Dyan sat down near a small table, and took his head between his hands. "There is—so much wrong," he said, looking steadily up at Roy. "I am feeling—like a man who wakes too suddenly after much sleepwalking."
"Since when?" asked Roy, keeping himself in hand. "What's jerked you awake? D'you know?"
"There have been many jerks. Seeing you; Aruna's offering; this news of the War; and something ... you mentioned last time."
"What was that ... Tara?" Roy lunged straight to the middle of the wound.
Dyan started. "But—how——! I never said...." he stammered, visibly shaken.
"It didn't need saying. Aruna told me—the fact; and my own wits told me the rest. You're not honestly keen—are you?—to shorten the arm of the British Raj and plunge India into chaos?"
"No—no." A very different Dyan, this, to the one who had poured out stock phrases like water only a week ago.
"Isn't bitterness—about Tara, at the back of it! Face that straight. And—if it's true, say so without false shame."
Dyan was silent a long while, staring into the fire. "Very strange. I had no idea," he said at last. The words came slowly, as if he were thinking aloud. "I was angry—miserable; hating you all; even—very nearly—her. Then came the War; and I thought—now our countries will become like one. I will win her by some brave action—she who is the spirit of courage. From France, after all that praise of Indians in the papers, I wrote again. No use. After that, I hoped by some brave action, I might be killed. Instead, through stupid carelessness, I am only maimed—as you see. I was foolishly angry when Indian troops were sent away from France: and my heart became hard like a nut."—He had emerged from his dream now and was frankly addressing Roy——"I knew, if I went home, they would insist I should marry. Quite natural. But for me—not thinkable. Yet I must go back to India. And there, in Bombay, I heard Chandranath speak. He was just back from deportation; and to me his words were like leaping flames. All the fire of my passion—choked up in me—could flow freely in service of the Mother. I became intoxicated with the creed of my new comrades: there is neither truth nor untruth, right nor wrong; there is only the Mother. I was filled with the joy of dedication and unquestioning surrender. It gave me visions like opium dreams. Both kinds of opium I have taken freely,—while walking in my sleep. I was ready for taking life; any desperate deed. Instead—Tcha! I have to take money, like a common dacoit, because police must be bribed, soldiers tempted, meetings multiplied...."
"It takes more than the blood of white goats to oil the wheels of your chariot," said Roy, very quiet, but rather grim. "And he's not the man to do his own dirty work—eh?"
"No. He is only very clever to dress it up in fine arguments. All money is the Mother's. Only they are thieves who selfishly hide it in banks and safes. Those who release it for her use are deliverers ..." he broke off with a harsh laugh. "In spite of education, we Indians are too easily played upon, Roy. If you had not spoken—of her, I might have swallowed—even that. Thieving—bah! Killing is man's work. There is sanction in the Gita——"
"Sanction be damned!" Roy cut in sharply. "You might as well say Shakespeare sanctioned theft because he wrote, 'Who steals my purse steals trash!' The only sanction worth anything is inside you. And you didn't seem to find it there. But let's get at the point. Did you refuse?"
"No. Only—for the first time, I demurred; and because the need is urgent, he became very violent—in language. It was almost a quarrel."
"Clear proof you scored! Did you mention—Aruna?"
Dyan shook his head. "If I become violent, it is not only language——"
"No. You're a man. And now you're awake again, I can tell you things—but I can't stay all night."
"No. He is coming back. Only gone to Cantonments—on business."
"What sort of business?"
Dyan chewed his lip and looked uncomfortable.
"Never mind, old chap. I can see a church by daylight! He's getting at the troops. Spreading lies about the Armistice. And after that——?"
"He is returning—about midnight, hoping to find me in a more reasonable mind——"
"And by Jove we won't disappoint him!" cried Roy, who had seen his God-given chance. Springing up he gripped Dyan by the shoulder. "Your reasonable mind will take the form of scooting back with me, jut put; and we can slip out of Delhi by the night mail. Time's precious. So hurry up."
But Dyan did not stir. He sat there looking so plainly staggered that Roy burst out laughing.
"You're not half awake yet. You've messed about so long with men who merely 'agitate' and 'inaugurate,' that you've forgotten the kind who act first and talk afterwards. I give you ten minutes to scribble a tender farewell. Then—we make tracks. It's all I came here for—if you want to know. And I take it you're willing?"
Dyan sighed. "I am willing enough. But—there are many complications. You do not know. They are organising big trouble over the Rowlatt Bill—and other things. I have not much secret information, or my life would probably not be worth a pin. But it is all one complicated network, and there are too easy ways in India for social and spiritual boycott——"
He enlarged a little; quoted cases that filled Roy with surprise and indignation, but no way shook his resolve.
"We needn't go straight to Jaipur. Quite good fun to knock round a bit. Throw him off the scent, till he's got over the shock. We can wire our news; Aruna will be too happy to fret over a little delay. And you won't be ostracised among your own people. They want you. They want your help. Grandfather does. The best I could do was to run you to earth—open your eyes——"
"And by Indra you've done it, Roy."
"You'll come then?"
"Yes, I'll come—and damn the consequences!"
The Dyan of Oxford days was visibly emerging now: a veritable awakening; the strained look gone from his face.
It was Roy's 'good minute': and in the breathless rush that followed, he swept Dyan along with him—unresisting, exalted, amazed——
The farewell letter was written; and Dyan's few belongings stowed into a basket-box. Then they hurried down, through the dark courtyard into the darker tunnel; and Roy felt unashamedly glad not to be alone. His feet would hurry, in spite of him; and that kept him a few paces ahead.
Passing a dark alcove, he swerved instinctively—and hoped to goodness Dyan had not seen.
Just before reaching the next one he tripped over something—taut string or wire stretched across the passage. It should have sent him headlong had he been less agile. As it was, he stumbled, cursed and kept his feet.
"'Ware man-trap!" he called back to Dyan, under his breath.
Next instant, from the alcove, a shot rang out: and it was Dyan who cursed; for the bullet had grazed his arm.
They both ran now; and made no bones about it. Roy's sensations reminded him vividly of the night he and Lance fled from the Turks.
"We seem to have butted in and spoilt somebody's little game!" he remarked, as they turned into a wider street and slackened speed. "How's your arm?"
"Nothing. A mere scratch." Dyan's tone was graver. "But that's most unusual. I can't make it out——"
"You're well quit of it all, anyhow," said Roy, and slipped a hand through his arm.
* * * * *
Not till they were settling down for a few hours' sleep in the night mail, did it dawn on Roy that the little game might possibly have been connected with himself. Chandranath had seen him in that dress before. He had just come very near quarrelling with Dyan. If he suspected Roy's identity, he would suspect his influence....
He frankly spoke his thought to Dyan; and found it had occurred to him already. "Not himself, of course," he added. "The gentleman is not partial to firearms! But suspecting—he might have arranged; hoping to catch you coming back—the swine! Naturally after this, he will go further than suspecting!"
"He can go to the devil—and welcome; now I've collared you!" said Roy;—and slept soundly upon that satisfying achievement, through all the rattle and clatter of the express.
[Footnote 17: At once.]
"God uses us to help each other so." —BROWNING.
It was distinctly one of Roy's great moments when, at last, they four stood together in Sir Lakshman's room: the old man, outwardly impassive—as became a Rajput—profoundly moved in the deep places of his heart; Aruna, in Oxford gown and sari, radiant one moment; the next—in spite of stoic resolves—crying softly in Dyan's arms. And Roy understood only too well. The moment he held her hand and met her eyes—he knew. It was not only joy at Dyan's return that evoked the veiled blush, the laugh that trembled into tears. Conceit or no conceit, his intuition was not to be deceived.
And the conviction did not pass. It was confirmed by every day, every hour he spent in her company. On the rare occasions, when they were alone together, the very thing that must be religiously stifled and hid, emanated from her like fragrance from a flower; sharply reawakening his own temptation to respond—were it only to ease her pain. And there was more in it than that—or very soon would be, if he hesitated much longer to clinch matters by telling her the truth; though every nerve shrank from the ordeal—for himself and her. Running away from oneself was plainly a futile experiment. To have so failed with her, disheartened him badly and dwarfed his proud achievement to an insignificant thing.
To the rest, unaware, his triumph seemed complete, his risky adventure justified beyond cavil. They all admitted as much;—even Vincent, who abjured superlatives and had privately taken failure for granted. Roy, in a fit of modesty, ascribed it all to 'luck.' By the merest chance he had caught Dyan, on his own confession, just as the first flickers of doubt were invading his hypnotised soul; just when it began to dawn on him that alien hands were pulling the strings. He had already begun to feel trapped; unwilling to go forward; unable to go back; and the fact that no inner secrets were confided to him, had galled his Rajput vanity and pride. In the event, he was thankful enough for the supposed slight; since it made him feel appreciably safer from the zeal of his discarded friends.
