Often, the words of a book he tried to read conveyed no meaning to his mind till he had re-read a paragraph several times. Or the official report he had set himself to write was disturbed by mental visions of Station doings in which his young wife was perhaps taking part without his support and protection.
She was so young and unsophisticated! It was perhaps his own fault that she was so, but he loved her all the more on account of it, and would not have had her otherwise.
An instinctive distrust of Captain Dalton would not be stifled, and he disliked the thought of his innocent young wife being exposed to the subtle flattery of such unusual attentions as he had paid her in camp,—strictly professional, no doubt, but disagreeably intimate from a husband's point of view. Confound him!
A young man of arresting appearance and strange personality, whose private life was unknown and whose conduct towards his neighbours was aloof and repellent, was best kept at a distance and treated with the formality which accorded with his profession, otherwise he would become a disturbing element. Already Joyce seemed to consider herself under obligations to him, and in her enthusiastic gratitude was prone to overstep the limits of dignified propriety which he wished her to observe. Would to heaven that the Government had sent them a married man as Civil Surgeon of Muktiarbad! Bachelors of mysterious habits and manners were totally out of place in a station so well supplied with womenkind.
Meredith was thankful that there were so many women in the Station and all likely to be lavish with their attentions to his wife. She would seldom be left to her own devices or the society of the doctor, in whose care she was unreservedly placed. And Joyce was popular with the ladies despite the fact that she was too young to play her dignified role of leading lady with success. She played it with a charm all her own, and drew towards her the members of her own sex as well as those of the masculine. She was unique, he assured himself. He could trust her blindfold, even among wolves in sheep's clothing; for essentially she was a mother, and had every incentive to keep pure. Love of children and a respect for religion were sure safeguards against the wiles of the tempter; he could therefore make his mind easy, feeling that his wife possessed both.
But jealousy is a weed of hardy growth, and once having taken root is difficult to destroy. There were memories to haunt him and give him many a sleepless night: Joyce seizing and kissing Dalton's hand in her frenzy of relief when he told her the good news concerning the child; her milk-white shoulder and bosom exposed for the stethoscope.... She might look upon Dalton as an "angel" or an "automaton," but no man, unless superhuman, is a stoic where a lovely woman is concerned.
On the whole, it was a miserable week for Meredith in his solitude, despite the distractions of his office and constant journeys over the plain.
His next encampment was a large Mohammedan village on the outskirts of a silk factory,—an important industry owned and worked by a prosperous Anglo-Indian.
In duty bound, the Magistrate and Collector called on the ladies of the house, sending in the usual piece of pasteboard with his name printed thereon, and caught a fleeting glimpse of the wife in a dressing-gown and slippers scuttling to cover from the out-offices in the rear.
After keeping him waiting for sometime in a musty drawing-room where cobwebs lurked in corners and everything looked the worse for time, she appeared in fearful and wonderful array,—layers of powder concealing the dusky tint of her complexion, innumerable jewels tinkling on her person, and hands badly manicured, but richly be-ringed.
During his brief visit she talked volubly in "chee-chee," vigorously assisted by gesticulations, and her laughter was ear-splitting and vulgar in its enforced hilarity; so that Meredith, whose nerves felt badly jangled, rose to beat a hasty retreat, courteously resisting all the hospitable efforts of the hostess to keep him as a guest.
At the Subdivision of Panchpokhur, he was introduced to the Deputy Magistrate's wife and twin baby boys who were splendid specimens of infantile vigour; and his praise and admiration were the passport to their mother's instant regard. She was a devoted wife and mother, placid and easy-going, and carried the air of one equal to any emergency.
"I am amazed that they should look so strong," Meredith said as he watched the children racing over the grass in pursuit of straying poultry.
"They seldom ail," said their mother, who, though country born, was perfectly English in her speech and manners. "I nursed them both, unaided," she said proudly, feeling disposed to venture this confidence to a man who was married and a father.
"That, I suppose, makes a heap of difference," he remarked diffidently. "My wife was too ill after the birth of the kid, so it was put on the bottle from the start."
"What a pity!" and the lady forthwith entered upon an instructive dissertation on the particular artificial foods that could be recommended.
"Will this always make him delicate, do you think?" Meredith asked anxiously, not so much for the sake of the babe, as from the fear of all it would mean to himself in regard to his wife.
"Perhaps not, but it is a bad handicap."
Meredith sighed as he explained the reason of his touring alone. "Captain Dalton thinks the child should be within reach of medical aid after its go of fever. My wife, too, was a bit knocked over and cannot rough it this winter, I'm afraid."
"The new Civil Surgeon?"
"Yes. Came direct from Calcutta after the rains set in."
"He is said to be very clever, but the natives don't seem to like him at all, as he is supposed to be rather fond of the knife."
"A good surgeon, I am told. The natives are great cowards of surgery, and risk gangrene before they will consent to an operation."
"That is so. He has his hands full, I should think," said the lady. "Elsie Meek, the daughter of a dear friend of mine, is dangerously ill at the Mission not far from Muktiarbad. I suppose you know that?"
Meredith had heard a rumour to that effect, and wondered how Captain Dalton had managed to spare so much of his valuable time to the camp.
"Mr. Meek is a Methodist who came out some years ago and married a school friend of my mother's. Their daughter was educated in England and joined them a few months ago. I am told she is a talented girl and totally unsuited to her life here," said his hostess. "Have you seen much of her?"
"Very little, indeed, for her people don't belong to the Club and Miss Elsie has only been to see the Brights who are rather friendly with her parents. She came out in the summer."
"Poor thing! Enteric is such a terrible disease, and she is very bad I hear."
"She could not be in more skilful hands," said Meredith.
Before he left the Subdivision, he had many illuminating talks with the wife of the Deputy on the subject of infants and how to rear them in Bengal.
"I suppose," said he, "when my kid begins to teeth, the doctors will advise sending him and the mother home?" It was the probability he most dreaded.
"I see no necessity for that," was the assured reply. "Doctors take too much responsibility upon themselves, when they so readily part husbands and wives. It has often been the cause of greater trouble than is to be feared from the climate. It should be remembered that teething is not a disease, but a natural process, which might be influenced by the digestion in any part of the globe. Poor India gets all the blame!—even when an ayah is careless with the feeding bottles. Why! those iniquitous ones with a long rubber tube, used in my mother's day, were called 'Herods' for the number of children they killed. With proper attention, and the hills for a change when necessary, there is no reason why babies out here should not do perfectly well till they are seven. It is the growing and impressionable stage, and I'll allow that the moral example of human nature in the East is not of the best. I say it, who have been brought up entirely out here."
"You are a tremendous credit to your upbringing," put in Meredith.
"My people were very particular and I was never allowed an ayah to teach me self-indulgence, nor to associate with the servants' children on the estate; for what native children do not know of evil isn't worth knowing."
The Subdivisional Officer's bungalow was a type usually to be found in rural Districts, built of bricks and mortar, whitewashed, and roofed with the thatching grass that grows on low-lying lands by the Ganges. Earlier in Raymond Meredith's career, Panchpokhur had been one of his own appointments, and every corner of the dwelling and its grounds was familiar to him: the tall goldmohur trees beside the gate, the range of out-offices and stabling, the high, flowering hedge of hibiscus, the primitive well by the palm tree, with its screeching pulley. Gazing from the verandah he could almost imagine himself a bachelor again in the first flush of an opening career, keen and interested. The low verandah was the same on which he was wont to sleep on hot summer nights, and breakfast upon, at sunrise, in his pyjamas. The deep, thatched roof was as cool and as picturesque as of yore, having been renewed many times in the seven or eight years that were gone. The difference in his surroundings lay in the greater cleanliness—which usually distinguished the abode of a married man from that of a careless bachelor—and also in the supplementary furniture which threw his old camp articles into the shade. He was able to recognise the more durable of his past possessions in various parts of the house where they appealed to him as old friends. In those days how little had sufficed him!
All was now changed, for his life was dominated with the one idea of making his home attractive and suitable for the treasure it held.
* * * * *
After Panchpokhur, he moved on with his tents and the paraphernalia of camp life to parts thickly populated by Indians of all castes and creeds, and was received with pomp and ceremony befitting the representative of the Ruling Power. Addresses were read to him before a vast concourse of humanity; and members of the Local Municipal Board vied with one another in paying him the respect due to his official position.
In the intervals of duty, he tramped jungle places for game, alone or in company with gentlemen from the neighbourhood; and, at the week-end, prepared to spend Sunday with his wife at Muktiarbad.
THE LEADING LADY
Meanwhile, Joyce at the Bara Koti, partially regained her confidence in life, and tried to make the best of her surroundings.
The house stood imposingly in extensive grounds which had been artistically laid out by successive officials, in lawns, flower-bed, ornamental shrubberies, and a kitchen garden, all of which were maintained by four malis and a regiment of coolies. A dense hedge of cactus separated the grounds from the roadway, with graceful bamboo clumps at intervals for shade; and a rustic gate led to the carriage drive, an avenue bordered by goldmohur trees.
The building, which was one-storeyed, was of solid masonry, the floor being well raised upon arches. Wide pillared verandahs ran on every side, and the roof was of concrete supported by iron joists. The rooms were lofty and spacious, with high doors and many windows, furnished with glass shutters and Venetian blinds; and were designed to fulfil the requirements of married officials of important position in the Government, who were expected to maintain a dignified state and entertain in a style to correspond. In a word, it was Government House on a minor scale, with a lordly status to keep up in the Station and District.
For his wife's sake, Meredith had endeavoured to make his home as attractive as possible so as to save inevitable comparisons between her present and past circumstances.
However, there were drawbacks which even he could not avoid: the lack of the most ordinary conveniences of daily life, such as electric lights and fans, water pipes, telephones, and English shops; and of them all, it was to be feared that the last might yet prove the most to be deplored.
