"Have you nothing you can give Granny?" whispers Eleanor in his ear.
Tombo draws a small whistle from his pocket and carries it with an air of triumph to Mrs. Blum.
"This is for you, Granny. It is all my own, so don't be afraid. Quartey M'Ba gave it to me for a dead 'minah' I found in the jungle."
She takes the little whistle tremblingly.
"Granny will wear it on her chain," she says, "in the place of her locket, she will keep it quite as carefully."
Then she kisses the child, and pushes him from her, covering her face with her hands that she may not see him go.
Eleanor leads Tombo away, and watches him run down the hill—he is clasping the gold locket safely in both hands.
* * * * *
Mrs. Blum has departed blessing Eleanor, and pouring such overwhelming gratitude into her ears that solitude is a welcome relief.
"Poor soul," she thinks. "Shall I ever come to that?"
A step is heard on the verandah, the rustle of a dress, and Elizabeth Kachin stands before her.
She is paler than of yore, her eyes a trifle softer. The hard lips part in greeting, she takes Eleanor by both hands.
"You are a good woman," she says, with an admiring glance. "I cannot tell you how high your great charity has placed you in my esteem and regard. To think you actually laid aside all your natural feelings of repulsion and harboured such a woman out of charity."
"Merely an act of plain humanity," replies Eleanor.
"Nevertheless, I could not do it, even to my own mother. To be in contact with what is sinful is abhorrent to me. Still, I am not blind to your great kindness and self-sacrifice. Tombo and I both wish to thank you."
Eleanor's heart swells at the words—to be thought good, noble, charitable. What a blessed thing it is! She realises how deeply she still values public opinion, which she has cast to the winds in her reckless love for Carol. Elizabeth, by her words of praise, endears herself to Eleanor, in spite of her late behaviour to the poor outcast. It is well to be looked up to and to be believed in. Then the galling thought creeps into her elated brain:
"You have no right to this approbation. Elizabeth is a just woman, clothed in that pitiless virtue which tramples down the weak. You are deceiving her and accepting what is not your due. You may be foolish, wild, mistaken, Eleanor; you may have ruined your husband and yourself; but you are not a hypocrite."
She realises in a moment all it will cost her to lose her friend's respect, to see the look of scorn in Elizabeth's eye, and watch her turn away as from one polluted.
For the moment it seems too hard, but Eleanor pulls herself together and sets her teeth.
She walks across to the door with a steady step, her slim young figure drawn up to its full height, her head tossed back, her cheeks aflame.
Elizabeth watches in mute surprise. Then Eleanor breaks the silence, flings open the door, and cries with outstretched hand pointing to the hill:
"Go! I, too, am a wicked woman!"
THE IDEAL! DIM VANITIES OF DREAMS BY NIGHT.
From the moment those fatal words were uttered: "Go! I, too, am a wicked woman!" the scales fall from Elizabeth's eyes.
How natural it seems to her now, the so-called Mrs. Quinton's act of sympathy.
But what she does not know, nor can ever guess, is the supreme effort that confession costs Eleanor. It is wrung from her lips through sheer force of will, and as Mrs. Kachin obeys the command, and with head held proudly aloft, passes out into the blinding sunlight, Eleanor receives her first slight since leaving England.
The cup is bitter, it takes away her breath. She stands in the doorway gasping, blinded by the glaring light of day. A victim at the shrine of truth, self condemned, self accused.
It is thus that Carol finds her, gazing tragically at the departing figure of Elizabeth Kachin.
"What's up?" he asks, seeing her distress.
"I have told Elizabeth," she says slowly, "what I am."
Quinton bites his lips with annoyance.
"I should not have thought even you could have committed such an egregious act of folly!"
"I could not help myself. Elizabeth thought me so good, so different, and her words seared my conscience. Ah! you smile, no wonder. It ought to be dead by rights, long ago."
"You poor little thing," he murmurs tenderly. "But it was very silly, and another time do not let a few miserable scruples overrule your better judgment. After all, Elizabeth is no great loss, but it is always unwise and unnecessary to give yourself away. There! I have done my lecture, come and kiss me."
She flies into his arms.
"It is terrible when you are annoyed with me, Carol. I should like you to think everything I do or say perfection. But then we cannot have all we want in life, and especially such a delightful life as ours. Do you know, however deeply you love, however constant you may prove, you can never realise your ideal. It exists alone in the realms of fancy; it is as unsubstantial as a dream—in fact, it is a dream!"
"Have I disappointed you then?" he asks, with a wounded look.
"Oh, no," raising her eyebrows at the bare idea. "I meant it just the other way—that I have failed to please you in everything. An ideal has no fault, and I appear full of errors. An ideal is something good, holy, perfect. I am bad, unreasonable, foolish."
"You certainly have a way of making a fellow feel a cur without meaning it."
"Have I?" says Eleanor simply.
"Do you ever long to be back in London?" asks Quinton suddenly.
"No—a thousand times no! It is a city of destruction, a hell of iniquity, Satan and the Savoy, his satellites Giddy Mounteagle, and——"
"Carol," with deep reproach in her tone, "though my life here with you is one which the 'Elizabeths' of Society shun and condemn, I believe, in the peaceful atmosphere, the blessed quiet, and sweet unfretful days, I have been a better woman. When I think of the daily quarrels in Richmond, the frivolous worldly conversations of Giddy and her set, it soothes all suspicion of regret in my heart. Love is my only law, and this is described as chief among virtues."
"Then you are happy. I have brought some solace and light into your days, Eleanor? If I died to-morrow, or was lost from sight, you would look back and say: 'He gave me my dearest hours, my most treasured memories. He brought me from the slough of despond to the sunshine of the east.'"
"Yes," she murmurs, quoting her favourite song:
"If you've heard the East a-callin', You won't never 'eed naught else."
She snatches up her guitar with the light laugh of a girl.
"No, you won't 'eed nothin' else, but them spicy garlic smells, An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees, an' the tinkly temple bells."
"Come out for a ride," says Carol, "now it is cooler."
Eleanor's face brightens, her eyes glow. He goes so frequently alone, never even telling her the direction he has taken, and answering shortly when questioned. His suggestion meets with her highest approval.
"We will go by the jungle," she says. "You know my favourite road; not past Elizabeth's hut, since her doors will be closed to me henceforth. I shall miss her friendship when I am alone, but you must not leave me so often now, and we will ask that nice Major Short and Captain Stevenson to come and see us again."
"So you are fond of society still," says Quinton smiling, "though you denied it just now."
"Two congenial spirits are not 'society,'" she replies, "That word comprises people in a bulk. But here are the horses. Doesn't Braye du Valle look splendid? I hope if I died you would let him drag me to my grave."
"Don't be gruesome," says Carol.
"Oh! we must take the dog. Where is he? Do go and find him, dear."
"He is such a bothering little beast, we shall be better without him," protests Quinton. "Yesterday he nearly frightened my horse over a precipice, flying into the bushes and fighting with some wild animal. I don't know what it was, but he came out bitten and bleeding. He limped home, leaving a track behind him. Something big rushed away, I shot at it but did not hit it. I don't know how the dog escaped with his life."
"But he is all right to-day, and I want to take him, he is always so busy and amusing," Eleanor persists. "Besides, such a plucky little beggar ought not to be coddled. I think you will find him in my room."
Quinton goes unwillingly. The dog and its vagaries have got on his nerves, though he does not care to own it.
As Eleanor is waiting without she hears the sound of a horse behind, and, turning quickly, is surprised to see a stranger riding up the hill. A tall, handsome woman well developed, with portly shoulders and large hands. She is riding an immense charger, and whistling gaily. At a second glance Eleanor sees that this masculine young woman is strikingly attractive, her style distinctly original, her figure, though large, splendidly proportioned. She has shiningly white teeth under her curling lips—full, red, and smiling. Her eyes are large, dark, and brilliant, flashing like twin stars under a level brow, with black, almost bushy eyebrows.
Her complexion is rich and clear, her hair braided in masses under a man's hat. A gun slung over her shoulder gives her a sporting appearance.
