Read Dangerous Waters Online

Authors: Rosalind Brett

Dangerous Waters

DANGEROUS WATERS

Rosalind Brett

 

To Terry, stranded in the middle of Malaya with an unknown Englishman, the only way of getting to her destination was to go through a local form of marriage ceremony with him—after which, he assured her, the marriage certificate could be destroyed, and no one the wiser.

If Pete Ste
rn
ham was right in thinking that things would work out so simply, Terry felt tempted to grasp in desperation at the opportunity—but what if he were wrong?

 

CHAPTER
ONE

YESTERDAY the river had been wide and dotted with islands, but during the dark hours the banks had slowly crept inwards towards the steamer, and dawn had brought the jungle
close
, on both sides. What had been a green fuzz in the distance had now become a wonderland of tree-trunks smothered with delicate fernery and vines, with great green arches overhead. Here and there an age-old tree had died and was slipping sideways towards the thick brown water. Buttress roots clutched into dark swamps, pink and mauve orchids covered the hairy
trunk
of a giant palm, and monkeys chattered above the pulsing of the steamer which was feeling its way to its destination, Vinan.

Enthralled, Terry had spent the whole morning at the low rail, watching the disintegrating blue mist, the creeping swamps, the comical little monkeys, the sudden masses of pale exotic flowers. Her white shirt clung where it touched, her skirt waist felt like a sweat band and her feet, in the coolie sandals she had bought in the market at Shalak, were burning. But heat and humidity were Malaya, and Vinan would be near the end of her journey.

She was on her way to Annette, probably not much more than a hundred miles from her sister at this moment. After the long sea trip, the short journey by road and two days on this steamer, a hundred miles or so was a bagatelle. From Vinan to Peng
h
u she would relax in the comparative luxury of a railway train.

Terry wiped sweat from her temple with a forefinger, looked along the deck-rail to where the Dutch doctor and his wife were seated in faded deck-chairs under an old green awning. Last night and the night before she had shared a cabin with the Dutch woman—a dour but not unfriendly soul who had no English. As Terry knew no Dutch and had not yet learned a single word of Malay, their only means of communication had been nods and smiles; Terry knew no more about the woman than she had learned on the day they embarked. The couple were destined for a jungle station where they would relieve another couple
w
ho had been called home.

The only other passenger was the tall, lazy-looking creature in khaki drill who spent most of his time with the skipper of the boat. You felt he knew Malaya inside out, was surprised at nothing and entirely incurious about his companions. In a way, Terry supposed, he was quite good-looking; that is, if you like your men about thirty, bronze-colored, long-limbed and loose-jointed, with planed-off facial bones, deep-set dark brown eyes and roughish black hair. Terry, herself mid-brown, blue-eyed and willowy, preferred fair men in the late twenties, like Roger Payn.

She smiled down at the treacly water. Roger would be glad to see her; she knew it. The letter she had received at Shalak had been full of woe because he dare not take leave to meet her, but he would be at the station in
Penghu
. She was longing to see him again, longing to discover whether he really was as attractive as she had thought him in England, when he had come to visit the family with Annette

s
fiancé
.

Heavens, what a year it had been, Annette

s engagement, Vic

s sudden decision to take an engineering job in Malaya, his plea that Annette would marry him at once and go with him, and her refusal to be hurried. Then Roger

s introduction into the Fremont family circle, and the two men

s departure. Annette had followed by air, six weeks ago, and now Terry was on her way to
Penghu
, to be her sister

s bridesmaid!

One thing was missing—one person, rather. Her father would have liked to be present at the wedding, and had been quite hurt by Annette

s refusal to marry in England, where he could have given the bride away, though he had agreed that marriage was not to be entered into precipitately. His wife, stepmother to Terry and Annette, had stated, very justly, that he wasn

t really fit enough to make a trip to the tropics; Terry could be spared from the family bookshop for a few months, but that was all.

By the time she was ready to leave England, Terry had become steeped in all kinds of knowledge about Malaya, there were Roger

s letters, full of his job as an agent for his father

s firm, a long epistle from Annette written only two days after her arrival, and earlier information from Vic, which had no doubt been varnished in order to entice Annette away from England. For there was no doubt about it; Annette, twenty-four, part-time model and part-time bookkeeper at the shop, had had misgivings from the moment Vic had enthusiastically announced his appointment at a fabulous salary to a post in Penghu. Still, she was in love with Vic, and Vic adored her; that was all that mattered, really. Terry, more or less heartwhole, gay and gently seeking, had the firm belief that love conquers all; which is a delicious conviction when one is twenty.