The bathrooms, which were numerous, had no hot and cold water laid on; nor were there any but kerosene lamps to give light; and in lieu of electric fans, punkhas with gathered frills were worked by means of a rope through a hole in the wall. Kurta, Moja, Juti, and Paji, were the four Hindu coolies employed in summer to keep the frill perpetually waving in whichever room it pleased the sahibs to sit; and the patient creatures sat cross-legged on the verandah floor, nodding over the rope till galvanised into activity by a shout from within.
For baths, kettles of boiling water were fetched from the kitchen, fifty yards or so distant, and cans of cold water from a tank beyond the vegetable garden, by a semi-nude servant whose duty it was to do this and nothing else. It took Joyce many months to realise which of the numerous servants in her pay could be required to perform a particular task, so complicated were the differentiations created by caste.
Muktiarbad was very much behind the times as to modern comforts and conveniences, but was entirely up-to-date in the fashions which the weekly journals depicted for the advantage of the gentler sex, and which the latest arrivals from "home" expressed. Moreover, Calcutta was only a few hundred miles away—a trifle in India—and contained first-rate shops and dressmakers. A week-end visit to the Metropolis for a round of shopping was a common habit of the ladies of Muktiarbad, with its handy train service; and if it added considerably to the cost of living, what would you, when the bazaar sold only Manchester goods in bales, and saris for feminine apparel?
Old Khodar Bux, who was available for eight annas per day, was a treasure to bachelor servants, as the only tailor to be had in the District.
In all other matters, the Station was content, for officials were birds of passage, and what had sufficed the residents for years, was good enough for today. Private enterprise was sluggish, and the cost of transporting plant and material for the installation of electricity, prohibitive; so the sahibs continued to use kerosene oil; were fanned by coolies, and were dependent on wells and tanks for their water supply, leaving it to the larger towns and great centres to revel in all the luxuries of modern times.
The possession of a large Daimler by the Collector, and of a two-seater Rolls-Royce by the doctor, filled the other English residents with envy; but they were anathema to the natives of the bazaars and villages. Rich Indians followed suit with cars of various sorts, but, generally, the machines were looked upon by the ignorant as ruthless inventions of the devil, and to be feared accordingly.
Joyce lived an idle life at Muktiarbad, served hand and foot by a host of servants, and treated as a little queen by her neighbours. She did not even try to "keep house" after the approved method in the East, a bunch of keys jingling in her pocket, and everything that was of value locked safely away; a cook to stand behind her chair, once a day, to render the bazaar accounts; visits of inspection to the kitchen, an eagle eye kept on the dusting and sweeping, and the laundry-man's weekly wash duly checked; for Meredith's head bearer, who had assumed responsibilities in his master's bachelor days and was too valuable to be deprived of his office, continued to keep accounts and run the establishment on oiled wheels. Joyce held him in secret awe and respect.
Her ayah instructed her in Indian ways and customs, and caste susceptibilities; and it was no little tax to remember how not to offend. The bearer was not to be asked to carry trays of food, or the khansaman to trim the lamps; the masalchi had no responsibility with regard to the boots, or the sweeper with scullery concerns; and so on, and so forth. It was all very bewildering and made her nervous. She cared too little for India to take much trouble to improve her knowledge of the country or of the people, and was content to remain as an honoured guest in her own house, with her precious babe to worship and cherish with jealous devotion.
On her return from camp, visitors dropped in to see her, foremost among them, Mrs. Barrington Fox, the wife of a railway official of some importance in the District; a lady young enough to have retained a belief in her power to charm. She had been very handsome at her debut, ten years ago, but the ravages of the climate had not spared her complexion which was delicately assisted by art to retain its bloom. She had the air of being languidly bored with the monotony of her life, and seemed disposed to patronise the "leading lady" who never led, save when the laws of precedence obliged her to occupy the seat of honour at dinner parties in the Station. It was a temptation to Mrs. Fox to advise her in the way she should go, and she tactfully managed to hint at it. "India is naturally strange to you, yet you do wonderfully!—I am sure you are very clever," she would begin, and then make some suggestion which Joyce was very glad to follow. For instance—"I hear the Padre from headquarters wishes to hold service here next Sunday. He ought really to put up with you, but the Brights have had him lately and unless you write and invite him he is likely to go straight to them. What do you think?" she asked lighting a cigarette.
Joyce had been in the hills on the few occasions when the Reverend John Pugh had visited Muktiarbad from Hazrigunge and conducted Divine service in the reading-room of the Club.
"Do you think I should?" she asked, anxious to do the correct thing.
"I was thinking that the Brights take too much upon themselves. Mrs. Bright is only the wife of the Superintendent of Police after all, and your husband is the Collector."
"But Mrs. Bright is a perfect dear."
"Still she should not encroach on your rights. The District Chaplain usually stays with the Collector unless he has special friends in the Station with whom he divides his time. But do just as you like. I thought perhaps he would think you did not want him."
"I should like to have him very much," Joyce said eagerly. "My husband will be here and it will be quite a pleasure to us both." So Joyce promised to write her letter of invitation.
On the whole, she was never at her ease with Mrs. Fox, who had rarely a good word for her neighbours and voiced strangely radical sentiments concerning Life and its obligations. They were often startling, particularly as she made no secret of the fact that she and her husband never "got on." Between puffs of cigarette smoke she would scoff at the laws of marriage and speak with much leniency of divorce. Her sympathies were invariably with offenders, and Joyce thought her rather too fond of the society of men. Meredith feared and disliked her. The fear was on his wife's account, lest she should be contaminated. "I have no use for a woman of her type," he would say. "She has made a mess of her own life and is a poisonous influence to young women."
"But it seems she has a perfect brute of a husband, who leaves her to herself while he runs up and down the line amusing himself with other women."
"It's a lie," said Meredith sternly. "Fox is not a bad sort. Men rather like him, and he is a jolly good Traffic Superintendent. The Railway staff think a lot of him. I should not be surprised if he is fed up with her selfishness and the way she carries on with his assistants. No decent man tolerates that sort of thing."
"If you talked to her for an hour, you'd think she was the injured party," said Joyce.
"Then I'd rather you never talked to her."
But that was ridiculous in a small station where everyone met everyone else every day, Joyce explained.
So when Mrs. Barrington Fox called, full of gossip and friendliness, she was received politely. After the matter of the Padre was settled, she demanded to see the child and a quarter of an hour was spent in baby-worship.
"He's certainly not looking so well as when you brought him from Darjeeling. Weaker, I should say, poor little chappie! I don't believe the place agrees with him—or with you, for that matter. You look a good deal paler. How do you feel?"
"I am quite all right now, only a bit shaken," Joyce said doubtfully. Possibly she was not conscious how bad she actually was? Mrs. Fox was not comforting.
"You mustn't run down, you know. The surest safeguard against epidemics and illnesses peculiar to this miserable climate is never to allow yourself to run below par."
"But what is one to do? One doesn't deliberately do it."
"No, but you should eat heaps of nourishing things. Drink plenty of milk, for instance. But never fail to boil it, and never leave it exposed to the air. Milk is the most dangerous thing you can take, on account of its susceptibility to germs of every kind; especially enteric and cholera. It simply asks for germs!"
"And if you keep it covered, it goes bad!" cried Joyce alarmed since it formed the sole diet of her beloved infant.
"It wouldn't be a bad plan to keep it in the refrigerator in bottles. I did that all the winter, last year, when I was on milk diet."
"It will turn me grey to keep in mind the many things I must not do out here!" sighed Joyce.
Mrs. Fox condoled with her out of fellow-feeling and congratulated her for having given up camping. "If it doesn't suit you or the kid, I don't see why you should be obliged to do it. Men have to learn not to be selfish."
Joyce fired up. "Ray is anything but selfish. Sometimes I think it is I who am selfish; but if it were only myself, I would never say a word. We have to do our duty by the child."
"Exactly so. I quite see the point of view. Here you have the doctor at hand. I am told he nursed you like a mother."
Joyce wondered how Mrs. Fox had come to hear of it as, since her return to the Station, she had seen no callers. "How ever did you know?" she asked ingenuously.
"Oh, one hears things!" Mrs. Fox blew smoke through her nostrils and smiled knowingly. "And how do you like him on closer acquaintance?"
Joyce thought he improved on acquaintance. Mrs. Fox annoyed her by that smile.
"He is an enigma to most, but if I know his type, he is not a little dangerous. He can be exceedingly rude. I passed him on my way here and common politeness should have made him pull up for a word or two. But he rushed by in a cloud of dust with two fingers just touching the brim of his hat!—considering I was on foot, you can imagine my feelings. I have never been treated so by a man in my life—unless it is by my own husband; but then, there's no love lost," Mrs. Fox remarked.
"Perhaps Captain Dalton was in a hurry," Joyce suggested.
"Don't excuse him. He can be very nice when he likes. Yesterday there was Honor Bright hanging over her fence to talk to him, and though it was his busiest time, he was there quite a long while,—you know their gardens join. I saw them through Mrs. Bray's field-glasses. The Brays' verandah, as you know, looks on the Brights' grounds from beyond a paddock."
"He thinks a lot of Honor," said Joyce remembering their conversation in camp.
"Any one can see she is making up to him. But Mrs. Bright had better take care. No one knows anything of Captain Dalton's affairs. He might be married for all one knows. Honor Bright may be very popular in the District, but she'll get herself talked about and end all her chances of marrying well. Naturally it is the ambition of her parents to see her well settled, but she's far too unconventional. Did you hear of her escapade while you were in camp?"
Joyce had not heard, but was eager to know all about it. She knew Honor was careless of conventions out of a contempt for small minds and a love of independence. All who knew her allowed that she was as "straight as you make 'em," and admired her open nature and clear eye.
