Carlyon glanced at her quickly. Her face was flushed, her eyes very eager. He looked away again almost instantly, but he took her outstretched hand.
"Thank you, Averil," he said gravely. "I believe under the circumstances few women would have said the same. Tell me! Did I hear a rumour that you are going out to India yourself very shortly?"
She nodded. "I have almost promised to go," she said. "I have a married sister at Sharapura. I wrote to her of my engagement, and she wrote back, begging me to go to her if I could. She and her husband have been disappointed several times about coming home, and it is still uncertain when they will manage it. She wants to see me before I marry and settle down, she says."
"And you want to go?"
"Of course I do," said Averil, with enthusiasm. "It has always been a standing promise that I should go some day."
"And what does Derrick say to it?"
"Oh, Dick! He was very cross at first. But I have propitiated him by promising to marry him as soon as I get back, which will be probably this time next year."
Averil's face grew suddenly grave.
"I hope you will both be very happy," said Carlyon, rather formally.
"Thank you," said Averil, looking up at him. "It would make me much happier if—you and Dick could be friends before then."
"Would it?" said Carlyon thoughtfully. "I wonder why."
"I should like my friends to be Dick's friends," she said, with slight hesitation.
Carlyon smiled a little. "Forgive me, Miss Eversley, for being monotonous!" he said.... "But, once more—how generous!"
Averil turned sharply away, inexplicably hurt by what she considered the note of mockery in his voice, and went out, leaving him alone before the fire. Emphatically this man was entirely beyond her understanding.
But, nevertheless, when they met again, she had forgiven him.
FIEND OR KING?
"Hullo, doctor! What news?" sang out a curly-haired subaltern on the steps of the club, a newly-erected, wooden bungalow of which the little Frontier station was immensely proud. "You're looking infernally serious. What's the matter?"
Dr. Seddon rolled stoutly off his steaming pony and went to join his questioner.
"What do you think you're doing, Toby?" he said, with a glance at an enormous pair of scissors in the boy's hand.
"I'm making lamp-shades," Toby responded, leading the way within. "What's your drink? Nothing? What a horribly dry beast you are! Yes, lamp-shades—for the ball, you know. Got to be ready by to-morrow night. We're doing them with crinkly paper. Miss Eversley promised to come and help me. But she hasn't turned up."
"What?" exclaimed Seddon. "Not come back yet?"
Toby dropped his scissors with a clatter, and dived for them under the reading-room table.
"Don't make me jump, I say, doctor!" he said pathetically. "I'm quite upset enough as it is. That lazy lout, Soames, won't stir a finger. The other chaps are on duty. And Miss Eversley has proved faithless. Why can't you turn to and help?"
But Seddon was already striding to the door again in hot haste.
"That idiot of a girl must have crossed the Frontier!" he said, as he went. "There was a fellow shot on sentry-go last night. It's infernally dangerous, I tell you!"
Toby raced after him swearing inarticulately. A couple of subalterns just entering were nearly overwhelmed by their vigorous exit. They recovered themselves and followed to the tune of Toby's excited questioning. But none of the party got beyond the veranda steps, for there the sound of clattering hoofs arrested them, and a jaded horse bearing a dishevelled rider was pulled up short in front of the club.
"Miss Eversley herself!" cried Toby, making a dash forward.
A native servant slipped unobtrusively to the sweating horse's bridle. Averil was on the ground in a moment and turned to ascend the steps of the club-house.
"Is my brother-in-law here?" she said to Toby, accepting the hand he offered.
"Who? Raymond? No; he's in the North Camp somewhere. Do you want him? Anything wrong? By Jove, Miss Eversley, you've given us an awful fright!"
Averil went up the steps with so palpable an effort that Seddon hastily dragged forward a chair. Her lips, as she answered Toby, were quite colourless.
"I have had a fright myself," she said. Then she looked round at the other men with a shaky laugh. "I have been riding for my life," she said a little breathlessly. "I have never done that before. It—it's very exciting—almost more so than riding to hounds. I have often wondered how the fox felt. Now I know."
She ignored the chair Seddon placed for her, turning to the boy called Toby with great resolution.
"Those lamp-shades, Mr. Carey," she said. "I'm sorry I'm so late. You must have thought I was never coming. In fact"—the colour was returning to her face, and her smile became more natural—"I thought so myself a few minutes ago. Let us set to work at once!"
Toby burst into a rude whoop of admiration and flung a ball of string into the air.
"Miss Eversley, well done! Well done!" he gasped. "You—you deserve a V.C.!"
"Indeed I don't," she returned. "I have been running away hard."
"Tell us all about it, Miss Eversley!" urged one of her listeners. "You have been across the Frontier, now, haven't you? What happened? Someone tried to snipe you from afar?"
But Miss Eversley refused to be communicative. "I am much too busy," she said, "to discuss anything so unimportant. Come, Mr. Carey, the lamp-shades!"
Toby bore her off in triumph to inspect his works of art. There was a good deal of understanding in Toby's head despite its curls which he kept so resolutely cropped. He attended to business without a hint of surprise or inattention. And he was presently rewarded for his good behaviour.
Averil, raising her eyes for a moment from one of the shades which she was tacking together while he held it in shape, said presently:
"A very peculiar thing happened to me this morning, Mr. Carey."
"Yes?" he replied, trying to keep the note of expectancy out of his voice.
Averil nodded gravely. "I crossed the Frontier," she said, "and rode into the mountains. I thought I heard a child crying. I lost my way and fell among thieves."
"Yes?" said Toby again. He looked up, frankly interested this time.
"I was shot at," she resumed. "It was my own fault, of course. I shouldn't have gone. My brother-in-law warned me very seriously against going an inch beyond the Frontier only last night. Well, one buys one's experience. I certainly shall never go again, not for a hundred wailing babies."
"Probably a bird," remarked Toby practically.
"Probably," assented Averil, equally practical. "To continue: I didn't know what to do. I was horribly frightened. I had lost my bearings. And then out of the very midst of my enemies there came a friend."
"Ah!" said Toby quickly. "The right sort?"
"There is only one sort," she said, with a touch of dignity.
"And what did he do?" said Toby, with eager interest.
"He simply took my bridle and ran by my side till we were out of danger," Averil said, a sudden soft glow creeping up over her face.
Toby looked at her very seriously. "In native rig, I suppose?" he said.
"Yes," said Averil.
"Carlyon of the Frontier," said Toby, with abrupt decision.
She nodded. "I did not know he had left England," she said.
"He hasn't—officially speaking," said Toby. He was watching her steadily. "Do you know, Miss Eversley," he said, "I think I wouldn't mention your discovery to any one else?"
"I am not going to," she said.
"No? Then why did you tell me?" he asked, with a tinge of rude suspicion in his voice.
Averil looked him suddenly and steadily in the face. It was a very innocent face that Toby Carey presented to a serenely credulous world.
"Because," said Averil slowly, "he told me to tell you alone. 'Tell Toby Carey only,' he said, 'to watch when the beasts go down to drink.' They were his last words."
"Good!" said Toby unconcernedly. "Then he knew you recognized him?"
"Yes," Averil said; "he knew." She smiled faintly as she said it. "He told me he was in no danger," she added.
"Is he a friend of yours?" asked Toby sharply.
"Yes," said Averil, with pride.
"I'm sorry to hear it," said Toby bluntly.
"Why?" she asked, with a swift flash of anger.
"Why?" he echoed vehemently. "Ask your brother-in-law, ask Seddon, ask any one! The man is a fiend!"
Averil sprang to her feet in sudden fury.
"How dare you!" she cried passionately. "He is a king!"
Toby stared for a moment, then grew calm. "We are not talking about the same man, Miss Eversley," he said shortly. "The man I know is a fiend among fiends. The man you know is, no doubt—different."
But Averil swept from the club-room without a word. She was very angry with Toby Carey.
THE REAL COLONEL CARLYON
Averil rode back to her brother-in-law's bungalow, vexed with herself, weary at heart, troubled. She had arrived at the station among the mountains on the Frontier two months before, and had spent a very happy time there with the sister whom she had not seen for years. The ladies of the station numbered a very scanty minority, but there was no lack of gaiety and merriment on that account.
That the hills beyond the Great Frontier were peopled by tribes in a seething state of discontent was a matter known, but little recked of, by the majority of the community. Officers went their several ways, fully awake to threatening rumours, but counting them of small importance. They went to their sport; to their polo, their racing, their gymkhanas, with light hearts and in perfect security. They lay down in the dread shadow of a mighty Empire and slept secure in the very jaws of danger.
The fierce and fanatical hatred that raged over the Frontier was less than nothing to most of them. The power that sheltered them was wholly sufficient for their confidence.
The toughness of the good northern breed is of a quality untearable, made to endure in all climates, under all conditions. Ordered to carry revolvers, they stuffed them unloaded into side-pockets, or left them in the hands of syces to bear behind them.
Proof positive of their total failure to realize the danger that threatened from amidst the frowning, grey-cragged mountains was the fact that their womenkind were allowed to remain at the station, and even rode and drove forth unattended on the rocky, mountain roads.
True, they were warned against crossing the Frontier. A few officers, of whom Captain Raymond, who was Averil's brother-in-law, and Toby Carey, the innocent-faced subaltern, were two, saw the rising wave from afar; but they saw it vaguely as inevitable but not imminent. Captain Raymond planned to himself to send his wife and her sister to Simla before the monsoon broke up the fine weather.
And this was all he accomplished beyond administering a severe reprimand to his young sister-in-law for running into danger among the hills.
"There are always thieves waiting to bag anyone foolish enough to show his nose over the border," he said. "Isn't the Indian Empire large enough for you that you must needs go trespassing among savages?"
Averil heard him out with the patience of a slightly wandering attention. She had not recounted the whole of her experience for his benefit, nor did she intend to do so. She was still wondering what the mysterious message she had delivered to Toby Carey might be held to mean.