She looks curiously at Eleanor's fragile beauty—the contrast between them is marked.
The whistle dies on the stranger's lips, she sets her mouth, averts her head, lashes her steed, and gallops by—never halting till out of sight of the slim woman on Braye du Valle.
"I wonder who she can be?" thinks Eleanor, watching the departing figure so intently that she never notices Carol return with the dog till he speaks:
"What are you looking at?"
His eyes follow the direction of her gaze, but discern only a cloud of dust in the distance.
"A stranger," cries Eleanor excitedly, "a white woman riding alone."
"Really! What was she like?"
"Big, and bold, and handsome. The sort of 'knock you down' woman who balances weights at music-halls in tights. Giddy and Bertie took me once to a box at the Empire; she reminded me of the strong lady in spangles. A magnificent creature, like a splendid animal."
"Oh!" ejaculates Quinton.
"Couldn't you find out who she is, Carol; I would love to know? She gave me such an odd look from her great brave eyes, then, to my astonishment, galloped madly away as if I were going to eat her. She was armed, too, so need not have been afraid, though I don't look much like a savage, do I?"
"I can't see that we need trouble about her."
"She raised my curiosity."
"Simply because of her good looks."
"She was the strangest woman I ever saw. I should like to know more of her."
Quinton jags his horse's mouth angrily, and, calling the dog, rides forward to stop the discussion.
"He has no thought for any woman but me," mentally ejaculates Eleanor, as she follows on Braye du Valle.
She is perfectly satisfied with her lot as she rides beside him, gazing at his handsome profile.
Some sombre-hued birds on the ground fly into the air as they approach. The transformation from dark feathers to brilliant yellow plumage as they spread their wings in flight is pleasing to the eye.
"I love the golden oriole," says Eleanor, "they look like a flash of sunlight. The Eastern birds are very beautiful."
As she speaks there is a low growl from behind.
Simultaneously Eleanor and Carol turn in their saddles, looking sharply at the dog, and then to the thick growth towards which he is stealing, his tail between his legs and his head down.
"I believe that dog is cracked," says Eleanor, calling him back sharply. "I always feel as if some evil spirit were near us when he behaves like that."
"I told you how it would be if we brought him."
"Let us see what he will do."
The dog has taken no heed of her call, but crouches nearer the bushes, bristling all over. Then suddenly he makes a dive into their midst, disappearing from view.
This is followed by a series of shrill barks—the sound as of a dog fighting for its life—a skirmish—a hideous yell—and then—silence.
"Something has killed him!" whispers Eleanor under her breath.
"We had better get on," replies Quinton; "it may be some dangerous beast."
"What! ride off, and perhaps leave the wretched dog mangled and maimed to crawl away and starve? Carol! what are you thinking of?"
She springs to the ground, flings him her reins, and before he realises what she is going to do, rushes into the bushes after her pet.
"Eleanor, are you mad?" he thunders, already picturing her devoured by some fierce beast.
It is a moment of horrible suspense. Then she emerges, her face scratched by the low boughs, bearing tenderly the limp body of the terrier, torn and bleeding.
"He is quite dead," she says sorrowfully, tears standing in her eyes. "I can see the marks of teeth on his throat."
"Poor little beggar! Do you know you too might be dead at this moment for the sake of recovering the lifeless body of a dog? You must be off your head, Eleanor, to do such an utterly insane thing. Whatever were you thinking of?"
"I was excited—my blood was up. I am like that," she answers apologetically.
They ride silently home.
"We shall miss him," sighs Eleanor at last.
"Who? The dog?"
"Yes. We must let Captain Stevenson know."
"I wonder what animal killed him?"
"I saw nothing; only I fancy I heard a rustle in the trees to my right, and the sound of a horse's hoofs scampering towards the jungle. It may have been only imagination, or perhaps the stalwart lady with the fine eyes was hovering near us."
Quinton's face blanches. He turns to her sharply:
"If you did imagine it, I wish you would not romance."
Eleanor is sorry she has told him, since he appears anxious and uncomfortable. He has never been quite the same since his wrestle with the masked man. He is easily startled and alarmed. She blames herself inwardly for want of discretion, and reassures him with a smile.
"Oh! it was nothing, dearest; if anyone had been riding I must have seen him—I mean—her."
Eleanor knows this is not the case, but seeing Carol's relief at the words, does not regret them.
"We must expect adventures now and again," she continues cheerfully, trying to throw off her depression.
"I shall never forget that night," says Carol, "when I rode away from you in the dark. I did wish I was on Charing Cross Station."
"It was too bad of me; I might have had the sense not to pursue you, sheer idiotcy on my part."
"Has it ever struck you, Eleanor, to wonder how long we shall go on living in this out-of-the way hole?"
She catches her breath.
"No, Carol. I am quite contented to be here, though I suppose in time you will weary of the place, and we shall move elsewhere. Yours is rather a roving spirit, I fear, never happy for long in one spot. I feel rooted to this restful retreat; but directly you tire of it, only say the word, and I will follow you to the end of the world. We have our home here, and there is plenty of sport for you, so I expect we shall jog along for a while!" with a feeble attempt at a laugh. Any signs of discontent on Carol's part fill her with vague dread and suspense.
"Would it not seem strange," he continues, "to go back to England and be respectable? Imagine yourself in a prim little village, posing as a good young widow, playing Lady Bountiful to the poor, and being called on by the county magnates, while I lived a virtuous bachelor life in the dreary precincts of Clifford's Inn."
"Apart! Us apart!" gasps Eleanor.
"My love, I was only 'supposing.' But isn't the idea ludicrous, quite too funny and absurd? You romanced first, I am only following your lead. I have heard respectability termed 'the curse of pleasure.' It kills enjoyment, breeds hypocrisy, fosters discontent, revolutionises Bohemia!"
Eleanor dislikes his flippancy. The picture he has drawn bewilders her. The thought of life without Carol is hideous, impossible. Her usual spirits flag.
"Why are you so dull and down, darling?"
"You make me so!"
"It seems, Eleanor, you can never take a joke."
All the glamour of her present happiness has faded under the saddening influence of Carol's "joke!" But she will not own it is that which distresses her.
"I do not see an animal I know and care for bitten to death every day, and that poor little dog was so attached to me. I wish I had given him the extra biscuit he begged for this morning. I told him he was greedy, and hid it away."
She goes sadly into the house and dresses for dinner in a dainty robe of white muslin cut low at the neck, for Quinton's benefit.
The sudden necessity for looking beautiful, and making herself pleasant and fascinating, comes over her like a nightmare. Her throat is parched. Her temples burn.
The gown is soft and clinging, the effect fairylike and picturesque. Quinton never sees her in this simple garb without an exclamation of approval.
She creeps behind him in the verandah, twining her bare arms round his neck.
He looks at her admiringly, as he would at a picture which gladdens the eye for a moment.
"How late it is," she whispers, kneeling beside him. "Cook is frantic, for all our dinner is spoiled, we were out a long while."
Quamina, who only talks a smattering of English, rushes into the verandah, wringing her hands. Her black lips tremble, her eyes start from her head.
"Oh! Sahib, Sahib!" she cries, "the big black devil that tracks the Sahib, he rode up the hill, there!" pointing with outstretched fingers.
Quinton starts to his feet.
"Where?" he asks, looking out but seeing nothing. "What do you mean?"
But Quamina continues to shake and cry, moaning "The devil, he has come for the Sahib!"
LIFE IS THORNY, AND YOUTH IS VAIN.
When Quamina can be quieted and her fears calmed, the truth is gradually drawn from her. She has seen a man in a black mask prowling on his hands and knees in the bushes round the house. She leant out of her window and screamed, whereupon he sprang on to a horse, and galloped up the hill like a madman.
Quamina cannot be persuaded it is not the devil himself haunting their domain, and is petrified with terror for the rest of the evening.
