All inconsistent, unusual and unorthodox spelling has been left as as it was in the original book.
CAPTAIN DESMOND, V.C.
Author of 'The Great Amulet,' 'Candles in the Wind,' Etc.
"One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward, Never doubted clouds would break; Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph; Held, we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, Sleep—to wake." —ROBERT BROWNING.
Revised Edition, in Large Part Rewritten
William Blackwood and Sons Edinburgh and London MCMXVII
All Rights reserved
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO MY SON CYRIL, AND TO Mrs ALAN BATTEN IN ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF ALL THAT IT OWES TO HER GENEROUS HELP AND INTEREST. M. D.
In revising and partially rewriting my novel, 'Captain Desmond, V.C.,' I have been glad to make good the opportunity afforded me of bringing the Aftermath nearer to my original conception than it was in its first form. The three short chapters now substituted for the one final scene are therefore, in essence, no innovation. They represent more or less what I conceived at the time, but suppressed through fear of making my book too long; and thereby risked upsetting the balance of sympathy, which I hope the fresh chapters may tend to restore.
I. JUDGE FOR YOURSELF 3
II. I WANT TO BE FIRST 13
III. THE BIG CHAPS 21
IV. ESPECIALLY WOMEN 30
V. AN EXPURGATED EDITION 39
VI. GENIUS OF CHARACTER 46
VII. BRIGHT EYES OF DANGER 55
VIII. STICK TO THE FRONTIER 66
IX. WE'LL JUST FORGET 80
X. A SQUARE BARGAIN 94
XI. YOU DON'T KNOW DESMOND 108
XII. NOW IT'S DIFFERENT 119
XIII. IT ISN'T FAIR 129
XIV. I SIMPLY INSIST 140
XV. GOOD ENOUGH, ISN'T IT? 151
XVI. SIGNED AND SEALED 156
XVII. YOU WANT TO GO! 167
XVIII. LOVE THAT IS LIFE! 177
XIX. IT'S NOT MAJOR WYNDHAM 182
XX. THE DEVIL'S PECULIARITY? 196
XXI. I AM YOURS 207
XXII. THE CHEAPER MAN 213
XXIII. YOU GO ALONE 228
XXIV. I WANT LADYBIRD 234
XXV. THE MOONLIGHT SONATA 242
XXVI. STAND TO YOUR GUNS 249
XXVII. THE EXECRABLE UNKNOWN 259
XXVIII. YOU SHALL NOT—! 265
XXIX. THE UTTERMOST FARTHING 274
XXX. SHE SHALL UNDERSTAND 285
XXXI. THE LOSS OF ALL 298
XXXII. EVEN TO THE UTMOST 303
XXXIII. THE ONE BIG THING 313
XXXIV. C'ETAIT MA VIE 319
"If we impinge, never so lightly, on the life of a fellow-mortal, the touch of our personality, like the ripple of a stone cast into a pond, widens and widens, in unending circles, through the aeons, till the far-off gods themselves cannot tell where action ceases."—KIPLING.
Captain Desmond, V.C.
JUDGE FOR YOURSELF.
"Do we move ourselves, or are moved by an Unseen Hand at a game?"—TENNYSON.
Honor Meredith folded her arms upon the window-ledge of the carriage and looked out into the night: a night of strange, unearthly beauty.
The full moon hung low in the west like a lamp. A chequered mantle of light and shadow lay over the mountain-barrier of India's north-western frontier, and over the desolate levels through which the train, with its solitary English passenger, sauntered at the rate of seven miles an hour. Even this degree of speed was clearly something of an achievement, attainable only by incessant halting to take breath—for ten or fifteen minutes—at embryo stations: a platform, a shelter, and a few unhappy-looking out-buildings set down in a land of death and silence—a profitless desert, hard as the nether millstone and unfruitful as the grave.
During these pauses the fret and jar of the labouring train gave place to a babel of voices—shouting, expostulating, denunciating in every conceivable key. For the third-class passenger in the East is nothing if not vociferous, and the itch of travel has penetrated even to these outskirts of empire.
Sleep, except in broken snatches, was a blessing past praying for, and as the moon swung downward to the hills, Honor Meredith had settled herself at the open window, to watch the lifeless wastes glide silently past, and await the coming of dawn.
She had been journeying thus, with only moon and stars, and unfamiliar scenes of earth for company, since eight o'clock; and morning was near at hand. The informal civilisation of Rawal Pindi lay fifty miles behind her; and five miles ahead lay Kushalghur, a handful of buildings on the south bank of the Indus, where the narrow line of railway came abruptly to an end. Beyond the Indus a lone wide cart-road stretched, through thirty miles of boulder-strewn desert, to the little frontier station of Kohat.
For six years it had been Honor's dream to cross the Indus and join her favourite brother, the second-in-command of a Punjab cavalry regiment; to come into touch with an India other than the light-hearted India of luxury and smooth sailing, which she had enjoyed as only daughter of General Sir John Meredith, K.C.B., and now, with the completion of her father's term of service, her dream had become an almost incredible reality.
It was not without secret qualms of heart and conscience that the General had yielded to her wish. For frontier life in those earlier times still preserved its distinctive flavour of isolation and hazard, which has been the making of its men, and the making or marring of its women; and which the northward trend of the "fire-carriage" has almost converted into a thing of the past. But sympathy with her mettlesome spirit, which was of his own bestowing, had outweighed Sir John's anxiety. On the eve of sailing he had despatched her with his blessing and, by way of practical accessory, a handsome revolver, which he had taught her to use as accurately as a man.
And now, while she sat alone in the mellow moonlight of early morning, within a few miles of the greatest river of the Punjab, not even the pain of recent parting could lessen the thrill of independence and adventure, that quickened her pulses, and stirred the deep waters of her soul.
At five-and-twenty this girl still remained heart-whole, as at nineteen: still looked confidently forward to the best that life has to give. For, despite a strong practical strain in her nature, she was an idealist at the core. She could not understand that temper of mind which sets out to buy a gold watch, and declines upon a silver one because the other is not instantly attainable. She would have the best or none: and, with the enviable assurance of youth, she never doubted but that the best would be forthcoming in good time.
For this cause, no doubt, she had failed to make the brilliant match tacitly expected of her by a large circle of friends ever since her arrival in the country. None the less, she had gone cheerfully on her way, untrammelled by criticism, quite unaware of failure, and eternally interested in the manifold drama of Indian and Anglo-Indian life. Her father and four soldier brothers had set her standard of manhood, and had set it high; and although in the past eight years many men had been passionately convinced of their ability to satisfy her needs of heart and brain, not one among them had succeeded in convincing Sir John Meredith's clear-sighted daughter.
But thought of all these things was far from her as she watched the moon dip to the jagged peaks that shouldered the stars along the western horizon. The present held her; the future beckoned with an encouraging finger; and she had no quarrel with the past.
* * * * *
By now the moon's last rim formed a golden sickle behind a blunt shoulder of rock; while over the eastward levels the topaz-yellow of an Indian dawn rushed at one stride to the zenith of heaven. In the clear light the girl's beauty took on a new distinctness, a new living charm. The upward-sweeping mass of her hair showed the softness of bronze, save where the sun burnished it to copper. Breadth of brow, and the strong moulding of her nose and chin, suggested powers rather befitting a man than a woman. But in the eyes and lips the woman triumphed—eyes blue-grey under very straight brows, and lips that even in repose preserved a rebellious tendency to lift at the corners. From her father, and a long line of fighting ancestors, Honor had gotten the large build of a large nature; the notable lift of her head; and the hot blood, coupled with endurance, that stamps the race current coin across the world.
A jolt of unusual violence, flinging her against the carriage door, announced conclusively her arrival at the last of the embryo stations, and straightway the stillness of dawn was affronted by a riot of life and sound. Men, women, and children, cooking-pots and bundles, overflowed on to the sunlit platform; and through their midst, with a dignified aloofness that only flowers to perfection in the East, Honor Meredith's tall chuprassee made his way to her carriage window. Beside him, in a scarlet coat over full white skirts, cowered the distressed figure of an old ayah, who for twenty years had been a pillar of the household of Meredith.
 Government servant.
"Hai, hai, Miss Sahib!" she broke out, lifting wrinkled hands in protest. "How was it possible to sleep in such a night of strange noises, and of many devils let loose; the rail gharri itself being the worst devil of them all! Behold, your Honour hath brought us to an evil country, without water and without food. A country of murderers and barefaced women. Not once, since the leaving of Pindi, have I dared close an eyelid lest some unknown evil befall me."
