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Banked Fires
by E. W. (Ethel Winifred) Savi
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While Joyce pondered over her dilemma, the fate of two people dear to her was being decided elsewhere.



CHAPTER XXI

THE REAL THING

Jack had come to the conclusion that it was impossible to part from Kitty Wynthrop with his love unconfessed. It was unthinkable that he should go out to India, loving Kitty as he did, and marry—Mrs. Fox! Bah! he consigned the latter, remorselessly, to perdition.

Whatever befell, he would speak to Kitty that very night—dear little girl!—he had wasted too much time already over his confounded doubts and fears, and had little enough time to spare. If she favoured him—why, he would be the luckiest, as well as the happiest of men! Some day, when he was absolutely sure of her and her love, he would confess his misconduct in the past, lest she should hear of it from others—she might; there was no knowing, with all those meddlesome cats about!—and perhaps he would obtain her forgiveness, after which he would be faithful unto her as long as they both should live. How fellows could—damn!

Jack was shaving at the time and had gashed his chin in his agitation.

He was confident, while he soothed the spot with an antiseptic, that such a darling little girl as she, would never hold up against him anything he had done in pre-Kitty days. It would be unjust and unreasonable. Why, hang it all! who was there that was human who hadn't some little—or big—scrape to his discredit in his bachelor days? Unfortunately, fellows were not gifted with second sight to know how they would feel when they came to be properly in love with the only girl in the world for them! The sickening sense of self-disgust——

Another accident with the razor, and Jack paid more attention for a time to the matter in hand.

When he was putting the finishing touches to his tie, his fingers betrayed by their unsteadiness, his agitated frame of mind.

The worst of it was the blessed uncertainty of the whole affair. A fellow could never be sure of a girl like Kitty, or at any time take her feelings for granted. The least little bit of a liberty, and—hands off! Yet she was adorable and, often, sweetly encouraging. Certain little concessions had been treasured in mind and dreamed of at night, such as a dainty wrist held out to him for glove-buttons to be fastened; his blundering fingers allowed to assist her with her theatre wrap; their shoulders touching at a picture palace—a fact of which she had been unconscious, but which had thrilled him to the foundations of his being. They were hopeful signs; but the indifference with which she could drop him for a whole day, so as to keep some idiotic engagement with giggling flappers, was enough to send any lover crazy!

Jack hurried downstairs in time to hang about the hotel passage, waiting for Kitty to arrive by the lift with her sister so that he could accompany them to the dining-hall.

On this occasion Kitty was alone, Joyce having confessed to a headache, and they dined at their little table tete-a-tete.

"I can't think what is troubling her," the little sister remarked, "for she is fearfully worried, I know."

"Something, perhaps, in that letter you took to her a little while ago?" suggested Jack.

"It was from a friend of hers at Muktiarbad."

"Honor Bright?"

"Yes—a strange idea to name a girl 'Honor'!"

"Her surname must have suggested it."

"Perhaps I should call it a happy idea. But supposing her character did not bear out the selection?"

"In her case, I should say it suits her admirably. She's a topping good sort."

"Is she pretty?"

"My chum used to think so, but not I. She's good to look at, anyway, and there's something straight and clean about her that does a fellow good. She has fine eyes and nice teeth which go far towards beauty."

"I wonder what she could have written about, to upset my sister so completely?"

They wondered together, and grew more confidential over their mutual interest in the subject. Jack enjoyed every minute of the meal, trying to imagine he was dining with his wife,—an idea full of charm.

After dinner was over and Kitty had satisfied herself that Joyce was no worse, they strolled in the hotel gardens, at the corner of which was a summer-house. Jack who was trembling from head to foot with impatience and longing, drew her suddenly within where the shadows were darkening, and blurted out his tale of consuming passion. "Can't you see it without the need of words? I am mad for love of you! If you don't want me, in mercy say so, and I shall go out there and drown myself."

He would have said a great deal more, only there was no need, for Kitty confessed that she wanted him more than anything on earth, and was only waiting for the initiative to come from him.

Her frank response enraptured Jack, and he caught her to his breast inarticulate with joy, while she, free of artificial coyness, surrendered herself to his embrace and gave him her sweet lips again and again.

Jack felt that he would have liked to have kicked himself all round Eastbourne for imagining that he had ever before known what it was to love! This was the real thing, and the bliss of it was unspeakable.

"And why didn't you give me the least bit of inkling that you had a soft corner in your heart for a blighter like me?" he asked when it was possible to indulge in connected conversation.

"Why did you take so long to know your own mind?"

"My mind was made up the instant I found out that you were not Mrs. Meredith the afternoon I met you in front of the booking-office at Victoria. You surely have not forgotten our very first meeting? I could tell you in detail what you wore!"

Of course she had not, though she feigned to seem retrospective.

"I believe you were wearing a shot brown tie," she ventured, perfectly aware that she was correct.

"You remember that?" (An interlude of ecstasy.) "I went all the way to Richmond just to be able to look at you for a bit longer. I have been in love with you for quite a year!"

Doubt being cast upon his veracity, he explained his possession of her photograph, which fact she had long been aware of.

"I used to write poems about your eyes and your lips which I thought the most alluring in the world. Did I dream I should ever see and kiss them in reality?"

Silence again for a further interval of rapture.

"Now you will know how I have been feeling about going out to India! How is it possible for me to leave you behind? Can't we be married in a week?"

"We could," said Kitty, "but you forget there are others who will have something to say to that."

"Your parents?"

"Undoubtedly. One daughter in India is enough for Mother. I am not at all sure she will consent." It was very mischievous of her to distress him for the sake of delighting in the proofs of his abject slavery to herself, but Kitty was nothing if not human, and realising the completeness of her own surrender, was pleased to get back a little of her own.

His woe-begone look was almost melodramatic. "If they refuse their consent, what will you do?"

"I suppose I shall have to obey. I'm not of age, you know," said Kitty knowing full well that she was bound to have her own way, her parents having long ago resigned themselves to her strength of character and determination.

"Then I'll desert and enlist under another name that I might be killed by a German bullet," he said gloomily.

"But you mightn't be killed. You might just be smashed up instead, invalided out without a limb, or, worse still, be made unrecognisable!"

Horrible prospect! Jack's military ardour cooled visibly. "Anyhow, it would be their fault."

"And I should chase after you and beg of you to marry me, all the same,—limbless and unrecognisable as you may be!"

"You would? You said just now you would have to obey."

"Of course I would obey, but only for a time. Do you think I shall ever give you up, even if the skies were to fall?"

That finished it. Jack was in heaven again, and the time passed with amazing rapidity.

Meanwhile, Joyce had been to see Baby Douglas asleep in his crib and was weighing the pros and cons of her problem with agonised uncertainty. He was now as healthy as any normal infant of his age, and was in the care of an experienced and trustworthy nurse. At Wynthrop Manor he would be in the lap of luxury, wanting for nothing, and his grandparents would be sure to bring him up in the way he should go, till she and Ray came home together on his next furlough ... (after the War!—whenever that might be!). But all her baby's pretty ways and unfolding intelligence would be for others to enjoy! She, his devoted mother, would be thousands of miles away!

The thought brought forth a flood of tears, and expressions of sympathy from the nurse. "If it makes you feel so badly, I wouldn't go if I were you."

"It breaks my heart!"

"There now, don't take on so. Give up the idea. You will feel easier in mind to leave him when he is a bit older."

"It will be just as bad—perhaps worse!" cried Joyce, thinking of the possibility of a loveless reunion with Ray, if she stayed away too long! In that case she would have no compensation for her act of self-sacrifice.

"Then take him with you, I have no objection to the voyage, or serving in India which I have often wished to see."

"Oh, no. Baby is best here, for his own sake. In India I have all sorts of anxieties. I would have to go alone."

"But there are many ladies who stay in Europe for the sake of their children, leaving their husbands in India. In my last place, my mistress, whose husband was a Forest officer living in lonely places among the blacks, spent most of her time with her people in England as she could not abide the natives, and the climate upset her nerves. Only, occasionally, she visited him in the East, and sometimes he came home."

"What a life!" sighed Joyce. "I know it is done, but it isn't right"—she was thinking of Honor's letter. "Both go different ways, and what love and happiness is there for them?"

"But that is always so when ladies have husbands in India!"

"It need not be so. It makes me wonder why men marry when they know the risk they run of broken domestic ties, and the burdens they have to bear! It isn't worth while, if a man is to become only the means of providing money for the comforts of his family, and keeping very little, or none for himself—poor dear!"

Decidedly, Joyce Meredith's views had undergone a change.

The questions pressing on her mind were—Where was she most needed? and where, most, lay her heart's desire?

In her case, duty and desire were no longer in conflict. Clearly, her place was beside her husband as long as she was capable of enduring the climate, and her heart was sick with longing for him.

"I shall be going out almost immediately—as soon as it can possibly be arranged," she said coming to a sudden decision. "Pack the trunks early in the morning, and we shall return home in the afternoon to fix this up. It will be a great comfort to me, nurse, to know that you will stay with Baby."

"I'll stay as long as you want me, ma'am, and you need have no fears," said the woman who was sincerely attached to her charge, and who was aware that her devotion received ample recognition.

On her way to her own room, Joyce met two embarrassed and happy people waiting to waylay her with their news.

"Take us into your room for a little while, do, there's a darling, we've so much to tell you!"

Joyce was hustled into her own room by her little sister with Jack's big form looming in the rear, and the wonderful tale was told and her congratulations solicited.

"Of course I saw it coming," said Joyce kissing them both. "You were like ostriches with your heads in the sand——"

"In the clouds, rather. I have been seeing a little bit of heaven, Mrs. Meredith," said Jack.

"Now please come back to earth, and tell me your plans, for I have decided to join my husband as soon as it is possible to get a passage."

"You?—with Baby?" from Kitty.

"No. Baby must stay behind."

"Then that was what gave you a headache? You ought to be ashamed of yourself to have a headache at the prospect of going back to Ray!" Kitty teased.

"Say, 'at the prospect of leaving Baby.'"

"Can't you take him?" said Jack. "There are crowds of youngsters of his age getting rosy and fat in the hills all the summer."