"I should feel inclined to put the masked man down to Quamina's vivid imagination," declares Eleanor, "if you had not personally encountered him, Carol. He is like a sort of 'troll,' one of Ibsen's 'helpers and servers.'"
Quinton has given Eleanor "The Master Builder" to read, himself being a believer in the strange theory of will power. He is much upset by Quamina's story, bewildered at the mystery shrouding this evil demon. His life is becoming a purgatory on earth; he goes in daily dread of some fresh disaster. He says little to Eleanor, but she notices he does not sit out in the verandah, preferring the shelter of four walls, as if in mortal fear of something.
"Does he picture a phantom shooting in the dark?" she wonders.
She offers to sing, but he silences her with a petulant movement and gruff word. He is not in the mood for music. The loaded revolver he always keeps in his room is brought down and laid beside him as he smokes and reads.
Eleanor is grieved to see him so unhinged. It is a pitiable thing when a man loses his pluck, and the woman must play the part of consoler and encourager.
The following morning, to her surprise, Quinton seems no less frightened than on the previous night. He refuses to go out, and sits in moody silence or paces the room—both equally trying to the patient Eleanor. At last the idea seizes her that, if she shows daring and goes out alone, leaving him to brood in solitude, it may spur Quinton to rouse himself and cast off his apprehensions. Surely he will not be outdone by a woman!
"I am going for a stroll," she announces calmly.
"Oh! Are you?"
His lips twitch nervously. He does not volunteer to accompany her.
She takes up a large shady hat, and winds a long white veil over her face.
"Won't you come, too?" she asks mildly.
"No, certainly not, and I think you are very foolhardy to go."
She stares at him in amazement.
"My dear boy, are we to stay in for ever because of old Quamina and her ugly sayings? If the devil is coming for me, he'll come in whether I hide or not; besides, I do not believe in devils!"
"No, but living assassins, modern highwaymen, who scout the country to shed blood, seeking whom they may devour. If you take my advice you will stay safely indoors."
But, for the sake of example, Eleanor shakes her head. If she gives in to him now their life will be one of cowering seclusion. There is something convincing in the light of day that drives from her heart all qualms and misgivings.
"I see no reason why we should not walk abroad just the same as Elizabeth or any other person. You were only attacked once, and that was at night. Look, for instance, at the white woman on the charger. She was alone. I don't think even a highwayman, though, would tackle her," with a low laugh. "She'd be a pretty good handful for anybody. I could imagine her mesmerising a lion with those eyes. I have no doubt she is a crack shot, too, from the bold way she carried her gun. She was a regular Amazon."
"You forget I have never seen the white stranger you allude to."
"Of course not. She passed when you were looking for the dog on that unfortunate day. Well, good-bye for the present, dear. Take care of yourself, and if you like to come and meet me I shall be delighted."
She leaves the house singing, hoping her bravado will have the effect of re-assuring Carol.
As she goes he flings his book on the ground, stretching out his arms like a caged bird beating its wings against the bars.
"It can't last much longer," he hisses between his teeth; "it won't last much longer. Thank goodness I can see the end."
Eleanor's mind is so full of thought that she does not heed the direction in which her steps turn. She walks like one in a dream, busy with her own thoughts. A thousand ideas flit through her brain. She lives over her miserable past. Even the early days at Copthorne return vividly. She is a merry child swinging on a gate; a lazy girl lolling on a hayrick; a frivolous wife, sporting her gay attire in the Brussels Bois; a weary woman sighing at her lot in the house on Richmond Terrace; and then the realisation of the present rushes over her, and she starts as if suddenly awaking from sleep.
There are steps at her side; she turns, remembering Carol's warning.
Elizabeth Kachin stands before her, they are face to face.
From sheer force of habit Eleanor stretches out her hand in greeting, but draws it back sharply, gathering her scattered wits together. There is a cold look in Elizabeth's eyes. Eleanor shivers though the sun scorches, for the frosts of sin are very bitter. Mrs. Kachin averts her head, and passes her without a word. Little Tombo, who is following in the rear, runs up and raises his face for a kiss, but his mother calls to him quickly, while Eleanor pushes him away. "Why is she angry with me?" he asks Elizabeth; "why doesn't she come and see us now?"
Eleanor hears the words. They cut deeper than an assassin's knife. Carol was right. Retribution is on the road, waiting to devour her body and soul. She paces on with bent head, the hot blood in her cheeks, and a lump in her throat.
A third shadow crosses her path, this time it is Big Tombo. Her eyes meet his fearlessly. He bares his head, bows low, and Eleanor smiles sadly.
"Men are kinder than women," she thinks, as she wanders on. "They judge less harshly. When their companions sin they do not cast them out to sink lower in the mire, they give them a hand, instead of a kick! But women take upon themselves to dash their sisters with cruel force upon the stones."
It was good to be alone with her sorrow, her shame.
She breathed a prayer from the depths of her soul—a wordless invocation. She is close to the jungle now, and the pleasant shade of the foliage cools her feverish brain.
She steps fearlessly into the thick undergrowth. Then pauses, for the sound of a horse attracts her attention. It is the heavy tread of the huge charger, on which that handsome white stranger, gun in hand, is seeking prey.
Eleanor watches the flash of those wonderful eyes, there is something unholy, devilish, in their unusual splendour. Her full red lips are drawn in and compressed.
She raises her gun, and before Eleanor can cry out the woman has fired!
The bullet whizzes past her head, for a moment her heart stops beating, the narrow escape fills her with horror!
She fancies the stranger saw her before she pulled the trigger, and let off her gun out of sheer devilment, to show her accuracy.
But scarcely has she recovered from the fright when a second report is heard from the bushes close by, and the great charger, on which this reckless sportswoman is seated, falls dead beneath her. She rolls off the saddle, and stands like a fury over the body.
"What villain has killed my horse?" she cries aloud, in a deep voice, which even in its anger sounds strangely fascinating, despite the masculine slang.
Eleanor rushes forward.
"The unseen hand!" she exclaims, hardly knowing what she says.
"How do you mean?" asks the tall woman.
"Someone shot from the bushes; didn't you see? First of all you nearly hit me, it was the closest shave I ever had, and immediately your horse fell——"
"I'll soon find out who has been making a target of me," muttered the stranger.
So saying, she fires recklessly into the bushes, but there is no sound, no cry.
Eleanor watches this wild creature curiously. Surely she will apologise for nearly killing her through inexcusable carelessness.
But she says no word, only watches the smoke rise, and anathematises the fate that has slain a useful beast.
Eleanor forgets her own grievance, and sympathises with the stranger's loss.
"It could not have been done intentionally," she declares.
"I don't believe in chance; it was a dead aim, depend upon it."
Eleanor's eyes expand at this remark.
"Who are you?" she asks. "What is your name?"
"I am a woman," replies the other, with a mocking smile; "my name is Paulina."
She shows no wish to be acquainted with Eleanor's identity.
"What will you do without your horse?"
"Get another, of course."
"Then you live in these parts? I hope in the future you will be more careful how you shoot at random. It would not have been very pleasant for either of us if you had hit me."
"What are you doing walking about by yourself?"
Eleanor looks up and laughs.
"Not risking other people's lives, at any rate."
"I wish I could unravel the mystery of my unknown assailant! Have you any idea who watches your movements and revenges himself on my carelessness?"
A new light flashes across Eleanor at these words. This weird adventure becomes more interesting and amazing at Paulina's suggestion.
"I don't understand you."
"All the better, perhaps."
The abrupt answer startles Eleanor, a puzzled look creeps over her face.
"Why can't you say what you mean?" she asks hotly, looking at Paulina with sudden dislike and repugnance.
The stranger laughs, shoulders her gun, and turns away.
"Where would you have been now," she cries in parting, "if I had shot you down by mistake like a jungle fowl?"
There is a taunting sneer in the words.
A hateful thought steals into Eleanor's mind. This woman, who swears and treats her with such abominable coolness, knows something of her past or present, possibly from Elizabeth, with whom she may be acquainted. This last remark is an insinuation of her unfitness to die, and that her soul is ripe for perdition. The implied slur gradually increases and exaggerates itself in Eleanor's brain, sensitive to a degree. She sees in it a deliberate insult, and following Paulina, she demands:
"Before you go, please apologise for your carelessness. I am not accustomed to be made a mark of, either for bullets or jests."
