"I had to come in here as this is the only way to my dressing-room," Meredith explained as he rose to his feet.
Joyce thanked him coldly and watched him pass through the heavy curtains which separated the two rooms and was the only apology for a door. When he was gone, she writhed in anguish. Oh, if she could have crushed her pride and called out to him to come back!
It was not so easy, however, and she hardened her heart for the task that lay before her.
While dressing, her trembling fingers almost refusing their work, she wondered how Mrs. Dalton would behave when they met again? If she would have the audacity to speak to Ray? A woman of her sort would be equal to any impertinence. Why had she not returned to her husband, who, Honor had said, was willing to take her back? At all events, Joyce was infinitely glad she was on the spot to curtail the woman's opportunities for further mischief. It was worth the risk of the journey.
When she slipped on her evening gown, a rich, black crepe de chine, she was seized with consternation when she remembered that it fastened at the back. Under no circumstance would it meet without assistance. A maid, or an ayah?—Both were equally impossible to procure at a moment's notice.
She made several futile efforts, then looked about her in dismay! What was to be done? Flushed, and in despair, she cast a glance at the curtains behind which lay her only hope. Her husband had often officiated with the hooks and eyes, and was otherwise expert as a maid. The only alternative was to forego the ball and her great reprisal; and this was unthinkable now that all her hopes were centred on revenge. Had Joyce belonged to a lower order of society, she would probably have gratified her wrath by making a scene and scratching out the woman's eyes, or tearing out her hair in handfuls. As it was, the picture of Mrs. Dalton seated as a wall-flower, openly despised and neglected by the man she had tried to seduce from his allegiance, appealed powerfully to her imagination.
Timidly she called, "Can you help me, please?"
There was no answer.
"Ray!" her voice was still more diffident, but her call met with immediate response. Ray who had not yet begun to change for dinner, was with her in an instant.
"I cannot dress without help. Will you please?" she asked frigidly.
Meredith took infinite pains, his face, as reflected in the mirror, looking haggard and pale. He had never seen his wife in black, which was an excellent foil to her fair beauty, and the sight of her rendered him tongue-tied. He had nothing to say even when she dismissed him with a "Thanks, I'll manage very well, now."
When Joyce entered the winter-garden,—the principal lounge of the hotel, with glazed roof and walls, its interior full of flowering orchids, palms, and tropical plants of varied beauty, she saw Mrs. Dalton already there, resplendent in crimson satin and jewellery, cultivating the acquaintance of new-comers to Darjeeling who had arrived by the train that day. It was a daring gown for colour and cut, and Joyce was put in mind of the description she had overheard in the train, of the lady's ball-room attire. Mrs. Dalton evidently set a high value on the generous curves of her handsome shoulders, for she displayed them with liberality.
Ray entering soon afterwards, performed a few introductions with a self-control that was remarkable, considering his shaken nerves, after which they passed into the glare of the dining-hall to the table at which he had always dined in company with men.
Joyce excelled him in her power to sustain the role she had marked out for them both. Her manner was winning and delightful, and, but for Meredith's inner knowledge, it might have misled his hopes disastrously.
"Yes," she once said with subtle meaning as she smiled at an ardent admirer who had been captivated at first sight, "I would not cable or wire, for I wanted to give my dear husband the surprise of his life. You can imagine his feelings! It is a mercy that joy seldom kills, or he might have died on the spot. And I am so glad I came, though I had to leave my wee baby with his grannie. But things might have become too difficult later, owing to the war; and I could not be parted from Ray indefinitely; could I, dear?" to her husband.
Ray smiled unsteadily.
"India is such a delightful country. Nothing will induce me to leave it in a hurry again. Do you know Muktiarbad? No? It's a little paradise though officials will call it a Penal Settlement!"
"Lucky dog, your husband!" said an admirer fatuously. "And so plucky of you to go to the ball tonight, after your long and fatiguing journey. I hope I may have a dance?"
"Certainly. You surely did not think I would deprive my husband of this pleasure when he is, I am sure, one of the best dancers in Darjeeling? I should never have been forgiven by his friends!"
"May I have the first 'Boston'?"
"That is for my husband to decide," she said archly with the familiar play of the eyelashes and dimple peeping in and out of her cheek. "He has first choice of the dances on my programme."
"We'll see about the programme when we are there," said Meredith quietly. His position was more than he could support.
"I mean to enjoy myself thoroughly tonight!" sighed Joyce.
Meredith stole a glance at his wife and noted the feverish light of excitement in her eyes, under which blue shadows of fatigue lay, and the nervous movement of her fingers as they crumbled her bread into morsels. He could see that she, too, was suffering from nerves.
"Damn the ball!" he cursed inwardly. He had no interest in it; no wish to be there.
"Are you sure you are not too tired?" he asked her, longing for a loophole for escape.
"Not in the least," she replied, over-doing her part by touching his hand lightly with her fingers. It was a graceful mark of confidence and affection which won the indulgence of all the men at that table; but to Meredith it was deliberate cruelty. Her touch was an electric shock, and his heart stood still for a moment while the room swam before his eyes. He made no reply, but having finished dinner, rose abruptly, without waiting for the initiative to come from her. Across the room was the woman who had often hung upon his breast with her cheap caresses and offers of love which he had been too weak to spurn altogether. Already the sight of her flaunting charms nauseated him.
* * * * *
A 'rickshaw carried Joyce to the Club while her husband accompanied her on foot. When he tried to engage her in conversation, he had to learn that her bright speeches were only for others. When they were alone, she was dumb. It was clear that he had sinned in her eyes past all hope of forgiveness.
At the ball, Meredith went through his part as in a dream. He smiled to order, made many introductions, and danced with his wife, and no other. Obedient to her example, he made idle conversation while they danced together, though his heart was on fire with longing; and when he was not dancing with her, he could but watch her from the doorways, remembering the existence of friends only when they accosted him; appearing hopelessly absent and inconsequent the while.
It seemed to him that his life was broken and ended.
"You're a dark horse, you blighter," he was chaffed. "Keeping it up your sleeve all this time that your wife was on her way out!"
"Introduce me, old son," said the aide-de-camp to the Governor. "Mrs. Meredith dances divinely."
"Let me congratulate you, Meredith," said the Governor, in his friendliest manner. "Your wife is the most charming little woman I have met for some time. I have quite lost my heart to her!" He patted Ray's shoulder to impress the fact on "this foolish fellow" who had scarcely "played the game" in his lovely little lady's absence. "It was a damned shame!"
Joyce was unquestionably the "belle of the ball"; there were no two opinions about that. Few remembered that she had been at Darjeeling the previous season, since she had kept to her hotel as a semi-invalid with a very young child; so that she had the additional advantage of being fresh. India loves new sensations and is grateful to those who supply them, gratis.
Men surrounded her and paid her marked attentions, fought with each other, good-naturedly, for portions of dances, and served her as a princess at the suppers. Yet, in spite of her bewildering success, she never forgot the object that had taken her there, and was more than repaid. Her manner to her husband was faultless, and it kept him regardful of her slightest wish. Her mission was to charm all, her husband in particular, so that Mrs. Dalton's humiliation should be complete; and before midnight, victory was achieved. Mrs. Dalton ordered her 'rickshaw at the stroke of twelve, and retired from the ball, her almost empty programme in pieces on the floor. She had been overlooked by men, cut by women, and obliged to look on, with a raging heart, at Mrs. Meredith's triumph. Ray Meredith, with the rudeness of utter contempt, had left her absolutely alone. The cruelty of his behaviour had been insupportable. When, on one occasion, she had seized the chance of a word with him, he was deaf to her exhortations, and she was shaken off with a contemptuous disregard for her feelings.
