Banked Fires
by E. W. (Ethel Winifred) Savi
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

"I shall never marry. I have no vocation in that line, so should lead some sort of useful life."

"And isn't your life useful? What should I do alone when your father is in camp? If either of us was ill, whom do you think we would look to, but you? Surely, Honey, you are not bored with your own home?"

"Never, Mother dear! I am too happy with you and Dad. But most girls do something now-a-days. It is only that I feel it such a waste of energy to stay at home doing nothing but please myself."

"You have your duty to us, and your 'duty to your neighbour'."

"Which latter consists of meeting him collectively at the Club, helping to amuse him with tennis and golf, and listening to a lot of scandal!"

"My dear! since when have you turned cynical? You are, I am sure, a great comfort to Mrs. Meek; and the families of our servants simply worship you."

"For converting my cast-off garments to their use in winter. My old navy skirt has certainly made an excellent pair of pyjamas for Kareem's young hopeful, and the sweeper's youngster looks like nothing on earth in bloomers and my old golf jersey!"

"The saice, too, is delighted with those jackets you turned out from my old red flannel petticoat. The twins are as snug in them as a pair of kittens," laughed Mrs. Bright.

"I want to hear no more of that rot about your wanting work while I am above ground," said Mr. Bright, looking up from his newspaper and regarding his daughter severely. "It will be time enough to let you go when some fellow comes along and wants to carry you off; but to let you go and tinker at other people's jobs is not at all to my liking when you have a home and duties to perform with regard to it."

And that was the end of all argument. Not having a combative nature, nor a taste for debate, Honor adjourned to the store cupboard and gave Kareem the stores for the day.

"Please be obdurate in the matter of the ghi[17], Honey," was her mother's parting injunction. "He would swim in it if you allowed him. Two chattaks for curry are ample. The dear rascal is not above saving the surplus, if he gets it, and selling it back to me."

[Footnote 17: Butter converted into oil by boiling.]

"Memsahib's orders" admitted of no palava, and Kareem who was faithful unto death, but not above commercial dishonesty, submitted to the mandate with the air of a martyr. "Whatever I am told, that will I do; but if the food is not to the sahib's liking, I have nothing to say." Having expressed his views on the matter of his restrictions he withdrew with his tray full of stores, a bearded, black-browed ruffian in appearance, clad in a jacket and loin-cloth, but of a character capable of the highest self-sacrifice and devotion.

It was still early enough after her morning's duties were over, for a tramp along the Panipara Jhil for snipe, the sport Honor most enjoyed and at which she was gradually becoming proficient. She would be all alone, that bright January day, as Tommy, her faithful and devoted lover, was prevented by his duties from waiting on her.

Jack, too, was at work down at the Courts,—not that he was likely to offer his escort in these days of his unhappy bondage to Mrs. Fox; but Honor's thoughts strayed persistently to him with anxious concern. He had returned from Calcutta after Christmas looking jaded and depressed. Tommy had been unable to make anything of him till, one day, his attention was caught by a paragraph in the Statesman concerning an application for a dissolution of marriage from her husband, on the usual grounds, by Mrs. Barrington Fox.

"Good God! a walkover for her!" he exclaimed in consternation. Being full of concern for Jack, he forthwith proceeded with the news to Miss Bright, and they lamented together in bitterness over the young man's impending ruin. "She has played her cards like a sharper, and I have no doubt that that old idiot, Jack, is done for," Tommy observed.

"But why should he marry her?" Honor protested. "Two wrongs don't make a right."

"He feels, I suppose, in honour bound to marry her."

"In honour bound to punish himself by rewarding her dishonesty?"

"He shared it."

"Hers was the greater sin. She tempted him. Think of her age and his, her experience of life and his!—I don't see it!"

"Men have a special code of honour, it seems."

"Tommy, it is a case of kidnapping. Jack's only a foolish, weak boy, deserving of punishment, but it isn't fair that the punishment should be life-long!"

"He is pretty sick of himself, I can vouch for that."

Jack's undoing was a source of depression to Honor Bright, and the question of how to save him was with her continually.

It was a cold day with a pleasant warmth in the sunshine as Honor swung along the roads on foot, her gun under her arm, and a bag of cartridges slung from her shoulder. She was dressed in a Norfolk jacket and short skirt of tweed, with top boots as a protection from snakes, and her free and graceful carriage was a beautiful thing to see. So thought the doctor as he watched her from behind a pillar in his bungalow verandah.

He had returned by the last train the previous night a few days before he was expected, and, as yet, no one besides his servants and the locum knew of it.

When Honor had passed he began making hasty preparations to go out. His shot gun was taken down from a rack, examined, cleaned, and oiled afresh; cartridges were dropped into his pocket; thick boots suitable to muddy places were pulled on, accompanied by much impatience and a few swear words.

Would he have the motor? Yes—no! The motor could be taken by a mechanic to a certain point by the Panipara Jhil and left there for his convenience.

In the meantime, Honor tramped through the fields taking all the short cuts she knew, and was soon on the fringe of the grass in complete enjoyment of the wildness of the scene and its solitude. The slanting rays of the morning sun filtering through the trees, cast checkered lights upon the lilies and weeds that floated on the water. Little islands dotted the surface, covered with rushes and date palms, the wild plum, and the babul—all growing thickly together. The air was full of the odour of decaying vegetation and the noise of jungle fowl, teal, and duck. The latter could be seen fluttering their pinions among the lotus flowers, and bobbing about on the surface of the water, thoroughly at home in their native element; occasionally a flock would rise and settle again not far from the same spot, vigilant with the instinct of approaching danger. In the far distance, Panipara village could be seen, its dark, thatched roofs seeming to fringe the jhil at its farther verge.

Honor filled the breach of her light gun with a couple of No. 8 cartridges, and warily skirted the brink. In places the pools were so shallow that a man might have waded knee deep from island to island; but the soft mud was treacherous, and flat-bottomed canoes were generally hired at Panipara by sportsmen who went duck-shooting. As Honor was after snipe, she kept to the banks and picked her way fearlessly along the tangled paths, her high boots a protection from thorns and snakes.

Birds sang lustily in the trees; the throaty trill of the tufted bulbul sounding inexpressibly sweet,—the thyial, too, like a glorified canary, made music for her by the way.

For nearly an hour Honor wandered over the marshy ground of both banks, often imagining she heard footsteps and rustlings among the long grass that screened the view. The sounds ceased when she paused to listen, so she concluded that her imagination had played her false. At length, just as she was beginning to despair of success, a couple of snipe rose like a flash from almost under her feet, and were gone before she could raise her gun to her shoulder. Immediately she was startled by the sound of a shot fired somewhere in her neighbourhood! She had no idea that any one else was out shooting that morning. She looked around. Beyond a thin veil of smoke hanging over the water, there was nothing to be seen.

Who could it be, but a native shikari?—for there were a few in the District licensed to carry firearms, who supplied the residents of the Station with birds for their tables. Satisfied with her theory, she pressed on a little farther and was rewarded by another chance at a snipe. As the bird headed for a clump of bushes, she fired, and simultaneously with her shot there came an involuntary cry—a sharp exclamation of pain, and for a second she was rooted to the spot, forgetting everything but the fear that someone at hand had been hit.

Dropping her gun in the grass, she ran forward in dismay, brushed aside the screen of weeds and jungle, and came face to face with Captain Dalton leaning against the trunk of a tree, holding his wrist.

"Oh!—have I hurt you?" she cried in an intensity of alarm rather than of surprise at finding him there, when she believed him at least some hundreds of miles away.

Dalton never looked at her, nor replied, but releasing his wrist, allowed the blood to drip to the ground from a trivial wound. A stray shot from the many in the cartridge had scratched the skin upon a vein, and the occasion was serving him well.

But out of all proportion to the injury was his pallor and the emotion that swept his face and held him quivering and tongue-tied.

"What can I do?" Honor cried in her distress. The sight of blood was enough to rend her tender heart; and to know that it had been shed by an act of hers, shook her to the foundations of her being.

Dalton produced a handkerchief in silence and passing it to her, allowed her to bandage the wound as well as she could. He was concerned only with watching the beautiful, sunburnt fingers that moved tremblingly to aid him, or the sympathetic face that bent over the task.

When the bandage was completed, their eyes met, and the same moment Honor was in his arms, clasped close to his breast while he murmured his adoration.

"I love you!—my God! how I love you! and I want you so! Oh, my precious little girl!—my Honey—my love!"

Honor asked no questions, but welcomed, with a sob of joy, the gift of love that flooded her heart to overflowing. She clung to his neck with loving abandonment and yielded her lips to his generously. With her great nature, she could do nothing by halves, so gave of her love with no grudging hand.

"Since when have you loved me, my Sweet?" he asked in tones that were music to her ears.

