ROSA MUNDI AND OTHER STORIES
ETHEL M. DELL
Author of The Bars of Iron, The Keeper of the Door, The Knave of Diamonds, The Obstacle Race, The Rocks of Valpre, The Way of an Eagle, etc.
A DEBT OF HONOUR I.—HOPE AND THE MAGICIAN II.—THE VISITOR III.—THE FRIEND IN NEED IV.—HER NATURAL PROTECTOR V.—MORE THAN A FRIEND VI.—HER ENEMY VII.—THE SCRAPE VIII.—BEFORE THE RACE IX.—THE RACE X.—THE ENEMY'S TERMS XI.—WITHOUT DEFENCE XII.—THE PENALTY XIII.—THE CURSE OF THE VALLEY XIV.—HOW THE TALE WAS TOLD XV.—THE NIGHT OF DESPAIR XVI.—THE COMING OF HOPE
THE DELIVERER I.—A PROMISE OF MARRIAGE II.—A RING OF VALUE III.—THE HONEYMOON IV.—A GRIEVOUS WOUND V.—A STRUGGLE FOR MASTERY VI.—AN OFFER OF HELP VII.—THE DELIVERER VIII.—AFTER THE ACCIDENT IX.—THE END OF A MYSTERY X.—TAKEN TO TASK XI.—MONEY'S NOT EVERYTHING XII.—AFTERWARDS—LOVE
THE PREY OF THE DRAGON
THE SECRET SERVICE MAN I.—A TIGHT PLACE II.—A BROKEN FRIENDSHIP III.—DERRICK'S PARADISE IV.—CARLYON DEFENDS HIMSELF V.—A WOMAN'S FORGIVENESS VI.—FIEND OR KING? VII.—THE REAL COLONEL CARLYON VIII.—THE STRANGER ON THE VERANDA IX.—A FIGHT IN THE NIGHT X.—SAVED A SECOND TIME XI.—THE SECRET OUT
Was the water blue, or was it purple that day? Randal Courteney stretched his lazy length on the shady side of the great natural breakwater that protected Hurley Bay from the Atlantic rollers, and wondered. It was a day in late September, but the warmth of it was as a dream of summer returned. The season was nearly over, or he had not betaken himself thither, but the spell of heat had prolonged it unduly. It had been something of a shock to him to find the place still occupied by a buzzing crowd of visitors. He never came to it till he judged the holidays to be practically over. For he loved it only when empty. His idea of rest was solitude.
He wondered how long this pearly weather would last, and scanned the sky for a cloud. In vain! There was no cloud all round that blue horizon, and behind him the cliffs stood stark against an azure sky. Summer was lingering, and even he had not the heart to wish her gone.
Something splashed noisily on the other side of the rocky breakwater. Something squeaked and gurgled. The man frowned. He had tramped a considerable distance to secure privacy. He had his new novel to think out. This invasion was intolerable. He had not even smoked the first pipe of his meditations. Impatiently he prepared to rise and depart.
But in that moment a voice accosted him, and in spite of himself he paused. "I want to get over the breakwater," said the voice. "There's such a large crab lives this side."
It was an engaging voice—a voice with soft, lilting notes in it—the voice of a child.
Courteney's face cleared a little. The grimness went out of his frown, the reluctance from his attitude. He stood up against the rocky barrier and stretched his hands over to the unseen owner of the voice.
"I'll help you," he said.
"Oh!" There was an instant's pause; then two other hands, wet, cool, slender, came up, clasping his. A little leap, a sudden strain, and a very pink face beneath a cloud of golden hair laughed down into his. "You must pull," she said; "pull hard!"
Courteney obeyed instructions. He pulled, and a pair of slim shoulders clad in white, with a blue sailor collar, came into view. He pulled again, and a white knee appeared, just escaping a blue serge skirt. At the third pull she was over and standing, bare-footed, by his side. It had been a fairy leap. He marvelled at the lightness of her till he saw her standing so, with merry eyes upraised to his. Then he laughed, for she was laughing—the infectious laugh of the truant.
"Oh, thank you ever so much," she said. "I knew it was much nicer this side than the other. No one can see us here, either."
"Is that why you wanted to get over?" he asked.
She nodded, her pink face all mystery. "It's nice to get away from everyone sometimes, isn't it? Even Rosa Mundi thinks that. Did you know that she is here? It is being kept a dead secret."
"Rosa Mundi!" Courteney started. He looked down into the innocent face upraised to his with something that was almost horror in his own. "Do you mean that dancing woman from Australia? What can a child like you know of her?"
She smiled at him, the mystery still in her eyes. "I do know her. I belong to her. Do you know her, too?"
A sudden hot flush went up over Courteney's face. He knew the woman; yes, he knew her. Was it years ago—or was it but yesterday?—that he had yielded to the importunities of his friend, young Eric Baron, and gone to see her dance? The boy had been infatuated, wild with the lure of her. Ah well, it was over now. She had been his ruin, just as she had been the ruin of others like him. Baron was dead and free for ever from the evil spell of his enchantress. But he had not thought to hear her name in this place and on the lips of a child.
It revolted him. For she had utterly failed to attract his fancy. He was fastidious, and all he had seen in her had been the sensuous charm of a sinuous grace which, to him, was no charm at all. He had almost hated her for the abject adoration that young Eric's eyes had held. Her art, wonderful though he admitted it to be, had wholly failed to enslave him. He had looked her once—and once only—in the eyes, judged her, and gone his way.
