Suddenly these visions vanished before something more tangible in the haze of the valley. This was the flutter of a dirty white rag which seemed to come and go among the fir trees.
Jem Agar rose from his temporary seat and walked to the door of the tent—exactly two strides. A rifle lay against the canvas, and this he took up, slowly cocking it without taking his eyes from the belt of fir trees across the valley.
Presently he threw the rifle up and fired instantaneously. He had been musketry instructor in his time and held views upon quick firing. The smoke rose lazily in the ambient air, and he saw a figure all fluttering rags and flying turban running down the slope away from him. At the same moment there was a crashing volley, followed by two straggling reports. The figure stopped, seemed to hesitate, and then slowly subsided into the grass.
Agar put his head out of the tent and saw half a company of Goorkhas, keen little sportsmen all standing in line at the edge of the plateau, reloading.
This was the force at the disposal of Major J. E. M. Agar, at that time occupying and holding for Her Majesty the Queen of England and Empress of India a very advanced position on the northern frontier of India. And in this manner he spent most of his days and some of his nights. In addition to the plain Major he had several other titles attached to his name at that time, indicative of duties real and imaginary. He was "deputy assistant" several things and "acting" one or two; for in military titles one begins in inverse ratio in a large way, and ends in something short.
Jem Agar was thought very highly of by almost all concerned, except himself, and it had not occurred to him to devote much thought to this matter. He was one of the very few men to whom a senior officer or a pretty girl could say, "You are a nice man and a clever fellow," without doing the least harm. Men who thought such things of themselves laughed at him behind his back, and wondered vaguely why he got promotion. It never occurred to them to reflect that "old Jem" invariably acquitted himself well in each new position thrust upon him by a persistently kind fortune; they contented themselves with an indefinite conviction that each severally could have done better, as is the way of clever young men. One of the many mysteries, by the way, which will have to be cleared up in a busy hereafter is that appertaining to brilliant boys, clever undergraduates, and gifted young men. What becomes of them? There are hundreds at school at this moment—we have it from their own parents; hundreds more at Oxford and Cambridge—we have it from themselves. In a few years they will be absorbed in a world of men very much inferior to themselves (by their own showing), and will be no more seen.
Jem Agar had never been a clever boy. He was not a clever man. But—and mark ye this—he knew it. The result of this knowledge was that he did what he could in the present with the present, and did not indefinitely postpone astonishing the universe, as most of us do, until some future date.
At this time he was banished, as some would take it. Banished to the top of a pass which was nought else than a footway between two empires. Forty miles from men of his own race, this man was one of those who either have no thoughts or no wish to impart them; for this racial solitude, which is an emotion fully explored by many in India, in no way affected his nerves. Some say that they get jumpy, others aver that they begin to lose their national characteristics and develop barbarous proclivities, while one Woods-and-Forests man known to some of us resigned because he had a buzzing in the head during the long solitary, silent evenings.
Major Agar made no statements on this point, though he listened with sympathy to the assertions of others. If the sympathy were subtly mingled with non-comprehensive wonder, the seeker after a purer form of commiseration attributed the alloy to natural density, and turned elsewhere.
Accompanied by a handful of Goorkhas, Major J. E. M. Agar had occupied the key to this narrow pass for more than a week, vaguely admiring the scenery, illustrating upon living "running deer" in turbans his views upon quick firing to his diminutive soldiers, who worshipped him as second only to the gods, and possessing his soul with that trustful patience which is rapidly becoming old-fashioned and effete.
During that same week the newspapers at home had been very busy with his name. Some had gone so far as to lay before a greedy public a short and succinct account of his life, compiled from the Army List and a journalistic imagination, finishing the record on the Monday, six days previously, with the usual three-line regret that England should in future be compelled to limp along the path to glory without the assistance of so brilliant a young officer.
Such a word as brilliant had never been coupled with the name of Jem even by his best friend in earnest or his worst enemy in irony. Such sarcasm were too shallow to be worth sounding even in disparagement. But we never know what an obituary notice may bring. Not only had he been endowed with many virtues, manly qualities, and the record of noble deeds, but more substantial honours had been heaped upon his fallen crest or pinned upon his breathless bosom. To some of his distant countrymen he was the proud possessor of the Victoria Cross, awarded him post-mortem in the heat of obituary enthusiasm by more than one local paper. To others he was held up by what is called a Representative Press as a second Crichton. And all this because he was dead. Such is glory.
All unconscious of these honours, honest Jem Agar sat in his little tent, nibbling the end of his penholder—the gift, by the way, of his father—and wishing that he had bought a Letts's diary with six days in a page instead of three.
Well waited is well done.
This time some one heard him, and that small, silent man, Ben Abdi, stood in the doorway of the tent at attention.
"Are you keeping a good look-out down the valley?" asked Major Agar.
"Ee yess, sar."
"No signs of any one?"
Agar shut up the diary, which book Ben Abdi had been taught to regard as strictly official, laid it aside, and passed out of the tent, the little Goorkha following close upon his heels with a quick intelligent interest in his every movement which somehow suggested a dusky and faithful little dog.
For some moments they stood thus on the edge of the small plateau, the big man in front, the little one behind—alert, with twinkling, beady eyes. Behind them towered a bleak grey slope of bare rock, like a cliff set back at a slight angle, so treeless, so smooth was the face of it. In front the great blue-shadowed valley lay beneath them, stretching away to the south, until in a distant haze the sharp hills seemed to close in and cut it short.
Perched thus, as it were, upon the roof of the world, these two men looked down upon it all with a calm sense of possession, and to him of the dominant race standing there some thousands of miles from his native land—alone—master of this great stretch of an alien shore, there must have come some passing thought of the strangeness of it all.
There was something wrong—he knew that. His orders had been to press forward and occupy this little ridge, which was vaguely marked on the service maps as Mistley's Plateau, named after an adventurous soul, its discoverer. He had been instructed to hold this against all comers, and if possible to prevent communication between the two valleys, connected only by this narrow pass. All this Agar had carried out to the letter; but some one else had failed somewhere.
"It will be three days at the most," his chief had said, "and the main body of the advance guard will join you!"
Jem Agar had been in occupation a week, and it seemed that he and his little band of men were forgotten of the world. Still this soldier held on, saying nothing to his men, writing his intensely practical diary, and trusting as a soldier should to the Deus ex machina who finally allows discipline to triumph. He looked down into the valley, piercing the shimmer of its hazes with his gentle blue eyes, looking to his chief, who had said, "In three days I will join you."
It was not the first time that Agar and the little non-commissioned native officer, Ben Abdi, had stood thus together. They had taken their stand in this same spot in the keen air of the early morning, with the white frost crystallising the stones around them; in the glow of midday; and when the moon, hanging over the sharp-pointed hills, cast the valley into an opaque shade dark and fathomless as the valley of death.
Scanning the distant hills, Agar presently raised his eyes, noting the position of the sun in the heavens.
"Have you tried the heliograph a second time this morning?" he asked without looking round, which informality of manner warmed the little soldier's heart.
"Yes, sar. Three times since breakfast."
It was the first time that Ben Abdi had found himself in a position of some responsibility, in immediate touch with one of the white-skinned warriors from over seas whose methods of making war had for him all the mystery and the infinite possibilities of a religion. This silent looking out for relief partook in some small degree of the nature of a council of war. Jem Sahib and himself were undoubtedly the chiefs of this expeditionary force, and to whom else than himself, Ben Abdi, should the Major turn for counsel and assistance? The little Goorkha preferred, however, that it should be thus; that Agar Sahib should say nothing, merely allowing him to stand silent three paces behind. He was a modest little man, this Goorkha, and knew the limit of his own capabilities, which knowledge, by the way, is not always to be found in the hearts of some of us boasting a fairer skin. He knew that for hard fighting, snugly concealed behind a rock at two hundred yards, or in the open, with cunning bayonet or swinging kookery, he was as good as his fellows; but for strategy, for the larger responsibilities of warfare, he was well pleased that his superior officer should manage these affairs in his quiet way unaided.
During a luncheon more remarkable for heartiness of despatch than delicacy of viand, James Edward Makerstone Agar devoted much thought to the affairs of Her Imperial Majesty the Empress of India. After luncheon he lighted a cheroot, threw himself on his bed, and there reflected further. Then he called to him Ben Abdi.
"No more promiscuous shooting," he said to him. "No more volley firing at a single Ghilzai or a stray Bhutari. It seems that they do not know we are here, as we are left undisturbed. I do not want them to know—understand? If you see any one going along the valley, send two men after him; no shooting, Ben Abdi."
And he pointed with his cheroot towards the evil-looking curved knife which hung at the Goorkha's side.
Ben Abdi grinned. He understood that sort of business thoroughly.
Then followed many technical instructions—not only technical in good honest English, but interlarded with words from a language which cannot be written with our alphabet for the benefit of such as love details of a realistic nature.
The result of this council was that sundry little dusky warriors were busy clambering about the rocky slope all that day and well into the short hill-country evening, working in twos and threes with the alacrity of ants.
Jem Agar, in his own good time, was proceeding to further fortify, as well as circumstances allowed, the position he had been told to hold until relief should come. In addition to the magic of the master's eye he lent the assistance of his strong right arm, laying his lithe weight against many a rock which his men could not move unaided. By the evening the position was in a fairly fortified state, and, after a copious dinner in the chill breeze that rushed from the mountain down to the valley after sunset, he walked placidly up and down at the edge of the plateau, watching, ever watching, but with calmness and no sign of anxiety.
Such it is to be an Englishman—the product of an English public school and country life. Thick-limbed, very quiet; thick-headed if you will!—that is as may be—but with a nerve of iron, ready to face the last foe of all—Death, without so much as a wink.
