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Part One




“YOU know, Robert,” said Jane Morte reflectively, “I think there’s something very odd about this ship.”

Her husband, stretched out on a gaily coloured mattress on the sports deck, turned lazily.

“Odd, my dear?”

“Definitely. Don’t you agree?”

Morte sat up, thin hands clasped about his knees. “I suppose you’re still thinking of that poor invalid?”

“Surely,” persisted Jane, “you must be curious about her?”

Robert shook his head. “Not me! I’m on holiday. I’m finished with mysteries.”

“Ah!” Jane pounced on the word. “Then you do admit that Miss Harland is a mystery?”

Morte shrugged. Rising, he crossed to the ship’s rail. From this elevated position he could see the folds of softly hissing foam, curving back in long furrows from the prow of the Medusa.

How different, he mused, from the setting of their first sight of Miss Harland, twenty-four hours ago.

August had ushered in a winter of blue skies and warm sunshine, but with the first days of September the weather had changed. Then came the rains, deluging and buffeting the city, converting the streets to shining mirrors and laying a leaden dullness over the waters of the harbour. It said much for the M.V. Medusa that even on such a day she contrived to look like a newly painted toy as she lay at anchor in Darling Harbour. A ten-thousand-ton freighter, fitted with every possible comfort, she was taking twelve selected passengers. At their first view of the ship, so clean, so trim, so obviously disdainful of the weeping skies she was so soon to leave, any qualms Robert may have held about this sudden enterprise vanished.

His publisher, Hammond, was there to wish them farewell. A personal friend of the Medusa’s skipper, Hammond had been able to arrange almost last-minute bookings for the Mortes. Robert and Jane were early arrivals; it was almost an hour before the first of the other passengers made their appearance.

Then a long black car, luxurious to the point of ostentation, nosed its way to the wharf gates. A uniformed chauffeur alighted and held open the door. First to appear was a young man, broad of shoulder, lithe of step, and belted into a camel-hair overcoat. Raising an umbrella, the stranger assisted his companion from the car. This was a woman, befurred and bejewelled, a woman whose heavily made-up face merely emphasised her middle age. She walked stiffly on high-heeled shoes, clinging tightly to her companion’s arm as they negotiated the gangplank. As they moved along the deck, Jane had turned to Hammond.

“Do you know those people?”

“Only by hearsay,” the publisher had replied. “Mrs. Harriet Sheerlove and her nephew. Canadians—filthy with money and doing a world tour.” Then, noting the expression on Jane’s face, he added, “They won’t worry you, Mrs. Morte.” Robert remembered he had the impression Hammond was about to add something more; instead, he seemed to swing off at a tangent. “Captain Robertson tells me we’re waiting for Miss Harland and Dr. Kingsley. This woman’s a convalescent, I believe. Some months ago she was mixed up in a rather nasty car accident. It’s played the very devil with her nerves. The skipper tells me she’s taken the private suite with the glass sun-balcony.”

It was then that the second car made its appearance. Leaning on the rail, closing his eyes against the glitter of the sun, Robert could recall every detail of their first glimpse of Leila Harland.

Leaning on the arm of a middle-aged man, a figure walked the dock slowly and hesitantly, as though every movement was painful. A small grey figure buttoned into a thick coat and muffled about the face with a silken scarf. Dr. Kingsley—for even at this distance the man’s profession was stamped upon him—guided his charge solicitously up the gangplank.

They had cleared Sydney Heads two days later. A very quiet sailing.

That was twenty-four hours ago. Twenty-four hours in which their world was transformed from grey to blue, and soon the Queensland coast lay shadowy and vague on the far horizon. Robert had retired early that night. Next morning he rose with a feeling of freedom such as he had not known for years. He was on holiday, with nothing in his surroundings to remind him of the tedium of the typewriter.

But Jane, knitting industriously on the sun-deck on their first morning out, was not to be rebuffed by silence.

“Robert . . . ”

He sighed a little. “Yes, dear?”

“Do you really believe Mr. Redmond is Mrs. Sheerlove’s nephew?”

“I’ve never given it a thought, Jane.”

