"Really, Michel, you are detestable! It was not enough. The 'mate' lost his footing, and the lantern broke. Oh, it's cruel . . . after nearly three weeks . . ."
Her voice broke, and Michael, thankful to see her again, took one of her hands and drew her towards him.
"Pauvre cherie," he said more gently. "Don't break your heart over it. Send a note to say you'll come to-morrow, and cheer me up a bit now, like the sweet sister you are."
There was nothing else to be done. Arming an adventurous sais with Maurice's lantern, an alpenstock, and two notes tied up in a scrap of oiled silk, Quita choked down her misery, and did her utmost to comply with his request. But the meal was only a partial success, for the rebellious heart of her was out there in the rain, following the notes to their destination.
They did not reach it till well after eight o'clock, when those who awaited her had given up all hope, and were just sitting down to dinner.
Lenox still wore his arm in a sling, and the lines in his face looked deeper than usual. Otherwise he was quite himself again. The anxiety in his eyes gave place to dejection as Honor handed him Quita's note.
"Shall I open it for you?" she added gently.
He frowned, and thanked her. There are few things more galling to a man than helplessness over trifles. He laid the open note beside his plate, and its half-dozen lines of love took him an amazingly long while to read: for Quita, like many spontaneous natures, had the gift of making herself almost seen and heard by means of a few written words. He tried to win comfort from the thought that it was only a matter of getting through eighteen hours, after all, and roused himself resolutely to a fair semblance of cheerfulness. But both husband and wife were too keenly sympathetic to be quite successful in their attempts to change the current of his thoughts; and their own hearts were heavy with a great anxiety for Desmond's life-long friend, Paul Wyndham. A phenomenal downpour at Dera Ishmael had produced a prolific crop of fever cases, and Wyndham's had taken a serious turn. The last two days had brought such disquieting news that Desmond was already half-inclined to throw up the rest of his leave and go straight down to Paul's bedside. The possibility of broaching the subject to his wife that night so absorbed his mind that surface conversation was an effort; and all three were thankful when the meal was over.
"Bring your coffee and cigars into the drawing-room, and we'll have some music," Honor said, as they rose from the table, and Lenox looked his gratitude. Intimate speech of any kind, even with Desmond, was anathema to him just then, and his full heart went out to this woman, whose genius for divining others' needs was so unerring, because her sympathies were so deep and true.
He determined to put Quita out of his head for the evening, if she would consent to stay there; and less than five minutes after this triumph of common-sense, a slight stir in the verandah roused him to unreasoning hope that it might be she after all. But it was only Amar Singh, the bearer, with a telegram for Desmond.
His heart stood still as he tore it open; then a stifled sound of dismay brought Honor instantly to his side.
"Dearest—what is it?" she asked under her breath.
For answer he handed her the flimsy scrap of paper, and went quickly into the next room. Honor's eyes took in the curt statement at a glance.
"Leave cancelled. Return at once. Infantry for cholera camp. None of ours yet. Wyndham worse. High temperature persists. Condition critical."
A low sound escaped her, and she passed the telegram to Lenox. It was from her brother, Colonel Meredith, now in command of the regiment.
"A double blow," she murmured mechanically. "By this time it may be—all over!"
Her lips quivered, but she did not follow her husband, knowing that in the first bewilderment of grief he would prefer to be alone. And Lenox had no answer for her; had, in fact, scarcely heard what she said. Then, as his brain grasped the latter half of the telegram, he glanced at her. He had never seen her look less like herself.
"I'm afraid this has hit you hard," he said, with more of feeling in his eyes than he knew how to put into his tone. "But you mustn't take the worst for granted. Desmond won't, if I know anything of him."
"I hope not. But this is . . . Paul; and you don't know what that means to us both. Besides . . . the saints of the earth are always taken too soon."
"No, not always. Fate does sometimes make mistakes on the right side . . . by accident," he added grimly. "I suppose one of these has gone to the Strawberry Bank. I must send Zyarulla off at once to get my traps together. It means starting first thing."
She looked at him in surprise.
"Yes. But not you, surely. You're hardly fit for duty yet."
"Nonsense. Barring my arm, I'm fit for anything. And if we're in for cholera, I don't see myself leaving Dick to handle the Battery without me."
"You're bound to ask Dr O'Malley's permission, though."
"Yes, worse luck. But I fancy I shall square him. At the same time—it's hard lines——"
He broke off short. The thing did not bear speaking of.
"It is bitterly hard lines, for you both," Honor answered, looking away from him. But she knew the best men of her service too well to suggest that, without straining a point, he might honestly be declared unfit for duty.
"At least it will be a comfort to her having you here," he went on mechanically, because the thing had to be said somehow. "I'll leave a note, of course, but I'd be grateful if you'd take it for me some time in the morning. She may not understand how impossible it is for a man to hold back—on any pretext, at a time like this, and I know I can trust you to make things clear to her. You're more than half a soldier yourself."
"So I ought to be!" Honor answered, inexpressibly touched by his confidence in her. "And of course I would go to her if I were here. But to-morrow I shall be on my way back to Dera with you both."
"Dera!—But that would be madness. Do you suppose Desmond would ever hear of such a thing?"
"I haven't supposed anything about it yet," she answered, smiling. "I only know that I can't let him go down into—all that, alone. Now I must say good-night, and go to him. We'll make all arrangements for the journey," she added, as they shook hands, "and Zyarulla will do the packing for you. So be sure and get some sleep when you have seen Dr O'Malley."
His face hardened.
"I only know one way to make sure of that," he said, avoiding her eyes.
"Oh, no, no; not that way, please."
"I imagine it'll be that or none," he answered almost roughly, as he turned away, and with a sigh Honor followed her husband into the dining-room.
He sat with his back to her, elbows planted on the writing-table, his head between his hands. But at her approach he looked up, and with a sharp contraction of heart she saw that tears stood in his eyes. A woman takes small account of her own wet lashes, but a man's tears are like drops of blood wrung from the heart.
Honor took his head between her hands, and kissed him, long and tremulously. After that there seemed no need for words on the subject nearest their hearts.
"You knew why I didn't come sooner?" was all she said, and Desmond pressed the hand resting on his shoulder. Then, seating herself opposite him on the edge of the table, she glanced at the telegraph form lying before him.
"Are you wiring for more news?"
"Yes. I want an 'urgent,' care of the Station-master, to catch me at Lahore to-morrow night, and another at Thung dak bungalow next day; unless . . . of course . . ."
"Hush, hush. You must not think of that."
He frowned, and was silent. The two men loved one another as men linked by half a lifetime of toil and ambition learn to love,—or hate; and in the face of a calamity so unthinkable, even Desmond's incurable hopefulness was shaken.
"Captain Lenox believes he will be allowed to go," Honor went on after a pause. "But he's hardly fit for it, is he?"
"Not quite, perhaps, though he's made of iron under it all, and if he's set on going, I don't fancy O'Malley will stand in his way."
"I told him we would make all travelling arrangements, and you'll be sending Dunni out with this, I suppose?"
"Yes. At once. Why?"
"Because I want him to take a note to Mrs Rivers at the same time."
"Mrs Rivers? Would you sooner go to her than stay on here?"
"Do you really imagine I shall stay on here?"
"Why not? It would save the trouble of moving; and you wouldn't feel lonely with the little chap for company."
"But, you dear, foolish man, can't you see that it's you I want?" And she leaned forward, speaking quickly to stave off interruption. "Don't make a fuss about it, please; because I have settled everything in my mind. I'll ask Mrs Rivers to take baby and Parbutti for me. I know she gladly will. As for me, of course I go down to Dera to-morrow, and do what I can for you all."
At that Desmond straightened himself; and Honor foresaw one of those pitched battles, which, between natures equally imperious and hot-headed, were unavoidable from time to time; while Desmond, because he meant to have his own way, dared not let her see how profoundly he was moved by this culminating proof of her devotion.
"My dear Honor, the thing is out of the question," he said decisively. "It's splendid of you even to think of coming down. But it would be unpardonable in me to allow it, so be a sensible woman and put the notion out of your head, once for all. You know you could never bear to leave little Paul when it came to the point."
"I could . . . I could. Oh, Theo, don't be unreasonable over this."
"The unreasonableness is yours, my dear. If this is going to be bad, we may all be off into camp before the week's out."
"Well, then, Frank would take me in . . . and at least I should be on the spot—in case . . . Oh, Theo, I must come! Why on earth shouldn't I be there just as much as Frank, and that little missionary woman, Mrs Peters?"
"Frank" Olliver, a Major's wife, was the only other woman in the regiment, and hill stations were not (as she would have expressed it) "in her line." But Desmond was immovable.
"That's quite another matter. Being there already, they naturally wouldn't desert their post. But you are here, thank God, safe out of it all; and I must insist on your remaining here, if it's only for my sake." A half smile dispelled the gravity of his face. "I've a notion that when you married me you promised, among other things, to obey me!"
