There was no doubt about it, the five nurses rescued from the mission must have seats on the aircraft. They were utterly exhausted and the older ones couldn’t travel on foot another ten yards, let alone thirty miles through jungle to the coast town of Tanga, still free of rebel occupation . . . so the pilot of the plane informed the man in khaki who had brought the nursing nuns this far to safety.
“The trouble is–” The pilot hesitated, and the dark, unshaven face of the soldier assumed a sardonic expression.
Hearing the way he said it Eve Tarrant decided that he could put more meaning into a single word than anyone else she had ever encountered.
“As you can see, Major, the plane is loaded with folk already–if I overloaded I’d be risking a lot of lives for the sake of a few.”
“You must take the Sisters!” The words had the cutting edge of a jungle knife. “They’ve had a grim time of it and you can see for yourself that they’re on the point of collapse.”
The pilot swept his eyes over the nuns, still in their torn and grubby nursing habits, their faces drawn. His eyes settled on Eve, the youngest of them.
“I might manage the older ones,” he said, “if some of my passengers agree to discard their baggage. But–”
[5-6] “You take them all !” The words were explicit, the tough jaw was set; the soldier had no intention of being balked.
The pilot ran a troubled hand through his hair and half turned towards the plane as one of the passengers came to the exit.
“We should be on our way,” the man called out pompously. “Every second we waste here, arguing, our lives our endangered.”
The tall lean soldier, with a shotgun slung on his shoulder by a strap, swept his eyes over the stout passenger in clean white drill. “We can all see how anxious you are,” he drawled, “but I must insist that these Sisters come on board.”
“But we haven’t the room–our pilot has just said so!”
“Please”–Eve caught on impulse at the khaki-clad arm, “if room can be found for Sister Mercy and the others, then I am sure I can trek the rest of the way.”
He looked down at her and his face was a leathery mask in which a pair of steel-grey eyes glittered. “It’s noble of you to offer, nurse, but I’m not noble enough to take you on. Our pilot friend is going to find room for all of you, even if I have to unload the stout one and all his nicely starched shirts and ducks in their leather cases.”
The man heard him and went turkey-red. “I’ve paid for my seat, you darned mercenary!” he blustered.
The steely eyes raked the overfed face. “Sooner that than a bloated clerk who sits on his rump while women and girls do the grim work out here and nearly lose their lives in the process. I think,” the rifle was significantly raised, “we can make room for them by getting shot of you.”
[6-7] “Steady on,” the pilot whispered fiercely. “He’s some sort of an official and I’m duty bound to get him to safety with some important documents he’s carrying. I’ll see if some of the passengers will allow their luggage to be left behind. That will lighten our load.”
Eve retreated to the shade of a flame tree on the edge of the forest clearing, and in a sort of tired dream she listened to the voices–like a distant surf–and heard the arguments regarding the baggage. She wanted poor Sister Mercy and the others to take off in the plane; they had endured two years of trouble and dangerous strife, whereas she had only been at the mission a couple of months. She was younger, not so worn out by tension as they. And still she wanted to prove herself that she was more than a social butterfly, deb of the season, darling of the fashionable resorts, and good for nothing except a decorative life and a society marriage.
She had fled from all that, to help out, unpaid, at the mission. She hadn’t dreamed that jungle revolt could be so frightening . . . they had hidden in the cellars for days, with barely enough to eat and drink, until the mercenary Major had stormed in and forced them to come this far. There was something tough and unholy about the man . . . he had known that if they could reach here by daybreak there would be a plane ready to take off to safety.
Suddenly his tall shadow fell over her and she glanced up at him, the tangled hair falling across her topaz eyes.
“Could you really trek it?” His voice was as hard as his sunburned features. “I shouldn’t relish having to carry you if you wrench one of those patrician ankles.”
Eve swallowed the retort that sprang all too readily [7-8] to her lips . . . she had to remember that he had saved the lives of the nuns. “Have you managed to find room for those poor tired women?”
“Just about. It seems there isn’t a man on board who will gallantly give up his seat for a darling debutante.”
“Stop it–please!” Anger and weariness met in her eyes and they shimmered as if she might cry.
“Right.” He swung away from her and called out to the pilot: “Take off now! Don’t waste any more time getting those precious people to a hotel for tiffin on the veranda!”
The pilot inclined his head, set his jaw, and saluted the two who must stay behind to face the hazards of the jungle and the rebels. He climbed into the cockpit of his machine and as the engine throbbed, faces were pressed to the windows and Eve met the tired and defeated gaze of Sister Mercy. Then the Sister glanced at the mercenary and she seemed to be saying: “Trust him, child, though he looks in league with the devil himself.”
