Time of the Temptress 7
On the river earlier it had been cool, but now the sun was like a molten flame about them, and the sweat had plastered Wade’s shirt to his body, clinging darkly to his chest and shoulders as he thrust the paddle in and out of the water that glistened like thick oil in the sunlight.
Wade had worked with vandalistic zeal on the boat, spending tireless hours shaping and carving the storm-felled tree which he had dragged to the riverbank by means of a long rope woven from plaited vines.
With each passing day Eve’s admiration for his industry, guts and skill had increased until she began to feel an almost frightening idolatry for the man. She had never known anyone like him in her life . . . a life which until now had been filled with ease and comfort provided by well-paid servants. She had never seen her guardian lift a log on to the fire, let alone create a boat from the trunk of a tree.
She had watched Wade at work with a feeling of akin to awe, and on the morning they loaded the canoe and the craft glided out on to the surface of the river, the certainty was strong in her that she could never be persuaded to marry James. She would never marry at all, least of all an effete young stockbroker who could do nothing except sit behind a desk and buy and sell shares for his clients. As his wife she would be no more than an adornment gracing his Maida Vale house, [122-123] there to entertain the wives of his business associates, and to spend the evenings dining with James’ relatives, with the occasional weekend in the country for some golf, riding or shooting, according to the season.
The prospect wasn’t to be borne, and if she must inevitably say goodbye to Wade, how could she ever forget being with him in the jungle? Sometimes she reflected back on her very first sight of him, when he had seemed so hard and unmerciful in the way he drove the nuns and herself through the bush to the airfield bungalow. She had thought him without sympathy or feeling, but she had learned since that he was rather like an iceberg, with depths to his character she would have loved to explore.
Oh God, sometimes it seemed as if she were thinking and loving like some heroine in a romantic story. She had never believed in that kind of love, but now discovered that it did exist. But she guarded it and was careful not to let it show in her eyes. For her sake and his she acted the boy, never complaining of the enervating heat, ever ready to do his bidding, keeping as bright and perky as his cabin-boy. It amused him, but sometimes there seemed a shadow of concern in his eyes when they played over her, for she had grown thinner, even more fine-boned on their diet of fish, fruit, and the constant tension of what might be lurking around each bend of the river.
They had no way of knowing if Tanga had fallen to rebel hands, and each mile was bringing them closer to their destination.
Now and again on a smooth stretch he allowed her to paddle for a while, so that she kept supple and didn’t grow stiff crouched all the time on the low seat which he [123-124] had fashioned, with a bar across so that she could hold on when they ran into the rapids caused by the sudden cascades of water raining down like liquid silver from great escarpments of rock. Some of the river scenery was breathlessly beautiful, where the most exotic flowers grew against the curtains of green foliage; and never had Eve imagined such colourful birds, some of them sheer blue, darting on the water and emerging with big fish flapping in their beaks. It seemed incredible at times that they were two people hurrying towards a refuge . . . or a town already occupied by savage, undisciplined rebels.
“What shall we do,” Eve asked Wade, “if Tanga has fallen to the rebels?”
“Cut and run,” he had replied. “Get the hell out and head for some place that might still be in Government hands.”
It both frightened and excited her, the thought that she and Wade might be alone like this for an indefinite period. She might act the boy, and it might amuse him to let her, but there were underlying currents to the situation that couldn’t be ignored. When they camped in the evenings and bathed in the river, it was impossible to pretend that he didn’t see her, nude and pale-honey, pulling herself from the water, her limbs dripping in the light of the moon that had risen a few nights ago, to hang in the sky like a globe of witchfire.
It was equally impossible to pretend that she didn’t see him, like some weathered figure of bronze, some pagan deity emerging from the river.
There just wasn’t room for the modesties of civilised living. They couldn’t exist as they did and be unaware of each other.
[124-125] Eve knew exactly how the thick dark hair grew in an arrow straight down Wade’s lean, strong body, and she had seen that fearful scar on his thigh, almost deep enough to thrust in her hand. She knew that he must be aware of the velvety mole on her left hip, and her much smaller and neater scar from an appendix removal when she was fourteen years old.