"Didn't she write and tell you?"
"We seldom write to each other."
"I thought you were bosom friends!—well, she was out alone looking for early snipe—someone had seen one in the fields beyond the bazaar—and while out, she was supposed to have been bitten by a snake——"
"—Why do you say 'supposed'?" Joyce interrupted ready to spring to arms for her friend.
"We'll say she was bitten, if you like; only, people bitten by snakes generally die, and she didn't. She tied a ligature and was limping home when she met Captain Dalton in his car on his way to a dispensary somewhere in the District. He took her up and home to his house where she stayed half the day alone with him. Her mother was week-ending in Calcutta, and Honor was in charge of her father's comforts and the home; but her father happened to have run out to Panipara for a rioting case which he and the police were bothered with; so Miss Honor stayed with the doctor till she thought fit to come home."
"Bitten by a snake!" gasped Joyce in consternation. "Poor Honor!—how terrified she must have been!"
"That's best known to herself and him. Since then, you'll observe that there is a sort of understanding between them."
"How do you mean?"
"They seem to be on far better terms than he is with any one else in the Station, and Honor is falling in love with him. I am anything but blind to the symptoms!" and Mrs. Fox struck a match and lighted another cigarette.
"I suppose they grew friendly over the treatment of her wound," said Joyce beginning to understand how it was that the doctor had learned to appreciate Honor Bright. Yet he was "not seeking to marry her."
"I must get Honor to tell me all about it when I see her. Perhaps she does not know I am back?"
"She knows right enough, for, as I have said, the doctor was with her yesterday, talking across the garden fence."
Mrs. Fox smoked her second and third cigarette, drank tea with Joyce, and, when every topic of interest was exhausted, wended her way homeward, deploring the fact that her husband was too selfish to give her a motor-car. "He doesn't care for one, so I have to do without; and with only one riding-horse and that one lame, I am obliged to tramp the dusty lanes on foot."
"I am also without a conveyance while my husband is in camp," said Joyce, "but it does not matter as I like walking."
"I don't. My frocks are not suited to pedestrian exercise and cost too much—" which suggested the idea to Joyce that Mrs. Fox's expensive clothes accounted for her husband's economy in other directions. She watched her swaying languidly down the drive, a tall and graceful figure, stylishly dressed and pretty in a faded way, in spite of the delicate pink of her oval cheek and the brightness of her thin lips. What a pity it was that she had never a good word for any one, and made herself so ridiculous with the men, thought Joyce; it lowered her in their estimation and laid her open to impudence. Though she was attractive to many, she never succeeded in holding the attention of her admirers very long; which was humiliating to say the least of it. Joyce looked upon her as an example of a true flirt, and feared her accordingly—not on her husband's account, for Ray gave her a wide berth—but as a criminal at large. Women had whispered tales which she found impossible to credit; the world was so censorious! But on the theory that there was never any smoke without fire, she decided that Mrs. Fox was unscrupulous, and deplored the fact that the Station was obliged to put up with her. Apparently, so long as a husband countenanced his wife, no one else had any right to object to whatever she might do! It was a strange world!
The trend of her thoughts reminded her of the doctor's estimate of herself, which he had subsequently withdrawn. But then, he could only have been teasing, for Joyce knew herself, and flirting was very far from her intentions at any time, or under any circumstance. For instance, she was very sure she would never allow any man but her husband to kiss her!—the bare idea was appalling!
After the tennis hour at the Club, Honor Bright cycled up to the steps of the Bara Koti, and ran in to embrace Mrs. Meredith and welcome her home. "I am sorry not to have been able to come earlier, there was so much to do, and a tennis match in the afternoons," she said in her full, deep voice which Joyce thought so musical. Yet she never sang. God had given her a larynx, but the wicked fairies had robbed her of ear, so, though she loved music passionately, she could never produce a tune. "I must be fit only for 'treasons, stratagems, and spoils,'" she was once heard to say, "for it seems I was not born musical."
However, it was pointed out to her that she was not just to herself; she had plenty of "music in her soul" to satisfy even Shakespeare; it was only her inability to use the divine instrument in her throat. "You put me in mind of 'Trilby.' Perhaps you will sing if you are hypnotised!" Joyce had told her.
"Captain Dalton mentioned that you and Baby had both been ill. However I am glad to see you so well. How is Squawk?"
"How can you call him such a horrid name!" said Joyce reproachfully.
Honor laughed heartily. "Tommy is responsible; you must scold him."
"I shall, indeed. He's a bad boy!"
"Not at all!—he's a Deare!" at which they both laughed, for Mr. Bright's assistant, like the Assistant Magistrate, had a name of infinite possibilities. A comic fate had thrown him and Jack Darling together in the same Station, and they were provocative of fun in more senses than the coincidence of their names afforded.
The guest was carried off to see the son-and-heir in his crib and admire his indefinite features that were prophetic of beauty, and his limbs that were a miracle of elasticity.
By and by, they settled down to talk and Honor was told of the Padre's approaching visit. "Mrs. Fox thinks we should ask him to put up with us this time, or he might be offended," she explained. "Will your mother mind?"
"Mind? she'll be only too glad, for in private life the old man is a terrible bore! he tells the same joke over and over again, and Mother says she is determined not to laugh the next time. There ought to be some way of choking off stale jokes, don't you think, without offending the poor dear?"
"Tell him one of his own. I am sure it will make such an impression that he'll never forget it."
"He's so polite, that he'll laugh heartily as though he'd never heard it in his life!"
"What a hopeless person! However, I shall be glad to save your mother from nervous prostration," said Joyce.
"Mrs. Fox always gets news in advance of everyone else," said Honor. "I wonder how she does it?"
"She says she hears a lot—Ray says, servants carry news about the District as fast as telegrams."
"I hate to think that she takes the liberty of dropping in upon you whenever she likes. She's not a safe person, so I hope you are careful of what you tell her."
"Generally, it is she who does the telling, and I the listening."
"It won't do you any good, what she has to say!"
"It won't do me harm. I heard from her today, that you had been bitten by a snake while I was in camp. How too terrible!—oh, Honey, how frightened you must have been!" In emotional moments, Joyce called her friend by her family pet-name.
"I was dreadfully frightened—afterwards," said Honor, shuddering violently.
"And you never told me!"
"I could not write about it," said the girl with a sudden gravity that ennobled her face. "I don't like talking about it; it was a bad shock."
"Tell me this once, and we shan't speak of it again," Joyce pleaded.
She thought Honor's a beautiful face, though it had no actual claim to beauty apart from the brown eyes that were so frank and steadfast, and her regular teeth. The eyes were arresting in their depth of shade and power of expression, with dark lashes of unusual thickness; but for the rest, her complexion was tanned by reckless exposure to the sun, her nose had a saucy tendency, and her mouth, though shapely, was not by any means a rosebud; indeed, she had a wide smile which was readily excused for the charm of it, and because of her splendid teeth. Soulless men admired Honor for her eyes, her teeth, and her figure which was truly classical; others, for her honesty and directness, and the womanly sympathy which never failed. Tommy Deare was among the latter, and he had known her for the greater part of his life.
Asked to talk of the episode of the snake, Honor's expression changed and she was strongly moved.
AN ANXIOUS EXPERIENCE
"Have you ever wondered what it must feel like to have sentence of death passed on you?" said Honor Bright thoughtfully leaning her chin on her hand, her elbow on a low table before her.
"It must be too awful for description," murmured Joyce, large-eyed and sympathetic.
"I shall always understand and feel for any one under sentence of death either by the Courts of Justice or from disease. When I felt the sharp prick on my ankle and looking down saw the snake glide into the undergrowth I believed it was all up with me. I had seen two or three natives who came up to the house for treatment die before my eyes. A saice bitten in the stables by a cobra died in twenty minutes. A mali cutting grass was struck on the hand and died in three quarters of an hour. A punkha coolie on the verandah lost his life within an hour after being bitten by a karait.
"I could not tell the character of the snake that had bitten me, but it was large and long, and many cobras are dark and lengthy creatures. My father shot one with No. 8, in the roots of a banyan tree this very year, and it measured over four feet."
"But, Honey, dear, why ever were you walking in jungly places?" Joyce cried, wrought up to the verge of hysteria.
"I was out after snipe. You know how I enjoy shooting, and I generally go alone, for I am not clever enough yet with my gun to be trusted to shoot in company with others. One is so afraid of accidents!
"I had been walking along the 'aisles' of the paddy fields till I came to a swampy bit and found I'd have to walk through it if I had any hope of starting a bird. Just as I was stepping off the 'aisle,' a snake passed over my foot, and biting me on the ankle vanished in the swamp. It must have been some sort of a water-snake, but I did not know. All I knew was that I had been bitten by a snake that might be poisonous. It could easily have been an adder, or a karait—even a cobra—though I had not a minute in which to observe a hood or any distinctive marks. I immediately collected my faculties to think what was the best thing to do. I knew I had no time to lose. Mother was away in town shopping for the cold-weather needs, Dad was out for the day on a riot case. I did not even know if I should find Captain Dalton at home.
"On the instant, I tied a ligature as tight as I could under the knee, and then started to run back to the Station as fast as my breath would allow. As I reached the main road I heard the sound of a motor, and, to my intense relief and thankfulness, it was the doctor on his way somewhere—I never asked where—my case was as desperate as any, and I put up my hand. He saw the 'S.O.S.' message in my face, which he afterwards said was the hue of chalk, and when he found out what was wrong, he just bundled me in and drove home like a streak of lightning. I wonder we did not kill someone or something in the bazaar. I shall remember to my dying day the way the people fell to right and left thinking, no doubt, the doctor was mad.
