A Respectable Woman – Chapter One

A Respectable Woman

Chapter One

After the scorching heat of the day, evening brought a cooling breeze to the baked earth of the Kola Mission Station. Most of the African workers had retired to their huts and their cooking fires after the labours of the day. The missionary, a mild mannered, tolerant Scot with a wry sense of humour, had also retired, after evening prayers, to his plain, comfortable living room, where he found his daughter calmly loading a rifle.
Reverend Alex Maclay, unsurprised after living with Philippa for sixteen years, lifted one eyebrow, a trick which Philippa always swore he must have practiced.
“Going out, Philippa?”
Philippa Maclay turned with a smile. “Nbego just brought a message from Khama’s kraal. His son’s leg is infected again.”
Reverend Maclay visibly searched his somewhat erratic memory. Philippa, whose memory was razor sharp, said kindly:
“The leg wound.”
“Ah, yes. He is the lad who keeps going out hunting with his friends and reopening the wound.”
“Yes. This evening, I am hoping to dissuade him from doing that.”
Reverend Maclay looked at his daughter. “Don’t shoot him,” he begged. “We have precisely seven converts at the moment and they are all from Khama’s kraal.”
“I never shoot people,” Philippa said placidly.
“So far,” her father said. “That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t!”
Philippa laughed affectionately. “And you have had a long day. Go to bed, Papa. I may be late back.”
“I suppose it’s too much to ask that you take one of the boys with you?” her father said resignedly.
“I’ll be perfectly safe, Papa,” Philippa said, not answering the question. She knew that her father would have noticed the omission, but he had long since stopped trying to instil some notion of the dangers of the African night into his daughter. Philippa had been born and bred in the fever-infested lands of the Zambezi River, and she had grown up knowing how to take care of herself. She would have been insulted at the idea that she needed an escort for a two mile journey to the neighbouring village. There was nothing that one of the African men could do to protect her that she could not do for herself.
Philippa liked driving at night, and she enjoyed being alone. If she had taken one of the men, they would have felt obliged to talk to her, and Philippa liked the silence of an evening drive, over tracks she knew as well as her own kitchen. Above her, as she drove the ox cart through the gate of the mission compound, the velvet blue of the African night was brilliant with stars. A full moon washed the track through the bush towards Khama’s kraal with a soft white light, and Philippa completed the journey quickly.
Her patient was one of the younger sons of the Mashona headman, a youth by the name of Kreli, who had suffered a leg wound while attempting to kill a young lion some weeks earlier. Philippa had gleaned much of her medical knowledge from books and journals, and had added to it from her experience of life in the bush, with no doctor for many miles. She ran a clinic once a week, to which the tribe’s people brought their minor ailments, and she had taken care of their own people on the mission since she was ten. She was popular with the Mashona people, because she made no attempt to turn them away from their traditional shaman medicine. She knew they still resorted to the witch doctors for many ailments.
Philippa’s mother and sisters had been dead for many years, victims to the poor climate and dangerous conditions of their African home. She was well aware that her father often worried if he was doing the right thing in keeping her with him. It did not worry her. Kola was her home, and she would have fought any attempt to send her away.
It did not take her long to reach the cluster of huts which formed the kraal of Khama, the local Mashona chief. The Maclays, unlike many other missionaries, enjoyed excellent relations with their Mashona neighbours, and Philippa had grown up with the boys and girls of Khama’s kraal. The chief was elderly now, and was the proud father of a crop of children. Kreli was one of the youngest, a headstrong boy of around fourteen or so, still uncertain enough to be rude to Philippa about the recurring problems with his leg wound.
“It was the dressing you put upon it,” he said, sneering for the benefit of his grinning friends who formed an audience as Philippa bathed the leg and inspected it by the light of several flaring torches, and an oil lamp of her own.
“It was the strain you put upon it,” Philippa retorted as fluent in his language as in English. She rummaged in her medical kit. “I’m going to have to stitch it again. After today, you will stay off it for a week, and if your mother tells me you have been up and running about again, I will have your father send you to the mission for any further treatment!”
“You expect me to skulk at home like a girl because of this scratch!” Kreli said loftily.
Philippa inserted the needle, and Kreli flinched.
“If this wound becomes further infected, oh brave and noble warrior,” Philippa said mockingly, “you will lose your leg. It will be hard for you to demonstrate your bravery then to these chattering apes.” She indicated her audience with a sweep of her hand, and then cut the thread neatly and inspected her work with approval. “Now you will rest, and you will allow your mother to change the dressing as I instructed her, and I will come back in a week.”