And now this merry-eyed, rosy-faced child came, fairy-footed, over the barrier of his reserve, and spoke with a careless familiarity of the only being in the world whom he had condemned as beyond the pale.
"I'm not supposed to tell anyone," she said, with sapphire eyes uplifted confidingly to his. "She isn't—really—here before the end of the week. You won't tell, will you? Only when I saw you plodding along out here by yourself, I just had to come and tell you, to cheer you up."
He stood and looked at her, not knowing what to say. It was as if some adverse fate were at work, driving him, impelling him.
The soft eyes sparkled into laughter. "I know who you are," chuckled the gay voice on a high note of merriment. "You are Randal Courteney, the writer. It's not a bit of good trying to hide, because everybody knows."
He attempted a frown, but failed in its achievement. "And who are you?" he said, looking straight into the daring, trusting eyes. She was, not beautiful, but her eyes were wonderful; they held a mystery that beckoned and eluded in the same subtle moment.
"I?" she said. "I am her companion, her familiar spirit. Sometimes she calls me her angel."
The man moved as if something had stung him, but he checked himself with instinctive self-control. "And your name?" he said.
She turned out her hands with a little gesture that was utterly unstudied and free from self-consciousness. "My name is Rosemary," she said. "It means—remembrance."
"You are her adopted child?" Courteney was, looking at her curiously. Out of what part of Rosa Mundi's strange, fretted existence had the desire for remembrance sprung to life? He had deemed her a woman of many episodes, each forgotten as its successor took its place. Yet it seemed this child held a corner in her memory that was to last.
She turned her face to the sun. "We have adopted each other," she said naively. "When Rosa Mundi is old, I shall take her place, so that she may still be remembered."
The words, "Heaven forbid!" were on Courteney's lips. He checked them sharply, but something of his original grimness returned as he said, "And now that you are on the other side of the breakwater, what are you going to do?"
She looked up at him speculatively, and in a moment tossed back the short golden curls that clustered at her neck. She was sublimely young. In the eyes of the man, newly awakened, she had the look of one who has seen life without comprehending it. "I always like to get the other side of things, don't you?" she said. "But I won't stay with you if you are bored. I am going right to the end of the rocks to see the tide come in."
"And be washed away?" suggested Courteney.
"Oh no," she assured him confidently. "That won't happen. I'm not nearly so young as I look. I only dress like this when I want to enjoy myself. Rosa Mundi says"—her eyes were suddenly merry—"that I'm not respectable. Now, don't you think that sounds rather funny?"
"From her—yes," said Courteney.
"You don't like her?" The shrewd curiosity of a child who desires understanding upon a forbidden subject was in the question.
The man evaded it. "I have never seen her except in the limelight."
"And you didn't like her—then?" Keen disappointment sounded in her voice.
His heart smote him. The child was young, though possibly not so young as she looked. She had her ideals, and they would be shattered soon enough without any help from him.
With a brief laugh he turned aside, dismissing the subject. "That form of entertainment doesn't appeal to me much," he said. "Now it's your turn to tell me something. I have been wondering about the colour of that sea. Would you call it blue—or purple?"
She looked, and again the mystery was in her face. For a moment she did not speak. Then, "It is violet," she said—"the colour of Rosa Mundi's eyes."
Ere the frown had died from his face she was gone, pattering lightly over the sand, flitting like a day-dream into the blinding sunshine that seemed to drop a veil behind her, leaving him to his thoughts.
* * * * *
Randal Courteney was an old and favoured guest at the Hurley Bay Hotel. From his own particular corner of the great dining-room he was accustomed to look out upon the world that came and went. Frequently when he was there the place was almost deserted, and always he had been treated as the visitor of most importance. But to-night, for the first time, he found himself supplanted. Someone of more importance was staying in the hotel, someone who had attracted crowds, whose popularity amounted almost to idolatry.
The hotel was full, but Courteney, despite his far-reaching fame, was almost entirely overlooked. News had spread that the wonderful Australian dancer was to perform at the Pier Pavilion at the end of the week, and the crowds had gathered to do her honour. They were going to strew the Pier with roses on the night of her appearance, and they were watching even now for the first sign of her with all the eager curiosity that marks down any celebrity as fair prey. Courteney smiled grimly to himself. How often it had been his lot to evade the lion-hunters! It was an unspeakable relief to have the general attention thus diverted from himself. Doubtless Rosa Mundi would revel in it. It was her role in life, the touchstone of her profession. Adulation was the very air she breathed.
He wondered a little to find her seeking privacy, even for a few days. Just a whim of hers, no doubt! Was she not ever a creature of whims? And it would not last. He remembered how once young Eric Baron had told him that she needed popularity as a flower needs the sun. His rose of the world had not been created to bloom unseen. The boy had been absurdly long-suffering, unbelievably blind. How bitter, how cruel, had been his disillusion, Courteney could only guess. Had she ever cared, ever regretted, he wondered? But no, he was sure she had not. She would care for nothing until the bloom faded. Then, indeed, possibly, remorse might come.
Someone passing his table paused and spoke—the managing director of the Hurley Bay Theatre and of a score of others, a man he knew slightly, older than himself. "The hive swarms in vain," he said. "The queen refuses to emerge."