"I shouldn't feel safe about him. He'll be best with Grannie."

"Bravo!" cried Kitty. "Jack's got to go very soon, so we can all three go together." Jack's face showed intense appreciation.

"You don't mean to say you are thinking of marrying at once?"

"Why not?" from him.

"Of course not," said Kitty ruthlessly. "But as it is not good for you to travel alone in these exciting times, you must take me with you—engaged to Jack—and to be married when we have time to look around. Has anyone any objections?"

"You darling!" gasped Jack.

"Well, let's see what Mother has to say about it," said Joyce. "Meantime I shall pack a few things before getting to bed."

"Then you won't be so heartless as to turn us out. Come Jack, and let us talk it over"; and Jack, nothing loath, drew her on his knee in the one big chair by the window, and for some little time Joyce had ceased to exist for them. Neither seemed to mind the fact of her presence; it was sympathetic and that was quite enough, so they felt at liberty to continue to enjoy their mutual delight in the knowledge that they had become engaged.

Joyce suffered a pang of jealous longing for her own dear lover-husband, when she saw the look on Jack's face while he held Kitty to his breast and kissed her yielding lips. And Kitty, with her arms wound about her boy's neck and her face uplifted to his!—It was her hour, and Joyce knew that her own was yet to come. She had indeed been the Sleeping Beauty who had slept too long under the kisses of her Prince. She had never really understood her own heart, or realised love till now. Could there ever be a moment more wonderful on this old earth, than that in which two lips met in mutual passion?—two souls fused in divine ecstasy?

"Blessed darlings!" she murmured to herself, turning aside not to intrude on their sacred joy yet conscious of the fervour of the clinging kisses, the incoherent whispers, the bounding hearts! It was all as God had meant it to be when he created Man and gave him Woman for his mate.

"My place is indeed with my husband," she muttered to herself.



CHAPTER XXII

A DESPERATE RESORT

In the early days of the Great War, a voyage to India had no terrors for the travelled. Before the Hun had proved himself a savage in warfare, indifferent to all international laws and the dictates of humanity, the only anxieties and drawbacks suffered on the way, were those in relation to the risk of encountering mines, or the delays caused by the changing of routes. The nerves of the public had not been harrowed by tales of atrocities on the high seas, and the nation confidingly believed that the glorious traditions of naval warfare were respected even by Germany. It had yet to learn what manner of people the Allies were fighting. The difficulties and dangers of a sea voyage only added to the thrill of expectancy, and the contingency of meeting with German raiders on the way, was like having a bit of Marryat's novels in real life; fear was an unknown quantity.

As Kitty anticipated, she met with little opposition from her parents in the matter of her engagement, or of her voyage to India under her sister's chaperonage, with the prospect of a wedding at the end of it. Since she had always managed things her own way, there was little use wasting time in argument. Jack was a very fine fellow indeed, and Kitty might do worse than marry him. At all events, he was the man of her own choice.

Accordingly, a trousseau was acquired regardless of cost, and, the moment Jack's orders arrived recalling him to duty—which was towards the end of August—trunks were packed, passages were booked, and the party crossed to France, en route to Marseilles.

Jack's feelings can be better imagined than described. In his wildest dreams he had not hoped for such luck as a speedy marriage with Kitty, and he was rendered, for a time, incapable of coherent thought. They boarded the mail boat at Marseilles and settled down as an engaged couple to enjoy the days at sea to the extent of their capacity.

Beyond an occasional cruiser in the distance, or a destroyer there was nothing throughout the voyage to remind them of the war; and, from the point of view of belligerency, it was both uneventful and calm.

As recognised lovers, Kitty and Jack had the choice of sheltered nooks and were left to themselves, undisturbed, except by camera fiends who snapped them at embarrassing moments and made themselves generally obnoxious.

Being absorbed in his happiness, Jack had given no thought to Mrs. Fox who was awaiting him in Calcutta, till, one day, in the Arabian Sea, the imminent prospect of their meeting filled him with uneasiness and obliged him to consider his position seriously. As far as he knew, she was expecting to fall into his arms on his reappearance in India. She knew nothing of his new-found happiness and was very likely wondering at his reason for having missed so many mails. She would not follow him to England since she was aware that all leave was cancelled.

So awkward was the situation, that Jack was greatly disturbed and sought the advice of a ship-board acquaintance who happened to be a young man of wide experience in the affairs of the heart.

"I should tell my fiancee, in your place," said he. "Put it to her straight. The great thing is to get your story in before the other has a chance to cut the ground from under your feet. That is, if she is the sort to do it."

"She's the sort right enough," said Jack miserably. "She would do it to spite me for breaking my word to her; but—damn it!—I'd rather be shot than become her husband, now that I am crazy after the sweetest girl in the world, and she is ready to marry me!"

"Then have it over. It is better than someone telling her at a tea-party,—'Didn't he ever confess himself to you?—naughty boy'! and so on. Or the disappointed one butting in with—'Hands off! He is promised to me!' which is more than likely."

So Jack decided to make his confession, prostrate at her feet, metaphorically.

While the lovers were living in a world of their own, Joyce was learning many things, chiefly courage and patience. Her fellow-passengers courted her society; she was considered the loveliest of women; and all combined to spoil her with flattery and attentions. However, she was too much absorbed in her own thoughts, her manner was too cold and aloof to lend encouragement to flatterers who vied with each other in serving her and disputed among themselves for her favours. She took no real interest in what was going on, to realise the half of it; and her indifference rendered her the more alluring. But Joyce had had a life-long lesson at Muktiarbad, and not being by nature, a flirt, the result was that the childish coquetries of the past were abandoned for a dignity and reserve that would have satisfied the most jealous of husbands.

She had not cabled to India. A desire to read her fate in her husband's eyes had fixed her determination to take him by surprise. She would then know at the first glance whether she were welcome or had ceased to reign supreme in his heart.

Honor had advised her to cable. But this was entirely her own affair and she would go through with it. She had a right to expect her husband's love and loyalty; and this being the case, there could be no objection to her taking him unawares. Joy does not kill; and if she did not bring him happiness, it were as well for her not to be deceived. Such was her logic, which she kept to herself, being too proud to share her doubts with Kitty.

One day, as she lay in a deck chair, apparently dozing with her book open on her lap, she overheard two women gossiping together behind the angle of the saloon. They were talking of friends in Darjeeling, and their voices had lulled her into a state of semi-consciousness, till the name "Meredith" made her alive to the fact that her husband was under discussion.

"Not the planter, Tom Meredith, but the I. C. S. man."

"Any relation of the pretty creature with us?"

"I am sure I can't say. He is married, I am told, with a wife at home. 'When the cat's away, the mice will play,' you know! She is a widow, or passes for one, and neither cares a snap of the finger for the talk about them. All Darjeeling is scandalised, and that's saying a good deal! My friend writes that the woman nursed him while he was ill from sunstroke in some outlandish station in Bengal, and they became fearfully intimate. These nurses know a thing or two and can make themselves indispensable if they like. Men generally find them irresistible. However, it is rather rough on his wife at home, when you come to think of it."

"What has the nurse to do with him, now that he has recovered?"

"Ah, that's the point! She stays at the same hotel nominally looking after a delicate baby whose parents are in the plains; but the kid gets precious little of her attention. It is left to the ayah's tender mercies while the nurse goes about with Mr. Meredith. They are never seen apart, and she spends most of her time in his rooms. It puts me in mind of that divorce case you may remember two years ago at Simla, when"—and the conversation was diverted into other channels.

Meanwhile, Joyce was hot and cold with conflicting emotions. Without question, it was her husband they had been discussing, for he was in the Indian Civil Service, and had been sent to Darjeeling to convalesce after the sunstroke, which had seized him in the District of Muktiarbad, the "outlandish station" referred to.

By the light of this conversation Honor's letter was explained. She, too, had heard of the doings at Darjeeling, and in her anxiety had written that letter imploring her friend to return.

Well—she was returning, but to what?

Her husband was apparently content to be without her—which would account for the cable message he had sent her on the outbreak of war, forbidding her to travel.

Joyce rose from her deck chair with a face as white as the foam on the crested waves, and stumbled to her cabin. "It is nothing," she explained to fellow-passengers who offered assistance thinking she was likely to collapse, "only a stupid attack of dizziness—I thought I was a better sailor, that's all," and she tried to smile.

Kitty was sent to her in hot haste to see what she could do, and was told the same thing. "I'll be all right after a bit."

"Are you sure?"

"Perfectly," was the assured answer, for Joyce was already determined not to go down under the blow, but to fight to a finish. Ray—her husband—false to her? The shame of it—the humiliation, would be unbearable, if what she had heard were true! It was possible that gossip had exaggerated the state of things between him and that woman who had nursed him. Scandalmongers never did give any one the benefit of a doubt. For instance, scandal might have been busy with her own name and that of Captain Dalton, but she was innocent in act and thought. She would not judge hastily; but she would allow no woman to dare to come between herself and her husband. He was her own man. God had given him to her, and she was glad she had taken the journey at all costs to put matters right and send the depraved creature—who was trying to take her place—about her own business. But if Ray had been false to her—she knew he could not lie to her—she would....

Joyce seemed to arrive against a blank wall in her mind as she faced such an unthinkable problem as Ray's unfaithfulness.

Later in the evening when she returned to the deck having gained the mastery over her nerves, it was to find that an unhappy breach had come to pass between Kitty and Jack.

Dancing was in full swing on the hurricane deck, a band was discoursing dreamy melodies, and Jack with his back to the sea was leaning against the taffrail and glowering at the ship's doctor who was dancing with Kitty.

As the evening lengthened, it was evident that the latter was bent upon inflicting all manner of snubs and punishments on her distracted lover by the taffrail, which in a certain measure, recoiled upon herself. Finally, when "lights-out" obliged dancing to come abruptly to an end, Kitty retired to her cabin without so much as a good-night to Jack who looked as if he had come to the end of all things.

"What is wrong?" Joyce asked her before turning into her berth. "Can I help?"

"We've had a disagreement. That is all," said Kitty curtly, looking white and angry. "You have heard of lovers' quarrels, I suppose?"