The thudding note of the steamer

s engines changed;
the
beat slowed and echoed along a river which had become a shallow, thirty-foot-wide green cavern. A small canoe appeared in front of them, then another, manned by wiry, dark-skinned men in sarongs. A couple of atap houses on stilts showed among the jungle green, and then came a clearing between swamps, where a banana-leaf hut stood at the end of a log jetty. A Malay wearing a sloppy green uniform appeared from the hut, came to the corner of the jetty and shouted.

The engines stopped, the steamer glided of its own momentum for several yards and a rope was thrown. But the little man on the jetty gesticulated excitedly, and the tall man, Pete Sternham, came to the rail to talk with him, in Malay. He turned and sent a deck-hand for the skipper, who rolled along the deck grumbling about

these villagers who think they

re so important.

With interest, Terry watched the altercation. The skipper, who was Continental in gesture and impatience, bawled answers to the little man, while Mr. Sternham, in khaki drill shorts and white shirt, stood by negligently with his hands in his pockets, elucidating when it was necessary.

By now, the Dutch couple had joined the group at the rail, and they apparently understood what was happening, for the man drew his passport from an inside pocket of the jacket he insisted on wearing in spite of the heat.

The tall Mr. Sternham came lazily to Terry

s side.

This is Vinan and they want our passports,

he said.

Will you get yours?


Is it usual?


No, but they won

t let us land till they have them.

Terry went along to the cabin, took her passport from her handbag and carried it outside. She handed it to the skipper, who already held the passports of the Dutch couple
and Pete Sternham. Not until he waved the bunch of passports at the official and swore engagingly was the rope pulled in, and even then only he was allowed to land. Magically, two more uniformed men materialized on the jetty. They each wore a brown leather belt from which dangled a long sheathed parang, the Malayan knife.


Better get along the deck out of the sun,

Mr. Ste
rn
ham
advised.

This promises to be a long wait.

Now that movement had ceased the heat was palpable. Terry sank into a chair under the awning and let the stifling atmosphere have its way. The Dutch husband and wife were back in their seats, and a seaman brought their luggage and placed it beside them. They were quiet and unsmiling, but apparently so accustomed to the leisurely life of the East that the hitch did not disturb them.

Mr. Sternham, also, was unperturbed. He hadn

t sat down—indeed, now Terry came to think of it, he seldom did sit about—but he was leaning back against the bulwark, his hands again in his pockets, his experienced and jaded glance on the clearing. No doubt he had had this before, too. Because she had nothing else to do, Terry wondered about him. Where had he come from, before embarking at Shalak? Some men you could weigh up in a glance, but this one remained a puzzle even after a couple of days on the same steamer with him. He had spoken a few times to the Dutch couple, in Malay chiefly, but to Terry he had addressed only a casual greeting, till he had asked for her passport a few minutes ago. He was English, she

d gathered, but one of those Englishmen who are not too keen on their own kind aboard.

Birds screeched, something bright-eyed and greedy popped a furry nose between the ferns and stared at the boat before darting away. There came the soft plashing of a paddle, a few grunted words as a canoe pushed round to the other side of the jetty and its occupants sprang ashore. Easy for them, it seemed. They belonged here.

A deck-hand brought coffee in thick cups and a dish of grey meat pies. Terry accepted the coffee; she was too excited to be hungry. The skipper had said that Vinan was the terminus of a minor railway line and that the train for Penghu was due to leave at six this evening—which meant it might get away at about nine. She had the whole afternoon to wait, but so had everyone else, apparently. There was no way out of Vinan, she thought, except by the new railway and the river, and here the river was too narrow and shallow for a steamer to proceed.

Half an hour oppressively ticked by, an hour. And then the skipper returned to the boat. He was streaming with sweat, his blue shirt looked a washed-out black, and he appeared to be on the point of explosion. He came straight across the deck to his passengers, took a deep breath, tapped a couple of passports on his clenched fist, and delivered himself.


Ladies and gentlemen, I must tell you! Never before has such a thing happened to passengers from my ship, but this time, I am assured, it cannot be helped. There is what they call
...
what is the word, my friend—catastrophe?

Pete Sternham nodded that it was.

A catastrophe!

the man bawled,

and now we have a state of
...
of
...”


Emergency,

supplied the deep, unhurried voice.


Yes, a state of emergency. Two days ago a train arriving here carried cholera victims—two of them. The villagers were so angry that before the train could leave it was wrecked, and the lines
torn
up by youths at several points. It was senseless! But one can understand the anger of people who did not wish for cholera. Unfortunately, they have eliminated the only means of transport to Penghu!

Pete Sternham had straightened from the wall and shifted round to the side of the skipper. He spoke to him in low tones, the skipper nodded vigorously and put the passports into his hand.