Such an awareness of each other could be borne if it were only for a short while longer, but if it continued, in the moist, musky, sensual jungle, then one dusky evening the inevitable would happen, he would reach for her and Eve would be helpless to resist him. She would submit to the excitement and ruthlessness she had already felt in his embrace, and alone with him in the wild, lush heart of Africa she would give way without reserve to being a woman. The very thought was enough to make her tingle from the nape of her neck to the soles of her feet, and she had to look away from Wade, for the movement of his brown arms, the dark wet clinging of his shirt to his muscular skin was enough to melt her on the inside as the hot sun was wilting her on the outside.
She longed for the evening when they tied up the canoe and rested; ate their supper after their bathe [sic], and lounged beside the fire talking quietly of impersonal things. There was a domesticity to it that could have led easily to the intimacy she both wanted and feared. If he touched her, if he took her, driven to it by all that was primitive in their surroundings, Eve knew it would be a heaven followed by hell when he told her, as adamantly as before, that he wasn’t free to keep her.
It had to be everything or nothing. Eve realised that each time she looked at Wade. She couldn’t surrender [125-126] herself to him and then give him up with a sweet, sacrificing smile. But she could just endure the parting that must come if she never knew what it was like to be his possession . . . she had come the hard way to that realisation, much as she longed for the feel of his mouth on hers again, the caress of his hands, the loving of his lean body, certain and tireless at his handling of the canoe.
Eve shivered in the heat, torn between the longing and the martyrdom of loving a man who belonged to another woman.
“Your hands keeping all right?” he asked suddenly, for during that early spell of coolness he had allowed her to paddle for a while.
Eve glanced at them and gave a grin. They were brown, nail-torn, and were developing slight callouses across the palms. “They got hardened at the mission,” she said. “I told you I did the scrubbing, and also I peeled buckets of vegetables for the patients. I wonder is [sic] Sister Mercy and the others are back in England, or still working out here?”
“My bet is that they’re still out here,” he replied. “While someone needs them, those saintly creatures will carry on regardless.”
Eve’s smile deepened, for in that moment she had caught the Irish inflection in Wade’s voice, which he must have picked up years ago from his father. Then she turned her head and her smile faded and unaware she trailed her hand in the water . . . were he not a Catholic, would he cut free from his wife?
“Take your hand out of the water,” he snapped. “There’s no knowing what’s under the surface, and if you lost some fingers I’d have one hell of a job keeping you free of infection.”
[126-127] “Sorry.” She guiltily pulled her fingers free of the water. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“No, you were miles away in thoughts of England, no doubt, and your fine wedding day at some smart church with lots of guests and bags of rice.”
Eve didn’t protest that he had it all wrong, and that she’d fight her guardian yet again if he tried to force her into a loveless marriage. Perhaps she’d go into a nunnery herself, train for the life and then return to Africa to work under Sister Mercy for the rest of her days. Why not? It seemed a more worthwhile prospect than settling into a useless rut with a man she didn’t care for.
Dusk always came suddenly, after the clashing of colours around the dying sun, and then the clamorous sound of water fowl would follow. Wade pulled into a clearing, and Wade stood a moment against the afterglow in the sky, tall, unbowed despite his long day at the paddle, pulling his sleeve across his forehead. “If I had to do this all over again,” he remarked, “surprisingly enough I’d choose to do it with you, Eve. What a trip to remember, eh? If you ever take a world cruise on a luxury liner, think back on these days and nights and you might laugh or weep.”
“I shan’t laugh,” she replied, watching him, letting her gaze travel up the long legs in combat khaki to the hard, inflexible shoulders and the life-hardened face. “I was thinking earlier on that I might decide to train for mission work–”
“What?” he broke in. “What the devil do you mean–be a nun?”
“Why not,” she asked. “Others do it, so why not me?”
“You haven’t the right temperament.” He said it almost scornfully.
[127-128] “Thanks, Major. You’re always ready to boost my ego.”
“To the devil with it, Eve, you aren’t a cold, devout saint, and you know it. Forget such nonsense and do what you were born to do.”
“And what’s that?” she enquired. “Develop from the season’s debutante into the cool and gracious hostess of a house kept spotless by maids, and a kitchen ruled over by some treasure of a cook who won’t even allow me to boil an egg.”