Paulina stops, and looks her up and down in a manner that makes Eleanor feel like a pigmy facing a giant.
She takes out a cigarette, places it between her teeth, and hands her case to Eleanor.
"Have one?" she asks, with insouciance. Eleanor is staggered. She does not know whether to take this as a fresh slight or a very lame apology.
Faint pulses of quivering sunbeams glance through the trees, playing round the dead body of Paulina's horse. The old oaks rear their heads to a sky of purest turquoise, but Eleanor has no heart to notice the beautiful aerial effects. She is wondering if the proffered cigarette is meant as an olive branch or otherwise.
She gazes in mute disgust.
"Have you never seen a weed before?" asks Paulina vivaciously. "You are the type of woman, I suppose, who sits at home and arranges flowers, very artistically, no doubt. You would pose in limp gowns of gauzy drapery, like a pictured saint, and expect your husband or your lovers to grovel and worship. But you are dangerously near to the borderland separating the sublime from the ridiculous. You expect me to apologise for a shot at random, which cost a valuable horse its life. Some savage black who worships your fair form at a distance, most likely paid it back with interest."
"You are a very vulgar woman," exclaimed Eleanor. "I hope I shall never see you again."
"Don't use that word 'vulgar,'" she replies, "it's so low class."
"You don't mind what you say to me because I am alone and unprotected," cries Eleanor with almost childish petulance, the tears glistening in her angry eyes. "If Carol was here, he would defend me."
"Carol," she laughs, "who is the staunch and gallant Carol?"
But Eleanor will not answer; she feels desperately affronted, and turns away.
The women walk in opposite directions; the day is dying.
"Well! you are back safely; any adventures?" asks Quinton, as she enters the house pale and weary.
Eleanor sinks into a chair, slowly unwinds her veil, and flings her hat impatiently upon the sofa. She is so seriously put out, that for the moment she dares not trust herself to speak.
"Anything the matter, eh?"
Eleanor clears her throat.
Quinton sits bolt upright from his lounging attitude.
"What?" he says, staring at her intently.
Then she recounts her scene with Paulina, word for word, while Quinton listens breathlessly.
"Her horse shot from under her?" he cries, as if that is of far more importance than Eleanor's narrow escape.
"Yes, dear, wasn't it awful? It might have been you or me! I do believe the masked man is on the warpath, only he went for her this time instead. It may be a lunatic, for every act seems so perfectly motiveless."
"I told you not to venture out," he says, his face reddening with annoyance. "You would go against my wishes, and suffered for it accordingly. The idea of getting into conversation, and actually deigning to quarrel with a stranger. It was most humiliating and lowering. Another time if you meet this 'Paulina,' as you call the white Amazon, kindly avoid her. This merely confirms me in the conviction which has grown upon me lately, that this place is no longer fit for us to dwell in. I, for one, am sick of it, and long for a taste of clubdom and life again."
"Oh! Carol!" she exclaims, and the words are wrung from her like a sharp cry.
"Don't look so absurdly miserable, my dear," he says hastily, dreading a scene with all the shrinking of his cowardly nature. "I won't say anything to vex you again. I was only cross; forgive me."
Eleanor's heart goes out to him with all the old yearning tenderness.
Forgive him! Why, she would forgive Carol anything—he is her all. She falls on her knees at his side, and draws down his face for a kiss.
As she does so, the sound of a loud, rich, stirring voice, swelling out on the evening air, reaches them. They exchange hurried glances, start to their feet, and look cautiously out.
It is "Paulina," swaggering down the hill with a devil-may-care mien, her gun still over her shoulder, her hands in her pockets.
They catch the words, which ring full and clear:
"And constancy lives in realms above, And life is thorny and youth is vain; And to be wroth with one we love Doth work like madness in the brain."
"She is like a 'troll,'" murmurs Eleanor, "shrieking in the night."
"A magnificent creature," says Carol. "Quite a picture!"
His eyes are riveted on the retreating form!
BY A ROUTE OBSCURE AND LONELY, HAUNTED BY ILL ANGELS ONLY.—E. A. Poe.
Eleanor is taking her siesta, wrapt in dreams of Carol and love. No thought of evil disturbs her rest, for to-day the clouds seem to have blown over. Carol has been tender and adoring as of old, he speaks no more of the dreaded up-rooting, but is peaceful and content. Yet while she lies in fancy-land—asleep—she cannot see him in the room below, a look of excitement on his face while he writes with feverish haste on a large sheet of flimsy paper.
The words reel rapidly off his quill, he never pauses, and his eyes are aglow with the fire of energy.
Quamina, who has been in the verandah, enters with a tray of cooling drinks and places them by his elbow. She has never seen the Sahib writing before, she did not know he could hold a pen, and his engrossed attitude awakes her curiosity and suspicion. He does not hear her come in till she puts the glasses beside him, then he pushes them away and tells her to go.
Quamina steals across the room.
Why is the Sahib writing? It is not his way. His quill flies like a thing possessed across the paper, and when he pauses it is to wipe the drops of perspiration from his heated brow.
"This is the Sahib's hour for sleep," thinks Quamina. "It is a secret message that he writes at such a time, when his wife is absent, dreaming in the other room." She steals into the verandah and watches. A sudden idea comes to her ignorant mind, which, as she turns it over in her brain, amounts to a firm conviction.
"The Sahib is making a compact with the devil. He is frightened of that tall spirit in the black mask, and is coming to terms with him. Maybe he will offer his house and his servants, his wife even, to be himself released from the terror of that grim presence."
Quamina shakes from head to foot. Her white teeth rattle. Surely the Sahib's face is taking the likeness of the Evil one, as he sits alone, or why does a sinister smile flit across his lips, while he perpetually pauses to listen, and look nervously towards the door? Once he rises, opens it, standing a moment, looking towards Eleanor's room. But there is no sound, and he returns to his desk reassured.
Finally the letter ends. He folds it carefully, looking at the dashing signature with some pride. He takes up a red seal, strikes a light, and drops a huge round of burning wax upon the envelope.
"The deed is done," thinks trembling Quamina; "the devil has been written to. He will scan those hasty words in his unholy abode, and bargain with the Sahib, till an arrangement shall be made."
Her suspicions increase as Quinton, listening once more at the door, snatches up a hat with a guilty air, creeping out into the broiling sun.
Quamina by this time is wild with curiosity, and as Carol hastens down the hill, the letter in his hand, she follows stealthily at a discreet distance.
"Perhaps he will give it himself to the devil. Ah, the poor Sahib!" she mutters.
Quinton never pauses till he is out of sight of the bungalow; then turning to his right he places the sealed envelope in a crevice of a rock, hidden from sight.
Quamina watches wonderingly the post-box of the devil.
She marks the spot in her mind's eye, and fearing detection hurries back unobserved.
For the rest of the day she thinks of nothing but the Sahib's letter, and its strange hiding place. She pictures the "Nats" surrounding the spot, and bearing it in triumph to their chief.
She watches her master curiously, but by no sign does he reveal that anything unusual has occurred, save that he laughs more frequently, and seems as light-hearted and high spirited as a boy.
"Maybe he has paid the devil off," Quamina surmises.
* * * * *
Captain Stevenson and Major Short ride over, much to Eleanor's delight, who enjoys a chat with the outer world as keenly as Carol.
She longs once again to hear Major Short's melodious voice, and bringing her guitar, begs for "Mandalay."
But he shakes his head.
"I shall tire you of the one song," he declares.
"Not when it is the favourite," she protests. "Only four lines, if you will, or a single bar of the tune. I love the sad refrain."
He follows her on to the verandah. Quinton and Capt. Stevenson are talking and smoking within.
They catch the words between the pauses in their conversation:
"Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there ain't no ten Commandments, and a man can raise a thirst. For the temple bells are callin' and it's there that I would be, By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea."
