Story type: Literature
“Well played, Hone! Oh, well played indeed!”
A great roar of applause went up from the polo-ground like the surge and wash of an Atlantic roller. The regimental hero was distinguishing himself–a state of affairs by no means unusual, for success always followed Hone. His luck was proverbial in the regiment, as sure and as deeply-rooted as his popularity.
“It’s the devil’s own concoction,” declared Teddy Duncombe, Major Hone’s warmest friend and admirer, who was watching from the great stand near the refreshment-tent. “It never fails. We call him Achilles because he always carries all before him.”
“Even Achilles had his vulnerable point,” remarked Mrs. Perceval, to whom the words were addressed.
She spoke with her dark eyes fixed upon the distant figure. Seen from a distance, he seemed to be indeed invincible–a magnificent horseman who rode like a fury, yet checked and wheeled his pony with the skill of a circus rider. But there was no admiration in Mrs. Perceval’s intent gaze. She looked merely critical.
“Pat hasn’t,” replied Duncombe, whose love for Hone was no mean thing, and who gloried in his Irish major’s greatness. “He’s a man in ten thousand–the finest specimen of an imperfect article ever produced.”
His enthusiasm fell on barren ground. Mrs. Perceval was not apparently bestowing much attention upon him. She was watching the play with brows slightly drawn.
Duncombe looked at her with faint surprise. She was not often unappreciative, and he could not imagine any woman failing to admire Hone. Besides, Mrs. Perceval and Hone were old friends, as everyone knew. Was it not Hone who had escorted her to the East seven years ago when she had left Home to join her elderly husband? By Jove, was it really seven years since Perceval’s beautiful young wife had taken them all by storm? She looked a mere girl yet, though she had been three years a widow. Small and dark and very regal was Nina Perceval, with the hands and feet of a fairy and the carriage of a princess. He had seen nothing of her during those last three years. She had been living a life of retirement in the hills. But now she was going back to England and was visiting her old haunts to bid her friends farewell. And Teddy Duncombe found her as captivating as ever. She was more than beautiful. She was positively dazzling.
What a splendid pair she and Pat would make, Duncombe thought to himself as he watched her. A man like Major Hone, V.C., ought to find a mate. Every king should have a queen.
The thought was still in his mind, possibly in his eyes also, when abruptly Mrs. Perceval turned her head and caught him.
“Taking notes, Captain Duncombe?” she asked, with a smile too careless to be malicious.
“Playing providence, Mrs. Perceval,” he answered without embarrassment.
He had never been embarrassed in her presence yet. She had a happy knack of setting her friends at ease.
“I hope you are preparing a kind fate for me,” she said.
He laughed a little. “What would you call a kind fate?”
Her dark eyes flashed. She looked for a moment scornful. “Not the usual woman’s Utopia,” she said. “I have been through that and come out on the other side.”
“I can hardly believe it,” protested Teddy.
“Don’t you know I am a cynic?” she said, with a little reckless laugh.
A second wild shout from the spectators on all sides of them swept their conversation away. On the further side of the ground Hone, with steady wrist and faultless aim, had just sent the ball whizzing between the posts.
It was the end of the match, and Hone was once more the hero of the hour.
“Really, I sometimes think the gods are too kind to Major Hone,” smiled Mrs. Chester, the colonel’s wife, and Mrs. Perceval’s hostess. “It can’t be good for him to be always on the winning side.”
Hone was trotting quietly down the field, laughing all over his handsome, sunburnt face at the cheers that greeted him. He dismounted close to Mrs. Perceval, and was instantly seized by Duncombe and thumped upon the back with all the force of his friend’s goodwill.
“Pat, old fellow, you’re the finest sportsman in the Indian Empire. Those chaps haven’t been beaten for years.”
Hone laughed easily and swung himself free. “They’ve got some knowing little brutes of ponies, by the powers,” he said. “They slip about like minnows. The Ace of Trumps was furious. Did you hear him squeal?”
He turned with the words to his own pony and kissed the velvet nose that was rubbing against his arm.
“And a shame it is to make him carry a lively five tons,” he murmured in his caressing Irish brogue.
For Hone was a giant as well as a hero and he carried his inches, as he bore his honours, like a man.
Raising his head, he encountered Mrs. Perceval’s direct look. She bowed to him with that regal air of hers that for all its graciousness yet managed to impart a sense of remoteness to the man she thus honoured.
“I have been admiring your luck, Major Hone,” she said. “I am told you are always lucky.”
He smiled courteously.
“Sure, Mrs. Perceval, you can hardly expect me to plead guilty to that.”
“Anyway, you deserved your luck, Pat,” declared Duncombe. “You played superbly.”
“Major Hone excels in all games, I believe,” said Mrs. Perceval. “He seems to possess the secret of success.”
She spoke with obvious indifference; yet an odd look flashed across Hone’s brown face at the words. He almost winced.
But he was quick to reply. “The secret of success,” he said, “is to know how to make the best of a beating.”
He was still smiling as he spoke. He met Mrs. Perceval’s eyes with baffling good-humour.
“You speak from experience, of course?” she said. “You have proved it?”
“Faith, that is another story,” laughed Hone, hitching his pony’s bridle on his arm. “We live and learn, Mrs. Perceval. I have learnt it.”
And with that he bowed and passed on, every inch a soldier and to his finger-tips a gentleman.
Teddy Duncombe, airily clad in pyjamas, stood a moment on the verandah to peer in upon his major, then stepped into the room with the assurance of one who had never yet found himself unwelcome.
“Hullo, my son!” responded Hone, who, clad still more airily, was exercising his great muscles with dumb-bells before plunging into his morning tub.
Duncombe seated himself to watch the operations with eyes of keen appreciation.
“By Jove,” he said admiringly at length, “you are a mighty specimen! I believe you’ll live for ever.”
“Not on this plaguey little planet, let us trust!” said Hone, speaking through his teeth by reason of his exertions.
“You ought to marry,” said Duncombe, still intently observant. “Giants like you have no right to remain single in these degenerate days.”
“Faith!” scoffed Hone. “It’s an age of feather-weights, and I’m out of date entirely.”
He thumped down his dumb-bells, and stood up with arms outstretched. He saw the open admiration in his friend’s eyes, and laughed at it.
But Duncombe remained serious.
“Why don’t you get married, Pat?” he said.
Hone’s arms slowly dropped. His brown face sobered. But the next instant he smiled again.
“Find the woman, Teddy!” he said lightly.
“I’ve found her,” said Teddy unexpectedly.
“The deuce you have!” said Hone. “Sure, and it’s truly grateful I am! Is she young, my son, and lovely?”
“She is the loveliest woman I know,” said Teddy Duncombe, with all sincerity.
“Faith!” laughed the Irishman. “But that’s heartfelt! Why don’t you enter for the prize yourself?”
“I’m going to marry little Lucy Fabian as soon as she will have me,” explained Duncombe. “We settled that ages ago, almost as soon as she came out. It’s not a formal engagement even yet, but she has promised to bear it in mind. We had a talk last night, and–I believe I haven’t much longer to wait.”
“Good luck to you, dear fellow!” said Hone. “You deserve the best.” He laid his hand for a moment on Duncombe’s shoulder. “It’s been a good partnership, Teddy boy,” he said. “I shall miss you.”
Teddy gripped the hand hard.
“You’ll have to get married yourself, Pat,” he declared urgently. “It isn’t good for man to live alone.”
“And so you are going to provide for my future also,” laughed Hone. “And the lady’s name?”
“Oh, she’s an old friend!” said Duncombe. “Can’t you guess?”
Hone shook his head.
“I can’t imagine any old friend taking pity on me. Have you sounded her feelings on the subject? Or perhaps she hasn’t got any where I am concerned.”
“Oh, yes, she has her feelings about you!” said Duncombe, with confidence. “But I don’t know what they are. She wasn’t particularly communicative on that point.”
“Or you, my son, were not particularly penetrating,” suggested Hone.
“I certainly didn’t penetrate far,” Duncombe confessed. “It was a case of ‘No admission to outsiders.’ Still, I kept my eyes open on your behalf; and the conclusion I arrived at was that, though reticent where you were concerned, she was by no means indifferent.”
Hone stooped and picked up his dumb-bells once more.
“Your conclusions are not always very convincing, Teddy,” he remarked.
Duncombe got to his feet in leisurely preparation for departure.
“There was no mistake as to her reticence anyhow,” he observed. “It was the more conspicuous, as all the rest of us were yelling ourselves hoarse in your honour. I was watching her, and she never moved her lips, never even smiled. But her eyes saw no one else but you.”