"Well, I was driven to. It was the only way to get you. But I'm sure most of us make that promise with mental reservations. In certain cases I should not dream of obeying you, Theo, and this is one!"
"But if I flatly refuse to take you with me?"
"I suppose I should have to follow on alone."
He looked at her straightly for a moment. Then: "I don't think you would deliberately defy me, Honor," he said in a level tone. "I couldn't put up with that, even from you."
There was a short silence. She saw that in direct opposition to his will she could go no further. But the woman who loves, and knows herself beloved, has subtler weapons at command. Setting her two hands upon his shoulders, and bringing her beautiful face very close to his, Honor returned her husband's look with a smile so mutely beseeching, that his fortitude, already undermined by the news from Dera, began to waver, and she saw it.
"My very dearest," she said, on a low note of tenderness, "of course I would never defy you. But don't break my heart by pushing me on one side, and leaving me up here alone, idle, anxious, when there is real work—woman's work—waiting to be done down there. I'm as strong as a church, you know that. And I could help with Paul when he is convalescent. We could have him in the bungalow. I know separation is bound to come some day. But not in this terrible fashion, and not yet. Please, Theo, not yet."
Then, because tears threatened, she leaned down till her forehead rested against his shoulder, and furtively dried her lashes with the back of her hand. When a strong woman lays aside her strength, and relies on the inherent power of her womanhood, no man on earth is a match for her. Desmond could only surrender at discretion, and take her altogether to himself.
"And you began by saying you would never defy me!" he whispered into her ear. "What else do you call this, I wonder? You incurable woman! Is it really because you are so keen to help, or chiefly because you want to be in my pocket? Which?"
"Chiefly because I want to be in your pocket," she answered without shame, and he kissed her bowed head.
"But mind you," his tone changed abruptly, "I have no business to give in to you; and if any harm should come of it, I could never forgive myself. I believe I should blow my brains out on the spot."
At that she lifted her head and stood up beside him.
"Theo, you shall not say such dreadful things."
"It's no more than the truth," he answered, with a touch of defiance. "Lord, how you women, and the children you give us, complicate life for a man! Yet it's not worth a brass farthing without you both."
"Thank you for owning that much!—Now I must write my note, and see about packing. Come up soon, dear. There's an endless deal to do before we can think of going to bed."
On his way up to join her twenty minutes later, Desmond looked into Lenox's small room. Zyarulla had strewn the floor with books, boots, clothes, and a couple of boxes, preparatory to going into action. His master, enveloped in a cloud of blue smoke, sat afar off directing the plan of campaign. A great peace pervaded his aspect, and the unmistakable fragrance that filled the room brought two deep lines into Desmond's forehead.
"Just looked in to find out how you were getting on," said he. "Not seen O'Malley already, have you?"
"No. But his verdict is a foregone conclusion, so we're going ahead with things. Your wife's not really coming, is she?"
"Yes. I did my best to prevent it; but there's no gainsaying her."
"Great Scott, she's a plucky woman! You must have plenty to see to both of you. Don't let me keep you, old chap, I'm all right."
"Glad to hear it. You'll sleep. That's certain. But I wish to goodness you'd given Nature a chance."
"Nature wouldn't have given me a chance," the other answered with sudden heat. "And there's a limit to what a man can stand. By the way," he added in an altered tone, "I can't tell you how sorry I am about Wyndham. But you must hope for the best."
"Thanks," Desmond answered quietly. "Good-night."
The door of his wife's room stood ajar, and in passing it to go to his dressing-room, his thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a muffled sob. Treading softly, he pushed the door open, and looked in.
A night-light in the basin, and one candle on the dressing-table showed him a tall white figure bending over the rail of the cot where his son lay asleep. Honor had discarded her dinner dress for a light wrapper, and her loosened hair fell in a dusky mass almost to her knees.
For a few seconds Desmond stood watching her, uncertain whether to intrude upon her grief or no. He knew her peculiar dread of separation from those she loved, knew that throughout the sixteen mouths of her child's life she had never left him for more than a few hours except to go to Chumba, and then not without remonstrance. Yet she was leaving him now of her own free will, for an indefinite time, and in the full knowledge of the grim possibilities ahead. It is in such rare moments of revelation that a man realises dimly what it may mean for a woman dowered with the real courage and dignity of self-surrender to give herself to him; that he is vouch-safed a glimpse into that mystery of love, which cynics of the decadent school dismiss as "amoristic sentiment," a fictitious glorification of mere natural instinct. But Desmond took a simpler, more reverential view of a quality which he believed to be the most direct touch of the Divine in man, and which he had proved to be the corner-stone of his wife's character.
He went forward at length, but so noiselessly that Honor had no idea of his presence till his arms came round her from behind, and drew her up so close against him that her wet cheek touched his own.
"Theo . . . that wasn't fair!" she protested with a little broken laugh.
"Not quite. But I couldn't resist it."
Then they stood silent, looking down at the sleeping child.
He lay on his back, one half-opened hand flung high above his head, and the fair soft face, in its halo of red-gold hair, bore the impress of the angelic, that only comes with sleep, and vanishes like magic at the lifting of the eyelids.
Suddenly Desmond tightened his hold of her, and by a mutual impulse their lips met.
"Our frailties are invincible, our virtues barren; and the battle goes sore against us to the going down of the sun."—R.L.S.
The rain, which had set in with such quiet determination at sunset, fulfilled its promise of continuing through the night: and the pattering on the slates that had mingled with Quita's latest thoughts greeted her, with derisive iteration, when she opened her eyes next morning. But its power to thwart her was at an end. Now that daylight was come, nothing short of a landslip could withhold her from the thing she craved. The thought leaped in her brain before she was fully awake. "And after all, why should I wait till the afternoon," was her practical conclusion. "I'll go down at eleven."
With that she sprang out of bed, and slipping on a dull blue dressing-gown, hurried into the dining-room, where she and Michael always met for chota hazri.
Here she found him, in Japanese smoking suit and slippers, smiling contentedly over an item of his early post.
"What's pleasing you, mon cher?" she asked absently, depositing a light kiss on his hair. For a woman in love—and a man no less—is as royally indifferent to the joys and sorrows of all creation as childhood itself.
"A letter from my pretty Puritan. It is not for nothing that she has those straight brows, and that small resolute chin. She will not be thrust down any man's throat for all the hen-sparrows in Christendom!"
"Why—what does she say?" Quita asked, peering critically into the teapot, and wondering how it would feel to pour out Eldred's early tea!
"Listen then; and judge for yourself:
"'DEAR MR MAURICE,—-There seems to have been an unlucky misunderstanding between you and mother yesterday. But I hope this need not make any real difference in our friendship. Because I think we have always understood each other, haven't we? Of course if my parents prefer that we should not be about together quite so much, there is no help for it. But at least I would like you to know that I am still, as I always have been, your friend (if you wish it)
"Tiens! How is that for your 'child of twenty'? It is the letter of a woman; and a woman with an exquisite sense of her own dignity into the bargain."
Quita smiled thoughtfully as she buttered her toast.
"I am wondering how she would have answered if you had asked her," was all she said. "I don't feel quite so certain as I did last night."
"Ni moi non plus. Which makes the situation just twice as interesting. For all the Button Quail's beak and claws, I fancy I shall see more of my Undine yet!"
With a chuckle of satisfaction, he fell to re-reading Elsie's note: and Quita, immersed in her own affairs, promptly forgot them both.
An hour later she reappeared—her whole face and form radiating the light within; went straight to her easel, flung aside its draperies, and surveying her work of the previous day, found it very good. But there were certain lines and shadows that displeased her critical eye. She would study his face afresh this morning, with the twofold appreciation of heart and brain, and surprise him with the picture when it was nearer completion.
Just then the bearer, entering, handed her a note. She opened it eagerly—recognising Eldred's handwriting—and read, with a bewilderment bordering on despair, the stoical statement of facts set down by Lenox in the first bitterness of disappointment, ten hours ago. The shock staggered her like a blow between the eyes. Her lips parted and closed on a soundless exclamation. The abrupt change in her face was as if a light had been suddenly blown out.
"Mon Dieu, . . . cholera!" she murmured helplessly, putting one hand over her eyes as if to shut out the horror of it. "This is my punishment for ever having let him go."
Then, as if in hope of discovering some mitigation of her sentence, she re-read the short letter, lingering on the last paragraph, which alone contained some ray of comfort, some assurance of the strong love that was at once the cause and the anodyne of their mutual pain.
"And now, my dearest" (Lenox wrote), "what more can I say, except—be of good courage, and write to me often. The rest, and there's a good deal of it, can't be put upon paper. That's the curse of separation. Start a picture, and throw your heart into your work, as I must into mine. God knows when I shall see you again. But trust me, Quita, as soon as ever I can, and dare, to put an end to this intolerable state of things.—Till then, and always, your devoted husband,——E. L."
