Authors: Rosalind Brett
The jungle seemed to weave a spell...
Pat Brading couldn't resist the lure of foreign soil when her
ather suddenly announced his intention of returning to Africa.
For years it had been his home, and now Pat longed to make it hers, too—partly to avoid getting entangled with a man who was already engaged.
Once there, she found life in Africa held a special enchantment. Africa... or was it the attraction she felt to the teak-hard plantation owner, Nick Farland?
The girl beside the upturned boat rested her brush across the paint tin, wiped her hands on a piece of rag, shook back a corn-coloured lock of hair and sprang to her feet. She was slim and very brown. Her tilted nose and short upper lip had an impudence that contrasted oddly with the soft, generous curve of her mouth. As she walked up the beach to the grass, the rolled legs of her slacks gave her a jaunty look.
“I’ve finished at the cottage,” said the woman who had called her. “And here’s your frock and shoes, though how you’re going to put them on with your hands in that mess—you can’t wash paint off in the sea.”
“What time is it?” Pat wrinkled her nose in a smile.
“Twelve-thirty. Isn’t that the time I always finish on Saturday?”
“Saturday—of course.” Pat dug some silver out of her pocket and counted most of it into the rough palm. “Thanks, Mrs. Jarvis.”
“I locked all the doors. You won’t be going back before night?”
“No, I’ll be at the Mellors’ bungalow for the rest of the day.”
After Mrs. Jarvis had hurried off to her home in the village, Pat loped back to the boat, dropped the blue linen frock and shoes to the sand, and settled once more to her painting. Green paint flowed over the grey undercoat in long shining sweeps. Stephen would etch in the name for her. The
Pat’s mother had named and launched the boat years ago, smashing a
of beer on the side.
Christine! Brown curly hair and amber eyes, a body as lissom as a girl’s, and her left arm thinner and weaker than the right from some obscure tropical disease. She had never been strong, and last winter she had died. Pat nipped at her lip, filled with the memory of Christine kissing her hand across the sea each night. “Goodnight, Bill Brading,” she’d say. “Come home soon.”
It was four years since Pat’s father was last in England. He had stayed seven months, and Christine had been so happy, her fingers crossed and optimism glowing in her eyes. She was always sure that one of these trips he would stay for good—but again he grew restless.
“I’m sorry, Chris,” he said. “The wander-bug is biting again.”
Christine had not argued. She knew her husband, and the spell of Africa. But her health had suffered its ravages, and back in the tropics she would not have lasted six months.
When Bill Brading had fixed up his wife and child in the cottage at Caystor, he went back to trading on the African coast. He sent home money, mementoes, and regular letters full of promises. Pat was now eighteen. He had been home three times. His last parcel had arrived two days after they’d buried Christine, and in her grief Pat had wanted to fling its contents into the fire—Stephen had pulled her up, coaxed her back from the unfamiliar rim of hate. Her mother had not been unhappy, couldn’t she see that? She had let her husband go his own way out of a love that had never faltered, or become embittered.
Pat gave the boat its final strokes, then she stood up to view with satisfaction her morning’s handiwork. The sun was hot on her back, and she turned to face it, tilting her young chin, her forehead pleated against the glare. The sea, a murmurous grey-blue, opened out to the headlands which cupped the bay, then sprang wide to the horizon. She would have liked to swim, but it was too near lunch time and Celia Mellors didn’t like unpunctuality.
She reached under the boat for the turpentine, soaked a rag and rubbed at her hands with it. She tu
ed from the sea to gaze along the short road where her own cottage sheltered, an isolated gem in an arm of red cliff. It was square, of grey stone now almost hidden by blue oaks of wistaria. Most of the houses were up to the right, on the cliff terraces overlooking the bay. The Mellors’ bungalow was the lowest, the white one with green tiles and shutters, and the gleaming car on the front drive. Stephen had arrived, so it must be after one.
As she watched, his long, loose-limbed figure emerged from the porch. He swung down the path to the road, and Pat lifted an arm to wave, standing by the boat with a smile as he slithered down the beach and came to her side. He took in her handiwork. “Green! Whose idea?” He asked.