Hone grunted a little. He was poising the dumb-bells at the full stretch of his arms.
Duncombe still loitered at the open window.
“And her name is Nina Perceval,” he said abruptly, shooting out the words as though not quite certain of their reception.
The dumb-bells crashed to the ground. Hone wheeled round. For a single instant the Irish eyes flamed fiercely; but the next he had himself in hand.
“A pretty little plan, by the powers!” he said, forcing himself to speak lightly. “But it won’t work, my lad. I’m deeply grateful all the same.”
“Rats, man! She is sure to marry again.” Duncombe spoke with deliberate carelessness. He would not seem to be aware of that which his friend had suppressed.
“That may be,” Hone said very quietly. “But she will never marry me. And–faith, I’ll be honest with you, Teddy, for the whole truth told is better than a half-truth guessed–for her sake I shall never marry another woman.”
He spoke with absolute steadiness, and he looked Duncombe full in the eyes as he said it.
A brief silence followed his statement; then impulsively Duncombe thrust out his hand.
“Hone, old chap, forgive me! I’m a headlong, blundering jackass!”
“And the best friend a man ever had,” said Hone gently. “It’s an old story, and I can’t tell you all. It was just a game, you know; it began in jest, but it ended in grim earnest, as some games do. It happened that time we travelled out together, eight years ago. I was supposed to be looking after her; but, faith, the monkey tricked me! I was a fool, you see, Teddy.” A faint smile crossed his face. “And she gave me an elderly spinster to dance attendance upon while she amused herself. She was only a child in those days. She couldn’t have been twenty. I used to call her the Princess, and I was St. Patrick to her. But the mischief was that I thought her free, and–I made love to her.” He paused a moment. “Perhaps it’s hardly fair to tell you this. But you’re in love yourself; you’ll understand.”
“I understand,” Duncombe said.
“And she was such an innocent,” Hone went on softly. “Faith, what an innocent she was! Till one day she saw what had happened to me, and it nearly broke her heart. For she hadn’t meant any harm, bless her. It was all a game with her, and she thought I was playing, too, till–till she saw otherwise. Well, it all came to an end at last, and to save her from grieving I pretended that I had known all along. I pretended that I had trifled with her from start to finish. She didn’t believe me at first, but I made her–Heaven pity me!–I made her. And then she swore that she would never forgive me. And she never has.”
Hone turned quietly away, and put the dumb-bells into a corner. Duncombe remained motionless, watching him.
“But she will, old chap,” he said at last. “She will. Women do, you know–when they understand.”
“Yes, I know,” said Hone. “But she never can understand. I tricked her too thoroughly for that.” He faced round again, his grey eyes level and very steady.
“It’s just my fate, Teddy,” he said; “and I’ve got to put up with it. However it may appear, the gods are not all-bountiful where I am concerned. I may win everything in the world I turn my hand to, but I have lost for ever the only thing I really want!”
It was two days later that Mrs. Chester decided to give what she termed a farewell fete to all Nina Perceval’s old friends. Nina had always been a great favourite with her, and she was determined that the function should be worthy of the occasion.
To ensure success, she summoned Hone to her assistance. Hone always assisted everybody, and it was well known that he invariably succeeded in that to which he set his hand. And Hone, with native ingenuity, at once suggested a water expedition by moonlight as far as the ruined Hindu temple on the edge of the jungle that came down to the river at that point. There was a spice of adventure about this that at once caught Mrs. Chester’s fancy. It was the very thing, she declared; a water-picnic was so delightfully informal. They would cut for partners, and row up the river in couples.
To Nina Perceval the plan seemed slightly childish, but she veiled her feelings from her friend as she veiled them from all the world; for very soon it would be all over, sunk away in that grey, grey past into which she would never look again. She even joined in conference with Mrs. Chester and Hone over the details of the expedition, and if now and then the Irishman’s eyes rested upon her as though they read that which she would fain have hidden, she never suffered herself to be disconcerted thereby.
When the party assembled on the eventful evening to settle the question of partners, Hone was, as usual, in the forefront. The lots were drawn under his management, not by his own choice, but because Mrs. Chester insisted upon it. He presided over two packs of cards that had been reduced to the number of guests. The men drew from one pack, the women from the other; and thus everyone in the room was bound at length to pair.
Hone would have foregone this part of the entertainment, but the colonel’s wife was firm.
“People never know how to arrange themselves,” she declared. “And I decline any responsibility of that sort. The Fates shall decide for us. It will be infinitely more satisfactory in the end.”
And Hone could only bow to her ruling.
Nina Perceval was the first to draw. Her card was the ace of hearts. She slung it round her neck in accordance with Mrs. Chester’s decree, and sat down to await her destiny.
It was some time in coming. One after another drew and paired in the midst of much chaff and merriment; but she sat solitary in her corner watching the pile of cards diminish while she remained unclaimed.
“Most unusual!” declared Mrs. Chester. “Whom can the Fates be reserving for you, I wonder?”
Nina had no answer to make. She sat with her dark eyes fixed upon the few cards that were left in front of Hone, not uttering a single word. He sat motionless, too, Teddy Duncombe, who had paired with his hostess, standing by his side. He was not looking in her direction, but by some mysterious means she knew that his attention was focussed upon herself. She was convinced in her secret soul that, though he hid his anxiety, he was closely watching every card in the hope that he might ultimately pair with her.
The last man drew and found his partner. One card only was left in front of Hone. He laid his hand upon it, paused for an instant, then turned it up. The ace of hearts!
She felt herself stiffen involuntarily, and something within her began to pound and race like the hoofs of a galloping horse. A brief agitation was hers, which she almost instantly subdued, but which left her strangely cold.
Hone had risen from the table. He came quietly to her side. There was no visible elation about him. His grey eyes were essentially honest, but they were deliberately emotionless at that moment.
In the hubbub of voices all about them he bent and spoke.
“It may not be the fate you would have chosen; but since submit we must, shall we not make the best of it?”
She met his look with the aloofness of utter disdain.
“Your strategy was somewhat too apparent to be ascribed to Fate,” she said. “I cannot imagine why you took the trouble.”
A dark flush mounted under Hone’s tan. He straightened himself abruptly, and she was conscious of a moment’s sharp misgiving that was strangely akin to fear. Then, as he spoke no word, she rose and stood beside him, erect and regal.
“I submit,” she said quietly; “not because I must, but because I do not consider it worth while to do otherwise. The matter is too unimportant for discussion.”
Hone made no rejoinder. He was staring straight before him, stern-eyed and still.
But a few moments later, he gravely proffered his arm, and in the midst of a general move they went out together into the moonlit splendour of the Indian night.
Slowly the boats slipped through the shallows by the bank.
Hone sat facing his companion in unbroken silence while he rowed steadily up the stream. But there was no longer anger in his steady eyes. The habit of kindness, which was the growth of a lifetime, had reasserted itself. He had not been created to fulfil a harsh destiny. The chivalry at his heart condemned sternness towards a woman.
And Nina Perceval sat in the stern with the moonlight shining in her eyes and the darkness of a great bitterness in her soul, and waited. Despite her proud bearing she would have given much to have looked into his heart at that moment. Notwithstanding all her scorn of him very deep down in her innermost being she was afraid.
For this was the man who long ago, when she was scarcely more than a child, had blinded her, baffled her, beaten her. He had won her trust, and had used it contemptibly for his own despicable ends. He had turned an innocent game into tragedy, and had gone his way, leaving her life bruised and marred and bitter before it had ripened to maturity. He had put out the sunshine for ever, and now he expected to be forgiven.
But she would never forgive him. He had wounded her too cruelly, too wantonly, for forgiveness. He had laid her pride too low. For even yet, in all her furious hatred of him, she knew herself bound by a chain that no effort of hers might break. Even yet she thrilled to the sound of that soft, Irish voice, and was keenly, painfully aware of him when he drew near.
He did not know it, so she told herself over and over again. No one knew, or ever would know. That advantage, at least, was hers, and she would carry it to her grave. But yet she longed passionately, vindictively, to punish him for the ruin he had wrought, to humble him–this faultless knight, this regimental hero, at whose shrine everybody worshipped–as he had once dared to humble her; to make him care, if it were ever so little–only to make him care–and then to trample him ruthlessly underfoot, as he had trampled her.
She began to wonder how long he meant to maintain that uncompromising silence. From across the water came the gay voices of their fellow-guests, but no other boat was very near them. His face was in the shadow, and she had no clue to his mood.
For a while longer she endured his silence. Then at length she spoke:
He started slightly, as one coming out of deep thought.