When Captain Raymond had exhausted himself she went away to her own room and sat for a long while gazing towards the great mountains, thinking, thinking.
Her sister presently joined her. Mrs. Raymond was a dark-eyed, merry-hearted little woman, the gay originator of many a frolic, and an immense favourite with men and women alike.
"Poor darling! I declare Harry has made you look quite miserable!" was her exclamation, as she ran lightly in and seated herself on the arm of Averil's chair.
"Harry!" echoed Averil, in a tone of such genuine scorn that Mrs. Raymond laughed aloud.
"You're very rude," she said. "Still, I'm glad Harry isn't the offender. Who is it, I wonder? But, never mind! I have a splendid piece of news for you, dear. Shut your eyes and guess!"
"Oh, I can't indeed!" protested Averil. "I am much too tired."
Mrs. Raymond looked at her with laughing eyes.
"There! She shan't be teased!" she cried gaily. "It's the loveliest surprise you ever had, darling; but I can't keep it a secret any longer. I wanted to see him now that he is grown up, and quite satisfy myself that he is really good enough for you. So, dear, I wrote to him and begged him to join us here. And the result is—now guess!"
Averil had turned sharply to look at her.
"Do you mean you have asked Dick to come here?" she said, in a quick, startled way.
"Exactly, dear; I actually have," said Mrs. Raymond. "More—we had a wire this morning. He will be here to dinner."
"Oh!" said Averil. She rose hastily, so hastily that her sister was left sitting on the arm of the bamboo chair, which instantly overturned on the top of her.
Averil extricated her with many laughing apologies, and, by the time Mrs. Raymond had recovered her equilibrium, the younger girl had lost her expression of astonishment and was looking as bright and eager as her sister could desire.
"Only Dick is such a madcap," she said. "How shall we keep him from getting up to mischief in No Man's Land precisely as I have done?"
Mrs. Raymond opined that Averil ought by then to have discovered the secret of managing the young man, and they went to tiffin on the veranda in excellent spirits.
Dr. Seddon was there and young Steele, one of Raymond's subalterns. Averil found herself next to the doctor, who, rather to her surprise, forebore to twit her with her early morning adventure. He was, in fact, very grave, and she wondered why.
Steele, strolling by her side in the shady compound, by and bye volunteered information.
"Poor old Seddon is in a mortal funk," he said, "which accounts for his wretched appetite. He has been wasting steadily ever since Carlyon went away. He thinks Carlyon is the only fellow capable of taking care of him. No one else is monster enough."
"Is Colonel Carlyon expected out here?" Averil asked, in a casual tone.
One of Steele's eyelids contracted a little as if it wanted to wink. He answered her in a low voice: "Carlyon is never expected before his arrival, Miss Eversley."
"No?" said Averil indifferently. "And, why, please do you call him a monster?"
Steele laughed a little. "Didn't you know?" he said. "Why, he is the King of Evil in these parts!"
Averil felt her face slowly flushing. "I don't understand," she said.
"Don't you?" said Steele. "Honestly now?"
The flush heightened. "Of course I don't," she said. "Otherwise why should I tell you so?"
"Pardon!" said Steele, unabashed. "Well, then, you must know that we are all frightened of Carlyon of the Frontier. We hate him badly, but he has the whip-hand of us, and so we have to do the tame trot for him. Over there"—he jerked his head towards the mountains—"they would lie down in a row miles long and let him walk over their necks. And not a single blackguard among them would dare to stab upwards, because Carlyon is immortal, as everyone knows, and it wouldn't be worth the blackguard's while to survive the deed.
"They don't call him Carlyon in the mountains, but it's the same man, for all that. He is a prophet, a deity, among them. They believe in him blindly as a special messenger from Heaven. And he plays with them, barters them, betrays them, every single day he spends among them. He is strong, he is unscrupulous, he is merciless. He respects no friendship. He keeps no oath. He betrays, he tortures, he slays. Even we, the enlightened race, shrink from him as if he were the very fiend incarnate.
"But he is a valuable man. The information he obtains is priceless. But he trades with blood. He lives on treachery. He is more subtle than the subtlest Pathan. He would betray any one or all of us to death if it were to the interest of the Empire that we should be sacrified. That, you know, in reason, is all very well. But, personally, I would sooner tread barefoot on a scorpion than get entangled in Carlyon's web. He is more false and more cruel than a serpent. At least, that is his reputation among us. And those heathen beggars trust him so utterly."
Steele stopped abruptly. He had spoken with strong passion. His honest face was glowing with indignation. He was British to the backbone, and he loathed all treachery instinctively.
Suddenly he saw that the girl beside him had turned very white. He paused in his walk with an awkward sense of having spoken unadvisedly.
"Of course," he said, with a boyish effort to recover his ground, "it has to be done. Someone must do the dirty work. But that doesn't make you like the man who does it a bit the better. One wouldn't brush shoulders with the hangman if one knew it."
Averil was standing still. Her hands were clenched.
"Are you talking of Colonel Carlyon—my friend?" she said slowly.
Steele turned sharply away from the wide gaze of her grey eyes.
"I hope not, Miss Eversley," he said. "The man I mean is not fit to be the friend of any woman."
THE STRANGER ON THE VERANDA
It was to all outward seeming a very gay crowd that assembled at the club-house on the following night for the first dance of the season. For some unexplained reason sentries had been doubled on all sides of the Camp, but no one seemed to have any anxiety on that account.
"We ought to feel all the safer," laughed Mrs. Raymond when she heard. "No one ever took such care of us before."
"It must be all rot," said Derrick who had arrived the previous evening in excellent spirits. "If there were the smallest danger of a rising you wouldn't be here."
"Quite true," laughed Mrs. Raymond, "unless the road to Fort Akbar is considered unsafe."
"I never saw a single border thief all the way here!" declared Derrick, departing to look for Averil.
He claimed the first waltz imperiously, and she gave it to him. She was the prettiest girl in the room, and she danced with a queenly grace of movement. Derrick was delighted. He did not like giving her up, but Steele was insistent on this point. He had made Derrick's acquaintance in the Frontier campaign of a year before, and he parted the two without scruple, declaring he would not stand by and see a good chap like Derrick make a selfish beast of himself on such an occasion.
Derrick gave place with a laugh and sought other partners. In the middle of the evening Toby Carey strolled up to Averil and bent down in a conversational attitude. He was not dancing himself. She gave him a somewhat cold welcome.
After a few commonplace words he took her fan from her hand and whispered to her behind it:
"There's a fellow on the veranda waiting to speak to you," he said. "Calls himself a friend."
Her heart leapt at the murmured words. She glanced hurriedly round. Everyone in the room was dancing. She had pleaded fatigue. She rose quietly and stepped to the window, Toby following.
She stood a moment on the threshold of the night and then passed slowly out. All about her was dark.
"Go on to the steps!" murmured Toby behind her. "I shall keep watch."
She went on with gathering speed. At the head of the veranda-steps she dimly discerned a figure waiting for her, a figure clothed in some white, muffling garment that seemed to cover the face. And yet she knew by all her bounding pulses whom she had found.
"Colonel Carlyon!" she said, and on the impulse of the moment she gave him both her hands.
His quiet voice answered her out of the strange folds. "Come into the garden a moment!" he said.
She went with him unquestioning, with the confidence of a child. He led her with silent, stealthy tread into the deepest gloom the compound afforded. Then he stopped and faced her with a question that sent a sudden tumult of doubt racing through her brain.
"Will you take a message to Fort Akbar for me, Averil?" he said. "A matter of life and death."
A message! Averil's heart stood suddenly-still. All the evil report that she had heard of this man raised its head like a serpent roused from slumber, a serpent that had hidden in her breast, and a terrible agony of fear took the place of her confidence.
Carlyon waited for her answer without a sign of impatience. Through her mind, as it were on wheels of fire, Steele's passionate words were running: "He lives on treachery. He would betray any one or all of us to death if it were to the interest of the Empire that we should be sacrificed." And again: "I would sooner tread barefoot on a scorpion than get entangled in Carlyon's web."
All this she would once have dismissed as vilest calumny. But Carlyon's abandonment of Derrick, and his subsequent explanation thereof, were terribly overwhelming evidence against him. And now this man, this spy, wanted to use her as an instrument to accomplish some secret end of his.
A matter of life or death, he said. And for which of these did he purpose to use her efforts? Averil sickened at the possibilities the question raised in her mind. And still Carlyon waited for her answer.
"Why do you ask me?" she said at last, in a quivering whisper. "What is the message you want to send?"
"You delivered a message for me only yesterday without a single question," he said.
She wrung her hands together in the darkness. "I know. I know," she said; "but then I did not realize."
"You saved the camp from destruction," he went on. "Will you not do the same to-night?"
"How shall I know?" she sobbed in anguish.
"What have they been telling you?"
The quiet voice came in strange contrast to the agitated uncertainty of her tones. Carlyon laid steady hands on her shoulders. In the dim light his eyes had leapt to blue flame, sudden, intense. She hid her face from their searching; ashamed, horrified at her own doubts—yet still doubting.
"Your friendship has stood a heavier strain than this," Carlyon said, with grave reproach.
But she could not answer him. She dared scarcely face her own thoughts privately, much less utter them to him.
What if he were urging the tribes to rise to give the Government a pretext for war? She had heard him say that peace had come too soon, that war alone could remedy the evil of constantly recurring outrages along that troublous Frontier.
What if he counted the lives of a few women and their gallant protectors as but a little price to pay for the accomplishment of this end?
What if he purposed to make this awful sacrifice in the interests of the Empire, and only asked this thing of her because no other would undertake it?
She lifted her face. He was still looking at her with those strange, burning eyes that seemed to pierce her very soul.
"Averil," he said, "you may do a great thing for the Empire to-night—if you will."
The Empire! Ah, what fearful things would he not do behind that mask! Yet she stood silent, bound by the spell of his presence.
