Finally, armed with the hot liquor, she stole across the yard to the stable. The place was deserted, save for the horse she usually rode, who whinnied softly to her as she passed. At the foot of the loft ladder she stood awhile, listening, and presently heard a heavy groan.
She had to make the ascent very slowly, using her injured arm to support herself. When she emerged at last she found herself in a twilight which for a time her dazzled eyes could not pierce. The heat was intolerable, and the place hummed with flies.
"Beelzebub!" she said softly at length. "Beelzebub, where are you?"
There was a movement in what she dimly discerned to be a heap of straw, and she heard a feeble whimpering as of an animal in pain.
Her heart throbbed with pity as she crept across the littered floor. She was beginning to see more distinctly, and by sundry chinks she discovered the loft door. She went to it, fumbled for the latch, and opened it. Instantly the place was flooded with light, and turning round, she beheld Beelzebub.
He was lying in a twisted heap in the straw, half naked, looking like some monstrous reptile. In all her life she had never beheld anything so horrible. His black flesh was scored over and over with long purple stripes; even his face was swollen almost beyond recognition, and out of it the whites of his eyes gleamed, bloodshot and terrible.
For a few moments she was possessed by an almost overpowering desire to flee from the awful sight; and then again he stirred and whimpered, and pity—element most divine—came to her aid.
She went to the poor, whining creature, and knelt beside him.
"See!" she said. "I have brought you some soup. Do try and take a little! It will do you good."
There was a note of entreaty in her voice, but Beelzebub's eyes stared as though they would leap out of his head.
He writhed away from her into the straw. "Go 'way, missis!" he hissed at her, with lips drawn back in terror. "Go 'way, or Boss'll come and beat Beelzebub!"
He spoke the white man's language; it was the only one he knew, but there was something curiously unfamiliar, something almost bestial in the way he spat his words.
Again Sybil was conscious of a wild desire to escape before sheer horror paralysed her limbs, but she fought and conquered the impulse.
"Boss won't beat you any more," she said. "And I want you to be a good boy and drink this before I go. I brought it myself, because I knew you would take it to please me. You will, won't you, Beelzebub?"
But Beelzebub was not to be easily persuaded. He cried and moaned and writhed at every word she spoke. But Sybil had mastered herself, and she was very patient. She coaxed him as though he had been in truth the sick dog to which Curtis had likened him. And at last, by sheer persistence, she managed to insert the spoon between his chattering teeth.
He let her feed him then, lying passive, still whimpering between every gulp, while she talked soothingly, scarcely knowing what she said in the resolute effort to keep her ever-recurring horror at bay. When the bowl was empty she rose.
"Perhaps you will go to sleep now," she said kindly. "Suppose you try!"
He stared up at her from his lair with rolling, uneasy eyes. Suddenly he pointed to her bandaged arm.
"Boss did that!" he croaked.
She turned to close the door again, feeling the blood rise in her face.
"Boss didn't mean to," she answered with as much steadiness as she could muster. "And he didn't mean to hurt you so badly, either, Beelzebub. He was sorry afterwards."
She saw his teeth gleam in the twilight like the bared fangs of a wolf, and knew that he grinned in derision of this statement. She picked up her bowl and turned to go. At the same instant he spoke in a piercing whisper out of the darkness.
"Boss kill a white man once, missis!"
She stood still, rooted to the spot. "Beelzebub!"
He shrank away, whimpering.
"No, no! Boss'll kill poor Beelzebub! Missis won't tell Boss?"
To her horror his hand shot out and fastened upon her skirt. But she could not have moved in any case. She stood staring down at him, cold—cold to the very heart with foreboding.
"No," she said at last, and it was as if she stood apart and listened to another woman, very calm and collected, speaking on her behalf. "I will never tell him, Beelzebub. You will be quite safe with me. So tell me what you mean! Don't be afraid! Speak plainly! When did Boss kill a white man?"
There must have been something of compulsion in her manner, for, albeit quaveringly and with obvious terror, the negro answered her.
"Down by Bowker Creek, missis, 'fore you come. Boss and the white man fight—a dam' big fight. Beelzebub run away. Afterwards, Boss, come on alone. So Beelzebub know that Boss kill' the white man."
"Oh, then you didn't see him killed! You don't know?"
Was it her own lips uttering the words? They felt quite stiff and powerless.
"Beelzebub run away," she heard him repeating rather vacantly.
"What did they fight with?" she said.
"They fight with their hands," he told her. "White man from Bowker Creek try to shoot Boss, and make Boss very angry."
"But perhaps he wasn't killed," she insisted to herself. "Of course—of course, he wasn't. You shouldn't say such things, Beelzebub. You weren't there to see."
Beelzebub shuffled in the straw and whined depreciatingly.
"Tell me," she heard the other woman say peremptorily, "what was the white man's name?"
But Beelzebub only moaned, and she was forced to conclude that he did not know.
"Where is Bowker Creek?" she asked next.
He could not tell her. His intelligence seemed to have utterly deserted him.
She stood silent, considering, while he coiled about revoltingly in the straw at her feet.
Suddenly through the afternoon silence there came the sound of a horse's hoofs. She started, and listened.
Beelzebub frantically clutched at her shoes.
"Missis won't tell Boss!" he implored again. "Missis won't——"
She stepped desperately out of his reach.
"Hush!" she said. "Hush! He will hear you. I must go. I must go at once."
Emergency gave her strength. She moved to the trap-door, and, she knew not how, found the ladder with her feet.
Grey-faced, dazed, and cold as marble, she descended. Yet she did not stumble. Her limbs moved mechanically, unfalteringly.
When she reached the bottom she turned with absolute steadiness and found Brett Mercer standing in the doorway watching her.
He stood looking at her in silence as she came forward. She did not stop to ascertain if he were angry or not. Somehow it did not seem to matter. She only dealt with the urgent necessity for averting his suspicion.
"I just ran across with some soup for Beelzebub," she said, her pale face raised unflinchingly. "I am glad to say he has taken it. Please don't go up! I want him to get to sleep."
She spoke, with a wholly unconscious authority. The supreme effort she was making seemed to place her upon a different footing. She laid a quiet hand upon his arm and drew him out of the stable.
He went with her as one surprised into submission. One of the farm men who had taken his horse stared after them in amazement.
As they crossed the yard together Mercer found his voice.
"I told Curtis you weren't to go near Beelzebub."
"I know," she answered. "Mr. Curtis told me."
He cracked his whip savagely.
"Where is Curtis?"
"I don't know," she answered. "But, Brett, if you are angry because I went you must deal with me, not with Mr. Curtis. He had nothing whatever to do with it."
Mercer was silent, and she divined with no sense of elation that he would not turn his anger against her.
They entered the house together, and he strode through the passage, calling for Curtis. But when the latter appeared in answer to the summons, to her surprise Mercer began to speak upon a totally different subject.
"I have just seen Stevens from Wallarroo. They are all in a mortal funk there. He was on his way over here to ask you to go and look at a man who is very bad with something that looks like smallpox. You can please yourself about going; though, if you take my advice, you'll stay away."
Curtis did not at once reply. He gravely took the empty bowl from Sybil's hand, and it was upon her that his eyes rested as he finally said, "Do you think you could manage without me?"
She looked up with perfect steadiness.
"Certainly I could. Please do as you think right!"
"What about Beelzebub?" he said.
Mercer made a restless movement.
"He will be on his legs again in a day or two. One of the men must look after him."
"I shall look after him," Sybil said, with a calmness of resolution that astounded both her hearers.
Mercer put his hand on her shoulder, but said nothing. It was Curtis who spoke with the voice of authority.
"You will have to take care of her," he said bluntly. "Bear in mind what I said to you last night! I will show you how to treat the arm. And then I think I had better go. It may prevent an epidemic."
Thereafter he assumed so businesslike an air that he seemed to Sybil to be completely transformed. There never had been much deference in his attitude towards Mercer, but he treated him now without the smallest ceremony. He was as a man suddenly awakened from a long lethargy. From that moment to the moment of his departure his activity was unceasing.
Sybil and Mercer watched him finally ride away, and it was not till he was actually gone that the fact that she was left absolutely alone with her husband came home to her.
With a sense of shock she realized it, and those words of Beelzebub's—the words that she had been so resolutely forcing into the back of her mind—came crowding back upon her with a vividness and persistence that were wholly beyond her control.
What was she going to do, she wondered? What could she do with this awful, this unspeakable doubt pressing ever upon her? It might all be a mistake, a hideous mistake on Beelzebub's part. She had no great faith in his intelligence. It might be that by some evil chance his muddled brain had registered the name of Bowker Creek in connection with the fight which she did not for a moment doubt had at some time taken place. Beelzebub was never reliable in the matter of details, and he had not been able to answer her question regarding the place.
Over and over again she tried to convince herself that her fear was groundless, and over and over again the words came back to her, refusing to be forgotten or ignored—"the white man from Bowker Creek." Who was this white man whom Mercer had fought, this man who had tried to shoot him? She shuddered whenever she pictured the conflict. She was horribly afraid.
Yet she played her part unfalteringly, and Mercer never suspected the seething anguish of suspense and uncertainty that underlay her steadfast composure. He thought her quieter than usual, deemed her shy; and he treated her in consequence with a tenderness of which she had not believed him capable—a tenderness that wrung her heart.
She was thankful when the morning came, and he left her, for the strain was almost more than she could endure.
But in the interval of solitude that ensued she began to build up her strength anew. Alone with her doubts, she faced the fact that she would probably never know the truth. She could not rely upon Beelzebub for accuracy, and she could not refer to her husband. The only course open to her was to bury the evil thing as deeply as might be, to turn her face resolutely away from it, to forget—oh, Heaven, if she could but forget!
All through that day Beelzebub slept, curled up in the straw. She visited him several times, but he needed nothing. Nature had provided her own medicine for his tortured body. In the evening a man came with a note from Curtis. The case was undoubtedly one of smallpox, he wrote, and he did not think his patient would recover. There was a good deal of panic at Wallarroo, and he had removed the man to a cattle-shed at some distance from the township where they were isolated. There were one or two things he needed which he desired Mercer to send on the following day to a place he described, whence he himself would fetch them.