Much of this he had confided to Roy, in fragments and jerks, on the night of their amazing exit from Delhi; already sufficiently himself again to puzzle frankly over that perverted Dyan; to marvel—with a simplicity far removed from mere foolishness—"how one man can make a magic in other men's minds so that he shall appear to them an eagle when he is only a crow."
"That particular form of magic," Roy told him, "has made half the history of the world. We all like to flatter ourselves we're safe from it—till we get bitten! You've been no more of a fool than the others, Dyan—if that's any consolation."
The offending word rankled a little. The truth of it rankled more. "By Indra, I am no fool now. Perhaps he has discovered that already. I fancy my letter will administer a shock. I wonder what he will do?"
"He won't 'do.' You can bank on that. He may fling vitriol over you on paper. But you won't have the pleasure of his company at Jaipur. He left his card on us before the Dewali. And there's been trouble since; leaflets circulating mysteriously; an exploded attempt to start a seditious 'rag.' So they're on the qui vive. He'll count that one up against me: but I'll manage to survive."
And Dyan, in the privacy of his heart, had felt distinctly relieved. Not that he lacked the courage of his race; but, having seen the man for years, as it were, through a magnifying lens, he could not, all in a moment, see him for the thing he was:—dangerous as a snake, yet swift as a snake to wriggle out of harm's way.
He had not been backward, however, in awakening his grandfather to purdah manoeuvres. Strictly in private—he told his cousin—there had been ungoverned storms of temper, ungoverned abuse of Roy, who was suspected by 'the Inside' of knowing too much and having undue influence with the old man. 'The Inside,' he gathered, had from early days been jealous of the favourite daughter and all her belongings. Naturally, in Dyan's opinion, his sister ought to marry; and the sooner the better. Perhaps he had been unwise, after all, insisting on postponement. By now she would have been settled in her lawful niche instead of making trouble with this craze for hospital nursing and keeping outside caste. Not surprising if she shrank from living at home, after all she had been through. Better for them both, perhaps, to break frankly with orthodox Hinduism and join the Brahma Samaj.
As Roy knew precisely how much—or rather, how little—Aruna liked working in the wards, he suffered a pang at the pathos of her innocent guile. And if Dyan had his own suspicions, he kept them to himself. He also kept to himself the vitriolic outpouring which he had duly found awaiting him at Jaipur. It contained too many lurid allusions to 'that conceited, imperialistic half-caste cousin of yours'; and Roy might resent the implied stigma as much as Dyan resented it for him. So he tore up the effusion, intended for the eye of Roy, merely remarking that it had enraged him. It was beneath contempt.
Roy would like to have seen it, all the same; for he knew himself quicker than Dyan at reading between the lines. The beggar would not hit back straight. But given the chance, he might try it on some other way—witness the pistol-shot in the arcade; a side light—or a side flash—on the pleasant sort of devil he was!
Back in the Jaipur Residency, in the garden that was 'almost England,' back in his good familiar tweed coat and breeches, the whole Delhi interlude seemed strangely theatrical and unreal; more like a vivid dream than an experience in the flesh.
But there was Dyan to prove it no dream; and the perilous charm of Aruna, that must be resisted to the best of his power....
* * * * *
All this stir and ferment within; yet not a surface ripple disturbed the flow of those uneventful weeks between the return of Roy and the coming of Lance Desmond for Christmas leave.
It is thus that drama most often happens in life—a light under a bushel; set in the midst, yet unseen. Vincent, delving in ethnological depths, saw little or nothing outside his manuscript and maps. Floss Eden—engrossed in her own drawing-room comedy with Captain Martin—saw less than nothing, except that 'Mr Sinclair's other native cousin' came too often to the house. For she turned up her assertive nose at 'native gentlemen'; and confided to Martin her private opinion that Aunt Thea went too far in that line. She bothered too much about other people all round—which was true.
She had bothered a good deal more about Floss Eden, in early days, than that young lady at all realised. And now—in the intervals of organising Christmas presents and Christmas guests—she was bothering a good deal over Roy, whose absence had obviously failed to clear the air.
Not that he was silent or aloof. But his gift of speech overlaid a reticence deeper than that of the merely silent man; the kind she had lived with and understood. Once you got past their defences, you were unmistakably inside:—Vinx, for instance. But with Roy she was aware of reserves within reserves, which made him the more interesting, but also the more distracting, when one felt entitled to know the lie of the land. For, Aruna apart, wasn't he becoming too deeply immersed in his Indian relations—losing touch, perhaps, with those at home? Did it—or did it not matter—that, day after day, he was strolling with Aruna, riding with Dyan, pig-sticking and buck-hunting with the royal cheetahs and the royal heir to the throne; or plunging neck deep in plans and possibilities, always in connection with those two? His mail letters were few and not bulky, as she knew from handling the contents of the Residency mail-bag. And he very rarely spoke of them all: less than ever of late. To her ardent nature it seemed inexplicable. Perhaps it was just part of his peculiar 'inwardness.' She would have liked to feel sure, however....
Vinx would say it was none of her business. But Lance would be a help. She was counting on him to readjust the scales. Thank goodness for Lance—giving up the Lahore 'week' and the Polo Tournament to spend Christmas with her and Roy in the wilds of Rajputana. Just to have him about the place again—his music, his big laugh, his radiant certainty that, in any and every circumstance, it was a splendid thing to be alive—would banish worries and lift her spirits sky-high. After the still, deep waters of her beloved Vinx—whose strain of remoteness had not been quite dispelled by marriage—and the starlit mysteries of Aruna and the intriguing complexities of Roy, a breath of Lance would be tonic as a breeze from the Hills. He was so clear and sure; not in flashes and spurts, but continuously, like sunshine; because the clearness and sureness had his whole personality behind them. And he could be counted on to deal faithfully with Roy; perhaps lure him back to the Punjab. It would be sad losing him; but in the distracting circumstances, a clean cut seemed the only solution. She would just put in a word to that effect: a weakness she had rarely been known to resist, however complete her faith in the man of the moment.
She simply dared not think of Aruna, who trusted her. It seemed like betrayal—no less. And yet...?
"One made out of the better part of earth, A man born as at sunrise." —SWINBURNE.
It was all over—the strenuous joy of planning and preparing. Christmas itself was over. From the adjacent borders of British India, five lonely ones had been gathered in. There was Mr Mayne, Commissioner of Delhi, Vincent's old friend of Kohat days, unmarried and alone in camp with a stray Settlement Officer, whose wife and children were at Home. There was Mr Bourne—in the Canals—large-boned and cadaverous, with a sardonic gleam in his eye. Rumour said there had once been a wife and a friend; now there remained only work and the whisky bottle; and he was overdoing both. To him Thea devoted herself and her fiddle with particular zest. The other two lonelies—a Mr and Mrs Nair—were medical missionaries, fighting the influenza scourge in the Delhi area; drastically disinfected—because of the babies; more than thankful for a brief respite from their daily diet of tragedy, and from labours Hercules' self would not have disdained. For all that, they had needed a good deal of pressing. They had 'no clothes.' They were very shy. But Thea had insisted; so they came—clothed chiefly in shyness and gratitude, which made them shyer than ever.
Roy, still new to Anglo-India, was amazed at the way these haphazard humans were thawed into a passing intimacy by the sunshine of Thea's personality. For himself, it was the nearest approach to the real thing that he had known since that dear and dreamlike Christmas of 1916. It warmed his heart, and renewed the well-spring of careless happiness that had gone from him utterly since the blow fell; gone, so he believed, for ever.
Something of this she divined—and was glad. Yet her exigent heart was not altogether at ease. His reaction to Lance, though unmistakable, fell short of her confident expectation. He was still squandering far too much time on the other two. Sometimes she felt almost angry with him: jealous—for Lance. She knew how deeply he cared underneath; because she too was a Desmond. And Desmonds could not care by halves.
This morning, for instance, the wretch was out riding with Dyan; and there was Lance, alone in the drawing-room strumming the accompaniments of things they would play to-night: just a wandering succession of chords in a minor key; but he had his father's gift of touch, that no training can impart, and the same trick of playing pensively to himself, almost as if he were thinking aloud. It was five years since she had seen her father; and those pensive chords brought sudden tears to her eyes.
What did Lance mean by it—mooning about the piano like that? Had he fallen in love? That was one of the few questions she did not dare ask him. But here was her chance to 'put in a word' about Roy.
So she strolled into the drawing-room and leaned over the grand piano. His smile acknowledged her presence, and his pensive chords went wandering softly away into the bass.
"Idiot—what are you doing?" she asked briskly, because the music was creeping down her spine. "Talking to yourself?"
"More or less."
"Well—give over. I'm here. And it's a bad habit."
He shook his head, and went wandering on. "In this form I find it soothing and companionable."