"There is no need to snap my head off," said Joyce. "I am only sorry to see it happen. Life is too short for misunderstandings."

"I quite agree with you. But this is not a misunderstanding. I have been deliberately deceived."

"How do you mean?"

"What's the use of discussing it?"

"There is no use if you are determined not to be helped."

"What can you do? What can any one do? This is a matter which is only between us. I am sorry I did not know all about it before, or I would not have become engaged."

A light dawned on Joyce's mind. "Oh—I see. Jack's been telling you about his foolishness in the past!"

"You call it foolishness?"

"Wasn't it the height of folly to have been silly about a married woman? and one who isn't worth a thought?"

"It was something worse than folly when it came to his being engaged to marry her all this time—even when he proposed to me! How dared he do it? How had he the nerve to ask me to be his wife when he knew she was waiting to marry him on his return to India, having won her decree?"

"I heard she had divorced her husband—the designing wretch! She is a perfectly horrid woman. Poor Jack! I don't wonder at his meaning to throw her over after knowing you!"

"But to be engaged to two women at the same time!—it is wicked and humiliating! Why didn't you tell me of her?"

"It is something to know that you have saved him from making the mistake of his life!"—ignoring the question.

This was an inspiration on the part of Joyce, and Kitty was rendered dumb. Joyce immediately pursued her advantage.

"To have been compelled to marry Mrs. Fox into whose snare he had fallen, would have been a dreadful thing for poor Jack, who, at the most, is only an overgrown schoolboy without much experience of the world. I did not tell you of it as I thought it was over and done with."

"As a man of honour, he is bound to keep his word to her and marry her as he said he would,"—obstinately.

"I would rather see him dead. There is no honour about Mrs. Fox or her methods. She deliberately set out to work this thing, and her punishment is in your hands. Jack loves you. You have no right to force him into marriage with a woman who will ruin his life for him."

"I think he has behaved abominably."

"If you are looking for perfection in the man you intend to marry, you had better make up your mind to live an old maid. Good-night!" and having delivered her parting shot, Joyce turned away, feeling no longer the same childish creature of a few months ago. She had awakened in right earnest.

Needless to say, Jack spent the night in his clothes on deck. Sleep was impossible; and, in the hope that she would relent and creep on deck to find him and retract the hard things she had said, he haunted the companion till the stars paled and the day began to break.

But Kitty, though very loving, had a temper that was not easily calmed. Jack had behaved abominably right through, and should not get things all his own way, she decided, and while relenting inwardly, she maintained towards him an attitude of cold disapproval. She had given him back the ring—which at that moment was burning a hole in his waistcoat pocket—and had had nothing more to say to him, though, when he was not conscious of the fact, her eyes often dwelt upon him with wistful yearning. He might deserve punishment, but there was no doubt about it, that he was the only man in the world for her! She loved everything about him, from his curly blond head to the soles of his manly feet. He was by far the best-looking boy on the ship, and the most simple-minded! Besides, what was unforgettable, he was a prince of lovers! Was she going to allow Mrs. Fox to take him?——

Kitty flushed in hot indignation at the thought, but it was right and proper that he should suffer for his weakness and folly. Of course, she would have to forgive him or be miserable for the rest of her life, but—not yet.

The punishment might have continued for days, if Jack's own precipitancy had not brought about almost a tragedy.

In the morning he gravitated to his friend again, and in a burst of confidence, related the outcome of his having adopted the course that had been advised. His friend, wise in the ways of women, listened with his tongue in his cheek. Not being in love, himself, he could afford to see the humourous side of Jack's trouble. This time he suggested a ruse.

"Excite her pity, my dear fellow. Do something to rouse her heart. It is only suffering from shock and will come to the scratch when it is stirred by pity. The best thing to do is to get seriously ill. Too much grief—mental strain—has brought on a heart attack. Lie down to it and kick up a devil of a fuss. I'll tip the doctor a wink and we'll do it in style. What do you say to that? When she hears you are on the verge of heart failure, all through her, she'll fall on your neck and wipe out the past."

"Go to blazes!—I'm not going to do any play-acting and drag the whole ship into the secret, only to lose any possible chance I might have had if ever it leaked out."

"Then we'll have to think of something else."

"I think I'll just drop overboard, and end everything," said Jack melodramatically. "That will show her how I have felt over her treatment of me!"

"But you'll not be there to enjoy it. Happy thought. Can you swim?"

"Like a fish."

"Good! You can go overboard if she remains relentless, and the thought that she has driven you to commit suicide, will bring her to you weeping and repentant the minute you are restored to consciousness."

"What the devil do you mean?"

"Why just an accident, done on purpose. To all it will appear an accident. To her,—attempted suicide. To you and me, simply bluff. I'll be the first to see you go, and a life-buoy will go after you in a trice. Only let's know when you contemplate bringing it off, so that I can be stationed near one. There'll be no time lost. 'Man overboard!' and the engines will be stopped, reversed, a boat lowered, and there you are! You'll be fished out apparently drowned—or nearly—and with hot water bottles and brandy you'll be well enough to see Miss Kitty in your cabin in half an hour."

"What price, sharks?" asked Jack, to whom the adventure strongly appealed,—as an adventure, if nothing else. He could imagine the commotion on the ship, and Kitty, white with anxiety and self-reproach, hanging over the rails as she watched his chances of recovery from the briny deep.

"Fellows have been known to fall overboard in the Arabian Sea, and one never hears of sharks. You'll have to risk it. Take a sailor's knife; then, if you are attacked you can put up a fight till you are picked up."

All day Kitty avoided Jack and surrounded herself with the callow youth of the vessel. She appeared in high spirits, played deck quoits, and did not give him a minute's chance to get a word with her, till the idea in his mind, of attempted suicide, took root and developed after serious and profound thinking. Something would have to be done. He could not exist another day apart from Kitty, severed from her heart, and condemned to wear his out in agonies of despair and remorse.

The following morning, after breakfast, Kitty's attitude being unchanged, Jack hung upon the taffrail, and, surveying the clear, emerald-green waves as they heaved past the sides of the ship, telegraphed with his eyes to his resourceful friend.

The sea was choppy and glittered like jewels in the sunlight. Sea-gulls skimmed the surface and circled in the wake of the steamer, which was travelling fast, the speed of the engines causing a gentle vibration of the decks, while the ratlins trembled in the breeze.

It would require some nerve to plunge into the waves, fully clothed; but he was in light, deck shoes which could be kicked off; and his coat could easily be sacrificed in the water. It was an old suit!

Sharks?—

They had seen none since entering these waters. Besides, he was ready to take his chance, or to fight, if it came to the push.

Above all, his act must be made to appear an accident. Kitty, alone, should think as she pleased, being in a position to supply a possible motive; and, doubtless, her feelings would be heart-rending.

Jack nerved himself to bring this just punishment upon her obduracy and took up his position on the taffrail with his back to the sea.

His first act was to note whether Kitty, who was promenading the deck with a subaltern—called to active service—had any idea of his peril. She had always discouraged his sitting on the taffrail, saying that it "got on her nerves."

Kitty glanced towards him, and with an air of indifference continued promenading.

Jack's already sore heart was lacerated. Could there be any sharks about?

His friend and ally was to be seen idly lounging in the neighbourhood of a life-buoy suspended against the rails, further aft.

Just as he was about to let go, someone lounging up, remarked on his unhealthy pallor. "Feeling the motion of the vessel?" he asked Jack, who did not know what it was to feel sea-sick.

"Not in the least," said Jack wishing him to the devil.

"It must be the smell of kippers. Frankly, I can't stand them. The stink hangs about all morning, till one feels one is breathing as well as eating kippers."

"They have an unholy smell," Jack agreed, wondering when the fellow would move on, or whether his inopportune presence was to be taken as a warning not to put his mad intention into effect. He was superstitious enough to believe in omens.

"I rather like bumlas, do you?" was the next remark.

"I don't know—oh, yes, I think they are topping."

"Sort of jelly-substance, and when fried crisp, the last word!"

"Oh, damn!" said Jack aching for him to go.

"What's that?" the man asked, protruding an ear forward. "The wind makes a devil of a noise in these ropes——"

Someone called him off for quoits, and Jack started to tune up his nerves again for the plunge.

Children ran between him and the line of chairs he faced. He could see Joyce Meredith listening idly while the ship's doctor talked to her. At that moment the subaltern took Kitty's hand in his to examine a ring she was wearing,—an heirloom, with a story,—and this gave the final stimulus to Jack's sporting resolve. He was seen suddenly to lose his balance, throw out his arms, and disappear over the side.

On the instant there was wild confusion. Chairs were flung back, children shrieked, women fell fainting on the deck. Someone had shouted, "Man overboard!" which was taken up vociferously in every key by, at least, a hundred throats, and in less than a minute the engines were silent, the vessel moving only with its headway. Then, with a blast of steam, they were reversed. Meanwhile, the after part of the hurricane deck, and the poop of the second saloon, were packed with eager souls scanning the surface of the water in the hope of catching sight of their unfortunate fellow-passenger.

Again the vessel stopped, and a boat was lowered.

"Wonderful presence of mind," the doctor said to Joyce as she, too, anxiously strained her eyes to look for the reappearance of Jack's form in the water, which had been seen, and then lost sight of. "Did you hear how a fellow kept his head when he saw young Darling go over, sending a life-buoy the same moment after him? Splendid, I call that!"

Joyce was deeply impressed. "He has probably saved Jack's life! Good man! does any one know where my sister is?"

Kitty was nowhere to be seen. Joyce presently found her in the saloon crouching on a sofa with her hands over her ears.

"He is drowned, I know he is drowned, and I shall never see him any more! I have killed him just as surely as if I sent him over with my own hands!—oh, let me die!" She was beside herself, and her suffering would not only have more than healed Jack's injured feelings, but have made him sue for pardon.

Joyce took her in her arms and they clung together, fearful of what they should presently hear. The shrieks of the women and children were mingled with the voices of the men shouting instructions from the deck to the officer in the boat. Nothing definite could be gleaned from the excited ejaculations of the onlookers.