To his ear came at times the low cautious cry of some night-bird sailing with heavy wing down to the haunt of mouse or mole; otherwise the night was still as only mountain night-seasons are. Far down below him, the jungle and forest were rustling with game and beasts of prey seeking their meat from God, but the larger beasts of India, unlike their African brethren, move in silence, stealthy yet courageous; and the distance was too great for the quickly stifled cry of the victim of panther or tiger to reach him.
When the moon rose he made the round of his pickets—a matter of ten minutes—and then to bed.
On the morning of the ninth day he thought he detected signs of uneasiness in the faces of the men. He found their keen little visages ever turned towards him, watching his every movement, noting the play of every feature. So in his simplicity he practised a simple diplomacy. He hummed to himself as he went his rounds and while he sat over his diary. He only knew one song—"A Warrior Bold"—which every mess in India associated with old Jem Agar, for no evening was considered complete without the Major's one ditty if he were present. He had stood up and roared it in many strange places, quite without sentiment, without self-consciousness, without afterthought. He never thought it a matter of apology that he should have failed to learn another song. The smile with which many ladies of his acquaintance sat down to play the accompaniment by heart conveyed nothing to him. He did not pretend to be a singer—he knew that one song, and if they liked it he would sing it. Moreover, they did like it, and that was why they asked for it. It did some of them good to see honest Jem get on his legs and shout out, in a very musical voice, with perfect truth to air, what seemed to be a plain statement of his creed of life.
So, far up on Mistley Plateau, nine thousand feet above the level of the sea, Jem Agar advised his little dark-visaged fighters, sotto voce, while he puzzled over his diary, that his love had golden hair, with eyes so blue and heart so true, that none with her compared; moreover, that he didn't care if death were nigh, because he had fought for love, and for love would die.
It was not very deep or very subtle, but it served the purpose. It kept up the hearts of his handful of warriors, who, in common with their chief, had something child-like and simple in their honest, sporting souls.
Shortly after tiffin Ben Abdi came to the Major's tent, speaking hurriedly in his own tongue.
One of the men had seen the sunlight gleam on white steel far down in the valley. He had seen it several times—a long spiral flash, such as the sun would make on a fixed bayonet carried over the shoulder. Such a flash as this will carry twenty miles through a clear atmosphere; the spot pointed out by the sharp-eyed Goorkha was not more than ten miles distant. They stood in a group, this isolated little band, and gazed down into the depth below them. They gazed in vain for some time, then a little murmur of excitement told that the sun had glinted again on burnished steel. This time there were several flashes close together. These were men marching with fixed bayonets through an enemy's country.
"Heliograph," said Agar quietly, without taking his eyes from the spot far down in the valley; and soon the little mirror was flashing out its question over the vale. After a few anxious moments the answering gleam sprang to life among the trees far below. Agar gave a quick little sigh of relief—that was all.
Then followed a short conversation flickered over ten miles of space.
"Are you beset?" asked the Valley,
"No," replied the Hill.
"Is the enemy in sight?"
"No," replied the Mountain, again, with a sharp click.
"Are you all well?" flashed from below.
"Yes," from above.
Then the "Good-bye," and the glimmer of the bayonets began again.
Two hours later Major Agar drew his absurd little force in line, and thus they received the relieving column, grimly conscious of dangers past but not forgotten.
At the head of the new-comers rode a little man with a prominent chin and a long drooping nose; such a remarkable-looking little man that the veriest tyro at physiognomy would have turned to look at him again. His black eyes, beaming with intelligence, moved so quickly beneath the steady lashes that it was next to an impossibility to state what he saw and what he failed to see.
He returned Agar's salute hurriedly, with a preoccupied air. He wore a quiet uniform tunic almost hidden by black braiding, a pith helmet which had seen brighter days and likewise fouler, and the leg that he threw over his horse's head was cased in riding trousers and a neat little top-boot of brown leather.
He slipped from the saddle with a litheness which contrasted strangely with his closely cropped grey hair and white moustache and Imperial. He walked towards Agar's tent after the manner of one who had sat in the saddle for many hours. His spurs clanked with a sharp, business-like ring, and his every movement had that neat finish which indicates the soldier born and bred.
Wheeling round he faced Agar, who had followed him with a more leisurely gait based on longer legs, looking up keenly into the quiet fair face. Turning he shot his sword home into its scabbard with a click.
"Thank God," he said, "you're safe!"
Agar awaited for further observations. This was not the man whom he had expected, but another, far greater, far higher up in the military scale—a man whom he had only met once before, and that at an official reception.
Seeing that his guest was unbuckling his sword, he presumed that the task of continuing this conversation lay with himself.
"M' yes!" he replied, rubbing his pannikin out clean with the corner of a towel, and proceeding to mix some brandy and water; "why?"
"Why!" answered the little man scornfully, "WHY! damn it, sir, Stevenor's command has been cut off by the enemy in force—massacred to a man. That is why I say 'Thank God, you're safe!' It is more than I expected."
Our deeds still travel with us from afar, And what, we have been makes us what we are,
There was a momentary pause; then Major Agar spoke.
"In that case," he observed, "the British force occupying this country for the last week has consisted of myself and thirty Goorkhas."
"Precisely so! And it was by the merest chance that I found out that you were here. It was only guesswork at the best. A bazaar report reached me that poor old Stevenor had been cut to pieces. I hate blaming a dead man, but I really don't know what he can have been about. He made some hideous mistake somewhere. We buried him yesterday. On hearing the report, I thought it better to come up myself, having a little knowledge of the country. Brought two companies, and half a squadron to act as scouts. We reached Barkoola yesterday, and found the poor chaps as they had fallen. And some of those carpet-warriors at home say that a black man can't fight! Can't he! Not so much brandy this time, please. Yes, fill it up."
Agar set the regulation water-bottle down on his gifted table.
"I have the Devil's own luck!" he murmured. "While they were burying I missed you from among the officers; and then it struck me that you might have got away before the disaster. We counted the men, and found thirty-four short, so we came on here. By God! what a chap Mistley was! We came here without a check. His maps are perfect!"
"Yes," admitted Agar, "that man knew his business!"
There was something in his tone that might have been envy or perhaps mere admiration; for this man knew himself to be inferior in many ways to him who had first crossed the mountain pass on which he stood.
"The worst of it is," went on the great officer, "that you are telegraphed home as killed."
He paused on the last word, watching its effect. It would seem that, behind the busy black eyes, there was the beginning of a thought hatched within the grey close-cut head which, en fait de tetes, was without its rival in the Empire.
"That is soon remedied," opined the Major with a cheerful laugh.
The great man was thoughtfully rubbing his chin with the tips of the first and second fingers, drawing in his under lip at the same time, and apparently taking pleasure in the rasping sound caused by the friction over the shaven chin.
There is usually something written in the human countenance—some single virtue, vice, or quality which dominates all petty characteristics. Most faces express weakness—the faces that pass one in the streets. Some are the incarnation of meanness, some pleasanter types verge on sensuality. The face of the man who sat watching Agar expressed indomitable, invincible determination, and nothing else. It was the face of one who was ready to sacrifice any one, even himself, to a single all-pervading purpose. In this respect he was a splendid commander, for he was as nearly heartless as men are made.
The big fair Englishman who had occupied Mistley's Plateau for a week, exactly one hundred and seventy miles from assistance of any description, and in the heart of the enemy's country, smiled down at his companion with a simple wonder.
"Got something up your sleeve, sir?" he inquired softly, for he knew somewhat of his superior officer's ways.
"Yes!" replied the other curtly. "A trump card!"
He continued to look at Jem Agar with a cold and calculating scrutiny, as a jockey may look at his horse or a butcher at living meat.
"It's like this," he said. "You're dead. I want you to stay dead for a little while—say six months to a year!"
Agar seated himself on the corner of the table, which creaked under the weight of his spare muscular person, and then, true to his cloth, he awaited further orders; true to his nature, he waited in silence.
After a short pause the other proceeded to explain.
"You frontier men," he said, "are closely watched; we know that. There will be great rejoicing over there, in Northern Europe, over this mishap to Stevenor, although, God knows, he was not a very dangerous man. Not so dangerous as you, Agar. They will be delighted to hear that you are out of the way. Stay out of the way for a year, and during that twelve months you will be able to do more than you could get done in twelve years when you were being watched by them."
"I see," answered Agar quietly. "Not dead, but gone—up country."
"Precisely so; where they certainly will not be on the look-out for you."
The bright black eyes were shining with suppressed excitement. The great man was afraid that his tool would refuse to work under this exacting touch.
"But what about my people?" asked Agar.
"Oh, I will put that right. You see, they have got over the worst of it by this time. It is wonderful how soon people do get over it. They have known it for a week now, and have bought their mourning and all that."
There came a look into Agar's face which the little officer did not understand. We never do understand what we could not feel ourselves, and it is not a matter of wonder that the lesser intelligence should foil the greater in this instance. There was a depth in Jem Agar which was beyond the fathom of his keen-witted companion.
"I am going home," continued General Michael, "almost at once. The first thing I do on landing is to go straight to your people and tell them. We cannot afford to telegraph it. Telegraph clerks are only human, and it is worth the while of the newspapers in these days of large circulation to pay a heavy price for their news. We all know that some items, published can only have been bought from the telegraph clerks."
Agar was making a mental calculation.
"That means," he said, "two months before they hear."
The expression on the face of the little man was scarcely human in its heartless cunning.
"Hardly," he answered carelessly. "And when they hear the reason they will admit that the result is worth the sacrifice. It will be the making of you!—and of me!" added the black eyes with a secretive gleam.