"Well, you oughtn't to be needing either at Christmas time under my roof, with Roy here and all—if he'd only behave. Sometimes I want to shake him——"
"Why—what's the matter with Roy?"—That innocent query checked her rush of protest in mid career. Had he not even noticed? Men were the queerest, dearest things!——"He looks awfully fit. Better all round. He's pulling up. You never saw him—you don't realise——"
"But, my dear boy, do you realise that he's getting rather badly bitten with all this—Indian problems and Indian cousins——"
Lance nodded. "I've been afraid of that. But one can't say much."
"I can't. I was counting on you as the God-given antidote. And there he is, still fooling round with Dyan, when you've come all this way ... It makes me wild. It isn't fair——"
Her genuine distress moved Lance to cease strumming and bestow a friendly pat on her hand. "Don't be giving yourself headaches and heartaches over Roy and me, darlint. We're going strong, thanks very much! It would take an earthquake to throw us out of step. If he chose to chuck his boots at me, I wouldn't trouble—except to return the trees if they were handy! Strikes me women don't yet begin to understand the noble art of friendship——"
"Which is a libel—but let that pass! Besides—hasn't it struck you? Aruna——"
"My God!" His hands dropped with a crash on the keyboard. Then, in a low swift rush: "Thea, you don't mean it—you're pulling my leg."
"Bible-oath I'm not. It's too safely tucked under the piano!"
"My God!" he repeated softly, ignoring her incurable frivolity. "Has he said anything?"
"No. But it's plain they're both smitten more or less."
"Smitten be damned."
"Lance! I won't have Aruna insulted. Let me tell you she's charming and cultivated; much better company than Floss. And I love her like a daughter——"
"Would you have her marry Roy?" he flung out wrathfully.
"Of course not. But still——"
"Me—perhaps?" he queried with such fine scorn that she burst out laughing.
"You priceless gem! You are the unadulterated Anglo-Indian!"
"Well—what else would I be? What else are you, by the same token?"
"Not adulterated," she denied stoutly. "Perhaps a wee bit less 'prejudiced.' The awful result, I suppose, of failing to keep myself scrupulously detached from my surroundings. Besides, you couldn't be married twenty years to that Vinx and not widen out a bit. Of course I'm quite aware that widening out has its insidious dangers and limitation its heroic virtues—Hush! Don't fly into a rage. You're not limited, old boy. You loved—Lady Sinclair."
"I adored her," Lance said very low; and his fingers strayed over the keys again. "But—she was an accomplished fact. And—she was one in many thousands. She's gone now, though. And there's poor Sir Nevil——"
He rose abruptly and strode over to the fireplace. "Tell you what, Thea. If the bee in Roy's bonnet is buzzing to that tune, some one's got to stop it——"
"That's my point!" She swung round confronting him. "Why not whisk him back to the Punjab? It does seem the only way——"
Lance nodded again. "Now you talk sense. Mind, I don't believe he'll come. Roy's a tougher customer than he looks to the naked eye. But I'll have a shot at it to-night. If needs must, I'll tell him why. I can swallow half a regiment of his Dyans; but not—the other thing. I hope you find us intact in the morning!"
She flew to him and kissed him with fervour; and she was still in his arms, when Roy strolled casually into the room.
* * * * *
There were only three outsiders that night: the State Engineer and two British officers in the Maharajah's employ. But they sat down sixteen to dinner; and, very shortly after, came three others in the persons of Dyan and Sir Lakshman Singh, with his distinguished friend Mahomed Inayat Khan, from Hyderabad. Nothing Thea enjoyed better than getting a mixed batch of men together and hearing them talk—especially shop; for then she knew their hearts were in it. They were happy.
And to-night, her chance assortment was amazingly varied, even for India:—Army, 'Political,' Civil; P.W.D. and Native States; New India, in the person of Dyan; and not least, the 'medical mish' pair; an element rich in mute inglorious heroism, as the villagers and 'depressed classes' of India know. She took keen delight in the racial interplay of thought and argument, with Roy, as it were, for bridge-builder between. How he would relish the idea! He seemed very much in the vein this evening, especially since his grandfather arrived. He was clearly making an impression on Mr Mayne and Inayat Khan; and a needle-prick of remorse touched her heart. For Aruna, annexed by Captain Martin's subaltern, was watching him too, when she fancied no one was looking; and Lance, attentively silent, was probably laying deep plans for his capture. A wicked shame—but still...!
As a matter of fact, Lance, too, was troubled with faint compunction. He had never seen Roy in this kind of company, nor in this particular vein. And, reluctantly, he admitted that it did seem rather a waste of his mentally reviving vigour hauling him back to the common round of tennis and dances and polo—yes, even sacred polo—when he was so dead keen on this infernal agitation business, and seemed to know such a deuce of a lot about it all.
Lance himself knew far too little; and was anxious to hear more, for the intimate, practical reason that he was not quite happy about his Sikh troop. The Pathan lot were all right. But the Sikhs—his pride and joy—were being 'got at' by those devils in the City. And, if these men could be believed, 'things' were going to be very much worse; not only 'down country,' but also in the Punjab, India's sure shield against the invader. To a Desmond, the mere suggestion of the Punjab turning traitor was as if one impugned the courage of his father or the honour of his mother; so curiously personal is India's hold upon the hearts of Englishmen who come under her spell.
So Lance listened intently, if a little anxiously, to all that Thea's 'mixed biscuits' had to say on that absorbing subject. For to-night shop held the field: if that could be called shop, which vitally concerned the fate of England and India, and of British dominion in the East.
Agitation against the sane measures embodied in the Rowlatt Bills was already astir, like bubbles round a pot before it boils. And Inayat Khan had come straight from Bombay, where the National Congress had rejected with scorn the latest palliative from Home; had demanded the release of all revolutionaries, and wholesale repeal of laws against sedition. Here was shop sufficiently ominous to overshadow all other topics: and there was no gene, no constraint. The Englishmen could talk freely in the presence of cultured Indians who stood for Jaipur and Hyderabad, since both States were loyal to the core.
Dyan, like Lance, spoke little and pondered much on the talk of these men, whose straight speech and thoughts were refreshing as their own sea breezes after the fumes of rhetoric, the fog of false values that had bemused his brain these three years. Strange how all the ugliness and pain of hate had shrivelled away; how he could even shake hands, untroubled, with that 'imperialistic bureaucrat' the Commissioner of Delhi, whom he might have been told off, any day, to 'remove from this mortal coil.' Strange to sit there, over against him, while he puffed his cigar and talked, without fear, of increasing antagonism, increasing danger to himself and his kind.
"There's no sense in disguising the unpalatable truth that New India hates us," said he in his gruff, deliberate voice. "Present company excepted, I hope!"
He gravely inclined his head towards Dyan, who responded mutely with a flutter at his heart. Impossible! The man could not suspect——?
And the man, looking him frankly in the eyes, added: "The spirit of the Mutiny's not extinct—and we know it, those of us that count."
Dyan simply sat dumfounded. It was Sir Lakshman who said, in his guarded tone: "Nevertheless, sir, the bulk of our people are loyal and peaceable. Only I fear there are some in England who do not count that fact to their credit."
"If they ever become anything else, it won't be to our credit," put in Roy. "If we can't stand up to bluster and sedition with that moral force at our backs, we shall deserve to go under."
"Well spoken, Roy," said his grandfather still more quietly. "Let us hope it is not yet too late. Sadi says, 'The fountain-head of a spring can be blocked with a stick; but in full flood, it cannot be crossed, even on an elephant.'"
They exchanged a glance that stirred Roy's pulses and gave him confidence to go on: "I don't believe it is too late. But what bothers me is this—are we treating our moral force as it deserves? Are we giving them loyalty in return for theirs—the sort they can understand? With a dumb executive and voluble 'patriots,' persuading or intimidating, the poor beggars haven't a dog's chance, unless we openly stand by them; openly smite our enemies—and theirs."
He boldly addressed himself to Mayne, the sole symbol of authority present; and the Commissioner listened, with a gleam of amused approval in his eye.
"You're young, Mr Sinclair—which doesn't mean you're wrong! Most of us, in our limited fashion, are trying to do what we can on those lines. But, after spending half a lifetime in this climate, doing our utmost to give the peasant—and the devil—his due, we're apt to grow cynical——"
"Not to mention suicidal!" grunted the slave of work and whisky. "We Canal coolies—hardly visible to the naked eye—are adding something like an Egypt a year to the Empire. But, bless you, England takes no notice. Only let some underbred planter or raw subaltern bundle an Indian out of his carriage, or a drunken Tommy kick his servant in the spleen, and the whole British Constitution comes down about our ears!"