The plane took off, leaving in its wake a curious stillness, and a huddle of suitcases on the grass. Two were of expensive pigskin stamped with initials, one was circular and looked as if it had belonged to a woman, and another was battered with labels all over it.
“Well,” drawled Eve’s companion, “we shall with luck find you a change of clothing. You look as if you need it.”
“And so do you,” she retorted. Humour and a slight touch of hysteria joined forces inside her and suddenly she was laughing, leaning there against the tall tree hung with flamy flowers. “You look like Humphrey Bogart in that film about Devil’s Island!”
[8-9] “We’ll save the compliments for later, if you don’t mind.” He gazed with a dark frown at the airfield bungalow, utterly deserted now that the last of the refugees had left. For days they had been arriving here and the planes had been flying in to pick them up, but there would be no more planes. This area was now evacuated, and Eve and the man whose name she did not know were the only human beings in the vicinity. The monkeys had drifted back to their treetop perches, and gaudy parrots sat together on a long branch and nagged one another. It was a strange, unreal moment, that breathless interval running and then coming to a halt, with danger held at bay by chance . . . or by the assertive thrust of a masculine chin, and a hard brown hand holding a hunting rifle. Eve knew it wasn’t a military weapon by the polished butt of reddish wood and the copper plate with a name inscribed. She had a vision of him snatching it from the wall of an abandoned plantation house, and handling it with the authority of a hunter.
She watched as, like a silent cat, his every nerve a coiled spring of alertness and daring, he mounted the steps of the airfield bungalow and thrust open the wire-meshed door. He stood there looking in, a tall individual, with his skin weathered to a shade of brown that made his eyes arresting, swift and glancing as a rapier tip. The strength of his jaw and the width of his shoulders gave him a formidable air. He made Eve feel hostile, because never had her existence held such a man, a stranger of fortune, who roamed where the rebellions were, and who rescued a weary group of women as if he were pulling kittens out of a stream into which a cruel hand had thrown them.
[9-10] Several words to describe him sprang to her mind, and then the door swung shut and he was inside the bungalow and she knew him to be searching the rooms to make sure no enemy was hiding there. He left her feeling lonely, there in the compound with the jungle behind her, and suddenly she was running towards the steps and panic was at her heels.
“Major . . . !”
“I’m here.” He emerged from a doorway and regarded her with cool eyes. “The place is quite deserted, but it has a kitchen and I hope it will yield some food. Are you hungry?”
She thought about it and realised that she was. In their flight appetite had been forgotten, but now she became aware of a gnawing pang at her midriff. “I’m awfully hungry.”
“Then let’s ransack the kitchen.”
“Dare we? Have we . . . time?”
“We must make time and hope for the best. The sound of the plane will have been heard, but for a while this place will be assumed to be deserted. Come along, the kitchen is at the end of this corridor.”
There in the dim recesses of a store cupboard they found a few tins containing coffee, corned beef, plum jam, and quite a hoard of beans. They scrambled together some of the beef and beans, heating them over the Primus stove, and made hot, strong coffee, none the less welcome for its lack of milk and sugar.
“Eat hearty,” Eve was urged. “You’re going to need, young deb, all the strength you can muster for the jungle trek ahead of us. Our thirty miles might turn into forty if we have to make any detours, or the going is particularly tough.”
[10-11] “I–I wish you wouldn’t call me ‘young deb’ in that scornful voice.” Her cheeks stung. “My name is Eve.”
“Is it really? Well, I don’t answer to Adam or Humphrey.” His grin was so wicked it was satanic. “I’m called Wade.”
“Don’t you care for the name?”
“I think it highly suitable, for someone who wades in where angels fear to tread. Do I call you Major Wade?”
“It’s my christian name. The surname is O’Mara.” He spoke drily and began to pack the tins of food into his knapsack, not forgetting the opener. “It’s a pity we can’t take the Primus, but it’s a trifle too bulky for our trek. Come, let’s take a look in the lounge. There may be something that will come in handy.”
“I suppose it’s all part of your job,” she said, “to ransack the places you come across?”
He gave her a silent, steady look out of those keen cool eyes, and her nerves felt agitated by a strange fear of him. Sister Mercy and the huge silver cross that hung around her neck on a chain of tiny prayer beads was no longer there to protect a girl from this type of man. Eve summoned her most defiant look, and saw a slightly derisive smile quirk on his lips. He was equally aware of their isolation together . . . the mercenary and the debutante!
