"Three long words that kept repeating themselves. All the same words, and the worst, the most heartbreaking. 'To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow!' They will drive a soul to perdition quicker than any in the English language. I am going to have them engraved on my tombstone, because I can only conquer them in death."
"You are right. I was looking on, living in fancy the worthless days and hours."
"Crush that tendency, Mrs. Roche. Think of me when your life seems worthless, and remember all that I have lost. Your face is so sweet, so pure, so beautiful, it was made for the good love that crowns spotless womanhood. But this is my station, and I shall never know what you do with your future."
"Shall I show you?" says Eleanor hastily, for she is easily swayed, and the stranger has worked upon her emotion.
"See!" and the soft, enticing eyes of Carol Quinton are torn asunder—the photograph is reduced to a handful of scraps scattered on the carriage cushion.
"You are a good woman," says the other, rising and looking down tenderly, lovingly at Eleanor.
Again they clasp hands, then a cloud of towzled hair under a black crape bonnet vanishes down the platform, and Mrs. Roche is left alone, with the pieces of torn cardboard and the scent of patchouli on the opposite seat.
IF NEED, TO DIE—NOT LIVE.—Chas. Kingsley.
"Have I changed, or has everything changed?" Eleanor asks herself, as the days slip by in the old farmhouse.
Mr. and Mrs. Grebby are just the same warm-hearted, genial couple as of yore; they crack the same jokes at their knife-and-fork tea, while Rover wags his tail as pleasantly as ever, and Black Bess trots to market.
The school children have not forgotten "Teacher," and, greet her in demonstrative fashion, flinging their small arms round her neck when she stoops to kiss them.
Yet Mrs. Roche finds that their mouths are sticky, and the little hands she clasps in hers hot and unpleasant to the touch.
She rises early, and on churning morning helps her mother even more industriously than in past days, yet her heart is heavy, and the old songs never pass her lips without a stifled sob. She tries to hum the "Miller of Dee," as for the sake of happy recollections she polishes afresh the pewter service on the parlour table, yet all the while her eyes are scrutinising the inartistic arrangement of the room. Why should the horsehair sofa be placed straight against the wall, and those ghastly wax flowers under glass covers adorn the stiff chimneypiece, which might be made so pretty? The memorial cards, that are framed and hung on the wall—how gruesome they appear in the spring sunshine! She longs to pull them down, and burn them, but to do so would be to violate poor Mrs. Grebby's most sacred feelings.
She looks in the old family Bible, standing in its accustomed place on a table by the window. There are the births, deaths, and marriages of the Grebby family for generations. Oh, if her marriage could be blotted out, and a date of death mark her name. She envies the twins that died in their infancy, when she—Eleanor—was only two years old.
The pewter pots tire her arm, unaccustomed, now to rubbing anything but diamond trinkets. The service she so admired once does not attract her now. She puts it away half clean, and longs for a novel.
Vegetating was not very soothing after all. The poisoned arrows had followed her even to Copthorne, and their wounds could not heal. The thoughts she struggled to suppress, here in the dead calm, proclaimed themselves more loudly, worked fiercer havoc. She longs, pines, sickens for a sight of one she must never see, for a voice it would be death to hear, the touch of a hand it were sin to clasp.
So she wanders about in her strange state of depression, pretending to enjoy the glorious green of the spring, and seeing only light and darkness, cold and desolation, in primrose banks and rippling streams.
Mr. Grebby is too preoccupied with his cattle and his land to notice the change in Eleanor, while Mrs. Grebby takes infinite pains to give her married daughter the best their house affords, and only remarks on her lack of appetite, at which she loudly laments.
"You ain't eatin' anything, dearie," she says one morning at breakfast. "Try a tumbler of new milk to put some strength into you. It's them towns as makes you pale and spiritless. I knows 'em. We was that done up after our visit to you and cousin Harriett it was quite surprisin'. But law, how Pa did make me walk in London. Up them Monument steps, and down again before I'd got my breath, with poor Rover in charge of a policeman below, and everyone a laughing 'cause I was puffing so."
Eleanor forces a smile. She was watching for the post.
The moment the man's tread is heard on the gravel she starts up and runs to the door, dreading every day that Giddy may divulge her address.
She longs to write to Carol Quinton, but dare not. She knows she is too weak to run the risk.
There are two letters for her, one from Philip, the other from Mrs. Mounteagle.
She reads Giddy's first.
It is amusing and frivolous as usual. The last half, however, amazes Eleanor.
"I am going to be married," it says in the middle of a description of a new bonnet. "My future husband is a wealthy man and a general. Congratulate me! It will not be a long engagement, as he is seventy-five to-morrow, but loves with the ardour of a seventeen year old! Talking of boys, I am asking Bertie to be best man. By this you will see all arrangements for the ceremony are being left entirely to my management. It will be costly and elaborate. My gown alone would have swallowed up dear Bertie's income. I have given him a splendid new watch to console him, as his was snatched last year at Epsom. I met my General at Lady MacDonald's. He moves in a very good set—gout permitting. Excuse my humour.—Your elated and strong-minded GIDDY.
"P.S.—Don't you think I am a noble woman? He is one eye short, which is rather a recommendation, but has been one of the handsomest men about town."
"How strange," thinks Eleanor. Then she throws the letter aside in disgust. "And very loathsome!" she adds, tearing open Philip's envelope.
She reads it slowly at the breakfast table.
"Philip is coming this evening," she says.
Mr. and Mrs. Grebby clap their hands.
"Well, now, I'm right glad," they exclaim together. "We could see 'ow you missed 'im, dearie."
Eleanor feels uncomfortably guilty. What if they knew that her every thought was wandering to another!
Already she has begun to try and piece the photograph together again, regretting her hasty action in the railway carriage. Before reaching Copthorne she had hidden the fragments safely in a corner of her dressing-bag. She hardly knew whether to be glad or sorry that Philip is coming. It will break the dull monotony of the day. At any rate she will get herself up to look as much like the old Eleanor as possible, though the thought of wandering with him through the haunts of past days is distasteful.
She knows it will please him, however; so, crushing her own feelings, she dons an old dress made by the village dressmaker, one which has hung in her wardrobe ever since she left home, then proceeds to search for the long disused sun bonnet.
The day is almost bright enough to excuse the picturesque headgear, eventually unearthed from the bottom of a tin trunk, and ironed by Eleanor's own hands.
She feels as if she were dressed up for amateur theatricals, and even denies herself the fashionable manner in which her hair is now arranged, going back to the simple style before she knew London or Giddy Mounteagle.
"It certainly is becoming," she says; "beauty unadorned," viewing her charms in this rustic guise before a cracked mirror. "Yet I wonder what the Richmond girls would think of me if I walked on the Terrace, Sunday morning after church, dressed like this?"
She looks so pretty that her heart sinks at the thought that it is Philip, not Carol, for whom she has prepared.
As she comes down the stairs Mrs. Grebby meets her pale and trembling.
"What is the matter, mammy?" asks Eleanor, seeing that her mother is trying to gain breath for speech.
Mrs. Grebby puts her hand to her heart.
"There, there, child!" she says, "don't be frightened," while her legs seem sinking under her, and she grasps Eleanor's arm for support. "But the man from the post-office, 'e—e's brought a telegram for you."
"Anything wrong at home?" asks Mrs. Roche.
"Not that I know of—yet," continues the shaking woman; "it hasn't been opened."
Eleanor bursts out laughing, and the amused peal reassures Mrs. Grebby.
"Why, Ma, I get them nearly every day at Richmond, there is nothing to be alarmed at in a wire. Philip was going to let me know his train. I thought I told you."
She opens the message, and as she scans it her face falls.
"He is not coming," she says. "Too busy, and won't be able to manage it now. How like Philip! To let you get all ready for him and then fail."
It is more the annoyance of having dressed herself in vain than disappointment at not seeing him which vexes Eleanor.
"I dislike people throwing you over at the last moment; it is very inconsiderate and unkind. But I suppose he can't help it, poor fellow," with a touch of regret for her petulance. "I am very extravagant, Ma. I spend no end on clothes, though you wouldn't think it to look at me now. Philip just trots off to the City and makes the money, so it does not matter a bit."
Mr. Grebby expresses lavish sorrow at Mr. Roche's non-appearance, while Eleanor wanders out down the budding lanes towards the station, just as if Philip were coming after all, only there is neither tumult of sorrow nor joy in her heart. She feels just indifferent to everything and everybody. The hedges are sprouting with young green. Surely the world is fair to all eyes but Eleanor's!
Her head is bent, she is gazing on the ground.
Suddenly a shadow crosses her path—the shadow of a man.
She looks up slowly, standing still, rooted to the spot.
A cold chill creeps through her veins, gradually changing to burning fire. She can neither speak nor move, the hedges seem to fly round, the trees spin, the twittering birds shriek!
The word breaks from her lips at last like a cry.
Why has Philip failed her, why is he not here to save?
Someone is holding her hand in a passionate clasp, someone presses her cheeks, her lips! Is it a dream or reality, life or death?
The spring bursts suddenly into smiles. Nature laughs loudly, all the world is one wide pleasure field, a place to love, to die in for joy!