It was the first time he had signed himself thus: and the envelope was addressed 'Miss Maurice'! The irony of it cut her to the quick. Tears of self-pity, flooding her eyes, startled her back to reality; and sent her stumbling towards her own room. But before she could reach it, Michael's voice arrested her.
"Come on, Quita," he shouted good-humouredly. "Where are you off to? I want my breakfast."
She turned upon him a face distorted with grief.
"Parbleu, cherie, qu'y-a-t'il a maintenant?" he demanded, with an odd mingling of irritation and concern.
"Cholera at Dera Ishmael—Eldred's gone down this morning. . . ." Then tears overwhelmed her, and he turned sharply away. "Oh go, . . . go, and have your breakfast, Michel; and let me be. I want nothing, nothing, but to be left alone."
And vanishing into her room, she bolted the door behind her.
Maurice frowned, and sighed. In all his knowledge of her, Quita had never so completely lost her self-control. It was quite upsetting: and he disliked being upset the first thing in the morning. It put him out of tune for the rest of the day. But after all . . one must eat. And he retraced his steps to the dining-room.
"I wish to heaven she had never discovered this uncomfortable husband of hers!" he reflected as he went "Since he will neither marry her, nor leave her alone; and it is we who have to suffer for his heroics!"
For all that, he found speedy consolation in the thought that at ten o'clock a new 'subject' was coming to sit to him:—a wrinkled hag, whom he had met on his way back from Jundraghat, bent half double under a towering load of grass, her neutral-tinted tunic and draped trousers relieved by the scarlet of betel-nut on her lips and gums, and by a goat's-hair necklet strung with raw lumps of amber and turquoise, interset with three plaques of beaten silver;—the only form of savings bank known to these simple children of the hills.
While hastily demolishing his breakfast, Maurice visualised his picture in every detail: and with the arrival of his model all thought of Quita and her woes was crowded out of his mind. Yet the man was not heartless, by any means. He was simply an artist of the extreme type, endowed by temperament with the capacity for subordinating all things,—his own griefs no less than the griefs of others,—to one dominant, insatiable purpose. And according to his lights he must be judged.
Quita remained invisible till lunch-time, lying inert, where she had flung herself, upon her unmade bed.
The first tempest of misery, and rebellion, and self-castigation had given place to sheer exhaustion. For even suffering has its limitations; which is perhaps the reason why grief rarely kills. All the springs of life seemed suddenly to have run down. Her spirit felt crushed and broken by the obstructiveness of all about her. The strain of the past three weeks, following upon a severe shock, had told upon her more than she knew; and this morning's sharp revulsion of feeling brought her near to purely physical collapse.
And while she lay alone through two endless hours, tracing designs from the cracks in the whitewashed wall, one conviction haunted her with morbid persistence. Because she had not valued him in the beginning, because she had repudiated him in a moment of wounded pride, he would be taken from her, now that heart and soul were set upon him, and she would never see him again. It was useless to argue that the idea was childish; a mere nightmare of overwrought nerves. It persisted and prevailed, till she felt herself crushed in the grip of a relentless, impersonal Force, against which neither penitence nor tears would avail.
Finally, worn out with pain and rebellion, she fell asleep.
BOOK III.-THE TENTS OF ISHMAEL.
"Leave the what at the what's-its-name, Leave the sheep without shelter; Leave the corpse uninterred, Leave the bride at the altar." —Kipling.
Even in a land where danger and discomfort flourish like the ungodly, that journey from the cedar-crowned Himalayas to the white hot flats of the Derajat, with the Punjab furnace in full swing, was an experience not readily forgotten by the three who set out upon it in the dripping grey dawn of a July morning. Before them stretched two nights and three days of pure martyrdom, aggravated by that prince of evils—a troubled mind: for the Desmonds a haunting anxiety, and for Lenox the harassing realisation that his own strength or weakness during the next few months stood for no less than the happiness or misery of the only woman on earth. It is this irrevocable fusion of two lives, and the network of responsibilities arising from an act less simple than it seems, that constitute the strength, the charm, the tragedy of marriage: and a dim foreknowledge of its complexity dawned upon Lenox during his penitential progress into a land of fire and death.
Throughout their fifty mile descent to the foot-hill terminus it rained perseveringly. But toward evening the clouds parted, and an hour of sunshine set the drenched earth steaming like a soup kettle when the lid is lifted off. Desmond had ordained that Lenox and his wife should be carried down in doolies; an indignity to which they submitted under protest: and Honor, scrambling out of her prison through an opening level with the ground, passed quite gratefully from its stuffy twilight, redolent of sodden canvas and humanity, to the smell of hot wood and leather that pervaded the sun-saturate railway carriage awaiting them in Pathankot station.
With the unhurried deftness of an experienced pilgrim, she set about making the place cooler, and more habitable; drew up all the window-shutters; opened her bedding roll; and taking possession of Lenox, established him, with tender imperiousness, in the least stifling corner, a pillow set lengthways behind him. He leaned against it, and closed his eyes.
"Head bad?" she asked a little anxiously. For the concussion headache is no child's play, and ten hours in a doolie might breed neuralgia in a cannon-ball.
"Pretty average. Nothing to trouble about." The assurance was not convincing: and she gleaned the truth from two deep lines in his forehead.
"I'm going to make you some tea in a minute," she announced cheerfully, opening her basket, and clamping a travelling spirit-lamp to the woodwork above the seat. "Real tea. Not the stewed leaves and water we should pay six annas for outside! There's half a dozen of soda, three pints of champagne, a fowl, and an aspic in the icebox under your seat. But tea would be best now. We'll keep the rest for your dinners."
He opened his eyes and smiled at her.
"You've a remarkable talent for spoiling a man!"
"It's one I'm very proud of," she answered simply: and leaning out of the open doorway, caught sight of her husband striding down the platform, closely followed by an army of coolies, two bearers, and two pessimistic-looking dogs on chains. "Theo," she called, "do leave that eternal luggage to Amar Singh, and come and be spoilt! We're going to have tea."
Before the train jolted out of the station, she had served it to them in large cups, an insubstantial biscuit in each saucer: for it is drink, not food, that a man wants when the thermometer stands at 110 degrees in the shade.
At Umritsur the train halted for half an hour. The thermometer had not fallen with the sun; and when the faint breeze of their going died down, there seemed to be no air left to breathe.
Lenox dined regally out of the ice-box: while Desmond and Honor, silencing his protests by flight, carried off iced soda and a whisky-flask to the frowsy, airless refreshment room, where they wrestled undismayed with curried kid, the ubiquitous chicken cutlet, and two plates of discoloured water,—flavoured with jharron,—that masqueraded as clear soup. Two quarrelsome Eurasians shared their table. A punkah that may once have been white waggled officiously overhead. But for all that the flies were lords of the meal; and enjoyed it far better than those who paid for it.
"Thank God for my good dinner!" Desmond muttered with a wry face as he put down his money. "You must supplement it out of Lenox's rations, old lady. Hukm hai . . . sumja?" 
She laughed and shrugged her shoulders. Having won the victory that mattered, she could afford to be submissive over trifles.
An hour or so before midnight, they clanked into Lahore station—a big-bastioned building, whose solid masonry breathed fire, as literally as any dragon of romance. Within was a great darkness, partially dispelled by hanging oil-lamps; and babel enough to wake the Seven Sleepers. The uninitiated arriving at an Indian railway station are apt to imagine that a riot of some sort must be in progress. But it is only the third-class passenger, whose name is legion, fighting, tooth and nail, for the foot of space due to every possessor of the precious morsel of cardboard tucked into the folds of his belt: because he knows, from harsh experience, that when the train moves on more than a few will be left disconsolate, to watch its unwinking eye vanish out of their ken:—bewildered adventurers, for many of whom the "fire-carriage" still remains a new-fangled god, who feeds on coal and water, and can only be propitiated by repeated offerings of that wonder-working hieroglyph—the tikkut.
At Lahore passengers to Dera change into the night mail for Mooltan: and almost before the train drew up Desmond was out on the platform, pushing his way, purposefully, through a mass of jostling, shouting, perspiring humanity:—Sikhs, Punjabi farmers, moneylenders, 'fat and scant of breath,' women of all ages, with apathetic babies, in round cap and necklet, astride upon their hips. In the station-master's office he found the fateful red envelope awaiting him; and broke the seal with a shaking hand.
"Crisis over. Condition more hopeful. Will wire Jhung."
"Thank God!" he muttered, choking down a lump that had risen in his throat. Then, elbowing his way back to where Honor and Lenox stood guard over a disordered pile of luggage, he thrust the paper into her hand.
