite slight,” he replied soothingly. “I think Leonie is right, and that you certainly need not worry at this juncture. You would have been told if there were anything very serious about it.
Leonie wanted very much to ask who had told him he could call her “Leonie”. But it was not quite the moment for this.
Claire stood there, twisting her aunt’s letter in her hand, her expression alternating between anxiety and reassurance.
think that?” she asked Kingsley Stour. “Or do you just say it because—because it would be so much more comfortable to suppose he’s all right?”
It was a curious word to use—comfortable—and Leonie saw Nicholas Edmonds’s strongly marked eyebrows go up slightly.
“I am not diagnosing the case without seeing the patient,” Kingsley Stour said with a smile. “But”— he put his hand, lightly but possessively, round Claire’s arm—”I still think it is too early to start worrying. There will be further news at Naples, I don’t doubt.”
“Oh, yes—at Naples.”
Claire spoke as though the very mention of that magic word consoled her. And again Leonie had a feeling of acute misgiving. But after that Claire and her companion moved off, and there was no opportunity to say more, even if Leonie had known what to say.
For a few moments there was silence. Then Nicholas Edmonds said,
“Why are you worried?”
Leonie glanced at him quickly. Then, realizing that she must be looking abnormally solemn, she relaxed slightly and even smiled faintly. But she did not answer his question directly. Instead, she said.
“Mr. Edmonds, you’re a very knowledgeable sort of person, aren’t you? A good judge of people, and that sort of thing.”
“I like to think so. But then,” he said dryly, “so do most of us. I’ve made mistakes in my time about people. But—whom do you want me to judge?”
“It—it isn’t quite so formal as that. I just wondered what you thought of the Assistant Surgeon.”
“In what capacity?—as a doctor?”
said Leonie, who, like most healthy people, hardly ever thought in terms of professional capacity. “I meant—I meant just as a person.”
“I never thought about him as a person,” retorted Nicholas Edmonds disagreeably, because he did have to think of any doctor first in professional terms.
“Well, would you think about him now?” Leonie said humbly. “I’d value your opinion.”
“Why? Are you sweet on him?”
“Of course not!”
“No—I remember. It’s the other fellow with you, isn’t it?” Nicholas Edmonds said.
“The other fellow?”
!” exclaimed Leonie, even more taken aback at this prospect. “Whatever gave you such an idea?”
“My being a knowledgeable sort of person,” quoted Edmonds rather unkindly, “and a good judge of people.”
“Well, I’m afraid that’s one of your mistakes,” Leonie said a little stiffly.
“You don’t say.” Her companion looked amused, for some reason or other. “Anyhow, about the Assistant Surgeon. He’s a pleasant enough fellow in a lightweight way, I suppose. Nothing wrong with him for a passing flirtation. He’ll enjoy himself harmlessly enough. Might break a few hearts, I daresay, but mostly the type that mend easily. In the end he’ll marry money, of course. His sort always do.”
“You’re—sure of that?”
“Nothing is ever sure in human nature, dear child. But—yes, I’m reasonably sure. I was watching him while your friend talked about her father’s illness. He was profoundly interested. Not, I think, from a purely humanitarian point of view.”
“From what, then?”
“A business point of view, of course.”
“A business point of view?”
“Certainly. Attractive but poor young men must always be interested in the mortality rate among rich fathers of marriageable daughters,” returned Nicholas Edmonds.
“What a dreadful thing to say!”
“Human nature is dreadful sometimes,” replied her companion equably. “But don’t blame the young man too much. He seems pleasantly devoted to your friend. It’s asking too much of him that he should also worry about an unknown and nebulous father, whose sole significance to him personally would probably be a nuisance value.”
Leonie laughed reluctantly.
“I see what you mean. But—would you think him a—a scrupulous person?” she asked, groping after something basic that would reassure her.
Nicholas Edmonds shrugged.
“Scruples are so much a personal matter, my dear. No man can judge another’s standard of values. I can only tell you that if it were a question of integrity—”
“I think that was the word I wanted,” Leonie interrupted eagerly.
“—I would choose Pembridge every time.”
“Oh, of course! He’s a man of the utmost integrity,” exclaimed Leonie warmly.
At which her companion regarded her quizzically and said, “You seem to have made it up with him satisfactorily.”
“Oh—yes,” Leonie agreed, with a slight blush. “I was cross with you at the time for thrusting me on him, that first evening, but now I’m grateful. We had quite a—quite a pleasant talk together. About old times,” she added, a trifle sedately.
“You see? Your Uncle Nicholas knew best.” His sardonic smile was not unkindly. “Don’t worry about either of the surgeons. At your age, things have a habit of working out all right.”
It was not often that he said anything so optimistic and Leonie—half amused, half touched—hugged the reassurance to her more than once in the next few days.
One of the loveliest parts of the voyage had now begun. In the Mediterranean, spring had already come, and the days were warm and sunny. At night it was still cold, but even then there was, in the wind that blew lightly across the decks, a whisper of something much softer and more kindly than anything known at this time of year in more northern waters.
Almost every evening there was dancing, and by now Leonie and Claire had a large circle of friends and acquaintances, so that it was almost as though they enjoyed a continual round of parties in ideal surroundings.
Leonie, however, never allowed herself to forget that her own personal problem might well be put to the test when they came to Naples. And, when she was dancing with Mr. Pembridge one evening, she asked him eagerly if he were going ashore there.
“I don’t know.” He looked down at her indulgently. “I don’t think so. Why?”
“You don’t think so?” She was dismayed at the implication that Kingsley Stour would have a free rein there, and her tone showed it.
“Does it matter?” He smiled. “Did you want me to take you to see Pompeii or something?”
“That would have been lovely,” she said eagerly, reflecting that if she could engage Mr. Pembridge on a somewhat lengthy expedition, Kingsley Stour’s movements would be the more surely curtailed. She felt rather mean about it, but what else was she to do?
“I’ll see what I can do,” Mr. Pembridge told her. “But I think Stour is particularly anxious to go ashore at Naples, and we can’t both be missing all the time.”
“Of course not,” Leonie agreed, but somewhat absently, because her mind was already busy with another idea.
If she insisted on going with Claire—played the dumb, determined friend who did not want to be left behind—that, too, would guard against the two doing anything rash. It was not an enviable ro1e for her to have to play. But again—what else was she to do?
Leonie tackled Claire on the subject the night before they reached Naples, and began by speaking as though they would naturally be going ashore together.
Claire looked rather taken aback.
“I’m sorry, dear. Could you join one of the other parties this time?” she said. “I was going with Mr. Stour.”
“But I’d love to come too! He’s so amusing and charming,” Leonie replied enthusiastically. “And I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my coming. Mr. Pembridge and I took you last time, and now you and Mr. Stour can take me. It’s rather fun, isn’t it?”
Claire didn’t look as though it were fan, and undoubtedly if she had not had a secret guilty feeling about Kingsley Stour, she would have managed quite lightly to put Leonie off. As it was, she hesitated, looked nonplussed—and in that moment Leonie said, “Well, that’s settled,” and, still smiling brightly, went off before Claire could argue the position further.