It was well into the afternoon when
they reached the deserted village, a settlement of huts within
a broken-down sapling fence, where the foliage was much trampled,
as if a number of people had passed this way.
Eve was cautioned to remain among the trees while the Major, shotgun at the ready, went into the compound and made a search of the huts, most of them having been destroyed by fire so that only the palmwood supports remained.
It was at a bend of the clearing that one of the huts stood in dilapidated isolation, with its dark mud-constructed walls and roof thatching still intact. When Wade returned to where Eve was waiting he briskly informed her that the village was quite benighted, as if everyone had fled away from a sudden attack, which had probably taken place at least a month ago.
"One of the huts is in fair condition, so we're going to rest there," he said, shooting his cuff and taking a look at his watch. "We've walked far enough and it will soon grow dark."
"We're lost, aren't we?" she said carefully. She didn't want to sound as if she were blaming him, not when most of the fault weighed on her conscience. "It's all right, I'm not going to have hysterics, but I would prefer to be told the truth."
"Hopelessly lost," he confessed. "These jungle trails are all so much alike without a map or a compass, and we probably branched off unaware some miles back. [78-79] It's a good thing the village is deserted--you can't always be sure if the people are rebel sympathisers, and it would appear from the state of this settlement that the people were burned out and chased off into the bush."
"They weren't killed?" she asked, looking about her and seeing the thickening of the shadows, and hearing the rising crescendo of bird calls and the thrashing sound of monkeys moving high in the trees. A parakeet squawked and her nerves crawled.
Wade shook his head. "They may have been driven off by mercenaries, but there's no sign of any kind of slaughter. They may have even burned the huts themselves and gone off in search of a safer location. Anyway, we'll take a chance and sleep beneath a roof tonight. Come along, Eve, let's try and make ourselves comfortable."
"C'est la vie," she smiled shakily, and followed him across the compound on sore and aching feet. How she would have loved to plunge her poor feet into a bowl of water into which a handful of seaweedy salts had been scattered, but instead she had to stand on them in the doorway of a smelly hut while Wade directed his torch around the curving walls. She had to force herself not to cry out when something scuttled across the floor and a heavy army boot crushed the thing to atoms.
"I-I think I'd prefer to sleep in the open," she said. "This place isn't exactly cosy, is it?"
"The trouble is, Eve, I think it's going to rain. I felt a few spots as we crossed the compound and when it rains out here it means business and we'd be soaked to the skin in a matter of minutes. Better to rest here for the night."
"So long as we can have some light." Eve shivered and [79-80] peered into the dark corners of the hut, her nostrils tensing at the smell of smoke, dried mud and rotting leaves that pervaded the place. Wade had dumped his knapsack on the floor and was investigating various objects which had been left behind in the evacuation of the village . . . some abandoned spears with lethal-looking tips, a gourd which emitted a liquid sound when shaken, a wicker fishing-basket with a keen, glinting look in his eyes.
"It could be that we aren't far from a running stream," he remarked. "If so, Eve, we may get ourselves some fish for breakfast."
"That will be nice," she smiled at the prospect of running water rather than the food. She watched as he took the stopper out of the gourd and put the open top to his nostrils, taking a deep sniff at the contents.
"Honey-beer--intoxicating as the very devil!"
"Are you going to drink it?" she asked.
"Not on your life, lady. I don't fancy a day-long hangover. A long cool Lion beer is more my mark."
"Thank goodness for that!" The prospect of camping in this mud hut was bad enough, but Eve had momentarily quailed at the image of a drunken soldier sharing it with her.
He shot her a quizzical look. "Getting drunk isn't one of my vices," he reassured her. "I like to gamble now and again, and love nothing better than a keen day at the races, but I've never seen much sense in getting a thick head, and a beery pot-belly."
She smiled and ran her eyes down the lean length of him--formidable, and packed with the strength and will to survive against very long odds. They were lost [80-81] in the jungle, but for tonight he'd make the most of this ramshackle dwelling of thatch and hardened mud, its roof woven from big leaves matted over bamboo lathes. Wade's aura certainly wasn't tranquil, but to Eve's eyes he was a bulwark between her and all those hazards that took on a nightmare quality as the darkness crept over the surrounding jungle. He was so sure and capable, and she took hope from the very look of him, especially when he emptied the gourd of beer into the tall shaggy grass outside the hut and remarked that if they were lucky enough to be close to a stream, the gourd could be used for water.
