"And if we had, I suppose the thrill would have gone one better!" Roy wickedly suggested. He was annoyed at being delayed.
"You deserve 'yes' to that! But if I said what I really thought, your head would be turned. And it's quite sufficiently turned already!" She beamed on him with arch significance, enjoying his impatience without a tinge of malice. There was little of it in her; and the little there was, she reserved for her own sex.
"I suppose it's a dead secret ... whose favour you are going to wear?"
"That's the ruling," said Roy; but he felt his blood tingling, and hoped to goodness it didn't show through.
"Well, I've got big bets on about guessing right; and the biggest bet's on yours! Major Desmond's a good second."
"Oh, he bars the whole idea."
"I'm relieved to hear it. I was angelic enough to offer him mine, thinking he might be feeling out in the cold!" (another arch look) "and—he refused. My 'Happy Warrior' doesn't seem quite so happy as he used to be——"
The light thrust struck home, but Roy ignored it. If Lance barred wearing favours, he barred discussing Lance with women. Driven into a corner, he managed somehow to escape, and hurried away in search of his rose.
Mrs Ranyard, looking after him, with frankly affectionate concern, found herself wondering—was he really quite so transparent as he seemed? That queer visionary look in his eyes, now and then, suggested spiritual depths, or heights, that might baffle even the all-appropriating Rose? Did she seriously intend to appropriate him? There were vague rumours of a title. But no one knew anything about him, really, except the two Desmonds; and she would be a brave woman who tried to squeeze family details out of them. The boy was too good for her; but still....
Roy, reappearing, felt idiotically convinced that every eye was on the little spot of yellow in his button-hole that linked him publicly with the girl who wore a cluster of its fellows at her belt.
Time was nearly up. She had moved to the front now, and was free of men, standing very still, gazing intently....
Roy, following her gaze, saw Lance—actually in the tent—discussing some detail with the Colonel.
"What makes her look at him like that?" he wondered; and it was as if the tip of a red-hot needle touched his heart.
Next moment she saw him, and beckoned him with her eyes. He came, instinctively obedient; and her welcoming glance included the rosebud. "You found it?" she said, very low, mindful of feminine ears. "And—you deserve it, after that marvellous exhibition. You went such a pace. It—frightened me."
It frightened him, a little, the exceeding softness of her look and tone; and she added, more softly still, "My handkerchief, please."
"My handkerchief!" he retorted. "I won it fairly. You've admitted as much."
"But it wasn't meant—for a prize."
"I risked something to win it anyway," said he, "and now——"
The blare of the megaphone—a poor substitute for heralds' trumpets—called the knights of the wire-mask and fencing-stick into the lists.
"Go in and win the rosebud too!" said she, when the shouting ceased. "Keep cool. Don't lose your head—or your feather!"
He had lost his head already. She had seen to that. And turning to leave her, he found Lance almost at his elbow.
"Come along, Roy," he said, an imperative note in his voice; and if his glance included the rosebud, it gave no sign.
As they neared the gathering group of combatants, he turned with one of his quick looks.
"You're in luck, old man. Every inducement to come out top!" he remarked, only half in joke. "I've none, except my own credit. But you'll have a tough job if you knock up against me."
"Right you are," Roy answered, jarred by the look and tone more than the words. "If you're so dead keen, I'll take you on."
After that, Roy hoped exceedingly that luck might cast them in the same team.
But it fell out otherwise.
Lance drew red; Roy, blue. Lance and Major Devines, of the Monmouths, were chosen as leaders. They were the only two on the ground who wore no favours: and they fronted each other with smiles of approval, their respective teams—ten a side—drawn up in two long lines; heads caged in wire-masks, tufted, with curly feathers, red and blue; ponies champing and pawing the air. Not precisely a picturesque array; but if the plumes and trappings of chivalry were lacking, the spirit of it still nickered within; and will continue to flicker, just so long as modern woman will permit.
At the crack of a pistol they were off, full tilt; but there was no shock of lance on shield, no crash and clang of armour that 'could be heard at a mile's distance,' as in the days of Ivanhoe. There was only the sharp rattle of fencing-sticks against each other and the masks, the clatter of eighty-eight hooves on hard ground; a lively confusion of horses and men, advancing, backing, 'turning on a sixpence' to meet a sudden attack; voices, Indian and English, shouting or cheering; and the intermittent call of the umpire declaring a player knocked out as his feather fluttered into the dust. Clouds of dust enveloped them in a shifting haze. They breathed dust. It gritted between their teeth. What matter? They were having at each other in furious yet friendly combat; and, being Englishmen, they were perfectly happy; keen to win, ready to lose with a good grace and cheer the better man.
In none of them, perhaps, did the desire to win burn quite so fiercely as in Lance and Roy. But more than ever, now, Roy shrank from a final tussle between them. Surely there was one man of them all good enough to put Lance out of court.
For a time Major Devines kept him occupied. While Roy accounted for two red feathers, the well-matched pair were making a fine fight of it up and down the field, to the tune of cheers and counter-cheers.
But it was the blue feather that fell; and Lance, swinging round, charged into the melee—seven reds now, to six blue.
Twice, in the scrimmage, Roy came up against him, but managed to shift ground, leaving another man to tackle him. Both times it was the blue feather that fell. Steadily the numbers thinned. Roy's wrist and arm were tiring, a trifle; but resolve to win burned fiercely as ever. By now it was clear to all who were the two best men in the field, and excitement rose as the numbers dwindled....
Four to three; blues leading. Two all. And at last—an empty dusty arena; and they two alone in the midst, ringed in by thousands of faces, thousands of eyes....
Till that moment, the spectators had simply not existed for Roy. Now, of a sudden, they crowded in on him—tightly-wedged wall of humanity—expectant, terrifying....
The two had drawn rein, facing each other; and for that mere moment Roy felt as if his nerve was gone. A glance at the crowded tent, the gleam of a blue-green figure leaning forward....
Then Lance's voice, low and peremptory, 'Come on.'
In the same breath he himself came on, with formidable elan. Their sticks rattled sharply. Roy parried a high slicing stroke—only just in time.
Thank God, he was himself again; so much himself that he was beset by a sneaking desire to let Lance win. It was his weakness in games, just when the goal seemed in sight. Tara used to scold him fiercely....
But there was Miss Arden, the rosebud....
And suddenly, startlingly, Roy became aware that for Lance this was no game. He was fencing like a man inspired. There was more than mere skill in his feints and shrewd blows; more in it than a feather.
Two cuts over the arm and shoulder, a good deal sharper than need be, fairly roused Roy. Next moment they were literally fighting, at closest range, for all they were worth, to the accompaniment of yell on yell, cheer on cheer....
As the issue hung doubtful and excitement intensified, it became clear that Lance was losing his temper. Roy, hurt and angry, tried to keep cool. Against an antagonist so skilled and relentless, it was his only chance. Their names were shouted. "Shahbash Sinkin, Sahib," from the men of Roy's old squadron; and from Lance's men, "Desmin Sahib ki jai!"
Twice Roy's slicing stroke almost came off—almost, not quite. The maddening little feather still held its own; and Lance, by way of rejoinder, caught him a blow on his mask that made his head ache for an hour after.
Up went his arm to return the blow with interest. Lance, instead of parrying, lunged—and the head of a yellow bud dropped in the dust.
At that Roy saw red. His lifted hand shook visibly; and with the moment's loss of control went his last hope of victory....
Next instant his feather had joined the rosebud; the crowd were roaring themselves hoarse; and Roy was riding off the ground—shorn of plume and favour, furiously disappointed, and feeling a good deal more bruised about the arms and shoulders than anything on earth would have induced him to admit.
Of course he ought to go up and congratulate Lance; but just then it seemed a physical impossibility. Mercifully he was surrounded and borne off to the refreshment tent; sped on his way by a rousing ovation as he passed the shamianah.
Roy, following after, had his full share of praise, and a salvo of applause from the main tent.
Saluting and looking round, he dared not meet Miss Arden's eye. Had he won, she might have owned him. As it was, he had better keep his distance. But the glimpse he got of her face startled him. It looked curiously white and strained. His own imagination, perhaps. It was only a flash. But it haunted him. He felt responsible. She had been so radiantly sure....
Arrived in the other tent—feeling stupidly giddy and in pain—he sank down on the first available chair. Friendly spirits ordered drinks, and soothed him with compliments. A thundering good fight. To be so narrowly beaten by Desmond was an achievement in itself; and so forth.
Lance and Paul, still surrounded, were at the other end of the long table; and a very fair wedge of thirsty, perspiring manhood filled the intervening space. Roy did not feel like stirring. He felt more like drinking half a dozen 'pegs' in succession. But soon he was aware of a move going on. The prizes, of course; and he had two to collect. By a special decree, the Tournament prize would be given first. So he need not hurry. The tent was emptying swiftly. He must screw himself up to congratulations....
The screwing was still in process when Lance crossed the tent—nearly empty now—and stopped in front of him.
"See here, Roy—I apologise," he said hurriedly, in a low tone. "I lost my temper. Not fair play——"
Instantly Roy was on his feet, shoulders squared, the last spark of antagonism extinct.
"If it comes to that, I lost mine too," he admitted, and Lance smiled.
"You did! But—I began it." There was an instant of painful hesitation, then, "It—it was an accident—the favour——"
"Oh, that's all right," Roy muttered, embarrassed and overcome.
"It's not all right. It put you off." Another pause. "Will you take half the Purse?"
"Not I." Glory apart, he knew very well how badly Lance needed the money. "It's yours. And you deserve it."
They both spoke low and rapidly, as if on a matter of business, for there were still some men at the other end of the tent. But at that, to Roy's amazement, Lance held out his hand.
"Thanks, old man. Shake hands—here, where the women can see us. You bet ... they twigged.... And they chatter so infernally.... Unfair—on Miss Arden——"
Roy felt himself reddening. It was Lance all over—that chivalrous impulse. So they shook hands publicly, to the astonishment of interested kitmutgars, who had been betting freely, and were marvelling afresh at the strange ways of Sahibs.