"From the moment you kissed my hand and called me 'brave'!"

"And yet you plunged that dagger in my heart when you said in my hearing—'I have no interest in Captain Dalton'?"

Honor recalled her conversation with Joyce and blushed. "It was not true!" she confessed.

"I deserved it—and more!" he said humbly with suffering in his eyes.

"And when did you begin to—care?" she asked shyly.

"From the moment I looked into your eyes at my bungalow, and saw heroism, truth, and purity."

It was sweet hearing, though she was convinced that he exaggerated her qualities. "Why then did you hide it so long?"

"I was fighting the biggest fight of my life."

"And have you won?"

"Won?" he laughed harshly. "No. I have lost, but it's worth it," kissing her defiantly. "Can you guess how much I love you? When I was ill I used to dream of you. I even thought you came to me and said you loved me!"

"I did. I was beside you, but you were delirious with fever, and I was sure afterwards that what you said meant nothing."

"You were there? I often wondered about it, but dared not ask for fear of disillusionment. The dream was so dear!"

"And when you recovered, you never tried to see me!"

"I was fighting my big fight which I have lost," he returned recklessly.

"So I tried to teach myself to forget."

"And you couldn't?"

"Oh, no. It was too late!" she sighed happily.

"Blessed fidelity! and now you confess that you love me. Say it!"

"I love you!" A few minutes passed in silence while he demonstrated his transports of delight in true lover fashion.

"When you were angry with me over Elsie Meek's case, I went mad and did a succession of hideous things. How can you love such a monster?"

Honor drew his face closer and laid her cheek to his.

"I hated everybody—I even tried to hate you, but it was impossible. I resented the happiness of other men. I tried my best to break up a man's home after partaking of his hospitality. Do you care to kiss me now?"

Honor kissed him tenderly. "I watched it all with such suffering!"

"You did? God forgive me! Did you know that it is not to my credit that Mrs. Meredith is an honest woman today?"

"I know all about it."

"She told you? I might have known it! Women like Joyce Meredith talk. But she is a good little woman. As for me!—I am unfit to kiss your boot. Even now, I am the greatest blackguard unhung,—the meanest coward, for I cannot bring myself to renounce my heart's desire!" He held her from him and looked into her face with haggard eyes. "Send me away! Say you will have nothing to do with me!—I shall then trouble you no more."

With a happy laugh Honor flung herself on his breast. "Send you away?—now?" The thing was clearly impossible. And why should she? However wickedly he had behaved in the past it mattered nothing to her, for the present was hers and all the future. What a glorious prospect!

"You haven't the foggiest idea what a scoundrel I am!"

"Then I must have a special leaning towards scoundrels!" she replied, her face hidden on his shoulder.

"God knows the biggest thing in my life is my love for you," he said brokenly. "My dream-girl! If I lose you, I lose everything. You will not fail me, Honey?" he asked solemnly. "If all the world should wish to part us, you will still hold to me?"

"I could not change. Whatever happens, I shall always love you, even if all the world were against you."

He was not satisfied. For many minutes he held her to his heart, covering her face with passionate, lingering kisses.

"And all this while we are forgetting that your wrist is hurt!" she exclaimed.

"Damn my wrist! Look at me. Your eyes cannot lie!"

Honor lifted her eyes, clear and sweet to his, full of the love and loyalty she felt, and saw an unutterable sadness in the depths of his soul. He should have been rejoicing, yet he was like a man burdened with a great remorse.

"Say, 'Brian, I am yours till death.'"

Honor repeated the words gravely.

He continued: "'I swear that, when you are ready to take me away, I will go with you, and none shall hold me back.' Say that."

Honor said it faithfully. "I don't care if we have the quietest of weddings," she added, "so long as it is in a church."

After a pregnant pause, he said tentatively, "Mr. Meek, I dare say, could tie the knot."

"When may I tell Mother?"

"Will she keep it to herself?"

"She will tell Father, of course."

"Can't we have our happiness all to ourselves for a little while?"

Honor thought she could understand his deep sensitiveness of criticism and questions—he was so unlike all the other men she knew—and consented. Moreover, she loved him and wanted to please him. There was no wrong in keeping secret what concerned themselves so closely, till he was ready to make it public. Her own dear mother, from whom she had kept nothing in her life, would be the first to understand and appreciate her motive, as she was the most sympathetic woman in the world, and wanted nothing so much as her child's happiness.

"I will do exactly as you wish, dear," she said, glad to offer an early proof of her great affection.

Dalton kissed her rapturously, in unceasing wonderment at her condescension in loving one so utterly unworthy. He seemed unable to grasp the truth, and kept asking her repeatedly for assurances.

The heat of the sun's rays now penetrating their shadowed retreat and striking down upon her bared head, awakened Honor to a sense of time and the realisation that it was midday.

"When shall I hold you in my arms again?" he asked before finally releasing her.

"The question is, where?—if it is to be kept a secret between us, only?" she asked wistfully, compunction already pulling at her conscience. Secrecy savoured of intrigue, and all things underhand were abominable to her.

"I am so glad my bungalow is so near to yours—only the two gardens and a hedge between! I might almost signal to you to meet me somewhere?" he said hesitatingly as though expecting a rebuke.

"No, Brian. I'll have nothing to do with signalling," she said definitely. "We'll meet every day at the Club if you like, and leave the rest to chance."

"I could not build my hopes on chance. It would drive me crazy, as I am not a patient man. Can't I see you alone—say in the lane—after dinner?"

"No." She shook her head decidedly. "I couldn't do things by stealth! I cannot deceive—it's no use expecting it of me!"

"I knew that; and it's that which I worship in you! But I am an exacting and selfish brute. Well!—I'll not complain, Sweetheart!" He released her, still with the gloom of a profound sadness in his eyes, and, together, they walked back to find his car.



Honor seemed to walk on air all day. The whole world had changed for her in a twinkling, and her heart sang for very joy at being alive. God had answered her appeal and had given her the love of this lonely man whose soul was sick and wanted tender nursing back to health. Henceforward it would be her privilege to restore to him his lost ideals and revive his faith in God and human nature. Her belief in the power of truth and love being securely established, she had no fears for a future spent with Brian Dalton, for all his failures and misdeeds.

Her only regret was, having to keep her happiness to herself for the present, when she longed to share it with her mother: and to atone for her enforced reserve, she tried to be more than ever attentive and considerate to her while she looked forward to the time, not far distant, when she would obtain her forgiveness and blessing.

Captain Dalton's professional duties kept him engaged till dusk, when, much to the surprise of the members, he reappeared at the Club. He was impatient to meet Honor again and to exact from her lips renewed assurances of her unchanged feelings and good faith, for he was restless and unable to accept the astounding truth, being suspicious of his good fortune and distrustful of circumstances.

On the whole, the meeting was unsatisfactory on account of the lack of opportunity for a tete-a-tete. Constant interruptions owing to Honor's popularity, had the effect of driving him into his accustomed aloofness of manner tinged with aggressiveness towards offending persons. Tommy's persistent claims on Honor's comradeship were particularly aggravating, and not to be borne.

"I shall wring his neck if he butts in again," Dalton muttered viciously.

"We have known each other since we were children," Honor put in as a softener.

"I can't stick it here for another minute," he said with a suppressed curse. "Let's get out of this!"

To Honor, it was joy to be with him even in the midst of a company of others. Her satisfaction lay in the knowledge that she was beloved and his whispered endearments gave her bliss. His voice at her ear was the sweetest music she had ever heard when it said, "Honey!" or "Sweetheart!" and asked her to repeat that she loved him. "You know I do," she once answered. Thereupon their eyes met for a brief moment and her senses swooned under the intensity of his gaze. In that fraction of time he had, by suggestion, kissed her with such passion and longing—as at the jhil—that her breath fluttered in a sob, her eyes were blinded. He was teaching her to want him even as he wanted her till she was thrilled at the strength of their love. It was glorious that they were both young, with so many years of their lives before them in which to grow nearer to each other. "And they twain shall be one flesh," seemed the most blessed psychological miracle that her virgin mind could conceive.

"Where shall we go?" she answered indulging his demand to take her away from the Club.

"We can go for a spin in my car."

"It is so dark!"

"Do you mind?" His voice sounded hurt, and Honor, who was sensitive to its inflection, immediately yielded. She feared venomous tongues, but, the most deadly of them all being absent—Mrs. Fox having taken up her abode in Calcutta while her case was pending—she was reassured.

"Mother dear, I am going for a little run in Captain Dalton's car, if you don't mind," she called softly to Mrs. Bright who was busy organising a bridge party in the Ladies' Room.