"What made me do it!—why did I let myself behave so!" Kitty cried shivering from the force of her emotions. "I shall never be able to ask his forgiveness for my hardness, and yet in my heart I was melted towards him and longing to tell him so,—only waiting till the evening when we could be more alone. Oh, I am terribly punished for daring to punish my poor Jack!"

"We are not to give up hope, dearest, but are to will with might and main that he be saved. It all helps. Honor Bright says it is scientifically possible to impose will-power on the forces of nature. It is a way God works for us and with us."

"It is useless to tell me all that when I cannot even think!" wailed Kitty.

"But there is a great deal in heaven and earth that is not 'dreamt of in our philosophy,'" Joyce repeated.

"Oh, my poor Jack!—Go, Joyce, and ask what is happening, now! I cannot bear this stillness." For a sudden hush seemed to have fallen on the company on deck.

At that moment, a distant cheer came from over the water. It was taken up by those watching from the ship and loud "Hurrahs!" sounded again and again.

"Oh, thank God!—he must be safe!" cried Joyce.

Kitty seemed to crumple up as she burst into a passion of tears.

Neither she nor Joyce had any idea that the rescue of Jack Darling was a touch and go. He had gone overboard confident of being able to keep afloat till he was picked up, and willing to accept his fate if it worked out otherwise. Having, in his despair, become temporarily insane, he was hardly accountable for his actions till his immersion in the waves brought him rudely to his senses. After coming to the surface, he looked about for the steamer, and was astounded to see it already so far away that it seemed to him impossible for a boat's crew to descry him in that heaving expanse of ocean. To add to his dismay, the vessel seemed to steam on as though determined to leave him to his fate.

The prospect was horrible!

In a flash, he saw himself swimming till exhausted and a prey to sharks. Life became all at once very dear. Whether with, or without Kitty, it would be better to live, than to die this slow and lonely death! He had been nothing but a damned idiot to have allowed himself to be dragged into such a dangerous piece of melodrama, and all for nothing! With a little patience and perseverance he might have gained his end without all this miserable fuss! No abuse was strong enough for his folly.

At that moment he espied the life-buoy, which he was fearing he would never find, and eagerly scrambled into it. Ah, that was better! Though he could swim like a fish, there was no doubt about it that he was grateful for support in the restless waters. Sometimes he was on the top of a wave where he was able to see the far distant ship; then, with a smart buffeting, he would find himself at the bottom of a trough with, what looked like green mountains of water threatening to engulf him.

It was an immense relief to his mind when it became apparent that the vessel was steaming back on her course, and the sight of the boat being lowered gave him new life and confidence.

But before it could reach him, symptoms of cramp in one leg had set in—possibly, because of late he had entirely neglected his exercises. The first twinge scared him mightily. If it should increase, he would be doubled up in the water and, in spite of the buoy, go down like a stone. The prospect racked him with suspense. The cramp again seized him with demoniacal violence and a red-hot band seemed to tighten round about his limb....

Was it cramp, or the jaws of a shark?

Petrifying thought!

If ever he had been punished in his life for folly, he was being punished now!

He glanced wildly over his shoulder, then at the advancing boat. He tried to call aloud, but his voice was choked with spray. The pain intensified. It seemed to rise into his thigh and the leg felt wrenched from its socket. Surely this was the end? A shark——?

Jack remembered no more. He had fainted with the pain of severe cramp combined with the shock of terror. He had never been wanting in courage, but physical agony, and the notion of falling a prey to sharks before he had time to show fight, had caused him to swoon.

And it was at that moment that the boat reached him, and eager hands snatched him into safety.

Before the boat reached the ship he had recovered, and after a stiff dose of brandy, was able to take an interest in his rescue.

"I could have sworn a shark had got me," he explained. "The pain was so excruciating."

"In the water, cramp is the very devil!" said the third officer.

It was a shamed and chastened young man who disappeared into his cabin, amid hearty congratulations, to change into dry garments. In the face of so much honest relief and thankfulness, he felt a very worm for his deceit and trickery. It had been a mean game—a dirty trick he had played everybody, and Kitty in particular; which might easily have cost him his life. Truly, he had come to the conclusion that he was not fit to aspire to any nice girl. Kitty was properly fastidious, and she was not to be blamed for having recoiled from his unsavoury story, though it had been the barest outline of his misdemeanours that he had given her. All the same, it was hardly a yarn for the ears of even modern eighteen!

She being his promised wife, he had felt it due to her to reveal his past—(lest others should do so!)—and he had no right to rebel against her verdict, however blasting to his life and happiness—and so on, and so forth.

In downright self-disgust he kept his cabin, pleading the effects of cramp and exhaustion, and emerged only when it was dark, to drop into a deck chair behind a windlass, and brood upon his sins, staring out upon the moonlit sea.

Here Kitty came to him with healing, and here we take our leave of them for the present, feeling perfectly sure that Jack was not likely to damage his chances of reconciliation by any further confessions,—not even concerning his latest and maddest adventure. Confession may be good for the soul, but Jack had learned that there are circumstances when it is better to be silent.



CHAPTER XXIII

TEMPORISINGS

While Jack counted the days to the arrival of the ship at Bombay, and Joyce lived in anticipation of the reunion with her husband; while Honor watched for the coming of Joyce and an end to an impossible situation in Darjeeling; while Dalton played at friendship with the girl he adored, since to desire more was like asking for the moon; and while Tommy was breaking his heart with disappointment, and tormenting the Government of Bengal for permission to join the Indian Army reserve, instead of continuing to serve that Government by safe-guarding his District, it seemed almost inconceivable that thousands of miles away, the destinies of nations were in the melting pot, and the map of Europe in process of re-making.

Immense armies were in training; miracles of organisation were taking place within the British Empire. Always the greatest Naval Power, she was rapidly becoming, also, a great Military Power.

The grand old army of "Contemptibles" was covering itself with imperishable glory; Indian and Colonial troops were mobilising for the assistance of the Motherland. In all parts of the world the clarion cry was sounded—"To arms!"

The War was the absorbing topic in all the cities of the world.

But at little Muktiarbad and similar rural districts, the placid monotony of daily life was barely stirred.

There was "a war on," of course, they said in the bazaars. India was involved—that, also, was a matter of course. The fighting sons of India could not be left out of such a fateful occasion as a war which called for loyalty and support. But it was an impersonal matter to native Muktiarbad. Doubtless, one of these wise dispensations of the Almighty, that helped to thin out the too rapidly increasing population of the world! It had no bearing on the lives and fortunes of the cultivator and the shop-keeper, save, that, in the case of the latter, it enabled him to put up his prices. But since the sun rose and set exactly as usual, and the flowers bloomed, and the seasons remained unchanged, and the daily life of the District continued undisturbed, where was the need to worry?

True, there was occasionally talk in the bazaar of battles lost and won; but talk was the life of the bazaar. Whatever happened, or did not happen, the bazaar always knew about it and spread rumours that none heeded, for rumours are always unreliable. What did they amount to, anyway? Nothing came of them, so far as the countryside was concerned.

Now and again, it was said, that So-and-So, generally a stout Pathan, who had seen active service on the frontier, had packed his bundle and was off on his own initiative to offer his strong right arm for the cause of the Sarcar who was his father and his mother. His ancestors had fought and bled—or died; won medals and gained pensions; he, too, would gain medals and a pension, or lose his life if God so willed it. "Kismet ke bat!"[18] Where was he going? God knew! Some day, if it was so willed, he would return to tell.

[Footnote 18: With Fate lay the decision.]

Like as not, he would never return. When youth went a-travelling, the attractions of the great world seldom released him from their thrall.

At the court-house, the Magistrate and Collector, officiating for Meredith who was still on leave at Darjeeling, tried cases and settled disputes, while the court-yard in front was covered with squatting humanity, chewing pan and awaiting their individual turns to be called up before the Hakim to tell—anything but the truth!

At the Club, the sahibs and memsahibs played tennis and bridge and enjoyed their cold drinks as usual, just as though there were no sanguinary battles raging afar, such as the world had never known in all its history.

Once, during the month of August, a strange babu had appeared in the bazaar, and, perching himself upon a cask, had talked sedition for about an hour to apathetic ears. Muktiarbad, being mainly Mohammedan, did not like gentlemen of the Brahmin persuasion; so he had departed much disheartened. Shortly after, another agitator—a Mohammedan this time—had endeavoured to incite the peace-loving population to revolt by preaching religious antagonism towards Christians.

But Muktiarbad was not to be roused. "Live and let live" was the prevailing sentiment among its people. Besides, what was the use of rebelling, since it would be futile against such a mighty race as the British, who were also good rulers, taking no advantage to themselves from their might, and giving each man according to his due? The needs of the village folk were mainly personal, and so long as these were supplied, what cared they if the rulers of the land were Christians. They never interfered with the Moslem religion; why should Moslems interfere with theirs? And so this man also departed discouraged.

At Panipara, interest centred chiefly on the fact that the Government had decided that the jhil should be drained. The Great War was a secondary matter. Wells were already in process of construction and, at the end of the rains, before the water of the wide morass could be poisoned with germs, usually bred in the drought of winter and spring, the drainage was to be taken in hand and the health of the District safeguarded forever. All this interference and annoyance had sprung from the doctor Sahib, who was thereby the most unpopular sahib that had ever been put in charge of the sanitation of a District. He was cursed by the ignorant in the Muktiarbad bazaar and at Panipara village itself, but so far his person had been respected, as it was known by some occult means that he secretly carried firearms wherever he went.

In July, Honor had returned with her mother from Mussoorie in the Himalayas, physically and mentally stronger for her prolonged absence.

Captain Dalton and she had corresponded as friends, all expressions of personal feeling being rigorously excluded from the closely written pages. Both had bravely "played the game," the faithfulness and regularity of the letters, alone testifying to their unchanged devotion.

When they met again, Honor having braced herself to the ordeal, had sustained it courageously, no one guessing how much it had cost her to smile and shake hands with the doctor as naturally as she had done, the moment before, with Tommy; for the meeting had taken place, unexpectedly, at the Club.