"Beelzebub can go," said Mercer.
"If he is well enough!" said Sybil.
"You don't seem to realize what these niggers are made of. Of course, he will be well enough."
She said no more, for she saw that the topic was unwelcome; but she determined to make a stand on Beelzebub's behalf the next day, unless his condition were very materially improved.
It was with surprise and relief that upon entering the kitchen on the following morning Sybil found Beelzebub back in his accustomed place. He greeted her with a wider grin than usual, which she took for an expression of gratitude. He seemed to have made a complete recovery, for which she was profoundly thankful.
She herself was feeling better that day. Her arm pained her less, and she no longer carried it in a sling. She had breakfasted in bed, Mercer himself waiting upon her.
She was amazed to hear him speak with kindness to Beelzebub, and even ask the boy if he thought he could manage the ride to Wallarroo. Beelzebub, abjectly eager to return to favour, professed himself ready to start at once. And so presently Sybil found herself alone.
The long day passed without event. The loneliness did not oppress her. She busied herself with preparing delicacies for the sick man, which Beelzebub could take on the following day. Beelzebub had had smallpox, and knew no fear.
He did not return from his errand till the afternoon was well advanced. She went to the door to hear his news, but he was in his least intelligent mood, and seemed able to tell her very little. By dint of close questioning she elicited that he had seen Curtis, who had told him that the man was worse. Beyond this, Beelzebub appeared to know nothing; and yet there was something about him that excited her attention. He seemed more than once to be upon the point of saying something, and to fail at the last moment, as though either his wits or his courage were unequal to the effort. She could not have said what conveyed this impression, but it was curiously strong. She tried hard to elicit further information, but Beelzebub only became more idiotic in response, and she was obliged to relinquish the attempt.
Mercer came in soon after, and she dismissed the matter from her mind. But a vivid dream recalled it. She started up in the night, agitated, incoherent, crying that someone wanted her, someone who could not wait, and she must go. She could not tell her husband what the dream had been and in the morning all memory of it had vanished. But it left a vague disquietude behind, a haunting anxiety that hung heavily upon her. She could not feel at peace.
Mercer left that morning. He had to go a considerable distance to an outlying farm. She saw him off from the gate, and then went back into the house, still with that inexplicable sense of oppression weighing her down.
She prepared the parcel that she purposed to send to Curtis, and went in search of Beelzebub. He was sweeping the kitchen.
"I shall want you to go to Wallarroo again to-day," she said. "You had better start soon, as I should like Mr. Curtis to get this in good time."
Beelzebub stopped sweeping, and cringed before her.
"Boss gone?" he questioned cautiously.
"Yes," she answered, wondering what was coming.
He drew a little nearer to her, still cringing.
"Missis," he whispered piercingly, "Beelzebub see the white man yesterday."
She stared at him.
"What white man, Beelzebub? What do you mean?"
"White man from Bowker Creek," said Beelzebub.
Her breathing stopped suddenly. She felt as if she had been stabbed. "Where!" she managed to gasp.
Beelzebub looked vacant. There was evidently something that she was expected to understand. She forced her startled brain into activity.
"Is he the man who is ill—the man Mr. Curtis is taking care of?"
Beelzebub looked intelligent again.
"White man very bad," he said.
"But—but—how was it you saw him? You were told to leave the parcel by the fence for Mr. Curtis to fetch."
Beelzebub exerted himself to explain.
"Mr. Curtis away, so Beelzebub creep up close and look in. But the white man see Beelzebub and curse; so Beelzebub go away again."
"And that is the man you thought Boss killed?" Sybil questioned, relief and fear strangely mingled within her.
Her brain was beginning to whirl, but with all her strength she controlled it. Now or never would she know the truth.
Beelzebub was scared by the question.
"Missis won't tell Boss?" he begged.
"No, no," she said impatiently. "When will you learn that I never repeat things? Now, Beelzebub, I want you to do something for me. Can you remember? You are to ask Mr. Curtis to tell you the white man's name. Say that Boss—do you understand?—say that Boss wants to know! And then come back as fast as you possibly can, before Boss gets home to-night, and tell me!"
She repeated these instructions many times over till it seemed impossible that he could make any mistake. And then she watched him go, and set herself with a heart like lead to face the interminable day.
She thought the hours would never pass, so restless was she, so continuous the torment of doubt that vexed her soul. There were times when she felt that if the thing she feared were true, it would kill her. If her husband—the man whom, in spite of almost every instinct, she had learnt to love—had deceived her, if he had played a double game to win her, if, in short, the man he had fought at Bowker Creek were Robin Wentworth, then she felt as if life for her were over. She might continue to exist, indeed, but the heart within her would be dead. There would be nothing left her but the grey ruins of that which had scarcely begun to be happiness.
She tried hard to compose herself, but all her strength could not still the wild fluttering of her nerves through the long-drawn-out suspense of that dreadful day. At every sound she hastened to the door to look for Beelzebub, long before he could possibly return. At the striking of every hour she strained her ears to listen.
But when at last she heard the hoof-beats that told of the negro's approach she felt that she could not go again; she lacked the physical strength to seek him and hear the truth.
For a time she sat quite still, gathering all her forces for the ordeal. Then at length she compelled herself, and rose.
Beelzebub was grooming his horse. He looked up at her approach and grinned.
"Well, Beelzebub," she said through her white lips, "have you seen Mr. Curtis?"
"Yes, missis." Beelzebub rolled his eyes intelligently. He seemed unaware of the tragedy in the English girl's drawn face.
"And the white man?" she said.
"Mr. Curtis think the white man die soon," said Beelzebub.
"Ah!" She pressed her hand tightly against her heart. She felt as if its throbbing would choke her. "And—his name?" she said.
Beelzebub paused and opened his eyes to their widest extent. He was making a supreme effort, and the result was monstrous. But Sybil did not quail; she scarcely saw him.
"His name?" she said; and again, raising her voice, "His name?"
The whole world seemed to rock while she waited, but she stood firm in the midst of chaos. Her whole soul was concentrated upon Beelzebub's reply.
It came at last with the effect of something uttered from an immense distance that was yet piercingly distinct.
"Went—" said Beelzebub, and paused; then, with renewed effort, "Wentworth."
And Sybil turned from him, shrinking as though something evil had touched her, and walked stiffly back into the house. She had known it all day long!
She never knew afterwards how long a time elapsed between the confirmation of her doubts and the sudden starting to life of a new resolution within her. It came upon her unexpectedly, striking through the numbness of her despair, nerving her to action—the memory of her dream and whence that dream had sprung. Robin Wentworth still lived. It might be he would know her. It might even be that he was wanting her. She would go to him.
It was the only thing left for her to do. Of the risk to herself she did not think, nor would it have deterred her had it presented itself to her mind. She felt as though he had called to her, and she had not answered.
To Beelzebub's abject entreaties she paid no heed. There were two fresh horses in the stable, and she ordered him to saddle them both. He did not dare to disobey her in the matter, but she knew that no power on earth would have induced him to remain alone at the farm till Mercer's coming.
She left no word to explain her absence. There seemed no time for any written message, nor was she in a state of mind to frame one. She was driven by a consuming fever that urged her to perpetual movement. It did not seem to matter how the tidings of her going came to Mercer.
Not till she was in the saddle and riding, riding hard, did she know a moment's relief. The physical exertion eased the inward tumult, but she would not slacken for an instant. She felt that to do so would be to lose her reason. Beelzebub, galloping after her, thought her demented already.
Through the long, long pastures she travelled, never drawing rein, looking neither to right nor left. The animal she rode knew the way to Wallarroo, and followed it undeviatingly. The sun was beginning to slant, and the shadows to lengthen.
Mile after mile of rolling grassland they left behind them, and still they pressed forward. At last came the twilight, brief as the soft sinking of a curtain, and then the dark. But the night was ablaze with stars, and the road was clear.
Sybil rode as one in a nightmare, straining forward eternally. She did not urge her horse, but he bore her so gallantly that she did not need to do so. Beelzebub had increasing difficulty in keeping up with her.
At last, after what seemed like the passage of many hours, they sighted from afar the lights of Wallarroo. Sybil drew rein, and waited for Beelzebub.
"Which way?" she said.
He pointed to a group of trees upon a knoll some distance from the road, and thither she turned her horse's head. Beelzebub rode up beside her.
They left the knoll on one side, and, skirting it, came to a dip in the hill-side. And here they came at length to the end of their journey—a journey that to Sybil had seemed endless—and halted before a wooden shed that had been built for cattle. A flap of canvas had been nailed above the entrance, behind which a dim light burned. Sybil dismounted and drew near.
At first she heard no sound; then, as she stood hesitating and uncertain, there came a man's voice that uttered low, disjointed words. She thought for a second that someone was praying, and then, with a thrill of horror, she knew otherwise. The voice was uttering the most fearful curses she had ever heard.
Scarcely knowing what she did, but unable to stand there passively listening, she drew aside the canvas flap and looked in.
In an instant the voice ceased. There fell a silence, followed by a wild, half-strangled cry. She had a glimpse of a prone figure in a corner struggling upwards, and then Curtis was before her—Curtis haggard and agitated as she had never seen him—pushing her back out of the dim place into the clean starlight without.
"Mrs. Mercer! Are you mad?" she heard him say.
She resisted his compelling hands; she was strangely composed and undismayed.
"I am coming in," she said. "Nothing on earth will keep me back. That man—Robin Wentworth—is a friend of mine. I am going to see him and speak to him."
"Impossible!" Curtis said.
But she withstood him unfalteringly.
"It is not impossible. You must let me pass. I mean to go to him, and you cannot prevent it."
He saw the hopelessness of opposing her. Her eyes told him that it was no whim but steadfast purpose that had brought her there. He looked beyond her to Beelzebub, but gathered no inspiration in that quarter.
"Let me pass, Mr. Curtis!" said Sybil gently. "I shall take no harm. I must see him before he dies."