When she had finished dressing the wound, Philippa repeated her instructions to Kreli’s grateful mother, and then returned to her ox-cart, ceremoniously escorted by two men holding torches. She allowed Kreli’s elder brother to help her up into her seat.
“You have travelled alone, little rabbit,” he said disapprovingly, using the name the tribe had called Philippa during her childhood.
“I have a gun, my brother – and I am under the protection of your father. I am safe here.”
“You should not travel alone,” he said again. Philippa, sensing that he was reviewing whom he could send back with her, said again:
“I will be safe, my brother. Goodbye.”
She flicked her whip and set off smartly before he could protest any further. Khama’s family were becoming more protective of her as she grew older. Philippa supposed that as most of her childhood friends were now married, they were wondering when Reverend Maclay would find a husband for her.
The path back to the mission ran through low scrubby bush land, ideal country for a lion or a leopard to ambush its prey. Most of the animals would be at the river drinking by now, but Philippa knew better than to drop her guard, and she drove, as always, with her gun across her lap.
Even so, the shock of the sudden roar startled her. It came from the bushes up ahead, and was accompanied by a crashing of bushes, the agonised scream of a dying animal, and a yell of shock and pain from a man.
There was no time to wonder about the man’s identity. Philippa jumped down from the cart, and ran through the bushes in the direction of the sound. As she came out onto the intersection with another track, she saw the lioness, its great golden eyes staring straight at her as it dragged at the corpse of a horse, trying to pull it into the bushes. A few feet away, a man lay bleeding on the earth. Philippa raised her gun to her shoulder and fired. The lioness lifted her head from the horse and gave a menacing roar. Philippa reloaded swiftly, and fired again. This time, the beast gave a roar of pain as the shot grazed its shoulder. Philippa was reloading again, when it dropped the horse, turned and ran back into the bush.
For a moment, Philippa stood still, trying to catch her breath. Then she turned to look at the injured man, clearly visible in the brilliant moonlight.
“Don’t move,” she said, “until I’ve had a chance to look at you. And that will not happen until I am very sure that she isn’t lying in the bushes waiting for the chance to return to her dinner!”
Purposefully, she set off into the bushes, deliberately making as much noise as possible. She fired another shot into the air, and was rewarded by the sound of the lioness crashing ahead through the bushes. The animal would not go far. She knew that once the humans were out of the way she could come back and retrieve her meal. What she must not find was an injured man lying there. Philippa swung the rifle over her shoulder and went back to inspect her latest patient.
The man was on his feet, ignoring her instructions, carefully inspecting the damage. The lioness had clawed him once down his side, opening three gaping wounds, ripping through shirt and jacket with chilling ease. The man stood awkwardly, feeling round his ribs, wincing at the pain. Probably bruised, Philippa thought, clinically. Possibly broken. It was the first time she had been able to see him clearly. He was European, probably English, Philippa thought, remembering the shout he had given when the lioness attacked. He was above average height, and younger than she had expected. Most visitors to the mission were older men, and the occasional younger priest or teacher did not resemble this man in any way. A soldier or an adventurer, but certainly not a man of God. What on earth was he doing out here?
She went forward into the clearing.
“I can’t see her,” she said. “Still, she’ll probably be back for the rest of your horse shortly, so it’s best if we move on. You seem to be more or less in one piece and I can patch up the damage at home. I take it you were heading for the Kola Mission?”
“Yes. Yes, I was. Is that where you’re from?”
She had been right, he was English. Philippa liked his voice.
She stepped forward into the moonlight, fully visible for the first time. “Yes. I’m Philippa Maclay, the missionary’s daughter.”
The man regarded her in complete and total astonishment. “Good God!” he said faintly, in the unmistakable tones of the English upper classes.
Philippa could not resist it. “No, she said sweetly. “You’re confusing me with my employer.”
Captain Christopher Clevedon acknowledged to himself that he had, with all his experience of Africa, allowed himself to drift into a daydream, which had almost cost him his life. Very seldom at a loss, he was temporarily unable to think of any reply at all to this astonishing female who had appeared so unexpectedly out of the darkness.
Fortunately, Philippa Maclay did not seem to require any response. She helped him, wincing, into the serviceable ox cart, which she was driving. She appeared to be entirely alone and also appeared to be completely unaware of anything strange about this meeting. Kit Clevedon, slightly dizzy from pain, sat beside her, flinching at every rut in the track, and wondered what on earth a girl of her age was doing out in the dark with no escort and armed with a gun.