"Why did you run away?" he whispers, still holding her in his arms. "Why did you hide yourself from me, shut out the light from my days? It was cruel, Eleanor. Surely you knew I would have gone to the end of the world to find you, and you thought to evade me here."
"Fate has willed it otherwise. How did you discover me?"
"Giddy Mounteagle gave me your address. I never gave her a moment's peace till she divulged it, poor woman."
A spark of anger flashes in Eleanor's love-laden eyes.
"The traitress!" she murmurs under her breath.
"Ah! do not say that. She is happy herself, and I was so miserable, you were so miserable."
"How do you know?"
"I have read your heart like a book—it is mine and no other's. I mean to take it—cherish it—keep it—always!"
"You stole it from Philip—you stole it from me!" she cries, her voice shaken by fear and dread. "You see me as I am—weak, defenceless—loving you to my shame—my destruction. I am in your power body and soul—you have got my will as well—it is yours—all yours. Think for a moment, Carol, before you keep these stolen goods—what they cost—you and me. Pity me in this hopeless moment of surrender—make it less hard to part. Are we to lose everything? Think of your soul—and my soul. I believe that we both have them now in the palms of our hands—to cast into Hell—to lift up to Heaven! You should be the stronger. Remember what it is to be a man!"
"What is your ideal of poor mankind?" he asks hoarsely.
"To give—not take," replies Eleanor, in the words of Charles Kingsley, which rise suddenly as an inspiration to her tortured mind. "To serve—not rule. To nourish—not devour. To help—not crush. If need, to die—not live!"
"Then I will rise to your standard," he said boldly. "Eleanor, I will kill myself."
"How?" she asks.
"I care not; but to-day—this same hour—you will have driven me to my death!"
"Oh, Carol, you are cruel!" she sighs.
Then the words well into her brain, with fierce, upbraiding, horrible reality: "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow." She sees the faded towzled hair of the woman in the train, the dusty crape of her bonnet, the red upon her lips.
A cry escapes her, and sinking on the green bank by the roadside, Eleanor buries her face in the grass and sobs in uncontrollable anguish.
Carol cannot bear to watch her misery. He stoops down and gathers the little figure in his arms, straining it to his heart. He kisses dry the liquid eyes, and soothes the low deep sobs.
"I have decided," he says.
"And your choice, our fate, the end?" she asks breathlessly.
"To take," he replies, holding her fast, "not give back that which is mine, now and for ever. To rule (if that is the harsh term you give my love), to devour, to crush, to live, Eleanor, not die."
The words sound like a shout of victory on the still air. They kindle a mad delight in the woman's stricken heart.
"We will leave this miserable country, where you are a captive to a man who cannot hold your love, yet calls himself 'husband.' We will go away, no matter where, since we shall be together. We have only our two selves to live for now. The world was created for us alone, we need remember nothing else, an Eden to love in and be happy. Oh! my darling, how bright I will make your life, as it never was before."
"You are right," says Eleanor slowly. "I have never known true happiness. I was very fond of Philip when I married him—the lukewarm affection that grows cold instantly in the chill air of disagreement or mistrust. The love which you have kindled in me is something I did not know or dream of. It is worth all else!"
Carol takes her wedding finger, holds it to his lips a moment, then places an embossed gold ring below the knuckle, with "Kismet" engraved upon it.
Eleanor gazes on the ring wistfully. The words are full of meaning to her just now.
"'Kismet,'" she murmurs. "Only a true Mahommedan should use that expression."
She draws a cat's eye stone, that Philip gave her, from her hand, and offers it to Carol.
This is the last, the supreme act of surrender—that, more than all else, renounces for ever and ever Philip, honour, wifehood, and lays her low in the dust.
They walk through the green fields hand in hand; they talk of things to be. The children coming home from school stare at Eleanor, and think how beautiful she is, wondering at the handsome stranger who gazes in her eyes, and whispers so low they cannot catch the words.
Yes, she looks just the same, as the evening tints fall with a rosy glow on her rich hair and simple sun-bonnet. How innocent she appears in the plain, homely attire, and that strange but glorious smile parting her lips. There are daisies under her feet, and blue sky over her head; love is in her heart, but hell is in her eyes.
Her eyes droop. The children cannot see—Hell!
IN CLOUDS OF SILENCE FOLDED OUT OF SIGHT.
While Eleanor is at Copthorne, Philip is staying in Trebovir Road with Mr. and Mrs. Lane.
"I cannot think why I have not heard from Eleanor," he says one morning to Erminie. "For three days not a word—no answer to my letters or the telegram."
"Really; it was a pity you were prevented from running down that afternoon. I expect she was disappointed."
"I am not so sure about that," thinks Philip.
"It is just possible she may have written to Lyndhurst. Did she know you were staying on with us?"
"I told her so, but perhaps she forgot, or did not take it in. I shall go there to-morrow and see."
Philip is uneasy about Eleanor. Her silence hurts him, for he still loves her passionately, in spite of their quarrels and her deceptions. All that day he thinks constantly of his wife, picturing her image at every turn, wondering how she passes her quiet days in the old farmhouse, and whether she is happy at Copthorne. He has sent her some books and papers she asked for, but they have not been acknowledged.
He is not angry, but pained at her inconsideration, and the galling thought that he no longer holds even a corner in her heart is bitterest grief to him.
His friends notice his depression in the City, and remark about it. The hours are long, and the spring sunshine seems laughing at him. He pines for the country, the fresh green, the old love—Eleanor!
That evening the Lanes take him to the theatre. The play bores him to distraction, though they say that it is good. He remembers reading some excellent notices on it in the leading papers, and planning to take Eleanor the night after she returns. He is one of a gay, light-hearted party, and goes on with them to sup at the Savoy, feeling like a spectre at the feast. They sit at the same table where he once found his wife with that smiling hypocrite, Mrs. Mounteagle, and the man he hates, loathes, fears.
These recollections render Philip but a poor companion.
Erminie, noticing his low spirits, planned the evening's entertainment to cheer him up.
She has a pretty little sister-in-law with her, who prattles merrily, and reminds Mr. Roche somewhat of Eleanor, in a tantalising manner, when she laughs and he catches her profile.
"I have never been to the celebrated Savoy before," she says. "Reggie declares it is a place where ladies go without their husbands when they want to be rakish and lively. It looks as if he were right, for I am certainly without my better half this evening. When I look at you and Nelson, and then think of Reggie and myself, I cannot imagine how it is all wives and husbands don't get on. I believe I have done a lot of harm since my wedding by advising everybody to marry, and throwing susceptible young people together in the most reckless manner."
"We have not given it a very long test," says Erminie, "but look at that startling beauty in yellow," changing the subject out of consideration for Philip.
"Oh! she is the leader of one of the fastest sets in town," Nelson vouchsafes, as Lady MacDonald, a mass of flashing diamonds and old gold brocade, enters into the restaurant.
The place sends Philip's flagging spirits down to zero, he is thankful to get home, and paces his room half that night thinking of Eleanor, and longing for the love of dear departed days.
"Perhaps when she comes back from Copthorne it will be different," he thinks. "I have been away too much in that miserable City, she has been dull, and thus fallen a prey to Mrs. Mounteagle's bad influence." He will give her more companions, keep his house full of guests, pleasant accommodating people who will not object to early breakfast, and dinner that invariably waits half-an-hour later than it should on account of his business.
He writes to Eleanor as the clock strikes two. His letter is full of promises for the future.
He paints a picture of delightful plans. They will have the house full until Easter, when he will take her abroad. She shall go wherever she pleases, and he will be her trusting, adoring slave. He will make it impossible for her not to love him.
For nearly an hour he pores over the sheet, telling Eleanor these good resolves.
"Dearest," he says in conclusion, "can't we begin our lives over again—love as we did in quiet Copthorne—before we drifted apart? I will try and be a better husband. Do come back to me soon, for I find I cannot get on without my little Eleanor. She is all the world to me."
Then he seals the envelope, and falls into a restless sleep, which is broken by haunting dreams of dimly suspected terrors.
Early in the morning Philip wakes, unrefreshed and heartsick. Still the question burns on his brain—Why has Eleanor not written?
He rises before the household is astir, and lets himself out into the mild air.
Hailing a hansom, he tells the man to drive him as quickly as possible to Richmond Terrace. Perhaps Erminie is right, and Eleanor has written to Lyndhurst after all.
Sarah starts as she sees Mr. Roche on the doorstep.
"Good-morning," he says, "are there any letters for me?"
He does not wait for the answer, but walks straight in, and takes up a pile of envelopes on the hall table.
A few circulars, a bill, and three letters addressed to Eleanor at Copthorne in his own handwriting, and forwarded back by Mrs. Grebby to Mrs. Roche at Lyndhurst.
He stares at them in mute amazement, as if in those white envelopes a horrible mystery lies unrolled.
He tears them slowly open one by one, reading what he knows so well already, the casual news, the fond farewells, penned only for Eleanor's eyes.
How is it she has never received them? How is it they have been sent back by Mrs. Grebby when Eleanor is there?
For the moment he is unnerved. Then he pulls himself together, places the letters in his pocket, picks up his stick, and turns to go.