"Dreadful morals!" laughs Captain Stevenson.
"Do you love the East?" asks Eleanor, as Major Short lays aside the guitar.
"Yes, well enough, but I get terribly homesick at times. I long to draw round a huge log fire in the old hall at home on a still winter's evening, with the shutters shut and the curtains drawn, and my feet on the fender. No one has any conception of the bliss of those long, luxurious hours over the flame and the coal. Those who have it don't appreciate it. Imagine yourself nipped by a biting frost coming suddenly in to such a scene of warmth and ease, to lose yourself in the depths of an enormous spring chair, and gaze in that wilderness of red, while the wood crackles, and blue flickers up like a phantom light in the blazing scarlet. It is many years since I passed a good old English Christmas, with plum pudding and bells chiming over the snow. Bah! I cannot endure to think of it—I get so green with envy."
"I am afraid I never cared for the winter. The sun is better than artificial warmth—the East is rosier than the fireside."
"But you must yearn sometimes to get home to your family and friends. Have you no mother you long to kiss—no father who is pining for a sight of his daughter's smile, and old chums waiting to greet you with a hearty handshake and a cheery welcome?"
Eleanor shakes her head mournfully—her large soft eyes look sad and wistful—she is no hypocrite—she never could pretend.
"No; England is all a blank. My whole interest in life is centred in my husband."
Involuntarily a pang of pity shoots through the man's heart. He hardly knows why, since she is so happy in Quinton's love.
He mistrusts him, for men are quicker in reading each other than a woman blinded by skin-deep fascination.
Many a trusting heart has been won by the pink light from a lamp falling on a handsome profile, by the faultless cut of a frock coat, or by a good seat on horseback.
Poor little Eleanor! Poor humanity!
"It is a mistake to rely too much on love," says Major Short. "It sometimes fails us, and then——"
He pauses, seeing the look of pain upon Eleanor's face.
"I was speaking of myself," he adds half apologetically. "Look for instance, at my parents, at home in the old country. What good is their affection now? What use am I to them, stuck here in India? True, we correspond, but letters give us no sight of the familiar face, no kiss from the lips that may be dead and cold before we meet again. But love, Mrs. Quinton, is over for ever in my life, it is a memory alone, a dream of the silent past."
Eleanor's eyes are deeply sympathetic; she is a woman to inspire confidence.
Major Short continues, though he is surprised at himself for so doing:
"Yes, I was in love once, it was the one sincere and overruling passion of my life." He lowers his voice as he speaks. "You brought it back to me when you said that all your interests were centred in your husband."
He holds out a little case to Eleanor.
"I always carry this about with me; it is her portrait. Look at it."
Eleanor opens the case reverently, and gazes with a certain awe at the beautiful face within. She fancies there is a mystery in the far-away expression of the woman's eyes. But, after all, it is only the mystery of death.
"That picture was taken after she knew she must die," he says. "They would not let me marry her then."
His eyes are lowered, Eleanor fancies they are moist.
"Fate is very cruel," she murmurs.
"Yes, when the poetry of existence turns to prose, all the light dies out. I can never love again. Sentiment to me now is as a shallow stream."
Quamina appears with the tray of drinks again. Her eyes look wild; she shambles along; her knees knock together.
"What is the matter with that woman?" asks Major Short, as she staggers away.
"She is frightfully superstitious, and some nights ago she thought the devil had come for Carol, and she has never been the same since. She crouches about like a creature demented. Sometimes I fancy she must be insane."
Major Short quotes from Pope with a dry smile:
'Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutored mind, Sees God in clouds, or hears Him in the wind."
"But there is sense in that," Eleanor declares. "God is in all Nature; every blade of grass manifests Him."
Then she remembers that she is still clasping that small case, and looks down once more on the impressive features of the beautiful woman.
"Talking of death—and love," she says slowly, harping back to the old subject, "I often wonder what I should do if anything happened to Carol. Imagine me here, in a strange country, alone, friendless! What if he sickened with fever, or was wounded by an enemy, or if he died?" A shudder of apprehension runs over her.
"I hope you will never call yourself friendless while we—while I am within your reach. I have suffered myself; I know what sorrow is. Should you ever be in any trouble, Mrs. Quinton, or need a helping hand, remember you can rely on me."
Eleanor looks at him with that serious and admiring glance of hers, expressive of greater gratitude and deeper wonder than any words.
"You are very good," she says at length. "If all men were so kind, I think women would be better and place surer trust in them."
Two large trees in front of the verandah, with bending boughs, meet and make an archway of feathery foliage, in which the birds lodge. Eleanor's eyes turn to the drooping green, and then to the distant hills. She has a vague foreshadowing of coming evil. She sees the oxen yoked together dragging their loads; she wonders if they are happier after all than mortals like Major Short and herself. Two of these patient animals are drawing a Burmese public carriage, with a black boy looking out of the quaint covering, like a little house on two wheels. They pause to drink in the Irrawaddy; she sighs to think how sadly they need refreshment. In the thatched huts and tall palms, Eleanor pictures Copthorne—it rises as a mirage—till Major Short dispels it by some casual remark. He notices her listlessness, for she starts as she speaks.
"Forgive me," she says, smiling wanly, "but I was miles away."
"How interesting. May I not follow you? What did you see?"
"I conjured up a farm-house and green English lanes, gold cornfields, rustic reapers, and honest workers. They were getting in the harvest."
Captain Stevenson's cheery voice, and Quinton's musical laugh interrupts the conversation as they join Eleanor and Major Short.
"It is time we were making tracks. What do you say, Short?"
"I suppose so, but it is always hard to tear oneself away from pleasant companions."
"When shall we meet again?" asks Eleanor gaily. "Can't we arrange a day next week? Ride over in the cool of the morning to breakfast."
"Thanks—delighted. There is a peculiar fascination in your charming home and hearty welcome."
Quinton smiles enigmatically, as he watches them ride away.
Eleanor slips her hand in his.
"You seem very merry to-day," she says. "They quite enlivened us, didn't they, Carol?"
"Yes; it certainly makes a difference having somebody to speak to. Don't you notice it, dear?"
He looks down at her steadfastly, and for the moment Eleanor's expression turns the unscrupulous man dizzy with a vague sensation nearly approaching regret.
He sees in her eyes the overflowing of a heart; whose passionate adoration amounts to idolatry.
He is touched and softened. He presses her lips, though they no longer thrill him, and she in her mute worship cannot define the change.
Her love, he thinks, so freely given, so utterly beyond control, is after all a pitiable spectacle.
He scrutinises her fair face critically; it seems insipid to him now. Its pale spirituality, which once set his brain on fire, appears characterless. The classical features, exquisitely moulded, lack power. The sweet mouth has a wan droop, as if sighing for ungranted kisses.
"Sometimes, Carol," she says at last, "I fancy you are tiring of me." She only speaks for him to contradict.
"My darling, what an absurd notion to get into that pretty little head of yours! Occasionally it is a little slow here for us both."
"That is only since you grew nervous. Of course, the days are long if you will stay indoors doing nothing."
"Yes, you are quite right," he answers, somewhat to Eleanor's surprise. "It is foolish, and unnecessary. Now you won't grumble, my pet, if I go for a long day's sport to-morrow. It will do me all the good in the world, some excitement and exercise. I have been getting dreadfully grumpy and cross."
"How early shall you start?"
"Oh, first thing. I assure you, Eleanor, I am quite looking forward to it. I can't have been very well lately, and that accounts for my apparent prostration and uncalled-for nervousness. There is nothing really to fear, and you can make your mind quite easy about me."
These reassuring words delight Eleanor, for as long as Carol is happy and satisfied, her joy is intense.
As they talk Quamina is crouching under the broad steps that lead down from the verandah; her eyes gaze in the direction of that mysterious rock hidden from sight.
She wonders if the devil has yet come for the Sahib's message. Her soul is torn by curiosity and fear. She longs to know, and if the strange letter still lies in the crevice untouched, herself to break the seal and try to decipher the words.