"Very true, sir—very true!" Inayat Khan leaned forward. His teeth gleamed in the dark of his beard. His large firm-featured face abounded in good sense and good humour. "How shall a man see justly if he holds the telescope wrong way round, as too many do over there. It also remains true, however, that the manners of certain Anglo-Indians create a lot of bad feeling. Your so-called reforms do not interest the masses or touch their imagination. But the boot of the low-class European touches their backs and their pride and hardens their hearts. That is only human nature. In the East a few gold grains of courtesy touch the heart more than a khillat of political hotch-potch. I myself—though it is getting dangerous to say so!—am frankly opposed to this uncontrolled passion for reform. When all have done their duty in this great struggle, why such undignified clamour for rewards, which are now being flung back in the giver's teeth. It has become a vicious circle. It was British policy in the first place—not so?—that stirred up this superficial ferment; and now it grows alarming, it is doctored with larger doses of the same medicine. We Indians who know how little the bulk of India has really changed, could laugh at the tamasha of Western fancy-dress, in small matters; but time for laughing has gone by. Time has come for saying firmly—all rights and aspirations will be granted, stopping short of actual government—otherwise——!"
He flung up his hands, looked round at the listening faces, and realised how completely he had let himself go. "Forgive me, Colonel. I fear I am talking too much," he said in a changed tone.
"Indeed no," Colonel Leigh assured him warmly. "In these difficult days, loyal and courageous friends like yourself are worth their weight in gold mohurs!"
Visibly flattered, the Moslem surveyed his own bulky person with a twinkle of amusement. "If value should go by weight, Inayat Khan would be worth a king's ransom! But I assure you, Colonel, your country has many hundreds of friends like myself all over India, if only she would seek them out and give them encouragement—as Mr Sinclair said—instead of wasting it on volubles, who will never cease making trouble till India is in a blaze."
As the man's patent sincerity had warmed the hearts of his hearers, so the pointed truth of that last pricked them sharply and probed deep. For they knew themselves powerless; mere atoms of the whirling dust-cloud, raised, in passing, by the chariot-wheels of Progress—or perdition?
The younger men rose briskly, as if to shake off some physical discomfort. Dyan—very much aware of Aruna and the subaltern—approached them with a friendly remark. Roy and Lance said, "Play up, Thea! Your innings," almost in a breath—and crooked little fingers.
Thea needed no second bidding. While the men talked, an insidious depression had stolen over her spirit—and brooded there, light and formless as a river mist. Half an hour with her fiddle, and Lance at his best, completely charmed it away. But the creepiness of it had been very real: and the memory remained.
* * * * *
When all the others had dispersed, she lingered over the fire with Roy, while Lance, at the piano, with diplomatic intent, drifted into his friend's favourite Nocturne—the Twelfth; that inimitable rendering of a mood, hushed yet exalted, soaring yet brooding, 'the sky and the nest as well.' The two near the fire knew every bar by heart, but as the liquid notes stole out into the room, their fitful talk stopped dead.
Lance was playing superbly, giving every note its true value; the cadence rising and falling like waves of a still sea; softer and softer; till the last note faded away, ghostlike—a sigh rather than a sound.
Roy remained motionless, one elbow on the mantelpiece. Thea's lashes were wet with the tears of rarefied emotion—tears that neither prick nor burn. The silence itself seemed part of the music; a silence it were desecration to break. Without a word to Roy, she crossed the room; kissed Lance good-night; clung a moment to his hands that had woven the spell, smiling her thanks, her praise; and slipped away, leaving the two together.
Roy subsided into a chair. Lance came over to the fire and stood there warming his hands.
It was a minute or two before Roy looked up and nodded his acknowledgments.
"You're a magician, old chap. You play that thing a damn sight too well."
He did not add that his friend's music had called up a vision of the Home drawing-room, clear in every detail; Lance at the piano—his last week-end from Sandhurst—playing the 'thing' by request; himself lounging on the hearthrug, his head against his mother's knee; the very feel of her silk skirt against his cheek, of her fingers on his hair.... Nor did he add that the vision had spurred his reluctant spirit to a resolve.
The more practical soul of Lance Desmond had already dropped back to earth, as a lark drops after pouring out its heart in the blue. In spite of concern for Roy, he was thinking again of his Sikhs.
"I suppose one can take it," he remarked thoughtfully, "that Vinx and Mayne and that good old Moslem johnny know what they're talking about?"
Roy smiled—having jumped at the connection. "I'm afraid," he said, "one can."
"You think big trouble is coming—organised trouble?"
"I do. That is, unless some 'strong silent man' has the pluck to put his foot down in time, and chance the consequences to himself. Thank God, we've another John Lawrence in the Punjab."
"And it's the Punjab that matters——"
"Especially a certain P.C. Regiment—eh?"
Lance was in arms at once:—that meant he had touched the spot. "No flies on the Regiment. Trust Paul. It's only—I get bothered about a Sikh here and there."
"Quite so. The blighters have taken particular pains with the Sikhs. Realising that they'll need some fighting stuff. And Lahore's a bad place. I expect they sneak off to meetings in the City."
"Devil a doubt of it. Mind you, I trust them implicitly. But, outside their own line, they're credulous as children—you know."
"Rather. In Delhi, I had a fair sample of it."
Another pause. It suddenly occurred to Lance that his precious Sikhs were not supposed to be the topic of the evening. "You're quite fit again, Roy. And those blooming fools chucked you like a cast horse——" he broke out in a spurt of vexation. "I wish to God you were back with your old Squadron."
And Roy said from his heart, "I wish to God I was."
"Paul misses you, though he never says much. The new lot from home are good chaps. Full of brains and theories. But no knowledge. Can't get at the men. You could still help unofficially in all sorts of ways.—Why not come along back with me? Haven't you been pottering round here long enough?"
Roy shook his head. "Thanks all the same, for the invite. Of course I'd love it. But—I've things to do. There's a novel taking shape—and other oddments. I've done precious little writing here. Too much entangled with human destinies. I must bury myself somewhere and get a move on. April it is. I won't fail you."
Lance kicked an unoffending log. "Confound your old novel!"—A portentous silence. "See here, Roy, I don't want to badger you. But—well—if I'm to go back in moderate peace of mind, I want—certain guarantees."
Roy lifted his eyes. Lance frankly encountered them; and there ensued one of those intimate pauses in which the unspeakable is said.
Roy looked away. "Aruna?" He let fall the word barely above his breath.
"You're frightened—both of you? Oh yes—I've seen——" He fell silent, staring into the fire. When he spoke again, it was in the same low, detached tone. "You two needn't worry. The guarantee you're after was given ... in July 1914 ... under the beeches ... at Home. She foresaw—understood. But she couldn't foresee ... the harder tug—now she's gone. The ... association ... and all that."
"Is it—only that?"
"It's mostly that."
To Lance Desmond, very much a man, it seemed the queerest state of things; and he knew only a fragment of the truth.
"Look here, Roy," he urged again. "Wouldn't the Punjab really be best? Aren't you plunging a bit too deep——? Does your father realise? Thea feels——"
"Yes. Thea feels, bless her! But there's a thing or two she doesn't know!" He lifted his head and spoke in an easier voice. "One queer thing—it may interest you. Those few weeks of living as an Indian among Indians—amazingly intensified all the other side of me. I never felt keener on the Sinclair heritage and all it stands for. I never felt keener on you two than all this time while I've been concentrating every faculty on—the other two. Sounds odd. But it's a fact."
"Good. And does—your cousin know ... about the guarantee?"
"N—no. That's still to come."
Roy straightly returned his friend's challenging gaze. "Damn you!" he said softly. Then, in a graver tone: "You're right. I've been shirking it. Seemed a shame to spoil Christmas. Remains—the New Year. I fixed it up—while you were playing that thing, to be exact."
"You did—if that gives you any satisfaction!" He rose, stretched himself and yawned ostentatiously. "My God, I wish it was over."
Desmond said nothing. If Roy loved him more for one quality than another, it was for his admirable gift of silence.
[Footnote 18: Dress of honour.]
"Yet shall I bear in my heart this honour of the burden of pain—this gift of thine."—RABINDRANATH TAGORE.
It was the last day of the year; the last moon of the year, almost at her zenith. Of all the Christmas guests Lance alone remained; and Thea had promised him before leaving, a moonlight vision of Amber, the Sleeping Beauty of Rajasthan. The event had been delayed till now, partly because they waited on the moon; partly because they did not want it to be a promiscuous affair.
To Thea's lively imagination—and to Roy's no less—Amber was more than a mere city of ghosts and marble halls. It was a symbol of Rajput womanhood—strong and beautiful, withdrawn from the clamour of the market-place, given over to her dreams and her gods. For though kings have deserted Amber, the gods remain. There is still life in her temples and the blood of sacrifice on her altar stones. Therefore she must not be approached in the spirit of the tourist. And, emphatically, she must not be approached in a motor-car; at least so far as Thea's guests were concerned. Of course one knew she was approached by irreverent cars; also by tourists—unspeakable ones, who made contemptible jokes about 'a slump in house property.' But for these vandalisms Thea Leigh was not responsible.