When she left the building, it was to suffer the tortures of a woman scorned. She was learning to swallow that bitterest of all pills, the knowledge that she was utterly despised by the man for whom she had been willing to lower her womanhood in the dust.
She had come to the realisation of the fact that the woman who lowers herself in the eyes of men, will inevitably find herself shamed and scorned.
* * * * *
When she arrived at the hotel, she brooded far into the night over her bedroom fire, reviewing bitterly her moral decline from the day of her first great mistake. Feeling unable to face the people who had known her in the Station, she departed the next morning for Muktiarbad, leaving her infantile charge and its ayah to the tender mercies of the Sanitarium.
The mela week was a great event at Muktiarbad, for the Europeans as well as the natives of the District, as it gave the officials a holiday, brought people together, and encouraged healthy competition in arts, crafts, and various industries of the country. Prizes were offered for the best exhibits, and local shopkeepers took advantage of the opportunity to advance their own interests by placing on the market, articles of use and ornament from all parts of India. Eager crowds, garbed in all the hues of the rainbow created a kaleidoscope of colour as they jostled one another among the booths, bent on bargaining or on sight-seeing. Merry-go-rounds, puppet shows, monkey-dances, juggling, and cocoanut shies, entertained adults as well as children, while the noise and confusion of tongues was Bedlam.
[Footnote 19: Fair.]
The fair was usually held at the crossroads where a large irregular patch of green afforded ample space for the pens, stalls, booths, and side-shows that contributed towards the joys of the occasion; and to it came people from miles around, and even from distant parts of the District.
Just when this annual fete was at its height, Mrs. Dalton arrived at Muktiarbad to take up her abode under her husband's roof, thus providing enough of a sensation among his neighbours to last beyond the regulation nine days for wonderment.
That the Civil Surgeon should prove a married man was not so outrageous as his having neglected to admit, while she was among them, that Nurse Dalton was his wife, instead of misleading them tacitly into thinking that the name was a coincidence. It was unpardonable! And now, to add insult to injury, after she had made herself conspicuous in Darjeeling by flirting openly with her late patient, the Station of Muktiarbad was expected to forget and forgive, and take the black sheep to its bosom. Unheard of audacity!
How far Ray Meredith was to blame for the gossip concerning himself and the lady, was immaterial, since his wife was reported happy and content,—besides, he was a man, and women are notoriously hard upon women; as was proved when the ladies of the Station were ready to throw stones at the erring one the instant it was known that the doctor took every chance to keep out of his wife's way, and was seldom found at home. Why the two had come together again when there was no love lost between them, was a mystery to all and a challenge to their sense of propriety.
When Mrs. Dalton, as in duty bound, called on everybody, she was received without cordiality by her sex, who met immediately afterwards to consult what response to her overtures was demanded by common civility. Some proposed the snub direct, by ignoring her altogether; others were for dropping cards into her "Not-at-home box" at the gate when it was ascertained that it was up; while Mrs. Bright decided to return her call and let civilities end there.
Tommy listened with indifference to the female cackle at the Club till Honor's name was introduced, and then he could no longer hold his peace. "What about Honor Bright?" someone had asked meaningly.
"What about her?" said Tommy, his eyes following the girl's lithe movements on the tennis court.
"It was popularly supposed that she was engaged to Captain Dalton, and yet she knew all along that he was a married man!"
"Has any one in this company got anything to say that is detrimental to Miss Bright?" he asked with eyes flashing.
Thus challenged, the speaker collapsed into silence.
"Honor is one of the very best," said Mrs. Ironsides vehemently. "Let there be no mistake about that!" This was the last word on the subject, and Tommy retired victoriously, cursing feminine tongues that would never mind their own business. His relief when he discovered that Captain Dalton was no longer in competition with himself for Honor's hand, was great, till he realised, later that his own chances were nil.
The Government of Bengal having at last yielded to his importunities to be allowed to join the Indian Army Reserve, he was waiting, like Dalton, for orders, brimful of martial ardour while he packed and sorted his kit. Jack's belongings were to be sent on to him; while his own, salvaged from the wreck of patriotic-dinner parties at which his bachelor friends had drunk to the confusion of the enemy till they were themselves confused, were to be sold to his successor and to friends in the District. Mr. Ironsides had bespoken his gun, a local Rajah his ponies; and his dogs were to be distributed among friends. There remained personal treasures, chief among them being a gold napkin ring,—a christening present twenty-two years ago,—which was to be given to Honor as a keepsake. Should he fall in battle, it would serve to remind her tenderly of his unfaltering love. Thoughts of wooing and marriage were out of place and of secondary importance beside the needs of the Great War, into which he was going heart and soul.
Poor old Jack! Tommy could pity him despite the fact that he was married to the girl of his heart. How it was possible for any fellow to "sit tight in his job" while all his pals were in the thick of the fight, was inconceivable. But Jack put the blame on the Government and settled down to enjoy his Elysium. It was clear that Mrs. Darling was going to have it all her own way in the future to Jack's supreme delight. According to her, "There was a place for every man, and every man should be kept in it." It was, further, a husband's duty to "obey his wife." As for the war!—he must remember that "They also serve who stand and wait,"—or, as she put it—"administer justice in the land in which it has pleased the Almighty to place them." The "Almighty," in this case, being the Government of India.
These sentiments quoted in a humorous letter from the young magistrate, brought forth an appreciative reply and a wedding present which made a gap in Tommy's small savings, for he was infinitely relieved at his friend's escape from the clutches of a certain lady. It was a satisfaction to know that at last Jack would be in agreement with Solomon on the subject of a wife.
Honor Bright first met Mrs. Dalton at the mela, not having been at home when that lady had called. She was making a tour of the exhibits with friends from Hazrigunge when she was joined by the Meeks who were charitably piloting the lonely new-comer about the grounds. Mr. Meek, glad of an amiable listener, was discoursing on the merits of his live-stock which had won prizes, and was pointing them out in their pens. Husband and wife, in their isolation at the Mission, heard little or nothing of Station gossip, and to them Mrs. Dalton appeared very superior to her unfriendly husband whom they had never liked. Small wonder that his wife had been unable to agree with such a domineering nature!
Honor thought her greatly altered and believed she could divine the cause. Since happiness has its source from within, it was not surprising that Mrs. Dalton had failed to find it in the life she had led. Her eyes had a wistful appeal; her manner was deprecating. The old confidence and daring were gone, never to return. Something had happened to bring disillusionment, and the lesson had sunk deeper.
"I saw so little of you when I was last here," she said to Honor after shaking hands. "You went directly to the hills, you remember? I do hope we shall be friends?"
"You are very kind," said Honor with embarrassment, as she had no inclination for friendship with Brian Dalton's wife.
"We have so many tastes in common, I believe, and might do things together. In a quiet station like this, it is the only way to kill time."
"I am very busy now-a-days," said Honor whose time was always too well occupied to admit of practising such an accomplishment. "There are ambulance classes at the Railway Institute; the work-society for knitting comforts for the soldiers and sailors; the bazaar at Hazrigunge for the Belgian Relief Fund, and other duties, so that I have quite a lot to do."
"I wish that I, too, might help!"
"The secretary would be glad, I am sure. She is Mrs. Ironsides. I should advise you to apply to her." With a smile and bow, Honor passed on, followed by Mrs. Dalton's gloomy gaze.
"Honor Bright is a very dear friend of mine," said Mrs. Meek, kindly. "Don't you think she is a very refreshing specimen of girlhood? My husband thinks she is very good-looking, but I say she is good to look at. A distinction without a difference, you will say? but not so; the difference lies in expression, which makes the matter of features immaterial. Honor has such a frank and truthful face, and a nature of the very kindest."
