"Define the word 'home,'" she was once asked when very young. "Where Mother is," was her ready reply. "Where Love is," would be her later and more comprehensive amendment.
When she played tennis she played to win, and her enthusiasm infected others, till the game was worth the energy, however great the heat. If house-duties were imposed on her, they were accomplished thoroughly and cheerfully. Honor striding across the back-yard to examine the horses in their stalls, the condition of their bedding, and to see them fed; or to inspect the chicken run; or visiting the kitchen to view pots and pans which were arranged at a particular hour, bottom up, in a row, to prove how perfectly aluminium could be made to shine, was a refreshing sight; and the grace of her gait, the freedom of her movements, and the brightness of her looks, brought sunshine to hearts on the darkest days.
In spite of Mrs. Bright's confidence in her faithful Kareem Majid, she never neglected to supervise those details of housekeeping in India that make all the difference between sickness and health, economy and extravagance. "For, however wonderful the dear servants are, they do want watching," she would explain to inquiring friends. "You simply have to see what they are up to, or run terrible risks of microbes in the kitchen, horses falling ill, and eggs getting beautifully less. They are without the remotest idea of sanitation for man or beast, and revel in dirt if you let them, poor things! And honesty is not their strong point; they have to be checked on all accounts, or they will sell vegetables from your kitchen garden to your neighbours who have none; or sell you your own hens' eggs, and do heaps of other iniquitous things you could hardly dream of!" So Honor was carefully instructed in the ways of housekeeping from the moment of her return to the East, and was an able lieutenant to her mother.
"Besides, it is only right and proper, since, one of these days you will have a house of your own and ought to know how to run it, or I pity the unfortunate man you marry!" Mrs. Bright remarked when introducing her daughter to further mysteries in the art of housekeeping. "Which puts me in mind of Tommy Deare," she continued, eyeing Honor gravely. "What do you mean to do with him?"
"I don't mean to do anything with him," laughed the girl.
"You know he is in love with you—any one can see that."
"I know, because he won't let me forget it," Honor said ruefully.
"Yet you are often about with him, riding and playing tennis—is it fair to fan his hopes?"
"He knows perfectly how I feel towards him. Short of putting him in Coventry I can do nothing less than I am doing."
"But the worst of it is that he keeps others off!" Mrs. Bright exclaimed. "There's Jack Darling who lives with him—such a nice boy and a very excellent suitor from every point of view——"
"He is not a suitor, by any means," interrupted her daughter.
"He might have been if his friend were not over head and ears in love with you!"
"I should not have encouraged him. Jack does not appeal to me. He is very dear and charming, but not the sort of man I should lose my heart to. He is weak—and I love strength."
"But, dear, surely you are not favouring Tommy?—he will never be anything great in our Service. You have the example of your own father who has come to the end of his prospects on an income that would have been hopelessly inadequate had there been boys to educate and start in life! That's what our Service is worth! While Jack—!" words failed her to express her estimation of the Indian Civil Service of which Jack was a promising member.
"But dear Mother, I am not going to marry a Service!" laughed Honor. "When I fall in love with a Man it won't much matter what job he is in, or what prospects he has. And if he is in love with me, and wants me, why"—she left the obvious conclusion to her mother's imagination. "But rest assured, whoever he may be, he will never be Tommy!" she added by way of consolation.
The morning after the dinner-party was typical of late October in the plains of Bengal, with its dewy freshness of atmosphere and a nip in the north wind that was an earnest of approaching winter—if the season of cold weather might be so termed, when fires were never a necessity, and frost was rare. It was, however, a time of pleasant drought when the state of the weather could be depended upon for weeks ahead, with blue skies, a kinder sun, and dead leaves carpeting the earth without denuding the trees of their wealth of foliage.
Outside the Bara Koti a light haze was visible through the branches of the trees, lying like a thin veil on the distant horizon; and, overhead, light fleecy clouds drifted imperceptibly across the blue sky. It was the hour popularly believed to be the best in the twenty-four, which accounted for Mrs. Meredith's ayah wheeling the baby through the dusty lanes, in a magnificent perambulator, "to eat the air."
"Hawa khane," translated Honor Bright critically, as she drew rein and moved her pony aside to make way. She was riding, in company with Tommy Deare, to Sombari that she might learn the latest news of Elsie Meek, a girl of her own age and one for whom she had much sympathy. Elsie had been undergoing the training necessary to fit her for becoming a missionary, irrespective of her talents in other directions; and Honor had often thought of her with sympathy. But Mr. Meek had his own ideas respecting his daughter's career, and Mrs. Meek had long since ceased to voice her own. "Hawa khane!—how queerly the natives express themselves!" Her remark had followed the ayah's explanation of her appearance with the child. "Mother says it is a mistake for delicate children to be out before sunrise to 'eat the air.'"
"Eat microbes, I should suggest," corrected Tommy. "A case of 'The Early Babe catches the Germ.'"
"How smart of you!—how do you do it so early in the morning?"
"Inherent wit," said Tommy complacently. "You press a button and out comes an epigram, or something brilliant."
"You've missed your vocation, it seems. I am sure you might have made a fortune as another George Robey!"
While Tommy affected to collapse under the lash of her satire, she leapt from the saddle to imprint a kiss on the rose-leaf skin of the infant's cheek. "What a perfect doll it is—did any one see any thing half so adorable!"
"It seems to me like all other babies," Tommy remarked indifferently. "When it isn't asleep it is bawling; when it isn't bawling it's asleep. I have yet to understand why a girl can never pass a pram without stopping to kiss the baby in it!" Nevertheless, he thought it a pleasing habit with which he was not inclined to quarrel, but for the delay it occasioned in the ride.
"I would like you to tell Mrs. Meredith that the Squawk is like all other babies in the world and hear what she has to say!" Honor said indignantly. "This one is angelic!"
Tommy dismounted with the air of a martyr and peered at the bundle containing a human atom almost smothered in silk and laces. "Hallo! its eyes are actually open! It is the first time I have seen the miracle. Peep-bo!" he squeaked, bobbing his head at the apparition and crooking a finger up and down a few inches from the infant's nose.
"Tommy, you are a silly!" Honor exploded with laughter. "As if it can understand. You might be a tree for all it knows!"
"Then all I can say is, I have no use for kids until they develop some intellect." He assisted her to remount and they continued their way to Sombari. Soon, the last of the bungalows was left behind and they were cantering side by side along the main road which divided paddy fields still containing stagnant rain water and the decaying stalks of the harvested corn. At intervals on the road pipal trees afforded shelter to travellers by the wayside. In the distance, across rough country overgrown with scrub and coarse, thatching grass, could be seen the minarets of an ancient ruin—Muktiarbad's one and only show-place for sightseers—too familiar to the inhabitants to excite even passing notice.
In the meantime Honor soliloquised aloud—"I do so wish we could get Mrs. Meredith more reconciled to India," she sighed. "She has only one point of view at present, and that is a mother's. If she could only be made to see her husband's point of view and realise also her duties as a wife, she would be perfect, for Joyce Meredith is very lovable and good. I never knew any one so pretty and so free from personal vanity. But she is too sure of her husband. Too certain that he will go on worshipping her no matter what she does or how she treats him; and, after all, I suppose even love can die for want of sustenance. It seems to me she gives all she has to give to the baby, and her husband is left to pick up the crumbs that fall from her table!"
"It will end as all such marriages end," said Tommy. "She is only half awake to life, and too pretty for every-day use. Meredith should awaken her by flirting with Mrs. Fox; otherwise someone else will do it by flirting with his wife. I wouldn't put it beyond the doctor."
Honor stiffened visibly. "Why do you say that?" she asked coldly.
"Well, he is given every opportunity. Last night, for instance, on our way home from your place, Smart and I saw his motor in the avenue of the Bara Koti. It was under the trees with a shaft of moonlight full on the steering wheel. If he had wanted to make it invisible, he ought to have reckoned on the hour and the moon. We thought he had gone to Sombari, but he was singing to Mrs. Meredith."
"Is that true?" Honor asked in low tones of pained surprise.
"We both pulled up outside the cactus hedge till the song was finished. He was singing Temple Bells!"
So he had not gone to Sombari after all! It had only been an excuse for him to get away from the party. He was evidently not above lying, and—Joyce Meredith was so beautiful!
And Joyce had been alone!
Honor flushed hot and cold with sudden emotion which she could hardly understand because it was so new to her: passionate resentment towards Joyce Meredith for the impropriety of receiving a visit from Captain Dalton at that late hour. Her position as a married woman did not cover such indiscretion. How would Ray Meredith feel if he heard that his adored wife was entertaining the doctor at midnight, and alone? It sounded abominable, even if innocent in intention.
It was not right! it was not right!...
At the same moment, pride rose in arms to crush her resentment. What business was it of hers what Joyce Meredith did, or Captain Dalton, either? They were not answerable to her for their conduct—or misconduct....
Captain Dalton might please himself as far as she was concerned. He was hardly a friend. Why should she be so deeply affected by his acts? Yet her heart was wrung with pain at the mere thought that he had spent the rest of the evening entertaining Joyce Meredith who was as beautiful and as foolish as a little child. Any man might be excused for losing his head when treated to her innocent familiarities.
They were innocent. Of that she was sure, for Joyce coquetted with either sex impartially and unconsciously.
All through her silent brooding Tommy talked incessantly. He had passed from the subject of the doctor and Joyce Meredith to Bobby Smart who had obtained a transfer to a distant station on the railway, and was rejoiced that he would soon see the last of Mrs. Fox with whom he was "fed up."
"I don't admire him for talking about her, or you for listening," said Honor, paying scant attention to the subject of Bobby Smart.
"I didn't. I had to shut him up rather rudely; but Bobby is thick-skinned and, like some fellows one meets, a dangerous gossip, and the last man a woman should trust."
"I wonder much why women are so blind. They are fools to care for, or trust men," Honor said gloomily, and looking depressed.
"You must never say things like that to me," Tommy blurted out, offended. "You must discriminate between those who are honest and those who are the other thing. You might trust me with your life—and more——"
"I dare say all you men say that!"