Kit and his companion, Lieutenant Charles Rogers, were on extended furlough from their regiment after three years of fighting the Xhosa on the eastern frontier. Kit had become accustomed to Africa during that time, of the sudden violence of its climate, the savagery of its creatures and often of its people. He was a professional soldier, had joined at seventeen, and now at the age of twenty-six was a Captain, hoping for further promotion. When the opportunity presented itself, he could afford to pay for it, and remained popular with his less fortunate messmates by freely admitting, that the purchase system, while it benefited him, did no good for the army as a whole. He was well liked by his senior officers who considered him a good steady man under fire, intelligent and resourceful; his only fault being a tendency to levity, which no amount of discipline could cure.
Riding along through the moonlight, Kit had been about some of his fellow officers, who seemed to him little more than overgrown schoolboys at times. He liked them well enough, but he had little in common with them. He had a few like-minded friends in the regiment, but was otherwise happier in the company of his men, a foul-mouthed, lewd, pernicious bunch of thieves and rogues with whom he felt entirely comfortable. More often than not, when they were in the field, he spent his free time around their cooking fires, laughing at their jokes, learning their songs and flirting with their women.
He was cynically aware that this behaviour would not have been considered acceptable in a man without his family background. A less well-connected officer might have been taken to task for his taste for low company, but Captain Clevedon was the second son of the Earl of Alverstone, the brother of Viscount Linford and what would have been unacceptable in another man was seen as mere eccentricity in him.
By choosing an army career, Kit had fulfilled the traditional role of a second son. The army was full of second sons, searching for glory and promotion and to make a name for themselves. It had not been necessary for Kit to do that. Thanks to the will of an indulgent and childless uncle, he had lands of his own, and enough money to be able to retire to his country seat in Bedfordshire and live the life of a country gentleman. Kit had chosen the army, not as a noble career about which he had dreamed as a boy, but as the only way to finish his minority as far as possible away from his father and brother. He suspected that his father had consented to this wholly unnecessary decision for much the same reason. At seventeen, Kit had grown too tall for his father to thrash, and even Kit’s mother, who loved him dearly, had agreed that some sort of distance had better be placed between them.
At the age of twenty-one, when he came of age, Kit had always intended to go home to take up his inheritance. But by the time he reached that age he was already a veteran of service in Ireland and of the Sikh war in India, and was fighting on the eastern frontier of the Cape, a bitter, long drawn out African war, trying to teach a draft of new recruits how to survive in bush conditions. His Bedfordshire estates had seemed small and confining and much less important than the work at which he had found he excelled. Kit had scribbled a note to his mother asking her to install a reliable agent to manage his estates, and had planned vaguely, to go home sometime soon to look things over for himself. In fact, he had made the journey just once, in five years, preferring to spend his leave time with like-minded officers on hunting trips into the interior.
He was an experienced hunter and an excellent shot and had enjoyed his weeks in the bush but he was very aware that he and Rogers had miscalculated this time. The regiment was sailing for England and they were travelling to the coast where they could get passage back to the Cape from one of the Portuguese ports. He had realised, too late, that their oxen were too tired to make the journey with the speed required. The load of skins and tusks carried in the second wagon were of secondary importance to Kit, who did not need the money, but vital to the impoverished Rogers, to pay his overdue mess bills. It was Kit who had thought of the mission station. They were bound to have cattle, which could be exchanged for Kit’s tired beasts, and Kit was very willing to sweeten the deal with the remainder of their trade goods and with hard cash if necessary. With fresh oxen it would take only another week to reach the coast.
Rogers had offered to accompany him to the mission station, but Kit had refused. Partly, this had been because he was concerned about the attitude of their Mashona bearers, who were becoming increasingly resentful of the exhausting pace Kit was setting to the coast. Kit knew they would forgive him when they saw the bonus he would pay them for getting to the coast on time, but in the meantime they were not happy, and he did not wish them to take off with the skins and tusks. However, he was also hoping, by using the excuse of Rogers awaiting him at their camp, to avoid socialising with the mission family.
Generally, Kit avoided mission stations. He had, in his career in the colonies, developed a deep suspicion of organised religion and its effects on local populations. He believed that civilisation was best served in small, manageable doses, and was privately convinced that in many cases, it was debatable as to who should be civilising whom. But he knew that in remote regions like this he could rely on the missionary for hospitality and help, if it could be given, and to enable them to reach their destination on time he was willing to set aside his prejudices.
Kit estimated that they must be a mile or so from the mission. He had not seen the lion coming. All he had felt was the rush of movement to the left of him, and then a huge weight, all heat and foul smelling breath had smashed into him. The horse must have died almost instantly. Kit was glad. It was a recent purchase and he was not much attached to it, but he had seen animals wounded by lions, and knew of the agony. Only a month earlier he had been obliged to shoot one of his best oxen after a night attack, and he was glad not to have to repeat it.