"I am just wondering why it is she is not married?"
"She will marry the right man when he comes along. So far I have not seen one good enough."
"It is rather wonderful how everyone loves her! Most people have enemies and detractors, but Miss Bright seems a universal favourite."
"It is not really surprising. She is universally respected and beloved. Even the natives look up to her."
"'Respected!'" echoed Mrs. Dalton to herself bitterly. The lack of self-respect had always been the rock on which her life had been shipwrecked. She had failed to mark it on her chart, and was now a derelict. A jealous pang went through her and she remarked with a tinge of spite, "In fact, Miss Bright is so good that, like the Pharisee of old, she thanks God she is not as other women are!"
"You do her injustice. I know no one more charitable," said Mrs. Meek warmly.
"I apologise," said Mrs. Dalton with a sudden revulsion of feeling. "Believe me, I have reason to know that, for she tried to do me a good turn, I don't know why,—considering the circumstances,—but I must find an opportunity for thanking her." Yet Mrs. Meek saw only discontent and unhappiness in her companion's face, and wondered.
Meanwhile, Honor passed beyond their range of vision and was making household purchases for her mother: jharunse made at Cawnpur, lace at the Mission, a pair of garden shears, and trifles that appealed to her as useful for the Hazrigunge bazaar.
[Footnote 20: Dish-cloths.]
While selecting a rush basket for flowers at a stall for the sale of wicker-work made by low-caste Hindus at Panipara, she overheard a conversation in the vernacular between one of the workers and an outsider of evil appearance. Their words were often unintelligible being drowned in the noises prevailing around her, but the drift of their talk held Honor rigid and attentive, with every faculty alert, and fear at her heart. Feeling secure in the midst of so much distraction, they spoke unreservedly.
"These reeds of Panipara are unsurpassed," said the outsider viciously. "Where will you get others for your trade, now that the jhil, is being drained? Look you, it is the work of Dalton Sahib, this butcher of human flesh!"
"Alack! my trade is ruined. I shall have to move on and seek a living elsewhere, or die of want!"
"Thus you are turned from the village of your forefathers where you have worked,—and they before you,—at basket-plaiting and mat-making. What does he deserve for his wanton act?"
"May he die, and jackals eat his flesh!"
"That is a just saying, my brother! Even I have suffered—" for a few minutes Honor heard nothing but the loud laughter of some Bengali students who were passing. "My only child it was," the voice proceeded agitatedly; "he was rendered unconscious, and while lying helpless on a table at the hospital, and I his father crying in the yard below, this ruthless one cut open his bowels and removed a part of the intestines! Can anyone live without that which is necessary to life. In agony my son died, calling aloud to his mother and father,—and we, powerless to save him! Ai Khodar! Listening my liver dried up and my heart hardened as a stone, while I took vows on his dead body to find a way to punish this murderer. No matter how long I have to wait, I shall—" again his words were lost.
"But brother, this is idle talk! will you risk——?"
"Care must be taken to find one suited to the job; he must have experience and courage, and"—he glanced suspiciously at Honor and dropped his voice, fearing that she might be one of those Memsahibs, who understood Bengali. So many did not.
"There is one man at Panipara—of daring inconceivable. Three months he served in gaol for—he fears neither the law nor——"
"Ss-s-h! I will see him. Tell me where—?" Their heads drew closer as their voices were lowered to continue their plotting.
Honor could hear no more. She had drawn too near and their suspicions were aroused, so that whatever else they had to say was lost in mumbling.
Her heart hammered and her pulses throbbed with fear. What were these men thinking of doing in their revenge? Was the doctor's life in actual danger?
Her friends, at another stall where brasses and wood-carving were displayed, were signalling for her to join them. She looked around for help, but not a policeman was in sight. Even then, she could have done nothing, for the evil-looking Indian had slipped away and was lost in the crowds. She had no positive evidence to offer that would satisfy the law. The basket-weaver, looking innocent and bland, sat on his haunches shouting out to the public to inspect his goods.
Honor, therefore, controlled her excitement, and decided to warn Captain Dalton again on his return to the Station, and consult her father on the subject. With an anxious heart, she joined her friends who were looking on at a monkey dance.
"Bibi Johorun," the female monkey, dressed in skirt and shawl, and cap on her head adorned with a red feather, hopped to the measure of the little drum the man rattled rhythmically with a turn of his wrist; while her husband, the male, in coat and brass buttons, sat on a toy stool awaiting his turn to be called up for the War. Presently the pair would embrace in farewell, he would shoulder his mimic gun to the delight of the spectators, and proceed to march to battle to the time of the drum. Honor knew the routine perfectly. Meanwhile his expression of sleepy indifference under the rakish khaki cap as he blinked and chewed the nuts offered by the public, was human in its comprehension. When the crowd grew pressing, Honor left with her party, hearing for some distance the man's monotonous sing-song voice urging Johorun to dance for her reward, failing which there would be a certainty of chastisement.
"Natcho-jee, Johorun, natcho-jee! Paisa mile ga. Paisa, na courie, thuphur mile, ga!"
That evening, at the Club, Mrs. Dalton drew Honor apart from the rest of the company and they paced the grass together while it grew dusk. She was evidently much agitated, and after making some clumsy attempts to lead up to the subject, she suddenly broke out with the question.
"Tell me why you told my husband to take me back?"
As Honor was not ready with her reply, she continued,
"He told me in his specially cruel fashion, that I owed the concession to you, for I had charged him with being in love with you."
Honor drew back shocked at her bad taste. "That is hardly the thing for you, his wife, to tell me!"
"I don't say it from any evil motive!—oh, I wish you to believe that I am past all that—I have no longer any use for malice, and hatred—even jealousy! I only want to understand you. I am a woman, too; if I cared about a man who loved me as he loves you, I should want to kill the woman who stood in my way! There is something eternally primitive about love in its relation to the sexes!"
"There is love—and love. Perhaps you don't know—apart from everything—that Joyce Meredith is my dear friend? She has a right to be happy in her married life."
"I see. So you sacrificed yourself and ordered him to come to the rescue! He would do anything in the world for you."
"He and I can never be anything to each other," said Honor firmly.
"I am beginning to feel truly sorry for my husband. Perhaps you don't believe it? But, since he despises me so absolutely, it seems a shame that he should be tied to me for life! He should have given me my liberty long ago. You know why we parted?"
"Yes, I know."
"He might then have married you——"
"Please do not speak to me in this way or I must refuse to walk with you," said Honor indignantly.
"Oh, no, don't!—please don't go before you hear what I have to say!" Mrs. Dalton cried earnestly. "I have no tact, and always say the wrong thing. The fact is, I am a most miserable woman, feeling every day the consequences of my first mistake. If you knew what a bankrupt I am in love and all that goes towards making life worth living, you would have the heart to feel a little pity for me!"
"I do pity you," said Honor, relenting.
"If he would only forgive me! But he is so hard. He spurns my every effort to humble myself. He has no faith in me. I killed it! But if he would only give me a chance, I would be a better woman, I swear it! A kind word and look—oh, what wouldn't I do to atone! Miss Bright, you can help me!"
"Yes. You! Natures like yours are great." Mrs. Dalton's voice broke with a sob and she wrung her hands in genuine emotion. "You may not credit me with sincerity, but I am not wholly bad. Brian is my husband—whenever I look at him I realise all that I have lost forever—unless, a miracle happens and he forgives me! If he could do that, I would be his slave. I would be at his feet! What a life is mine! The emptiness of it!—the futility of it! Who cares for women like myself? Women at a loose end who have spoilt their lives, and are trying to patch up some kind of forbidden happiness for themselves? It is just a form of gambling; wild excitement while it lasts. But it never lasts long! Think what I feel tonight! Here am I, a married woman among so many—with a fine husband,—he is that!—hard and cold, yet such a man!—and I might have been so happy. I might have had children!" Mrs. Dalton broke down into violent sobbing and Honor guided her to a bench that she might weep unrestrainedly and so find relief.