Carlyon went on. "There is going to be a rising, but we shall hold our own, I hope without loss. You can ride a horse, and I can trust you. This message must be delivered to-night. There is not an officer at liberty. I would not send one if there were. Every man will be wanted. Averil, will you go for me?"
He was holding her very gently between his hands. He seemed to be pleading with her. Her resolution began to waver. They had shattered her idol, yet she clung fast to the crumbling shrine.
"You will not let them be killed?" she whispered piteously. "Oh, promise me!"
"No one belonging to this camp will be killed if I can help it," he said. "You will tell them at Fort Akbar that we are prepared here. General Harford is marching to join them from Fort Wara. Whatever they may hear they must not dream of moving to join us till he reaches them. They are not strong enough. They would be cut to pieces. That is the message you are going to take for me. Their garrison is too small to be split up, and Fort Akbar must be protected at all costs. It is a more important post than this even."
"But there are women here," Averil whispered.
"They are under my protection," said Carlyon quietly. "I want you to start at once—before we shut the gates."
"Have they taken you by surprise, then?" she asked, with a sharp, involuntary shiver.
"No," Carlyon said. "They have taken the Government by surprise. That's all." He spoke with strong bitterness. For he was the watchman who had awaked in vain.
A moment later he was drawing her with him along the shadowy path.
"You need have no fear," he whispered to her. "The road is open all the way. I have a horse waiting that will carry you safely. It is barely ten miles. You have done it before."
"Am I to go just as I am?" she asked him, carried away by his unfaltering resolution.
"Yes," said Carlyon, "except for this." He loosened the chuddah from his own head and stooped to muffle it about hers. "I have provided for your going," he said. "You will see no one. You know the way. Go hard!"
He moved on again. His arm was round her shoulders.
"And you?" she said, with sudden misgiving.
"I shall go back to the camp," he said, "when I have seen you go."
They went a little farther, ghostly, white figures gliding side by side. Wildly as her heart was beating, Averil felt that it was all strangely unreal, felt that the man beside her was a being unknown and mysterious, almost supernatural. And yet, strangely, she did not fear him. As she had once said to him, she believed he was a good man. She would always believe it. And yet was that awful doubt hammering through her brain.
They reached the bounds of the club compound and Carlyon stopped again. From the building behind them there floated the notes of a waltz, weird, dream-like, sweet as the earth after rain in summer.
"I want to know," Carlyon said steadily, "if you trust me."
She stretched up her hands like a child and laid them against his breast. She answered him with piteous entreaty in which passion strangely mingled.
"Colonel Carlyon," she whispered brokenly, "promise me that when this is over you will give it up! You were not made to spy and betray! You were made an honourable, true-hearted man—God's greatest and best creation. You were never meant to be twisted and warped to an evil use. Ah, tell me you will give it up! How can I go away and leave you toiling in the dungeons?"
"Hush!" said Carlyon. "You do not understand."
Later, she remembered with what tenderness he gathered her hands again into his own, holding them reverently. At the time she realized nothing but the monstrous pity of his wasted life.
"It isn't true!" she sobbed. "You would not sacrifice your friends?"
"Never!" said Carlyon sharply.
He paused. Then—"You must go, Averil," he said. "There are two sentries on the Buddhist road, and the password is 'Empire.' After that-straight to Akbar. The moon is rising, and no one will speak to you or attempt to stop you. You will not be afraid?"
"I trust you," she said very earnestly.
Ten minutes later, as the moon shot the first silver streak above the frowning mountains, a white horse flashed out on the road beyond the camp—a white horse bearing a white-robed rider.
On the edge of the camp one sentry turned to another with wonder on his face.
"That messenger's journey will be soon over," he remarked. "An easy target for the black fiends!"
In the mountains a dusky-faced hillman turned glittering, awe-struck eyes upon the flying white figure.
"Behold!" he said. "The Heaven-sent rides to the moonrise even as he foretold. The time draws near."
And Carlyon, walking back in strange garb to join his own people, muttered to himself as he went: "One woman, at least, is safe!"
A FIGHT IN THE NIGHT
An hour before daybreak the gathering wave broke upon the camp. It was Toby Carey who ran hurriedly in upon the dancers in the club-room when they were about to disperse and briefly announced that there was going to be a fight. He added that Carlyon was at the mess-house, and desired all the men to join him there. The women were to remain at the club, which was already surrounded by a party of Sikhs and Goorkhas. Toby begged them to believe they were in no danger.
"Where is Averil?" cried Mrs. Raymond distractedly.
"Carlyon has already provided for her safety," Toby assured her, as he raced off again.
Five minutes later Carlyon, issuing rapid orders in the veranda of the mess-house, turned at the grip of a hand on his shoulder, and saw Derrick, behind him, wild-eyed and desperate.
"What have you done with Averil?" the boy said through white lips.
"She is safe at Akbar," Carlyon briefly replied. Then, as Derrick instantly wheeled, he caught him swiftly by the arm.
"You wait, Dick!" he said. "I have work for you."
"Let me go!" flashed Derrick fiercely.
But Carlyon maintained his hold. He knew what was in the lad's mind.
"It can't be done," he said. "It would be certain death if you attempted it. We are cut off for the present."
He interrupted himself to speak to an officer who was awaiting an order then turned again to Derrick.
"I tell you the truth, Dick," he said, a sudden note of kindliness in his voice. "She is safe. I had the opportunity—for one only. I took it—for her. You can't follow her. You have forfeited your right to throw away your life. Don't forget it, boy, ever! You have got to live for her and let the blackguards take the risks."
He ended with a faint smile, and Derrick fell back abashed, an unwilling admiration struggling with the sullenness of his submission.
Later, at Carlyon's order, he joined the party that had been detailed to watch over the club-house, the most precious and the safest position in the whole station. He chafed sorely at the inaction, but he repressed his feelings.
Carlyon's words had touched him in the right place. Though fiercely restless still, his manhood had been stirred, and gradually the strength, the unflinching resolution that had dominated Averil, took the place of his feverish excitement. Derrick, the impulsive and headstrong, became the mainstay as well as the undismayed protector of the women during that night scare of the Frontier.
There was sharp fighting down in the camp. They heard the firing and the shouts; but with the sunrise there came a lull. The women turned white faces to one another and wondered if it could be over.
Presently Derrick entered with the latest news. The tribesmen had been temporarily beaten off, he said, but the hills were full of them. Their own losses during the night amounted to two wounded sepoys. Fighting during the day was not anticipated.
Carlyon, snatching hasty refreshment in a hut near the scene of the hottest fighting, turned grimly to Raymond, his second in command, as gradual quiet descended upon the camp.
"You will see strange things to-night," he said.
Raymond, whose right wrist had been grazed by a bullet, was trying clumsily to bandage it with his handkerchief.
"How long is it going to last?" he said.
"To-night will see the end of it," said Carlyon, quietly going to his assistance. "The rising has been brewing for some time. The tribesmen need a lesson, so does the Government. It is just a bubble—this. It will explode to-night. To be honest for once"—Carlyon smiled a little over his bandaging—"I did not expect this attack so soon. A Heaven-sent messenger has been among the tribesmen. They revere him almost as much as the great prophet himself. He has been listening to their murmurings."
Carlyon paused. Raymond was watching him intently, but the quiet face bent over his wound told him nothing.
"Had I known what was coming," Carlyon said, "so much as three days ago, the women would not now be in the station. As things are, it would have been impossible to weaken the garrison to supply them with an escort to Akbar."
Raymond stifled a deep curse in his throat. Had they but known indeed!
Carlyon went on in his deliberate way: "I shall leave you in command here to-night. I have other work to do. General Harford will be here at dawn. The attacking force will be on the east of the camp. You will crush them between you! You will stamp them down without mercy. Let them see the Empire is ready for them! They will not trouble us again for perhaps a few years."
Again he paused. Raymond asked no question. Better than most he knew Carlyon of the Frontier.
"It will be a hard blow," Carlyon said. "The tribesmen are very confident. Last night they watched a messenger ride eastwards on a white horse. It was an omen foretold by the Heaven-sent when he left them to carry the message through the hills to other tribes."
Raymond gave a great start. "The girl!" he said.
For a second Carlyon's eyes met his look. They were intensely blue, with the blueness of a flame.
"She is safe at Akbar," he said, returning without emotion to the knotting of the bandage. "The road was open for the messenger. The horse was swift. There is one woman less to take the risk."
"I see," said Raymond quietly. He was frowning a little, but not at Carlyon's strategy.
"The rest," Carlyon continued, "must be fought for. The moon is full to-night. The Great Fakir will come out of the hills in his zeal and lead the tribes himself. Guard the east!"
Raymond drew a sharp breath. But Carlyon's hand on his shoulder silenced the astounded question on his lips.
"We have got to protect the women," Carlyon said. "Relief will come at dawn."
SAVED A SECOND TIME
All through the day quiet reigned. An occasional sword-glint in the mountains, an occasional gleam of white against the brown hillside; these were the only evidences of an active enemy.
The women were released from durance in the club-house, with strict orders to return in the early evening.
Derrick went restlessly through the camp, seeking Carlyon. He found him superintending the throwing-up of earthworks. The most exposed part of the camp was to be abandoned. Derrick joined him in silence. Somehow this man's personality attracted him strongly. Though he had defied him, quarrelled with him, insulted him, the spell of his presence was irresistible.
Carlyon paid small attention to him till he turned to leave that part of the camp's defences. Then, with a careless hand through Derrick's arm, he said:
"You will have your fill of stiff fighting to-night, boy. But, remember, you are not to throw yourself away."
As evening fell, the attack was resumed, and it continued throughout the night. Tribesmen charged up to the very breastworks themselves and fell before the awful fire of the defenders' rifles. Death had no terrors for them. They strove for the mastery with fanatical zeal. But they strove in vain. A greater force than they possessed, the force of discipline and organized resistance—kept them at bay. Behind the splendid courage of the Indian soldiers were the resource and the resolution of a handful of Englishmen. The spirit of the conquering race, unquenchable, irresistible, weighed down the balance.