Kit glanced at his silent companion. She was very young, barely out of childhood. Sixteen, perhaps, he thought, and a young sixteen compared to the painted dolls he met at social functions in England, tripped out annually to be inspected, wedded and bedded by any eligible man who was prepared to provide for them. There was nothing ladylike about Philippa Maclay. She was of medium height for a girl, dressed in a plain dark dress, with a fringed shawl about her shoulders. She drove the little cart with the same competence she had shown with a rifle, and she displayed none of the shyness or embarrassment that he expected from a young, unmarried woman thrown together with an attractive young man.
Kit knew he was attractive. Not a vain man, he judged his attractiveness purely on his ability to attract women, and he had found no difficulty in that over the years. Never once tempted by marriage, he knew that one day he would find a suitable wife, to breed an heir. He did not look for more than that from a marriage, and wanted a wife who understood that. He had seen, more than once, the unhappiness that could result from a union where one party wanted more than the other could give, and Kit had never met any woman with whom he did not expect to be bored in a year. When he had finished his army career, he would allow his mother to find him a suitable bride from his own class, who understood how these things worked, and take his pleasure, when he needed to, from elsewhere.
He glanced again at his companion. She had not spoken since they set off, but surprisingly he was not finding the silence uncomfortable. Kit was not used to silent women, and found it surprising in this untidy, confident girl. She had spoken to him as an equal, like another man. Now that his mind was moving that way, he looked at the girl again. Assessing her more carefully, he realised that she was already beyond childhood. Her dress was old and shabby, and too tight for her, pulling under the arms and straining across her breasts in a way that suggested she had filled out a lot since she bought it. Kit, who had been without a woman for a long time, looked thoughtfully at those breasts. Her figure was good and she sat straight-backed and almost elegant, her hands competent on the reins.
“If you wait until we get into the house,” she said serenely, “you’ll be able to see better.”
Kit jumped, and flushed. Fortunately she was unable to see him clearly in the moonlight. They were approaching the mission station, a moon washed cluster of thatched buildings, surrounded by a low fence. One of the mission workers, a young black man, was opening the gate.
“I’m sorry,” Kit said. “I have to admit you’re something of a surprise out here.”
Philippa Maclay swung down from the cart with lissom grace and the flash of long, brown legs. “Oh, I’m something of a surprise anywhere,” she said over her shoulder, and went to meet her father.
Reverend Alex Maclay was a pleasant surprise. He was a Scot, with a soft highland accent, and seemed to accept his unexpected visitor as calmly as he accepted his daughter driving through the dark completely unescorted. Kit introduced himself formally, and allowed his host to seat him at the table.
“It’s lucky you were passing, Philippa. How was your patient?”
“Arrogant and bad tempered,” Philippa said, gathering together clean bandages and hot water. “It would heal well enough if he’d stay off it. He thinks it a sign of manhood to be out hunting with the other boys the second it eases.”
Reverend Maclay grinned. “How’s his manhood feeling now?”
“A little dented, but it will recover. Rather like Captain Clevedon here. Kesha, will you get the brandy, please.”
The young black girl, who appeared to be the Maclays only servant, brought the bottle and a glass to the big wooden table at which Kit had been seated. Kit glanced around the room. It was well lit by lamps, a big square room which combined dining and living area. A curtained doorway on the far side presumably led to the Maclays sleeping quarters. Another was probably the kitchen.
“Are you the only two Europeans on the station?” he asked.
“Yes.” Philippa knelt beside him. “I’d try the brandy if I were you. This is probably going to hurt.”
Kit clenched his teeth as she began to peel his shredded shirt away from his wounds, delicately picking all traces of the cloth away from the gashes to avoid infection. It did hurt, but he had known worse. She was a lot gentler than most military surgeons. As she worked, he looked down at the kneeling figure. She was still very young. The lamplight revealed the clear, unlined skin of youth, too brown for fashion, achingly appealing to a man newly aware of his want of a woman. Her hair was a rich dark brown, straight and shining, and she wore it in a long thick plait, which hung to her waist at the back. It was coming loose in little tendrils around her face, a well shaped oval with a straight nose, generous mouth and huge expressive brown eyes. She was too young, under normal circumstances to appeal to him. Kit liked his women older, and experienced, with a clear understanding of his needs and his situation. Moreover he was accustomed to women who lived by certain social rules and he found her free and easy behaviour faintly unnerving. Still, his body, ignoring the finer requirements of his brain, found her nearness disturbing.