"When we arrived at his bungalow he sprang out, ordering me to find my way to his consulting room while he went straight to his medicine chest for the remedies he keeps for cases of snake-bite. By that time my leg was feeling as heavy as lead—whether from the ligature or the poison, I do not know—but I could hardly put my foot to the ground. Still, I hobbled in and sat down to wait. It seemed ages, but was in reality only a minute or two, when he came and knelt down before me to deal with the wound. There was very little to be seen, just the punctures and a livid disk round them. Up till then we had scarcely spoken a word, or I have no memory of words having passed between us, but I can see his face, all set and stern, his mouth compressed, his eyes like living coals in his head intent on his work of rescue.
"I hardly felt all he did; I was so deeply excited inwardly. Outwardly I was as calm as a stoic. I felt whatever happened I would have to keep my head to the last. I fully expected to feel desperately ill, and almost imagined the sensation beginning to creep over me, of numbness and chill. I had watched the symptoms in others, and could almost trace them arriving in me. Oh, Joyce, I wouldn't go through that time again if you gave me a fortune!—yet, I don't know—for one thing, I shall always be glad."
"And that?" asked Joyce.
"Oh, nothing—just an idea," she said hastily. "Captain Dalton cut deep into the flesh of my ankle and cauterised the wound; after that he injected something above my heart. I believe he was not satisfied with my pulse, for he brought me a stiff brandy-peg to drink. My hands were stone cold; he chafed them in his. In the meantime my leg swelled and looked all colours. It was most alarming yet he would not let me think of it. He, who is usually so silent, talked all the time of a thousand things that had nothing to do with snakes and their deadliness. He even made a joke or two. Once he wanted to know if I wanted any one—a lady to sit by me and cheer me up. But when I couldn't have Mother, and you were away, I wanted no one else, and told him so. I think he was rather surprised that I wasn't hysterical or troublesome; that I bore all that cutting about without uttering a sound. Every now and then he felt my pulse, and as time passed his face took on a wonderful look. You would hardly have believed he was the same man. The hardness was all melted and broken up, his eyes were so kind—he talked so pleasantly.
"After some time I asked if he thought I was well enough to go home, but he preferred to keep me longer. He thought I would have to be watched for a bit and looked after. Later he explained that he was afraid of shock. I had been through such an anxious time. He carried me to his drawing-room, and while I rested on the sofa he diverted me with music. He played the most exquisite music, and sang me ever so many songs. Really, Joyce, nobody knows Captain Dalton. He has most extraordinary depths in his nature of which I have had only a fleeting glimpse."
"Why is he so antagonistic to people as a rule?" Joyce wondered aloud.
"He has had some great disappointment in his life. Someone has smashed up all his ideals and beliefs, or he would never be so suspicious and unfriendly. He is that; for who knows him a bit better today than five months ago when he first came among us?"
"You do, certainly, Honey!"
"Not even I. I have been favoured with only a glimpse of his inner self. There are stores of wonderful goodness all hidden away underneath the nastiness and ill-humour he shows to the world!"
"Do go on and tell me the rest," urged Joyce, excitedly. "What a fearful experience!"
"It was. I thought of Mother and her grief were I to die,—of my father's desolation. They are both so wrapped up in me, having no other child, you know. I pictured myself lying dead and covered with flowers—you have no idea how involuntary was all this thinking!"
"And you never cried or lost your head?"
"I had not the slightest leaning that way. All I wanted was to die 'decently and in order,'" Honor returned, smiling reminiscently. "I did not want to make a scene and upset Captain Dalton's nerves. Once, while feeling faint and sick, I gave him messages. I wanted him to tell Mother that I did not mind dying, a bit. That was not strictly true, for I love life as much as any one else, but I thought it would comfort her. I sent her my love and said that if I had to die, I was sure it was best for me, because everything happens for the best. 'Do you really believe that?' he asked. 'I am not quite sure I do,' said I, 'but I must think of everything that will cheer Mother and help her to be reconciled if I have to go.'"
"How long were you obliged to be in suspense?"
"Time passed so fast that I had been there four hours before he judged it was safe to bring me home. He drove me in his car and carried me to my bed where the ayah took over charge. He then went about his other duties. He was so kind and wonderful to me...." The colour rushed into Honor's face at a memory that would not be suppressed. "Just before he left, he came and stood beside me, looking so queer...."
"How?" Joyce asked curiously. The only expression familiar to her on the doctor's face was quizzical amusement.
"He has rather wonderful eyes," Honor said reminiscently, "and they seemed suddenly soft and misty. 'You are quite a heroine, Miss Honor,' he said. 'I shall think of you often when I am alone in my diggings, as the bravest girl I know;' and without any warning he took my hand and kissed it, ever so reverently, almost as though it were the hand of a queen, and was gone."
"Didn't he come again?"
"Many times to see how the wound was doing. The swelling had to be fomented—he had shown me how—the ayah was quite a brick about learning the way. Father was there too, and Mother had returned. Poor Mother wept enough for two, and Father drank a stiff whisky-and-soda to steady his nerves. Altogether it was a ghastly experience. I wonder what particular kind of snake it was!"
"It was evidently poisonous, and the bite would have killed you if the doctor had not found you in time," said Joyce.
"I have no doubt of it." Honor became suddenly aware of the lateness of the hour and rose to go. "I shall have to dress for dinner, and there's only a quarter of an hour to do it in!—Dear me, how I have talked!"
"One minute—this happened only the other day, and yet you had associated with the doctor for five months before you were properly on speaking terms?" said Joyce, detaining her.
"We used to see each other in the distance occasionally. He never came to the Club and showed no inclination for feminine society, so we never spoke more than to say 'Good-evening' once in the way!"
"Yet he said quite a nice thing about you to me in camp."
"Did he?—What did he say?" Honor asked, flushing.
Joyce related the conversation faithfully, even to the doctor's concluding remark—"I am not seeking a wife, and have no interest in friendships."
Honor winced as under a lash, and straightened herself.
"You should not have pressed the point, Joyce. However, what does it matter? I am glad he thinks well of me, and that's all there is to it. He and I are of the same mind. I, too, am not seeking a husband, for I am very happy as I am. Good-bye, dear, I was commissioned with a message for you, but I have talked so much that it has been nearly forgotten. Mother wants you to dine tomorrow; just a few friends and Captain Dalton; and he has actually accepted the invitation."
"It is never safe to ask me to dinner," said Joyce doubtfully. "I hate leaving Baby all alone at night."
"He has a good ayah."
"Oh, yes. She is absolutely trustworthy; but should he ail ever so slightly I shall stay at home. I could not go out and leave him the least bit out of sorts."
"We shouldn't wish it. However, he might be quite all right, and then you'll come—bye-bye!" she waved her hand from the steps, mounted her bicycle, and was gone.
So the dinner-party at the Brights' was a settled engagement and Joyce prepared to keep it. She had never been anywhere without her husband, and felt nervous and shy for the lack of his support. Moreover, her mind was haunted by nameless fears for the child who was to be left behind to the tender mercies of native servants. A thousand possibilities of evil presented themselves to her mind and robbed the outing of prospective enjoyment; consequently the next night when it came to the point of starting, she was full of regrets for her weakness in having consented to go. "Ayah," she said in a fit of childish confidence, "I care for nothing on earth so much as my darling baby, how can I leave him for an hour or two not knowing what is happening to him in the meantime?"
"My Lort! what-for be frightened? Baba plenty well, sleeping sound. What can be?" the woman cried irritably. Could she not be trusted?
Nothing could possibly happen in so short a time. How did other mothers fulfil their social engagements? Surely they did not all worry themselves and others to death over nothing? Joyce therefore resolved to become more normal in her habits, and proceeded to dress.
Hardly, however, had she put foot in the hired victoria, when the ayah appeared, suggesting another look at the child. He had been coughing in his sleep, and considering the mother's anxieties she feared the responsibility of keeping the fact to herself.
Joyce immediately sprang from the carriage and hurried to the bedroom where the child lay sleeping in its cot. "You are sure he coughed?" she asked listening in vain for a repetition of the sound.
"Would I say it for nothing?" the Madrasi asked testily.
"What would it mean?"
"A little cold he has caught, or indigestion."
"Then I cannot go out with any peace of mind," Joyce cried definitely. "What if he should have croup?"
"Why say such words? Give little honey, and cough go."
But Joyce was not satisfied. What was a dinner-party to her if her precious one was sickening for croup or any other fatal malady? Most infant maladies were fatal unless taken in time, and if she were away and he be taken ill, how would he fare? She decided that the Brights would have to do without her, and forgive the disappointment.
Forthwith she unwrapped, and settled down to spend a quiet evening alone, with an ear strained to hear any return of the cough, and quite determined to send for the doctor should it recur.
However, having upset his mother's nerves and thrown a dinner-party out of order, the infant slept soundly till morning.
At Muktiarbad, the usual form of evening entertainment was a dinner-party with music and bridge to follow; and Mrs. Bright, wife of the Superintendent of Police, was specially noted for her hospitality in this respect. The brief intervals spent at home by her husband between his rounds of inspection or inquiry in his District were always celebrated by herself and her daughter as festal occasions; and their friends were gathered together at short notice to eat, not the "fatted calf," as that would have offended the religious susceptibilities of the Hindus who held the animal sacred, but one of the fattened geese kept available for such occasions.
The ladies did not always accompany Mr. Bright on his journeys about the District, as they were usually hurried and undertaken with scant preparation. Very little of the flesh-pots of Bengal sufficed to satisfy Muktiarbad's Chief of Police, who had been thoroughly broken in to the rough-and-tumble of official life in the mafasil. The presence of his family in camp was a hindrance to Mr. Bright, and he was better pleased to return, after his strenuous duties, to the peace of domesticity at his bungalow in the Station. Moreover, there was little of interest in the monotony of camping in lonely places for a young girl to whom her mother wished to give every opportunity of settling in life, whatever might be her own ideas respecting a vocation. Muktiarbad, though a rural backwater of Bengal, and pronounced by the gay-minded, a penal settlement, had matrimonial possibilities not to be despised by anxious parents with daughters to be happily disposed of.