“Why don’t you make conversation?” she asked, with a little cynical twist of the lips. “I thought you had a reputation for being entertaining.”
“Will it entertain you if I ask for an apology?” said Hone.
“An apology!” She repeated the words sharply, and then softly laughed. “Yes, it will, very much.”
“And yet you owe me one,” said Hone.
“I fear I do not always pay my debts,” she answered. “But you will find it difficult to convince me on this occasion that the debt exists.”
“Faith, I shall not try!” he returned, with a doggedness that met and overrode her scorn. “The game isn’t worth the candle. I know you will think ill of me in either case.”
“Why, Major Hone?”
He met her eyes in the moonlight, and she felt as if by sheer force he held them.
“Because,” he said slowly, “I have made it impossible for you to do otherwise.”
“Surely that is no one’s fault but your own?” she said.
“I blame no one else,” said Hone.
And with that he bent again to his work as though he had been betrayed into plainer speaking than he deemed advisable, and became silent again.
Nina Perceval trailed her hand in the water and watched the ripples. Those few words of his had influenced her strangely. She had almost for the moment forgotten her enmity. But it returned upon her in the silence. She began to remember those bitter years that stretched behind her, the blind regrets with which he had filled her life–this man who had tricked her, lied to her–ay, and almost broken her heart in those far-off days of her girlhood, before she had learned to be cynical.
“And even if I did believe you,” she said, “what difference would it make?”
Hone was silent for a moment. Then–“Just all the difference in the world,” he said, his voice very low.
“You value my good opinion so highly?” she laughed. “And yet you will make no effort to secure it?”
He turned his eyes upon her again.
“I would move heaven and earth to win it,” he said, and she knew by his tone that he was putting strong restraint upon himself, “if there were the smallest chance of my ever doing so. But I know my limitations; I know it’s all no good. Once a blackguard, always a blackguard, eh, Mrs. Perceval? And I’d be a special sort of fool if I tried to persuade you otherwise.”
But still she only laughed, in spite of the agitation but half-subdued in his voice.
“I would offer to steer,” she remarked irrelevantly, “only I don’t feel equal to the responsibility. And since you always get there sooner or later, my help would be superfluous.”
“You share the popular belief about my luck?” asked Hone.
“To be sure,” she answered gaily. “Even you could scarcely manage to find fault with it.”
He drew a deep breath. “Not with you in the boat,” he said.
She withdrew her hand from the water, and flicked it in his face.
“Hadn’t you better slow down? You are getting overheated. I feel as if I were sitting in front of a huge furnace.”
“And you object to it?” said Hone.
“Of course I do. It’s unseasonable. You Irish are so tropical.”
“It’s only by contrast,” urged Hone. “You will get acclimatised in time.”
She raised her head with a dainty gesture.
“You take a good deal for granted, Major Hone.”
“Faith, I know it!” he answered. “It’s yourself that has turned my head.”
Her laugh held more than a hint of scorn.
“How amusing,” she commented, “for both of us!”
“Does it amuse you?” said Hone.
The question did not call for a reply, and she made none. Only once more she gathered up some water out of the magic moonlit ripples, and tossed it in his face.
They reached their destination far ahead of any of the others. A thick belt of jungle stretched down to the river where they landed, enveloping both banks a little higher up the stream.
“What an awesome place!” remarked Mrs. Perceval, as she stepped ashore. “I hope the rest will arrive soon, or I shall develop an attack of nerves.”
“You’ve got me to take care of you,” suggested Hone.
She uttered her soft, little laugh.
“Faith, Major Hone, and I’m not at all sure that it isn’t yourself I want to run away from!”
Hone was securing the boat, and made no immediate response. But as he straightened himself, he laughed also.
“Am I so formidable, then?”
She flashed a swift glance at him.
“I haven’t quite decided.”
“You have known me long enough,” he protested.
She shrugged her shoulders lightly.
“Have I ever met you before to-night? I have no recollection of it.”
And mutely, with that chivalry which was to him the very air he breathed, Hone bowed to her ruling. She would have no reference to the past. It was to be a closed book to them both. So be it, then! For this night, at least, she would have her way.
He stepped forward in silence into the chequered shadow of the trees that surrounded the ruin, and she walked lightly by his side with that dainty, regal carriage of hers that made him yet in his secret heart call her his princess.
The place was very dark and eerie. The shrill cries of flying-foxes, disturbed by their appearance, came through the magic silence. But no living thing was to be seen, no other sound to be heard.
“I’m frightened,” said Nina suddenly. “Shall we stop?”
“Hold my hand!” said Hone.
“I’m not joking,” she protested, with a shudder.
“Nor am I,” he said gently.
She looked up at him sharply, as though she did not quite believe him, and then unexpectedly and impulsively she laid her hand in his.
His fingers closed upon it with a friendly, reassuring pressure, and she never knew how the man’s heart leapt and the blood turned to liquid fire in his veins at her touch.
She gave a shaky little laugh as though ashamed of her weakness. “We are coming to an open space,” she said. “We shall see the satyrs dancing directly.”
“Faith, if we do, we’ll join them,” declared Hone cheerily.
“They would never admit us,” she answered. “They hate mortals. Can’t you feel them glaring at us from every tree? Why, I can breathe hostility in the very air.”
She missed her footing as she spoke, and stumbled with a sharp cry. Hone held her up with that steady strength of his that was ever equal to emergencies, but to his surprise she sprang forward, pulling him with her, almost before she had fully recovered her balance.
“Oh, come, quick, quick!” she gasped. “I trod on something–something that moved!”
He went with her, for she would not be denied, and in a few seconds they emerged into a narrow clearing in the jungle in which stood the ruin of a small domed temple.
Nina Perceval was shaking all over in a positive frenzy of fear, and clinging fast to Hone’s arm.
“What was it?” he asked her, trying gently to disengage himself. “Was it a snake that scared you?”
She shuddered violently. “Yes, it must have been. A cobra, I should think. Oh, what are you going to do?”
“It’s all right,” Hone said soothingly. “You stay here a minute! I’ve got some matches. I’ll just go back a few yards and investigate.”
But at that she cried out so sharply that he thought for a moment that something had hurt her. But the next instant he understood, and again has heart leapt and strained within him like a chained thing.
“No, Pat! No, no, no! You shall do no such thing!” Incoherently the words rushed out, and with them the old familiar name, uttered all unawares. “Do you think I’d let you go? Why, the place may be thronged with snakes. And you–you have nothing to defend yourself with. How can you dream of such a thing?”
He heard her out with absolute patience. His face betrayed no sign of the tumult within. It remained perfectly courteous and calm. Yet when he spoke he, too, it seemed, had gone back to the old intimate days that lay so far behind them.
“Yes, but, Princess,” he said, “what about our pals? If there is any real danger we can’t let them come stumbling into it. We’ll have to warn them.”
She was still clinging to his arm, and her hands tightened. For an instant she seemed about to renew her wild protest, but something–was it the expression in the man’s steady eyes?–checked her.
She stood a moment silent. Then, “You’re quite right, Pat,” she said, her voice very low. “We’ll go straight back to the boat and stop them.”
Her hands relaxed and fell from his arm, but Hone stood hesitating.
“You’ll let me go first?” he said. “You stay here in the open! I’ll come back for you.”
But at that her new-found docility at once evaporated. “I won’t!” she declared vehemently. “I won’t! Don’t be so ridiculous! Of course I am coming with you. Do you suppose I would let you go alone?”
“Why not?” said Hone.
He remembered later that she passed the question by. “We are wasting time,” she said, “Let us go!”
And so together they went back into the danger that lurked in the darkness.
They went side by side, for she would not let him take the lead. Her hand was in his, and he knew by its convulsive pressure something of the sheer panic that possessed her. And he marvelled at the power that nerved her, though he held his peace.
They entered the dense shadow of the strip of jungle that separated them from the stream, and very soon he paused to strike a match. She stood very close to him. He was aware that she was trembling in every limb.
He peered about him, but could see very little beyond the fact that the path ahead of them lay clear. On both sides of this the undergrowth baffled all scrutiny. He seemed to hear a small mysterious rustling sound, but his most minute attention failed to locate it. The match burned down to his fingers, and he tossed it away.
“There’s nothing between us and the water,” he said cheerily. “We’ll make a dash for it.”
“Stay!” she whispered, under her breath. “I heard something!”
“It’s only a bit of a breeze overhead,” said Hone. “We won’t stop to listen anyway.”
He caught her hand in his once more, grasping it firmly, and they moved forward again. They could see the moonlight glimmering on the water ahead, and in another yard or two the low-growing bush to which Hone had moored the boat became visible.