“That doesn’t have to happen,” he said, almost curtly. “You have gumption enough not to be forced into marriage if you don’t love the man. Find someone you can love, even if he happens to be poor. That way you’ll soon learn how to boil an egg.”
“Thanks,” she said again. “I suppose this little lecture means that we’re only a few miles from Tanga?”
“You’ve guessed it, Eve. This time tomorrow you might be on a plane and on your way home–all being well and if we find the status quo at Tanga.”
“What happens if we don’t?” Eve could feel the agitation of her pulses, and the sudden twisting pain deep inside her, as if already the strands that had bound her to Wade for this strange journey were now beginning to tear asunder.
“Then we’re still up the river, but fortunately with a paddle.” He leapt ashore and quickly secured the canoe to the thick roots of a tree. Eve followed him and thought dismally that this might be their last night together, their last bathe in the river, their final supper all smoky from the campfire they dared to light even though it might be a beacon for the enemy. He was fatalistic in some ways, was Wade O’Mara, but he was also too much a soldier to be capable of the kind of fear [128-129] other men might have felt. He had weaned the fear out of Eve, and she was even certain that if a band of insurgents fell upon them and the odds were too great, Wade would turn the Breda upon her and she would die at his hands. It was the way she wanted to die, if she had to.
He got the fire going, and Eve baked some fish, squeezed wild lemon over it and sliced a wild cucumber. For dessert they had big squashy berries with coconut jelly, which was rather delicious from the green nuts which Wade climbed for, cutting them down with his panga. Watching him do certain things Eve wondered at the difference between him and men like her guardian, not all that much older than Wade and yet grown flabby and reliant on other people for every sort of need. Such men would starve in the jungle, go out of their heads, and not be able to tell a suspended hornet’s nest from a shaggy fruit. Of course, seated in importance behind their city desks, they were big men, and would regard someone like Wade as a barbarian.
Her dear barbarian, she thought, worth a thousand of the kind of people she must go back to. Oh lord, how to explain all this to the man who had reared her, paid her school fees, sent her abroad to acquire the poise of a young woman expected to marry well? How to convince him that she could never marry anyone chosen by him? They’d fight again, and she had the feeling she might burst into tears the next time; weep wildly for the man she had left behind in Africa.
Somewhere close by the clearing where they camped a parrot bird was still awake and apparently watching them in the glow of the fire. All at once it moved along its branch and squawked what sounded like: “Your dinner . . . your dinner!”
They laughed in unison. “Some dinner,” Eve mur-[129-130]mured. “A pity all the yams are used up, they were delicious all hot and crackling on the outside and so white and flavoursome inside.”
“You’ll be dining at some swanky restaurant in no time at all, gobbling coq au vin and pears in brandy.” Wade lay full stretch on the blanket and smoked one of his hand-rolled cigarettes. Overhead spread the branches of a great forest tree, and above them was the sky washed with moonlight, with clusters of stars in the shadowy patches.
“Why do you take it for granted that I shall slot back so easily into my old life?” she asked, seated there in the firelight with her arms about her updrawn knees. They had been lazy tonight and had not yet bathed in the river, as if they were waiting for the moon to ride right over them, casting the river to silver before they plunged in.
“You’ll do so, little lady, because you aren’t old.” His dark brows had a devilish twist to them. “What your sweetie?”
“I wish it was! I could go for a nice sticky caramel, but instead I have to chew on that awful-tasting tablet that’s supposed to keep me from getting dried up and saltless.”
“You’ll never be saltless.” He handed her the tablet. “And I never could tolerate sugary females.”
“Do I accept that as a compliment?” she asked, chewing the tablet and washing it down with hot smoky coffee, made from wild beans which Wade had roasted and ground to powder between a couple of stones. “And have you taken your own tablet?”
“I’m salty enough,” he drawled, blowing a smoke ring. “I want you fighting fit when I get you to Tanga, the [130-131] saints willing. Got your story all prepared for your stern guardian?”
“Did I say he was stern?” Eve forced a smile to her lips, but again she felt that dropping sensation in her stomach, as if very gradually all the elation was going out of her life.
“I have the feeling he expects you to conform, eh? I imagine he’s chosen your prospective bridegroom, but don’t be bulldozed into the fellow’s arms, not if you don’t want to run into them.”
