"I ought to, by this time!" She made tenderly apologetic eyes at him. "But I'm afraid I'm incurable. Don't be angry, Sir Galahad! You've won the Kohinoor; and although you seem to live in the clouds, you've had the sense to make things pukka straightaway. 'Understandings' and private engagements are the root of all evil!"
"I'm blest if I know what you're driving at!" he flashed out, his temper rising.
But she only laughed her tinkling laugh and shook her riding-whip at him.
"Souvent femme varie! Have you ever heard that, you blessed innocent? And the general impression is—there's already been one private engagement—if not more. I was trying to tell you that afternoon to save your poor fingers——"
"It's all rot—spiteful rot!" The pain of increasing conviction made Roy careless of his manners. "The women are jealous of her beauty, so they invent any tale that's likely to be swallowed——"
"Possibly, my dear boy. But I can't tell my neighbours to their faces that they lie! After all, if you win a beautiful girl of six-and-twenty you've got to swallow the fact, with a good grace, that there must have been others; and thank God you're IT—if not the only IT that ever was on land or sea!—After that maternal homily, allow me to congratulate you. I've already congratulated her, de mon plein coeur!"
"Thanks very much. More than I deserve!" said Roy, only half mollified. "But I'm afraid I must hurry on now. Desmond asked me not to be late."
"Confound the women!" was his ungallant reflection, as he rode away.
Mrs Ranyard's tongue had virtually undone the effect of his peaceful two hours with Rose. After that—clash or no clash—he must have the thing out with Lance, at the first available moment.
[Footnote 34: "Hai! Hai! George is dead."]
"In you I most discern, in your brave spirit, Erect and certain, flashing deeds of light, A pure jet from the fountain of all Being; A scripture clearer than all else to read." —J.C. SQUIRE.
Roy returned to an empty bungalow.
On inquiry, he learnt that the Major Sahib had gone over to see the Colonel Sahib; and Wazir Khan—Desmond's bearer—abused, in lurid terms, the bastard son of a pig who had dared to assault the first Sahib in creation.
Roy, sitting down at his table, pushed aside a half-written page of his novel, and his pen raced over the paper in a headlong letter to Jeffers:—an outlet, merely, for his pent-up sensations; and a salve to his conscience. He had neglected Jeffers lately, as well as his novel. He had been demoralised, utterly, these last few weeks: and to-day, by way of crowning demoralisation, he felt by no means certain what the end would be—for himself; still less, for India.
The damaged Major Sahib—untroubled by animosity—appeared only just in time to change for Mess; his cheek unbecomingly plastered, his hand in a sling.
"Beastly nuisance; Hukm hai," he explained in response to Roy's glance of inquiry. "Collins says it's a bit inflamed. I've been confabbing with Paul over the deferred wedding. But, of course, there's no chance of things settling down, unless we declare martial law. The police are played out; and as for the impression we made this morning—the D.C.'s just telephoned in for a hundred British troops and armoured cars to picket and patrol bungalows in Lahore. Seems he's received an authentic report that the city people are planning to rush civil lines, loot the bungalows, and assault our women—damn them. So, by way of precaution, he has very wisely asked for troops.—Are they off—those two?"
"To-morrow night," said Roy, feeling so horribly constrained that the influx of Barnard and Meredith was, for once, almost a relief.
Then there was Mess; fresh speculations, fresh tales, and a certain amount of chaff over Desmond having 'stopped a brick'; Barnard, in satirical vein, regretting to report a bloody encounter: one casualty: enemy sprinkled with buckshot, retired according to plan.
Before the meal was over, Roy fancied he detected a change in Lance; his talk and laughter seemed a trifle strained; his lips set, now and then, as if he were in pain.
Later on he came up and remarked casually: "I'm not feeling very bright. I think I'll turn in. Perhaps the sun touched me up a bit." Clearly Roy's face betrayed him; for Lance added in an imperative undertone: "Don't look at me like that. I'm going to slip off quietly—not to worry Paul."
"Well, I'm going to slip off too," Roy retorted with decision. "I feel used up; and my beast of a bruise hurts like blazes."
"Drive me home, then," said Lance; and his changed tone, no less than the surprising request, told Roy he would be glad of his company.
They said little during the drive; Roy, because he felt vaguely anxious, and knew it would annoy Lance if he betrayed concern, or inquired after symptoms. It seemed a shame to worry the poor fellow in this state; but silence had now become impossible.
"Are you for bed, old man?" he asked when they got in.
"Rather not. I just felt a bit queer. Wanted to get away from them all and be quiet."
His normal manner eased Roy's anxiety a little. Without more ado, they settled into long veranda chairs and called for 'pegs.' The night was utterly still. A red distorted moon hung just above the tree-tops. Yelling and spitting crowds seemed to belong to another world.
Lance leaned back in the shadow, the tip of his cigar glowing like a fierce planet. Roy sat forward, tense and purposeful: hating what he had to say; yet goaded by the knowledge that he could have no peace of mind till it was said.
He was silent a few moments, pulling at his cigar: then, "Look here, Lance," he said. "I've got a question to ask. You won't like it. I don't either. But the truth is ... I'm bothered to know what is ... or has been ... between you and...."
"Drop it, Roy." There was pain and impatience in Desmond's tone. "I'm not going to talk about that."
Flat opposition gave Roy precisely the spur he needed.
"I'm afraid I've got to, though." The statement was placable but decisive. "I can't go on this way. It's getting on my nerves——"
"Devil take your nerves," said Lance politely. Then—with an obvious effort—"Has she—said anything?"
"Then why the hell can't you let be!"
"I shall let be—altogether, if this goes on;—this infernal awkwardness between us; and the things she says—the way she looks ... almost as if she cares."
"Well, I give you my oath—she doesn't. I suppose I ought to know?"
"That depends how things were before I came up. She's twice let your name slip out, unawares. And at Anarkalli she was extraordinarily upset. And to-day—about your hand. Then, riding home, I met Mrs Ranyard. And she started talking ... hinting at a private engagement——"
"Mrs Ranyard deserves to have her tongue removed. She'd tell any lie about another woman."
"Quito so. But is it a lie? It fits in too neatly with—the other things——"
Lance gave him a sidelong look. Their faces were just visible in the moonlight.
"Jealous—are you?"—His tone was almost tender.—"You damned lucky devil—you've no cause to be."
That natural inference startlingly revealed to Roy that jealousy had little or nothing to do with his trouble; and so great was the relief of open speech between them, that instinctively he told truth.
"N-no. I'm bothered about you."
"Good God!" Desmond's abrupt laugh had no mirth in it. "Me?"
"Yes—naturally. If it amounted to ... an engagement, and I charged in and upset everything ... I can't forgive myself ... or her——"
At that Desmond sat forward, obstructive no longer. "If you're going so badly off the rails, you must have it straight. And ... confound you!... it hurts——"
"I can see that. And it's more or less my doing——"
"On the contrary ... it was primarily my doing ... as you justly pointed out to me a week or two ago."
Roy groaned. The irony of the situation stung like a whip-lash. "Did it amount to an engagement?" he persisted.
"There or thereabouts." Lance paused and took a long pull at his cigar. "But—it was quite between ourselves—in fact, conditional on ... the headway I could manage to make. She—cared, in a way. Not—as I do. That was one hitch. The other was Oh 'Ell's antipathy to soldiers, as husbands for her precious family. She—Rose—knew there would be ructions; a downright tussle, in fact. Well—she'll go almost any length to avoid ructions; specially with her mother. I don't blame her. The woman's a caution. So—she shirked facing the music ... till she felt quite sure of herself...."
"Till she felt sure of herself, there should have been no engagement," Roy decreed, amazed at his own rising anger. "Unfair on you."
Desmond's smile was the ghost of its normal self. "You always were a bit of a purist, Roy! Besides—it was my doing again. I pressed the point. And I think ... she liked me ... loving her. She really seemed to be coming my way—till you turned up——" He clenched his hand and leaned back again, drawing a deep breath. "I'm forcing myself to tell you all this—since you've asked for it—because I won't have you blaming her——"
Roy said nothing. Remembering how, throughout, the initiative had been hers, how hard he had striven against being ensnared, he did blame her, a good deal more than he could very well admit to this friend, whose single-hearted devotion made his own mere mingling of infatuation and passion seem artificial as gaslight in the blaze of dawn.—But knowing so much, he must know all.
"How long—was it on?"
"Oh, about three weeks before you came. I was on a long while. Before Christmas."
"Since when has it been—off?"
Lance hesitated. "Well—things became shaky after Kapurthala. That day—the wedding, you remember?—I spoke rather straight ... about you. I saw you were getting keen. And I didn't want you to come a cropper——"
"Why the devil didn't you tell me the truth?"
Lance set his lips. "Of course I wanted to. But—it was difficult. She said—not any one. Made a point of it. Not even Paul. And I was keen for her to feel quite free; no slur on her—if things fell through. So—as I couldn't warn you, I spoke to her. Perhaps I was a fool. Women are queer. You can never be sure ... and it seemed to have quite the wrong effect. Then I saw she was really losing her head over you—— Natural enough. So I simply stood by. If she really wanted you—not me, that was another affair. And it's plain ... she did."
"But when—did she make it plain?" Roy insisted, feeling more and more as if the ground were giving way under his feet.
"Just before the Gym. That ... was why...." He looked full at Roy now. His eyes darkened with pain. "I felt like murdering you that day, Roy. Afterwards ... well—one managed to carry on somehow. One always can—at a pinch ... you know."
"My God! It's the bitterest, ironical tangle!" Roy burst out with a smothered vehemence that told its own tale. "You ought to have insisted about me, Lance. I wouldn't for fifty worlds...."
"Of course you wouldn't. Don't fret, old man. And don't blame her."
"Blame or no, I can't pretend it doesn't alter things ... spoil things, badly...."
He broke off, startled by the change in Desmond. His face was drawn. He was shivering violently.
"Lance—what is it? Fever? Have you been feeling bad?"