It is a tremendous temptation; yet, as she rises with a bold resolve and creeps along the moonlit path, she suffers mortal dread, momentarily expecting to encounter some supernatural apparition. She turns out of sight of the bungalow, with its cheerful light, and reaches the rock, on which the moonbeams play. A ray of light lies across the crevice in which the Sahib deposited his epistle.
With set teeth, and frantically beating heart, Quamina forces her skinny arms into the hole, murmuring prayers as she gropes and fumbles, then staggers back with a low moan, and flees from the unholy spot. The devil has been! The letter is gone!
NO FOOTSTEP STIRRED—THE HATED WORLD ALL SLEPT, SAVE ONLY THEE AND ME. (OH, HEAVEN! OH, GOD!)
The following morning Eleanor, her face bright with smiles, kisses Carol as she bids him adieu.
"Shoot something nice for dinner, dear," she says, "and have a good day."
She waves her hand as he trots down the hill, his slim form erect, his eyes bright and lips parted.
"I hope you won't be dull, Eleanor," he cries with a gay laugh. "Keep house till I return, and take care of yourself."
As he fades from sight she turns singing into the bungalow.
There are several duties to be attended to. Her pink muslin gown needs rearranging, and the huge bunch of crimson flowers Quamina has gathered her must be put in the drawing-room. They are bright, and will please Carol's eye.
As she places them in tall, picturesque vases, Paulina's words return with aggressive force.
The sort of woman who stays at home tending flowers! They take the pleasure from her simple task. She leaves the fallen blossoms half on a couch, half on the ground, turning from them disgusted.
Perhaps Paulina was right! Carol would find her far more of a companion if she shouldered her gun and rode off with him to the jungle; but she hates killing things.
The chase is brutal! Sport is revolting! Thus she consoles herself, and sends Quamina for the muslin gown.
How tenderly Carol had kissed her when he said good-bye. How brilliant he seemed that morning!
She laughs again at the thought of his wit. Her Carol was always clever.
He has marked a passage of Spencer's in a novel Eleanor is reading; she picks it up and comes across it.
It is like a rude shock. Why has he pencilled such disagreeable lines?
Full little knowest thou that hast not tried. What hell it is in suing long to bide; To loose good dayes that might be better spent, To waste long nights in pensive discontent.
Perhaps it struck him as so strangely different to their ideal existence.
The hours do not seem long, for a "light heart goes all the day," but as afternoon wanes she is filled with expectant delight, awaiting Carol's advent. He will be naturally tired, and she draws the couch near the window, piles luxurious pillows upon it, and perches herself at the end of it, placing in readiness a loose lounging coat of yellow Tussore silk. Carol, it is a pretty name, she thinks, taking up his portrait and pressing it to her lips. It is in the same attitude as the one she destroyed in the railway train, upon her first meeting with Elizabeth Kachin's mother.
The faint light slants across the verandah, and falls on the yellow cushions placed for Quinton.
It creeps into the room, and sheds a halo round the striking likeness she still holds in her hand.
Eleanor gazes at the Oriental splendour, the beauties of which no utterance is capable of expressing, and indulges in visions that are pleasant and soothing, marvelling at a scene she has admired a thousand times before, and recalling memories of sweet caresses and whispered words.
Filmy shadows fall from the trees without, gradually outlining themselves upon the walls of the room, and the steps from the verandah. The hot air rises from the valley.
Eleanor breathes the tropical atmosphere and sighs. She loosens her gown at the throat, and waves an enormous palm-leaf fan leisurely backwards and forwards. The air stirs the soft hair on her forehead, cooling her brow.
She raises her eyes to the clock and smiles.
"He will soon return," she thinks. "It is growing late, and he promised to be home before nightfall."
She goes out on to the verandah, gazing down the road which leads to Mandalay.
Two or three black children are resting by a wall at the foot of the hill, one squatting on the ground hugging his knees, the others standing in easy graceful attitudes, with round pitchers on their heads.
The well is beneath a huge palm. Eleanor has sometimes "wished" by it with Carol, pretending there is some mystic spell in the water.
He will pass that charmed spot as he returns, and she will stand on the steps to greet him.
Surely in all the world Carol could not have chosen a more romantic retreat in which to live and love!
The shadows deepen, they take forms, and glide from place to place as daylight dies.
She peers into the gloom, the children go home to bed. Carol is not in sight!
The red flowers of the morning lie withered up and brown on the floor where she has left them. Carol must not be greeted by the sight of her negligence. She stoops down, and gathers them together in both hands, sweeping the dust and fallen petals into her white palm. Crossing slowly to the door, Eleanor calls Quamina.
"Take these away," she says.
Quamina looks anxiously into her face, as she relieves her young mistress of the dead blossoms.
"The Sahib is long in returning," she volunteers, with a nervous leer.
"Yes. We shall soon need a light."
"The devil will not catch him this evening; the devil is well employed," Quamina assures her. "Have no fear, lady."
"What do you mean?" asks Eleanor, a shade of anger crossing her face.
Quamina looks up proudly, delightedly.
"I have placed food and drink in the rock away from the roadside," she replies chuckling. "He will be busy eating, and never see the Sahib riding up the path. Quamina loves the Sahib and his white lady; she will provide for the devil."
Eleanor shrugs her shoulders in sheer despair. She cannot bring this woman to reason. With a pitying smile she returns to the window, and buries her fingers in the soft silk of those yellow pillows with an almost frantic clutch. They are just like the sofa cushions at Lyndhurst. Philip, perhaps, is lounging on them now, or Erminie—he has given them to Mrs. Lane for her new drawing-room.
She kneels for a while on the lounge, and though there is no sound her lips move.
Thus she stays, directly opposite the open window, listening and looking, wondering and praying.
Can some evil have befallen him? She remembers his displeasure when she rode out to meet him that night—the man with the black mask.
There is a loud report in the room; she springs to her feet with a cry. It is only a string of her guitar which has broken, and she sinks back into the old attitude despairingly.
Quamina is pounding rice in the kitchen. Eleanor calls to her to stop. She fancies the sound may prevent her hearing the first fall of a horse's hoofs in the distance, for the moon has not risen yet, and she cannot see far.
So she remains perfectly still, waiting for the pale light to rise in the heavens, while crowds of unutterable fancies rush through her brain—a mad disorder of thought.
She stares outwards, as one in the fetters of an awful dream.
"Why does he not come to her?"
Some well-known words recur to her brain. "The eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow, and sees, in innumerable far-off places, the woe which is close at hand."
There is a hot and heavy vapour in the air—it seems to poison Eleanor as she inhales it in her lungs. A settled apathy pervades her spirit. For some moments she feels nothing, has not a thought—only a strange ringing in her head. The landscape before her looks desolate and terrible, an unredeemed dreariness darkens her soul like a London fog—thick, stifling.
London! The word recalls Philip, the man whose home she shattered, whose life she ruined—for Carol's sake. It was easy to deal the blow, to forget the world, to forfeit her good name when love's overpowering fascination was the bait. She can annihilate that black past in the light of Carol's smile; but when he is absent, and night is on the earth and in her heart, then the spectre rises, points his deadly finger at her quivering soul, and she realises the hideous dropping off of the veil. Her mind is a chaos of ruins. She calls to Carol in vain; only the shrill cry of some night bird through the air, and the beating of her pulses, answer that he will not come!
The gaunt form of a four-footed beast steals across the shadows she has watched so long, that she almost doubts her senses. Can it be a tiger perchance come forth from the jungle to prowl around her home?
She looks again, a thrill of horror darting through her trembling body.
The beast creeps with a soft and stealthy tread up the verandah steps—it is long and yellow.
Eleanor stares in mesmeric terror at its fiery eyes.
Then she sees it is a dog—a huge sandy mastiff, with hanging jaws, wet with foam, a great square head, and broad noiseless feet. It shambles nearer, appearing so suddenly out of the gloom that it seems to materialise before her vision. It watches her as if about to spring; she cannot remember it is not a tiger after all.