"It is," went on the General, "such a chance as only comes once to a man in his lifetime. I wish I had had it at your age."
The voice was a pleasant one, with that ring of friendliness and familiarity which is usually heard in the tones of an educated Jew; for General Michael was that rare combination, a Jew and a soldier.
"I don't like leaving them so long under the mistake," answered Agar, half yielding to authoritative persuasion, half tempted by ambition and a love of adventure. "I don't like it, General. The straight thing would be to telegraph home at once."
In the wavering smile that crossed the dark face there was suggested a fine contempt for the straight thing unaccompanied by some tangible advantage.
"Who are they?" inquired the General almost affectionately. "Who are your people?"
Agar walked to the tent door and looked out. There was some clatter of swords going on outside, and as commander of this post it was his duty to know all that was passing. He turned, and standing in the doorway, quite filling it with his bulk, he answered:
"My father died three years ago. I have a step-mother and a step-brother, that is all—besides friends."
The General stooped to loosen the strap of his spur.
"Of course," he said in that attitude, "I know you are not a married man."
Beneath the brim of the helmet, which he had not laid aside, the Jew's keen black eyes were watching, watching. But they saw nothing; for there is no one so impenetrable as a man with a clear conscience and a large faith.
"My idea was," continued General Michael, "that two, or at the most three, people besides you and I be let into the secret."
"Three," said Agar, with quiet decision.
The General tacitly allowed this point and passed on with characteristic promptitude to another.
"Are you a man of property?"
"Yes, I inherit my father's place down in Hertfordshire."
"I'll tell you why I ask. There are those beastly lawyers to think of. At your death it is to be presumed that the estate comes to your brother. The legal operations must be delayed somehow. I will see to it," he added in a concise, almost snappish way.
Agar smiled, although he was conscious of a vague feeling of discomfort. He was not a highly sensitive or a nervous man, and this feeling was more than might have been expected to arise from an attendance, as it were, at one's own obituary arrangements. The General seemed to be remarkably well informed on these smaller points, and something prompted Jem Agar to ask him if the idea he had just propounded was a suddenly conceived one.
"No," replied the General with a singular pause.
"No, I once knew a man who did the same thing for a different purpose, but the idea was identical. I do not claim to be the originator."
"And there was no hitch? It was successful?" inquired Agar.
"Yes," replied the older soldier in a far-away voice, as if he had mentally gone back to the results of that man's deception. "Yes, it was successful. By the way, you say your people live down in Hertfordshire?"
"I once knew a girl—long ago, in my younger days—who married a man called Agar, and went to live in Hertfordshire. The name did not strike me until you mentioned the county. I wonder if the lady is now your step-mother."
"My step-mother's name was Hethbridge," replied Jem Agar.
"The same. How strange!" said the General indifferently. "Well, she has probably forgotten my existence these thirty years. She has one son, you say?"
"Yes, Arthur. He is twenty-three—five years younger than myself."
The shifty black eyes excelled themselves at this moment in rapidity of observation. They seemed to be full of question, of many questions, but none were forthcoming.
"Ah!" said General Michael indifferently. "He is," pursued Jem Agar, "a delicate fellow; does nothing; though I believe he is going to be called to the Bar."
The General, having passed most of his life in India, where men work or else go home, did not take in the full meaning of this; but he was keen as a ferret, and he saw easily that Jem Agar despised his step-brother with that cruel contempt which strong men feel for weak.
"Mother's darling?" he suggested.
"Yes, that is about it," replied Agar. He was too simple, too innately upright and honest to perceive the infinite possibilities opened up by the fact upon which General Michael had pounced.
"In case you decide to accept my offer," the older man went on, "you would wish your stepmother and step-brother to be told?"
"Yes, and one other person."
"Ah, and another person. You could not limit it to two?" urged the General.
"No!" replied Agar with a decision which the other was wise enough to consider final. Moreover, the General omitted to ask the name of this third person, urged thereto by one of those strokes of instinct which indicate the genius of the commander of men.
General Michael, moreover, deemed it prudent to carry the matter no further at that moment. He rose from his seat on the bed, stretched his lithe limbs, and said:
"Well, this won't do! We must get to work. I propose retreating to-morrow morning at daylight."
They passed out of the tent together and proceeded to give their orders, moving in and out among the busy men. There was a subtle difference in their reception which was perhaps patent to both, though neither deemed it necessary to make any comment. Wherever Agar went the eager little black faces of his Goorkhas met him with a smile or a grin of delight; when General Michael passed by, the dusky features hardened suddenly to a marble stillness, and the beady eyes were all soldier-like attention.
They feared and loved the one because they felt that there was something in him which they could not understand; they feared and hated the other because his nature was nearer to their own, and they defined the evil in it.
Moreover, each had his reputation—that of General Michael dating from the Mutiny; the other, a younger and a cleaner record.
It is considered the proper thing to talk in England of the unvoiced millions of India. No greater mistake could be made. These millions have a voice, but it does not reach to us because they do not raise it. They talk with it among themselves.
They had talked of General Michael for thirty years, and all that there was in him had been discussed to its very dregs. Thus their impenetrable faces hardened when he passed, their shadowy secretive eyes looked beyond him with a vacancy which was not the vacancy of dulness.
A LAST THROW
Get place and wealth; if possible, with grace; If not, by any means get wealth and place.
Daylight broke next morning in a snow-storm, and a thin sprinkling lay over all the hills, clothing them in spotless white.
General Michael was among the first astir, seeing in person to all the details of the retreat. The men looked in vain towards the tent where their late youthful leader had been wont to sit, nibbling the end of his golden pocket-penholder, wrestling manfully in the throes of literary composition.
When at last the order was given to strike tents the faces of the rank and file fell like the face of one man.
Major James Edward Makerstone Agar had simply disappeared. His limited baggage was attached to the smaller belongings of General Michael, and no explanation was offered by that dreaded officer. To him the cold seemed to be a matter of indifference; for he stood about watching every movement of the men with a supreme disregard for the driving snow or the knife-like wind that whistled over the northern scarp.
Under his calculating eye they worked to such effect that by nine o'clock the little column was on the downward march. Again General Michael rode through that lone, lorn country lying between India and Russia. Again his melancholy face with keen but hopeless eyes passed through the darksome valleys where, if legend be true, a race as old as his has lived since the children of Abraham set forth to wander over the earth.
For twenty years this man had haunted these vales and hills, seeking, ever seeking, his own aggrandisement and nothing else. Accounted a patriot, he was no patriot; for the homeless blood was mingled in his veins. Held to be a hero by some, he was none; for he hated danger for its own sake, just as some men love it.
But his lines had been cast in this unpleasant place, from whence flight or retreat was rendered almost impossible, by the laws of discipline and the freak of circumstance. Despite his titles, in face of his great reputation, he knew himself to be a failure, and as he rode southward through the mountain barrier that frowns down over India he was conscious of the knowledge that in all human probability he would never look upon this drear land again. His time was up, he was about to be set on the shelf, life was over. And he had all his powers yet—all his marvellous quickness at the mastery of tongues, all the restless energy which had urged him on to overrun the race, to dodge and bore and break his stride instead of holding steadily on the straight course.
He it was who had discovered Jem Agar's talent for this rough, peculiar soldiering of the frontier. He it was to whom the simple-minded young officer had owed promotion after promotion. General Michael had fixed upon Agar as his last hope—his last chance of doing something brilliant in this deathly country, which moved with a slowness that nearly drove him mad.
This last attempt was thrown down like a defiance in the face of Fortune; but still the risk was not his own. It never had been. Men had been sent to their certain death by this sallow-faced commander, for no other object than his own aggrandisement. It would almost seem that a just Providence had ever turned away in loathing from the schemes of this man who would have all and risk nothing.
Should Jem Agar succeed in the dangerous secret mission on which he had been sent by a subtle underhand pressure of discipline, the glory would never be his. This, under the grasping fingers of General Michael, would never appear to the world as the wonderful individual feat of an intrepid man, but as a masterly stroke of strategy dealt by a great general.
Seymour Michael had long ago found out that Jem Agar was the step-son of the woman whom he had wronged in bygone years. But the name failed to touch his conscience, partly because that conscience was not of much account, and partly because time heals all things, even a sore sense of wrong. Truth to tell, he had not thought much of Anna Agar during the last twenty years, and the mere coincidence that this simple tool should be her step-son was insufficient to deter him from making use of Agar. But with that careful attention to detail which in such a man betrayed innate weakness, he took care to make sure that Jem Agar had learnt nothing of the past from the lips of his father's second wife.
General Michael did not disguise from himself the fact that the mission on which he had despatched Jem Agar was what the life insurance companies call hazardous. But he had lived by the sword, and that mode of gaining a livelihood makes men wondrously indifferent to the lives of others. Moreover, this was in a sense a speciality of his. He was getting hardened to the game, and played it with coolness and precision.
All through that day the little band retreated through an enemy's country, watchful, alert, almost nervous. There were absurdly few of them—a characteristic of that frontier warfare which the sallow, silent leader had waged nearly all his life. And in the evening there was not peace.
Fortune is a playful soul. She keeps men waiting a lifetime, and then, when it is too late, she suddenly opens both her hands. Seymour Michael had waited twenty years for one of those chances of easy distinction which seemed to fall to the lot of all his comrades in arms. This chance was vouchsafed to him on the last evening he ever passed in an enemy's country—when it was too late—when that which he did was no more than was to be expected from a man of his experience and fame.