Desmond set his lips to steady them. "On and off—at Mess. Touch of the sun, perhaps. I'll get to bed and souse myself with quinine."
But he was so obviously ill that Roy paid no heed. "Well, I'm going to send for Collins instanter."
"Don't make an ass of yourself, Roy," Lance flashed out: but his hands were shaking: his lips were shaking. He was no longer in command of affairs....
While the message sped on its way, Roy got him to bed somehow; eased things a little with hot bottles and brandy; nameless terrors knocking at his heart....
In less than no time Collins appeared, with the Colonel; and their faces told Roy that his terror was only too well founded....
Within an hour he knew the worst—acute blood-poisoning from the lathi wound.
"Any hope——?" he asked the genial doctor, while Paul Desmond knelt by the bed speaking to his brother in low tones.
"Too early to give an opinion," was the cautious answer. But the caution and the man's whole manner told Roy the incredible, unbearable truth.
Something inside him seemed to snap. In that moment of bewildered agony, he felt like a murderer....
* * * * *
Looking back afterwards, Roy marvelled how he had lived through the waking nightmare of those two days—while the doctor did all that was humanly possible, and Lance pitted all the clean strength of his manhood against the swift deadly progress of the poison in his veins. It was simply a question of hours; of fighting the devil to the last on principle, rather than from any likelihood of victory. With heart and hope broken, superhumanly they struggled on.
For Roy, the world outside that dim whitewashed bedroom ceased to exist. The loss of his mother had been anguish unalloyed; but he had not seen her go....
Now, he saw—and heard, which was worse than all.
For Lance, towards the end, was constantly delirious; and, in delirium, he raved of Rose—always of Rose. He, the soul of reserve, poured out incontinently his passion, his worship, his fury of jealousy—till Roy grew almost to hate the sound of her name.
Worse—he was constrained to tell the Colonel the meaning of it all: to see anger flash through the haunting pain in his eyes.
Only twice, during the final struggle, the real Lance emerged; and on the second occasion they happened to be alone. Their eyes met in the old intimate understanding. Lance flung out his undamaged hand, and grasped Roy's with all the force still left him.
"Don't fret your heart out, Roy ... if I can't pull through," he said in his normal voice. "Carry on. And—don't blame Rose. It'll hurt her—a bit. Don't hurt her more—because of me. And—look here, stand by Paul for a time. He'll need you."
Roy's "Trust me, dear old man," applied, mentally, to the last. Even at that supreme moment he was dimly thankful it came last.
Then the Colonel returned; and they could say no more; nor could Roy find it in his heart to grudge him a moment of that brief blessed interlude of real contact with the man they loved....
There could be no question of going to Lahore station on Sunday evening. He was ill himself, though he did not know it; and his soul was centred on Lance—the gallant spirit inwoven with almost every act and thought and inspiration of his life. By comparison, Rose was nothing to him; less than nothing; a mushroom growth—sudden and violent—with no deep roots; only fibres.
So he sent her, by an orderly, a few hurried lines of explanation and farewell.
"I'm sorry, but I can't come to-night. We are all in dreadful grief. Lance down with acute blood-poisoning. Collins evidently fears the worst. I can't write of it. I do trust you get up safely. I'll write again, when it's possible.
Yes, he was still hers—so far. More than that he could not honestly add. Beyond this awful hour he could not look. It was as if one stood on the edge of a precipice, and the next step would be a drop into black darkness....
* * * * *
By Monday night it was over. After forty-eight hours of fever and struggle and pain, Lance Desmond lay at rest—serene and noble in death, as he had been in life. And Roy—having achieved one long, slow climb out of the depths—was flung back again, deeper than ever....
It was near midnight when the end came. Utterly weary and broken, he had sunk into Lance's chair, leaning forward, his face hidden, his frame shaken all through with hard dry sobs that would not be stilled.
Through the fog of his misery, he felt the Colonel's hand on his shoulder; heard the familiar voice, deep and kindly: "My dear Roy, get to bed. We can't have you on the sick-list. There's work to do; a great gap to be filled—somehow. I'll stay—with him."
At that, he pulled himself together and stood up. "I'll do my best, Colonel," was all he could say. The face he had so rarely seen perturbed was haggard with grief. They looked straight at one another; and the thought flashed on Roy, 'I must tell him.' Not easy; but it had to be done.
"There's something, sir," he began, "I feel you ought to know. By rights, it—it should have been me. That brute with the lathi was right on me; and he—Lance—dashed in between ... rode him off—and got the knock intended for me. It—it haunts me."
Paul Desmond was silent a moment. Pain and exaltation contended strangely in his tired eyes. Then: "I—don't wonder," he said slowly. "It—was like him. Thank you for telling me. It will be—some small comfort ... to all of them. Now—try and get a little sleep."
Roy shook his head. "Impossible.—Good-night, Colonel. It's a relief to feel you know. For God's sake, let me do any mortal thing I can for any of you."
There was another moment of silence, of palpable hesitation; then once again Paul Desmond put his hand on Roy's shoulder.
"Look here, Roy," he said. "Drop calling me Colonel. You two—were like brothers. And—as Thea's included, why should I be out of it. Let me—be 'Paul.'"
It was hard to do. It was inimitably done. It gave Roy the very lift he needed in that hour when he felt as if they must almost hate him, and never wish to set eyes on him again.
"I—I shall be proud," he said; and, turning away to hide his emotion, went back to the bed that drew him like a magnet.
There he knelt a long while, in a torment of mute, passionate protest against the power of so trivial an injury to rob the world of so much gallantry and charm. Resignation was far from him. With all the vehemence that was in him, he raged against his loss....
* * * * *
Next morning, they awoke, as from a prolonged and terrible dream, to find Lahore practically isolated; all wires down, but one; the hartal continuing in defiance of orders and exhortations; more stations demolished; more trains derailed and looted; all available British troops recalled from the Hills. But for five sets of wireless plant, urgently asked for, isolation would have been complete.
By the fourteenth, the position was desperate. Civil authority flatly defied; the police—lacking reserves—fairly played out; the temperature chart of rebellion at its highest point. The inference was plain.
Organised revolt is amenable only to the ultimate argument of force. Nothing, now, would serve but strong action, and the compelling power of Martial Law.
Happily for India, the men who had striven their utmost to avoid both did not falter in that critical hour.
At Amritsar strong action had already been taken; and the sobering effect of it spread, in widening circles, bringing relief to thousands of both races; not least to men whose nerve and resource had been strained almost to the limit of endurance.
In Lahore, notices of Martial Law were issued. The suspended life of the city tentatively revived. Law-abiding men of all ranks breathed more freely; and for the moment it seemed the worst was over....
Roy, having slept off a measure of his utter fatigue, took up the dead weight of life again, with the old sick sensation, of three years ago, that nothing mattered in earth or heaven. But then, there had been Lance to uphold and cheer him. Now there was only the hard unfailing mercy of work to be pulled through somehow.
There was also Rose—and the problem of letting her know that he knew. And—their marriage? All that seemed to have suffered shipwreck with the rest of him. He was still too dazed and blinded with grief to see an inch ahead. He only knew he could not bear to see her, who had made Lance suffer so, till the first anguish had been dulled a little—on the surface at least.
[Footnote 35: It is an order.]
"Why did'st thou promise such a beauteous day,
* * * * *
To let base clouds o'ertake me in my way, Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke!" —SHAKSPERE.
And away up in Simla, Rose Arden was enduring her own minor form of purgatory. The news of Lance Desmond's sudden death had startled and saddened her; had pierced through her surface serenity to the deep places of a nature that was not altogether shallow under its veneer of egotism and coquetry.
On a morning, near the end of April, she sat alone in the garden under deodar boughs tasselled with tips of young green. In a border, beyond the lawn, spring flowers were awake; the bank was starred with white violets and wild-strawberry blossoms; and through a gap in the ilex trees beyond, she had a vision of far hills and flashing snow-peaks, blue-white in the sun, cobalt in shadow. Overhead, among the higher branches, a bird was trilling out an ecstatic love-song.
But the year's renewal, the familiar flutter of Simla's awakening, sharpened, rather, that new ache at her heart; the haunting, incredible thought that down there, in the stifling dusty plains, Lance Desmond lay dead in the springtime of his splendid manhood; dead of his own generous impulse to save Roy from hurt.
Since the news came, she had avoided sociabilities and, unobtrusively, worn no colours. Foolish and fatuous, was it? Perhaps. She only knew that—Lance being gone—she could not make no difference in her daily round, whatever others might think or say.
And the mere fact of his being gone seemed strangely to revive the memory of his love for her, of her own genuine, if inadequate, response. For she had been more nearly in love with him than with any of his predecessors (and there had been several), who had been admitted to the privileged intimacies of the half-accepted lover. More: he had commanded her admiration; and she had not been woman could she have held out indefinitely against his passionate, whole-hearted devotion.
After months of patient wooing—and he by nature impatient—he had insisted that matters be settled, one way or the other, before he went on leave; and she had almost reached the point of decision, when Roy, with his careless charm and challenging detachment, appeared on the scene....
And now—Lance was gone; Roy was hers; Bramleigh Beeches and a prospective title were hers; but still....
The shock of Roy's revelation had upset her a good deal more than she dared let him guess. And the effect did not pass—in spite of determined efforts to be unaware of it. She knew, now, that her vaunted tolerance sprang chiefly from having ignored the whole subject. Half-castes she instinctively despised. For India and the Indians she had little real sympathy; and the rising tide of unrest, the increasing antagonism, had sharpened her negative attitude to a positive dislike and distrust, acutely intensified since that evening at Anarkalli, when the sight of Lance and her stepfather, sitting there at the mercy of any chance-flung missile, had stirred the slumbering passion in her to fury. For one bewildering moment she had scarcely been able to endure Roy's touch or look, because he was even remotely linked with those creatures, who mouthed and yelled and would have murdered them all without compunction.