It was a strange position for herself, who a moment ago was filled with repulsion, to find that she could fold the unhappy woman in her arms and attempt to console her with words.
"I quite understand. Believe me, I do understand. It has been like losing the substance for the shadow."
"Just that. Oh, why couldn't I have looked ahead and seen this day! But I was mad and blind. Women must be insane when they commit these irrevocable acts! It is only men who can retrieve such mistakes—women, never!"
"It is unfair to us," said Honor for her sex.
"It is damned unfair!" said Mrs. Dalton fiercely. "Why can't he forgive me and let me have another chance? God forgives; why not man?"
"Perhaps he might—some day."
"Do you say that? Oh, Miss Bright!—now I know why everyone loves you." She seized Honor's hand and kissed it passionately. "Will you plead for me? This is what I want of you. Will you do it? He would listen to you if he listened to no one else in the world. I am truly heart-broken, and done with folly and conscious wrong-doing. Jesus Christ said, 'Thy sins are forgiven thee, go and sin no more.'"
"I will do my best for you," said Honor quietly.
"God bless you—oh, God bless you and reward you! Brian is away for a few days. I will let you know when he returns, and you can come to the bungalow. Will you promise?"
"I promise," said Honor bravely. "But he is giving his services to the war. He will be leaving shortly for the front?"
"I know it. And I shall follow him wherever he goes, like a dog, just to be near and serve him. It is the least I can do. They want nurses at the front."
They talked for a while longer and when they parted at the gate of the Club, it was understood that Honor would accept an invitation to tea at the Daltons' bungalow as soon as the doctor was back.
A DIFFICULT TASK
The sun had long set and a grey dusk had fallen when Dalton, weary and despondent, returned to the Station after a dull round of inspection during which he had occupied comfortless dak bungalows. Lights were appearing in many windows and were to be seen streaming from the reception rooms of the Club, where guests for the gala week were being entertained. As he passed, he could hear the click of the billiard balls and the sound of merry laughter. Somewhere in those lighted rooms was Honor Bright, perhaps, shedding the sunshine of her presence on her friends! His eyes strained wistfully to catch a glimpse of the beloved form, but in vain, for the Duranta hedge effectually obscured the view.
Three days had passed since he had fled incontinently from the impossible conditions of his home, only to find himself compelled, when no further excuses for his absence were to be found, to return to it bitterly disgusted with life and feverishly impatient to escape altogether from an intolerable presence. One hope alone remained to him, and that was, that the Government would accept his offer for service at the front.
Although in his relations towards his wife he was almost a stranger, he had paid her the compliment of letting her know the date and hour of his return; not from any impulse towards friendliness, but from an instinctive pride of race, which made it impossible for him to slight a white woman in the eyes of the natives. However far apart their lives were sundered, his servants, at least, would have to respect her as the Memsahib and the mistress of his house; any other position for her—a British lady in India—was unthinkable.
And Mrs. Dalton was under no delusion respecting his object. The formal note had no special meaning for her.
There was a light in the drawing-room, Dalton noticed, as he drove up to the steps; and as he descended from his car, a servant, salaaming, informed him that the Memsahib was entertaining a lady visitor. Receiving no encouragement to become communicative, he said no more, but hurriedly assisted other domestics to minister to his master's comforts. The Sahib had no interest in the Memsahib's doings, it was plain to all; and it was greatly to be deplored that he should have saddled himself with her presence in his bungalow where he had so long enjoyed freedom and solitude.
In his private apartments, all was ready for Dalton's reception; refreshments were produced like magic; the lowered lights raised; and he was able to rest and recover at his leisure from the fatigues of the day. Seated at his desk in his comfortable study, he smoked and read the letters that had accumulated in his absence while his mind subconsciously dwelt on thoughts of Honor.
Where was she? What was she doing? How was she enduring their miserable separation? Was it preying upon her as on him?
Would he ever have the chance to hold her in his arms again and read the truth in her dear eyes? Or must he go to his grave with this ache of unfulfilled longing forever denied to him?
The thought was insupportable. Every fibre of his being craved for her with a desire so intense and compelling, that he was incapable of concentrating his mind on any subject.
While brooding in the deepest melancholy, a sound at his verandah door arrested his attention. It was distinctly the frou-frou of a woman's skirts. Could it be possible that his wife was seeking to force an interview with him?
There came a light knock on the shutters of the open door which was screened with a cretonne curtain.
"Come in," he said impatiently, resenting the disturbance, and the curtain was raised to admit the diffident intruder.
It was Honor, looking very white, yet as always, brave and sweet.
"Honey!" he started to his feet deeply moved. The harshness vanished from his face which was now alight with wonderment and love. Dressed in a muslin frock and straw hat, she looked simple and fresh, and yet carried the air and distinction which had always marked her in any company. But though she smiled into his eyes there was something in her expression that forbade him to hope for any crumbs of comfort from her visit.
"Good evening," she said trying to speak in ordinary tones while the wild beating of her heart made her momentarily faint. "I came, as I wanted so much to tell you something."
He gave her his seat and leaned against the table looking down at her. "I think I know why you have come. Not on your own account,—that would be impossible to you,—but it is on some dear, quixotic errand for another. You have come straight from—Mrs. Dalton." He could not bring himself to say, "my wife."
Honor bent her head, looking distressed. Her mission was becoming more difficult than she had anticipated.
"Honey," he said reproachfully, "don't you think I have done enough?"
"There is a little more you could do," she returned, lifting pleading eyes to his face.
"For her? Do you think she deserves the half of the consideration she has received? Other women who have sinned against the law and every code of honour have been regarded as outcasts from society. Honest women bar their doors to such as she. I cannot bear to see you with her!—a girl like you cannot understand—I cannot explain"—he broke off with a gesture of impatience and helplessness.
"I understand quite well," said Honor lifting her head courageously. "I feel that life is terribly unjust. There are men who are even worse than she, and yet their sins are covered, and society allows them to marry pure, honest girls! Is that right or just?"
It was Dalton's turn to lower his gaze.
Honor continued speaking. She did not allow her maidenly reserve to stand in the way of her frank denouncement of the injustice of human and social laws. Very quietly and logically she stated the case while Dalton with arms folded on his breast, listened, ashamed for himself and his sex. Before she had finished, he came and knelt beside her chair, and, gripping the arms of it with shaking hands, humbled himself to the dust.
"We are all a cursed lot of Pharisees!" he cried. "Don't turn away from me with disgust! Pity me and love me still though I am unfit to kiss the hem of your skirt." Nevertheless, he bent and pressed his lips to the border of her gown.
"Ah, don't!" she cried, the tears flooding her eyes. "You and I cannot think of love any more! It must be friendship or nothing. Today I have realised as I never did before, that there are higher duties for some of us, to which we must give the first place, even at the sacrifice of love."
"Honey, you don't know what you are saying!" he cried passionately. "Dearest, you cannot forbid me to love you! It is an unalterable fact. I cannot change it, even at your bidding."
"I know—it is quite true of love, for it is a sacred thing and belongs to the heart. But it can be locked away—put out of sight—buried," she returned, her voice breaking. "The higher duty is—the saving of a soul. Dare we withhold our forgiveness from a repentant sinner? Your wife is truly a very miserable woman. She is on her knees to you. Can you afford to refuse her?—or will you rather say, 'Go and sin no more'? Which of us is without sin? If you repulse her now, it might lead to her ruin, body and soul?"