“I happen to like the colour. Will you do the name for me, Steve?”
He had changed from office clothes into flannels and short-sleeved shirt, and he nodded, indulgently. “When is Bill coming?” He shot a brown-eyed look at her, his mouth forming a smile of charm.
“His letter said in about a month. That brings us to the end of next week. I keep wondering if he’s altered.”
“Not so much as you, I bet.” Steve’s eyes were on her as she unhooked the waist of her slacks and stepped out of them. Then off came her sweater, to reveal a brief white swimsuit. “Doesn’t cost you much in undies,” he laughed.
She grinned, then ran down to the creamy edge of the sea, kneeling to scoop armfuls of water over her face and neck. When she straightened he was standing by with a towel, which she used vigorously. He slipped the blue frock over her head, but she put away his hand when he would have cinched the belt, and felt rather warm-cheeked as she stepped into her shoes.
She patted a short curl into place behind her ear. “Do I look all right?” she asked.
“Like a delphinium with a halo.” He rolled her sweater and slacks into a bundle, and pulled her arm through his. “Come on, Celia will roast us if we’re late.”
Since last winter, Pat had formed the habit of staying at Celia’s bungalow from Saturday lunch time till midnight. Celia insisted that she needed company, and had even suggested finding Pat a job in her Torquay dressmaking establishment. But Pat shrank from the idea; she found plenty to occupy her at the cottage—dusting, preparing rather slapdash meals for herself, gardening, swimming, the boat, an occasional cinema outing.
Then there was Stephen. As far back as she could remember, he had been around. Making sandpies for her to flatten when she was a kid, and he sixteen. Teaching her to swim. And later she had pelted down to the crossroads each morning to get a lift in his car to school. Now, a successful architect, he was engaged to Celia Mellors. It had happened last year, before the death of Pat’s mother. It was only recently that Pat had noticed a change in herself and Steve when they were alone
and, suddenly grown up, she realised that he was marrying Celia for ambitious reasons rather than emotional ones.
Celia came down the path of the bungalow to meet them. Tall, willowy, her dark hair drawn back into a silken loop at the nape of her neck. The smooth texture and pallor of her skin never varied.
“Late as usual.” She had one of those low, modulated voices such as actresses go to great lengths to acquire. “You become more Bohemian all the time, Pat, and I shall really insist on taking you in hand one of these days.”
“You’d spoil her puppy charm, Celia.” Stephen gave his
a smile, and Pat felt his arm slip away from hers. “I found her painting the boat. A nice job, not too many streaks.”
The pale nostrils dilated. “I thought I smelled paint.”
Across the lunch table, Celia said: “I hope your father has plans for you. It’s definitely bad for a girl your age to live alone in that cottage. It’s unnatural. I shall tell your father so.”
Pat sighed, and wished for Steve’s sake that his
had a more humorous outlook on life.
They made plans to spend the afternoon on the beach, but first Celia had to drive over to see her brother. He had married recently and moved away from the bungalow, which was still referred to as the Mellors
place. “I’ll go alone,” Celia added. “I shan’t be long.”
When Pat was alone with Steve, he asked her if she would like to see a couple of things he had picked up at a sale. She nodded, and went with him into the long narrow room at the side of the house which Celia was going to let him have for a den. Already it was well filled with the books and treasures the meticulous Celia would not allow him to keep elsewhere when they were married.
Steve reverently handled his latest finds, a small metal box covered with seed pearls, and a Florentine lamp.
Pat was enchanted. “I’d like to buy the little box from you,” she said.
“Charming, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll leave it to you in my will.”
“That’s too long to wait.” She wandered over to the writing-table near the window. “You’ve got your sketching book out again! May I look?”
He moved quickly and slammed the flat of his palm on the cover she had begun to lift
“You wouldn’t be interested,” he said, sharply.
“Is that a polite way of saying you don’t want me to look?” She was laughing, until she met his eyes. They stared a long moment at each other, then he flicked open the book and indicated a sketch of herself.