The impression of those few nerve-wracking days had struck deep. Yet, in spite of all, Roy's hold on her was strong; the stronger perhaps because she had been aware of his inner resistance, and had never felt quite sure of him. She did not feel fundamentally sure of him, even now. His letters had been few and brief; heart-broken, naturally; yet scarcely the letters of an ardent lover. The longest of the four had given her a poignant picture of Lance's funeral; almost as if he knew, and had written with intent to hurt her. In addition to half the British officers of the station, the cemetery had been thronged with the men of his squadron, Sikhs and Pathans—a form of homage very rare in India. Many of them had cried like children; and for himself, Roy confessed, it had broken him all to bits. He hardly knew how to write of it; but he felt she would care to know.
She cared so intensely that, for the moment, she had almost hated him for probing so deep, for stamping on her memory a picture that would not fade.
His next letter had been no more than half a sheet. That was three days ago. Another was overdue; and the post was overdue also.
Ah—at last! A flash of scarlet in the verandah and Fazl Ali presenting an envelope on a salver, as though she were a goddess and the letter an offering at her shrine.
It was a shade thicker than usual. Well, it ought to be. She had been very patient with his brevity. This time it seemed he had something to say.
Her heart stirred perceptibly as she opened it and read:—
"I'm afraid my letters have been very poor things. Part of the reason you know and understand—as far as any one can. I'm still dazed. Everything's out of perspective. I suppose I shall take it in some day.
"But there's another reason—connected with him. Perhaps you can guess. I've been puzzled all along about you two. And now I know. I wonder—does that hurt you? It hurts me horribly. I need hardly say he didn't give you away. It was things you said—and Mrs Ranyard. Anyhow, that last evening, I insisted on having the truth. But I couldn't write about it sooner—for fear of saying things I'd regret afterwards.
"Rose—what possessed you? A man worth fifty of me! Of course, I know loving doesn't go by merit. But to keep him on tenterhooks, eating his heart out with jealousy, while you frankly encouraged me—you know you did. And I—never dreaming; only puzzled at the way he sheered off after the first. Between us, we made his last month of life a torment, though he never let me guess it. I don't know how to forgive myself. And, to be honest, it's no easy job forgiving you. If that makes you angry, if you think me a prig, I can't help it. If you'd heard him—all those hours of delirium—you might understand.
"When he wasn't raving, he had only one thought—mustn't blame you, or hurt you, on account of him. I'm trying not to. But if I know you at all, that will hurt more than anything I could say. And it's only right I should tell it you.
"My dearest Girl, you can't think how difficult—how strange it feels writing to you like this. I meant to wait till I came up. But I couldn't write naturally, and I was afraid you mightn't understand.
"I'm coming, after all, sooner than I thought, for my fool of a body has given out, and Collins won't let me hang on, though I feel the work just keeps me going. It must be Kohat first, because of Paul. Now things are calming down, he is getting away to be married. The quietest possible affair, of course; but he's keen I should be best man in place of Lance. And I needn't say how I value the compliment.
"No more trouble here or Amritsar, thank God—and a few courageous men. Martial Law arrangements are being carried through to admiration. The Lahore C.O. seems to get the right side of every one. He has a gift for the personal touch that is everything out here; and in no time the poor deluded beggars in the City were shouting 'Martial Law ki jai' as fervently as ever they shouted for Ghandi and Co.
"One of my fellows said to me: 'Our people don't understand this new talk of "Committee Ki Raj" and "Dyarchy Raj." Too many orders make confusion. But they understand "Hukm Ki raj."' In fact, it's the general opinion that prompt action in the Punjab has fairly well steadied India—for the present at least.
"Well, I won't write more. We'll meet soon; and I don't doubt you'll explain a good deal that still puzzles and hurts me. If I seem changed, you must make allowances. I can't yet see my way in a world empty of Lance. But we must help each other, Rose—not pull two ways. Don't bother to write long explanations. Things will be easier face to face.
"Yours ever, ROY."
"Yours ever," ... Did he mean that? He certainly meant the rest. Her hands dropped in her lap; and she sat there, staring before her—startled, angry, more profoundly disturbed and unsure of herself than she had felt in all her days. Though Roy had tried to write with moderation, there were sentences that struck at her vanity, her conscience, her heart. Her first overwhelming impulse was to write back at once telling him he need not trouble to come up, as the engagement was off. Accustomed to unquestioning homage, she took criticism badly; also—undeniably—she was jealous of his absorption in Lance. The impulse to dismiss him was mere hurt vanity.
And the queer thing was, that deep down under the vanity and the jealousy, her old feeling for Lance seemed again to be stirring in its sleep.
The love of such a man leaves no light impress on any woman; and Lance had unwittingly achieved two master-strokes calculated to deepen that impress on one of her nature. In the first place, he had fronted squarely the shock of her defection—patently on account of Roy. She could see him now—standing near her mantelpiece, his eyes sombre with passion and pain; no word of reproach or pleading, though there smouldered beneath his silence the fire of his formidable temper. And just because he had neither pleaded nor stormed, she had come perilously near to an ignominious volte-face, from which she had only been saved by something in him, not in herself. If she did not know it then, she knew it now. In the second place, he had died gallantly—again on account of Roy. Snatched utterly out of reach, out of sight, his value was enhanced tenfold; and now, to crown all, came Roy's revelation of his amazing magnanimity....
Strange, what a complicated affair it was, for some people, this simple natural business of getting married. Was it part of the price one had to pay for being beautiful? Half the girls one knew slipped into it with much the same sort of thrill as they slipped into a new frock. But those were mostly the nice plain little things, who subsided gratefully into the first pair of arms held out to them. And probably they had their reward.
In chastened moods, Rose did not quite care to remember how many times she had succumbed, experimentally, to that supreme temptation. Good heavens! What would her precious pair think of her—if they knew! At least, she had the grace to feel proud that the tale of her conquests included two such men.
But Lance was gone—on account of Roy—where no spell of hers could touch him any more; and Roy—was he going too ... on account of Lance...? Not if she could prevent him; and yet ... goodness knew!
The sigh that shivered through her sprang from a deeper source than mere self-pity.
Rattle of rickshaw wheels, puffing and grunting of jhampannis, heralded the return of her mother, who had been out paying a round of preliminary calls. It took eight stalwart men and a rickshaw of special dimensions to convey her formidable bulk up and down Simla roads; and affectionate friends hinted that the men demanded extra pay for extra weight!
A glance at her florid face warned Rose there was trouble in the air.
"Oh, Rose—there you are. I've had the shock of my life!" Waving away her jhampannis, she sank into an adjacent cane chair that creaked and swayed ominously under the assault. "It was at Mrs Tait's. My dear—would you believe it? That fine fiance of yours—after worming himself into our good graces—turns out to be practically a half-caste. A superior one, it seems. But still—the deceitfulness of the man! Going about looking like everybody else too! And grey-blue eyes into the bargain!"
At that Rose fatally smiled—in spite of genuine dismay.
"I can't see anything funny in it!" snapped her mother. "I thought you'd be furious. Did you ever notice——? Had you the least suspicion?"
"Not the least," Rose answered, with unruffled calm. "I knew."
"You knew? Yet you were fool enough to accept him—and wilfully deceive your own mother! I suppose he insisted, and you——"
"No. I insisted. I knew my own mind. And I wasn't going to have him upset——"
"But if I'm upset it doesn't matter a brass farthing?"
"It does matter. I'm very sorry you've had such a jar." Rose had some ado to maintain her coolness; but she knew it for her one unfailing weapon. "Of course, I meant to tell you later; in fact, as soon as he came up to settle things finally——"
"Most considerate of you! And when he does come up, I propose to settle things finally——" She choked, gulped, and glared. She was realising.... "The position you've put me in! It's detestable!"
Rose sighed. It struck her that her own position was not exactly enviable. "I've said I'm sorry. And really—it didn't seem the least likely.... Who was the officious instrument of Fate?"
"Young Joe Bradley, of the Forests. We were talking of the riots and poor Major Desmond, and Mrs Tait happened to mention Roy Sinclair. Mr Bradley asked—was he the artist's son; and told how he once went to tea there—when his mother was staying with Lady Despard—and had a stand-up fight with Roy. He said Roy's mother was rather a swell native woman—a pucca native; and Roy went for him like a wild thing, because he called her an ayah——"
Again Rose smiled in spite of herself. "He would!"
"Would he, indeed! That's all you think of—though you know I've got a weak heart. And I nearly fainted—if that's any interest to you! The Bradley boy doesn't know—about us. But Mrs Tait's a perfect little sieve. It'll be all over Simla to-morrow. And I was so pleased and proud——" Her voice shook. Tears threatened. "And it's so awkward—so undignified ... backing out——"
"My dear mother, I've no intention whatever of backing out."
"And I've no intention whatever of having a half-caste for a son-in-law."
Rose winced at that, and drew in a steadying breath. For now, at last, the cards were on the table. She was committed to flat opposition or retreat—an impasse she had skilfully avoided hitherto. But for Roy's sake she stood her ground.
"It was—rather a jar when he told me," she admitted, by way of concession. "But truly, he is different—if you'll only listen, without fuming! His mother's a Rajput of the highest caste. Her father educated her almost like an English girl. She was only seventeen when she married Sir Nevil; and she lived altogether in England after that. In everything but being her son, Roy is practically an Englishman. You can't class him with the kind of people we associate with—the other word out here——"
Very patiently and tactfully she put forward every redeeming argument in his favour—without avail. Mrs Elton—broadly—had the right on her side; and the gods had denied her the gift of discrimination. She saw India as a vast, confused jumble of Rajahs and bunnias and servants and coolies—all steeped in varying depths of dirt and dishonesty, greed and shameless ingratitude. It did not occur to her that sharp distinctions of character, tradition, and culture underlay the more or less uniform tint of skin. And beneath her instinctive antipathy, burned furious anger with Roy for placing her, by his deceitfulness (it must have been his) in the ironic position of having to repudiate the engagement she had announced with such eclat only three weeks ago....
The moment she had recovered her breath, she returned unshaken to the charge.