And Curtis yielded. He was worn out by long and fruitless watching, and he could not cope with this fresh emergency. He yielded to her insistence, and suffered her to pass him.
"He is very far gone," he said.
As Sybil entered she heard again that strange, choked cry. The sick man was struggling to rise, but could not.
She went straight to the narrow pallet on which he lay and bent over him.
"Robin!" she said.
He gave a great start, and became intensely still, lying face downwards, his body twisted, his head on his arm.
She stooped lower. She touched him. A superhuman strength was hers.
"Robin," she said, "do you know me?"
He turned his face a little, and she saw the malignant horror of the disease that gripped him. It was a sight that would have turned her sick at any other time. But to-night she knew no weakness.
"Who are you?" he said, in a gasping whisper.
"I am Sybil," she answered steadfastly. "Don't you remember me?"
He lay motionless for a little, his breathing sharp and short. At length:
"You had better get away from this pestilent hole," he panted out. "It's no place for a woman."
"I have come to nurse you," she said.
"You!" He seemed to collect himself with an effort. He turned his face fully towards her. "Didn't you marry that devil Mercer, after all?" he gasped, gazing up at her with glassy eyes.
Only by his eyes would she have known him—this man whom once long ago she had fancied that she loved—and even they were strained and unfamiliar. She bent her head in answer. "Yes, Robin, I married him."
He began to curse inarticulately, spasmodically; but that she would not have. She knelt down suddenly by his side, and took his hand in hers. The terrible, disfigured countenance did not appal her, though the memory of it would haunt her all her life.
"Robin, listen!" she said earnestly. "We may not have very long together. Let us make the most of what time we have! Don't waste your strength! Try to tell me quietly what happened, how it was you gave me up! I want to understand it all. I have never yet heard the truth."
Her quiet words, the steady pressure of her hand, calmed him. He lay still for a space, gazing at her.
"You're not afraid?" he muttered at last.
"No," she said.
He continued to stare at her.
"Is he—good to you?" he said.
The words came with difficulty. She saw his throat working with the convulsive effort to produce sound.
Curtis touched her arm. "Give him this!"
She took a cup from his hand, and held it to the swollen lips. But he could not swallow. The liquid trickled down into his beard.
"He's past it," murmured Curtis.
"Sybil!" The words came with a hard, rending sound. "Is he—good to you?"
She was wiping away the spilt drops with infinite, unfaltering tenderness.
"Yes, dear," she answered. "He is very good to me."
He uttered a great gasping sigh.
"That's—all—that matters," he said, and fell silent, still gazing at her with eyes that seemed too fixed to take her in.
In the long, long silence that followed no one moved. But for those wild eyes Sybil would have thought him sleeping.
Minutes passed, and at last Curtis spoke under his breath.
"You had better go. You can't do any more."
But she would not stir. She had a feeling that Robin still wanted her.
Suddenly through the night silence there came a sound—the hoof-beats of a galloping horse.
She turned her head and listened. "What is that?"
As if in answer, Beelzebub's black face appeared in the entrance. His eyes were distended with fright.
"Missis!" he hissed in a guttural whisper.
"Here's Boss comin'!" and disappeared again like a monstrous goblin.
Sybil glanced up at Curtis. "Don't let him come here!" she said.
But for once he seemed to be at a loss. He made no response to her appeal. While they waited, the hoofs drew steadily nearer, thudding over the grass.
"Mr. Curtis!" she said urgently.
He made a sharp, despairing gesture. "I can't help it," he said. "You must go. For Heaven's sake, don't let him touch you, and burn the clothes you have on as soon as possible! I am going to set fire to this place immediately."
"Going to—set fire to it?" She stared at him in surprise, still scarcely understanding.
"The poor chap is dead," he said. "It's the only thing to do."
She turned back to the face upon the pillow with its staring, sightless eyes. She raised a pitying hand to close them, but Curtis intervened.
He drew her to her feet. "Go!" he said. "Go! Keep Mercer away, that's all!"
She heard the jingling of a horse's bit and knew that the rider was very near. Mechanically almost, she turned from the place of death and went to meet him.
He was off his horse and striding for the entrance when she encountered him. The starlight on his face showed it livid and terrible. At sight of her he stopped short.
"Are you mad?" he said.
They were the identical words that Curtis had used; but his voice, hoarse, unnatural, told her that he was in a dangerous mood.
She backed away from him. "Don't come near me!" she said quickly. "He—he is just dead. And I have been with him."
"He?" he flung at her furiously, and she knew by his tone that he suspected the truth.
She tried to answer him steadily, but her strength was beginning to fail her. The long strain was telling upon her at last. She was uncertain of herself.
"It—was Robin Wentworth," she said.
He took a swift stride towards her. His face was convulsed with passion. "You came here to see that soddened cur?" he said.
She shrank away from him. The tempest of his anger overwhelmed her. She could not stand against it. For the first time she quailed.
"I have seen him," she said. "And he is dead. Ah, don't—don't touch me!"
He paid no attention to her cry. He seized her by the shoulders and almost swung her from his path.
"It would have been better for you," he said between his teeth, "if he had died before you got here. You have begun to repent already, and you'll go on repenting for the rest of your life."
"What are you going to do?" she cried, seeing him turn. "Brett, don't go in there! Don't! Don't! You must not! You shall not!"
In a frenzy of fear she threw herself upon him, struggling with all her puny strength to hold him back.
"I tell you he is dead!" she gasped. "Why do you want to go in?"
"I am going to see for myself," he said stubbornly, putting her away.
"No!" she cried. "No!"
His eyes gleamed red with a savage fury as she clung to him afresh. He caught her wrists, forcing her backwards.
"I don't believe he is dead!" he snarled.
"He is! He is! Mr. Curtis told me so."
"If he isn't, I'll murder him!" Brett Mercer vowed, and flung her fiercely from him.
She fell with violence and lay half-stunned, while he, blinded with rage, possessed by devils, strode forward into that silent place, leaving her prone.
She thought later that she must have fainted, for the next thing she knew—and it must have been after the passage of several minutes—was Mercer kneeling beside her and lifting her. His touch was perfectly gentle, but she dared not look into his face. She cowered in his arms in mortal fear. He had crushed her at last.
"Have I hurt you?" he said.
She did not answer. Her voice was gone. She was as powerless as an infant. He raised her and bore her steadily away.
When he paused finally, it was to speak to Beelzebub, who was holding the horses. And then, without a word to her, he lifted her up on to a saddle, and mounted himself behind her. She lay against his breast as one dazed, incapable of speech or action. And so, with his arm about her, moving slowly through a world of shadows, they began the long, long journey back.
They travelled so for the greater part of the night, and during the whole of that time Mercer never uttered a word. The horse he rode was jaded, and he did not press it. Beelzebub, with the other two, rode far ahead.
It was still dark when at last they turned in to the Home Farm, and, still in that awful silence, Mercer dismounted and lifted his wife to the ground.
He set her on her feet, but her limbs trembled so much that she could scarcely stand. He kept his arm around her, and led her into the house.
He took her to her room and left her there; but in a few minutes he returned with food on a tray which he set before her without raising his eyes, and again departed. She did not see him again for many hours.
From sheer exhaustion she slept at last, but her sleep was broken and unrefreshing. She turned and tossed, dozing and waking in utter weariness of mind and body till the day was far advanced. Finally, too restless to lie any longer, she arose and dressed.
The sound of voices took her to her window before she left her room, and she saw her husband on horseback with Curtis standing by his side. A sense of relief shot through her at sight of the latter. She had come to rely upon him more than she knew. While she watched, Mercer raised his bridle and rode slowly away without a backward glance. And again she was conscious of relief.
Curtis stood looking after him for a few seconds, then turned and entered the house.
She met him in the passage outside her room. He greeted her gravely.
"I was just coming to see if I could do anything for you," he said.
"Thank you," she answered nervously. "I am better now. Where has my husband gone?"
He did not answer her immediately. He turned aside to the room in which she generally sat, standing back for her to pass him. "I have something to say to you," he said.
She glanced at him anxiously as she took the chair he offered her.
"In the first place," he said, "you will be wise if you keep absolutely quiet for the next few days. There will be nothing to disturb you. Mercer is not returning at present. He has left you in my charge."
"Oh, why?" she said.
Her hands were locked together. She had begun to tremble from head to foot.
Curtis was watching her quietly.
"I think," he said, "that he is better away from you for a time, and he agrees with me."
"Why?" she said again, lifting her piteous eyes. "Is he so angry with me?"
"With you? No. He has come to his senses in that respect. But he is not in a particularly safe mood, and he knows it. He has gone to fight it out by himself."
Curtis paused, but Sybil did not speak. Her attitude had relaxed. He read unmistakble relief in every line.
"Well, now," he said deliberately, "I am going to tell you the exact truth of this business, as Mercer himself has told it to me."
"He wishes me to know it?" she asked quickly.
"He is willing that I should tell you," Curtis answered. "In fact, until he saw me to-day he believed that you knew it already. That was the primary cause of his savagery last night. You have probably formed a very shrewd suspicion of what happened, but it is better for you to know things as they actually stand. If it makes you hate him—well, it's no more than he deserves."
"Ah, but I have to live with him," she broke in, with sudden passion. "It is easy for you to talk of hating him, but I—I am his wife. I must go on living by his side, whatever I may feel."
"Yes, I know," Curtis said. "But it won't make it any easier for either of you to feel that there is this thing between you. Even he sees that. You can't forgive him if you don't know what he has done."
"Then why doesn't he tell me himself?" she said.
"Because," Curtis answered, looking at her steadily, "it will be easier for you to hear it from me. He saw that, too."
She could not deny it, but for some reason it hurt her to hear him say so. She had a feeling that it was to Curtis's insistence, rather than to her husband's consideration, that she owed this present respite.
"I will listen to you, then," she said.
Curtis began to walk up and down the room.
"First, with regard to Wentworth," he said. "There was a time once when he occupied very much the position that I now hold. He was Mercer's right-hand man. But he took to drink, and that did for him. I am afraid he was never very sound. Anyhow, Mercer gave him up, and he disappeared.