On the whole, it was a highly social if small community who made the most of their opportunities for enjoyment, accepting the limitations of the place to which it had pleased Providence and the Ruling Power to appoint them, with the usual healthy philosophy which has made India so rich in memories.
It mattered little if they had to endure the discomforts of the climate and various inconveniences besides; others were in a worse case. Nor did it matter if they never reached the goal for which they strove—it was Kismet!
Fatalism is a habit of mind peculiar to the people of the East, where the unexpected might happen at any time without warning; and it is not unusual for Europeans to slip half-consciously into the same mental attitude.
It is consequently not surprising that, in spite of many lurking dangers, life in the rural districts is careless and free. Risks of cholera, sunstroke, and snake-bite, are taken boldly without a thought of possibilities. India has need of resourceful minds and nerves of steel; and no use for the faltering and irresolute.
Even Mrs. Bright took chances for her family and friends when her cook at the eleventh hour sent to Robinath Mukerjea's store in the bazaar for tins of salmon (the fish procured from a local tank being deemed inevitably earthy in flavour); for Mukerjea bought his provisions at sales of old stock from the Army and Navy Stores, vowing they were fresh consignments from Belait; but no one was deceived when patronising his shop in spite of risks of ptomaine. However, a dinner cooked by Kareem Majid was an achievement more worthy of a Goanese than a Mohammedan, and none who dined at the Brights' was ever the worse.
"My dear," Mrs. Bright had been heard to observe in earlier days, "were it not for Honor and the necessity to cultivate the acquaintance of one's own child, I should never leave India. How I miss that treasure, Kareem! He has been with us since we were married, and there never was a more useful servant. Whether in camp or in my own bungalow, it is just the same; he rises to every emergency and cooks like a French chef. At a pinch he'll valet my husband. He has even in an emergency fastened the hooks of my blouse at the back; and when Honor was a child, played with her when she had the measles and kept her from crying herself into a fit. When other servants ran away from the cholera, he stayed and did everything but sweep the floors! And when any one is sick, I have never known the equal of his 'chicken jugs'! He is so self-reliant, too. I have only to say, 'Kareem, six guests for dinner tonight. Don't ask for orders—do just as you please, only don't mention the subject of food as you value your life!' And he will salaam and say, 'Jo hukum,' after which I have no responsibility whatever; dinner up to time, everything cooked to perfection, and when you think of what an Indian cook-house is, really, you are overcome with admiration. Can you fancy an English cook consenting to turn out dinners under like conditions? You get notice in a day! And who thinks of sparing Indian servants? As many courses as you like, with a wash-up like a small mountain, which the masalchi disposes of behind the pantry door on a yard or two of bamboo matting, with an earthen gumla, a kettle of boiling water, and an unthinkable swab! An English maid would have hysterics."
To make existence possible to the residents of Muktiarbad, there was the great, straggling bazaar on the outskirts of the Station ready to supply the necessaries of life. An enlightened confidence in the rule of the sahibs and in their honour and justice was a tradition with the local population whose trust in the Sarcar was unbounded; for sedition had not yet poisoned the minds of the peace-loving, contented agriculturists and shopkeepers who were as conservative as they were simple. It was only in outlying villages that occasional trouble brewed when ignorant and superstitious minds were played upon by malcontents.
Ten minutes' grace was allowed to Mrs. Meredith—no more—and Mr. Bright offered his arm to Mrs. Barrington Fox and led the way to the dining-room. Mr. Barrington Fox was seldom to be persuaded into accepting Station hospitalities; and usually made the time-worn excuse, as on the present occasion, of inspection duty on the line. The Station, however, understood it to mean that he had ceased to find pleasure in his wife's company and was determined not to be victimised.
The dining-room at the Brights' was a large apartment, whitewashed like a hospital ward, but redeemed by hunting pictures on the walls, graceful drapery, and good furniture. A punkha with a mat frill hung motionless overhead, as weather conditions were sufficiently altered to dispense with an artificial breeze; and the dining table beneath it presented an inviting aspect with its glittering mass of silver, glass, and flowers. A draught-screen concealed the door of ingress from the pantry where the business of serving was carried on by the khansaman assisted by a group of white-robed domestics. Agitated whispers from behind the screen were infallible indications of mistakes retrieved in the nick of time; otherwise, the occasional blow of the ice hammer, or the rolling of the ice machine on the outer door-mat were the only sounds audible from the dining-room.
Mrs. Bright, full of confidence in her staff and indifferent to mistakes which were not inexcusable, showed a complete detachment from the details of serving while she entertained her guests.
A little reshuffling of the order of precedence, when Mrs. Meredith's non-appearance was assured, had disposed of Tommy Deare to his entire satisfaction. Left to shift for himself he moved to the other side of Honor Bright whom Jack Darling had piloted in. He was a plain, freckle-faced boy of twenty-two with plenty to say for himself, and a most engaging smile. In height he was on a level with Honor who was considered tall; yet, to his disgust, he was referred to as a "little man." But since it was recognised that "valuable goods are packed in small parcels," he assured his friends of his inestimable worth, and was comforted.
"Mrs. Meredith is too absurd about that kid of hers," Mrs. Fox was heard to remark in the first hush that fell with the arrival of the soup. "Isn't it the baby who is ill tonight?" to Captain Dalton.
"If I had known, I should have mentioned it," said the doctor above his soup plate. The rudeness of the reply was characteristic of him.
"I understood from Mrs. Meredith that she and her offspring are in your charge. How neglectful of you to know nothing!"
"I am ready to attend to them when called in," he replied.
"Then you have not been wanted!" she laughed spitefully. "It must be very mortifying never to be wanted except when you are of use!"
"A doctor is the one man whom you are only too glad to see the last of," said Dalton coldly.
"All the same, I shouldn't be a bit surprised if it's the baby who is ill, and you are sent for before dinner is over. Mrs. Meredith said it would be the only reason that would stop her coming," put in Mrs. Bright, anxious to soothe.
"I hope not, indeed!" cried Mrs. Fox. "For now we've got you we mean to make you sing. Don't imagine we'll let you off."
The doctor bowed a stiff acknowledgment, which meant nothing, and entered into conversation with the Executive Engineer on the subject of a morass which he had condemned in his Sanitary Report, and recommended to be drained.
"The villagers won't stand it," said Mr. Ironsides. "They draw their drinking water from that jhil, and providing them with wells instead will not console them for its loss. Incidentally, they use it also for laundry purposes and bathing," he laughed.
"Exactly. So the sooner it is done away with the better for their health and the health of the District. Malaria and cholera have their source at Panipara."
"I hope you are not trying to deprive us of our duck-shooting, Doctor," said Mr. Bright in alarm. "We depend upon Panipara Jhil for game in the winters, and there is little sport besides, in this God-forsaken place."
"It will have to go if you want immunity from sickness," said Dalton.
"If they don't mind it, I don't know why we should. It rages chiefly in Panipara village itself, and is nothing to us."
"It comes on here afterwards with the flies," said Tommy.
"A few natives, more or less, wiped off the face of the earth hereabouts would be a benefit to Muktiarbad," drawled young Smart of the Railway from his seat on Mrs. Fox's right, which, by an unwritten law was always accorded to him at Station dinners.
"How very unfeeling!" cried two or three ladies in unison.
A vigorous argument arose to which Honor listened, deeply interested. Panipara Jhil lay a few miles outside the Station, with the village of the same name lying on its banks. It occupied an area of a square mile or two of marsh land, was overrun with water-weeds and lotus plants, and dotted about with islands full of jungle growth and date-palms—a picturesque but unhealthy spot, dear to lovers of sport.
"The natives haven't the foggiest idea of hygiene," said the doctor finally. "But they cannot be argued with. They will continue their filthy habits though twenty to thirty per cent. of them get wiped out by cholera annually. Drain the jhil and give them wells, and there'll be little or no sickness afterwards. Incidentally, several hundred bighas of ground will be reclaimed for agricultural purposes, which will be a benefit to the owner."
"The Government will take its own time to consider the proposition, and a few years hence, when it has exhausted all the red tape available, it will be put through," said Honor. "In the meantime, the cholera, like the poor, will be 'with us always!'"
"I shouldn't be at all surprised," said the doctor meeting her eyes in swift appreciation of her verdict.
He said no more to her, for others intervened and the conversation changed.
Captain Dalton looked a trifle more cynical and dissatisfied than usual, Honor thought. His strong jaw and irregular features hid his thoughts, but not their reflection which showed a mental unrest. He was clearly not a happy man, and was plainly a discordant element in light-hearted company. "A real wet blanket," Tommy whispered in her ear. "If one makes a joke he either doesn't hear it, or thinks it not worth laughing at. Something has turned him sour, so he hates to see people happy."
But Honor was not in agreement with him. "I grant he is an embittered man—he looks it; but he is quite willing that you should enjoy yourself so long as you don't force your high spirits on him. If one's mind is not in accord with blithesomeness, one surely might be excused from taking part in it."
"I do believe you like the blighter?" Tommy cried reproachfully.
"I have every reason to," she answered stoutly.
"Because he cured you of snake-bite? Doctors get a pull over us poor laymen when it comes to matters of life and death. They do their duty, and you are grateful for all time," at which Honor laughed heartily, for Tommy was looking personally injured.