Mrs. Bright looked surprised. Doubtful thoughts flashed through her mind,—fear of gossip, reluctance to stand in the way of innocent pleasure, and wonder that the doctor should have shown a sudden inclination towards sociability. Seeing a critical expression lurking in Mrs. Ironsides' eye her dignity was immediately in arms.

"Certainly, darling, but don't be late. Mind you wrap up properly," she returned cordially. Mrs. Ironsides would have to appreciate the fact that Honor had her mother's fullest trust and confidence. However, throughout the ensuing rubber she could not avoid mentally speculating on the possibility of the most eligible bachelor in the District beginning to consider her child from a matrimonial point of view.

Miss Bright passed out into the darkness with Captain Dalton, her eyes shining with a new beauty, and Tommy watched her, filled with dismay. What was the meaning of it? Honor with the doctor, of all men! The doctor paying Honor marked attentions, and she accepting them with sweet graciousness! He forgot to pull at his cigar which went out while he stared into the night with eyes that saw only the look in the girl's eyes as she walked beside Dalton towards his car.

The motor drive was repeated occasionally, and it became an ordinary event for Honor to shoot duck on the Panipara Jhil in his company. "It is better than tramping the jhil alone," Mrs. Bright said, when the subject was mentioned in her presence. "I have always felt anxious while she has been absent on her snipe-shooting expeditions alone, but am so much easier in mind now that the doctor has taken charge of her. He is such an unerring shot, I am told; and she is learning to be so careful under his guidance."

It was the least of the lessons Honor learned from the doctor. He taught her the delights of a perfect companionship founded on mutual love; a man's reverence for the woman he respects: a complete knowledge of her own heart; its power of devotion, its great depths, and stores of feeling.

Sometimes Ray Meredith joined them in his fleeting visits to the Station—a lonely and pathetic being, in need of companionship, and grateful for friendly attentions. His wife wrote regularly, he said, and she and the child were well. Otherwise, he spoke little of his absent family. Sometimes Tommy would meet them on the jhil and share their picnic luncheon. Jack was never accorded an invitation. On these occasions, the lovers would play at being ordinary friends but with poor success. Honor would avoid meeting the doctor's eyes, while the doctor's eyes were unable to stray long from contemplation of her engaging face which had never looked so lovable and full of charm.

With a quickened intuition, Tommy realised that his own sun had set, and he went about his business, a very subdued being; one who had lost all interest in his occupations and who was finding very little in life worth living for.

When Honor was alone with Dalton, they would discuss the future, and plan their Elysium together. He was engaged in making arrangements for taking up a practice in Melbourne, where a colleague, formerly his senior, had retired and was eager for his young brains in partnership. When everything was settled, her parents were to be told, after which they would be quietly married at the Mission, and leave for Australia. "You will not mind such a hole-and-corner sort of wedding?" he asked anxiously.

"What does it matter, so long as we are married?" she replied. "I have always hated a big, ostentatious wedding."

"I should loathe it!" he said strongly. "And what about Australia?"

"Anywhere with you—even if it is to the South Pole!"

Dalton kissed her to express his delight in her thoroughness. "How glad I shall be when I have you all to myself!—I shall spend every day of my life in proving to you how much I value your love, and you shall give this poor devil a chance to take up his life again. Honey!—sometimes I am sleepless with fears. It seems to me too good to be true. I am overcome with dread lest I should never carry it through! Something will be sure to happen to stop it. If so, I am done for! It will be the end of me!" He looked as if haunted with forebodings of evil.

Honor enfolded him in her embrace. Her tender arms clung about his neck and she kissed him tenderly in her desire to bring him comfort. "Why should anything happen to interfere? God knows how much we care, and He will be merciful." She fancied he alluded to sudden death.

"Ah! yes. Your God to whom you pray for safety every night of your life, may see fit to save you from such as I. I'm not good enough to take you, Honey; that's straight."

"You shall not say that," she protested laying her soft palm across his mouth. "Who is good in this world? Not I, by any means! So we are a pair in need of protection, and are both determined to begin a new life together in gratitude for the Divine Countenance."

Dalton suppressed a sound that was almost a sob while he defiantly blinked away a tear. "Sweet little Puritan!—" He covered her hand with kisses. "But it will be a terrible day for me when that martinet of a conscience sits in judgment on my sins. It makes me wish with all my heart that I may be dead before then! I'd risk damnation to——"

"Oh, hush!——"

"To have you mine, anyway. Does that shock you? It's the truth," and Honor was pained and greatly puzzled.

But he was not often in such a strange frame of mind. There were times when he was a different man, almost boyish in his merriment, and full of a determined optimism. He would build castles in the air for them both to live in, and make her laugh just for the sake of admiring her beautiful teeth.

It was early in March when Honor, having lost much of her reserve, discussed Jack's affair with Dalton and deplored his inevitable ruin. "Tommy says he'll be done for in every way if he marries her, but he will do so in spite of everything."

"More fool he."

"He's been very weak and very wicked," sighed Honor; "but she began it. We watched it start, and Jack walk, as it were, blindfold into a trap. It seems terrible that she should escape and he receive all the punishment!"

"Generally, it is the other way about!"

"Jack's punishment will be life-long. He will never be a happy man. Already, he is almost ill for thinking of it. His people are so proud and would never receive Mrs. Fox. Can't anything be done? You don't think he is obliged to marry her?"

"Not Mrs. Fox. Circumstances alter cases. She had her eyes wide open and played her cards for this. It would serve a woman like that jolly well right if young Darling gave her the slip. Tell Tommy to prevail on him to see me. What he wants is a medical certificate and leave home for six months. I'm very much mistaken if that doesn't change the complexion of things considerably."

"But he has no real illness!"

"I dare say I'll find him really ill when I overhaul him. He looks on the verge of a break-down. I have never seen a lad go off as he has done the past few months."

"That is because, at heart, Jack is not really a bad fellow. It is just that he is deplorably weak; and remorse for having yielded to temptation, is tormenting his soul. In proper hands he would shape quite well."

Dalton was as good as his word, for, when Jack visited him for a medical opinion on his run-down health, he was ready with the certificate which was to obtain six months' leave for him in Europe.

And while the young man waited on tenterhooks for sanction to leave India, and the routine of station-life continued as usual, the doctor awoke to the fact of his own increasing unpopularity with the natives of Panipara. Joyce Meredith had once tried to warn him, at which he had been considerably amused. After that, the arrival on the scene of a surveyor and the taking in hand of preliminary measures, showed that the Government were seriously considering the drainage scheme; hence personal hostilities against the author of it became active, and the gravity of his position was forced upon him.

The villagers scowled whenever he passed and repassed in his journeys about the District, and offered him open insolence in lonely places; while, on one occasion, a large mob had gathered to waylay the car, but had melted away at sight of Honor beside him. They had recognised the daughter of the senior police official, and were afraid,—or had caught sight of shot guns in the car; whereupon, discretion had prevailed.

Recognising symptoms as dangerous, Dalton refrained from taking Honor motoring with him, and had given up their joint expeditions to the jhil, at which Mrs. Bright was well pleased. Captain Dalton had, apparently, not proposed to Honor, and it was high time that he ceased making her conspicuous by his attentions. She had expected something to come of them but, so far, the only result was gossip and chaff on the part of ladies when they met at the Club, which was excessively annoying.

Didn't Honor see that matters were going a bit too far? Was it prudent for a young girl to get herself talked about—especially with a young man who had already caused plenty of gossip in the Station? Honor allowed that she had, perhaps, been a little unwise not to have considered the opinion of the neighbours, but her dear mother need not make herself anxious, as she and Captain Dalton understood each other perfectly.

That being the case, Mrs. Bright was consoled; for what is an "understanding" between a man and a maid, if not an unofficial engagement? Like most mothers, Mrs. Bright was anxious, at heart, to see her daughter happily settled in life; and the doctor, though not a wealthy man or popular, was, at least, a rising one in his profession, and considered a good match.

Honor, however, paid little attention to gossip and chaff, her mind being filled with anxiety and growing alarm for her lover's safety. She had quickly divined the increasing antagonism of the Panipara villagers towards him; and knowing his recklessness lived in continual dread.

"I shall not know a moment's peace while this sort of thing goes on," she fretted. "Can't you get a transfer till we are married?"

"And leave my little love?" It was unthinkable.

"It would make no difference in our feelings for each other."

"I couldn't do it, apart from the fact that it would look like running away. You little know what it means to me to see you every day."

Latterly he had spent most of his evenings at the Blights', who took compassion on his loneliness and were complaisant of his obvious attachment to Honor. Mrs. Bright, in her tactful way, gave him many opportunities of having Honor to himself in the drawing-room while she betook herself to her husband's own particular sanctum to indulge in confidential chat. "It is plain to see that he worships our Honey, and it is best they should meet here, since meet they must, in her own home," she would explain. "I dare say we shall be hearing something one of these days."