In that instant, with a jerk of terror, Nina stopped short. “Pat! What is that?”
Hone stood still. “There! Don’t be scared!” he said soothingly. “What would it be at all? There’s nothing but shadow.”
“But there is!” she gasped. “There is! There! On the bank above the boat! What is it, Pat? What is it?”
Hone’s eyes followed her quivering finger, discerning what appeared to be a blot of shadow close to the bush above the water.
“Sure, it’s only shadow–” he began.
But she broke in feverishly. “It’s not, Pat! It’s not! There’s nothing to cast it. It’s in the full moonlight.”
“You stay here!” said Hone. “I’ll go and have a look.”
“I won’t!” she rejoined in a fierce whisper, holding him fast. “You–you shan’t go a step nearer. We must get away somehow–somehow!” with a hunted glance around. “Not through the undergrowth, that’s certain. We–we shall have to go back.”
Hone was still staring at the motionless blot in the moonlight. He resisted her frantic efforts to drag him away.
“I must go and see,” he said at last. “I’m sure there’s nothing to alarm us. We can’t run away from shadows, Princess. We should never hold up our heads again.”
“Oh, Pat, you fool!” she exclaimed, almost beside herself. “I tell you that is no shadow! It’s a snake! Do you hear? It’s a huge python! And it was a snake I trod on just now. And they are everywhere–everywhere! The whole place is rustling with them. They are closing in on us. I can hear them! I can feel them! I can smell them! Pat, what shall we do? Quick, quick! Think of something! See now! It’s moving–uncoiling! Look, look! Did you ever see anything so horrible? Pat!”
Her voice ended in a breathless shriek. She suddenly collapsed against him, her face hidden on his breast. And Hone, stooping impulsively, caught her up in his arms.
“We’ll get out of it somehow,” he said. “Never fear!”
But even his eyes had widened with a certain horror, for the blot in the moonlight was beyond question moving, elongating, quivering, subtly changing under his gaze.
He held his companion pressed tightly to his heart. She made no further attempt to urge him. Only by the tense clinging of her arms about his neck did he know that she was conscious.
Again he heard that vague rustling which he had set down to a sudden draught overhead. It seemed to come from all directions.
“Ye gods!” he muttered softly to himself. And again, more softly, “Ye gods!”
To the woman in his arms he uttered no word whatever. He only pressed the slender figure ever closer, while the blood surged and sang tumultuously in his veins. Though he stood in the midst of mortal danger, he was conscious of an exultation so mad as to be almost delirious. She was his–his–his!
Something stirred in the undergrowth close to him, and in a moment his attention was diverted from the slow-moving monster ahead of him. He became aware of a dark object, but vaguely discernible, that swayed to and fro about three feet from the ground seeming to menace him.
The moment he saw this thing, his brain flashed into sudden illumination. The shrewdness of the hunted creature entered into him. Without panic, he became most vividly, most intensely alive to the ghastly danger that threatened him. He stopped to ascertain nothing further. Swift as a lightning flash he acted–leapt backwards, leapt sideways, landed upon something that squirmed and thrashed hideously, nearly overthrowing him; and the next moment was breaking madly through the undergrowth, regardless of direction, running blindly through the jungle, fighting furiously every obstacle–forcing by sheer giant strength a way for himself and for the woman he carried through the opposing tangle of vegetation.
Branches slapped him in the face as he went, clutched at him, tore him, but could not stay his progress. Many times he stumbled, many times he recovered himself, dashing wildly on and still on like a man possessed. A marvellous strength was his. Titan-like, he accomplished that which to any ordinary man would have been an utter impossibility. Save that he was in perfect condition, even he must have failed. But that fact was his salvation, that and the fierce passion that urged him, endowing him with an endurance more than human.
Headlong as was his flight, the working of his brain was even swifter, and very soon, without slackening his speed, he was swerving round again towards the open. He could see the moonlight gleaming through the trees, and he made a dash for it, utterly reckless, since caution was of no avail, but alert for every danger, cunning for every advantage, keen as the born fighter for every chance that offered.
And so at last, torn, bleeding, but undismayed, he struggled free from the undergrowth, and sprang away from that place of horrors, staggering slightly but running strongly still, till the dark line of jungle fell away behind him and he reached the river bank once more.
Here he stopped and loosened his grip upon the slight form he carried. Her arms dropped from his neck. She had fainted.
For a few seconds he stared down into her white face, seeing nothing else, while the fiery heart of him leapt and quivered like a wild thing in leash. Then, suddenly, from the water a voice hailed him, and he looked up with a start.
“Hullo, Pat! What on earth is the matter? You have landed the wrong side of the stream. Is anything wrong?”
It was Teddy Duncombe in a boat below him. He saw his face of concern in the moonlight.
He pulled himself together.
“I was coming to warn you. This infernal jungle is full of snakes. We’ve had to run for it, and leave the boat behind.”
“Great Scotland! And Mrs. Perceval?”
Again Hone’s eyes sought the white face on his arm.
“No, she isn’t hurt. It’s just a faint. Pull up close, and I’ll hand her down to you!”
Between them, they lowered her into the boat. Hone followed, and raised her to lean against his knee.
Duncombe began to row swiftly across the stream, with an uneasy eye upon the two in the stern.
“What in the world made you go wrong, I wonder?” he said. “No one ever goes that side, not even the natives. They say it’s haunted. We all landed near the old bathing ghat.”
Hone was moistening Nina Perceval’s face with his handkerchief. He made no reply to Teddy’s words. He was anxiously watching for some sign of returning consciousness.
It came very soon. The dark eyes opened and gazed up at him, at first uncomprehendingly, then with a dawning wonder.
“St. Patrick!” she whispered.
“Princess!” he whispered back.
With an effort she raised herself, leaning against him.
“What happened? Were you hurt? Your face is all bleeding!”
“It’s nothing!” he said jerkily. “It’s nothing!”
She took his handkerchief in her trembling hand and wiped the blood away. She said no more of any sort. Only when she gave it back to him her eyes were full of tears.
And Hone caught the little hand in passionate, dumb devotion, and pressed it to his lips.
“I am so sorry, Major Hone, but she is seeing no one. I would ask you to dine if it would be of any use. But you wouldn’t see her if I did.”
So spoke the colonel’s wife three days later in a sympathetic undertone; while Hone paced beside her rickshaw with a gloomy face.
“She isn’t ill?” he asked. “You are sure she isn’t ill?”
“No, not really ill. Her nerves are upset, of course. That was almost inevitable. But she has determined to start for Bombay on Monday, and nothing I can say will make her change her purpose.”
“But she can’t mean to go without saying good-bye!” he protested.
Mrs. Chester shook her head.
“She says she doesn’t like good-byes. I had the greatest difficulty in persuading her to come here at all. I am afraid that is exactly what she does mean to do.”
Hone stood still. His face was suddenly stubborn.
“I must see her,” he said, “with her consent or without it. Will you, of your goodness, ask me to dine tonight? I will manage the rest for myself.”
Mrs. Chester looked somewhat dubious. Long as she had known Hone, she was not familiar with this mood.
He saw her hesitation, and smiled upon her persuasively.
“You are not going to refuse my petition? It isn’t yourself that would have the heart!”
She laughed, in spite of herself.
“Oh, go away, you wheedling Irishman! Yes, you may dine if you like. The Gerrards are coming for bridge, and you’ll be odd man out. There will be no one to entertain you.”
“Sure, I can entertain myself,” grinned Hone. “And it’s truly grateful that I am to your worshipful ladyship.”
He bowed, with his hand upon his heart, and, turning, went his way.
Mrs. Chester went hers, still vaguely doubtful as to the wisdom of her action. In common with the rest of mankind, she found Hone well-nigh impossible to resist.
When he made his appearance that evening, he presented an absolutely serene aspect to the world at large. He was the gayest of the party, and Mrs. Chester’s uneasiness speedily evaporated. Nina Perceval was not present, but this fact apparently did not depress him. He remained in excellent spirits throughout dinner.
When it was over, and the bridge players were established on the veranda, he drifted off to the smoking-room in an aimless, inconsequent fashion, and his hostess and accomplice saw him no more.
She would have given a good deal to have witnessed his subsequent movements, but she would have been considerably disappointed had she done so, for Hone’s methods were disconcertingly direct. All he did when he found himself alone was to sit down and scribble a brief note.
“I am waiting to see you” (so ran his message). “Will you come to me now, or must I follow you to the world’s end? One or the other it will surely be.–Yours, PAT.”