The little band was attacked at sunset by the victorious savages who had annihilated the advance column three days earlier, and with half the number of men, fatigued and hungry, Seymour Michael beat them back and cut his way to the south. He knew that it was good, and the men knew it. They looked upon this keen-faced little man as something approaching a demi-god; but they had no love for him as they had for Major Agar. The knowledge was theirs that to him their lives were of no account—they were not men, but numbers. He brought them out of a dire strait by sheer skill, by that heartless grip of discipline which a true general exercises over his troops even at that critical moment when a common death seems to reduce all lives to an equal value.
But in the thick of it the Goorkhas—keen little Highlanders of the Indian army—looked in vain for the fighting light in their leader's eyes. They listened in vain for the encouraging voice—now low and steady in warning, now trumpet-like and maddening with the infection of excitement.
In the midst of that wild, apparently disorderly melee in the narrow valley, while the hush of mountain sunset settled over the battle, the leader sat imperturbable, cold, and infinitely wise. He was pale, and his lips were quite colourless, but his eyes were vigilant, ready, resourceful. An ideal general but no soldier. He played this game with a skill that never faced the possibility of failure—and won.
Far overhead, many miles to the northward, a solitary wanderer heard the sound of firing and paused to listen. He was a big man, worthy to be accounted such even among the strapping mountaineers of that district, and as he leant on the long barrel of his quaintly ornamental rifle his sheepskin cloak fell back from a long sinewy arm of deep-brown hue.
As he listened to the far-off rumble of independent firing he muttered to himself indications of anxiety. Strange to say, the eyes that looked out over the hollow of the gorge-like valley were blue. They were, however, hardly visible through the tangle of unkempt hair and raw wool that fell over his forehead. The high sheepskin cap was dragged forward, and the lower part of his face was almost hidden by the indiscriminate folds of hood, cloak, and scarf affected by the shepherds hereabout.
James Agar was perfectly happy. There must have been somewhere in his sporting soul that love of Nature which drives men into solitude—making gamekeepers and fishermen and explorers of them. It was in this man's character to wait passive until responsibility came to him, when he accepted it readily enough; but he never went out to meet it. He was not as the sons of Levi, who took too much upon themselves; but rather was he happiest when he had only his own life and his own self to take care of.
Here he was now an outcast, an Ishmaelite, with every man's hand raised against him. It was not the first time. For this quiet-going man had unobtrusively learnt many tongues, and, while no one heeded him, he had studied the ways of this Eastern land with no mean success.
He waited there during an hour while the firing still continued, and then, when at last silence reigned again and the wind whispered undisturbed through the dark pines, he turned his wandering footsteps northward to a land where few white men have passed.
So night fell upon these two men thus hazardously brought together, and every moment stretched longer the distance between them—James Agar going north, Seymour Michael passing southward.
Agar wondered vaguely whether his toilsome diary would ever reach home, but he was not anxious as to the result of the fight which had evidently taken place in the valley. He too seemed to share the belief of all who came in contact with him that General Michael could not do wrong in warfare.
That night the Master of Stagholme laid him down to rest in the shadow of a big rock, strong in himself, strong in his faith. And as he slumbered, those who slumber not nor cease their toil by day or night sat with crooked backs over a little ticking, spitting, restless machine that spelt out his name across half the world. While the moon rose over the mountains, and looked placidly down upon this strange man lying there peacefully sleeping in a world of his own, two men who had never seen each other talked together with nimble fingers over a thousand miles of wire. And one told the other that James Edward Makerstone was dead.
The sleeper slept on. He smiled quietly beneath the moon. Perhaps he dreamt of the home-coming, of that time when he could say at last, "I have fought my fight, and now I come with a clear conscience to enjoy the good things given to me." He never dreamt of treason. He never knew that for their own gain men will sacrifice the happiness of their neighbours without so much as a pang of self-reproach. There are some people, thank Heaven, who never learn these things, who go on believing that men are good and women better all their lives.
A CARPET KNIGHT
As children gathering pebbles on the shore.
First door on the right after passing into New Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, by the river door. It is a small door, leading directly on to a narrow, winding stone staircase. For some reason, known possibly to the architect responsible for New Court (may his bones know no rest!), the ground-floor rooms have a door of their own within the archway.
On the first floor Arthur Agar, to use the affected phraseology of an affected generation, "kept" in the days with which we have to deal. What he kept transpireth not. There were many things which he did not keep, the first among these being his money. In these rooms he dispensed an open-handed, carefully considered hospitality which earned for him a certain bubble popularity.
There are, one finds, always plenty of men (and women too) ready to lick the blacking off one's boots provided always that that doubtful fare be varied by champagne or truffles at appropriate intervals. Men came to Arthur Agar's rooms, and brought their friends. Mark well the last item. They brought their friends. There is more in that than meets the eye. There is a subtle difference between the invitation for "Mr. Jones" and the invitation for "Mr. Jones and friends"—a difference which he who runs the social race may read. If Jones is worth his salt he will discern the difference in a week.
"Oh, come to Agar's," one man (save the mark) would say to another." Ripping coffee, topping cigarettes."
So they went; they drank the ripping coffee, smoked the topping cigarette, and if they happened to be men of stomach ventured on a clinking cigar. Moreover, they were made welcome. Agar was like a vain woman who loved to see a full saloon. And he paid for his pleasure in more honourable coin than many a vain woman has laid down since daughters of Eve commenced drawing fops around them—namely, the adjectived items of hospitality above mentioned.
It did not matter much who the guests were, provided that they filled the diminutive room in those spaces left vacant by bric-a-brac and furniture of the spindle-legged description. So the men came. There were freshmen who fell over the footstools and bumped their heads against the painted sabots on the wall containing ever-fresh flowers, as per florist's bill; who were rather over-powered by the profusion of painted photograph frames, fans, and fal-lals. There was the man who sang a comic song and dined out on it at least twice a week. There was the calculating son of a poor North-country parson, who liked coffee after dinner and knew the value of sixpence. There was the man who came to play his own valse, and he who came to hear his own voice, und so weiter. Do we not know them all? Have we not run against them in after-life, despite many attempts to pass by on the other side? The habitual acceptors of hospitality have no objection to crossing the road through the thickest mud.
"By their rooms ye shall know them," might well, if profanely, be written large over any college gate. Arthur Agar's rooms were worthy of the man. There was, even on the little stone staircase, a faint odour of pastille or scent spray, or something of feminine suggestion. The unwary visitor would as likely as not catch some part of his person against a silk hanging or a lurking portiere on crossing the threshold; and the impression which struck (as all rooms do strike) from the threshold was one of oppressive drapery. A man, by the way, should never know anything about drapery or draping. Such knowledge undermines his virility. This is an age of undermining knowledge. We all, from the lowest to the highest, learn many things of which we were better ignorant. The school-board infant acquires French; Arthur Agar and his like bring away from Cambridge a pretty knack of draping chair-backs.
There were little screens in the room, with shelves specially constructed to hold little gimcracks, which in their turn were specially shaped to stand upon the little shelves. There was a portentous standing-lamp, six feet high in its bare feet, with a shade like a crinoline. There were settees and poufs and des prie-Dieu, and strange things hanging on the wall without rhyme, reason, or beauty. And nowhere a pipe, or a tennis racket, or even a pair of boots—not so much as a single manly indiscretion in the way of a cricket-bat in the corner, or a sporting novel on the table.
In the midst of this the temporary proprietor of the rooms sat disconsolately at an inlaid writing-table with his face buried in his arms—weeping.
The outer door was shut. Arthur Agar had sported his rare oak, not to work but to weep. It sometimes does happen to men, this shedding of the idle tear, even to Englishmen, even to Cambridge men. Moreover, it was infinitely to the credit of Arthur Agar that he should bury his face in the sleeve of his perfectly-fitting coat thus and sob, for he was weeping (quietly and to himself) the advent of three thousand pounds per annum.
At his elbow lay a telegram—that flimsy pink paper which, with all our progress, all our knowledge, the bravest of us fear still.
"Jem killed in India; come home at once.—AGAR."
Honour to whom honour. Arthur Agar's only thought had been one of sudden horror. He had read the telegram over twice before going out to close his outer door. Then he came back and sat weakly down at the table where he had written more scented notes than noted themes, deliberately, womanlike, to cry.
To his credit be it noted that he never thought of Stagholme, which was now his. He only thought of Jem—his no longer—Jem the open-handed, elder brother who tolerated much and said little. Having had everything that he wanted since childhood, Arthur Agar had never been in the habit of thinking about money matters. His florist's bills (and Cambridge horticulturists seem to water their flowers with Chateau Lafitte), his confectioner's account, and his tailor's little note had always been paid without a murmur. Thus, want of money—the chief incentive to crime and criminal thought—had never come within measurable distance of this gentle undergraduate.
Truth to tell, he had never devoted much thought to the future. He had always vaguely concluded that his mother and Jem would "do something"; and in the meantime there were important matters requiring his attention. There was the menu to prepare for an approaching little dinner. There was always an approaching dinner, and always a menu in execrable French on a satin-faced card with the college arms in a coat of many colours. There was the florist to be interviewed and the arrangement of the table to be superintended; the finishing touch to be given to the floral decoration thereof by the master-hand.
Jem's death seemed to knock away one of the supports of the future, and Arthur Agar even in his grief was conscious of the impending necessity of having to act for himself some day.
At length he lifted his head, and through the intricate pattern of the very newest design in art muslins the daylight fell on his face. It was a face which in France is called chiffonne; but the term is never applied to the visage masculine. A diminutive and slightly retrousse nose, gentle grey eyes of the drowning-fly description, and a sensitive mouth scarcely hidden by a fair moustache of downward tendency.