"You are asking more of me than I can do. I can never again look upon her as a wife. Feeling as I do, it would be a violation of the best instincts of my nature."
"I am not asking that of you."
"What, then, is it I must do? for you know that I would give all I possess to please you."
Honor's tears fell fast, unheeded. "Only be kind to her. Let her feel that she has something to live for. At present she has nothing."
"I tell you, she is false. She has played upon your sympathies and led you to believe in her."
"I believe in her only because it is impossible to doubt her wretchedness, or her repentance."
"She lied to you!"
"She told me the truth concerning herself. She did not spare herself. Hers is, indeed, a 'broken and a contrite heart' which even God does not despise," said Honor reverently.
"You wish me to be kind to her?—Tell me how, when we live under the same roof and I can never regard her as my wife?"
His eyes gazed upon the girl's face with wistful yearning. She was his soul's mate,—she of the pure eyes and tender mouth! He could be kind to her all the days of his life. He could love and cherish her, in sickness and in health. Would to God she could belong to him!
But she was talking of his duty to another whom he despised!
Honor pleaded long with all her gentle tact, that he would try to practice tolerance and kindness. The future would take care of itself.
"Kindness from you is all she craves, and a chance to prove her sincerity."
"In what way can I be kind?" he repeated.
"By being thoughtful of her needs, considerate, and forbearing. Speak gently, and do not grudge her your smiles when there is need to show appreciation."
"And if I bring myself to do all these things, do you believe she will be content? Oh, Honey!—what a burden you are laying on my shoulders! Do you know that I find it difficult to be even decently polite to her? That is why I keep out of her way. And what is my reward to be?"
"If we do our duty day by day, it is enough. We should not look for reward, yet, I am confident we shall receive it, never fear! It works out right in the end."
"When I am dead?"—bitterly. "There is only one thing I want. Given that, I would ask nothing more of life!"
He rose and stood aside to set her free, for Honor indicated that her visit was at an end.
"Good-bye, and God bless you, Brian," she said with trembling lips, giving him both her hands.
Dalton made no reply, but stooping, kissed them tenderly; for the moment he was incapable of speech. Then going to the door he held the curtain aside to allow her to pass out.
Honor found her way home, shaken with emotion. She had won her point, but Mrs. Dalton would have to discover for herself the result of the interview which she had contrived to bring about; and if it helped her to begin afresh, the pain it had cost would not have been in vain.
So deeply engrossed had she been in the purpose of her visit, that she had forgotten to repeat to Captain Dalton the conversation she had overheard at the mela. Her father had scoffed at it, and Tommy had treated it with indifference, explaining that all pioneers of progress in India had to put up with opposition, threats, and bluff. The natives of Bengal were too cowardly to risk their necks—didn't she remember her Macaulay? After all, there was really nothing tangible to worry about.
Nevertheless, the matter so preyed upon her mind, that she wrote a note after dinner to Mrs. Dalton, telling her all about it, and asking her to persuade her husband to be always on his guard against sudden surprises, as she believed men were plotting against his life. It would give the poor woman an opportunity to begin friendly relations with her husband, and possibly help to bring about a better understanding between them.
The note was entrusted to an orderly, who dropped it in the pocket of his tunic and postponed the delivery of it to a more convenient season, his friends from the bazaar having gathered at the door of his basha, behind the bungalow, for a smoke, and to gossip about their exploits at the mela.
[Footnote 21: Dwelling.]
It was not till they had gone, that he was recalled to a sense of duty with regard to the note, and the hour was then late. However, it was as much as his place was worth for him to leave the delivery of it till the morning; so, making his way across to the Civil Surgeon's bungalow, he aroused Mrs. Dalton's ayah, who, in her turn, roused her mistress, and handed her the communication from Honor.
Thus does Fate control the destinies of individuals; for, had the orderly done his duty earlier, there might have been a very different ending to this story.
Meanwhile, a letter by the last post from Joyce in Darjeeling, engaged Honor till close upon midnight. It had given her much to think about, and called for a reply of congratulations, as it was written at a time of intense joy and thanksgiving over the restoration of happy relations with her husband:
Joyce had written at great length, beginning her letter with a description of her journey and the miserable thoughts that had occupied her all the way. After giving a brief outline of the circumstances connected with her arrival at her husband's rooms, she continued:
"You can imagine the shock it was to find her there and so very much at home! I could have killed her! But I did nothing melodramatic, believe me. I was too stunned. Instead, I boiled with the desire for a reprisal. Since I could not fight her like a savage, being, of course, a highly civilised person, I fought her with the only weapons at my command. I went to the Planters' Ball, tired though I was, and made an amazing hit. Did you ever imagine that I was an actress, born? If you had seen me dance and smile while my heart was breaking, you would have had to revise all previous impressions of little Me.
"Ray looked completely dazed at first, and could hardly believe his eyes. I obliged him to keep up appearances, so that we danced a great deal together, and he had my sweetest smiles, though he knew all the while that my heart was turned to stone. I was an angel to him before others, but alone with him I was adamant. And Mrs. Dalton had the lesson of her life. I saw to it that Ray dropped her entirely, and as people are like sheep, there was no one brave enough to have anything to do with her. Her humiliation was complete. Before half the night was over, she left, looking mad with everybody. Even those who had been in the habit of speaking to her, gave her a wide berth, so you can imagine how comforted I felt!—though I am inclined, now, to be a weeny bit sorry for her. It must have been an appalling experience, and only a woman can appreciate what it must have felt like. However, it will do her good to realise how much it is all worth in the end! It seems like becoming all of a sudden bankrupt of friends and love, and of all that makes life so dear and good. I am surprised that Captain Dalton has cared to take her back, but I suppose it is to save her from worse. If that is so, he can't be so bad after all!
"I am rather ashamed of the part I played at the ball, for I took a wicked pleasure in Ray's misery. He looked so white and ill all the time, and whenever we danced I could see how he was just aching to kiss me as he used to do. His eyes gave him away all the time! But he never dared, even when we sat out in sheltered nooks, for I was a cruel devil, and 'rubbed it in' every time I got the chance. But, darling, consider how sore I felt—and how angry!
"So I flirted mildly all the evening just to show that two could play the same game! Of course, in cold blood, I simply hated myself for behaving so despicably. I did not know I had it in me, but one never knows oneself till things happen to rouse one thoroughly. In the end I had a splitting headache and felt on the verge of hysteria. It was all I could do not to break down while Ray was unhooking my frock at the back. It was the only ball-gown in my trunk, the other not having arrived—the sort of thing that leaves one at the mercy of some charitable person. That was Ray! Though we were quarrelling desperately, he hooked and unhooked me without a word of protest, and oh, the misery of his dear, handsome face in the mirror! I could have hugged it to my breast and cried upon the squiggly little curls that never lie flat. Oh, I do love him so! But I was too proud to relent so soon, and tried to keep up my rage, which all the while was cooling fast.
"When Ray left me, after the little business of the hooks and eyes, he retired to his dressing-room, where I supposed he had caused a bed to be made up for himself on the floor. The hotel was so packed, there was no help for it. Well, how was it possible for me to sleep when I thought of his lying on the draughty floor, and myself in possession of his comfortable bed? I tossed and turned and wondered about him, seeing all the while his unhappy face in the mirror. I remembered about your saying how a man punishes himself by remorse far more than others can punish him, and I knew that my poor boy was suffering terribly. That made me think of tragedies with razors and things, till I could not lie down another minute, but had to get out of bed to peep and see that he was safe. Very softly I tip-toed to the curtain which hangs between the rooms, and put my eyes to the edge.