This note he delivered to the khitmutgar, with orders to return to him with a reply. Then, with a certain massive patience, he resumed his cigar and settled himself to wait.
The khitmutgar did not return, but he showed no sign of exasperation. His eyes stared gravely into space. There was not a shade of anxiety in them.
And it was thus that Nina Perceval found him when at last she came lightly in from the veranda in answer to his message. She entered without the smallest hesitation, but with that regal air of hers before which men did involuntary homage. Her shadowy eyes met his without fear or restraint of any sort, but they held no gladness either. Her remoteness chilled him.
“Why did you send me that extraordinary message?” she said. “Wasn’t it a little unnecessary?”
He had risen to meet her. He paused to lay aside his cigar before he answered, and in the pause that dogged expression that had surprised Mrs. Chester descended like a mask and covered the first spontaneous impulse to welcome her that had dominated him.
“It was necessary that I should see you,” he said.
“I really don’t know why,” she returned. “I wrote a note to thank you for the care you took of me the other night. That was days ago. I suppose you received it?”
“Yes, I received it,” said Hone. “I have been trying, without success, to see you ever since.”
She made a slight impatient movement.
“I haven’t seen any one. I was upset after that horrible adventure. I shouldn’t be seeing you now, only your ridiculous note made me wonder if there was anything wrong. Is there?”
She faced him with the direct inquiry. There was a faint frown between her brows. Her delicate beauty possessed him like a charm. He felt his blood begin to quicken, but he kept himself in check.
“There is nothing wrong, Princess,” he said steadily. “I am, as ever, your humble servant, only I’ve got to come to the point with you before you go. I’ve got to make the most of this shred of opportunity which you have given me against your will. You are not disposed to be generous, I see; but I appeal to your sense of justice. Is it fair play at all to fling a man into gaol, and to refuse to let him plead on his own behalf?”
The annoyance passed like a shadow from her face. She began to smile.
“What can you mean?” she said. “Is it a joke–a riddle? Am I supposed to laugh?”
“Heaven help me, no!” he said. “There is only one woman in the world that I can’t trifle with, and that’s yourself.”
“Oh, but what an admission!” She laughed at him, softly mocking. “And I’m so fond of trifling, too. Then what can you possibly want with me? I suppose you have really called to say good-bye.”
“No,” said Hone. He spoke quickly, and, as he spoke, he leaned towards her. A deep glow had begun to smoulder in his eyes. “It’s something else that I’ve come to say–something quite different. I’ve come to tell you that you are all the world to me, that I love you with all there is of me, that I have always loved you. Yes, you’ll laugh at me. You’ll think me mad. But if I don’t take this chance of telling you, I’ll never have another. And even if it makes no difference at all to you, I’m bound to let you know.”
He ceased. The fire that smouldered in his eyes had leaped to lurid flame; but still he held himself in check, he subdued the racing madness in his veins. He was, as ever, her humble servant.
Perhaps she realized it, for she showed no sign of shrinking as she stood before him. Her eyes grew a little wider and a little darker, that was all.
“I don’t know what to say to you, Major Hone,” she said, after a moment. “I don’t know even what you expect me to say, since you expressly tell me that you are not trifling.”
“Faith!” he broke in impetuously. “And is it trifling I’d be with the only woman I ever loved or ever wanted? I’m not asking you to flirt. I’m asking a bigger thing of you than that. I’m asking you–Princess, I’m asking you to stay–and be my wife.”
He drew nearer to her, but he made no attempt to touch her. Only the flame of his passion seemed to reach her, to scorch her, for she made a slight movement away from him.
She looked at him doubtfully. “I still don’t know what to say,” she said.
His face altered. With a mighty effort he subdued the fiery impulse that urged him to override her doubts and fears, to take and hold her in his arms, to make her his with or without her will.
He became in a trice the kindly, winning personality that all his world knew and loved. “Sure then, you’re not afraid of me?” he said, as though he softly cajoled a child. “It wouldn’t be yourself at all if you were, you that could tread me underfoot like a centipede and not be a mite the worse.”
She smiled a little, smiled and uttered a sudden quick sigh. “Don’t you think you are rather a fool, Pat?” she said. “I gave you credit for more shrewdness. You certainly had more once.”
“What do you mean?” There was a sharp note of pain in Hone’s voice.
She moved restlessly across the room and paused with her back to him. “None but a fool would conclude that because a woman is pretty she must be good as well,” she said, a tremor of bitterness in her voice. “Why do you take it for granted in this headlong fashion that I am all that man could desire?”
“You are all that I want,” he said.
She shook her head. “The woman who lived inside me died long ago,” she said, “and a malicious spirit took her place.”
“None but yourself would ever dare to say that to me,” said Hone. “And I won’t listen even to you. Princess–“
“You are not to call me that!” She rounded upon him suddenly, a fierce gleam in her eyes. “You must never–never–“
She broke off. He was close to her, with that on his face that stilled her protest. He gathered her to him with a tenderness that yet was irresistible.
“Sure, then,” he whispered, with a whimsical humour that cloaked all deeper feeling, “you shall be my queen instead, for by the saints I swear that in some form or other I was created to be your slave.”
And though she averted her face and after a moment withdrew herself from his arms, she raised no further protest. She suffered him to plant the flag of his supremacy unhindered.
Certainly the colonel’s wife was in her element. A wedding in the regiment, and that the wedding of its idolized hero, was to her an affair of almost more importance than anything that had happened since her own. The church had been fully decorated under her directions, and she had turned it into as elegant a reception room as circumstances permitted. White favours had been distributed to the dusky warriors under Hone’s command who lined the aisle. All was in readiness, from the bridegroom, resplendent in scarlet and gold, waiting in the chancel with Teddy Duncombe, the best man, to the buzzing guests who swarmed in at the west door to be received by the colonel’s wife, who in her capacity of hostess seemed to be everywhere at once.
“She was quite ready when I left, and looking sweet,” so ran the story to one after another. “Oh, yes, in her travelling dress, of course. That had to be. But quite bridal–the palest silver grey. She looks quite charming, and such a girl. No one would ever think–” and so on, to innumerable acquaintances, ending where she had begun–“yes, she was quite ready when I left, and looking sweet!”
Ready or not, she was undoubtedly late, as is the recognised custom of brides all the world over. The organist, who had been playing an impressive selection, was drawing to the end of his resources and beginning to improvise somewhat spasmodically. The bridegroom betrayed no impatience, but there was undeniable strain in his attitude. He stood stiff and motionless as a soldier on parade. The guests were commencing to peer and wonder. Mrs. Chester made her tenth pilgrimage to the door.
Ah! The carriage at last! She turned back with a beaming face, and rustled up the aisle as though she were the heroine of the occasion. A flutter of expectation went through the church. The organist plunged abruptly into “The Voice that Breathed o’er Eden.”
Everyone rose. Everyone craned towards the door. The carriage, with its flying favours, was stopping, had stopped. The colonel was seen descending.
He was looking very pale, whispered someone. Could anything be wrong? He was not wont to suffer from nervousness.
He did not turn to assist the bride. Surely that was strange! Nor did she follow him. Surely–surely the carriage behind him was empty!
Something indeed had happened. She must be ill! A great tremor went through the waiting crowd. No one was singing, but the music pealed on and on till some wild rumour of disaster reached the waiting chaplain, and he stepped across the chancel and touched the organist’s shoulder.
Instantly silence fell–a terrible, nerve-racking silence. Colonel Chester had entered. He stood just within the door, pale and stern, whispering to the officer in charge of the men. People stared at him, at each other, at the bridegroom still standing motionless by the chancel steps. And then at last the silence broke into a murmur that spread and spread. Something had happened! Something was wrong! No, the bride was not ill. But there would be no wedding that day.
Someone came hurriedly and spoke to Teddy Duncombe, who turned first crimson, then very white, and finally pulled himself together with a jerk and went to Hone. Everyone craned to see what would happen–how the news would affect him, whether he would be deeply shocked, or whether–whether–ah! A great sigh went through the church. He did not seem startled or even greatly dismayed. He listened to Duncombe gravely, but without any visible discomfiture. There could not be anything very serious the matter, then. A note was put into his hand, which he read with absolute calmness under the eyes of the multitude.
When he looked up from it, the colonel had reached his side. They exchanged a few words, and then Hone, smiling faintly, beckoned to the chaplain. He rested a hand on his shoulder in his careless, friendly way, and spoke into his ear.
The chaplain looked deeply concerned, nodded once or twice, and, straightening himself, faced the crowd of guests.