"After he had gone, after I took his place, we found out one or two things he had done which might have landed him in prison if Mercer had followed them up. However, the man was gone, and it didn't seem worth while to track him. It was not till afterwards that we heard he was at Bowker Creek, and Mercer was then on the point of starting for England, and decided to leave him alone.
"It's a poor place—Bowker Creek. He had got a job there as boundary rider. I suppose he counted on the shearing season to set him up. But he wasn't the sort of chap who ever gets on. And when Mercer met you on his way out from the old country it was something of a shock to him to hear that you were on your way to marry Robin Wentworth.
"Of course, he ought to have told you the truth, but instead of that he made up his mind to take the business into his own hands and marry you himself. He cabled from Colombo to Wentworth to wait for him at Bowker Creek, hinted that if he went to the coast he would have him arrested, and said something vague about coming to an understanding which induced Wentworth to obey orders.
"Then he came straight here and pressed on to Rollandstown, taking Beelzebub with him to show him the short cuts. It's a hard day's ride in any case. He reached Bowker Creek the day after, and had it out with Wentworth. The man had been drinking, was unreasonable, furious, finally tried to shoot him.
"Well, you know Mercer. He won't stand that sort of thing. He thrashed him within an inch of his life, and then made him write and give you up. It was a despicable affair from start to finish. Mercer's only excuse was that Wentworth was not the sort of man to make any woman happy. Finally, when he had got what he wanted, Mercer left him, after swearing eternal vengeance on him if he ever came within reach of you. The rest you know."
Yes, Sybil knew the rest. She understood the whole story from beginning to end, realized with what unscrupulous ingenuity she had been trapped and wondered bitterly if she would ever endure her husband's presence again without the shuddering sense of nausea which now overcame her at the bare thought of him.
She sat in stony silence, till at last Curtis paused beside her.
"I want you to rest," he said. "I think, if you don't, the consequences may be serious."
She looked up at him uncomprehendingly.
"Come, Mrs. Mercer!" he said.
She shrank at the name.
"Don't call me that!" she said, and stumbled uncertainly to her feet. "I—I am going away."
He put a steadying hand on her shoulder.
"You can't," he said quietly. "You are not fit for it. Besides, there is nowhere for you to go to. But I will get Mrs. Stevens, the innkeeper's wife at Wallarroo, to come to you for a time. She is a good sort, you can count on her. As for Mercer, he will not return unless you—or I—send for him."
She shivered violently, uncontrollably.
"You will never send for him?"
"Never," he answered, "unless you need him."
She glanced around her wildly. Her eyes were hunted.
"Why do you say that?" she gasped.
"I think you know why I say it," said Curtis very steadily.
Her hands were clenched.
"No!" she cried back sharply. "No!"
Curtis was silent. There was deep compassion in his eyes.
She glanced around her wildly. Her eyes were on his eyes.
She shuddered again, shuddered from head to foot.
"If I thought that," she whispered, "if I thought that, I would——"
"Hush!" he interposed gently. "Don't say it! Go and lie down! You will see things differently by and bye."
She knew that he was right, and worn out, broken as she was, she moved to obey him. But before she reached the door her little strength was gone. She felt herself sinking swiftly into a silence that she hoped and even prayed was death. She did not know when Curtis lifted her.
During many days Sybil lay in her darkened room, facing, in weariness of body and bitterness of soul, the problem of life. She was not actually ill, but there were times when she longed intensely, passionately, for death. She was weak, physically and mentally, after the long strain. Courage and endurance had alike given way at last. She had no strength with which to face what lay before her.
So far as outward circumstances went, she was in good hands. Curtis watched over her with a care that never flagged, and the innkeeper's wife from Wallarroo, large and slow and patient, was her constant attendant. But neither of them could touch or in any way soothe the perpetual pain that throbbed night and day in the girl's heart, giving her no rest.
She left her bed at length after many days, but it was only to wander aimlessly about the house, lacking the energy to employ herself. Her nerves were quieter, but she still started at any sudden sound, and would sit as one listening yet dreading to hear. Her husband's name never passed her lips, and Curtis never made the vaguest reference to him. He knew that sooner or later a change would come, that the long suffering that lined her face must draw at last to a climax; but he would do nothing to hasten it. He believed that Nature would eventually find her own remedy.
But Nature is ever slow, and sometimes the wheel of life moves too quickly for her methods to take effect.
Sybil was sitting one day by an open window when Beelzebub dashed suddenly into view. He was on horseback, riding barebacked, and was evidently in a ferment of excitement. He bawled some incoherent words as he passed the window, words which Sybil could not distinguish, but which nevertheless sent a sharp sense of foreboding through her heart. Had he—or had he not—yelled something to her about "Boss"? She could not possibly have said, but the suspicion was sufficiently strong to rouse her to lean out of the window and try to catch something of what the boy was saying.
He had reached the yard, and had flung himself off the sweating animal. As she peered forth she caught sight of Curtis coming out of the stable. Beelzebub saw him too, and broke out afresh with his wild cry. This time, straining her ears to listen, she caught the words, all jumbled together though they were.
"Boss got smallpox!"
She saw Curtis stop dead, and she wondered if his heart, like hers, had ceased to beat. The next instant he moved forward, and for the first time she saw him deliberately punch the gesticulating negro's woolly head. Beelzebub cried out like a whipped dog and slunk back. Then, very calmly, Curtis took him by the scruff of his neck, and began to question him.
Sybil stood, gripping the curtain, and watched it all as one watches a scene on the stage. Somehow, though she knew herself to be vitally concerned, she felt no agitation. It was as if the blood had ceased to run in her veins.
At length she saw Curtis release the palpitating Beelzebub, and turn towards the house. Quite calmly she also turned.
They met in the passage.
"You needn't trouble to keep it from me," she said. "I know."
He gave her a keen look.
"I am going to him at once," was all he said.
She stood quite still, facing him; and suddenly she was conscious of a great glow pulsing through her, as though some arrested force had been set free. She knew that her heart was beating again, strongly, steadily, fearlessly.
"I shall come with you," she said.
She saw his face change.
"I am sorry," he said, "but that is out of the question. You must know it."
She answered him instantly, unhesitatingly, with some of the old, quick spirit that had won Brett Mercer's heart.
"There you are wrong. I know it to be the only thing possible for me to do."
Curtis looked at her for a second as if he scarcely knew her, and then abruptly abandoned the argument.
"I will not be responsible," he said, turning aside.
And she answered him unfalteringly:
"I will take the responsibility."
Slowly Brett Mercer raised himself and tried to peer through his swollen eyelids at the door.
"Don't bring any woman here!" he mumbled.
The effort to see was fruitless. He sank back, blind and tortured, upon the pillow. He had been taken ill at one of his own outlying farms, and here he had lain for days—a giant bereft of his strength, waiting for death.
His only attendant was a farm-hand who had had the disease, but knew nothing of its treatment, who was, moreover, afraid to go near him.
Curtis took in the whole situation at a glance as he bent over him.
"Why didn't you send for me?" he said.
"That you?" gasped Mercer. "Man, I'm in hell! Can't you give me something to put me out of my misery?"
Curtis was already at work over him.
"No," he said briefly. "I'm going to pull you through. You're wanted."
"You lie!" gasped back Mercer, and said no more.
Some hours after, starting suddenly from fevered sleep, he asked an abrupt question:
"Does my wife know?"
"Yes, she knows," Curtis answered.
He flung his arms wide with a bitter gesture. "She'll soon be free," he said.
"Not if I know it," said Curtis, in his quiet, unemotional style.
"You can't make me live against my will," muttered Mercer.
"Don't talk like a fool!" responded Curtis.
Late that night a hand that was not Curtis's smoothed the sick man's pillow, and presently gave him nourishment. He noticed the difference instantly, though he could not open his eyes; but he said nothing at the time, and she fancied he did not know her.
But presently, when she thought him sleeping, he spoke.
"When did you come?"
Even then she was not sure that he was in his right mind. His face was so swollen and disfigured that it told her nothing. She answered him very softly:
"I came with Mr. Curtis."
"Why?" That one word told her that he was in full possession of his senses. He moved his head to and fro on the pillow as one vainly seeking rest. "Did you want to see me in hell?" he questioned harshly.
She leaned towards him. She was sitting by his bed.
"No," she said, speaking under her breath. "I came because—because it was the only way out—for us both."
"What?" he said, and the old impatient frown drew his forehead. "You came to see me die, then?"
"I came," she answered, "to try and make you live."
He drew a breath that was a groan.
"You won't succeed," he said.
"Why not?" she asked.
Again feverishly he moved his head, and she smoothed his pillow afresh with hands that trembled.
"Don't touch me!" he said sharply. "What was Curtis dreaming of to bring you here?"
"Mr. Curtis couldn't help it," she answered, with more assurance. "I came." And then after a moment, "Are you—sorry—I came?"
"Yes," he muttered.
"Oh, why?" she said.
"I would sooner die—without you looking on," he said, forcing out his words through set teeth.
"Oh, why?" she said again. "Don't you believe—can't you believe—that I want you to live?"
"No," he groaned.
"Not if I swear it?" she asked, her voice sunk very low.
"No!" He flung the word with something of his ancient ferocity. She was torturing him past endurance. He even madly hoped that he could scare her away.
But Sybil made no move to go. She sat quite still for a few seconds. Then slowly she went down upon her knees beside his pillow.
"Brett," she said, and he felt her breath quick and tremulous upon his face as she spoke, "you may refuse to believe what I say. But—I can convince you without words."
And before he knew her meaning, she had pressed her quivering lips to his.
He recoiled, with an anguished sound that was half of protest and half of unutterable pain.
"Do you want to die too?" he said. "Or don't you know the risk?"
"Yes, I know it," she answered. "I know it," and in her voice was such a thrill of passion as he had never heard or thought to hear from her. "But I know this, too, and I mean that you shall know it. My life is nothing to me—do you understand?—nothing, unless you share it. Now—will you believe me?"