“James is all right,” she said, making her voice casual. “I could do worse, I suppose, but he’s the kind who would expect me to drape myself in pretty clothes and chatter with equally useless females and sit on a committee or two, so long as I didn’t overtax my bird brains. The upper classes remain very conservative in their ideas–they aren’t like you, Wade. They don’t go out and do. They couldn’t do half the things you’re capable of–if I were lost in the jungle with James, I’d be in a pretty poor way by now.”
“Are you saying I’ve spoiled you for other men?” Wade asked sardonically. “In the literal sense, you understand. No one can say I’ve had more than a nibble of the sweet white frosting.”
“Are you cynical about everything?” Eve murmured, her fingers clenching together until they hurt. “Despite the dangers, this has been one of the best experiences of my life. I shall never forget it.”
“Nor I, lady.” He rolled to one side so he was facing her and their eyes met and held, then broke apart. “There’s been a certain alchemy, but don’t mistake it for anything else. When you’re home again, and you take up the threads of the life meant for you, you’ll gradu-[131-132]ally forget all this and in a few month’s time you won’t even remember my face. I guarantee it, Eve.”
“And you’ll take up the threads of your life, I suppose?”
“Sure, I shall go on fighting out here until things are in order again, then I shall probably take a holiday with my–family, and then I’ll find another war to fight.”
“Don’t you ever want to settle down?” Eve kept her gaze on the fire because she felt that her eyes were bleak. A holiday with his family, he had said. It made her feel so cut off from him; it underlined what she was, just a girl he had brought through the jungle to the threshold of safety, doing his very best for her, aware that she thought him valorous and daring, and letting her down as lightly as possible. Soldiers must often come up against this kind of hero-worship, Eve supposed. It wouldn’t be the first time in his life, but it was the first time in hers, and she saw an awful, lonely future ahead of her . . . if she couldn’t forget him.
“I’ve been too many years a fighting man,” he said, tossing the stub of his cigarette into the fire. “Maybe when I’m really decrepit, they’ll offer me a cot at the Chelsea Hospital.”
“Oh, Wade!” It was a cry from the heart she couldn’t suppress. “You make me want to cry when you talk like that. As if your family–”
“It’s all right,” he soothed, “I’m only jesting. Shall we go and cool off in the river, lady? That moon up there is big as an uncut cheese and I fancy a moon-swim–a sort of pagan farewell to this. Are you game?”
Eve didn’t have to be asked twice, and collecting their towels and the soap they shared, and not forgetting the Breda, they hastened to the water that was rip-[132-133]pling silver in the radiance of the moon. A big gauzy moth brushed Eve’s cheek and she could feel a primitive response to the night in the very centre of her being. The white fire up there must have confused the cicadas, for they were vibrating madly in the trees, and she breathed the musky scent of a night-flowering plant.
“Get thee behind a tree, temptress,” Wade grinned, and planted her behind a huge silk-cotton where she swiftly removed every stitch, but was careful to hang slacks, shirt and briefs on a branch before running eagerly into the water.
Wade was already swimming about, and Eve felt the combined thrill of the cool water and sharing it with him. She rubbed the soap over herself and rinsed off the suds, then swam over to Wade and handed him the depleted bar.
“What a night, eh?” His teeth gleamed in a smile. “We couldn’t have asked for more on our last night together, except for music drifting across the river.”
“What a romantic idea!” Eve moved her arms in a lazy backstroke, uncaring that the silvery light glimmered on her pale body. Wade was a husband and father; he didn’t have to pretend that he didn’t know what a woman looked like. Nor did she pretend to herself that she wasn’t playing the temptress. This was the last time they’d swim together (if all was well at Tanga) and she knew what she wanted to happen . . . she wanted a lasting memory to take back to England.
Her fingerips touched Wade and she felt the shock of it vibrate through him . . . then he somersaulted with hardly a splash, a gleaming body that was moonlit, with a dark clouding of hair that brushed Eve as he swam up [133-134] beneath her and wrapped his arms all the way around her. It was incredibly sensuous, wonderful, the feel of his hands gliding over her wet curves.
“Eve, you little devil,” he groaned. “God, how lovely you feel, like a slim white fish with soft, velvety scales all alight and trembling. I’m mad for you, you wicked child. I want you till you cry the jungle down–but I’m damn well not going to do what Adam did!”
