"Hassan, where are you?"
At that the stranger moved, as one coming out of a deep reverie.
"There is no need to call your servant," he said, halting slightly over the words. "I speak your language."
Herne opened his eyes in surprise. He knew that many of the Wandis had come in contact with Englishmen, but few of them could be said to have a knowledge of the language. He saw at a glance that the man before him was no ordinary Wandi warrior. His build was too insignificant, more suggestive of the Arab than the negro. His hands were like the hands of an Egyptian mummy, dark of hue and incredibly bony. He wished he could see the fellow's face. Hassan's description had fired his curiosity.
"So," he said, "you speak English, do you? I am glad to hear it. And you are the Mullah of Wanda, the man who saved my life?"
He received no reply whatever from the man in the doorway. It was as if he had not spoken.
Herne frowned. It seemed likely to be an unsatisfactory interview after all. But just as he was about to launch upon a fresh attempt, the man spoke, in a slow, deep voice that was not without a certain richness of tone.
"You came to Wanda—my prisoner," he said. "You left because I do not kill white men, and they are not good slaves. But if you return to Wanda you will die. Therefore be wise, and go back to your people, as I go to mine!"
Herne raised himself to a sitting position. His shoulder was beginning to hurt him intolerably, but he strove desperately to keep it in the background of his consciousness.
"Why don't you kill white men?" he said.
But the question was treated with a silence that felt contemptuous.
The glow without was fading swiftly, and the darkness was creeping up like a curtain over the desert. The weird figure standing upright against the door-flap seemed to take on a deeper mystery, a silence more unfathomable.
Herne began to feel as if he were in a dream. If the man had not spoken he would have wondered if his very presence were but hallucination.
He gathered his wits for another effort.
"Tell me," he said, "do you never use white men as slaves?"
Still that uncompromising silence.
"Three years ago, before the Wandis conquered the Zambas, there was a white man, an Englishman, who placed himself at their head, and taught them to fight. I am here to seek him. I shall not leave without news of him."
"The Englishman is dead!" It was as if a mummy uttered the words. The speaker neither stirred nor looked at Herne. He seemed to be gazing into space.
Herne waited for more, but none came.
"I want proof of his death," he said, speaking very deliberately. "I must know beyond all doubt when and how he died."
"The Englishman was burned with the other captives," the slow, indifferent voice went on. "He died in the fire!"
"What?" said Herne, with violence. "You devil! I don't believe it! I thought you did not kill white men!"
"He was not as other white men," came the unmoved reply. "The Wandis feared his magic. Fire alone can destroy magic. He died slowly but—he died!"
"You devil!" Herne said again.
His hand was fumbling feverishly at his bandaged shoulder. He scarcely knew what he was doing. In his impotent fury he sought only for freedom, not caring how he obtained it. Never in the whole of his life had he longed so overpoweringly to crush a man's throat between his hands.
But his strength was unequal to the effort. He sank back, gasping, half-fainting, yet struggling fiercely against his weakness. Suddenly he was aware of the blood welling up to his injured shoulder. He knew in an instant that the wound had burst out afresh; knew, too, that the bandage would be of no avail to check the flow.
"Fetch Hassan!" he jerked out.
But the man before him made no movement to obey.
"Are you going to stand by, you infernal fiend, and watch me die?" Herne flung at him.
A thick mist was beginning to obscure his vision, but it seemed to him that those last words of his took effect. Undoubtedly the man moved, came nearer, stooped over him.
"Go!" Herne gasped. "Go!"
He could feel the blood soaking through the bandage under his hand, spreading farther every instant.
This was to be the end, then, to lie at the mercy of this madman till death came to blot out all his efforts, all his hopes. He made a last feeble effort to stanch that deadly flow, failed, sank down exhausted.
It was then that a voice came to him out of the gathering darkness, quick and urgent, speaking to him, as it were, across the gulf of years:
"Monty, Monty, lie still, man! I'll see to you!"
That voice recalled Herne, renewed his failing faculties, galvanized him into life. The man with the mummy's hands was bending over him, stripping away the useless bandage, fashioning it anew for the moment's emergency. In a few seconds he was working at it with pitiless strength, twisting and twisting again till the tension told, and Herne forced back a groan.
But he clung to consciousness with all his quivering strength, bewildered, unbelieving still, yet hovering on the edge of conviction.