Captain Dalton retired to his bungalow shortly afterwards, and the tension had lifted. He had gone, Honor knew, instinctively, because he could not bear to stand by, listening indifferently to the general conversation when his heart was filled with longing to speak to her alone. She had experienced the same inward impatience, but had learned a greater self-control.

By and by, their meetings became frequent; but the self-imposed restraint, mutually practised, had a wearing effect on the nerves of both.

And all the while, gossip in connection with Ray Meredith filtered through from various sources, and caused no little comment among his friends.

At last a letter to Mrs. Bright from Mrs. Ironsides, who was spending a month at the Sanitorium, placed it beyond doubt that Ray Meredith was very securely in the toils of his former nurse who was in the same hotel, in charge of a child suffering from jaundice.

"She has been in Darjeeling, with one pretext and another, I am told, ever since Mr. Meredith recovered," the lady wrote, "and people are beginning to look askance at her for the flagrant manner in which she flaunts her ascendancy over him. It is a thousand pities his wife is not with him, for he is at the woman's heels morning, noon, and night. Rumour says their rooms adjoin! I should feel inclined to blame him soundly were it not for the fact that he looks very delicate since his illness, and that people recovering from sunstroke are not altogether themselves. Possibly he is merely drifting for want of someone sufficiently interested in him to save him! Whatever it is, this Mrs. Dalton must be an abandoned creature, for she is indifferent to the fact that she is creating a disgusting scandal. When you think of how devoted that man was to his pretty little wife, you feel inclined, to believe anything of men! But, as I say, he cannot be himself. Let us hope it is only due to the sunstroke, and that his wife will come out soon and look after him."

Honor took this news to heart and wrote the appeal to Joyce of which the reader is already aware: she also gradually brought her mind to the point of speaking frankly to Captain Dalton on the subject.

Since her return from the hills, two weeks before, she had not met him alone, so that when she asked him, in a little note to see her at the Club next morning on a matter of some anxiety, he was naturally full of wonderment as he drove to keep the appointment.

The marker, alone, was in possession of the Club and in his office, when Dalton arrived, so that the meeting was undisturbed.

"You are surprised that I should have sent for you?" Honor said, as she stepped off her bicycle, having greeted him with a friendly nod. Had she given him her hand he would have noticed that it was trembling.

"Pleased, as well as surprised," said he, feasting his soul on the wholesome, girlish face with its frank, trustworthy eyes. "Has anything happened?" He was longing to hear that her request was prompted only by her great desire to have speech with him alone; but even as the thought crossed his mind, he knew that Honor would never have made an assignation with him for any personal reason. Not with those truthful eyes!

"A great deal seems to be happening," she said as they walked into the building side by side, and found themselves seats in the verandah. Dalton had hoped she would have led him to one of the public rooms where, at least, they would have been safe from the curious eyes of passing natives; but that she did not, was consistent with her character, for she was as open as the day.

Seated beside him, she told him of Mrs. Ironside's letter and of her own, unhappy fears for Joyce, and her future relations with her husband.

"She should not have gone home so soon after her marriage," said Dalton. "I guessed how it would be when the nurse took on the job, for Meredith is a very charming fellow, and she is a woman without a conscience."

"Brian, we must stop it!" It had been "Brian" and "Honey" in the letters.

"Not even an angel from heaven could, if Meredith is infatuated. I tell you, she is a clever fiend."

"It rests with you!" said Honor appealingly.

"With me?" surprised.

"Joyce and her husband love each other. I will not believe that he has ceased to care. Doesn't sunstroke somewhat dull memory?"

"For a time, yes,—possibly. Sometimes altogether. Meredith, however, is all right, or will be when he regains his normal vigour."

"I take it that he is not his normal self, and that when he is, he will be ashamed of the part he is now playing. Joyce's happiness is at stake. She is a simple little thing and very fond of him. Their happiness must be saved—even at a sacrifice."

"Well?"

"Oh, Brian!—you will have to take your wife back!"

Dalton stared dumbly at her. That Honor should ask him to take back the woman who had wrecked his life and whom he despised as the commonest prostitute in the land!——

"You ask me that?" he breathed.

Honor bent her head. She could not but realise that the step she proposed was a terrible outrage.

"Why, Honey!" His voice was choked. "Have you any idea of what you are asking me to do?"

"It will be a great sacrifice—which—which I shall—share—" words failed her and she looked away with a pathetic trembling of her lip.

"You would wish it?" in wounded tones.

"I would hate the thought of it!—yet, something must be done. She might find it more profitable to return to you and leave Mr. Meredith in peace."

A painful silence.

"Honey, if she lived with me I should surely murder her! Do you know how I detest the woman? Do you imagine I could take her back as a wife? I would rather be shot."

Honor buried her face in her hands. In her heart of hearts she was singing a paean of thanksgiving that he was still hers—only hers, though divided from her by an impassable gulf!

"You could bear to see me reconciled to her?"

No answer.

"Honey," he cried desperately. "I would do anything in the world for you!"

"But you cannot sacrifice yourself for a good woman's happiness?" she questioned, hardly knowing what she said.

"Why should I for Mrs. Meredith?"

"Because you once owed her a debt—she was very good to you after——"

"My God!—yes!"

"This will kill her. She will hear—there are so many who will be ready to give her chapter and verse of the scandal against her husband. But if this—nurse—were with you, it would, perhaps, all blow over."

"Is it really your wish that I should do this thing? Remember, she is hateful to me—and she can never, in any sense, be my wife again!"

"I am—glad!" she could not help exclaiming. "Then the sacrifice will not be so terrible, after all!"

"Perhaps not," he answered, his eyes full on hers with a passion of longing. "Will you let me think it over?"

"Decide quickly!" she begged him.

"There is nothing I would not do for you," he repeated.

Honor rose with her gracious smile of gratitude and trust, and they parted without touching hands. When she returned home, the reaction from the strain of their meeting prostrated her for hours. Her parents feared that the climate of Muktiarbad was, at last, telling on her healthy constitution as it had told on Ray Meredith's.

"Perhaps we shall have to send you home!" her mother sighed anxiously.

"Not a bit of it!" Honor asserted. "The cold weather will put me to rights very soon."

"Perhaps you have something on your mind, darling?"

"I have. I am worrying badly for Joyce Meredith."

"Joyce will get nothing more than she deserves. Why should you suffer? It is nobody's business to meddle between husband and wife."

"Somebody is already meddling, so it may need counter-meddling to put it right."

"I shouldn't bother my head. We have enough to do without trying to act Providence in the case of fools."

"We are not trying to act Providence, but Providence needs to use us. It seems we are just so many pawns in the great Game."

"It has often puzzled me what Captain Dalton has been after," said Mrs. Bright, eyeing her daughter rather narrowly. Fear had preyed considerably on her mind, that the doctor had been playing fast and loose with her child, to her sorrow. "You and he have been fast friends. Once you told me there was an 'understanding'; but nothing seems to have come of it, though you have corresponded very regularly."

"I showed you some of his letters, darling," Honor temporised, faithful to her intention of bearing her own burdens alone, if possible.

"Nice, manly letters they were, and most interesting of his work and things in general. But I am none the wiser."

"What did you understand of our friendship?"

"That there was an 'understanding,'" her mother repeated.

"I do dislike that word in the sense you are applying it!" said Honor with a forced laugh. "We are not going to get married, anyway, for Captain Dalton is a married man."

"Honey!" Mrs. Bright was dumbfounded. "Since when have you known this?"

"For quite a long time; since early summer, in fact. You have met his wife—Mrs. Dalton, the nurse. Everyone here fancied her name was a coincidence. She worked to come here that she might see her husband and get him to take her back." Having said so much, Honor went on to explain further the cause of the breach between husband and wife and the irrevocable nature of it. "I am telling you this, dear, as you have a right to know the truth, being my mother. It is, however, a personal confidence, which no one else need share," Honor concluded.

"Why did you not mention it to me before?" Mrs. Bright asked while a light dawned on her mind.

"Because I have been very sorry for him, and, somehow, I felt I ought to respect his confidence. But it will, inevitably, be known in time, and then you will be able to say you were not uninformed."

"Honor, are you in love with Captain Dalton?" Mrs. Bright asked pointedly.

Honor winced. "Yes, Mother. And he loves me."

Mrs. Bright looked faint. "You, my child, in love with a married man!" This was, indeed, a blow! It accounted, fully, for Honor's discouragement of eligible suitors in Mussoorie, which had greatly vexed her mother at the time. "This is dreadful!"

"Not at all, except for the fact that it is naturally a grief to me,—to us both; for, as you see, we can never marry."

Mrs. Bright was entirely astray. When other girls were convicted of being in love with married men, it had always sounded so immoral! But no one could think of Honor as such. She was plainly an upright and honourable girl.

"Yet you encouraged his writing, and answered his letters! You meet, to all appearances, as if nothing is wrong. What am I to make of it?"

"That we are very much to be pitied. Writing and meeting openly are all that are left to us."

"He should have gone away—severed his connection with Muktiarbad. Not have stayed to fan the flame!"

"Life is too short for needless sacrifices, Mother darling. Having made the greatest, we refuse to suffer more than we need. Sometimes, if you are starving for food, a bare crust will keep you alive. We are subsisting on bare crusts and are grateful."

"I consider Captain Dalton has not behaved at all well. He knew his position and went out of his way to make you care!"

"Ah, no!—it just happened!" said Honor, her eyes suddenly flooded with tears.

Mrs. Bright looked at her daughter's white and sorrowful face, and away again. She could not bear to see the suffering there. All the traditions of her life caused her to stand aghast at the idea of dalliance with a sin so subtle and alluring as this. It should be the root-and-branch method. Nothing else would suffice to save her child! Yet her own eyes overflowed in sympathy.

"Oh, my poor little Honey!" She held out her arms and Honor took refuge in them to weep unrestrainedly. "We are trying to be so good!" she cried.

After kissing her daughter tenderly, Mrs. Bright said: "You cannot temporise with forbidden fruit, Honey. Eve did, you know. You are but human, therefore fallible, however good you are trying to be. The time will come when the heart, torn with longing, becomes too weak to resist. Specious arguments are insidious and irresistible, and you will go down. Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall! That is why we pray, Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. Our Lord understood human nature better than we ever shall, that is why there is only one thing to do, and that is, to fly from temptation. We pray to be 'delivered,' but praying alone doesn't suffice if we are to be honest with ourselves and God. There is nothing that will save us, but doing right."