Her young ones, including Captain Martin, would ride; but, because of Aruna, she and Vincent must submit to the barouche. So transparent was the girl's pleasure at being included, that Thea's heart failed her—knowing what she knew.
Roy and Lance had ridden on ahead; out through the fortified gates into the open desert, strewn with tumbled fragments of the glory that was Rajasthan. There, where courtiers had intrigued and flattered, crows held conference. On the crumbling arch of a doorway, that opened into emptiness, a vulture brooded, heavy with feeding on those who had died for lack of food. Knee-deep in the Man Sagar Lake, grey cranes sought their meat from God; every tint and curve of them repeated in the quiet water. And there, beside a ruined shrine, two dead cactus bushes, with their stiff distorted limbs, made Roy think suddenly of two dead Germans he had come upon once—killed so swiftly that they still retained, in death, the ghastly semblance of life. Why the devil couldn't a man be rid of them? Dead Germans were not 'in the bond.'...
"Buck up, Lance," he said abruptly; for Desmond, who saw no ghosts, was keenly interested. "Let's quit this place of skulls and empty eye-sockets. Amber's dead; but not utterly decayed."
He knew. He had ridden out alone one morning, in the light of paling stars, to watch the dawn steal down through the valley and greet the sleeping city that would never wake again—half hoping to recapture the miracle of Chitor. But Amber did not enshrine the soul of his mother's race. And the dawn had proved merely a dawn. Moonlight, with its eerie enchantment, would be oven more beautiful and fitting; but the pleasure of anticipation was shadowed by his resolve.
He had spoken of it only to Thea; asking her, when tea was over, to give him a chance:—and now he was heartily wishing he had chosen any other place and time than this....
The brisk canter to the foothills was a relief. Thence the road climbed, between low, reddish-grey spurs, to the narrow pass, barred by a formidable gate, that swung open at command, with a screech of rusty hinges, as if in querulous protest against intrusion.
Another gateway,—and yet another: then they were through the triple wall that guards the dead city from the invader who will never come, while both races honour the pact that alone saved desperate, stubborn Rajputana from extinction.
Up on the heights, it was still day; but in the valley it was almost evening. And there—among deepening shadows and tumbled fragments of hills—lay Amber: her palace and temples and broken houses crowding round their sacred Lake, like Queens and their handmaids round the shield of a dead King.
Descending at a foot's pace, the chill of emptiness and of oncoming twilight seemed to close like icy fingers on Roy's heart; though the death of Amber was as nothing to the death of Chitor—the warrior-queen, ravished and violently slain by Akbar's legions. Amber had, as it were, died peacefully in her sleep. But there remained the all-pervading silence and emptiness:—her sorrowful houses, cleft from roof to roadway; no longer homes of men, but of the rock-pigeon, the peacock, and the wild boar; stones of her crumbling arches thrust apart by roots of acacia and neem; her streets choked with cactus and brushwood; her beauty—disfigured but not erased—reflected in the unchanging mirror of the Lake.
If Roy and Lance had talked little before, they talked less now. From the Lake-side they rode up, by stone pathways, to the Palace of stone and marble, set upon a jutting rock and commanding the whole valley. There, in the quadrangle, they left the horses with their grooms, who were skilled in cutting corners and had trotted most of the way.
Close to the gate stood a temple of fretted marble—neither ruined nor deserted; for within were the priests of Kali, and the faint, sickly smell of blood. Daybreak after daybreak, for centuries, the severed head of a goat had been set before her, the warm blood offered in a bronze bowl....
"Pah! Beastly!" muttered Lance. "I'd sooner have no religion at all."
Roy smiled at him, sidelong—and said nothing. It was beastly: but it matched the rest. It was in keeping with the dusky rooms, all damp-incrusted, the narrow passages and screens of marble tracery; the cloistered hanging garden, beyond the women's rooms, their baths chiselled out of naked rock. And the beastliness was off-set by the beauty of inlay and carving and colour; by the splendour of bronze gates and marble pillars, and slabs of carven granite that served as balustrade to the terraced roof, where daylight still lingered and azure-necked peacocks strutted, serenely immune.
Seated on a carven slab, they looked downward into the heart of desolation; upward, at creeping battlements and a little temple of Shiva printed sharply on the light-filled sky.
"Can't you feel the ghosts of them all round you?" whispered Roy.
"No, thank God, I can't," said practical Lance, taking out a cigarette. But a rustle of falling stones made him start—the merest fraction. "Perhaps smoke'll keep 'em off—like mosquitoes!" he added hopefully.
But Roy paid no heed. He was looking down into the hollow shell of that which had been Amber. Not a human sound anywhere; nor any stir of life, but the soft ceaseless kuru-kooing doves, that nested and mated in those dusky inner rooms, where Queens had mated with Kings.
"'Thou hast made of a city an heap, of a defenced city a ruin ...Their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there,'" he quoted softly; adding after a pause, "Mother had a great weakness for old Isaiah. She used to say he and the minor prophets knew all about Rajasthan. The owls of Amber are blue pigeons. But I hope she's spared the satyrs."
"Globe-trotters!" suggested Lance.
"Or 'Piffers' devoid of reverence!" retorted Roy. "Hullo! Here come the others."
Footsteps and voices in the quadrangle waked hollow echoes as when a stone drops into a well. Presently they sounded on the stairs near by: Flossie's rather boisterous laugh; Martin chaffing her in his husky tones.
"Great sport! Let's rent it off H.H. and gather 'em all in from the highways and hedges for a masked fancy ball!"
Roy stood up and squared his shoulders. "Satyrs dancing, with a vengeance!" said he; but the gleam of Aruna's sari smote him silent. A band seemed to tighten round his heart....
* * * * *
Before tea was over, peacocks and pigeons had gone to roost among the trees that shadowed the Lake; and the light behind the hills had passed swiftly from gold to flame-colour, from flame-colour to rose. For the sun, that had already departed in effect, was now setting in fact.
"Hush—it's coming," murmured Thea:—and it came.
Hollow thuds, quickening to a vibrant roar, swelled up from the temple in the courtyard below. The Brahmins were beating the great tom-tom before Kali's Shrine.
It was the signal. It startlingly waked the dead city to discordant life. Groanings and howlings and clashings, as of Tophet, were echoed and re-echoed from every temple, every shrine; an orgy of demoniac sounds; blurred in transit through the empty rooms beneath; pierced at intervals by the undulating wail of ram's horns; the two reiterate notes wandering, like lost souls, through a confused blare of cymbals and bagpipes and all kinds of music.
Flossie, with a bewitching grimace at Martin, clapped both hands over her ears. Roy—standing by the balustrade with Aruna—was aware of an answering echo somewhere in subconscious depths, as the discords rose and fell above the throbbing undernote of the drum. It was as if the claimant voices of the East cried out to the blood in his veins: 'You are of us—do what you will; go where you will.' And all the while his eyes never left Aruna's half-averted face.
Sudden and clear from the heights came a ringing peal of bells, as it were the voices of angels answering the wail of devils in torment. It was from the little Shrine of Shiva close against the ramparts, etched in outline, above the dark of the hills.
Aruna turned and looked up at him. "Too beautiful!" she whispered.
He nodded, and flung out an arm. "Look there!"
Low and immense—pale in the pallor of the eastern sky—the moon hung poised above massed shadows, like a wraith escaped from the city of death. Moment by moment, she drew light from the vanished sun. Moment by moment, under their watching eyes, she conjured the formless dark into a new heaven, a new earth....
"Would you be afraid—to stroll round a little ... with me?" he asked.
"Afraid? I would love it—if Thea will allow." This time she did not look up.
Vincent and Thea were sitting a little farther along the balustrade; Lance beside them, imbibing tales of Rajasthan. Flossie and her Captain had already disappeared.
"I'm going to be frankly a Goth and flash my electric torch into holes and corners," Lance announced as the other two came up. "I bar being intimidated by ghosts."
"We're not going to be intimidated either," said Roy, addressing himself to Thea. "And I guarantee not to let Aruna be spirited away."
Vincent shot a look at his wife. "Don't wander too far," said he.
"And don't hang about too long," she added. "It'll be cold going home."
Though he was standing close to her, she could say no more. But, under cover of the dusk, her hand found his and closed on it hard.
The characteristic impulse heartened him amazingly, as he followed Aruna down the ghostly stairway, through marble cloisters into the hanging garden, misted with moonlight, fragrant with orange trees.
And now there was more than Thea's hand-clasp to uphold him. Gradually there dawned on him a faint yet sure intimation of his mother's presence, of her tenderly approving love—dim to his brain, yet as sensible to his spirit as light and warmth to his body.
It did not last many moments; but—as in all contact with her—the clear after-certainty remained....
Exactly what he intended to say he did not know even now. To speak the cruel truth, yet by some means to soften the edge of it, seemed almost impossible. But nerved by this vivid, exalted sense of her nearness, the right moment, the right words could be trusted to come of themselves....