Mr. Sternham said,

Here you are, Dr. Van Breda. It seems a hospital boy has got through the forest with a jeep, and you

re able to leave immediately. It

s lucky you weren

t relying on the railway.

The Dutchman murmured guttural thanks and at once stood up and collected one of his bags. A member of the crew gathered the rest of the luggage, and Terry, standing now, was left with the two men. The captain mopped his wet brow, threw out his hands and departed.

Terry looked up at the unrevealing Mr. Sternham.

How do I get through to Penghu?

she asked anxiously.


I

m afraid you don

t,

he replied evenly.

According to the skipper you have to go back on the steamer to Shalak.


But I can

t do that! I

m expected in Penghu the day after tomorrow.


You

ll never make it, I

m afraid.


Where

s my passport?


Up there in the hut. It

s to be given to the skipper just before he leaves and not to be returned to you till you reach Shalak. Headman

s orders.


And if I refuse to stay aboard?


You

ll have to remain here in Vinan till the line is repaired. At the rate they move out here, it shouldn

t take more than six months.

Terry

s
small
face went pink, her eyes flashed a violet flame.


You

re a great help. How can I get to Penghu if I go back to Shalak? I was told this is the only route from Shalak.

He nodded.

Believe it or not, it

s actually the most direct. From Shalak you

ll have to go back to the coast, travel north by boat and find some sort of conveyance inland from Khota Mipis. It could take two or three weeks, unless you manage to get a seat on a mail plane; even then, it

ll be eight or ten days.

Terry tightened her red lips, shook her head decisively.

I just
have
to get to Penghu. My sister is getting married next week, and I

m all the family she has here in Malaya. Can I get word through?


No communication except by river. Sorry.

If he

d looked sorry she might have minded a little less, but his demeanor was that of a man who has often met and handled such situations regardless of people

s feelings. He was merely passing on the official instructions.


Were you going to Penghu?

she asked.


Yes. I

ll have to get a canoe and supplies.


May I
...
may I go with you?

For the first time he really looked at her, summed up her five feet four, her bloomy skin, the faint slant to her eyes, the naturalness of the careless haircut, her slimness in the blue blouse and white pleated skirt.


It

s a filthy trip. You couldn

t make it. Your best bet is to get a message through to your sister and go back to Shalak.

He paused.

Are you scared of being the only passenger, and just a girl? Yes, I suppose you would be.

He slipped his own passport into his pocket.

Look here, come up and see the official with me. You can

t do a thing without your passport.


Do you mean that
...
that if they agree you

ll take me to Penghu?


No,

he said flatly, and nothing more.

He leapt up on to the jetty and gave her a hand. The two policemen came forward and touched their knives, but Pete Sternham spoke to them and they stepped back, almost obsequiously. There was no door to the hut, and the little man in the green uniform was clearly visible as he sat behind an old desk. He stoo
d
up, bowed and answered questions. He came round the desk, indicated that they were to follow him and walked with short, pompous strides along the jetty and into the village.


We

re going to see the headman,

Pete told her.

He speaks English, but let me do the talking. These Malays are very good people, but the officials are sticklers for rules and regulations. Don

t hope for too much; they

ll probably insist that you go back to Shalak.


I won

t go!


You may have no choice.


You

re an Englishman! Can

t you do something?


Against the laws of the country where I earn my living? Here in Vinan I

m just one white man with no grouch. You

re simply a white girl in an unfortunate position. I

ll do what I can for you, but I can

t promise a miracle. The whole state of Vinan is alerted, and you couldn

t possibly get through without a permit.


Have they given
you
a permit?

He slipped it out of his passport and showed it to her. It was a letter of permission to proceed through Vinan territory and signed in a surprisingly good hand.


But if you can have one,

she said,

why can

t I?


That

s what we

ll ask. But you keep quiet!


All right, you don

t have to bark.

He lifted an eyebrow, but made no comment. They arrived at a square grey hut, the only one in the village with
stucco walls and a garden. Dimly, Terry was aware of towering palms and beaten earth, of bamboo houses on stilts, of staring women and children, of a woman beating corn to a flour in a stone bowl, of scrawny chickens and a thin, panting dog.

The little man knocked on a door and opened it, stood aside for Terry and Pete Sternham to enter. Then he closed the door, and they were left in a small dim room which contained a massive carved desk, three chairs and an old steel filing cabinet. Flies droned and a lizard ran up the wall.

Pete got out a packet of cigarettes.

Take one of these and try to look sophisticated.

He struck a match.

You shouldn

t be doing this journey alone, anyway. Your people must be crazy.

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