"That's very fine talk, my dear, for two people in love. But Roy's a half-caste: that's flat. You can't wriggle away from the damning fact by splitting hairs about education and breeding. Besides—you only think of the man. But are you prepared for your precious first baby to be as dark as a native? It's more than likely. I know it for a fact——"
"Really, Mother! You're a trifle previous." Rose was cool no longer; a slow, unwilling blush flooded her face. Her mother had struck at her more shrewdly than she knew.
"Well, if you will be obstinate, it's my duty to open your eyes; or, of course, I wouldn't talk so to an unmarried girl. There's another thing—any doctor will tell you—a particular form of consumption carries off half the wretched children of these mixed marriages. A mercy, perhaps; but think of it——! Your own! And you know perfectly well the moral deterioration——"
"There's none of that about Roy." Rose grew warmer still. "And you know perfectly well most of it comes from the circumstances, the stigma, the type of parent. But you can say what you please. I'm of age. I love him. I intend to marry him."
"Well, you won't do it from my house. I wash my hands of the whole affair."
She rose, upon her ultimatum, a-quiver with righteous anger, even to the realistic cherries in her hat. The girl rose also, outwardly composed, inwardly dismayed.
"Thank you. Now I know where I stand. And you won't say a word to Roy. You mustn't—really——" She almost pleaded. "He worships his mother in quite the old-fashioned way. He simply couldn't see—the other point of view. Besides—he's ill ... unhappy. Whatever your attitude forces one to say, can only be said by me."
"I don't take orders from my own daughter," Mrs Elton retorted ungraciously. She was in no humour for bargaining or dictation. "But I'm sure I've no wish to talk to him. I'll give you a week or ten days to make your plans. But whenever you have him here, I shall be out. And if you come to your senses—you can let me know."
On that she departed, leaving Rose feeling battered and shaken, and horribly uncertain what—in the face of that bombshell—she intended to do: she, who had made Lance suffer cruelly, and evoked a tragic situation between him and Roy, largely in order to avoid a clash that would have been as nothing compared with this...!
Her sensations were in a whirl. But somehow—she must pull it through. Home life was becoming intolerable. And—for several cogent reasons—she wanted Roy. If need be, she would tell him, diplomatically; dissociating herself from her mother's attitude.
And yet—her mother had said things that would stick; hateful things, that might be true....
Decidedly, she could not write him a long letter: only enough to bring him back to her in a relenting mood. Sitting down again, she unearthed from her black-and-silver bag a fountain pen and half a sheet of paper.
"MY DARLING ROY" (she wrote),—
"Your letter did hurt—badly. Perhaps I deserved it. All I can say till we meet, is—forgive me, if you can, because of Lance. It's rather odd—though you are my lover, and I suppose you do care still—I can think of no stronger appeal than that. He cared so for us both, in his big splendid way. Can't we stand by each other?
"You ask me to make allowances. Will you be generous, and do the same on a larger scale for your sincerely loving (and not altogether worthless)
[Footnote 36: Government by order.]
"She had a step that walked unheard, It made the stones like grass; Yet that light step had crushed a heart As light as that step was." —W.H. DAVIES.
At last, Roy was actually coming. The critical moment was upon them; and Rose sat alone in the drawing-room awaiting him.
Her mother was out; had arranged to be out for the evening also. The strain between them still continued; and it told most on Rose. The cat-like element in her loved comfort; and an undercurrent of clash was peculiarly irritating in her present sore, uncertain state of heart. Weeks of it, she knew, would scarcely leave a dent on her mother's leathern temperament. When it came to a tug the tougher nature scored, which was one reason why she had so skilfully avoided tugs hitherto.
True, she was of age; and her father's small legacy gave her a measure of independence. But how could one set about getting married in the face of open opposition? And—how keep the truth from Roy? Or tone it down, so that he would not go off at a tangent straightaway?
Assuredly the Fates had conspired to strip her headlong romance of its gilded trappings. But her moment for marriage had come. She was sick to death of the Anglo-Indian round—from the unattached standpoint, at least. Roy fascinated her as few men had done; and she had been deliberately trying to ignore the effect of her mother's brutal frankness. Their coming together again, in these changed conditions, would be the ultimate test. Such a chasm of distance seemed to yawn between that tender parting in her boudoir and this critical reunion—in another world....
Sounds of arrival brought her to her feet; but she checked the natural impulse to welcome him in the verandah. Her innate sense of drama shrank from possible awkwardness, a false step, at the start.
And now he appeared in the doorway—very straight and slim in his grey suit, with the sorrowful black band on his arm.
"Rose!" he cried—and stood gazing at her, pulses hammering, brain dizzy. The mere sight of her brought back too vividly the memory of those April days that he had been resolutely shutting out of his mind.
His pause—the shock of his changed aspect—held her motionless also. He looked older, more sallow; his sensitive mouth compressed; no lurking gleam in his eyes. He seemed actually less good-looking than she remembered; for anguish is no beautifier.
So standing, they mutely confronted the change in themselves—in each other; then Rose swept forward, both hands held out.
"Roy—my darling—what you must have been through! Can you—will you—in spite of all——?"
Next moment, in his silent, vehement fashion, he was straining her to him; kissing her eyes, her hair, her lips; not in simple lover's ecstasy, but in a fervour of repressed passion, touched with tragedy, with pain....
Then he held her from him, to refresh his tired eyes with the sheer beauty of her; and was struck at once by the absence of colour; the wide black sash, the black velvet round her throat and hair.
He touched the velvet, looking his question. She nodded, drawing in her lip to steady it.
"I felt—I must. You don't mind?"
"Mind——?—Sometimes I wonder if I shall ever really mind things any more."
His face worked. That queer dizziness took him again. With an incoherent apology, he sat down rather abruptly, and leaned forward, his head between his hands, hiding the emotion he could not altogether control.
Rose stood beside him, feeling helpless and vaguely aggrieved. He had just got back to her, after a two weeks' parting, and he sat there lost in an access of grief that left her quite out of account. Inadvertently there flashed the thought, "Whatever Lance might have suffered, he would not succumb." It startled her. She had never so compared them before....
Then, looking down at his bowed head, compunction seized her, and tenderness, that rarely entered into her feeling for men. She could think of nothing to say that would not sound idiotically commonplace. So she laid her hand on his hair, and moved it caressingly now and then.
She felt a tremor go through him. He half withdrew his head, checked himself, and capturing her hand, pressed it to his lips, that were hot and feverish.
"Roy—what is it? What went wrong?" she asked softly.
He looked up now with a fair imitation of a smile. "Just—an old memory. It was dear of you. Ungracious of me."—Pain and perplexity went from her. She slipped to her knees beside him, and his arm enclosed her. "Sorry to behave like this. But I'm not very fit. And—seeing you, brought it all back so sharply! It's been—a bit of a strain, this last week. A letter from Thea—brave, of course; but broken utterly. The wedding too: and that beast of a journey fairly finished me."
She leaned closer, comforting him by the feel of her nearness. Then her practical brain suggested needs more pedestrian, none the less essential.
"Dearest—you're simply exhausted. How about tea—or a peg?"
He pleaded for a peg, if permissible. She fetched it herself; made tea; plied him with sandwiches and sugared cakes, for which he still retained his boyish weakness.
But talking proved difficult. There were uncomfortable gaps. In their first uplifted moment all had seemed well. Love-making was simple, elemental, satisfying. Beyond the initial glamour and passion of courtship they had scarcely adventured, when the fabric of their world was shattered by the startling events of those four days. Both were realising—as they stepped cautiously among the fragments—that, for all their surface intimacy, they were still strangers underneath.
Roy took refuge in talk about Lahore; the high tribute paid to the conduct of all troops—British and Indian—and police, under peculiarly exasperating circumstances, the C.O.'s conviction that unless sterner measures were taken—and adhered to—there would be more outbreaks, at shorter intervals, better organised....
He hoped her charming air of interest was genuine, but felt by no means sure. And all the while, he was craving to know what she had to say for herself; yet doubting whether he could stand the lightest touch on his open wound. Lance had begged him not to hurt her. Had it ever occurred to that devout lover how sharply she might hurt him?
Tea and a restful hour in an arm-chair eased the strain a little. Then Rose suggested the garden, knowing him susceptible to the large healing influences of earth and sky; also with diplomatic intent to draw him away from the house before her mother's meteoric visitation.
And she was only just in time. The rattle of rickshaw wheels came up the main path two minutes after they had turned out of it towards a favourite nook, which she had strangely grown to love in the last two weeks.
"Poor darling! You've just missed Mother!" She condoled with him, smiling sidelong under her lashes; and she almost blessed her maternal enemy for bringing back the familiar gleam into his eyes.
"Bad luck! Ought we to go in again?"
"Gracious, no. She's only tearing home to change for an early dinner at Penshurst and the theatre. Anyway, please note, you're immune from the formalities. We're going to have a peaceful time, quite independent of Simla rushings. Just ourselves to ourselves."
It was an asset with men—second only to her beauty—this gift for creating a restful atmosphere.
Her nook, in an angle above the narrow path, was a grassy bank, looking across crumpled ranges—velvet-soft in the level light—to the still purity of the snows.
"Rather nice, isn't it?" she said. "I'm not given to mooning out of doors; but I've spent several evenings here ... lately."
"It's sanctuary," Roy murmured; but his sigh was tinged with apprehension. Flinging off his hat, he reclined full length on the gentle slope, hands under his head, and let the healing rays flow into the deeps of his troubled being.
Rose sat upright beside him, her fingers locked loosely round one raised knee. She was troubled too, and quite at a loss how to begin.
"So you've not been going out much?" he asked, after a prolonged pause.
"No—how could I—with you, so unhappy, down there—and...."—She deliberately met his eyes; and the look in them impelled her to ask: "What is it, Roy—lurking in your mind?"
"Am I—to be frank?"
She shivered. "It sounds—rather chilly. But I suppose we'd better take our cold plunge—and get it over!"
"Well"—he hesitated palpably. "It was only a natural wonder—if you care ... all that ... now he's gone, how could you deliberately hurt him so—while he lived?"