"I'll doctor your bruises to-night!" said Lance. "And I accept, gratefully, your share of the purse. She won't relish—giving it to the wrong 'un." The last, barely audible, came out in a rush, with a jerk of the head that Roy knew well. "Come along and see how prettily she does it."
To Roy's infatuated eyes, she did it inimitably. Standing there, tall and serene, in her pale-coloured gown and bewitching hat, instinct with the mysterious authority of beauty, she handed the prize to Desmond with a little gracious speech of congratulation, adding, "It was a close fight; but you won it—fairly."
Roy started. Did Lance notice the lightest imaginable stress on the word?
"Thanks very much," he said; and saluted, looking her straight in the eyes.
Roy, watching intently, fancied he saw a ghost of a blush stir under the even pallor of her skin. She had told him once, in joke, that she never blushed; it was not one of her accomplishments. But for half a second she came perilously near it; and although it enhanced her beauty tenfold, it troubled Roy.
Then—as the cheering died down—he saw her turn to the Colonel, who was supporting her, and heard her clear deliberate tones, that carried with so little effort: "I think, Colonel Desmond, every one must agree that the honours are almost equally divided——"
More applause; and Roy—scarcely crediting his ears or eyes—saw her pick a rose from her cluster.
The moment speech was possible, she leaned forward, smiling frankly at him before them all.
"Mr Sinclair, will you accept a mere token by way of consolation prize? We are all agreed you put up a splendid fight; and it was no dishonour to be defeated by—such an adversary."
Fresh clapping and shouting; while Roy—elated and overwhelmed—went forward like a man walking in a dream.
It was a dream-woman who pinned the rosebud in his empty button-hole, patting it into shape with the lightest touch of her finger-tips, saying, "Well done indeed," and smiling at him again....
Without a word he saluted and walked away.
She had done it prettily, past question; and in a fashion all her own.
[Footnote 24: Marquee tent.]
[Footnote 25: Criminal Investigation Department.]
[Footnote 26: Well done.]
[Footnote 27: Victory to Desmond Sahib.]
"Blood and brain and spirit, three— Join for true felicity. Are they parted, then expect Someone sailing will be wrecked." —GEORGE MEREDITH.
On the night after the Gymkhana the great little world of Lahore was again disporting itself, with unabated vigour, in the pillared ballroom of the Lawrence Hall. They could tell tales worth inditing, those pillars and galleries that have witnessed all the major festivities of Punjab Anglo-India—its loves and jealousies and high-hearted courage—from the day of crinolines and whiskers, to this day of the tooth-brush moustache, the retiring skirts and still more retiring bodices of after-war economy. And there are those who believe they will witness the revelry of Anglo-Indian generations yet to be.
Had Lance Desmond shared Roy's gift for visions, he might have seen, in spirit, the ghosts of his mother and father, in the pride of their youth, and that first legendary girl-wife, of whom Thea had once told him all she knew, and whose grave he had seen in Kohat cemetery with a queer mingling of pity and resentment in his heart. There should have been no one except his own splendid mother—first, last, and all the time.
But Lance, though no scoffer, had small intimacy with ghosts; and Roy's frequented other regions; nor was he in the frame of mind to induce spiritual visitations. Soul and body were enmeshed, as in a network of sunbeams, holding him close to earth.
For weeks part of him had been fighting, subconsciously, against the compelling power that is woman; now, consciously, he was alive to it, swept along by it, as by a tidal wave. Since that amazing moment at the prize-giving, all his repressed ferment had welled up and overflowed; and when an imaginative, emotional nature loses grip on the reins, the pace is apt to be headlong, the course perilous....
He had dined at the Eltons'—a lively party; chaff and laughter and champagne; and Miss Arden—after yesterday's graciousness—in a tantalising, elusive mood. But he had his dances secure—six out of twenty, not to mention the cotillon, after supper, which they were to lead. She was wearing what he called her 'Undine frock'—a clinging affair, fringed profusely with silver and palest green, that suggested to his fancy Undine emerging from the stream in a dripping garment of water-weeds. Her arms and shoulders emerged from it a little too noticeably for his taste; but to-night his critical brain was in abeyance.
Look where he would, talk to whom he would, he was persistently, distractingly aware of her; and she could not elude him the whole evening long....
* * * * *
Supper was over. The cotillon itself was almost over; the maypole figure adding a flutter of bright ribbons to the array of flags and bunting, evening dresses, and uniforms. Twice, in the earlier figures, she had chosen him; but this time, the chance issue of pairing by colours gave her to Desmond. Roy saw a curious look pass between them. Then Lance put his arm round her, and they danced without a break.
When it was over, Roy went in search of iced coffee. In a few seconds those two appeared on the same errand, and merged themselves in a lively group. Roy, irresistibly, followed suit; and when the music struck up, Lance handed her over with a formal bow.
"Your partner, I think, old man. Thanks for the loan," he said; and his smile was for Roy as he turned and walked leisurely away.
Roy looked after him, feeling pained and puzzled; the more so, because Lance clearly had the whip-hand. It was she who seemed the less assured of the two; and he caught himself wishing he possessed the power so to upset her equanimity. Was it even remotely possible that—she cared seriously, and Lance would not...?
"Brown studies aren't permitted in ballrooms, Mr Sinclair!" she rallied him in her gentlest voice—and Lance was forgotten. "Come and tie an extra big choc. on to my fishing-rod."
Roy disapproved of the chocolate figure, as derogatory to masculine dignity. Six brief-skirted, briefer-bodiced girls stood on chairs, each dangling a chocolate cream from a fishing-rod of bamboo and coloured ribbon. Before them, on six cushions, knelt six men; heads tilted back, bobbing this way and that, at the caprice of the angler; occasionally losing balance, and half toppling over amid shouts and cheers.
How did that kind of fooling strike the 'kits' and the Indian bandsman up aloft, wondered Roy. A pity they never gave a thought to that side of the picture. He determined not to be drawn in. Lance, he noticed, studiously refrained. Miss Arden—having tantalised three aspirants—was looking round for a fourth victim. Their eyes met—and he was done for....
Directly his knee touched the cushion, the recoil came sharply—too late. And she—as if aware of his reluctance—played him mercilessly, smiling down on him with her astonishing hazel eyes....
Roy's patience and temper gave out. Tingling with mortification, he rose and walked away, to be greeted with a volley of good-natured chaff.
He was followed by Lister, 'the R.E. boy,' who at once secured the elusive bait, clearly by favour rather than skill. The rest had already paired. The band struck up; and Roy, partnerless, stood looking on, the film of the East over his face masking the clash of forces within. The fool he was to have given way! And this—before them all—after yesterday...!
His essential masculinity stood confounded; blind to the instinct of the essential coquette—allurement by flight. He resolved to take no part in the final figure—the mirror and handkerchief; would not even look at her, lest she catch his eye.
Her choice fell on Hayes; and Roy—elaborately indifferent—carried Lance off to the buffet for champagne cup. It was a thirsty evening; a relief to be quit of the ballroom and get a breath of masculine fresh air. The fencing-bout and its aftermath had consciously quickened his feeling for Lance. In the fury of that fight they seemed to have worked off the hidden friction of the past few weeks that had dimmed the steady radiance of their friendship. It was as if a storm-cloud had burst and the sun shone out again.
They said nothing intimate, nothing worthy of note. They were simply content.
Yet, when music struck up, Roy was in a fever to be with her again.
Her welcoming smile revived his reckless mood. "Ours—this time, anyway," he said, in an odd repressed voice.
Her answering look vanquished him utterly. As his arm encircled her, he fancied she leaned ever so little towards him, as if admitting that she too felt the thrill of coming together again. Fancy or no, it was like a lighted match dropped in a powder magazine....
For Roy that single valse, out of scores they had danced together, was an experience by itself.
While the music plays, a man encircles one woman and another, from habit, without a flicker of emotion. But to-night volcanic forces in Roy were rising like champagne when the cork begins to move. Never had he been so disturbingly aware that he was holding her in his arms; that he wanted tremendously to go on holding her when the music stopped. To this danger-point he had been brought by the unconscious effect of delicate approaches and strategic retreats. And the man who has most firmly kept the cork on his emotions is often the most unaccountable when it flies off....
The music ceased. They were merely partners again. He led her out into starry darkness, velvet soft; very quiet and contained to the outer eye; inwardly, of a sudden, afraid of himself, still more afraid of the serenely beautiful girl at his side.
He knew perfectly well what he wanted to do; but not at all what he wanted to say. For him, as his mother's son, marriage had a sacredness, an apartness from random emotions, however overwhelming; and it went against the grain to approach that supreme subject in his present fine confusion of heart and body and brain.
They wandered on a little. Like himself, she seemed smitten dumb; and with every moment of silence, he became more acutely aware of her. He had discovered that this was one of her most potent spells. Never for long could a man be unaware of her, of the fact that she was before everything—a woman.
In a sense—how different!—it had been the same with Aruna. But with Aruna it was primitive, instinctive. This exotic flower of Western girlhood wielded her power with conscious, consummate skill....
Near a seat well away from the Hall she stopped. "We don't want any more exercise, do we?" she said softly.
"I've had enough for the present," he answered. And they sat down.
Silence again. He didn't know what to say to her. He only craved overwhelmingly to take her in his arms. Had she a glimmering idea—sitting there, so close ... so alluring...?
And suddenly, to his immense relief, she spoke.
"It was splendid. A pity it's over. That's the litany of Anglo-India. It's over. Change the scene. Shuffle the puppets—and begin again. I've been doing it for six years——"
"And—it doesn't pall?" His voice sounded quite natural, quite composed, which was also a relief.
"Pall?—You try it!" For the first time he detected a faint note of bitterness. "But still—a cotillon's a cotillon!"—She seemed to pull herself together.—"There's an exciting element in it that keeps its freshness. And I flatter myself we carried it through brilliantly—you and I." The pause before the linked pronouns gave him an odd little thrill. "But—what put you off ... at the end?"
Her amazing directness took him aback. "I—oh, well—I thought ... one way and another, you'd been having enough of me."