"He improves on acquaintance, and certainly has a devilish fine voice. I could listen to him all night," said her husband, nevertheless, obeying the hint and remaining a voluntary exile in his study.

Considering that his opportunities for snatching whatever of happiness he could out of his life in the present lay in Muktiarbad, it was not likely that Dalton was inclined to seek a transfer and thus run away from bodily danger;—not even when a parcel containing a bomb was placed on his writing-table, which, owing to some technical defect, failed to go off when it was opened. The incident gave Tommy and his subordinates some work to do, trying to trace the culprit who had placed it there, but the matter was treated with unconcern by the doctor himself.



One day, at the close of April, when the thermometer was unusually high, Ray Meredith fell a victim to a stroke of the sun, and had to be carried in from camp like a dead man. His friends were thrown into consternation, telegrams were flashed to headquarters, and even the bazaar discussed his danger with bated breath. Captain Dalton, always at his best in critical moments, rose all at once to great heights in the estimation of the District. It was told of him how he was not only physician but nurse to the Collector, and no woman could have been more deft or capable in the sick-room than he was. But no one knew that a sense of obligation to his conscience as well as to the sick man was driving him hard, so that, for the time being, all personal considerations were swept aside,—even his cherished plans which were nearing completion,—in order that he might save a useful life to which he owed some reparation.

Mrs. Bright was filled with admiration, and Honor with adoration. Both held themselves in readiness to be of use as necessity might demand, and were full of concern for Joyce so far away. Yet no cable was sent to tell her of her husband's state.

"From a rational point of view, it would be folly," said Mrs. Bright. "If he should die, we can send a cable to prepare her, and follow it up with another soon afterwards. Should he recover, we will have given her a nasty fright for nothing. By the time mail day comes round, we shall have something definite to say, and a letter will do quite well." To this Honor was obliged to agree, but it seemed terrible to her loving heart that a wife should be in ignorance of her husband's peril, and thus be deprived of importuning the Almighty with prayers for his recovery. So much of good in life depended on prayer, that she felt it necessary to pray on behalf of Joyce for the life of the husband so precious to her. According to her convictions, God works through the agency of his creatures, and as no stone was being left unturned by the doctor whose whole heart was in his profession, Ray Meredith stood a good chance if God were merciful to the reckless man who had scorned the deadly rays of an Indian sun.

"I am so thankful he has you to take care of him," she once said during a private interlude, when Dalton held her in his arms under the great trees of the avenue and kissed her good-night. "Poor, poor Joyce! She would break her heart if she were to lose him—and she away! She would never forgive herself for going."

"If, in spite of all our efforts, he should not recover, you may take it that he is fated to die of this stroke. One can't kick against Fate."

"There is no such thing as Fate! If you do your best, God helping, he will recover, I am sure of it. I am praying so hard for his wife's sake. If we keep in touch with God and do our best unremittingly, it is all that is wanted of us."

"If any one's prayers ever reach heaven, I am sure yours do!... Do you ever pray for me?"


"What for, specially?"

Honor hesitated for a moment, then murmured, "That we may never be parted in life, and that I may succeed in making you happy."

Dalton kissed her reverently. "Any more than that? Do you never say, 'Make him a good boy'? I need that more than anything. It is what mothers teach their kiddies to say, but it's forgotten when they grow up."

"I'll say that, too, if you wish it."

"Say it every night of your life; and also that my sins may be forgiven me. They are many!"

The evening the nurse arrived from Calcutta to take charge of the case, Meredith was improving in spite of the insupportable heat. Punkhas waved unceasingly in the bungalows, and quantities of ice were consumed. People moved about without energy, mopping their faces and yearning for the relief of a nor'wester, while a "brain-fever" bird cried its melancholy cadences with aggravating monotony, from a tree in the Collector's garden, where every leaf and twig had a thick coating of dust. A grey pall in the north-west tantalised with its suggestion of a possible thunderstorm, which, if it burst, would instantly cool the overcharged atmosphere; and anxious eyes glanced at it with longing.

Honor drove to the railway station in the Daimler to fetch the expected nurse, and was in time to meet the express as it steamed in with its long train of coaches, in which every window gaped, revealing in the third-class compartments the spectacle of semi-nude humanity packed like sheep in pens, perspiring, and anxious for the moment of release.

When the crowd on the platform had thinned, she saw a lady in a nurse's cloak and bonnet, waiting by her trunks, the belabelled condition of which advertised the fact that the owner was a much travelled person.

She was strikingly handsome in a bold and arresting way, with dark eyes capable of expressing much, and full, red lips parted upon slightly prominent teeth. She looked as if she could be extremely fascinating, but there was something about her that did not inspire Honor with confidence,—though she freely admired her grace and aplomb,—and she thought she looked more like an actress than a nurse. Surely the stage would have better suited one of her type! She wondered.

"I have been sent to fetch you. My name is Honor Bright."

"Oh, how d'you do! How kind you are! You see, I have 'some' luggage," was the reply.

"It will all fit on the car," and signing to a couple of coolie porters, Honor gave them directions and led the way through the booking office to the entrance porch. After they had taken their seats and the car had started, the nurse learned all about the case, in which she showed only a passing interest. "A married man, did you say?" she asked carelessly.

Honor had not said so, but answered in the affirmative.

"Wife at home?"

"In England; yes."

"And what's your doctor like? I always like to know for one has so much to do with the doctor, and it's just as well to understand something about him beforehand," she said, with ill-concealed eagerness.

"I should not describe Captain Dalton better than to say he is very direct and never wastes words," said Honor, smiling at her first impressions of Brian Dalton. Her secret knowledge of him thrilled her happily.

"And what of his looks? Is he as handsome as"—she bit her lips, stumbled in her sentence, and concluded, "as his pictures? I have seen his portrait in a photo group of surgeons at the Presidency General Hospital, in Calcutta."

"I have never thought about his being handsome," said Honor. "He has a strong face, and an expressive one—on occasions."

"I am told he is a hard man. How does he impress you?"

"I dare say he could be as hard as flint; but I have not experienced that side of his nature."

"It's a funny little place, this," said the nurse who had not troubled to give Honor her name. "I rather fancy it. I suppose you manage to have quite good times since everyone must know everyone else quite intimately. Like a large family!"

"I am quite fond of it, for I have many good friends."

"I could imagine putting up with it for a change; but to live here year in and year out, so far away from town and the bustle of life, would bore me stiff. However, chacun a son gout!"

At the house, the nurse was shown her room and left to unpack and arrange her things, and change into nursing attire. Tea was served to her in the morning-room though it was nearing the dinner hour, and Honor remained to entertain her till the doctor returned from another case; Mrs. Bright having temporary charge of the patient.

Soon afterwards, Captain Dalton arrived and Honor saw him step briskly into the room. She retired to a distant corner, herself, leaving him to confer with the nurse and acquaint her with the nature of the case, utterly unprepared for the scene that followed.

For a moment, she was paralysed at the sight of the doctor's ghastly pallor and startled eyes as they lighted upon the stranger's face.

"You?" he breathed through stiffened lips.

"Yes, Brian. I was given the chance as Nurse Grey was ill. I had to see you again!" her voice was fiercely agitated. "Won't you hear me?"

"Good God! Don't you understand that you are nothing to me?—less than nothing!" His eyes blazed.

"Yet you never divorced me! That gave me hope. Have you no forgiveness? No pity?"

A stony silence.

"Oh, you are hard!—hard! It is not fair to punish any one forever for one mistake——"

"Mistake, do you call it?"

"Sin, if you will have it. Are you sinless? After all, we are but human, and we forgive as we hope to be forgiven." She made a movement as if to fall at his feet, and Honor rushed blindly from the room. Her one instinct was to get away somewhere and hide—hide from the knowledge so ruthlessly thrust upon her. It was too horrible to contemplate. She shuddered from head to foot, and shivered as with ague. Out into the open she ran, among the dust-laden crotons and azaleas, and the florid shrubberies of the Indian garden, now bathed in soft moonlight. Scarcely heeding her footsteps, she stumbled to a bench beneath a laburnum. If it harboured reptiles, she was indifferent. Let her be bitten and die! She was crushed and bowed to the earth with a burden of grief too great to endure,—too hopeless to think upon.

What was it that he had offered her? Had he meant to insult her?

Never! He loved her too well. He would have killed himself rather than have treated her lightly.

What was it then?

Her mind refused to act. It acknowledged only one thought, and that was, severance—immediate, final—from the being she loved most on earth. That was inevitable.

Brian Dalton was married. He had been married all the time. Joyce had misunderstood; or he had lied to her.

No. She would not allow to herself that he had lied. His was not a petty nature given to lying, or to the faults of the weak and timid. He was a daring and defiant sinner, "risking damnation," as he had once said, for the desire of his heart. She could now understand his bitterness, his recurring moods of sadness and almost of remorse; for he was plotting all the while against the honour of the girl he respected as well as loved.