Eleanor sickens with fear, a dizzy faintness numbs her nerves, the room swims round. Her breath comes in quick gasps from a throat parched, and dry as with desert sand.
She stares dumbly into its glistening eyes that look like coals of fire in the dark.
Those moments seem to be long hours; they are spells of invisible woe; this dog is perhaps a phantom, come to warn her of some ghastly peril into which Carol has fallen. Its fangs look ripe for human gore; it pants, and its breath is as the rush of a storm.
"Help!" says a low voice, calling the dog by name.
The animal turns at the sound of that word. "Help! come back." He crouches away disappointed; he would have liked to seize Eleanor by the throat if he dared.
At the sound of the man's call Eleanor does not move, nor even start, only the blood seems to dry up in her veins, her fingers twitch convulsively, her eyes roll back in her head. She can hear the heavy footfalls mounting the steps to the verandah one by one; she dares not look, for she knows, she understands!
Then a sudden idea seizes her. They are not yet face to face. If her paralysed limbs will let her she may yet escape through the room, and out behind. She can hide in the thick undergrowth, and watch her opportunity to creep down the road and warn Carol of the danger threatening their lives. He may even now be passing the well and riding up the hill to death!
She rushes blindly across the room, but that instant the heavy steps reach the verandah. Her aim is frustrated. She staggers against the wall, extending her arms aloft with a wild gesture.
The intruder stands in the open window, his dark figure framed, in the line between the verandah and the interior, his face illuminated by the moon which has burst like a ghostly lamp-man over the east. She feels like one dazed in the trammels of opium. She tries to cry out, to shriek for help, but only one word breaks hoarsely from her lips with a hollow groan:
The man enters the room silently, his garments are thick with dust, his coat torn as with jungle briars sharply thorned. He looks as if he had lived in the outer air, unkempt, dishevelled! Thick black hair has grown over the lower part of his face; but his eyes gleam as they meet hers while he advances, his gaze riveted on Eleanor. A fierce growl makes him turn, and his eyes fall on the lounging coat of Tussore silk lying upon yellow cushions.
"Help" has scented it, and springing with his huge paws towards the sofa, tears and rends it furiously in his heavy jaws with the savage air of a lion destroying prey.
The sight is strangely horrible to Eleanor. Her eyes start from their sockets, staring, bloodshot, fixed. Her lips are livid, her limbs stiff, she is still drawn up against the wall at bay; but for its support she would fall upon the ground.
Philip smiles. The action of the dog pleases him. He does not notice the photograph of Carol, which dropped from Eleanor's hands as she started across the room, but the heel of his dusty boot falls on the face, crushing it under the weight of his tread, scarring the features and cracking the card. He advances and stands passively before Eleanor, so close that his hot breath fans her cheek, looking at her and waiting.
The steady ticking of the clock resounds in the room; in that moment of extreme tension it deafens her.
The silence is horrible, unendurable; she struggles to break it, and her voice sounds to her own amazement perfectly natural.
"I know why you have come, Philip," she says calmly, and it seems that she has lived through this moment in some past existence, so painfully familiar are the ghastly occurrences of to-night. Perhaps it was in some shadowy dream which faded from her memory on awaking. "I know why you are here," she repeats throwing back her head against the bamboo panelling, and stretching out her arms in the attitude of a crucified victim. "I read it in your face. But I am too young to die, too sin-stained."
"You think I have come to kill you, Eleanor?"
His words are low and hollow; they seem strangely similar to the warning growl of his huge dog. She thinks he has grown to resemble the ferocious-looking beast, or "Help," in the moonlight, appears like his master—from perpetual companionship.
But even as she looks, something of the man creeps into Philip's eyes, humanising them. The brute nature fades.
She answers his question under her breath:
"Yes, you have hunted me down to take my life."
An expression of intense pain contracts his features; she has cut him to the quick.
With a woman's sharp instinct, intensified by dread, Eleanor sees that her doom is not yet; but the thought of another burns like fire in her brain. Her own miserable thread of life, what does it matter? She holds it as nought compared with the one she loves. She would die a thousand deaths if such a sacrifice would buy him safety.
"How little you understand me!" he says at last. "It was always so."
"Why have you come?" she asks, faintly tracing the shadows that fall around him in the pallid moonlight.
He turns, as if in answer, to the scattered rags of a silken coat, some of which still hang in the mastiff's jaws; then his gaze travels through the verandah, down the zig-zag path towards the jungle.
Eleanor interprets the look. With a swift movement she wrenches herself from the wall against which she has seemed to be held as if by a strong magnet, crosses the room with quick and noiseless tread, fastens the folding window doors together with a click, facing Philip in defiant silence.
"You have come for him," she hisses, the hatred in her eyes gleaming forth. "You would kill—Carol."
At the mention of his name from her lips Philip starts.
"Is it not so?" she cries wildly, raising her voice, which trembles with emotion, vibratos with dread.
For the moment Philip does not reply, only his face lights up as with the glory of revenge.
Eleanor's fingers tighten on the window fastening. She clings to it for support.
A strangled cry breaks from her lips, and the half incoherent words: "My God! My God!"
OH, I DEFY THEE, HELL, TO SHOW ON BEDS OF FIRE THAT BURN BELOW, A DEEPER WOE.—E. A. Poe.
Philip pushes a chair forward as if to signify there is no need to guard the window.
The action excites Eleanor to passion.
"It is cowardly to kill," she cries through her clenched teeth.
"And if I did, what should I get in return for all he has stolen from me? Could he give me back your heart? Could he blot out the past with his blood? Should I regain the pure thing I lost, the wife I treasured, the woman I adored? Think how he shattered my life and wrecked my happiness, when he enticed you with the golden apple, that rots and decays, turning to wormwood between the lips! You were allured by the seductive cajolery, the damnable influence of a scoundrel."
Eleanor's breast heaves, she staggers forward in a frenzy.
"Stop! What you say is false. I was not 'enticed.' I went because I loved him body and soul; because existence without him was empty—impossible. If I had stayed with you, loving him, I should not have been true to myself; I should have played the traitor in my own home; the curse would have been on you and on your children. If such a thing were possible, here in this new land, my passion developed, increased, tenfold. The night and day, the light, the darkness, they hold nothing for me but this rapturous love, all that is precious, tender, sweet. I have fed on in this paradise till you came, like an image of death, to bring back all that is odious, hateful."
"Yes," he replies slowly, "I can believe you were happy, clinging to the prize you held so dear. Your words have not surprised me, I have listened to them so often in fancy, picturing this scene, when you and I alone should stand together and bare our souls. I expected to hear your short-lived rapture hurled at me as a shield, a fortification! I am ready to judge it, to weigh it if you will, in the scales of right and wrong. Will you not continue?"
His words wither Eleanor's defence; she shrinks back into herself.
"Surely you have something more to say," with an ironical laugh, that re-echoes discordantly round the room.
She shakes her head mournfully, and drops her hands to her sides.
"Perhaps," he continues, "I was to blame. I was not in harmony with you; I failed to please."
The words are a protest, wrung from the bottom of her soul.
"Or I did not place sufficient confidence in you; we had 'family jars,' 'vexed questions,' 'disagreements.'"
"Philip, for pity's sake——"
He runs his fingers through the grey hair, lying moist upon his sun-bronzed brow. The crow's feet of sorrow furrow the corners of his eyes, which are stern, but not angry. They have looked for the last time on the golden season of life, now they stare at Eleanor as if reading in her face the key of the everlasting twilight that has fallen on his days.
Instinctively she cowers back, hiding her burning face in her hands, red with a flush of deepest shame.
"Don't shrink from me," he says. "It is almost incomprehensible, Eleanor, but——"
She looks up quickly.
"Ever since you left me I have had no thought but you. In life's morning you were my love, my all. I could not tear you from my heart had I wished to. But I never tried."
"Is that possible?" she gasps incredulously. "You must indeed have loved me!"