"Is it really you, Bobby?" he whispered. "I can't believe it! Let me look at you! Let me see for myself!"
The man beside him made no answer. He had snatched up the first thing he could find, a fragment of a broken tent-peg, to tighten the pressure upon the wound.
But, as if in response to Herne's appeal, he freed one hand momentarily, and pushed back the covering from his face. And in the dim light Herne looked, looked closely; then shut his eyes and sank back with an uncontrollable shudder.
"Merciful Heaven!" he said.
"Monty, I say! Monty!"
Again the gulf of years was bridged; again the voice he knew came down to him. Herne wrestled with himself, and opened his eyes.
The man in Arab dress was still kneeling by his side, the skeleton hands still supported him, but the face was veiled again.
He suppressed another violent shudder.
"In Heaven's name," he said, "what are you?"
"I am a dead man," came the answer. "Don't move! I will call your man in a moment, but I must speak to you first. Do you feel all right?"
"Bobby!" Herne said.
"No, I am not Bobby. He died, you know, ages ago. They cut him up and burned him. Don't move. I have stopped the bleeding, but it will easily start again. Lean back—so! You needn't look at me. You will never see me again. But if I hadn't shown you—once, you would never have understood. Are you comfortable? Can you listen?"
"Bobby!" Herne said again.
He seemed incapable of anything but that one word, spoken over and over, as though trying to make himself believe the incredible.
"I am not Bobby," the voice reiterated. "Put that out of your mind for ever! He belonged to another life, another world. Don't you believe me? Must I show you—again? Do you really want to talk with me face to face?"
"Yes," Herne said, with abrupt resolution. "I will see you—talk with you—as you are."
There was a brief pause, and he braced himself to face, without blenching, the thing that a moment before, his soldier's training notwithstanding, had turned him sick with horror. But he was spared the ordeal.
"There is no need," said the familiar voice. "You have seen enough. I don't want to haunt you, even though I am dead. What put it into your head to come in search of me? You must have known I should be long past any help from you."
"I—wanted to know," Herne said. He was feeling curiously helpless, as if, in truth, he were talking with a mummy. All the questions he desired to put remained unuttered. He was confronted with the impossible, and he was powerless to deal with it.
"What did you want to know? How I died? And when? It was a thousand years ago, when those damned Wandis swallowed up the Zambas. They took me first—by treachery. Then they wiped out the entire tribe. The poor devils were lost without me. I always knew they would be—but they made a gallant fight for it." A thrill of feeling crept into the monotonous voice, a tinge of the old abounding pride, but it was gone on the instant, as if it had not been. "They slaughtered them all in the end," came in level, dispassionate tones, "and, last of all, they killed me. It was a slow process, but very complete. I needn't harrow your feelings. Only be quite sure I am dead! The thing that used to be my body was turned into an abomination that no sane creature could look upon without a shudder. And as for my soul, devils took possession, so that even the Wandis were afraid. They dare not touch me now. I have trampled them, I have tortured them, I have killed them. They fly from me like sheep. Yet, if I lead, they follow. They think, because I have conquered them, that I am invincible, invulnerable, immortal. They cringe before me as if I were a god. They would offer me human sacrifice if I would have it. I am their talisman, their mascot, their safeguard from defeat, their luck—a dead man, Herne, a dead man! Can't you see the joke? Why don't you laugh?"
Again the grim voice thrilled as if some fiendish mirth stirred it to life.
Herne moved and groaned, but spoke no word.
"What? You don't see it? You never had much sense of humour. And yet it's a good thing to laugh when you can. We savages don't know how to laugh. We only yell. That is all you wanted to know, is it? You will go back now with an easy mind?"
"As if that could be all!" Herne muttered.
"That is all. And count yourself lucky that I haven't killed you. It was touch and go that night you attacked me. You may die yet."
"I may. But it won't be your fault if I do. Great Heaven, I might have killed you!"
"So you might." Again came that quiver of dreadful laughter. "That would have been the end of the story for everyone, for you wouldn't have got away without me. But that was no part of the program. Even you couldn't kill a dead man. Feel that, if you don't believe me!" Suddenly one of the shrivelled, mummy hands came down to his own. "How much life is there in that?"