"And all don't mean it as I do. I am discriminating; consequently, there is only one girl in the world for me...." He choked unable to proceed, and looked the rest into her clear eyes.
"Don't, Tommy!—this is why I hesitate to come out with you," she said, looking annoyed.
"I can't help caring for you," he answered defiantly. "It's an unalterable fact, and you may as well face it. I have cared ever since school-days. It has been my one hope that you too would care—in the same way."
"And I have tried to show you in a hundred ways that it is of no use," she said kindly. "Can't you be content to be—just pals?"
"No. So long as you remain unmarried I shall keep on hoping."
"And I cannot do more than tell you it is of no earthly use." She avoided looking at him again for the knowledge that his face betrayed the depth of his disappointment. "Perhaps it would be better if we gave up riding and tennis together, and you tried to take up some other interest?" she suggested.
But Tommy laughed unboyishly with a cracked sound in his throat. "I won't say anything more about it, if it annoys you, Honey, but don't for God's sake give me the push. I'm coming to the Club just the same for tennis with you, and shall call to take you out riding when I may—like this. You need not worry about what I have said. I dare say I'll get along—somehow ... so long as you are not keen on someone else," he added. It seemed he would never be able to stand that!
"I am not keen on—any one else," she said, lifting her head with a resolute air. "But I do want you to know that I am not the marrying sort. I love the idea of being an old maid and having crowds of friends—and perhaps a special pal—that's you, if you like, old boy," she added graciously holding out her hand which he gripped with energy. "So that's all right, eh?"
While he made the expected reply, which was naturally insincere, considering the state of his sore heart, both observed a cloud of dust moving rapidly towards them which quickly resolved itself into a rider galloping at full speed.
When he was nearer his pace slackened from exhaustion, and Honor recognized one of the pastors of the Mission, an Eurasian, his face pale and stricken and dripping with sweat.
A chill of foreboding struck at her heart as she asked for news of the sick girl, Elsie Meek.
"She is dead," came the blunt reply. "I am now on my way to the doctor who should have seen her last night, but he never came." He rode on without waiting to hear Tommy exclaim, "Good God!" and Honor give an inarticulate cry of surprise and sorrow.
"I thought she was going on all right," said Tommy gravely.
"I had no idea she was so bad!" said Honor. Both had pulled up uncertain what to do. "Poor, poor Mrs. Meek!" said Honor, thinking of the lonely woman who struggled to live her life happily in surroundings which had failed to prove congenial, and whose one compensation was the companionship of her daughter,—the one being in the world she loved and lived for. She thought of the unsympathetic husband whose Christianity savoured of narrow prejudices and exacting codes, and she pitied the bereaved mother from the bottom of her heart. "I feel so guilty to think that we had the doctor to dinner last night when he might have spent that time at Sombari!" Honor cried regretfully.
"That was for him to judge. At any rate, he need not have finished the evening at the Bara Koti singing love-songs to Mrs. Meredith."
"Poor little Elsie!" Honor sighed, ignoring the allusion to Joyce. She was guiltless of blame as she did not know. "Tommy, you had better return and tell Mother. I am going straight on. There is now more reason for my calling on Mrs. Meek."
"It will be a painful visit—can't you postpone it?"
"I would rather not. I feel someone should be with her. Mother will go later, I know; but I must go at once."
Very reluctantly, Tommy turned his horse's head homeward, and lifting his topi in acknowledgment of her parting gesture, rode swiftly away leaving her to continue her road to the Mission.
The settlement came into view beyond a straggling village which had given the Mission its name, and was composed of bungalows grouped about a wide "compound": chiefly schoolhouses of lath and plaster, with innumerable sheds and outhouses for dormitories and technical instruction. As Honor approached, she was conscious of a great stillness broken only by the sound of intermittent blows of a hammer. When she passed into the grounds through a gate in a neatly kept fence of split bamboos, she saw through the open window of a shed, a carpenter busily engaged on the grim task of preparing a coffin out of a deal packing-case. In India burial follows on the heels of death with almost indecent haste, and the sight of a rude coffin in the making, sent no thrill of horror through the young girl. It was something to be expected in a place where no professional assistance of that sort could be reckoned upon in circumstances as sudden as these. Instead, a great sadness came over her, and tears filled her eyes to overflowing, for it was not so very long ago that Elsie Meek, a young girl like herself had come out to India full of life and laughter, yearning to give her energies scope, and trying for the sake of her gentle mother, to appear contented with the meagre life afforded by her surroundings. Honor suffered a pang of regret that she had not spared more time from her own pleasures to help Elsie to a little happiness. She had so appreciated visits from the Brights, and had been so keenly interested in the doings of the Station people, with whom she was rarely allowed to associate.
What a futile life! Poor little Elsie Meek!
At the Mission bungalow where Honor dismounted, a group of missionaries were sombrely discussing in whispers the necessary details connected with the funeral. Mr. Meek sat apart, bowed with depression, his face lined and haggard with grief. This was the man's world—Sombari Settlement—the child of his creation; yet how hollow were his interests and ambitions today!
Many years ago he had been financed by zealous Methodists and sent out to India to establish a mission in rural Bengal. After careful search he had chosen Sombari on the outskirts of Muktiarbad for the field of his labours. By degrees, his untiring efforts had prospered and Sombari was now a large community of pastors and converts, and he, himself, an Honorary Magistrate of second-class powers, in recognition of his influence among the people. Mr. Meek had a reputation for converting the heathen with a Bible in one hand and a cane in the other, and his methods were justified by the results seen in the confidence he inspired in his followers. He was a strong man, popularly credited with being just, if unmerciful, and was respected by the natives for miles around as hard men are, in the East; and they rarely appealed against his judgments.
The same spirit had ruled Mr. Meek's domestic life and had reduced his wife and daughter to the position of appendages of the Mission. It was nothing to him that they professed no vocation for the life; the discipline was wholesome for unregenerate human nature which is prone to crave for what is worldly and unprofitable. He was responsible for the souls in his care; and he conceived it his duty to protect them according to his lights—not theirs. Having safeguarded them from the snares and temptations of Station life which represented the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, he was filled with righteous satisfaction concerning their safety hereafter, and ceased to trouble himself with their yearnings in the present.
Mrs. Meek, who had once been a governess in a private family, was of a mild, easy-going nature, incapable of resisting tyranny. Since her marriage, her naturally submissive mind had become an echo of her husband's, although she was not always in agreement with his opinions; yet it was the line of least resistance, and "anything for a peaceful life" was her motto. Her greatest comfort had come with the birth of her daughter, who, later, was reared by her maternal relatives in England. They had means, while the Meeks had barely enough for their own needs, so Elsie had received a good education of which her relatives had borne the cost, and at the finish, came out to her home at Sombari under the protection of missionary friends travelling to India.
Though Mrs. Meek had not seen her daughter for the best years of her childhood, her love for her had become the absorbing passion of her life. For years she had carried about a heart aching with longing for this treasure of her own flesh and blood, so that their reunion altered her whole life. So long as she had her child's companionship and affection, she was blessed among women; even the little world of Sombari was glorified.
But, alas! on that morning of Honor Bright's visit, death had robbed Mrs. Meek of all that life held for her. Honor understood how completely she was bereft, and her own heart overflowed with sympathy. Her one ewe lamb had been taken, and in her grief, the foundations of the mother's faith were shaken.
She turned her face to the wall and cried out against her Maker. "From him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath!" was the burden of her sorrowful cry.
"What had I to make life worth the living! My child was all in all to me, and she has been snatched from me! Of what use is religion since even my prayers could not avail? It is comfortless. God is cruel. He tramples on our hearts. He has no pity." Such were the outbursts of the poor, stricken heart.
She was the picture of abandonment in the comfortless room, ascetic in its lack of dainty feminine accessories. The floor was covered with coarse bamboo matting such as the Brights used in their pantry and bathrooms. Cretonne pardars hung in the doorways; the furniture was rough and country-made; the bed-linen and coverings were from the mills of Cawnpur. "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth," had been Mr. Meek's justification for confining his expenditure to the barest necessaries of life. But, on the other hand, he indulged himself in his hobby for raising prize cattle for the local Melas. Prize cattle had their use and did not come under the head of extravagance as did furnishing according to taste and fancy; so Mrs. Meek and her daughter had to suffer the lack of the refinements of life to the mortification of their spirits and the discomfort of their bodies, in order that their souls might be purged of the vanities and lusts of the flesh.
[Footnote 11: Curtains.]
[Footnote 12: Fairs.]
"You must not fight against the decrees of the Almighty," said the nurse reproachfully, as Honor knelt beside the bed and embraced the unhappy mother.
"Don't talk all that clap-trap to one in torment," said the girl contemptuously. "People are too ready to put all the blame on God when they are bereaved."
If a thunderbolt had fallen in the room it could not have had a more startling effect than this outburst of Honor's. The nurse recoiled in horror thinking she was in the presence of a free-thinker who is first cousin to an atheist, and Mrs. Meek choked back her sobs to stare wide-eyed at her visitor who had dared to voice such heresy under a missionary's roof.
"Isn't it God's will when one is afflicted? That is what we are taught," said the nurse indignantly.
"We are taught a lot of stuff which is not true," said Honor firmly. "It isn't sense to impute to a loving God acts of wanton cruelty, and we dishonour Him by so doing." She kissed Mrs. Meek's cheek and spoke tenderly to her of her sympathy and sorrow.
"But, Miss Bright, are not life and death in God's hands?" the bereaved lady asked astonished.
"Indeed, yes—with our co-operation. God needs our help as we need His. I could never believe that our dear ones are taken from us by God's will. He could not will us unhappiness. We have got to suffer as the result of ignorance and neglect, and a thousand other reasons which are Cause and Effect. Where we fail God, we must suffer."
"How did we fail God? We did all we could!"