"We'll bring him round between us, you and I," he said, as she looked up; and she nodded contentedly, her eyes deep in his. He could no longer regret having given way to her; and she knew it!
They were not the only English passengers in the Mooltan train. Two Dera subalterns, who had fled posthaste from Simla, stood smoking outside their carriage:—Hodson, the 'slacker' of the Battery, a small sallow individual, with heavy-lidded eyes, and a disagreeable mouth; and Major Olliver's 'sub,' Bobby Nixon, who answered indiscriminately to half a dozen names, but was officially registered as The Chicken, a tribute to his cheerful lack of wisdom, worldly or otherworldly, and to the sparse crop of 'down' that surmounted an extensive freckled face, and shadowed a mouth whose one beauty lay in its readiness to smile capaciously upon the world at large.
As Honor and Lenox came towards him, the said mouth screwed itself into a low whistle.
"Great Scott, Mrs Desmond, . . but this is flagrant heroism! Who'd have dreamt of meeting you here?"
"A pleasant surprise, I hope," she asked, smiling, as they shook hands.
"Why, of course it's always good to see you," the boy answered, looking upon her with frank admiration. "And you bet we're proud to have our ladies facing the music with us. But still . . cholera's cholera; and it looks like a record year. They've got it hot and strong at Mian Mir. Two of the Norfolks came down the hill with us, swearing like Billy O. Been up less than a fortnight; and there's a masked ball on at the Club to-morrow. Oh Lord, it's a lively country! Poor old Hodson only got a week in Simla; and he has fever on him still."
Lenox glanced quizzically at the man he desired to weed out of his beloved Battery by the simple means of making him work.
"Hard luck," he remarked; a suspicion of irony in his tone. And Hodson, anathematising under his breath India in general, and the Frontier in particular, strolled off down the platform, head in air. There was little love lost between him and a commandant for whom work was the backbone of life.
Just then, through the open windows of the next carriage, there came forth a voice of thunder—articulate, unparliamentary thunder: and Lenox, with a touch of friendly authority, drew Honor farther away.
"That's old Buckstick," Bobby explained genially. "Giving it to his poor devil of a bearer, because he wants to hit out at some one. They say in the regiment that some fool of a palmist told him to beware of cholera; and I believe the old chap's in a blue funk. Queer thing, funk. Put that man on an unbroken horse, or in the thick of a hand-to-hand scrimmage, and he wouldn't know the meaning of fear. Yet now . . ."
His dissertation was interrupted by the appearance at the window of Colonel Stanham Buckley of the Punjab Infantry, who mopped a moist bald head, and inquired picturesquely of a passing official when the blank this blankety blank train was supposed to start. Then catching sight of a woman's figure, he vanished, with a final incoherent explosion, slamming up the window-shutter behind him.
How the devil, he asked himself furiously, should a sane man expect to find an Englishwoman hanging about Lahore station on a murderous night of July? The idea that she might be travelling to Dera never entered his head. His own wife, after five years of Frontier vicissitudes,—aggravated by debt, and the tyranny of 'little drinks at mess,'—had developed pronounced views on the duties of motherhood. These had led to a house in Surrey, which, for one reason or another, it had never yet seemed feasible to give up: and Buckley had consoled himself after the fashion of his kind, with hard drinking, hard riding, and hard swearing,—the only form of Trinity recognised by a certain type of man.
And as he opened his ice-box, and helped himself to a stiff 'nightcap' before turning in, Desmond joined the group outside.
"Come on, you two," he said, grasping an arm of each, "Dogs and luggage, and carriage all square. We shall be off in a minute. Only half an hour behind time! See you again at Chichawutni, Nick. Don't lie too flat, and get apoplexy. We can't afford to lose willing men!"
They met again, all six of them, on the Chichawutni platform, in a dry hot dawn; for they were nearing the desolation of the Sindh Sagar desert, where the monsoon is a negligible quantity. Lenox, who had neither slept nor smoked all night, looked rather more ragged than usual in the clear light; but otherwise seemed to be bearing the journey well. 'Old Buckstick,' as he had been christened by irreverent juniors, raised his hat to Honor from a distance; and wondered what the hell women of that sort were made of.
Early breakfast over, they set out upon a six hours' tonga drive to Jhung; an isolated civil station fifty miles off the line of rail. Tortured India was already awake and astir; and along an interminable road of fine white dust, covered with straw, they sped at a hand-gallop between converging lines of sheesham-trees, with clank and rattle and incessant tooting of horns, scattering the unhurried traffic of the open road:—a procession of five tongas loaded to the limit of allowance with human beings, dogs, saddles, and battered boxes. In all directions the unprofitable land rolled level to the sky-line. Every seven or eight miles they stopped to change ponies. Every hour the heat and glare grew fiercer; the clangour of wheels and tonga-bar more assertive, till it seemed to beat on bared nerves; and the terrible thirst of the Frontier took hold upon the dust-filled throats of dog and man alike.
It is possible to compress a good deal of discomfort into six hours: and the Dak Bungalow, in its noonday quiet and comparative coolness, seemed an Island of the Blest after the glare and riot of the road. Here the Desmonds were cheered by a reassuring telegram; and here all rested till after sundown, when the pitiless tongas claimed them again; and all night long they fled across the open desert over a track of straw, through an interminable darkness strewn with stars.
Now and again a handful of these, seemingly dropped to earth, heralded a changing station, and a halt for fresh ponies. Here would be brief and blessed respite; a moment to stretch cramped limbs: moving lights that revealed shadowy shapes of men and horses: much apostrophising of the Prophet, interspersed with questionable jokes and laughter: and the voice of the pariah, roused from light sleep, or the absorbing pursuit of fleas. Here also Colonel Buckley would wake up, and confound creation in smothered expletives, mindful of Honor's presence; and on one occasion Hodson was heard confiding to the Chicken his determination to 'get quit of this blasted Frontier' on the first opportunity. Whereat Lenox lost his apathy, and turned upon Desmond, who walked beside him.
"Listen to that now! By Jove, he shall get his opportunity sooner than he thinks for. We can't have young skrimshankers of his kidney patronising the finest service in India."
"Get Richardson to give him a taste of the swimming-bath, in his mess kit, when the cold weather comes!" Desmond suggested with a laugh. "I've known that knock the nonsense out of some of 'em."
Lenox nodded thoughtfully.
"I'm not over-partial to that form of argument," said he. "But in this case, I believe I should rather enjoy it."
Then the voice of the driver requested the Heaven-borne to return to their seats: and they were off again, full clatter, half a dozen pariahs speeding their progress. Honor, by her own choice, shared the back seat with her husband in comparative comfort. His enclosing arm shielded her, as far as might be, from the incessant jolting; and from time to time, in utter weariness, her head sank upon his shoulder, and she slept, while the two men smoked and talked fitfully in undertones.
Such primitive journeyings are fast becoming obsolete in the India of to-day, where the railway stretches its antennae in all directions, and the horn of the motor has been heard beyond Chaman. Yet, for all their obvious discomforts, they possessed their own peculiar flavour of interest and charm.
Dawn showed them the Indus at last: a sheet of tarnished silver, five miles wide, sprawling over the colourless country, its normal banks submerged by the rush of water from the hills: and behind them day sprang out of the east, 'a tyrant with a flaming sword.'
Through eight blazing hours that sword hung bared above them. For their ferry-boat was a native barge, persuaded rather than propelled in any given direction by oars as long as punt poles; and set with one unwieldy sail that could neither be tacked nor furled; but which provided them, for a time, with a patch of burning shadow, by no means to be despised. In it they smoked and picnicked, and made merry with cards and dogs, to the best of their ability; while erratic currents bore them from sandbank to sandbank; each collision involving an interlude of shouting, shoving, coaxing, and upbraiding on the part of four assiduous boatmen; and when, by the mercy of God and the river, they managed to run aground on the farther side, it was nearing four o'clock in the afternoon.
Here were more tongas awaiting their prey: and this time the travellers hailed them gratefully: for the swollen river had almost invaded the gardens of outlying bungalows; and a short gallop brought them at last into the straggling station, whose name literally signifies the Tents of Ishmael. But the day of tents had long since given place to the day of spacious, square-shouldered bungalows, with pillared verandahs, set in the midst of rambling compounds, where the ferasch and banana flourished in dusty luxuriance, while orange, pomegranate, hybiscus, and poinsettia,—to say nothing of marigolds and roses,—blazed regally in the blossoming season with scarlet, and crimson gold. A bird's-eye view of the station itself might have suggested to the imaginative eye a game of noughts and crosses scratched on a Titanic slate:—a network of wide white roads, unrelieved by curve or undulation; their rigidity emphasised by equidistant lines of trees, and whitewashed gate-posts, innocent of gates.
Into one of these openings three out of the five tongas finally clattered and stood still; and a familiar brogue gave them greeting from the verandah.