In the middle of the night Captain Raymond was hit in the shoulder and carried, fainting, to the closely guarded club-house, where his wife was waiting.
The command devolved upon Lieutenant Steele, who took up the task undismayed. Down in the hastily dug trenches Toby Carey was fiercely holding his men to their work.
And Derrick Rose was with him, unrestrained for that night at least.
"Relief at dawn!" Toby said to him once.
And Derrick responded with a wild laugh.
"Relief be damned! We can hold our own without it."
* * * * *
Relief came with the dawn, at a moment when the tribesmen were spurring themselves to the greatest effort of all, sustained by the knowledge that their Great Fakir was among them.
General Harford, with guides, Sikhs, Goorkhas, came down like a hurricane from the south-east, cut off a great body of tribesmen from their fellows, and drove them headlong, with deadly force, upon the defences they had striven so furiously to take.
The defenders sallied out to meet them with fixed bayonets. The brief siege, if siege it could be called, was over.
In the early light Derrick found himself fighting, fighting furiously, sword to sword. And the terrible joy of the conflict ran in his blood like fire.
"Ah!" he gasped. "It's good! It's good!"
And then he found another fighting beside him—a mighty fighting man, grim, terrible, silent. They thrust together; they withdrew together; they charged together.
Once an enemy seized Derrick's sword and he found himself vainly struggling against the awful, wild-faced fanatic's sinewy grasp. He saw the man's upraised arm, and knew with horrible certainty that he was helpless, helpless.
Then there shot out a swift, rescuing hand. A straight and deadly blow was struck. And Derrick, flinging a laugh over his shoulder, beheld a man dressed as a tribesman fall headlong over his enemy's body, struck to the earth by another swordsman.
Like lightning there flashed through his brain the memory of a man who had saved his life more than a year before on this same tumultuous Frontier—a man in tribesman's dress, with blue eyes of a strange, keen friendliness. He had it now. This was the Secret Service man. Derrick planted himself squarely over the prostrate body, and there stood while the fight surged on about him to the deadly and inevitable end.
THE SECRET OUT
"All Carlyon's doing!" General Harford said a little later. "He has pulled the strings throughout, from their very midst. Carlyon the ubiquitous, Carlyon the silent, Carlyon the watchful! He has averted a horrible catastrophe. The Indian Government must be made to understand that he is a servant worth having. They say he personally led the tribesmen to their death. They certainly walked very willingly into the trap arranged for them. Now, where is Carlyon?"
No one knew. In the plain outside the camp wounded men were being collected. The General was relieved to hear that Carlyon was not among them. He sat down to make his report, a highly eulogistic report, of this man's splendid services. And then he went to late breakfast at the club-house.
In the evening Averil rode back to the station with an escort. The terrible traces of the struggle were not wholly removed. They rode round by a longer route to avoid the sight.
Seddon was the first of her friends who saw her. He was standing inside the mess-house. He went hurriedly forward and gave her brief details of the fight. Then, while they were talking, Derrick himself came running up. He greeted her with less of his boyish effusion than was customary.
"How is the Secret Service man?" he asked abruptly of Seddon. "Is he badly damaged?"
The latter looked at him hard for a second.
"You can come in and see him," he said, and led the way into the mess.
Averil and Derrick followed him hand in hand. In a few low words the boy told her of his old friend's reappearance.
"He has saved my life twice over," he said.
"He has saved more lives than yours," Seddon remarked abruptly, over his shoulder.
He led the way "to the little ante-room where, stretched on a sofa, lay Derrick's Secret Service man. He was dressed in white, his face half covered with a fold of his head-dress. But the eyes were open—blue, alert, beneath drooping lids. He was speaking, softly, quickly, as a man asleep.
"The women must be protected," he said. "Let the blackguards take the risks!"
Averil started forward with a cry, and in a moment was kneeling by his side. The strange eyes were turned upon her instantly. They were watchful still and exceeding tender—the eyes of the hero she loved. They faintly smiled at her. To his death he would keep up the farce. To his death he would never show her the secret he had borne so long.
"Ah! The message!" he said, with an effort. "You gave it?"
"There was no need of a message," Averil cried. "You invented it to get me away, to make me escape from danger. You knew that otherwise I would not have gone. It was your only reason for sending me."
He did not answer her. The smile died slowly out. His eyes passed to Derrick. He looked at him very earnestly, and there was unutterable pleading in the look.
The boy stooped forward. Shocked by the sudden discovery, he yet answered as it were involuntarily to the man's unspoken wish. He knelt down beside the girl, his arm about her shoulders. His voice came with a great sob.
"The Secret Service man and Carlyon of the Frontier in one!" he said. "A man who does not forsake his friends. I might have known."
There was a pause, a great silence. Then Carlyon of the Frontier spoke softly, thoughtfully, with grave satisfaction it seemed. He looked at neither of them, but beyond them both. His eyes were steady and fearless.
"A blackguard—a spy—yet faithful to his friends—even so," he said; and died.
The boy and girl were left to each other. He had meant it to be so—had worked for it, suffered for it. In the end Carlyon of the Frontier had done that which he had set himself to do, at a cost which none other would ever know—not even the girl who had loved him.
"Now then, you fellows, step out there! Step out like the men you are! Left—right! Left—right! That's the way! Holy Jupiter! Call those chaps savages! They're gentlemen, every jack one of 'em. That's it, my hearties! Salute the old flag! By Jove, Monty, a British squad couldn't have done it better!"
The speaker pushed back his helmet to wipe his forehead. He was very much in earnest. The African sun blazing down on his bronzed face revealed that. The blue eyes glittered out of the lean, tanned countenance. They were full of resolution, indomitable resolution, and good British pluck.
As the little company of black men swung by, with the rhythmic pad of their bare feet, he suddenly snatched out his sword and waved it high in the smiting sunlight.
"Halt!" he cried.
They stood as one man, all gleaming eyes and gleaming teeth. They were all a good head taller than the Englishman who commanded them, but they looked upon him with reverence, as a being half divine.
"Now, cheer, you beggars, cheer!" he cried. "Three cheers for the King! Hip, hip—"
"Hooray!" came in hoarse chorus from the assembled troop. It sounded like a war cry.
"Hip, hip—" yelled the Englishman again.
And again "Hooray!" came the answering yell.
"Hip, hip—" for the third time from the man with the sword.
And for the third time, "Hooray!" from the deep-chested troopers halted in the blazing sunshine.
The British officer turned about with an odd smile quivering at the corners of his mouth. There was an almost maternal tenderness about it.
He sheathed his sword.
"You beauties!" he murmured softly. "You beauties!" Then aloud, "Very good, sergeant! Dismiss them! Come along, Monty! Let's go and have a drink."
He linked his arm in that of the silent onlooker, and drew him into the little hut of rough-hewn timber which was dignified by the name, printed in white letters over the door, of "Officers' Quarters."
"What do you think of them?" he demanded, as they entered. "Aren't they soldiers? Aren't they men?"
"I think, Duncannon," the other answered slowly, "that you have worked wonders."
"Ah, you'll tell the Chief so? Won't he be astounded? He swore I should never do it; declared they'd knife me if I tried to hammer any discipline into them. Much he knows about it! Good old Chief!"
He laughed boyishly, and again wiped his hot face.
"On my soul, Monty, it's been no picnic," he declared. "But I'd have sacrificed five years' pay, and my step as well, gladly—gladly—sooner than have missed it. Here you are, old boy! Drink! Drink to the latest auxiliary force in the British Empire! Damn' thirsty climate, this."
He tossed his helmet aside, and sat down on the edge of the table—a lithe, spare figure, brimming with active strength.
"I've literally coaxed those chaps into shape," he declared. "Oh, yes, I've bullied 'em too—cursed 'em right and left; but they never turned a hair—knew it was all for their good, and took it lying down. I've taught 'em to wash too, you know. That was the hardest job of all. I knocked one great brute all round the parade-ground one day, just to show I was in earnest. He went off afterwards, and blubbed like a baby. But in the evening I found him squatting outside, quite naked, and as clean as a whistle. To quote the newspapers, I was profoundly touched. But I didn't show it, you bet. I whacked him on the shoulder, and told him to be a man."
He broke off to laugh at the reminiscence; and Montague Herne gravely set down his glass, and turned his chair with its back to the sunlight.
"Do you know you've been here eighteen months?" he said.
"I feel as if I'd been born here. Why?"
"Most fellows," proceeded Herne, ignoring the question, "would have been clamouring for leave long ago. Why, you have scarcely heard your own language all this time."
"I have though," said Duncannon quickly. "That's another thing I've taught 'em. They picked it up wonderfully quickly. There isn't one of 'em who doesn't know a few sentences now."
"You seem to have found your vocation in teaching these heathen to sit up and beg," observed Herne, with a dry smile.
Duncannon turned dusky red under his tan.
"Perhaps I have," he said, with a certain, doggedness.
Herne, with his back to the light, was watching him.
"Well," he said finally, "we've served our turn. The battalion is going Home!"
Duncannon gave a great start.
"After two years' service," the other reminded him grimly.
Duncannon fell silent, considering, the matter with bent brows.
"Who succeeds us?" he asked at length.
Herne shrugged his shoulders.
"You don't know?" There was sudden, sharp anxiety in Duncannon's voice. He got off the table with a jerk. "You must know," he said.
Herne sat motionless, but he no longer looked the other in the face.
"You've taught 'em to fight," he said slowly. "They are men enough to look after themselves now."
"What?" Duncannon flung the word with violence. He took a single stride forward, standing over Herne in an attitude that was almost menacing. His hands were clenched. "What?" he said again.
Herne leaned back, and felt for his cigarette-case.
"Take it easy, old chap!" he said. "It was bound to come, you know. It was never meant to be more than a temporary occupation among these friendlies. They have been useful to us, I admit. But we can't fight their battles for them for ever. It's time for them to stand on their own legs. Have a smoke!"