"Yes—we always shut the stable door after the steed is stolen. God did not give your child the germ of enteric which constitutionally she was unfitted to cope with. It happened through some misfortune that God had nothing to do with, and, simply, she hadn't enough fight in her. There are times when we cannot understand why some things should be, especially if we feel that by stretching out His arm God can save us; yet He does not do so," continued Honor. "I prefer to believe that God fights for the life of our dear one along with us, and we both fail, we and God, because of some lack on our side that has hindered." Honor was not accustomed to holding forth on the subject of her views and would have said no more, but Mrs. Meek was roused to a new interest and persisted in drawing from her all she felt regarding the matter.
"If you put your foot on a cobra and you are bitten, and no immediate remedies are at hand, you will certainly die. If you prayed your hardest to be saved and did nothing, you would certainly be disappointed. God has given us the means of saving life—science and medicine are His way of helping us through doctors—even then we fail if the patient has no strength to battle with disease. That is how I feel," she added loyally. "We don't blame those we love—so don't blame God unjustly."
"Doctor Dalton said Elsie's heart was weak," moaned Mrs. Meek. "Perhaps had he come last night he would have noticed the change in her and done something to have helped her to live! Oh! Miss Bright, I feel it is owing to the doctor's neglect that I have lost my child. Why didn't he come last night?"
Honor's eyes fell before the anguish in hers. "He was at dinner with us, and left us early intending to come on here. I don't know why he changed his mind," she murmured, feeling again the rush of wild resentment against Joyce Meredith for her beauty and allurement.
"How strangely you talk!" Mrs. Meek went on as Honor relapsed into silence. "I never heard any one speak or think like this."
"I have always felt that nothing harsh or bad can come from God," said Honor gravely. "He does not treat us cruelly just to make us turn to Him. It would have the opposite effect, I should imagine, and He knows that as he knows us. It is presumptuous of me to say anything at all, but it seems to me, we are responsible for much of our own sorrows, or it is the way of life since the Fall. Humanity has foiled the designs of God from the time of Adam, and has had to bear the consequences. But, always, God's goodness and mercy triumph, and we are helped through the heaviest of tribulation till our sorrows are healed. Pity and Love are from God, never agony and bereavement!"
"Yet my husband says that the cross is from God, a 'burden imposed for the hardness of our hearts'!"
"So that to punish you, God is supposed to have caused an innocent one all that suffering, and has snatched her from the simple joys of her life! Is that your husband's conception of a loving God? If I believed that, I would become a heathen, preferably."
"It doesn't seem to fit in with such attributes as Mercy and Love!" cried Mrs. Meek, relapsing again into a flood of grief; for, after all, there was poor consolation for her in any theory since nothing could restore to her her beloved child.
"Tell me," said Honor to the nurse who had led her to the adjoining room to take her last look at her dead friend, "wasn't her death rather sudden and unexpected?"
"The doctor should have been here last night," said the nurse looking scared and uncomfortable. "She was so wild and restless and kept exciting herself in her delirium. Her heart was bad and nothing seemed to have effect. He should have been here, and not left her to me for so many hours, since early morning!"
"When did the change set in?—could no one have gone for the doctor?"
"It is a great misfortune that there was no one capable of relieving me," said the nurse looking distressed. "There was only the ayah, and she was supposed to be watching, yet allowed the patient to sit up in bed in her delirium when to lift an arm had been forbidden. All she could do was to cry aloud and remonstrate, which woke me and before I could do anything, the poor girl was—gone! Simply fell back dead. It was terrible! I fear I shall get into trouble, but the Meeks could not afford more than one nurse and Mrs. Meek and I were both worn out. I knew the ayah would blame me, as I blame her; but, humanly speaking, it would have happened in any case—even had her mother been in the room. It was truly most unfortunate. If the doctor had only been here he might have seen the necessity for a sedative or something!"
It was the same cry: "If the doctor had only been here!" From all she could gather, Elsie had passed a restless night and had died of heart failure in the morning. An overtaxed heart had given out by the exertion of suddenly rising in bed.
Honor doubted if Captain Dalton could have done anything by visiting his patient at night, yet his not having done so would always leave a reproach against him. She felt it and, yet, strangely enough, wanted to combat every argument that would have held him to blame.
When she was leaving the bungalow she came face to face with Captain Dalton descending from his car; and so moved was she for the moment, that she would not trust herself to do more than bow stiffly as she passed, her face white in its repression, her eyes cold and distant. At sight of him her agony returned in force; her heart for a moment stood still. Why had he lied to them about visiting Sombari when it was Joyce Meredith he had meant to see? Joyce with her lovely face and winning, childish ways? Everyone must love Joyce because of her ingenuousness and extraordinary beauty. The doctor had nursed her in camp under intimate conditions ... and he had stolen a visit to her when duty had required him in an opposite direction.
How was it possible to feel the same friendliness towards him with that wild resentment raging at her heart? So Honor ran out to her pony, sprang nimbly into the saddle, and rode rapidly away, feeling his searching eyes upon her till she was out of sight.
A SUNDAY OBSERVANCE
Honor Bright rode straight to the Bara Koti to tell Joyce of Elsie Meek's death, not without a grim satisfaction in the thought that the news was certain to fill her friend with self-reproach; on other accounts her feelings defied analysis.
Joyce was writing home-letters for the mail in her morning-room when Honor was announced, and she was arrested, in her expressions of welcome by the look on her visitor's face, which was unusually pale and her great brown eyes, always so friendly and tender, cold and grave.
"What is it?" she asked fearfully, as she searched her memory for any unconscious offence to her friend.
"I have just come from Mrs. Meek who is prostrated with grief. Elsie is dead. She died at sunrise this morning."
"Dead?—Elsie Meek?... I did not know she was so bad!" Joyce looked shocked and distressed.
"I left as Captain Dalton arrived—they are blaming him for not having gone there last night. He was expected, but"—she made a gesture of despair.
"Oh, Honor!—was it because he was here? He came to see if we were ill—I had been nervous about Baby—and when I knew that it was nothing, I kept him for music till—till quite late. Is it my fault?" The lovely face looked stricken and blanched.
"I don't know—perhaps indirectly; but he knew. He should not have stayed."
"I persuaded him because I was dull—but I never knew!—I never dreamed she was so bad! Oh, Honey!" and Joyce broke into a passion of tears. "I shall never be happy again. I shall always feel that I was responsible!"
"He should never have stayed with you!—his duty was clear," said Honor sternly. "The responsibility rests entirely with him. But didn't you know that being alone and without your husband, you were inviting criticism by allowing him to stay—at that late hour? People in these mafasil stations are so censorious."
"I did not think it mattered," said Joyce without a shadow of resentment at such plain speaking. She stood with hands clasped, looking like a child in trouble, and Honor's heart began to melt. "He's only the doctor, you see, and he was so good to us in camp. Do you think I was wrong, Honey?" flinging her arms about Honor's neck and hiding her face in her bosom. Who could censure so much sweetness? So she was held in a close embrace and tenderly kissed.
"I have no right to speak—forgive me," said Honor.
"But you are privileged, because I love you," said Joyce. "Say what you please. I am so unhappy!—so miserable!"
"We must be miserable only for harm consciously done. You could never do that."
"I could not bear that you should condemn me," Joyce went on, clinging to her for consolation. "It seemed such a simple thing—it was."
"Yes, of course," Honor agreed against her judgment. "Only it would be hateful that you should be talked about by the people here—as Mrs. Fox is, for example."
"I should loathe it!—for I am not like her. You don't think that for a moment?"
"Never!—that is why I'll not have you misjudged," said Honor kissing her wet cheek.
"Why are people so horrid? I like Captain Dalton. He is so nice—so different from what people think him—agreeable! He took my rose, and I pinned it in his coat. He showed me how I should play the Liebestraum, and——"
"Yes. It was in my dress ... and was so sweet—and he said I should be called 'Joy.' He is going to show me how to drive his motor-car so that I may take Ray by surprise one day. I must go out more than I do, and not worry so much about Baby for he is here to look after him. Oh! he is very kind—surely he never meant to neglect Elsie Meek?"
"He knows best about that—but, Joyce," Honor was strangely agitated and hid her telltale eyes in a cloud of Joyce's sunny hair, "you will never do anything that you cannot tell your husband?"
"How do you mean? I always tell Ray everything."
"That is all. He will advise you what it is best not to do. It is no business of mine."
"And I'll always tell you, too," the little wife said affectionately.
But Honor mentally decided it would be better for her not to hear anything more about Captain Dalton's visits. "I don't count—I am a mere outsider."
"You do. You are such a great help to me. I wish I had half your manner and self-confidence."
Their talk reverted to Elsie Meek, and Joyce learned something of the mother's grief. She was anxious to call immediately at the Mission to offer her condolences, and decided to attend the funeral which was to take place that afternoon. It was eventually settled that Mrs. Bright should call for her in the dogcart, and Honor would ride.
Consequently, when Ray Meredith motored in that afternoon, his wife was absent attending Elsie Meek's funeral, a simple ceremony at a tiny cemetery on the Mission property. The coffin, made of packing cases and covered with black calico, was carried by pastors, and the service was conducted by Mr. Meek himself, who scourged himself to perform the pathetic task as a penance to his soul.
It was dusk when Joyce returned, a subdued little person in black with a bursting heart which was relieved by a flood of tears in her husband's arms. He was very pitiful of her in her wrought-up state, and he soothed her with tender caresses.
It was very comforting to Joyce to be petted, and by degrees her weakened self-esteem was restored. Nothing was very far wrong with herself or her world while her husband loved her so, and Honor Bright remained her friend. Meredith would not allow his beloved to blame herself, though it was hardly the thing to entertain a visitor of the opposite sex so late at night when her husband was in camp; but the circumstances were exceptional; his little darling was nervous and lonely, and Dalton was a gentleman. Poof! he wouldn't for a moment allow that the doctor did not know his own business best; and very likely Elsie Meek's case had been hopeless from the start. With a weak heart, anything might happen in typhoid. Anyhow, he was not going to let his little girl worry herself sick and she was to cheer up on the instant and think no more about what did not concern herself. The main thing was, he had returned for the week-end, and wanted all her love and all her smiles to reward him for his long abstinence; and Joyce obediently kissed him and beamed upon him through her tears, wondering in her childish soul why husbands were so exacting in their love—their ardour so inexhaustible. Women were so very different—but men!