“You’ve just reminded me that we have those suitcases to . . . ransack. I’ll fetch them and we can sort out what we need. I think you will agree, Eve, that we might as well take the best of the pickings before our rebellious friends arrive to tear everything apart and to make a bonfire of it all.”
A shiver ran through her and she hastened out with [11-12] him to the compound, and lugged back into the bungalow the circular case that one of the women passengers had allowed to be tossed from the plane. There in the lounge Wade forced open the case with a blade of the all-purpose knife he carried and they set to sorting through the contents. Eve found cosmetics, some sheer lingerie, a bottle of scent, a couple of illustrated magazines, and a pot of caviare!
She held it up for Wade’s inspection. “No champagne to go with it?” he drawled, and he tossed her a pair of slacks and a green silk shirt. “I don’t know what kind of a guy wore these togs, but I think I can guess. He was fairly slim anyway, and they should be all right for you. Here’s a blazer as well . . . catch!”
She caught the things and knew from the feel of them that they were expensive, probably brought out from England from a shop in Bond Street.
“Don’t go too far away to change into them.” The order came in that explicit tone of voice, as if she were a trooper at his command.
“Aye, aye, sir. Will the kitchen do?”
“I’d prefer you to go behind that big leather couch. Time is speeding and I’d hate our friends to catch you with your pants down.”
“You might remember, Major, that I’m not one of your soldiers!”
“There isn’t a moment when I don’t regret that you aren’t.” He glanced up from the more battered suitcase with the labels stuck all over it. “Believe me, dear deb, I look forward to this trek as much as you do.”
“I’m not helpless, Major!” she retorted.
“Good at tennis and hockey, no doubt? First rate at a fancy skim round the dance floor or the ice rink? And a smash hit with the boys!”
[12-13] “Oh . . .” Her fingers clenched the clothing which had belonged to the sort of young man she had been accustomed to. “You really enjoy getting at me, don’t you? Would you mind telling me why?”
“Because you’re a social orchid from the tips of your ears to your tiny toes. The type who’s at the root of much of the trouble out here–oh, you mean well, but you’d do better to stay at home adorning the fashion salons and the cocktail bars.”
Eve stared at him and went so pale that her eyes took on a denser shade of topaz. “How can you lay the blame on me?”
“Your sort, little one. Born with a jewelled spoon between your lips, sweetly arrogant in your self-approval, and so sure that everything you do for the lower orders is a benefit rather than a bore.”
“Thank you very much!”
“You’re welcome, Eve.” He gave her a sardonic bow, lean and every inch a fighter in his jungle uniform bearing the shoulder crowns of his rank in the mercenary army. “Now, your ladyship, discard that uniform and change into the slacks and shirt, and splash yourself with this insect repellent.” He handed her the fat yellow tube. “We’re about to take a hike through country where the mosquitoes will just love that milky skin of yours, so be lavish with the cream and cover your limbs as much as possible–and do stop looking as if fate has landed you a wallop round the jaw. I may not be polite company, but I know the jungle and will do my utmost to get you to the Tanga coast.”
Grabbing a slip and panties from the circular case, Eve went behind the club couch and removed her torn and grubby uniform, which she soon replaced with the fresh underwear and the male outer garments. Because [13-14] she was tall the slacks weren’t a bad fit, and she supposed that Wade O’Mara had selected the green shirt because to him she was such a greenhorn.
“Bring the uniform with you,” he ordered.
Eve did so and watched silently as he folded it among the garments they must leave behind. “Show me your footwear,” he said, and when she extended a foot he looked rather grim. “Our foppish friend has sandals in his case, but you have aristocratic feet! Come, try one of these.”
She obeyed, but the sandal felt like a boat. Suddenly she began to laugh and couldn’t stop, and Wade gave her a rough shake. “I’m going to cut some inner soles from the top of this leather case and it’s going to waste precious time, but you must have a pair of decent walking shoes or I shall end up carrying you halfway home.”
“And neither of us would relish that,” she said, pleased that she could sound so definite about it. He gave her a brief look, a shimmer of silvery-grey, then he bent over his task, cutting deeply into the leather with his knife and hacking out a chunk of it. He then stood her worn-out shoes upon it and traced round them with the knife blade . . . his hands were as brown as the leather and as tough, and yet they had a curious dexterity which produced in as short a time as possible a wearable pair of soles for the over-large sandals. He fitted them inside and told her to try the sandals once again. She did so and found them a lot more snug.