“Scared?” she taunted, slipping her arms around him and feeling his body taut and burning through the cool water. “Is the great big hero a mouse at heart? Oh, love me, love me, Wade, so I’ll have something I can’t forget!”
“You’d have it all right.” He scooped her into his arms and ploughed out of the water with her and dropped her to her feet on the riverbank. His hand slapped out and stung her wet bottom. “Now stop being a pretty strumpet and behave yourself. I’ve been a gentleman with you for the first time in my inglorious life and I’m not spoiling the sheet.”
“Is this what they give medals for?” she jeered. “I’ve seen it on its grimy ribbon. What did they give it for? Gallant action in the mess?”
“Stop it!” He gripped her slippery shoulders and gave her a hard shake. “It would be the easiest thing in the world to throw you down on my army blanket and love the breath out of you, all the way, Eve, to that moon up there, and then down in the mud. You’d find yourself with a baby in that slim white body, and I’d be the father, and unable to marry you! Have sense. Be realistic. Get dressed!”
“I want a baby.” She clung to him like catchweed in the streaming moonlight, her wet skin clinging to his. [134-135] “I want yours–a black-haired boy like the one you gave that other woman. Why not? I’m entitled to something of yours, if she’s going to have you till you–till you get what you seem to be after, a bullet in your heart.”
Her hand played down his chest and her fingers went into that awful cicatrice in his flesh. “I’ve never known a real man in my life–oh, Wade, there’ll never be another night like this one, and we’ll never be alone like this ever again. Someone will make a woman of me, if I ever marry, and I want you to do it. I want you.”
He held her, as if lost for words, and Eve loved the rough and tender heaven of his arms. “Right,” his voice was low and savage against her neck. “I want you–because you’re young and pretty and innocent. I want to make a feast of you, here in the jungle. I want to kiss every bit of you and let my body revel in you–but I’d hate my own guts in the morning, and I might even hate you, my vixen, for letting me do all that to you. Go home to England, Eve, sweet and untroubled, so I can remember you like that. How do you think I could live, not knowing if you were having my kid, or laid out in some clinic having it taken away? Do you think your upper-crust guardian would let his ward have the baby of a mercenary? Think again, my pretty Eve. A girl might hide what’s in her heart, but there’s no hiding a baby.”
“You seem so certain I’d get–that way.”
“There’s a good chance of it.” His eyes slid down the smooth length of her bare body, and she felt the tensing of his forearm muscles under her gripping hand. In the light of the moon his face might have been carved, except for the flicker of a muscle near his mouth. “I’ve [135-136] been living hard for some time, honey, and I don’t think I’d keep a cool head if I had you at my mercy. Come, you’re not so innocent that you don’t know what I mean?”
“I–I know what you mean,” she said huskily. “Doesn’t it count, Wade, that I’m ready to take the consequences?”
“Don’t talk nonsense.” His voice grated. “You’re little older than my Larry, a mere girl with all your life ahead of you. Think I’d spoil that for you? My life has made me hard and I’ve done things I shall never talk about, but I haven’t come to robbing the cradle, not yet I haven’t, and I’d put the Breda to your head if anyone out here tried it on and I didn’t have a chance of protecting you any other way. You know that, so go and put some clothes on and let a guy’s blood pressure settle down.”
“Oh, Wade–!” Eve raised a hand and pushed the damp rumpled hair back from his brow. “You are merciless, aren’t you? Y-you won’t let me thank you for all you’ve done for me.”
“I’ll have thanks enough when I see you safely on that plane to England.” Taking forcible hold of her wrists he held her away from him, and Eve felt the coldness where the warmth had been. Oh God, where else was she going to find a man so exciting, so sure in his strength, so self-reliant? All around them the countless fireflies danced in the air, spots of green fire, and Eve could feel the love inside her, burning away discretion and pride like flame through steel. She trembled and knew that she could dissolve Wade’s inflexibility even yet; her wrist tensed in his hand, and her eyes were [136-137] sheerest gold, sensuous as a cat’s as they dwelt on his face.
“Your grip is hurting me,” she said softly.
He let go at once and her hand was free . . . time seemed to stand still and she knew he was reading her eyes, waiting for her to make her move. Emotion throbbed between them as the jungle throbbed all around them, the air filled with the moist, overpowering incense of forest foliage and milky vines.