Herne gripped the hand. It was cold and clammy; he could feel every separate bone under the skin. He could almost hear them grind together in his hold. He repressed another shudder; and even as he did it, he heard again the bitter cry of a woman's wrung heart, "Bobby is still alive and wanting me."
Would she say that when she knew? Would she still reach out her hands to this monstrous wreck of humanity, this shattered ruin of what had once been a tower of splendid strength? Would she feel bound to offer herself? Was her love sufficient to compass such a sacrifice? The bare thought revolted him.
"Are you satisfied?" asked the voice that seemed to him like a mocking echo of Bobby's ardent tones. "Why don't you speak?"
A great struggle was going on in Herne's soul. For Betty's sake—for Betty's sake—should he hold his peace? Should he take upon himself a responsibility that was not his? Should he deny this man the chance that was his by right—the awful chance—of returning to her? The temptation urged him strongly; the fight was fierce. But—was it because he still grasped that bony hand?—he conquered in the end.
"I haven't told you yet why I came to look for you," he said.
"Is it worth while?" The question was peculiarly deliberate, yet not wholly cynical.
Desperately Herne compelled himself to answer.
"You have got to know it, seeing it was not for my own satisfaction—primarily—that I came."
"Why then?" The brief query held scant interest; but the hand he still grasped stirred ever so slightly in his.
Herne set his teeth.
"No one ever wanted me," said the Wandi Mullah curtly.
But Herne had tackled his task, and he pursued it unflinching.
"I came for the sake of a woman who once—long ago—refused to marry you, but who has been waiting for you—ever since."
"A woman?" Undoubtedly there was a savage note in the words. The shrunken fingers clenched upon Herne's hand.
"Betty Derwent," said Herne very quietly.
Dead silence fell in the darkened tent—the silence of the desert, subtle, intense, in a fashion terrible. It lasted for a long time; so long a time that Herne suffered himself at last to relax, feeling the strain to be more than he could bear. He leaned among his pillows, and waited. Yet still, persistently, he grasped that cold, sinuous hand, though the very touch of it repelled him, as the touch of a reptile provokes instinctive loathing. It lay quite passive in his own, a thing inanimate, yet horribly possessed of life.
Slowly at last through the darkness a voice came:
It was hardly more than a whisper; yet on the instant, as if by magic, all Herne's repulsion, his involuntary, irrepressible shrinking, was gone. He was back once more on the other side of the gulf, and the hand he held was the hand of a friend.
"My dear old chap!" he said very gently.
Vaguely he discerned the figure by his side. It sat huddled, mummy-like but it held no horrors for him any longer. They were not face to face in that moment—they were soul to soul.
"I say—Monty," stumblingly came the words, "you know—I never dreamed of this. I thought she would have married—long ago. And she has been waiting—all these years?"
"All these years," Herne said.
"Do you think she has suffered?" There was a certain sharpness in the question, as if it were hard to utter.
And Herne, pledged to honesty, made brief reply:
There followed a pause; then:
"Will it grieve her—very badly—to know that I am dead?" asked the voice beside him.
"Yes, it will grieve her." Herne spoke as if compelled.
"But she will get over it, eh?"
"I believe so." Herne's lips were dry; he forced them to utterance.
The free hand fastened claw-like upon his arm.
"You'll tell me the straight truth, man," said Bobby's voice in his ear. "What if I—came to life?"
But Herne was silent. He could not bring himself to answer.
"Speak out!" urged the voice—Bobby's voice, quick, insistent, even imploring. "Don't be afraid! I haven't any feelings left worth considering. She wouldn't get over that, you think? No woman could!"
Herne turned in desperation, and faced his questioner.
"God knows!" he said helplessly.
Again there fell a silence, such a silence as falls in a death-chamber at the moment of the spirit's passing. The darkness was deepening. Herne could scarcely discern the figure by his side.
The hand upon his arm had grown slack. All vitality seemed to have gone out of it. It was as though the spirit had passed indeed. And in the stillness Herne knew that he was recrossing the gulf, that his friend—the boy he had known and loved—was receding rapidly, rapidly behind the veil of years, would soon be lost to him for ever.
The voice that spoke to him at length was the voice of a stranger.
"Remember," it said, "Bobby Duncannon is dead—has been dead for years! Let no woman waste her life waiting for him, for he will never return! Let her marry instead the man who wants her, and put the empty years behind! In no other way will she find happiness."