A statement which set her companion smiling under the shelter of his moustache and beard, at thought of the many times he had saved her slumbering form from collision against the woodwork of the train. But, with the courtesy of his kind, he forebore to discomfort her by mention of such trifling details.
"It is necessary to cross the river on foot, Miss Sahib," he said: and without more ado Honor fared forth into the untempered sunlight, closely followed by her two attendants, and a string of half-naked coolies bearing her luggage.
From the dreary little terminus a cart-track sloped to the river, which at this point sweeps southward with a strong rush of water, its steep banks forming a plateau on either hand. The narrow gorge was spanned by a rough bridge of boats lashed firmly together; and on the farther side Honor found a lone dak bungalow, its homely dovecot and wheeling pigeons striking a friendly note amid the callousness of the surrounding country.
An armed orderly, who had been taking his ease in the verandah, sprang smartly to his feet and saluted; and behind him, on the threshold, a red-bearded khansamah, who might have walked straight out of an Old Testament picture-book, proffered obsequious welcome to the Major Sahib's Miss. Honor bestowed a glance of approval upon her new protector, whose natural endowments were enhanced by the picturesque uniform of the Punjab Cavalry. A khaki tunic, reaching almost to his knees, was relieved by heavy steel shoulder-chains and a broad kummerband of red and blue. These colours were repeated in the peaked cap and voluminous turban, while over the kummerband was buckled the severe leathern sword-belt of the West.
The man held out a letter; and Honor, summarily dismissing the khansamah,—who thrust himself upon her notice with the insistent meekness of his kind,—passed on into the one sitting-room, with its bare table and half-dozen dilapidated chairs. Balancing herself on the former, she broke the seal with impatient fingers, for the sight of her brother's handwriting gladdened her like a hand-clasp across thirty miles of space.
Then she started, and all the light went out of her eyes.
"DEAREST GIRL" (she read),— "Just a line to save you from a shock at sight of me. The old trouble—Peshawar fever. Mackay has run me to earth at last and insisted on a Board. I'm afraid it's a case of a year's sick leave at home, bad luck to it. But I see no reason to throw up our fine plan altogether. If you would like to wait out here for me, the Desmonds will gladly give you a home. He made the offer at once, and I know I couldn't leave you in better hands. Full details when we meet. It's a hard blow for us both; but you have grit enough for two, and here's a chance to prove it. Hurry up that tonga-driver.—Your loving, JOHN."
Honor read the short letter through twice, then, with less of elasticity in her step, sought refreshment of mind and body in the hot water awaiting her in the next room.
An hour later the tonga was well on its way, speeding at a hand-gallop over the dead level of road, with never an incident of shade, or a spear-point of green, to soften the forbidding face of it; with never a sound to shatter the sunlit stillness, save the three-fold sound of their going—the clatter of hoofs, the clank and rattle of the tonga-bar rising and falling to a tune of its own making, and the brazen-throated twang of the horn, which the tonga-drivers of Upper India have elevated to a fine art.
And on either hand, to the utmost limit of vision, lay the emptiness of the desert, bounded by unfriendly hills. A pitiless country, where the line of duty smites the eye at every turn; the line of beauty being conspicuous only by its absence. A country that straightens the back, and strings up nerve and muscle; where men learn to endure hardness, and carry their lives in their hands with cheerful unconcern, expecting and receiving small credit for either from those whose safety they ensure, and who know little, and care less, about matters so scantly relevant to their immediate comfort or concern.
Honor had elected to sit in front by the strapping Pathan driver; while Parbutti, ayah, her flow of speech frozen at its source by the near neighbourhood of a sword and loaded carbine, put as much space between the orderly and her own small person as the narrow back-seat of the tonga would permit.
The English girl's eyes had in them now less of dreaminess, and more of thought. The abrupt change in her outlook brought Evelyn Desmond's pretty, effective figure to the forefront of her mind. For ten years,—the period of Honor's education in England,—the two girls had lived and learned together as sisters; and, despite natures radically opposed, a very real love had sprung up between them. They had not met, however, since Evelyn Dacre's somewhat hasty marriage to Captain Desmond, V.C., a brother officer of John Meredith; a soldier of no little promise and distinction, and a true frontiersman, both by heritage and inclination, since every Desmond who came to India went straight to the Border as a matter of course. Honor knew the man by hearsay only, but she knew every inch of her friend's character, and the knowledge gave her food for much interested speculation. There are few things more puzzling than the marriages of our friends, unless it be our own.
But after the first stoppage to change horses, Honor flung meditation to the winds, and turned her eyes and mind upon the life of the road. For, as day took completer possession of the heavens, it became evident that life, of a leisurely, intermittent sort, flourished even upon this highway to the other end of nowhere.
A line of camels, strung together like a grotesque living necklace, sauntered past, led by a loose-robed Pathan, as supercilious of aspect as the shuffling brutes who bobbed and gurgled in his wake. Or it might be a group of bullock-carts going down to Kushalghur, to meet consignments of stores and all the minor necessaries of life,—for in those days Kohat was innocent of shops. At rare intervals, colourless mud hamlets—each with its warlike watch-tower—huddled close to the road as if for company and protection. Here the monotonous round of life was already astir. Women of a remarkable height and grace, in dark-blue draperies peculiar to the Frontier, went about their work with superb movement of untrammelled limbs, and groups of shiny bronze babies shrilled to the heartsome notes of the tonga-horn. There were also whitewashed police chokhis, where blue-coated, yellow-trousered policemen squatted, and smoked, and spat, in glorious idleness, from dawn to dusk, and exchanged full-flavoured compliments with the Pathan driver in passing. For the rest there was always the passionless serenity of the desert, with its crop of thriftless thorn-bushes, whose berries showed like blood-drops pricked from the hard heart of the land; and beyond the desert, looming steadily nearer with every mile of progress, the rugged majesty of the hills.
 Police stations.
As the third hour of their journeying drew to an end, a sudden vision of green, like an emerald dropped on the drab face of the plain, brought a flush to Honor's cheeks, a light into her eyes.
"It is Kohat, Miss Sahib," the driver announced with a comprehensive wave of his hand.
A breath of ice-cool air came to her from an open watercourse at the roadside, and the fragrance of a hundred roses from the one beautiful garden in the station that surrounded the Deputy-Commissioner's house. They passed for a while between overarching trees, but the glimpse of Eden was short-lived. At the avenue's end they came abruptly into the cantonment itself: stony, barren, unlovely, the dead level broken here and there by rounded hummocks unworthy to be called hills. On the east, behind a protective mud-wall, lay the native city; on the north and west, the bungalows of the little garrison—flat-roofed, square-shouldered buildings, with lizard-haunted slits of windows fifteen feet above the ground, set in the midst of bare, pebble-strewn compounds; though here and there some fortunate boasted a thirsty-looking tree, or a handful of rose-bushes blooming bravely in this, the Indian month of roses.
At the foot of the highest hummock, crowned with buildings of uniform ugliness, the tonga-driver drew rein and indicated a steep pathway.
"The bungalow of the Major Sahib is above," he said, "and the Presence must needs walk."
The Presence did more than walk. In the verandah at the path's end a tall figure stood awaiting her; and before Parbutti and the orderly had collected her belongings, she was in John Meredith's arms.
The remarkable likeness between the two was very apparent as they stood together thus; though the man's face was marred by ill-health, and by the distressing prominence of his eye-bones and strongly-marked jaw. He led her into the dining-room with more of lover-like than brother-like tenderness; for despite his forty years no woman had yet dethroned this beautiful sister of his from the foremost place in his heart.
He set her down at the breakfast-table, himself poured out her tea, and dismissed the kitmutgar as soon as might be, Honor watching him the while with troubled solicitude in her eyes.
"It's crushing, John!" she said at length. "And you do look horribly ill."
"Well, my dear girl, is it likely I'd desert the regiment, and forfeit a year of your good company unless devils within were pretty imperative?"
She smiled and shook her head.
"But you ought to have told us about it sooner, ... me, at any rate. When did you know the decision of the Board?"
"Yesterday. Desmond was with me at the time. I didn't write before that about things being uncertain, for fear the good old man should take fright and whisk you off home. And I thought that even if I couldn't square the Board, you'd find waiting out here for me the lesser evil."
"Very much the lesser evil. What a barbarian people at home would think me if they knew it! And you must go, ... when?"
"In four or five days; as soon as my leave is sanctioned."
"And, naturally, I stay here with you till then."
"Well, ... partially. But when your heavy luggage came yesterday, it seemed simpler to send it straight to the Desmonds, and that you should settle in and sleep over there. We're all sitting in one another's pockets here, and you and I can be together all day, never fear. Will that arrangement suit your Royal Highness?"