He was watching her, daring her to go ahead with what her topaz eyes threatened. He knew, just as she did, that she could tempt him and make him weak as water, and at the same time awesomely strong. The devil whispered in her ear and wild, sweet heaven was only inches from her grasp.
She turned away from him, shudderingly. She couldn’t have her heaven and risk him hating her afterwards . . . he had his son to consider, and even if his wife didn’t possess his heart, she did have legal rights that he would abide by. That was the kind of man he was. Tenacious and loyal and strong-willed. For these qualities Eve loved him . . . it wasn’t just physical, what she felt for the mercenary Major.
Eve suffered a moment, silent and intense, then she walked away to where she had left her clothes, and there behind the silk-cotton tree she rubbed her body with the towel and dressed herself. The magic had ebbed away and now she felt rather tired, and aware of meshes of thorny growth around her, and immense night-hung webs knobbed with hairy black spiders some of them hideously huge and tinged with red on their crooked legs. She shivered and no longer did the jungle seem romantic to her . . . her heart was cold and [137-138] she wanted the final few miles to Tanga to be covered as soon as possible.
She reached for her towel, which she had flung aside on a bush, and as she took hold of it felt a sharp stab of pain as a thorn ripped her thumb, tearing the flesh where it was latched to the nail. The pain was so acute that tears came into her eyes and she felt a salty taste in her mouth.
“You dressed, Eve?” Wade came to her side, dressed himself with his hair slicked back, and forcing herself to ignore the pain of her torn thumbnail, she nodded and walked with him through the moonlight tangled in the trees to where their campfire burned beneath the humming kettle.
“Fancy some more coffee?” he asked. “Or will it keep you awake?”
“I am rather thirsty,” she replied, and felt certain her thoughts of him were going to keep her from sleeping. It was unbearable that they were soon to part, and abstractedly she placed her thumb between her lips and sucked the sore place where the thorn had jabbed and torn. She tasted blood, but wouldn’t examine the small wound in case Wade noticed. He had warned her more than once that the slightest scratch in the jungle could become infectious if it wasn’t treated right away. But she couldn’t have borne his concern, his doctoring of her thumb . . . his hands upon her.
She sat down on her plaid bundle and gazed into the fire. Better that they stay polite with each other, thrusting away all personal contact. She wasn’t ashamed that she had wanted him to make love to her; she didn’t care that she had thrown aside her pride and revealed how she felt about him, but somehow, from somewhere, [138-139] she had to find the courage to walk away from him when the time came, and right now her courage was at such low ebb that the smallest show of sympathy would have reduced her to a weeping heap that would have exasperated him. Men so hated tears, and she didnt want Wade’s last memory of her to be a maudlin one.
He made the coffee and they shared the mug, and they were sitting there quietly when both of them caught the sound of something rustling in the bush.
Eve tensed and she saw Wade sit up, turn his head and stare intently into those wicked green shadows. Her heartbeats quickened and her nostrils pulled into them the bitter, nutty tang of the wood fire. She saw Wade’s hand grip the Breda and she knew that he was alert in every nerve, making hardly any sound as he climbed to his feet. He moved the shotgun into a firing position and with a tread as wary as a cat’s he moved towards the bush, and Eve wanted to cry out to him not to go in there where a black tracery of fronds and branches made it so dark and menacing.
But she couldn’t cry out, she could only watch in silence and fear for him. He was gone and there was darkness where he had been, and Eve gazed at the emptiness with stricken eyes, every fibre of her body straining forward, ready to leap and join him should it be a human who had made those stealthy sounds of movement.
The movements passed and the silence was filled in by the low harsh purring of the cicadas, and the trilling and croaking of tree-frogs. So intensely concentrated was Eve’s attitude that she could feel herself trembling, and she could feel pain jabbing the nerves of her left hand, where the thick sharp thorn had stabbed her.
[139-140] “It’s all right.” Wade came back to her, moving without stealth this time. “I couldn’t smell cat, so I think it must have been a wild pig roaming about, grubbing for roots, I expect.”