"Nothing ever throws you off balance, does it, Major?"
"You think not?" His eyes quizzed her in the deepening dusk light. "Just as well to go on thinking it, lady. I wouldn't want to disillusion you."
"It isn't fair to harbour too many illusions about people," she said.
"A wise remark which you probably culled from a Shaw play, for he was quite a cynical old guy in his way."
"It isn't cynicism, it's sense." Eve tilted her chin. "I can't imagine that you harbour any illusions about--women."
"You'd be surprised, honey."
Her skin warmed at the way he almost purred that word. It would have been wiser to discontinue the conversation, but she couldn't fight the curiosity which he aroused in her . . . in that side of him that wasn't all soldier.
"Even you, Major?"
"Even I, so try not to shatter my illusions."
[81-82] "They must be very fragile?"
"Spun-glass." He had unstrapped his knapsack and taken from it the waterproof pouch in which he kept his matches and candles. He lit one and held it so the shadows played over his face, giving him a rather devilish look. "I wonder if in normal circumstances we'd talk like this, eh? Right now you'd probably be getting ready for a date at the Ritz Grill or the White House restaurant, slipping your slim legs into sheer hose, worried about what to wear instead of looking like a weary, worn doll I've pushed to the very edge of exhaustion. Yet you stand up to me, don't you, lady? You back-answer me, instead of scratching my eyes out for getting you lost in this neck of the woods. Where did you learn to be so gritty?"
"I-I went to a good finishing school," she said, being flippant because it didn't do to let anything he said get too embedded in her emotions.
"It could have been Sandhurst from the way you're taking all this," he quipped. "They'd have presented you with a jewelled Sword of Honour. I think you get it from your father, eh?"
She nodded. "I very much hope so--as your son probably gets his drive from you."
"Aren't we being nice to each other?" he mocked. "D'you reckon this was the local courting hut?"
"I-I hope not." She backed away from him, and immediately he broke into a gruff laugh.
"Ease up, little one. I'm just damn glad that you aren't a dumb bunny, for amusing as they are, it would be hell right now to be stuck with a gal like that."
"I thought men liked the dumb and compliant type of female?"
[82-83] "It's a myth, Eve. Men like common sense, especially in a tight spot. That's how Mr. Churchill won his war--the women held on and didn't panic, even when the roof caved in and they went on knitting socks under the kitchen table. Quite a people, the Cockneys."
"They're your people, aren't they?" she said.
"On my mother's side. She worked a vegetable barrow on the sunny side of the Chapel Street market in Islington. Tall, vital brunette, with plenty of nerve and lots of friendly chat. Went and married a nogood Irishman with too much charm, who ran out on her and left her with me to bring up. She did okay, until she caught a bad chill one winter day and never recovered from it. I was nine years old and placed in a State home, which is not to be confused with a stately one, and needless to say when the time came I took to the army like a stray duck taking to a millpond. It's all I've ever known--for a good long time, anyway."
"What about--I mean, there's your wife." It dismayed Eve that she always seemed to trip over her tongue whenever she mentioned his wife.
"Sure, but married quarters aren't bad," he drawled. "Soldiers move around a lot, especially ambitious ones who want stripes, and then crowns on the shoulder."
"Did she never mind your way of life?" Eve asked tentatively.
"Mind?" There was a crystal hardness to his voice. "When a woman marries a serving man she had to accept his way of life--it's as simple as that."
It sounded uncompromising and far from tender, and Eve say the adamant set to his jaw as he went across the hut and affixed the candle to one of the fire stones, so that the flame was out of the draught of the doorway.
[83-84] "Let's get ourselves settled," he said curtly. "I'd better get some water boiled for our tea before the rain comes down. You lay out the blanket and take a look at those few cans of food we've got left. I believe one of them has pork and ham in it, and we might as well make a fuss of ourselves--I meant to have got you to Tanga, damn careless fool that I am!"
"No, you can't take all the blame, Wade." Eve caught at his arm before she could prevent herself and there in the flickering shadows cast by the candle they looked at each other . . . she could feel the tension biting into him, and a dark groove had fixed itself between his eyebrows. "I disobeyed an order of yours, Major, and that's why we're in this predicament. I bet I'd be in the glasshouse if this were our barracks."