"My Royal Highness is as wax in your hands," she answered, with a swift softening of face and voice. "I won't start being autocratic till I get you back again. Only—sit down at once, please. You don't look fit to stand."
He obeyed with unconcealed willingness, at the same time handing her a note.
"It is from Mrs Desmond. She is expecting you over there this afternoon."
Honor looked mutinous.
"But I want to stay with you. I shall see plenty of Evelyn later."
"Still, I think we must spare her an hour to-day. The little woman's keen to see you, and I'd like Desmond to feel that we appreciate his prompt kindness. He'll be down at the Lines all the afternoon. It's our day for tent-pegging. You might ride down with Mrs Desmond, and bring me news of what my men are doing. I'm mad at not being able to be there myself."
She deserted her breakfast, and knelt down beside him.
"Dear man! Of course I'll go and find out all about it from Captain Desmond. I needn't stay long to do that."
"No. You can say you want to get back to me. Desmond will understand."
"He's rather a fine fellow, isn't he?"
"One of the best I know. The last man who ought to be hampered by a woman."
"I might take that as a dismissal! How about yourself!"
"Ah, that's quite another matter." And he laid a hand upon the soft abundance of her hair. "Mine is only a two years' contract. And, in any case, I would never allow myself to be handicapped by a woman—not even by you. But I don't feel so certain about Desmond."
"Poor little Evelyn! Do you mean, ... is there any question of her really hampering him, ... seriously?"
Meredith hesitated. A half-smile hovered in his tired eyes.
"As I'm strongly against the whole affair, and have hardly forgiven him yet for marrying at all, it is fairer for me to say nothing about her one way or the other. You must judge for yourself."
I WANT TO BE FIRST.
"A breath of light, a pulse of tender fire, Too dear for doubt, too driftless for desire." —SWINBURNE.
Sixteen months earlier, Evelyn Dacre—having come out to India with a party of tourist friends—had chanced to spend Christmas week at Lahore: a week which brings half the Punjab together for purposes of festivity and sport. Here, by some mysterious process, which no science will ever be able to fathom or explain, she had cast an instantaneous and unaccountable spell over a man of rare singleness of purpose, whose heart was set to court action, danger, hardship in every conceivable form: a man for whom a girl-wife fresh out from "Home" seemed as hazardous an investment as could well be imagined.
But with all his fine qualities of head and heart, Theo Desmond was little given to cool deliberation in the critical moments of life. This chance-met girl, fragile as a flower and delicately tinted as a piece of porcelain, full of enthusiasm for her new surroundings and of a delight half shy, half spontaneous in the companionship of a man so unlike the blase, self-centred youths of her limited experience, had, for the time being, swept him off his feet. And men are apt to do unaccountable things during those hot-headed moments when the feet are actually off the ground.
A moonlight picnic; an hour of isolated wandering in a garden of tombs; the witchery of the moment; the word too much; the glance that lingered to a look;—and the irrevocable was upon them. Desmond had returned to the Frontier, to a circle of silently amazed brother officers; and in less than three months from their time of meeting the two had become man and wife.
Honor, having been away in England at the time, had had but a second-hand hearing of the whole affair; and for all the keenness of her present disappointment, a natural spark of interest was aroused in her at the prospect of spending a year with this unequally yoked husband and wife.
She found her friend awaiting her in the verandah: a mere slip of womanhood, in a grey habit.
"Oh, there you are at last, Honor!" she cried eagerly. "It's grand to see you again! I'm dreadfully sorry about Major Meredith—I am, truly. But it's just lovely getting you on a long visit like this. Come in and have tea before we start."
And taking possession of the girl with both hands, she led her into the house, talking ceaselessly as she went.
"It's really very charming of you two to be so pleased to have me," Honor said quietly, as she settled herself, nothing loth, in the spaciousness of Captain Desmond's favourite chair. Then, because her head still hummed with the clatter of travel, she fell silent; following with her eyes the movements of this graceful girl-wife, whose engaging air of frankness and simplicity was discounted, at times, by an odd lack of both dimly shadowed in the blue-green eyes.
Evelyn Desmond's eyes were, not without reason, her dearest bit of vanity. The tint of the clear iris suggested sea shallows on a day of light cloud—more green than blue; yet with just enough of the sky's own colour to lend the charm of a constant variability, that harmonised admirably with her iridescent changes of mood.
Honor Meredith, who understood her curious mingling of charm and unsatisfactoriness better than any one else in the world, noted her afresh, inwardly and outwardly, with the result that she desired more than ever to know the man who had been hardy enough to place his life's happiness in the hollow of Evelyn's clinging, incompetent hands.
At this juncture Mrs Desmond sank on to a low stool beside her, set her own cup and plate unceremoniously on the carpet, and laid a caressing hand upon her knee.
"It does feel like old times," she said. "And I so badly want to show you to Theo."
The young simplicity of the words brought a very soft light into Honor's eyes.
"I promised John I would go down just in order to be 'shown to Theo,'" she answered smiling. "But you must put off showing me to the rest till another day. I'm a little tired: and I can't keep my mind off John for very long just now."
"You still love him better than any one in the world, then?"
"Isn't the fact of my coming here to stay two years sufficient proof of that?"
"The very greatest proof imaginable!" Mrs Desmond flung out her hands with a pretty, characteristic gesture. "I'm only wondering if you know what you've let yourself in for? I thought India was a lovely placed till I came here. Theo warned me it wouldn't be a bit like Pindi or Lahore. But that didn't seem to matter, so long as I had him. Only I am so seldom able to have him! The regiment swamps everything. The men are always in uniform, and always at it; and the aggravating part is that they actually like that better than anything."
Honor laid her hand over the one that rested on her knee. She saw both sides of the picture with equal vividness.
"What a dire calamity!" she said gently. "I am afraid that on the Frontier, if a man is keen, his wife is bound to stand second; and if only she will accept the fact, it must surely be happier for both in the long-run."
Mrs Desmond looked up at her with pathetic eyes.
"But I don't want to accept the fact. I want to be first always: and I ought to be. It's easy enough for you to talk, because you haven't a notion how nice Theo is! When you've married a man like that, and buried yourself in a howling wilderness because of him, he ought to belong more to you than to his sacred Frontier Force! But Theo seems to be the private property of half the regiment! There's his chief friend Major Wyndham, and the Boy, his subaltern, he thinks the world of them; and they seem to live in the house. Then there's a tiresome old Ressaldar always coming over to do Persian with him for his Higher Proficiency exam; and I don't find it half amusing to be one of a mixed crowd like that!"
Her whimsical air of woe disarmed all save the mildest disapproval. It was one of Evelyn Desmond's unfair advantages that she always did manage to disarm disapproval, even in her least admirable moments; and the smile deepened in Honor's eyes.
"It seems to me, Evelyn," she said quietly, "that your husband must be a very large-hearted man."
"Why, of course! That's just the trouble, ... don't you see?"
"Yes, I do see; and I am woman enough to sympathise. But it will do you no harm, dear, to be one of a crowd, and to get out of the glass case you have been kept under ever since you were born. Show me this wonderful Theo now. People's faces tell me a great deal, you know; and you have roused my curiosity."
"Look round and see if you can recognise him," was the laughing answer.
There were some half-dozen photographs of men, in uniform and out of it, set about the incongruous room; but the girl's eyes were speedily caught and riveted by a full-length presentment of a Punjab cavalryman, which stood, solitary and conspicuous, on the upright piano. She rose and went quickly towards it.
"I choose here," she said decisively. "Am I right?" And seeing that Evelyn nodded, she went on: "What a very remarkable picture. So extraordinarily alive! One can see how he hates standing still inside that frame!"
Then she fell into a long silence: for she was a practised observer of men and things, and the face before her compelled attention. The keynote of the whole was vigour: not mere impetuosity, though that was present also, but a sustained, indwelling vigour, that keeps endeavour bright.
Evelyn stood watching her in no little wonderment, awaiting further comment.
"Don't you like him?" she asked at length.
"Decidedly; if that picture does him justice."
"Well, come on down to the tent-pegging, and find out for yourself."
* * * * *
From the bungalows crowning the mound a bare road sloped northward to the cavalry lines. Along it the two women rode at a foot's pace; for Evelyn still had much to say, and the girl was a notable listener. But even so the parade-ground below them came rapidly into view—a level expanse of brown earth, hard as a usurer's heart, varied only by lines of featureless mud huts, and backed by the dragon's teeth of the hills, brown also, save where sharply defined shadows broke the prevailing monotony of hue.
But the foreground of this toneless setting vibrated with life, movement, colour.
Groups of native troopers, in blue belted tunics and turbans of blue and gold, occupied the central space. English officers, in undress uniform, rode to and fro among them, criticising, encouraging, and generally directing the course of events. In an open shamianah, eight or ten men divided their attention between a table at the back of the tent and the four ladies of the station, who perforce converted military events into those friendly gatherings which are the mainstay of Anglo-Indian life. Native onlookers, of all races and ranks, formed a mosaic border to the central theme; and a jumble of rollicking Irish airs from the Sikh band set Honor's foot tapping the air with brisk precision.
"Wait, Evelyn," she said. "I would like to see those four Pathans take the pegs from here. One gets the effect better from rising ground."
And Evelyn, whose knowledge of effects was limited to hats and hairdressing, drew rein obediently, her eyes probing the crowd for the one figure, to whom the rest were mere accessories, and rather troublesome accessories at that.
But Honor's eyes and mind were set upon the four Pathans drawn up in line at the starting-point, the sunlight flashing from their lance-heads, and from every link of eight steel shoulder-chains; their faces inscrutable; their eyes points of living fire. A pathway of straw softened the ground for galloping, and in the midst of it four pegs awaited the furious onset.
The horses, all eagerness to be off, tossed impatient heads, straining impotently at the tightened rein. On a given word they sprang forward with a thundering rush of hoofs, swooping down upon the pegs at lightning speed, the men's faces level with the flying manes, their lance-heads skimming the ground. Followed the stirring moment of impact, the long-drawn shout, steadily rising to a yell of triumph, as four lances whirled aloft, each bearing the coveted morsel of wood spiked through the centre.
The girl drew a deep breath, and her face glowed with that pagan exultation in bodily strength and prowess, which all the refining fires of civilisation will never burn out of the human heart. But as she turned with praise on her lips, Evelyn leaned eagerly towards her.
"Theo has seen us. He is coming up here. Look!"
And Honor looked accordingly.
A man on a superb bay "waler" had detached himself from the crowd, and was coming towards them at a swinging trot, sitting the horse as though he were part of the animal. Honor realised at a glance that here was that stimulating thing, a positive personality alive to the finger-tips, realised also with what success the photographer had caught and rendered the living essence of the man. Desmond was dark as his wife was fair, though a hint of chestnut in his moustache, and a peculiar light in the hazel-grey eyes, suggested fire not far below the surface. The whole face was stamped with that sovereign quality of sympathy which, even in a world of failure, never fails of its reward.
His wife effected an introduction in her own ingenuous fashion. "There, Theo, ... this is Honor, that you have heard so much about."
"I'm uncommonly glad to meet you, Miss Meredith," he said; but before Honor could reply Evelyn made haste to interpose.
"Theo, ... I can't have you calling her Miss Meredith! She's just like my sister, and you must simply be Honor and Theo, ... d'you see?"
Desmond's eyes showed a flicker of amusement.
"Perhaps you'll allow us to shake hands first," he suggested, and the friendliness of his grasp dispelled the sense of isolation that weighed upon the girl at thought of her brother's departure.
"How did that last performance strike you? Pretty good, wasn't it?"
"Splendid. They went by like a wall. Such magnificent riding."
"They were your brother's men. Wish he could have seen them. He's so tremendously keen. They've tied with my Sikhs, so there'll be an exciting finish. Won't you come down and see it out?"
"I think not, thanks, if it doesn't seem unfriendly. I really only came because John and Evelyn wished it, just to make your acquaintance and see how things were going, and I would honestly like to go straight back to him now, ... if I may. He said you would understand."
"He was right. I'll see you to the gate myself. Go on down to the shamianah, Ladybird, the Boy is looking out for you. I'll not be gone long."
And with a rebellious crumpling of her forehead Evelyn obeyed.
"I am afraid the Major's news must have been rather a shock to you, Miss Meredith," Desmond went on, as their horses mounted the slope. "But we've all been expecting it this long while. He takes too little leave and steadily overworks himself, ... that's the truth. But then, ... you should see what he's done for the regiment in the last ten years!"
The spark of enthusiasm in the man's tone struck an answering spark from his companion.
"That's the true way to look at it," she declared warmly. "So many people simply call him a fool. It's the fashion to sneer at enthusiasm in these days."
"We don't sneer at it in this part of the world," Desmond replied with quiet emphasis. "I see now why the Major said I should find you the right sort for the Frontier and a help to ... my Evelyn. I have transplanted her to a very rough soil, I only hope she's fit to stand it."
"I think so. She has been too carefully sheltered till now; and it's just a matter of adapting herself to fresh conditions. You may count on me to do all I can for her while I am here."
"Your name is sufficient guarantee for that!" he answered simply; and the implied compliment to her brother quickened every pulse in her body.
They parted at Major Meredith's gate, Desmond promising to report the result of the final contest on his way home; and the girl sat watching him thoughtfully till a dip in the road hid him from view.
THE BIG CHAPS.
"Love that is loud or light in all men's ears, * * * * * That binds on all men's feet, or chains, or wings." —SWINBURNE.
Honor woke early, springing from dreamless sleep to alert wakefulness, as is the way of vivid natures, and the first sight that greeted her was the huddled form of Parbutti, her chin between her knees, her dark eyes bright and watchful.
Honor's smile was answered by a flash of light across the old woman's face as she arose and salaamed to the ground.
"Behold, while the Miss Sahib slept like a little child, I have laid out the riding-gear as of custom, and now I go to prepare the terail for chota hazri. They are not ill folk in this compound, Hazur; and there goes but one word among them, that our Sahib is a diamond fit for a king's turban, understanding the heart of black men, giving no shame words, neither smiting with his foot as do many officer-sahibs. It is well for us, who come strangers to a country of murderers, to be of the household of such a Sahib. Nay, then, child of my heart, I will cease from idle talk, ... it is an order. Doth not my pearl and the light of my life await her chota hazri?"
 Small breakfast.
And the old woman, whose garrulity was as dust in the balance when weighed against twenty years of faithful service, shuffled out of the room.
Half an hour later Honor was in the saddle—a gallant figure in well-cut brown habit and white helmet, the sunlight finding out gleams of bronze in her abundant hair, while all about her shone the uncompromising blue and gold of a mid-March morning—fresh without sharpness, and fragrant with the ethereal fragrance of dawn.
She followed the downward road, noting a landmark here and there for guidance. Her delight was in the rhythm of movement; in the waiting stillness of earth and sky; the momentous pause between all that has been, and all that shall be, which gives a dramatic sense of responsibility to the day's first hours.
Her eyes rejoiced in the least detail of form and light and colour; in the signs of reviving life; the alert ubiquitous sentries, the sharp alternations of sun and shadow on hills naked and unpromising as the harsh face of poverty; hills that for all time have had but one gift for the giving—"not peace, but a sword." From the cavalry Lines behind her the trumpet call to "stables" set the blood stirring in her veins, with that peculiar thrill which no other instrument can produce. The very spirit of battle breathes in the sound.
An expectant interest glowed within her like a star. It was her great good-fortune to be blessed with that poetic understanding which is neither deceived by custom nor dulled by repetition, which sees all things—even the most familiar—virginally fresh, as on the morning of creation.
Her random wanderings brought her to a stretch of un-metalled road, and at the road's edge, some few hundred yards away a man on a white horse had drawn rein at sight of her. Instantly her thought alighted on Evelyn's husband, but nearer view revealed a different type of man—taller, and equally erect, yet lacking in the suggestion of force and virility that emanated from Captain Desmond, even in repose. With a rapidity born of much practice Honor took stock of him, from his helmet to his boots, as he sat awaiting her, with a coolness which at once amused her and piqued her interest. A slim square chin, indeterminate colouring, and eyes of a remarkable thoughtfulness under very level brows, went to make up a satisfying, if not very striking whole.
"A modest, understanding sort of man," was Honor's mental verdict. "A student every inch of him. I wonder how in the world he comes to be a soldier."
By this time Dilkusha had been drawn up, and the man who ought not to have been a soldier was saluting her with a singularly charming smile, that began in the eyes, and broke up the gravity of the face as sunshine breaks up a cloud.
"You must be Miss Meredith," he said. "One doesn't meet a new face haphazard in Kohat, and ... you are wonderfully like your brother. I am Major Wyndham. You may have heard the name?"
"Why, ... yes. You are Captain Desmond's friend."
"You couldn't give a completer description of me! I hear you are to put up with them till Meredith comes back."
"Yes. They have been quite charming about it, and I am so glad not to be driven away from the Frontier at once. I have been longing to get to it for years."
He watched her while she spoke, his quietly observant eyes missing no detail of her face.
"And now you have got here, I wonder how it will strike you after the imposing official circles of Simla and Lahore. You'll find none of the 'beer and skittles' of the country up here. But the Frontier has its own fascination all the same; especially when a man has the spirit of it in his blood. Desmond, for instance, wouldn't give a brass farthing for life out of sight of those hard-featured hills. Do you know him and his wife at all?"
"I never saw him till yesterday, except in the distance at polo matches. But I have known her since she was quite a child."
"And I have known Desmond since he was thirteen. Rather odd! You can't fail to be good friends with him Miss Meredith."
"Are you as rabid as my brother and the Colonel because the poor man has dared to marry?" she asked, with an incurable directness which to some natures was a stumbling-block, and to others her chiefest charm. "It seems to be a part of the regimental creed."
"It is. And I subscribe to it ... as a creed. But my belief has not yet been tried in the fire. Desmond is the keenest soldier I know; yet he has seen fit to marry. I have an immense faith in him, and, whatever others may think, I prefer to reserve my judgment."
"If only a few more of us had the wisdom to do that," the girl said softly. "How much easier life would be for every one!"
"I have a notion that life isn't meant to be easy," he said. "And the fact remains that Meredith and the Colonel are right in principle. Few men are strong enough to stand the strain of being pulled two ways at once, and marriage is bound to be a grave risk for a man whose heart is set on soldiering—Frontier soldiering above all. But then Desmond loves a risk better than anything else in life."
And with an abrupt laugh he dismissed the subject.
"I must be going on now," he added. "But no doubt we shall meet again soon. I am constantly over at the bungalow."
And, saluting her again, he trotted leisurely northward to the cavalry Lines.
His thoughts as he went hovered about the girl. The mere picture she left upon his brain was not one to be lightly set aside by a man with an ardent eye for the beautiful, and a spirit swift to discern those hidden elements which gave to Honor Meredith's beauty its distinctive quality and charm.
Some men are born with a genius for looking on at life, a form of genius not to be despised. They are of the type from which great naturalists, great philosophers are made; men quick to perceive, slow to assert; men whose large patience rests upon freedom from the fret of personal desire. Of such was Paul Wyndham, and in his accepted role of onlooker he fell to pondering upon the new element in his own immediate drama.
If only Desmond had chosen for his helpmate such a girl as Miss Meredith, how different might have been the regiment's feelings in regard to the unwelcome fact of his marriage. Yet Wyndham was aware of an instant recoil from the idea, aware that he personally preferred matters as they stood. With which conclusion he spurred his horse to a canter, as though he could thus outrun the quickened current of thought and feeling which this unlooked-for meeting had set stirring in his brain.
* * * * *
Meantime Honor Meredith had fallen in with another member of her newly-adopted family:—a big, raw-boned Irishwoman, who wore her curling reddish hair cropped short, answered to the name of "Frank," and dressed chronically in a serviceable skirt and covert coat, and a man's shikarri helmet. When riding, the skirt was replaced by that of a country-made habit; and in the simplest evening gown this large-featured, large-hearted woman stood a martyr confessed. For ten years she had been the only woman in a regiment of sworn bachelors; had nursed her "brother officers" whenever need arose; had shared their interests, their hardships, their amusements; till,—in the symbolism of the India she loved,—they and the regiment had become "her father and her mother, her people and her God."
At sight of Honor she hurried her grey country-bred across the road, and held out a square, loosely-gloved hand.
"It's bound to be Miss Meredith!" she exclaimed, in a pronounced brogue, with a flash of white even teeth—her sole claim to beauty. "It's very welcome you are to Kohat and to the regiment. I'm Frank Olliver, ... Captain Olliver's wife. I'll turn now and ride back a bit of the way with you. Then we can talk as we go. 'Tis the worst of bad luck about your brother. When'll he be leaving?"
"In four or five days. He moves across into our bungalow this morning. It was splendid of Captain Desmond to think of it."
"Ah, Theo's just made that way!" Then, noting a glimmer of surprise in Honor's face, her wide smile shone out once more. "Is it shocked you are because I speak of him so? Well, ... truth is, I'm a privileged person since I pulled him through typhoid seven years ago, when by rights he should have died. I'm a rare hand, anyway, at dropping the formalities with them that suit me taste. Though, by the same token, I've taken no liberties with little Mrs Desmond yet. It's queer. We don't seem to get much further with her; though we'd be glad enough to do it for Theo's sake. You mustn't mind straight speech from me, Miss Meredith. Sure I must have been born with the whole truth in me mouth, for as fast as I open me lips a bit of it slips out. I'll be finding she's your half-sister, or first cousin, or some such thing!"
Honor laughed outright. It would clearly be impossible to take amiss anything that this woman might choose to say. The kindliness of her soul shone through her plain face, like sunlight through a window-pane.
"Her mother is a distant connection of ours," the girl admitted frankly. "And we were brought up for a time like sisters. It must have been rather a startling change for her from a country town at home to a Border station; and she is very young still, and very devoted to her husband."
"She is that, ... after a queer fashion of her own. But Theo's bound to make his mark on the Frontier, like his father before him; and you know the proverb, 'He travels the fastest who travels alone.' Tis hardly meself, though, that should be upholding such a saying as that!"
"No, indeed! No woman ought to uphold it. And, after all," Honor added, with a very becoming touch of seriousness, "there may be better things for a man than to travel fast. He may learn more by travelling slowly, don't you think? And I should imagine that fast or slow, Captain Desmond is bound to arrive in the end—Now I must turn in here, and see if John is awake. I'll come and see you when he is gone. I can spare no time for any one else till then!"
Frank Olliver beamed in unqualified approbation.
"You're just a brick, Miss Meredith," she declared with ready Irish warmth. "An' 'twas a fine wind indeed that carried you up to Kohat."
Honor found her hand enclosed in a grasp as strong as a man's; and three minutes later Mrs Olliver—whose seat on a horse was as ungainly as her hand on its mouth was perfect—had become a mere speck on the wide sunlit road.
Honor entered the hall of her new home pondering many things. She laid aside her sun helmet, and in obedience to the promptings of her interested soul turned her steps toward the drawing-room.
The door was ajar, and passing between the looped gold and white phulkaris, she came to a standstill; for the room was not empty.
Captain Desmond, in undress uniform, sat at the piano with his back towards her. His white helmet lay, spike downward, on the carpet; and an Aberdeen terrier—ears rigidly erect, head tilted at a critical angle—sat close beside it, watching his master with intent eyes, in which all the wisdom and sorrow of the ages seemed writ.
While the girl hesitated on the threshold, Desmond struck a succession of soft chords in a minor key; and she stood spellbound, determined to hear more. Music was no mere accomplishment to her, but a simple necessity of life; and this man possessed that rare gift of touch, which no master in the world can impart, because it is a produce neither of hand nor brain, but of the player's individual soul. Desmond's fingers were unpractised, but he gave every note its true value; and he played slowly, as though composing each chord as it came, or building it up from memory. It was almost as if he were thinking aloud; and Honor had just decided that she really had no business to be overhearing his thoughts, when an apprehensive "woof" from the Aberdeen brought them suddenly to an end.
Desmond swung round upon the music-stool, and at sight of her sprang up hastily, a dull flush showing through his tan.
"Amar Singh told me you were out," he said, as they shook hands.
"So I was. I only came in this minute. Won't you let me hear a little more, please?"
He shook his head with good-humoured decision.
"I never play to any one ... except Rob, who, being a Scots Covenanter, disapproves on principle."
"I call that selfish. It's such a rare treat to hear a man play well. I was delighted when you began. I thought pianos were unheard of up here."
"Well, ... they are hardly a legitimate item in a Frontier officer's equipment! This one was ... my mother's," he laid a hand on the instrument, as though it had been the shoulder of a friend. "The fellows sat upon me, I assure you, when I brought it out. Told me it was worse than a wife. But I've carried my point, ... wife and all. And now, perhaps you will reward me,—if I haven't been too ungracious to deserve it?"
He whisked away his solitary photo, and opened the piano.
"How do you know I play?" she asked, smiling. She liked his impetuosity of movement and speech.
"I don't know. I guessed it last night. You carry it in your head?"
"Yes; most of it."
"Real music? The big chaps?"
"Very little else, I'm afraid."
"No need to put it that way here, Miss Meredith. A sonata, please. The Pathetic."
She sat down to the piano with a little quickening of the breath and let her fingers rest a moment on the keyboard. Then—sudden, crisp, and vigorous came the crash of the opening chord.
Honor Meredith's playing was of a piece with her own nature—vivid, wholesome, impassioned. Her supple fingers drew the heart out of each wire. Yet she did not find it necessary to sway her body to and fro; but sat square and upright, her head a little lifted, as though evolving the music from her soul.
Desmond listened motionless to the opening bars; then, with a long breath of satisfaction, moved away, and fell to pacing the room.
The Scots Covenanter, scenting the joyful possibility of escape, trotted hopefully to heel: but, being a dog of discernment, speedily detected the fraud, and retired to the hearth-rug in disgust. Thence he scrutinised his master's irrational method of taking exercise, unfeigned contempt in every line of him, from nose-tip to tail.
The sonata ended, Honor let her hands fall into her lap, and sat very still. She had lost all thought of her companion in the joy of interpretation; but Desmond's voice at her side recalled her to reality.
"Thank you," he said. "I haven't heard it played like that ... for five years. If you can do much of this sort of thing you'll find me insatiable. We're bound to be good friends at this rate, and I see no reason why we should not comply with Ladybird's request to us. Do you, ... Honor?"
She started and flushed at the sound of her name; then turned her clear eyes full upon him, the shadow of a smile lifting the rebellious corners of her mouth.
"No reason at all, ... in good time, Captain Desmond."
He returned her look with an equal deliberation.
"Is that a hint to me to keep my distance?"
"No. Only to ... 'go slow,' if you'll forgive the expressive slang. It's so much wiser in the long-run."
"Is it? Bad luck for me. I've never managed it yet, and I doubt if I ever shall. The men of my squadron call me Bijli-wallah Sahib, and I didn't earn the name by going slow, ... Miss Meredith. If I have been overbold, your music was to blame. But Ladybird seemed to wish it; and, believe me, I did not mean it to seem like impertinence. Why, there she is herself, bless her; and we're neither of us ready for breakfast!"
"We are fearfully and wonderfully made—especially women." —THACKERAY.
The afternoon sunlight flung lengthening shadows across the cavalry Lines, where men and native officers alike were housed in mud-plastered huts, innocent of windows; and where life was beginning to stir anew after the noontide tranquillity of the East.
The eighty horses of each troop stood, picketed with ample lengths of head and heel rope, between the lines of huts occupied by their sowars; while at the permanently open doorways squatted the men themselves,—Sikhs, Punjabi-Mahomedans, Pathans, each troop composed entirely of one or the other,—smoking, gambling, or putting final touches to their toilet in the broad light of day. The native officers alone aspired to a certain degree of privacy. Their huts were detached a little space from those that guarded the horses; and flimsy walls of grass matting, set around them, imparted a suggestion of dignity and aloofness from the common herd.
The hut of Jemadar Alla Dad Khan, of the Pathan troop of Desmond's squadron, boasted just such a matting wall, with a gateless gateway, even as in the bungalows of Sahibs; and withinsides all was very particularly set in order. There was an air of festivity in the open courtyard, on either side of which lay two smoke-grimed rooms, that made up the entire house.
For this was a red-letter day in the eyes of the Jemadar, and of Fatma Bibi, his wife, who had spent a full hour in adorning her plump person, and emphasising its charms according to the peculiar methods of the East. That done, she came forth into the sunlight, attired as becomes a Mahomedan woman who is expecting a visit of ceremony. Above her mysteriously draped trousers she wore a sleeveless coat, adorned with crescent-shaped pockets and a narrow gold braid. A sari of gold-flecked muslin was draped over her head and shoulders, and beneath it her heavily oiled hair made a wide triangle of her forehead. The scarlet of betel-nut was upon her lips; the duskiness of kol shadowed her lashes. Ornaments of glass and silver encircled her neck and arms, and were lavishly festooned around her delicate ears.
Her entire bearing exhaled satisfied vanity like a perfume, as she sat at ease upon a bare charpoy watching her husband's preparations for the expected guests.
He was arrayed in full-dress uniform, even to the two cherished medals on his chest; and his appearance sorted strangely with the peaceful nature of his occupation.
In the midst of the courtyard he had set forth—not without a secret glow of pride—as exact an imitation of the Sahibs' "afternoon tea" as his limited knowledge and resources would permit. From the mess khansamah he had borrowed a japanned tea-tray that had seen much service, a Rockingham teapot, chipped at the spout, two blue-rimmed cups and saucers, and half a dozen plates, which last he had set round the table at precisely equal distances from each other. Two of them were left empty for the use of his guests, and the other four were piled with dainties suitable for so high an occasion—sugar-topped biscuits (beloved of natives throughout the land), raw pistachio nuts, Cabul grapes and oranges. Then, because the central space had a barren aspect, the sugar-bowl was promoted to the place of honour for lack of a more suitable adornment.
The only two chairs the courtyard contained were set opposite to one another, and it was uplifting to reflect that in a short time they would be occupied by his captain's own Memsahib and the Generailly Sahib's Miss, they having, of their great condescension accepted his hospitality by the gracious favour of the Captain Sahib himself.
"According to this fashion, are all things made ready, O Fatma Bibi, when there is a tea-drinking in the bungalows of Sahibs," he announced, for the enlightenment of his wife, who had seen little of the world beyond the four mud walls roofed by her private patch of sky, and therefore could not be expected to have accurate acquaintance with the mysterious ways of Sahibs.
Fatma Bibi acknowledged the information with just such a nod as a mother might bestow on a contented child. Despite her limited experience of the outer world, she knew herself many degrees wiser than her husband in matters of far greater moment than the setting out of a few plates and cups after the manner of the Sahib-log, who, in respect of food and feeding are completely and comprehensively "without sense," as all India knows.
"Bear in mind also," the man went on, sublimely unconscious of his wife's indulgent attitude, "that the Memsahib knoweth the simplest words of Hindostani only; but Meredith Miss Sahib will render our speech unto her, making all things clear. Behold—they come."
The sound of hoofs, and the thud of a "dandy" set down outside confirmed his words; and not many minutes later the Jemadar ushered two Englishwomen into the presence of his wife,—Evelyn, looking more flower-like than usual, in a many-frilled gown of creamy muslin and a big simple hat to match.
"By the goodness of the Captain Sahib's heart my house is honoured beyond deserving," the man gave them greeting as they crossed the threshold, while Fatma Bibi's eyes rested in frank curiosity upon the exceeding whiteness and simplicity of the English "Mem," whose appearance was so direct a contrast to her own.
"Without doubt these women of Belait possess no true beauty," she assured herself, with a nod of satisfaction, as she resumed her seat and the new-comers accepted their appointed chairs.
It was a strange meal, and Evelyn Desmond was, in all respects, the least happy of the oddly assorted quartette. She made a conscientious, if not very successful, effort to drink the pale block tea, and eat the strange mixture of foods pressed upon her by the Jemadar, who would obviously feel disheartened if his guests did not empty all four plates at a sitting. Nor was this the least of her troubles. Fatma Bibi's valiant attempts at conversation filled her with a bewilderment and discomfort, bordering on irritation. In an impulse of childish wickedness, she caught herself wishing heartily that Theo had never seen fit to distinguish himself by saving the Jemadar's life.
She looked enviously across the table at Honor, who, by a few spontaneous questions, set both at their ease. She spoke of her father, and the man's face glowed.
"How should men forget the Generailly Sahib, who have beheld him, as did we of the Rissalar, in war time, leading men and horses and guns through the terrible mountain country beyond Peshawur? We that serve the British Raj, Miss Sahib, are not men of ready tongue; but our hearts are slow to forget."
In proof thereof, the good Jemadar—his tongue effectually unloosed for the moment—regaled his guests with tale upon tale of bygone raids and murders and of swift retribution meted out by those watch-dogs of the Border, the Punjab Frontier Force; tales set forth with the Oriental touch of exaggeration which lent colour to a narrative already sufficiently inspiring.
"These things have I seen, Miss Sahib," he concluded, with a sudden deepening of his voice, "and these things have I done, through the godlike courage of my Captain Sahib Bahadur"—the man saluted on the words—"who, in the beginning of my service, when I lay wounded almost to the death, amid bullets that fell like hail, bore me to safety on his own shoulders, earning thereby the Victoria Cross that he weareth even now. True talk, Hazur. Among all the officer Sahibs of Hind, and I have seen more than a few, there be none like unto my Captain Sahib for courage and greatness of heart."
At this point Evelyn's voice broke in on a note of querulous weariness.
"Do come away, Honor. I've eaten queer things enough to give me indigestion for a week; and I can't understand a word any one is saying. What was he getting so excited about just now?"
"Something that must make you feel a very proud woman, Evelyn," the girl answered; and with a thrill in her low voice she translated the man's last words.
Mrs Desmond flushed softly; praise of her husband being only a few degrees less acceptable than praise of herself.