"That's not true!" She glanced at him sidelong. "You were vexed because I chose the Lister boy. And he was all over himself, poor dear! As a matter of fact, I'd meant to have you. If you'd only looked at me ...! But you stared fiercely the other way. However, perhaps we've been flagrant enough for to-night——"
Daring, passionate words thronged his brain; and through his inner turmoil, he heard her answer lightly: "Don't ask me! Ask the Banter-Wrangle. She knows to an inch the degrees of flagrance officially permitted to the attached and the unattached! You see, in India, we're allowed ... a certain latitude."
"Yes—I've noticed. It's a pity...." Words simply would not come, on this theme of all others. Was she indirectly ... telling him ...?
"And you disapprove—tooth and nail?" she queried gently. "I hoped you were different. You don't know how tired we are of eternal disapproval from people who simply know nothing—nothing——"
"But I don't disapprove," he blurted out vehemently. "It always strikes me as a rather middle-class, puritanical attitude. I only think—it's a thousand pities to take the bloom off ... the big thing—the real thing, by playing at it (you can see they do) like lawn tennis, just to pass the time——"
"Well, Heaven knows, we've got to pass the time out here—somehow!" she retorted, with a sudden warmth that startled him: it was so unlike her. "All very fine for people at home to turn up superior noses at us; to say we live in blinkers, that we've no intellectual pursuits, no interest in 'this wonderful country.' I confess, to some of us, India and its people are holy terrors. As for art and music and theatres—where are they, except what we make for ourselves, in our indefatigable, amateurish way. Can't you see—you, with your imaginative insight—that we have virtually nothing but each other? If we spent our days bowing and scraping and dining and dancing with due decorum, there'd be a boom in suicides and the people in clover at Home would placidly wonder why——?"
"But do listen. I'm not blaming—any of you," he exclaimed, distracted by her complete misreading of his mood.
"Well, you're criticising—in your heart. And your opinion's worth something—to some of us. Even if we do occasionally—play at being in love, there's always the offchance it may turn out to be ... the real thing." She drew an audible breath and added, in her lighter vein: "You know, you're a very fair hand at it yourself—in your restrained, fakirish fashion——"
"But I don't—I'm not——" he stammered desperately. "And why d'you call me a fakir? It's not the first time. And it's not true. I believe in life—and the fulness of life."
"I'm glad. I'm not keen on fakirs. But I only meant—one can't picture you playing round, the way heaps of men do with girls ... who allow them ..."
"No. That's true. I never——"
"What—never? Or is it 'hardly ever'?"
She leaned a shade nearer, her beautiful pale face etherealised by starshine. And that infinitesimal movement, her low tone, the sheer magnetism of her, swept him from his moorings. Words low and passionate came all in a rush.
"What are, you doing with me? Why d'you tantalise me. Whether you're there or not there, your face haunts me—your voice. It may be play for you—it isn't for me——"
"I've never said—I've never implied—it was play ... for me——"
This time perceptibly she leaned nearer, mute confession in her look, her tone; and delicate fire ran in his veins....
Next moment his arms were round her; trembling, yet vehement; crushing her against him almost roughly. No mistaking the response of her lips; yet she never stirred; only the fingers of her right hand closed sharply on his arm. Having hold of her at last, after all that inner tumult and resistance, he could hardly let her go. Yet—strangely—even in the white heat of fervour, some detached fragment, at the core of him, seemed to be hating the whole thing, hating himself—and her——
Instantly he released her ... looked at her ... realised.... In those few tempestuous moments he had burnt his boats indeed ...
She met his eyes now, found them too eloquent, and veiled her own.
"No. You are not altogether—a fakir," she said softly.
"I'd no business. I'm sorry ..." he began, answering his own swift compunction, not her remark.
"I'm not—unless you really mean—you are?" Faint raillery gleamed in her eyes. "You did rather overwhelmingly take things for granted. But still ... after that...."
"Yes—after that ... if you really mean it?"
"Well ... what do you think?"
"I simply can't think," he confessed, with transparent honesty. "I hardly know if I'm on my head or my heels. I only know you've bewitched me. I'm infatuated—intoxicated with you. But ... if you do care enough ... to marry me——"
"My dear—Roy—can you doubt it?"
He had never heard her voice so charged with emotion. For all answer, he held her close—with less assurance now—and kissed her again....
* * * * *
In course of time they remembered that a pause only lasts five minutes; that there were other partners.
"If we're not to be too flagrant, even for India," she said, rising with unperturbed deliberation, "I suggest we go in. Goodness knows where they've got to by now!"
He stood up also. "It matters a good deal more ... where we've got to. I'll come over to-morrow and see ... your people...."
"No. You'll come over—and see me! We'll descend from the dream ... to the business; and have everything clear to our own satisfaction before we let in all the others. I always vowed I wouldn't accept a proposal after supper! If you're ... intoxicated, you might wake sober—disillusioned!"
"But I—I've kissed you," he stammered, suddenly overcome with shyness.
"So you have—a few times! I'm afraid we didn't keep count! I'm not really doubting either of us—Roy. But still.... Shall we say tea and a ride?"
He hesitated. "Sorry—I'm booked. I promised Lance——"
"Very well—dinner? Mother has some bridge people. Only one table. We can escape into the garden. Now—come along."
He drew a deep breath. More and more the detached part of him was realising....
They walked back rather briskly, not speaking; nor did he touch her again.
They found Lahore still dancing, sublimely unconcerned. Instinctively, Roy looked round for Lance. No sign of him in the ballroom or the card-room. And the crowded place seemed empty without him. It was queer.
Later on, he ran up against Barnard, who told him that Lance had gone home.
"Of the unspoken word thou art master. The spoken word is master of thee."—Arab Proverb.
Roy drove home with Barnard in the small hours, still too overwrought for clear thinking, and too exhausted all through to lie awake for five minutes after his head touched the pillow. For the inner stress and combat had been sharper than he knew.
He woke late to find Terry curled up against his legs, and the bungalow empty of human sounds. The other three were up long since, and gone to early parade. His head was throbbing. He felt limp, as if all the vigour had been drained out of him. And suddenly ... he remembered....
Not in a lover's rush of exaltation, but with a sharp reaction almost amounting to fear, the truth dawned on him that he was no longer his own man. In a passionate impulse, he had virtually surrendered himself and his future into the hands of a girl whom he scarcely knew. He still saw the whole thing as mainly her doing—and it frightened him. Looking backward over the past weeks, reviewing the steps by which he had arrived at last night's involuntary culmination, he felt more frightened than ever.
And yet—there sprang a vision of her, pale and gracious in the starshine, when she leaned to him at parting....
She was wonderful and beautiful—and she was his. Any man worth his salt would feel proud. And he did feel proud—in the intervals of feeling horribly afraid of himself and her. Especially her. Girls were amazing things. You seized hold of one and spoke mad words, and nearly crushed the life out of her, and she took it almost as calmly as if you had asked for an extra dance. Was it a protective layer of insensibility—or super-normal self-control? Would she, Rose, have despised him had she guessed that even at the height of his exultation he had felt ashamed of having let himself go so completely; and that before there had been any word of marriage—any clear desire of it even in the deep of his heart?
That was really the root of his trouble. The passing recoil from an ardent avowal is no uncommon experience with the finer types of men. But, to Roy, it seemed peculiarly unfitting that the son of his mother should, as it were, stumble into marriage in a headlong impulse of passion, on a superficial six weeks' acquaintance; and the shy, spiritual side of him felt alarmed, restive, even a little repelled.
In a measure, Rose was right when she dubbed him fakir. Artist though he was, and all too human, there lurked in him a nascent streak of the ascetic, accentuated by his mother's bidding, and his own strong desire to keep in touch with her and with things not seen.
And there, on his writing-table, stood her picture mutely reproaching him. With a pang he realised how completely she had been crowded out of his thoughts during those weeks of ferment. What would she think of it all? The question—what would Rose think of her simply did not arise. She was still supreme, she who had once said, "So long as you are thinking first of me, you may be sure That Other has not yet arrived".
Was Rose Arden—for all her beauty and witchery—genuinely That Other?
Beguiled by her visible perfections, he had taken her spiritually for granted. And he knew well enough that it is not through the senses a man first approaches love—if he is capable of that high and complex emotion; but rather through imagination and admiration, sympathy and humour. As it was, he had not a glimmering idea how she would consort with his very individual inner self. Yet matters were virtually settled....
And suddenly, like a javelin, one word pierced his brain—Lance! Whatever there was between them, he felt sure his news would not please Lance, to say the least of it. And, as for their Kashmir plan...?
Why the devil was life such a confoundedly complex affair? By rights, he ought to be 'all over himself', having won such a wife. Was it something wrong with him? Or did all accepted lovers feel like this—the morning after? A greater number, perhaps, than poets or novelists or lovers themselves are ever likely to admit. Very certainly he would not admit his present sensations to any living soul.
Springing out of bed, he shouted for chota hazri and shaving water; drank thirstily; ate hungrily; and had just cleared his face of lather when Lance came in, booted and spurred, bringing with him his magnetic atmosphere of vitality and vigour.
Standing behind Roy, he ran his left hand lightly up the back of his hair, gripped the extra thickness at the top, and gave it a distinct tug; friendly, but sharp enough to make Roy wince.
"Slacker! Waster! You ought to have been out riding off the effects. You were jolly well going it last night. And you jolly well look it this morning. Good thing I'm free on the fifteenth to haul you away from all this".
Perhaps because they had first met at an age when eighteen months seemed an immense gap between them, Lance had never quite dropped the elder-brotherly attitude of St Rupert days.
"Yes—a rare good thing——" Roy echoed, and stopped with a visible jerk.
"Well, what's the hitch? Hit out, man. Don't mind me."
There was a flash of impatience, an undernote of foreknowledge, in his tone, that made confession at once easier and harder for Roy.
"I suppose it was—pretty glaring", he admitted, twitching his head away from those strong friendly fingers. "The fact is—we're ... as good as engaged——"
Again he broke off, arrested by the mask-like stillness of Desmond's face.
"Congrats, old man", he said at last, in a level tone. "I got the impression ... a few weeks ago, you were not ready for the plunge. But you've done it—in record time." A pause. Roy sat there tongue-tied—unreasonably angry with himself and Rose. "Why 'as good as...?' Is it to be ... not official?"