"With a wife like you, what can you expect?" Meredith cried, when she had expressed her views with naivete. Which was all very flattering and calculated to spoil her thoroughly, but Meredith was in a mood to spoil her thoroughly after their enforced separation.
* * * * *
On Sunday morning, Honor followed up the notice which had been pinned on the board at the Club concerning evensong at the Railway Institute, by cycling round to various bungalows and exacting promises of attendance from her friends.
Muktiarbad was behind hand in the matter of a church building, the proposal having been shelved by the authorities with the usual procrastination. The Roman Catholic missionary lived in ascetic simplicity in the Station, and took his meals in native fashion wherever he preached the Faith.
There was no Episcopal clergyman nearer than the headquarters of the Division, eighty miles away; so it was only when his duties permitted it, that the District Chaplain paid a flying visit to Muktiarbad to minister to the spiritual welfare of his flock. Otherwise, it devolved on the Collector to officiate at Divine worship, as a paternal government enjoined this duty on the leading official in the stations not provided with resident clergy.
Thus it was that on most Sunday evenings Mr. Meredith read the Church Service in the general room of the Club to a congregation consisting mostly of ladies, while Jack Darling, usually flushed and breathless after tennis and a lightning change, went through the ordeal of reading the lessons.
To make certain of a couple of unreliable members of the choir, Honor cycled last of all to a picturesque little bungalow near the Police Court, and dismounted at its tumble-down gate. From frequent removals for jumping competitions for raw ponies, it was considerably damaged and swung loosely on its hinges, swayed by every wind that blew.
The bungalow was thatched, the eaves supported by square pillars; and the verandah was screened by bamboo trellis-work up which climbed the beautiful Gloriosa superba.
Boars' heads, buffalo horns, and the antlers of deer, ornamented what could be seen of the walls inside, and the tiled flooring was scattered over with long-arm easy chairs and "peg-tables."
A gravelled walk led to the steps, bordered on either side with straggling marigolds and dwarf sunflowers, dear to the hearts of malis, but evidently the worse for the depredations of the village goats. Date-palms drooped gracefully above a tank in the background, and a gorgeous hedge of acalypha hid the outhouses and kitchen.
Honor's appearance at the gate was the signal for a wild stampede from the verandah by Jack and Tom, who were enjoying a "Europe morning," to change into suitable garb; an orderly being dispatched meanwhile to crave the lady's indulgence. Rampur hounds and fox-terriers received her effusively on the road, and showed their appreciation of her presence by leaving marks of muddy paws on her drill skirt.
Tommy was the first to appear neatly apparelled, and smoothing his wet hair with both hands. He was followed soon afterwards by Jack, looking like an overgrown schoolboy in flannels. They hung about the gate since she could not be induced to enter, and pulled rueful faces on receiving instructions as to their duty at six-thirty, sharp.
"I believe there has been a riot at Panipara," put in Tommy with inspiration. "It is my duty as a police official to take instant notice of the fact and visit the spot for an inquiry."
"It can wait till Monday morning—or, you can send your Inspector," said Honor.
"I have a poisonous report to write"—began Jack.
"No sulking!" said Honor with determination. "You have to set a good example, both of you."
"I don't mind the service, a bit, and the hymns are fine," said Tommy, "but I distinctly object to sitting still and having illogical arguments when I cannot answer back hurled at my head."
"I shouldn't mind even that, for I needn't listen to them," said Jack; "but I do wish he would cut his sermons short. The last time he was at it for half an hour till I fell asleep and all but swallowed a fly."
"You and Tommy are worse than heathens and want a Mission all to yourselves," said Honor with twitching lips. (When Honor's lips revealed a hidden sense of humour, the boys' spirits effervesced.) "There is hymn-practice at three this afternoon at the Institute," she informed them. "Shall we have Abide with me, for a change?"
"'Abide with you,' certainly," said Tommy bubbling, while Jack put in a plea for one of the old favourites. "Sun of my soul is hard to beat," he said.
"Jack has a fixed belief that the world has missed a great tenor in him," remarked Tommy. "He was bawling so loudly in his bath yesterday morning, that I was on the point of fetching my gun thinking there was a jackal around,—fact!"
"Liar! I was singing O Star of Eve, and you annoyed me by joining in. Execrable taste."
"Well?—we shall count on both of you for the choir."
"If any one will be so kind as to lend me a prayer-book," said Tommy reluctantly. "Jack used mine on a muggy night to keep the window open, and as it rained half the time, my property was reduced to pulp. The least he might do is to give me another."
"You can share mine," said Honor magnanimously. "That's fixed."
"Thanks, awfully. I love sharing a prayer-book with someone who knows the geography of it. The last time I went to church was at Hazrigunge when the Commissioner's Memsahib collared me as I was going to bridge. Miss Elworthy, the parson's sister,—elderly and still hopeful, handed me her book of Common Prayer; but I'm dashed if I could find the Collect! At any ordinary time I would have pounced upon it right enough, but knowing her eyes were upon me, I could do nothing but make a windmill of the pages with only the 'Solemnisation of Matrimony' staring up at my distracted vision, till I began to think Fate had designs. Really, it made me quite nervous, I assure you!"
"I shall have to give you Sunday-school lessons," said Honor, laughing heartily. "You are a bad boy, Tommy."
"I never attempt to find the places," said Jack. "It's the most difficult thing in the world when you are nervous and the parson is off at great speed, like a fox with the pack at his heels. My Church Service was a present from my old aunt when I was confirmed and is in diamond print, so that when I hold it upside down, no one is a bit the wiser."
"You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" cried Honor.
"Not at all. I always say 'Amen' at the right moment."
"It is always a case of 'Ah, men!' at Muktiarbad, where church is concerned," saying which she sprang on her bicycle and fled with the sound of loud groans in her ears.
* * * * *
Choir practice was well attended, and the "Inseparables" were obediently on hand to swell the singing of the popular hymns and even attempt a few chants. At the finish, Mrs. Fox made room for Jack on the organ stool, and while he worked the pedals, she played a voluntary by Grieg to their own entertainment and the distraction of the company.
"Fair joint production, if Jack would only remember he is not working a sewing-machine," said Tommy. "It puts me out of breath to listen."
"The bellows sound like an asthmatic old man about to suffer spontaneous combustion," said Honor moving away from the vicinity of the American organ, vexed to see the transparent arts practised by Mrs. Fox to lead Jack captive.
Divine service when conducted by the District Chaplain was held at the Railway Institute which was more centrally situated than the Club for the bulk of the European community at Muktiarbad, and the occasion was typical of the generality of such functions in the small, mafasil stations lacking a church building. Families of officials,—Government and Railway, non-officials, and subordinates, found seats for themselves in the neighbourhood of their respective acquaintance, and there was only a sprinkling of the masculine element, the majority being husbands whose demeanour, as they followed in the wake of their wives, was suggestive of derelict ships being towed into port.
The choir were accommodated near the American organ at which Mrs. Fox presided with ostentatious skill. Jack's stealthy effort to elude observation in a distant corner was frustrated by Honor on her way in, who whispered her commands that he was to occupy the seat reserved for him as the sole tenor available.
Tommy, on the other hand, put in attendance with laudable docility, claiming a place beside Honor; and all through the sermon occupied himself with the marriage service, till a gloved hand recovered possession of the prayer-book and a pair of brown eyes reproved him gravely.
"You paid no attention whatever to the service," she afterwards remarked scathingly.
"It is just what I did, right through," he returned meekly. "It's the only service that interests me."
"It was irrelevant matter!"
"Which made me miss the benefit I might have derived from the seed falling on prepared soil. Alas! see what you are responsible for!"
"I? I take no responsibility for you. And was the soil really prepared this time?" she teased.
"It was torn by the plough of eagerness and harrowed with anxiety lest I should be late and lose my place beside you," he returned feelingly.
Outside on the gravelled path, Mrs. Bright was informed by Mrs. Ironsides that she had counted sixty women in "Church," and only sixteen men, twelve of whom were married. "Scandalous!—I call it. And this is a country, where, in the midst of life one is in death!"
On their way home, Meredith and Joyce, with the parson in the car, came upon the doctor taking a "constitutional" in the moonlight and insisted on carrying him off to pot-luck.
Tommy attached himself to the Brights and received a similar invitation, while Jack was annexed by Mrs. Fox whose husband was at home and "would be charmed."
The invitation was given openly and Jack had no hesitation in accepting it, curious to know how the elusive Barrington Fox would appear on closer acquaintance.
They walked together across the railway lines and past unkempt hedges of Duranta in full bloom towards the group of residences reserved for officials of the Railway, each within its own garden and bounded by barbed wire as a protection against stray cattle.
The Traffic Superintendent's house was built on a more generous scale than the others, though uniformly of red brick picked out with buff. Shallow arches supported the concrete roof, and the verandah in front was gay with ornamental pot-plants and palms of luxuriant growth. Many doors opened upon it, and through them could be seen a lamplit and graceful interior, veiled by misty lace curtains. The verandah itself was left for the moon to illuminate.
Long residence in India and natural good taste had taught Mrs. Fox the art of furnishing with an eye to the needs of the climate, so that her rooms had the charm of restfulness, ease, and coolness. Most of her drawing-room chairs were of Singapur rush-work; the mat was of green grass, the punkha frills of art muslin. The walls were distempered in cool greys and neutral tints; while on all sides were palms, large and small, and china-grass in dainty flower-pots of coloured earthenware. A Japanese draught screen, embroidered in silk upon gauze and arranged carelessly, put a finish to the most picturesque drawing-room Jack had yet seen in Bengal.
Mr. Barrington Fox, however, was not at home. A telegram was found to have arrived, intimating that he had been detained at a wayside station.
"Such a nuisance!" Mrs. Fox exclaimed, laying down the telegram which, as a matter of fact, she had received earlier in the day. "You'll have to put up with only me. Do you mind?"
"It is not for me to mind," he answered awkwardly. "If you think I might stay, I shall be delighted."