Duncannon ignored the invitation. He turned pale to the lips. For a space of seconds he said nothing whatever. Then at length, slowly, in a voice that was curiously even, "Yes, I've taught 'em to fight," he said. "And now I'm to leave 'em to be massacred, am I?"
Herne shrugged his shoulders again, not because he was actually indifferent, but because, under the circumstances, it was the easiest answer to make.
Duncannon went on in the same dead-level tone:
"Yes, they've been useful to us, these friendlies. They've made common cause with us against those infernal Wandis. They might have stayed neutral, or they might have whipped us off the ground. But they didn't. They brought us supplies, and they brought us mules, and they helped us along generally, and hauled us out of tight corners. They've given us all we asked for, and more to it. And now they are going to pay the penalty, to reap our gratitude. They're going to be left to themselves to fight our enemies—the fellows we couldn't beat—single-handed, without experience, without a leader, and only half trained. They are going to be left as a human sacrifice to pay our debts."
He paused, standing erect and tense, staring out into the blinding sunlight. Then suddenly, like the swift kindling of a flame, his attitude changed. He flung up his hands with a wild gesture.
"No, I'm damned!" he cried violently. "I'm damned if they shall! They are my men—the men I made. I've taught 'em every blessed thing they know. I've taught 'em to reverence the old flag, and I'm damned if I'll see them betrayed! You can go back to the Chief, and tell him so! Tell him they're British subjects, staunch to the backbone! Why, they can even sing the first verse of the National Anthem! You'll hear them at it to-night before they turn in. They always do. It's a sort of evening hymn to them. Oh, Monty, Monty, what cursed trick will our fellows think of next, I wonder? Are we men, or are we reptiles, we English? And we boast—we boast of our national honour!"
He broke off, breathing short and hard, as a man desperately near to collapse, and leaned his head on his arm against the rough wall as if in shame.
Herne glanced at him once or twice before replying.
"You see," he said at length, speaking somewhat laboriously, "what we've got to do is to obey orders. We were sent out here not to think but to do. We're on Government service. They are responsible for the thinking part. We have to carry it out, that's all. They have decided to evacuate this district, and withdraw to the coast. So"—again he shrugged his shoulders—"there's no more to be said. We must go."
He paused, and glanced again at the slight, khaki-clad figure that leaned against the wall.
After a moment, meeting with no response, he resumed.
"There's no sense in taking it hard, since there is no help for it. You always knew that it was an absolutely temporary business. Of course, if we could have smashed the Wandis, these chaps would have had a better look-out. But—well, we haven't smashed them."
"We hadn't enough men!" came fiercely from Duncannon.
"True! We couldn't afford to do things on a large scale. Moreover, it's a beastly country, as even you must admit. And it isn't worth a big struggle. Besides, we can't occupy half the world to prevent the other half playing the deuce with it. Come, Bobby, don't be a fool, for Heaven's sake! You've been treated as a god too long, and it's turned your head. Don't you want to get Home? What about your people? What about——"
Duncannon turned sharply. His face was drawn and grey.
"I'm not thinking of them," he said, in a choked voice. "You don't know what this means to me. You couldn't know, and I can't explain. But my mind is made up on one point. Whoever goes—I stay!"
He spoke deliberately, though his breathing was still quick and uneven. His eyes were sternly steadfast.
Herne stared at him in amazement.
"My good fellow," he said, "you are talking like a lunatic! I think you must have got a touch of sun."
A faint smile flickered over Duncannon's set face.
"No, it isn't that," he said. "It's a touch of something else—something you wouldn't understand."
"But—heavens above!—you have no choice!" Herne exclaimed, rising abruptly. "You can't say you'll do this or that. So long as you wear a sword, you have to obey orders."
"That's soon remedied," said Duncannon, between his teeth.
With a sudden, passionate movement he jerked the weapon from its sheath, held it an instant gleaming between his hands, then stooped and bent it double across his knee.
It snapped with a sharp click, and instantly he straightened himself, the shining fragments in his hands, and looked Montague Herne in the eyes.
"When you go back to the Chief," he said, speaking very steadily, "you can take him this, and tell him that the British Government can play what damned dirty trick they please upon their allies. But I will take no part in it. I shall stick to my friends."
And with that he flung the jingling pieces of steel upon the table, took up his helmet, and passed out into the fierce glare of the little parade-ground.
"Oh, is it our turn at last? I am glad!"
Betty Derwent raised eyes of absolute honesty to the man who had just come to her side, and laid her hand with obvious alacrity upon his arm.
"You don't seem to be enjoying yourself," he said.
"I'm not!" she declared, with vehemence. "It's perfectly horrid. I hope you're not wanting to dance, Major Herne? For I want to sit out, and—and get cool, if possible."
"I want what you want," said Herne. "Shall we go outside?"
"Yes—no! I really don't know. I've only just come in. I want to get away—right away. Can't you think of a quiet corner?"
"Certainly," said Herne, "if it's all one to you where you go."
"I should like to run away," the girl said impetuously, "right away from everybody—except you."
"That's very good of you," said Herne, faintly smiling.
The hand that rested on his arm closed with an agitated pressure.
"Oh, no, it isn't!" she assured him. "It's quite selfish. I—I am like that, you know. Where are we going?"
"Upstairs," said Herne.
"Upstairs!" She glanced at him in surprise, but he offered no explanation. They were already ascending.
But when they had mounted one flight of stairs, and were beginning to mount a second, the girl's eyes flashed understanding.
"Major Herne, you're a real friend in need!"
"Think so?" said Herne. "Perhaps—at heart—I am as selfish as you are."
"Oh, I don't mind that," she rejoined impulsively. "You are all selfish, every one of you, but—thank goodness!—you don't all want the same thing."
Montague Herne raised his brows a little.
"Quite sure of that?"
"Quite sure," said Betty vigorously. "I always know." She added with apparent inconsequence, "That's how it is we always get on so well. Are you going to take me right out on to the ramparts? Are you sure there will be no one else there?"
"There will be no one where we are going," he said.
She sighed a sigh of relief.
"How good! We shall get some air up there, too. And I want air—plenty of it. I feel suffocated."
"Mind how you go!" said Herne. "These stairs are uneven."
They had come to a spiral staircase of stone. Betty mounted it light-footed, Herne following close behind.
In the end they came to an oak door, against which the girl set her hand.
"Major Herne! It's locked!"
"Allow me!" said Herne.
He had produced a large key, at which Betty looked with keen satisfaction.
"You really are a wonderful person. You overcome all difficulties."
"Not quite that, I am afraid." Herne was smiling. "But this is a comparatively simple matter. The key happens to be in my charge. With your permission, we will lock the door behind us."
"Do!" she said eagerly. "I have never been at this end of the ramparts. I believe I shall spend the rest of the evening here, where no one can follow us."
"Haven't you any more partners?" asked Herne.
She showed him a full card with a little grimace.
"I have had such an awful experience. I am going to cut the rest."
He smiled a little.
"Rather hard on the rest. However——"
"Oh, don't be silly!" she said impatiently. "It isn't like you."
"No," said Herne.
He spoke quietly, almost as if he were thinking of something else. They had passed through the stone doorway, and had emerged upon a flagged passage that led between stone walls to the ramparts. Betty passed along this quickly, mounted the last flight of steps that led to the battlements, and stood suddenly still.
A marvellous scene lay spread below them in the moonlight—silent land and whispering sea. The music of the band in the distant ballroom rose fitfully—such music as is heard in dreams. Betty stood quite motionless with the moonlight shining on her face. She looked like a nymph caught up from the shimmering water.
Impulsively at length she turned to the man beside her.
"Shall I tell you what has been happening to me to-night?"
"If you really wish me to know," said Herne.
She jerked her shoulder with a hint of impatience.
"I feel as if I must tell someone, and you are as safe, as any one I know. I have danced with six men so far, and out of those six three have asked me to marry them. It's been almost like a conspiracy, as if they were doing it for a wager. Only, two of them were so horribly in earnest that it couldn't have been that. Major Herne, why can't people be reasonable?"
"Heaven knows!" said Herne.
She gave him a quick smile.
"If I get another proposal to-night I shall have hysterics. But I know I am safe with you."
Herne was silent.
Betty gave a little shiver.
"You think me very horrid to have told you?"
"No," he answered deliberately, "I don't. I think that you were extraordinarily wise."
She laughed with a touch of wistfulness.
"I have a feeling that if I quite understood what you meant, I shouldn't regard that as a compliment."
"Very likely not." Herne's dark face brooded over the distant water. He did not so much as glance at the girl beside him, though her eyes were studying him quite frankly.
"Why are you so painfully discreet?" she said suddenly. "Don't you know that I want you to give me advice?"
"Which you won't take," said Herne.
"I don't know. I might. I quite well might. Anyhow, I should be grateful."
He rested one foot on the battlement, still not looking at her.
"If you took my advice," he said, "you would marry."
"Marry!" she said with a quick flush. "Why? Why should I?"
"You know why," said Herne.
"Really I don't. I am quite happy as I am."
"Quite?" he said.
She began to tap her fingers against the stonework. There was something of nervousness in the action.
"I couldn't possibly marry any one of the men who proposed to me to-night," she said.
"There are other men," said Herne.
"Yes, I know, but—" She threw out her arms suddenly with a gesture that had in it something passionate. "Oh, if only I were a man myself!" she said. "How I wish I were!"
"Why?" said Herne.
She answered him instantly, her voice not wholly steady.
"I want to travel. I want to explore. I want to go to the very heart of the world, and—and learn its secrets."
Herne turned his head very deliberately and looked at her.
"And then?" he said.
Half defiantly her eyes met his.
"I would find Bobby Duncannon," she said, "and bring him back."
Herne stood up slowly.
"I thought that was it," he said.