Here was a man made to be ruled all his life—probably by a woman. With a little more strength it might have been a melancholy face; as it stood, it was suggestive of nothing stronger than fretfulness. There was a vague distress in the eyes and in the whole countenance which mistaken and practical souls would probably put down to a defective digestion or a feeble vitality. More than one enthusiastic disciple of Aesculapius studying at Caius professed to have discovered the evidence of some internal disease in Arthur Agar's distressed eyes; but his complaint was not of the body at all.
Presently the necessity for action forced itself upon his understanding, and he rose with a jerk. It is worth noting that his first thought was connected with dress. He passed into the inner room and there exchanged his elegant morning suit for a black one, replacing a delicate heliotrope necktie by another of sombre hue. He mentally reviewed his mourning wardrobe while doing so, and gathered much spiritual repose from the diversion.
In the meantime the Rector of Stagholme, having breakfasted, proceeded to light a cigarette and open the Times with the leisurely sense of enjoyment of one who takes an interest in all things without being keenly concerned in any.
"God help us!" he exclaimed suddenly; and Mrs. Glynde, who alone happened to be present, dropped a handful of housekeeping money on the floor.
"What is it, dear?" she gasped.
"There," was the answer; "read that. 'Disaster in Northern India.' Not there—higher up!"
In her eagerness Mrs. Glynde had plunged headlong into the consumption of Wesleyan missionaries in the Sandwich Islands. Then she had to find her glasses, and considerable delay was incurred by putting them on upside down. All this while the Rector sat glaring at her as if in some occult way she were responsible for the disaster in Northern India.
At last she read the short article, and was about to give a sigh of relief when her eyes travelled to a diminutive list of names appended.
"What!" she exclaimed. "What! Jem! Oh, Tom, dear, this can't be true!"
"I have no reason," answered the Rector grimly, "to suppose that it is untrue."
Mrs. Glynde was one of those unfortunate persons who seem only to have the power of aggravating at a crisis. In their way they are useful as serving to divert the mind; but they usually come in for more than their need of abuse.
The poor little woman laid the newspaper gently down by her husband's elbow, and looked at him with a certain air of grandeur and strength. The instinct that arouses the mother wren to peck at the schoolboy's hand at her nest was strong in this subdued little old lady.
"Something," she said, "must be done. How are we going to tell Dora?"
The Rector was a man who never went straight at the fence, before him. He invariably pulled up and rode alongside the obstacle before leaping, and when going for it he braced himself mentally with the reflection that he was an English gentleman, and as such had obligations. But these obligations, like those of many English gentlemen, ceased at his own fireside. He, like many of us, was apt to forget that wife, sister, and daughter are nevertheless ladies to whom deference is due.
"Oh—Dora," he answered; "she will have to bear it like the rest of us. But here am I with fresh legal complications laid upon me. I foresee endless trouble with the lawyers and that woman. Why the Squire made me his executor I can't tell. Parsons know nothing of these matters."
With a patient sigh Mrs. Glynde turned away and went to the window, where she stood with her back to him. Even to the duller masculine mind the wonder sometimes presents itself that our women-folk take us so patiently as we are. If Mrs. Glynde had turned upon her husband (who was not so selfish as he would appear), presenting him forthwith in the plainest language at her command with a piece of her mind, the treatment would have been surprising at first, and infinitely beneficial afterwards.
The Reverend Thomas sat staring into the fire—a luxury which he allowed himself all through the year—with troubled eyes. There was a fence in front of him, but he could not bring himself up to it. In his mistaken contempt for women he had never taken his wife fully into his confidence in those things—great or small, according to the capacity of the producing machine—which are essentially a personal property—namely his thoughts.
All else he told her openly and at once, as behoved an English gentleman.
Should he tell all that he had hoped and thought and rethought respecting Jem Agar and Dora? Should he; should he not? And the loving little woman stood there almost daring to break the great silence herself; but not quite. Strong as was her mother's heart, the habit of submission was stronger. She longed, she yearned to hear the deeper, graver tone of voice which had been used once or twice towards her—once or twice in moments of unusual confidence. The Reverend Thomas Glynde was silent, and the voice that they both heard was Dora's, singing as she came downstairs towards them. It was only a matter of moments, and when we have no more than that wherein to act we usually take the wrong turning.
Mrs. Glynde turned and gave one imploring look towards her husband.
At the same instant the door opened and Dora entered, singing as she came.
"What is the matter?" she exclaimed. "You both look depressed. Stocks down, or something else has gone up? I know! Papa has been made a bishop!"
With a cheery laugh she went to the table and took up the newspaper.
Sa maniere de souffrir est le temoignage qu'une ame porte sur elle-meme.
There was a horrid throbbing silence while Dora read, and her parents calculated the seconds which would necessarily elapse before she reached the bottom line. Such moments as these are scored up as years in the span of life.
Mrs. Glynde did not know what she was doing. It happened that she was trying to rub away a flaw in the window-glass with her pocket hand-kerchief—a flaw which must have been an old friend, as such things are in quiet lives. At this occupation she found herself when her heart began to beat again.
"I suppose," said Dora in a terribly calm voice, "that the Times never makes a mistake—I mean they never publish anything unless they are quite sure?"
Then the English gentleman of parts who ever and anon peeped out through the veneer of the parson asserted himself—the English gentleman whose sense of fair play and honour told him that it is better to strike at once a blow that must be struck than to keep the victim waiting.
"Such is their reputation," answered Dora's father.
Mrs. Glynde turned with that pathetic yearning movement of a punished dog which waits to be called. But Dora had some of her father's sternness, her father's good British reserve, and she never called.
Turning, she walked quietly out of the room. And all the light had gone out of her life. So we write, and so ye read; but do we realise it? It is not many of us who have suddenly to look at life without so much as a glimmer in its dark recesses to make it worth the living. It is not many of us who come to be told by the doctor: "For the rest of your existence you must give up eyesight," or, "For the remainder of life you must go halt." But these are trifles. Everything is a trifle, if we would only believe it. Riches and poverty, peace and war, fame and obscurity, town and country, England and the backwoods—all these are trifles compared with that other life which makes our own a living completeness.
Silently she went, and left silence behind her. The Rector was abashed. For once a woman had acted in a manner unexpected by him; for he was ignorant enough of the world to keep up the old fallacy of treating women as a class. True, it was Dora, whom he held apart from the rest of her sex; but still he was left wondering. He felt as if he had been found walking in a holy place with shoes upon his feet—those gross shoes of Self with which most of us tramp through the world, not heeding where we tread or what we crush.
One of the hardest things we have to bear is the helpless standing by while one dear to us must suffer. When Mrs. Glynde turned round and came towards her husband she had become an old woman. Her face had suddenly aged while her frame was yet in its full strength, and such a change is not pleasant to look on.
"Tom," she said, in a dry, commanding voice, "you must go up to the Holme at once and hear what news they have. There may be some chance—it may please God to spare us yet."
"Yes," answered the Rector meekly; "I will go."
While he was lacing his boots with all speed Mrs. Glynde took up the newspaper again, and reread the brief account of the disaster. They were spared comment; that blow came later, when the warriors of Fleet Street set about explaining why the defeat was sustained and why it should never have happened. In due course these carpet tacticians proved to their own satisfaction that Colonel Stevenor was incompetent for the service on which he had been dispatched. But the reek of printing-ink never was good for the better feelings.
In due course the Rector set off across the park; very grave, and distinctly aware of the importance of his mission. He had somewhere in his composition a strong sense of the dramatic, to which the situation appealed. He felt that had he been a younger man he would have stored up many details during the morning's work worthy of reproduction in the narrative form during years to come.
Before he reached the great house he was aware that the grim pleasure of imparting bad news was not to be his, for the blinds were all lowered—a detail likely to receive early attention in a feminine household, for it is only men who can hear of a death without thinking of mourning and the blinds.
The butler opened the door and took the Rector's hat and stick with a silent savoir-faire indicative of experience in well-bred grief. His chaste demeanour said as plainly as words that this was right and proper, the Rector being no more than he expected.
"Where's your mistress?" asked Mr. Glynde, who had strong views upon butlers in general and Tims in particular—said Tims being so sure of his place that he did not always trouble to know it.
"Library, sir," replied Tims in an appropriately sepulchral voice.
The Rector went to the library without waiting to be announced. He was a man well versed in human nature, as most parsons are, and it is possible that he had caught a glimpse of Mrs. Agar watching his advent from the dining-room window.
The lady of the house was standing by the writing-table when he entered, and beneath her ill-concealed excitement there was something subtly observant, like the glance of an untruthful child, which he never forgot nor forgave, despite his cloth and the impossibilities popularly expected therefrom.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "it is you. I have telegraphed for Arthur. I have—telegraphed for Arthur."
She gave a nervous, almost a guilty little laugh, and looked at him with puzzled discomfort.
"Why?" he repeated, looking at her with a cold scrutiny much dreaded of the parish ne'er-do-wells.
"Oh, well," she replied, "it is only natural that I should want him at home in such a time as this—such a terrible affliction. Besides—"
"Besides," suggested the Rector imperturbably, "he is now master of Stagholme."
"Yes!" she said, with a simulated surprise which would scarcely have deceived the most guileless Sunday-school teacher. "I had not thought of that. I suppose something must be done at once—those horrid lawyers again."
Her eyes were dancing with breathless excitement. To this woman excitement even in the form of a death was better than nothing. The bourgeois mind, with its love of a Crystal Palace, a subscription dance, or even a parochial bazaar, was unquenchable even after years of practice as the county lady of position.
The Rector did not answer. He stood squarely in front of her with a persistence that forced her to turn shiftily away with a pretence of looking at the clock.