He smiled briefly. "Female discipline bears no relation to the masculine sort. I can't expect you to think and react like a recruit being trained for the regiment--you're far too female for that."
"All the same, I bet you'd like to give me a good hard shake."
"Sure," he agreed, "until your milk teeth rattle. But what a good thing for you I've had a kid of my own and know how mettlesome the young can be--you'd like him, Eve. He's a good-looking young pup--takes after my mother for his looks."
"Oh, I'd have said--" She broke off almost shudderingly, seeing beneath the dark stubble, the sun-lined skin, the erosion of his own youth, a face that made her heart give a jolt. She felt as if she had just saved herself on the edge of a precipice, and she moved back carefully away from the precipitous edge and bent over his knapsack, taking a deep breath of recovery as she took [84-85] out the army blanket and began to unwind it.
Eve was glad when he went outside and began to gather wood for a fire. Oh Lord, how easy for someone inexperienced to suddenly feel the potent, overpowering charm of a man so much older, who had seen and done things she could only guess at. He had killed, made love, known what it was like to have a child of his own placed in his arms. Eve saw the need to fight against the attraction he had for her, but how was she going to manage it, thrown together as they had been, in the primitive heart of the African jungle?
She flattened the blanket out carefully on the floor she wished she could have swept and scrubbed. There were webs up there in the bamboo lathes of the ceiling, and she knew there were things crawling about in the dark corners of the hut. With resolution, she shut her mind to them and set about laying out biscuits on the plates and opening the tin of pork and ham. It smelled good and she felt her stomach react hungrily, but until Wade brought in the tea she left the meat in the tin and fitted the lid back on, just in case a fly or a crawly came to investigate that delicious aroma.
She went ahead to the knapsack, for in her exploration she had come upon Wade's shaving-mirror and was curious to see how she looked after a day of scrambling about in the jungle. A scarecrow, that was the only word that adequately described her appearance. Dark red hair tangled, a scratch on her forehead where a branch had whipped at her, eyes enormous and filled with a hundred uncertain questions. As for her clothes--they were just about fit for the rag-bag! Oh well, it couldn't be helped, but she had to make her hair a bit tidier before sitting down to supper.
[85-86] Untying her plaid bundle, she found the comb, a good tortoiseshell one, thank goodness, and began to tug it vigorously through the sweat-knotted tangles . . . the days of luxury shampoos in a Bond Street salon seemed a thousand moons ago. There she had sat, an idle, smartly clad, bored young debuntante, glancing through a magazine and swinging a well-shod foot . . . undreaming that one dusky night she would find herself sharing a primitive mud hut with a black-haired mercenary twenty years her senior, who wouldn't hesitate to put a bullet through her head if they were fallen upon by bloodthirsty rebels.
Eve stared into her bundle and her fingers closed on the expensive crystal atomiser she had been unable to resist, through Wade had told her not to lumber herself with anything that wasn't necessary. But then Major O'Mara most definitely wasn't a woman!
With a tiny smile she squeezed the atomiser and felt the perfume cool and fragant against her skin . . . mmmm, that was lovely, irresistible, a breath of civilization in the midst of the untamed. Feeling a little tidier, she went outside the hut to see how Wade was coping. The kettle was bubbling away on the homemade hob, but Wade was nowhere in sight and Eve felt a clutch of alarm, her own hand pressing itself to her throat.
What an idiot she was! No one would carry Wade off without one hell of a struggle, so he had probably gone scouting for more wood, and was checking to see that it was safe to camp here for the night. The rain was coming down a little harder now, hitting against the hot fire stones and making them sizzle. The rain was welcome against Eve's skin, and way up there [86-87] in the density of the sky she could see unbelievable groupings of stars. When the rain increased they would be blotted out, but for the moment she could enjoy their beauty . . . she tensed as she caught the sound of someone moving in the bush that crowded to the back of the hut.
No deep voice answered her, and Eve felt a prickling of her scalp, a sensation of fear like cold bony fingers creeping down her spine. She also smelled an aroma that blotted out the Tabu perfume she had sprayed on herself . . . it was a powerful smell of an alley where cats had freely roamed. It wafted towards Eve and she felt herself gagging, she prepared to flee into the hut . . .