"Only till to-morrow. You see, it all came ... rather in a rush. She thought ... we thought ... better talk things over first between ourselves. After all...."
"Yes—after all," Lance took him up. "You do know a precious lot about each other! How much ... does she know ... about you?"
"Oh, my dancing and riding, my temperament and the colour of my eyes—four very important items!" said Roy, affecting a lightness he was far from feeling.
Lance ignored his untimely flippancy. "Have you ever ... happened to mention ... your mother?"
"Not yet. Why——?" The question startled him.
"It occurred to me. I merely wondered——"
"Well, of course, I shall—to-night."
Lance nodded, pensively fingered his riding-crop, and remarked, "D'you imagine now she's going to let you bury yourself up Gilgit way—with me? Besides—you'll hardly care ... shall we call it 'off'?"
"Well you are——! Of course I'll care. I'm damned if we call it 'off.'"
At that the mask vanished from Desmond's face. His hand closed vigorously on Roy's shoulder. "Good man," he said in his normal voice. "I'll count on you. That's a bargain." Their eyes met in the glass, and a look of understanding passed between them. "Feeling a bit above yourself, are you?"
Roy drew a great breath. "It's amazing. I don't yet seem to take it in."
"Oh—you will." The hand closed again on his shoulder. "Now I'll clear out. Time you were clothed and in your right mind."
And they had not so much as mentioned her name!
* * * * *
But even when clothed, Roy did not feel altogether in his right mind. He was downright thankful to be helping Lance with some sports for the men, designed to counteract the infectious state of ferment prevailing in the city, on account of to-morrow's deferred hartal. For the voice of Mahatma Ghandi—saint, fanatic, revolutionary, which you will—had gone forth, proclaiming the sixth of April a day of universal mourning and non-co-operation, by way of protest against the Rowlatt Act. For that sane measure—framed to safeguard India from her wilder elements—had been twisted, by skilled weavers of words, into a plot against the liberty of the individual. And Ghandi must be obeyed.
Flamboyant posters in the city bewailed 'the mountain of calamity about to fall on the Motherland', and consigned their souls to hell who failed, that day, to close their business and keep a fast. To spiritual threats were added terrorism and coercion, that paralysis of the city might be complete.
It was understood that, so long there was no disorder, the authorities would make no move. But, by Saturday, all emergency plans were complete: the Fort garrison strengthened; cavalry and armoured cars told off to be available.
Roy had no notion of being a mere onlooker, if things happened; and he felt sure they would. Directly he was dressed he waited on the Colonel, and had the honour to offer his services in case of need; further—unofficially—to beg that he might be attached, as extra officer, to Lance's squadron. The Colonel—also unofficially—expressed his keen appreciation; and Roy might rest assured the matter would be arranged.
So he went off in high feather to report himself to Lance, and discuss the afternoon's programme.
Lance was full of a thorough good fellow he had stumbled on, a Sikh—and a sometime revolutionary—whose eyes had been opened by three years' polite detention in Germany. The man had been speaking all over the place, showing up the Home Rule crowd, with a courage none too common in these days of intimidation. After the sports, he would address the men; talk to them, encourage them to ask questions.
It occurred to Roy that he had heard something of the sort in a former life; and—arrived on the ground—he recognised the very same man who had been howled down at Delhi.
He greeted him warmly; spoke of the meeting; listened with unmoved countenance to lurid speculations about the disappearance of Chandranath; spoke, himself, to the men, who gave him an ovation; and, by the time it was over, had almost forgotten the astounding fact that he was virtually engaged to be married....
* * * * *
Driving out five miles to Lahore, he had leisure to remember, to realise how innately he shrank from speaking to Rose of his mother. Though in effect his promised wife, she was still almost a stranger; and the sacredness of the subject—the uncertainty of her attitude—intensified his shrinking to a painful degree.
She had asked him to come early, that they might have a few minutes to themselves; and for once he was not unpunctual. He found her alone; and, at first sight, painful shyness overwhelmed him.
She was wearing the cream-and-gold frock of the evening that had turned the scale; and she came forward a trifle eagerly, holding out her hands.
"Wonderful! It's not a dream?"
He took her hands and kissed her, almost awkwardly. "It still feels rather like a dream," was all he could find to say—and fancied he caught a flicker of amusement in her eyes. Was she thinking him an odd kind of lover? Even last night, he had not achieved a single term of endearment, or spoken her name.
With a graceful gesture, she indicated the sofa—and they sat down.
"Well, what have you been doing with yourself—Roy?" she asked, palpably to put him at ease. "It's a delightful name—Royal?"
"No—Le Roy. Some Norman ancestor."
"The King!" She saluted, sitting upright, laughter and tenderness in her eyes.
At that, he slipped an arm round her, and pressed her close. Then he plunged into fluent talk about the afternoon's events, and his accepted offer of service, till Mrs Elton, resplendent in flame-coloured brocade, surged into the room.
It was a purely civil dinner; not Hayes, to Roy's relief. Directly it was over the bridge players disappeared; Mr Elton was called away—an Indian gentleman to see him on urgent business; and they two, left alone again, wandered out into the verandah.
By now, her beauty and his possessive instinct had more or less righted things; and her nearness, in the rose-scented dark, rekindled his fervour of last night.
Without a word he turned and took her in his arms, kissing her again and again. "'Rose of all roses! Rose of all the world!'" he said in her ear.
Whereat, she kissed him of her own accord, at the same time lightly pressing him back.
"Have mercy—a little! If you crush roses too hard their petals drop off!"
"Darling—I'm sorry!" The great word was out at last; and he felt quaintly relieved.
"You needn't be! It's only—you're such a vehement lover. And vehemence is said—not to last!"
The words startled him. "You try me."
"How? An extra long engagement?"
"N-no. I wasn't thinking of that."
"Well, we've got to think, haven't we? To talk practical politics!"
"Rather not. I bar politics—practical or Utopian."
She laughed. There was happiness in her laugh, and tenderness and an undernote of triumph.
"You're delicious! So ardent, yet so absurdly detached from the dull plodding things that make up common life. Come—let's stroll. The verandah breathes heat like a benevolent dragon!"
They strolled in the cool darkness under drooping boughs, through which a star flickered here and there. He refrained from putting an arm round her, and was rewarded by her slipping a hand under his elbow.
"Shall it be—a Simla wedding?" she asked in her caressing voice. "About the middle of the season? June?"
"June? Yes. When I get back from Gilgit?"
"But—my dear! You're not going to disappear for two whole months?"
"I'm afraid so. I'm awfully sorry. But I can't go back on Lance."
He heard her teeth click on the word. Perhaps she had merely echoed it.
"Yes; a very old engagement. And—frankly—I'm keen."
"Oh—very well". Her hand slipped from his arm. "And when you've fulfilled your prior engagement, you can perhaps find time—to marry me?"
"Darling—don't take it that way," he pleaded.
"Well, I did suppose I was going to be a shade more important to you than—your Lance. But we won't spoil things by squabbling."
Impulsively he drew her forward and kissed her; and this time he kept an arm round her as they moved on. He must speak—soon. But he wanted a natural opening, not to drag it in by the hair.
"And after the honeymoon—Home?" she asked, following up her all-absorbing train of thought.
"Yes—I think so. It's about time."
She let out a small sigh of satisfaction. "I'm glad it's not India. And yet—the life out here gets a hold, like dram-drinking. One feels as if perpetual, unadulterated England might be just a trifle—dull. But, of course, I know nothing about your home, Roy, except a vague rumour that your father is a Baronet with a lovely place in Sussex."
"No—Surrey," said Roy, and his throat contracted. Clearly the moment had come. "My father's not only a Baronet. He's a rather famous artist—Sir Nevil Sinclair. Perhaps you've heard the name?"
She wrinkled her brows. "N-no.—You see, we do live in blinkers! What's his line?"
"Mostly Indian subjects——"
"Oh, the Ramayana man? I remember—I did see a lovely thing of his before I came out here. But then——?" She stood still and drew away from him. "One heard he had married...."
"Yes. He married a beautiful high-caste Indian girl," said Roy, low and steadily. "My mother——"
He could scarcely see her face; but he felt all through him the shock of the disclosure; realised, with a sudden furious resentment, that she was seeing his adored mother simply as a stumbling-block....
It was as if a chasm had opened between them—a chasm as wide as the East is from the West.
Those few seconds of eloquent silence seemed interminable. It was she who spoke.
"Didn't it strike you that I had—the right to know this ... before...?"
The implied reproach smote him sharply; but how could he confess to her—standing there in her queenly assurance—the impromptu nature of last night's proceedings?
"Well I—I'm telling you now," he stammered. "Last night I simply—didn't think. And before ... the fact is ... I can't talk of her, except to those who knew her ... who understand...."
"You mean—is she—not alive?"
"No. The War killed her—instead of killing me."
Her hand closed on his with a mute assurance of sympathy. If they could only leave it so! But—her people...?
"You must try and talk of her—to me, Roy," she urged, gently but inexorably. "Was it—out here?"
"No. In France. They came out for a visit, when I was six. I've known nothing of India till now—except through her."
"But—since you came out ... hasn't it struck you that ... Anglo-Indians feel rather strongly...?"
"I don't know—and I didn't care a rap what they felt," he flung out with sudden warmth. "Now, of course—I do care. But ... to suppose she could ... stand in my way, seems an insult to her. If you're one of the people who feel strongly, of course ... there's an end of it. You're free."
"Free? Roy—don't you realise ... I care. You've made me care."
"Yes; simply by being what you are—so gifted, so detached ... so different from the others ... the service pattern...."
"Oh yes—in a way ... I'm different."—Strange, how little it moved him, just then, her frank avowal, her praise.—"And now you know—why. I'm sorry if it upsets you. But I can't have ... that side of me accepted ... on sufferance——"
To his greater amazement, she leaned forward and kissed him, deliberately, on the mouth.
"Will that stop you—saying such things?" There was repressed passion in her low tone, "I'm not accepting ... any of you on sufferance. And, really, you're not a bit like ... not the same...."