"Are you coming home to-day, sir?" asks Sarah.
"Coming home!" The words grate on him.
"No," he replies, "I am going to Mrs. Roche, at Copthorne."
Then he dashes out of the house, and reaches Trebovir Road just as Erminie and Nelson are at breakfast.
"We could not think what had become of you," cries Mrs. Lane, running out to meet him. "Why did you go out, and where have you been?"
Then she sees how pale he is, and the questions die on her lips.
"Come in," she says gently. "I have got some hot coffee for you, and your favourite dish. What! you won't eat anything?"
"No thank you, dear, I haven't time. I only fled back to tell you I am off to Copthorne. I am a little anxious about Eleanor not having written you know. She was rather seedy and done up before she left, and those old people are bad correspondents."
"You think she is ill?"
"I fear something is wrong."
"But you must have something before you go, or you will be quite faint."
Philip is not in the mood to argue; he answers her abruptly, almost rudely, and guessing that something is wrong, she lets him go, watching him drive away with sorrowful compassionate eyes.
"I am afraid poor Phil is in some trouble again," she says to Nelson, mechanically cracking the shell of her boiled egg. "He has gone."
"Yes," shaking her head solemnly, "and without any breakfast."
"But you should not let him."
"I could not help it. He is going to see Eleanor."
"Has she been leading the poor fellow another dance? What a curse that woman is!"
"Don't talk like that! I am very fond of Eleanor, with all her faults—almost as fond as of Phil, and you know how I love him. I am not sure what it is about her, but you can't bring yourself not to care for her. It's that pretty little confiding way, I think, and those lovely wistful eyes. She is so easily led and swayed. It is a great pity."
"She will come to a bad end, depend upon it," replies Nelson, congratulating himself on the good woman who crowns his home.
Philip takes the morning train to Copthorne. Business goes to the wind. He thinks only of his wife, and the letters that have come back so strangely into his keeping.
The journey seems interminable. He flings a pile of papers unread on the opposite seat, puts a cigar between his teeth, and forgets to light it, closes his tired eyes, which only quickens and excites his overwrought imagination, till finally the train steams into the drowsy little station of Copthorne.
Philip walks at the fastest possible speed across the meadows. There is the gate on which Eleanor perched herself the night before their wedding, declaring she would dangle her feet whether she was to be Mrs. Roche or not.
Then the green lane, where she asked him to wait till the following spring. He remembers her words distinctly. She had said them so lightly in reference to their union: "When the birds begin to sing, then I will marry you, Philip."
But he had proved himself the stronger, and carried off his prize that same month.
Now the spring is here. The birds are singing—mocking, jeering. The old farmhouse is in sight—he pauses.
Oh, what a moment of suspense!
No Eleanor comes across the garden to greet him. It all looks dead—still.
He can hear Rover's feeble bark—the sound savours of decay.
Then Philip walks forward, and his shadow falls across the porch. The bell peals.
Mrs. Grebby starts at the ring, and brushes past the little farmhouse servant hurrying to the door.
"Why, it's never Mr. Roche!" she exclaims.
"Yes," he replies; "I have come for Eleanor. Where is she?"
Mrs. Grebby sinks on to the seat in the porch, and stares at him open-mouthed.
"What do yer mean?" she gasps at last. "There ain't no harm come to my dearie!"
She wrings her hands despairingly.
"Has Eleanor left you?" he asks in a voice so strangely unfamiliar that he hardly knows it for his own.
"Three days ago. She went 'ome, to be sure, as bright and as bonny as could be, looking that pretty, I says to my old man 'It's well she's not travellin' alone.'"
"Who was with her?" questions Philip intently, mastering his intense emotion.
"A friend what came the day you telegraphed. He said 'e'd see her back safe and sound. I packed 'er clothes with my own hands, I did, she never touched a thing, and we drove them both behind Black Bess to the station, with Rover following at the wheel."
A low hiss breaks from Philip's lips.
"And this man," he asks fiercely, impatiently, biting his lips. "What was he like?"
"Oh! 'e was a beautiful gentleman, so well dressed and handsome, Mr., let me see, Mr. Quinton I think she called him."
Philip has heard enough, he turns away with a groan.
Mrs. Grebby watches the dark despair creep over his features in blank amazement.
"What does it mean?" she asks, detaining him with a trembling hand.
"It means," replies Philip in a choking voice, "that Eleanor has left me."
A cry escapes Mrs. Grebby, she buries her face in her apron, rocking herself to and fro, moaning pitifully.
"We, as always kep' ourselves respectable, and never knew what it was to blush for any of our stock, and she 'as lifted the family, and married a good, real gentleman like yourself, sir, to bring disgrace and ruin on 'er 'appy 'ome. Oh! my, oh! my, the poor misguided lass!"
Philip, in his own agony, finds himself comforting the weeping woman, and praying her to bear up. Then, as she dries her streaming eyes, clasping his hand with a hoarse "God bless you, Mr. Roche," he hastens away with bent head and throbbing brow back over the green grass.
No curse rises to his silent lips; he is as one who has just heard of the sudden death of his dearest upon earth. Everything seems slipping from him. There is a long stretch of blank life before his bloodshot eyes.
He waits in a state of nervous prostration on a wooden bench at Copthorne Station till the return train to town appears.
Then he staggers forward into the first empty carriage, buries his face on the cushions, and sobs.
His strong frame shakes like a reed with the violence of his grief. He is weak, too, from having fasted since the previous night, and does not attempt to control his sorrow.
The maddening thought of Eleanor and Quinton together adds gall and wormwood to the desolation in the deserted husband's heart.
"With Quinton!" He repeats the words, grinding his teeth. Quinton, the low scoundrel, the fast, fascinating man of bad reputation, the villain who has betrayed his wife, his angel, and dragged her to the lowest depths of degradation! She is beyond Philip's help now, and he knows it—beyond redemption!
The Rubicon has been crossed. Eleanor is among the lost—on the other side!
Erminie is sitting under the pale light of a yellow lamp, deep in a novel.
The heroine is wavering on the verge of an irredeemable error, and Erminie's kind heart is thoroughly in the book. She is a sympathetic reader, and her eyes moisten as they scan the pages.
She is guilty of serious skipping, and as steps are heard in the hall below, glances at the finish.
A sigh of relief escapes her.
"Oh, I am glad she didn't! I am glad she is saved!" exclaims Mrs. Lane involuntarily, rising, as she thinks, to meet Nelson, since this is his hour to return.
Instead, Philip stands before her, white as a corpse. His haggard features are accentuated by the mellow lamp light, his figure sways, tottering till he steadies himself by grasping the back of a chair.
He has not tasted food that day, and she fancies he looks shrunken, marvelling at his altered appearance.
She dares not ask him what has happened, but just gazes with wondering sympathy into his miserable eyes.
"It has come," he gasps, passing one hand over his brow.
"What?" murmurs Erminie, under her breath.
"Eleanor and Quinton—they have gone together."
His voice vibrates through the room. A gasp of horror escapes Mrs. Lane. She staggers back.
"What shall you do?" she asks.
"What will I do?" echoes Philip, his eyes flashing, and the colour rushing back in a flood to his ashen cheeks. "Find her—track her to the end of the earth. Everything in life has closed to me this day. I shall only exist for one motive—one unswerving aim. She thinks she has escaped me, but the world is small, and while Eleanor and I are both in the same hemisphere——"
He pauses, for the room swims round.
A look that Erminie can never forget crosses his face—a look of sublime love, checked by an expression of devilish rage and hatred. The two seem battling a moment for pre-eminence.
Then he draws himself up to his full height, as if fighting for breath, and falls heavily upon the floor at Erminie's feet. Nelson's voice is heard calling her without.
She rushes to the door with a wild cry:
"Help—help! Philip is DEAD!"
AH, FOR SOME RETREAT, DEEP IN YONDER SHINING ORIENT.—Tennyson.
"Have you ever heard anything more of that poor Mr. Roche, whose wife deserted him?" asks Erminie's sister-in-law.
"No," replies Mrs. Lane sadly. "We had one awful night when he came and told us the news, and fainted. I am so weak-minded, I thought he was dead immediately, and shrieked and tore my hair, and made quite a scene. I always jump at conclusions, it is so stupid of me. Nelson had a bad time of it that night. We sent for a doctor, but it was ages before we got him round, and then he seemed so strange and reticent that it frightened me still more. I thought he would lose his reason, he had just that look on his face. The following day he left us without a word. He just held both my hands very tightly, and said thank you with his eyes. Of course I made a fool of myself, and kissed him and cried over him like a child, which only made matters worse. I asked him what he intended doing, and he gasped 'Eleanor' under his breath, and rushed out of the house. We have never seen him since."
"How strange! Then he has entirely vanished out of your lives? I thought he seemed strangely depressed at the theatre, the evening we went to the Savoy."
"Ah! that was the night before."
"Yes, he disappointed me. I had heard so much of your charming cousin, but I suppose the poor fellow had some inkling of it then."
"I never expect to see him again. He was a very sensitive man, and the curious or condoling looks of acquaintances would have driven him mad. Nelson says he has left England, yet no one knows where he has gone. The nice home on Richmond Terrace is broken up, and I have practically lost a brother. It was a strange ending to his married career."