Consecutive thought was impossible; she was bewildered and numbed by the suddenness of the blow. Through it all she moaned as though in physical pain, "Brian!—oh, Brian!" Not for a minute did she doubt that he loved her. He had given abundant evidence of his sincerity; but unable to get her by fair means, he had determined to try foul. He had fought the fight of his life, and had failed.

"Yes—I had to see you again," the nurse had said. And then,—"You never divorced me!"

The words, "never divorced me," kept repeating in her brain. The nurse had spoken, forgetful of Honor's presence or imagining that she had left the room. He, too, had seemingly forgotten her presence or failed to notice that she was still in the room.

She was handsome, this woman who had been—was—his wife! Honor recalled the flashing eyes, the sensuous mouth, and quailed. Having once loved her, might he not be won to love her again? She was his. He had no right to think of another.

No other had any right to think of him!

Honor writhed in misery.

"Are you sinless?" his wife had asked him.

From his own showing, he was a most deliberate sinner, ready to sacrifice an innocent soul for his own gratification. Only a miracle had stopped him.

Words he had spoken returned to her mind—

"Your God to whom you pray every night of your life will see fit to save you from such as I!"

The pathos of his dread, the wistful appeal in his voice, had touched her deeply. She could hear it still, and her heart went out to him in sympathy. Her poor, unhappy darling! But,—had God really interfered to save her from the pit he was digging for her feet?

If he were free, she would have no wish to be saved from him, sinner though he were. She would take him gladly, and, God helping, slay the demon in him forever.

But he was not free. The task was not for her.

The Church would not marry them if it were known that he was not free.

It did not enter into her consciousness that she could go to him in spite of God or the law. Defiance of laws, human and divine, was impossible to Honor who had been reared to respect both from her cradle.

Therefore, all was at an end; and yet, she had no anger in her heart towards Brian Dalton; only love and pity, and grief for the parting which was inevitable—a blasting, desolating grief.

Presently, footsteps sounded on the gravel. Someone was wandering in the garden in search of her. It was a man's tread. It was Dalton's; she recognised the impatience, the determination in it, inseparable from the man. Yet she made no sign. She dared not, though she wanted him with all her heart. Sobs threatened to strangle her and were fiercely suppressed. What right had she to his love now that she knew all? What use had she for his explanations and apologies? She was choked, dry-eyed, frightened.

She was afraid of herself, for, at the first sound of his footsteps, the beating of her heart had deafened her. She wanted him as much as he wanted her, and she trembled, feeling powerless to deny her love its human expression. It was compelling. What could be the end of it?

She bowed her face upon her quivering arms whispering, "God help me!—God help me," yet straining her ears to catch every sound without. And she made no resistance when Dalton at last found her, and, seating himself at her side, drew her tenderly to his breast.

It was long before either spoke. Honor felt it was for the last time. He feared it might be for the last time.

"You know?" he asked in a voice hoarse and strange.

"Yes," she whispered trembling as she clung to him.

"Yet you do not spurn me?"

"How could I, when I love you so!"

"Such a scoundrel as Brian Dalton?"

"I only know how much I love you!"

An inarticulate sound resembling a stifled sob came from him. After a while——

"What are you going to do with me, Sweet?"

What answer could she give him but one? "What I must!" Yet she clung all the closer.

"Though you love me?"

"I shall love you till I die. But we have to—we must—part!"

His arms about her were like bands of iron. He was scarcely aware of the force with which he crushed her to him.

"It cannot be done," he said almost to himself.

"Why did you not divorce her?" Honor asked resentfully.

"To punish her. Ah!—my God!—Punishments come home to roost. Some day I will tell you the whole sordid story. There is no time now—I have to go back to Meredith."

"We must say good-bye here," she returned with a desperate attempt to be calm.

"Never 'good-bye'!" Yet he had no hope. Honor's conscience had decided—the conscience he had once feared would sit in judgment on his sin against herself; and yet it had uttered no word of reproach.

For a full minute he held her away from himself, trying by the light of the moon to see the look in her eyes. He wanted to plead with her to fly with him to another land where none should know their history; but his words died in his throat as he gazed upon her white and stricken face. "Honey, be merciful to me in your thoughts!" he cried, instead, kissing her forehead, her eyes, and denying himself her lips.

"Just let me go right away. Give me courage—help me!"

"And what of me?"

"I leave you the gift of my heart. I can never take it back."

"Do you forgive me?"

"Love always forgives."

"God bless you! I think I must have been insane. I would have earned your hatred in time. How shall I face life without you?"

Honor gave him her lips sadly. "In our different ways—we shall face it. Just at first it will be very hard, but not impossible if we have courage to do what is right. To stay on here after this, is more than I can bear; so I must go away—just for a bit, to learn how to be brave. When I come back—if you are still here, we might both bear it better."

"My poor Honey! What a beast I have been! As for me—you will find me here right enough. I shall not go to Australia now!—but I shall never bear it better."

They parted a little later in heavy sorrow. Honor left him bowed and broken on the garden bench, and stumbled home unseeingly.

Afterwards, she learned in one of Dalton's letters—for he would not be denied that medium of communion with her—the full story of his past humiliation.

He had married a nurse at Guy's when he had been a medical student, and she had left him six months later for his best friend. She had been proved as faithless as she was handsome, with a baleful influence over men. Not long afterwards, the man she had led astray was killed in a railway accident, and since then, she had, on various occasions, tried, without success, to persuade Dalton to take her back. Apparently, she had not resigned hope with the years, for she had followed him to India, believing that time was her greatest ally, since it dims the memory of wrongs.

When he had discovered her presence in Calcutta, and learned that she had joined a nursing home in a fashionable quarter, he had applied for a transfer to quiet Muktiarbad, giving as his reason, his need of rest from his too strenuous labours in the capital. His desire was to gain time and to keep out of the way of any possibility of coming into professional contact with his wife.

At Muktiarbad he was able to forget his troubles, and, to his relief, seemed to have been forgotten by the Government and left to enjoy his peace undisturbed. However, through her connection with a nurses' association, his wife had accidentally learned of Nurse Grey's summons to Muktiarbad and had cleverly contrived to work things so as to go herself, instead.

"If I had only done the right thing in the beginning, and severed the tie, legally, things might have been very different today," was the burden of his cry. Instead, in the recklessness of despair, he had cut the ground from under his own feet, and by his desire for revenge, destroyed any possibility of future happiness for himself. Passion for the woman was dead. Her beauty revolted him; her character he loathed and despised. "It is amazing to me," he wrote in deep contrition and humility, "that such an egotistical, conscienceless blackguard as I, should have been given the inestimable boon of your wonderful love!—to be allowed to retain in my keeping such a pure and faithful heart! It is my most treasured possession. My feeling for Honor Bright is my religion. To the memory of her, Brian Dalton, one-time scoundrel, kneels in worship."

* * * * *

When Mrs. Bright returned home from Meredith's bedside and found Honor nerveless and prostrated with white cheeks and dark rings round her eyes, she was convinced that it was high time her daughter was sent to the hills.

"I told you so in March when the weather grew unbearable; and now, you, too, have got a touch of the sun!" But Honor's cheek was cool and symptoms of sun or heat stroke were lacking. "How do you feel?" the anxious lady questioned. Being in ignorance of the nurse's identity and having no clue to Honor's state, she was worried and at a loss.

"I am only feeling rather exhausted, Mother darling," said Honor wearily. Since she had not taken her mother into her confidence while she was happy, she felt she had no right to burden her with her sorrow.

"Shall I ask Captain Dalton to come and see you?"

"Not on any account!" Honor hastened to say.

"I know it is rather embarrassing when a doctor is an intimate friend—and an unmarried man! Still, considering—" Mrs. Bright was thinking of the "understanding" and wondering when it was going to become something definite. However, Honor was not the girl to hector or question on matters that concerned herself alone. The question of her indisposition was more pressing than any. "Have you a headache?" she asked anxiously.

Honor could truthfully say that her head ached. "When I have slept, it will, I dare say, wear off."

"I hope so, for I should not like to think that you are going to be ill."

"I am not ill; but, perhaps, dear, if you can spare me, I had better get away tomorrow before the heat becomes worse. May is always such an appalling month in the plains."

"I shall speak to your father immediately about it," Mrs. Bright said, relieved to find something she could do to avert a break-down of her daughter's usually excellent health. "The Mackenzies at Mussoorie will be delighted to have you for a month or two as a paying guest. We have only to wire. And if they have no room, they can secure one for you near by."

"That will be all right," said Honor listlessly. "I'll start tomorrow night, if possible."