Mrs. Morte wound a strand of wool in her fingers. “He’s almost absurdly decorative, isn’t he?”

Robert turned toward the far end of the deck, where Earl Redmond lay sprawled in the sun, naked except for a pair of abbreviated shorts. Even at that distance, the young man seemed conscious of scrutiny. He stirred, then, waving a brown hand, rose to his feet. This sudden friendly salute surprised Robert. Since coming on board, Redmond had made little effort to cultivate any society other than that of his aunt.

Now he was walking toward them. Morte noticed he was carrying a book, the dust-cover of which was very familiar.

Redmond grinned as he approached. “So we’ve got a real live author on board?” He waved the volume. “That steward guy down in the library gave me this. You know, it’s kinda interesting.”

“I’m glad you like it,” Robert said civilly.

“Why not? I’m no highbrow,” said Mr. Redmond candidly. “Me, I’m a sucker for this cheap blood-and-thunder stuff.”

Jane said sweetly, “My husband has a very wide lowbrow clientele, you know.”

“Guess I just can’t wait to tell Hattie about this,” Redmond said. “She collects celebrities. Back there in Toronto, our place was always knee-deep in them.”

A shrill cry cut into the conversation. “Earl! You foolish, head-strong boy! Just you come and put on your robe at once. Do you want to catch your death by sunstroke?”

At the top of the companionway stood Mrs. Harriet Sheerlove, a thick towelling dressing-gown over her arm. Mrs. Sheerlove, her plump, aging body encased in green slacks, with a vivid yellow sweater outlining her ample breasts and thick arms.

“Earl!” she squeaked. “You come right here this minute!”

Redmond smiled with a flash of white teeth. “No, Hattie. You come here. I’ve made a swell discovery.” Robert watched as Mrs. Sheerlove pattered obediently across the deck. The brilliant semi-tropic light dealt harshly with this woman, revealing the obviously dyed golden hair and pitilessly outlining the mask of rouge and powder.

Redmond thrust out an arm and drew her into the group. “What d’you know, Hattie? Mr. Morte here’s written fifteen books.”

“Really, now!” But the ejaculation was mechanical. Jane, watching carefully, had the impression that the woman was abruptly disconcerted. Then she smiled, and her next remark came a shade too quickly. “There, now! I always said you were a Personality, Mr. Morte! I said it to Earl the first few hours out—didn’t I, Earl honey?”

Redmond was smiling. “You said you were sure the Mortes must be important, because they were so almighty high-hat to everyone.”

“Earl!” His aunt wheeled on him. “You just love to embarrass me, Earl! I could have died right there and then about what you said to Dr. Kingsley last night.”

“Gosh! When I was trying to be sociable—”

“Sociable!” Mrs. Sheerlove’s plump face was pink. Again she faced the Mortes. “Do you know what he did? Went straight up to the doctor and asked if Miss Harland would join in a game of progressive ping-pong!”

Robert said mildly, “Scarcely a remark in the best of taste . . . ”

“There—you see?” She flung this remark at her unabashed nephew, then addressed the Mortes again. “But the doctor took it so nicely. Just smiled and shook his head. But Earl should be down-right ashamed, making fun of a poor invalid like that!” Abruptly, Mrs. Sheerlove veered off at a tangent. “Have you seen her this morning?”

Jane put down her knitting. “Only for a few minutes. As I came out on deck she was sitting behind the windows of the sun-balcony. But the moment she saw me she moved away.”

Redmond said casually, “Kinda elderly dame, isn’t she?”

“I can’t tell you,” Jane said levelly. “Her face and head were covered entirely by a grey silk scarf.”

No one spoke. In the pause, the gentle throb of the engines and the rush of water beat strongly in their ears. The silence was broken by Mrs. Sheerlove, who held out the bathrobe almost appealingly.

“Earl, dear, do put this on,” she begged.

“Nuts!” snapped her nephew. “For Pete’s sake, Hattie—don’t fuss so! If you want to nurse someone, get yourself a post with that Harland dame.”

“Now, honey . . . ” began Mrs. Sheerlove, but the young man cut her short.

“What’s wrong with her, anyway? No one should be stuck away behind glass like a goldfish in a bowl. What that dame wants is open air and sunshine—and plenty of it.”