When she had finished, she bathed the wounds, prodded him until he yelped, diagnosed cracked ribs and bound him up. An old shirt was found for him, and since it was too tight he left it unbuttoned. Finally, seated in a wooden rocking chair with a glass of brandy, he was able to relax a little, and to explain his mission to his host.
Reverend Maclay accepted his request placidly. “Yes, we can provide a change of beasts. A horse too, since I imagine you’ll be needing one.”
“I’ll pay for the horse. My thanks, Reverend.”
“Are you planning to travel soon? You should rest for a few days with those ribs.”
“I wish I could, but I can’t stay more than a day or so. We’re due back in Cape Town – the regiment is going home to England, and I need to be on that ship. Perhaps I can send a message to my companion and he can meet me here tomorrow. That will give me a full day and night to rest. It’s all I can spare.”
“That ought to do it,” Philippa said, getting to her feet and heading to the kitchen.
“Are you saying I shouldn’t travel, Miss Maclay?” Kit asked dryly.
“I’m saying you’re as stupid as Khama’s son. I’ll start dinner.”
While she was gone, Kit spent his time in conversation with his host. Reverend Maclay, a burly, bearded man in his early forties, had brought a wife and five children to Africa, and had lost all but one in the service of his God, to fevers and snakebite and childbirth in the damp, unhealthy climate of the Rivers. He and Philippa were obviously close, and Kit, whose family relationships had never been simple, was slightly envious of their casual but evident affection. He watched the girl as she moved about the room serving dinner for them, cheerfully competent, shabbily dressed and probably wholly unaware of the nature of his regard. She was not beautiful, in the way that Kit’s sophisticated tastes required, but there was something about her that he found surprisingly attractive.
”How old is Philippa, Reverend?” he asked when she had left the room.
“Sixteen,” Maclay said. “My last lass, and she’s strong and healthy. Only…” He smiled slightly, ruefully, as if needing to confide in someone. “To be honest, Captain, I’m not at all sure what to do with her. She hasn’t a vocation for this work, unlike her mother and sister, and she is not a child any more. Girls grow up quickly out here. One day, she’ll be left alone, and I don’t like to think of it. The Society would help, of course, but…”
He broke off and looked at Kit in acute embarrassment.
“But presentable white women are rare out here,” Kit said sympathetically. “It that what worries you?”
“I’m sure I’m worrying about nothing. She’s a good girl, and knows right from wrong. If only I could be sure they’d find her work that she could enjoy.”
“You’re worried she’d take off on her own and fall into the wrong company?” Kit thought it a valid concern. Most of the young officers of his own regiment would look long and hard at a girl like Philippa, and he suspected she would improve with age. It would not take long, however virtuously she had been raised, for temptation to come within her reach.
“No. At least, I don’t think so. Och, I may be making too much of it. But there are times I think I’d feel safer if she weren’t so venturesome! But she’s full of interest and curiosity and into everything!” He took a bite of his meal and pulled a wry face. “She can’t cook either. People have criticised me over the years for not sending Janet and the children home to England. I know there are those who consider I killed them. But there was nowhere for them to go, Captain, and that’s the truth. Neither Janet nor I have any family living that we knew of, and although the Society might have helped find the girls places at schools, they’d have been charity institutions, and rightly or wrongly I thought them better off here. I’ve never regretted that decision until now, but with Philippa, I sometimes wonder what will become of her. There’s no money.”
The girl came back into the room and seated herself at the table. Observing the silence she looked around for a moment and then laughed.
“Papa, you’ve the subtlety of a buffalo! You were talking about me, weren’t you?”
She glanced at Kit, who was chewing valiantly on his meat, and said kindly, “Don’t eat it, Captain Clevedon, if it upsets you. Our African cook has gone off on one of his drinking spells but he’ll be back tomorrow, I should think, and given a day to sober up, you ought to get an edible meal tomorrow evening.”
“It’s very nice,” Kit said hastily.
She stared at him with wide brown eyes. “No, it’s dreadful!” she assured him earnestly. “I can’t cook, and can’t seem to learn. I tell Papa that perhaps he should take over the cooking and I’ll take the services, but he points out that I’m no good at that either. And I can’t sew, which is why poor Papa’s shirt is so badly mended, because none of the Africans can sew either.”
Kit was much entertained. “What can you do?”
She turned those ingenuous brown eyes on him, and Kit wondered just how innocent they actually were.
“We haven’t really decided. I can sing, of course, but that isn’t of much use out here with no audience. I’m a good mimic, which is also not a skill, which helps my father much. I can read and write and speak three European languages and about a dozen native dialects, which is, for once useful. Beyond that, I’m quite without assets.”