"Praise the Powers, ye've got here at last! We'd begun to think you might be setting up house on a sandbank for the night!"
"We've had our fill of 'em without that, Frank," Desmond answered as he sprang from his seat.
For the voice was the voice of Mrs Olliver, a rough-cut Irishwoman, whose short reddish curls, and masculinity of speech and manner, cloaked the woman's heart that glowed deep down in her,—a jewel crusted with common clay. Beside her stood Max Richardson, and Colonel Meredith—a big, broad-shouldered man, extraordinarily like his sister in face and temperament—who cleared the steps like any subaltern, lifted Honor out of the tonga, and kissed her on both cheeks.
"You've no earthly business to be here, you know," he reprimanded her by way of greeting. "I'll tell Theo what I think of him, when I get him alone!"
"No, please, John, you mustn't," she entreated in a low tone. "He did his best to prevent me. But I meant to come . . . and I came!"
"I thought as much, when I got his wire!" Then, still keeping hold of her, he shook hands with Desmond. "Mighty glad to get you back, Theo: and to see you looking so fit. You'll find your work cut out, I promise you."
"So much the better. Any cases?"
"Not yet, thank God. We must steer clear of camp, if the thing can be done. But the fever's bad enough. They're dropping like flies in the city, poor devils. Our hospital's crammed; and two 'subs' on the sick-list at well as Wyndham. He's going on all right now; but goodness knows when he'll be fit for duty."
"I want to see Mackay about getting him over here as soon as possible. May I borrow Suliman, and ride round at once?"
"When you've got outside a fair allowance of tea and sandwiches. Not a minute sooner!"
"Tea? Rather not. But I'd sell my immortal soul for an iced peg!"
While they talked, Max Richardson had led his friend into the lofty shadowed drawing-room, that, in spite of a thermometer at 96 degrees, struck cool as a grotto after the furnace without: and Frank Olliver, consigning Honor to the largest arm-chair, herself presided at the tray; apologising, in characteristic fashion, for having temporarily 'taken over charge.'
"But bossing the show's one of me few talents; an' I'm not for wrapping it in a napkin. Geoff swears I took over charge of creation before I'd cut me first tooth! Any way it struck me that perhaps in the hustle of starting you'd not thought of sending full instructions; so I just came over this morning, and made free with your linen cupboard, an' your bazaar account. For I know how it feels to come back to a dead house at this time of year.—Lord, there's that Theo man off again; incarnate whirlwind that he is! He'll get Major Wyndham over here to-morrow, sure as fate; though the good man refused my pressing invitation a week ago. And 'tis the first time one o' me own brother officers has denied me the only kind o' Woman's Rights this child's ever likely to clamour for!"
"Hear, hear, Mrs Olliver!" Meredith and Richardson applauded her, as she held out both hands for their tea-cups; and Lenox smiled amused approval from the depths of his chair.
When Desmond returned an hour later, he found Lenox's luggage in the verandah, awaiting removal, and Lenox himself sitting alone in the drawing-room with Brutus and his pipe. It rested on his knee, held in place by the finger-tips emerging from his sling; and as Desmond entered he was scientifically pressing its contents into place with the ball of his thumb.
Impulsively the other hurried forward, and laid an arresting hand on his arm.
"Not that again, surely, old chap," he said, a note of anxiety in his voice. "Do you quite realise how many times you have filled it in the last thirty-six hours?"
Lenox's fingers closed like a vice upon his treasure.
"Can't say I've troubled to keep count," he answered in a hard voice. "And I'm damned if I can see what right you have to take me to task about it."
"Not a shadow of right," Desmond owned frankly, "Except that I care immensely what comes to you, and to that plucky wife of yours who has honoured me with her friendship; and whom I am hoping to welcome here—as Mrs Lenox before many months are out."
The shot took affect. With a listless movement Lenox let his fingers fall apart, and the pipe rolled on to the rug at his feet. Here Brutus lazily investigated it as a possible treasure trove; and after a puzzled sniff or two lifted inquiring ears to his master, who was looking absently in another direction.
Then Desmond stooped, and picked it up.
"Will you let me empty it, and fill it from my own pouch?" he asked quietly: and Lenox gave silent assent.
"No doubt I seem to you a contemptible brute enough," he added bitterly, while the transfer of tobaccos was in progress. "And no doubt you're not far wrong either. But if you could get inside my head for a few hours, you might possibly understand."
"My dear Lenox, it is just because I understand that I'm keen to do what little I can for you, even at the risk of being damned for officiousness! If your head's giving you trouble, why not take a genuine dose of the stuff last thing; and get a night of solid rest before you start work? That seems to me safer than trifling with poison in the form of tobacco. You know yourself you'd make a square stand against the naked drug. It's the little 'nips,' the small capitulations, that do the damage in the long-run."
He held out the pipe: and Lenox, clenching his teeth upon it, proceeded to set it alight.
"Say what you please about things in future, Desmond."
He spoke without removing his eyes from the match he was manipulating. "I swear I won't take it amiss again." Then he rose abruptly. "But I must be off now. I only waited to see you, and—thank you before leaving. You've the knack of putting fresh heart into a fellow when he feels played out."
Desmond eyed the man thoughtfully for a second before replying. Every line of him proclaimed utter weariness of soul and body.
"Anything ready for you over there?" said he.
"Not that I know of. But Zyarulla will shake things down in no time."
"All the same, as your luggage is handy, why not stop on here? You'd be uncommonly welcome; and I know Honor would be glad to keep an eye on you for a while longer."
The invitation, given on the spur of the moment, took Lenox aback.
"But, my good chap, . . . you've got Wyndham coming over."
"Yes. Thank God. To-morrow or next day. No distaste for Paul's company, have you?"
Lenox smiled, and shook his head.
"Hang it all, Desmond, you know what I mean. You and your wife have done too much for me already. There are limits to a man's capacity for sponging on other folks' generosity."
"Well, if that's your only objection, we'll consider the matter settled! Wyndham goes into my dressing-room; so the boy's nursery is at your service. My wife is never so happy as when she has her hands full; and it'll be less trying for you here, than in your own empty bungalow."
The last words flashed a suspicion into Lenox's mind.
"Look here, man," he broke out hotly, his eyes searching Desmond's face. "Isn't it you yourself who would be glad to keep an eye on me? You're half afraid I shall knock under to this infernal thing if I'm too much alone. Is that it?"
Desmond met question and glance four-square.
"You gave me leave just now not to mince matters, and I take you at your word," said he. "To acknowledge that living alone may make the fight harder for you is no reflection on your powers of resistance. It is simple fact; and no earthly good can come of disregarding it. In your case discretion is the better part of valour.—Now, will you be reasonable, and accept my suggestion in the spirit in which it was made?"
He held out his hand. Lenox grasped, and wrung it hard.
"Thanks, old chap," he said. "I'll stay for the present. There's no withstanding you two."
That night he excused himself from mess: and long after the house and compound had fallen asleep, he and Desmond sat together in the dufta, with pipes and pegs, and softly snoring dogs at their feet, talking intermittently of all things in earth and heaven, with the rare unreserve bred of tobacco, and the communicative influence of midnight. Talk of this kind draws men very close together; and in the course of it Lenox discovered—as others had done before him—that this man who had become so intimately linked with the vital issues of his life was no mere good comrade, but a dynamic force, challenging and evoking the manhood of his friends.
When they parted Lenox felt more hopeful than he had done since the arrival of Quita's note; and honest sleep hung heavy on his eyelids.
"Don't believe you need the dose we spoke of after all," Desmond remarked on a note of satisfaction.
"Not a bit of it. Thanks to you, I believe I shall sleep like a top."
Nor was he disappointed.
For the first time in fifty-six hours he took his fill of natural dreamless sleep: and, on waking next morning, the first sight that greeted him was a letter from Dalhousie, propped against the milk-jug on his early tea tray.
 It is an order—you understand!
"And methought that beauty and terror were only one, not two; And the world has room for love and death, and thunder and dew; And all the sinews of Hell slumber in summer air; And the face of God is a rock; but the face of the rock is fair." —R.L.S.
That same evening after sunset, a hospital doolie was set down in the verandah, and from it emerged Paul Wyndham—a long lean figure of a man, whose most notable features were deep steadfast eyes, neither blue nor grey; a mouth of extraordinary gentleness and capacity for endurance; and the grave quietness of movement and speech, that may mean power in perfect equilibrium or mere dulness.
Desmond and Honor welcomed him with unconcealed affection; and for himself, his descent into the Valley of the Shadow seemed a small price to pay for a convalescence cheered by the ministrations of these two, than whom there were none dearer to him on earth. Of the unalterable nature of his feeling for Honor, both husband and wife were well aware; though no word of it ever passed their lips. They were aware, also, that the love of a man like Paul Wyndham was a thing apart; implying neither disloyalty to his friend, nor the remotest danger to any of the three concerned. Conditions inconceivable to the pedestrian order of mind.