“I watched you painting the boat from this window,” he said.
“I’m sure you couldn’t have seen me from here,” she glanced up at him. “You’d need field glasses.”
“No, Pat.” His tone grew deliberate. “I know your lines pretty well.”
She felt her cheeks grow warm again, while he snapped an elastic band over the book and shoved it into a drawer of the table.
“You’ll—have a good view from here,” Pat said, fighting to sound nonchalant, and aware of the tension in the air between them.
“The room will never be popular with Celia,” he rejoined
has got a tidy soul,” Pat’s laugh was husky. “I wish I had.”
“We’d both drift, you and I, left to our own resources,” he said, a tinge of melancholy in his voice. “We need a Celia to take us in hand.”
“Lord help us!” she wanted to say, and gazed fixedly through the window at the emerald hump of the headland against the blue sky where cottony bales of summer cloud tumbled. “Steve, do you think Bill might stay this time?” she asked suddenly.
“How should I know?” he spoke gruffly through the cigarette he was lighting.
“You’re older—and a man. You might understand how he feels.”
“Thanks,” drily, “at thirty-three? I should say your father, nearly fifty, should have had enough of the tropics—but the loss of Christine, blaming himself, might send him back!” Steve moved towards her, put an arm across her shoulders and spoke down at her. “Bill’s a chap who will always go his own way. He ought never to have married, let alone have got himself a rum kid like you. Come on, let’s go down to the sea.”
Later that day, as she snuggled down in her bed at the cottage, Pat found herself thinking of Steve’s words. A rum kid like you. She supposed she must be odd, but other girls’ parents were not like Christine and Bill. People thought it strange that Bill came home so seldom; even more extraordinary, perhaps, had been Christine’s strange fidelity.
Pat, growing swif
y now, had begun to question that fidelity. If you loved a man, surely you wanted him near, within touch. You longed to hear his laughter, welcomed occasional tiffs that led to warm reconciliations. Yet her father, so tough and virile, had put a continent between him and his wife, and left her to live out her best years without him.
Pat felt a sudden surging in her blood. Life was meant to be lived, not got through, and Bill must not leave her here as he had left her mother.
Five days later he docked at Liverpool. Steve drove her there to meet him. At first she felt shy of the muscular, leathery man who received her kiss without returning it, and then brusquely shook Steve’s outstretched hand. But in the car his big palm closed over the back of her head and his fingers scratched among the amber curls.
Kitten,” he smiled, “you winded me just there on the dock. I told everyone I was going home to look after my kid. If I’d have known you were this size, I’d have sent for you.”
“Bill, why didn’t you?” she said, fervently.
“Dunno,” he grunted. He glanced at the back of Steve’s head, then quizzed her upraised, impudently sensitive face. “Would you have come? You’re all grown up—” a large thumb indicated the man at the whe
“I’d have come.” She cuddled her father’s grey
suited arm. “There isn’t anything or anyone to keep me in England.”
Bill Brading frowned down at her, as though catching the note of defiance in her voice. “Can’t get over you,” he muttered, touching her hair again. “You look like your mother, only a little more robust. Think you might have my constitution?”
“I’ve got a lot of you in me, Bill,” she replied.
For a few days her father was bewildered and unhappy about the cottage. Several times Pat heard him crunch down to the beach in the small hours. But gradually he fell into a routine. He swam twice a day, walked up to the local pub each morning for a yam with a retired sea-captain, while of an evening the captain or some new-made friend came down to sit in the garden over a game of chess and a pint with him. Pat never grew tired of listening to his tales of jungle trading and bush
Imperceptibly, Pat and her father drew together. A few times he spoke of Christine. “No need ever to tell her anything,” he said once. “She always knew what I was going to do before I thought it. And her letters were uncannily full of just what I wanted to know. She always seemed near. I didn’t deserve her, kitten, but
she wouldn’t have been happy with anyone else.”