"Don't make a single move!"
Wade's voice was so soft it was almost a whisper, but there was a command in it which she instantly obeyed, freezing into stillness as his tall figure advanced across the compound, with the Breda in a firing position.
Then the rustling sound came again and the next instant that strong ammoniac smell was gone, and Wade was between Eve and whatever lurked in the bush.
"A female leopard on the hunt," he said quietly. "I'm glad you had the nerve to stand perfectly still. Those creatures react very swiftly, and mostly out of fear of the unknown. Your scent was probably as acute to that cat as hers was to you."
"Thanks," Eve said shakily. "I hope I don't smell like a back alley where all the cats have been prowling."
He laughed in his brief way and lowered the Breda. Then he suddenly leaned close to her and sniffed at her hair. "That isn't cat--smells more like the perfume counter at Woolsworths."
[87-88] "It covers up some of the sweat," she said defensively.
"Putting on perfume in the jungle!" he jeered. "Is it for my benefit?"
"No, it isn't! My morale needed a boost."
"What's it called? Seduction?"
"No!" She moved sharply away from his taunting tallness, and went to pass him, only to be blocked by his suddenly flung out arm.
"Scents usually have names, don't they? Put me wise."
"It's called Tabu, if you must know. Now let's have supper."
"Tabu, as in don't touch or the gods will send down thunder?"
"It's raining harder and we're both getting wet--and I'm hungry."
"Don't try anything on with me, Eve, for this is no garden of Eden we're alone in." He grated the words. "We're both made of human stuff, but we've got to keep this strictly on a rescue operations level so that there'll be no regrets on your side or mine when, and if, you make it home to the boy-friend. Understand me?"
"I--I wasn't even thinking about you when I applied the perfume." She was shocked by what he had said, and then she felt her temper flare and she had to say things that would hurt him if possible, the way he had hurt her, turning something innocent into the act of a wanton. "As you've pointed out, Major O'Mara, you're old enough to be my father, and I'd want my head tested if I started throwing myself at you! Sweaty, unshaven, with the brutal tongue of a trooper! [88-89] I should hope I was a bit more fastidious, thank you!"
"That's more like it, girl. You keep on hating my guts and we'll get alone just fine." He gave her a slight push toward the hut, for the rain was whipping at them, plastering their hair into wet jags and running in drops down their faces.
"Don't shove me!" Her eyes flamed into his. "Chauvinistic brute!"
"Right, if you want to get wet, that's your lookout." He swung the kettle off the fire and went inside with it, leaving her to stand fuming in the rain hungry for her supper, but mortified by his assumption that she had scented herself like a tart in order to arouse his sensual feelings. Oh, damn and blast him, why hadn't she let him make room for her on the plane forcibly, so that she could have flown to Tanga with the nuns? Now she was benighted with him in the middle of a jungle, and she had to endure the rough edge of his tongue, and his insults.
Eve blinked the rain off her lashes and felt her shirt clinging to her shoulders . . . letting herself get soaked like this was ridiculous, and she marched into the hut, where an aroma of strong tea mingled with the smell of the pork and ham, which she had sliced and laid on the plates.
"We don't have to quarrel." He indicated that she sit down on the blanket. "Come on, where's your smile?"
"Seems like I've lost it," she rejoined, and she sat down as far away as possible from his lounging figure.
"I hope you haven't lost your appetite." Wade held out her plate and she accepted it with a mutter of thanks. They settled down to eat and drink, while [89-90] the rain hissed on the thatch roof above them, and the trees thrashed and whined in the rising wind outside in the wet night.
"A bit of luck finding this rondavel," he drawled. "It wouldn't have been pleasant having to spend the night in the rain. I have a packet of fruit and nuts if you'd like some?"
"No, thanks." She gazed across the hut away from him. "I've had all I want."
"Sulky females are a pain in the neck." He lounged back on his elbow and picked biscuit crumbs off the blanket. "I can't make you out. Surely you're woman enough to know that this isn't exactly the place or the time to try a bit of teasing? I might be a lot older than you, but I'm still capable."