Too weak to fret against enforced inaction at a time of stress, Wyndham passed his days between sleeping and waking and eating; between rare talks with Lenox and Desmond, and the restfulness diffused through heart and brain and body by Honor's constant presence at his bedside. She had amply fulfilled the promise given him more than four years ago of close and privileged friendship; and he counted himself more blest in its possession than many a man who wins the entire woman, to find her no more than a plaster goddess after all.
Honor herself, apart from the natural woman's pleasure in nursing an appreciative patient, was thankful for a definite demand upon her time. For Theo was seldom available now, except for an occasional after-dinner drive, through darkness two degrees cooler than high noon; and beneath her surface serenity she suffered keenly from the ache of empty arms; from the completeness of separation involved in leaving a child too young to span distance even by hieroglyphs, profusely decorated with 'kisses,' such as she had seen women treasure in the days of her young ignorance. Mrs Rivers wrote constantly and copiously. But can the most unwearied pen set down all that a mother craves to know about her child?
At the end of a week, Lenox was with them still. To his sole suggestion of departure, Desmond had merely replied: "My dear man, don't talk nonsense. When we've had enough of you, we'll let you know it, without ceremony!" And Lenox, strangely loth to return to his bachelor quarters, took him at his word, and stayed on.
Yet the two men saw little enough of one another. For on the Frontier work means work: and when cholera hovers over the station like a bird of prey, it is carried on with redoubled vigour. Only by constant occupation can fear and fatalism be held at arm's-length. Only the infectious mettle of the British officer can infuse into all ranks that cheerful alertness which, at a time of epidemic, is the finest safeguard in the world. There is much virtue, also, in mere routine, one of the wingless good angels of earth; and only those who have proved its power to drag broken heart or broken body through the things that must be done, estimate it at its true value.
In Lenox's case, it helped to deaden the prick of anxiety as to the future and the physical ache of longing; for as Commandant with two out of four subalterns on the 'sick list,' he had his hands full; and Desmond, the Colonel's chosen friend and ally in all regimental matters, was in the same enviable condition. The more so, since he and Meredith between them had anticipated the modern theory that the spread of cholera or fever can be partially checked by a determined assault on flies and mosquitoes, the great disease-breeders of the East; a suggestion received at that time with a mild amusement, bordering on scorn. But the two men, zealous for the credit and welfare of the regiment—the Great Fetish 'that claims the lives of all and lives for ever'—determined to give the new notion a fair trial in their own Lines; and Desmond, as may be supposed, flung himself heart and soul into the organisation of this very novel form of campaign! Plunged neck-deep again in the work he loved, there seemed no limit to his tireless energy; and from the Colonel downward, all were heartily glad to get him back.
Even in an age given over to the marketable commodity, England can still breed men of this calibre. Not perhaps in her cities, where individual aspiration and character are cramped, warped, deadened by the brute force of money, the complex mechanism of modern life: but in unconsidered corners of her Empire, in the vast spaces and comparative isolation, where old-fashioned patriotism takes the place of parochial party politics, and where, alone, strong natures can grow up in their own way.
It is to the Desmonds and Merediths of an earlier day that we are indebted for the sturdy loyalty of our Punjab and Frontier troops, for our hold upon the fighting races of the North. India may have been won by the sword, but it has been held mainly by attributes of heart and spirit; by individual strength of purpose, capacity for sympathy and devotion to the interests of those we govern. When we fail in these, and not till then, will power pass out of our hands.
That there was no such failure among the little band of Englishmen throughout that inglorious campaign against an enemy one could never have the satisfaction of thrashing in the open, the attitude of their Native officers and men bore ample witness. Light-hearted subalterns—whisked away from half-fledged love affairs, or the more serious business of sport—might curse their luck with blasphemous vigour; older men might grumble openly at extra parades, at the strain of additional vigilance and discipline; but for all that, the work was done,—thoroughly, and with a will; not within the station only, but out there on the open plain, rolling in vast undulations to the naked spurs of the Saliman range, where the sun smote through the canvas as if it had been so much brown paper and the stricken regiment strove, by constantly shifting ground, to shake off the pursuing horror that steadily thinned its ranks. Here Colonel Stanham Buckley waked each morning with the cold clutch of fear at his heart; fortified himself with incessant 'nips' throughout the day; and left the bulk of the work to a cheery little Adjutant, untroubled by the sorrowful great gift of imagination. And here, as in the station, all officers were diligent in visits to the hospital; heartening the sufferers by their presence, and combating, as far as might be, the Oriental's fatalistic attitude towards disease and death. Perhaps only those who have had close dealings with the British officer in time of action or emergency realise, to the full, the effective qualities hidden under a careless or conventional exterior:—the vital force, the pluck, endurance, and irrepressible spirit of enterprise, which—it has been aptly said—make him, at his best, the most romantic figure of our modern time.
And while indefatigable soldiers fought the enemy in camp and in the Lines, Dudley Norton, O.S.I., Deputy Commissioner, and ruler-in-chief of the station, fought him no less energetically in the bazaar and native city; an even more heart-breaking task. For here was no disciplined body of men, but a swarm of prejudiced individuals, caring nothing for infection, and everything for the sanctity of house and caste. Precautions and sanitary measures had to be carried at the point of the bayonet; and they were so carried. For Dudley Norton, no novice at Frontier work, had long since made himself wholesomely feared and respected throughout the Derajat; while, among the Maliks of his district, his hawk-like eyes gleaming under heavy brows were accredited with the power of watching a man's thoughts at their birth. A reputation too useful to be discouraged!
Like all detached frontier civilians, he practically lived at the station mess; except on fugitive occasions, when a placidly handsome woman, bearing his name, vouchsafed him a flying visit from home; for no other reason—said the evil-minded—than to establish a right-of-way over her property. At these times Norton welcomed, and entertained his wife with a scrupulous politeness and concern for her physical well-being that was a tragedy in itself; and eventually 'saw her off' at the nearest railway station with a sigh of relief. For, once—in a former life, it seemed—he had been in love with her; and the ghost of a dead passion is an ill companion at bed and board. At the present moment, he had seen neither her nor his only son for more than five years; and of the small daughter, whose coming had transfigured his life, there remained only a cross in Kohat cemetery, and a faded photo of the flagrantly unnatural type that prevailed in the late 'seventies. But the man who gives his heart to the Indian Borderland must steel himself to forgo much that, in the arrogance of youth, he has deemed indispensable to happiness, or even to living at all.
Frontier service begets closer contact between soldier and civilian, both in work and play, than cantonment life down country; most often to the uprooting of prejudice on both sides; and Norton was one of the few men in the station who had achieved comparative intimacy with Lenox. Those formidable eyes of his had been quick to detect in the taciturn Gunner, who had done so much, and had so little to say about it, a coming 'political' of no mean quality, a man of ideas and ambitions, for whom the great country of his service was something more than a vast playground, or shooting-box; in effect, a man after his own heart.
Thus, finding Lenox established at the Desmonds, Norton called upon them soon after Honor's arrival. He was rewarded by a standing invitation to 'drop in' any afternoon, or evening that he happened to be free, an invitation which Honor extended to most of the men who came to bid her welcome; and tea at the Desmonds—with iced coffee or pegs as alternatives, and smoking a matter of course—soon became a daily institution; a respite, if only for an hour or two, from the monotony of mess, parade-ground, and hospital.
"Awfully sporting of Mrs Desmond," was the verdict of grateful subalterns, who found these tea-drinkings a vast improvement on stale home papers, and half-hearted gambling at the Club. There was always music. Honor, besides playing magnificently, could be safely relied upon for impromptu accompaniments. The Chicken, and an irrepressible Irishman of the Sikhs, who gloried in the name of O'Flanagan, were indefatigable on the banjo, and in the construction of topical verses to vary the programme. Hot-weather audiences are not hypercritical; and in the red-hot circle of days and nights the mildest innovation is welcome as a sail on a blank horizon.
Desmond himself was delighted with his wife's spontaneous contribution to the good spirits of the station; and if the two had little quiet time together, they had at least a satisfying sense of comradeship in work; the strongest link that can be added to the strong chain of marriage.
Frank Olliver, with her big smile, and infectious gaiety, looked in most days, as a matter of course; till one of the two fever cases she had managed to lay hands on took a serious turn, and an hour off duty could only be secured when Honor insisted on relieving guard, and sending Frank over to play hostess in her stead.