Kit laughed, assessing her thoughtfully. She was still a child, of course, but she was growing up, as her father had ruefully pointed out, very quickly. Her eyes, large and well shaped and brown, were her best feature. But despite her shabby clothes and tomboy manners, nobody could have called her plain. Her manner would need improvement if she were ever to fit in with her contemporaries in England. He suspected that she did not care what people might think about her. She had obviously never been taught, as other girls were, to lower her eyes, and speak softly, and move gracefully. But he thought that if her hair were properly cared for and styled and her skin was less robustly tanned, she might prove something of a beauty. Unexpectedly, he very much wanted to see her in a year or two to find out if he had been right.
“Are you all right, Captain?” Philippa asked him sweetly.
Kit realised he had been staring again. “Yes. Sorry. I was miles away.”
Her intelligent brown eyes told him exactly what she thought of that. With one thoughtful glance, she began to talk of other things. Clearing the half full plates, she chattered of the mission station, their failures and successes, made him smile about some of their odder converts, and ignored her father frowning her to silence. Eventually she rose to go to bed, placing the large, earthenware coffee pot on the table before she left, and sweeping a few crumbs away with absent minded efficiency. Kit caught her hand as it passed him, and she paused and looked down at him.
“Thank you, Philippa,” he said simply.
She smiled. “You’ll be well enough to travel in a few days, Captain,” she said serenely. “Once you’re back with the regiment, you’ll soon pick up again.”
He had the oddest feeling she knew more than he had intended her to. Had she sensed his carefully concealed desire? If she did, it did not seem to trouble her. What an odd, unsuitable way for a girl to grow up. It had made her a strange creature, half wayward child and half adult woman. With a nod, he released her hand and she left the room.
Kit followed her with his eyes. Abruptly he said:
“You should get her away from here, Reverend.”
“I know,” the Scot said. “I’ve known it for a while. It isn’t fair to keep her here, is it?”
“No. Is your charity school in England the only option?”
“I suppose I might try to find her a place at another mission station – perhaps at the Cape. At least in a rather safer place as this. The problem is that I don’t want to lose her and I doubt if she’d want to go. But I must not be selfish.”
He thought about it for a moment, his face bleak, and then shook himself and turned to Kit.
“We have a guest hut. I’ll escort you there in a moment and we’ll send to your friend at first light. Don’t worry about it, Captain. If Philippa has decided you’ll make it back to your regiment in time, you’ll do it for sure. My daughter is never wrong.”
With a grin, Kit got to his feet and followed his host out into the night. He spent an uncomfortable night with his ribs aching and the bandages itching abominably, and rose with the dawn to find the Mission already stirring, and Reverend Maclay reading the morning service to a handful of people in the little church. Kit did not disturb them but met them as they emerged into the early sunlight, and at Maclay’s invitation, accompanied them to their house for breakfast.
Sounds from the kitchen seemed to indicate the return of the errant cook, and Philippa disappeared behind the curtain, apparently to torment him. Kit listened to her light, teasing tones, interspersed with the surly growls of the African, and smiled.
“She’s very much at home here,” he said.
“It is the only home she has ever known,” Maclay said. “And she has no wish to change it.”
“Perhaps it would be kinder to leave well alone,” Kit said quietly. “Why make her unhappy before she needs to be?”
Maclay glanced at him and smiled. “You are a wise man for one so young, Captain Clevedon. And you speak of unhappiness as if you understand it.”
“Doesn’t everyone, to some extent?”
“Oh, I think it depends. I was unhappy when my wife and children died. But otherwise, I think I am lucky enough to be a very happy man.”
“That makes you both lucky and rare, Mr Maclay. Perhaps your faith gives you that.”
“Perhaps. You don’t share it, I assume. We didn’t see you in church this morning.”
Kit smiled. “Where I grew up, Mr Maclay, church was more a matter of which hat to wear and whether one was seated in the correct pew. I’m not sure that religion came into it much. Sherry with the vicar before lunch was a more valued ritual.”
Maclay laughed, not appearing to be in the least offended. “It sounds very familiar,” he said, smiling at his daughter as she came back into the room. “Where are your family from, Captain?”
Kit hesitated briefly, covering his indecision by taking bread from the bowl that Philippa held out to him. He was actually enjoying the company of these people and did not want to feel the withdrawal that revealing his lineage often caused. But they would find out sooner or later and it would seem dishonest to deliberately conceal it.
“My family home is in Worcestershire. I myself have lands in Bedfordshire, but I also spent a lot of time in London.”
“Are your parents still alive?” Maclay asked.
“Yes, sir. I am close to my mother, although I have little contact with my father and my brother.”
“Are they landowners?” Philippa asked, lifting the big coffee pot to pour.