Courteney's expression was supremely cynical. "I was not aware that she was of such a retiring disposition," he said.
The other man laughed. He was an American, Ellis Grant by name, a man of gross proportions, but keen-eyed, iron-jawed, and successful. "There is a rumour," he said, "that she is about to be married. Possibly that might account for her shyness."
His look was critical. Courteney threw back his head almost with defiance. "It doesn't interest me," he said curtly.
Ellis Grant laughed again and passed on. He valued his acquaintanceship with the writer. He would not jeopardize it with over-much familiarity. But he did not believe in the utter lack of interest that he professed. No living man who knew her could be wholly indifferent to the doings of Rosa Mundi. The fiery charm of her, her passionate vitality, made that impossible.
Courteney finished his dinner and went out. The night was almost as hot as the day had been. He turned his back on the Pier, that was lighted from end to end, and walked away down the long parade.
He was beginning to wish himself out of the place. He had an absurd feeling of being caught in some web of Fate that clung to him tenaciously, strive as he would. Grant's laugh of careless incredulity pursued him. There had been triumph also in that laugh. No doubt the fellow anticipated a big haul on Rosa Mundi's night.
And again there rose before him the memory of young Eric Baron's ardent face. "I'd marry her to-morrow if she'd have me," the boy had said to him once.
The boy had been a fool, but straight. The woman—well, the woman was not the marrying sort. He was certain of that. She was elusive as a flame. Impatiently yet again he flung the thought of her from him. What did it matter to him? Why should he be haunted by her thus? He would not suffer it.
He tramped to the end of the parade and stood looking out over the dark sea. He was sorry for that adopted child of hers. That face of innocence rose before him clear against the gathering dark. Not much chance for the child, it seemed! Utterly unspoilt and unsophisticated at present, and the property of that demi-mondaine! He wondered if there could be any relationship between them. There was something in the child's eyes that in some strange fashion recalled the eyes of Rosa Mundi. So might she once have gazed in innocence upon a world unknown.
Again, almost savagely, he strove to thrust away the thoughts that troubled him. The child was bound to be contaminated sooner or later; but what was that to him? It was out of his power to deliver her. He was no rescuer of damsels in distress.
So he put away from him the thought of Rosa Mundi and the thought of the child called Rosemary who had come to him out of the morning sunlight, and went back to his hotel doggedly determined that neither the one nor the other should disturb his peace of mind. He would take refuge in his work, and forget them.
But late that night he awoke from troubled sleep to hear Ellis Grant laugh again in careless triumph—the laugh of the man who knows that he has drawn a prize.
* * * * *
It was not a restful night for Randal Courteney, and in the early morning he was out again, striding over the sunlit sands towards his own particular bathing-cove beyond the breakwater.
The tide was coming in, and the dashing water filled all the world with its music. A brisk wind was blowing, and the waves were high.
It was the sort of sea that Courteney revelled in, and he trusted that, at that early hour, he would be free from all intrusion. So accustomed to privacy was he that he had come to regard the place almost as his own.
But as he topped the breakwater he came upon a sight that made him draw back in disgust. A white mackintosh lay under a handful of stones upon the shingly beach. He surveyed it suspiciously, with the air of a man who fears that he is about to walk into a trap.
Then, his eyes travelling seaward, he spied a red cap bobbing up and down in the spray of the dancing waves.
The impulse to turn and retrace his steps came to him, but some unknown force restrained him. He remembered suddenly the current that had more than once drawn him out of his course when bathing in those waters, and the owner of the red cap was alone. He stood, uncertain, on the top of the breakwater, and watched.
Two minutes later the very event he had pictured was taking place under his eyes, and he was racing over the soft sand below the shingle at the top of his speed. Two arms were beating wildly out in the shining sparkle of water, as though they strove against the invisible bars of a cage, and a voice—the high, frightened voice of a child—was calling for help.
He flung off his coat as he ran, and dashed without an instant's pause straight into the green foaming waves. The water swirled around him as he struck out; he clove his way through it, all his energies concentrated upon the bobbing red cap and struggling arms ahead of him. Lifted on the crest of a rushing wave, he saw her, helpless as an infant in the turmoil. Her terrified eyes were turned his way, wildly beseeching him. He fought with the water to reach her.
He realized as he drew nearer that she was not wholly inexperienced. She was working against the current to keep herself up, but no longer striving to escape it. He saw with relief that she had not lost her head.
He had been prepared to approach her with caution, but she sent him a sudden, brave smile that reassured him.
"Be quick!" she gasped. "I'm nearly done."
The current caught him, but with a powerful stroke or two he righted his course and reached her. Her hand closed upon his shoulder.
"I'm all right now," she panted, and despite the distress of her breathing, he caught the note of confidence in her voice.
"We've got to get out of it," he made grim answer. "Get your hand in my belt; that'll help you best. Then, when you're ready, strike out with the other and make for the open sea! We shall get out of this infernal current that way."
She obeyed him implicitly, asking no question. Side by side they drew out of the current, the man pulling strongly, his companion seconding his efforts with a fitfulness that testified to her failing powers. They reached calmer water at length, and then curtly he ordered her to turn on her back and rest.
Again without a word she obeyed him, and he floated beside her, supporting her. The early sun smote down upon them with increasing strength. Her face was deathly pale against the red of her cap.
"We must get to shore," said Courteney, observing her.