"That is what comes of marrying beneath you. These people with low minds——"
Erminie stops her sister-in-law with a deprecating gesture. She is staunch to Philip, and knows how it would pain him to hear these words.
"I was fond of her," she says simply. "Let us talk of something else."
* * * * *
"I wish we could go up to the source of the Irrawaddy River, where no white man has ever been," says Eleanor, laying her hand confidingly in Carol's. "I should not be afraid with you, dear—such a traveller, and knowing the country so well. How many years is it since you were last in India?"
"Over seven. How did I drag through them without you?" he replies tenderly.
"We had a glorious voyage, didn't we? and everybody was so nice to us. I remember, Carol, how frightened I felt when first you suggested this long journey, and promised to take me north of Burmah to this strange, uncivilised village, where I should have to eat nothing but rice, or shoot my own game. Of course you had been here before, and though it is so wild and out of the way, there are still some white people to remind us we are not all savages."
"My dear, you must not call them 'savages,'" he says smiling. "They are really very nice, though a trifle odd and original; but that is what you like, I believe."
"Oh! yes. I am quite in love with my black servants. I think they are ever so much more picturesque and pleasant than my Richmond acquaintances. They look on me as a white angel, which no one would have done at home," with a smile at her quiet humour.
Eleanor's feelings by now are blunted to a certain extent, and she frequently jests on the wholesome horror with which her English friends must now regard "that reckless Mrs. Roche!"
Yet there are times when the thought of her sin rises like a dark thundercloud over the sunshine of this life of love.
She is standing in the low verandah of her bamboo house, looking out over a network of gorges, rifts, and ravines, precipices in peaks, with villages crowning each crest. The houses are thatched with long grass, which grows over the hills, while below in the valley the rice is cultivated in terraces. The villages are stockaded with bamboo, and the water runs through them in troughs of split bamboo.
"The people are certainly very dirty," says Eleanor, watching an old woman with large amber earings, pounding rice, and talking to a dusky man in a blue turban.
"Yes. They wear their clothes till they fall off, and never wash except when it rains. That man below is a noted warrior in these parts."
"How do you know?"
"You see the sword slung over his shoulder, with a bamboo hoop? Well, the tiger's hoop is a sign of distinction."
"I wish the old woman would stop pounding. She makes my back ache to look at her. She has been making linen on a loom all day, and must be dreadfully tired."
"Did you notice the bell on it?"
"Yes. What was that for?"
"So that her lord and master may know when she stops working."
"There was a funeral to-day," says Eleanor; "the guns have been going since morning in the jungle, to keep the spirits off. What a misery it must be to believe in 'Nats.'* That old woman there gave me a charm. I am always to wear it to keep the devils off. Do you think it will, Carol?" with a low laugh. "Or am I theirs already?"
"Don't, Eleanor," he cries, drawing her to him. "I cannot bear to hear you say such things."
She wriggles herself free, determined to tease him.
"But there are heaps of devils about," she declares, shaking her head; "or else why do they put up arches especially to keep them off—propitiate them, and prevent their entrance into the village? They have little bamboo huts like dolls' houses, and place food inside, that the devils may lodge and eat. It seems that the corpse to-day had a good time of it. They gave him a month's food, new gong and gun, a complete set of new clothes, and two or three gourds of Zoo—they are always drunk with that stuff. It is an awfully strong drink, though made from rice, which sounds innocent, doesn't it? Rice always reminds me of my bib-and-tucker days."
"It is rather like English cider, with the strength of whisky. But what a lot of information you pick up, little woman, while I am out shooting!"
"It terrifies me when you are away all day," she declares. "Then I feel lonely—deserted—afraid. Tigers and bears are such alarming things to picture you chasing, though you are accompanied by a troop of negroes."
Eleanor leans back in a low chair, gazing wistfully across the wild country. She can see the course of the Irrawaddy river, with its numerous rapids and picturesque cascades. It seems only the other day that she and Carol steamed up it, past Mandalay, Bhanio, and Myitkyina. She wishes they could travel on overland through the jade, amber, and ruby mines, but Carol fears for her, and prefers to stay in these more quasi-civilised regions.
A group of women and girls strikes her eye, carrying loads supported by a strap encircling their foreheads, after the curious fashion of Dundee fisherwomen.
The unmarried girls wear square-cut fringes and their hair hanging loosely at the sides to the shoulders, while the married women have it done up decorously on the head.
"I am glad I have not to carry loads like those poor creatures," says Eleanor softly; "yet perhaps an external load is better than an internal one. Sometimes, Carol, I remember that I once had a conscience. It just stirs and half wakes when I am quite alone. Often in the darkness I fancy I see Philip, or feel as if he were near me. I would sooner die a thousand deaths than meet his eye."
"Do not think of it, dearest; we have cut ourselves adrift from old associations for that purpose. There is nothing to remind you or trouble you."
"Nothing," replied Eleanor, "I am content, Carol. We have discovered an Eden—after the fall."
* * * * *
Eleanor is in a roving mood, and while Carol is engaged in the mild sport of pheasant shooting for a change, she wanders alone into the jungle to watch the children playing with large beans like marbles. Though she cannot understand what they say, she grasps the method of the game, watching it with amused interest. They are such queer little dusky creatures.
One boy among them especially attracts her attention. His face is strangely European, and his features noticeably different to those of his comrades. Yet his skin is dark and swarthy, there can be no mistaking the black blood in his veins.
Now and again Eleanor fancies she catches an English exclamation from his lips. She wishes she could join the children in their gambols, as in her girlhood at Copthorne. But they eye her suspiciously and sidle away when she approaches.
She wanders back disconsolately, wishing she knew more of the boy with the European face.
That very day her wish is satisfied. It is late in the afternoon, and Carol is still out. She is too blinded by love to resent his selfishness in leaving her so much alone, and wanders down to the river, singing from sheer lightness of heart.
She sees as she saunters along a trap set for a deer, and gives it a wide berth as she passes.
It consists of a noose fastened to the top of a pliant tree, which is bent down and pegged across a path leading down to the water. Thus it serves to entrap prey on the way to drink.
She has scarcely gone a hundred yards when a shriek rends the air, and turning simultaneously Eleanor sees a small boy trip over the noose, which, released from the peg, flies back with the full force of the tree, carrying him into the air with it.
She rushes up terror-stricken at the horrible sight. The screaming child is suspended far above her head, the cruel thongs cutting deeply into his flesh.
The sight puts energy and cat-like agility into her limbs. She climbs the tree with all the daring of her orchard days, tearing great rents in her dress, spurred on by the cries of the helpless victim. She creeps on hands and knees along the willowly bough, upon which he hangs till her weight combined with his brings the inevitable result. A crack, a crash, and the two fall together to the ground. Unharmed herself save for a few bruises and scratches, Eleanor releases the unfortunate child, raising his bleeding body tenderly in her arms, binding up the wounds with her handkerchief, and soothing his groans with kisses.
"Oh! dear," she says, "I wish I knew where you lived, you poor little darling."
To her intense surprise the boy replies:
"Up there," pointing feebly with an injured arm.
Then she sees for the first time he is the child with the European features.
"Will it hurt you if I carry you back?" asks Eleanor.
"Best try," answers the boy abruptly.
He is heavy for his age, but she staggers forward manfully, while the little aching head drops confidingly on her shoulder.
"You're awful pretty," he gasps at last, "and I am dropping no end of blood off my arm on your bodice. Oh! how my leg hurts. Guess I have broken it clean in two."
At every step Eleanor fears she must give in, the perspiration is standing out on her forehead, while her own wounds smart and ache.
"I am afraid I shake you terribly up this hill; would you like me to rest a moment?"
Eleanor hopes he will say yes, for her strength is giving out.
"Sit on that stone, I'm just dying," moans the little lad.
Eleanor eagerly assents, and moves him into a more comfortable position.
"My mother is white like you," he says at last, raising his head.
"Is she, dear? Are you better? Shall we go on?"
"Yes, please. We may meet father, he is ever so big and dark. I shall be big and dark too, all the good men are black."
"And the good women?" asks Eleanor, smiling in spite of her load.
"Oh! white of course, white all over like you and mother, hands, feet, everything."
Eleanor staggers on breathlessly up the hill, the boy seems to grow heavier at every step. She is nearly exhausted. He is like the weight of her sin, which increases with time.
One or twice she stumbles, the boy clutches her round the neck, fearing she will fall upon him, and his hands half choke her. She gasps for breath.
"Is it much farther?" she pants, turning sick and dizzy with the climb.
"No, there is my house, that hut ahead, see."
It has come in sight not a moment too soon, for Eleanor's arms are cramped and paralysed by supporting his body, her cheek pale with the heat, her heart fluttering spasmodically.
Only a few steps more, and she will have reached the haven of refuge. How foolish it would be to fail now.
Through sheer force of will she reaches the hut, and as the boy cries "Mother! mother!" she sinks exhausted in the entrance, still holding her suffering burden in her arms.
A woman rushes out, and takes her bleeding son from the stranger's embrace.
"He has been hurt," explains Eleanor faintly. "I carried him up the hill."