Pat could offer no comment
She just took a handful of his rough red hair, gave it a hard tug, and told him he was devil-driven. He laughed at the expression. “Sure, you could be right, kitten,” he agreed. “And do you still say you take after me?”
“There’s no getting away from the truth,” she smiled, and despite the pain and frustration that still gnawed at the edges of her mind, she was immensely happy.
Summer was at its height, and they often went down to the beach. “England’s not so bad,” Bill said one day, hands folded under his head as he watched the sky through narrowed eyelids. “This is just how you picture it out there. Flower-blue sky, red cliffs a-flutter with birds, the sea so darn cold it grips your liver, and a nice polite sun.”
“I suppose you’d call this cool?” growled Steve, fidgeting his sore back off the sand on to a towel. “I was just thinking how mad it was lying here in this blaze.”
“Pat’s not grumbling,” Bill said lazily.
“Her skin’s hardened to it. Asleep, Pat?”
Lying between the two of them, she grunted contentedly. “No, just dreamy. I never want anything better than this. Do you?”
“I don’t know,” said Bill, with reserve. “You can’t enjoy a thing that goes on for ever. The taste of this hour in the sun is the sharper for the knowledge that at the end of it we’ll all three gasp thirstily and stroll up to the Mermaid. Then you’ll cuddle your tall glass of cider and sigh happily that life is wonderful—but it wouldn’t be if you were still here on your back with a throat like a blast furnace.”
“Haven’t you any imagination, Bill?”
“Not where my bodily comfort is concerned.”
Steve gave a laugh. “So speaks the eternal male of the species—listening, Pat?”
“Men!” she grunted, pushing her fingers deep in the warm sand.
“Y’know,” Bill yawned, “I could do with a drink right now—anyone coming?”
All three sat up and pulled on shirts, got to their feet and hauled up trousers. Pat sauntered between the men, arms linked. “Shall we picnic tonight?” she asked eagerly. “In your motor boat, Steve?”
“All four of us?” he asked.
She nodded. “There’s no moon, but we could take a lantern. I love a lantern in the dark on the sea.”
“All right,” he answered, not too readily.
After finishing a cider at the pub, Pat regretfully stood up. “I must go home and prepare some lunch to satisfy that appetite of Bill’s. So long.”
Out once more in the hot sunshine, she blinked. Celia was coming down the road, walking with those delicate steps of hers, her skirt swinging, a white straw hat shading her eyes. Pat waited and fell into step beside her. “Steve’s in there,” she jerked her head in the direction of the pub.
“I thought so,” Celia said, with displeasure. “Since your father’s been home, Stephen’s always in the Mermaid. Did I see
come out of the place?”
“We were sunbathing and got thirsty. The Mermaid isn’t a bad place. It’s clean and cool.”
“I prefer to take my refreshment in my own house.” At the junction of the road they halted.
“Celia, Steve says we may use the launch tonight for a picnic. The weather’s so settled and it’s sure to be lovely on the sea. Shall we each bring half the food?”
The pale brow showed the faintest pucker. “Stephen must have forgotten. We’re dining with my brother tonight.”
“But that wouldn’t matter. We wouldn’t set off till eleven. Do say yes, Celia. We could swim first and then have our eats.”
Celia allowed a moment to elapse. “I’m sorry, Pat,” with cool politeness. “Stephen and I work for our living. We can’t afford to stay up till two or three in the morning. You may borrow the launch, of course, providing you leave it as neat as you find it.”
“Thanks.” Pat felt chilled, and was about to turn right to her own cottage when Celia’s hand touched her arm.
“Has your father decided what to do with you?” she asked.
“We’re satisfied to go on as we are,” Pat muttered.
Celia sighed. “Hasn’t he any parental conscience? It’s too bad to have to remind a man of his obligations to his own daughter.”
“I can look after myself, Celia,” Pat answered shortly. She threw a brief farewell over her shoulder and sped along to the cottage. Anticipation in the picnic had faded, and suddenly she felt curiously close to tears. Celia’s implication that Bill thought only of himself had put a dart into Pat’s heart
was it true?