Yes, he believed her then. He had no choice. The knowledge was as a sword cutting its way straight to his heart. He tried to answer her, tried desperately hard, because he knew that she was waiting for him to speak, that his silence would hurt her who from that day forward he would never hurt again.
But no words would come. He could not force his utterance. The power of speech was gone from him. He turned his face away from her in choking tears.
And Sybil knew that the victory was hers. Those tears were more to her than words. She knew that he would live—if he could—for her sake.
It was more than six weeks later that Brett Mercer and his wife turned in at the Home Farm, as they had turned in on that memorable night that he had brought his bride from Wallarroo.
Now, as then, Curtis was ready for them in the open doorway, and Beelzebub advanced grinning to take the horses. But there the resemblance ceased. The woman who entered with her husband leaning on her shoulder was no nervous, shrinking stranger, but a wife entering her home with gladness, bearing her burden with rejoicing. The woman from Wallarroo looked at her with a doubtful sort of sympathy. She also looked at the gaunt, bowed man who accompanied her, and questioned with herself if this were indeed Brett Mercer.
Brett Mercer it undoubtedly was, nor could she have said, save for his slow, stooping gait, wherein lay the change that so amazed her.
Perhaps it was more apparent in Sybil than in the man himself as she raised her face on entering, and murmured:
"So good to get home again, isn't it, dear?"
He did not speak in answer. He scarcely spoke at all that night. But his silence satisfied her.
It was not till the following morning that he stretched out a great, bony hand to her as she waited on him, and drew her down to his side.
"There has been enough of this," he said, with a touch of his old imperiousness. "You have worked too hard already, harder than I ever meant you to work. You are to take a rest, and get strong."
She uttered her gay little laugh.
"My dearest Brett, I am strong."
He lay staring at her in his most direct, disconcerting fashion. She endured his look for a moment, and then averted her eyes. She would have risen, but he prevented her.
"Sybil!" he said abruptly.
"Yes?" she answered, with her head bent.
"Are you afraid of me?" he said.
She shook her head instantly.
"Don't be absurd!"
"Then look at me!" he said.
She raised her eyes slowly, not very willingly. But, having raised them, she kept them so, for there was that in his look which no longer made her shy.
He made a slight gesture towards her that was rather of invitation than insistence.
"Don't you think I'm nearly well enough to be let into the secret?" he said.
His action, his tone, above all his look, broke down the last of the barrier between them. She went into his arms with a shaky little laugh, and hid her face against him.
"I would have told you long ago," she whispered, "only somehow—I couldn't. Besides, I was so sure that you knew."
"Oh, yes, I knew," said Mercer. "Curtis saw to that; literally flayed me with it till I took his advice and cleared out. You know, I've often wondered since if it was that that made you want me, after all."
She shook her head, still with her face against his breast.
"No, dear, it wasn't. It—it made things worse at first. It was only when I heard you were ill that—that I found—quite suddenly—that I couldn't possibly go on without you. It was as if—as if something bound round my heart had suddenly given way, and I could breathe again. When I saw you I knew how terribly I wanted you."
"And that was how you came to kiss me with that loathsome disease upon me?" he whispered. "That was what made you follow me down to hell to bring me back?"
She turned her face upwards. Her eyes were shining.
"My dear," she said, and in her voice was a thrill like the first sweet notes of a bird in the dawning, "you don't need to ask me why did these things. For you know—you know. It was simply and only because I loved you."
"Heaven knows why," he said, as he bent to kiss her.
"Heavens knows," she answered, and softly laughed as she surrendered her lips to his.
The Secret Service Man
A TIGHT PLACE
"Shoulder to shoulder, boys! Give it 'em straight! There's no going back this journey." And the speaker slapped his thigh and laughed.
He was penned in a hot corner with a handful of grinning little Goorkhas, as ready and exultant as himself. He had no earthly business in that particular spot. But he had won his way there in a hand-to-hand combat, which had rendered that bit of ground the most desirable abiding-place on the face of the earth. And being there he meant to stay.
He was established with the inimitable effrontery of British insolence. He had pushed on through the dark, fired by the enthusiasm which is born of hard resistence. It had been no slight matter, but neither he nor his men were to be easily dismayed. Moreover, their patience had been severely tried for many tedious hours, and the removal of the curb had gone to their heads like wine.
Young Derrick Rose, war correspondent, was hot of head and ready of hand. He had a knack also of getting into tight places and extricating himself therefrom with amazing agility; which knack served to procure for him the admiration of his friends and the respect of his enemies. It was his first Frontier campaign, but it was not apparently destined to be his last, for he bore a charmed life. And he went his way with a cheery recklessness that seemed its own security.
On the present occasion he had planted himself, with a serene assumption of authority, at the head of a handful of Goorkhas who had been pressed forward too far by an over-zealous officer in the darkness, and had lost their leader in consequence.
Derrick had stumbled on the group and had forthwith taken upon himself to direct them to a position which, with a good deal of astuteness, he had marked out in his own mind earlier in the day as a desirable acquisition.
There had been a hand-to-hand scuffle in the darkness, and then the tribesmen had fallen back, believing themselves overwhelmed by superior numbers.
Derrick and his Goorkhas had promptly taken possession of the rocky eminence which was the object of their desire, and now prepared, with commendable determination, to maintain themselves at the post thus captured; an impossible feat in consideration of the paucity of their numbers, which fact a wily enemy had already begun to suspect.
That the main force could by any means fail them was a possibility over which for long neither Derrick nor his followers wasted a thought. Nevertheless half-an-hour of mad turmoil passed, and no help came.
Derrick charitably set down its non-appearance to ignorance of his state and whereabouts, and he began at length to wonder within himself how the place was to be defended throughout the night. Retreat he would not think of, for he was game to the finger-tips. But even he could not fail to see that, when the moon rose, he and his followers would be in a very tight fix.
"Confound their caution! What are they thinking of?" he muttered savagely. "If they only came straight ahead they would be bound to find us."
And then a yelling crowd of dim figures breasted the rocks and dashed forward with the force of a hurricane upon the little body of Goorkhas. In a second Derrick was fighting in the dark with mad enthusiasm for bare foothold, and shouting at the top of his voice exhortations to his men to keep together.
It was a desperate struggle, but once more the little party of invaders held their ground. And Derrick, yelling encouragement to his friends and defiance to his foes, became vaguely conscious of a new element in the strife.
Someone, not a Goorkha, was standing beside him, fighting as he fought, but in grim silence.
Derrick wondered considerably, but was too busy to ask questions. Only when he missed his footing, and a strong hand shot out and dragged him up, his wonder turned to admiration. Here was evidently a mighty fighting-man!
The tribesmen drew off at length baffled, to wait for the moon to rise. They were pretty sure of their prey despite the determined resistance they had encountered. They did not know of the new force that had come to strengthen that forsaken little knot of men. Had they known, their estimate of the task before them would have undergone a very material amendment.
"Hullo!" said Derrick, rubbing his sleeve across his forehead. "Where on earth did you spring from?"
A steady voice answered him out of the gloom. "I came up from the valley. The troops are halted at the entrance of the ravine. There will be no further advance to-night."
Derrick swore a sudden, fierce oath.
"No further advance! Do you mean that? Then Carlyon doesn't know we are here."
"Oh, yes, he knows," answered the man indifferently. "But he says very reasonably that he didn't order you to come up here, and he can't sacrifice twice the number of men here to get you down again. Unfortunate for you, of course; but we all have to swallow bad luck at one time or another. Make the best of it!"
Derrick swore again with less violence and greater resolution.
"And who, in wonder, may you be?" he broke off to enquire. "I'm a war correspondent myself."
There was a vein of humour in the quiet reply.
"Oh, I'm a non-combatant, too. It's always the non-combatants that do the work. Have you got a revolver? Good! Any cartridges? That's right. Now, look here, it's out of the question to remain in this place till moonrise."
"I won't go back," said Derrick doggedly. "I'll see Carlyon hang first."
"Quite right. I wasn't going to propose that. It's impossible, in the first place. Perhaps it is only fair to Colonel Carlyon to mention that he had no notion that there is anything so important as a newspaper man at the head of this expedition. It's a detail, of course. Still, if you get through, it is just as well that you should know the rights of the case."
Derrick broke into an involuntary laugh.
"Did Carlyon get you to come and tell me so?" He turned and peered through the darkness at the man beside him. "You never got up here alone?" he said incredulously.
"Oh, yes. It wasn't difficult. I was guided by the noise you made. How many men have you?"
"Ten or twelve; not more—all Goorkhas."
"Good! We must quit this place at once. It will be a death-trap when the moon rises. There are some boulders higher up, away to the right. We can occupy them till morning and fight back to back if they try to rush us. There ought to be plenty of shelter among those rocks."
The man's cool speech caught Derrick's fancy. He spoke as quietly as if he were sitting at an English dinner-table.
"You had better take command," said Derrick.
"No, thanks; you are going to pull this through. Are you ready to move? Pass the word to the men! And then all together! It is now or never!"
A few seconds later they were stumbling in an indistinguishable mass towards the haven indicated by the latest comer. It was a difficult scramble, not the least difficult part of it being the task of keeping in touch with each other. But Derrick's spirits returned at a bound with this further adventure, and he began to rejoice somewhat prematurely in his triumph over Carlyon's caution.
The man who had come to his assistance kept at his elbow throughout the climb. Not a word was spoken. The men moved like cats through the dimness. Below them was a confused din of rifle-firing. Their advance had evidently not been detected.
"Silly owls! Wasting their ammunition!" murmured Derrick to the man beside him. He received no response. A warning hand closed with a grip on his elbow. And Derrick subsided.
When the moon rose, magnificent and glowing from behind the mountains, Derrick and his men looked down from a high perch on the hillside, and watched a furious party of tribesmen charge and occupy their abandoned position.
"Now, this is good!" said Derrick, and he was in the act of firing his revolver into the thick of the crowd below him when again the sinewy hand of his unknown friend checked him.
"Hold your fire, man!" the man said, in his quiet, unmoved voice. "You will want it presently."
But the stranger's hold tightened. He was standing in the shadow slightly behind Derrick.