And Aruna, walking beside him in a hushed expectancy, was remembering that other night, so strangely far away, when they had walked alone under the same moon, and assurance of his love had so possessed her, that she had very nearly broken her little chiragh. And to-night—how different! Her very love for him, though the same, was not quite the same. It seemed to depend not at all on nearness or response. Starved of both, it had grown not less, but more.
From a primitive passion it had become a rarefied emotional atmosphere in which she lived and moved. And this garden of eerie lights and shadows was saturated with it; thronged, to her fancy, with ghosts of dead passions and intrigues, of dead Queens, in whom the twin flames of love and courage could be quenched only by flames of the funeral pyre. Their blood ran in her veins—and in his too. That closeness of belonging none could snatch from her. About the other, she was growing woefully uncertain, as day followed day, and still no word. Was there trouble after all! Would he speak to-night...?
They had reached a dark doorway, and he was trying the handle. It opened inwards.
"I'm keen to go a little way up the hillside," he said, forcing himself to break a silence that was growing oppressive. "To get a sight of the Palace with the moon full on it. We'll be cautious—not go too far."
"I am ready to go anywhere," she answered; and the fervour of that simple statement told him she was not thinking of hillsides any more than he was—at the back of his mind.
Silence was unkinder than speech; and as they passed out into the open, he scanned the near prospect for a convenient spot. Not far above them a fragment of ruined wall, overhung by trees, ended in a broken arch; its lingering keystone threatened by a bird-borne acacia. A fallen slab of stone, half under it, offered a not too distant seat. Slab and arch were in full light; the space beyond, engulfed in shadow.
Far up the hillside a jackal laughed. Across the valley another answered it. A monkey swung from a branch on to the slab, and sat there engaged in his toilet—a very imp of darkness.
"Not be-creeped—are you?" Roy asked.
"Just the littlest bit! Nice kind of creeps. I feel quite safe—with you."
The path was rough in parts. Once she stumbled and his hand closed lightly on her arm under the cloak. She felt safe with him—and he must turn and smite her——!
At their approach, the monkey fled with a gibbering squeak: and Roy loosened his hold. Between them and the lake loomed the noble bulk of the palace; roof-terraces and facades bathed in silver, splashed with indigo shadow; but for them—mere man and woman—its imperishable strength and beauty had suddenly become a very little thing. They scarcely noticed it even.
"There—sit," Roy said softly, and she obeyed.
Her smile mutely invited him; but he could not trust himself—yet. He might have known the moonlight would go to his head.
"Aruna—my dear——" he plunged without preamble. "I took you away from them all because—well—we can't pretend any more ... you and I. It's fate—and there we are. I love you—dearly—truly. But...."
How could one go on?
Her lifted gaze, her low impassioned cry told all; and before that too clear revealing his hard-won resolution quailed.
"No—not that. I don't deserve it," he broke out, lashing himself and startling her. "I've been a rank coward—letting things drift. But honestly I hadn't the conceit—we were cousins ... it seemed natural. And now ... this!"
A stupid catch in his throat arrested him. She sat motionless; never a word.
Impulsively he dropped on one knee, to be nearer, yet not too near. "Aruna—I don't know how to say it. The fact is ... they were afraid, at Home, if I came out here, I might—it might ... Well, just what's come to us," he blurted out in desperation. "And Mother told me frankly—it mustn't be, twice running ... like that." Her stillness dismayed him. "Dear," he urged tenderly, "you see their difficulty—you understand?"
"I am trying—to understand." Her voice was small and contained. The courage and control of it unsteadied him more than any passionate protest. Yet he hurried on in the same low tone.
"Of course, I ought to have thought. But, as I say, it seemed natural.... Only—on Dewali night——"
She caught her breath. "Yes—Dewali night. Mai Lakshmi knew. Why did you not say it then?"
"Well ... so soon—I wasn't sure ... I hoped going away might give us both a chance. It seemed the best I could do," he pleaded. "And—there was Dyan. I'm not vamping up excuses, Aruna. If you hate me for hurting you so——"
"Roy—you shall not say it!" she cried, roused at last. "Could I hate ... the heart in my own body!"
"Better for us both perhaps if you could!" he jerked out, rising abruptly, not daring to let the full force of her confession sink in. "But—because of my father, I promised. No getting over that."
She was silent:—a silence more moving, more compelling than speech. Was she wondering—had he not promised...? Was he certain himself? Near enough to swear by; and the impulse to comfort her was overwhelming.
"If—if things had been different, Aruna," he added with grave tenderness, "of course I would be asking you now ... to be my wife."
At that, the tension of her control seemed to snap; and hiding her face, she sat there shaken all through with muffled, broken-hearted sobs.
"Don't—oh, don't!" he cried low, his own nerves quivering with her pain.
"How can I not" she wailed, battling with fresh sobs. "Because of your Indian mother—I hoped.... But for me—England-returned—no hope anywhere: no true country now; no true belief; no true home; everything divided in two; only my heart—not divided. And that you cannot have, even if you would——"
Tears threatened again. It was all he could do not to take her in his arms.
"If—if they would only leave me alone," she went on, clenching her small hands to steady herself. "But impossible to change all the laws of our religion for one worthless me. They will insist I shall marry—even Dyan; and I cannot—I cannot——!"
Suddenly there sprang an inspiration, born of despair, of the chance and the hour and the grave tenderness of his assurance. No time for shrinking or doubt. Almost in speaking she was on her feet; her cloak—that had come unlinked—dropped from her shoulders, leaving her a slim strip of pallor, like a ray of light escaped from clouds.
"Roy—Dilkusha!" Involuntarily her hands went out to him. "If it is true ... you are caring—and if I must not belong to you, there is a way you can belong to me without trouble for any one. If—if we make pledge of betrothal ... for this one night, if you hold me this one hour ... I am safe. For me that pledge would be sacred—as marriage, because I am still Hindu. Perhaps I am punished for far-away sins—not worthy to be wife and mother; but, by my pledge, I can remain always Swami Bakht—worshipper of my lord ... a widow in my heart."
And Roy stood before her—motionless; stirred all through by the thrill of her exalted passion, of her strange appeal. The pathos—the nobility of it—swept him a little off his feet. It seemed as if, till to-night, he had scarcely known her. The Eastern in him said, 'Accept.' The Englishman demurred—'Unfair on her.'
"My dear——" he said—"I can refuse you nothing. But—is it right? You should marry——"
"Don't trouble your mind for me," she murmured; and her eyes never left his face. "If I keep out of purdah, becoming Brahmo Samaj ... perhaps——" She drew in her full lower lip to steady it. "But the marriage of arrangement—I cannot. I have read too many English books, thought too many English thoughts. And I know in here"—one clenched hand smote her breast—"that now I could not give my body and life to any man, unless heart and mind are given too. And for me.... Must I tell all? It is not only these few weeks. It is years and years...." Her voice broke.
"Aruna! Dearest one——"
He opened his arms to her—and she was on his breast. Close and tenderly he held her, putting a strong constraint on himself lest her ecstasy of surrender should bear down all his defences. To fail her like this was a bitter thing: and as her arms stole up round his neck, he instinctively tightened his hold. So yielding she was, so unsubstantial....
And suddenly a rush of memory wafted him from the moonlit hillside to the drawing-room at Home. It was his mother he held against his breast:—the silken draperies, the clinging arms, the yielding softness, the unyielding courage at the core....
So vivid, so poignant was the lightning gleam of illusion, that when it passed he felt dizzy, as if his body had been swept in the wake of his spirit, a thousand leagues and back: dizzy, yet, in some mysterious fashion, reinforced—assured....
He knew now that his defences would hold....
And Aruna, utterly at rest in his arms, knew it also. He loved her—oh yes, truly—as much as he said and more; but instinct told her there lacked ... just something; something that would have set him—and her—on fire, and perhaps have made renunciation unthinkable. Her acute, instinctive sense of it, hurt like the edge of a knife pressed on her heart; yet just enabled her to bear the unbearable. Had it been ...that way, to lose him were utter loss. This way—there would be no losing. What she had now, she would keep—whether his bodily presence were with her or no——
Next minute, she dropped from the heights. Fire ran in her veins. His lips were on her forehead.
"The seal of betrothal," he whispered. "My brave Aruna——"
Without a word she put up her face like a child; but it was very woman who yielded her lips to his....
For her, in that supreme moment, the years that were past and the years that were to come seemed gathered into a burnt-offering—laid on his shrine. For her, that long kiss held much of passion—confessed yet transcended; more of sacredness, inexpressible, because it would never come again—with him or any other man. She vowed it silently to her own heart....
Again far up the hillside a jackal laughed; another and another—as if in derision. She shivered; and he loosed his hold, still keeping an arm round her. To-night they were betrothed. He owed her all he had the right to give.