"Then you shall. Who cares?—not my husband who has long ceased to mind what I do or how I am left to pass the time," she said bitterly.
"You must often be very lonely?" he ventured sympathetically. He had heard many rumours of Fox's neglect of his wife—of the temptations to which she was exposed and to which a woman placed as she was might be excused for yielding. Plenty of fellows paid court to her, and a good few had grown attached—yet, barring Smart who was a cad and a bounder, he was sure that none could cast a stone.
"I am always desperately lonely," she sighed, as she sank into a chesterfield and motioned him to the seat beside her. "You little know how it preys upon me; how I welcome a sympathetic friend! but—why speak of it?" she passed him her cigarette case, and they began to smoke companionably. "So few understand me," said she in subdued tones. "So many misunderstand! I ask you, what is life worth to a young woman in my position?" her chest heaved, her eyes filled with self-pity. "And who can stifle nature and be happy?—the ache for human sympathy—tenderness—love...." she brushed the moisture from her eyes with a diminutive handkerchief, and smiled a wintry smile. "I refuse to talk only of myself!—let us talk of you, dear Jack. You are a dear and I have so longed to make a friend of you," she interrupted herself to say.
Jack coloured furiously while filled with indignant pity for her. Poor girl!—after all, she was quite young!... He did not care how old she was; she was young enough to be pitied for the rotten time her selfish husband gave her.
They spent a supremely innocent evening looking through albums of photographs and talking football and polo. The dinner was excellent, and Mrs. Fox, clever in the art of entertaining, modelled her conversation to suit his manly tastes, in the end breaking down all his natural shyness and placing him on terms of easy friendship. When Jack eventually rose to go he was flattered by her open reluctance to part with him; her pleasure in his society had been so frank and appealing.
"I have never enjoyed an evening so much in my life, Jack," she said cooingly. "Why are you so different from other men?"
"Am I?" he asked in some confusion as she retained his hand in hers.
"In a thousand ways. I almost wish I had never met you, Jack!"
"Why?" he asked, his breath suddenly short, his heart beating a rapid tattoo in his breast. For the life of him he could not say the easy pretty things that fell so naturally from other men's lips.
"Because—Oh! why, you must know—I shall always be making comparisons which are odious, and remember, I have to put up with only odiousness!"
"I hate to think of it," he said huskily.
"It is sweet to think you mind."
"It makes a fellow—mad to do something. It's damned hard and cruel for you!"
"Never mind, dear boy. Come again, come often, will you?" she pleaded, leaning her head against the pillar behind her and looking languishingly up at him with the moonlight full on her face and throat, bathing her in a pale radiance.
Jack's eyes swept the deserted verandah. He did not know that the servants were well drilled in the etiquette of keeping out of the way when the lady of the house entertained a male visitor. "Good-bye," he said indistinctly, moving a step nearer.
"Good-bye," she returned almost inarticulately, her eyes melting to his own. "I shall weep my heart out when you are gone."
"Why?" he demanded unsteadily.
"For the things that I have missed. I always dream of a man just like you—you are the man of my dreams come to me—too late!—and my heart has been starved so long!"
"Don't," he said sharply. "I am not made of stone."
Their faces were very near together, so near, that Jack had only to stoop to press her lips fiercely with his.
"Oh, Jack!—" she cried emotionally. "You mustn't make me love you—you darling!" yet she returned his kiss with equal fervour. "Oh, go—go quickly," she breathed. "You must not stay——"
Dazed and bewildered, Jack took her at her word and went swiftly down the steps, nor did he halt when her voice called after him to stop and return. "Oh, Jack!—come back—come back, I cannot let you go!"
Nevertheless, he went without a backward look, wondering within himself if all men found it so easy to tread the path of dishonour. Where it might lead him if he allowed his baser instincts headway, he could guess, and with a mighty effort he made up his mind to apply the brake there and then. Poor woman!—he could not blame her—it was he alone who had had no excuse—not a shadow of an excuse for the outrage. She, a disappointed wife was like a being temporising with suicide. Small blame to her if she took the plunge. It was for men of sound brain and clear judgment to save her—not supply the means of self-destruction.
Did she wish him to believe that she already loved him?
Then he must assist her quickly to recover from the delusion, for Jack well knew that there is a difference between love and the feeling that could simulate it to the destruction of honour and self-respect. Passion had swept him off his feet with sudden violence and he was shaken to the depths with fear of himself, for he had let himself go unpardonably and was ashamed.
All the way to his bungalow he walked with bowed head, alternately thrilled with temptation, and abased at his moral collapse; the latter, because he cherished an ideal and was now convicted in his own estimation as unworthy.
The ideal had been established in the Puja holidays he had spent in Darjeeling playing with the "Squawk" and listening to its mother's innocent reminiscences of her home and her people in England. He had found a wonderful thing: a beautiful woman without vanity—a child-nature in a woman; an ideal wife; one who respected her husband and obeyed him while idolising their child. Wedded to such purity a husband's life was paradise, and Jack accounted him a lucky man. It was refreshing to bask in her presence and hear her describe her simple past, so transparently virtuous and inexperienced, into which a certain name was always intruding. "Kitty" the little sister was mentioned constantly. Always "Kitty!" She had said this or that, she had done so and so. She was a little wonder, full of charm, and so intensely human that the picture of her had haunted his imagination.
[Footnote 13: Hindu festival.]
"Is she like you?" he had asked wondering if Nature could possibly have twice excelled herself.
"We are considered rather alike, but she has twice the courage and initiative that I have, and her eyes are the deepest violet you have seen."
"Haven't you a photo of her?" curiosity had impelled him to ask.
"Oh, yes. A beauty, taken by Raaf's in Regent Street." She had fetched the photograph and Jack had fallen straightway in love with the sparkling face so full of charm and sunshine. The small features were not unlike Mrs. Meredith's, but where they lacked her beauty, they made up a thousandfold in attraction. It was a face to hold the attention, to follow to the ends of the earth. From Mrs. Meredith's description, Kitty was brimful of life and high spirits, affectionate and generous, but quite a "handful" to manage. "She always dared infinitely more than ever I did, and was always the first to get into scrapes! But so loyal and honourable!"
"I should imagine every fellow for miles around must be head and ears in love with her!"
"That, of course, but she is not a bit silly about boys, being practically a boy herself in disposition. Only lately she has begun to do up her hair and is to be presented next season when she will be considered 'out.'"
"And be married straight away!"
"I suppose so," said Joyce proudly. "She is such a darling!"
"I can believe it," said he.
Jack had been so completely captivated by Kitty's photograph that Joyce had generously told him to keep it. She had other copies and thought it as well that he should cultivate an ideal for the elevation of his soul. "It is good for a man to look up to a really good girl with admiration and trust; it should make him determined to become worthy of the possession even of her picture."
"It is something for a fellow to live up to," Jack had blushingly returned, full of delight in the gift. He mentally resolved to go in search of the original the very first time he obtained furlough and to be satisfied with no other. If the Fates would only keep her fancy-free for himself!
He carried the picture home and Tommy was tormented with curiosity concerning the face which was so like Mrs. Meredith's and yet not hers.
The memory of that afternoon at Darjeeling and of the photograph in his dispatch-box came to taunt Jack in the moonlight as he wended his way to the bungalow at the Police Lines, fresh as he was from the experience of a married woman's kisses given in response to his own.
Tommy was at home and awake when he came in, and remarked bluntly concerning his extraordinary pallor.
"How did it go off? Was Barrington Fox Esquire particularly cordial?"
"He wasn't there," came gruffly from Jack.
"I'll repeat it if you like."
"Don't be ratty. I was only expressing natural surprise. Possibly she knew he wouldn't be there when she asked you."
"You are as uncharitable as everyone else."
"No, I am merely somewhat discerning."
"It does you credit."
"My son, hearken to the words of wisdom and the voice of the sage—'Whoso is partner with a thief, hateth his own soul——'"
"Oh, go to blazes," said Jack pouring himself out a whisky-and-soda.
"'A man that flattereth his neighbour spreadeth a net for his feet.'"
"I've been to Church—Drop it."
"'Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend,'" Tommy persisted with a twinkle in his eye.
"Thanks, I'm much obliged but it isn't necessary. Have a cigarette."
It was mentioned that the doctor dined at the Bara Koti that evening.
When the news of an extra mouth to feed was conveyed to the cook in the kitchen, Abdul surveyed three snipe among potato chips with a problem of multiplication vexing his soul.
"With the padre-sahib they are three, yet without warning they bring a fourth! Now what to do? ai khodar!—how to arrange?"
"Why disturb thyself, brother?" said the khansaman sympathetically as he put extra plates on the rack of the hot-case in which an open fire in a cast-iron cooker burned fiercely. "Cut each bird in two and make toast for each portion, in this way there will be some left for thee and me. If the master say aught, ask if it is his almighty will that the shikari be sent out at a moment's notice in the moonlight to shoot another bird."
The fine sarcasm of his advice created a general laugh of good-humour among the servants assembled to serve the dinner. "In my last place," continued the Mohammedan butler, "my Sahib who had no wife would, out of sheer provocation, bring six or eight sahibs home to eat with him, and could we protest? Yah, khodar! that instant with two kicks would we have been dismissed, and he so ready with his boot! No! Quickly we put water in the soup; with much energy we opened a tin of salmon, cut up onions, fetched a cucumber from the vegetable garden for salad. Then in the fowl-house, what a cackling and screeching as the masalchi chased fowls and cut their throats! Jhut! they were cleaned and how long does it take to grill meat? In fifteen minutes from the order, the dinner was ready, pudding and all. When a store-room is well-stocked, it is like jadu to make a dinner for one capable of feeding six and even eight!"
[Footnote 14: Magic.]
All great talkers are unconscious egotists, as the Merediths found the Reverend John Pugh who enjoyed the sound of his own voice even when he was not in the pulpit, and retailed stock jokes and anecdotes to the company in general, forgetful of the fact that the same jokes and anecdotes had been recounted by him at every house on his visiting list. At dessert Joyce was glad to slip away to the drawing-room taking with her the doctor, who was permitted to smoke while he played to her on the piano.