"I'm sure you are," she said coldly. "But it never entered my head to tease you--I felt scruffy and sticky and scent's a good cover up. They used it enough in the old days, when bathing wasn't all that popular."
Eve still wouldn't look at him, but she could feel his eyes upon her profile, intent and steely.
"Is it possible you're so innocent?" he drawled.
She scorned to answer him, tilting her nose and giving her attention to the persistent sound of the rain. Suddenly she shivered and without comment he arose and placed across the doorway the rather battered leaf-woven screen meant for that purpose. It was primitive but it served, shutting out most of the draught that had been blowing in. The hut had been stuffy at first, but now Eve was glad that the cold had been blocked out.
"That better?" he asked, starting to roll himself a cigarette, the shadows made by the candle flickering [90-91] over his lean face and making his bones seem harshly defined. In order to save a match he bent to the candle flame and lit his cigarette, and Eve resented his air of being at no one's beck and call, least of all a woman's. But she had to accept his orders, and his sardonic reprimands . . . even those she hadn't earned.
"The real trouble with you," he said, "is that you're tired and edgy and just a bit scared."
"Not of you," she assured him, and watching his keen enjoyment of his after-supper smoke she wished she had accepted his offer of a few nuts and raisins. She curled down on the blanket with her head at rest on her plaid bundle, feeling herself go taut when Wade came and stood over her.
"No, not of me, you've too much spirit for that." He gestured towards the doorway and ash fell from his cigarette. "It's all that jungle out there and how we're going to find our way out of it. Look, I'm going to make a suggestion that you may not care for, but I think it's a good one. I believe we're fairly close to a stream or even a river--now listen, every now and again you hear a tree crash in the rain, don't you?"
She nodded and wondered why his suggestion, when it came, wasn't going to appeal to her . . . was it going to be so awful? Was he going to leave her here and go off on his own to look for a way out?
"I--I know I hold you up in these sandals," Eve was up on her knees and her eyes were pleading with him, "but don't leave me here, please! I'd be terrified--"
"What are you talking about?" He leant down and took her by the chin, his eyes searching her scared face. "Leave you here--no, you've got it all wrong, lady. Those trees you hear falling are coming loose from the [91-92] soil, their roots being the sort that travel along the ground instead of under it and some of those trees are all but hollow. If we're near a river than I'm suggesting that I build us a boat and we continue our journey by water. We're bound to land up--"
"A canoe." He knelt down facing her and his eyes were eager. "I have the panga and the blade is a good sharp one, so I should have no problem shaping out a canoe and making a paddle. It will be better on the water than slogging through the jungle, and there's always a food supply on hand in the shape of fish. The only problem is that it would probably take me about a week to tackle the job, and we'd have to stay here in the rondavel--take a chance on it."
Eve stared at him and could feel her heart pounding. "You're serious, aren't you?" she said.
He nodded. "To be quite frank with you, lady, I don't think you'd last out very much longer in the jungle. When your repellent runs out, you'll be bitten unmercifully, and in those sandals you're feet will soon be wrecked. If I take the time to make us a canoe, you can ride on the water, you can eat fish and keep up your mineral strength--fish is a marvelous food, probably the best, even catfish, who look as ugly as sin but make darn good cod-like steaks, baked over a fire. Well, what do you say? Are you with me?"
"Have I a choice?"
He smiled at the edge of his mouth and had a look of cool-eyed recklessness. "Not really, Eve. For your own sake, you've got to fall in with my idea."
"Even though it will be risky to stay on here?" she asked.
[92-93] "Even so."
Eve let her gaze rest on his hard, determined jaw. She felt his vigorous strength of will . . . his ability to survive against alarming odds. He was right about her, a few more days like today in the jungle and she'd keel over, a bundle of helpless misery he might just manage to carry on his back for a while.
"All this depends on whether we're near a river," she said. "What if we aren't?"
"Then we have no choice but to trek on."
"Then let's keep our fingers crossed, Major."
He nodded and for a moment his teeth were bared in a half-savage smile. "If they taught you prayer at that mission, then say a prayer tonight, before you drop off to sleep. Say a couple, one for each of us."
"Don't you ever pray?" she asked.