"No!" She smiled at the fierce monosyllable. "All that lot—the poor devils you despise—are mostly made from the wrong sort of both races—in point of breeding, I mean. And that's a supreme point, in spite of the twaddle that's talked about equality. Women of good family, East or West, don't intermarry much. And quite right too. I'm proud of my share of India. But I think, on principle, it's a great mistake...."
"Yes—yes. That's how I feel. I'm not rabid. It's not my way. But ... I suppose you know, Roy, that ... on this subject, many Anglo-Indians are."
"You mean—your people?"
"Well—I don't know about Pater. He's built on large lines, outside and in. But mother's only large to the naked eye; and she's Anglo-Indian to the bone."
"You think ... she'll raise objections?"
"She won't get the chance. It's my affair—not hers. There'd be arguments, at the very least. She tramples tactlessly. And it's plain you're abnormally sensitive; and rather fierce under your gentleness——!"
"But, Rose—I must speak. I refuse to treat—my mother as if she was—a family skeleton——"
"No—not that," she soothed him with voice and gesture. "Of course they shall know—later on. It's only ... I couldn't bear any jar at the start. You might, Roy—out of consideration for me. It would be quite simple. You need only say, just now, that your father is a widower. It isn't as if—she was alive——"
The words staggered him like a blow. With an incoherent exclamation, he swung round and walked quickly away from her towards the house, his blood tingling in a manner altogether different from last night. Had she not been a woman, he could have knocked her down.
Dismayed and startled, she hurried after him. "Roy, my dear—dearest," she called softly. But he did not heed.
She overtook him, however, and caught his arm with both hands, forcing him to stop.
"Darling—forgive me," she murmured, her face appealingly close to his. "I didn't mean—I was only trying to ease things for you, a little—you quiver-full of sensibilities."
He had been a fakir, past saving, could he have withstood her in that vein. Her nearness, her tenderness, revived the mood of sheer bewitchment, when he could think of nothing, desire nothing but her. She had a genius for inducing that mood in men; and Roy's virginal passion, once roused, was stronger than he knew. With his arms round her, his heart against hers, it was humanly impossible to wish her other than she was—other than his own.
Words failed. He simply clung to her, in a kind of dumb desperation to which she had not the key.
"To-morrow," he said at last, "I'll tell you more—show you her picture."
And, unlike Aruna, she had no inkling of all that those few words implied.
[Footnote 28: Early tea.]
"The patience of the British is as long as a summer's day; but the arm of the British is as long as a winter's night."—Pathan Saying.
They parted on the understanding that Roy would come in to tiffin on Sunday. Instead, to his shameless relief, he found the squadron detailed to bivouac all day in the Gol Bagh, and be available at short notice.
It gave him a curious thrill to open his camphor-drenched uniform case—left behind with Lance—and unearth the familiar khaki of Kohat and Mespot days; to ride out with his men in the cool of early morning to the gardens at the far end of Lahore. The familiar words of commands, the rhythmic clatter of hoofs, were music in his ears. A thousand pities he was not free to join the Indian Army. But, in any case, there was Rose. There would always be Rose now. And he had an inkling that their angle of vision was by no means identical....
The voice of Lance, shouting an order, dispelled his brown study; and Rose—beautiful, desirable, but profoundly disturbing—did not intrude again.
Arrived in the gardens, they picketed the horses, and disposed themselves under the trees to await events. The heat increased and the flies, and the eternal clamour of crows; and it was nearing noon before their ears caught a far-off sound—an unmistakable hum rising to a roar.
"Thought so," said Lance, and flung a word of command to his men.
A clatter of hoofs heralded arrivals—Elton and the Superintendent of Police with orders for an immediate advance. A huge mob, headed by students, was pouring along the Circular Road. The police were powerless to hold them; and at all costs they must be prevented from debouching on to the Mall. It was brisk work; but the squadron reached the critical corner just in time.
A sight to catch the breath and quicken the pulses—that surging sea of black heads, uncovered in token of mourning; that forest of arms beating the air to a deafening chorus of orthodox lamentation; while a portrait of Ghandi, on a black banner, swayed uncertainly in the midst.
A handful of police, shouting and struggling with the foremost ranks, were being swept resistlessly back towards the Mall—the main artery of Lahore; and a British police officer on horseback was sharing the same fate. Clearly nothing would check them save that formidable barrier of cavalry and armoured cars.
At sight of it they halted; but disperse and return they would not. They haggled; they imposed impossible conditions; they drowned official parleyings in shouts and yells.
For close on two hours, in the blazing sun, Lance Desmond and his men sat patiently in their saddles—machine-guns ready in the cars behind them—while the Civil Arm, derided and defied, peacefully persuaded those passively resisting thousands that the Mall was not deemed a suitable promenade for Lahore citizens in a highly processional mood.
For two hours the human tide swayed to and fro; the clamour rose and fell; till a local leader, after much vain speaking, begged the loan of a horse, and headed them off to a mass meeting at the Bradlaugh Hall.
The cavalry, dismissed, trotted back to the gardens, to remain at hand in case of need.
What the Indian officers and men thought of it all, who shall guess? What Lance Desmond thought, he frankly imparted to Roy.
"A fine exhibition of the masterly inactivity touch!" said he, with a twitch of his humorous lips. "But not exactly an edifying show for our men. Wonder what my old Dad would think of it all? You bet there'll be a holy rumpus in the city to-night."
"And then——?" mused Roy, his imagination leaping ahead. "This isn't the last of it."
"The last of it—will be bullets, not buckshot," said Lance in his soldierly wisdom. "It's the only argument for crowds. The soft-sawder lot may howl 'militarism.' But they're jolly grateful for a dash of it when their skins are touched. It takes a soldier of the right sort to know just when a dash of cruelty is kindness—and the reverse—in dealing with backward peoples; and crowds, of any colour, are the backwardest peoples going! It would be just as well to get the women safely off the scene."
He looked very straight at Roy, whose sensitive soul winced, at the impact of his thought. Since their brief talk, the fact of the engagement had been tacitly accepted—tacitly ignored. Lance had a positive genius for that sort of thing; and in this case it was a godsend to Roy.
"Quite so," he agreed, returning the look.
"Well—you're in a position to suggest it."
"I'm not sure if it would be exactly appreciated. But I'll have a shot at it to-morrow."
* * * * *
The city, that night, duly enjoyed its 'holy rumpus.' But on Monday morning shops were open again; everything as normal as you please; and the cheerful prophets congratulated themselves that the explosion had proved a damp squib after all.
Foremost among these was Mr Talbot Hayes, whose ineffable air of being in the confidence of the Almighty—not to mention the whole Hindu Pantheon—was balm to Mrs Elton at this terrifying juncture. For her mountain of flesh hid a mouse of a soul, and her childhood had been shadowed by tales of Mutiny horrors. With her it was almost an obsession. The least unusual uproar at a railway station, or holiday excitement in the bazaar, sufficed to convince her that the hour had struck for which, subconsciously, she had been waiting all her life.
So, throughout Sunday morning, she had been a quivering jelly of fear; positively annoyed with Rose for her serene assurance that 'the Pater would pull it off all right.' She had never quite fathomed her daughter's faith in the shy, undistinguished man for whom she cherished an affection secretly tinged with contempt. In this case it was justified. He had returned to tiffin quite unruffled; had vouchsafed no details; simply assured her she need not worry. Thank God, they had a strong L.G. That was all.
But authority, in the person of Talbot Hayes, was more communicative—in a flatteringly confidential undertone. A long talk with him had cheered her considerably; and on Monday she was still further cheered by a piece of news her daughter casually let fall at breakfast, between the poached eggs and the marmalade.
Rose—at last! And even Gladys' achievement thrown into the shade! Here was compensation for all she had suffered from the girl's distracting habit of going just so far with the wrong man as to give her palpitations. She had felt downright nervous about Major Desmond. For Rose never gave one her confidence. And she had suffered qualms about this new unknown young man. But what matter now? To your right-minded mother, all's well that ends in the Wedding March—and Debrett! Most satisfactory to find that the father was a Baronet; and Mr Sinclair was the eldest son! Could anything be more gratifying to her maternal pride in this beautiful, difficult daughter of hers?
Consequently, when the eldest son came in to report himself, all that inner complacency welled up and flowed over him in a volume of maternal effusion, trying enough in any case; and to Roy intolerable, almost, in view of that enforced reservation that might altogether change her tone.
After nearly an hour of it, he felt so battered internally that he reached the haven of his own room feeling thoroughly out of tune with the whole affair. Yet—there it was. And no man could lightly break with a girl of that quality. Besides, his feeling for her—infatuation apart—had received a distinct stimulus from their talk about his mother and the impression made on her by the photograph he had brought with him, as promised. And if Mrs Elton was a Brobdingnagian thorn on the stem of his Rose, the D.C.'s patent pleasure and affectionate allusions to the girl atoned for a good deal.
So, instead of executing a 'wobble' of the first magnitude, he proceeded to clinch matters by writing first to his father, then to a Calcutta firm of jewellers for a selection of rings.
But he wavered badly over facing the ordeal of wholesale congratulations—the chaff of the men, the reiterate inanities of the women.
On Tuesday, Rose warned him that her mother was dying to give a dinner, to invite certain rival mothers, and announce her news with due eclat.
"Hand us round, in fact," she added serenely, "with the chocs and Elvas plums!—No! Don't flare up!" Her fingers caressed the back of his hand. "In mercy to you, I diplomatically sat down upon the idea, and remained seated till it was extinct. So you're saved—by your affianced wife, whom you don't seem in a frantic hurry to acknowledge...!"
He caught her to him, and kissed her passionately. "You know it's not that——"
"Yes, I know ... you're just terror-struck of all those women. But if you will do these things, you must stand up to the consequences—like a man."
He jerked up his head. "No fear. We'll say to-morrow, or Thursday."
"I'll be merciful, and say Thursday. It's to be announced this afternoon. Have you mentioned it—to any one?"
"Only to Lance."
A small sound between her teeth made him turn quickly.
"Anything hurt you?"
"You've quick ears! Only a pin-prick." She explored her blouse for the offending pin. "Do you tell each other everything—you two?"