Joyce noticed that he was disinclined for conversation and was out of sorts and dull, as though inwardly disturbed and uninterested even at his music. He took an early opportunity to leave and was accompanied to the doorstep by Joyce, her husband being still pinned to the dining-room by the parson whose anecdotes were inexhaustible.
"When next you see your friend, Miss Bright," said he, apropos of nothing, as he shook hands again, "tell her, will you?—that I know how to take a snub."
"Why?—has Honor snubbed you?" she asked surprised.
He smiled unpleasantly. "It was equal to a knock-down blow."
"But that is so unlike Honor. How do you mean?"
"I am not complaining, for I dare say I deserve it, but I would like her to know that I shall not willingly put myself in the way of the same again."
"Oh—" light had dawned on Joyce. "It must be because she thinks you failed Elsie Meek. She heard that you never went to Sombari on Friday night though you left the party for the purpose of seeing how she was doing. Honor came here straight from the Mission."
"It was on the steps of the Mission bungalow that we met, and I was sentenced without a charge."
"Are you very angry?"
"I don't think I am," he returned proudly. "It is nothing of consequence."
"But would it have made any difference had you gone?" she pressed. "I ask because I feel responsible for having kept you with me." Her voice quavered with emotion and her lovely eyes drooped.
"It would have made no difference." Captain Dalton condescended to explain Elsie Meek's condition and the fatal consequence of the sudden exertion she had taken in her delirium and high fever. "She needed very close watching. Unfortunately that was not given."
"Then it was the nurse's fault?"
"It was an accident. They could not afford a second nurse and Mrs. Meek was physically unfit to do her share."
"I shall tell Honor."
"Please do not do so. I prefer to let the matter stand. It will be quite for the best," and with that he was gone.
However, Joyce took the first opportunity of repeating the conversation to her friend. "So you see, dear," she concluded as they talked together at the Club the following afternoon, "he was not at all to blame."
"Perhaps not, but it makes no difference. I am deeply disappointed in him. It was his duty to have gone, and a man who is capable of neglecting a duty for pleasure falls short of the standard I cherish," returned Honor coldly.
"I did not know you could be so hard!" said Joyce reproachfully.
"I am not hard. It is absolutely nothing to me and Captain Dalton cares very little what I think."
Joyce wondered if that were so, for she remembered his abstraction; his mention of Honor had been a bolt from the blue.
"I do not understand why he said 'it would be quite for the best,'" Joyce speculated.
"It proves how little he cares one way or another!" Honor answered, wounded but proud. "And I have had a lesson never to mistake a goose for a swan again."
"But he was good to you!"
"And for that I immediately dressed him up in every virtue; I was just a fool—like any schoolgirl! Please don't let us talk of Captain Dalton any more. He does not interest me at all."
She knew it was untrue to say that, but it was too late to recall her words as she turned and faced Captain Dalton, himself, who had come up from behind them and must have heard her concluding remarks. He was apparently searching for the Collector who had returned reluctantly to camp and, as Honor passed on with a bow, which he acknowledged distantly, he and Joyce moved away together.
"I wish you would chase Honor and bring her to reason," said Joyce childishly.
"I would much prefer to stay with you, if I may?" said he impressively. "Besides, why should I?"
"Because," said Joyce with childish impulsiveness, "Honor Bright was very fond of you."
In a flash, Dalton's eyes seemed to dilate and then contract. "What makes you think so?" he asked abruptly.
"I knew it—I felt it. She could not hide it from me."
"Did she ever say anything?" he asked with assumed indifference.
"Not in words—but when she spoke of you—oh, the light in her eyes, and the changing colour!—perhaps I should not tell you this?—but misunderstandings are wretched."
Her blue eyes apologised so prettily that he smiled with peculiar radiance.
"You are a very good friend," he said with amused indulgence.
"Who wouldn't be that to a girl like Honor!"
"And if I tell you I appreciate that, you must forgive me if I would rather not discuss Honor Bright any more. Are you very lonely now your husband has left?"
"I shall be, after today!" she pouted in self-pity.
"Then I shall call round for you tomorrow afternoon and take you for a spin?"
"I shall look forward to it. Will you teach me to drive?"
"How delightful of you!"
"The pleasure will be equally mine," he said quite charmingly for him; and after further pleasantries rather foreign to his habit, he left her and drove away.
Filled with the determination to set aside foolish jealousies and cultivate a more generous trust in human nature, the Collector returned to his administrative duties in camp which were designed to bring him personally into contact with the villagers in his jurisdiction.
His bachelor experience of social life in the East had, unfortunately, not helped to supply him with much confidence in his own sex. However, men were not all ravening wolves let loose upon society, and it was an undeniable fact that no man, however unprincipled, would dare to make love to a married woman without her encouragement, or attempt to seduce her from her lawful allegiance without her co-operation. And Joyce was incorruptible because of her love for her child.
Yet there were times when Meredith's heart yearned wistfully for his beloved wife, and for the power of second sight that he might see how things were going in his absence; and since he was denied that faculty, it was not a little comfort to him to know that Honor Bright was in intimate companionship with Joyce. He liked to think of her influence exerted to assist the development of the childlike mind; for Honor Bright was "one of the best," and would some day make some lucky fellow a splendid wife; of that there was no doubt whatever. It seemed a mystery that she was still unmarried when she had been out in India for a year or more! and Meredith wondered what men were about. It did not strike him that Honor was not to be had for the asking.
It was well, however, for the Collector's peace of mind and the work upon which he was engaged, that he did not know of the motor drives which were to provide a surprise for him one day.
"People are beginning to talk about them," Honor ventured, with reference to their frequency, shy of being misunderstood and afraid of being considered interfering; but she had not forgotten Ray Meredith's parting words spoken with wistful meaning—"Take care of my wife, she is such a kid!"
She had accepted the responsibility and it was weighing heavily upon her.
"Very impertinent of 'people,'" said Joyce in return.
"You have to live among them, and in your position they want to look up to you as a sort of 'Caesar's wife,'" said Honor smiling. "But it is, of course, a matter that lies between you and your husband entirely. If he doesn't object——"
"He knows nothing about my learning to drive, as it is to be a surprise. What concern is it of any one else?"
"We generally stand or fall by what people think of us—don't we? However much we would like to ignore the fact, it remains unquestionable. If we do things liable to misconstruction, we are likely to suffer in the eyes of the world—and you see it every day. You yourself disapproved of and condemned Mrs. Fox, whose ways none of us admire or can stand."
"Oh, Honey!" reproachfully—"would you compare me with Mrs. Fox? Why she does scandalous things!"
"God forbid that I should! but Mrs. Fox did not begin by doing scandalous things. When she grew used to doing unconventional things she became consciously scandalous. Everything happens by degrees—even deterioration."
"But you don't think there is any harm in my going for drives with Captain Dalton, Honey? He is so different. He is not the kind of man who gets women talked about, I should imagine. Why, half the time, he is glum and absent-minded, and he treats me just like a child." Joyce never resented Honor's plain-speaking.
"It is no business of mine," said Honor, "except that you are my friend and I am jealous for your honourable standing here. I know nothing of Captain Dalton, but that he is a man like most others—and you might, some day, meet with a surprise."
"What sort of surprise?" laughed Joyce sceptically.
"I don't know—but you'll remember that I warned you. Meantime, go easy with your favours. You are rather generous, you know."
Honor was thinking of Joyce's innocent demonstrativeness—inseparable from herself—which some men might not understand, and the doctor was but human after all. She had seen her toying with his watch-chain while arguing against following his advice for the good of her health; leading him by the hand to visit her baby in its crib; seizing the lapels of his coat in a moment of eager excitement. On each of these occasions Honor had been apart from them, an observer at a distance, engaged by others in conversation and desirous of appearing unconscious of the doctor's existence. Since the day she had shown silent disapproval of him on the steps of the Mission Bungalow, he had made no effort to bring about a better understanding and she was wounded to the quick, though she steeled herself to show utter indifference. Yet the sight of the doctor with Joyce in such intimate circumstances—latterly made more so by the frequent drives—had caused Honor's heart to twist with sudden anguish; for it was difficult to forget the day at his bungalow when he had fought for her life and called her the bravest girl he knew. A wordless sympathy had grown up between them since that day. His eyes had held for her a special message. Though he was "not seeking her for a wife" she felt that he had liked her more than a little, and she——?
Now they were less than strangers; and Joyce, beautiful and confiding, was innocently flattering him with her preference. Where would it end?
While Honor watched the development of Joyce's friendship with Captain Dalton, she was also aware of a change in Jack. Tommy had drawn her attention to Mrs. Fox's efforts to enslave Jack, whose own demeanour was beginning to show that all was not right with him. A new self-consciousness was apparent in his manner towards her, and he made blundering efforts to avoid being left alone in her company. He was evidently afraid of her—afraid of himself, too—because of the evil impulses her insidious influence had aroused in him.
The fact was, Jack had arrived at a just appreciation of the truism, "Opportunity makes the thief." His respect for Mrs. Fox had expired after the episode on her moonlight verandah, and though he had made excuses for her, he was conscious they had rung hollow. Yet, in spite of his strict upbringing and the knowledge of danger, he had come to the psychological point when Opportunity was certain to make him a thief, for the memory of those kisses burned fiercely. He was as one who, by steeping himself in the vice of intoxication, begets a craving for alcohol, and he felt that his powers of resistance were on the wane. His cherished "ideal" was forgotten, and her portrait reposed face downward among envelopes and papers in his dispatch-box, while he kept out of Mrs. Meredith's way and neglected Honor Bright.
"Jack's not the same man," Tommy confided to Honor. "He eats little and talks less. That woman will bring him to grief. I'd cheerfully shoot her."
"What's the matter with Jack?" Honor asked, surprised. "What does he admire in her? I have no patience with him."
"I don't know that he admires her. It's an infatuation. She has cast a spell over him somehow, since the night he dined with her alone, and he can't resist it. She writes to him almost every day."
"And he answers her notes?"