She drew in her lip. It was going to be more unsteadying than she had foreseen.
"How can a woman explain to a man the simple fact that she is incurably—perhaps unforgivably—a woman?"
"I don't know. I hoped you could—up to a point," said Roy, looking away to the snows and remembering, suddenly, that was where he ought to be now—with Lance—always Lance: no other thought or presence seemed vital to him, these days. Yet Rose remained beautiful and desirable—and clearly she loved him.
"It doesn't make things easier, you know," she was saying, in her cool, low voice, "to feel you are patently regretting events that, unhappily, did hurt—him; but also—gave me to you...."
Her beauty, her evident pain, penetrated the settled misery that enveloped him like an atmosphere.
"Darling—forgive me!" He reached out, pulling her hands apart, and his fingers closed hard on hers. "I'm only trying—clumsily—to understand...."
"And goodness knows I'm willing to help you," she sighed, returning his pressure. "But—I'm afraid the little I can say for myself won't do much to regild my halo—if there's any of it left! I gather you aren't very well up in women, or girls, Roy?"
"No—I'm not. Perhaps it makes me seem to you a bit of a fool?"
"Quite the reverse. It's all along been a part of your charm."
There was more of tenderness than amusement in her low laugh. "Precisely! If you didn't possess—some magnetic quality, could I have been drawn away from a man—like Lance, when I'd nearly made up my mind—to face the music."
For answer, he kissed her captured hand.
Then: "Roy, if it doesn't hurt too much," she urged, "will you tell me first—just—what Lance said?"
It would hurt, horridly. But it was as well she should know; and not a word need he withhold. Could there be a finer tribute to his friend? It was his own share in their last unforgettable talk that could not be reproduced.
"Yes—I'll tell you," he said. And, his half-closed eyes resting on the sunlit hills, he told her, in a voice from which all feeling was carefully expunged. Only so could he achieve the telling; and she listened without interruption, for which he felt grateful, exceedingly....
When it was over he merely moved his head and looked up at her; and she returned his look, her eyes heavy with tears. Mutually their fingers tightened.
"Thank you," she said. "It makes me ... ashamed, but it makes me proud."
"It made me angry and bewildered," said Roy. "If you really were ... coming his way, what the devil did I do to upset it all? Of course I admired you; and I was interested—on his account. But—I had no thought—I was absorbed in other things——"
She nodded slowly, not looking at him. "Quite so. And I suppose—being me—I didn't choose that a man should dance with me, ride with me, obviously admire me, and yet remain absorbed in other things. And—being you—of course it never struck you that, for my kind of girl, your provocatively casual attitude almost amounted to a challenge. Besides—as I said—you were charming; you were different. Perhaps—if I'd felt a shade less sure—of Lance, if he'd had the wit even to seem keen on some one else ... he might have saved himself. As it was—you were irresistible."
She heard him grit his teeth; and turned with swift compunction.
"My poor Roy! Am I jarring you badly? I suppose, if I talked till midnight, I'd never succeed in making a man like you understand how purely instinctive it all is. Analysed, like this, it sounds cold-blooded. But, it's just—second nature. He—Lance—understood up to a point. That's why he was aggressive that day: oh—furiously angry; all because of you. The pair you are! He said if I fooled you, and didn't play fair, he'd back out, or insist on a pucca engagement. And—yes—it did have the wrong effect. It made me wonder—if I could marry a man, however splendid, who owned such exacting standards and such a hot temper. And there were you—an unknown quantity, with the Banter-Wrangle discreetly in pursuit. A supreme inducement in itself!—Yes, distinctly, that afternoon was a turning-point. Just Lance losing his temper, and you coolly forgetting an arrangement with me——"
She paused, looking back over it all; felt Roy's hold slacken and unobtrusively withdrew her hand.
"Soon after Kapurthala, he was angry again. And that time, I'm afraid I reminded him that our engagement was only 'on' conditionally; that if he started worrying at me, it would soon be unconditionally off——"
"So it should have been!" Roy jerked up on to his elbow, and confronted her with challenging directness. "Once you could speak like that, feel like that, you'd no right to keep him hanging on—hoping when there was practically no hope. It wasn't playing the game——"
This time she kept her eyes averted, and a slow colour invaded her face. There was a point beyond which feminine frankness could not go. She could not—would not—tell this unflatteringly critical lover of hers that it was not in her nature to let the one man go till she felt morally sure of the other.
Roy had only a profile view of her warm cheek, her sensitive nostril a-quiver, her lip drawn in. And when she spoke, it was in the tense, passionate tone of that evening at Anarkalli.
"Oh yes—it's easy work sitting in judgment on other people. I told you I hadn't much of a case—I asked you to make allowances. You clearly can't. He asked you—not to hurt me. You clearly feel you must. Yet—in justice to you both—I'm doing what I can. I've never before condescended to explain myself—almost excuse myself—to any man; and I certainly never shall again. It strikes me you'd better apply your own indictment ... to your own case. If you can think and feel ... as you seem to do, better face the fact and be done with it——"
But Roy, startled and penitent, was sitting upright by now; and, when she would have risen, he seized her, crushing her to him, would she or no. In her pain and anger she more than ever drew him. In his utter heart-loneliness, he more than ever needed her. And the reminder of Lance crowned all.
"My darling—don't go off at a tangent, that way," he implored her, his lips against her hair. "For me—it's a sacred bond. It can't be snapped in a fit of temper—like a bit of knotted thread. I'll accept ... what I can't see clear. We'll stand by each other, as you said. Learn one another—Rose...! My dearest girl—don't——!"
He strained her closer, in mingled bewilderment and distress. For Rose—who trod lightly on the hearts of men, Rose—the serene and self-assured—was sobbing brokenly in his arms....
Before the end of the evening, they were more or less themselves again; the threatened storm averted; the trouble patched up and summarily dismissed, as only lovers can dismiss a cloud that intrudes upon their heaven of blue.
"Le pire douleur est de ne pas, pleurer ce qu'on a perdu." —DE COULEVAIN.
But as days passed, both grew increasingly aware of the patch; and both very carefully concealed the fact. They spent a week of peaceful seclusion from Simla and her restless activities. Roy scarcely set eyes on Mrs Elton; but—Rose having skilfully prepared the ground—he merely gave her credit for her mother's unusual display of tact.
Neither was in the vein for dances or tennis parties. They rode out to Mashobra and Fagu. They spent long days, picnicking in the Glen. Roy discovered, with satisfaction, that Rose had a weakness for being read to and a fair taste in literature, so long as it was not poetry. He also discovered—with a twinge of dismay—that if they were many hours together, he found reading easier than talking.
On the whole, they spent a week that should, by rights, have been ideal for new-made lovers; yet, at heart, both felt vaguely troubled and disillusioned.
Pain and parting and harsh realities seemed to have rubbed the bloom off their exotic romance. And for Rose the trouble struck deep. She had deliberately willed to put aside her own innate shrinking from the Indian strain in Roy. But she reckoned without the haunting effect of her mother's plain speaking. At first she had flatly ignored it; then she fortified her secret qualms by devising a practical plan for getting away to a friend in Kashmir. There was a sister in Simla going to join her. They could travel together. Roy could follow on. And there they two could be quietly married without fuss or audible comment from their talkative little world.
It was not precisely her idea of the manner in which she—Rose Arden—should be given in marriage. But the main point was that—if she could help it—her mother should not score in the matter of Roy. Could she help it? That was the question persistently knocking at her heart.
And she was only a degree less troubled by the perverse revival of her feeling for Lance. Vanished—his hold on her deeper nature seemed mysteriously to strengthen. Memories crowded in, unbidden, of their golden time together just before Roy appeared on the scene; till she almost arrived at blaming her deliberately chosen lover for having come between them and landed her in her present distracting position. For now it was the ghost of Lance that threatened to come between her and Roy; and the irony of it cut her to the quick. If she had dealt unfairly by these two men, whose standards were leagues above her own, she was not, it seemed, to escape her share of suffering....
For Roy's heart also knew the chill of secret disillusion. The ardour and thrill of his courtship seemed fatally to have suffered eclipse. When they were together, the lure of her was potent still. It was in the gaps between that he felt irked, more and more, by incipient criticism. In the course of that first talk, she had unwittingly stripped herself of the glamour that was more than half her charm; and at bottom his Eastern subconsciousness was jarred by her casual attitude to the sanctities of the man and woman relation, as instilled into him by his mother. When he quarrelled with her treatment of Lance, she saw it merely as a rather exaggerated concern for his friend. There was that in it, of course; but there was more.
Yet undeniably Desmond's urgent plea influenced his own effort to ignore the still small voice within him, that protested against the whole affair. At another time he would have taken it for a clear intimation from his mother; but she seemed to have lost, or deserted him, these days. All he could firmly hold on to, at present, was his loyalty to Lance, his duty to Rose; and both seemed to point in the same direction.
It struck him as strange that she did not mention the wedding; and she had been so full of it that very first evening. Once, when he casually asked if any fixtures were decided on yet, she had smiled and answered, "No; not yet." And some other topic had intervened.
It was only a degree less strange that she spoke so often of Lance, without attempting to disguise her admiration—and something more. And in himself—strangest of all—this surprising manifestation stirred no flicker of jealousy. It seemed a link, rather, drawing, them nearer together. She frankly encouraged talk of their school-days that involved fresh revealings of Lance at every turn: talk that was anodyne or anguish according to his mood.
She also encouraged him to unearth his deserted novel and read her the opening chapters. In Lahore, he had longed for that moment; now he feared lest it too sharply emphasise their inner apartness. For the Indian atmosphere was strong in the book; and the Indian atmosphere jarred. The effect of the riots had merely been repressed. It still simmered underneath.
Only once she had broken out on the subject; and had been distinctly restive when he demurred at the injustice of sweeping indictments against the whole country, because a handful of extremists were trying to wreck the ship. Personally he blamed England for virtually assisting in the process. It had come near to an altercation—very rare event with Rose; and it had left Roy feeling more unsettled than ever.