"But you?" Herne groaned. "You?"
The hand he held had slipped from his grasp. Through the dimness he saw the man beside him rise to his feet. A moment he stood; then flung up his arms above his head in a fierce gesture of renunciation that sent a stab of recollection through Herne.
"I! I go to my people!" said the Prophet of the Wandis. "And you—will go to yours."
It was final, and Herne knew it; yet his heart cried out within him for the friend he had lost. Suddenly he found he could not bear it.
"Bobby! Bobby!" he burst forth impulsively. "Stop, man, stop and think! There must be some other way. You can't—you shan't—go back!"
He hardly knew what he said, so great was his distress. The gulf was widening, widening, and he was powerless. He knew that it could never be bridged again.
"It's too big a forfeit," he urged very earnestly. "You can't do it. I won't suffer it. For Betty's sake—Bobby, come back!"
And then, for the last time, he heard his friend's voice across the ever-widening gulf.
"For Betty's sake, old chap, I am a dead man. Remember that! It's you who must go back to her. Marry her, love her, make her—forget!"
For an instant those mummy hands rested upon him, held him, caressed him; it was almost as if they blessed him. For an instant the veil was lifted; they were comrades together. Then it fell....
There came a quiet movement, the sound of departing feet.
Herne turned and blindly searched the darkness. Across the gulf he cried to his friend to return to him.
"Bobby, come back, lad, come back! We'll find some other way."
But there came no voice in answer, no sound of any sort. The desert had received back its secret. He was alone....
"Now, don't bother any more about me!" commanded Betty Derwent, establishing herself with an air of finality on the edge of the trout stream to which she had just suffered herself to be conducted by her companion. "I am quite capable of baiting my own hook if necessary. You run along up-stream and have some sport on your own account!"
The companion, a very young college man, looked decidedly blank over this kindly dismissal. He had been manoeuvring to get Betty all to himself for days, but, since everybody seemed to want her, it had been no easy matter. And now, to his disgust, just as he was congratulating himself upon having gained his end and secured a tete-a-tete that, with luck, might last for hours, he was coolly told to run along and amuse himself while she fished in solitude.
"I say, you know," he protested, "that's rather hard lines."
"Don't be absurd!" said Betty. "I came out to catch fish, not to talk. And you are going to do the same."
"Oh, confound the fish!" said the luckless one.
Nevertheless, he yielded, seeing that it was expected of him, and took himself off, albeit reluctantly.
Betty watched him go, with a faint smile. He was a nice boy undoubtedly, but she much preferred him at a distance.
She sat down on the bank above the trout-stream, and took a letter from her pocket. It had reached her the previous day, and she had already read it many times. This fact, however, did not deter her from reading it yet again, her chin upon her hand. It was not a lengthy epistle.
"DEAR BETTY," it said, "I am back from my wanderings, and I am coming straight to you; but I want you to get this letter first, in time to stop me, if you feel so inclined. It is useless for me to attempt to soften what I have to say. I can only put it briefly, just because I know—too well—what it will mean to you. Betty, the boy is dead, has been dead for years. How he died and exactly when, I do not know; but I have certified the fact of his death beyond all question. He died at the hands of the Wandis, when his own men, the Zambas, were defeated. So much I heard from the Wandi Mullah himself, and more than that I cannot tell you. My dear, that is the end of your romance, and I know that you will never weave another. But, that notwithstanding, I am coming—now, if you will have me—later, if you desire it—to claim you for myself. Your happiness always has and always will come first with me, and neither now nor hereafter shall I ever ask of you more than you are disposed to give.—Ever yours,"
Very slowly Betty's eyes travelled over the paper. She read right to the end, and then suffered her eyes to rest for a long time upon the signature. Her fishing-rod lay forgotten on the ground beside her. She seemed to be thinking deeply.
Once, rather suddenly, she moved to look at the watch on her wrist. It was drawing towards noon. She had sent no message to delay him. Would he have travelled by the night train? But she dismissed that conjecture as unlikely. Herne was not a man to do anything headlong. He would give her ample time. She almost wished—she checked the sigh that rose to her lips. No, it was better as it was. A man's ardour was different from a boy's; and she—she was a girl no longer. Her romance was dead.
A slight sound beside her, a footstep on the grass! She turned, looked, sprang to her feet. The vivid colour rushed up over her face.