"Oh, you good soul!" cries the grateful mother, feeling her son's arms and legs; "and you're just as done up as can be. Come in, you poor young thing, and I'll give you a drink of Zoo to pull you round."
"No, thank you, I don't want anything. I am better now; but let me help you with the boy. We had better get his things off, and wash the wounds."
Together the two women tend the child. His leg is strained, not broken, and they put him to bed and watch him till he falls into a restless sleep.
Then their eyes meet, and the mother holds out her hand to Eleanor.
"God bless you!" she says; "if anything had happened to Tombo we should have broken our hearts. He is our only child."
Eleanor has recounted the history of the accident, leaving her share in the background, and making as light of it as possible.
She thinks, as she looks at the white woman, with her fair hair and sandy eyelashes, that something in the face brings an indistinct memory to her mind.
She glances curiously around the hut, adorned by the heads of animals.
"I must go," she says; "it is getting late."
"The boy is sleeping. I will walk home with you."
"No, stay by him. I shall be all right alone."
"They have shot a tiger, and will be all drunk in the village for a week. You are different to me. I must come."
"Thank you," says Eleanor. "I shall enjoy your companionship. May I ask your name?"
"Elizabeth Kachin. And yours?"
Mrs. Roche's eyes droop as she turns them away from the sleeping face of that innocent child.
OH, LOVE! IN SUCH A WILDERNESS AS THIS.
Eleanor grows very fond of Elizabeth Kachin and her dusky son. Since she rescued him that day from the trap Tombo thinks there is no one like the beautiful Mrs. Quinton.
Big Tombo, his father, an educated man who has spent many years of his life in England, also looks upon Eleanor with the same reverence and admiration as little Tombo.
Carol makes fun of the sandy-haired woman wedded to a native, and laughs at Eleanor for being friends with her.
"I have not so many friends that I can afford to pick or choose," she says simply to Quinton, who is smoking in the verandah, his legs crossed, and a graceful air of abandon in his attitude.
She looks lovingly at his long, slim foot, remembering how it attracted her in old days.
"No, darling; I am afraid you must be getting bored to death in this beastly slow place."
A look of alarm steals over Eleanor's features. The distress in her voice is evident as she replies:
"Oh, no, Carol—are you?"
"I have plenty of sport," he says, watching the smoke wreath upwards; "it is different for me."
"And I have you," she answers tenderly; "that is all I want."
"Sweetest Eleanor," he drawls, letting her take his hand. "How easily you are satisfied!"
"I don't quite see that," she answers, puckering her forehead. "I have the only man I love here at my side, glorious scenery all round, I do just as I please, I come and go unquestioned, you have given me a horse to ride, and a house to inhabit, a heart to treasure——"
"Why do you put the heart last?"
She laughs at his question.
"Oh! merely by chance."
"Perhaps it is the least valuable," says Quinton, playing with her fingers.
"Don't be silly."
"I wish you were fond of sport, I would teach you to shoot."
"I cannot bear killing things. I really believe I should suffer as much as my victims."
"That would be very weak-minded of you."
"Perhaps, but I have a weak mind, you know. I told you that at Copthorne, when you swallowed up my will."
"That sounds as if I were a devouring monster, darling."
She is gazing before her and takes no notice of his remark.
"Copthorne!" she says at last. "What a long way off it seems."
"Yes," replies Quinton, "rather fortunate under the circumstances. Your good parents were eminently virtuous; I doubt if they would give me such a friendly welcome now. I say, Eleanor, don't you wish you had Giddy out here. She would wake us up. I should like to see her come in now, with that terrible purple hat, and the white cock's feathers all awry. How full she would be of gossip, and how funny!"
He laughs at the recollection of her odd sayings.
"But I don't want waking up," replies Eleanor. "It would be like a douche of cold water thrown rudely over you in a dream to see any face that reminded me of the past. I am sure we don't want Giddy in our paradise. It is far pleasanter without her!"
"You prefer Elizabeth Kachin and her black Tombo!" laughs Carol. "Do you know, Eleanor, you are the only white woman who would speak to her."
"I like them both; they do not bother me with questions."
"By the way, dear, I forgot to tell you Captain Stevenson and Major Short, two old pals of mine, are in these parts. They sent a mounted messenger to ask me to go and see them this afternoon. They don't know what I am doing here. Of course, I shall say 'sport,' that is only another word for 'love.'"
"The two make a bad combination, for some love is only sport to the fickle and untrue."
"How different to yours and mine, Eleanor," he murmurs tenderly. "I wish I could take you with me this afternoon, but it is a long, rough road, and—and——"
"You would rather your friends did not see me, Carol. Don't be afraid to say it. It is very natural. Besides," with a forced smile, "I am so wonderfully pretty, they might become madly enamoured, and kidnap me in these wilds."
There is no conceit in Eleanor's voice or manner as she speaks, but a spirit of cynicism which is new to her.
Quinton kisses her passionately.
"You are beautiful," he whispers.
"Yet you intend leaving me for several long hours! What are these men like?"
"Captain Stevenson is the dearest fellow on earth, and Major Short handsome enough to fascinate any woman. I assure you I am far too jealous to wish to introduce him. His eyes are soft and hazel, the sort that the feminine mind worships—adores! Hair dark and curling, with threads of grey. A smile that has worked destruction in the four quarters of the globe, and a heart so good and tender that he would not intentionally cause a fly a pang."
"I should like to meet him," sighs Eleanor.
"To quote your own sentiments, darling, it is pleasanter alone; we want no one in our paradise, neither Giddy Mounteagle, nor the handsome Major Short."
"Now you are vindictive and cross," she declares, as he draws her head down on his shoulder.
"There is my horse. Good-bye, little woman. I shall be back before nightfall."
She watches him ride away, waving from the verandah; he turns several times to kiss his hand.
Then she sinks back in a low chair, wondering how to kill time until he returns.
The sun sets when he is out of sight, and rises in all its glory at his presence. He is her idol. Her whole happiness and interest are absorbed in Quinton.
She sends her black servant Quamina to beg Mrs. Kachin to come and sit with her.
It will pass the afternoon to have someone to talk to.
Elizabeth gladly obeys the summons, for she thinks a great deal of her new white friend.
"How is young Tombo?" asks Eleanor, running out to meet Elizabeth, whom she caresses in her affectionately demonstrative manner.
"Oh; so well again, his arm is as good as ever, and he hardly runs stiff at all now."
"My husband has gone to visit two men from Burmah, and I felt terribly deserted and lonely. It is good of you to come, Mrs. Kachin."
"I am also glad of a companion," replies Elizabeth. "Big Tombo has gone to superintend the 'Jhooming' and the boy is with him."
"What is Jhooming?" asks Eleanor.
"Oh! don't you know, they cut down the trees once a year, and burn them when they are quite dry. Then plough the ground, ploughing in all the ash, and sow when the rain comes, scattering the seeds broadcast."
"What busy lives the natives lead! It makes me feel so idle," says Eleanor, stretching her arms. "Yet I love this beautiful country, and enjoy to sit and dream. My days are one long siesta; I am never really awake."
"Ah! you don't work in your home as I do. All this morning I was making clothing for little Tombo on my loom, yet I, too, am happy, Mrs. Quinton. Perhaps you wonder how it is that I married big Tombo. We met in England when I was quite a girl. He was the only honest man it had been my fate to know. I was an unfortunate child, nameless from my birth, yet loved honour and virtue more than anything on earth. My mother was always lenient and kind, but when I grew old enough to realise the wrong she had done me I abhorred her! My marriage released me from a hateful and unwholesome home. I was glad to leave the country in which I first learnt to despise the woman I called by the sacred name of 'mother.'"
Eleanor is pale to the lips, she trembles all over as she listens to Elizabeth.
"I sometimes hear from her now, but she knows my feelings towards her."
"Poor woman!" cries Eleanor, speaking suddenly as if compelled against her will. "You, in your quiet life, with big Tombo, cannot guess the temptations she may have faced. You judge her very harshly. She was kind to you, and it is your duty to love her. You prize virtue and honour, yet do not hesitate to hate and abhor your own flesh and blood."
"It is easy to dictate to others. But if you were to meet that woman, and knew her history, you would pull your skirts aside, for fear they might brush her in passing."
Eleanor shakes her head.
"Oh, no," she says sorrowfully. "I would take her by the hand, and call her 'Sister.'"
"Then you are the right sort of Christian," replies Elizabeth. "I cannot feel that way, because I suffered for her sin—Heaven only knows how bitterly!"
As Eleanor listens to Mrs. Kachin, she feels involuntarily drawn towards her by force of contrast. Their natures are so widely different, for Eleanor was ever lenient, kind-hearted, and forgiving, while Elizabeth is hard, determined, not easily swerved from a purpose.
"Where does your mother live?"
"I hardly know; she is a roving spirit, with no settled home. But her loveless old age is the penalty she must pay for a misused youth. Once she wrote and told me she had enough money laid by to come here if I would receive her."
"And you refused?"
"Oh! how could you!" cries Eleanor, her eyes flashing with indignation.
"I consider the way I have acted since I came to years of discretion is simply just retribution. There is a saying that justice begins next door. I have practised it on my nearest of kin."