"It shall be possible. Such a sudden collapse!" commented Mrs. Bright. "I do hope you will feel more fit in the morning."

"I'll be quite fit, never fear," said Honor. "Tonight I am only a bit 'off colour,' as Tommy says," and she tried to smile.

"I'll send a message down to the dhobi to get your wash ready by noon tomorrow. At these times one realises how infinitely more convenient is a dhobi than an English Laundry Company," and Mrs. Bright bustled away that she might lose no time in letting the washerman know what was expected of him. Though the laundry had been taken away that very morning, she had not the slightest doubt that the task would be completed to perfection before noon, for she knew the laundryman of India to be as remarkable in his line as the Indian cook is in his.

The following evening, Honor left Muktiarbad station, with the faithful Tommy to see her off in the train; and her mother was there to give her a last hug and sundry forgotten injunctions at the eleventh hour. "Mind you telegraph on your arrival—and don't forget to wear a woollen vest next to your skin. It is so necessary to ward off colds. Give Alice Mackenzie my love and say that I shall try to come up in the rains. Good-bye, darling, and take care of yourself! If you want more money, don't fail to let me know. Have you got your umbrella? Thank goodness! I thought it was forgotten. Write soon; I hope you'll pick up and look better when I see you next."

The train moved off and Mrs. Bright remarked to Tommy that she was quite alarmed to see such a sudden change in her beloved child. Really, she should have insisted upon her going away, the latest, a month ago.

"What is the matter? I, too, have been aghast at the change. Honey looks positively ill," said Tommy.

"Nothing is the matter but the heat, it seems. I wonder why Captain Dalton never came to see her off. I told him, when I was at the Bara Koti this morning, that she was leaving by the 7:20. And they are such good friends. I feel quite hurt."

"He is out somewhere in the District this evening. I saw him take the main road in his car a little while ago, and travelling at break-neck speed," said Tommy.

"Someone else taken ill somewhere, I suppose."

"Very likely."

"Still, I think he might have made a point of saying 'good-bye.'"

Tommy wondered, but said nothing. He had long made up his mind, as had others in the Station, that Captain Dalton and Honor Bright were engaged. He had also heard of lovers' quarrels and was ready, by the look on Honor's face, to believe that a very serious misunderstanding had taken place. Her abstraction, her ghastly pallor and haunted eyes had given him positive suffering and a feeling of blind sympathy, which had only found vent in loading the compartment with newspapers and magazines snatched from Wheeler's bookstall.

To Honor's surprise, Captain Dalton appeared at a wayside station, and leant his arms on the open window. The sight of him, his set face and brooding eyes, made her heart stand still, while a sudden faintness seized her. Behind him the Station hawkers were shouting their wares, native travellers were bustling to and fro, and the air was alive with sound, so that in the midst of all that confusion they were absolutely alone.

"I am glad you have no one in with you," he said quietly. "I so wanted a few words with you."

"How is Mr. Meredith?" Honor asked, trying to speak naturally.

He took both her hands and held them close, deaf to the question. Meredith was out of danger and the nurse had become interested in her charge. What were they and all else to the lovers so parted!

"Have you nothing to say to me?"

"I have said all that there is to say," she replied tremulously.

"I am going to write to you, and you must write to me. Do you understand that this is imperative?"

"Is it?" she asked with beating heart. Oh, that they might at least hug to themselves that innocent joy!

"If I do not write to you or hear from you, I shall be doing something desperate. I cannot be responsible for myself. It will be the only thing to keep me sane. You cannot dream how I am being punished. Don't add to my punishment if you have any pity." His anguished eyes and quivering lips were convincing. "You will have no fault to find with my letters," he added while she hesitated.

Honor promised.

A bell clanged noisily and the engine whistled.

"Oh, Honey!—how can you leave me like this?" he whispered holding her eyes with his.

Honor moved impulsively towards him and their lips met in a passionate and lingering kiss. The strength to resist his unspoken appeal was melted by that silent demand. After all, they were parting!

"Good-bye," she said, the tears falling.

He stepped back as the train began to move, his gaze riveted on her face, and jaws set with stern self-repression.



While Raymond Meredith convalesced at Darjeeling in the care of Nurse Dalton—the identity of whose name with that of the doctor being generally understood at Muktiarbad to be a mere freak of coincidence—his family in Surrey waxed strong and healthy in the glorious summer weather. Baby Douglas, who lived out of doors, had cheeks like a damask rose, while his mother gained gracious curves which added to her already radiant beauty. Even her pretty little sister who had recently put up her hair, was eclipsed. But only in point of looks.

Kitty was not one to be overlooked in any company, by any means. What she lacked in regularity of feature, she made up for in charm of expression, a delightful speaking voice, and a ready tongue. Bright eyes given to laughter, the gleam of white teeth, curving red lips mobile and piquant, a dimpled cheek, laughter creases at the corners of the full-lidded, soft eyes, that had a roguish trick of quizzing—eyes that had borrowed their hue from the summer sky, with lashes like her sister's, and an indefinable little nose, made up a whole which was positively unfair to the rest of her sex, judging from the fact that every other girl was superfluous when Kitty was on the scene. And she was not blind to her own success, yet she was merciful out of the tenderness of her naturally good heart that never inflicted suffering wantonly; and if it happened that, owing to her irresistible fascination, she was the means of causing pain, to her credit be it said, that she was clever at healing the wounds she unwittingly inflicted, which saved unhappy consequences to unfortunate victims, and bound them to her as friends for life.

"I am so afraid of your becoming a flirt," Joyce once said reproachfully, after one of these instances was explained and apologised for. "You should think twice before you let yourself become too friendly. It will prevent any foolish mistakes in the end. Of course I speak from bitter experience."

Kitty, who was aware of that experience, sighed repentently. "Why didn't Providence make me a boy? I love them all so much."

"You would then, with your thoughtlessness, have broken some poor girl's heart. Half a dozen, perhaps."

"It is very difficult to know what to do," said Kitty with the roguish twinkle reasserting itself in her eyes.

"You have to nip all silly sentimentality in the bud. The real thing is never silly," said Joyce out of her superior wisdom.

"That's the difficulty. I never notice the bud till it is a full-blown passion-flower! I think I should become a nun."

Joyce hugged her by way of appreciation, unable to resist the dimple which fascinated even a sister.

There is nothing so winning as an imperishable sense of humour. Vivaciousness, and an infectious gaiety which radiates like the sun and dispels the shadows of depression in a moment—these were Kitty's chief assets. She had danced through childhood like a sunbeam. She had been the merriest of flappers and was now a sorceress to beguile with her arts in innocent and unconscious charm. Kitty's laughter, accompanied by that irresistible dimple, was the most captivating thing. Tender smiles greeted the sight of her from aged lips, and masculine youth felt drawn as by a magnet.

So it came to pass, that Jack Darling who was spending six months medical leave in England, fell a victim to Kitty's charm shortly before Mrs. Fox's decree nisi against her husband became absolute.

It was at the Victoria Underground station, near the booking-office, that they met. Believing that the wide hat and muslin gown could belong to none other than Mrs. Meredith who he knew was "at home," he pushed through the crowd and presented himself.

"Such a pleasure, Mrs. Meredith!" It is always such a pleasure to meet friends in London with whom one has been intimate in a distant land. Especially is it true of friends from India.

But two remarkably beautiful eyes turned full upon him in blank amazement and a hint of a twinkle in their cerulean depths. They said plainly, "You've made a mistake, bold Sir, but how delightful that you should know my sister!"

Before she could speak, Jack was apologising profusely, hat in hand, and blushing to the roots of his shining, well-brushed hair.

Restored to health after a yachting cruise off the coast of Scotland, Jack was a splendid specimen of manhood to look upon, though still inwardly depressed with the sense of the Inevitable awaiting him in the East. ("Such a lamb!" was Kitty's description, which was her highest praise.)

"I am so sorry—I—I do beg your pardon, but I would have sworn—in fact any one would be ready to swear——"

"That I am my sister?" she laughed, showing the engaging string of pearls and the irrepressible dimple. "Thank you so much. I always appreciate a compliment when it is sincere, for I am a great admirer of Mrs. Meredith."

"Then—then you are Miss Wynthrop—Kitty?" he said, blushing still more furiously. "I beg your pardon," he added apologising for his boldness in using her Christian name. "We used to talk so much about you at Muktiarbad. But you are even more—at least I was thinking of your photograph," he concluded lamely.

He had thought it a charming photograph of a girl, and now the original in natural colouring, youth, and perfect health had thrown his mind into chaos. Fragments of forgotten verses he had composed to his "Ideal," before the baneful influence of Mrs. Fox had drugged his senses and threatened the ruin of his career, now returned to haunt his memory and justify their extravagance.