"You!" she gasped, almost inarticulately.
He had come by the night train after all.
He came up to her quite quietly, with that leisureliness of gait that she remembered so well.
"Didn't you expect me?" he said.
She held out a hand that trembled.
"Yes, I—I knew you would come; only, you see, I hardly thought you would get here so soon."
"But you meant me to come?" he said.
His hand held hers closely, warmly, reassuringly. He looked into her face.
For a few seconds she evaded the look with a shyness beyond her control; then resolutely she mastered herself and met his eyes.
"Yes, I meant you to come. I am glad you are back. I—" She broke off suddenly, gazing at him in consternation. "Monty," she exclaimed, "you never told me you had been ill!"
He smiled at that, and her agitation began to subside.
"I am well again, Betty," he said.
"Oh, but you don't look it," she protested. "You look—you look as if you had suffered—horribly. Have you?"
He passed the question by. "At least, I have managed to come back again," he said, "as I promised."
"I—I am thankful to see you again," she faltered her shyness returning upon her. "I've been—desperately anxious."
"On my account?" said Herne.
She bent her head. "Yes."
"Lest I shouldn't come back?"
"Yes," she said again.
"But I told you I should," He was still holding her hand, trying to read her downcast face.
"Oh, I knew you would if you could," said Betty. "Only—I couldn't help thinking—of what you said about—about sacrificing substance to—shadow. It—was very wrong of me to send you."
She spoke unevenly, with obvious effort. She seemed determined that he should not have that glimpse into her soul which he so evidently desired.
"My dear Betty," he said, "I went on my own account as much as on yours. I think you forget that. Or are you remembering—and regretting—it?"
She had begun to tremble. He laid a steadying hand upon her shoulder.
"No," she said faintly. Then swiftly, impulsively, she raised her face. "Major Herne, I—I want to tell you something—before you say any more."
"What is it, Betty?" he said.
"Just this," she made answer, speaking very quickly. "I—I am not good enough for you. I haven't been—straight with you. I've been realizing it more and more ever since you went away. I—I'm quite despicable. I've been miserable about it—wretched—all the time you have been away."
Herne's face changed. A certain grimness came into it.
"But, my dear girl," he said, "you never pretended to be in love with me."
She drew a sharp breath of distress.
"I know," she said. "I know. And I let you go to that dreadful place, though I knew—before you went—that, whatever happened, it could make no difference to me. But I hadn't the courage to tell you the truth. After what passed between us that night, I felt—I couldn't. And so—and so—I let you go, even though I knew I was deceiving you. Oh, do forgive me if you can! I've had my punishment. I have been nearly mad with anxiety lest any harm should come to you."
"I suppose I ought to be grateful for that," Herne said. He still looked grim, but there was no anger about him. He had taken his hand from her shoulder, but he still held her trembling fingers in his quiet grasp. "Don't fret!" he said. "Where's the use? I shall get over it somehow. If you are quite sure you know your own mind, there is no more to be said." He spoke with no shadow of emotion. His eyes looked into hers with absolute steadiness. He even, after a moment, very faintly smiled. "Except good-bye!" he said. "And perhaps the sooner I say that the better."
But at this point Betty broke in upon him breathlessly, almost incoherently.
"Major Herne, I—I don't understand. You—you can say good-bye, of course—if you wish. But—it will be by your own choice if you do."
"What?" he said.
She snatched her hand suddenly from him.
"I suppose you mean to punish me, to make me pay for my—idiocy. You—you think—"
"I think that either you or I must be mad," said Herne.
"Then it's you!" flung back Betty half hysterically. "To imagine for one moment that I—that I meant—that!"
"Meant what?" A sudden note of sternness made itself heard in Herne's voice. He moved a step forward, and took her shoulders between his hands, looking at her closely, unsparingly. "Betty," he said, "let us at least understand one another! Tell me what you meant just now!"
She faced him defiantly
"I didn't mean anything."
He passed that by.
"Why did you ask my forgiveness?"
She made a sharp gesture of repudiation.
"What was there to forgive?" he insisted.
"I—I am not going to tell you," said Betty, with great distinctness.
Again he overlooked her open defiance.
"You are afraid. Why?"
"I'm not!" said Betty almost fiercely.