There was also little Mrs Peters, the only other wife in the station; a square, shapeless cushion of a woman, who would rush in for a breathless half-hour to pour tales of native cunning, and Eurasian apathy into Desmond's sympathetic ears. Being both plump and energetic, she suffered cruelly in the heat; mopped her face without shame between her sentences; and, according to Frank Olliver, lived chiefly on lime-squash, and a limitless admiration for her missionary husband,—a large, ungainly man, with the manners of a shy schoolboy, and the wrapt gaze of a seer; a man who, in an age of fanaticism, would have walked smiling to the rack. As it was, he walked with no less equanimity through the pestilential mazes of the city and bazaar. For although in this age of tolerance run to seed, a man is not called upon to die for his beliefs, he is occasionally called upon to live for them; which is not necessarily the easier of the two. But up to his lights Henry Peters achieved it. At all possible and impossible hours, his unwieldy white umbrella, pith hat, and badly-cut drill suit pervaded the dwellings of his scattered converts; while his wife, torn between pride in him and mortal dread of infection, grieved in secret over inadequate meals snatched at odd hours; and supplemented tremulous prayers for his safety with lumps of camphor, screwed up in paper, and slipped surreptitiously into the pockets of his coats.
Once or twice she dragged him in triumph to the Desmonds,—a reluctant dishevelled hero,—and 'showed him off' to that little company of well-groomed, kindly-natured soldiers, with a naive simplicity that went to Honor's heart.
"Why is it that some of us have a special licence to be so exquisitely natural?" she wondered, as she stood beside the tea-table, dispensing iced coffee, and surveying, with satisfaction, a room full of tobacco-smoke and contented men. "That's just how I feel tempted to 'show off' Theo, sometimes. And wouldn't the dear man crush me to powder if I tried!"
She glanced approvingly at him where he sat astride on a reversed chair, in dusty polo kit, reporting progress of the great 'fly campaign' to Wyndham, who had been newly promoted to a deck-lounge in the drawing-room at tea-time.
It was a larger gathering than usual; and, in spite of the fact that for three days the thermometer had recorded a hundred and twenty in the shade, spirits ran high. The subalterns—for whose exuberant fooling Honor had a very tender tolerance—had 'chorussed' themselves hoarse and thirsty; and were receiving the reward of the public-spirited out of long misty tumblers, that fizzed and bubbled. Peters had forgotten his shyness in a discussion with Norton on the vexed question of cholera infection, and the probable futility of quarantine; while Mrs Peters, listening anxiously, made inconsequent darts into the argument, to her husband's obvious discomfiture, and Norton's equally obvious amusement.
A group of men near Honor were talking of England, tormenting themselves gratuitously by bare imagination of a feast. Captain Unwin of the Sikhs was casually unfolding a plan to elude superfluous creditors, and spend next summer 'at home.' His debts were phenomenal; and it was six years since he had sighted the funnel of a steamer. He expatiated yearningly on prospective delights. Cup Day at Ascot; a July evening on the upper reaches of the Thames; a punt in a backwater; a pipe and a cushion; just enough breeze to stir the willows; and, with any luck, a pretty woman in the bows.
"Just a shade better than a sandbank on the Indus, eh?" he wound up with a chuckle of enjoyment. "And I'll pull it through this time or perish in the attempt! Lord . . . think of jingling down Piccadilly in a hansom once again . . ."
"To dinner at the Savoy," suggested a thick-set Major on a note of relish. "Devilish good one they gave me there three years ago. Night before I sailed."
Sympathetic murmurs encouraged him to enlarge on the cherished memory! but before he had reached the entree—an elaborate item—Honor was out of hearing; having crossed the room to where Lenox sat balancing a coffee-cup on one knee, watching the faces round him with keen, kindly eyes, and taking little active part in the proceedings. He still wore his arm in a sling; and his teeth held the inevitable pipe, filled from a tin of tobacco that Desmond had induced him to accept on the night of their talk. Only three times in the past week had he succumbed to the forbidden mixture. But the glow of satisfaction, which those who have never resisted unto blood, complacently couple with self-conquest, was denied him. Restlessness, lack of sleep, constant recurrence of the concussion headache,—these had been his reward; with the result that a rising temperature had forced him to put his name on the 'sick-list' and take a few days off duty. But at Honor's approach his whole face lit up. The intimacy of everyday life had drawn them very near to each other; for Honor had all the magnetism of a woman made for tenderness; a magnetism few men can resist, and few women condone.
"You look so tired, and aloof from it all," she said gently. "I'm afraid the boys' nonsense and noisiness worries your head."
"Not a bit of it. It's good to see them enjoying themselves. You're a public benefactor, Mrs Desmond."
She laughed, and blushed.
"Nonsense. It's only so nice of them to come, when one can do so little to amuse them. Do have some more coffee."
"Thanks. It's capital stuff. Dick's very late," he added anxiously. "I'm wondering what's come to him."
He rose, and followed her to the tea-table, where Bobby Nixon saluted with his most expansive smile; and announced that O'Flanagan, reinforced by refreshment, was once more 'willing to oblige.'
An assurance that the rest were unanimously willing to listen brought the Irishman to his feet, banjo in hand; a lank, clean-shaven individual, who secreted a well-spring of humour beneath the tragi-comic solemnity of the born-low comedian. He was greeted with cries of "Fire away, old Flannel Jacket!" "Phil the Fluter's Ball!" "An' give ut in shtyle!" He gave it in style accordingly, and in a brogue as broad as his own shoulders; the whole room spontaneously taking up the chorus.
"Wid the toot of the flute, an' the twiddle of the fiddle, Dancin' in the middle, like a herring on a griddle! Up an' down, hands come round, cross into the wall— Faith, hadn't we the gaietee . . ."
But at this point the door opened to admit Max Richardson. He was still in uniform; and there was that in his face which checked their hilarity, and made O'Flanagan instantly put down his banjo.
Honor went quickly towards him, holding out her hand.
"What is it?" she asked in a low tone.
"It's young Hodson. He died . . . half an hour ago."
An inarticulate murmur went round the room; and for several seconds no one spoke. The first white man down seemed to bring the enemy within striking distance of each one of them.
Then Lenox came forward. "You'll excuse us, Mrs Desmond?" he said quietly. And the two men went out, leaving a strangely silent room behind them.
They passed through the hall into the dining-room before Lenox took the pipe from his lips, and spoke.
"Bad business," he remarked laconically. "And, God forgive me, when he 'went sick' this morning I half thought he was malingering. Poor chap . . . he's quit of the Frontier sooner than he thought for, without any help from me. You were with him, I suppose, . . . at the last?"
"Yes; for the best part of two hours," Dick answered, absently helping himself to a cheroot. "Never saw a man take it harder. No getting him to make a fight for it. Kept on begging me to tell him if this show was fellow's only chance; and . . . I couldn't."
Lenox looked intently at his friend.
The other nodded; and there was a short silence. Richardson took up a photograph of old Sir John Meredith, and examined it with critical interest.
"You might have sent for Peters," Lenox said at length,
"No earthly use. He swore like a trooper when I suggested it; and I can't blame him. Professional platitudes are not the style of physic to ease a man when he's suffering hell's own torments in his mind and body." He set down the picture abruptly, and swung round on his heel. "I'll be going on now, for a tub, and a change of clothing. Idiotic of me, no doubt; but I feel a bit off colour after all that. How about the funeral? To-night?"
"No. First thing to-morrow. I'll arrange it with Peters before he leaves; and get Courtenay to let me off the sick-list, if I can." Then grasping the younger man's shoulder with rough kindliness, he added: "Good old Dick. Pull yourself together, and come back here for dinner. It may be my turn . . . or yours, before we're through. And if it is . . . we don't go out like snuffed candles, remember. You may take my word for it."
"Hope to God you're right," the other answered between his teeth, and was gone.
Next morning, in a flaming dawn, all that remained of Tom Hodson was consigned, with military honours, to the dust of that Frontier he had grown to hate, because it demands so much of a man, and offers so little in return; and every house within earshot of the cemetery vibrated to the three parting volleys fired over the open grave.
Lenox was present at the service; and at the gun practice that followed shortly after it. Thirty grains of phenacetin and several forbidden pipes, had ensured him six hours' sleep, and a cooler skin; with the result that he had successfully induced an amused medical officer to report him 'fit for duty.' But Nature is relentless; and Lenox, driving back from 'orderly room' through a white-hot glare, and a haze of pungent dust, found himself speculating vaguely—as though the question concerned some unknown entity in another world—how he was going to drag a protesting body and brain through the rest of the day's work.
"Got to be done somehow, though. That's flat," was his final verdict as he passed into the twilight of the hall.
Every door in the house was shut against the furnace without; had been shut since seven of the morning; and would so remain till after sunset. Yet, the mercury hovered between ninety-seven and a hundred all day, and most of the night. In India the thermometer supersedes the barometer; and in the hot weather it becomes an obsession. There is always a mild satisfaction in knowing exactly what one has endured.