Kit took it from her and poured the strong liquid into the three cups. “He is an Earl,” he said.
There was a short silence. Then Philippa said placidly:
“Then you can definitely afford to pay for the horse.”
Kit laughed. Maclay said:
“Philippa,” in gentle reproof. The girl lowered her head in mock obedience, and then swept Kit a laughing glance from under her lashes. She did not look in the least repentant.
“It is sad that you should be estranged from your family,” Maclay said regretfully. “But perhaps you were never close in the way that we are.”
It was what Kit had been thinking. “I don’t think our worlds are the same,” he said slowly.
“I imagine not,” Maclay said placidly, and to Kit’s relief, dropped the subject. When they had finished breakfast, Maclay and Philippa both had work to do, and Kit, more tired than he had expected, was content to take a chair onto the shady veranda of the small house with one of Maclay’s books to await the arrival of Charles Rogers. Around him the mission station bustled into life, and Kit sat in unaccustomed peace and allowed his thoughts to wander.
He had not wanted to talk about his family, especially to the Maclays. How could they, in their innocent pleasure in one another, possibly understand the complex and bitter emotions of a family like his? What could he tell them that they would understand?
His mother had carried five children, of whom only he and his brother, Gerald had survived. Fifteen years separated the two brothers, and they had absolutely nothing in common. Gerald, Viscount Linford had been the first-born child of a loveless marriage between two people who had been matched by their parents like two thoroughbred horses. Kit’s father had already buried one young wife, who died trying to give him the son he needed, and had raised no objections to the match with Lady Clarissa Flood, the youngest daughter of a friend of his father’s. There were twelve years between them, and what Lady Clarissa had thought of the marriage Kit did not know. Perhaps, in his younger days, the Earl had possessed some charm or good looks to attract her. By the time Kit was born, these had long since vanished. The Earl had turned into a morose, licentious drunk, whose infidelities to his patient, long suffering wife had become a byword.
Kit’s mother never spoke ill of her husband. She had nothing bad to say, either, about her eldest son, although Kit was convinced that she did not like him. At forty, Gerald had never married, and his way of life suggested that he would find a wife an unnecessary encumbrance. Kit supposed that Lady Alverstone could not possibly know about the young girls Gerald bought, although his drinking and overeating were hard to hide. He was overweight, unhealthy and seemed to have inherited all his father’s worst characteristics, and as he was growing up Kit had learned a healthy respect for his temper, and had developed the art of staying out of the way when either his brother or father were in drink or generally enraged.
It was to his mother that he turned for affection. Lady Alverstone had retained her beauty into middle age. She lived a very separate life to her husband, often remaining in London, busy with her various charities, while he enjoyed the sporting life at his country estates. Viscount Linford, too, had his own establishments, and the family met only for Christmas at Alverstone, their principal seat in Worcestershire, or in London during the Season, when they might find themselves invited to the same parties.
On his last trip to England, Kit had taken rooms for his own use. He preferred to have an apartment to return to rather than make use of a hotel, or stay at his father’s London house. There was always a danger that he might encounter either his father or his brother there, and although he loved his mother dearly, he would not pretend an affection he did not feel for either of them. He had been sixteen the last time his father tried to thrash him, and the encounter had convinced his mother of the wisdom of his decision to join the army. Since there, he corresponded frequently with Lady Alverstone, and had not exchanged so much as a note in years with his father or brother.
There was a stir of arrival and Kit awoke from his reverie to see his own ox wagons pulling up outside the mission gates, and Charles Rogers jumping down anxiously, his eyes searching the compound for his injured friend. Kit got to his feet and joined the Maclays who had gone to the gate to greet their guest.
They talked for a while, of business matters, of the oxen and the horse and of the price to be paid for them. Eventually the Maclays went off to instruct their people about preparing the new oxen, and left Rogers with Kit on the stoep.
“How are you really?” Rogers asked, eyeing his friend with some concern. “It sounds like a near miss.”
“The closest I’ve had,” Kit admitted wryly. “If it hadn’t been for that child, I think I’d be dead.”
“Yes. Interesting girl.”
Kit grinned. “Does she shock you, Charles?”
“She scares me,” Rogers said with a grin. “You’ve only to look at her to see that she takes no nonsense from anybody. How old is she – eighteen?”
“Exactly. Can you imagine her at twenty? Pretty creature, though. Not my type – I like ‘em sweet and gentle – but I can see she’d appeal to a lot of men. The adventurous type, Kit – like yourself.”
Kit laughed. “Too young for me,” he said. “Although I can see the appeal. Besides, she’s a missionary’s daughter. That’s an awful lot of virtue to get through.”