"This is a bad business," he said. "That boy ought never to have gone out there."
Mrs. Agar had her handkerchief ready and made use of it, with as much effect upon Mr. Glynde as might have been produced upon a granite sphinx. There is no man harder to deceive than the innately good and conscientious man of the world who has tried to find good in human nature.
"Poor boy!" sobbed the lady. "Dear Jem! I could not keep him at home." Thus proving herself a fool, and worse, before those wise eyes.
When occasion demanded Mr. Glynde could wield a very strong silence—stronger than he thought. He wielded it now, and Mrs. Agar shuffled before it, her eyes glittering with suppressed communicativeness. She was obviously bubbling over with talk relevant and irrelevant, but the Rector had the chivalry to check it by his cold silence.
After a pause it was he who spoke, in a quiet, unemotional voice which aggravated while it cowed her.
"When did you hear this news?" he asked.
"Oh, last night. It was so late that I did not send down. I—it was so sudden. I was terribly upset."
"I telegraphed to Arthur first thing this morning," the mistress of Stagholme went on eagerly, "and I was just going to write to you when you came in."
With that nervous desire for corroborative evidence which arouses the suspicion of the observant whenever it appears, Mrs. Agar indicated the writing-table with open blotter and inkstand. Instantly, but too late, she regretted having done so, for a volume playfully called "Every Man his own Lawyer" lay confessed beside the writing-case, and its home on the bookshelf stared vacantly at them.
"And from whom did you hear it?" pursued the Rector, heartlessly looking at the book with an air of recognition.
"Oh, from a Mr. Johnson—at the War Office, or the India Office, or somewhere. I suppose I ought to write and thank him. Let me see—where is the telegram?"
She shuffled among the papers on the writing-table, and made the hideous mistake of pushing "Every Man his own Lawyer" behind the stationery case.
"Here it is!" she exclaimed at length.
It was a long document. Mr. Johnson, not having to pay for telegraphic expenses out of his own pocket, had done his task thoroughly. He stated clearly that the advance column under Colonel Stevenor, Major Agar, and another British officer had been surprised and annihilated. There were no particulars yet, nor could reliable details be expected, as it was quite certain that not one man of the ill-fated corps had survived. General Seymour, added the official, missing out in his haste the commanding officer's surname, had promptly repaired to the scene of the disaster, to punish the victors, and, if possible, recover the effects of the slain.
Mrs. Agar was one of those persons who are incapable of reading a letter or a telegram thoroughly. She was one of those for whose comprehension the wrong end of the story must have been specially created. Had the official put Seymour Michael's name in full, it is probable that in her infantile excitement she would have failed to take it in or to connect it with the man who had wronged her twenty years before.
She had not thought much about that little affair during late years, her feeling for Seymour Michael having settled down into a passive hatred. The longing to do him some personal injury had died away fifteen years before. She was, as a matter of fact, quite incapable of a lasting feeling of any description. Hers was a life lived for the present only. A tea-party next week was of more importance to her than a change in fortune next year. Some people are thus, and Heaven help those whose lives come under their fickle influence!
The one permanent motive of her existence was her son Arthur—the puny little infant who had been prematurely ushered into a world that seemed full of hatred twenty years before—and even his image faded from mind and thought before the short Cambridge terms were half expired.
At this moment she was thinking less of the death of Jem than of the approaching arrival of Arthur. There must have been something wrong with her mental focus, to which trifles presented themselves as of the first importance, to the obliteration of larger matters.
"And this is all the news you have had?" inquired the Rector, rather hurriedly. He saw Sister Cecilia coming up the avenue, and that lady was for him the embodiment of the combination of those feminine failings which aggravated him so intensely.
He moved towards the door, and standing there he turned, holding up a warning finger.
"You must be very careful," he said. "You must not consult any lawyer or take any steps in this matter. So far as you are concerned the state of affairs is unchanged. I, as the Squire's executor, am the only person called upon to act in any way if that poor boy has died without making a will. You must remember that your son is under age."
With that he left her, rather precipitately, for Sister Cecilia, like all busybodies, was a quick walker.
In a few moments Miss Cecilia Harbottle entered the library. She glided forward as if afloat on a depth of the milk of human kindness, and folded Mrs. Agar in an emotional embrace.
"Dear!" she exclaimed. "Dear Anna, how I feel for you!"
In illustration of this sympathy she patted Mrs. Agar's somewhat flabby hands, and looked softly at her. She could hardly have failed to see a glitter in the bereaved one's eyes, which was certainly not that of grief. It was the gleam of pure, heartless excitement and love of change. But Sister Cecilia probably misread it; for, like all excesses, that of charity seems to dull the comprehension.
"Tell me, dear," she urged gently, "all about it."
How many of us imagine the satisfaction of our own curiosity to be sympathy!
So Mrs. Agar told her all about it, and presently they sat down, with a view to fuller discussion. There was, however, a point beyond which even Mrs. Agar would not go. This point Sister Cecilia scented with the instinct of the terrier, so keen was her nose in the sniffing of other people's business. When that point was reached a third time she gently led the way over it.
"Of course," she said, with a resigned glance at the curtain poles, "one cannot help sometimes feeling that a wise Providence does all for the best."
Gratifying as this must have been to the power in question, no miraculous manifestation of joy was forthcoming, and Mrs. Agar cunningly confined herself to a non-committing "Yes."
After a sigh, Sister Cecilia further expatiated.
"I cannot but think," she said, "that Stagholme will be in better hands now. Of course dear Jem was very nice, and all that—a dear, good boy. But do you not think that Arthur is more suited to the position in some ways?"
"Perhaps he is," allowed Mrs. Agar, with ill-concealed pleasure.
"He is," continued Sister Cecilia, with a broader brush, "so refined, so gentlemanly, so ideal a country squire."
And after that she had no difficulty in supplying herself with information.
ON THIN ICE
Treason doth never prosper. What's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
Two days later a gentleman, whose clean-shaven face had a habit of beaming suddenly into a professional smile, was seated at a huge writing-table in his office in Gray's Inn, when a clerk announced to him the arrival of Mrs. Agar, who desired to see him at once.
Mr. Rigg beamed instantaneously, and the clerk, who knew his master, waited until the paroxysm had passed. In the meantime Mrs. Agar was fuming in the waiting-room, wherein lay a copy of the Times and nothing else. The window looked out upon the neatly kept but depressing garden, where five antiquated rooks looked in vain for sustenance. Mrs. Agar watched these intelligent birds, but all her soul was in her ears. She had already set Mr. Rigg down in her own mind as a stupid because, forsooth, he had dared to keep her waiting.
But the truth is that they are accustomed to ladies in Gray's Inn, especially ladies in deep mourning, with a chastely important air which seems to demand that advice and sympathy be carefully mingled. Connues, these ladies whose deep crape and quite exceptional bereavement plead (not always dumbly) for a special equity, home-made and superior to any law, and infer that the ordinary foes are in their case more than any gentleman would think of accepting.
The clerk presently passed into an inner room and fetched therefrom a tin box, upon which were painted in dingy white the letters "J. E. M. A.," and underneath "Stagholme Estate." This the embryo lawyer carefully wiped with a duster, and set it up on some of its fellows immediately behind Mr. Rigg.
There was no hurry displayed in this scenic arrangement. Mr. Rigg made a practice of keeping ladies, especially those wearing crape, for a few minutes in the waiting-room. It calmed them down wonderfully, and introduced into their mental chambers a little legal atmosphere.
"Marks," he said, when that youth was taking his last look round at the mise en scene before, as it were, raising the curtain, "eh—er—just go round to Corbyn's and get them to make up these pills."
At the mention of the medicinal term he beamed, as if to intimate that between themselves no secret need be observed that he, Mr. Rigg, was subject to the usual anatomical laws of mankind.
"And—er—just call at the fishmonger's as you come back and get a parcel for me, ordered this morning."
"Yes, sir," answered the faithful Marks, taking the prescription as if it were a will or a transfer.
He knew his part so well that he moved towards the door and opened it as if Mrs. Agar's existence and attendance in the waiting-room were matters of the utmost indifference.
The door was open, so that the lawyer's voice carried well down the passage.
"I will see Mrs. Agar now."
And Mrs. Agar was shown in, all bustling with excitement.
"Mr. Rigg," she said, with some dignity, "has Mr. Glynde been here?"
The lawyer beamed again—literally all over his parchment-coloured face, except the eyes, which remained grave.
"When, my dear madam?" he asked, as he brought forward a chair.
"Well, lately—since my son's death."
The lawyer opened a large diary, and proceeded to trace back each day with his finger. It promised to be a question of time, this ascertaining whether Mr. Glynde had called within the last week. It was marvellous how well this man of deeds knew his clients. Mrs. Agar had never persevered in any inquiry or project that required time all through her life. Mr. Rigg, behind his disarming smile, could see as far into a crape veil as any man.
"It must have been quite lately," said Mrs. Agar, leaning forward and trying visibly to read the diary.
Mr. Rigg turned back a few pages, as if to go over the ground a second time.
"Let me see!" he said leisurely. "What was the precise date of the—er—sad event?"
"Last Tuesday, the fourteenth."
"To be sure," reflected Mr. Rigg, fixing his eyes sadly on an engraving of London Bridge in the seventeenth century—a spot specially reserved for the sadder moments of probate and other testamentary work. "Very sad, very sad."
Then he rose with the mental brushing-away of unshed tears of a man who has never yet had time in life for idle lamentation. He turned towards the tin box, jingling his keys in a most practical and business-like way.
"And I presume," he said, "that you have come to consult me about the late Captain Agar's will?"