Eve couldn’t answer him, her teeth were clenched and her body was in the grip of a tension that wouldn’t relax. Wade leaned over her and laid his hand on her shoulder, a touch she felt to the bottom of her spine. “Come on,” he chided her, “don’t get the jitters over a funny old pig–”
“W-what if it had been a human one?” she demanded, and she flung back her head and looked up at him wildly. “How can you be sure? W-we could be surrounded by them!”
“I’d know, Eve.” He haunched down, cradled his Breda in one arm, and slung the other about her slim shaking figure. “Little lady, it isn’t like you to let go like this–come on, snap out of it.”
“Easy for you, Wade,” she said chokingly. “You thrive on danger and don’t care about anything else, but those savages use knives as well, and I–and I–”
“Here, you stop that!” He drew her against his shoulder and pressed his hard cheek down against her hair, rocking her a little, like an infant in his cradling arm. “I’d smell them as well, don’t you realise that? They aren’t so fond of bathing as you and I, and there’s nothing so penetrating as acrid human sweat. I’m a soldier, honey. I’m trained like the damned tiger to whiff the air, and there was nothing in the bush that wore pants. Only a hungry trotter–”
“Oh, Wade!” Eve flung her arms about his neck and buried her face in his warm skin. “Y-you’ll be glad to [140-141] be rid of me, won’t you? You’ll say goodbye with a great sigh of relief.”
“Sure, I’ll be relieved when I get you on that plane to London Airport. I made that promise to myself when you had to be parted from the nuns–little lady, haven’t I told you before, we’re just two people who got mixed up in a revolt and got thrown together for a while. It’s like that film, with Bogart and Bergman, we have to say goodbye because that’s how the script is written, honey. But don’t think I won’t miss you–the way you look in the mornings, all ruffled up and warm, like a kid almost, wanting salt and water to brush your teeth, and being so good about eating dried fish instead of scrambled egg and bacon. Drinking that coffee brew of mine as if it were the best Brazilian blend. Believe me, honey, if my Larry ever finds himself a girl like you, then I’ll–”
“Don’t!” Her arms hugged him fiercely. “Don’t talk to me as if I’m a schoolgirl waiting to grow up. If I wasn’t grown up properly before I met you, I am now, and it hurts, Wade. It hurts!”
Later, lying with her back to him on the blanket, upper body netted, and her legs wrapped in the plaid robe, Eve let the tears roll silently down her face, heavy and salty across her lips . . . her lips that hungered and must be denied.
Would the hurting get any easier once she was back in England? Would his features and the sound of his voice gradually fade from her memory? This was how the script was written, he had said, but this time he was the married one, and she must fly away from him knowing that he must stay tied to a woman he didn’t love.
[141-142] Eve was sure of that . . . it was her only consolation.
All that night she dozed fitfully and kept starting awake, brought out of her sleep just after dawn by the persistent throbbing in her hand. She sat up carefully and took a look at Wade . . . he lay on his back, the Breda by his right hand, his lashes shadowing his cheeks as he slept, so that very briefly he looked vulnerable. Eve studied him for a long moment . . . this was the last time she would awake in the morning to find Wade beside her. The man she had slept with, the tough mercenary soldier, who had treated her with a gallantry she would remember and cherish all her life.
“I love you,” she whispered. “I love you, Wade O’Mara, with every scrap of my heart and every bit of my body.”
Then, taking care not to disturb him, she drew herself out of her cocoon and taking her dried towel made her way to the river, using it to flip away the big webs that were so heavy with dew that the spiders had vacated them.
A mist lay over the water and over the sun, and everything seemed remote and mysterious. As Eve knelt to wash her face she saw a harmless pepper-and-salt snake glide out from a dark-green bush and slip across the big tree roots. On the far side of the river she could glimpse the brown hadidas flapping on the water, and soon they would be joined by water-fowl and spotted deer and even a tawny lion or two, who this early in the day only wanted to drink cool water before the pink sky turned into a hot golden one.
Eve examined her left hand and caught her lip hard between her teeth when she touched the yellowing sore spot. It had festered, and Wade would be angry with her [142-143] if she showed it to him like this. Taking a corner of her towel, she dipped it in the water and bathed her thumb, flinching as she squeezed out the gathering, feeling a dew of sweat break out on her face.