At last she was before him in the flesh, not secretly reposing on a piece of pasteboard at the bottom of a dispatch-box left behind in India!

"Yes, I am Kitty," she answered with animation. "But you? I am sure I know you? My sister has a photograph of a Station group—ah, you are 'Jack'! I can't remember the other name."

"Darling!" he prompted eagerly with a suspicion of fervour. To hear her pronounce his name was to listen to the most adorable music.

"Of course! Fancy my forgetting! And your chum in the police is Tommy Deare? How perfectly priceless! I know you both intimately. You live in a little three-roomed bungalow near the Courts, all among weeds and snakes, and never go to church unless you are caught and taken!"

"You've got it exactly!" he returned delighted. Was there ever such a girl before? Why is a dimple in the left cheek like—nothing on earth? he wondered ecstatically. Because it is so absolutely divine! he concluded, mentally, to his own intense satisfaction at the inspiration.

"Now what a pity I am not my sister!" she said mischievously. "What a great deal you must have in common."

"I shall call on your sister if I may. At present—I am quite content," he returned wishing his appointment at a fashionable club in Mayfair at Jericho. For a dime he would let it slide and follow her to the ends of London.

"I am sure my sister will be delighted," said Kitty cordially. Then followed an exchange of addresses, Jack's being the name of a well-known club. "Mother always welcomes Joyce's friends from India. They come for a week-end and usually stay a week. The name India is a passport to our house."

"Of course I led up to it," the minx said to Joyce on describing the meeting. "I couldn't dream of letting him vanish and be lost to us, when he is the most delightful boy I have ever met."

"A very naughty boy, I am afraid, though I have a soft corner for him," said Mrs. Meredith, who considered the recital of Jack's misdeeds unfit for Kitty's ears.

"It is the naughty ones that are generally so nice," Kitty said with a sigh. "They are so human and attractive."

"Because they are naughty?" Joyce was shocked to hear such radical sentiments from little Kitty.

"It always strikes me that if they are capable of great naughtiness, they are equally capable of much good. It is the force that I admire. It only wants proper direction." (Which remark proved that Kitty's mind was capable of sympathetic understanding.)

Jack and Kitty enjoyed their chance meeting so much that they missed their respective trains repeatedly. Hers on the "West bound" platform, and his on the "East," might have rumbled in and out of the station beneath them, ad infinitum, had not Kitty recollected that she was due to have tea with an aunt at Richmond, who was impervious to diplomacy and dimples and with whom no excuses concerning Fate and an Affinity at the Victoria Underground, would avail, if the kettle were over-boiled and the tea delayed. So Kitty reluctantly bade him adieu.

"You are surely not going all that long way alone?" asked Jack, whose young sisters travelled the length and breadth of London unescorted.

"Do you think it unsafe?" asked the minx, seeing through his idea and encouraging the development of possibilities.

"One hears so much about girls mysteriously disappearing from London, you know," he murmured. "I couldn't bear to hear of such a thing happening to you, so I'll come as far as Richmond station, if I may?"

"That will be charming of you! Are you sure it will not be taking you much out of your way?"

"Not at all," Jack returned with gallantry, breaking his engagement without compunction. Thereupon, he bought their tickets, and sitting beside her on the crimson velvet seats of a Richmond "Non-stop," plunged recklessly into love at first sight. The moral obligation oppressing his mind was swept away for the time being. How was it possible for it to be otherwise, when he had come into the presence of his "Ideal" in the flesh?

And Kitty, complete mistress of the situation, did not let him guess by word or look that she had been equally impressed. It was thrilling to think that this godlike person had a photograph of herself tucked away somewhere among his goods and chattels. Naughty Joyce had confessed the fact to her long ago, and she was beginning to feel that she now had him in the hollow of her hand. She had no hesitation in improving the acquaintance begun in such an unorthodox fashion; a friend of her sister's was, naturally, a friend of hers. Such being the case, she could afford to expand genially and to fan the flame her portrait had kindled, experiencing for the first time in her life an answering glow.

* * * * *

Jack returned to London, deep in day-dreams and oblivious of his surroundings. Kitty's face and Kitty's voice were with him all the way; and he groaned in spirit at the thought of his madness and folly in the past.

It was inconceivable that he could have been such a fool; that he should have allowed himself to forget the high standards of life he had cherished, for a low intrigue! The idea of being tied for life to Mrs. Fox had been distasteful all along; but now it was intolerable! After the vision of Kitty Wynthrop, it was impossible, any longer, to contemplate marriage with a woman of Mrs. Fox's type! Whatever she might think of him, he would not do it. He would infinitely rather put an end to his life!

Of course, he was dishonourable. That went without saying. He had failed ignominiously from the outset to behave as an upright and honourable man. Self-analysis laid his pride in the dust and made him writhe in self-condemnation.

If Kitty only knew, she would despise him as he deserved! She was so pure, so perfectly wonderful! What a wife she would make! and so on, and so forth. Jack endured agonies of remorse for a week, during which time he was lost to the world; and then, with a temperamental rebound he called at Wynthrop Manor with the humble determination of laying himself at Kitty's feet that she might walk over him as she willed. Big, ingenuous men, like Jack Darling, are happiest when doormats to the women they love.

Joyce Meredith was delighted to see him. His presence in England argued that he had shaken himself free of the toils of that scheming flirt, Mrs. Fox, and she was ready to help him to recover his forgotten ideals. She had never really believed Jack as guilty as he was reputed to be, and, like nine out of ten women, put all the blame on the woman. Anyhow, she was sure that gossip and scandal had exaggerated everything, which was the most charitable way to look at the affair. As a Christian woman, it was her duty to think kindly of the erring, and sit in judgment on no one. She, therefore, welcomed Jack with great amiability and earned his everlasting gratitude by putting no obstacles in the way of his courtship of Kitty.

About this time, she received a letter from Honor telling her of Meredith being down with sunstroke, and was rudely awakened to the fact that she had been taking too much for granted where India and her husband's health were concerned.

Though Honor wrote that he was out of danger and slowly recovering,—that a nurse was expected that very day,—the little wife was beside herself with anxiety and alarm, and wanted to take the first steamer sailing for Bombay that she might be with him, to leave him no more.

"I should never have come away!" she cried inconsolably.

"I could never understand how you brought yourself to do so," said Kitty ruthlessly.

"I have been a selfish wretch, thinking only of myself, and of my anxieties for Baby!"

"Well, you've got Baby, any way."

"But if I should lose Ray, what is Baby to me!"

Kitty, who had not the heart to add to her beloved sister's agony, did her best to comfort her. "He was out of danger when Miss Bright wrote—let me see—that was about three weeks ago, or nearly, and, as you have had no cable since, it follows that he is all right by now."

"But I ought to go straight to him!"

"And they might be sending him straight home to you!"

It was not at all an unlikely possibility, so Joyce cabled to her husband to inquire his plans.

The answer came from Darjeeling that, in view of the great heat in the Red Sea at that season of the year, he was recuperating in the hills.

She was then persuaded by relatives and friends to possess her soul in patience and adhere to her original plan of returning to India in the autumn,—the best time for arriving in the East. By then she would be able to decide whether to take her baby out to India, or leave him behind in the care of the grandparents and a capable nurse.

A slight indisposition to the infant owing to the disturbances of teething, decided her to remain, and to pour out her heart to her husband in a letter telling him of her longing to be with him during his convalescence.

Somehow the written words did not adequately convey her depth of feeling, and Joyce was dissatisfied, especially with the passage which referred to the baby's indisposition:

"If Baby were not teething and in uncertain health, I would leave immediately for India,—but I am advised to hold on till the autumn when I can better decide whether I should leave him behind, or not. I am, of course, comforted to know that you are getting better, and, perhaps, it will be as well on account of the heat in the Red Sea and of the unhealthiness of the rains if I do exercise a little patience and wait. However, dearest, cable if you are not quite well by the time this reaches you, and I shall take my passage at once."

"It sounds rather as if I am placing the baby before him," she said to Kitty.

"And haven't you done so all along?"

Joyce looked perplexed. "If I have, it is only because it seemed to me the wee darling needed me more than Ray did."

"I wonder!" said Kitty out of a new perception of life and the needs of love. "After all, there are many to look after Baby if you must leave him in England. If I were in your place, and if there was nobody to take charge of him, I'd keep him out there, somehow. There must be good places in the hills, you have such a choice of stations,—and even babies have to take their chance, same as their daddies! It must be terribly lonely for a man when his wife, whom he adores as Ray adores you, leaves him and comes away home for the sake of the child! Personally, I couldn't do it."

Kitty's candid views carried conviction and aroused reflection. Gradually Joyce became aware of a great longing to be again with her splendid husband and feel anew his love and devotion.