"That dreadful current!" she gasped through quivering lips.
"No. We can avoid that. It will mean a scamper over the sands when we get there, but that will do you good. Stay as you are! I will tow you."
Had she been less obedient, he would have found his task infinitely harder. But she was absolutely submissive to his will. Ten minutes later he landed her close to his own bathing-cove, which he discovered with relief to be deserted.
She would have subsided in a heap upon the sand the moment she felt it warm and dry beneath her feet; but he held her up.
"No. A good run is what you need. Come! Your mackintosh is half-a-mile away."
She looked at him with dismay, but he remained inexorable. He had no desire to have her fainting on his hands. As if she had been a boy, he gripped her by the elbow.
Again she submitted stumblingly to his behest, but when they had covered half the distance Courteney had mercy.
"You're fagged out," he said. "Rest here while I go and fetch it!"
She sank down thankfully on the shingle, and he strode swiftly on.
When he returned she had hollowed a nest for herself, and was lying curled up in the sun. Her head was pillowed on her cap, and the soft golden curls waved tenderly above her white forehead. Once more she seemed to him a mere child, and he looked down upon her with compassion.
She sat up at his approach with a boyish, alert movement, and lifted her eyes to his. He likened them half-unconsciously to the purple-blue of hare-bells, in the ardent light of the early morning.
"You are kind!" she said gratefully.
He placed the white mackintosh around her slim figure. "Take my advice," he said in his brief fashion, "and don't come bathing alone in this direction again!"
She made a small shy gesture of invitation. "Sit down a minute!" she said half-pleadingly. "I know you are very wet; but the sun is so warm, and they say sea-water never chills."
He hesitated momentarily; then, possibly because she had spoken with so childlike an appeal, he sat down in the shingle beside her.
She stretched out a slender hand to him, almost as though feeling her way. And when he took it she made a slight movement towards him, as of one about to make a confidence. "Now we can talk," she said.
He let her hand go again, and felt in the pocket of his coat, which he carried on his arm, for his pipe.
She drew a little nearer to him. "Mr. Courteney," she said, "doesn't 'Thank you' sound a silly thing to say?"
He drew back. "Don't! Please don't!" he said, and flushed uneasily as he opened his tobacco-pouch. "I would infinitely rather you said nothing at all to any one. Don't do it again, that's all."
"Mustn't I even tell Rosa Mundi?" she said.
His flush deepened as he remembered that she would probably know him by name. She must have known in those far-off Australian days that he was working with all his might to free young Baron from her toils.
He sat in silence till, "Will you tell me something?" whispered Rosemary, leaning nearer.
He stiffened involuntarily. "I don't know."
"Please try!" she urged softly. "I feel sure you can. Why—why don't you like Rosa Mundi?"
He looked at her, and his eyes were steely; but they softened by imperceptible degrees as they met the earnest sweetness of her answering look. "No, I can't tell you that," he said with decision.
But her look held him. "Is it because you don't think she is very good?"
"I can't tell you," he said again.
Still she looked at him, and again there seemed to be in her eyes that expression of a child who has seen life without understanding it. "Perhaps you think I am too young to know good from evil," she said after a moment. "I am not. I have told you I am older than I look, and in some things I am older even than my years. Then, too, I belong to Rosa Mundi. I told you, didn't I? I am her familiar spirit. She has even called me her angel, or her better self. I know a great many things about her, and some of them are very sad. May I tell you some of the things I know?"
He turned his eyes away from her abruptly, with the feeling that he was resisting some curious magnetism. What was there about this child that attracted him? He was not a lover of children. Moreover, she was verging upon womanhood approaching what he grimly termed "the dangerous age."
He filled his pipe deliberately while she waited for his answer, turning his gaze upon the dazzling line of the horizon.
"You can do as you like," he said at last, and added formally, "May I smoke?"
She nodded. "Yes, I would like you to. It will keep you from being bored. I want to tell you about Rosa Mundi, because you do not judge her fairly. You only know her by repute, and I—I know her heart to heart."
Her voice deepened suddenly, and the man glanced downwards for an instant, but immediately looked away again. She should tell him what she would, but by no faintest sign should she imagine that she had succeeded in arousing his interest. The magnetism was drawing him. He was aware of the attraction, and with firmness he resisted it. Let her strive as she would, she would never persuade him to think kindly of Rosa Mundi.
"You think her—bad," said Rosemary, her voice pitched very low. "I know—oh, I know. Men—some men—are very hard on women like her, women who have had to hew their own way in the world, and meet temptation almost before"—her voice quivered a little—"they knew what temptation meant."
He looked down at her again suddenly and searchingly; but her clear eyes never flinched from his. They were pleading and a little troubled, but wholly unafraid.
"Perhaps you won't believe me," she said. "You'll think you know best. But Rosa Mundi wasn't bad always—not at the beginning. Her dancing began when she was young—oh, younger than I am. It was a dreadful uphill fight. She had a mother then—a mother she adored. Did you ever have a mother like that, I wonder? Perhaps it isn't the same with men, but there are some women who would gladly die for their mothers. And—and Rosa Mundi felt like that. A time came when her mother was dying of a slow disease, and she needed things—many things. Rosa Mundi wasn't a success then. She hadn't had her chance. But there was a man—a man with money and influence—who was willing to offer it to her—at—at—a price. She was dancing for chance coppers outside a San Francisco saloon when first he made his offer. She—refused."
Rosemary's soft eyes were suddenly lowered. She did not look like a child any longer, but a being sexless, yet very pitiful—an angel about to weep.
Courteney watched her, for he could not turn away.
Almost under her breath, she went on: "A few days later her mother began to suffer—oh, terribly. There was no money, no one to help. She went again and danced at the saloon entrance. He—the man—was there. She danced till she was tired out. And then—and then—she was hungry, too—she fainted." The low voice sank a little lower. "When she came to herself, she was in his keeping. He was very kind to her—too kind. Her strength was gone, and—and temptation is harder to resist when one is physically weak too. When she went back to her mother she had accepted—his—offer. From that night her fortune was made."
Two tears gathered on the dark lashes and hung there till she put up a quick hand and brushed them away.
The man's face was curiously softened; he looked as if he desired to dry those tears himself.
Without looking up she continued. "The mother died—very, very soon. Life is like that. Often one pays—in vain. There is no bargaining with death. But at least she never knew. That was Rosa Mundi's only comfort. There was no turning back for her then. And she was so desolate, so lonely, nothing seemed to matter.
"She went from triumph to triumph. She carried all before her. He took her to New York, and she conquered there. They strewed her path with roses. They almost worshipped her. She tried to think she was happy, but she was not—even then. They came around her in crowds. They made love to her. She was young, and their homage was like a coloured ball to her. She tossed it to and fro, and played with it. But she made game of it all. They were nothing to her—nothing, till one day there came to her a boy—no, he was past his boyhood—a young man—rich, well-born, and honourable. And he—he loved her, and offered her—marriage. No one had ever offered her that before. Can you realize—but no, you are a man!—what it meant to her? It meant shelter and peace and freedom. It meant honour and kindness, and the chance to be good. Perhaps you think she would not care for that. But you do not know her. Rosa Mundi was meant to be good. She hungered for goodness. She was tired—so tired of the gaudy vanities of life, so—so—what is the word—so nauseated with the cheap and the bad. Are you sorry for her, I wonder? Can you picture her, longing—oh, longing—for what she calls respectability? And then—this chance, this offer of deliverance! It meant giving up her career, of course. It meant changing her whole life. It meant sacrifice—the sort of sacrifice that you ought to be able to understand—for she loved her dancing and her triumphs, just as you love your public—the people who read your books and love you for their sake. That is different, isn't it, from the people who follow you about and want to stare at you just because you are prosperous and popular? The people who really appreciate your art—those are the people you would not disappoint for all the world. They make up a vast friendship that is very precious, and it would be a sacrifice—a big—sacrifice—to give it up. That is the sort of sacrifice that marriage meant to Rosa Mundi. And though she wanted marriage—and she wanted to be good—she hesitated."
There was a little pause. Randal Courteney was no longer dissembling his interest. He had laid his pipe aside, and was watching with unvarying intentness the downcast childish face. He asked no questions. There was something in the low-spoken words that held him silent. Perhaps he feared to probe too deep.
In a few moments she went on, gathering up a little handful of the shining shingle, and slowly sifting it through her fingers as though in search of something precious.
"I think if she had really loved the man, it wouldn't have mattered. Nothing counts like love, does it? But—you see—she didn't. She wanted to. She knew that he was clean and honourable, worthy of a good woman. He loved her, too, loved her so that he was willing to put away all her past. For she did not deceive him about that. He was willing to give her all—all she wanted. But she did not love him. She honoured him, and she felt for a time at least that love might come. He guessed that, and he did his best—all that he could think of—to get her to consent. In the end—in the end"—Rosemary paused, a tiny stone in her hand that shone like polished crystal—"she was very near to the verge of yielding, the young man had almost won, when—when something happened that altered—everything. The young man had a friend, a writer, a great man even then; he is greater now. The friend came, and he threw his whole weight into the scale against her. She felt him—the force of him—before she so much as saw him. She had broken with her lover some time before. She was free. And she determined to marry the young man who loved her—in spite of his friend. That very day it happened. The young man sent her a book written by his friend. She had begun to hate the writer, but out of curiosity she opened it and read. First a bit here, then a bit there, and at last she sat down and read it—all through."
The little shining crystal lay alone in the soft pink palm. Rosemary dwelt upon it, faintly smiling.
"She read far into the night," she said, speaking almost dreamily, as if recounting a vision conjured up in the glittering surface of the stone. "It was a free night for her. And she read on and on and on. The book gripped her; it fascinated her. It was—a great book. It was called—Remembrance." She drew a quick breath and went on somewhat hurriedly. "It moved her in a fashion that perhaps you would hardly realize. I have read it, and I—understand. The writing was wonderful. It brought home to her—vividly, oh, vividly—how the past may be atoned for, but never, never effaced. It hurt her—oh, it hurt her. But it did her good. It showed her how she was on the verge of taking a wrong turning, of perhaps—no, almost certainly—dragging down the man who loved her. She saw suddenly the wickedness of marrying him just to escape her own prison. She understood clearly that only love could have justified her—no other motive than that. She saw the evil of fastening her past to an honourable man whose good name and family demanded of him something better. She felt as if the writer had torn aside a veil and shown her her naked soul. And—and—though the book was a good book, and did not condemn sinners—she was shocked, she was horrified, at what it made her see."
Rosemary suddenly closed her hand upon the shining stone, and turned fully and resolutely to the man beside her.
"That night changed Rosa Mundi," she said; "changed her completely. Before it was over she wrote to the young man who loved her and told him that she could not marry him. The letter did not go till the following evening. She kept it back for a few hours—in case she repented. But—though she suffered—she did not repent. In the evening she had an engagement to dance. The young man was there—in the front row. And he brought his friend. She danced. Her dancing was superb that night. She had a passionate desire to bewitch the man who had waked her soul—as she had bewitched so many others. She had never met a man she could not conquer. She was determined to conquer him. Was it wrong? Anyway, it was human. She danced till her very heart was on fire, danced till she trod the clouds. Her audience went mad with the delight of it. They raved as if they were intoxicated. All but one man! All but one man! And he—at the end—he looked her just once in the eyes, stonily, piercingly, and went away." She uttered a sharp, choking breath. "I have nearly done," she said. "Can you guess what happened then? Perhaps you know. The man who loved her received her letter when he got back that night. And—and—she had bewitched him, remember; he—shot himself. The friend—the writer—she never saw again. But—but—Rosa Mundi has never forgotten him. She carries him in her heart—the man who taught her the meaning of life."
She ceased to speak, and suddenly, like a boy, sprang to her feet, tossing away the stone that she had treasured in her hand.
But the man was almost as quick as she. He caught her by the shoulder as he rose. "Wait!" he said. "Wait!" His voice rang hard, but there was no hardness in his eyes. "Tell me—who you are!"
She lifted her eyes to his fearlessly, without shame. "What does it matter who I am?" she said. "What does it matter? I have told you I am Rosemary. That is her name for me, and it was your book called Remembrance that made her give it me."
He held her still, looking at her with a growing compassion in his eyes. "You are her child," he said.
She smiled. "Perhaps—spiritually. Yes, I think I am her child, such a child as she might have been if—Fate—had been kind to her—- or if she had read your book before—and not after."
He let her go slowly, almost with reluctance. "I think I should like to meet your—Rosa Mundi," he said.
Her eyes suddenly shone. "Not really? You are in earnest? But—but—- you would hurt her. You despise her."
"I am sorry for her," he said, and there was a hint of doggedness in his voice, as though he spoke against his better judgment.
The child's face had an eager look, but she seemed to be restraining herself. "I ought to tell you one thing about her first," she said. "Perhaps you will disapprove. I don't know. But it is because of you—and your revelation—that she is doing it. Rosa Mundi is going to be married. No, she is not giving up her career or anything—except her freedom. Her old lover has come back to her. She is going to marry him now. He wants her for his wife."
"Ah!" It was the man who was eager now. He spoke impulsively. "She will be happy then? She loves him?"
Rosemary looked at him with her clear, unfaltering eyes. "Oh, no," she said. "He isn't that sort of man at all. Besides, there is only one man in the world that she could care for in that way. No, she doesn't love him. But she is doing the right thing, and she is going to be good. You will not despise her any more?"
There was such anxious appeal in her eyes that he could not meet it. He turned his own away.
There fell a silence between them, and through it the long, long roar of the sea rose up—a mighty symphony of broken chords.
The man moved at last, looked down at the slight boyish figure beside him, hesitated, finally spoke. "I still think that I should like to meet Rosa Mundi," he said.
Her eyes smiled again. "And you will not despise her now," she said, her tone no longer a question.
"I think," said Randal Courteney slowly, "that I shall never despise any one again."
"Life is so difficult," said Rosemary, with the air of one who knew.
* * * * *
They were strewing the Pier with roses for Rosa Mundi's night. There were garlands of roses, festoons of roses, bouquets of roses; roses overhead, roses under foot, everywhere roses.
Summer had returned triumphant to deck the favourite's path.
Randal Courteney marked it all gravely, without contempt. It was her hour.
No word from her had reached him, but that night he would meet her face to face. Through days and nights of troubled thought, the resolve had grown within him. To-night it should bear fruit. He would not rest again until he had seen her. For his peace of mind was gone. She was about to throw herself away upon a man she did not love, and he felt that it was laid upon him to stop the sacrifice. The burden of responsibility was his. He had striven against this conviction, but it would not be denied. From the days of young Eric Baron's tragedy onward, this woman had made him as it were the star of her destiny. To repudiate the fact was useless. She had, in her ungoverned, impulsive fashion, made him surety for her soul.
The thought tormented him, but it held a strange attraction for him also. If the story were true, and it was not in him to doubt it, it touched him in a way that was wholly unusual. Popularity, adulation, had been his portion for years. But this was different, this was personal—a matter in which reputation, fame, had no part. In a different sphere she also was a star, with a host of worshippers even greater than his own. The humility of her amazed him. She had, as it were, taken her fate between her hands and laid it as an offering at his feet.
And so, on Rosa Mundi's night, he went to the great Pavilion, mingling with the crowd, determined when her triumph was over, to seek her out. There would be a good many seekers, he doubted not; but he was convinced that she would not deny him an interview.
He secured a seat in the third row, avoiding almost by instinct any more conspicuous position. He was early, and while he waited, the thought of young Eric Baron came to him—the boy's eager-face, the adoration of his eyes. He remembered how on that far-off night he had realized the hopelessness of combating his love, how he had shrugged his shoulders and relinquished the struggle. And the battle had been his even then—a bitter victory more disastrous than defeat.