"Was there a will?" asked Mrs. Agar, with audible alarm. She had not studied "Every Man his own Lawyer" quite in vain, although most of the legal technicalities had conveyed nothing whatever to her mind. She did not notice that her question regarding Mr. Glynde had never been answered.
Mr. Rigg turned upon her beaming.
"I have no will," he answered. "I thought that perhaps you were aware of the existence of one."
Mrs. Agar's face lighted up.
"No," she said, with ill-concealed delight; "I am certain there is no will."
"Indeed! And why, my dear madam?"
"Well—oh, well, because Jem was just the sort of person to forget such matters. Besides, when he left England he was under age."
The lawyer was looking at her with his usual sympathetic smile spread over his face like an actor's make-up, but his eyes were very keen and clever.
"Of course," he observed, "he may have made one out there."
"I do not think that it is likely," replied the lady, whose small thoughts always came into the world in charge of a very obvious father in the shape of a wish. "There are no facilities out there—no lawyers."
"There are quite a number of lawyers in India," said Mr. Rigg, with sudden gravity. His face was only grave when he wished to fend off laughter.
"Well," persisted Mrs. Agar, "I am sure Jem did not make a will."
Mr. Rigg bowed and resumed his seat. He took up a penholder and smiled, presumably at his own sunny thoughts.
Mrs. Agar was one of those fatuous ladies who think themselves capable of tricking a professional man out of his fee. She had a vague notion that if one asks a lawyer a question the price of his answer is at least six shillings and eightpence. Up to this point in the interview she was serenely conscious of having eluded the fee.
"I presume," she remarked carelessly, in pursuance of this economical policy, "that in such a case the property would go unconditionally to the second son."
"There are contingent possibilities," replied the man of subterfuge blandly. He did not mean anything at all, but shrewdly guessed that Mrs. Agar would not credit him with so simple a design.
The lady smiled in a subtly commiserating manner, indicative of the fact that on some family matters the ignorance of all except herself was somewhat pitiful.
"Of course," she said, "as regards the present case, I know perfectly well that both Jem and his father would wish everything to go to Arthur."
She was picking a thread from the corner of her jacket with an air of nonchalance.
Mr. Rigg was silent. He had some thirty years before this period given up attaching importance to the wishes of the deceased as interpreted by disinterested survivors.
"And I should imagine that the necessary transfers—and—and things would be much better put in hand at once. Delay seems to me quite unnecessary."
She paused for Mr. Rigg's opinion—quite a friendly opinion, of course, without price.
"Pardon me," said that lawyer, driven into a corner at last, "but are you consulting me on behalf of the late Squire's executor, Mr. Glynde, or on your own account?"
"Oh!" replied Mrs. Agar, drawing herself up with a deprecating little laugh, "I did not intend it to be a consultation at all. I happened to be passing, that was all. You see, Mr. Rigg, Mr. Glynde does not know anything about these matters. Clergymen are so stupid."
"Seems to be afraid," Mr. Rigg was reflecting behind his pleasant mask, "of the young man coming alive again."
Mrs. Agar was like a child in many ways, more especially in her unbounded belief in her own cunning. She actually imagined herself to be a match for this man, who had been trained in the ways of duplicity all his life. She saw nothing of his mind, and fatuously ignored the fact that from the moment she had entered the room he had begun the interview with a mental hypothesis.
"This woman," he had reflected, "has always hated her step-son. She got him a commission in an Indian regiment for the primary purpose of getting him out of the way while she saved money on her life-interest in the estate for her second son. The secondary purpose was little more than a hope. She hoped for the best. The best has come off, and she is not clever enough to let things take their course."
Every word Mrs. Agar had uttered, every silence, every glance had gone to confirm the lawyer's opinion, and he sat pleasantly beaming on her. He did not jump up and denounce her, for lawyers are scientists. As a doctor in the pursuit of his science does not hesitate to handle foul things, to probe horrid sores, so the lawyer must needs smirch his hands even to the elbow in those moral tumours from whence emanate the thousand and one domestic crimes which will ever remain just outside the pale of the law. And in one as in the other the finer susceptibilities grow dull. The doctor almost forgets the pain he inflicts. The lawyer gradually loses his sense of right and wrong.
Mr. Rigg was an honest man—as honesty is understood in the law. He was keenly alive to all the motives of this woman, who, in the law of humanity, was a criminal. He had started from a lawyer's standpoint—id est, personal advantage. "To whose advantage?" they ask, and there they assign the action. But Mr. Rigg was also a good lawyer, and therefore he kept his own counsel.
"Things must be allowed," he said, "to take their course. You know, Mrs. Agar, we are proverbially slow in moving, but we are sure."
Now it happened that this was precisely the position assumed by Mr. Glynde, whose respect for legal routine was enormous. He rarely moved in any matters wherein the law could by hook or crook be introduced without consulting Mr. Rigg, whom he vaguely called his "man." And it was precisely this delay that Mrs. Agar disliked. She had no definite reason for so doing; but this stroke of good fortune presented itself to her mind more in the light of an opportunity to be seized than as a just inheritance to be thankfully received in its due time.
She was awake to the fact that Arthur was not the man to seize any opportunity, however obviously it might be thrust into his grasp, and her knowledge of the world tended to exaggerate its dishonesty in her mind.
Sister Cecilia and she had talked this matter over with that small modicum of learning which is a dangerous thing, and they had arrived at the conclusion that Mr. Glynde was not competent to carry out the duties thus suddenly thrust upon him. Wrapped up as was her heart in the welfare of her weakling son, the one lasting motive of her life had been to secure for him the largest possible portion of earthly goods. Now that success seemed to be within measurable distance, she gave way to the baneful panic of the weak conspirator, and fancied that the whole world was allied against her.
She could not keep her fingers off "Every Man his own Lawyer," and consulted that boon to the legal profession to such good effect that she placed a handsome fee in the pocket of one of its brightest ornaments at the earliest opportunity. Mr. Rigg continued to beam and to keep his own counsel, merely notifying that things must be allowed to take their own course, and presently he bowed Mrs. Agar out of his office, dissatisfied, and with an uncomfortable feeling of having been somewhat indiscreet.
Arthur was waiting for her in a hansom cab in Holborn, and with a sigh of relief they drove westward to a shop in Regent Street to order a supply of the newest procurable mode of signifying grief on paper and envelopes. Arthur Agar was an expert in such matters, and indeed both mother and son were more at home in the graceful pastime of spending money than in the technicalities of making or keeping the same.
Arthur was already beginning to taste the sweetness of his adversity, and being intensely sensitive to the influence of those with whom he happened to be at the moment, he was already beginning to look back with mild surprise to the first burst of grief to which he had given way on hearing that Jem was killed.
THE CURSE OF A GOOD INTENTION
There is one that keepeth silence and is found wise.
Sister Cecilia received—nay, she almost welcomed—the news of Jem Agar's death in an intensely Christian spirit. She looked upon it in the light of a chastening-a sort of moral cold bath, unpleasant at the time, but cleanly and refreshing in its effect. Intense goodness and virtue of the jubby-jubby order seem frequently to produce this result. Trouble—provided that it be not personal—is elevated to a position which it was never intended to occupy by an all-seeing Providence. There are some people who step into the troubles of others as into the chastening bath above referred to, and splash about. They pretend to feel deeply bereavements which cannot reasonably be expected to affect them, and go about the world with a well-scrubbed air of conscious virtue, saying in manner if not in words, "Look at me; my troubles compass me about, but my innate goodness enables me to take them in the proper spirit and to be cheerful despite all."
This was precisely Sister Cecilia's attitude towards her small world of Stagholme, after the news of the young Squire's death had cast a gloom over the whole neighbourhood.
"Ah!" she would say to some honest cottage mother who had more true feeling in her rough little finger than Sister Cecilia possessed in her whole heart. "These trials are sent to us for our good. The ways of Providence are strange, Mrs. Martin—strange to us now."
"Yes, miss; that they be," Mrs. Martin replied, looking at her with the hard and far-seeing gaze of a poor mother who has known trouble in its least romantic form. And Sister Cecilia, with that blindness which comes from systematically closing the eyes to the earthly side of earthly things, never realised that the small change of sympathy is often slightly aggravating.
At this period she took to calling Jem Agar her "poor boy." The grave seems to have the power of completely altering the past, and with persons of the stamp of Sister Cecilia death appears not only to wipe out all sin, but to impair the memory of the living to such an extent that the individuality of the deceased is no longer recognisable.
Jem never had in any sense of the word been her boy. His feelings for her had passed from the distrust of childhood to the lofty contempt of a schoolboy for all things preternaturally virtuous, finally settling down into the more tolerant contempt of manhood. The dead, however, have perforce to accept much affection which they scornfully refused in life.
"Poor Jem!" said Sister Cecilia to Mrs. Agar the day after that lady's visit to Gray's Inn. "I always thought that perhaps he and dear Dora would come to—to some understanding."
She stirred her tea with patient, suffering head inclined at a resigned angle.
"Do you think there was any understanding between them?" inquired Mrs. Agar.
"Well—I should not like to say."
Which, being translated, meant that she would like to say, but did not know.
It had always been a pet scheme of Mrs. Agar's that Dora should marry Arthur; firstly, because she would have nearly two thousand pounds a year on the death of her parents; and, secondly, because she was a capable person with plenty of common-sense. These two adjuncts—namely, money and common-sense—Mrs. Agar wisely looked for in candidates for the flaccid hand of her son.
"I will try and find out," said Sister Cecilia after a pause.
Mrs. Agar said nothing. She was meditating over this last stroke of fate in favour of her scheme, and her thoughts were disturbed by that distrust in the continuance of good fortune which usually spoils the enjoyment of the unscrupulous in those good things which they have obtained for themselves.