As no answering cable arrived from Darjeeling requesting her presence in India, and as the weekly letters mentioned that he was convalescing satisfactorily, Joyce was beginning to nurse a creeping fear that her husband had, perhaps, learned to do very well without her. But pride sealed her lips and her letters to him contained no reference to any such thought. His, to her, since his illness, had become erratic and brief. He would begin by expressing a great distaste for the pen, allude to a feeling of incurable lassitude, curse an elusive memory, and, after giving her news of little consequence to themselves, would conclude in the manner that had become a formula of late:—"Your affectionate husband, Ray."

However, Joyce was determined not to borrow trouble. When they came together again it would surely be all right. Sunstroke was a paralysing illness and recovery from its effects was slow, she was assured; so, for a while, she must expect his mind to feel lethargic. With the restoration of perfect health his old tenderness would return, for true love could never die!

* * * * *

To Jack, the summer months were paradise, for the beautiful environs of Wynthrop Manor gave him many opportunities for uninterrupted companionship with Kitty. They walked, fished, golfed, and played tennis together. He was in love in the wild tempestuous way of youth, and ready, if need be, to die for the object of his adoration.

But Kitty was not too easy to win. The more attracted she felt, the more elusive she became. She would surround herself constantly with girl friends, that Jack might have no doubts concerning his choice; clever girls, and pretty girls were invited there for tennis and tea during Jack's lengthy visit to the Manor, till he was nearly distracted with impatience. Yet he hesitated to speak from an overwhelming sense of his utter unworthiness.

Could he dare to ask her to be his wife, and allow her to believe him all that a young girl's fancy might paint him? Would she consent to marry him if she were aware of the peculiar situation in which he stood with regard to Mrs. Fox whose letters still arrived at his chambers, and to whom he still wrote, only to keep her from following him to England?

She had threatened to do so at all costs, if he neglected to keep in touch with her, and the fear of bringing about such an undesirable climax had obliged him to temporise.

* * * * *

Early in August, when the Great War broke out, and all England was in the turmoil of mobilisation, and the manhood of the nation was flocking to join the Colours, Jack complied with the demands of his conscience and called at the India Office for permission to resign his service that he might join the Army. But the Secretary of State flatly refused his application and he was told, instead, to hold himself in readiness for an immediate recall to his duties in the East. No civil officer of the Indian Government was eligible for a commission in His Majesty's Forces except with the sanction of that Government alone. Thereupon, Jack, deeply depressed in spirit at his impending exile, joined Joyce and Kitty at Eastbourne whither they had gone for a change.

For the time being, civil life and economic conditions were disorganised. All England was in a turmoil of preparation for the Titanic struggle on the fields of France. People were becoming alive to the fact that even a democracy has its obligations to the State which guarantees it freedom; for freedom can only depend upon victory over autocracy and militarism. Private property was commandeered for the needs of the Army; public buildings became hospitals; motor cars and horses were requisitioned and carried off. Self-sacrifice became the order of the day. For weeks, no dependence could be placed upon railway time-tables, and all personal and individual concerns were forgotten in the overwhelming needs of the hour. A peace-loving people, averse to war, aware of all the horrors it entailed, yet rose to the supreme occasion, mindful of the great traditions of their forefathers, and stood ready for any sacrifice in the cause of honour, freedom, and the Right.

When Jack was asked to describe the state of London, he felt that it wanted more than words to paint its state in those historic days. The people having spent their feelings in a great outburst of loyalty and patriotism, were beginning dimly to realise the gigantic task to which the nation was pledged,—a nation, which, but for its Navy, was totally unprepared for war, and yet ready to withstand a formidable European Power that had secretly and thoroughly organised and planned for over forty years to strike a blow for world-domination. Right was in conflict with Might, and the end no man could then see; yet London was confident; but London was also very grave.

About this time, Joyce, to her great dismay, received a cable from her husband forbidding her to travel on the high seas till security thereon, for passengers, was assured. She had not realised till she received the message, how much she had been depending for happiness on the prospect of their reunion in the autumn. If the war was to stand in the way of her return to India, it might then be years before she should see her husband again—which would be unthinkable!

In the presence of Kitty's romance she was learning to comprehend the extent of her own loss,—her deplorable lack of appreciation in the past;—and she recognised that she had only herself to blame. Ray had loved her greatly; how greatly, she was only now beginning to understand, and her very soul hungered for that love with a nostalgia that was making her ill. If, by her folly, she had sacrificed that devotion—if he had ceased to love her altogether, and had met another more responsive and appreciative than she had been, she would not want to live; for even her beloved babe would no longer suffice to fill her life.

Memory recalled for her torment, certain words of his at parting. He had been wounded at her determination to leave him so soon after their marriage, and being ignorant of the true cause of her nervous break-down, he had expressed little sympathy, and had accused her of failure of affection for him. "Remember, a big breach between husband and wife may be mended, but never again is there restored what has been lost!" he had said. Also: "You are straining the cord that binds us together; the strands will presently be so weak that they will snap altogether. Then all the splicing afterwards will never restore it to its original strength. It will be a patched-up thing; its perfection gone!"

Had she done this terrible thing by her own shortsightedness and folly?

Little did he guess at the time of their parting that she was suffering tortures of self-contempt and nervous dread of his scorn, were he to know all that was on her mind!

And now, after this lapse of months, she was longing to make full confession and atonement. With her in his arms and their love fully restored, he would surely forgive her her foolishness and the silence which he had mistaken for lack of affection.

But, the war!

She would not be able to go to him now, and he would continue to believe that she had failed him! Her affectionate letters had not convinced him, for actions speak louder than words. Gradually an icy atmosphere of indifference had breathed forth at her from his letters, and she had been filled with secret uneasiness and fears. He was indeed learning to do without her.

Possibly the cord that had bound them together had snapped!

Upon this, came a letter one day, from Honor Bright.

Honor had been spending the hot months at Mussoorie in the Himalayas, which the Brights had always preferred to Darjeeling; and, after the monsoons had broken, her mother had joined her there till the middle of July, when they had returned together to Muktiarbad. For months Joyce and Honor had corresponded, fitfully, so that it was no surprise to the former when the Indian mail brought her a letter in her friend's hand-writing, the contents of which were acutely disturbing. Joyce read and re-read the letter, filled with alarm and foreboding.

What was Honor hinting at? and had she any grounds for hinting at all?

Honor was evidently perturbed about something in connection with Ray, or why this strange appeal to his wife to let nothing come in the way of her returning to her place beside her husband, no matter what the difficulties? "'It is not good,' we are told, 'for a man to live alone,' and please remember that there is no such thing as infallibility in human nature. Sometimes temptations are so strong that one needs to be superhuman to withstand them. Why expect too much of Life?" stared up at Joyce from the page.

"I would not write as I am doing, believe me, dear Joyce," the letter concluded, "if I were not so fond of you both that I feel your married happiness a personal concern. It is the biggest thing in the world; don't therefore, I implore you, gamble with it. If you will only look ahead and think a bit of the future without the love of your husband,—the grey years deprived of his tender devotion,—you will realise how lonely will be your life! Dearest, hold on to the blessed gift while it is yours and do not let it pass out of your possession. I have watched it happen before! 'That what we have we prize not to the worth whiles we enjoy it, but being lack'd and lost, why, then we rack the value, then we find the virtue that possession did not show us whiles it was ours.' This is so true also of love which, so often, is not appreciated while it is ours! And love can starve and die for want of sustenance, which is propinquity and a proper response. You see, I have kept my eyes open and am a silent student of human nature! I have come across a few devils in society; but in my experience, 'The female of the species is more deadly than the male,' and I believe the Lord's prayer is directed chiefly against her. She goes out of her way to dig pitfalls for the unwary and the best have been known to succumb. That is why a wife's place should be beside her husband throughout life, as the whole fabric of their happiness depends upon their unity. Separations make for misunderstandings and division; so, whatever happens, come out. Men and babies want looking after, and to my mind, Man is the greater baby of the two, for he wants more than a nurse to care for his bodily wants. He needs a wife with a combination of virtues, the chief among them being tolerance. My mother's life has demonstrated this to me with beautiful clearness, hence my understanding.

"You might be anxious at having to travel alone at such a time, but in your place I would take any risk to be with my husband, if I loved him deeply. That is the crux of the matter. Later on, conditions may become still more difficult. Cable when you are leaving, and don't hesitate."

The appeal was very sincere, and thrilled Joyce with apprehensions. To be urged to travel at the risk of capture by German raiders at large on the high seas, that she might rejoin her husband without loss of time, argued that something was seriously wrong. Honor was her true friend and would not counsel such a step without reference to that husband, unless something was decidedly wrong. Whom was she to obey? Her husband, who had cabled to her to stay where she was? or Honor, who was urging her to go out at once?

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6  7     Next Part
Home - Random Browse