"There's Mrs. Meredith!" he continued. "She talks of him with tears in her eyes as though he were a saint—Old Nick, more likely!—He has been endowed with every virtue when he has none, simply because he put the Squawk to rights." Tommy had seen Joyce that afternoon and went on to describe his visit. "She was looking topping, so was the kid; which makes it all the more mysterious, her not turning up. But, my word, she is pretty! One might be excused for any indiscretion when she makes eyes at one!"
However, to his disappointment, Honor showed no symptoms of jealousy. "I'll wager she neglected you for her baby!" She said. "Mrs. Meredith has no interest in young men."
"She had plenty in me. We grew quite intimate—talked of the weather and anopheles mosquitoes, and improved the occasion by rubbing eau de Cologne on the bites."
"How very thrilling! and she forgot all about you the moment you had left!"
"Everyone forgets all about Tommy the moment he has left," put in Jack, thinking it about time to remind them of his presence.
He was a handsome young athlete of twenty-five, with the reputation of having played in the Rugby International. He owned a complexion inconveniently given to blushing. He and Tommy chummed together in a three-roomed bungalow near the Police Court and were generally known as inseparables. Both played polo and tennis with skill and kept the Station entertained by their high spirits and resourcefulness.
Honor's attention was diverted by an animated discussion among her elders respecting the duties of a wife and mother in the East.
"A mother is perfectly justified in taking her child home if it cannot stand the climate," Mrs. Fox was saying.
"I suppose the question to be decided is, whom a woman cares most for, child or husband—whether she will live away from her husband for the sake of the child, or from the child for the sake of the husband, presuming that the climate is not suitable to children," said a guest.
A strident voice was heard to remark that women had no business to marry men whose careers were in the East, if they meant to live away from them most of the time. "It's a tragedy for which doctors are mainly responsible," with a sniff and a challenging glance at Captain Dalton.
"Oh, you doctors!" laughed Mrs. Bright, shaking her finger at him. "See what mischief you are accountable for!—ruined lives, broken homes!"
"In many cases, it is a charity to part husbands and wives," said the doctor grimly.
"Hear, hear!" from Mrs. Fox, at which Mrs. Ironsides was shocked.
"I hope Mrs. Meredith will not go home so soon," she said. "It will be a pity, when she and her husband have been so lately married. Somebody should influence her to remain and give the hills a trial. They seem to suit children very well."
"If she goes home it will be nothing short of a calamity," said Honor quietly, thinking of Ray Meredith's devotion and his wife's unsophisticated and undeveloped mind. "It would never do unless she means to return immediately."
"A child of tender years needs its mother," said a lady whose heart yearned for her little one in England. "No stranger will give it the same sympathy or care."
"It is a difficult problem to which there is no solution," said Mrs. Bright.
"I always feel, when I see a wife living for years at home while her husband remains out here, that there is no love lost between them. The children serve as an excellent excuse for the separation," said Honor, colouring at her own audacity in voicing an opinion so pronounced. "No reason on earth should be strong enough to part those who care deeply for each other."
"Hear, hear!" murmured Tommy under his breath, while Mrs. Fox laughed disagreeably. "An excellent sentiment coming from you, Miss Bright, who have no experience. Long may you subscribe to it."
Honor blushed still deeper. "I have my ideals," she returned.
"I trust they will never be shattered!" the lady sneered.
Again Dalton's eyes met Honor's with strange intentness. Feeling out of her depth she had looked involuntarily to him for the subtle sympathy, instinct told her was in his attitude to her, and she had received it abundantly in the slow smile which softened his expression to one of absolute kindness. It created a glow at her heart, to linger with her for the rest of the evening.
"Whenever I used to run home on short 'leave of absence' to see if Honor had not altogether forgotten me," said Mrs. Bright, smiling reminiscently, "and dared to hint at an extension, my husband would squander all his T.A. in cablegrams threatening to divorce me on the spot in favour of some mythical person if I did not return by the next mail. Wasn't that so, dear?"
"Gross exaggeration, my love. I could never get you to take a respectable holiday, for just as I was beginning to enjoy my liberty as a grass-widower, you would bob up serenely with 'No, you don't' on every line of your rosy face. It was worth anything, however, to see those English roses back again."
("The reason why Honor is such a nice girl," a lady once told Captain Dalton, "is because she has such a charming example of love in her home. Love is in her bones; her parents are so perfectly united that it is impossible for Honor to be anything but a good wife. Parents are immensely responsible for their children's psychology.")
"I have never ceased to thank Providence that I have no children!" said the wife of a railway official, with a sigh of contentment, "so the tragedy of separation has never affected me. I can honestly say that I have never left my husband for more than a day since we married, fifteen years ago!" and she reared her thin neck out of her evening gown and looked about her for congratulations.
"Lord, how sick of her he must be!" whispered Tommy under his breath, to the delight of Jack and Honor. "Life would be stale and unprofitable if I could not repeat the honeymoon every autumn when my wife returned from the hills. So thrilling to fall in love with one's own wife every year!"
"Which proves that you will make a very bad husband," said Honor severely. "Out of sight out of mind."
"He won't talk so glibly of sending his wife to the hills when he has discovered that she has been carrying on with Snooks of the Convalescent Depot while he has been stewing in the plains," said Jack with a blase air.
"Since when have you turned cynic, Mr. Darling?" Honor asked, astonished. "It doesn't become you in the least!"
"Jack had an enlightening holiday in Darjeeling last month when he had ten days during the Pujas," Tommy explained with reprisals in his eye. "It accounts for his attitude of mind. Having strict principles and a faint heart, no one had any use for him up there but Mrs. Meredith and the Y. M. C. A.——"
"Don't listen to him, Miss Bright," Jack interrupted.
"—So in sheer desperation he turned nurse to Squawk and ran errands for its mother, wondering the while how it was that some men had all the luck!"
"Draw it mild, I say!"
"And now he sits up half the night composing odes to her eyebrows and boring me stiff with his sighs."
"Liar!" laughed Jack. "I couldn't write poetry to save my life."
"It doesn't prevent him from trying. Then there's her photograph——"
"It isn't hers, I told you!" Jack protested. "Tommy, you're a villain."
"It's jolly like her, what I saw of it when it fell out from under your pillow."
By this time Jack was crimson. He relapsed into sulky silence and devoted himself to his plate with appetite. Honor Bright wanted no better evidence of the fact that he was heart-whole, though she continued to wonder whose was the photograph he was treasuring so sentimentally.
Dinner progressed through its many courses towards dessert, when toasts were drunk to "Absent Ones," and "Sweethearts and Wives,"—the usual conclusion to dinners at the Brights'; then, with a loud scraping of chairs, the ladies rose and filed out of the room.
Later, when the gentlemen appeared having finished their smokes, it was discovered that Captain Dalton had retired. He had excused himself to his host on the plea of a late visit to his patient at Sombari, three miles out, and was gone.
"Dear, dear!" sighed Mrs. Bright. "How very disappointing! Evidently he had no intention of singing tonight, and I hear he has such a divine voice!"
"But we don't begrudge that poor girl his attention when she is so ill," put in Mrs. Ironsides.
"Indeed, no. I wonder how she is."
"Pretty bad, from all accounts," said Mr. Bright.
"Her poor mother must be distracted. The only real happiness she has in life is the companionship of this only child. Mr. Meek is so narrow-minded and autocratic in domestic life. He must be sorry now that he deprived the child of so many opportunities of innocent amusement."
"Not at all," said a guest. "He will congratulate himself that he kept her unspotted from the world. Muktiarbad is his idea of unadulterated godlessness. We are such a bad example to his converts, you know, with our tennis on Sundays!"
"Poor little Elsie! I hope she will recover," said Mrs. Bright.
Honor felt a distinct sense of depression when she heard that Captain Dalton had gone quietly away without even a hint to herself that he had had no intention of staying. It was clear that he had no interest in remaining; his excuse she disregarded, for he could have visited Sombari earlier in the evening when he knew that he was engaged to dine out. She believed he liked her ... but he was "not seeking to marry her," as he had said to Joyce in camp, so it was her duty to rise above the folly of thinking too much of a man who would never be anything more to her than a mere acquaintance. With a determined effort to stifle feelings of wounded pride and disappointment, she ordered Tommy to the piano to beguile the company with ragtime ditties at which he was past-master, and while he played and others sang, notably Bobby Smart, who was not to be chained to the side of Mrs. Fox, the latter was left to cultivate the acquaintance of the shy Apollo, Jack Darling, whom the Brights and Tommy had hitherto absorbed.
Jack met her ravishing smile with a blush of self-consciousness, fearing all eyes upon himself as he accepted the seat beside her on a chesterfield. He was so obviously new to the art of intrigue, so conspicuously ingenuous, that he had the charm of novelty for her. She believed that Mrs. Bright was manoeuvring to get him for a son-in-law and was chafing at Honor's lack of worldly wisdom in dividing her favours equally between him and Tommy whose prospects in life were less brilliant. The situation was one entirely after her own heart, to make or mar with impish deliberation. In spite of his comparatively inferior social standing and unattractive appearance, Tommy was popular with the girls for his ready wit. He dared to be unconscious of his disadvantages and stormed his way into the front rank of drawing-room favourites; but he was too unimpressionable and discerning to suit Mrs. Fox's taste, so she left him alone to see what she could make of Jack whose guilelessness was a strong appeal to women of her type. His development under her guidance seemed the only excitement life had to offer her in this rural backwater, and she was not one to miss her opportunities.
"I'd dearly love to act sponsor to a boy like you in the beginning of his career, Jack," she cried with a tender inflection of the voice. "By the way, I'm going to call you 'Jack'—may I?"
"Certainly, if you care to," he returned awkwardly.
"Oh, you are priceless! What an opportunity you missed for a pretty speech!" and she laid her hand caressingly on his for a moment to emphasise her delight in him.