"Pretty well—as men go."
"You're a wonderful pair."
She sighed and was silent a moment. Then, "Shall it be a ride on Thursday?" she asked, giving his arm a small squeeze.
"Rather. There are Brigade Sports; but I could cry off. We'll take our tea out to Shadera, have a peaceful time there, and finish up at the Hall."
So it was arranged, and so it befell, though not exactly according to design.
* * * * *
On Thursday they rode leisurely out through the heat and dusty haze, away from bungalows and the watered Mall, through a village alive with shrill women, naked babies, and officious pariahs, who kept Terry furiously occupied: on past the city, over the bridge of boats that spans the Ravi, till they came to the green secluded garden where the Emperor Jehangir sleeps, heedless of infidels who, generation after generation, have picnicked and made love in the sacred precincts of his tomb.
Arrived at the gardens, they tethered the horses, drank thermos tea and ate sugared cakes, sitting on the wide wall that looked across the river and the plain to the dim huddled city beyond. And Roy talked of Bramleigh Beeches in April, till he felt home-sick for primroses and the cuckoo and the smell of mown grass; while, before his actual eyes, the terrible sun of India hung suspended in the haze, like a platter of molten brass, till the turning earth, settling to sleep, shouldered it almost out of sight.
That brought them back to realities.
"We must scoot," said Roy. "It'll be dark, and there's only a slip of a moon."
"It's been delicious!" she sighed; and they kissed mutually—a lingering kiss.
Then they were off, racing the swift-footed dusk....
Skirting the city, they noticed scurrying groups of figures, shouting to each other as they ran; and the next instant, Roy's ear caught the ominous hum of Sunday morning.
"Good God! They're out again. Hi—You! What's the tamasha?" he called to the nearest group.
They responded with wild gestures, and fled on. But one lagged a little, being fat and scant of breath; and Roy shouted again. This time the note of command took effect.
"Where are you all running? Is there trouble?" he asked.
"Big trouble, Sahib—Amritsar," answered the fleshly one, wiping the dusty sweat from his forehead, and shaking it unceremoniously from his finger-tips. "Word comes that our leaders are taken. Mahatma Ghandi, also. The people are burning and looting; Bank-ghar, Town Hall-ghar; killing many Sahibs and one Mem-sahib. Hai! hai! Now there will be hartal again; Committee ki raj. No food; no work. Hai! hai! Ghandi ki jai!"
"Confound the man!" muttered Roy, not referring to the woebegone one. "Look here, Rose, if they're wedged up near Anarkali, we must change our route. I expect the squadron's out; and I ought to be with it——"
"Thank God, you're not. It's quite bad enough——" She set her teeth. "Oh, come on."
Back they sped, at a hand-gallop, past the Fort and the Badshahi Mosque; then, neck and neck down the long straight road, that vibrant roar growing louder with every stride.
Near the Church they slackened speed. The noise had become terrific, like a hundred electric engines; and there was more than excitement in it—there was fury.
"Sunday was a treat to this," remarked Roy. "We shan't get on to the Mall."
"We can go through Mozung," said Rose coolly. "But I want to see—as far as one can. The Pater's bound to be there."
Roy, while admiring her coolness, detected beneath it a repressed intensity, very unlike her. But his own urgent sensations left no room for curiosity; and round the next swerve they drew rein in full view of a sight that neither would forget while they lived.
The wide road, stretching away to the Lahori gate, was thronged with a shouting, gesticulating human barrier; bobbing heads and lifted arms, hurling any missile that came to hand—stones, bricks, lumps of refuse—at the courageous few who held them in check.
Cavalry and police, as on Sunday, blocked the turning into the Mall; and Roy instantly recognised the silhouette of Lance, sitting erect and rigid, doubtless thinking unutterable things.
Low roofs of buildings, near the road, were alive with shadowy figures, running, yelling, hurling bricks and mud from a half-demolished shop near by. Two mounted police officers made abortive attempts to get a hearing; and a solitary Indian, perched on an electric standard, well above the congested mass, vainly harangued and fluttered a white scarf as signal of pacific intentions. Doubtless one of their 'leaders,' again making frantic, belated efforts to stem the torrent that he and his kind had let loose.
And the nightmare effect of the scene was intensified by the oncoming dusk, by the flare of a single torch hoisted on a pole. It waved purposefully; and its objective was clear to Roy—the electric supply wires.
"That brute there's trying to cut off the light!" he exclaimed, turning sharply in the saddle, only to find that Rose had not even heard him.
She sat stone-still, her face set and strained, as he had seen it after the tournament. "There he is," she murmured—the words a mere movement of her lips.
He hated to see her look like that; and putting out a hand, he touched her arm.
"I don't see him," he said, answering her murmur. "He'll be coming, though. Not nervous, are you?"
She started at his touch—shrank from it almost; or so he fancied. "Nervous? No—furious!" Her low tone was as tense as her whole attitude. "Mud and stones! Good heavens! Why don't they shoot?"
"They will—at a pinch," Roy assured her, feeling oddly rebuffed, and as if he were addressing a stranger. "Stay here. Don't stir. I'll glean a few details from one of our outlying sowars."
The nearest man available happened to be a Pathan. Recognising Roy, he saluted, a fighting gleam in his eyes.
"Wah, wah! Sahib! This is not man's work, to sit staring while these throw words to a pack of mad jackals. On the Border we say, paili lath; pechi bhat. That would soon make an end of this devil's noise."
"True talk," said Roy, secretly approving the man's rough wisdom. "How long has it been going on?"
"We came late, Sahib, because of the sports; but these have been nearly one hour. Once the police-log gave buckshot to those on the roofs. How much use—the Sahib can see. Now they have sent a sowar for the Dep'ty Sahib. But these would not hear the Lat Sahib himself. One match will light such a bonfire; but a hundred buckets will not put it out."
Roy assented, ruefully enough. "Is it true there has been big trouble at Amritsar—burning and killing?"
"Wah, wah! Shurrum ki bhat. Because he who made all the trouble may not come into the Punjab, Sahibs who have no concern—are killed——"
An intensified uproar drew their eyes back to the mob.
It was swaying ominously forward, with yellings and prancings, with renewed showers of bricks and stones.
"Thus they welcome the Dep'ty Sahib," remarked Sher Khan with grim irony.
It was true. No mistaking the bulky figure on horseback, alone in the forefront of the throng, trying vainly to make himself heard. Still he pressed forward, urging, commanding; missiles hurtling round him. Luckily the aim was poor; and only one took effect.
A voice shouted, "You had better come back, sir."
He halted. There was a fierce forward rush. Large groups of people sat down in flat defiance.
Again Rose broke out with her repressed intensity, "It's madness! Why on earth don't they shoot?"
"The notion is—to give the beggars every chance," urged Roy. "After all, they've been artificially worked up. It's the men behind—pulling the strings—who are to blame——"
"I don't care who's to blame. They're as dangerous as wild beasts." She did not even look at him. Her eyes, her mind were centred on that weird, unforgettable scene. "And our people simply sitting there being pelted with bricks and stones ... the Pater ... Lance...."
She drew in her lip. Roy gave her a quick look. That was the second time; and she did not even seem aware of it.
"Yes. It's a detestable position, but it's not of their making," he agreed; adding briskly: "Come along, now, Rose. It's getting dark; and I ought to be in Cantonments. There'll be pickets all over the place—after this. I'll see you safe to the Hall, then gallop on."
Her lips twitched in a half-smile. "Shirking congrats again?"
"Oh, drop it! I'd clean forgotten. I'll conduct you right in—and chance congrats. But they'll be too full of other things to-night. Scared to death, some of them."
"Mother, for one. I never thought of her. We must hurry."
For new-made lovers, their tone and bearing was oddly detached, almost brusque. They had gone some distance before they heard shots behind them.
"Thank goodness! At last! I hope it hurt some of them badly," Rose broke out with unusual warmth. She was rather unusual altogether this evening. "Really, it would serve them right—as Mr Hayes says—if we did clear out, lock, stock, and barrel, and leave their precious country to be scrambled for by others of a very different jat from the stupid, splendid British. I'm glad I'm going, anyway. I've never felt in sympathy. And now, after all this ... and Amritsar ... I simply couldn't...."
She broke off in mid-career, flicked her pony's flanks, and set off at a brisk canter.
Pause and action could have but one meaning. "She's realising," thought Roy, cantering after, pain and anger mingled in his heart. At such a moment, he admitted, her outburst was not unnatural. But to him it was, none the less, intolerable. The trouble was, he could say nothing, lest he say too much.
At the Lawrence Hall they found half a company of British soldiers on guard,—producing, by their mere presence, that sense of security which radiates from the policeman and the soldier when the solid ground fails underfoot.
Within doors, the atmosphere was electrical with excitement and uncertainty. Orders had been received that, in case of matters taking a serious turn, the hundred or so of English women and children gathered at the Club would be removed under escort to Government House. No one was dancing. Every one was talking. The wildest rumours were current.
At a crisis the curtains of convention are rent and the inner self peers through, sometimes revealing the face of a stranger. While the imposing Mrs Elton quivered inwardly, Mrs Ranyard—for all her 'creeps' and her fluffiness—knew no flicker of fear. In any case, there were few who would confess to it, though it gnawed at their vitals; and Roy's quick eye noted that, among the women, as a whole, the light-hearted courage of Anglo-India prevailed. It gave him a sharp inner tweak to look at them all and remember that nightmare of seething, yelling rebels at Anarkalli. He wished to God Rose had not seen it too. It was the kind of thing that would stick in the memory.
On their appearance in the Hall, Mrs Elton deserted a voluble group and bore down upon them, flustered and perspiring.
"My darling girl—thank God! I've been in a fever!" she cried, and would have engulfed her stately daughter before them all, but that Rose put out a deterring hand.
"I was afraid you'd be upset—so we hurried," she said serenely; not the Rose of Anarkalli, by any means. "But we were all right along the Mozung road."
That 'we,' and a possessive glance—the merest—at her lover, brought down upon the pair a small shower of congratulations. Every one had foreseen it, of course, but it was so delightful to know....