A few readings of his novel made him feel more uncomfortable still. Like all true artists, he listened, as he read, with the mind of his audience; and intuitively, he felt her antagonism to the Indian element in his characters, his writing, his theme.
For three days he persisted. Then he gave it up.
They were sitting in their nook; Rose leaning back, her eyes half closed, gazing across the valley. In the middle of a flagrantly Indian chapter, he broke off: determined to take it lightly; not to make a grievance of it: equally determined she should hear no more.
For a few seconds she did not realise. Then she turned and looked up at him. "Well——? Is that all?"
"Yes. That's all—so far as you're concerned!"
Her brows went up in the old beguiling way. He felt her trying to hide her thought, and held up a warning finger.
"Now, don't put it on! Frankly—isn't she relieved? Hasn't she borne the infliction like a saint?"
The blood stirred visibly under her pallor. "It was not an infliction. Your writing's wonderful. Quite uncanny—the way you get inside people and things. If there's more—go on."
"There's a lot more. But I'm not going on—even at her Majesty's express command!—Look here, Rose ... let be." He suddenly changed his tone. "I can feel how it bothers you. So—why pretend...?"
She looked down; twisting her opal ring, making the delicate colours flash and change.
"It's a pity—isn't it?"—she seemed to muse aloud—"that more than half of life is made up of pretending. It becomes rather a delicate problem—fixing boundary lines. I do admire your gift, Roy. And you're so intensely human. But I confess, I—I am jerked by parts of your theme. Doesn't all this animosity and open vilification affect your own feeling about—things, the least bit?"
"Yes. It does. Only—not in your way. It makes me unhappy, because the real India—snowed under with specious talk and bitter invective—has less chance now than ever of being understood by those who can't see below the surface."
He sighed. "Oh, scores and scores of you, here and at Home. And scores of others, who have far less excuse. That's why one feels bound to do what one can...."
His thoughts on that score went too deep for utterance.
But Rose was engaged in her own purely personal deliberations.
"You might want to come out again ... afterwards?"
"Yes—I should hope to. Besides ... there are my cousins...."
"Yes. Very clever. Very charming. Rose ... you've been six years in India. Have you ever met, in a friendly way, a cultivated, well-born Indian—man or woman?"
"N-no. Not worth mentioning."
"And ... you haven't wanted to?"
He felt her shrink from the direct question.
"Why press the point, Roy? It needn't make any real difference—need it—between you and me?"
Her counter-question was still more direct, more searching.
"Perhaps not—now," he said. "It might ... make a lot ... afterwards——"
At that critical juncture their talk was interrupted by a peon with a note that required immediate attention: and Roy, left alone, felt increasingly disillusioned and dismayed.
Later on, to his relief, Rose suggested a ride. She seemed suddenly in a more elusive mood than he had experienced since their engagement. She did not refer again to his novel, or to the thorny topic of India; and their parting embrace was chilled by a shadow of constraint.
"How would it be—afterwards?" he wondered, riding back to the Club, at a foot's pace, feeling tired and feverish and gravely puzzled as to whether it might not—on all counts—be the greater wrong to make a fetish of a bond so rashly forged.
To-day, very distinctly he was aware of the inner tug he had been trying to ignore. And to-day it was more imperative; less easily stilled. Could it be ... veritably, his mother, trying to reach him—and failing, for the first time?
That thought prompted the test question—if she were alive, how would he feel about bringing Rose home as daughter-in-law, as mother of her grandson ... the gift of gifts? If she were alive, could Rose herself have faced the conjunction? And to him she was still verily alive—or had been, till his infatuate passion had blinded him to everything but one face, one form, one desire.
That night there came to him—on the verge of sleep—the old thrilling sensation that she was there—yearning to him across an impassable barrier. And this time he knew—with a bitter certainty—that the barrier was within himself. Every nerve in him craved—as he had not craved this long while—the unmistakable sense of her that seemed gone past recall. Desperately, he strained every faculty to penetrate the resistant medium that withheld her from him—in vain.
Wearied out, with disappointment and futile effort, he fell asleep—praying for a dream visitation to revive his shaken faith. None came; and conviction seized him that none would come, until....
One could not, simultaneously, live on intimate terms with earth and heaven. And Rose was earth in its most alluring guise. More: she had awakened in him sensations and needs that, at the moment, she alone could satisfy. But if it amounted to a choice; for him, there could be no question....
* * * * *
Next day and the day after, a sharp return of fever kept him in bed: and a touch of his father in him tempted him to write, sooner than face the strain of a final scene. But moral cowardice was not among his failings; also unquestionably—if irrationally—he wanted to see her, to hold her in his arms once again....
On the third morning he sent her a note saying he was better; he would be round for tea; and received a verbal answer. Miss Sahib sent her salaam. She would be at home.
So, about half-past three, he rode out to the house on Elysium Hill, wondering how—and, at moments, whether—he was going to pull it through....
Her smile of welcome almost unmanned him. He simply did not feel fit for the strain. It would be so much easier and more restful to yield to her spell.
"I'm so sorry. Idiotic of me," was all he said; and went forward to take her in his arms.
But she, without a word, laid both hands on him, holding him back.
"Rose! What's the matter?" he cried, genuinely upset. Nothing undermines a resolve like finding it forestalled.
"Simply—it's all over. We're beaten, Roy," she said in a queer, repressed voice. "We can't go on with this. And—you know it."
"But—darling!" He took her by the arms.
"No ... no!" The passionate protest was addressed to herself as much as to him. "Listen, Roy. I've never hated saying anything more—but it's true. You said, last time,—'Why pretend?' And that struck home. I knew I had been pretending hard—because I wanted to—for more than a week. You made me realise ... one couldn't go on at it all one's married life.—But, my dear, what a wretch I am! You're not fit...."
"Oh, I'm just wobbly ... stupid," he muttered, half dazed, as she pressed him down into a corner of the Chesterfield.
"Poor old boy. When you've had some tea, you'll be able to face things."
He said nothing; merely leaned back against the cushion and closed his eyes—part of him rebelling furiously against her quiet yet summary proceedings—while she attended to the sputtering kettle.
How prosaic, after all, are even the great moments of life! They had been ardent lovers. They had come to the parting of the ways. But a kettle on the boil would wait for no man; and, till the body was served, the troubles of the heart must stand aside.
She drew the table nearer to him; carefully poured out tea; carefully avoided his eyes. And—in the intervals between her mechanical occupations—she told him as much of the truth as she felt he could bear to hear, or she to speak. Among other things, unavoidably, she explained how—and through whom—her mother had come to know about their reservation——
"That young sweep!" Roy muttered, so suddenly half-alert and fierce that amused tenderness tripped up her studied composure.
"You'd go for him now, just the same, I believe!"
"I would—and a bit extra. Because—of you."
She sighed. "Oh yes, it was a mauvais quart d'heure of the first order. And coming on the top of your crushing letter——"
He captured her hand. Their eyes met—and softened.
"No, Roy," she said, gently but inexorably releasing her fingers. "We've got to keep our heads to-day, somehow."
"Has yours so completely taken command of affairs?"
"I'm afraid—it has."
"Yet—you stood up to your mother?"
"Oh, I did—as I've never done yet. But afterwards I realised—it was only skin deep. She said ... things I can't repeat; but equally ... I can't forget; things about ... possible children...."
The blood flamed in Roy's sallow face. "Confound her! What does she know about possible children?"
"More than I do, I suppose," Rose admitted, with a pathetic half smile. "Anyway, after that, she refused to countenance the engagement—the wedding——"
Roy sat suddenly forward, scorn and anger in his eyes.
"Refused——! After the infernal fuss she made over me, because my father happened to have a title and a garden. And now——" his hand closed on the edge of the table. "I'm considered a pariah—am I?—simply on account of my lovely little mother—the guardian angel of us all!"
His blaze of wrath, his low passionate tone, startled her to silence. He had spoken so seldom of his mother since the first occasion, that—although she knew—she had far from plumbed the height and depth of his worship. And instinctively she thought, 'I should have been jealous into the bargain.'
But Roy had room just then for one consideration only.
"Here have I been coming to her house on sufferance ... polluting her precious drawing-room, while she's been avoiding me as if I was a leper, all because I'm the son of a sainted woman, whose shoe she wouldn't have been worthy ... oh, I beg your pardon——" He checked himself sharply. "After all—she's your mother."
Rose felt her cheeks growing uncomfortably warm. "I did warn you, in Lahore, some people felt ... that way."
"Well, I never dreamed they would behave that way. It's not as if I'd been born and reared in India and might claim relations in her compound."
"My dear—one can't make her see the difference," Rose urged desperately.
"Well, I won't stay any longer in her house. I won't eat her food——"
He pushed aside his plate so impatiently that Rose felt almost angry. But she saw his hand tremble; and covered it with her own.
"Roy—my dear! You're ill; and you're being rather exaggerated over things——"
"Well, you put me in such a false position. You ought to have told me."
She winced at that and let fall her hand.
"That's all one's reward for trying to save you from jars when you were knocked up and unhappy. And I told you ... I defied her ... I ... I would have married you...."
He looked at her, and his heart contracted sharply.
"Poor Rose—poor darling!" He was his normal self again. "What a beast of a time you must have had! But—how did you propose to accomplish it——?"
She told him, haltingly, of the Kashmir plan; and he listened, half incredulous, leaning back again; thinking: "She's plucky; but still, all she troubled about really was to save her face."
And she, noting his impatient frown, was thinking: "He's like a sensitive plant charged with gunpowder. Is it the touchiness of——?"
"I'm afraid I'd have kicked at that." His voice broke in upon her thought. "Such a hole-and-corner business. Hardly fair on my father...."
"Well, there's no question of it now," she reminded him, with a touch of asperity. "I've told you—the whole thing's defunct. Later—we'll be glad, perhaps, that I discovered in time that part of me could not be coerced—by the other part, which still wants you as much as ever. We should have been landed in disaster—soon or late. Better soon—before the roots have struck too deep. But you're so furiously angry with the reason—that you seem almost to forget ... the fact."