"We are doing nothing wrong!" Honor pleaded.

"The wrong lies in the lack of moral courage to deal drastically with the wound. If poison remains, it is bound to fester. Captain Dalton should go away."

"We were obliged to let ourselves down gently. It has been so miserable!" Down went Honor's head on her mother's shoulder, and the tears fell fast.

Tears also fell on her dark head. Mrs. Bright's heart was wrung with pity. She had said enough for the present, so now devoted herself to soothing her beloved child's sorrow with her never-failing sympathy. Honor was a good girl, and to be trusted entirely to look her trouble squarely in the face and conquer it; and the mother's heart was lifted in prayer that she might be enabled to aid and strengthen her child.

It was very shortly after this that war broke out, and there was so much to think of and talk about in the Station, that private affairs were temporarily set aside. The newspapers were read eagerly in detail; correspondence with dear ones over the seas was quickened with new interest; and everyone, even in such a little place as Muktiarbad, found plenty to do to help in the common cause. War-work parties were organised, at which the ladies engaged in knitting woollen comforts for the troops, and in making up parcels to be dispatched to the front and to prisoners in Germany; and every member had some bit of war news to discuss with the others at the Club as they rested from their games under the waving punkha.

"It will drive me silly," Tommy had said from the first, "if I have to loaf about in a place like this when all my pals and school contemporaries have volunteered, or are in the thick of it, doing their bit."

"You are doing your bit, just as any one who is killing Germans," said Mrs. Ironsides who had returned from Darjeeling. "What is to become of us all, if all medically fit civil officers are sent to fight? Why, we should be murdered in our beds, if it were not for the Police!"

Tommy thought he would cheerfully risk Mrs. Ironsides being murdered in her bed, if the Government would only allow him to serve "for the duration"; and he continued to send in applications for leave to join up, with a persistency worthy of the Great Cause, in the hopes that constant dripping would wear away the stony indifference with which they were treated.

One evening, towards the end of September, Captain Dalton sought Honor at the Club. He had news for her, the gravity of which shadowed his deep-set eyes and heightened the grim setting of his jaw.

In a room full of people engrossed in one another, he gravitated to her, as usual, but surprised her by asking her to grant him a few words in private. "Come out with me to the tennis courts," he commanded with a definiteness she felt powerless to slight.

It was dark on the tennis courts with only a young moon shining; nevertheless, Honor accompanied him forth, realising the fatefulness of the coming interview. When they had reached the shadow of the Duranta hedge that separated the courts from the building, and were seated on a bench, he told her in a few words that he had decided to comply with her wishes in the matter of his wife. It had taken him two months to bring himself to the point of making the sacrifice, but at last it was made.

"Of course I am doing it to please you. You have set your heart on helping Joyce Meredith, and as this is the only way, it shall be done though it takes a mighty effort in the doing. I am writing to tell her that she may return to my protection openly, as my wife; but, needless to say, my wife only in name. If it will give her a chance to right herself in the eyes of the world and help her to live as an honest woman, she is welcome to make the fullest use of my offer. It certainly might keep her from tampering further with Meredith's loyalty to his wife. But I question whether it is not too late!"

"It is never too late!" said Honor, feeling numb and paralysed.

"That will be up to Mrs. Meredith. She is an unsophisticated little thing, and, I dare say, Meredith will keep his mouth shut."

It was plain to judge that he was again full of envy of other men's chances of happiness, for his tones reminded Honor of the man he was when they first met. It was too dark to see his face.

"If she accepts your offer will she come here?" Honor asked shrinkingly.

"She will have to if she comes at once. But I expect soon to be put on active service. My application to serve with the Army is receiving consideration, and it is possible I shall have to go to France or Egypt as there may be trouble with Turkey. In that case she will choose her residence. Another medical officer will occupy my bungalow."

So it had come at last!

Honor had been fearing that the war would, in its relentlessness, claim him also. It was said in the papers that there was a scandalous shortage of surgeons for a war of such magnitude.

Suddenly she was seized with shivering. "You will go and we shall never meet again!" fell from her lips independent of her will.

Dalton took her with determination in his arms and kissed her passionately on the lips. "My own love!" he moaned over her. "My precious one!"

This was what her mother had meant when she had spoken of her becoming, in time, too weak to resist. For the moment her will was as weak as water; she could only cling to him and yield to their mutual craving for demonstrations of love. It was wrong, of course,—but, even so, it was heaven so long as they could banish memory and think only of the joy of enfolding arms, the meeting of loving lips!

"I shall be going away and we might never meet again!" he echoed her words in passionate despair. "Pity me a little, when we meet, and let us be happy! Promise!"

"I dare not promise," she cried, quivering with emotion in his arms. "I love you, but help me to do right!"

For some time neither spoke while Dalton seemed struggling with the might of his desire. They rested on the iron bench wrapped in each other's arms, speechless for many moments till the peacefulness and silence of the night brought them sanity and calm. Then, kissing her once more with the tenderness of renunciation, he put her aside and rose to his feet.

"I wonder you care for such a worthless hound as myself!" he said at length. "I have no self-control. Go in, darling, I am going home to scourge myself for attempting to lead you against the dictates of your conscience. Forgive me, Honey, I was mad!"

Honor left him, shaken in every nerve, her self-confidence shattered. "Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall!" But it rejoiced her that Brian Dalton had fought his battle with himself alone, and had conquered. How much his appreciation of her high sense of honour had contributed to his victory, she would never know.



CHAPTER XXIV

SUSPENSE

The next morning Honor received a telegram from Joyce to meet her at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta without delay, and she was only too glad for a respite of even a few days from the pain of schooling herself to avoid the man she loved. Her parents having no objection, she caught the express at midday, and was in Calcutta the same night, her mind lightened of one of its burdens. At least the little wife had acted upon advice and was going to her husband without waste of time, after which all would surely be well for them both.

Joyce was prepared for her coming, and they talked to a late hour, she, betraying her trouble by her anxious questioning, which Honor skilfully parried.

"You must not put too much faith in gossip," said Honor after learning of the conversation which had been overheard on the ship. "Have you wired?"

Joyce confessed her intention to take her husband by surprise. "Only, now that it has come to the point, I am as nervous as I can be."

"You had better wire. It will bring your husband down half-way to meet you and give him some happy hours of anticipation."

"You are not sincere when you say that," said Joyce unexpectedly, "or why did you tell me to stop at nothing to come out?"

Joyce was no longer the same, ingenuous little girl Honor had parted from at Muktiarbad eight months ago. Her manner had acquired assurance, her carriage a becoming dignity, and there was about her an air of thoughtfulness and reserve, new to her.

"I said it was not good for man to live alone, nor is it."

"And you knew there was someone trying to supplant me in his affections?"

"I knew he was exposed to the influence of a woman without a conscience." Honor then told her precisely who Nurse Dalton was, and how her flagrant pursuit of Ray Meredith had aroused the anxious concern of his friends. Not another word would she add as fuel to the fire of Joyce's jealous imagination.

"Well, I shall be able to find out all about this for myself when I am there!" sighed Joyce when she had heard the woman's history.

Honor prayed inwardly that Mrs. Dalton would have received Captain Dalton's offer before then, and have lost no time in arranging to come away. She could not prevail on Joyce to telegraph to her husband of her arrival in India, or that he was to expect her in Darjeeling as soon as the railway service could take her there. As it was no part of a friend's duty to interfere in the affairs of husband and wife, she desisted from further persuasion, content to leave the issue to a Higher Power.

They passed on to other topics, and Honor was intensely pleased to learn from Joyce of Jack's happy fate as Kitty's accepted lover; and, further, that the two were married by special licence soon after landing at Bombay.

"They are so happy! Last night they left for the new station to which he is appointed, as mentioned in the Gazette yesterday. During the few hours they were in town they tried to keep out of the way of Mrs. Fox—perhaps you know Jack had allowed her to believe he would marry her?"

Honor believed she had heard the rumour.

"However, as ill-luck would have it, he and Kitty ran into her, so to speak, in the foyer of this hotel! I was there, and, believe me, I was never so uncomfortable in my life! Kitty was looking charming, and so smart. Happiness agrees with her, for I have never seen her look better in my life. We were waiting for a taxi, when who should come in but Mrs. Fox with some friends! Mistaking Kitty for me,—people say we are very much alike,—she held out her hand and said in her affected way—you remember?—'Oh, how d'you do, Mrs. Meredith. I had no idea you had come out again!' Then, seeing her mistake, she apologised, for I was following Kitty to the door.

"'It's my sister,' said I, feeling dreadfully embarrassed at having to make the introduction. 'Mrs. Darling, Mrs. Fox,' I said, and just at that moment Jack came in and straight up to us, with no eyes for any one but his wife. 'Come, dear, I have managed to get a taxi for the luggage,' and then his eyes fell on Mrs. Fox. Really, poor Jack! he turned quite pale. But Kitty who knew all about that affair and had forgiven it, smiled graciously at Mrs. Fox who was paralysed with shock, and said—'I am so sorry we haven't a moment. My husband and I are tied to time and have to catch a train. Good-bye,'—with a bow,—'so pleased to have met you!'

"Jack also bowed, speechless, as he hurried after Kitty. We all three fairly ran, though we had plenty of time for their train; but if looks could have killed, I am sure Jack would have died on the spot."

To Honor's credit be it known that she suffered a twinge of pity for Mrs. Fox; a passing twinge, such as one might feel for people when they come to grief by their own act.

"I wonder what Mrs. Fox will do, now," Honor remarked after expressing her hearty congratulations for the happy pair. Jack did not deserve such happiness, but if every sinner had his deserts, there would be too many miserable people in the world today.

"Mrs. Gupp who shares my table at meals, knows Mrs. Fox pretty well and has very little to say in her favour. She was maliciously amused over the affair, and is of opinion that Mrs. Fox will have to go home at once. The story is already common property."