"I may be mad, but it is so. I love you now in your degradation, and misery, in spite of all!"
The confession staggers her.
"And you show it by hunting me down to destroy my happiness. You must have sought long to find me here, and now that you are successful, now that I am run to earth, what will you do?"
"What do you think?"
His face becomes fiendish. She watches his sinister smile.
"I have told you what I believe you capable of—you will murder him. I know it. You have no pity! The love you boast of is swallowed up in hate."
An evil flame lights his mocking eyes.
"Yes, I might spring at his throat as he comes from the jungle, I might set 'Help' upon him in the dark. He is a weak man, easily unnerved. The very sight of this knife——"
Philip has drawn a sharp blade of steel from his coat and flashed it in the moonlight, with a bitter groan.
He replaces it at the sight of her terror, with something of regret in his hard smile.
"What false professions!" sneers Eleanor. "You dare to speak of loving mo, when you would rob me of the man in whom all my happiness lies!"
Philip winces as if suddenly recalled to facts.
"Yes, your whole future was controlled by him."
His words fill her with a vague misgiving, but she draws herself up proudly and replies:
"It is safe in Carol's keeping."
"You are sure of that?"
She bows a cold assent.
"Then listen, Eleanor." He speaks authoritatively. "Come here. Sit down."
He points to a chair, but she sinks on the edge of the sofa, too agitated to notice her proximity to the huge mastiff.
"There is need of explanation," Philip continues, never taking his eyes off her white, scared face. "It is time you understood me. You say I have 'run you to earth,' as if through this long period of separation I had been hunting you like a bloodhound, and suddenly found myself on your track. You imagine I have just discovered you."
Eleanor's lips part as if to speak, but the words are choked back in her throat. "Help" stirs his head, for the first time she sees he is at her feet.
"You recall," says Philip, "that small dog—a suspicious Irish terrier—you were given some time back?"
"What of him? How did you know?" turning her eyes wonderingly from "Help" to Philip.
"It was killed in some bushes by a wild beast, when you were riding one day with your lover."
The mastiff rises slowly, and stretches himself, as if wearied by his day's work.
Eleanor draws her skirts away from contact with his coarse hair.
She sees it all at last.
"Killed," she repeats, "and by your dog."
Her breath comes quicker, she turns and peers through the window, as if expecting something.
"There is still more," declares Philip. "That cat's-eye ring I gave you, Eleanor—where is it?"
His voice pulses with suppressed force.
"Carol was attacked in the jungle one night——"
"By a masked fiend, who tore him from his horse and shook him by the throat, like a cat with a mouse, then flung him aside as a scorpion too poisonous to touch—a foul thing, only fit to lie beneath a rock, hidden from the sight of man. When he rose up, his assailant had gone, like a silent ghost on that lonely road."
Philip holds his lean fingers before her eyes, and flashing on one of them gleams the greenish light of the cat's-eye gem.
Again Eleanor looks fearfully out into the night, she fancies she hears Carol on the steps below.
"While you have been basking in your 'paradise' dreaming your short-lived vision of love, I have watched and waited, prowling to and fro with 'Help,' a faithful servant, at my heels. Your dog scented me, he proclaimed my presence, so I let 'Help' silence him once and for all. Many a night when you sat together, there in that verandah, your hand linked in his ringless fingers, your eyes feasting on his false face, I crouched below, watching. Did you never feel my nearness? Ah, you shudder! It was strange—very strange. It maddened me that he should wear your ring—my ring—so I wrenched it from him."
She listens like one in the thralls of a hideous nightmare. If Carol comes now—he is lost!
"Why, when I had him by the throat," asks Philip, "did I not strangle the life from his body? Why did I stay my hand? How was it I watched your happiness with hungry eyes, and did not strike? I could have shot you dead in each other's arms scores of times. I inexorably determined on his death, but held the sword suspended, like Damocles, by a single hair."
She listens acutely to his every syllable.
"Why?" she stammers feebly, her mind groping in the dark.
"So long as he was faithful to you—so long as he valued what you flung at his feet, I would not wake you from your Elysium. By this I proved the love you discredit. My action should not plunge you into an abyss of woe; but now that he is false—false as Hell——"
"Liar!" breaks in Eleanor hotly; "your miserable accusation is unfounded."
"Wait. When he left you for long days of 'sport,' what do you think was the nature of that chase?"
Eleanor is silent, numbed by dread and despair.
"His game—was a woman, who knew from his lips your whole history. I have seen them together for hours at a time—heard them speak—jest at your expense. But, in spite of this, she was jealous of you, and, but for a bad shot, would have taken your life that day in the jungle, when I killed her horse under her. You see I was guarding you, Eleanor. He has been scheming to go away with her; to desert you as a toy that is broken—a flower which has lost its scent."
She leaps to her feet, and flings open the window.
"You are hoodwinking me with a trumped-up story; it is not true!"
"Hear me out. He is serving you as you treated me. It is retribution. You forfeited his respect and consideration. He gave you only the brief glamour of his passion, which has died, to re-live in the smiles of 'Paulina.'"
"Philip, these lies are dastardly—cruel! You do not know what you are saying."
"You cling hard to your faith!" he retorts savagely, her staunchness to Carol awaking a fever of indignation within him. "Did I ever in the old days deserve that hard term 'liar'?"
She shakes her head. "Oh, no!"
"You are waiting for him to-night, Eleanor. He had promised, I believe, to return?"
She gazes down the slanting road.
"Yes. He is late." Then, with a sudden cry: "And when he comes—oh! Philip, I had not realised it—your revenge! What can I do to save him? Anything—I care not what! I will go and leave him—I will kill myself here before your eyes, as a ransom! You are mistaken, he is not false to me; any moment he may arrive. Only spare his life, for the love of Heaven!"
She falls on her knees at Philip's feet, beating the air with her hands.
He raises her gently, but firmly.
"You need not look," he says, as her terrified eyes stare out at the moonlit scene, white and ghostly. "Yesterday he wrote to the woman Paulina, making all arrangements for their flight this night. She dropped the letter in the jungle, from a satchel full of shot. It is here."
He holds out the torn envelope, with its broken seal and deadly intelligence.
Eleanor takes it mechanically—as yet she cannot believe—while the sight of the familiar handwriting sends the hot blood coursing freely once more through her brain.
She draws the closely-worded sheet from its resting-place and crosses to the light to scan the text.
Philip watches her face as it bends over the letter. He has struck a match and holds it up to illuminate that fatal message.
Every vestige of life seems to fly from her features. The page swims before her tailing sight, the words become crossed and blurred. She has read enough!
Then she remembers Paulina's fingers have touched this paper, perhaps her lips, and it flutters from Eleanor's hands at the thought, falling silently between her and Philip.
"Now," he cries, "can you grasp my mission? Do you guess why I am here? There was no longer any cause for him to live." Philip throws back his coat, and she sees the shirt beneath it is splashed with blood.
He takes her icy hand and draws her towards the verandah.
"I killed him at sunset," he whispers, pointing outwards, "over there, on that far hill. When night came I bore him back to you. Now in the moonlight, down near the well, or to-morrow at dawn, you will find your lover. His set face is looking up from the long grass, his last word was 'Paulina!'"
Eleanor staggers to the rails, and points towards the well.
She seems struggling to speak, but there is only a low gurgle in her throat.
Philip stands on the steps. "'Help,'" he says abruptly, calling the dog. "Come."
Together the man and beast pass like visions into the night.
* * * * *
Eleanor crouches away to the far corner of the verandah, her limbs relax, and she huddles herself in a heap on the hard ground, without a cry; without a moan.
* * * * *
Another day breaks gloriously over the East; in the first rays of sunlight Eleanor stirs. With difficulty she rises from her cramped position, a shudder runs over her frame as she walks unsteadily down the steps, in the direction of the well.
The jungle fowl on tree and ground give forth their sharp shrill cries.
The bulbul whistles sweet notes like those of a thrush.
The golden oriole with its bright yellow plumage whirrs as a flash of sunlight through the trees, and the birds at home are singing.