“Well, how do they feel?” he asked, snapping shut his knife and thrusting it into the sheath at his belt.
“Not too bad at all.” She swallowed her antagonism. “Thank you.”
“Now is there anything in that woman’s case that you’d like to take along . . . and I don’t mean the paint [14-15] and the sheer wear.”
“A book might come in handy, also the comb and mirror . . . do you know, Major, that pilot must have thrown off the wrong case. No woman would give up . . .” Eve broke off and looked into the grey eyes. An eyebrow quirked above them and the firm mouth took a dent in it. “You mean he did it on purpose? Because I’d need a few things?”
“Some men can be gallant. I never learned the trick of it.”
Sudden tears shimmered in her eyes and she bent closely over the case so that he wouldn’t see that she was touched by the pilot’s gesture . . . lord help him when he landed the passengers!
“Can we take the little pot of caviare? It won’t take up much room, and it’s nourishing food.”
“Drop it in.” He held open his knapsack and she saw that he’d added the food cans, a shaving-gear from the leather case with the labels, a copy of a Penguin thriller, and one of those long silk scarves men wear with evening clothes. She couldn’t think why he wanted it, unless he had a secret craving for the minor luxuries. Maybe that was why he was allowing her to have the caviare.
“Have you everything you want?” he asked.
“We might need a rug, and this plaid dressing gown might come in handy as a substitute. I can carry it, Major.”
“Okay, but don’t overload yourself. The heat in the undergrowth will be near intolerable during the daylight hours. Now we’ll stow these cases in a corner, as if they were abandoned there instead of outside, and we’ll be on our way.”
“Have you remembered to fill your water bottle?” [15-16] Eve felt she had to ask, and to let him know that she was aware of the dangers and discomforts as he was, despite his opinion of her as a flimsy creature of flighty pursuits and efforts that were more of a hindrance than a help.
“Yes, the water bottle is full to the brim,” he replied, that droll note in his voice.
“I’ll carry it–”
“No, you might lose it. All set?”
“And stay close to me, I don’t want to lose you.”
“I rather thought it wouldn’t worry you,” she mumbled.
“I beg your pardon?” He was busy guiding himself, his rifle and knapsack, now full, through the mesh door into the brilliant sunlight flooding across the compound. “What did you say?”
“Nothing important.” She followed him and blinked against the sun, still strong and strange to her even after two months. The ceiling fans had still been purring in the bungalow, left on and forgotten by the staff who had left on the final plane. It had been cool in there, and now all at once she felt the impact of the tropical heat burning against her skin and hair. She would welcome their entrance into the jungle itself, where the trees would offer shelter from that burning sun, even if at the same time the green canopy closed in the warmth and made the jungle a living greenhouse.
“Come, we must hurry,” Wade threw over his shoulder. “We’ve wasted precious time enough . . . are those sandals quite comfortable? I don’t want you breaking an ankle.”
[16-17] She followed him towards the trees, and though the sandals were still rather loose the thongs across the instep kept them from falling off, and it was rather like walking in house slippers. “Yes, they’re okay,” she said, falling unaware into his laconic figure of speech.
He reached the trees and turned to give her a sardonic glance, one that took her in from her feet to her titian hair. He was tall against the trees, the combat jacket straining against the wide bones of his shoulders. The rest of him was lean and long, topped off by a thatch of rough black hair. His very darkness had a danger to it, and the only light thing about him was the steely grey of his eyes.
Eve and he seemed in this moment to assess one another as hostile strangers about to be guests in a strange house; two people who must learn to accept each other’s foibles for a short and intimate while. Colour ran beneath her skin and settled on the heights of her cheekbones, and the slight curves of her body hardly disturbed the green silk of the shirt she wore outside the band of the grey-green slacks.
“You could almost pass for a boy,” Wade drawled, and his eyes flicked her smooth cap of titian hair. “Did you cut it yourself, or were you actually training to take vows?”
“Don’t be funny,” she rejoined. “One of the Sisters cut it for me so I’d feel cooler working about the mission. I really did work, Major. I even scrubbed floors.”
“Bravo for you. Something to tell the magazine editors when you get home. Should make quite a headline: ‘Debutante gets down on her knees to scrub and pray!'” And so saying he turned and entered the [17-18] jungle, and as Eve followed him, actively hating his cynical sense of humour, a bird seemed to sing high above her head: “I was a good little girl . . . I was a good little girl . . .”
It was odd, rather like the opening bars of an old music-hall song, and Eve found herself finishing the line in her head.
“. . . till I met you!”