"Jack is weak. I simply have no use for such weakness," said Honor contemptuously. "There is more hope for the villain who is deliberately bad than for the wobbly wretch who hasn't the strength to resist temptation. When the one repents, he is at least sincere; the other can never be depended upon to repent sincerely."
"I never heard that before," grinned Tommy. "You would rather have Jack sin deliberately with his eyes open than fail in his efforts to keep straight?"
"I have no patience for 'failures.' One could be angry with him for sinning deliberately, but hardly contemptuous. As it is, I have no opinion of Jack."
Tommy made no complaint, for it was all to his own advantage. Though he was fond of Jack he had always regarded him as a dangerous rival, who so far had been merciful in not exerting his fascinations upon the only girl in their small circle at Muktiarbad. Since he was such a fool as to prefer dangling after a married woman, ten years his senior, his blood be on his own head.
One evening, a few days later, Mrs. Fox discovered Jack Darling alone in the billiard-room knocking about the balls while waiting for someone to join him in a game. The rules of the Muktiarbad Club were lenient towards the ladies, who thus enjoyed privileges denied to them at larger stations. Mrs. Fox was therefore free to enter, and Jack was obliged to submit to his fate and comply with her request for a lesson in the science of "screws" and "potting." He had been priding himself on his wisdom and self-control in retiring from tennis and the society of the ladies, and had not reckoned on the perseverance of the one lady he wished to avoid.
They played till others arrived; Jack was oddly moved by the sight of her slender hand, exquisitely feminine and appealing, as it poised the cue or lay on the green cloth of the table. Little intimacies were inevitable as he was further called upon to instruct her in the formation of a "bridge," or the handling of a cue; and he soon forgot his desire to escape, in the involuntary thrills her contact gave him.
Eventually, she gracefully resigned in favour of a couple of members who looked their anxiety to play, and carried Jack off to escort her home.
"You are quite sure you do not mind?" she asked softly.
"Why should I mind?" he fenced awkwardly.
"Because you have behaved lately as though you did not—not—like me...."
"Have I?" he asked, flushing red in the darkness. "That isn't true."
"I thought, perhaps, it was not true. That is why I was determined to have this opportunity for a talk."
She did most of the talking while he barely listened, being conscious only of the thumping of his capitulating heart. But neither made any allusion to the tender episode on the verandah, from which Jack dated his undoing.
In a quiet lane where the shadows lay deepest, he was asked to strike a match. Convicted of lack of courtesy, Jack hurriedly produced his cigarette case and offered it to her with confused apologies.
"No thanks. Only a lighted match. I want to show you something," she said plaintively. And while he struck a light she rolled back her silk sleeve and displayed for his benefit a purple bruise on her shoulder where it curved down to the arm; an ugly, evil-looking thing staining the marble purity of the flesh.
"How did that happen?" he asked greatly shocked and very sympathetic.
"Can't you guess?"
"Good God!—is it possible? Is he such a cad as all that?" What else was Jack to think?
"Perhaps I had better say no more about it, only I thought you had better know." Only the inference was possible, and Jack stood stock-still burning with indignant fury that a woman should be subjected to such brutality at the hands of a man. The match burned down to his finger-tips and fell to the ground leaving the two in the shadows of the silent road.
"It makes me feel pretty mad—what can I do?" he asked helplessly as she drew the sleeve down.
"You can do nothing—but give me a little tenderness and love," she said with a sob, letting him take her in his arms.
"You poor little woman!"
"It is so lovely to feel that you care, Jack! Nothing matters so long as you care!" She clung to his neck inviting and returning his kisses.
Further down the lane as they walked with his arm about her, they were startlingly rung out of the way by a cyclist who had come on them unawares. It was Tommy who had neglected to light his lamp, as the night, though dark, was clear and starry and municipal regulations were lax.
"Do you think he recognised us?" Mrs. Fox asked anxiously.
"Without a doubt," Jack spoke with annoyance.
"But it's only Tommy and you are his friend. He won't give us away." She had no idea of the shame and embarrassment that Jack suffered at the thought that he had given his chum ocular proof of his folly, for Tommy had confessed that he despised Mrs. Fox, and that he had encouraged Bobby Smart to break away from her clutches. That there was truth in the gossip concerning Mrs. Fox and young Smart he could no longer doubt, but this made very little difference to him. As matters stood, he was committed and could not go back. Nor did he wish to. At least Tommy was loyal and would not give him away to the Station. Thoughts of the Station brought thoughts of Mrs. Meredith and Honor Bright whose good-fellowship he valued. Honor stood for all that was best in womanhood, and to be worthy of her companionship a man had to be as straight as a die. Joyce Meredith was "not in the same boat," though she, too, was a "bit of 'All-right.'" Her sister—? what chance had he of ever meeting her sister?—Jack laughed as he shook off a tendency to morbid regret and bade Mrs. Fox a resolute farewell at her gate. He had plenty to do preparing a judgment he had to deliver in court the following day, and begged to be excused. Another day—perhaps——
Mrs. Fox fixed the day and parted from him tenderly, full of satisfaction at the success of her clever fiction. The accident which had occasioned the bruise had been of the commonest, but it had served her gallantly.
Contrary to Jack's expectations, Tommy was not at all in the mood to rag, being silent for the greater part of dinner. However, when the genial influence of a whisky-and-soda had had time to work on his spirits, the young policeman apologised for not having carried a light on his bicycle. It was his way of introducing the subject which was haunting him with forebodings.
"That's all right," said Jack. "But as one whose job is to enforce the law, I should imagine you would be more particular."
"If that's all the law-breaking I do, I shan't come to grief, my son. It is very different in your case. 'Can a man take coals to his bosom and not be burned?'"
"What the devil are you driving at?"
"I get a tidy lot of wisdom out of old Solomon and I commend you to take up the dissertation from where I left off. You'll find a good deal to set you thinking."
"Where am I to find it?" Jack asked with determined good-humour.
"Proverbs—sixth, twenty-eighth; read from there, onward."
"Thanks. I'll see what he has to say concerning such stupendous truths."
"I commend you also to try him for advice on seeking a wife," said Tommy. "It will help you to form a judgment. Listen:
"'Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies'——"
"Blessed old cynic!" interjected Jack, adding, he had heard that before.
"'The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her'—mark the word, 'trust'.... 'She will do him good, not evil all the days of her life.' I can't remember it all, there is such a lot. He goes on to say, 'Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land.... Strength and honour are her clothing and she shall rejoice in time to come——'"
"Personally, I should prefer something more decent as a garment," murmured Jack, while Tommy searched his brains.
"'She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. Many daughters have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all. Favour is deceitful and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates.'"
"Is that all?"
"Isn't it enough?"
"And you mean to say you expect to find such a paragon of perfection in modern times?" Jack asked, pouring out some more whisky.
"Till I do, I shan't marry," said Tommy.
"Here's luck to you!" said Jack raising his glass to his lips, unconvinced. "I'm afraid you'll live to be an old bachelor."
"I'm afraid I shall, though I have found her already," murmured Tommy.
Honor Bright paid several visits to the Mission after Elsie Meek's death, hoping to be of use in cheering the bereaved mother. After the funeral most of the ladies had called to sympathise, Joyce among them, tearful and tender; but having nothing in common with Methodists who held aloof from Station society, her visit of condolence ended the intercourse, so that, but for Honor, Mrs. Meek would have been much alone. The girl would cycle down for an hour or so and chat with, or read to the grief-stricken woman while she worked garments for the converted heathen, thus affording her the priceless boon of sympathetic companionship.
During these visits it became apparent to her how much the Padre had changed. He was hardly the same man. All his dictatorial ways were gone, his self-sufficiency vanished; he was, instead, bowed down with depression, he looked older than his years, and spoke with a new and strange humility.
Very shyly, as though unaccustomed to the role, he was becoming the attentive husband with an anxious eye for his wife's comfort, and seeking to show her by unobtrusive services that he understood and shared her grief and was suffering the pangs of remorse. It was not easy for Mr. Meek to confess that he now realised he had been a hard husband and father, but his manner was tantamount to such a confession, and Mrs. Meek was deeply touched. The passionate love and devotion of nineteen years ago had long settled into a natural affection for the father of her child, and now when she was stricken to the earth with sorrow, the void in her heart craved to be filled, and she could feel he was striving to fill it.
"You don't know how pathetic it seems to me," she confided in Honor, "his self-conviction and efforts to atone. He must have been fond of our child, deep down, though unable to show it, not being of a demonstrative nature. I think he feels he was narrow and bigoted not to have allowed her a few innocent pleasures such as girls enjoy among young people in a Station,—and it is too late now!"
"There is nothing I can imagine so painful as unavailing remorse," said Honor.
"It makes me sorry for him and though I have found it hard to forgive him, I have uttered no word of reproach. He is so altered. Although a good man and truly religious, he was yet growing unconsciously selfish and domineering—all that has now been swept away, and he is ready for any self-sacrifice—even to allowing me to visit my family in Scotland."
"Will you go?"
Mrs. Meek's work dropped in her lap while she gave herself up to thought. "No," she said at length. "I have lost touch with my people. Though they love me dearly, and I them, I don't feel as if I could leave my husband alone now that he is so broken and sad. We share the same bereavement, and need each other now more than ever before. Besides, he hardly realises how dependent he is upon me. I have done so much for him all these years that he will be utterly stranded without me. It would be cruel."
Honor smiled at her affectionately, thinking it was very sweet—this spirit of love and forgiveness springing to life after years of habitual submission. A truly feminine quality, upon which the masculine nature has never failed to draw, and which would continue as long as women remained womanly for the salvation of men.
While at Sombari, Honor heard news of Captain Dalton's doings in the District. His fame as a surgeon had spread far and wide with various results on the ignorant and enlightened. In the case of the former, he inspired more fear than respect, and Mr. Meek could tell of mischievous rumours afloat which he had done his best to dispel so far as his influence went. One of the tales in circulation was that Captain Dalton was an agent of the Government sent to cripple the youths of the District and otherwise render them helpless in the event of a revolution.
"And when is such an event likely to happen?" the Padre had asked.