"You must be very cruel."
Elizabeth smiles vaguely. Her smile is her only beauty. It lights up her stern face, and makes Eleanor forget that she has sandy eyelashes.
They talk together in the low verandah till long after Quinton should have been home.
"He promised not to stay more than an hour with his friends, and it is a two hours' ride," says Eleanor. "He left soon after one o'clock. It is nearly dark."
Elizabeth detects the anxiety in her tone.
"Oh! you know what men are, they are worse than women! The Major has probably a host of good stories, and the Captain is plying him with wine and some extra special cigars. Don't worry, my dear Mrs. Quinton, he is sure to be late."
She presses Eleanor's hand, and wishes her good-bye.
Then Mrs. Katchin hurries up the hill to her hut, where big Tombo is growling at her absence, and little Tombo getting into endless mischief, which only his mother's watchful eye can prevent.
Night has fallen, but still Eleanor waits on the verandah, with widely-opened eyes, staring along the zigzag path by which Carol rode away. She remembers he turned back to look at her three times, kissing his hand twice. What can have detained him? Surely he knows how nervous she is!
Eleanor rises and walks up and down distractedly, her face ashen pale, her figure trembling.
He has had an accident—she is certain of it. The road, he said was lonely and rough; it winds near a precipice, the loose stones and boulders roll down the slope of the hill and fall into the abyss.
Perhaps his horse has fallen a victim to disease upon the way, or he has been attacked by a savage troop and speared to death.
These thoughts are too horrible to be borne with equanimity; the stillness of night appals her, she can stand it no longer.
Summoning Quamina, she orders her horse to be saddled immediately, with the idea of flying to his aid. She loves him too well to fear the night, the dangers of that lone road, or her indifferent horsemanship! She would die sooner than sit at home when he might need assistance.
Her horse is the handsomest animal that Carol could buy. She has named him "Braye du Valle."
The black men stare wondrously as she mounts and rides out bravely into the night.
"Braye du Valle," she whispers, "we must find him if it costs our lives!"
In the meanwhile Quinton has bidden his friends good-bye, having stayed far later than he intended, talking over old times, and airing his favourite adventures.
It is dark, and he feels a pang of self-reproach at the thought of Eleanor.
Yet his heart is light, and he whistles as he turns his horse's head homewards.
He loses himself in thought, for Carol Quinton is an imaginative man. As far as his fancy is concerned, he is artist, author, poet, and actor. He creates pictures in his brain, dreams of immortal verse, invents a thousand thrilling anecdotes, and quaint love histories. His train of ideas is more that of a woman than a man.
The moon rises, and he watches it floating above him
Like one that had been led astray, Through the heaven's wide pathless way.
But the soul of the poet, soaring in the high region of his fancies, is suddenly rudely shaken. His horse starts, throws up its head and snorts, then shies across the road, as a dark shadow blackens the white stretch of moonlit ground.
"Steady," murmurs Quinton, patting the animal's neck, which is damp with sudden terror.
A black figure comes out from the gloom as he speaks—a tall, masked man on horseback—and before Quinton realises his presence he is seized violently by the throat and dragged from his saddle. A hissing sound as of suppressed rage issues from the assassin's lips—he towers above Quinton, and is muscular and active. Carol is taken unawares, and therefore at a disadvantage. He is like a rat in the paws of a tiger, he can neither cry out nor speak, for the cruel fingers press with deadly force upon his windpipe, and he is flung backwards and forwards, shaken till his teeth rattle in his head and his eyes all but drop from their sockets.
The moon swims round in a sea of blood—he gasps, gargles, struggles.
The savage man in whose clutches he suddenly finds himself seems glorying in his power.
Quinton feels himself face to face with death: he is a child in the hands of this dark highwayman.
The thought rises suddenly to his fading senses:
"By night an Atheist half believes in God."
The terror of judgment is upon him—hell threatens. Through the black slits of the mask he faintly discerns the eyes of his tormentor, whose face is in such close proximity to his own that the hot breath of passion brushes his brow. They are the eyes of a devil, burning as coals of fire—glowing, scintillating. The broad white teeth of the man glisten as they press his lower lip; then he loosens his hold on Quinton's throat and gropes for his hand.
The two are fighting now like twin devils under the dark trees, through which the moonlight flits. They roll over in the dust, while Quinton breathes out curses, struggling for mastery. More than once he feels one finger of his left hand caught in the stranger's grasp, then, as with a cry of triumph which rends the air with hideous mirth, super-human strength seems to possess the masked man. He picks up Quinton in his sinewy arms, whirls him once wildly above his head, and drops him over a rock, down a bank—a fall of only a few feet, on to thick undergrowth below. Then leaping back into his saddle, he gallops at full speed towards the jungle, while Quinton lies gasping and shaking, cut and bleeding.
He rises dizzily—strange!—there are no bones broken, only the uncomfortable feeling of those hot fingers at his throat, and the giddy sensation from the violent shaking. He feels for his watch; it is still there. Some money fallen from his pocket lies loose on the wayside. Nothing apparently is stolen.
Then he looks down suddenly at his finger, the one twice captured in their struggle.
His cat's-eye ring has gone!
"WHERE THERE AIN'T NO TEN COMMANDMENTS." "The Road to Mandalay."—Rudyard Kipling.
As Carol goes on through the night, fear is in his heart.
How easily the dark, vindictive, savage creature could have cast him wantonly into eternity, yet he stayed his hand. Evidently he had not desired Quinton's life, since he took nothing but a little band of gold, with a cat's-eye. Such a worthless prize—a woman's ring.
The scene is a puzzle to Carol Quinton, the mystery of it haunts him. In every shadow he sees a black mask, at the slightest sound his blood runs cold, the creaking of the boughs above are to him the echo of pursuing hoofs, and the cry of the parrot, that sinister yell which accompanied his fall. Even the stars are flashing eyes, the moon an enemy, and the stones devils.
Quinton is not a brave man; truth to tell, he is a coward. His whole system is suffering from the shock, while the long tramp he has taken in search of his horse, which strayed from the road, increased his nervous agitation.
His hands tremble as they hold the reins, his knees knock against his frightened horse, who in sympathy with his master, starts at every step, appearing to find his route peopled with spirits.
"What did it all mean—what could it mean?" he asks himself again and again.
The beating of his heart seems to Quinton as thunder on the air, which is heavy and oppressive, a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours!
Surely this can be no fancy—the slow tread of a sure-footed beast on the path before him. Carol quails and whitens to the lips. The moon passes behind the cloud—a second figure is at his side. He spurs his horse, and the frantic swish of his crop lays a deep weal on the animal's withers. It breaks into a gallop, throwing up the dust around and flying down a steep descent. He hears the hoofs following closely in the rear, someone is nearly upon him gaining inch by inch. His courage sinks—dies—he is white, perspiring, terrified, limp! His senses reel, he drops the reins, falling forward on his horse's neck. His fingers clutch the mane, while a woman's voice cries behind:
The horse recognises Eleanor's soft tones, and halts, just in time for Quinton to fall unharmed, swooning to the earth.
Eleanor springs off "Braye du Valle," sinking on her knees in terror by the helpless form. She sees the bleeding scratches on his face and hands, but feels his heart beat, knowing that he still lives.
"Oh, Carol," she murmurs, pillowing his head on her breast, "what is the matter?"
He stirs faintly, a convulsive shudder runs through his limbs.
"I am here, Carol," she continues tenderly; "I, Eleanor!"
He starts up, staring at her in the moonlight.
"But the man," he gasps, "the masked man who followed me only a moment since. What has happened? What has become of him?"
"I followed you down the slope. I came out to find you, fearing you had met with some accident on the road. Just as I was approaching and about to speak, you dashed past me, and then——"
"What then?" interpolates Carol impatiently.
"I suppose you fainted, for I saw you roll from your saddle as the horse drew up at the sound of my voice."
"You ought not to have come," says Carol, somewhat harshly, but Eleanor's blinded senses, dulled under the influence of her love, heed not his ill-temper.
He rises surlily, brushing some blood off his forehead.
He mounts Eleanor upon her horse without a word.
"Why are you so late?" she asks.
"I was attacked on the road by a madman, and half killed," he replies between his teeth.
"Oh, Carol!" she exclaims, her face blanching, "how terrible!"
"Yes, it was rather bad."
Then he describes the scene graphically as they ride on side by side, till Eleanor is shivering with horror.
"Strangely enough," he says, "the only thing I lost in the struggle was that cat's-eye ring you gave me. I think the man imagined it was something of value."
"Is that so?" replies Eleanor slowly, staring before her into the moonlight. "I would rather anything had gone but that."
"I am sorry, too; I shall miss it."
There is a pause.
"You are ill, exhausted!" murmurs Eleanor sympathetically.
"Oh, no; don't worry. But I wish I knew who the devil that man was."
* * * * *
"Captain Stevenson wants to give me an Irish terrier," says Carol, a few mornings later. "I think it will be well to have a dog about the place, especially after what happened the other night."
"Yes, indeed; I should accept it by all means."
"I will ride over and see him early, and get back by daylight."