"It sounds very magnificent," she agreed, without enthusiasm, "but I daresay he doesn't really mean half of it. These natives never do. Anyway, please say the polite and proper things and let's get home as soon as possible. I'm sure we've done enough to satisfy even Theo by this time."
And Honor, who would fain have listened to their host for another half-hour, had no choice but to obey.
"Why, Evelyn," she said, as they left the striped sun and shadow of the lines, "you never told me that Captain Desmond won his V.C. by saving the Jemadar's life. I want to hear all about it, please."
Evelyn smiled, and shrugged her shoulders.
"You probably know as much as I do. Theo never will tell about himself. Besides, in my own heart, I think he was rather foolish to risk getting killed several times over just for the sake of a native." The scorn that some few Anglo-Indians never lose lurked in her tone. "Of course it's very nice for him to have the V.C., and I suppose he thought it was worth while just for that. But I hope he won't go in for any more things of that sort. There's me to be considered now."
Such peculiar views on the subject of heroism smote Honor to silence, and with a hurried murmur that Dilkusha seemed impatient to get home she set the mare into a trot.
Arrived in the cool dimness of her own drawing-room, Evelyn Desmond sank gratefully into a chair, her skirts billowing softly about her.
"How refreshing it is here, after that glaring courtyard! This place is getting too hot already. I do wish Theo would let me go to Simla again this year. Last season the Walters asked him to let me join them; and it was simply lovely. Though I didn't half like leaving him behind; and I suppose I shan't like it much this year either."
"Then why go at all?" suggested practical Honor. "You're not obliged to. Surely Mrs Olliver stays?"
"Mrs Olliver! She's not a woman! She's a Regimental Institution. I can't think what the men see in her to make such a fuss about! A plain, badly-made Irishwoman, who dresses abominably. And she's much too casual with all of them—especially with Theo, even if she did save his life from typhoid fever."
Honor made no immediate reply. It was only charitable to suppose that an overdose of sunshine and block tea was responsible for the note of irritation in Evelyn's tone.
"I suppose you think I ought to imitate her," Mrs Desmond went on, after an expectant pause. "Kohat is hateful enough in the cold weather, and with heat and cholera, and flies added, it would kill me outright! Besides, I don't believe a man loves one any better for that sort of thing in the end. He probably gets horribly bored, and doesn't like to say so. Besides—Theo prefers me to go, he said so; and that settles everything quite comfortably for us both. By the way, I've been planning a sort of introduction picnic for you, only that stupid tea-party put it out of my head. I'll make out a list of people at once and send the invitations out this evening."
She crossed over to her bureau, which, apart from the piano, was the only piece of furniture the room contained that in England would be considered worthy of the name.
While she sat absorbed in her congenial task, Desmond entered equipped for polo, and after a few words with Honor went over to his wife.
"What are you so taken up with, Ladybird?" he asked.
"Something lovely! A picnic—for Honor."
"Six for her and half a dozen for yourself! Let's see who we're inviting."
He ran his eye down the list of guests—twelve in all. At sight of the last two names—Mr Kresney, Miss Kresney—he frowned sharply, and taking up his wife's discarded pencil ran a broad black line through both.
She pushed his hand aside with an unusual display of irritation.
"What did you do that for?" she demanded, a ring of defiance in her voice. "I want to ask the Kresneys; and I will—all the same."
"Indeed, little woman, you'll do nothing of the sort."
"Why? What's wrong with them, Theo? They're quite decent people, as far as I can see."
"Which doesn't prove that you can see very far! You must just take my word for it, that whatever else they may be, the Kresneys are not our sort at all."
"I suppose you really mean they're not up to Frontier Cavalry form!" she retorted, not without a thrill of fear at her own daring; for the pride of the Frontier Force is a deeply-rooted pride; and, considering its records, not unjustifiable after all.
Desmond's eyes flashed fire, and a sharp retort rose to his lips. But, after a brief silence, he answered his wife with a restraint that spoke volumes to the girl at the tea-table behind him.
"Your taunt is unjust and untrue. In a general way we accept most people for what they are, out here. But one has to draw the line somewhere, even in India. If I were Deputy-Commissioner, the Kresneys would be asked along with the rest. But, in my position, I am free to make distinctions. And I have very good reasons for not asking Kresney to an informal picnic of my particular friends. On neutral ground, such as the club, or the tennis-courts, I have nothing to say; though I should naturally feel pleased if you considered my wishes a little in this matter."
"Well, then, why can't you consider mine a little too? I told Miss Kresney about it, and she's expecting to come."
"I'm sorry for that; I don't want to hurt the girl's feelings. But you can't take people up just for once and ignore them afterwards. The truth is, they both see plainly enough that you haven't quite got the hang of things out here yet, and they are naturally taking full advantage of the fact."
Evelyn's passing gentleness evaporated on the instant.
"They're not!" she protested wrathfully. "And it's horrid of you to say such things! They like me, I don't see why I shouldn't be nice to them. Besides, this is my picnic—I planned it—and if I'm the hostess I can ask who I please." The touch of young importance that sounded through the petulance of her tone dispelled the last shadow of Desmond's annoyance and set him smiling.
"Why, of course, Ladybird—within reasonable limits. But after all, the hospitality offered is mine; and what's more, the hostess is mine into the bargain!"
He laid his hand lightly against the rose-flush of her cheek, but she jerked it impatiently aside.
"Oh, well, if you will take it that way," he said, in a tone of resigned weariness, and turning abruptly on his heel came across to Honor, whose cheeks were almost as hot as Evelyn's own.
"I'm glad Alla Dad Khan made himself interesting this afternoon," he remarked conversationally. "Ressaldar Rajinder Singh, who commands my Sikh troop, is very anxious to come and pay his respects some day soon. You see, as your father's daughter and the Major's sister you are a rather special person for us all. But I must be off now. The fellows will be waiting. I'll arrange about the Sirdar to-morrow."
On the threshold he paused and looked towards his wife, who still sat with her back to the room, her head supported on her hand.
"Good-bye, Ladybird," he said, and there was marked kindliness in his tone.
She acknowledged the words with a scarcely perceptible movement, and a few minutes later the rattle of hoofs on the road came sharply to their ears.
Honor's anger flamed up and overflowed.
"Oh, Evelyn, how can you behave like that to him!"
Still no answer; only, after a short silence, Evelyn rose and faced her friend. Then Honor saw that her cheeks were wet and her eyes brimming with tears.
It is to be feared that her first sensation was one of pure annoyance. Evelyn thoroughly deserved a scolding: and here she was, as usual, disarming rebuke by her genuine distress.
"Now, I suppose he'll go—and get killed!" she said, in a choked voice.
"My dear child, what nonsense! He'll come back safe enough. You don't deserve that he should be so patient with you—you don't indeed!"
Evelyn looked up at her with piteous drowned eyes, whose expression had the effect of making Honor feel altogether in the wrong.
"He shouldn't have made such disagreeable remarks about me and the Kresneys, then," she said brokenly. "All the same, I wanted to speak to him. But—I was crying, and I couldn't make a scene—with you there. And now—if anything happens to him, and—I never see him again,—it'll be all your fault!"
With that finely illogical conclusion she swept out of the room, leaving Honor serenely unimpressed by her own share in the impending tragedy, yet not a little troubled at thought of the man who, for the rest of his natural life, lay at the mercy of such bewildering methods of reasoning.
AN EXPURGATED EDITION.
"A little lurking secret of the blood; A little serpent secret, rankling keen."
The Kresneys looked in vain for the coveted invitation, and the trifling circumstance loomed largely on their narrow horizon.
Owen Kresney possessed in a high degree that talent for discovering or inventing slights which is pride of race run crooked, and reveals the taint of mixed blood in a man's veins. As District Superintendent of Police he had relieved his predecessor in the middle of the hot weather. His sister being at Mussoorie, he had arrived alone; and, in accordance with the friendly spirit of the Frontier, had been made an honorary member of the station Mess, where he had found himself very much a stranger in a strange land.
The man's self-conceit was unlimited; his sense of humour nil; and in less than a month he had been unanimously voted a "pukka bounder" by that isolated community of Englishmen, who played as hard as they worked, and invariably "played the game"; a code of morals which had apparently been left out of Kresney's desultory education. The fact revealed itself in a hundred infinitesimal ways, and each revelation added a fresh stone to the wall that sprang up apace between himself and his companions.
Among them all Desmond and Wyndham represented, in the highest degree, those unattainable attributes which Kresney was secretly disposed to envy; and his narrow soul solaced itself by heartily detesting their possessors. This ability to recognise the highest without the least desire to reach it, breeds more than half the pangs of envy, hatred, and malice that corrode the lesser natures of earth. But there were also, in Kresney's case, personal and particular reasons which served to nourish these microbes of the soul.
Toward the close of the hot weather the man's growing unpopularity had been established by an incident at Mess, which brought him into such sharp contact with Desmond as he was not likely to forget.
There had been a very small party at dinner. Several of the older men were absent on leave, and three were on the sick list, no uncommon occurrence in Frontier stations. Thus it had chanced that Desmond was the senior officer present.
The wine had already been round twice when the sound of a lady's name, spoken in passing, had diverted Kresney's attention from his own dissatisfied thoughts.
It chanced that he had met this same lady at Murree a year ago, and that she had roundly snubbed his advances towards intimacy. The unexpected mention of her name revived that sense of injury which smoulders in such natures like a live coal; and on the same instant awoke the desire to hit back with the readiest weapon available.
Forgetful of the restriction imposed by the rigid code of the mess-table, he launched the first disparaging comment that sprang to his mind.
Directly the sentence was out, he could have bitten his own tongue for pure vexation.
It fell crisp and clear into a chasm of silence, as a dropped pebble plashes into a well.
The stillness lasted nearly a minute, and while it lasted Kresney felt the fire of Desmond's glance through his lowered lids. Then some one hazarded a remark, and the incident was submerged in a renewed tide of talk.
When dinner broke up, with a general movement towards the ante-room, Kresney became aware that Desmond was at his side.
"You will be good enough to come into the verandah with me," he had said in a tone of command; and Kresney, feeling ignominiously like a chidden schoolboy, had had no choice but to obey.
Before that brief interview was ended, the man had heard the truth about himself for the first time in his life, with the sole result that he registered in his heart an unquenchable hatred of the speaker.
But Desmond had been in no mood just then to reckon with after-results. All the inborn chivalry of the man was up in arms, less against the spoken words than against the petty spite underlying them—the cowardly hit at a woman powerless to defend herself. In an unguarded moment he gave full vent to the scorn and disgust that consumed him, and lashed the man without mercy.
Then—realising the utter inability to alter the other's peculiar point of view—natural magnanimity checked his impetuous outburst:
"I don't know whether you are aware," he said, "that after to-night I should be justified in asking the Mess President to remove your name from the list of Honorary Members. But that is rather a strong measure, and I decided instead to speak a few straight words to you myself. If they've been a trifle too straight, I am sorry. But remarks of the kind you made this evening are inadmissible at a mess-table; or, for that matter, at any other table where—gentlemen are present. Now, if you give me your word to keep the rules of the Mess strictly in future, I will give you mine that this incident shall never be mentioned to any one by me, or by any one of the fellows here to-night."
Kresney had given the required promise none too graciously. But his effort at perfunctory thanks stuck in his throat; nor did Desmond appear to expect them. With a brief reassurance in respect of his own silence he turned back into the Mess; and there, so far as externals went, the incident had ended.
* * * * *
Yet, on this still March evening, as Kresney strolled back and forth on his narrow verandah, enjoying an after-dinner cigar, every detail of that detested interview darted across his memory for the hundredth time, like a lightning-streak across a cloud. Wounded, in the most susceptible part of his nature, Kresney saw no reason to deny himself the satisfaction of hitting back. Whatever may have been his principles in regard to debts in general, he was scrupulously punctilious in settling debts of malice,—indirectly, if possible; and in this instance personal antipathy added zest to the mere duty of repayment.
Very early in the cold weather Kresney had become aware that an effective weapon lay ready to his hand, and had taken it up without scruple or reluctance. Evelyn Desmond's natural lack of discernment, her blindness to the subtle impertinence of flattery, and her zeal for tennis—a game seldom patronised by cavalrymen,—had worked all together for good; and Kresney had gone forward accordingly, nothing loth.
He had looked to the riding picnic to mark a definite step in advance, and Mrs Desmond's intention of inviting them was beyond doubt. Remained the inference that Desmond had used either authority or persuasion to prevent it.
The idea stirred up all the dregs of the man's soul. A sudden bitterness overwhelmed him—a sense of the futility of attempting to strike at a man so obviously favoured by the gods; a man who held his head so resolutely above the minor trivialities of life.
But the will to strike would soon or late evolve a way. There were other means of achieving intimacy with a woman as inexperienced as little Mrs Desmond, and he would get Linda to help him. Linda was a good girl, if a trifle stupid. At least she had the merit of believing in him and obeying his wishes with unquestioning fidelity—a very creditable merit in the eyes of the average man.
These reflections brought him to a standstill by one of the doors that opened into the drawing-room. It was a long narrow room of an aggressively Anglo-Indian type—overcrowded with aimless tables, painted stools and chairs in crumpled bazaar muslins, or glossy with Aspinall's enamel. The dingy walls were peppered with Japanese fans, China plates, liliputian brackets, and photographs in plush frames. Had Miss Kresney taken her stand on each door-sill in turn and flung her possessions, without aim or design, at the whitewashed spaces around her, she could not have produced a more admired disorder. This she recognised with a thrill of pride; for she aspired to be artistic, and some misguided friend had assured her that the one thing needful was to avoid symmetry or regularity in any form.
Her own appearance harmonised admirably with her surroundings. She wore the shapeless tea-gown beloved of her kind—made in the verandah, and finished with dingy lace at the neck and wrists, and even at this hour a suggestion of straw slippers showed beneath the limp silk of her gown. Yet, as Evelyn Desmond saw her on the tennis-courts, she was a neatly clad, angular girl of eight-and-twenty, with a suppressed, furtive air that was an unconscious reflection upon her brother's character. In her heart she cherished a lurking admiration for Desmond, and aspired to become the wife of a cavalry officer—Harry Denvil being the temporary hero of her dreams.
When her brother entered the room she was fitfully engaged in perpetrating a crewel-work atrocity for one of her many chairs.
He did not speak his thought at once, but stood looking down at her critically through the smoke-wreaths of his cigar. The major share of good looks certainly rested with himself; but for eyes set too near together, and the relentless lines that envy and ill-humour pencil about a man's mouth, the face was attractive enough, in its limited fashion. He had the same air of being "off duty" which pervaded his sister, and his Japanese smoking-suit showed signs of being a very old friend indeed.
"Look here, Linda," he began at last, "when are we playing tennis again with little Mrs Desmond?"
"I think it was Tuesday," she said.
"Well, then, ask her to tea here first, d'you see?"
Linda's brown eyes—it pleased her to call them hazel—widened with surprise.
"Oh, my! D'you think she would reallee come? It was nastee of her to leave us out of her picnic like that, after she told me all about it, too."
Miss Kresney's insistence on the consonants and the final vowels was more marked than her brother's; for although three-fourths of the blood in her veins was English, very few of her intimate associates could make so proud a boast without perjuring their souls: and there are few things more infectious than tricks of speech.
"Yes, of course," he acquiesced readily. "But I'm jolly well certain that was not her doing. She'll come, right enough, if you ask her nicely. At all events it is worth trying, if only on the chance of annoying her insufferable husband."
"If you wish it, certainlee. I would like to be better friends with Mrs Desmond. Only, I do not quite see why you dislike him so much more than the others."
Kresney hesitated before replying. It was not often that Linda aspired to question either his motives or decisions; and he had begun to suspect that her loyalty wavered, by a hair's-breadth, where Desmond was concerned. After all, why not tell her an expurgated edition of the truth. The idea commended itself to him for many reasons, and even as she was beginning to wonder at his silence he sat down beside her and spoke; the sting of humiliation stimulating his inventive faculty as he went on.
Desmond himself would scarce have recognised the incident, but Miss Kresney was clearly impressed.
"You see, Linda," her brother concluded, "a fellow can't be expected to stand that sort of thing without hitting back, and I am trying to hit back a bit now. It is only fair. These Frontier Force chaps need a lot of setting down, I can tell you. They fancy they hold all India in their hands. And what is it they do after all, except play polo like maniacs, and play all manner of foolish pranks at Mess? They make a god out of this Desmond, here; and the fellow is as proud as the devil. He will be jolly well mad if his wife gets really friendly with me. As he will not ask us there, we will ask her here—you see? And you must be as nice as you can. Say pretty things to her—that pleases her more than anything: and make yourself useful, if you get the chance. She's not half a bad little woman; and if you help me, Linda, I shall get in with her yet in spite of her conceited prig of a husband."
The smile that accompanied the words was not a pleasant one, but the girl returned it with an uncritical fervour of affection.
"You know I am always glad to please you, Owen. I am onlee sorree you did not tell me all about it sooner."