"And why shouldn't it be?" said Betty. "I have known him for a long time now. Wouldn't you do as much for a pal?"
Herne was silent for a moment. Then:
"You would be wiser to forget him," he said. "He will never come back."
"I shall never forget him," said Betty almost fiercely.
He looked at her gravely.
"You mean to waste the rest of your life waiting for him?" he asked.
Her hands gripped each other suddenly.
"You call it waste?" she said.
"It is waste," he made answer, "sheer, damnable waste. The boy was mad enough to sacrifice his own career—everything that he had—but it is downright infernal that you should be sacrificed too. Why should you pay the penalty for his madness? He was probably killed long ago, and even if not—even if he lived and came back—you would probably ask yourself if you had ever met him before."
"Oh, no!" Betty said. "No!"
She turned and looked out to the water that gleamed so peacefully in the moonlight.
"Do you know," she said, her voice very low, scarcely more than a whisper, "he asked me to marry him—five years ago—just before he went. It was my first proposal. I was very young, not eighteen. And—and it frightened me. I really don't know why. And so I refused. He said he would ask me again when I was older, when I had come out. I remember being rather relieved when he went away. It wasn't till afterwards, when I came to see the world and people, that I realized that he was more to me than any one else. He—he was wonderfully fascinating, don't you think? So strong, so eager, so full of life! I have never seen any one quite like him." She leaned her hands suddenly against a projecting stone buttress and bowed her head upon them. "And I—refused him!" she said.
The low voice went out in a faint sob, and the man's hands clenched. The next instant he had crossed the space that divided him from the slender figure in its white draperies that drooped against the wall.
He bent down to her.
"Betty, Betty," he said, "you're crying for the moon, child. Don't!"
She turned, and with a slight, confiding movement slid out a trembling hand.
"I have never told anyone but you," she said.
He clasped the quivering fingers very closely.
"I would sell my soul to see you happy," he said. "But, my dear Betty, happiness doesn't lie in that direction. You are sacrificing substance to shadow. Won't you see it before it's too late, before the lean years come?" He paused a moment, seeming to restrain himself. Then, "I've never told you before," he said, his voice very low, deeply tender. "I hardly dare to tell you now, lest you should think I'm trading on your friendship, but I, too, am one of those unlucky beggars that want to marry you. You needn't trouble to refuse me, dear. I'll take it all for granted. Only, when the lean years do come to you, as they will, as they must, will you remember that I'm still wanting you, and give me the chance of making you happy?"
"Oh, don't!" sobbed Betty. "Don't! You hurt me so!"
"Hurt you, Betty! I!"
She turned impulsively and leaned her head against him.
"Major Herne, you—you are awfully good to me, do you know? I shall never forget it. And if—if I were not quite sure in my heart that Bobby is still alive and wanting me, I would come to you, if you really cared to have me. But—but—"
"Do you mean that, Betty?" he said. His arm was round her, but he did not seek to draw her nearer, did not so much as try to see her face.
But she showed it to him instantly, lifting clear eyes, in which the tears still shone, to his.
"Oh, yes, I mean it. But, Major Herne, but——"
He met her look, faintly smiling.
"Yes," he said. "It's a pretty big 'but,' I know, but I'm going to tackle it. I'm going to find out if the boy is alive or dead. If he lives, you shall see him again; if he is dead—and this is the more probable, for it is no country for white men—I shall claim you for myself, Betty. You won't refuse me then?"
"Only find out for certain," she said.
"I will do that," he promised.
"But how? How? You won't go there yourself?"
"Why not?" he said.
Something like panic showed in the girl's eyes. She laid her hands on his shoulders.
"Monty, I don't want you to go."
"You would rather I stayed?" he said. He was looking closely into her eyes.
She endured the look for a little, then suddenly the tears welled up again.
"I can't bear you to go," she whispered. "I mean—I mean—I couldn't bear it if—if——"
He took her hands gently, and held them.
"I shall come back to you, Betty," he said.
"Oh, you will!" she said very earnestly. "You will!"
"I shall," said Montague Herne; and he said it as a man whose resolution no power on earth might turn.
No country for white men indeed! Herne grimly puffed a cloud of smoke into a whirl of flies, and rose from the packing-case off which he had dined.
Near by were the multitudinous sounds of the camp, the voices of Arabs, the grunting of camels, the occasional squeal of a mule. Beyond lay the wilderness, mysterious, silent, immense, the home of the unknown.
He had reached the outermost edge of civilization, and he was waiting for the return of an Arab spy, a man he trusted, who had pushed on into the interior. The country beyond him was a dense tract of bush almost impenetrable; so far as he knew, waterless.
In the days of the British expedition this had been an almost insuperable obstacle, but Herne was in no mood to turn back. Behind him lay desert, wide and barren under the fierce African sun. He had traversed it with a dogged patience, regardless of hardship, and, whatever lay ahead of him, he meant to go on. Hidden deep below the man's calm aspect there throbbed a fierce impatience. It tortured him by night, depriving him of rest.
Very curiously, the conviction had begun to take root in his soul also that Bobby Duncannon still lived. In England he had scouted the notion, but here in the heart of the desert everything seemed possible. He felt as if a voice were calling to him out of the mystery towards which he had set his face, a voice that was never silent, continually urging him on.
Wandering that night on the edge of the bush, with the camp-fires behind him, he told himself that until he knew the truth he would never turn back.
He lay down at last, though his restlessness was strong upon him, compelling his body at least to be passive, while hour after hour crawled by and the wondrous procession of stars wheeled overhead.
In the early morning there came a stir in the camp, and he rose, to find that his messenger had returned. The man was waiting for him outside his tent. The orange and gold of sunrise was turning the desert into a wonderland of marvellous colour, but Herne's eyes took no note thereof. He saw only his Arab guide bending before him in humble salutation, while in his heart he heard a girl's voice, low and piteous, "Bobby is still alive and wanting me."
"Well, Hassan?" he questioned. "Any news?"
The man's eyes gleamed with a certain triumph.
"There is news, effendi. The man the effendi seeks is no longer chief of the Zambas. They have been swallowed up by the Wandis."
Herne groaned. It was only what he had expected, but the memory of the boy's face with its eager eyes was upon him. The pity of it! The vast, irretrievable waste!
"Then he is dead?" he said.
The Arab spread out his hands.
"Allah knows. But the Wandis do not always slay their prisoners, effendi. The old and the useless ones they burn, but the strong ones they save alive. It may be that he lives."
"As a slave!" Herne said.
"It is possible, effendi." The Arab considered a moment. Then, "The road to the country of the Wandis is no journey for effendis," he said. "The path is hard to find, and there is no water. Also, the bush is thick, and there are many savages. But beyond all are the mountains where the Wandis dwell. It is possible that the chief of the Zambas has been carried to their City of Stones. It is a wonderful place, effendi. But the way thither, especially now, even for an Arab——"
"I am going myself," Herne said.
"The effendi will die!"
Herne shrugged his shoulders.
"Be it so! I am going!"
"But not alone, effendi." A speculative gleam shone in the Arab's wary eyes. He was the only available guide, and he knew it. The Englishman was mad, of course, but he was willing to humour him—for a consideration.
Herne saw the gleam, and his grim face relaxed.
"Name your price, Hassan!" he said. "If it doesn't suit me—I go alone."
Hassan smiled widely. Certainly the Englishman was mad, but he had a sporting fancy for mad Englishmen, a fancy that kept his pouch well filled. He had not the smallest intention of letting this one out of his sight.
"We will go together, effendi," he said. "The price shall not be named between us until we return in peace. But the effendi will need a disguise. The Wandis have no love for the English."
"Then I will go as your brother," said Herne.
The Arab bowed low.
"As traders in spice," he said, "we might, by the goodness of Allah, pass through to the Great Desert. But we could not go with a large caravan, effendi, and we should take our lives in our hands."
"Even so," said the Englishman imperturbably. "Let us waste no time!"
It had been his attitude throughout, and it had had its effect upon the men who had travelled with him. They had come to look upon him with reverence, this mad Englishman, who was thus calmly preparing to risk his life for a man whose bones had probably whitened in the desert years before. By sheer, indomitable strength of purpose Herne was accomplishing inch by inch the task that he had set himself.
A few days more found him traversing the wide, scrub-grown plateau that stretched to the mountains where the Wandis had their dwelling-place. The journey was a bitter one, the heat intense, the difficulties of the way sometimes wellnigh insurmountable. They carried water with them, but the need for economy was great, and Herne was continually possessed by a consuming thirst that he never dared to satisfy.
The party consisted of himself, Hassan, an Arab lad, and five natives. The rest of his following he had left on the edge of civilization, encamped in the last oasis between the desert and the scrub, with orders to await his return. If, as the Arab had suggested, he succeeded in pushing through to the farther desert, he would return by a more southerly route, giving Wanda as wide a berth as possible.
Thus ran his plans as, day after day, he pressed farther into the heart of the unknown country that the British had abandoned in despair over three years before. They found it deserted, in some parts almost impenetrable, so dense was the growth of bush in all directions. And yet there were times when it seemed to Herne that the sense of emptiness was but a superficial impression, as if unseen eyes watched them on that journey of endless monotony, as if the very camels knew of a lurking espionage, and sneered at their riders' ignorance.
This feeling came to him generally at night, when he had partially assuaged the torment of thirst that gave him no peace by day, and his mind was more at leisure for speculation. At such times, lying apart from his companions, wrapt in the immense silence of the African night, the conviction would rise up within him that every inch of their progress through that land of mystery was marked by a close observation, that even as he lay he was under surveillance, that the dense obscurity of the bush all about him was peopled by stealthy watchers whose vigilance was never relaxed.
He mentioned his suspicion once to Hassan; but the Arab only smiled.
"The desert never sleeps, effendi. The very grass of the savannah has ears."
It was not a very satisfactory explanation, but Herne accepted it. He put down his uneasiness to the restlessness of nerves that were ever on the alert, and determined to ignore it. But it pursued him, none the less; and coupled with it was the voice that called to him perpetually, like the crying of a lost soul.