"Do you know, Honey darling, the poor fellow had no bed at all! His servant had not been given any order, and my dear, precious husband was sitting in the cold, before a dead fire, looking the picture of desolation and grief. It made me cry like anything to see his head bowed upon his arms, his whole attitude so dejected! and by the heaving of his shoulders, I knew he was crying. Think of it!—crying because of what he had done! and for my cruelty and unforgivingness! It is dreadful to see a strong man all broken up and humiliated for the sake of his wife. Oh, Honey! I could bear it no longer, and fairly ran to him.
"Of course you can imagine the rest. It is too sacred to relate, and I thrill all over at the memory of it. How we clung together—mingling our tears! Oh, what a blessed thing is love!
"There is no more to tell, except that we are enjoying a second honeymoon, far more wonderful than the first. And you may be quite, quite sure that I shall never leave my beloved husband again, unless I am forced. He and I shall go home every three years to Baby who is well cared for by his grannie. Of course I miss him dreadfully!—but then, there's Ray!—a big baby in his way, and one can't cut one's self in two, can one? so, all things considered, I feel I must just hold on out here for his sake till we can go home together. It is wonderful how different India now seems to me! I verily believe I hated it before, because I was blind or asleep. Love makes Paradise of any place!
"I have told Ray all about that time in the ruins, and we both agree that I was a little silly to let my dread of his view of it keep me silent. My folly nearly spoiled both our lives. I should have trusted my husband more. Anyhow, I am wiser now."
Honor sat long over this very human document, moved to laughter and tears. So Joyce had pardoned her sinner and had come into her reward! Another sinner, far more culpable would also find happiness through forgiveness, and her husband come into his reward, some day! It was Life, with its eternal give and take, and its exchange which was seldom just. Yet, in proportion to the kindness and generosity with which Brian Dalton treated his contrite wife, would be her gratitude and devotion; and time would bring healing and forgetfulness of wrongs.
But some there were who gave always, expecting nothing in return, and they, too, won happiness with the years—virtue being its own reward!
For the first time Honor was conscious of a great bitterness of spirit as she sought oblivion in sleep.
She had just turned down the wick of her bedroom lamp—for it was customary in those parts to sleep with a light burning low all night in a bedchamber because of the lurking danger from snakes—when she heard a sudden sound in the distance that rooted her to the spot. The next instant her mother who had been awakened by it, called out from the adjoining room:
"Honor, are you awake?"
"Yes. Did you hear that, Mother?"
"I was just wondering what it was. It sounded like a pistol shot."
"I thought so, too. Listen!—there are voices."
Mr. Bright, who was also disturbed, suggested in sleepy tones that his wife and daughter should go to sleep and leave other people to mind their own business. It was not part of his duty to look for trouble. It came fast enough to him in the ordinary channels. If any one had been killed, they would hear of it in due course.
"How cold-blooded!" said Mrs. Bright.
"We have quite enough of crime by day, my dear, without looking for it with a lantern at night."
But the distant voices increased in agitation, and grew confused.
Drawing the window curtain aside, Honor looked out into the night and saw unmistakable signs of alarm at Dalton's bungalow. Lights hurried to and fro and conflicting orders were shouted by one servant to another. In fact, it was very evident that something had gone seriously wrong.
"I wonder what could have happened?" said Mrs. Bright looking over her daughter's shoulder. "See, there is someone coming to tell us about it."
A single light was moving swiftly towards the hedge that divided the two gardens. Honor felt her heart paralysing as she watched the progress of the lantern; a hand seemed tightening upon her throat and her limbs grew palsied with fear. What was it they were coming so quickly to say?
An evil, dark face had risen before her imagination, and she heard again the voice speaking to the basket-maker at the mela, vowing to take the life of the surgeon who had been the cause of his only son's death. "Oh, God!—oh, God!" burst from her lips.
"Honey! Honey! What is it you fear?" Mrs. Bright cried, gripping her by the shoulders.
But Honor broke away from her mother and, with shaking fingers, flung on her out-door clothes.
"Surely you are not going out?"
"Can't you understand, Mother?" she cried in strained, unnatural tones. "They have killed him! I know they have killed him!"
"Sahib! Sahib!" called voices loudly on the verandah.
The coolies pulling at the punkha joined in a chorus of "Sahib, Sahib!"
"We are sent to call the Bara Sahib. Haste and wake him. A great calamity hath befallen."
"A murder has been committed, wake the Sahib!"
"Good God!" exclaimed Mr. Bright springing from his bed. "What are they saying? A murder? Where?"
"At Captain Dalton's bungalow. The doctor has been murdered!—how terrible! Honor always said people were plotting against his life," said Mrs. Bright, horror-stricken.
"Good God!" said Mr. Bright again as he pulled on his boots. "Tell them I will be with them in a minute. Send someone to call Tommy Deare, quickly."
In the meantime, Honor was speeding across the grass on her way to the scene of the tragedy.
When Honor's letter of warning was received by Mrs. Dalton, she was greatly disturbed in mind at the apparent gravity of its purport.
On being awakened, she had carried the letter to the table, raised the light, and read all that Honor had to say, after which she felt undecided how to act. The lateness of the hour made it certain that her husband was sound asleep after his fatiguing day, and to rouse him for the purpose of passing on a caution which he had previously disregarded, would be, she thought, both inconsiderate and tactless. Besides, no good could be gained by disturbing him, as no action could possibly be taken at the moment, even presuming that he were disposed to move in the matter. It seemed, therefore, wisest to allow the letter to stand over till the morning. Attempts had been made on his life, but Mrs. Dalton had understood that the enmity and ill feeling in the District had practically died down. Yet, here it was shown to be smouldering dangerously and an imminent menace to her husband, sleeping or waking.
Though she was not passionately fond of him, and was unlikely ever to be,—having grown weary of strenuous emotions and the disappointments of life,—she valued the legal tie that bound them together as her sheet anchor in a life of vicissitudes. The unwonted ease she enjoyed in Dalton's home made it a haven of rest after her many storms. Under the shelter of his protection, she looked forward to regaining, at least, her good name and standing, if not the place she had rightly forfeited in his esteem. She had a glimmer of hope that the future held some promise through Honor's intervention on her behalf.
Honor had done an inconceivable thing. In Mrs. Dalton's view it was incomprehensible. Her reverence for the Divine Law had caused her to renounce the man she loved, and to plead with him for the woman who had lost all moral claim to his regard or consideration. She was wonderful! and Mrs. Dalton was filled with admiration and respect.
At dinner that evening she had gleaned the first-fruits of Honor's sacrifice, for he had been less taciturn, and had even responded to his wife's efforts to engage him in ordinary conversation. Instead of sitting in silence throughout the meal, or exchanging banal remarks about the food or the weather, they had discussed the war and all that India was going to do to prove her loyalty to the Crown. He had spoken of the advance in science and surgery, bound to result from the lessons of the war; and had told her of his wishes and intentions regarding herself should he be suddenly called upon to start for Europe. The generosity and consideration shown in his arrangement for her, had touched her deeply, and she had been only too willing to express her concurrence. It was the first time she had known the sensation of a genuine and impersonal interest in an intellectual man's conversation; and she was happier than she had been for many a day. She lay down again, but sleep would not come to her eyes, and her thoughts were busy with the subject of Honor's letter. She reasoned with herself to no purpose, for the stillness of the night bred new fears and intensified the lurking danger.
What should she do? waken her husband?—or wait till the morning?
Would it not be best to watch over him silently while he slept? It might move him to gratitude when he should learn of the sacrifice of her night's rest!
