Read Tabitha in Moonlight Online

Authors: Betty Neels

Tabitha in Moonlight (19 page)

Mr Bow smoothed his beautiful white moustache. ‘Tell me about Chidlake,' he invited.

When she had finished, skipping the more unpleasant aspects
of her relationship with her stepmother and Lilith, he said gently: ‘H'm, yes—you have been dealt a backhander by fate, have you not, Tabitha? A great pity.'

‘Yes, but don't think I'm sorry for myself, Mr Bow.'

‘I don't, my dear young lady, that is why I like you.' He added, ‘Marius is never sorry for himself either—I like him too.'

‘He's very nice,' said Tabitha inadequately while she tried to think what Marius could possibly have to be sorry about. ‘I think I'll start getting the tea, because Hans and Smith are on board and I daresay they've fallen asleep.'

Tea was a protracted meal. Bill Raynard had slept for most of the afternoon and had wakened refreshed and in a mood to tell amusing stories, of which he had an endless number. Tabitha, sitting beside young van Steen, tried not to watch Lilith, sitting so close to Marius with a charming air of ownership. And once when she looked up, it was to see Marius looking down at his companion with a look of amused tolerance and something else in his face which she was unable to define. Perhaps it was love, she thought miserably; she knew so little of it that she doubted if she would recognize it if she saw it.

They packed up to go shortly after tea, because it was getting on for six o'clock and it would take two hours to get back to Veere. They all stood around, arguing lightheartedly as to who should go with whom. Tabitha took no part in the discussion and when she heard Lilith say: ‘But you promised me, Marius,' wasn't in the least surprised when he asked her carelessly if she would mind going back with van Steen. But even as she opened her mouth to agree Mr Bow said forcefully: ‘In that case, I shall stay here. I refuse to sail without Tabitha—she's the only one who knows how to deal with my cramp.'

Tabitha succeeded in not looking astonished. To the best of her knowledge Mr Bow had never once complained of the cramp; she remained silent waiting for someone to speak. Muriel solved the problem by saying:

‘Bill and I will go in Jan's boat if he'll have us as well as Mrs Crawley, then you can have Hans and Smith and Knotty, and Lilith and Tabby to crew, Marius.'

Marius said lazily: ‘Just as you like—it really makes no difference to me.' He turned to Mr Bow. ‘Sorry I overlooked the cramp, Knotty.' His voice was dry.

They all made their way to the jetty where the two boats were
moored and Tabitha was vaguely surprised to find Lilith beside her, for she had seen her only a few minutes previously, in deep conversation with Muriel. Her stepsister drew close to her and said in an urgent whisper: ‘Tabby—Tabby, do help me!'

Tabitha felt surprise and then concern; she asked quietly: ‘Are you all right, Lilith?'

‘My sunglasses,' said Lilith. ‘I've left them where I undressed—you know, behind those trees. There was a little patch of soft grass and I put them down because I thought they'd be safe. Now I've got a simply awful headache, I can't bear it without them—I shall be sick if I don't wear them. If I could just get aboard and sit quiet for a bit. Tabby, will you get them for me?—it'll only take a few minutes and no one's ready to go yet.'

Tabitha said nothing; it was true, no one seemed ready to sail as yet. There would be plenty of time and it was only a short distance. She gave Lilith her beach bag to hold and asked: ‘Did you undress to the left or the right of that little patch of grass in the trees where we all were?'

Lilith looked vague. ‘Oh, I can't remember. How mean of you to bother me when my head's so bad. You'll find it easily enough and you'll see the glasses—they've got white rims.'

Tabitha turned away and started to walk back to the fringe of trees behind the stretch of sand. She looked round once. No one was looking her way and they were already going aboard; she would have to hurry, although she didn't think Marius would mind waiting for her. She reached the trees and found the little grassy space in their midst where they had dispersed to dress. There were, she saw with faint unease, a great many little mossy patches. She started to search, starting on the left and working round, clockwise, and found nothing. She started once more, for it seemed to her that she had been only a few minutes, going more carefully this time, and drew a blank once more. She was just turning away when it occurred to her that Lilith might have found some other grass patch other than the one she was in. She cast around her and discovered a vague path running deeper into the trees, and presently another stretch of grass. She searched this one too, and because she didn't like to admit defeat, searched again and then went back the way she had come, going slowly in case she had missed the glasses on the path somewhere. She was uneasily aware by now that she was keeping Marius waiting and quickened her steps, at the same time becoming aware of the regu
lar chug-chug of engines. Perhaps Jan van Steen had already gone and Marius was waiting, surely impatient by now.

She came out on to the sand and halted, staring unbelievingly at the two yachts, already well out into the lake, and with the steady thud of their engines and the off-shore wind, she doubted if anyone would hear her. All the same she cupped her hands round her mouth and shouted, and then, when it became obvious that no one had heard her, she waved. She waved and called for a long time, running foolishly down to the end of the jetty in the absurd hope that they would hear her more easily. It was while she was there that she found her beach bag thrown down on the sand beside the jetty and realized that Lilith had sent her back deliberately and had somehow made them believe that she was on board. Her rage gave her added strength—she shouted again, although she knew it was hopeless. The yachts were too far away, and even if anyone looked back she would be but an indistinct figure; besides, it was likely that Lilith had told them that she was in the other boat. She shouted again, her voice a little hoarse, as she watched the boats round the spit of land which took them out of her sight.

And even if she had known, it would have been cold comfort to her that two people had heard her; Marius, busy in the bows of the yacht, had called without turning round: ‘I thought I heard someone calling—it sounded like Tabby.' And Lilith, close to him said at once: ‘Yes, so did I—she's waving from the other boat,' and waved back just as though Tabitha were really there. Bill Raynard, watching her, said in his wife's ear:

‘What's that silly little fool doing? There's no one here worth waving to, unless she's keeping van Steen sweet.'

It was still light when they berthed. They were standing in a little group, talking over the day before they dispersed, the two stiff-legged members of the party accommodated on a convenient wooden seat, when Marius asked sharply: ‘Where's Tabitha?'

Muriel and Bill and Jan van Steen answered him in a surprised chorus.

‘With you, of course, Marius.' Mrs Crawley said nothing at all because she had just had a glimpse of her daughter's face, and Mr Bow and Hans kept their own counsel—they too had seen Lilith's face.

Marius changed from a casual, easy-going man to one who was almost frighteningly calm. ‘She was to have come with me,' he said,
very quietly, ‘but you, Lilith, said she had changed her mind and wanted to go with Jan.' He looked with suddenly cold eyes at Lilith. ‘You waved to her.'

‘But we didn't even see her,' said Muriel, and was interrupted by Marius.

‘Somebody must have seen what happened to her—did she go back for anything?'

He looked at each of them in turn and Lilith last of all and when he saw her face he asked: ‘You, Lilith?'

She pouted prettily and gave him a laughing look which changed to apprehension. ‘It was—well, I thought she was with Jan—how was I to know?'

His voice was silky. ‘You sent her back for something?'

‘Yes, I had a terrible headache and I didn't want to spoil the party by feeling rotten.' She looked round for sympathy and got none. ‘I—I left my sunglasses somewhere in the trees, where we changed. Tabitha went back for them. I couldn't possibly have gone all that way with my head. I suppose she couldn't find them—she was always silly like that…'

Marius stretched out a hand and took her beach bag from her. ‘These?' he wanted to know; his voice was soft, almost gentle, and when Lilith began to speak he cut her short, still in that same gentle voice: ‘You shall apologise to Tabitha later.' He tossed the bag to her, turned to Mrs Crawley and said with his usual casual charm: ‘Mrs Crawley, don't let this upset your dinner party.'

She smiled though her eyes were wary. ‘No, I won't. Tabby will be all right—I expect someone's picked her up by now.'

Marius didn't reply, but said over his shoulder to Mr Raynard: ‘Bill, you see to things, will you? Hans will run you all up to the hotel in the car.'

Hans was standing at his back, large and solid and as placid-seeming as his master. Marius spoke to him in Dutch and no one knew what he said, except perhaps old Knotty, who, as usual, had his eyes closed.

Marius whistled to Smith and with a careless ‘See you later,' went back on board, and Lilith, who had been standing silent, ran forward crying:

‘Marius, don't go! Mother said Tabitha will have got a lift by now—but if you must go, take me with you.' She added desperately: ‘It was a joke.'

He was bending over the diesel, but he straightened up to look at her. His voice was mild. ‘What, and spoil your dinner party? Besides, you should rest and get rid of that headache.' He turned his back and a minute later the
Piet Hein
was edging her way out into the lake once more.

Tabitha sat where the trees and sand merged into each other; very erect, with her back against a tree trunk, her eyes constantly scanning the water. There had been passing boats earlier and she had waved and shouted, but the wind had freshened, carrying her voice with it, and besides, anyone seeing her would very likely think she was a camper going for an evening stroll. But there had been no boat for some time now, although she could still see pale triangles of sail merging into the evening mist. She looked at her watch and made out that it was almost nine o'clock; even if someone came back for her, it would be at least another hour—in the meantime the evening was growing cool as the sky dimmed slowly to a darker blue; only the vivid orange and red of the sun's bedding gave light to the water and a pale gleam to the sands around her. The trees at her back were already in gloom; she glanced over her shoulder and shivered, telling herself not to be silly. She wasn't a nervous girl, but this was a strange country and she was getting hungry and chilled, which somehow made her solitude more obvious.

She searched through her beach bag once more, in the hope that, by some minor miracle, there would be an apple or biscuit tucked in amongst her towel and bikini and other odds and ends, all so useless now. She had even left her cardigan on board when they had first landed. She sighed, and got up and began to walk briskly up and down the beach, stopping to look over the darkening water each time she turned.

It was a good half hour later when she first heard the steady thud of an engine and then saw, silhouetted against the pale sky in the west, the
Piet Hein,
carrying full sail, coming in fast with the inshore wind. She stood watching it, and not until the sails were reefed and the yacht was edging slowly towards the jetty did she go down its rickety length. She knew it was Marius on board, because she had heard Smith's short bark and Marius's voice speaking to the dog, and the fury which had consumed her died a little, swamped in the delight and relief of seeing him. He made the boat fast and the next moment she felt his arms holding her close, while Smith whined
softly at their feet. She didn't know what Marius would say; she only knew that she was disappointed when he spoke.

‘Poor Tabby—I blame myself for not making certain that you were with Jan.' His voice was quiet and kind and unruffled. ‘Were you frightened? You're cold—come aboard quickly.'

He led the way down into the cabin and said cheerfully: ‘Coffee in a minute. Here, put this on—it's getting fresh.' He threw her a thick sweater, many sizes too large, and she got into it obediently. She hadn't said a word so far, knowing that once she started she wouldn't be able to stop, and she didn't know what had been said; probably Lilith had managed to lay the blame on her. Marius didn't seem to notice her silence; he gave her a mug of coffee, liberally laced with brandy, before he sat down on a locker opposite her. ‘Lilith did it for a joke,' he explained, his voice very even. ‘I suppose she thought you would be missed soon after we sailed, but of course I thought you were with Jan…'

Tabitha, her temper stoked by the brandy, interrupted him. ‘You said I was to go with you because of Mr Bow's cramp—didn't you notice that I wasn't on board?' Her voice, a little shrill, tailed off—of course he hadn't noticed with Lilith there.

He gave her a thoughtful look. ‘I was given to understand that you had decided to go with Jan after all. None of them knew that you had gone back on shore, naturally Jan and I each thought you were on the other boat.' He leaned forward and took the mug from her. ‘I'm sorry, Tabitha, it was a dreadful thing to happen. Lilith was upset…'

Tabitha said stonily: ‘I was upset too.' She got up. ‘Are you ready to go? I'll cast off, shall I?'

She didn't wait for him to answer but went quickly out of the little cabin and went to untie the mooring rope. They didn't speak much as Marius steered the boat away from land; the sails were still reefed and he was using the diesel until they rounded the curve of the shore to take advantage of the wind once more. But once they had done this and the sails were set Marius turned on the automatic steering. ‘Hungry?' he asked.

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