There was a layer of cumulus, about seven-tenths, with tops at about five thousand feet as we came to Essenden airport; we broke out of it at two thousand and we were on the circuit downwind, with the aerodrome on our starboard wing. I sat with my eyes glued to the window looking out at Melbourne, because this was my home town and I had been away five years. The hostess touched me on the arm and drew my attention from the scene, and told me to fasten my safety belt. I had not seen the sign light up.
"Sorry," I said.
She smiled, and then she said quietly, "Would you like any help down the gangway, sir?"
I shook my head. "I'll wait till the others are all of. I'm alright if I take my time."
She nodded and moved on, courteous and efficient. I wondered how she knew that going downstairs was the tricky part; perhaps that was a feature of her training, or perhaps the hostesses on the machine from San Francisco had told her about me at Sydney. I turned back to the window to watch the approach to the runway and the landing, and I remained absorbed in the techniques till the machine came to a standstill at the terminal building and the engines came to rest.
While the other passengers got off I sat at the window trying to see who was there to meet me. It was likely to be my father. I hadn't given them much notice for I had only telegraphed the time of my arrival from Sydney when I landed there the previous evening and it was barely two o'clock now; moreover they weren't expecting me for another four days and we live a hundred and twenty miles from the airport. The wing hid a good part of the enclosure but I saw nobody I knew. I wondered if I should have to go in to town to the Club and telephone home from there.
I followed the last passenger down the aisle to the door, and thanked the hostesses as I passed them. I made slow time down the steps but once on the flat I was all right, of course, and walked over to the enclosure. It was Harry Drew, our foreman, come to meet me. It was a warm, summery spring day and Harry was very smart. He is a man about forty years old, with dark, curly hair and a youthful figure. He was wearing an opulent-looking American shirt without a jacket on that warm day, a brown shirt buttoned to the neck and worn without a tie; his brown-green grazier's trousers were clean and newly creased and held up with a brand new embossed belt with a large, shiny buckle. He caught my eye and half raised his hand in salutation.
I passed through the gate and he came to meet me. "Morning, Harry," I said. "How are you today?"
"Good, Mr. Duncan," he replied. "We didn't expect you till Friday." He took the overnight bag from me.
"I came along a bit quicker than I thought I would," I said.
He was clearly puzzled, as they all must have been, by my telegram. "Did you come on a different ship?" he asked. "We thought you'd be flying from Fremantle, arriving Saturday morning."
"I didn't come that way," I said. "I had to stay in London a bit longer. I flew all the way, through New York and San Francisco to Sydney."
"Come the other way round?"
"That's right," I said. We passed into the airport building. "How's my mother, Harry? She's not here, is she?"
"She didn't come," he said. "She gets out most fine days, but sitting in the chair most of the time, you know. She don't go away much now. Three months or more since she went down to Melbourne." He paused by the newspaper stand. "The colonel, he was coming down to meet you, but we had a bit of trouble."
"What sort of trouble?" I enquired.
"The house parlourmaid," he said. "Seems like she committed suicide or something. Anyway, she's dead."
I stared at him. "For God's sake! How did it happen?"
"I don't really know," he said. "It only happened this morning, and I left about half past ten to get down here to meet you. She took tablets or something, what they give you to make you sleep."
"She did it last night?"
"That's right, Mr. Alan."
"Who found her?"
"She didn't come down to her work. They get down to the kitchen in the house about six or quarter past and have a cup of tea. When she didn't come down Annie went up to her room about seven."
"Old Annie found her?"
"That's right. She was dead. The colonel rang through for me to go up to the house, 'n soon after I got there Dr. Stanley, he arrived. I suppose the colonel telephoned for him. But there wasn't anything he could do; she was dead all right. So then they got on to the police, and just about then your telegram came from Sydney saying you'd be coming in today. The colonel, he couldn't leave home with all that going on to come down here to meet you, so he said to me to take the Jaguar and come instead."
I stood by the paper stand while the crowd milled around us. It was a muddle and a mess, and I was deeply sorry for my father and mother. My father was over seventy and my mother not much less, and neither of them in the best of health. Too bad that they should have a nuisance of this nature thrust on them.
"What did she do it for?" I asked. "In trouble with some man?"
He wrinkled his brows. "I wouldn't think so," he said. "Coombargana's a small place and not so easy to get away from unless you've got a car of your own, which she hadn't. She couldn't have been going with one of the lads at Coombargana and have no one know about it. I wouldn't think it was that."
"How long had she been with us?"
"About a year. Maybe a bit longer. English, she was."
I nodded; she would have been. English or Dutch or German; an Australian house parlourmaid is rare indeed. "Well I wish to God she'd picked another day to it," I remarked. He grinned, and we went to where the motor coaches stand to claim my luggage.
Excerpted from The Breaking Wave by Nevil Shute. Copyright © 2010 by Nevil Shute. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.