“I am requested to state,” he announced in the midst of dead silence, “that, owing to a most regrettable and unforeseen mischance, the happy event which we are gathered here to celebrate must be unavoidably postponed. The bride has just received an urgent summons to England on a matter of the first importance, which she feels compelled to obey, and she is already on her way to Bombay in the hope of catching the steamer which will sail to-morrow. It only remains for me to express deep sympathy, in which I am sure all present join me, with our friend Major Hone and his bride-elect on their disappointment, and the sincere hope that their happy union may not long be deferred.”
He ended with a doubtful glance at Hone, who, standing on the chancel steps, bowed briefly, and, taking Duncombe by the shoulder, marched with him into the vestry. He certainly did not look in the least disconcerted or anxious. It could not be anything really serious. A feeling of relief lightened the atmosphere. People began to talk, to speculate, even to enjoy the sensation. Poor Hone! He was not often unlucky. But, of course, it would be all right. He would probably follow his bride to England, and they would be married there. Doubtless that was his intention, or he could not have looked so undismayed.
So ran the tide of gossip and surmise. And in Hone’s pocket lay the twisted note which the woman he loved had left behind–the note which he had read with an unmoved countenance under a host of watching eyes.
“Good-bye, St. Patrick! It has been an amusing game, has it not? Do you remember how you beat me once long ago? I was but a child in those days. I did not know the rules of the game, and so you had the advantage. But you could not hope to have it always. It is my turn now, and I think I may claim the return match for my own. So good-bye, Achilles! Perhaps the gods will send you better luck next time. Who knows?”
No eye but Hone’s ever read that heartless note, and his but once. Half an hour after he had received it, it lay in ashes, but every word of it was graven deep upon his brain.
It was in the early hours of the morning that Nina Perceval reached Bombay.
She had sat wide-eyed and motionless all through the night. She had felt no desire to sleep. An intense horror of her surroundings seemed to possess her. She was like a hunted creature seeking to escape from a world of horrors. She would know no rest till she reached the sea, till she was speeding away over the glittering water, and the land–that land which had become more hateful to her than any prison–was left far behind.
She had played her game, she had sped her shaft, and now panic–sheer, unreasoning panic–filled her. She was terrified at what she had done, too terrified yet for coherent thought. She had taken her revenge at last. She had pierced her conqueror to the heart. As he had once laughed at her, as he had once, with a smile and a jest, broken and tossed her aside–so she had done to him. She had gathered up her wounded pride, and she had smitten him therewith. She was convinced that he would never laugh at her again.
He would get over it, of course; men always did. She had known men by the score who played the same merry game, men who broke hearts for sport and went their careless ways, unheeding, uncomprehending. It was the way of the world, this world of countless tragedies. She had learned, in her piteous cynicism, to look for nothing else. Faithfulness had become to her a myth. Surely all men loved–they called it love–and rode away.
No, she did not flatter herself that she had hurt him very seriously. She had dealt his pride a blow, that was all.
She reached Bombay, and secured her berth. The steamer was to sail at noon. There were not a great many passengers, and she managed to engage a cabin to herself. But she could not even attempt to rest in that turmoil of noise and excitement. She went ashore again, and repaired to a hotel for a meal. She took a private room, and lay down; but sleep would not come to her, and presently, urged by that gnawing restlessness, she was pacing up and down, up and down, like a wild creature newly caged.
Sometimes she paused at the window to stare down into the busy thoroughfare below, but she never paused for long. The fever that consumed her gave her no rest, and again she was pacing to and fro, to and fro, eternally, counting the leaden minutes that crept by so slowly.
At last, when flesh and blood could endure no longer, she snatched up her hat and veil, and prepared to go on board. Standing before a mirror, she began to adjust these with trembling fingers, but suddenly stopped dead, gazing speechlessly before her. For her own eyes had inadvertently met the eyes of the haggard woman in the glass, and dumbly, with a new horror clutching at her heart, she stared into their wild depths and read as in a book the tale of torture that they held.
When she turned away at length, she was shivering from head to foot as though she had seen a spectre; and so in truth she had. For those eyes had told her what she had not otherwise begun to realise.
That which she had believed dead for so long had been, only dormant, and had sprung to sudden, burning life. The weapon with which she had thought to pierce her enemy had turned in her grasp and pierced her also, pierced her with an agony unspeakable–ay, pierced her to the heart.
As one in a dream she stood on deck and watched India slipping below the horizon. Her restlessness was subsiding at last. She was conscious of an intense weariness, greater than any she had ever known. As soon as that distant line of land had disappeared she told herself that she would go and rest. Her fellow passengers had for the most part settled down. They sat about in groups under the awning. A few, like herself, stood at the rail and gazed astern, but there was no one very near her. She felt as if she stood utterly alone in all the world.
Slowly at last she turned away. Slowly she crossed the deck and began to descend the companion. A knot of people stood talking at the foot. They made way for her to pass. She went through them without a glance. She scarcely even saw them.
She went to her cabin and lay down, but she knew at once that sleep would not come to her. Her eyes burned as though weighted with many scalding tears, but she could not weep. She could only lie staring vaguely before her, and dumbly endure that suffering which she had vainly fancied could never again be her portion. She could only strive–and strive in vain–to shut out the vision of the man she loved standing alone at the altar waiting for the woman who had played him false.
The dinner hour approached. Mechanically she rose and dressed. She did not shrink from meeting the eyes of strangers. They simply did not exist for her. She took her place in the great dining saloon, looking neither to right nor left. The buzz of conversation all around her passed her by. She might have been sitting in utter solitude. And all the while the misery gnawed ever deeper into her heart.
She rose at last, before the meal was ended, and went up to the great empty deck. She felt as if she would stifle below. But, up above, the wash of the sea and the immensity of the night soothed her somewhat. She found a secluded corner, and leaned upon the rail, gazing out over the black waste of water.
What was he doing, she wondered. How was he spending this second night of misery? Had he begun to console himself already? She tried to think so, but failed–failed utterly.
Irresistibly the memory of the man swept over her, his gentleness, his chivalry, his unfailing kindness. She was beginning to see the whole bitter tragedy by the light of her repentance. He had loved her, surely he had loved her in those old days when she had tricked him in sheer, childish gaiety of soul. And, for her sake, that her suffering might be the briefer, he had masked his love. She had never thought so before, but she saw it clearly now.
It had all been a miserable misunderstanding from beginning to end, but she was sure, now, that he had loved her faithfully for all those years. And if it were against all reason to think so, if all her experience told her that men were not moulded thus, had not his chosen friend declared him to be one in ten thousand, and did not her quivering woman’s heart know him to be such? Ah, what had she done? What had she done?
“Oh, Pat!” she sobbed. “Pat! Pat! Pat!”
The great idol of her pride had fallen at last, and she wept her heart out up there in the darkness, till physical exhaustion finally overcame her, and she could weep no more.
“Won’t you sit down?” a quiet voice said.
She started out of what was almost a stupor of grief, to find a man’s figure standing close to her. Her eyes were all blinded by weeping, and she could see him but vaguely in the dimness. She had not heard him approach. He seemed to appear from nowhere. Or had he, perchance, been near her all the time?
Instinctively she drew a little away from him, though in that moment of utter desolation even the sympathy of a stranger sent a faint warmth of comfort to her heart.
“There is a chair here,” the quiet voice went on, and as she turned vaguely, almost as though feeling her way, a steady hand closed upon her elbow and guided her.
Perhaps it was the touch that, like the shock of an electric current, sent the blood suddenly tingling through her veins, or it may have been some influence more subtle. She was yielding half-mechanically when suddenly, piercing her through and through, there came to her such a flash of revelation as almost deprived her for the moment of her senses.
She stood stock still and faced him.
“Oh, who is it?” she cried piteously. “Who is it?”
The hand that held her tightened ever so slightly. He did not instantly reply, but when he did, it was on a note of grimness that she had never heard from him before.
“It is I–Pat,” he told her. “Have you any objection?”
She gazed at him speechlessly as one in a dream. He had followed her, then; he had followed her! But wherefore?
She began to tremble in the grip of sudden, overmastering fear. This was the last thing she had anticipated. What could it mean? Had she driven him demented? Had he pursued her to wreak his vengeance upon her, perhaps to kill her?
Compelled by the pressure of his hand, she moved to the dark seat he had indicated, and sank down.
He stood beside her, looming large in the gloom. A terrible silence fell between them. Worn out by sleeplessness and bitter weeping, she cowered before him dumbly. She had no pride left, no weapon of any sort wherewith to resist him. She longed, yet dreaded unspeakably, to hear his voice. He was watching her, she knew, though she did not dare to raise her head.