“A lifetime’s worth. It might be worth it, though, if you had the time.”
“We don’t,” Kit said. “My plan is to rest today and then set off early tomorrow. With fresh beasts and fewer stops, I say we can make it in four days.”
“If you decide to do it, Kit, then that’s what you’ll do,” Rogers said philosophically. Philippa Maclay was walking towards them across the compound, with all the grace and energy of a young lioness. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and tell the bearers. They’ll want to make the most of their rest time.”
Philippa eyed his retreating back as she climbed the steps onto the stoep. Kit rose, and she grinned and waved him back into his seat, taking Rogers’ vacant chair.
“That had all the appearance of an escape,” she said.
“He says you frighten him,” Kit explained.
“I frighten a lot of people.”
“You scare the hell out of me,” Kit said frankly.
She regarded him thoughtfully. “Would you be offended if I called you a liar, Captain Clevedon?”
“Lord no – call me whatever you like. You are fairly formidable, Miss Maclay, you have to admit. I don’t know many girls of your age who drive around unescorted at night saving people from lions.”
“I don’t know many people daft enough to daydream their way into a lion ambush,” Philippa said serenely. “I may seem eccentric to you, Captain, but I assure you out here I am nothing unusual.”
“It’s a pity I can’t take you to London. You’d cause a riot there.”
“I’ve been to London,” she said unexpectedly. “I didn’t like it.”
“The weather leaves a lot to be desired,” Kit admitted, looking around at the vast expanse of blue sky. “And in London, if there is sun, you’d be expected to carry your parasol and keep your skin fair.”
She turned her brown face to him, laughing. “Exactly. What a great waste of time it all is.”
“Have you ever thought, Miss Maclay, of what you’d like to do if you ever left here?”
She grinned. “You’ve been listening to my father. He spends every waking moment worrying about what will become of me if he dies, or whether he should try to make provision for me so that I don’t waste my youth in this wilderness.”
“Well – perhaps he has a point.”
“If you think that, you’re as blind as he is,” the girl said. “I love it here, Captain – this is my home. I don’t pine for people of my own kind, because my people are here. I don’t care about the fever and the danger and the discomfort, because they are all I’ve ever known. My father won’t send me away, whatever his fears, because he and I both know that I’d be miserable anywhere else.”
Kit smiled. “So if you were a boy, you’d be a missionary like your father?”
“Oh, no. If I were a boy, I’d be an explorer, or a trader, or a hunter. I’d travel about in an ox-wagon, and not see a white man for months, and feel no loss. I’d see parts of the world I can only dream about, and write books about them to try to tell other people what they were missing.”
She spoke lightly, but her words touched an echo in Kit’s heart. He did not reply immediately. Then he said seriously:
“Then I think it is a pity you were not born a boy, Miss Maclay, because you surely can’t do those things as a girl.”
“No, of course. One day, you know, I’ll have to find a compromise and live with it. But I don’t plan on doing that until I absolutely have to. Until then, I’ll stay with my father.”
“Don’t you want to marry one day?”
“Don’t you?”
He laughed. “Touché! It was a very impertinent question, I know. Yes, I expect I’ll marry one day. My mother tells me it is my duty.”
“That sounds very dull. I doubt if I’ll marry. Who would have me? My background might tempt a missionary, but he’d be put off by my unsuitable behaviour, and I would appall any other man! I’ve no money and no charm and very few looks to speak of, and unless I could find a man who values the ability to speak other languages and a strange sense of humour, I think I’m doomed to spinsterhood.”
She spoke cheerfully. Clearly the thought did not trouble her. In some ways, at least, she was still a child. No thought of her own sensuality had yet touched her, and Kit wished he had more time here. It might be fun to shake that cool, detachment a little. But his place was elsewhere, and it was unlikely he would ever see Philippa Maclay again.
“You’re very thoughtful, Captain,” Philippa said.
“I was thinking about you,” Kit said. “It occurs to me that you don’t seem to have taken your own feelings into account. Don’t you think one day you might fall in love?”
Philippa laughed and stood up. “Very likely,” she said dryly. “But I expect I’d recover soon enough. I’ll see you later, Captain.”
Kit watched her walk away across the compound, and was inclined to smile. She was a baggage but he could not help liking her and he wished her well. He suspected that at some point Philippa Maclay would come to terms with the idea of taking a husband. Most girls did. But he wondered in some amusement what kind of man her father would find to take on a half wild, highly educated girl with the manners of a boy. Whoever it was Kit had some sympathy for him.

Want to read more?  Buy the book on Amazon kindle here.

WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux