By Kathlyn Rhodes
Author of "The Desert Dreamers," "The Will of Allah," "The Lure of the Desert," etc.
LONDON: HUTCHINSON & CO. PATERNOSTER ROW
PRINTED IN GREAT BRITAIN BY RICHARD CLAY & SONS, LIMITED, BRUNSWICK ST., STAMFORD ST., S. E. 1, AND BUNGAY, SUFFOLK.
"Dr. Anstice"—the girl spoke slowly, and her voice was curiously flat—"how much longer have we—before dawn?"
Without replying, the man glanced at his watch; and when he spoke his voice, too, was oddly devoid of tone.
"I think—only an hour now."
"Only an hour." In the gloom of the hut the girl's face grew very pale. "And then——" She broke off, shuddering.
"Miss Ryder, don't think of it. After all, we need not give up hope yet. An hour—why, heaps of things may happen in an hour."
A wan little smile touched the girl's lips, and she came a step nearer her companion.
"Don't let us buoy ourselves up with false hopes," she said quietly. "In your heart you know quite well that nothing on earth can save us now. When the sun rises"—in spite of herself she shivered—"we shall die."
The man said nothing for a moment. In his heart he knew she spoke the truth; yet being a man he tried once more to reassure her.
"Miss Ryder, I won't allow that." Taking her hand he led her once more to the rude bench on which she had spent the night. "There is a chance—a faint one, I admit, but still an undeniable chance."
"You mean——?" Although she tried to speak calmly he heard the tiny thrill of hope in her voice, and in his soul he wondered whether, after all, he were not acting cruelly in speaking thus.
"I mean our absence must have been noticed long ago. When we did not return in time for the picnic lunch or tea, someone must have wondered where we were; and it is quite possible we were seen to enter the Temple earlier in the day."
"That awful Temple!" The horror in her eyes made his heart beat pitifully over her. "If only I had not been so foolish as to insist on entering! You didn't know how dangerous it was to go in, but I did—at least, I knew something of the danger—and I would go ... and then—the uncanny silence, the sudden knowledge that we were not alone ... that something, someone malignant, hateful, was watching us—and then those awful men who seized us ... oh!" The agony of remembrance was too much for her, and she sank back, half-fainting, against the wall.
"Miss Ryder, don't go over it all again!" Although it seemed certain that they had only an hour to live, Anstice could not bear to see her suffer now. "Don't let us think of what has happened—let us try to imagine that we are saved—as indeed we may be yet!" But he stole a glance out of the empty window-space as he spoke, and his heart sank to note the lightening of the Indian night's soft dusk.
"I think not." Her tone was calm, almost indifferent, but her apprehensive eyes belied her voice. "Dr. Anstice, you have not forgotten your promise? If ... if it comes to the worst, you—you won't let me fall into—their hands?"
And then he knew that in spite of her endeavours to be brave, to face the impending fate heroically, she too had had her doubts throughout the long hours of their imprisonment—doubts as to whether death would indeed come to her with the merciful swiftness of a fanatic's bullet....
And because he shared her doubt, because he, too, had wondered whether he alone would be shot at dawn, while she, his companion in this horrible nightmare, were reserved for some far more ghastly fate, because of his wonder and his doubt Anstice rejoiced in the fact that he had it in his power to save her from the worst that could happen.
He had not given his promise-lightly; yet having given it he would fulfil it, if the God who seemed to have deserted them in their need should see fit to nerve him to the deed.
She was looking at him wistfully, with something of horror behind the wistfulness; and he could not bear to keep her waiting any longer for the assurance she craved.
"Yes," he said gently, and there was a tender note in his voice. "I will keep my word. You shall not fall into their hands. I promise you that."
She sighed faintly, and made room for him beside her on the rough seat.
"That is settled, then. And now, just for this last half-hour, let us pretend that we are in no danger, that we are waiting for our friends, the friends we ran away from at the picnic—yesterday."
Something in her own words startled her, and she broke off abruptly.
"Well?" He smiled at her. "Let us pretend. How shall we begin?"
"Was it only yesterday?" Her accent thrilled him through and through. "Did we really start out from my uncle's bungalow yesterday morning? How gay we were, weren't we—all the twenty of us ... you and I leading because our horses were the best and I knew the way...."
"Yes—and all the smart young officers looking daggers at me because I had carried you off!" His tone was admirably light.
"Nonsense!" Hilda Ryder actually laughed, and in the dim and gloomy hut her laughter sounded almost uncanny. "I'm sure no one was in the least envious! You see, we were new friends—and it is such a treat to meet someone new out here!"
"Yes. By Jove, we'd only met twice, hadn't we? Somehow I was thinking we were quite old friends, you and I! But as you say, I was a new-comer, this was my first visit to the East. Rather a change, India and the snows, from a slum in Shoreditch!"
"Shoreditch? Did you really live in a slum?"
"Rather—and quite enjoyed it!" He laughed at her incredulous face. "It was experience, you see—disease flourishes in many and divers forms down there, and although I couldn't contemplate staying there for ever, the time wasn't wasted."
"And then—you left your slum?"
"Yes. I wanted more time to myself." He threw back his head as he talked, and swept the curly black hair off his brow with an impatient hand. "You see I had visions—oh, purely futile ones, I daresay—but I had a great idea of finding a cure for a certain disease generally considered incurable——" He broke off suddenly.
"Well? You have found it?" Her tone was eager.
"Not yet—but I shall!" In his enthusiasm he had forgotten the present, forgotten the horror which was coming nearer with great strides as the morning brightened in the sky. He saw only the future—not the immediate future—death, with his back against the wall of the courtyard, his face turned to the rising sun; but the splendid, strenuous future, when after good years of toil, of experience, even of suffering, he should make the great discovery which should free mankind from one of its most grievous foes, and add a precious treasure to the scientific storehouse of the world....
"It's a difficult task—almost superhumanly difficult!" His black eyes snapped at the thought of the difficulties in the way. "But thank God I'm young and full of hope—the hope that belongs to youth—and with luck I believe I'll win through in the end...."
A sudden shaft of rosy light, striking slantwise through the windowless aperture in the wall, brought him to a standstill.
"Sunrise! My God—I—I'd forgotten!" In an instant the youth and enthusiasm were wiped out of his face as by a ruthless hand, and he started to his feet. "Miss Ryder, forgive me! I've been talking like a fool, and you sit there listening like an angel, while all the time——"
"Hush, please!" She laid her hand on his arm, and through the sleeve of his thin riding-suit he felt the chill of her slender fingers. "It isn't time—yet. Let us pretend until the last minute. You know—you haven't asked me what I intend—intended"—for a second she faltered—"to make of my life!"
Inwardly cursing his own folly, Anstice sat down again beside her and took her hand in his as a brother might have done.
"Well, what is ... was...." He, too, bungled over the tense, but she pretended not to notice his confusion. "What are you going to be—or do? I hope your dreams are as wild as mine!"
"Not quite!" Her tone robbed the words of all offence. "Mine are very humble dreams, I'm afraid! You see"—for a second her voice shook, but she steadied it and continued to speak—"there's a man in Egypt whom I am—was—oh, what can I say?—whom I was to marry—some day."
"Really? You're engaged?" A fresh pang of pity shot through his heart.
"Yes. He's an engineer—in the Irrigation Department—and the best man in all the world!" For a moment love triumphed over death, and its glory illuminated the gloom of that fatal place of imprisonment with a hint of immortality. "That's my ambition, Dr. Anstice—to love him and marry him, and be a true and faithful wife—and perhaps"—her voice sank a note—"perhaps in time to bear his children. That"—said Hilda Ryder, and now her eyes were full of dreams—"would be to me the most glorious destiny in the world!"
Her soft voice trembled into silence, and for the space of twenty heart-beats the two sat motionless, only their hands seeking the mutual comfort which their warm contact might well bring.
Then, with a sudden movement, Hilda Ryder sprang to her feet and crossed the mud floor to the aperture in the wall.
"Dr. Anstice, the sun is rising. I suppose—now—we have only a few minutes more to live."
He followed her across the floor and together they watched the dawning of the day which was to be the herald of death. With the inexorable swiftness of the East the sun was rushing into the sky in all his glory of scarlet and pearl, and in spite of the significance of his triumphal rising the two who watched him caught their breath at the rosy magnificence of his entry.
But Hilda's words must not go unanswered; and with a resolute squaring of his shoulders Anstice turned from the gorgeous world outside to the dimness of the hut.
"Yes," he said, rather slowly and deliberately. "I am afraid we have only a few minutes left—now."
Curiously, she cavilled at his choice of words.
"Why do you say—afraid?" He could not understand her tone. "You are not afraid to die—it's I who am such a pitiful coward that I daren't face death—out there in the sunlight."
"You're not a coward, Miss Ryder!" Impulsively he patted her shoulder, and in spite of everything his action thrilled her with a sense of comfort. "Why, all through this dreadful night you've behaved like a heroine, and if your courage fails you a little now—which I hardly believe—well, that's excusable, at any rate!"
"Have I been brave?" She looked at him with wide blue eyes like the eyes of a child. "I am glad of that, seeing it was I who led us into this by profaning—and making you profane—their Temple. I was afraid I had been dreadfully cowardly. I—I didn't feel brave, you know!"
"You poor little girl!" She was nearly as tall as he, a stately young woman, in truth, but suddenly he saw her as a frightened child. "You've been braver—much braver than I—and I wish to God I could have got you safely out of this! What do you say? Shall we break open the door and make a dash for it? We might win through—if the guards were taken by surprise——"
"Have you forgotten the high wall of the courtyard—and the great gates which can only be opened by three men?" He had forgotten, and her reminder seemed to close the last avenue of escape. "No, Dr. Anstice, that's not the way out. But——" A sudden noise outside made her start, and her voice grew hoarse suddenly and broke. "Oh, you won't fail me, will you? You have my revolver safe?"
"Yes." It lay safely hidden in an inner pocket, its tiny size alone having prevented its discovery by alien hands. "I have it in my pocket. There's only one cartridge, but that will be enough if—if we have need of it."
"Thank you, Dr. Anstice." To his surprise and admiration she had regained her courage, the threatened collapse of the previous moment gone for ever. "Then I can wait quite calmly. But"—her blue eyes met his very fully—"you won't delay too long? The moment they come you will—do what you have promised?"
"Yes, dear." In that second he forgot that their acquaintance was barely a week old, forgot that Hilda Ryder was the promised bride of another man. In this moment all external circumstances were forgotten, and nothing remained but the fact that they were called upon to face death together, and that to him alone could the girl look for comfort and help in the bitter hour which faced them. And he knew that his hand must be steady to do her service; that he must guide her footsteps unfalteringly to the gate through which she must pass in all her radiant youth; must support and strengthen her with hand and voice so that she might look the dark angel fearlessly in the face and pass that frowning portal with unflinching step and dauntless mien.
In the hour of death he must help her to be true to herself, so that no craven fear should sully her proud soul, and with this high resolve he turned to her with the little word of endearment on his lips, and laid his hand on her arm with a touch of real affection.
"I will do what I have promised when the moment comes." He felt a little shiver run over her body and his hand tightened on her arm. "Dear, it will soon be over. Really you need not be afraid."
"Tell me"—she turned to him, and the look in her eyes thrilled him through and through—"does it hurt—death when it comes like—that?"
"No." He spoke firmly. "You must not think of that. It is all over in a second—and you know"—he hesitated—"after all, this life is not everything."
"No." A new light touched her eyes for a moment, a light brighter than that of the rising sun. "There is a life beyond, isn't there? My mother died three years ago, and I have missed her sorely," said Hilda Ryder simply. "Surely she will greet me—there. But"—for a moment a great human yearning shook her soul—"it's hard to leave this dear life behind ... the world is so wonderful, so lovely—I'm sure no other world can ever be half so beautiful as this."
A sudden clamour in the courtyard outside drove the colour from her cheeks, and instinctively she clung to him.
"Dr. Anstice, they're coming, aren't they? Is this—really—the end?"
For a second he listened, the blood running icily in his veins. Then he turned to her with a smile on his lips.
"Yes. I think they are coming—now. But"—his voice changed—"after all, there might be a chance—for you!"
Instead of reassuring her his words drove her to a white-lipped terror.
"You're not going to fail me now? Dr. Anstice, for the love of God, do as you promised—I will be brave, I will indeed—only don't let them take me—oh, don't!"
"It's all right, dear." He slipped his arm round her and drew her closely to him. "I won't fail you. I thought for a moment there might be a chance, but after all this is the better way."
"I knew you could be brave—for me," she said, very softly; and then, as a native voice outside the hut called an order, he felt her tremble in his arms. "They are coming—Dr. Anstice, let us say good-bye—or"—she actually smiled—"shall it be au revoir?"
"That, I think," he said steadily, holding the little revolver hidden in his hand as he spoke. "Dear, I'm going to do it now ... close your eyes, and then you will know nothing till you open them to see your mother's face."
A long sigh shook her from head to foot. Then she closed her eyes obediently.
"Thank you." They were the last words he heard her say as he raised the revolver; and the next moment the merciful deed was done, and Hilda Ryder was safe for ever from the vengeance of the fanatics whom she had all unwittingly enraged.
Then, as the door opened at last, and two grave-faced Indians entered and motioned to Anstice to accompany them into the courtyard, he went out unflinchingly into the sunlight to meet his fate.
Late that night two British officers sat on the verandah of a bungalow in the hills, discussing the tragedy which had happened at dawn.
"It's an appalling affair altogether," said the elder man, as he threw away his half-smoked cigar. "If we had been five minutes earlier we should have saved the girl, and the man would have been spared a lifetime's regret."
"Yes." The other officer, who was young and very human, spoke slowly, and his eyes were thoughtful. "It is a good deal worse for the man than the woman, after all. Shall you ever forgot his face when he realized that he was saved? And by Jove it was a near thing for him, too."
"Too near to be pleasant," rejoined his companion grimly. "Of course, no one but a lunatic would have allowed the girl to enter that Temple. Don't you remember that affair a couple of years ago, when two American fellows only just got out in time?"
"Yes." Young Payton's voice was dubious. "But you must remember, sir, Anstice was a new-comer, and didn't know the yarn—and it is just possible Miss Ryder didn't know it either. Or she may have over-persuaded him."
"Well, she's paid for her folly, poor girl." Colonel Godfrey rose. "Her uncle's off his head about it, and what the fellow she was to marry will say remains to be seen. I suppose he'll want an explanation from Anstice."
"Why, you don't mean he'll blame the man for doing what he did?" The young officer spoke boyishly. "After all, it was the only thing to do. Fancy, if the girl had fallen into the hands of those fanatics! Shooting would have been a merciful death compared to the life she might have had to endure."
"Of course, of course!" Colonel Godfrey rose and moved to the steps of the verandah, where he stood looking absently out over the moonlit world. "It was the only thing to do—and yet, what a tragedy it has all been! By the way, where is Anstice? I've not seen him since we came in."
"He's in hospital. Got a nasty swipe across the shoulder in the rough-and-tumble before we got away, and it gave Dr. Morris an excuse to shove morphia into him to keep him quiet a bit. Of course when he comes round I expect he'll be pretty sick about it all, but at least the poor devil has got a few hours' respite."
"That's a blessing, anyway. Wonder what he'll do after this. Sort of thing to ruin a man's nerve, what?"
"Probably take to drink—or drugs," said Payton succinctly. "Some chaps would put a bullet through their brains, but I don't fancy Anstice is the sort to do that."
"Don't you?" For a second Colonel Godfrey hesitated, still looking out over the garden to where the line of the eternal snows glimmered white and passionless in the splendid moonlight. "Yet you know, my boy, one could hardly blame a man for blowing out his brains after a tragedy of this sort. No." With a last glance at the mystery of the snows he turned back to the lighted verandah and took out his cigar-case. "I think one could not blame this fellow Anstice if he chose that way out." He selected a cigar with care. "After all, he must feel as though he had murdered the girl, and though I fully agree with you that there was nothing else to be done, still one can imagine how the memory of the deed will haunt the poor chap all his life."
"Yes." Rex Payton lifted his cap from the table and prepared to take his leave. "Well, good-night, sir. I think I'll just step across and see how he's getting on. By Jove, what a magnificent night. It's as bright as day out here."
"Yes. Let me know in the morning how things are going."
"Right you are, sir." With another hasty good-night Rex turned and strode away across the compound in search of the doctor.
"Still asleep, thank God," was Morris' report. "Give you my word I dread his awakening."
"Seems a pity he's got to wake at all," said Payton moodily. "Couldn't you have given him a double dose while you were about it, and put the poor devil out of his misery?"
"That's not the way we work," returned the other dryly. "There's been one—miscalculation—to-day, and we can't afford any more. If he likes to do it himself, when he comes round, that's a different matter. I don't think he will, somehow. He doesn't strike me as that sort. He'll face it out, I believe, though it will go hard with him in the doing."
"When will he be himself again?"
"I don't know. I shall keep him under as long as I dare. After all"—the doctor, who prided himself on his lack of emotion, for once betrayed a glimpse of the real humanity beneath the rather grim exterior—"he'll have to serve a life-sentence in the way of regret, and one can't grudge the poor wretch an hour or two's Nirvana."
"By God, sir, I agree with you," was all Rex Payton could find to say.
One evening three weeks later Anstice sat in the smoke-room of a well-known hotel in Bombay waiting for the arrival of the one person in the world whom he might have been expected to avoid.
The P. and O. boat had docked that afternoon; and among the passengers was the man to whom Hilda Ryder had been engaged—the man to whom Anstice must answer for the deed done as the sun rose on that fatal morning twenty-one dawns ago.
The news of the girl's death had been cabled to the young engineer in Cairo immediately, followed by a letter from Colonel Godfrey relating so much of the affair as he himself knew; and in response had come a laconic message to the effect that Bruce Cheniston had sought and obtained leave, and would be in India at the first possible moment. He had been delayed by one or two accidents, but now he had really arrived; and Anstice had come down to meet him, knowing that before he himself could leave this fatal country there must be an explanation between the man who had loved Hilda Ryder, and the one who had been too hasty in carrying out a promise.
To say that he shrank from this interview would hardly be true. As a matter of fact, in the weeks which had elapsed since that fatal morning Anstice had wandered in a world of shadows. Nothing seemed real, acute, not even the memory of the thing he had done. Everything was mercifully blurred, unreal. He was like a man stunned, who sees things without realizing them; or a man suffering from some form of poison—from indulgence in hashish, for instance, when time and space lose all significance, and the thing which was and that which is become strangely and unaccountably interchangeable.
That there must be a reckoning between himself and Cheniston, Anstice vaguely knew. Yet he felt no dread, and very little curiosity as to the manner of their meeting; and although he recognized the fact that the man to whom Hilda Ryder had been engaged might well look on him with horror, inasmuch as his hand had sent her to her death, Anstice felt little interest in the matter as it concerned himself.
Possibly he was still feeling the effects of that morning's happening, although unaware of it. He had received a nasty wound—even now his shoulder was stiff and painful—and since he had discontinued the use of opiates he had had little or no sleep; but he was a man of good physique, and only an unaccustomed pallor and a few finely-drawn lines round his mouth betrayed the fact that he had suffered—was suffering still.
One or two men glanced at him curiously as he sat in a corner, gazing ahead of him with an unseeing stare; but only one man, a young officer called Trent, recognized him as the hero of the tragedy which had shaken the district of Alostan a few weeks earlier.
Being a talkative person he could not refrain from pointing Anstice out to his companion.
"See that chap over there—the tall fellow in grey?" Trent had been one of the picnic party which had ended in disaster; and although a good-hearted boy was thrilled with the importance of his own position. "Know who it is? Well, it's that chap Anstice—you remember, the fellow who shot that girl up in the hills when they were in a tight place."
"Oh! That the man?" The other, who was a portly civilian, looked at the unconscious Anstice with open interest. "Shocking affair, what? If he'd held his hand five minutes they would both have been rescued. Wasn't that it?"
"Yes. Looks a bit sick about it, doesn't he?"
"Um ... yes. Good-looking fellow, in a hard-bitten sort of way." The civilian looked Anstice over, approving the thin, well-cut face, the tall, loosely-built figure, the long hands lying idly on the arms of his chair. "Rather foreign-looking, with that black hair and those dark eyes, isn't he?"
"Yes. Looks years older than he did before it happened," said Trent, speaking the truth. "I expect, though, it is the sort of thing to age one."
"Yes. What's he doing here? Going home?"
"Yes, but I fancy he's got an appointment with Cheniston first," explained the younger man importantly. "Boat got in this afternoon, and I expect Cheniston wants to hear the affair at first-hand."
"Daresay. Rather rough on the poor devil." The civilian, beneath his pompous exterior, had a kind heart. "Bad enough to have to shoot the girl first, without explaining it all afterwards. Hope to goodness the other chap lets him down lightly."
"Oh, well, he can't say much." Trent broke off abruptly. "Here is Cheniston ... by Jove, I wouldn't like to be Anstice at this moment."
Unconscious of the interest he was arousing, a young man had just entered the room. He was of medium height, broad-shouldered and bronzed, with a good-looking, square face and a resolute chin. Just now he was pale beneath his tan, and his eyes, which were narrow in shape and of a rather hard blue, were strained and anxious.
Inside the room, he looked uncertainly round; and the next moment Anstice rose slowly to his feet.
"You are Mr. Cheniston?" They might have been alone in a desert for all the notice he took of any onlookers. "I think you are looking for me. My name is Anstice."
Bruce Cheniston nodded abruptly.
"Yes. I'm Cheniston. We can't talk here. Will you come up to my room?"
"Thanks." He moved forward, and Cheniston turned to the door.
"This way. I'm some floors up—we'll take the lift."
In silence they made the ascent; and now to his own unwelcome surprise Anstice felt himself awaking from the merciful stupor in which he had been sunk for so many unnoticed days.
Suddenly he began to realize what this interview must mean to Cheniston; and the knowledge that he must tear the knife from his own wound in order to plunge it into the heart of the young man opposite him made him feel as though he were already inwardly bleeding to death.
From being vague and blurred his senses now became preternaturally acute. His surroundings were no longer dim and formless, rather everything grew inhumanly sharp and vivid. To the end of his life he would preserve an extraordinarily faithful recollection of the room into which Cheniston presently ushered him—the usual hotel bedroom in India, with high green walls, mosquito curtains, and an entire absence of all superfluities in the way of furniture or adornment.
On the floor lay a Gladstone bag, half open as the owner had carelessly left it; and Anstice found himself idly speculating as to whether the white and purple striped glory which protruded from it was a shirt or a pair of pyjamas....
His wandering thoughts were suddenly recalled to the affair of the moment; and the minor things of life were forgotten in the onrush of the vital things, the things which matter....
"Now, Dr. Anstice"—Anstice's professional instinct, so long in abeyance, warned him that the man's self-control was only, so to speak, skin-deep; and a quite unexpected and inexplicable rush of pity overwhelmed him as the cold voice went on speaking—"I think you will realize that I should like to hear your account of—of the affair that took place in that accursed Temple."
"I quite realize that." Anstice spoke slowly. "And I am ready to answer any questions you may like to ask."
"I—I think——" For a second Cheniston wavered, then spoke more humanly. "Won't you sit down? I should like, if I may, to hear the whole story from the beginning."
"I see. Well, you are quite within your rights in wishing to hear the story. No, I won't sit down, thanks. It won't take very long to tell."
Cheniston moved a step backwards and sat down on the edge of the bed, pushing the mosquito curtain impatiently aside. Then he took out his cigarette case, and, still with his steel-blue eyes on the other man's face, selected a cigarette which he held, unlighted, as he listened.
Standing in the middle of the floor, his hands in the pockets of his coat, Anstice began his story, and in spite of the fact that this man had robbed him of all that he held dear in life, Cheniston was forced to admit that at least he was proving himself no coward.
"When we set off on that fatal picnic"—Anstice took it for granted that his hearer knew the details of the occasion—"Miss Ryder and I went on ahead. We were both well mounted, and she was, as you know, a fearless horsewoman. We very soon out-distanced the others, and had gone a good way when Miss Ryder suggested we should visit a certain Temple of which it seems she had heard a great deal from a native servant. Had I known then, as I know now, the reputation of the place, and the intense hatred which the priests felt for any of the white races since that unlucky American affair"—he realized suddenly that he appeared to be excusing himself, and his manner hardened—"well, I can only regret that I allowed Miss Ryder to set foot in the place."
"Yes. It was only a few miles off the track, and we were so far ahead of the party that we should easily have had time to get to our original destination for lunch. Well, we went on, found the Temple, apparently deserted——"
"Apparently?" The question shot out like steel. "There was someone there?"
"Yes. We both realized at the same moment that we were not alone. You must understand that the place is half in ruins—it's a clever subterfuge of the priests to keep out intruders by pretending there is nothing there of interest. Most people turn back after a perfunctory look round; but in reality if one penetrates through one or two passages one comes to the Temple proper, where Heaven knows what rites go on."
"You reached it?"
"Yes. Thinking the place was merely a ruin I went on quite comfortably ... and suddenly we found ourselves in a sort of Holy of Holies ... a queer, pillared place with an enormous idol in a kind of recess—an altar, I suppose." His voice was tense. "It was at that moment we both realized someone was watching us, malignantly, from some unseen vantage-point. I turned to Miss Ryder to suggest, as quietly as possible, that we should retrace our steps, and found her, very pale, staring ahead of her with horror in her face."
"She had seen—something?"
"Yes. Afterwards she told me it was the glitter of the man's eyes ... he was looking through a kind of hole in the embroidered drapery behind the idol ... that had attracted her attention; and she was only too ready to fall in with my suggestion."
"Yes. As we turned towards the opening we found we were too late. Three tall fellows—priests, I suppose they were—had come up behind us, and as we moved they seized us ... two men held my arms—the third——" His voice broke.
"He—held Miss Ryder?"
"Yes. He wasn't rough with her." The words, which happened to be untrue, sounded painfully inadequate in his own ears. "They gave us no time to explain anything, but took us before the Chief Priest, or someone of the kind, and stated that we had been found desecrating the Temple by our unhallowed presence."
"You explained that you had done it in ignorance?"
"Of course. But"—he smiled rather cynically—"they had evidently heard that before. You know the Americans who got into trouble there had really laid a plot to carry away some memento of their visit, and they thought we were after loot of some kind, too, I suppose."
"They wouldn't listen?"
"Oh, yes, they listened all right while I tried, with Miss Ryder's help, to explain. She knew a few words of their tongue, and somehow a situation of that sort sharpens one's wits to the extent of helping one to understand a strange lingo. The upshot was we were blindfolded"—he saw Cheniston wince at the thought of the indignity to the girl he had loved—"and led away. Later we were placed in a conveyance of some sort, a bullock cart, I imagine, and driven for hours over some of the worst ground I've ever struck."
"Well?" The interest of the story was gripping the other man through all his horror, and his tone had lost its hostility for the moment. "And then?"
"Finally we were released, led into a small hut, our eyes were unbandaged, and we were informed that our fate was being deliberated, and the result would be made known to us at sunset."
"And at sunset——"
"At sunset we were sent for to the presence of a still more important personage, another High Priest, I suppose. We were taken into a kind of presence chamber, across the large courtyard, and found our friends of the morning, kow-towing to this still higher potentate. He didn't waste words on us. Through the miserable creature who had interpreted for us earlier, he made us understand that the penalty for setting foot in their holy place was death—by strangulation as a general rule——"
Cheniston's lips turned white, and his cigarette dropped to the floor; but though Anstice saw his agitation he paid no attention.
"But in consideration of the fact that we were English and one of us was a woman"—Cheniston uttered an involuntary exclamation—"our sentence was that we should be shot in the courtyard at sunrise."
"One moment." Cheniston's voice was harsh, and he moistened his lips before he spoke. "Weren't you armed? Couldn't you have—have made a fight for it?"
For the first time Anstice lost control of himself. The dark blood rushed to his brow and his eyes flashed with anger.
"Good God, man, do you suppose if I'd been armed we should have submitted tamely? As a matter of fact, the brutes who attacked us in the first place seized my revolver before I had a chance to draw it ... and though I'm pretty tough, when it came to a struggle with those Indian devils they were like steel—iron—anything you choose to compare them with."
"I know—their muscles are marvellous—especially the Hill-men." His tone held a note of apology. "Of course, if you had had half a chance—but"—suddenly his voice changed, grew suspicious—"you had a revolver, in the end?"
"Yes. Miss Ryder's. They did not suspect her of carrying a weapon, you see, and it was a tiny one her uncle had given her, more as a toy than as a serious protection."
"She couldn't get at it to use it?"
"No. We were bound as well as blindfolded, you know." He spoke grimly. "Luckily Miss Ryder had the presence of mind to say nothing about it till we were alone in the hut, our hands untied. Then she gave it to me, and we found to our dismay that there was only one cartridge left."
"How was that?" He spoke quickly, but there was no suspicion in his tone now.
"Miss Ryder explained that she had been practising shooting with her uncle and had forgotten to reload. But"—he paused—"even had it been fully charged, I'm afraid our fate would have been unchanged."
Cheniston rose suddenly, took a few aimless steps across the floor, and then sank down on the bed again almost in his former position. In front of him Anstice stood motionless, his hands, clenched now, still in his pockets, his eyes the only live feature in the grey pallor of his face.
"Well!" Suddenly he threw back his head with a restless gesture, as though the strain of the interview was beginning to tell on him. "After hearing our sentence we were taken back to our hut, there to await the moment of sunrise—of our death."
"They gave you no food?" The question was almost futile in its triviality; but Anstice answered it quite naturally.
"Oh, yes, we were given food of a sort. Luckily I had a little flask of brandy, and once—at midnight—I persuaded Miss Ryder to take a few drops. She was splendidly brave throughout."
There was a short silence. Both men felt that the crux of the interview was at hand; and each, in his way, was preparing himself for it.
"Well?" It was Cheniston who spoke first. "The night wore on, I suppose, and you saw no hope of escape? But didn't you guess your absence would be remarked upon?"
"Of course. And we hoped against hope that someone would remember the Temple."
"They did—in the end?"
"Yes, and made all possible speed to reach it. But by that time we had been taken away, there was no one to be seen, and of course all traces of us had absolutely disappeared."
"Then how did they find you in the end?"
"The native servant who had talked of the wonders of the Temple to Miss Ryder was aghast when he found what harm his talk had done. It seems she had cured his little boy of some childish illness, and he simply worshipped her in consequence. So he was wild to rescue her, and after dispatching parties of searchers in every likely direction he suddenly recollected hearing of some mysterious High Priest in a tiny village in the hills, which was so securely hidden from observation that very few people knew of its existence."
"Colonel Godfrey said he would never have reached it without the guidance of some native," said Cheniston thoughtfully. "Would that be the man himself?"
"Yes. It seemed his father had known the way and had told him in direst secrecy how to reach the village; and when the officers were ready to start he went with them, and by some stroke of luck hit the right road at once, although the directions were fearfully complicated."
"If only you had known——"
"Do you think I don't say that to myself day after day?" Anstice's brow was pearled with sweat. "If I had had the faintest idea there was any chance of a rescue——"
"I know, I know!" The other man moved restlessly. "Good God, man, I'm not condemning you"—Anstice flushed hotly—"I'm only saying what a pitiful mistake the whole thing was ... the tragedy might have been averted if only——"
"It's no use talking now." Anstice's tone was icy. "The thing's happened, the mistake is made and can't be unmade. Only, if you think you could have let her fall into the hands of those fanatics—well, I couldn't, that's all."
"She ... she asked you to ... to save her from that?" He hung on the other man's answer as though his own life depended upon it.
"Yes. I shouldn't have ventured to shoot her without her permission, you know!" In a moment he repented of the ghastly pleasantry into which exasperation had led him. "Forgive me, Cheniston—the thing's got on my nerves ... I hardly know what I'm saying...."
Cheniston, who had turned a sickly white beneath his bronze, looked at him fiercely.
"I'm making all allowances for you," he said between his teeth, "but I can't stand much of that sort of thing, you know. Suppose you tell me, without more ado, the nature of the—the bargain between you."
Without more ado Anstice complied.
"Miss Ryder made me promise that if the sun should rise before any help came to us I would shoot her with my own hand so that she should not have to face death—or worse—at the hands of our enemies."
"You thought it might be—worse?"
"Yes. My father was a doctor in China at the time of the Boxer rising," said Anstice with apparent irrelevance. "And as a boy I heard stories of—of atrocities to women—which haunted me for years. On my soul, Cheniston"—he spoke with a sincerity which the other man could not question—"I was ready—no, glad, to do Miss Ryder the service she asked me."
Twice Cheniston tried to speak, and twice his dry lips refused their office. At last he conquered his weakness.
"You waited till the sun rose ... and then ... you were sure ... you did not doubt that the moment had come?"
"No. I waited as long as I dared ... the sun had risen and we heard the clamour in the courtyard outside...."
"And so——" Again his parched lips would not obey his bidding.
"When the men were at the very door of the hut I carried out my promise," said Anstice steadily. "She closed her eyes ... I told her to, so that she should not be afraid to see death coming ... and then ..." at the recollection of that last poignant moment a slow shudder shook him from head to foot, "... it was all over in a second. She did not suffer—of that, at least, you may be certain."
Cheniston's hand was over his eyes; and for a space the room was very still.
"And you—you went out, as you thought, to meet your own death?"
"Yes—and I wish to God I'd met it," said Anstice with an uncontrollable outburst of bitterness. "I endured the shame, the horror of it all in vain. You know what happened ... how just as the men were about to fire the rescuers burst into the courtyard.... My God, why were they so late! Or, being late, why did they come at all!"
Cheniston's blue eyes, which had been full of a natural human anguish, grew suddenly hard.
"You are not particularly grateful to your rescuers," he said. "Yet if they had been a few minutes later, you too would have been beyond their help."
Anstice was quick to notice the renewed hostility in the young man's tone.
"Just so." His manner, too, had changed. "But can you expect me to feel a very vivid gratitude to the men who restored my life to me, seeing with what memories that life must always be haunted?"
"Need you endure the haunting of those memories?"
The question, spoken quietly, yet with an obvious significance, took Anstice aback. For a moment he frowned, his dazed mind fumbling after the speaker's meaning.
"Need I?" Suddenly he knew what Cheniston had meant to imply. "Ah—you mean a man may always determine the length of his days?"
Cheniston nodded, never taking his eyes off the other's face.
"I see. Well, suicide would be a way out, of course. But"—for a second his eyes hardened, grew stern—"I don't mean to take that way—unless life grows too much for me. A second—mistake"—he spoke slowly—"would not annul the first."
"No." Cheniston's face had lost all its boyishness; it looked haggard, unhappy, old. "Possibly not. But when one has made a mistake of so tragic a nature I should have thought one would have been only too ready to pay the price of one's miscalculation."
For a second Anstice stared at him silently.
"Just so," he said at last, very quietly, taking his hands out of his pockets for the first time. "The question is, What is the price? And do you really think that to repudiate a debt by running away from one's creditor, so to speak, is as satisfactory a settlement as to pay it coin by coin, each coin drawn from one's own heart's blood?"
This time it was Cheniston who stared at him in non-comprehension. Presently he said slowly:
"I think I understand. You mean the strongest man is the one who can stand up to any situation with which life confronts him; can pay a debt to the uttermost farthing though it may make him bankrupt in the doing. That is what you mean?"
"Yes," said Anstice steadily. "That is what I mean. God only knows what the price may be, and whether I shall have the coin in my treasury when I'm called on to pay ... if I am so called upon. And by the way"—his face hardened—"do I understand you to mean that I'm your debtor—that it is to you that the price may—one day—be paid?"
Cheniston made no reply. The hostility had suddenly died out of his eyes; and for a moment Anstice caught a glimpse of the man Hilda Ryder had loved.
"You know"—his square fingers played absently with his cigarette case—"I have loved Hilda Ryder all my life. We were brought up together as children; I was a few years older than she ... by the way, how old are you?"
Surprised, Anstice owned to his twenty-nine years.
"And I am twenty-six. Hilda was twenty-four last year. Well, all my life she has been the one—the only—woman in the world for me. We've been engaged four years; her people wouldn't sanction it till she was twenty, but we always knew we were made for one another, and Hilda used to say she would rather be my wife than marry the richest, the most famous man on earth!"
Suddenly Anstice heard her soft voice in his ear.
"To marry him ... perhaps in time to bear his children, would be to me the most glorious destiny in the world...."
A spasm of uncontrollable anguish convulsed his features for a moment; but Cheniston was too intent on his own self-revelation to notice.
"Life—without—Hilda seems impossible somehow." He laughed drearily. "We have always been so happy together ... I can't imagine going on without her."
He paused, but Anstice said nothing. He did not know what to say.
"I wonder—can I go on? Is it really required of me that I should continue to hang on to an existence which is absolutely devoid of all attraction, of all meaning?" He fixed his blue eyes on the other's face. "You're a doctor, aren't you?"
"Well, I daresay it has happened in your experience that some poor devil doomed to a lifetime of torture, condemned, perhaps, to bear the burden of the sins of his ancestors, has begged you to furnish him with the means of escape ... there must be cases in which death is infinitely preferable to life, and a doctor must know plenty of safe ways of setting free the poor imprisoned wretch as one would free a miserable caged bird. Tell me, has such an experience ever come your way?" He spoke almost irritably now.
"Well," said Anstice, "and if it has? What then?"
"How have you answered such entreaties, I wonder? Even you can't pretend that life is always a sacred thing; that a man isn't sometimes justified in turning his back on the existence he never desired and yet has to endure." He paused, and his eyes held a queer blue glitter. "Well, have you nothing to say?"
"No," said Anstice resolutely, moving a step forward as he spoke. "On such a subject I have nothing to say—to you. If, as seems possible, you are suggesting that I should furnish either you or myself with an easy solution of the problem of our respective lives, I fear I must decline the suggestion. I'm a doctor, not a murderer, although"—suddenly he bit his lip and his face turned grey—"you, of all men, may be pardoned for thinking me ready to act as one."
The passing softness which had given him back his youth faded out of Cheniston's face; and when he spoke even his voice sounded years older.
"Well, it's no use talking, I suppose. After all"—his lip curled—"no man is dependent on another's good offices if he decides to cut short his sojourn on this delightful planet. Though it strikes me that if, as you say, you feel you owe me a debt, you might perhaps allow me to fix the method of payment."
He stopped short, taken aback by Anstice's imperious gesture.
"Look here, Cheniston." He spoke curtly, his eyes ablaze. "Life has given us both—me as well as you—a terrible jar. But you won't make things better by resenting what has happened. You have lost the woman you loved, but I have lost a good deal more. With the best intentions"—he smiled ironically at his own phrase—"I have ruined your life; and my own. I am ready to admit I owe you some reparation for the wrong I have quite innocently done you; and I am ready, also, to pay you any price in reason which you may ask, either now or in the future. But the price must be one which may decently be paid."
"I see." Cheniston spoke slowly. "I think, after all, we may shelve the question of payment between you and me. Personally I hope—you will forgive my frankness—that we may never be called upon to meet again. You see"—his voice broke, but he cleared his throat angrily and went on—"I can't help remembering that if you had waited Miss Ryder would still be alive."
Anstice was stung to a last impulse of self-defence.
"If I had waited—and the rescuers had not come, it is possible death would have been a merciful alternative to Miss Ryder's fate," he said. "I have tried to explain that what I did was done—as Miss Ryder would be the first to admit—for the best. But I see you are determined to look upon me as a criminal; and as I don't intend to excuse myself further, well, I will echo your hope that we may never meet again."
And without any further attempt at farewell Anstice turned on his heel and walked out of the room; leaving Bruce Cheniston staring after him with an expression of amazement not untinged with shame in his narrow blue eyes.
"If you please, sir, a telephone message has come for you from Cherry Orchard just now."
Anstice put down the paper he had been idly studying and looked at the maid.
"Cherry Orchard? That's the big house on the Littlefield Road, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir. It has just been reopened, cook tells me."
"Oh. And I am wanted there?"
"Yes, sir. At once, the message was."
"Very good. Tell Andrews to bring round the car immediately. And put dinner back a bit, Alice, please."
"Yes, sir." The trim maid hurried away, and Anstice rose to obey the summons, congratulating himself on the fact that the night was fine, and the Littlefield Road good going.
Ten minutes later he was on his way; and in due course arrived at his destination, a pretty old gabled house standing in a large and old-fashioned garden, from whose famous cherry trees the place derived its quaint name.
Six months earlier Anstice had bought a practice in the Midlands, on the death of its former owner; but this was the first time he had visited Cherry Orchard; and as he waited for his ring to be answered he remembered the maid's remark as to the recent reopening of the house with a slight feeling of curiosity as to its tenant.
He was not kept waiting long. An elderly manservant speedily appeared; and his face, which wore a worried expression, lightened as he saw Anstice standing on the steps.
"Thank God you've come, sir." The gratitude was so obviously sincere that Anstice felt glad he had not delayed his coming. "If you'll kindly go upstairs, sir—the housekeeper is waiting for you, I believe."
He relieved Anstice of his hat and coat with hands which shook; and at the same moment a swarthy, foreign-looking woman hurried forward with unmistakable eagerness.
"You are the doctor, sir? Then will you come up at once? My mistress is upstairs, and the sooner you see her the better."
Without wasting time in questioning her, Anstice motioned to the speaker to lead the way; which she did accordingly, hurrying up the black oak staircase at a surprising pace; and giving Anstice no time to do more than glance at the artistic treasures which were in evidence on every side.
She led him a few steps down a broad gallery, lighted by large and finely-designed windows; and paused outside a door, turning to him with an expression of appeal—he could call it nothing else—in her small but intensely bright eyes.
"You'll be very gentle with the poor lady, sir? You won't—won't fluster her?" She broke off suddenly, appeared as though about to say something more, then closed her lips as though she had thought better of the impulse, and opening the door invited Anstice to enter.
Somehow her last words had given Anstice a queer, but possibly justifiable, suspicion that he was about to encounter a malade imaginaire; and just for a second he felt a spasm of irritation at the stress which had been laid on the urgent need for haste.
All such thoughts fled, however, as his eyes fell on the face of the patient he had come to see; for here was no neurotic invalid, no hysterical sufferer who craved sympathy for quite imaginary woes.
On the bed drawn up in front of one of the big casement windows lay a young woman with closed eyes; and as he approached her side Anstice saw that it was not sleep but unconsciousness which claimed her at that moment.
"How long has she been like this?" He spoke sharply, one hand on the slender wrist.
"It's two hours since she was seized, sir." The woman's voice shook. "No sooner was my mistress in the house—she came home only to-day—than she fainted clean away. We brought her round, the maids and me, and she was better for a bit ... then up she would get to look after Miss Cherry, and off she went again. It's nearly half an hour ago ... and we got so anxious that Hagyard telephoned for you ... we thought it was the right thing to do."
"Quite the right thing." He was too intent on his patient to pay much attention to the woman's speech; but she was quite content to stand silent as he tried one means of restoration after another; and when, finally, his efforts were successful, both Anstice and the housekeeper breathed more freely.
"Your mistress ... her name, by the way...."
"Mrs. Carstairs, sir." She spoke with a tinge of reluctance, and even in the stress of the moment Anstice wondered why.
"Oh. Well, Mrs. Carstairs is coming round now, she will be herself in a moment or two. By the way, just go and fill a hot-water bottle, will you? It is chilly to-night, and Mrs. Carstairs will probably feel cold."
With a last look at her mistress the woman turned to obey; and Anstice moved back to the bed to find his patient's eyes open and fixed upon him with something of perplexity in their depths.
"Don't try to move just yet," he counselled her quickly. "You've had a bad faint, and must lie still for a little while. Do you feel better?"
"Much better, thank you." Her voice, though it sounded weak, was oddly deep in tone. "I suppose I fainted. Did they send for you?"
"Yes. Your servants were getting alarmed." He smiled. "But there is no need for alarm now. What you want is a long rest. You have been overtiring yourself, perhaps?"
A peculiar smile, which was mocking and yet sad, curved her lips for a moment. Then she said quietly:
"Perhaps I have overtired myself a little lately. But it was quite unavoidable."
"I see." Something about this speech puzzled Anstice, and for a moment he was rather at a loss to know what to say in reply.
She did not wait for him, however.
"Do you think I shall faint again? These faints are so unpleasant—really I don't think"—she paused, and when she resumed her voice sounded still deeper, with a true contralto note—"I don't think even death itself can be much more horrible. The sensation of falling, of sinking through the earth——"
She broke off, and he hastened to reply.
"I don't think you need anticipate any further trouble to-night. I suppose you have had your heart sounded?"
Again she smiled; and once more he could have sworn there was mockery in her smile.
"Yes. But I don't think my heart is wrong. It—it is due to other causes——"
She stopped abruptly as the door opened, and the woman came in, carrying the hot-water bottle for which she had been sent.
"That you, Tochatti?" She seemed to welcome the interruption. "Thank you so much." She let the servant fuss over her for a moment, then turned to Anstice. "You see," she said, "I am well looked after."
"I am glad you are," he rejoined promptly. "You know you are really in need of a little care at present. If you will allow me, I should like to sound your heart myself."
She acquiesced rather wearily; and having satisfied himself that the state in which he found her was due rather to weakness than to any specific disease, he turned to the strangely named woman, whom he now guessed to be a foreigner, and gave her a few directions for the night.
"I'll see to it, sir," she said quietly; and Anstice knew his orders would be faithfully carried out.
"Well, I can't do you any good by staying," he said, bending over the bed and holding out his hand. "But send for me if you want me, won't you? And I'll look in to-morrow to see how you are."
"One moment." Her hand in his felt strangely alive in spite of her recent unconsciousness. "Put on a little more light, please, Tochatti. I should like to see"—she spoke without any embarrassment—"to what sort of person I am indebted this evening."
When, the next instant, the room was flooded with light, Anstice had no scruples in looking at his patient with an interest which, though less openly expressed, was quite as strong as that with which she evidently intended to scrutinize him.
The first thing he noticed was that Mrs. Carstairs was young—probably not more than twenty-five. The next, that she looked as though she had recently gone through some nerve-racking experience; and the last, which came upon him with a shock of unjustifiable surprise, that she was more than commonly good-looking.
Her features, as he saw for the first time, were classical in outline, and the silky black hair which lay in heavy waves on her forehead shaded a brow which in contour was almost purely Greek. Her skin was of so thin and transparent a whiteness that her black eyebrows traced two inky lines across her face; and the almond shape of her sapphire blue eyes gave them a somewhat Oriental look, in spite of their eminently Western colouring.
When, in response to his stare, she vouchsafed a faint smile, he saw that the mouth which was sad in repose was fascinating when she smiled; and the white teeth which the smile displayed were perfect in shape and colour.
"Well?" Her deep voice took him so much aback that he absolutely started. "You've seen me—haggard wreck that I am—and I've seen you. So now we may consider our acquaintance inaugurated and say good-night."
"Certainly." He looked at her closely; and noted her extreme pallor. "I hope you will sleep—you look shockingly tired."
"I told you I was a wreck," she said, still with that inscrutable smile. "But if you will take me in hand I have no doubt I shall soon recover my ordinary rude health."
"I hope so." His tone was absent—he was wondering whether he had ever seen this woman before; and coming, finally, to the conclusion that he had not. "Well, I will leave you now, and hope to find you a great deal better in the morning."
"Thanks." She spoke wearily. "I'm sorry to have troubled you. Good-night."
In the hall the manservant waited, and Anstice, pitying his evident anxiety, spoke reassuringly to him as he took his coat. "Your mistress is much better now—with a little care she will soon be all right, I hope."
"Thank you, sir." The man's voice quivered with feeling. "We—we are all very anxious when our lady is not well."
"Of course." Anstice took the hat the servant held and moved to the door. "Is that nine striking? I didn't know it was so late."
Yet in spite of the lateness of the hour Anstice did not drive home at a particularly rapid pace. Something in the episode just closed had intrigued him, piqued his curiosity as well as stimulated his interest; and he was wondering, as he drove, what there was about his patient which suggested a mystery—something, at least, unusual unexpected, in her character or surroundings.
"She's uncommonly handsome—but so are heaps of women. Nice house, plenty of money, I should say, and of course she herself is well bred. Yet there is something odd about her—about her manner, rather. Looks at one queerly—almost quizzically—and yet when she smiled she looked extraordinarily sad." He turned a corner rather carelessly and a surprised motor-cyclist sounded his horn reproachfully. "I wonder—is she a widow? There was no sign of a husband, though I believe the servant said something about a child. Anyhow"—he had reached his own house now and slowed down before the gate—"I will see her to-morrow and perhaps learn a little more about her—if there is anything to learn. If not—well, women love to appear mysterious. There never was a woman yet who didn't long to rival the Sphinx and appear an enigma in the eyes of wondering men!"
And he went in to his belated dinner with a rather cynical smile on his lips.
Just as Anstice was starting out next morning an urgent telephone message came through, requesting his help at a suddenly imperative operation at a country house some miles distant.
Although he had been in the district only a few months, Anstice was already known to his professional brothers as a daring and skilful surgeon; and one man—the one who now called upon his services—was in the habit of wondering openly why so brilliant a man was content to bury himself in the country instead of seeking fame and fortune in some one of the big cities of the world.
There were those who could have given a very good guess at the reasons which led Anstice to shun notoriety and welcome the obscurity of Littlefield; but in the meantime Dr. Willows was left to wonder in vain; though his wonder was leavened with a genuine admiration for his colleague's skill, and a fervent gratitude for the other man's unwearying willingness to give his aid.
On receiving the message Anstice frowned.
"That you, Willows? Is it an urgent case? Oh—of course I'll come ... I must make a few arrangements first ... yes ... yes ... I'll be with you in half an hour, if that will do."
He hung up the receiver, and now his manner was alert and keen. There was about him none of the weariness, the indifference which too often characterized his demeanour, and led some of his patients to complain that he took no interest in them or in their sufferings. This was the man who before that fatal day in India had stood, so it was whispered, upon the threshold of a brilliant career—the man who, young, resourceful, scientific, had taken a very real and deep interest in every detail of his profession, and had led even the most cautious of his teachers to prophesy for him a life of unvarying success.
He even looked younger as he consulted his notebook this morning; and the shoulders which had begun to stoop ever so little were squared, the head held erect as he scanned the pages before him with quick, resolute eyes.
Luckily there was nothing very important on the morning list, no visits that could not be safely postponed till the afternoon; and one or two telephone messages soon put things straight and left him free to keep his appointment with Dr. Willows.
He had a moment's indecision over the case of his new patient at Cherry Orchard, but reflecting that if necessary they would probably ring him up, he judged it safe to put off his visit to Mrs. Carstairs till his return; and finally went out to his motor with an easy mind.
Returning home, fatigued but jubilant, at two o'clock, he applied himself to his lunch; and then attacked his afternoon's work with an energy engendered by the excellent results of the operation which he, in company with his friend, had performed that morning.
Being delayed on various pretexts, it was five o'clock before he found himself at the pretty house in its fragrant garden; and he rang the bell rather hastily, with an absurd feeling that the servants would look reproachfully on his tardy arrival.
The man seemed, however, to welcome him as he had done the previous night; and when, a second later, the queerly named Tochatti arrived, her face wrinkled into a discreet smile.
"Mrs. Carstairs up to-day?"
"She is in her room, sir. Will you come up, if you please?"
He followed her up the broad, shallow stairs, which this afternoon she took at a more moderate pace; and then she ushered him into the room he had visited before, falling back so that he went in alone.
Mrs. Carstairs was lying on a deep couch by one of the open windows, her white gown set off by vivid blue cushions; and as he advanced Anstice noticed that she looked even younger than he had judged her on the preceding night. Her air of utter exhaustion had vanished; and there was more colour in her lips, though her cheeks still retained their ivory transparency.
By her side was a little table bearing a tea-tray, and as Anstice shook hands, congratulating her at the same time on her restored appearance, she drew his attention to the teacups.
"I was just going to have some tea. Be nice and have some with me. Will you?"
"Thanks very much." He accepted promptly. "I've been busy all day and should enjoy a cup of tea. But first—are you really better this afternoon?"
"Yes, really." She spoke indifferently, as though the subject failed to interest her. "I should have gone out, I daresay, but I felt tired, or lazy, and succumbed to the charms of this delightful couch."
"You did quite right." He took the cup she held out to him and sat down in a chair beside the deep Chesterfield. "You know I think you must make up your mind to take care of yourself for a week or two."
"I can quite easily do that," Chloe Carstairs answered quietly. "I hardly think I shall find it difficult to do what the new-woman novels used to call 'living one's own life'—down here."
"Certainly there isn't much going on." Anstice was puzzled by her manner. "Do I understand that you 'belong' here, as the country folks say?"
She put down her cup rather suddenly, and faced him squarely, her blue eyes full of a resolution which added several years to her age.
"Dr. Anstice." Her deep voice had lost its richness and sounded hard. "I should like to tell you something of myself. Oh"—she laughed rather cynically—"I'm not going to bore you with a rhapsody intended to convey to you that I am a much misunderstood woman and all the rest of it. Only, if you are to see me again, I think I should like you to know just who and what I am."
Mystified, Anstice bowed.
"Whatever you tell me I shall be proud to hear—and keep to myself," he said.
"Thanks." Her manner had lost its slight animation and was once more weary, indifferent. "Well, first of all, have you ever seen me before?"
"No. Though I confess that something in your face seemed familiar to me last night."
"Oh." She did not seem much impressed. "Well, to put it differently, have you ever heard of me?"
"No," said Anstice. "To the best of my belief I have never heard your name before."
"I see. Well, I will tell you who I am, and what I am supposed to have done." No further warmth enlivened her manner, which throughout was cold, almost, one would have said, absent. "When I was eighteen I married Major Carstairs, a soldier a good many years older than myself. Presently I went out to India with him, and lived there for four years, coming home when our child was three years old."
"I came here—this was my husband's old home—and settled down with Cherry. And when I had been in the parish a year or so, there was a scandal in Littlefield."
She stopped, and her mouth quivered into a faint smile.
"Oh, I was not the chief character—at first! It was a case in which the Vicar's wife won an unenviable notoriety. It seemed there had been a secret in her life, years before when she was a pretty, silly girl, which was known to very few besides her husband and, I presume, her own people. Now you would not think I was a sympathetic person—one in whom a sentimental, rather neurotic woman would confide. Would you?"
And looking at her, with her air of cold indifference, of complete detachment from the world around her, Anstice agreed that he would not expect her to be the confidante of such a woman.
"Yet within a month of our meeting Laura Ogden had confided her secret to me—and a silly, futile story it was." Her pale face looked disdain at the remembrance. "No harm, of course, was done. I kept her secret and advised her not to repeat what she had told me to anyone else in Littlefield."
"She followed your advice?" Anstice had no idea what was coming, but an interest to which he had long been a stranger was waking slowly in his heart.
"Chi lo so?" She shrugged her shoulders. "Afterwards she swore she had told no one but me. You see it appeared she very soon regretted having given me her confidence. It happened that shortly after she had told me her story we had—not a quarrel, because to tell you the truth I wasn't sufficiently interested in her to quarrel with her—but there was a slight coolness between us, and for some time we were not on good terms. Then—well, to cut a long story short, one day anonymous letters and post cards began to fly about the parish, bearing scurrilous comments on that unhappy woman's past history. At first the Vicar tried to hush up the matter, but as you may imagine"—her voice rang with delicate scorn—"everyone else thoroughly enjoyed talking things over and wondering and discussing—with the result that the Bishop of the Diocese heard the tale and came down to hold a private inquiry into the matter."
She stopped short and held out her hand for his cup.
"More tea? I haven't finished yet."
"No more, thank you." He rose, placed his cup on the tray and sat down again in silence.
"The Bishop suggested it was a matter for the police. The writer of those vile communications must be discovered and punished at all costs, he said. So not only the authorities but all the amateur detectives of both sexes in the neighbourhood went to work to find the culprit. And I was the culprit they found."
"You?" For once in his life Anstice was startled out of his usual self-control.
"Yes. They fixed upon me as the anonymous writer of those loathsome scrawls; and the district was provided with a sensation after its own heart."
"But the idea's absurd—monstrous!" Looking at her as she leaned back among her cushions, with her air of delicate distinction, Anstice could hardly believe the story she was telling him.
"So I thought at first." Her blue eyes narrowed. "But in some marvellous manner they brought the charge home to me. I was the only one, they said, who knew the story. I had wormed it out of the silly woman, they alleged, and had then, owing to the subsequent coolness between us, traded upon my knowledge in order to drive her out of the place."
"But others must have known the story?"
"Yes. But I was the only one in Littlefield who knew it."
"So they said. But in reality——"
"In reality, of course, it was known to someone else. But that person took care to keep in the background. When once I had been suggested as the culprit a quantity of evidence was forthcoming to clinch the matter, so to speak. I was never particularly popular here, and people were quite ready to believe me capable of the deed." She smiled faintly. "I confess one or two things looked black for me—the letters were written on the kind of paper I used, and though of course the handwriting was disguised, there was, in one or two letters, an undeniable similarity to some of my writing."
"But your word—wasn't that sufficient?"
The apathy of her manner relaxed for one moment into a kind of cold amusement.
"Oh, I gave my word—at first—quite freely. Knowing nothing of the letters, of course I said so; but I was not believed. I confess everything was against me. Most of the letters were posted in the pillar box not a hundred yards from this house—but on one occasion when I had gone down to Brighton for a couple of days, one of those vile things bore the Brighton postmark."
"Oh, I've nearly done." She glanced at the clock. "I am detaining you—you're in a hurry? Don't mind saying so—this delightful story can be continued in our next."
"Please go on." Anstice would not willingly have foregone the rest of the recital.
"Well, after various suspicious happenings, which I won't inflict upon you now, and after being interviewed by the Bishop, by detectives, by a hundred and one individuals who revelled in the case, I was accused, tried, and found guilty."
"Found guilty? Impossible!" He sprang up, quite unable to sit still another moment. Somehow he had not expected this climax.
"Yes. I was found guilty." Her voice held little expression. "And sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment. The judge who sentenced me informed me—and the world at large—that he deemed it expedient to 'make an example' of me—only he put it more legally—as an educated young woman, of apparent refinement, who had committed a crime connected generally with illiterate and ignorant persons of degenerate tendencies."
"But you—you never served the sentence—such a vindictive sentence, too!"
"Yes, I did." For the first time her face changed, a hint of tragedy appeared in her studiously passionless eyes. "You look surprised, but I assure you it is true. I served my sentence, and came out of prison exactly eight weeks ago."
"Eight weeks? But you have only just come here?"
"Yes. First I went down into Kent to stay with an old family friend who had taken charge of Cherry—my little girl—while I was"—she hesitated, then spoke with a directness he felt to be brutal—"in prison. I only came here yesterday, and I suppose the shock of finding myself back in my happy home"—he was sure she was speaking ironically now—"was too much for my—nerves."
"But, Mrs. Carstairs"—he looked down at her with perplexity in his face—"do I understand you to mean you have deliberately come back to live in the place which has treated you so shamefully?"
"Why not?" Her long, blue eyes were inscrutable. "I'm not ashamed of coming back. You see, I really don't care in the very least what these people say about me. I don't even bear them malice. Prison life is supposed to make one bitter, isn't it? You hear a lot about the 'prison taint,' whatever that may be. Well, I don't feel conscious of having sustained any taint. I have suffered a great wrong"—her contralto voice was quite unmoved as she made the assertion—"a very grievous injustice has been done to me; but now that the physical unpleasantness of the ordeal is over I don't feel as though I—my ego, my soul, if you like—had undergone any particular degradation."
"I suppose"—the question was forced from him by his interest in the human document she was spreading before his eyes—"I suppose what you call the physical unpleasantness is really hard to bear?"
He was sorry he had put the question as he saw the slow shudder which for a moment convulsed her immobility.
"Yes." For a second her voice was almost passionate. "I don't think I could make you understand the horror of that side of imprisonment. Most prison reformers, as I say, prate of the injury done to the soul of the prisoner. For my part—it if were worth while, which it isn't—I would always refuse to forgive those enemies who subjected my body to such indignities."
Her vehemence, so much at variance with her usual manner, made Anstice uneasy about her.
"See here, Mrs. Carstairs." He sat down on the couch beside her, and spoke persuasively. "You must promise me not to let your mind dwell on your terrible experience. Honestly, do you think it wise to stay here? Won't it be painful for you to live among the people who know you? Wouldn't it be better to go away for a short time, travel a little? There are plenty of places off the beaten track where you would be able to rest and get back your health and your spirits."
She turned to him with a hint of a kindlier manner than she had hitherto displayed.
"Dr. Anstice, to tell you the truth I don't want to travel. I shall be happier here, in my own home, with my old servants round me, able to do exactly as I choose from morning to night."
She hesitated a moment; then resumed in her former indifferent tone:
"You see, my husband, although he refuses to believe in my innocence, has handed over this house to me; and under my marriage settlement I have quite a large income——"
He interrupted her abruptly—
"Mrs. Carstairs, forgive me—did you say your husband refused to believe you innocent?"
"Yes. My husband—like the majority of the world—believes me guilty," said Chloe Carstairs.
The story he had heard on the occasion of his second visit to Cherry Orchard haunted Anstice for days. There was something so incongruous in the notion of this woman having served a sentence of imprisonment for an offence which, of all others, might well be supposed the most impossible for any decent person to commit; yet Anstice knew instinctively that Mrs. Carstairs had spoken the truth; and although for the last few years he had been far too much occupied with his own private grudge against Fate to spare any pity for the woes of others, he did feel a surprising sympathy for the young and apparently lonely woman whom the world had treated so cruelly.
That she was innocent of the crime with which she was charged, Anstice never doubted. Since the catastrophe which had altered his whole outlook on life, he had been inclined to be cynical regarding the good faith of mankind in general; but Mrs. Carstairs' manner had carried conviction by its very lack of emphasis. She had not protested her innocence—indeed, he could barely remember in what words she had given him to understand that she was not guilty of the loathsome deed; yet her very quietness, the very indifference of her manner as she told her story carried more weight than an avalanche of protestation would have done.
As a medical man Anstice was something of a student of physiognomy; and although Mrs. Carstairs' face was not one to be easily read, the shape of her brow and the classical outline of her features seemed to Anstice to preclude any possibility of the morbid and degenerate taint which must have inspired the communications of whose authorship she had been accused.
The very fact that she did not appear to care whether or no he believed in her strengthened Anstice's belief that she was an innocent and much-wronged woman; and in his mind he linked her with himself as one of the victims of an unfavourable and ruthless destiny.
After attending her for a week Anstice declared her to be in no further need of his services; and she acquiesced with the same air of half-weary graciousness with which she had welcomed his visits.
He noticed that she was rarely to be seen in the village or small town of Littlefield. Occasionally she would pass him on the road in a beautiful motor with which he supposed her husband to have endowed her, and at these times she had generally her small daughter, wrapped in furs, on the seat beside her.
Anstice's introduction to the latter took place about a fortnight after his last visit to Cherry Orchard in a professional capacity. It chanced that he was interested in a small Convalescent Home for Children which had recently been opened in the neighbourhood, and on one or two days had cut short his visit to Mrs. Carstairs on the grounds that his presence was required at the Home. Rather to his disappointment Mrs. Carstairs had not evinced the slightest interest in the scheme, and his surprise was proportionately great when, on one fine spring morning, he received a large bunch of beautiful daffodils from Cherry Orchard, with a rather carelessly worded request that he would give them to the Home if they were likely to be welcome there.
Anstice took the flowers with him on his morning visit, and the pleasure they gave and the gratitude with which they were received led him to snatch a moment on his way home to call upon the donor and thank her in person for her kindly gift.
As he turned his car in at the gate he hoard sounds of laughter, and a few words in a child's high-pitched voice; and when he was half-way up the drive he discovered from whence the merriment issued.
Just ahead of him was a motor-cycle, driven, it would appear, by a girl in a trim motoring-suit, while perched on the carrier at the back, in a fashion which made Anstice's blood run chill, was a small child whom he recognized as the daughter of the house, Cherry Carstairs, aged something less than six years.
The two were chattering and laughing, the driver sounding her horn in a delightfully irresponsible fashion, and both were much too intent on their progress and on the noise they were making to realize that a car was coming up the drive immediately behind them.
Instinctively Anstice slowed up, wishing the lively pair at Jericho; but luckily they had nearly reached the front door, and in another minute the motor-cycle had come to a standstill and the riders dismounted in safety.
"There—we've not come to grief, this time, have we, Cherry Ripe!" The elder girl spoke gaily. "And now we'll see what Mother has to say—oh!"
At that moment she beheld the car, which was coming to a standstill, and she looked at the man who drove it with a frankness which was curiously unselfconscious. At the same minute Mrs. Carstairs came slowly forward onto the steps, and Anstice, dismounting, approached her without doing more than glance at the girl-motorist.
"Good morning, Mrs. Carstairs. I have come to thank you for your lovely flowers." They shook hands as he spoke. "The Matron at the Home made me promise to come and convey her thanks to you at the first possible moment. That's my excuse for calling now!"
He had spoken more impulsively than usual, with a genuine desire to show his gratitude for her kindness; but there was no answering warmth in her voice, and, not for the first time, he felt chilled by her lack of response.
"I'm glad they liked them." Her tone was perfunctory. "But I'm afraid the gratitude is not due to me. It was my small daughter who was fired to enthusiasm by something Tochatti told her, and insisted on cutting the daffodils herself."
"I see." In spite of himself Anstice felt repulsed by her manner, which, made his warmly spoken gratitude appear superfluous. "Well, in any case the result is the same—delight in the wards and something beautiful and fragrant to lighten the children's sufferings."
"Pray tell Cherry—she will be pleased." Possibly Mrs. Carstairs had noted the stiffness of his speech, and in her languid way desired to soothe his feelings. "I forget if you have seen my little daughter. I must introduce you to her—and——" she turned to the young girl who stood by and laid a hand on her arm—"to her friend—and mine."
Anstice glanced towards the two who still stood, hand-in-hand, on the top step, and Mrs. Carstairs performed the ceremony of introduction in the deep, rich voice which was somehow part of her personality.
"Iris, let me introduce Dr. Anstice ... Miss Wayne."
Anstice bowed, but the girl held out her hand with a youthful friendliness which was attractive.
"How d'you do? I'm glad I didn't know your car was behind me as we came up the avenue. I don't mind what I meet, but I always hate things coming up behind my cycle," she said pleasantly.
"If you are in the habit of giving such youthful passengers rides I don't wonder you're nervous," he replied; and the girl opened her grey eyes widely.
"Nervous! I'm not!" She spoke indignantly. "But when your allowance is strictly limited, and you have to pay for repairs yourself, you don't want people running into you from the back and perhaps smashing up your pet Douglas!"
"I see." He smiled discreetly, and Mrs. Carstairs claimed his attention once more.
"And this"—she drew the child forward—"is Cherry."
"How are you?" Anstice, who was always polite to children, shook hands, and the child looked at him with a pair of very clear brown eyes.
"Quite well, thank you, my dear," she responded gravely, and Iris Wayne was secretly much diverted by the expression of astonishment which this form of address evoked in the face of the hearer.
"You like motoring?" Anstice felt constrained to keep up the conversation, and Cherry nodded calmly.
"Very much, my dear. Do you?"
"Yes...." Anstice experienced an overwhelming desire to repeat her endearing term, but luckily refrained. "This is my car—will you come for a ride with me one day?"
For a second Cherry regarded him with a pensive courtesy which was almost embarrassing. Then:
"With pleasure, my dear," she replied, and Iris laughed outright.
"You fickle child! And you have always declared you liked my motor better than any car that ever was seen!"
"So I do." Cherry looked up at her with unsmiling gravity. "But——"
"But now you must all come in and have lunch." Mrs. Carstairs turned to Anstice. "Dr. Anstice, you can spare us a little time, can't you? Lunch is quite ready, and Cherry, I'm sure, endorses my invitation!"
He hesitated, torn between a desire to accept and an uncomfortable suspicion that he could not afford the time.
"You will have to lunch somewhere, you know!" Her manner was a trifle warmer than usual. "And it will really save time to do it here!"
"My lunch is a very hurried affair as a rule," he said, smiling. "But if I may run away as soon as I've finished I'll be delighted to stay."
He felt a small hand slip into his as he spoke, and looked down, to meet Cherry's clear eyes.
"Do stay, my dear!" Her tone was a quaint imitation of her mother's, and before the twofold invitation Anstice's scruples were put to flight.
"I'll stay with pleasure," he said, patting the kind little hand; and with an air of satisfaction Cherry led him into the hall, her mother and Miss Wayne following their lead.
Once seated at the pretty round table, sweet with the fragrance of hyacinths in a big Swansea bowl, and bright with silver and glass, Anstice owned inwardly to a feeling of pleasure at his position. Although as a rule he loved his solitude, welcomed the silence of the old panelled house he had taken in Littlefield, and shunned those of his kind who had no direct need of his services, there were times when his self-sought loneliness weighed heavily upon his spirit, when the ghosts of the past, whose shrouded forms were ever present to remind him that he had made a fatal mistake on that bygone morning in India, were but poor company.
At first, during that first haunted year, when Hilda Ryder's face was ever before his eyes, her sad and tender accents in his ear, he had sought many and dubious ways of laying those same ghosts. It had seemed to him, during those dreadful days, that although some instinct within him forbade him to end his own life, none could doubt his right to alleviate his mental suffering by any means he knew; and when temporary oblivion, a blessed forgetfulness, could be purchased at the price of a pinprick, it seemed not only overscrupulous but foolish to forgo that Nirvana.