He spoke at last, quietly, without emotion, yet with that in his deliberate utterance that made her shrink and quiver in every nerve.
“Faith,” he said, “it’s been an amusing game entirely, but you haven’t beaten me yet. I must trouble you to take up your cards again and play to a finish before we decide who scoops the pool.”
“What do you mean?” she whispered.
He did not answer her, and she thought there was something contemptuous in his silence.
She waited a little, summoning her strength, then, rising, with a desperate courage she faced him.
“I don’t understand you. Tell me what you mean!”
He made a curious gesture as if he would push her from him.
“I am not good at explaining myself,” he said. “But you will understand me better presently.”
And again inexplicably she shrank. There was that about him which terrified her more than any uttered menace.
“What are you going to do?” she said nervously. “Why–why have you followed me?”
He answered her in a tone which she deemed scoffing. It was too dark for her to see his face.
“You can hardly expect me to show my hand at this stage,” he said. “You never showed me yours.”
It was true, and she found no word to say against it. But none the less, she was horribly afraid. She felt herself to be utterly at his mercy, and was instinctively aware that he was in no mood to spare her.
“I can’t go on playing, Pat,” she said, after a moment, her voice very low. “I have no cards left to play.”
“In that case you are beaten,” he said, with that doggedness which she was beginning to know as a part of his fighting equipment. “Do you own it?”
“Do you own it?” he insisted sternly.
And, yielding to a sudden impulse that overwhelmed all reason, she threw herself unreservedly upon his mercy.
“Yes, I own it.”
He stood silent for several seconds after the admission, while she waited with a thumping heart. At last, half-grudgingly it seemed to her, he spoke.
“You are a wise woman,” he said, “even wiser than I took you for, which is saying much. The game is ended, then. But you will pardon me if I refuse to surrender my winnings. Such as they are, I value them.”
She bent her head. Her subjection was complete. She was too exhausted, physically and mentally, to attempt to withstand him, and undoubtedly the ultimate victory was his. Had he not witnessed those agonizing tears?
“You are welcome to anything you can find,” she said, smiling wanly. “I suppose all experience is of value. At least, I used to think so.”
Again for a moment he was silent. Then: “It is the most valuable thing in the world,” he said, “if you know how to turn it to account. But, sure, that is a lesson that some of us are slow to learn.”
He paused; then, as she remained silent, “You are going below to rest?” he said. “Don’t let me keep you! You have travelled hard, and need it.”
There was a hint of the old kindliness in his tone. She stood listening to it, longing, yet not daring to avail herself of it and make her peace with him.
But, whatever his intentions, it was apparently no part of Hone’s plan to allow himself to be conciliated at that stage, for, after the briefest pause, he bowed abruptly and stepped aside.
And Nina Perceval went humbly away, as befitted one who had played a desperate game, and had been outwitted by the adversary she had dared to despise.
During the whole three weeks of the voyage Hone took no further action.
Nina saw him every day of those interminable weeks, but he made no sign. He did not seek her out, neither did he avoid her, but continually he mystified her by the cheery indifference of his bearing.
He became–as was almost inevitable–an immense favourite on board. He was in the thick of every amusement, and no entertainment was complete without him. No rumour of the extraordinary circumstances that had led to his undertaking the voyage had reached their fellow passengers. No one suspected that anything unusual existed between the winning, frank-faced Irishman and the silent young widow who so seldom looked his way. No one had heard of the wedding party that had lacked a bride.
But everyone welcomed Hone, V.C., as a tremendous acquisition, and Hone, V.C., laughed his humorous, good-tempered laugh, and placed himself unreservedly and impartially at everyone’s disposal.
Nina never saw him in private. In public he treated her with the kindly courtesy he extended to every woman on board. There was not in his manner the faintest hint of anything deeper. He would laugh into her eyes with absolute friendliness. And yet from the depths of her soul she feared him. She knew that he was continuing the game that she had wantonly begun. She knew that there was more to come, that he had not done with her, that he was merely waiting, as an experienced player knows how to wait, till the time arrived to play his final card.
What that final card could be she had not the remotest idea, but she awaited it with an almost morbid sense of dread. His very forbearance seemed ominous.
On the night before their arrival there was a dance on board. Nina, who had not joined in any of these gaieties for the simple reason that she had no heart for them, rose from dinner with the intention of going to her cabin. But as she passed out of the saloon, Hone stepped forward and intercepted her.
“Will you give me a dance, Mrs. Perceval?”
She looked up at him, meeting his eyes with an effort.
“I am not dancing,” she said.
“Just one,” he pleaded, with that air of gallantry that cloaked she knew not what.
She hesitated, and then, almost in spite of herself, with something of the old regal graciousness, she yielded.
“Just one, then, Major Hone, since to-morrow it will be good-bye.”
He thanked her with a deep bow, and promptly led her away.
They danced the first waltz together in unbroken silence. Nina kept her face studiously turned over her shoulder. Not once did she glance at her partner, whose quiet dancing and steady arm told her nothing.
When it was over, he led her to a seat in full view of the other dancers, and sat down beside her. For a few seconds he maintained his silence, then quietly he turned and spoke.
“Are you going to stay in London?”
The direct question surprised her. Somehow, though he had given her small reason to do so, she had come to expect naught but subtle strategy from him.
“I shall spend one night there,” she said, after a moment’s thought.
She faced him calmly, though her heart had begun to leap and race within her.
“Why do you ask?”
“Why don’t you answer?” said Hone.
He was smiling faintly, but there was determination in the set of his jaw.
“Because,” she said slowly, “I am not sure that I want you to know.”
“Why not?” said Hone. She shook her head in silence. “It’s sorry I am to hear it,” he said, after a brief pause. “For if it’s to be a game of hide-and-seek I shall soon run you to earth.”
She raised her eyebrows. Had they been alone together she knew that she could not have disguised her fear. It had grown upon her marvellously of late. But the publicity of their intercourse endued her with a certain courage.
“What is it that you want of me?” she said.
He met her eyes with absolute steadiness.
“I will tell you,” he said, “the next time we meet.”
She tried to laugh to hide the wild tumult his words stirred up.
“Is that a promise?”
“My solemn bond,” said Hone.
“I shall stay at the Seton Ward Hotel for a week,” she said. “Good-night!”
He rose also; they stood for a moment face to face.
“Alone?” he asked.
And again, with a reckless sense of throwing herself upon his mercy, she made brief reply.
“I haven’t a friend in the world.”
He gave her his arm.
“Any enemies?” he asked.
They were at the door before she answered.
For an instant his arm grew tense, detaining her.
“And that?” he questioned.
She withdrew her hand sharply.
“Myself,” she said, and swiftly, without another glance, she left him.
The roar of the London traffic rose muffled through the London fog. It was a winter afternoon of great murkiness.
In the private sitting-room of a private hotel Nina Perceval sat alone, as she had sat for two dragging, intolerable days, and waited. She had begun to ask herself–she had asked herself many times that day–if she waited in vain. She would remain for the week, whatever happened, but the torture of suspense had become such as she scarcely knew how to endure. Something of the fever of restlessness that had tormented her at Bombay was upon her now, but with it, subtly mingled, was a misery of uncertainty that had not gripped her then. She was unspeakably lonely, and at certain panic-stricken times unspeakably afraid; but whether it was the possibility of his presence or the certainty of his continued absence that appalled her, she could not have said.
A fire burned with a cheery crackling in the room, throwing weird shadows through the dimness. Yet she shivered from time to time as though the chill of the London fog penetrated to her bones. Ah! what was that? She startled violently at the sound of a low knock at the door, then hastily commanded herself. It was only a waiter with the tea she had ordered, of course. With her back to the door she bade him enter.
But, though the door opened and someone entered, there came no jingle of tea things. She did not turn her head. It was as though she could not. She was as one turned to stone. She thought that the wild throbbing of her heart would choke her.
He came straight to her and stood beside her, not offering to touch so much as her hand. The red firelight beat upwards on his face. She ventured a single glance at him, and was oddly shocked by the look he wore. Something of the red glow on the hearth shone back at her from his eyes. She did not dare to look again. Yet when he spoke, though he uttered no greeting, his voice was quite normal, wholly free from agitation.
“I should have been here sooner, but I was scouring London for an old friend. I have found him at last, but, faith, I’ve had a chase. Do you remember Jasper Caldicott, the parson who went out with us on the Scindia eight years ago?”
“Yes, I remember him.” She spoke with a strong effort. Her lips felt stiff and cold.
“He has a parish Whitechapel way,” said Hone. “I only found him out this morning. I wanted to bring him to see you.”
“Yes?” At his abrupt pause she moved slightly. “But he wouldn’t come?”