Desmond was not yet back, and the study was empty; a friendly-looking room, its simple haphazard furniture unified by the rich colour harmonies of Indian carpets and curtains; while a liberal supply of books, unusual for the country, proclaimed it the room of a soldier who found time for study and thought.
Too weary to get out of uniform, Lenox laid aside his helmet and accoutrements; shouted to the punkah coolie, sleeping in the verandah, chin on chest; sorted his geographical papers, and sat down to the table. Then he took out his pipe, eyed it thoughtfully, and flung it aside with a curse. Each relapse resulted in a renewed access of self-distrust; and this morning the cloud upon his spirit fell heavier than ever, because he foresaw that if the work ahead of him were to be pulled through, in the teeth of the grinding headaches consequent on his fall, last night's programme must be repeated, not once, but many times, And at that rate, what was to be the end of it? The degradation of submitting to the drug itself? A thousand times, no. The soldier in him sprang to arms at the mere suggestion. Like all men capable of greatness, he believed, not in the mastery of circumstance, but in the mastery of will. Yet, unhappily, the will, like all spiritual forces, is ignominiously dependent on bodily conditions. Pain, sheer pitiless pain, will have its way with the bravest of us.
The man was ill without realising it. The nerves in his head throbbed to a devil's hornpipe of their own, and mental effort was beyond him. In vain he contracted his heavy brows, and tried to gather up the threads of the chapter he had been working at. Black depression overpowered him, obliterating rational thought. The morning's service haunted him with unnatural persistence, and the half-hour he had spent with Dick in the dead boy's bungalow, looking through his papers—a chaos of bills, mostly unpaid; racing notes; old programmes; and half a dozen envelopes addressed in a girl's unformed hand. On the open blotter, an unfinished letter to a friend in Simla had announced his hope of a speedy exchange down country! his determination not to spend another hot weather 'on this God-forsaken Frontier . . .'
"Poor misguided chap," Lenox mused, not without a tinge of his old contempt. "Now if only I could have gone in his place, it would have simplified matters all round."
But he thrust away the thought as morbid and cowardly; and by way of curative drew Quita's last letter out of his breast-pocket. The fact of her love for him still remained a miracle incompletely realised; and she had been right in her belief that he had yet to discover its intensity and depth.
The great noontide silence had already fallen upon house and compound. Outside, brazen earth and brazen sky glared at one another with malignant intensity. Two bullocks lounged under the bananas by the mill wheel flicking lazy tails when the flies presumed too shamelessly upon their apathy; and crows, with beaks agape, hopped resignedly from one burning patch of shade to another. Among the verandah roof-beams, three grey squirrels argued, with subdued chitterings, over a kipper's head stolen from a breakfast plate; and at intervals a piteous wailing came from the servants' quarters, where, as all knew, Nizam Din, kitmutgar, was beating his pretty wife, Miriam Bibi, for the third time that week, because she had grown careless in the matter of covering her face, since the coming of Zyarulla, whose arrogant magnificence had created a flutter in more than one respectable household.
But Quita's letter, written in her 'garden' on a boulder, before breakfast, had transported Lenox many hundred miles away from it all. The cluttering of squirrels, and the cries of poor Miriam Bibi entered his ears; but the spirit of him was back among the mountains; the scent of warm pine-needles was is his nostrils, the spell of his wife's face and voice upon his heart.
A sudden sense of suffocation dispelled the dream. He found himself breathless, in a bath of perspiration. The punkah had stopped dead. And one must have endured this trifling inconvenience to gauge the significance of those five words.
Lenox straightened himself with an oath. "Kencho. . . . you son of a jackal!" he thundered; at the same time jerking the punkah frill, an effective means of reanimating the long-suffering punkah coolie, who has a trick of twisting the rope round his arm, that he may jerk it the more easily in his dreams.
But Lenox's vigorous pull merely brought a great length of rope through the wall; and his command was answered by the groans of a man in torment. Springing up, he wrenched open the glass door; and a blast as from a furnace struck him across the face. The coolie, a brown, distorted mass, writhed upon the hot stones in mortal agony. At the Sahib's approach, he struggled to his knees with a rush of incoherent detail; while Lenox shouted for Zyarulla, and the dogcart; flung a word of encouragement to the stricken man, and went in again for his helmet.
Till the trap appeared Lenox paced the verandah; the punkah coolie groaned; and Zyarulla protested as openly as he dared against his Sahib being put to personal inconvenience for a base-born—mere dust of the earth. None the less, at the Sahib's order he gingerly helped the dust of the earth into the trap, where Lenox put his one available arm round the writhing body; and the sais, who showed small relish for the situation, was ordered to get up and drive from behind. The which he did; leaning over the back seat, and keeping ostentatiously clear of the misbegotten son of a pig who had broken his midday sleep.
In this fashion they journeyed, awkwardly enough, to the temporary cholera hospital; a handful of tents and grass huts on the outskirts of the station. Betwixt the clutches of cramp, and the abject humility of his kind, the coolie slithered from the seat on to the mat; and Lenox had some ado to prevent his falling headlong from the cart. But in due time he was handed over safely to a suave, coffee-coloured hospital assistant, and carried shrieking into a tent crammed with sights unfit to be told; whence he emerged, two hours later, without protest of voice or limb, to swell the intermittent stream of fellow-corpses that flowed from the hospital to the burning ghatt or the Mahommedal burial-ground outside the station.
When Lenox staggered back into the hall, dizzy with headache, and half-blinded with glare, he was met by Desmond, who, noticing a slight lurch as he entered, took hold of his arm.
"Zyarulla told me what happened," he said, a great gentleness in his voice. "Come on to your room, old man. Take a rousing dose of phenacetin, and lie down till tiffin. I'll bring you a lime-squash."
"Thanks. You are a damned good sort, Desmond. The sun's touched me up, I fancy. I shall be all right in a couple at hours."
But before two hours were out, Desmond's orderly was speeding through the dust to the Doctor Sahib's house; and Desmond himself had gone hurriedly to his wife's room, where she too was lying down after her morning's duties. She rose at his coming, holding out both hands. For she read disaster in his eyes.
"Darling, what has gone wrong?"
"It's Lenox. He's down with it. Not severe as yet. But there's no mistaking what it is."
Her faint colour—it had grown perceptibly fainter in the past week—left her face.
"Oh, his poor wife! We must send a wire at once."
"I've sent one already, by the orderly who went for Courtenay. Told her she should have news every day, for the present."
"Oh, bless you, Theo! You think of everything!"
"Steady, Honor, steady," he rebuked her gently. "We've got to do a fair share of thinking between us just now. Paul can safely stay on if one isolates that side of the house; and Zyarulla and I can do everything for Lenox between us. As for you, John must give you a bed till we're through."
"But, Theo . . ."
"Be quiet!" he broke in almost roughly; adding on a changed note: "For once in a way, my dearest, you will obey orders without question—or go altogether. Now give me the chlorodyne, and let me get back to poor Lenox. Seems brutal to give him any form of opium after all he's been through. Hullo, there's Richardson shouting outside. He'll be terribly cut up when he knows."
It transpired that Richardson had come over, post-haste, to report three cases among his men; and at sun-down the little mountain battery, with its three subalterns and full camp equipment, marched out into the open desert, scornfully overlooked by that Pisgah height of the Frontier, the Takti Suliman, whose square-cut crags were printed in sharp outline upon a stainless sky.
"Passion has but one cry, one only;—Oh to touch thee, my beloved!" —Olive Schreiner.
Asiatic cholera is as capricious as a woman; capricious both as to her choice of victims, and as to the grisly fashion of her wooing. In one mood she will kill at a stroke, like a poisoned arrow; in another she will play with a tortured body as a cat plays with a mouse. And it was thus that she dealt with Eldred Lenox.
For two days and nights Desmond and the Pathan wrestled against the evil thing, and against that deadly apathy as to the result, which kills more surely than the disease itself. And since the regiment claimed many hours of the Englishman's day, the brunt of the nursing devolved upon Zyarulla, who scorned suggestions of sleep, and appeared to live on pellets of opium, and a hookah, which inhabited the verandah outside his master's room.
There were moments when they were tempted to despair. But they fought on doggedly, and without comment; and as the second night wore towards morning, they knew that they had conquered. The gong at the police station down the road had just clanged three times. Every door and window-slit stood open at their widest; and through them entered in the familiar, unforgettable smell of the Indian Empire under her yearly baptism of fire; a smell of dust, and baked brick work, and stale native tobacco. A hand-lamp on the mantelpiece diffused a yellow twilight through the room; a twilight flavoured with kerosine: and across the twilight the shadow of the punkah flitted, like a whispering ghost.
Zyarulla, crouching at the bedside, slid a cautious knotted hand between the buttons of the sleeping-coat, and laid it lightly on his master's heart. The flutter within was feeble, but regular; though the face, grey and shrunken almost past recognition, still bore the impress of death.