"Wait!" he said. "They will find you soon enough. You are not in a position to take the offensive."
Derrick swung round with a restless word. And then he pulled up short. He was facing a tribesman, gaunt and tall, with odd, light eyes that glittered strangely in the moonlight. Derrick stared at the apparition, dumbfounded. After a pause the man took his hand from the correspondent's arm.
"Don't give the show away for want of a little caution!" he said. "There are your men to think of, remember. This is no picnic."
Derrick was still staring hard at the strange figure before him.
"I say," he said at length, "what in the name of wonder are you?"
He heard a faint, contemptuous laugh. The unknown drew the end of his chuddah farther across his face.
"You are marvellously guileless for a war correspondent," he said. And he turned on his heel and stalked away into the shadows.
Derrick stood gazing after him in stupefaction.
"A Secret Service agent, is he?" he murmured at length to himself. "By Jove! What a marvellous fake! On Carlyon's business, I suppose. Confound Carlyon! I'll tell him what I think of him if I come through this all right."
Carlyon, in times of peace, was one of Derrick Rose's most intimate friends. That Carlyon, upon whom he relied as upon a tower of strength should fail him at such a pinch as this, and for motives of caution alone, was a circumstance so preposterous and unheard-of that Derrick's credulity was hardly equal to the strain.
He began to wonder if this stranger who had guided him into safety, from what he now realized to be a positive death-trap, had given him a wholly unexaggerated account of Carlyon's attitude.
He waited awhile, thinking the matter over with rising indignation; and at length, as the noise below him subsided, he moved from his shelter to find his informant. It was a rash thing to do, but prudence was not his strong point. Moreover, the Secret Service man had aroused his curiosity. He wanted to see more of this fellow. So, with an indifference to danger, foolhardy, though too genuine to be contemptible, he strolled across an unprotected space of moonlight to join him.
Two seconds later he was lying on his face, struggling with the futile, convulsive effort of a stricken man to recover his footing. And even while he struggled, he lost consciousness.
He awoke at length as one awakes from a troublous dream, and looked about him with a dazed consciousness of great tumult.
The space in which he lay was no longer wide and empty. The white world was peopled with demons that leapt and surged around his prostrate body. And someone, a man in white, with naked, uplifted arms, stood above him and quelled the tumult.
Derrick saw it all, heard the mad yells lessen and die down, watched with a dumb amazement the melting away of the fierce crowd.
And then the man who stood over him turned suddenly and, kneeling, lifted him from his prostrate position. It was a man in native dress whose eyes held for Derrick an odd, half-familiar fascination.
Where had he met those eyes before? Ah, he remembered. It was the Secret Service man. And that was strange, too. For Carlyon always scoffed at Secret Service men. Still, this was a small matter which, no doubt, would right itself. Everything looked a little peculiar and distorted on this night of wonders. Carlyon himself had sadly degenerated in his opinion since the morning. Bother Carlyon!
Suddenly a great sigh burst from Derrick, and the moonlight broke up into tiny, dazzling fragments. The darkness was full of them, alive with them.
"Fire-flies!" gasped Derrick, and began to cough, at first slowly, with pauses for breath, then quickly, spasmodically, convulsively. For breath had finally failed him.
The arm behind him raised him with the steady strength of iron muscles, and a hand pressed his chest. But the coughing did not cease. It was the anguished strife of wounded Nature to assert her damaged authority; the wild, last effort to clutch and hold fast the elusive torch that, flickering in the midst of darkness, is called life—the one priceless possession of our little mortal treasury.
And while he coughed and fought with the demon of suffocation Derrick was strongly aware of the eyes that watched him, burning like two brilliant blue points out of the darkness. Wonderful eyes! Steady, strong, unflinching. The eyes of a friend—a true friend—not such an one as Carlyon—Carlyon who had failed him.
A thick, unexplored darkness fell upon Derrick as he thought of Carlyon's desertion; and he forgot at length to wonder at the strangeness of the night.
A BROKEN FRIENDSHIP
By and bye, when the light dawned in his eyes, Derrick began to dream of many strange things.
But he came back at last out of the shadows, weak and faint and weary. And then he found that he was in hospital and had been there for weeks.
The discovery was rather staggering. Somehow he had never quite rid himself of the impression that he was still lying on the great, rocky boulder where the Secret Service man had so magically scattered his enemies. But as life and full consciousness returned to him he became aware that this had for weeks been no more than a fevered illusion.
When he was at length fairly out of danger he was dispatched southwards on the first stage of the homeward journey.
He sailed for Home with his resentment against Carlyon yet strong upon him. He had no parents. In his reckless young days, during the last three years of his minority, Carlyon had been this boy's guardian. But Derrick had been his own master for nearly four years, and the conscious joy of independence was yet dear to his heart. He had no settled home of his own, but he had plenty of money. And that, after all, was the essential thing.
He had been brought up with the daughter of a clergyman in whose home he had lived all his early life. The two had grown up together in close companionship. They had been comrades all their lives.
Only of recent years, at the end of an uneventful college career, had Derrick awakened to the astounding fact that Averil Eversley, his little playmate, was a maiden sweet and comely whom he wanted badly for his very own. She was three years younger than himself, but she had always taken the lead in all their exploits.
Derrick discovered for the first time that this was not a proper state of affairs. He had tried, not over tactfully, to show her that man was, after all, the superior animal. Averil had first stared at his efforts, and then laughed with uncontrollable mirth.
Then Derrick had set to work with splendid energy, and achieved in two years a certain amount of literary success. Averil had praised him for this; which reward of merit had so turned his head that he had at once clumsily proposed to her. Averil had not laughed at that. She had rejected him instantly, with so severe a scolding that Derrick had lost his temper, and gone away to sulk. Later, he had turned his attention again to journalistic work, hoping thereby to recover favour.
Then, and this had brought him to the previous winter, he had returned to find Averil going in for a little innocent hero-worship on her own account. And Carlyon, his own particular friend and adviser, had happened to be the hero.
Whether Carlyon were aware of the state of affairs or not, Derrick in his wrath had not stopped to enquire. He had simply and blindly gone direct to the attack, with the result that Averil had been deeply and irreconcilably offended, and Carlyon had so nearly kicked him for making such a fool of himself that Derrick had retired in disgust from the fray, had clamoured for and, with infinite difficulty, obtained a post as war-correspondent in the ensuing Frontier campaign, and had departed on his adventurous way, sulking hard.
Later, Carlyon had sought him out, had shaken hands with him, called him an impetuous young ass, and had enjoined him to stick to himself during the expedition in which Derrick was thus recklessly determined to take part. They had, in fact, been entirely reconciled, avoiding by mutual consent the delicate ground of their dispute. Carlyon was a man of considerable reputation on the Frontier, and Derrick Rose was secretly proud of the friendship that existed between them.
Now, however, the friendship had split to its very foundation. Carlyon had failed him when life itself had been in the balance.
Impetuous as he was, Derrick was not one to forgive quickly so gross an injury as this. He did not think, moreover, that Averil herself would continue to offer homage before so obvious a piece of clay as her idol had proved himself to be. Derrick was beginning to apply to Carlyon the most odious of all epithets—that of coward.
He had set his heart upon a reconciliation with Averil, and earnestly he hoped she would see the matter with his eyes.
"So it was the Secret Service man who saved your life," said Averil, with flushed cheeks. "Really, Dick, how splendid of him!"
"Finest chap I ever saw!" declared Derrick. "He looked about eight feet high in native dress. I shall have to find that man some day, and tell him what I think of him."
"Yes, indeed!" agreed Averil. "I expect, you know, it was really Colonel Carlyon who sent him."
"Being too great a—strategist to advance himself," said Derrick.
"But he didn't know you were at the head of the Goorkhas," Averil reminded him.
"Perhaps not," said Derrick. "But he knew I was there. And, putting me out of the question altogether, what can you think of an officer who will coolly leave a party of his men to be slaughtered like sheep in a butcher's yard because the poor beggars happen to have got into a tight place?"
Derrick spoke with strong indignation, and Averil was silent awhile. Presently, however, she spoke again, slowly.
"I can't help thinking, Dick," she said, "that there is an explanation somewhere. We ought not—it would not be fair—to say Colonel Carlyon acted unworthily before he has had a chance of justifying himself."
There was justice in this remark. Derrick, who was lying at the girl's feet on the hearthrug in the Rectory drawing-room, reached up a bony hand and took possession of one of hers. For Averil had received him with a warmer welcome than he had deemed possible in his most sanguine moments, and he was very happy in consequence.
"All right," he said equably. "We'll shunt Carlyon for a bit, and talk about ourselves. Shall we?"
Averil drew the bony hand on to her lap and looked at it critically.
"Poor old boy!" she said. "It is thin."
Derrick drew himself up to a sitting position. There was an air of mastery about him as he raised a determined face to hers.
"Averil," he said suddenly, "you aren't going to send me to the right-about again, are you?"
"Oh, don't let us squabble on your first night!'" said Averil hastily.
"Squabble!" the boy exclaimed, springing to his feet vigorously. "Do you call—that—squabbling?"
Averil stood up, too, tall and straight, and slightly defiant.
"I don't want you to go away, Dick," she said, "if you can stay and behave nicely. I thought it was horribly selfish of you to go off as you did last winter. I think so still. If you had got killed, I should have been very—very—"
"What?" demanded Derrick impatiently. "Sorry? Angry—what?"
"Angry," said Averil, with great decision. "I should never have forgiven you. I am not sure that I shall, as it is."
Derrick uttered a sudden passionate laugh. Then abruptly his mood changed. He held out his hands to her.
"Averil!" he said. "Averil! Can't you see how I want you—how I love you? Why do you treat me like this? I've thought about you, dreamt about you, day after day, night after night, ever since I went away. You thought it beastly selfish of me to go. But it hasn't been such fun, after all. All the weeks I was in hospital I felt sick for the sight of you. It was worse than starvation. Can't you see what it is to me? Can't you see that I—I worship you?"