He put the memory from him and thought of Rosemary—the child with the morning light in her eyes, the innocence of the morning in her soul. How tenderly she had spoken of Rosa Mundi! How sweetly she had pleaded her cause! With what amazing intuition had she understood! Something that was greater than pity welled up within him. Rosa Mundi's guardian angel had somehow reached his heart.
People were pouring into the place. He saw that it was going to be packed. And outside, lining the whole length of the Pier, they were waiting for her too, waiting to strew her path with, roses.
Ah! she was coming! Above the wash of the sea there rose a roar of voices. They were giving her the homage of a queen. He listened to the frantic cheering, and again it was Rosa Mundi, splendid and brilliant, who filled his thoughts as she filled the thoughts of all just then.
The cheering died down, and there came a great press of people into the back of the building. The lights were lowered, but he heard the movement, the buzz of a delighted crowd.
Suddenly the orchestra burst into loud music. They were playing "Queen of the Earth," he remembered later. The curtain went up. And in a blaze of light he saw Rosa Mundi.
Something within him sprang into quivering life. Something which till that moment he had never known awoke and gripped him with a force gigantic. She was robed in shimmering, transparent gold—a queen-woman, slight indeed, dainty, fairy-like—yet magnificent. Over her head, caught in a jewelled fillet, there hung a filmy veil of gold, half revealing, half concealing, the smiling face behind. Trailing wisps of golden gossamer hung from her beautiful arms. Her feet were bound with golden sandals. And on her breast were roses—golden roses.
She was exquisite as a dream. He gazed and gazed upon her as one entranced. The tumult of acclamation that greeted her swept by him unheeded. He was conscious only of a passionate desire to fling back the golden veil that covered her and see the laughing face behind. Its elusiveness mocked him. She was like a sunbeam standing there, a flitting, quivering shaft of light, too spiritual to be grasped fully, almost too dazzling for the eye to follow.
The applause died down to a dead silence. Her audience watched her with bated breath. Her dance was a thing indescribable. Courteney could think of nothing but the flashing of morning sunlight upon running water to the silver strains of a flute that was surely piped by Pan. He could not follow the sparkling wonder of her. He felt dazed and strangely exhilarated, almost on fire with this new, fierce attraction. It was as if the very soul were being drawn out of his body. She called to him, she lured him, she bewitched him.
When he had seen her before, he had been utterly out of sympathy. He had scorned her charms, had felt an almost angry contempt for young Baron's raptures. To him she had been a snake-woman, possessed of a fascination which, to him, was monstrous and wholly incomprehensible. She had worn a strange striped dress of green—tight-fitting, hideous he had deemed it. Her face had been painted. He had been too near the stage, and she had revolted him. Her dance had certainly been wonderful, sinuous, gliding, suggestive—a perfectly conceived scheme of evil. And she had thought to entrap him with it! The very memory was repulsive even yet.
But this—ah! this was different. This thing of light and air, this dancing sunbeam, this creature of the morning, exquisite in every detail, perfectly poised, swifter than thought, yet arresting at every turn, vivid as a meteor, yet beyond all scrutiny, all ocular power of comprehension, she set every nerve in him a-quiver. She seized upon his fancy and flung it to and fro, catching a million colours in her radiant flights. She made the hot blood throb in his temples. She beat upon the door of his heart. She called back his vanished youth, the passion unassuaged of his manhood. She appealed to him directly and personally. She made him realize that he was the one man who had taught—and could teach—her the meaning of life.
Then it was over. Like a glittering crystal shattered to fragments, his dream of ecstasy collapsed. The noise around him was as the roar of thundering breakers. But he sat mute in the midst of it, as one stunned.
Someone leaned over from behind and spoke to him. He was aware of a hand upon his shoulder.
"What do you think of her?" said Ellis Grant in his ear. "Superb, isn't she? Come and see her before she appears again!"
As if compelled by some power outside himself, Courteney rose. He edged his way to the end of the row and joined the great man there. The whole house was a seething turmoil of sound.
Grant was chuckling to himself as one well pleased. In Courteney's eyes he looked stouter, more prosperous, more keenly business-like, than when he had spoken with him a few nights previously. He took Courteney by the arm and led him through a door at the side.
"Let 'em yell 'emselves hoarse for a bit!" he said. "Do 'em good. Guess my 'rose of the world' isn't going to be too cheap a commodity.... Which reminds me, sir. You've cost me a thousand English pounds by coming here to-night."
"Indeed?" Courteney spoke stiffly. He felt stiff, physically stiff, as one forcibly awakened from a deep slumber.
The man beside him was still chuckling. "Yes. The little witch! Said she'd manage it somehow when I told her you weren't taking any. We had a thousand on it, and the little devil has won, outwitted us both. How in thunder did she do it? Laid a trap for you; what?"
Courteney did not answer. The stiffness was spreading. He felt as one turned to stone. Mechanically he yielded to the hand upon his arm, not speaking, scarcely thinking.
And then—almost before he knew it—he was in her presence, face to face with the golden vision that had caught and—for a space at least—had held his heart.
He bowed, still silent, still strangely bound and fettered by the compelling force.
A hand that was lithe and slender and oddly boyish came out to him. A voice that had in it sweet, lilting notes, like the voice of a laughing child, spoke his name.
"Mr. Courteney! How kind!" it said.