They were drawing nearer to the mountains when one day the Arab lad, Ahmed, disappeared. It happened during the midday halt, when the rest of the party were drowsing. No one knew when he went or how, but he vanished as if a hand had plucked him off the face of the earth. It seemed unlikely that he would have wandered into the bush, but this was the only conclusion that they could come to; and they spent the rest of the day in fruitless searching.
Herne slept not at all that night. The place seemed to be alive with ghostly whisperings, and he could not bring himself to rest. He spent the long hours revolver in hand, waiting with a dogged patience for the dawn.
But when it came at last, in a sudden tropical stream of light illuminating all things, he knew that, his vigilance notwithstanding, he had been tricked. The morning dawned upon a deserted camp. The natives had fled in the night, and only Hassan and the camels remained.
Hassan was largely contemptuous.
"Let them go!" he said. "We are but a day's journey from Wanda. We will go forward alone, effendi. The chief of the Wandis will not slay two peaceful merchants who desire only to travel through to the Great Desert."
And so, with the camels strung together, they went forward. There was no attempt at concealment in their progress. The path they travelled was clearly defined, and they pursued it unmolested. But ever the conviction followed Herne that countless eyes were upon them, that through the depths of the bush naked bodies slipped like reptiles, hemming them in on every side.
They had travelled a couple of hours, and the sun was climbing unpleasantly high, when, rounding a curve of the path, they came suddenly upon a huddled figure. It looked at first sight no more than a bundle of clothes kicked to one side, too limp and tattered to contain a human form. But neither Herne nor his companion was deceived. Both knew in a flash what that inanimate object was.
Hassan was beside it in a moment, and Herne only waited to draw his revolver before he followed.
It was the boy, Ahmed, still breathing indeed, but so far gone that every gasp seemed as if it must be his last. Hassan drew back the covering from his face, and, in spite of himself, Herne shuddered; for it was mutilated beyond recognition. The features were slashed to ribbons.
"Water, effendi!" Hassan's voice recalled him; and he turned aside to procure it.
It was little more than a tepid drain, but it acted like magic upon the dying boy. There came a gasping whisper, and Hassan stooped to hear.
When, a few minutes later, he stood up, Herne knew that the end had come; knew, too, by the look in the Arab's eyes that they stood themselves on the brink of that great gulf into which the boy's life had but that instant slipped.
"The Wandis have returned from a great slaughter," Hassan said. "Their Prophet is with them, and they bring many captives. The lad wandered into the bush, and was caught by a band of spies. They tortured him, and let him go, effendi. Thus will they torture us if we go forward any longer." He caught at the bridle of the nearest camel. "The lust of blood is upon them," he said. "We will go back."
"Not so," Herne said. "If we go back we die, for the water is almost gone. We must press forward now. There will be water in the mountains."
Hassan glanced at him sideways. He looked as if he were minded to defy the mad Englishman, but Herne's revolver was yet in his hand, and he thought better of it. Moreover, he knew, as did Herne, that their water supply was not sufficient to take them back. So, without further discussion, they pressed on until the heat compelled them to halt.
It had seemed to Herne the previous night that he could never close his eyes again, but now as he descended from his camel, an intense drowsiness possessed him. For a while he strove against it, and managed to keep it at bay; but the sight of Hassan, curled up and calmly slumbering, soon served to bring home to him the futility of watchfulness. The Arab was obviously resigned to his particular fate, whatever that might be, and, since sleep had become a necessity to him, it seemed useless to combat it. What, after all, could vigilance do for him in that world of hostility? The odds were so strongly against him that it had become almost a fight against the inevitable. And he was too tired to keep it up. With a sigh, he suffered his limbs to relax and lay as one dead.
HE awoke hours after with an inarticulate feeling that someone wanted him, and started up to the sound of a rifle shot that pierced the stillness like a crack of thunder. In a second he would have been upon his feet, but, even as he sprang, something else that was very close at hand sprang also, and hurled him backwards. He found himself fighting desperately in the grip of an immense savage, fighting at a hopeless disadvantage, with the man's knees crushing the breath out of his body, and the man's hands locked upon his throat.
He struggled fiercely for bare life, but he was powerless to loosen that awful, merciless pressure. The barbaric face that glared into his own wore a devilish grin, inexpressibly malignant. It danced before his starting eyes like some hideous spectre seen in delirium, intermittent, terrible, with blinding flashes of light breaking between. He felt as if his head were bursting. The agony of suffocation possessed him to the exclusion of all else. There came a sudden glaze in his brain that was like the shattering of every faculty, and then, in a blood-red mist, his understanding passed.
It seemed to him when the light reeled back again that he had been unconscious for a very long time. He awoke to excruciating pain, of which he seemed to have been vaguely aware throughout, and found himself bound hand and foot and slung across the back of a camel. He dangled helplessly face downwards, racked by cramp and a fiery torment of thirst more intolerable than anything he had ever known.
Darkness had fallen, but he caught the gleam of torches, and he knew that he was surrounded by a considerable body of men. The ground they travelled was stony and ascended somewhat steeply. Herne swung about like a bale of goods, torn by his bonds, flung this way and that, and utterly unable to protect himself in any way, or to ease his position.
He set his teeth to endure the torture, but it was so intense that he presently fainted again, and only recovered consciousness when the agonizing progress ceased. He opened his eyes, to find the camel that had borne him kneeling, and he himself being bundled by two brawny savages on to the ground. He fell like a log, and so was left. But, bound though he was, the relief of lying motionless was such that he presently recovered so far as to be able to look about him.
He discovered that he was lying in what appeared to be a huge amphitheatre of sand, surrounded by high cliffs, ragged and barren, and strewn with boulders. Two great fires burned at several yards' distance, and about these, a number of savages were congregated. From somewhere behind came the trickle of water, and the sound goaded him to something that was very nearly approaching madness. He dragged himself up on to his knees. His thirst was suddenly unendurable.
But the next instant he was flat on his face in the sand, struck down by a blow on the back of the neck that momentarily stunned him. For a while he lay prone, gritting the sand in his teeth; then again with the strength of frenzy he struggled upwards.
He had a glimpse of his guard standing over him, and recognized the savage who had nearly strangled him, before a second crashing blow brought him down. He lay still then, overwhelmed in darkness for a long, long time.
He scarcely knew when he was lifted at last and borne forward into the great circle of light cast by one of the fires. He felt the glare upon his eyeballs, but it conveyed nothing to him. Over by the farther fire some festivity seemed to be in progress. He had a vague vision of leaping, naked bodies, and the flash of knives. There was a good deal of shouting also, and now and then a nightmare shriek. And then came the torment of the fire, great heat enveloping him, thirst that was anguish.
He turned upon his captors, but his mouth was too dry for speech. He could only glare dumbly into their evil faces, and they glared back at him in fiendish triumph. Nearer to the red glow they came, nearer yet. He could hear the crackle of the licking flames. They danced giddily before his eyes.
Suddenly the arms that bore him swung back. He knew instinctively that they were preparing to hurl him into the heart of the fire, and the instinct of self-preservation rushed upon him, stabbing him to vivid consciousness. With a gigantic effort he writhed himself free from their hold.
He fell headlong, but the strength of madness had entered into him. He fought like a man possessed, straining at his bonds till they cracked and burst, forcing from his parched throat sounds which in saner moments he would not have recognized as human, struggling, tearing, raging, in furious self-defence.
He was hopelessly outmatched. The odds were such as no man in his senses could have hoped to combat with anything approaching success. Almost before his bonds began to loosen, his enemies were upon him again. They hoisted him up, fighting like a maniac. They tightened his bonds unconcernedly, and prepared for a second attempt.
But, before it could be made, a fierce yell rang suddenly from the cliffs above them, echoing weirdly through the savage pandemonium, arresting, authoritative, piercingly insistent.
What it portended Herne had not the vaguest notion, but its effect upon the two Wandis who held him was instant and astounding. They dropped him like a stone, and fled as if pursued by furies.
As for Herne, he wriggled and writhed from the vicinity of the fire, still working at his bonds, his one idea to reach the water that he knew was running within a stone's throw of him. It was an agonizing progress, but he felt no pain but that awful, consuming thirst, knew no fear but a ghastly dread that he might fail to reach his goal. For a single mouthful of water at that moment he would have bartered his very soul.
His breathing came in great gasps. The sweat was running down his face. His heart beat thickly, spasmodically. His senses were tottering. But he clung tenaciously to the one idea. He could not die with his thirst unquenched. If he crawled every inch of the way upon his stomach, he would somehow reach the haven of his desire.
There came the padding of feet upon the sand close to him, and he cursed aloud and bitterly. It was death this time, of course. He shut his eyes and lay motionless, waiting for it. He only hoped that it might be swift; that the hellish torture he was suffering might be ended at a blow.
But no blow fell. Hands touched him, severed his bonds, dragged him roughly up. Then, as he staggered, powerless for the moment to stand, an arm, hard and fleshless as the arm of a skeleton, caught him and urged him forward. Irresistibly impelled, he left the glare of the fire, and stumbled into deep shadow.
Ten seconds later he was on his knees by a natural basin of rock in which clear water brimmed, plunged up to the elbows, and drinking as only a man who has known the thirst of the desert can drink.
He turned at last from that exquisite draught with the water running down his face. His Arab dress hung about him in tatters. He was bruised and bleeding in a dozen places. But the man's heart of him was alive again and beating strongly. He was ready to sell his life as dearly as he might.
He looked round for the native who had brought him thither, but it seemed to him that he was alone, shut away by a frowning pile of rock from the great amphitheatre in which the Wandis were celebrating their return from the slaughter of their enemies. The shouting and the shrieking continued in ghastly tumult, but for the moment he seemed to be safe.