A voice spoke from behind them: “Perhaps I am more qualified to judge than you, Mr. Redmond.”

Dr. Ralph Kingsley had approached the little group so quietly that his appearance remained unnoticed until he spoke. Jane smiled and Robert nodded toward an empty deck-chair. Their acquaintance with this thin-faced, soft-spoken physician had begun on the previous evening, when they found him seated at their table. Kingsley apologised for the error, and later, in the lounge, this introduction led to further conversation. The Mortes had liked Dr. Kingsley on sight. There was about this man a quiet assurance that commanded respect, an authority leavened with gentle humour and good breeding.

Kingsley was smiling as he seated himself.

“I’m rather glad you brought up the subject,” he said genially. “Because there’s nothing at all sinister in my patient’s seclusion. Quite recently she was concerned in a car accident which scarred her face. In consequence, she has had to undergo plastic surgical treatment. All this has left Miss Harland in a highly nervous condition. I prescribed this journey as a means of recuperation. Under the circumstances, a crowded passenger ship was impossible.”

The Canadian coloured; then abruptly he rose and ran his fingers through his thick hair. “I’m hot as a bride’s breath!” he announced. “I’m taking myself into the pool.”

They watched him as he moved down the companionway. Mrs. Sheerlove, after a quick, nervous, almost apologetic nod to the others, followed him. Jane broke the silence.

“This trip takes five weeks, I believe?”

Robert looked at her in surprise. “Yes, but—”

“Oh, I’m not being irrelevant,” she assured him. “But I’m just wondering if I can take five long weeks of Mr. Redmond!”

Kingsley produced a pipe and tobacco-pouch. “You’re going to be spared that, Mrs. Morte. Those two people are leaving the ship at Paradise Island, in the Barrier Reef. They’re staying a month before completing a tour of Australia.”

Robert frowned. “Then this freighter is stopping off the Queensland coast?” And, as Kingsley nodded, he went on, “But surely that’s most unusual?”

“Not with the Medusa.” The doctor puffed for a moment. “Ever heard of Arthur Burton?”

“Of Burton and Skinner?” Robert nodded. “Of course. They’re the largest firm of manufacturing engineers in this country.”

“They also happen to own the Medusa. At the moment, she’s laden to Plimsoll line with Burton cargo for Liverpool.” A gust of wind scattered sparks, and Kingsley cupped his hands around the bowl of his pipe. “Burton and Skinner are holidaying on Paradise Island with Burton’s daughter, his secretary, and some kind of foreign man-servant. We’re laying off to pick them up.” He paused and glanced at Robert in a half-puzzled way. “But surely you know all about these arrangements?”

Morte said drily, “My wife and I left in rather a hurry. I was writing up till the last minute. I was literally a writing-machine, geared to turn out so many thousands of words each day. Each hour of my time was planned to produce the maximum of writing energy—until a week ago.”

“And then the machine broke down?”

“Oh, no,” said Jane Morte suddenly. “Margaret Vane did that.”

Kingsley’s tone was puzzled. “I seem to have heard that name somewhere . . . ”

“One of the best-known radio actresses in Australia,” Morte explained. “Margaret Vane was playing lead in my serial, The Golden Serpent. A week ago the studio rang me to say that she’d had a complete mental collapse and had to rest for six months in a nursing home. As the serial was tailored for this woman’s personality, it had to be stopped.” Robert smiled. “It also meant that, for the first time in years, I was free from my most binding commitment.”

The ship’s bell chimed eight times and the sound roused the doctor.

“Ever been up this way before?” he asked.

Morte shook his head. “There’s never been time. A visit to the North Queensland coast and the Barrier Reef Islands was something that was always just ahead.”

The doctor shook his head slowly. “Don’t expect too much, Morte. Oh, yes—the islands were glamorous enough once. But that was long before the place became a fashionable tourist resort.”

Jane Norte asked casually, “You seem to know the coast, doctor?”

“Pretty well. I was stationed at Cairns during the war.” He rose and picked up his sunglasses: “And now I really must take a look at my patient.”

Max Afford



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