Honor thought Joyce lovelier than ever with her air of dignified reserve. She had grown self-reliant and there was a tinge of hauteur in her manner which seemed to add to her stature and give a regal carriage to her beautiful head.

"So you are travelling all alone to Darjeeling?" Honor asked wistfully, wondering what was going to be the upshot of that journey.

"It is nothing at all. I have hardly the patience to wait for trains. There is so much at stake. If I could only be sure that Ray loves me as he used to do, I would be crazy for joy! I should never leave him again—not for anything in the world!" and she hid her face in Honor's neck while the tears flowed.

"Not even if you come across snakes and are obliged to put up with mosquitoes and the heat?" quizzed Honor.

"I'll face anything but the loss of my husband's love. What a fool I have been! a blind, childish fool! Why, that affair with Captain Dalton which I exaggerated and worried over, might have been made all right in good time. I ought to have listened to you, and set myself to make Ray so happy that he would have had nothing to forgive! After all, it wasn't as if I was wilfully to blame?"

"I told you that before you went home."

"And it came to me only when I began to fear that I was losing his love! That was a contingency I never believed possible. He was always so mad about me, spoiling me in every way and treating me as a little queen! Oh, Honor what a mess I have made of things!"

"Don't do anything in the heat of passion, dear," Honor advised thoughtfully. "Remember he has had sunstroke. A man is hardly himself for months after such an illness—sometimes for years. It affects people differently. Some are irritable, some have clouded memories; for the brain is the seat of the trouble."

"Are you trying to prepare me to find Ray insane?" Joyce asked with frightened eyes.

"Not at all. He is as sane as you or I, but his impulses are not so much under control, and his judgment is likely to err since that shock to his brain."

"Then he is not to be held accountable for anything he has done of late?" indignantly.

"You might take all I have said into consideration if you are required to forgive anything he has been weak or foolish enough to have done since his illness."

Joyce laughed bitterly. "I wonder what you would feel inclined to do in my place?"

"Do you really wish to know?"

"I do," said Joyce as a challenge, while drying her eyes.

"The chief thing to be considered, is the future. That must be saved at all costs. A mistake in the present, committed in haste, might affect your future life; and not only yours, but your baby's as well. You are about to deal with baby's daddy as well as your husband, and the whole of your world is looking on. You might take a prejudiced view of things that have occurred. You might, in your anger and humiliation, feel unforgiving towards him, and so, break up your home. I question whether anything ought to weigh against your love for your husband, if in your heart you love him and he loves you."

"Loving me, could he be disloyal?"

Honor hesitated. "It is possible he has been suffering from a clouded mind. Things have not been correctly focussed, as it were. And while in that condition, if he was tempted to drift into actual wrong-doing, I should imagine that self-loathing and remorse would afterwards be a worse punishment for him than you could possibly conceive of. This is presuming he has done anything to be ashamed of. In that case, I could not be harsh. Love always forgives—even to 'seventy times seven.'"

"Honey, you are an idealist! I wonder how many women could exercise so much forbearance! Think of the anger, the humiliation, the resentment! It is an outrage to one's faith and trust!"

"If you had remained within reach of him so that when he was ill you could have gone to him at once, there would have been nothing to forgive. But for a frivolous reason you put the seas between you and threw his love back into his face. You are also very much to blame," said Honor boldly.

Joyce covered her face with her hands and wept silently.

* * * * *

Honor saw her into her train at Sealdah Station the following day, and after an afternoon spent in shopping for her mother, returned to Muktiarbad.

Joyce spent an uncomfortable night in the train on account of the muggy heat which was barely rendered tolerable by electric fans in the compartment, and was glad when the time came to transfer herself and her baggage into the toy railway of the Himalayas, which rattled briskly up the slopes by tortuous tracks into higher altitudes and cooler climes.

A party of ladies known to each other occupied the same compartment and chattered of all they did in Darjeeling last year, and all they meant to do. Joyce paid little heed while silently watching the changing views as the train wound its way along the mountain sides. The infinite grandeur of Nature on which humanity had set its stamp, thrilled her with wonderment and delight. All personal troubles were forgotten for a while as the glorious scenery unfolded to her vision.

Surely her eyes must have been holden when she saw it a year ago!

Heavy mists sweeping the mountain sides frequently obliterated a picture of purple distances and rugged heights. Anon, there was a blaze of sunlight revealing wooded spurs with zinc-roofed cottages and grey villages nestling on their slopes. Green valleys lay at the foot of frowning precipices, and round many a bend and curve were glimpses of tea gardens with the bushes laid out in serried rows; and cumbrous, zinc-roofed tea factories looking strangely incongruous in their wild and glorious setting.

With a rush of sound, a waterfall would be seen, as a curve was rounded, tumbling over rocks and rushing under a bridge on its way to join some mighty river in the plains. The plains were often visible, stretching like a grey sea to the horizon, their surface marked by the silver tracery of streams. Now and then, Joyce could catch a glimpse of the Everlasting Snows, with Kinchin-junga, Nursing, and Pundeem, a mighty group glittering in the sunlight in stately magnificence, their peaks inaccessible to man. Beside the road, a stout parapet of boulders covered by ferns and lichen, stood, in places, between the passengers and certain death, a thousand feet below; while up the steep banks rose forests of sal and fir, climbing towards the sky.

Wherever there were homesteads perched among the rocks, children of the mountains would run forth like sure-footed goats to view the passing train, their round and ruddy cheeks besmeared with dirt and chapped with cold; their flat faces, high cheek bones, and slanting eyes, revealing their Lepcha strain.

And all the while the temperature continued to fall; and the atmosphere grew moist and cold and exhilarating in its freshness.

A block in the line occasioned by a local landslip—a frequent occurrence on the hill-railway—detained the train till the afternoon, at Kurseong, where the passengers left their carriages for luncheon at the hotel.

At Sonada, further on, two ladies entered the compartment and audibly discussed certain doings at Darjeeling where they appeared to be residing. When Joyce heard her husband's name, she set herself to listen, determined not to miss a word.

"I suppose she will be there," said one. "Wherever Mr. Meredith goes he manages to get an invitation for her,—and people don't much like it, but there's his position, you know!"

"I know. They are seldom seen apart. A handsome woman in her way, but utterly regardless! Her dress, for instance, at the Shrubbery Ball was indeed up to date—just a band under the armpits for a bodice. I never saw any one off the stage so disgustingly naked!"

"He looks to me rather 'fed up.' And the way she takes charge of him in public requires nerve! he simply falls into line just as if he can't help himself. Got into the habit, so to speak!"

"What are you going to wear tonight?" and the conversation drifted to the Planters' Ball at the Club. The Governor and his wife were expected to be present with their suite, and the house-party from the Shrubbery.

"It is a wonder to me," said the first speaker, "that Mrs. Dalton is received at Government House." Joyce again held her breath.

"Oh, but her position makes that all right. Her husband is an I.M.S. man, a rising surgeon, somewhere in the plains. They don't get on, but that's nobody's business; and in Darjeeling one has to shut one's eyes. If you begin to point the finger of scorn, you'll be kept fairly busy" (with a mischievous laugh). "And after all, if her husband doesn't mind, it's nobody's business. All the same, she's been cut by a good few, and if he doesn't look out, he'll end in the divorce court—or she will!"

They laughed as at a great joke, and, others listening, smiled in sympathy, while Joyce turned her burning face away.

It seemed that there was no getting away from the story of her husband's shame. But for her having left him, this would never have been!

* * * * *

When the train drew up at the platform of the station in Darjeeling, she pulled herself together and stepped bravely out of her compartment, head erect, and manner perfectly composed. The need to have herself well in hand, gave her strength of mind for the occasion, so that none of her old friends—were she to come unexpectedly upon any—should think her crushed and miserable; a poor, humiliated wife! No! the world should see a laughing face.

As the roads of the Station were very familiar to her, she climbed the path leading to the Cosmopolitan Hotel, at which her husband was staying. It rose by easy stages to a higher level and passed by red-brick villas built on the English plan, with pent roofs and homely chimney-pots. In parts the road was clear, in others, heavily shaded by tall firs, through the branches of which could be seen the Snowy Range bathed in the soft afterglow of a lurid sunset. Preceding her was a Lepcha boy from Sikkim, carrying her trunk mountaineer fashion on his back, strapped to his forehead; and it was a mystery how he lifted himself as well as his burden up the short cuts, without pausing to draw breath.



CHAPTER XXV

THE MEETING

While Joyce climbed the road preceded by her Lepcha coolie, a scene of dramatic possibilities was taking place in a room of the hotel to which she was bound.

It was Mr. Meredith's sitting-room, comfortably furnished; a fire was burning cheerfully in the grate, and the actors were himself and Mrs. Dalton, who had called upon him in a crisis of her affairs.

She was eager and excited, bold, and yet somewhat baffled.

He was nervous and uncomfortable, while fidgeting with a letter in his fingers.

"He has made a rather sporting offer, don't you think?" she asked with biting sarcasm, her eyes studying his face.

"What are you going to do?"

"Surely!—that's for you to say."

"Me?" (irritably).

"Of course. You know that he and I parted long ago over incompatibility of temper, and that his offer is made only to save his precious honour. He has heard rumours! There is no love in it; instead, it is carefully ruled out. I may return to his protection whenever I like; but as his wife only in name."

"It will be better than this knock-about sort of life you have led, with an allowance wholly inadequate to your needs" (conciliatingly).

"But is there nothing else in life for a young woman of my years and temperament? What about you and me?" (tenderly).

Meredith reddened as he said resolutely, "That page will have to be turned down for good, in the fullest sense of the word."

It was a page of which he was heartily ashamed. The shame was inevitable, the affair having been, from the first, a comedy of degrees in which his heart had never been involved; begun while he was a helpless invalid dependent upon this woman for nursing and companionship. That she had started the flirtation, and had taken advantage of his loneliness and temporary weakness to bring him almost to the verge of a deep dishonour, were memories he would have given much to forget. Mrs. Dalton was a type of woman he had always held in contempt; but he had failed to identify her as such, till his normal health had reasserted itself. Latterly he had allowed himself to drift with the tide while looking for a means of escape from his intolerable position.