His eyes brooded on her, full of pain and the old, half-unwilling infatuation. He could not so hurt her pride as to confess that their discovery had been mutual. Let her glean what satisfaction she could from having taken the lead—first and last. Part of him, also, still wanted her; though in the depths, he felt a glimmer of relief that the thing was done—and by her.
"No," he said, "I don't forget the fact. But—the reason cuts deep. I want to know——" he hesitated—"is all this ... antipathy you can't get over—you and your mother—the ordinary average attitude? Or is it ... exceptionally acute?"
She drew in her lip. Why would he force her to hurt him more? For they had got beyond polite evasion. Clearly he wanted the truth.
"Mother's is acute," she said, not looking at him. "Mine—I'm afraid—is ... the ordinary average feeling against it. The exception would be to find a girl—especially out here—who could honestly ... get over it——"
"Unless—she cared in the real big way," Roy interposed; his own pain goading him to an unfair hit at her. "To be blunt, I suppose it's the case—of Lance over again. You've found ... you don't love me enough——?"
"And you——?" she struck back, turning on him the cool deliberate look of early days. "Do you love me enough? Do you care—as he did?"
"No—not as he did. I've cared blindly, passionately—somehow we didn't seem to meet on any other plane. In fact, it ... it was realising how magnificently Lance cared ... and how little you seemed able to appreciate the fact, that made me feel—as I did, down there. In a sense, he's been barring the way ... ever since...."
"Roy! How strange!" She faced him now, the mask of repression flung aside. "It's been the same—with me!"
"Yes. Ever since I heard ... he was gone, he has haunted me to distraction. I've seemed to see him and feel him in quite a different way."
"Good Lord!" Roy murmured—incredulous, amazed. "Human beings are the queerest things. If only ... you'd felt like that ... sooner——?"
"Yes—if only I had——!" she lamented frankly, looking straight before her.
"I'm glad—you told me," said her unaccountable lover.
"I nearly—didn't. But when you said that, I felt it might—ease things. And that was his great wish—wasn't it?—to ease things ... for us both. Oh—was there ever any one ... quite like him?"
Tears stood in her eyes, and Roy contemplating her—seeing, for the first time, something beyond her beauty—felt drawn to her in an altogether new way; and sitting there they talked of him quietly, like friends, rather than lovers on the verge of parting for good.
As real to them, almost, as themselves, was the spirit of the man who had loved both more greatly than they were capable of loving one another; who, in life, had refused to stand between them; yet, in death, had subtly thrust them apart....
Then there came a pause. They remembered....
"We're rather a strange pair—of lovers," she murmured shakily. "I feel, now, as if I can't bear letting you go. And yet ... it wouldn't last.—Dearest, will you be sensible ... and finish your tea?"
"No. It would choke me," he said with smothered passion. "If I've got to go—I'm going."
He stood up, bracing his shoulders. She stood up also, confronting him. Neither could see the other's face quite clear.
Then: "Only six weeks!" she said very low. "Roy—we ought to be ashamed of ourselves."
"I am—heartily," he confessed. "I was never more so."
She was looking down now, twisting her ring. "I'm afraid ... I'm not talented in that line. Somehow ... except for Lance, I can't regret it." She slid the ring over her knuckle.
"Oh, keep the beastly thing!" he flung out in an access of pain. "Or throw it down the khud. I said it would bring bad luck."
She sighed. "All the same—poor thing! It's too lovely...."
"Well then, don't wear it; but keep it"—his tone changed—"as a reminder. We have been something to one another ... if it couldn't be everything."
Her eyes were still lowered, her lips not quite steady.
"You've been ... very near it to me. Yet—it seemed, the more ... I cared, the less I could get over ... that. And I felt as if you—wouldn't get over.. Lance."
"My God! It's been a bitter, contrary business all round! I can't bear hurting you. And—the talk and all that——" She nodded. For her that was not the least bitter part of it all. "And you——? Oh, Lord—will it be Hayes to the fore again?"
"No!" Reproach underlay her vehemence. "Mother may rage. I shall go with Dolly Smyth to Kashmir.—And you——?"
"Oh, I'll go out to Narkhanda."
"Alone? But you're ill. You want looking after."
"Can't be helped. Azim Khan's a treasure. And really I don't care a damn what comes to me."
"Oh, but I do——!"
It was a cry from her heart. The strain of repression snapped. She swayed, just perceptibly——
In a moment his arms were round her; and they clung together a long while, in the only complete form of nearness they had known....
For Roy, that last passionate kiss was dead-sea fruit. For Rose, it was her moment of completest surrender to an elemental force she had deliberately played with only to find herself the sport of it at last....
When it was over—all was over. Words were impertinent. He held her hands close, a moment, looking into her tear-filled eyes. Then he took up hat and stick and stumbled blindly down the verandah steps....
* * * * *
Back in his bachelor room at the Club, he realised that fever was on him again: his eyeballs burning; little hammers beating all over his head. Mechanically, he picked up two letters that lay awaiting him: one from his father, one from Jeffers, congratulating him, in rather guarded phrases, on his engagement to Miss Arden.
It was the last straw.
END OF PHASE IV.
A STAR IN DARKNESS
"Thou art with life Too closely woven, nerve with nerve intwined; Service still craving service, love for love ... Nor yet thy human task is done." —R.L.S.
In the verandah of Narkhanda dak bungalow Roy lay alone, languidly at ease, assisted by rugs and pillows and a Madeira cane lounge at an invalid angle; walls and arches splashed with sunshine; and a table beside him littered with convalescent accessories. There were home papers; there were books; there was fruit and a syphon, cut lemons and crushed ice—everything thoughtfulness could suggest set within easy reach. But the nameless depression of convalescence hung heavy on his spirit and his limbs.
He was thirsty; he was lonely; he was mentally hungry in a negative kind of way. Yet it simply did not seem worth the trivial effort of will to decide whether he wanted to pick up a book or an orange or to press the syphon handle. So he lay there, inert, impassive, staring across the valley at the snows—peak beyond soaring peak, ethereal in the level light.
The beauty of them, the pellucid clearness and stillness of early evening, stirred no answering echo within him. His brain was travelling back over a timeless interval; wandering uncertainly among sensations, apparitions, and dreams, presumably of semi-delirium: for Lance was in them and his mother and Rose and Dyan, saying and doing impossible things....
And in clearer intervals, there hovered the bearded face of Azim Khan, pressing upon his refractory Sahib this infallible medicine, that 'chikken brath' or jelly. And occasionally there was another bearded face: vaguely familiar, though he could not put a name to it.
Between them the two had brought out a doctor from Simla. He remembered a sharp altercation over that. He wanted no confounded doctor messing round. But Azim Khan, for love of his master, had flatly defied orders: and the forbidden doctor had appeared—involving further exhausting argument. For on no account would Roy be moved back to Simla. Azim Khan understood his ways and his needs. He was damned if he would have any one else near him.
And this time he had prevailed. For the doctor, who happened to be a wise man, knew when acquiescence was medically sounder than insistence. There had, however, been a brief intrusion of a strange woman, in cap and apron, who had made a nuisance of herself over food and washing, and was infernally in the way. When the fever abated, she melted into the landscape; and Roy had just enough of his old spirit left in him to murmur, 'Shahbash!' in a husky voice: and Azim Khan, inflated with pride, became more autocratic than ever.
The other bearded face had resolved itself into the Delhi Sikh, Jiwan Singh. He had been on a tramp among the Hills, combating insidious Home-Rule fairy-tales among the villagers: and finding the Sahib very ill, had stayed on to help.
This morning they had told him it was the third of June:—barely three weeks since that strange, poignant parting with Rose. Not seven weeks since the infinitely more poignant and terrible parting with Lance. Yet, as his mind stirred unwillingly, picking up threads, he seemed to be looking back across a measureless gulf into another life....
"The Sahib has slept? His countenance has been more favourable since these few days?"
It was the voice of Jiwan Singh; and the man himself followed it—taut and wiry, instinct with a degree of energy and purpose almost irritating to one who was feeling emptied of both; aimless as a jelly-fish stranded by the tide.
"Not smoking, Hazur? Has that scoundrel Azim Khan forgotten the cigarettes?"
Roy unearthed his case, and held it up, smiling.
"The scoundrel forgets nothing," said he, knowing very well how the two of them had vied with one another in forestalling his needs. "Sit down, my friend—and tell me news. I am too lazy to read." He touched an unopened 'Civil and Military Gazette.' "Too lazy even to cast out the devil of laziness. But very ready to listen. Are things all quiet now? Any more tamashas?"
"Only a very little one across the frontier," said the Sikh with his grim smile: and proceeded to explain that the Indian Government had lately become entangled in a sort of a war with Afghanistan; a rather 'kutcha bandobast' in Jiwan Singh's estimation; and not quite up to time; but a war, for all that.
"You mean——" asked Roy, his numbed interest faintly astir, "that it was to have been part of the same game as the trouble down there?"
"God has given me ears—and wits, Hazur," was the cautious answer. "That would be pukka bundobast, for war and trouble to come at one stroke in the hot season, when so many of the white soldier-log are in the Hills. Does your Honour suppose that merely by chance the Amir read in his paper of riots in India, and said in his heart, 'Wah! Now is the time for lighting little fires along the Border'?"
"N-no—I don't suppose——"
"Does your Honour suppose Hindus and Moslems—outside a highly educated few—are truly falling on each other's necks, without one thought of political motive?"
"No, my friend—I do not suppose."
"Yet these things are said openly among our people: and too few, now, have courage to speak their thought. For it is the loyal who suffer—shurrum ki bhat! Is it surprising, Hazur, if we, who distrust this new madness, begin to ask ourselves, 'Has the British Raj lost the will—or the power—of former days to protect friends and smite enemies'? If the noisy few clamouring for Swaraj make India once more a battlefield, your people can go. We Sikhs must remain, with Pathans and Afghans—as of old—hammering at our doors——"
At sight of the young Englishman's pained frown, he checked his expansive mood. "To the Sahib I can freely speak the thoughts of my heart; but this is not talk to make a sick man well. God is merciful. Before all is lost—the British Raj may yet arise with power, as in the great days...."