"Your cloak. You'll catch your death...." He stopped short—and flung up his head. "What was that? There—again—in those trees——"
"Some monkey perhaps," she whispered, startled by his look and tone.
"Hush—listen!" His grip tightened and they stood rigidly still, Roy straining every nerve to locate those stealthy sounds. They were almost under the arch; strong mellow light on one side, nethermost darkness on the other. And from all sides the large unheeded night seemed to close in on them—threatening, full of hidden danger.
Presently the sounds came again, unmistakably nearer; faint rustlings and creakings, then a distinct crumbling, as of loosened earth and stones. The shadowy plumes of acacia that crowned the arch stirred perceptibly, though no breeze was abroad:—and not the acacia only. To Aruna's excited fancy it seemed that the loose upper stones of the arch itself moved ever so slightly. But was it fancy? No—there again——!
And before the truth dawned on Roy, she had pushed him with all her force, so vehemently that he stumbled backward and let go of her.
Before he recovered himself, down crashed two large stones and a shower of small ones—on Aruna, not on him. With a stifled scream she tottered and fell, knocking her head against the slab of rock.
Instantly he was on his knees beside her; stanching the cut on her forehead, binding it with his handkerchief; consumed with rage and concern;—rage at himself and the dastardly intruder,—no monkey, that was certain.
His quick ear caught the stealthy rustling again, lower down; and, yes—unmistakably—a human sound, like a stifled exclamation of dismay.
"Aruna—I must get at that devil," he whispered. "Does your head feel better? Dare I leave you a moment?"
"Yes—oh yes," she whispered back. "Nothing will harm me. Only take care—please take care."
Hastily he made a pillow of his overcoat and covered her with the cloak; then, stooping down, he kissed her fervently—and was gone.
"Then was I rapt away by the impulse, one Immeasurable ... wave of a need To abolish that detested life." —BROWNING.
Lithe and noiseless as a cat, Roy crept through the archway into outer darkness. It was hateful leaving Aruna; but rage at her hurt and the primitive instinct of pursuit were not to be denied. And she might have been killed. And she had done it for him:—coals of fire, indeed! Also, the others would be getting anxious. Let him only catch that mysterious skulker, and he could shout across to the Palace roof. They would hear.
Close under the wall he waited, all the scout in him alert. The cautious rustlings drew stealthily nearer; ceased, for a few tantalising seconds; then, out of the massed shadows, there crept a moving shadow.
Roy's spring was calculated to a nicety; but the thing swerved sharply and fled up the rough hillside. There followed a ghostly chase, unreal as a nightmare, lit up by the moon's deceptive brilliance; the earth, an unstable welter of light and darkness, shifting under his feet.
The fleeing shade was agile; and plainly familiar with the ground. Baulked, and lured steadily farther from Aruna, all the Rajput flamed in Roy. During those mad moments he was capable of murdering the unknown with his hands....
Suddenly, blessedly, the thing stumbled and dropped to its knees. With the spring of a panther, he was on it, his angers at its throat, pinning it to earth. The choking cry moved him not at all:—and suddenly the moonlight showed him the face of Chandranath, mingled hate and terror in the starting eyes....
Amazed beyond measure, he unconsciously relaxed his grip. "You—is it?—you devil!"
There was no answer. Chandranath had had the wit to wriggle almost clear of him;—almost, not quite. Roy's pounce was worthy of his Rajput ancestors; and next moment they were locked in a silent, purposeful embrace....
But Roy's brain was cooler now. Sanity had returned. He could still have choked the life out of the man, without compunction. But he did not choose to embroil himself, or his people, on account of anything so contemptible as the creature that was writhing and scratching in his grasp. He simply wanted to secure him and hand him over to the Jaipur authorities, who had several scores up against him.
But Chandranath, though not skilled, had the ready cunning of the lesser breeds. With a swift unexpected move, he tripped Roy up so that he nearly fell backward; and, in a supreme effort to keep his balance, unconsciously loosened his hold. This time, Chandranath slipped free of him; and, in the act, pushed him so violently that he staggered and came down among sharp broken stones with one foot twisted under him. When he would have sprung up, a stab of pain in his ankle told him he was done for....
The sheer ignominy of it enraged him; and he was still further enraged by the proceedings of the victor, who sprang nimbly out of reach on to a fragment of buttressed wall, whence he let fly a string of abusive epithets nicely calculated to touch up Roy's pride and temper and goad him to helpless fury.
But if his ankle was crippled, his brain was not. While Chandranath indulged his pent-up spite, Roy was feeling stealthily, purposefully, in the semi-darkness, for the sharpest chunk of stone he could lay hands on; a chunk warranted to hurt badly, if nothing more. The strip of shadow against the sky made an admirable target; and Roy's move, when it came, was swift, his aim unerring.
Somewhere about the head or shoulders it took effect: a yell of rage and pain assured him of that, as his target vanished on the far side of the wall.
Had he jumped or fallen? And what did the damage amount to? Roy would have given a good deal to know; but he had neither time nor power to investigate. Nothing for it but to crawl back, and shout to Aruna, when he got within hail.
It was an undignified performance. His twisted ankle stabbed like a knife, and never failed to claim acquaintance with every obstacle in its path. Presently, to his immense relief, the darkness ahead was raked by a restless light, zigzagging like a giant glow-worm.
"Lance—ahoy!" he shouted.
"Righto!" Lance sang out; and the glow-worm waggled a welcome.
Another shout from the Palace roof, answered in concert; and the mad, bad dream was over. He was back in the world of realities; on his feet again—one foot, to be exact—supported by Desmond's arm; pouring out his tale.
Lance already knew part of it. He had found Aruna and was hurrying on to find Roy. "Your cousin's got the pluck of a Rajput," he concluded. "But she seems a bit damaged. The left arm's broken, I'm afraid."
Roy cursed freely. "Wish to God I could make sure if I've sent that skunk to blazes."
"Just as well you can't, perhaps. If your shot took effect, he won't be off in a hurry. The police can nip out when we get back."
"Look here—keep it dark till I've seen Dyan. If Chandranath's nabbed, he'll want to be in it. Only fair!"
Lance chuckled. "What an unholy pair you are!—By the way, I fancy Martin's pulled it off with Miss Flossie. I tumbled across them in the hanging garden. You left that door open. Gave me the tip you might be out on the loose."
* * * * *
Desmond's surmise proved correct. Aruna's left arm was broken above the elbow: a simple fracture, but it hurt a good deal. Thea, in charge of 'the wounded,' eased them both as best she could, during the long drive home. But Aruna, still in her exalted mood, counted mere pain a little thing, when Roy, under cover of the cloak, found her cold right hand and cherished it in his warm one nearly all the way.
No one paid much heed to Martin and Flossie, who felt privately annoyed with 'the native cousin' for putting her nose out of joint. Defrauded of her due importance, she told her complacent lover they must 'save up the news till to-morrow.' Meantime, they rode, very much at leisure, behind the barouche;—and no one troubled about them at all.
Lance and Vincent, having cantered on ahead, called in for Miss Hammond and left word at Sir Lakshman's house that Aruna had met with a slight accident; and would he and her brother come out to the Residency after dinner?
Before the meal was over, they arrived. Miss Hammond was upstairs attending to Aruna; and Sir Lakshman joined them without ceremony, leaving Dyan alone with Roy, who was nursing his ankle in an arm-chair near the drawing-room fire.
In ten minutes of intimate talk he heard the essential facts, with reservations; and Roy had never felt more closely akin to him than on that evening. Rajput chivalry is no mere tradition. It is vital and active as ever it was. Insult or injury to a woman is sternly avenged; and the offender is lucky if he escapes the extreme penalty. Roy frankly hoped he had inflicted it himself. But for Dyan surmise was not enough. He would not eat nor sleep till he had left his own mark on the man who had come near killing his sister—most sacred being to him, who had neither wife nor mother.
"The delicate attention was meant for me, you know," Roy reminded him; simply from a British impulse to give the devil his due.
"Tcha!" Dyan's thumb and finger snapped like a toy pistol. "No law-courts talk for me. You were so close together. He took the risk. By Indra, he won't take any more such risks if I get at him! You said we would not see him here. But no doubt he has been hanging round Amber, making what mischief he can. He must have heard your party was coming, and got sneaking round for a chance to score off you. Young Ramanund, priest of Kali's shrine, is one of those he has made his tool, the way he made me. If he is in Amber, I shall find him. You can take your oath on that." He stood up, straight and virile, instinct with purpose as a drawn sword. "I am going now, Roy. But not one word to any soul. Grandfather and Aruna only need to know I am trying to find who toppled those stones. I shall not succeed. That is all:—except for you and me. Bijli, Son of Lightning, will take me full gallop to Amber. First thing in the morning, I will come—and make my report."