"Me?" He ground the stub of his cigarette into one of the empty plates. "The angels don't listen to wicked men like me, lady." And it was as he spoke that a resounding clap of thunder shook the hut, and shook loose something from the overhead lathes. It fell near Eve and ran across her legs, trailing a long thin tail. She shrieked and cowered away, while Wade leapt in pursuit of the rodent, swinging aside the woven screen so the palm rat was able to streak out into the pelting rain, lit by vivid flashes of lightning that illuminated the tall shapes of the trees.
"Oh God!" Eve flung her hands over her face, not so much from fear of the rat but from her own terrified reaction. She had never been one of those females who swooned at the sight of rats, bats or mice, for she had been brought up in the country, and the stables and attics of her guardian's house were harbours for all sorts [93-94] of things that crept and crawled and went bump in the night--Lake House was even supposed to have its own ghost--but just now she had felt her nerves give way and it had frightened her.
She couldn't stop shaking, and abruptly Wade pulled her against him and pressed her head to his shoulder. "I know, kid," he murmured, "you're having a rough time for the first time in your life, but you're doing fine, believe me. Rats aren't pretty, but they're less dangerous than the two-legged variety of bête noire."
"I--I'm not usually so jumpy, a--and I've seen rats before," she said raggedly. "You must think me an awful baby."
"I think you what you are [sic], a young girl caught up in a tricky situation you've never had to face before." He held her and rocked her a little, and right through her shirt Eve could feel the hard warmth of his hand.
"I think I'd go crazy if you weren't here with me," she said, then she jumped again as there came another loud peal of thunder followed by the nerve-wrenching crash as a large tree suddenly lost its grip in the mud and keeled over . . . like a felled giant.
"Want to try a jigger of whisky?" he asked. "I've a small flask of it and I've been saving it for an emergency."
"But this isn't an emergency, Major. I'm just being--childish."
"Well, I fancy a snort, and I insist you join me." He let her go, giving her shoulder a reassuring pat . . . being fatherly, she told herself, even though she felt reactions to his touch that were not those of a daughter.
"I never realised that the jungle could be so--so fearful." She crouched there with her arms about herself, [94-95] while incessant peals of thunder rumbled around the hut, and a cataract of rain drummed down on the roof. Lightning ripped like claws at their doorway and through the chinks she saw a reddish flare as a tree or a bush was struck, breaking into flame that was just as quickly smothered by the downpour.
"The jungle's very much alive, Eve." He unscrewed the flask and measured the spirit into the tea mug. "Anything alive can cause fear, anguish and alarm--here, drink this and let it settle your nerves."
She accepted the mug and took a tentative sip at the whisky. It was strong and she had never cared for the taste, but she knew it would help her get rid of the shakes. He nodded and gave her an intent look when she handed him the empty mug. "It's smoothing out the creases already, eh?"
Eve nodded and watched him toss back his own measure of whisky. His black hair looked as if it hadn't seen a comb for days, and his unshaven jaw gave him the look of a convict on the run. Eve suddenly laughed and couldn't stop herself.
"That's better," he drawled. "I can deal with the giggles, but a woman's tears are someting else."
"You wouldn't be so amused if you knew what I was thinking," she said.
"You're dying to tell me, so why not indulge yourself?"
"You look a fearful roughneck, Major O'Mara. I'm wondering what you look like when you've had a shave."
"I may give you that pleasure in the morning, young Eve." He replaced his flask in the knapsack and began to brush out the blanket so they could settle down for the night. "Tomorrow, all being well, we'll take a look [95-96] around our zona inexplorada and see what it has to offer."
He gnawed a moment on his lip with his firm teeth. "Let's hope I'm right about that river--I've got a feeling I am, for it isn't unusual to find a native settlement within reach of one. Offer up a small prayer to Ngai, just to be on the safe side."
He rolled the mosquito netting around her, for suddenly she had grown very sleepy and was drowsily aware of him leaning over her for a moment. "Sleep deep and forget everything," he advised. "Make pretend you're in your flounced fourposter at the family mansion."
"I'd really need a vivid imagination for that." She smiled, the lids of her eyes weighted with exhaustion. "I never even shared my fourposter with a replica of Humphrey Bogart, though I thought about it after seeing Casablanca."
The white teeth glimmered above her in the dark face, and already half-asleep, she wasn't certain if he brushed at the tumbled hair on her temples.
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