"Why? what should I have said?" he asked, laughing boyishly, and wincing under her touch. The suggestion of intimacy in her manner somewhat embarrassed him.
"I should like to see you a few years hence when your education is complete," she returned, evading his question teasingly. "But you mustn't marry, or you will be utterly spoilt."
"There is no immediate prospect of that!" he said laughing and giving away the fact that he was heart-whole. "But won't you take up the job tonight and begin instructing me?"
"I am sorely tempted to," she replied, smiling affectionately on him. "You must really learn your possibilities. They are limitless. After that, everything will come naturally,—assurance, the wit to grasp opportunities, and a bold initiative, without which a man is no good."
"No good?—for what?" he pressed ingenuously.
"To pass the time with, of course, O most adorable infant!" she laughed silently, returning his look with an expression of half-veiled admiration.
In stations where officials came and went with meteoric suddenness owing to the reshuffling of the governmental pack of human cards, friendships were as sudden as they were transient. Jack Darling having arrived at Muktiarbad while Mrs. Fox was at a hill station, their acquaintance was only in its initial stage.
"Look at Mrs. Fox," whispered Mrs. Ironsides to Mrs. Bright. "She is doing her best to spoil that nice boy with her flattery! You can tell that she is pouring conceit into him by the bucketful. Shameless creature! I wonder her husband doesn't send her home."
"She prefers India," Mrs. Bright showed a restless eye.
"Mr. Smart will be only too glad if Mr. Darling relieves him of his attendance on Mrs. Fox. Did you notice how he yawned at table while she was talking to him?"
"He lives in her pocket, all the same, and is always at her beck and call."
"Was my dear. I have noticed a great change latterly, and I hear he is going to be transferred. Mr. Fox knows his people at home and is arranging it."
"And he knows his wife better," said Mrs. Bright with satire. It seemed at Muktiarbad everybody knew everybody else's affairs.
She allowed a brief interval to pass and then, using her privilege as hostess, captured Jack on the pretext of sending him to the piano, with Honor to select his song from a pile of music in a canterbury. By the time the ballad was finished and a chorus was in full swing, Mrs. Fox had been carried away by Mr. Bright to make a fourth at auction in another room.
Jack watched her go somewhat regretfully, wondering the while, shamefacedly, if he would be able to have another talk with her that night, and consigning all scandalmongers to perdition, who had dared to make free with her name. He refused to believe ill of so charming a lady, and was not surprised that Bobby Smart had found her company attractive—why not? When a brute of a husband spent all his time down the line instead of trying to make life pleasant for his wife, it was no wonder she was obliged to find entertainment for herself in the society of other men! Hers was a poor sort of life, anyway.
When the party broke up, Mrs. Fox elected to walk home as a tribute to the glorious moonlight, and Jack was commandeered to act as her escort. It was a good opportunity for the lady to show that renegade, Master Bobby Smart, that he was not indispensable. His yawn at dinner deserved a reprisal.
Bobby Smart, however, was not slow to profit by his release from escort duty, and wasted no time in pleasing himself. "I'll drop you home, Deare," he said cheerfully, "and we'll have a whisky-and-soda at your bungalow before you turn in."
"I should wait till I'm asked," said Tommy lighting a cigarette and dropping the match in a flower-pot on the verandah.
"I knew you were pining to have me round for a buk."
[Footnote 9: Chat.]
"You can come in if you promise to go home by midnight," Tommy condescended. "I'll not be kept up later."
"On the stroke. That's a jolly good whisky you have. I was going to send to Kellner's for the same brand today, but forgot."
Tommy climbed into Smart's trap and consented to be driven home. His hospitality and Jack's was proverbial at Muktiarbad.
A MOMENT OF RELAXATION
On leaving the Brights' dinner-party, Captain Dalton made his way to his car and sped out upon the moonlit road. An appreciable hesitation at the gate ended in his taking a course in an opposite direction to that in which lay Sombari and his patient.
A misty peacefulness of smoke and quietude brooded over the Station. Darkened bungalows looked like sightless monsters dead to the world, and the silent lanes were alive alone with fireflies scintillating like myriad stars in a firmament of leaves. At Muktiarbad, there was little else for the English residents to do after the Club had closed its door at nine, but eat, drink, and sleep. Theatres never patronised mafasil stations, and cinemas had not yet found their way so far into rural Bengal. In the bazaar also, which was strictly the native quarter of the town, the night was silent save for intermittent tom-tomming on the favourite dholuk, or, here and there, the murmur of gossiping in doorways. Behind mat walls men gambled or slept, and by the pale light of the moon could be seen the smoke of burning cow-dung—kindled for the destruction of mosquitoes—curling upward from the clusters of thatched huts, and filling the air with opalescent mist.
[Footnote 10: Indian drum.]
But Captain Dalton had no business in the bazaar.
If Honor Bright could have seen him then, she would have been surprised at the look of indecision on his usually determined face. Freed from the restraint of curious eyes watching for revelations of himself, the man's face wore a more human expression; his peculiar half-smile of toleration, or contempt, relaxing the lines of his stern mouth.
For a couple of furlongs he drove fast, then slowed down to a noiseless glide as he ran past the tall cactus fence bordering the Collector's domain. At the end of the fence where it turned at right angles dividing the "compound" from a paddock, the engines were reversed in the narrow lane, till the car came back to the rustic gate beyond the culvert.
It lay hospitably open in the usual way of gates in the Station, and gave access to the grounds. There was only a momentary pause while Dalton seemed to make sure of his intention, and the next instant he was moving slowly up the drive between the handsome goldmohur trees of the avenue. In the dark shadow of one of these, he shut off his engines and stepped to the ground.
All about him, the garden was bathed in silver light, each shrub and arbour steeped in tranquil loveliness, while footpaths gleamed white amidst stretches of dusky lawns; the whole presenting a scene of veritable enchantment under the soft radiance of the moon; a gentle breeze, the while, rustling among the leaves.
In front of him lay the wide, squat bungalow with its flat roof ornamented by a castellated balustrade of masonry, and supported by tall pillars. The verandah was in darkness but for a hurricane hand lantern on the top step.
He was not sure that he had the right to intrude at that late hour even with the pretext of a semi-official inquiry ... but lights in the drawing-room and the tones of the piano, rich and sweet, ended his indecision. The staff of servants being reduced by their master's requirements in camp, there was no one at hand to announce his arrival. Even the peon, supposed to keep watch against the intrusion of toads and snakes, had betaken himself to the servants' quarters behind the bungalow, for his last smoke before shutting up the house for the night.
Joyce was playing Liszt's Liebestraum with diligence, but no feeling. Her execution was good, but her soul being yet unawakened, she played without understanding, and Dalton's musical sense suffered tortures as he listened for a few moments; then, abruptly parting the curtains, he ruthlessly interrupted the performance by his entrance, conscious on the instant of the alluring picture she made,—or, rather, would make, to senses that were impressionable. Having outlived that stage, he could only survey at his leisure the curve of her youthful cheek and the small bow of her mouth that seemed to demand kisses; watch the lights dance in the gold of her hair, and amuse himself with the play of her eyelashes. She was dressed in rich simplicity, the only colour about her, apart from the shell-pink of her face and the natural crimson of her lips, was a deep, red rose in her bosom. He inhaled its perfume as she ran to him and seized his hand in impetuous welcome, while he could not but appreciate the exceptional opportunity afforded him of improving their acquaintance.
"How did you know that I was longing to send for you but lacking in courage?" she asked, holding his hand in both hers with extreme cordiality, born of her gratitude for his late services. Her manner was that of a child towards a respected senior, and was not without a certain charm.
"You did not come to dinner," he replied with his grudging smile, "so I had to call and see why. You are such a grave responsibility to me in your husband's absence."
"Does it weigh very heavily on you?" she asked coquettishly.
"As you see, it dragged me here at this late hour!"
"Poor you!" she sympathised; then instantly pulled a long face and explained her alarms deprecatingly while she drew him—still holding his hand—to her bedroom that he might see the child for himself and judge of his condition.
It was her habit to have the baby's crib by her bed, and the ayah close at hand in case of disturbed nights, while Meredith was compelled to retire to a separate suite, adjoining hers. "Such a young infant needs his mother, you selfish old Daddy, and must not be deprived." Arguments respecting the advantages of employing an English nurse and establishing a nursery had been swept aside as arbitrary and unfeeling. As if she could ever consent to a hireling occupying her place with her beloved child! Others might do as they pleased and lose their place in their little ones' affections, but not she! Fathers should consider their offspring before themselves. When Meredith had looked unconvinced and injured, she had tried to soften the blow by cajoleries, in the use of which she was past-mistress. Silly goose! as if the same roof did not cover them both! and didn't she belong to him and no one else in the world?—"Was he going to be a cross boy, then, and make his little girl's life miserable with big, ugly frowns?..."
The doctor gave the child a brief examination as he and Joyce leant over the crib, shoulder to shoulder. She seemed so unconscious of the close contact and of its effect on the average masculine nature that he mentally decided she was either a simpleton or a practised flirt, given to playing with fire.
"I shall sleep so much better tonight now that I know there is nothing seriously wrong with my precious darling!" she said, returning beside him to the drawing-room and tantalising him with brief glances from her shy, sweet eyes.
"You worry quite unnecessarily, take it from me," he returned. "Don't put him in a glass case, and he will do all right. You should go out more."
"I shall, when Ray comes back. He has the car."
"Play tennis every afternoon at the Club."
"I daren't! I play so badly," she pouted.