"You are afraid," he repeated deliberately, "afraid of my finding out—something. Betty, look at me!"
Her face was scarlet. She turned it swiftly from him.
"Let me go!"
"Look at me!" he repeated.
She began to pant. She was quivering between his hands like a wild thing caught. "Major Herne, it isn't fair of you! Let me go!"
"Never, Betty!" He spoke with sudden decision; but all the grimness had gone from his face. "You may as well give in, for I have you at my mercy. And I will be merciful if you do, but not otherwise."
"How dare you?" gasped Betty almost inarticulately.
"I dare do many things," said Montague Herne, with a smile that was not all mirthful. "How long have you left off crying for the moon? Tell me!"
"I won't tell you anything!" protested Betty.
"Yes, you will. I have got to know it. If you will only give in like a wise woman, you will find it much easier."
His voice held persuasion this time. For a little she made as if she would continue to resist him; then impulsively she yielded.
"Oh, Monty!" she said, with a sob; and the next moment was in his arms.
He held her close.
"Come!" he said. "You can tell me now."
"I—don't know," whispered Betty, her face hidden. "You—frightened me by being so ready to go away again. I couldn't help wondering if it had been just kindness that prompted you to come to me. It—I suppose it wasn't?" A startled note of interrogation sounded in her voice. She was trembling still.
"Betty, Betty!" he said.
"Forgive me!" she whispered back, "You see, I couldn't have endured that, because I—love you. No, wait; I haven't finished. I want you to know the truth. I've been sacrificing substance to shadow, reality to dreams, all my life—all my life. But that night—the night I took you into my confidence—you opened my eyes. I began to see what I was doing. But I hadn't the courage to tell you so, and it seemed not quite fair to Bobby so I held my peace.
"I let you go. But I knew—I knew before you went—that even if you found him, even if you brought him back, even if he cared for me still, I should have nothing to give him. My feeling for him was just a dream from which I had awakened. Oh, Monty, I was yours even then; and I kept it back. That was why I wanted your forgiveness."
Breathlessly she ended, and in silence he heard her out. He was holding her very closely to him, but his eyes looked beyond her, as though they searched a far horizon.
"Do you understand?" whispered Betty at last.
He moved, and the look in his eyes changed. It was as if the horizon narrowed.
"I understand," he said.
She lifted her face, with a gesture half shy, half confiding.
"Are you going to forgive me, Monty? I—I've paid a big price for my foolishness—bigger than you will ever know. I kept asking myself—asking myself—whatever I should do if you—if you brought him back."
"Poor child!" he said. "Poor little Betty!"
She clung to him suddenly.
"Oh, wasn't I an idiot? And yet, somehow, I feel so treacherous. Monty—Monty, you're sure he is dead?"
"Yes, he is dead," said Herne deliberately.
She drew a deep breath.
"I'm so thankful he never knew!" she said. "I—I don't suppose he really cared, do you? Not enough to spoil his life?"
"God knows!" said Montague Herne very gravely.
* * * * *
"Hullo!" said Betty's fellow-sportsman, making his appearance some time later. "Getting on for grub-time, eh? How have you got on? Why, I thought you came out to fish, and not to talk! Who on earth——"
"My fiance," said Betty quickly.
"Your—Hullo! Why, it's Major Herne! Delighted to see you! Had no idea you were in this country. Thought you were hunting big game somewhere in Africa."
"I was," said Herne. "I—had no luck. So I came home."
"Where—presumably—you found it! Congratulations! Betty, I'm pleased!"
"How nice of you!" said Betty.
"Yes, it is rather, all things considered. How ever, I suppose even I must regard it as a blessing in disguise. Perhaps, when you are married, you will kindly leave off breaking all our hearts for nothing!"
"Perhaps you will leave off being so foolish as to let them be broken," returned Betty, with spirit.
"Ah, perhaps! Not very likely though I fear. Hearts are tender things—eh, Major Herne? And when someone like Betty comes along there is sure to be some damage done. It's the penalty we have to pay for being only human."
"Ah, well, you soon get over it," said Betty quickly.
"How do you know that? I may perhaps, if I'm lucky; but there are exceptions to every rule. Some of us go on paying the penalty all our lives."
A moment's silence followed the light words. Betty apparently had nothing to say.
And then: "And some of us don't even know the meaning of the word!" said Montague Herne.