"Do you mean that?" she asked with whitening lips.

"I think it is the only thing to do," he replied.

"If you say that for my sake, then I might just as well be frank. You know I love you, Ray Meredith, and I believe you love me, only you have never quite let yourself go, for some hidden reason—possibly your career? It can't be consideration for that bloodless and callous creature, your wife? I refuse to believe that you have any feeling for a woman who has placed her child before her husband and is content to live apart from him when she knows that men are but human after all! Your career is safe. A man's private life is his own affair. If we throw in our lot together, we can after the divorce marry and live happily ever after, as the good little story books tell us in the nursery." She laughed tenderly. "My husband will gladly have done with me, for I can tell who it is he wants. I paid a stolen visit to his bungalow at Muktiarbad and snapshots of her live all about him in his den. Can I tolerate the position I shall occupy in his house, knowing all the while it has been flung at me like a bone to a dog? If he could marry her tomorrow he would; only she isn't the sort, I am told, who would take him unless I am dead! Now, this is frankness indeed!"

Meredith was silent.

"Can't you speak?"

"I have spoken."

"And is that all?" she cried passionately, creeping nearer, her dark eyes compelling his surrender. "Don't you know that all Darjeeling is talking of us? That, for your sake, people are treating me abominably while they smile kindly on you? I am only a woman, therefore may be crushed. My God!—and you would turn me down, like a 'page' for 'good'!"

"Perhaps I should not put it like that," he said nervously as he trifled with Captain Dalton's letter to his wife, and allowed it to fall to the floor. His cigarette case suggested comfort and was drawn forth as a diversion.

"Put it as you like, it is rather a knock-out blow for me!"

"Say, rather, that it is a mercy things have not gone too far, and that you can accept your husband's 'sporting' offer with a clear—a clear"—conscience was scarcely a suitable word. He was certain she had smothered it long ago.

"Oh, damn my husband! I want nothing to do with him since knowing you! Ray, old dear, have you ceased to love me?—I don't believe it!" She flung her arms about his neck and laid her cheek to his. In her tones was beguilement, in her eyes the lure of an evil thing. Her back was turned to the door so that she did not see that it had opened suddenly to admit someone. Both had been too preoccupied to hear the gentle knock.

Meredith looked up and saw his wife enter,—his little Joyce, whom he imagined was in England. For a moment he was petrified—the next instant he shook himself free of Mrs. Dalton's embrace, and stood apart, convicted and ashamed.

Joyce stood stock still as if paralysed, and could only murmur conventionally, "I am sorry," purely a mechanical expression of apology such as she would have made to a stranger. "No one answered my knock, so I came in."

The very air was electrical. Meredith could only utter his wife's name in blank amazement. What could he say under such damning circumstances? Mrs. Dalton laughed hysterically.

Collecting her scattered wits, Joyce explained, reaching a hand out to a cabinet for support: "I came out with the mails. There was a hint of this, only I dared not let myself believe it. It seemed impossible from my knowledge of you. But it appears I was wrong," her lip curled. Turning to Mrs. Dalton she said coldly, "Perhaps you will be good enough to leave us together?"

Standing there erect in her pride and beauty, dressed exquisitely, yet simply, she was a revelation to the woman who had sought to rob her and was now brazen enough to carry off the situation with effrontery.

"It was pretty smart of you to act the spy, stealing on us without warning! However, we are not afraid. Do your worst!"

"I am waiting for you to leave the room," said Joyce with immovable calm. Her queenlike dignity was something new to her husband, and it commanded Mrs. Dalton's unwilling respect and obedience.

Meredith walked swiftly to the door and held it open for the lady to pass out, his features rigid, his eyes bent on the carpet at his feet, nor did he raise them when she brushed past him and lightly touched his hand as it held the door-knob.

"Why didn't you cable?—or wire from Calcutta?" he asked through white lips.

Joyce looked in scornful silence at him and then said with a perceptible shrug, "I am glad I did neither."

"Things look pretty bad against me, I admit," he said bitterly. "Is it any use for me to ask you not to judge me too hastily? The situation you surprised was not of my creating."

Joyce laughed suddenly, a strained and mirthless laugh as she mentally recalled the words, "The woman gave me, and I did eat."

"Judge you hastily? Such a situation requires no explanation. It is plainly a confession of guilt, or it could not have been."

"By that do you mean you will take action?"

"Action?—do you mean, divorce you?"

"Yes."

"Perhaps you would like to marry Mrs. Dalton if her husband gives her up!" she said bitterly, hardly recognising the tones of her own voice.

"Good God!—never!" he shuddered involuntarily.

"I do not understand you."

"You would not believe me if I told you."

"I am beginning to understand more of men than I did when we parted. It seems, you could make love to this lady without being in love with her? You even humiliated me in the eyes of the world, merely for the sake of a vulgar intrigue?"

She astonished Meredith with every word she spoke. His little Joyce had suddenly become a woman, a thousand times more wonderful than he had ever known her.

"I am innocent of anything but an ordinary flirtation, of which I am heartily ashamed, believe it or not," he returned pacing the floor restlessly, his face pallid, his eyes miserable. "What are you going to do?" coming to a stop before her. It was as well that he should know the worst she contemplated.

"I don't know ... but I cannot advertise my shame to the world!" she said icily as she turned to leave the room.

"Where are you going?"

"There is my trunk. I shall need to engage a room."

"Sit down by the fire, and I will see to everything for you."

Joyce sank nervelessly into a chair and saw him leave the room, only to re-enter shortly afterwards with the news that the hotel, being full, she would have to occupy his own bedroom while he made shift with the dressing-room attached.

Joyce scarcely heeded him. So long as he was not to share her room, nothing mattered. "And what about the Planters' Ball tonight?" she asked to his profound surprise. "Are you going?"

"I was, but not now. How can you ask?" What on earth was she after?

"Why not? I would rather you kept your engagement—and—took me."

Meredith stared, wide-eyed. "You?" For the moment he thought her mind deranged. How could she contemplate taking part in a frivolous social function in the midst of their tragedy? Their lives were sundered; their happiness blasted; and she was thinking of the Planters' Ball!

Joyce was thinking of the women who were expecting to enjoy the spectacle of Ray Meredith's flirtation with Mrs. Dalton; and no doubt there were a great many others also prepared to amuse themselves at his expense, and her eyes hardened. A jealous determination to punish the woman who had spoiled the happy relations between husband and wife, possessed her, so that the idea of slighting her publicly at this grand ball was a temptation. That her husband would slight Mrs. Dalton, she had no doubt. There was no mistaking the look in his eyes. Honor Bright had said that, were he guilty of wrong-doing, self-loathing and remorse would punish him more heavily than she could conceive of! He was already ashamed, and would yet repent in the dust at his wife's feet. When that came to pass, she might see fit to relent—not now. Now her whole soul was in revolt. Her heart felt like stone in her breast. What would another woman have done in her place? She had no experience. Honor had advised her against precipitancy. She would act with infinite deliberation, surpassing anything Honor would have counselled. Honor had talked of love! For the moment she had lost her faith in love, and knew no feeling so strong as revenge. She would go to the ball, and Ray should have no eyes for any other woman but his wife. It had been so in the past, and it would be so again, or she would hate to live. People had always said that she was pretty, and she had been glad for his sake. She was more than glad now; for it put the strongest weapon for punishment into her hand.

Meanwhile, her husband was amazed that she should think of the ball, and, doubtless, feared she was mad!

"I am not insane, if that is what is on your mind. But I have to think of the future," she said coldly. The future was another point that Honor said, would have to be considered. "We shall go to this dance together to keep up appearances. For the same reason, we shall, if you have no objection, dance a great deal together. For Baby's sake the world must think that we are rejoiced to come together again after so many months apart, and it might help to make people forget the ugly things they have been saying. Do you mind?"

"Not at all. You shall do as you please, in this, as in everything else."

"I have no doubt Mrs. Dalton will find someone in the hotel to escort her?"

"She can take care of herself."

"Very well then," looking at her watch, "perhaps I had better dress, for it is rather near the dinner hour."

"And is that all you have to say to me?" he asked with quivering lips.

"What would you have me say?"

"Anything would be better than this coldness—this avoidance of all that is most vital to us both. Even if you raved and stormed, I could stand it better, for I might have a chance to explain. Things are not as bad as you think."

"They are bad enough for me!" she returned calmly, her lovely profile and the lowered sweep of her eyelashes, her straight carriage and the gentle curve of her bosom, outlined against the dark hangings of the window.

"Will you listen to me for a bit?"

"I would rather not."

"Then you condemn me outright?"

"You have condemned yourself."

"You cannot have forgotten my love for you?" he cried desperately.

She turned and lifted grave, blue eyes to his face in mute condemnation.

"You do not understand—I have been ill—I don't seem to have been myself for a long time, I—I—it seemed to me that you did not care a farthing what became of me. You left it to me to cable if I wanted you when you should have known that I was yearning for nothing so much as a sight of your face. It was pointed out to me that any woman with a spark of true love for her own man, would have let nothing stand in the way of her joining him the moment she heard of his illness. Did you?" He laughed harshly. "No! It was the old story, 'Baby,' and always, 'Baby!' God!—you never cared."

"I cared so much, that I never wanted to amuse myself with another man though I had plenty of opportunities." Yet, his passionate denunciation had gone home.

"Joyce, am I to have no chance?"

With a gesture of disgust, she dismissed the subject peremptorily, and passed out of the sitting-room, trembling with emotion from head to foot.

In the adjoining apartment, which was his bedroom, she struggled with the straps of her fibre trunk till they were taken out of her hands and the leathers unbuckled, by her husband who had followed her in. Joyce watched him with a pain at her heart as he bent over his task. A lump came into her throat too big to swallow. She felt choked with a rising hysteria which only a great effort of will controlled. He looked so handsome, so like the lover-husband she had known, that it was all she could do not to fling herself into his arms and say "Let us forget everything and remember only our love!" Her natural place was in his arms now that she had come out all that distance to be with him; instead, they had not even exchanged the most formal of greetings! He had been false to her—a crime no woman feels disposed to forgive.

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