"Then come driving with me," he said on an impulse which he regretted the moment after, for it would deprive him of the scant leisure he usually devoted to a treatise he was writing. It was not his habit to sacrifice himself to strangers and people in whom he was not greatly interested. However, the study of the little spoiled beauty might prove entertaining since she was not as transparent as he had imagined. The mystery of her undeveloped nature, her childish outlook on life, her ingenuousness and coquetry, were all somewhat unusual and appealing. He could not quite gauge her feeling for her husband who worshipped the ground she trod on. She probably took him for granted as she took the solar system, and was not above practising her arts innocently on others to relieve the monotony of her days. Like most pretty women, he judged her fully aware of her prettiness, and not bound by too rigid a sense of propriety. It might amuse him to test how far she would permit herself to go—or the men who admired her physical beauty; and as he had no friendship for her husband, he was not troubled by too many qualms on Meredith's account. With a big score to settle against Life, he considered himself at liberty to choose the nature of his compensation, and so be even with Fate.
"I should dearly love to drive with you," Joyce said engagingly, thinking of his perfect little car and the triumph it would be to tame this unsociable and reserved person in the eyes of all the Station. What a score for her little self!
Being essentially of a friendly disposition, she saw no reason why he should not become her particular friend. Not as if she were a creature like Mrs. Fox, or other women who flirted—perish the thought! There could therefore be no possible wrong.
"Have you ever driven your car?" he asked indulgently.
"I don't think so, only no one ever showed me how."
"Shall I teach you?"
"Will you? What a dear you are!" she cried with eyes sparkling and dimples in full play as she seized the lapels of his coat and made him swear not to back out. "It will be great! What a surprise for Ray—you won't mention it? I can fancy myself hopping into the chauffeur's seat, and whoof! gliding away before his eyes. I shall dream of it all night."
"And of me?" he asked looking at his watch and recalling his intention to visit Sombari before midnight.
"Of course. That goes without saying if it is about your car!" twirling lightly on her toe with the grace of a born dancer.
"I find it difficult to believe you are married," he said with a crooked smile. "Your husband should call you 'Joy.'"
"He invents all sorts of pet names far sweeter."
"Anyhow, I shall think of you as 'Joy,'" he amended, taking up his cap from the piano.
"I can't fancy you thinking of any one so frivolous as myself," she laughed. "But you are not going, surely? We haven't even begun to talk!"
The open piano and her frank disappointment drew him to dally with temptation, and he seated himself on the music stool, uninvited, to run his fingers over the keys. "You were playing the Liebestraum. Will you let me play it to you?" he coolly suggested, anxious to give her a lesson as to how it should be interpreted; and without waiting for her consent, began to play.
Joyce drew up full of interest and pleasure to listen and watch, instantly aware that he was no self-advertised musician. As she had no conceit in regard to her one and only accomplishment, she was ready and willing to learn from him.
Dalton played with the technique and sympathy of a great artist. Though the opening movement was soft and low, every note fell like drops of liquid sweetness, clear and true—the melody thrilling her with its tender appeal. Insensibly it grew stronger and louder, the pace quickened, till the crash of chords and the rippling rush of sound caused her to hold her breath in an ecstasy lest she should be robbed of a single delight. Now and then, she glanced at his face and she knew that, for the moment, she had ceased to exist for him. His strange, jade-green eyes with their flecked irids had widened as though with inspiration. He saw visions as he played, gazing intently into space; Joyce wondered what he saw, sure that it was beautiful, and passionately sad. Gradually, the passion and dignity of the music having reached its climax, it grew weary and spent. The glorious melody sighed its own requiem and softly died away on a single note.
For a moment neither spoke, till Joyce gave a hysterical sob that broke the spell. "It is too wonderful—the way you play!" she cried breathlessly. "It makes my flesh creep and my heart stand still. I know now why you chose to play the Liebestraum!——"
He smiled back at her like the culprit he was.
"I had dared to attempt its murder!—believe me, I shall never play it again!"
"I wanted to show you how it might be played, but I do not dare to criticise."
"You have done so, scathingly!—Oh! I feel so small."
"Then I am sorry I played it."
"I am infinitely glad. You will have to teach me something more than motoring," she said wistfully, her blue eyes pleading. "You will have to tell me how I should play. I want to hear you all day long!"
He smiled at her enthusiasm. "I shall be delighted to give you all the help I can."
"Honor Bright said yesterday that you once sang to her—I am jealous! Won't you sing to me?"
"Did she tell you of the occasion?"
"Yes, and how good you were to her."
"She is a heroine—Honor Bright," he repeated her name with curious tenderness.
"She thinks you are a wonderful person, altogether."
"Does she?" he asked quickly, a shadow falling suddenly over his face at a thought which was evidently disturbing. "How am I wonderful?"
"I don't know. She said something about great depths in your nature. She believes you are tremendously good, inside, but that you will not show it because you have been hit very hard and feel like hitting back."
He was silenced for a moment.
"What made her say that?" he asked while continuing to draw subdued harmonies from the instrument.
"It was to explain your attitude towards people. You are so hard and cold. But what does all that matter? The main thing is, I want you to sing, and you must!" She laid her hands over his on the keys with pretty imperativeness, and put an end to the chords.
"Look at the time," said he, drawing attention to the gilt clock on an occasional table. The phrase "hard and cold" echoed in his ears to mock him.
"It is certainly late!" she gasped, as she realised that the hands pointed to a quarter past eleven. "But I am so lonely and dull. Do sing to me!"
A mischievous smile twisted his lips as he struck the opening bars of The Dear Homeland. "It's an old ballad and will probably bore you to tears," he said, before beginning to sing. Joyce had often heard it sung, but never with the feeling Captain Dalton threw into it for her benefit alone. It was a strong and direct appeal to nostalgia, and the quality of his voice, together with the words, dissolved her into tears of positive distress. When he had finished, she was weeping silently into her little hands,—unaffectedly and sincerely.
"I cannot bear it!" she sobbed childishly. "Why did you choose that when you knew how I am longing for home and the home faces!"
"I am a brute, am I not?" he said repentantly, taking down her hands and drying her eyes with his handkerchief. "Was it a nasty fellow, then, to tease?"
"It was," she laughed hysterically with downcast lids and sobbing breath, looking adorable with her saddened wet eyes and crimson flush.
"Come, I'll make up for it and sing you something quite different." And he was as good as his word, singing passionate love-songs that swore eternal devotion to a mythical "Beloved," till a clock, striking twelve, brought him abruptly to his feet.
"Do you always allow your visitors to stay so late?" he asked while saying good-night.
"I never have visitors at night when I am alone," she returned, surprised. "Why do you ask?"
"Because you are too pretty and will have to be careful. Pretty women have enemies of both sexes."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that men will want to make love to you if you are too kind, and women will tear your reputation to shreds."
He watched the flush deepen in her cheeks: she was uncertain how to take his remark, but decided he had not meant a liberty.
"I think I shall always fear women more than men," she said finally, thinking of the slanderous tongues of her sex.
"Am I forgiven for having made you cry?" he asked.
"Of course. Thank you so much for the songs. You sing like an angel."
"A very bad one I'm afraid," he returned. "With your leave I shall take this rose as a pledge," he said drawing it from the brooch at her bosom and laying it against his lips. "Look, it is fading fast. Will you fix it in my coat?"
Joyce unaffectedly complied. He was welcome to the rose as a reward for his beautiful music. "When you get home, put it in water, and it will fill your room with fragrance," she said patting it into position.
"—And my mind of you?" he suggested tentatively, knowing full well that he would forget all about her and her rose the moment he was out of sight of her dwelling. Already he was wondering why he had allowed himself to waste so much of his valuable time in trifling and whether he would have dared the same liberty with the rose had it been resting on Honor Bright's bosom. With Honor, somehow, a man would have to plead for favours and value them for their rarity when obtained. No man in the Station took liberties with Honor Bright, and every man thoroughly respected her. Dalton shook his mind free of the thought of Honor Bright.
"I shan't mind if the rose recalls me to you, so long as you promise to forget my Liebestraum!" said Joyce.
"I shall remember only the tears I caused you to shed, and never be so cruel again." Dalton passed out into the verandah accompanied by his hostess who desired to speed the parting guest. "When does your husband return?" he asked.
"Tomorrow night. I am counting the hours," she replied. "Haven't you heard that 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder'?"
"I don't subscribe to that sentiment," he retorted with a disagreeable laugh as he walked towards the car.
She certainly had the makings of a dangerous flirt, he decided, though, at present, she was only feeling her way. Time would develop her powers and then, God help the young idiots who would lose their heads! Most of all, God help her fool-husband—the besotted idealist! In a few years, Joyce Meredith would be no better than most lovely women in the East—notably such as flourished in the hill stations of India.
Dalton was amused, and laughed aloud at his own weakness and folly. He had not wanted her rose—yet, at the moment, the propinquity of her beauty had magnetised him and given him the desire for a closer intimacy—possibly a kiss!—so he had put his lips to the rose! Feminine witchery had made utter fools of men through the ages! Given further chances of intimacy, a rose might not again suffice!
By the time Dalton had reached the crossroads, indecision had again taken possession of him, and he hesitated at the wheel. He had left the Brights' party fully intending to run out to Sombari, but had been diverted; and now it was too late. They would not be expecting him after midnight. He yawned, thoroughly tired, as he had had a strenuous day, and decided to call at the Mission fairly early in the morning, instead. There was nothing he could do for the sufferer more than was being done by the trained nurse he had procured for the case.
Satisfied in mind that bed was the best place for tired people, Dalton turned his car and drove it to his own bungalow next door to the Brights'.
Life at a small station like Muktiarbad would have been a dull affair for any young girl not constituted like Honor Bright. Being endowed with plenty of common sense and sincerity of purpose, she found a great deal to occupy her in her restricted circle by throwing herself into the business of the moment, heart and soul. If it were an early morning ride, she enjoyed every yard of it, and all there was to see and do. Even the flat countryside with its endless fields of paddy and mustard were good to view because Muktiarbad was "home" to her.