After the sixth infliction, Roy whispered in her ear, "I say, I can't stand any more. And it's high time I was off."
"Poor dear! 'When duty calls...?'" Her cool tone was not unsympathetic. "I'll let you off the rest."
She came out with him, and they stood together a moment in the darkness under the portico.
"I shall dream to-night, Roy," she said gravely. "And we may not even see the Pater. He's taken up his abode in the Telegraph Office. Mother will want to bolt. I can see it in her eye!"
"Well, she's right. You ought all to be cleared out of this, instanter."
"Are you—so keen?"
"Of course not." His tone was more impatient than loverly. "I'm only keen to feel—you're safe."
"Oh—safe!" she sighed. "Is one—anywhere—ever?"
"No," he countered with unexpected vigour, "or life wouldn't be worth living. There are degrees of unsafeness, that's all. It's natural—isn't it, darling?—I should want to feel you're out of reach of that crowd. If it had pushed on here, and to Government House, Amritsar doings would have been thrown into the shade."
She shivered. "It's horrible—incredible! I suppose one has to be a lifelong Anglo-Indian to realise quite how incredible it feels—to us."
He put his arms round her, as if to shield her from the memory of it all.
"I'll see you to-morrow?" she asked.
"Of course. If I can square it. But we shall be snowed under with emergency orders. I'll send a note in any case."
"Take care of yourself—on my account," she commanded softly; and they kissed.
But—whether fancy or fact—Roy had an under sense of mutual constraint. It was not the same thing at all as that last kiss at Shadara.
There they had come closer, in spirit, than ever yet. Now—not two hours later—the thin end of an unseen wedge seemed to be stealthily pressing them apart.
[Footnote 29: House.]
[Footnote 30: Alas, alas!]
[Footnote 31: First a blow, then a word.]
[Footnote 32: True talk. Shameful talk.]
[Footnote 33: Caste.]
"It has long been a grave question whether any Government not too strong for the liberties of the people, can be strong enough to maintain its existence in great emergencies."—ABRAHAM LINCOLN.
Back in Cantonments, Roy found strong detachments being rushed to all vital points, and Brigade Headquarters moving into Lahore.
It was late before Lance returned, tired and monosyllabic. He admitted they had mopped things up a bit—outside; and left a detachment, in support of the police, guarding the Mall. But—the city was in open rebellion. No white man could safely show his face there. The anti-British poison, instilled without let or hindrance, was taking violent effect. He'd seen enough of it for one day. He wanted things to eat and drink—especially drink. 'Things' were produced; and afterwards—alone with Roy in their bungalow—he talked more freely, in no optimistic vein, sworn foe of pessimism though he was.
"Sporadic trouble? Not a bit of it! Look at the way they're going for lines of communication. And look at these choice fragments from one of their posters I pinched off a police inspector. 'The English are the worst lot and are like monkeys, whose deceit and cunning are obvious to high and low.... Do not lose courage, but try your utmost to turn these men away from your holy country.' Pretty sentiments—eh? Fact is, we're up against organised rebellion."
Roy nodded. "I had that from Dyan, long ago. Paralysis of movement and Government is their game. We may have a job to regain control of the city."
"Not if we declare Martial Law," said the son of Theo Desmond with a kindling eye. "Of course, I'm only a soldier—and proud of it! But I've more than a nodding acquaintance with the Punjabi. He's no word-monger; handier with his lathi than his tongue. If you stir him up, he hits out. And I don't blame him. The voluble gentlemen from the South don't realise the inflammable stuff they're playing with——"
"Perhaps they do," hazarded Roy.
"M-yes—perhaps. But the one on the electric standard this evening didn't exactly achieve a star turn!—You saw him, eh?" He looked very straight at Roy. "I noticed you—hanging round on the edge of things. You ought to have gone straight on."
Roy winced. "We'd heard wild rumours. She was anxious about the D.C."
Lance nodded, staring at the bowl of his pipe. "When does—Mrs Elton make a move?"
"The first possible instant I should say, from the look of her."
"Good. She's on the right tack, for once! The D.C. deserves a first-class Birthday Honour—and may possibly wangle an O.B.E.! I'm told that he and the D.I.G., with a handful of police, pretty well saved the station before we came on the scene. It's been a nearer shave than one cares to think about. And it's not over."
They sat up till after midnight discussing the general situation, that looked blacker every hour. And, till long after midnight, an uproarious mob raged through the city and Anarkalli, only kept from breaking all bounds by the tact and good-humour of a handful of cavalry and police; men of their own race, unshaken by open or covert attempts to suborn their loyalty—a minor detail worth putting on record.
* * * * *
Friday was a day of rumours. While the city continued furiously to rage, reports of fresh trouble flowed in from all sides: further terrible details from Amritsar; rumours that the Army and the police were being tampered with and expected to join the mob; serious trouble at Ahmedabad and Lyallpur, where seventy British women and children were herded, in one bungalow, till they could safely be removed. Everywhere the same tale: stations burned, railways wrecked, wires cut. Fresh stories constantly to hand; some true, some wildly exaggerated; anger in the blood of the men; terror in the hearts of the women, longing to get away, yet suddenly afraid of trains packed with natives, manned by natives, who might be perfectly harmless; but, on the other hand, might not....
It was as Rose had said; to realise the significance of these things, one needed to have spent half a lifetime in that other India, in the good days when peaceful loyal masses had not been galvanised into disaffection; when an Englishwoman, of average nerve, thought nothing of travelling alone up and down the country, or spending a week alone in camp—if needs must—secure in the knowledge that—even in a disturbed Frontier district—no woman would ever be touched or treated with other than unfailing respect.
Yet a good many were preparing to flit: and to the men their departure would spell relief; not least, to Roy—the new-made lover. Parting would be a wrench; but at this critical moment—for England and India—the tug two ways was distinctly a strain; and the less she saw of it all, the better for their future chance of happiness. He felt by no means sure it had not been imperilled already.
But the exigencies of the hour left no room for vague forebodings. Emergency orders, that morning, detailed Lance with a detachment for the Railway Workshops, where passive resisters were actively on the war-path. Roy, after early stables, was dispatched with another party, to strengthen a cavalry picket near the Badshahi Mosque, on the outskirts of the city, where things might be lively in the course of the day.
Passing through Lahore, he sent his sais with a note to Rose; and, on reaching the Mosque, he found things lively enough already. The iron railings, round the main gate of the Fort, were besieged by a hooting, roaring mob, belabouring the air with lathis and axes on bamboo poles; rending it with shouts of abuse and one reiterate cry, "Kill the white pigs, brothers! Kill! Kill!"
Again and again they stormed the railings, frantically trying to bear them down by sheer weight of numbers—yelling ceaselessly the while.
"How the devil can they keep it up?" thought Roy; and sickened to think how few of his own kind there were to stand between the English women and children in Lahore and those hostile thousands. Thank God, there remained loyal Indians, hundreds of them—as in Mutiny days; but surely a few rounds from the Fort just then would have heartened them and been distinctly comforting into the bargain.
The walls were manned with rifles and Lewis guns, and at times things looked distinctly alarming; but not a shot was fired. The mob was left to exhaust itself with its own fury. Part melted away, and part was drawn away by the attraction of a mass meeting in the Mosque, where thirty-five thousand citizens were gathered to hear Hindu agitators preaching open rebellion from Mahommedan pulpits; and a handful of British police officers—present on duty—were being hissed and hooted, amid shouts of "Hindu-Mussalman ki jai!"
From the city all police pickets had been withdrawn, since their presence would only provoke disturbance and bloodshed. And the bazaar people were parading the streets, headed by an impromptu army of young hotheads, carrying lathis, crying their eternal 'Hai!' and 'Jai!' with extra special 'Jai's' for the 'King of Germany' and the Afghan Amir.
Portraits of Their Majesties were battered down and trampled in the mud; and over the fragments the crowd swept on, shouting: 'Hai! hai! Jarge Margya!' And the air was full of the craziest rumours, passed on, with embellishments, from mouth to mouth....
Roy, on reaching Cantonments, was relieved to find that the decision had already been taken to regain control of the city by a military demonstration in force; eight hundred troops and police, under the officer commanding Lahore civil area. Desmond's squadron was included; and, sitting down straightway, Roy dashed off a note to Rose.
"I'm sorry, but it looks like 'no go' to-morrow. You'll hear all from the Pater. I might look in for tiffin, if things go smoothly, and if you'll put up with me all dusty and dishevelled from the fray! From what I saw and heard to-day, we're not likely to be greeted with marigold wreaths and benedictions! Of course hundreds will be thankful to see us. But I doubt if they'll dare betray the fact. I needn't tell you to keep cool. You're simply splendid.
"Your loving and admiring, ROY."
It was after ten next morning, the heat already intense, when that mixed force, British and Indian, and the four aeroplanes acting in concert with them, halted outside the Delhi Gate of Lahore City, while an order was read out to the assembled leaders that, if shots were fired or bombs flung, those aeroplanes would make things unpleasant. Then—at last they were on the move; through the Gate, inside the City, aeroplanes flying low, cavalry bringing up the rear.
Here normal life and activity were completely suspended—hence more than half the trouble. Groups of idlers, sauntering about, stared, spat, or shook clenched fists, shouting, "Give us Ghandi—and we will open!" "Repeal Rowlatt Bill and we will open."
And, at every turn, posters exhorted true patriots—in terms often as ludicrous as they were hostile—to leave off all dealings with the 'English monkeys,' to 'kill and be killed.'
And as they advanced, leaving pickets at stated points—pausing that Mr Elton might exhort the people to resume work—mere groups swelled to crowds, increasing in number and virulence; their cries and contortions more savage than anything Roy had yet seen.
But it was not till they reached the Hira Mundi vegetable market, fronting the plain and river, that the real trouble began. Here were large excited crowds streaming to and fro between the Mosque and the Mundi—material inflammable as gunpowder. Here, too, were the hotheads armed with leaded sticks, hostile and defiant, shouting their eternal cries. And to-day, as yesterday, the Badshahi Mosque was clearly the centre of trouble. Exhortations to disperse peacefully were unheeded or unheard. All over the open space they swarmed like locusts. Their wearisome clamour ceased not for a moment. And the mosque acted as a stronghold. Crowds packed away in there could neither be dealt with nor dispersed. So an order was given that it should be cleared and the doors guarded.