"My dear Dick!" Averil put her hands into his, but her gesture was one of restraint. "You mustn't talk so wildly," she said. "And, dear boy, do try not to be quite so impulsive—so headstrong. You know, you—you—"
She broke off. Derrick, with a set jaw and burning eyes, was drawing her to him, strongly, irresistibly.
"Derrick!" she said, with a flash of anger.
"I can't help it!" Derrick said passionately. "I've been counting on this, living for this. Averil I—I—you can call me mad if you like, but if you send me away again—I believe I shall shoot myself."
"What nonsense!" exclaimed Averil, half-angry, half-scornful.
He dropped her hands and stood quite still for the space of a few seconds, his face white and twitching. And then, to her utter amazement, he sank heavily into a chair and covered his face with his hands.
"Dick!" she ejaculated.
Silence followed the word, a breathless silence. Derrick sat perfectly motionless, his fingers gripping his hair. At last Averil moved up to him, a little frightened by his stillness, and very intensely compassionate. She bent and touched his shoulder.
"Dick!" she said. "Dick! Don't!"
He stirred under her hand, but did not raise his head. "Get away, Averil!" he muttered. "You don't understand."
And quite suddenly Averil was transported back to the far, receding schooldays, when Derrick had got into trouble for smoking his first cigar. The memory unconsciously influenced her speech.
"But, Dick," she said persuasively, "don't you think you are the least bit in the world unreasonable? It's true I don't quite understand. We've been such splendid chums all our lives, I really don't see why we should begin to be anything different now. Besides, Dick"—there was appeal in her voice—"I don't truly want to get married. It seems such a silly thing to go and do when one had such really jolly times without. It does spoil things so."
Derrick sat up. He was still absurdly boyish, despite his four-and-twenty years.
"Look here, Averil!" he said doggedly. "If you won't have me, I'm not going to hang about after you like a tame monkey. It's going to be one thing or the other. I've made a big enough fool of myself over you. We can't be chums, as you call it"—a passionate ring crept into his voice—"when all the while you're holding me off at arm's length as if I'd got the plague. So"—rising abruptly and facing her—"which is it to be?"
Averil looked at him. His face was still white, but his lips were sternly compressed. He was weak no longer. She was conscious of a sudden thrill of admiration banishing her pity. After all, was he indeed only a boy? He scarcely seemed so at that moment. He was, moreover, straight and handsome despite his gaunt appearance.
"Answer me, Averil!" he said with determination.
But Averil had no answer ready. She stood silent.
Derrick laid his hand on her arm. It was a light touch, but somehow it conveyed to her the fact that he was holding himself in with a tighter rein than ever before.
"Don't torture me!" he said, speaking quickly, nervously. "Tell me either to stay or—go!" His voice dropped on the last word, and for a second Averil saw the torture on his face.
It was too much for her resolution. All her life she had been this boy's chosen companion and confidante. She felt she could not turn from him now in his distress, and deliberately break his heart. Yet for one tumultuous second she battled with her impulse. Then—she yielded. Somehow that look in Derrick's eyes compelled her.
She put her hands on his shoulders.
"Dick—stay!" she said.
His arms closed round her in a second. "You mean—" he said, under his breath.
"Yes, Dick," she answered bravely, "I do mean. Dear boy, don't ever look like that again! You have hurt me horribly."
Derrick turned her face up to his own and kissed her repeatedly and passionately.
"You shall never regret it, my darling," he said. "You have turned my world into a paradise. I will do the same for yours."
"It doesn't take much to make me happy," Averil said, leaning her forehead against his shoulder. "I hope you will be a kind master, Dick, and let me have my own way sometimes."
"Master?" scoffed Derrick, kissing her hair. "You know you can lead me by the nose from world's end to world's end."
"I wonder," said Averil, with a little sigh. "Do you know, Dick, I'm not quite sure of that."
"What!" said Derrick softly. "Not—quite—sure!"
"Not when you look as you did thirty seconds ago," Averil explained. "Never mind, dear old boy! I'm glad you can look like that, though, mind, you must never, never do it again if you live to be a hundred."
She looked up at him suddenly and clasped her hands behind his neck. "You do love me, don't you, Dick?" she said.
"My darling, I worship you!" Derrick answered very solemnly.
And Averil drew his head down with a quivering smile and kissed him on the lips.
CARLYON DEFENDS HIMSELF
"Ah, Derrick! I thought I could not be mistaken."
Derrick turned swiftly at the touch of a hand on his shoulder, and nearly tumbled into the roadway. He had been sauntering somewhat aimlessly down the Strand till pulled up in this rather summary fashion. He now found himself staring at a tall man who had come up behind him—a man with a lined face and drooping eyelids, and a settled weariness about his whole demeanour which, somehow, conveyed the impression that, in his opinion, at least, there was nothing on earth worth striving for.
Derrick recovered his balance and stood still before him. Speech, however, quite unexpectedly failed him. The quiet greeting had scattered his ideas momentarily.
The hand that had touched his shoulder was deliberately transferred to his elbow.
"Come!" said his acquaintance, smiling a little. "We are blocking the gangway. I am staying at the Grand. If you are at liberty you might dine with me. By the way, how are you, old fellow?"
He spoke very quietly and wholly without affectation. There was a touch of tenderness in his last sentence that quite restored Derrick's faculties.
He shook his arm free from the other's hand with a vehemence of action that was unmistakably hostile.
"No, thanks, Colonel Carlyon!" he said, speaking fast and feverishly. "If I were starving, I wouldn't accept hospitality from you!"
"Don't be a fool!" said Carlyon.
His tone was still quiet, but it was also stern. He pushed a determined hand through Derrick's arm. "If you won't come my way," he said, "I shall come yours."
Derrick swore under his breath. But he yielded. "Very well," he said aloud. "I'll come. But I swear I won't touch anything."
"You needn't swear," said Carlyon; "it's unnecessary."
And Derrick bit his lip nearly through, being exasperated. He did not, however, resist the compelling hand a second time, realizing the futility of such a proceeding.
So in dead silence they reached the Grand and entered. Then Carlyon spoke again.
"Come up to my room first!" he said.
Derrick went with him unprotesting.
In his own room Carlyon turned round and took him by the shoulders. "Now," he said, "are you ill or merely sulky? Just tell me which, and I shall know how to treat you!"
"It's no thanks to you I'm not dead!" exclaimed Derrick stormily. "I didn't want to meet you, but, by Heaven, since I have, and since you have forced an interview upon me, I'll go ahead and tell you what I think of you."
Carlyon turned away from him and sat down. "Do, by all means," he said, "if it will get you into a healthier frame of mind!"
But Derrick's flow of eloquence unexpectedly failed him at this juncture, and he stood awkwardly silent.
Carlyon turned round at last and looked at him. "Sit down, Dick," he said patiently, "and stop being an ass! I'm a difficult man to quarrel with, as you know. So sit down and state your grievance, and have done with it!"
"You know very well what's wrong!" Derrick burst out fiercely, beginning to prowl to and fro.
"Do I?" said Carlyon. He got up deliberately and intercepted Derrick. "Just stop tramping," he said, with sudden sternness, "and listen to me! You have your wound alone to thank for keeping you out of the worst mess you ever got into. If you hadn't gone back in a hospital truck, you would have gone back under escort. Do you understand that?"
"Why?" flashed Derrick.
"Why?" echoed Carlyon, striking him abruptly on the shoulder. "Tell me your own opinion of a hot-headed, meddling young fool who not only got into mischief himself at a most critical moment, but led half-a-score of valuable men into what was practically a death-trap, for the sake of, I suppose he would call it, an hour's sport. On my soul, Derrick," he ended, with a species of quiet vigour that carried considerable weight behind it, "if you weren't such a skeleton I'd give you a sound thrashing for your sins. As it is, you will be wise to get off that high horse of yours and take a back seat. I never have put up with this sort of thing from you. And I never mean to."
Derrick had no answer ready. He stood still, considering these things.
Colonel Carlyon turned his back on him and cut the end of a cigar. "Do you grasp my meaning?" he enquired at length, as Derrick remained silent.
Derrick moved to a chair and sat down. Somehow Carlyon had taken the backbone out of his indignation. He spoke at last, but without anger. "Even if it were as you say," he said, "I don't consider you treated me decently."
Carlyon suddenly laughed. "Even if by some odd chance I have actually spoken the truth," he said, "I shall not, and do not, feel called upon to justify my action for your benefit."
"I think you owe me that," Derrick said quickly.
"I disagree with you," Carlyon rejoined. "I owe you nothing whatever except the aforementioned thrashing which must, unfortunately, under the circumstances, remain a debt for the present."
Derrick leant forward suddenly
"Stop rotting, Carlyon!" he said, with impulsive earnestness. "I can't help talking seriously. You didn't know, surely, what a tight fix we were in? You couldn't have intended us to—to—die in the dark like that?"
"Intended!" said Carlyon sharply. "I never intended you to occupy that position at all, remember."
"Yes; but—since we were in that position, since—if you choose to put it so—I exceeded all bounds and intentions and took those splendid little Goorkhas into a death-trap; I may have been a headstrong, idiotic fool to do it; but, granted all that, you did not deliberately and knowingly leave us to be massacred? You couldn't have done actually that."
Carlyon laid his cigar-case on the table at Derrick's elbow, and lighted his own cigar with great deliberation.
"You may remember, Dick," he said quietly, after a pause, "that once upon a time you wrote—and published—a book. It had its merits and it had its faults. But a fool of a critic took it into his head to give you a thorough slating. You were furious, weren't you? I remember giving you a bit of sound advice over that book. Probably you have forgotten it. But it chances to be one of the guiding principles of my life. It is this: Never answer your critics! Go straight ahead!"
"I remember," said Derrick. "Well?"
"Well," said Carlyon gravely, "that is what I have done all my life, what I mean to do now. You are in full possession of the facts of the case. You have defined my position fairly accurately. I did know you were in an impossible corner. I did know that you and the men with you were in all probability doomed. And—I did not think good to send a rescue. You do not understand the game of war. You merely went in for it for the sake of sport, I for the sake of the stakes. There is a difference. More than that I do not mean to say."