“He will come some day,” said Hone. “But he had some scruple about accompanying me there and then, as I wished. In fact, he wants you to visit him instead.”
“Yes?” She almost whispered the word. She was holding the mantelpiece with both hands to steady her trembling limbs.
“Sure, there’s nothing to alarm you at all,” Hone said. “It’ll soon be over. He wants you to do him the honour of being married in his church and there’s a taxi below waiting to take you.”
“Now?” She turned and faced him, white to the lips.
“Yes, now! By special licence.” Sternly he made reply, and again she felt as though the fire in his eyes scorched her.
“And if I–refuse?” She stood up to her full height, flinging her fear from her with a royal gesture that was almost a challenge.
But Hone was ready for her. Hone, the gentle, the kind, the chivalrous, stepped suddenly forth from his garden of virtues with level lance to meet her.
“By the powers,” he said, and the words came from between his teeth, “I wonder you dare to ask me that!”
She laughed, but her laughter was slightly hysterical, and in an instant he seized and pressed his advantage.
“It is the end of the game,” he grimly told her. “And you are beaten. You told me once that you didn’t always pay your debts. But, by Heaven, you shall pay this one!”
By sheer weight he beat down her resistance. Against her will, in spite of her utmost effort, she gave way before him.
A moment she stood in silence. Then, “So be it!” she said, and, turning, left him.
When she joined him again she was so thickly veiled that he could not see her face. She preceded him without a word into the lift, and they went down in utter silence to the waiting taxi. Then side by side through the gloom as though they travelled through space, a myriad lights twinkling all about them, the rush and roar of a universe in their ears, but they two alone in an atmosphere that none other breathed.
It was a journey that neither ever afterwards calculated by time. It was incalculable as the flight of a meteor. And when at last it came to an end, for an instant neither moved.
Then, as though emerging from a dream, Hone rose and alighted, and turned to give his hand to his companion. A little group of ragged urchins stood to view upon the muddy pavement. There was no other pomp to attend the coming of a bride.
Silently they entered a church that was lighted from end to end for evening service. They passed up the aisle through a haze of fog. They halted at the chancel steps….
The knot of urchins had grown to a considerable crowd when they emerged. Women and half-grown girls jostled each other for a glimpse of the bride. But the utmost that any saw was a slender figure wearing a thick veil that walked a little apart from the bridegroom, and entered the waiting motor unassisted.
Back once more in the room where the fire crackled, newly replenished, and electric light revealed a shining tea-table, Hone turned to the silent woman beside him.
“Can I write a message? I promised to send one to Teddy as soon as we were married.”
She pointed to the writing-table; and moved herself to the fire. There she stood for a few seconds quite motionless, seeming to listen to the scratching of his pen.
He ceased to write, and turned in his chair. For a moment his eyes rested upon her.
“Take off your hat!” he said.
She obeyed him in utter silence. Her hands were stiff and numb with cold. She stooped, the firelight shining on her hair, and held them to the blaze.
Hone rose quietly, and came to her side. He held his message for her to read, and she did so silently.
“Just married. All well. Love.–PAT.”
“Will it do?” he said.
She glanced up at him and shivered.
“Is all well?” she asked, in a tone that demanded no answer.
He made none, merely rang the bell and gave orders for the despatch of the message.
Then he came quietly back to her. They stood face to face. She was quite erect, but pale to the lips. She stood before him as a prisoner awaiting sentence, too proud to ask for mercy.
Hone paused a few moments, as if to give her time to speak, to challenge him, to make her defence, or to plead her weakness. Then, as she did none of these things, he suddenly laid steady hands upon her, drew her to him, and, bending, looked closely into her eyes.
“And is there any reason at all why I should not take what is my own?” he said.
She did not resist him, but a long shiver went through her.
“Are you sure it is worth the taking?” she said.
“Quite sure,” he answered quietly. “Shall I tell you how I know?”
Her eyes sank before his.
“You will do exactly as you choose.”
He was silent for an instant, still intently searching her white face. Then:
“Do you remember that night that you fainted in my arms?” he said. “Do you remember opening your eyes in the boat? Do you know–can you guess–what your eyes told me?”
She was silent; only again from head to foot she shivered.
He went on very quietly, as one absolutely sure of himself:
“I looked into your soul that night, and I saw your secret hidden away in its darkest corner. And I knew it had been there for a long, long time. I knew from that moment that, hate me as you might, you were mine, as I have been yours for so long as I have known you.”
She raised her eyes suddenly, stiffening in his grasp.
“And you expect me to believe that of you?” she said, a tremor that was not of fear, in her voice.
“You do believe it,” he answered with conviction.
She raised her hands with something of her old imperious grace, and laid them on his arms, freeing herself with a single gesture.
“And all those years ago,” she said, “when you made me believe you had been trifling with me–“
“I lied!” said Hone. “It was the hardest thing I ever did. But something had to be done. I did it to save you suffering.”
She turned abruptly from him, moving blindly, till groping, she found the mantelpiece, and leaned upon it. Then, her back to him, she spoke:
“And you succeeded in breaking my heart.”
A sudden silence fell. Hone stood motionless, his hands fallen to his sides. The dull roar of the streets beat up through the stillness like the roar of a distant sea, bringing to mind a night long, long ago when first he had met his little princess, when first the gay charm of her personality had been cast upon him.
With a resolute effort he spoke.
“But you were scarcely more than a child,” he said. “It–sure, it couldn’t have been as bad as that?”
At the sound of the pain in his voice she slowly turned.
“It was much worse than that,” she said. “While it lasted, it was intolerable. There were times when I thought it would drive me crazy. But you–you were always there, and I think the sight of you kept me sane. I hated you so. I had to show you that I didn’t care.”
Again he heard in her voice that tremor that was not of fear.
“As long as my husband lived,” she went on, “I kept up the miserable farce. As you know, we never loved each other. Then he died, and I found I couldn’t bear it any longer. There was no reason why I should. I went away. I should never have seen you again, only Mrs. Chester would take no refusal. And I had put it all away from me by that time. I felt it did not greatly matter if we did meet. Nothing seemed of much importance till that day I saw you on the polo ground, carrying all before you–Achilles triumphant! That day I began to hate you again.” A faint smile drew the corners of her mouth. “I think you suspected it,” she said, “but your suspicions were soon lulled to rest. Did it never cross your mind to wonder how we came to pair on that night of the river picnic? I accused you of cheating, do you remember? And you were quite indignant.” A glimmer of the old gay mischief shone for a fleeting second through her tragedy. “That was the first move in the game,” she said. “At least you never suspected me of that.”
“No; you had me there.” There was a ring of sternness in Hone’s voice. “So that was the beginning?” he said.
“And it would have been the end also, if you would have suffered it. For that very night I ceased to hate you.” A faint flush tinged her pale face. “I would have let you off,” she said. “I didn’t want to go on. But you would not have it so. You came after me. You wouldn’t leave me alone, even though I warned you–I warned you that I wasn’t worth your devotion. And so”–again her voice trembled–“you had to have your lesson after all.”
“And do you know what it has taught me?”
Again there sounded in his voice that new mastery that had so strangely overwhelmed her.
She shrank a little as it reached her, and turned her face aside. “I can guess,” she said.
“And is it good at guessing that you are?”
He drew nearer to her with the words, but he did not offer to touch her.
She stood motionless, her head bent lest he should see, and understand, the piteous quivering of her lips. With immense effort she made reply:
“It has taught you to hate and despise me, as–as I deserve.”
“Faith!” he said. “You think that–honestly now?”
The mastery had all gone out of his voice. It was soft with that caressing quality she knew of old–that tenderness, half-humorous, half-persuasive, that had won her heart so long, so long ago. She did not answer him–for she could not.
He waited for the space of a score of seconds, standing close to her, yet still not touching her, looking down in silence at the proud dark head abased before him.
At last: “It’s myself that’ll have to tell you, after all,” he said gently, “for sure it’s the only way to make you understand. It’s taught me that we can both be winners, dear, if we play the game squarely, just as we have both been losers all these weary years. But we will have to be partners from this day forward. So just put your little hand in mine, and it’ll be all right, mavourneen! Pat’ll understand!”
She moved at that–moved sharply, convulsively, passionately. For a moment her eyes met his; for a moment she seemed on the verge of amazed questioning, even of vehement protest.
But–perhaps the grey eyes that looked straight and steadfast into her own made speech seem unnecessary–for she only whispered, “St. Patrick!” in a voice that trembled and broke.
And “Princess! My Princess!” was all he answered as he took her into his arms.
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