The moon was up, but the shadows were very deep. He seemed to be standing in a hollow, with sheer rock on three sides of him. The water gurgled away down a narrow channel, and fell into darkness. With infinite caution he crept forward to peer round the jutting boulder that divided him from his enemies.
The next instant sharply he drew back. A man armed with a long, native spear was standing in the entrance.
He was still a prisoner, then; that much was certain. But his guard was single-handed. He began to consider the possibility of overpowering him. He had no weapon, but he was a practised wrestler; and they were so far removed from the yelling crowd about the fire that a scuffle in that dark corner was little likely to attract attention.
It was fairly obvious to him why he had been rescued from the fire. Doubtless his gigantic struggles had been observed by the onlooker, and he was considered too good a man to burn. They would keep him for a slave, possibly mutilate him first.
Again, stealthily, he investigated the position round that corner of rock. The man's back was turned towards him. He seemed to be watching the doings of the distant tribesmen. Herne freed himself from his ragged garment, and crept nearer. His enemy was of no great stature. In fact, he was the smallest Wandi that he had yet seen. He questioned with himself if he could be full grown.
Now or never was his chance, though a slender one at that, even if he escaped immediate detection. He gathered himself together, and sprang upon his unsuspecting foe.
He aimed at the native weapon, knowing the dexterity with which this could be shortened and brought into action, but it was wrenched from him before he could securely grasp it.
The man wriggled round like an eel, and in a moment the point was at his throat. Herne flung up a defending arm, and took it through his flesh. He knew in an instant that he was outmatched. His previous struggles had weakened him, and his adversary, if slight, had the activity of a serpent.
For a few breathless seconds they swayed and fought, then again Herne was conscious of that deadly point piercing his shoulder. With a sharp exclamation, he shifted his ground, trod on a loose stone, and sprawled headlong backward.
He fell heavily, so heavily that all the breath was knocked out of his body, and he could only lie, gasping and helpless, expecting death. His enemy was upon him instantly, and he marvelled at the man's strength. Sinewy hands encompassed his wrists, forcing his arms above his head. In the darkness he could not see his face, though it was close to his own, so close that he could feel his breathing, quick and hard, and knew that it had been no light matter to master him.
He himself had wholly ceased to fight. He was bleeding freely from the shoulder, and a dizzy sense of powerlessness held him passive, awaiting his deathblow.
But still his adversary stayed his hand. The iron grip showed no sign of relaxing, and to Herne, lying at his mercy, there came a fierce impatience at the man's delay.
"Curse you!" he flung upwards from between his teeth. "Why can't you strike and have done?"
His brain had begun to reel. He was scarcely in full possession of his senses, or he had not wasted his breath in curses upon a savage who was little likely to understand them. But the moment he had spoken, he knew in some subtle fashion that his words had not fallen on uncomprehending ears.
The hands that held him relaxed very gradually. The man above him seemed to be listening. Herne had a fantastic feeling that he was waiting for something further, waiting as it were to gather impetus to slay him.
And then, how it happened he had no notion, suddenly he was aware of a change, felt the danger that menaced him pass, knew a surging darkness that he took for death; and as his failing senses slid away from him he thought he heard a voice that spoke his name.
"BE still, effendi!"
It was no more than a whisper, but it pierced Herne's understanding as a burst of light through a rent curtain.
He opened his eyes wide.
"Hassan!" he said faintly.
"I am here, effendi." Very cautiously came the answer, and in the dimness a figure familiar to him stooped over Herne.
Herne tried to raise himself and failed with a groan. It was as if a red-hot knife had stabbed his shoulder.
"What happened?" he said.
"The effendi is wounded," the Arab made answer. "We are the prisoners of the Mullah. The Wandis would have slain us, but he saved us alive. Doubtless they will mutilate us presently as they are mutilating the rest."
Herne set his teeth.
"What is this Mullah like?" he asked, after a moment.
"A man small of stature, effendi, but very fierce, with the visage of a devil. The Wandis fear him greatly. When he looks upon them with anger they flee."
Herne's eyes were striving to pierce the gloom.
"Where on earth are we?" he said.
"It is the Mullah's dwelling-place, effendi, at the gate of the City of Stones. None may enter or pass out without his knowledge. His slaves brought me hither while the effendi was lying insensible. He cut my bonds that I might bandage the effendi's shoulder."
Again Herne sought to raise himself, and with difficulty succeeded. He could make out but little of his surroundings in the gloom, but it seemed to him that he was close to the spot where he had received his wound, for the murmur of the spring was still in his ears, and in the distance the yelling of the savages continued. But he was faint and dizzy from pain and loss of blood, and his investigations did not carry him very far. For a while he retained his consciousness, but presently slipped into a stupor of exhaustion, through which all outside influences soon failed to penetrate.
He dreamed after a time that Betty Derwent and he were sailing alone together on a stormy sea, striving eternally to reach an island where the sun shone and the birds sang, and being for ever flung back again into the howling waste of waters till, in agony of soul, they ceased to strive.
Then came the morning, all orange and gold, shining pitilessly down upon him, and he awoke to the knowledge that Betty was far away, and he was tossing alone on a sea that yet was no sea, but an endless desert of sand. Intense physical pain dawned upon him at the same time, pain that was anguish, thrilling through every nerve, so that he pleaded feverishly for death, not knowing what he said.
No voice answered him. No help came. He rocked on and on in torment through the sandy desolation, seeing strange visions dissolve before his eyes, hearing sounds to which his tortured brain could give no meaning. In the end, he lost himself utterly in the mazes of delirum, and all understanding ceased.
Long, long afterwards he came back as it were from a great journey, and knew that Hassan was waiting upon him, ministering to him, tending him as if he had been a child. He was too weak for speech, almost too weak to open his eyes, but the life was still beating in his veins. It was the turn of the tide.
Wearily he dragged himself back from the endless waste in which he had wandered, back to sanity, back to the problems of life. Hassan smiled upon him as a mother upon her infant, being not without cause for self-congratulation on his own account.
"The effendi is better," he said. "He will sleep and live."
And Herne slept, as a child sleeps, for many hours.
He awoke towards sunset to hear sounds that made him marvel—the cheerful clatter of a camp, the voices of men, the protests of camels.
It took him back to that last evening he had spent in contact with civilization, the evening he had finally set himself to conquer the unknown, in answer to a voice that called. How much of that mission had he accomplished, he asked himself? How far was he even yet from his goal?
He gazed with drawn brows at the narrow walls of the tent in which he lay, and presently, a certain measure of strength returning to him, he raised himself on his sound arm and looked about him.
On the instant he perceived the faithful Hassan watching beside him. The Arab beamed upon him as their eyes met.
"All is well, effendi," he said. "By the mercy of Allah, we have reached the Great Desert, and are even now in the company of El Azra, the spice merchant. We shall travel with his caravan in safety."
"But how on earth did we get here?" questioned Herne.
Hassan was eager to explain.
"We escaped by night from Wanda three days ago, the Prophet of the Wandis himself assisting us. You were wounded, effendi, and without understanding. The Prophet of the Wandis bore you on his camel. It was a journey of many dangers, but Allah protected us, and guided us to this oasis, sending also El Azra to our succour. It is a strong caravan, effendi. We shall be safe with him."
But here Herne suddenly broke in upon his complacence.
"It was not my intention to leave Wanda," he said, "till I had done what I went to do. I must go back."
"I must go back!" he reiterated with force. "Do you think, because I have been beaten once, I will give up in despair? I should have thought you would have known me better by now."
"But, effendi, there is nothing to be gained by going back," Hassan pleaded. "The man you seek is dead, and we are already fifty miles from Wanda."
"How do you know he is dead?" Herne demanded.
"From the mouth of the Wandi Prophet himself, effendi. He asked me whence you came and wherefore, and when I told him, he said, 'The man is dead.'"
"Is this Prophet still with us?" Herne asked.
"Yes, effendi, he is here. But he speaks no tongue save his own. And he is a terrible man, with the face of a devil."
"Bring him to me!" Herne said.
"He will come, effendi; but he will only speak of himself. He will not answer questions."
"Enough! Fetch him!" Herne ordered. "And you remain and interpret!"
But when Hassan was gone, his weakness returned upon him, and the bitterness of defeat made itself felt. Was this the end of his long struggle, to be overwhelmed at last by the odds he had so bravely dared? It was almost unthinkable. He could not reconcile himself to it. And yet at the heart of him lurked the conviction that failure was to be his portion. He had attempted the impossible. He had offered himself in vain; and any further sacrifice could only end in the same way. If Bobby Duncannon were indeed dead, his task was done; but he had felt so assured that he still lived that he could not bring himself to expel the belief. It was the lack of knowledge that he could not endure, the thought of returning to the woman he loved empty-handed, of seeing once more the soul-hunger in her eyes, and being unable to satisfy it.
No, he could not face it. He would have to go back, even though it meant to his destruction, unless this Mad Prophet could furnish him with proof incontestable of young Duncannon's death. He glanced with impatience towards the entrance. Why did the man delay?
He supposed the fellow would want backsheesh, and that thought sent him searching among his tattered clothing for his pocket-book. He found it with relief; and then again physical weakness asserted itself, and he leaned back with closed eyes. His shoulder was throbbing with a fiery pain. He wondered if Hassan knew how to treat it. If not, things would probably get serious.
The buzzing of a multitude of flies distracted his thoughts from this, and he began to long ardently for a smoke. He roused himself to hunt for his cigarette-case; but he sought in vain and finally desisted with a groan.
It was at this point that the tent-flap was drawn aside, admitting for a moment the marvellous orange glow of the sinking sun, and a man attired as an Arab came noiselessly in.
Herne lay quite still, regarding his visitor with critical eyes.
The latter stood with his back to the western glow. His face was more than half concealed by one end of his turban. He made no advance, but stood like a brazen image, motionless, inscrutable, seeming scarcely aware of the Englishman's presence.
It was Herne who broke the silence. The light was failing very rapidly. He raised his voice with a touch of impatience.