But his talk, if unpalatable, was more tonic than he knew; because Roy's love for India went deeper than he knew. The justice of Jiwan Singh's reproach; the hint at tragic severance of the two countries mingled within him, waked him effectually from semi-torpor; and the process was as painful as the tingling renewal of life in a frozen limb. By timely courage, on the spot, the threat to India had been staved off: but it was there still—sinister, unsleeping, virtually unchecked.
'Scotched—not killed.' The voice of Lance sounded too clearly in Roy's brain; and the more intimate pain, deadened a little by illness, struck at his heart like a sword....
* * * * *
Within a week, care and feeding and inimitable air, straight from the snowfields, had made him, physically, a new man. Mentally, it had brought him face to face with actualities, and the staggering question, 'What next'?
At the back of his mind he had been dreading it, evading it, because it would force him to look deep into his own heart; and to make decisions, when the effort of making them was anathema, beclouded as he was by the depression that still brooded over him like a fog. The doctor had prescribed a tonic and a whiff of Simla frivolity; but Roy paid no heed. He knew his malady was mainly of the heart and the spirit. The true curative touch could only come from some arrowy shaft that would pierce to the core of one or the other.
This morning, by way of reasserting his normal self, he had risen very early with intent to walk out and spend the day at Baghi dak bungalow, ten miles on. Taking things easily, he believed it could be done. He would look through his manuscript; try and pick up threads. Suraj could follow later; and he would ride home over the pass in the cool of the evening.
He set out under a clear heaven, misted with the promise of heat: the air rather ominously still. But the thread of a path winding through the dimness and vastness of Narkhanda Forest was ice-cool with the breath of night. Pines, ilex, and deodars clung miraculously to a hillside of massive rock, that jutted above him at intervals—threatening, immense; and often, on the khud side, dropped abruptly into nothingness. When the road curved outward, splashes of sunlight patterned it; and intermittent gaps revealed the flash of snow-peaks, incredibly serene and far.
Normally the scene—the desolate grandeur of it—would have intoxicated Roy. But the stranger he was carrying about with him, and called by his own name, reacted in quite another fashion to the shadowed majesty of looming rocks and forest aisles. The immensity of it dwarfed one mere suffering man to the dimensions of a pebble on the path. And the pebble had the advantage of insensibility. The stillness and chillness made him feel overwhelmingly alone. A sudden craving for Lance grew almost intolerable....
But Lance was gone. Paul, with his bride, had vanished from human ken; Rose, a shattered illusion, gone too. Better so—of course; though, intermittently, the man she had roused in him still ached for the sight and feel of her. She gave a distinct thrill to life: and, if he could not forgive her, neither could he instantly forget her.
Still less could he forget the significance of the shock she had dealt him on their day of parting. Patently she loved him, in her passionate, egotistical fashion—as he had never loved her; patently she had combated her shrinking in defiance of her mother: and yet...!
Rage as he might, his Rajput pride, and pride in his Rajput heritage, were wounded to the quick. If all English girls felt that way, he would see them further, before he would propose to another one, or 'confess' to his adored Mother, as if she were a family skeleton or a secret vice. Instantly there sprang the thought of Aruna—her adoration, her exalted passion; Aruna, whom he might have loved, yet was constrained to put aside because of his English heritage; only to find himself put aside by an English girl on account of his Indian blood. A pleasant predicament for a man who must needs marry in common duty to his father and himself.
And what of Tara? Was it possible...? Could that be the meaning of her final desperate, 'I can't do it, Roy—even for you'! Was it conceivable—she who loved his mother to the point of worship? Still smarting from his recent rebuff, he simply could not tell. Thea and Lance loved her too; yet, in Lance especially, he had been aware of a tacit tendency to ignore the Indian connection.
The whole complication touched him too nearly, hurt and bewildered him too bitterly, for cool consideration. He only saw that which had been his pride converted into a reproach, a two-edged sword barring the way to marriage: and in the bitterness of his heart he found it hard to forgive his parents—mainly his father—for putting him in so cruel a position, with no word of warning to soften the blow.
Perhaps people felt differently in England. If so, India was no place for him. How blatantly juvenile—to his clouded, tormented brain—seemed his arrogant dreams of Oxford days! What could such as he do for her, in this time of tragic upheaval. And how could all the Indias he had seen—not to mention the many he had not seen—be jumbled together under that one misleading name? That was the root fallacy of dreamers and 'reformers.' They spoke of her as one, when in truth she was many—bewilderingly many. The semblance of unity sprang mainly from England's unparalleled achievement—her Pax Britannica, that held the scales even between rival chiefs and races and creeds; that had wrought, in miniature, the very inter-racial stability which Europe had vainly fought and striven to achieve. Yet now, some malign power seemed constraining her, in the name of progress, to undo the work of her own hands....
All his thronging thoughts were tinged with the gloom of his unhopeful mood; and his body sagged with his sagging spirit. Before he had walked four miles, his legs refused to carry him any farther.
He had emerged into the open, into full view of the vastness beyond. Naked rock and stone, jewelled with moss and young green, fell straight from the path's edge; and one ragged pine, springing from a group of boulders, was roughly stencilled on blue distances empurpled with shadows of thunderous cloud.
A flattened boulder proved irresistible; and Roy sat down, leaning his head against the trunk, sniffing luxuriously—whiffs of resin and sun-warmed pine-needles. Oh, to be at home, in his own beech-wood! But the journey in this weather would be purgatorial. Meantime, there was his walk; and he decided, prosaically, to fortify himself with a slab of chocolate. Instead—still more prosaically, he fell sound asleep....
But sleep, in an unnatural position, begets dreams. And Roy dreamed of Lance; of that last awful day when he raved incessantly of Rose. But in the dream he was conscious; and before his distracted gaze Roy held Rose in his arms; craving her, yet hating her; because she clung to him, heedless of entreaties from Lance, and would not be shaken off....
In a frantic effort to free himself, he woke—with the anguish of his loss fresh upon him—to find the sky heavily overcast, the breathlessness of imminent storm in the air. Away to the North there were blue spaces, sun-splashed leagues of snow. But from the South and West rolled up the big battalions—heralds of the monsoon.
He concluded apathetically that Baghi was 'off.' He was in for a drenching. Lucky he had brought his burberry....
Yet he did not stir. A ton weight seemed to hang on his limbs, his spirit, his heart. He simply sat there, in a carven stillness, staring down, down, into abysmal depths....
And startlingly, sharply, the temptation assailed him. The tug of it was almost physical.... How simple to yield—to cut his many tangles at one stroke!
In that jaundiced moment he saw himself a failure foreordained; debarred from marriage by evils supposed to spring from the dual strain in him; his cherished hopes of closer union between the two countries he loved threatened with shipwreck by an England complacently experimental, an India at war with the British connection and with her many selves. He seemed fated to bring unhappiness on those he cared for—Aruna, Lance, even Rose. And what of his father—if he failed to marry? He hadn't even the grit to finish his wretched novel....
He rose at last, mechanically, and moved forward to the unrailed edge of all things. The magnetism of the depths drew him. The fatalistic strain in his blood drew him....
He stood—though he did not know it—as his mother had once stood, hovering on the verge; his own life—that she bore within her—hanging in the balance. From the fatal tilt, she had been saved by the voice of her husband—the voice of the West. And now, at Roy's critical moment, it was the voice of the West—of Lance—that sounded in his brain: "Don't fret your heart out, Roy. Carry on."
Having carried on, somehow, through four years of war, he knew precisely how much of casual, dogged pluck was enshrined in that soldierly phrase. It struck the note of courage and command. It was Lance incarnate. It steadied him, automatically, at a crisis when his shaken nerves might not have responded to any abstract ethical appeal. He closed his eyes a moment to collect himself; swayed, the merest fraction—then deliberately stepped back a pace....
The danger had passed.
Through his lids he felt the glare of lightning: the first flash of the storm.
And as the heel of his retreating boot came firmly down on the path behind, there rose an injured yelp that jerked him very completely out of the clouds.
"Poor Terry—poor old man!" he murmured, caressing the faithful creature; always too close by, always getting trodden on—the common guerdon of the faithful. And the whimsical thought intruded, "If I'd gone over, the good little beggar would have jumped after me. Not fair play."
The fact that Terry had been saved from involuntary suicide seemed somehow the more important consideration of the two.
A rumbling growl overhead reminded him that there were other considerations—urgent ones.
"You're not hurt, you little hypocrite. Come on. We must leg it."
And they legged it to some purpose; Terry—idiotically vociferous—leaping on before....
[Footnote 37: Crude arrangement.]
[Footnote 38: Sound arrangement.]
[Footnote 39: Shameful talk.]
"I seek what I cannot get; I get what I do not seek." —RABINDRANATH TAGORE.
Then the storm broke in earnest....
Crash on flash, crash on flash—at ever-lessening intervals—the tearless heavens raged and clattered round his unprotected head. Thunder toppled about him like falling timber stacks. Fiery serpents darted all ways at once among black boughs that swayed and moaned funereally. The gloom of the forest enhanced the weird magnificence of it all: and Roy—who had just been within an ace of flinging away his life—felt irrationally anxious on account of thronging trees and the absence of rain.
He had recovered sufficiently to chuckle at the ignominious anti-climax. But, as usual, it was the creepsomeness rather than the danger that got on his nerves and forced his legs to hurry of their own accord....
In the deep of a gloomy indent, the thought assailed him—"Why do I know it all so well? Where...? When...?"
An inner flash lit the dim recesses of memory. Of course—it was that other day of summer, in the far beginning of things; the day of the Golden Tusks and the gloom and the growling thunder; his legs, as now, in a fearful hurry of their own accord; and Tara waiting for him—his High-Tower Princess. With a pang he recalled how she had seemed the point of safety—because she was never afraid.