The weather was warm and muggy in spite of the punkha waving in the room, pulled by the uncertain hand of a coolie half-asleep in the verandah. There was another waving in like manner, she knew, in her husband's room at the extreme end of the bungalow; and in both apartments were windows thrown wide open to the night air—as was customary in the plains—with short curtains of lawn to screen the interior from public view. Outside, the shrill chirping of crickets vibrated in the air, and the occasional croak of a bull-frog from a pond in the garden, could be heard. Otherwise, the silence of the night was oppressive and ominous.
Open windows not far from the ground offered an easy opportunity for entrance into the house of evil characters bent on mischief, and even the drowsy punkha coolie in the verandah would be none the wiser.
The thought was disquieting and banished sleep from her eyes.
Impelled almost against her inclinations by an inward force too urgent to resist, Mrs. Dalton slipped on her kimona, and with her feet in slippers, went forth to satisfy herself, personally, that all was well with her husband. He did not desire her interest; he had no wish that she should sacrifice her rest, nevertheless, a sense of undefined apprehension made it impossible for her return to her bed and sleep.
On her way to his bedchamber through the rooms that intervened, she could hear the squeak of the ungreased punkha wheel as the rope passed to and fro over it. It was proof positive that he was asleep, or he could not have tolerated the noise for a moment. Suddenly, however, it ceased, and Mrs. Dalton, comprehending the reason of its stoppage, smiled to herself, appreciating the frailty of the punkha wallah.
Arriving on the spot with the intention of stirring up the slumbering coolie, she was surprised to find that he had deserted his post after the manner of new hands unaccustomed to the task. This one, she remembered, had been engaged that very day. The rope hung idly against the wall under the wheel, and Mrs. Dalton was in momentary expectation of a curse from within as the mosquitoes settled on the sleeper.
The culprit being nowhere in sight, she applied her eye to the edge of the curtain and looked towards the bed. Her husband lay, as she expected, fast asleep, tired out thoroughly, and unconscious of externals. Suddenly, as she peered at him, she became aware of a dark form moving between her vision and the sleeper.
Paralysed with fear and incapable of uttering a sound, she saw the figure of an Indian clothed only in a narrow loin-cloth, creeping stealthily towards the bed.
Who was he? and what was he trying to do?
Mrs. Dalton was rooted to the spot and dumb with terror.
Something gleamed in his hand—a steel blade had caught the reflection of the lowered flame of a lamp hanging on the wall. The man's purpose was plain, for thieves do not usually carry knives. He was there to commit murder. Oh, God!
What was she to do?—She was powerless to move. Fear made her a coward, a helpless, nerveless creature. Like one in a horrible dream, her tongue refused to utter a warning, or her constricted throat to produce a sound.
And there was not a moment to lose as the figure was stealthily nearing the sleeper. Thoughts flashed through her brain with lightning rapidity. If the man were not stopped, somehow, and at any cost, in another moment she would see Honor's fears justified and Brian killed while asleep in his bed. How was it possible for her to witness such a deed and not raise a finger to save him?
But she was defenceless!
The man raised his right arm, and the sight of the knife fully exposed, gave the impetus needed to galvanise Mrs. Dalton's nerves into sudden and fierce activity. Without a thought for her own danger, she sprang into the room and flung herself upon the Indian, clasping him round the waist and holding him back as in a vice.
"Brian!" she shrieked in strangled tones, finding her voice at last. "Brian! Help! Murder!"
A fierce struggle ensued. The native tried to free himself in vain; her arms tightened about him as he flung himself from side to side, and did not loose their hold even when he struck at her with his knife over his shoulder, once, twice, thrice, burying the blade deep every time.
Only one idea obsessed Mrs. Dalton, and that was to hold on till the assassin could be secured. He should not escape to remain a menace to her husband's life!
Her cries aroused Dalton from his profound sleep. He had long been in the habit of placing a loaded revolver under his pillow at night for self-protection from possible attempts on his life, and instantly realising the situation, leaped out of bed, and fired point blank at the Indian's head as the knife descended once more on his poor doomed wife.
As the man dropped dead, Mrs. Dalton fell into her husband's arms, an unforgettable sight.
Dalton carried her to his bed and laid her in it, a dying woman, while the terror-stricken servants crowded into the room. He gave them his orders and they sped in various directions—one to inform the police, another to rouse Mr. Bright. Someone took the car for the assistant surgeon, while others brought in more lamps and fetched and carried all that was necessary for the work of First Aid.
With her life ebbing fast, Mrs. Dalton made a pitiful attempt to explain the reason of her presence on her husband's side of the house, afraid that he would misunderstand her motive; and he was filled with sorrow and self-reproach. "I came to see that you were safe—I only wanted to watch over you, for I had been warned that you were in danger. Miss Bright wrote—her letter is on my table, read it."
"I understand," he said with the utmost gentleness, "and I cannot find words to tell you how I honour your wonderful courage and sacrifice."
"It was the only thing to do. I could not call out—I had no voice! I was so dreadfully afraid!"
"Afraid for me!—and not for yourself!"
"I had no time to think of that."
"It was heroism! You did a thing which, in battle, would have won you the Victoria Cross!"
"Thank God I was able!" she panted.
"I do not deserve it. Will you forgive me?" he asked brokenly.
"It is I who have to ask that!"
"The past is all wiped out today, so far as I am concerned. God bless you!"
"Ah, thank you for that!—May God forgive me for the mistakes and the folly—the wrong-doing! It is too late now to retrieve them! Ah, those words, 'too late'!—on how many graves?... the words, 'too late'!... Yet—Honor would say it is never too late while there is breath in which to call on—the name of the Lord."
"God is very merciful to all sinners who repent," said Dalton. "I, too, am a sinner. I have been a Pharisee and hypocrite all my life; may I, too, be forgiven!"
"Perhaps this will be taken into the account—my atonement," she sighed feebly.
"You have done what few women in your place would have had the courage to do. I shall remember it all the days of my life with gratitude and remorse."
For a while they were silent as he did all he could to ease her suffering.
"This is death!" she whispered, searching for his face with glazing eyes. "Tell Honor—I wish her the happiness she deserves.... You will love her as you could never have loved me. It is for the best...!"
Dalton stooped low and kissed her on the forehead and as he straightened himself he saw that she was dead.
* * * * *
When Honor arrived in the verandah and heard the story of the tragedy, her heart bounded with a very human relief at the thought that a most precious life had been spared. For a moment she had room for no other thought in her mind. "Thank God, Brian is safe!" she cried to her soul.
Afterwards she could afford to dwell on the miracle of Mrs. Dalton's sacrifice. Who would have thought her capable of such an act of heroism? Truly, one never knows how much of good there is in human nature, howsoever perverted! Poor Mrs. Dalton! She had, indeed, atoned. She had given her all—her very life for the man she had wronged, and whose pride she had lowered in the dust. It was a magnificent act, the memory of which would wipe out every wrong she had done, and silence every tongue that spoke ill of her.
"Is she still living?" Honor asked one of the servants, fearfully.
"She died but a moment ago," said the bearer, "for the Sahib has retired into another room and all is silent."
Elsewhere, too, all was still. In the presence of death, voices were hushed, as the servants hung about waiting for the coming of those who had been called.
"It is a terrible sight," Honor heard one say to another; "the body of that punkha coolie lying just where he fell. Some domes must be fetched to remove him."
[Footnote 22: Low-caste Hindus.]
"The Sahib says, let no one lay a hand on him till the police arrive; such is the custom when an inquiry has to beheld."
Seeing that her presence was unnecessary, Honor passed out into the darkness and ran swiftly home.