He sat down opposite Derrick as he ended and began to smoke with an air of indifference. But his eyes were on the boy's face. They had been close friends for years.
Derrick still sat forward. He was staring at the ground heavily, silently Carlyon had given him a shock. Somehow he had not expected from him this cool acknowledgment of an action from which he himself shrank with unspeakable abhorrence.
To leave a friend in the lurch was, in Derrick's eyes, an act so infamous that he would have cut his own throat sooner than be guilty of it. It did not occur to him that Carlyon might have urged extenuating circumstances, but had rather scornfully abstained from doing so.
He did not even consider the fact that, as commanding-officer, Carlyon's responsibility for the lives in his charge was a burden not to be ignored or lightly borne. He did not consider the risk to these same valuable lives that a rescue in force would have involved.
He saw only himself fighting for a forlorn hope, his grinning little Goorkhas gallantly and intrepidly following wherever he would lead, and he saw the awful darkness down which his feet had stumbled, a terrible chasm that had yawned to engulf them all.
He sat up at last and looked straight at Carlyon. He spoke slowly, with an effort.
"If it had been only myself," he said, "I—perhaps, I might have found it easier. But there were the men, my men. You could not alter your plans by one hair's-breadth to save their gallant lives. I can't get over that. I never shall. You left us to die like rats in a hole. But for a total stranger—a spy, a Secret Service man—we should have been cut to pieces, every one of us. You did not, I suppose, send that man to help us out?"
Carlyon blew a cloud of smoke upwards. He frowned a little, but his look was more one of boredom than annoyance.
"What exactly are you talking about?" he said. "I don't employ spies. As to Secret Service agents, I think you have heard my opinion of them before."
"Yes," said Derrick. He rose with an air of finality. His young face was very stern. "He was probably attached to General Harford's division. He found us in a fix, and he helped us out of it. He knew the land. We didn't. He was the most splendid fighting-man I ever saw. He tried to stick up for you, too—said you didn't know. That, of course, was a mistake. You did know, and are not ashamed to own it."
"Not in the least," said Carlyon.
"The men couldn't have held out without him," Derrick continued. "After I was hit, he stood by them. He only took himself off just before morning came and you ventured to move to our assistance."
"He had no possible right to do it," observed Carlyon thoughtfully ignoring the bitter ring of sarcasm in the boy's tone.
"Oh, none whatever," said Derrick. He spoke hastily, jerkily, as a man not sure of himself. "No doubt his life was Government property, and he had no right to risk it. Still he did it, and I am weak-minded enough to be grateful. My own life may be worthless; at least, it was then. And I would not have survived my Goorkhas. But he saved them, too. That, odd as it may seem to you, made all the difference to me."
"Is your life more valuable now than it was a few months ago?" enquired Carlyon, in a casual tone.
"Yes," said Derrick shorty.
"Has Averil accepted you?" Carlyon asked him point-blank.
"Yes," said Derrick again.
There was a momentary pause. Then: "Permit me to offer my felicitations!" said Carlyon, through a haze of tobacco-smoke.
Derrick started as if stung. "I beg you won't do anything of the sort!" he said with vehemence. "I don't want your good wishes. I would rather be without them. I may be a hare-brained fool. I won't deny it. But as for you—you are a blackguard—the worst sort of blackguard! I hope I shall never speak to you again!"
Carlyon, lying back in his chair, neither stirred nor spoke. He looked up at Derrick from beneath steady eyelids. But he offered him nothing in return for his insulting words.
Derrick waited for seconds. Then patience and resolution alike failed him. He swung round abruptly on his heel and walked out of the room.
As for Colonel Carlyon, he did not rise from his chair till he had conscientiously finished his cigar. He had stuck to his principles. He had not answered his critic. Incidentally he had borne more from that critic than any man had ever before dared to offer him, more than he had told Derrick himself that he would bear. Yet Derrick had gone away from the encounter with a whole skin in order that Colonel Carlyon might stick to his principles. Carlyon's forbearance was a plant of peculiar growth.
A WOMAN'S FORGIVENESS
"Colonel Carlyon," said Averil, turning to face him fully, her eyes very bright, "will you take the trouble to make me understand about Derrick? I have been awaiting an opportunity to ask you ever since I heard about it."
Carlyon paused. They chanced to be staying simultaneously in the house of a mutual friend. He had arrived only the previous evening, and till that moment had scarcely spoken to the girl.
Carlyon smothered an involuntary sigh. He could have wished that this girl, with her straight eyes and honest speech, would have spared him the explanation which she had made such speed to demand of him.
"Make you understand, Miss Eversley!" he said, halting deliberately before a bookcase. "What exactly is it that you do not understand?"
"Everything," Averil said, with a comprehensive gesture. "I have always believed that you thought more of Derrick than anything else in the world."
"Ah!" said Carlyon quietly. "That is probably the root of the misunderstanding. Correct that, and the rest will be comparatively easy."
He took a book from the shelf before him and ran a quick eye through its pages. After a brief pause he put the volume back and joined the girl on the hearthrug.
"Is my behaviour still an enigma?" he said, with a slight smile.
She turned to him impulsively. "Of course," she said, colouring vividly, "I am aware that to a celebrated man like you the opinion of a nobody like myself cannot matter one straw. But—"
"Pardon me!" Carlyon gravely. "Even celebrated men are human, you know. They have their feelings like the rest of mankind. I shall be sorry to forfeit your good opinion. But I have no means of retaining it. Derrick cannot see my point of view. You, of course, will share his difficulties."
"That does not follow, does it?" said Averil.
"I should say so," said Carlyon. "You see, Miss Eversley, you have already told me that you do not understand my action. Non-comprehension in such a matter is synonymous with disapproval. You are, no doubt, in full possession of the facts. More than the bare facts I cannot give you. I will not attempt to justify myself where I admit no guilt."
"No," Averil said. "Pray don't think I am asking you to do anything of the sort! Only, Colonel Carlyon," she laid a pleading hand on his arm and lifted a very anxious face, "you remember we used to be friends, if you will allow the presumption of such a term. Won't you even try to show me your point of view in this matter? I think I could understand. I want to understand."
Carlyon leant his elbow on the mantelpiece and looked very gravely into the girl's troubled eyes.
"You are very generous, Averil," he said.
"Generous," she echoed, with a touch of impatience. "No; I only want to be just—for my own sake. I hate to take a narrow, cramped view of things. I hate that Dick should. A few words from you would set us both right, and we could all be friends again."
"Ah!" said Carlyon. "But suppose—I have nothing to say?"
"You must have something!" she declared vehemently. "You never do anything without a reason."
"Generous again!" said Carlyon.
"Oh, don't laugh at me!" cried Averil, stung by the quiet unconcern of his words.
He straightened himself instantly, his face suddenly stern. "At least you wrong me there!" he said, and before the curt reproof of his tone she felt humbled and ashamed. "Listen to me a moment! You want my point of view clearly stated. You shall have it.
"I am employed by a blundering Government to do a certain task which bigger men shirk. Carlyon of the Frontier, they say, will stick at no dirty job. I undertake the task. I lay my plans—subtle plans which you, with your blind British generosity, would neither understand nor approve. I proceed to carry them out. I am within sight of the end and success, when an idiotic fool of a boy, who is not so much as a combatant himself, blunders into the business and throws the whole scheme out of gear. He assumes the leadership of a dozen stranded Goorkhas, and instead of bringing them back he drags them forward into an impossible position, and then expects a rescue.
"I meanwhile have my own work to do. I am responsible to the Government for the lives of my men. I cannot expend them on other than Government work.
"On one side of the scale is this same Government and the plans made in its interest; on the other the life of a boy, strategically speaking, worth nothing, and the lives of half-a-score of fighting men, already accounted a loss. It may astonish you to know that the Government turned the scale. Those who had incurred the penalty of rashness were left to pay it. That, Miss Eversley, is all I have to say. You will be good enough to remember that I have said it at your request and not in my own defence."
He ceased to speak as abruptly as he had begun. He was standing at his full height, and, tall though she was, Averil felt unaccountably small and insignificant before him. Curtly, almost rudely, as he had spoken, she admired him immensely for the stern code of honour he professed.
She did not utter a word for several seconds. He had impressed her very strongly. She stayed to weigh his words in the balance of her own judgment.
"It is a man's point of view," she said slowly at last, "not a woman's."
"Even so," said Carlyon, dropping back suddenly to his former attitude.
She looked at him very earnestly, her brows drawn together.
"You have not told me about the Secret Service man," she said at length. "You sent him, did you not, on the forlorn chance of saving Dick?"
Carlyon shook his head in a grim disclaimer.
"Derrick's information was the first I heard of the individual," he said. "I was unaware of the existence of a Secret Service agent within a radius of fifty miles. I believe General Harford encourages the breed. I do the precise opposite. I have no faith in professional spies in that part of the world. Russian territory is too near, and Russian gold too tempting."
Averil's face fell. "Colonel Carlyon," she said, in a very small voice, "forgive me, but—but—you cannot be so hard as you sound. You are fond of Dick, surely?"
"Yes," he said deliberately. "I am fond of you both, if I may be permitted to say so."
Averil coloured a little. "Thank you," she said. "I shall try presently to make him understand."
"Understand what?" said Carlyon curiously.
"Your feeling in the matter."
"My what?" he said roughly. Then hastily, "I beg your pardon, Miss Eversley. But are you sure you understand it yourself?"
"I am doing my best," she said, in a low voice.
"But you are sorely disappointed, nevertheless," he said, in a more kindly tone. "You expected something different. Well, it can't be helped. I should leave Dick's convictions alone, if I were you. At least he has no illusions left with regard to Carlyon of the Frontier."
There was an involuntary touch of sadness in the man's quiet speech. He no longer looked at Averil, and his face in repose wore an expression of unutterable weariness.
Averil held out her hand with an abrupt, childlike impulse.
"Colonel Carlyon," she said, speaking very rapidly, "you are right. I don't understand. I think you hold too stern a view of your responsibilities. I believe no woman could think otherwise. But at the same time I do still believe you are a good man. I shall always believe it."