So Sister Cecilia took it for granted that she was doing the will of the mistress of Stagholme when she wrote a note that same evening inviting Dora to have tea with her the following afternoon.
At the hour appointed Dora arrived, and was duly shown into the little cottage drawing-room, of which the decoration hovered between the avowedly devout and the economo-aesthetic.
Sister Cecilia swept down upon her with a speechless emotion which, in the nature of things (and Sister Cecilia), could not well be of long duration.
"My dear," she whispered, "God will give you strength to bear this awful trial."
Dora recovered her breath and re-arranged her crushed habiliments before inquiring, with just sufficient feeling to save her from downright rudeness, "What is the matter; has something else happened?"
Sister Cecilia drew back. She was vaguely conscious of having run mentally against a brick wall. There was something new and unusual about Dora which she could not understand—something, if she could only have seen it, suggestive of the quiet, strong man in whose honour the whole parish wore mourning. But Sister Cecilia was not a subtle woman. She had had so little experience of the world, of men and of women, that she fell easily into the error of thinking that they were all to be treated alike and with equal success by little maxims culled from fourpenny-halfpenny devotional books.
"No, dear," she exclaimed; "I was referring to our terrible loss. My heart has been bleeding for you—"
"It is very kind, I'm sure," said Dora quietly; "I forgot that I had not seen you since the news reached us."
It is probable that her self-control cost her more than she suspected. Her lips were drawn and dry. She wore a thick veil, which she carefully abstained from lifting above the level of her eyes. "I am sure," moaned Sister Cecilia, "it has been a most trying time for us all. I wonder that Mrs. Agar has borne up so bravely. Her health is wonderful, considering."
Dora sat looking straight in front of her. She was withdrawing her gloves slowly. Her face was that of a person whose mind was made up for the endurance of an operation.
The twaddling voice, the characteristic reference to health, were intensely aggravating. There are some women who talk of their own health before the dead are buried. They do not seem to be able to separate grief from bodily ill. Clad in crape, they rush to the seaside, and there, presumably because grief affects their legs, they hire a man to wheel themselves and Sorrow in a bath-chair. Why—oh, why! does bereavement drive women into bath-chairs on the King's Road, or the Lees, or the Hoe?
"Wonderful!" said Dora.
Sister Cecilia, busying herself with the teapot, proceeded to blow her own trumpet with the bare-facedness of true virtue.
"I have been with her constantly," she said. "I think it is better for us all to tell of our grief; I think that we are given speech for that purpose. For although one may only be able to offer sympathy and perhaps a little advice, it is always a relief to speak of one's sorrow."
"I suppose it is," admitted Dora from her strong-hold of reserve, "for some people."
"Oh, yes!" exclaimed Sister Cecilia, all heedless of the sarcasm. For extreme charity is proof against such. It covers other things besides a multitude of sins. Wielded foolishly it runs amuck like a too luxuriant creeper, and often kills commonsense. "And that is why I asked you to come, dear. I thought that you might want to confide in some one—that you might want to unburden your heart to one who feels for you as if this sorrow were her own—"
"Only one piece of sugar, thank you," interrupted Dora. "Thank you. No. Bread and butter, please. It is very kind of you, Sister Cecilia. But, you see, when I have any unburdening to do there is always mother, and if I want any advice there is always father."
"Yes, dear. But sometimes even one's parents are not quite the persons to whom one would turn in times of grief."
"Oh!" observed Dora, without much enthusiasm.
Unconsciously Sister Cecilia was doing the very best thing possible for Dora, She was arousing in her the spirit of antagonism—hardening a stricken heart, as it were, by a fresh challenge. She was teaching Dora to fight for what we learn to deem most sacred—namely, the right to monopolise our own thoughts and feelings. Sister Cecilia is not, one may assume, the only good woman in the world who cannot draw a definite line between sympathy and mere curiosity. With many the display of sympathy is nothing but a half-conscious bait to attract a shoal of further details.
Self-reliance was lurking somewhere in this girl's character, but it had never been developed by the pressure of circumstances. Reserve she had seen practised by her father, but the actual advantages thereof were only now beginning to be apparent to her. The body, we are told, adapts itself to abnormal circumstances; so is it with the mind. Already Dora was beginning, as they say at sea, to find her feet; to take that stand amidst her environments which she was forced to hold, practically alone, thereafter.
And Sister Cecilia, with that blind faith in a good motive which gives almost as much trouble as actual vice, floundered on in the path she had mapped out for herself.
"You know, dear," she said, looking out of the window with a sentimental droop of her thin, inquisitive lips, "I cannot help feeling that this—this terrible blow means more to you than it does to us."
"Why?" inquired Dora practically.
Sister Cecilia was silent, with one of those aggravating silences which do not allow even the satisfaction of a flat contradiction. A meaning silence is a coward's argument. She was beginning to feel slightly nervous before this child, ignorant that childhood is not always a matter of years and calendar months.
"Why?" asked Dora again.
Sister Cecilia looked rather bewildered.
"Well, dear, I thought perhaps—I always thought that my poor boy entertained some feeling—you understand?"
"No," replied Dora, borrowing for the moment her father's most crushing deliberation of manner, "I cannot say I do. When you say your 'poor boy,' are you referring to Jem?"
Sister Cecilia assented with a resigned nod worthy of the very earliest martyr.
"Then, as every one has discovered so many virtues in him—quite suddenly—we had better emulate one of them, and have at the least the good feeling to hold our tongues about any feelings he may have entertained. Do you not think so, Sister Cecilia?"
"Well, dear, I only thought to act as might be best for you," said the well-intentioned meddler, with the drawl of the professionally misunderstood.
"I have no doubt of that," returned Dora, with an equanimity which was again strangely suggestive of Jem Agar. "But in future you will be consulting my welfare much more effectively by refraining from action on my behalf at all."
"As you will, dear; as you will," in the hopeless tone of age, experience, and wisdom forced to stand idle while youth and folly rush headlong down the hill.
"Yes," returned Dora calmly; "I know that, thank you. And now, I think, we had better change the subject."
The subject was therefore changed; but Sister Cecilia, having, as it were, whetted her appetite for details, was not at her ease with other food for the mind, and presently Dora left.
The girl went back into her small world with a new knowledge gained—the knowledge that in all and through all we are really quite alone. There can be only one companion, and if that one be absent, there are only so many talking-machines left to us. And many of us pass the whole of our lives in conversation with them. So it is; and we know not why.
In a subtle way she felt stronger for this little tussle—a fight is always exhilarating. She felt that from henceforth the memory of Jem was hers, and hers alone, to defend and to cherish. It was not much of a consolation. No. But then this is a world of small mercies, where some of us get an hour or some mean portion of a day when we want a lifetime.
THE TOUCH OF NATURE
A sense, when first I fronted him, Said, "Trust him not!"
After successfully carrying through the purchase of mourning stationery and attending to other important items connected with sorrow in its worldly shape, Arthur Agar went back to Cambridge. There was enough of the woman in his nature to enable him to cherish grief and nurse it lovingly, as some women (not the best of them) do. In this attitude towards the world there was none of that dogged going about his business which characterises the ordinary man from whose life something has slipped out.
He wandered by the banks of the Cam with mourning in his mien, and his cherished friends took sympathetic coffee with him after Hall. They spoke of Jem with that fervid admiration which University men honestly feel for one a few years their senior who has already "done something."
"A ripping soldier" they called him and some of them entertained serious doubts as to whether they had done wisely in choosing the less glorious paths of peace. And Arthur Agar settled down into the old profitless life, with this difference—that he could not dine out, that he used blackedged notepaper, and that his delicate heliotrope neckties were folded away in a drawer until such time as his grief should be assuaged into that state of resignation technically called half-mourning.
One afternoon well towards the end of the term Arthur Agar's "gyp" crept in with that valet-like confidential air which seems to be bred of too intimate a knowledge of the extent of one's wardrobe.
"There is a gentleman, sir," he said, "as wants to see you. But in no wise will he give his name, which, he says, you don't know it."
"Is he selling engravings?" asked Arthur.
The "gyp" looked mildly offended. As if he didn't know that sort!
"No, sir. Military man, I should take it."
Arthur Agar had met the Scotch Balaclava veteran in his time too. He hesitated, and the "gyp," who felt that his reputation was at stake, spoke:
"He is eminently a gentleman, sir," he said.
"Well, then, show him up."
A moment later a man who might have been the wandering Jew fin de siecle stood in the doorway. His smart military moustache was small and evidently trimmed, his face was sunburnt, and in his eyes there gleamed the restlessness of India.
He bowed, and awaited the exit of the man. Then, coming forward, he was able for the first time to see Arthur Agar's face distinctly, and his glance wavered.
At that moment Arthur Agar was staring at him with something in his face that was almost strong. When this man had entered the room, Arthur felt his heart give one great bound which almost choked him. There was a strange physical feeling of vacuity in his breast which seemed to paralyse his breathing powers, and his temples throbbed painfully.
Arthur Agar's life had been passed in eminently pleasant places. The seamy side of existence had always been carefully hidden from his eyes. He therefore did not recognise this strange sense which had leapt into his being—the sense of superhuman, physical, mortal revulsion.
He was divided between two instincts. One side of his nature urged him to shriek like a woman. Had he followed the other, he would have rushed at this man, whom he had never seen before, seeking to do him bodily harm. He would not have paused to reason that in anything like a struggle he would stand no chance against the sinewy, dark-eyed soldier who stood watching him. For there are moments even in this age of self-suppression when we do not pause to think, when he who cannot swim will leap into deep water to save another.