Eleanor picks up a book, leaning back wearily. She is growing accustomed to his absences. The Eleanor who was so difficult to please with Philip Roche will stand anything from Carol Quinton.
Her one idea is to yield to his every whim, regard his every wish. To live only to please.
He bends over her. She is reading Shakespeare for the first time.
"What is honour?—a word," she quotes aloud. "What is that word, honour?—air."
He kisses the curling hair on her forehead.
"Good-bye, my love. You shall not be alarmed this time."
"Come back soon, Carol."
She does not rise to kiss her hand or wave as he rides away.
She is beginning to see with a woman's shrewd instinct that he treats her with more deference when she feigns indifference.
She is dreaming over her book, and her idle fingers turn the pages till they come to Macbeth. By chance her eyes fall on five familiar words, of whose origin she was ignorant.
"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow!"
A low laugh ripples from her lips, she rises and tosses the volume aside. They have no power to frighten her now, for the to-morrows mean Carol, life, love.
Here in this beautiful country she is passing a charmed existence. Nature in all its majesty now appeals to her senses, ravishes her eye, while she, lovely in her picturesque surroundings, feels a goddess of the east.
She hears the sounds of hoofs below, and leans over the balustrade, a bright smile parting her lips, the sunlight streaming on her hair, looking quite childlike in her soft white gown, which clings around her girlish figure.
Two men ride up: one tall, fair, and emaciated in appearance; the other dark, and indescribably handsome.
"Does Mr. Quinton live here?" asks the fair man, raising his hat.
"Yes," replies Eleanor, "but he is out now, won't you come in?"
The men hesitate and exchange glances.
"Are you Captain Stevenson and Major Short?" looking at them through her long lashes, with half-veiled curiosity.
They reply in the affirmative, and Eleanor informs them that Carol is already on his way to their encampment, at K——.
"But I am all alone, and very dull," says Eleanor plaintively. "Do rest and refresh yourselves."
She sends for a man to take their horses, and receives them in the verandah with a gracious air.
"May I ask to whom we have the pleasure of speaking?" murmurs Captain Stevenson.
"Oh! didn't I introduce myself?" says Eleanor with a slight flush. "How stupid of me! I am Mrs. Quinton, you know, or rather you don't know," laughing spontaneously. "The fact is, Carol and I made a runaway match against the wishes of my relations—very shocking, was it not? But I am not going to appal you with domestic details. A whisky and soda is more to the point. Is not this an ideal spot?"
The visitors hardly notice the surrounding scenery. They are looking at the lovely features of their blushing young hostess.
An Irish terrier has followed them hot and panting into the verandah.
"I have brought the dog I promised your husband," says Captain Stevenson. "He is a fine little fellow, and game for anything."
"It is extremely good of you," cries Eleanor, catching the dog up in her arms, and feeding him with biscuits.
She puts both the strangers at their ease at once. It is long since she has had anyone fresh to talk to, and the time flies, for they all three have much to say. Eleanor will not let them go.
"You must stay and lunch with me," she murmurs persuasively. "Carol will be so angry if I don't keep you, and the days are so long without him."
"I can't think how it was we did not meet if he rode our way," declares Major Short, when lunch is over, and Eleanor has begged them to smoke.
"Nor I; but he must be home early."
"Is that your guitar?" asks Major Short.
"Yes, but unfortunately I cannot play it. Carol has taught me a few chords, but I have no music."
"Short is the man to sing," Captain Stevenson vouchsafes.
Eleanor seizes the instrument, and holds it out to him with a winning smile.
"Do give us one little song!" she pleads.
He takes the guitar with a kind look from his exquisite brown eyes, and strokes the strings, it seems so gently, that they whisper like the wind in the trees.
"What will you have?"
Eleanor leans forward with her chin between her hands, gazing at him intently.
"Anything you like."
"This road," says Captain Stevenson, leaning over the verandah, "is the road to Mandalay. It seems impregnated with the spirit of Rudyard Kipling."
"That shall be the song," says Major Short.
Captain Stevenson half sits on the balustrade, with the terrier beside him gazing up wistfully into his eyes. Eleanor retains her intent attitude, as a voice more beautiful and mellow than any she has ever heard swells out on the hot air.
Eleanor is moved almost to tears by the magnetism of that wonderful sound, thrilling her very being, for she is highly emotional.
The tune is soft, and the well-known words to the familiar melody take pathos from their rough uncultured sentiment.
She remembers once hearing a man recite the words at a musical "At home."
People had cried then; they knew not why, save that his elocution was exquisite, and he breathed it in an undertone:
By the old Moulmein Pajoda lookin' eastward to the sea, There's a Burmah girl a-setting, and I know she thinks o' me, For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple bells they say: "Come you back, you British soldiers, come you back to Mandalay."
Eleanor and Captain Stevenson join in the chorus softly. It is sung slowly, like a low wail, Major Shore's clear notes rising above the rest:
Come you back to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay, Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay? On the road to Mandalay, Where the flying fishes play, And the dawn comes up like thunder out er China, 'crost the bay.
As they sing, Carol rides up the hill, and the music falls on his astonished ear. Singing in their verandah—how can that be?
Eleanor is the first to catch sight of him, but does not speak or move, though Quinton's presence always quickens her pulses.
The chords of the guitar take up the refrain, and Captain Stevenson, turning, espies Carol.
"When the mist was on the rice fields, an' the sun was droppin' low,
continues the rich voice.
"Why, there's Quinton!" exclaims Captain Stevenson, breaking into the melody. "My dear fellow, how was it we missed on the road?"
"I can't imagine," he replies; "I suppose I took a different path." His eyes shift uneasily, a flush rises to his brow.
"Your wife has been most kind and hospitable," declares Major Short, laying down the guitar.
"I am delighted she kept you."
"We brought the dog. He has already attached himself to Mrs. Quinton. I assure you at lunch his preference for her was most marked; he wouldn't look at us."
"Cupboard love, eh? I suppose she fed him."
"Well, yes, I should rather think so, he will not require anything more for some time."
"I am afraid," says Quinton, "that I interrupted a concert. You all looked most Bohemian and enjoying the dolce far niente stage of existence."
"It was too bad to break off in the middle of your song, Major Short," Eleanor murmurs, seating herself beside him and taking up the guitar. "I wish you could teach me the accompaniment, for I do know a few notes vaguely, and though I have never learned to sing I can croon a little."
"It really is not difficult," Major Short assures her. "I will send you the song if you like."
"Thanks, but I cannot read music, only I have rather a good ear."
So he strikes the chords one by one very slowly, while Eleanor repeats them.
"I should never have picked it out by myself. Now I shall be able to sing to Carol in the evenings."
"Are they not delightful?" says Eleanor, as the two men ride away. "I have quite enjoyed to-day, Carol."
"I believe," muttered Major Short as they turned out of sight, "I believe that fellow Quinton lied to his wife. Do you think for a moment he went our way? There is only one road that is fit to ride on, that he could have gone by; besides, it was written on his face when he saw us."
"You are too sharp, Short, my boy," laughed the good-natured Captain Stevenson. "But there is something wrong with Quinton undeniably. I wonder who the little woman is, and where she came from?"
Major Short rides on in silence, he is thinking of the little woman's smile.
That night, as Quinton smokes in his low cane chair, Eleanor brings the guitar, running her lithe fingers over the strings.
"I say, Eleanor," he begins, "you need not have let out you could not read music. It was awfully gauche of you. You don't want to advertise your farm origin."
"I am so sorry, darling," she answers penitently.
Again she strikes the cords, this time hesitatingly, for her hand trembles.
The spicy garlic smells are wafted on the night air.
Eleanor breaks suddenly into song, as if inspired by the oriental atmosphere:
"When the mist was on the rice fields, an' the sun was droppin' low, She gets her little banjo, an' she'd sing "Kullalo-lo. With her arms upon my shoulder, an' 'er cheek agin my cheek, We use ter watch the steamers, and the 'hathis "pilin'" teak.
Her voice travels far in the darkness; she feels as if singing to some unseen audience—perchance spirits peopling that road to Mandalay.
The dog at her feet starts up suddenly, bristling all over, growling, barking!
"Did you hear anything?" asks Carol nervously.
"I fancied a rustle came from the bushes."
"Perhaps danger is stalking abroad to-night," mutters Carol, throwing his cigar aside.
The dog refuses to be silenced, while Eleanor, holding him by the collar, tries to soothe his petulance.
But Carol goes indoors.
LET US BE OPEN AS THE DAY.
Eleanor notices after that night Carol becomes nervous and irritable.
His absences are more frequent, but whereever he goes he takes the dog with him for protection.
Though only a rough-haired terrier, it seems to guard him; yet the constant recurrence of apparently reasonless growls and barks startles and annoys him.
Eleanor often sits with Elizabeth Katchin when Quinton is out, and wonders what she would do without the companionship of this one white woman.
That day she is walking up the hill towards her friend's hut, when she meets young Tombo, who rushes up and seizes her skirts.