"But look here—Lance knows——"
"Well, your Lance can suppose he got away. We could trust him, I don't doubt. But what is known to more than two, will in time be known to a hundred. For myself, I don't trouble. Among Rajputs the penalty would be slight. But this thing must be kept between you and me—because of Aruna."
Roy held out his hand. Dyan's fingers closed on it like taut strips of steel. Unmistakably the real Dyan Singh had shed the husks of scholarship and politics and come into his own again.
"I wouldn't care to have those at my throat!" remarked Roy, pensively considering the streaks on his own hand.
"Some Germans didn't care for it—in France," said Dyan coolly. "But now——" He scowled at his offending left arm. "I hope—very soon ... never mind. No more talking ... poison gas!" And with a flash of white teeth—he was gone.
Roy, left staring into the fire, followed him in imagination, speeding through the silent city out into the region of skulls and eye-sockets—a flying shadow in the moonlight with murder in its heart....
* * * * *
Within an hour, that flying shadow was outside the gateway of Amber, startling the doorkeepers from sleep; murder, not only in its heart, but tucked securely in its belt. No 'law-courts talk' for one of his breed; no nice adjustment of penalty to offence; no concern as to possible consequences. The Rajput, with his blood up, is daring to the point of recklessness; deaf to puerile promptings of prudence or mercy; a sword, seeking its victim; insatiate till the thrust has gone home.
And, in justice to Dyan Singh, it should be added that there was more than Aruna in his mind. There was India—increasingly at the mercy of Chandranath and his kind. The very blindness of his earlier obsession had intensified the effect of his awakening. Roy's devoted daring, his grandfather's mellow wisdom, had worked in his fiery soul more profoundly than they knew: and his act of revenge was also, in his eyes, an act of expiation. At the bidding of Chandranath, or another, he would unhesitatingly have flung a bomb at the Commissioner of Delhi—the sane, strong man whose words and bearing had so impressed him on the few occasions they had met at the Residency. By what law of God or man, then, should he hesitate to grind the head of this snake under his heel?
One-handed though he was, he would not strike from behind. The son of a jackal should know who struck him. He should taste fear, before he tasted death. And then—the Lake, that would never give up its secret or its dead. Siri Chandranath would disappear from his world, like a stone flung into a river; and India would be a cleaner place without him.
He knew himself hampered, if it came to a struggle. But—tcha! the man was a coward. Let the gods but deliver his victim into that one purposeful hand of his—and the end was sure.
Near the Palace, he deserted Bijli, Son of Lightning; tethered him securely and spoke a few words in his ear, while the devoted creature nuzzled against him, as who should say, 'What need of speech between me and thee'? Then—following Roy's directions—he made his way cautiously up the hillside, where the arch showed clear in the moon. If Chandranath had been injured or stupefied, he would probably not have gone far.
His surmise proved correct. His stealthy approach well-timed. The guardian gods of Amber, it seemed, were on his side. For there, on the fallen slab, crouched a shadow, bowed forward; its head in its hands.
"Must have been stunned," he thought. Patently the gods were with him. Had he been an Englishman, the man's hurt would probably have baulked him of his purpose. But Dyan Singh, Rajput, was not hampered by the sportman's code of morals. He was frankly out to kill. His brain worked swiftly, instinctively: and swift action followed....
Out of the sheltering shadow he leapt, as the cheetah leaps on its prey: the long knife gripped securely in his teeth. Before Chandranath came to his senses, the steel-spring grasp was on his throat, stifling the yell of terror at Roy's supposed return....
The tussle was short and silent. Within three minutes Dyan had his man down; arms and body pinioned between his powerful knees, that his one available hand might be free to strike. Then, in a low fierce rush, he spoke: "Yes—it is I—Dyan Singh. You told me often—strike, for the Mother. 'Who kills the body kills naught.' I strike for the Mother now."
Once—twice—the knife struck deep; and the writhing thing between his knees was still.
He did not altogether relish the weird journey down to the shore of the Lake; or the too close proximity of the limp burden slung over his shoulder. But his imagination did not run riot, like Roy's: and no qualms of conscience perturbed his soul. He had avenged, tenfold, Aruna's injury. He had expiated, in drastic fashion, his own aberration from sanity. It was enough.
The soft 'plop' and splash of the falling body, well weighted with stones, was music to his ear. Beyond that musical murmur, the Lake would utter no sound....
"So let him journey through his earthly day: 'Mid hustling spirits go his self-found way; Find torture, bliss, in every forward stride— He, every moment, still unsatisfied." —FAUST.
Next morning, very early, he was closeted with Roy, sitting on the edge of his bed; cautiously, circumstantially, telling him all. Roy, as he listened, was half repelled, half impressed by the sheer impetus of the thing; and again he felt—as once or twice in Delhi—what centuries apart they were, though related, and almost of an age.
"This will be only between you and me, Roy—for always," Dyan concluded gravely. "Not because I have any shame for killing that snake; but—as I said ... because of Aruna——"
"Trust me," said Roy. "Amber Lake and I don't blab. There'll be a nine days' mystery over his disappearance. Then his lot will set up some other tin god—and promptly forget all about him."
"Let us follow their example, in that at least!" Grim humour nickered in Dyan's eyes, as he extracted a cigarette from the proffered case. "You gave me my chance. I have taken it—like a Rajput. Now we have other things to do."
Roy smiled. "That's about the size of it—from your sane, barbaric standpoint! I'm fairly besieged with other things to do. As soon as this blooming ankle allows me to hobble, I'm keen to get at some of the thoughtful elements in Calcutta and Bombay; educated Indian men and women, who honestly believe that India is moving towards a national unity that will transcend all antagonism of race and creed. I can't see it myself; but I've an open mind. Then, I think, Udaipur—'last, loneliest, loveliest, apart'—to knock my novel into shape before I go North. And you——?" He pensively took stock of his volcanic cousin. "Sure you're safe not to erupt again?"
"Safe as houses—thanks to you. That doesn't mean I can be orthodox Hindu and work for the orthodox Jaipur Raj. I would like to join 'Servants of India' Society; and work for the Mother among those who accept British connection as India's God-given destiny. In no other way will I work again—to 'make her a widow.' Also, I thought perhaps——" he hesitated, averting his eyes—"to take vows of celibacy——"
"Dyan!" Roy could not repress his astonishment. He had almost forgotten that side of things. Right or wrong—a tribute to Tara indeed! It jerked him uncomfortably; almost annoyed him.
"Unfair on Grandfather," he said with decision. "For every reason, you ought to marry—an enlightened wife. Think—of Aruna."
"I do think of her. It is she who ought to marry."
The emphasis was not lost on Roy:—and it hurt. Last night's poignant scene was intimately with him still. "I'm afraid you won't persuade her to," he said in a contained voice.
"I am quite aware of that. And the reason—even a blind man could not fail to see."
They looked straight at one another for a long moment. Roy did not swerve from the implied accusation.
"Well, it's no fault of mine, Dyan," he said, recalling Aruna's confession that tacitly freed him from blame. "She understands—there's a bigger thing between us than our mere selves. Whatever I'm free to do for her, I'll gladly do—always. It was chiefly to ease her poor heart that I risked the Delhi adventure. I felt I had lost the link with you."
"Not surprising." Dyan smoked for a few minutes in silence. He was clearly moved by the fine frankness of Roy's attitude. "All the same," he said at last, "it was not quite broken. You have given me new life; and because you did it—for her, I swear to you, as long as she needs me, I will not fail her." He held out his hand. Roy's closed on it hard.
"Later in the morning I will come back and see her," Dyan added, in a changed voice—and went out.
* * * * *
Later in the morning, Roy himself was allowed to see her. With the help of his stick he limped to her verandah balcony, where she lay in a long chair, with cushions and rugs, the poor arm in a sling. Thea was with her. She had heard as much of last night's doings as any one would ever know. So she felt justified in letting the poor dears have half an hour together.
Her withdrawal was tactfully achieved; but there followed an awkward silence. For the space of several minutes it seemed that neither of the 'poor dears' knew quite what to make of their privilege, though they were appreciating it from their hearts.
Roy found himself too persistently aware of the arm that had been broken to save him; of the new bond between them, signed and sealed by that one unforgettable kiss.
As for Aruna—while pain anchored her body to earth, her unstable heart swayed disconcertingly from heights of rarefied content, to depths of shyness. Things she had said and done, on that far-away hillside, seemed unbelievable, remembered in her familiar balcony with a daylight mind: and fear lest he might be 'thinking it that way too' increased shyness tenfold. Yet it was she who spoke first, after all.
"Oh, it makes me angry ... to see you—like that," she said, indicating his ankle with a faint movement of her hand.
Roy quietly took possession of the hand and pressed it to his lips.
"How do you suppose I feel, seeing you like that!" Words and act dispelled her foolish fears. "Did you sleep? Does it hurt much?"
"Only if I forget and try to move. But what matter? Every time it hurts, I feel proud because that feeble arm was able to push you out of the way."