* * * * *
It was discovered later, at the inquest, that the discharge of a punkha coolie had given Dalton's watchful enemies the opportunity they had been seeking to carry out their plan of revenge; and that the man who had been engaged to fill the vacant post was a marked character, living in the village of Panipara, who was well known to the police. Doubtless he had been heavily bribed for the perpetration of the intended crime which had so strangely miscarried. The instigators pointed to their own complicity by disappearing from the District, and the vain search for them occupied Mr. Bright and his staff for many months. As well might one look for a needle in a stack of hay, as expect to find fugitive criminals among the numerous villages of Bengal.
* * * * *
Captain Dalton left for Europe soon after his wife's funeral, his services having been placed at the disposal of the War Office, and Honor treasured in her memory his brief words spoken in farewell as he held her hands in his. "We have both a great deal to do while the War lasts. Will you follow me, and let us work together?" In the moment of parting, it was not possible to keep out of his eyes all his lips could not say, and Honor promised.
It was something more than four years later, when the Armistice was signed amid world-wide rejoicings of the Allied Nations, that a young soldier, bronzed and upright, rang the bell of a beautiful flat in Brighton, over-looking the sea. Above his breast pocket, on the left, were two ribbons, the D.S.O. and the M.C., the sight of which had won him glances of approval and soft looks of admiration, all the way along. Those bits of ribbon told wordlessly of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty; valour and endurance;—they suggested to the subconscious mind, danger, bodily discomfort, and endurance to the limit of human suffering, so that this brisk little freckled officer of very ordinary looks, was marked for all time, by those who knew, as one of the many special heroes of the most terrible war the world has ever known.
He was shown into the drawing-room, and, in a moment, a gracious lady swept in with welcome in her eyes and both hands extended.
"Oh, Tommy!—how good it is to see you safe!"
"And to see you looking so fit, Honey—dear old girl!"
"I was beginning to feel quite anxious, as you had not written for a month!"
"There was so much doing. Besides, I was reserving it all for our meeting."
They had much to talk about; he, of his vicissitudes in Mesopotamia, and she, of her husband and his work in the war-hospital in Brighton to which he was attached. Last of all, Tommy asked to see his god-son to whom he had yet to be introduced.
"He is such a perfect darling!" said Honor beaming upon her visitor happily; "the very image of Brian." Pressing a bell, she gave her orders which were promptly obeyed by a nurse who entered with the baby, a lusty boy with grey-green eyes, and lips firmly locked in a cupid's bow.
"Hullo!" said Tommy, "shake hands with 'Uncle'!"
"Say, 'How do'?" said Honor, kissing the velvet cheek.
"'Ow do!" said Baby staring at the pretty coloured ribbons on the khaki tunic.
"This is the age at which I like them best," said Tommy admiringly. "He's 'some' kid! Do you remember trying to interest me in the Meredith infant when it was a glorified dummy in long clothes?"
"Yes, and you wasted your energies trying to fix its attention when it did not know you from a mango tree!" They laughed heartily at the recollection.
"Where are the Merediths, by the way?"
"They are stationed at Darjeeling, which suits the baby very well—perhaps you don't know that there is another baby?"
"I believe Jack wrote something of the sort, some little time back."
"A baby girl this time, and getting on splendidly."
"Where is the first?—still with the grandparents?"
"Yes. I saw him not long ago—such a beautiful boy and so independent! The old people are so proud of him. Do you know that Jack and Kitty are at home?"
"No! When did they come? I did not know that women were allowed passages?"
"They managed to 'wangle' it, somehow. Jack had malaria and was ordered home by the doctors. It was a most exciting voyage, from all accounts, for their boat was chased by a submarine in the Bay of Biscay and escaped two torpedoes by a miracle."
"Kitty says she would not have missed the experience for anything; but Jack declares the anxiety has taken ten years off his life."
"Dear old Jack! Where are they? I shall look them up."
"Staying with his people. They are in love with Kitty and can't make enough of her."
"And what are your plans now that the war is over?"
"Brian expects to return to India, in which case, we go with him."
"You'll take the baby?"
"Most assuredly! Master Tommy is not going to be left behind by his Mummy—not on any account!"
"But the climate? I thought it does not agree with babies?"
"It agrees quite well; at least for the first few years. I am not so sure about it later on, but, 'sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.' We'll begin to think about sending him home when he turns seven. You see, we have the hills, and life is too short for unnecessary partings."
"I am with you there! How are Mr. and Mrs. Bright?"
"As usual, thank you. Father retires after the New Year, and they will live in Edinburgh. And what of your plans, Tommy?"
"I dare say I shall be back in the Police again, before long."
"And have you not found any one yet as a life-partner, to make India worth while?" she asked kindly.
Tommy smiled. "I am in no hurry, being difficult to please. I shall have to find the lady whose price, according to old Solomon, is 'far above rubies,' or remain in single blessedness all my days."
"You'll find her right enough if you know where to look, and how!" said Honor laughing. "Her natural element is the country home."
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Reproof of Chance
The Blind Alley
Baba and the Black Sheep
Mistress of Herself
A Selection from the Catalogue of
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
By Cynthia Stockley
Author of "Poppy," "The Claw," "Wild Honey," etc.
No writer can so unfailingly summons and materialize the spirit of the weird, mysterious South Africa as can Cynthia Stockley. She is a favored medium through whom the great Dark Continent its tales unfolds.
A strange story is this, of a Karoo farm,—a hedge of Blue Aloes, a cactus of fantastic beauty, which shelters a myriad of creeping things,—a whisper and a summons in the dead of the night,—an odor of death and the old.
There are three other stories in the book, stories throbbing with the sudden, intense passion and the mystic atmosphere of the Veldt.
* * * * *
By Maud Diver
Author of "Captain Desmond, V.C.," "Desmond's Daughter," "The Great Amulet," etc.
In this book, Maud Diver proves that she needs no Indian background against which to work a powerful and emotional drama. This novel is called by the author, "an episode of 1914," and is the story of a vigorous out-of-doors man who, severely wounded, is brought home in the early days of the war, and of the girl who is repelled by the physical imperfections of her one-time handsome and sturdy lover. The other sort of girl is also in this tale, the slacker and the pacifist. It is a strong story, admirably told by a master novelist.
* * * * *
"Desmond's Daughter is an Anglo-Indian novel of much more than ordinary importance. As a study of a complex character it has remarkable power.... Mrs. Diver understands the English officer thoroughly and does not spare his weaknesses; but that she appreciates his good points is shown in her true and vivid story of the Tirah Campaign. It is this which gives the book the right to be regarded as an historical novel of first importance; and there is no more striking illustration of our methods of governing and holding our Indian Empire than this stimulating and convincing story."—Aberdeen Free Press.
"The present War is not mentioned in these pages; yet the spirit of England at war is in them, the spirit of those clean-cut young Englishmen, who know so well how to die.... There is more than entertainment in Mrs. Diver's books; more than serious interest, though they have much of both. In them speaks England's faith in her sons and daughters; in the qualities which have made her race great and powerful and fit to endure." New York Tribune.
* * * * *
By Ethel M. Dell
There were two of them—as unlike as two men could be. Sir Eustace, big, domineering, haughty, used to sweeping all before him with the power of his personality.
The other was Stumpy, small, insignificant, quiet, with a little limp.
They clashed over the greatest question that may come to men—the love of a girl.
She took Sir Eustace just because she could not help herself—and was swept ahead on the tide of his passion.
And then, when she needed help most—on the day before the wedding—Stumpy saved her—and the quiet flame of his eyes was more than the brute power of his brother.
How did it all come out? Did she choose wisely? Is Greatheart more to be desired than great riches? The answer is the most vivid and charming story that Ethel M. Dell has written in a long time.