She wouldn’t tell him, for he had enough on his mind. Today they began the last lap of their journey and she knew he would be anxious to get to Tanga before nightfall, in order to get her off his hands, and to report to his senior officer. They’d have held Tanga from the insurgents if possible, and she couldn’t selfishly pray that a whole town had fallen just to make it possible for her to remain with the man she loved.
As she walked back to their camp site a speckled dragonfly danced ahead of her on huge gauzy wings, a glorious thing, like a flying jewel. And when she paused a moment to collect her composure, she saw, utterly still on a twig, a praying-mantis like a small green ghoul, waiting on its victim with a patience as terrible as its awful little face. The dragonfly and the mantis seemed to typify for Eve what she had found in the jungle . . . unexpected moments of beauty . . . nerve-wrenching moments of suspense.
Wade had shaved and was pouring coffee when she joined him. He flicked his eyes over her face as he handed her the steaming mug. “You didn’t sleep too well, did you?” he said. “I felt you tossing and even heard you muttering when you did drift off to sleep. Worrying about the situation at Tanga?”
She nodded and sipped the coffee, whose sweet smokiness made it palatable. They both knew what was really troubling her, but today they must keep everything impersonal.
“I’ll dish up the fish,” he said.
[143-144] “Not for me, thanks.” Eve couldn’t have eaten a bite, for even the hot coffee couldn’t dispel that sickish feeling at the pit of her stomach. “I’m not hungry–”
“You should eat something, for once we get on the river I’m going to keep at it and we shan’t be camping again today.”
“I–I can eat something in the boat later on.” She handed him the mug so he could pour his own coffee. “Don’t force me, Wade. I just haven’t any appetite at present.”
He nodded, but was frowning to himself as he ate his own piece of fish and washed it down with the last of the brew. They packed everything and loaded the canoe, and Eve settled on to the seat, pulling down over her eyes the coolie hat he had made for her from plaited straw and leaves; it was rough and ready, but it shaded her eyes and the lining of leaves kept her head cool. Today it also had the advantage of partly concealing her eyes, which being the servants of her emotions kept straying to Wade as he wielded the paddle. His much-washed shirt was in a faded, torn state by now, and as the sun grew more fierce the khaki began to darken with moisture and his black hair clung in damp strands on his forehead.
Today he wouldn’t offer to let her paddle for a while, nor would she ask, for her left hand was hurting badly and the pain seemed to be in her wrist as well. She could feel the pressure of heat like a weight on her shoulders, and it must have been around noon when her head began to feel light, and the occasional sound of Wade’s voice seemed to be across the river instead of a few feet across the boat. Her throat was dry as a bone and when she reached for the water-bottle it slipped [144-145] out of her grasp and she fumbled about in a listless way before retrieving it. Her lips shook against the rim when she tilted it to swallow the cooled boiled water, and dry as her throat was, the rest of her body felt sticky with perspiration. Her heart thudded and a feeling of acute dismay swept over her . . . oh God, she couldn’t be feverish, could she? Not today, when Wade had made up his mind to reach Tanga and be rid of the responsibility of her.
She had to hold on and not be any more of a burden to him than she had been.
“You okay, Eve?” he asked, and again his voice seemed hollow and far away.
She nodded. “I–I’ll have a little nap to make up for last night.” She slid down into a small heap, feeling as if her bones were dissolving.
“You do that, honey,” she heard him say. “When you wake up, we’ll be home and dry.”
Those were the last words Eve was conscious of, for when her heavy eyelids sank down over her eyes she fell into the depths of a fever from which she awoke a long time later . . . home and dry, indeed . . . in the cool, ivory-walled bedroom of her guardian’s house in Essex, where she had slept as a child and during the school holidays.
She awoke thinking she was home from school; her face was hollowed and her foxfire hair was cut close to her head and the red gleam of it was dimmed.
Eve had no recollection of Major Wade O’Mara, and was not to have any for a long time to come . . . jungle fever, trauma, exhaustion, had taken their toll, and she lay languidly in her fourposter bed at Lakeside and [145-146] believed herself to be recovering from a schoolgirl illness. The nurse who came and went in the lovely, high-ceilinged room didn’t make any attempt to put her wise . . . that she had been like this for five weeks, ever since they had carried her off the last plane from Tanga, before the town had been overrun by the rebel army.