Who can tell?—Weren't there mutterings and discontent in big towns?—All who travelled and went to the cities came back with news of great things to come if all that the people demanded was not granted by the Sarcar.
"What are the people demanding?" Mr. Meek persisted in knowing.
That was best known to the highly educated. What did the poor agriculturist know of what was good for the country? He was like sheep led to the pasture by those in authority. But when the Sarcar sent among the sheep a butcher with no stomach for the suffering of the helpless ones, it was time to protest and to see to it that he was recalled or driven away. Some were for even more lawless methods of ridding the countryside of this monster who disembowelled the sick and suffering, severed limbs, and robbed people of their rights.
Mr. Meek's inquiries elicited that the doctor had performed certain surgical operations in some cases of accidental injury, which the neglect of sanitary precautions had rendered necessary. An operation for appendicitis had resulted in death through bad nursing and failure to carry out instructions. The women of a zemindar's household had fed his son on solids too soon after the removal of his appendix, which act of ignorance and disobedience had produced inflammation, agony, and death. The doctor was regarded as his murderer, and evil looks followed him whenever he passed that way.
"What butchery!" one had afterwards exclaimed at a council of five called to discuss the enormity of the doctor's conduct and his growing record of outrages upon humanity. "To extract a portion of the intestines was madness and murder, for who can exist without intestines as God made them?—and his effrontery to put the blame upon the women who in the tenderness of their hearts had fed the youth on dhal and rice for the restoration of his strength—ai Khodar! What harm was there ever in plain dhal and rice? It was but an excuse, and now there is Gunesh Prosad without a son to inherit his estate, and all because of this man who is sent among us to cut up human bodies while they are yet alive!"
"It is a great danger to us. Someone must teach this Sarcari butcher of human flesh a lesson, or where might it not end?" another had remarked in complete sympathy.
"But," put in a third cautiously, fearful of making himself unpopular by repeating the tale with which he was fit to burst, "didst hear of that legend concerning the coolie of Panipara busti who went forth as a beater for the hunt, the time the Collector Sahib and others took long spears and killed wild boars? He was gored, and lay on the grass disembowelled, and as one dead. Quickly on hearing of the accident came the doctor Sahib in his hawa-ghari, himself at the wheel, and leaping out he knelt on the grass, and in a twinkling with strange gloves, and water in a gumla, he washed the coolie's intestines and restored them where they belonged, after which with a needle, even as a darzi sews garments, he stitched up the wound! Those watching turned sick of stomach, but not so the doctor Sahib. Even the Collector Sahib turned his back and called for a glass of spirits. Ai—Ma!—how he did it was a miracle, but the man is at the hospital in the Station, recovering, and these are true words; on the head of my eldest born I swear I have repeated it just as it was told to me."
[Footnote 15: Earthen receptacle.]
"It is a fable; believe it not. More likely he is dead and his body already cremated."
"Not so. I was told I could see him, if I willed, with mine own eyes. Many have journeyed to the Station so that they might with their own eyes behold him. The doctor Sahib may be unfeeling, even bloodthirsty, but he is devil-possessed with cunning to work magic."
"Even so, he is a danger and should be removed. Who knows what excuse he might take to use the knife on thee and me and the little ones of our households? Tobah! he is a wolf, not a man. And this one the Sarcar has sent among us to mutilate, kill, and rob us of our comforts and rights. Soon, he will take away the jhil from Panipara busti so that the people will be put to the labour of dragging water out of deep wells, and for the washing of their garments, they will have to walk many kos to the river!"
Mr. Meek had learned a great deal more from his converts of the sayings of the villagers and their feeling against Captain Dalton, all of which Mrs. Meek recounted to Honor in order that she might put the doctor on his guard. The latter, however, gave her no opportunity to speak to him, so she left it to Joyce to tell him of his growing unpopularity.
This Joyce did on one of their outings in the Rolls-Royce and only succeeded in bringing a smile of amusement to the doctor's lips. He had no apprehensions whatever for his safety and the subject, therefore, was speedily forgotten. Joyce learned how to drive, and one afternoon in December had the supreme satisfaction of motoring out to camp and back again in the doctor's car. Her pleasure in his surprise was so childlike and exuberant that Meredith had not the heart to show his disapproval of the means by which she had attained this end, and smothered his own feelings that they should not damp her spirits.
"It was very charming indeed of him to spare so much of his time to you," he said with reference to the doctor's tutelage. "But why should he take all that trouble, do you think?"
"Because he likes me, of course," she replied ingenuously. "People don't usually do things for those for whom they care nothing," she said perching on his knee and lighting his cigarette for him. Her engaging impulses of affection were most disarming to Meredith's suspicions.
"But—suppose I object to his liking you to such a remarkable extent?" he said with admirable self-control.
"But why should you? Aren't you glad?"
"Devil a bit! I am wondering whether or not I should consider it an impertinence, the way he places his leisure at your disposal."
"But you yourself say I am the Bara Memsahib of the Station. Isn't it expected of the men to show me plenty of respect and heaps of attention? You wouldn't like to see me left out in the cold?"
"So long as they remember the 'respect'——"
"Ah, now you're talking!" she said severely. "Have I ever done anything to make you doubt my right to the respect of everyone here?"
Meredith kissed away the frown, considerably lighter of heart than he had been for some time. No man looking into the sweet pure eyes could fail to respect her! A fellow would indeed be a rascal if he tried to lead such a perfect lamb astray!
So the drives continued even after the lessons were no longer necessary, Joyce often at the wheel with Captain Dalton beside her keeping strict watch over their safety and that of the car which he particularly valued, while listening idly to her prattle. The curve of her cheek and sweep of her eyelashes delighted his artistic love of beauty, so that though he had plumbed the shallow depths of her mind at the start, he was still entertained by such superficialities as artlessness and loveliness.
"When are you going to show me the ruins?" she asked once, when in full view of the tall minarets and crumbling dome of the ancient palace. "No one seems to have sufficient interest in them to show them to me."
"There is nothing much to see beyond jungle and brick-work," he said, bored at the bare idea of plodding over the ground he had already visited, which was interesting only to globe-trotters and lovers of antiquities.
"I am crazy to see some of the old enamel still to be found on the bricks if you look for it. They say it is a lost art. Are there any snakes and leopards?"
"Possibly snakes, but no leopards. They were gotten rid of long ago, I am told."
Joyce shuddered. "The thought of snakes gives me the creeps. Isn't it possible to see the place and yet avoid snakes?" she asked longingly. She looked so pretty that he relented.
"If we are careful the snakes won't trouble us. I'll take you there some day when I have a long afternoon to spare."
At this Joyce was delighted and gave him her sweetest smiles. "If it were not for you, I don't know how I should exist in Muktiarbad!" she cooed.
"Your husband would not like to hear you say that!" he remarked studying her curiously.
"He has to be away so much that I might have died of ennui if you hadn't taken pity on me!" she pouted.
Dalton was not ready with pretty speeches; it involved too much effort to make up insincerities, but he acknowledged that the drives had given him a great deal of pleasure. It was so difficult to rouse him to enthusiasm, and he was so complacently cynical, that Joyce took a delight in probing his silences and getting at his thoughts.
"Don't you ever really enjoy yourself?" she roguishly asked, her head on one side and arch mischief in her eyes.
"I've just said so, haven't I?"
"But you don't mean it. I wish I could understand you and all there is behind that grudging smile—what you think of people—me, for instance."
"I think if I were an artist I should like to paint a picture of you—you are so amazingly good to look at," he returned daringly.
Joyce coloured. She had asked for frankness and could not quarrel with him for having answered her bluntly. On the whole she was rather pleased, than otherwise, that he should admire her, for where was the use of being pretty if one's friends did not show that they appreciated the fact. So she beamed on him wholly unconscious of flirting and rallied him still further on his reserve.
"I don't want to be your model, but your friend. You treat me too much as a child and never give me any confidence. Today, after all these months, what do I know of you?"
"You know at least that I am very much at your service. Isn't that so?"
"You are very kind—and all that, but friends talk openly to each other. I know nothing of you, and I do know everything you could say would be so interesting," she sighed. "For instance, why are you never really happy?"
"I have forgotten the way," he said coolly. "Perhaps I have learned too much of life and have lost interest in it. You don't laugh when you can't see the joke, do you?"
"Nor do I. I see no joke in life worth enjoying, so I have forgotten what pleasure is."
"Can't you tell me all about it?" She pleaded.
"It's an ugly story and not for your ears. But it played the devil with me for good and all," said he grimly.
"I am so sorry," she cried sincerely shocked and grieved. "I thought you must have had a bad time to look and act as you do. Poor you!" and one small hand rested for a moment on his. It was immediately captured and held close.
"Why should you care?" he asked, his expression curiously hardening.
"Because I like you so much."
"Only like?" he asked with a short, unpleasant laugh.
The necessity to avoid a goat tethered by the roadside prevented her from replying; Joyce recovered her hand for the steering-wheel and they discussed the narrow escape of the goat. To Joyce it was very flattering, this unbending to her alone of all in the Station, and the growth and development of their friendship. Some day she would learn what had "played the devil" with him for good and all. On the whole he was really quite a dear.
Meredith chafed during his week-ends at the Bara Koti when it became apparent how much his wife depended on the doctor for companionship; and now that Honor was supposed to have taken a dislike to the latter and to avoid encounters with him on their doorstep, there was little help for it. The only advantage to himself to be derived from the entertainment Joyce found in the doctor's society, was her healthier condition of mind and no further insistence on a passage home for herself and the child in the spring. He had a firm faith in her virtue and goodness, and applied himself to his winter programme with feverish haste that he might be at liberty to return to her the sooner and personally take over the care of her before her innocent partiality for the Civil Surgeon became common talk. That it was innocent he would have staked his life.
Honor Bright was less sanguine, though intensely loyal. The increasing intimacy between Joyce and the doctor weighed heavily on her; and it made her rage inwardly to hear her friend discussed openly at the Club by a clique that usually looked on at the tennis. While serving her smart over-hand strokes, scraps of conversation would float to her, demoralising her play and rousing in her a fierce inclination to speak her mind.