"Oh, do come!" he cries, dragging her along; "something awful bad is going on at home. There is a stranger at our door crying just dreadful; and mother's red in the face, sayin' no end of angry words, stampin', fumin', and wringing her hands. The stranger wanted to see me and speak; but mother just hustled me out at the back, and tells me to go and play beans in the jungle. But the boys are not there. Quartey M'Ba is takin' care of his father, who's dead drunk with Zoo, and little Rangusaw Mymoodelayer is workin' with his uncle. It's sure to be all right if you come, Mrs. Quinton. Mother 'll calm down when she sees who I've brought."
He runs eagerly before her, while Eleanor, utterly at a loss to comprehend the nature of the trouble, approaches Elizabeth's homestead in some trepidation.
"I'll have none of you," Mrs. Kachin's hard voice is heard exclaiming. "Did I not write it plain in black and white? Didn't I repeat it three times over on the same page, twice underlined? Am I not old enough to speak for myself, to know my own will? Begone, or I'll tell you some home truths which were best not uttered from my lips."
"Oh, little Beth, little Beth!" moans a pleading voice, "the child I nursed and loved. Can it be you that speaks so hard, that turns me from the door? Let me see the child before I go—the sturdy dark boy who was born to you. Beth, have some pity, some mercy on my misery! It has cost me nearly my little all to come out to you, for I thought your heart would soften when you saw your mother's face."
She breaks off into bitter sobbing and sinks on the step.
Eleanor stands like one paralysed listening to the quarrel, while Tombo hides behind her skirts, clinging to her fearfully.
Her face flushes with shame for Elizabeth, and pity for this stricken woman. Her eyes flash scorn on Mrs. Kachin, as she turns and raises the stranger from her attitude of humility and degradation.
"Your daughter's virtue and pride are things to be despised, accursed," she says, "when bound in such an armour of harshness and cruelty."
The weeping woman lifts her head, and her eyes meet Eleanor's.
The two start involuntarily. The scene of a railway carriage rushes suddenly before their vision, the fragments of a torn photograph, the name on the label of Eleanor's dressing bag.
"Mrs. Roche!" gasps the stranger.
That word here. It stuns, petrifies her! The very sound of it is as a blow.
A flock of four or five hornbills fly above their heads, making their noises like an express train through the air. As they fade from sight Eleanor fancies the train has stopped at the little platform of Copthorne.
The shrill cry of the jungle fowl, crowing like bantams on the old farmland at home, seem to repeat the word "Roche, Roche!"
"What can I do?" asks the woman wildly, grasping Eleanor's arm. "I am here, and Beth has cast me out, I have nowhere to lay my head."
"Come with me," says Eleanor slowly, deliberately, looking from the faded features of the withered woman to Mrs. Kachin's contracted mouth. "I will give you rest and shelter."
"You will regret it if you take her under your roof!" cries Elizabeth, slamming the door.
"May the good Samaritans of this world do the same for you, Mrs. Roche, when you are in trouble," says the weary wanderer, as Eleanor leads her faltering footsteps down the hill.
She is too excited by the strange coincidence of this, their second meeting, to wonder whether she is binding a burden on her back, or offering a refuge thoughtlessly without consulting Carol. She only looks pityingly at the towzled hair and drawn face of her guest, pressing her hand sympathetically as they enter the verandah together. "I am not Mrs. Roche here," falters Eleanor; "you must call me Mrs. Quinton."
The woman looks searchingly, sadly, into Eleanor's eyes.
"I see," she answers slowly.
"And your name?" asks Eleanor.
"Palfrey Blum. I am Mrs. Blum."
What an odd introduction, what a puzzling fate.
Carol is deeply annoyed at his return to discover the guest.
"What on earth you want to bring that hideous creature with a head of hay here for I can't imagine," he exclaims. "You must shunt her as soon as possible, Eleanor; I can't have you picking up waifs and strays, and turning our home into a sort of infirmary."
"I don't know what to do, it is a most pitiable story."
"Oh! dash the story!" interpolates Carol. "I shouldn't mind if she were not so confoundedly ugly."
"I could not help it, darling," says Eleanor tearfully. "I did not think you would object."
"Well, now she is here, what are you going to do with her?"
"I don't know."
Carol stalks up and down the room with his hands in his pockets.
Eleanor's spirits sink.
"I will see what I can do, dearest," she says at last.
Carol turns, seeing her beautiful eyes moist and sorrowful.
He gathers her into his arms and kisses her suddenly.
"Get rid of the old ghost," he whispers. "I can't endure to see a relic of faded beauty standing decayed before my eyes. A woman has no right to grow old, it is an unpardonable offence, and takes away one's appetite having to look at her at meals."
"How unchristian you are, Carol!" she says, smiling under his caress.
The following morning Mrs. Blum seems refreshed, and looks less careworn after her night's sleep.
"There is one thing I desire more than all else on earth," she confides to Eleanor, "and that is to hold my grandson in my arms, and kiss him once."
"I have been again to Elizabeth, but she will not listen to me. Perhaps I might get the boy to you without her knowledge, or big Tombo may possibly bring him. There were tears in his eyes to-day when I was pleading with Elizabeth."
"Ah! Big Tombo is not so bitter against me as his wife. He is a good man, and charitable."
So Eleanor watches for Mr. Kachin to pass down the path to the valley below, where the rice is cultivated.
When she sees him she runs out. He stops and bows. Eleanor gives him her hand.
"Ah, Mrs. Quinton," he says, "we are deeply indebted to you for your kindness to poor Mrs. Blum. Even my wife in her righteous indignation owns that. I should personally be very glad to do anything I could for her, only Elizabeth is so determined. Can you advise me?"
Eleanor thinks a moment.
"She must be sent back again, I suppose. She regrets bitterly having come."
"Has she any money?"
"Oh, yes, but hardly enough to take her home; she relied on living with you and Elizabeth. I shall help her all I can, and perhaps you will also."
Big Tombo works hard, and he has a good store of hoardings laid by. He is an intensely generous man, and but for his wife's watchfulness would give away all that he has to others.
Eleanor inspires him to make an offer.
"I will pay her fare to England," he says. "It will save Elizabeth the pain of coming in contact with her. After all, she is my mother-in-law. It is the least that I can do."
"You are most good and kind," replies Eleanor, "and she would be deeply grateful if you came in now and told her this yourself. She feels her daughter's slight acutely."
Big Tombo bows assent.
The beautiful Mrs. Quinton's word is law.
Mrs. Blum trembles with emotion as her eyes fall upon him. She listens to what he says with tears in her eyes and a blessing in her heart.
"You are a good son," she says, taking his great brown hands between her withered palms, and pressing them to her lips. "I love you for your care of Elizabeth—for the happy home in which she lives. When she speaks of me harshly tell her to think of me as one dead. We reverence the names of those who are underground, even though we despise them during their lives. I shall never forget what you have done for me."
Her voice is choked with emotion.
"If—if you don't mind," she falters, "I should like to look once on your child before I go."
Tombo bends his head. He has not the heart to refuse her.
That afternoon, he sends the boy, without Elizabeth's knowledge, to carry some bananas to Eleanor.
"Come in, my dear," she says kindly, as the little boy presents the fruit. "There is a lady who wishes to see you."
She takes his small hand and leads him into the room.
Mrs. Blum rushes forward with a cry, and flinging her arms round the child's neck, kisses him again and again.
Then perching him on her knee, she looks at him intently, murmuring: "Beth's boy! Beth's son!"
"You are the lady who got scolded," says Tombo gravely. "Why was my mother so angry with you?"
"It is not polite to ask questions," puts in Eleanor hastily.
"But she ought not to be cross," continues Tombo, "because you must be good, you're white, like Mrs. Quinton, and mother never rows her. Who are you?" placing his tiny fingers against her cheek, and stroking it gently.
"I am your granny, dear, and you will never see me again. But you must think of me sometimes, and remember that I loved you."
She strains him to her heart passionately.
"You're crying!" says Tombo. "That's naughty. Oh! don't cry," shaking her in a sudden frenzy of fear. "Granny, Granny!"
Children always dread to see their elders give way to any emotion, and the little fellow's terror brings back Mrs. Blum's composure.
"There, darling, see, I am smiling," she says, her faded eyes lighting up through a mist of tears.
"I think it is very nice to have a Granny, and I want to keep her always."
"That is impossible, dearest. You must be a good boy, and not ask mother questions."
Eleanor brings him sweets and cakes, which he readily devours, sharing them with the dog, who jumps up, startling Mrs. Blum, on whose knees young Tombo is seated.
"You must trot home soon," says Eleanor, glancing nervously at the time, and fearing every moment lest Elizabeth should sweep in like a tragedy queen, and snatch her offspring from Mrs. Blum's arms.
"Yes, soon," sighs his grandmother, holding him as if she will never let him go. She detaches a small gold locket from her chain, in which is a lock of Elizabeth's hair.
"You may keep this darling," she murmurs, "to remember Granny by."
She looks tenderly at the pale, flaxen lock of hair, which grew on little Beth's baby forehead.
"Don't lose it, Tombo, for it is very precious—one of Granny's dearest treasures. Mother will recognise it and know the hair inside. Tell her you must keep it always, because she played with it as a little girl."
The boy gazes in awe at the locket.
"Didn't it cost a lot of money?" he asks.
Mrs. Blum smiles at the remark.
"You are an odd child," she says, placing him on the ground.