Meantime, to loosen the congested mass, it was cavalry to the front—thankful for movement at last.
There was a rush and a scuffle. Scattered groups bolted into the city. Others broke away and streamed down from the high ground into the open plain, sowars in pursuit; rounding them up, shepherding them back to their by-lanes and rabbit-warrens.
"How does it feel to be a sheep-dog?" Lance asked Roy, as he cantered up, dusty and perspiring. "A word from the aeroplanes would do the trick. Good God! Look at them——!"
Roy looked—and swore under his breath. For the half-dispersed thousands were flowing together again like quicksilver. The whole Hira Mundi region was packed with a seething dangerous mob, completely out of hand, amenable to nothing but force.
And now from the doors of the Mosque fresh thousands, inflamed by fanatical speeches, were swarming across the open plain to join them, flourishing their lathis with threatening gestures and cries....
It was a sight to shake the stoutest heart. Armed, they were not; but the lathi is a deadly weapon at close quarters; and their mere numbers were overwhelming. Roy, by this time, was sick of their everlasting yells; their distorted faces full of hate and fury; their senseless abuse of 'tyrants,' who were exercising a patience almost superhuman.
An order was shouted for the troops to turn and hold them. Carnegie, of the police, dashed off to the head of the column that was nearing the gate of exit; and the cavalry lined up in support of Mr Elton, who still exhorted, still tried to make himself heard by those who were determined not to hear.
Directly they moved forward, there was a fierce, concerted rush; lathis in the forefront, bricks and stones hurtling, as at Anarkalli, but with fiercer intent.
A large stone whizzed past the ear of an impassive Sikh Ressaldar; half a brick caught Roy on the shoulder; another struck Suraj on the flank and slightly disturbed his equanimity.
While Roy was soothing him, came a renewed rush, the crowd pushing boldly in on all sides with evident intent to cut them off from the rest.
The line broke. There was a moment of sickening confusion. A howling man, brandishing a lathi, made a dash at Roy, a grab at his charger's rein....
One instant his heart stood still; the next, Lance dashed in between, riding-crop lifted, unceremoniously hustling Roy, and nearly oversetting his assailant—but not quite——
Down came the leaded stick on the back of his bridle hand, cutting it open, grazing and bruising the flesh. With an oath he dropped the reins and seized them in his right hand.
"Rather neatly done!" he remarked, smiling at the dismay in Roy's eyes. "Ought to have floored him, though—the murdering brute!"
"Lance, you'd no business——"
"Oh, drop it. This isn't polo. It's a game of Aunt Sally. No charge for a shy——!" As he spoke, a sharp fragment of brick struck his cheek and drew blood. "Damn them. Getting above themselves. If it rested with me I'd charge. We can hold 'em, though. Straighten the line."
"But your hand——"
"My hand can wait. I've got another." And he rode on leaving Roy with a burning inner sense as of actual coals of fire heaped on his unworthy self.
But urgent need for action left no leisure for thought. Somehow the line was straightened; somehow they extricated themselves from the embarrassing attentions of the mob. Carnegie returned with armed police; and four files were lined up in front of the troops; the warning clearly given; the response—fresh uproar, fresh showers of stones....
Then eight shots rang out—and it sufficed.
At the voice of the rifle, the sting of buckshot, valour and fury evaporated like smoke. And directly the crowd broke, firing ceased. A few were wounded; one was killed—and carried off with loud lamentations. An ordered advance, with fixed bayonets, completed the effect that nothing else on earth could have produced:—and the Grand Processional was over.
It emerged from the Bathi Gate a shadow of itself, having left more than half its numbers on guard at vital points along the route.
"Scotched—not killed," was Lance's pithy verdict on the proceedings. "As a bit of mere police work—excellent. As to the result—we shall see. The C.O. must have been thankful his force wasn't a shade weaker."
This, unofficially, to Roy, who had secured leave off for tiffin at the Eltons', and had ridden forward to report his departure and inquire after the damaged hand, that concerned him more than anything else just then—not even excepting Rose.
It had been roughly wrapped in a silk handkerchief; and Lance pooh-poohed concern.
"Hurts a bit, of course. But it's no harm. I'll have it scientifically cleaned up by Collins. Don't look pathetic about nothing, old man. My silly fault for failing to ride the beggar down. Just as well it isn't your hand, you know. Unpleasant—for the women."
"Oh, it's all very well," Roy muttered awkwardly. Lance in that vein had him at a disadvantage, always.
"Don't be too late," he added, as Roy turned to go. "We may be needed. Those operatic performers in the City aren't going to sit twiddling their thumbs by the look of them. When's ... the departure?"
"To-morrow or next day, I think."
"Good job." A pause. "Give them my regards. And don't make a tale over my hand."
"I shall tell the truth," said Roy with decision. "And I'll be back about six."
He saluted and rode off; the prospective thrill of making love to Rose damped by the fact that he had not been able to look Lance in the eyes.
Things couldn't go on like this. And yet...? Impossible to ask Rose outright whether there had been anything definite between them. If she said "No," he would not believe her:—detestable, but true. If she—well ... if in any way he found she had treated Lance shabbily, he might find it hard to control himself—or forgive her: equally detestable and equally true. But uncertainty was more intolerable still....
He found the household ready for immediate flitting, and Mrs Elton in a fluster of wrath and palpitation over startling news from Kasur.
"The station burnt and looted. The Ferozepur train held up! Two of our officers wounded and two warrant officers beaten to death with those horrible lathis!" She poured it all out in a breathless rush before Roy could even get near Rose. "It's official. Mr Haynes has just been telling us. An English woman and three tiny children—miraculously saved by two N.C.O.'s and a friendly native Inspector. Did you ever——! And I hear they poured kerosene over the buildings they burnt, and the bodies of those poor men at Amritsar. So now we know why the price ran up and why 'none was coming into the country!' Yet they say this isn't another Mutiny,—don't tell me! I was so thankful to be getting away; and now I'm terrified to stir. Fancy if it happened to us—to-morrow!"
"My dear Mother, it won't happen to us." Her daughter's cool tones had a tinge of contempt. "They're guarding the trains. And Fakir Ali wouldn't let any one lay a finger on us."
Mrs Elton's sigh had the effect of a small cyclone. "Well, I don't believe we shall reach Simla without having our throats cut—or worse," she declared with settled conviction.
"You'll be almost disappointed if we do!" Rose quizzed her cruelly, but sweetly. "And now perhaps I may get at Roy, who's probably tired and thirsty after all those hours in the sun."
The Jeremiad revived, at intervals, throughout tiffin; but directly it was over Rose carried Roy off to her boudoir—her own corner; its atmosphere as cool and restful as the girl herself, after all the strife and heat and noise of the city.
They spent a peaceful two hours together. Roy detected no shadow of constraint in her; and hoped the effect of Thursday had passed off. For himself—all inner perturbations were charmed away by her tender concern for the bruised shoulder—a big bruise; she could feel it under his coat—and the look in her eyes while he told the story of Lance; not colouring it up, because of what he had said; yet not concealing its effect on himself.
"He's quite a splendid sort of person," she said, with a little tug at the string of her circular fan. "But you know all about that."
She drew in her lip and was silent. If he could speak now. In this mood, he might believe her—might even forgive her....
But it was she who spoke.
"What about—the Kashmir plan?"
"God knows. It's all in abeyance. The Colonel's wedding too."
"Will you be allowed—I wonder—to pay me a little visit first?" Her smile and the manner of her request were irresistible.
"It's just possible!" he returned, in the same vein. "I fancy Lance would understand."
"Oh—he would. And to-morrow—the night train? Can you be there?"
He looked doubtful. "It depends—how things go. And—I rather bar station partings."
"So do I. But still ... Mother's been clamouring for you to come up with us and guard the hairs of our heads! But I deftly squashed the idea."
"Bless you, darling!" He drew her close, and she leaned her cheek against him with a sigh, in which present content and prospective sadness were strangely mingled. It was in these gentle, pensive moods that Roy came near to loving her as he had dreamed of loving the girl he would make his wife.
"I'm still jealous of the Gilgit plan," she murmured. "And, of course, I wish you were coming up to-morrow—even more than Mother does! But at least I've the grace to be glad you're not—which is rather an advance for me!"
Their parting, if less passionate, was more tender than usual; and Roy rode away with a distinct ache in his heart at thought of losing her; a nascent reluctance to make mountains out of molehills in respect of her and Lance....
Riding back along the Mall, he noticed absently an approaching horsewoman, and recognised—too late for escape—Mrs Hunter-Ranyard. By timely flight on Thursday, he had evaded her congratulations. Intuition told him she would say things that jarred. Now he flicked Suraj with the base intent of merely greeting her as he passed.
But she was a woman of experience and resource. She beckoned him airily with her riding-crop.
"Mr Sinclair? What luck! I'm dying to hear how the 'March Past' went off. Did you get thunders of applause?"
"Oh, thunders. The Monsoon variety!"
"I saw you all in the distance, coming in from my early ride. You looked very imposing with your attendant aeroplanes!—May I?" She turned her pony's head without awaiting permission, and rode beside him at a foot's pace, clamouring for details.
He supplied them fluently, in the hope of heading her off personalities. A vain hope: for personalities were her daily bread.
She took advantage of the first pause to ask, with an ineffable look: "Are you still feeling very shy of being engaged? You bolted on Thursday. I hadn't a chance. And I'm rather specially interested." The look became almost caressing. "Did it ever occur to your exquisite modesty, I wonder, that I rather wanted, you for my cavalier. You seemed so young—in experience, that I thought a little innocuous education might be an advantage before you plunged. But she snatched—oh, she did!—without seeming to lift an eyebrow, in her inimitable way. Very clever. In fact, she's been distinctly clever all round. She's eluded her 'coming man' on one side; and ructions over her soldier man on the other——"
"Look here—I'm engaged to her," Roy protested, trying not to be aware of a sick sensation inside. "And you know I hate that sort of talk——"