As from a distance he heard Grant speak. "Mr. Courteney, allow me to introduce you—my wife!"
There was a dainty movement like the flash of shimmering wings. He looked up. She had thrown back her veil.
He gazed upon her. "Rosemary!"
She looked back at him above the roses with eyes that were deeply purple—as the depths of the sea. "Yes, I am Rosemary—to my friends," she said.
Ellis Grant was laughing still, in his massive, contented way. "But to her lover," he said, "she is—and always has been—Rosa Mundi."
Then speech came back to Courteney, and strength returned. He held himself in firm restraint. He had been stricken, but he did not flinch.
"Your husband?" he said.
She indicated Grant with a careless hand. "Since yesterday," she said.
He bowed to her again, severely formal. "May I wish you joy?" he said.
There was an instant's pause, and in that instant something happened. She had not moved. Her eyes still met his own, but it was as if a veil had dropped between them suddenly. He saw the purple depths no more.
"Thank you," said Rosa Mundi, with her little girlish laugh.
* * * * *
As he strode down the Pier a few minutes later, he likened the scent of the crushed roses that strewed the way to the fumes of sacrifice—sacrifice offered at the feet of a goddess who cared for nothing sacred. Not till long after did he remember the tears that he had seen her shed.
A Debt of Honour
HOPE AND THE MAGICIAN
They lived in the rotten white bungalow at the end of the valley—Hope and the Magician. It stood in a neglected compound that had once been a paradise, when a certain young officer belonging to the regiment of Sikhs then stationed in Ghantala had taken it and made of it a dainty home for his English bride. Those were the days before the flood, and no one had lived there since. The native men in the valley still remembered with horror that awful night when the monsoon had burst in floods and water-spouts upon the mountains, and the bride, too terrified to remain in the bungalow, had set out in the worst fury of the storm to find her husband, who was on duty up at the cantonments. She had been drowned close to the bungalow in a ranging brown torrent which swept over what a few hours earlier had been a mere bed of glittering sand. And from that time the bungalow had been deserted, avoided of all men, a haunted place, the abode of evil spirits.
Yet it still stood in its desolation, rotting year by year. No native would approach the place. No Englishman desired it. For it was well away from the cantonments, nearer than any other European dwelling to the native village, and undeniably in the hottest corner of all the Ghantala Valley.
Perhaps its general air of desolation had also influenced the minds of possible tenants, for Ghantala was a cheerful station, and its inhabitants preferred cheerful dwelling-places. Whatever the cause, it had stood empty and forsaken for more than a dozen years.
And then had come Hope and the Magician.
Hope was a dark-haired, bright-eyed English girl, who loved riding as she loved nothing else on earth. Her twin-brother, Ronald Carteret, was the youngest subaltern in his battalion, and for his sake, she had persuaded the Magician that the Ghantala Valley was an ideal spot to live in.
The Magician was their uncle and sole relative, an old man, wizened and dried up like a monkey, to whom India was a land of perpetual delight and novelty of which he could never tire. He was engaged upon a book of Indian mythology, and he was often away from home for the purpose of research. But his absence made very little difference to Hope. Her brother lived in the bungalow with her, and the people in the station were very kind to her.
The natives, though still wary, had lost their abhorrence of the place. They believed that the Magician, as they called him, had woven a spell to keep the evil spirits at a distance. It was known that he was in constant communication with native priests. Moreover, the miss-sahib who dwelt at the bungalow remained unharmed, so it seemed there was nought to fear.
Hope, after a very few months, cut off her hair and wore it short and curly. This also seemed to discourage the evil ones. So at length it appeared that the curse had been removed, or at least placed in abeyance.
As for Hope, she liked the place. Her nerves were generally good, and the joy of being near the brother she idolized outweighed every other consideration. The colonel's wife, Mrs. Latimer, was very kind to her from the outset, and she enjoyed all the Ghantala gaieties under her protection and patronage.
Not till Mrs. Latimer was taken ill and had to leave hurriedly for the Hills did it dawn upon Hope, after nearly eight happy months, that her position was one of considerable isolation, and that this might, under certain circumstances, become a matter for regret.
It was on a Sunday evening of breathless heat that this conviction first took firm hold of Hope. Her uncle was away upon one of his frequent journeys of research. Her brother was up at the cantonments, and she was quite alone save for her ayah, and the punkah-coolie dozing on the veranda.
She had not expected any visitors. Visitors seldom came to the bungalow, for the simple reason that she was seldom at home to receive them, and the Magician never considered himself at liberty for social obligations. So it was with some surprise that she heard footsteps that were not her brother's upon the baked earth of the compound; and when her ayah came to her with the news that Hyde Sahib was without, she was even conscious of a sensation of dismay.
For Hyde Sahib was a man she detested, without knowing why. He was a civil servant, an engineer, and he had been in Ghantala longer than any one else of the European population. Very reluctantly she gave the order to admit him, hoping that Ronnie would soon return and take him off her hands. For Ronnie professed to like the man.
He greeted her with a cool self-assurance that admitted not the smallest doubt of his welcome.
"I was passing, and thought I would drop in," he told her, retaining her hand till she abruptly removed it. "I guessed you would be all forlorn. The Magician is away, I hear?"
Hope steadily returned the gaze of his pale eyes, as she replied, with dignity:
"Yes; my uncle is from home. But I am not at all lonely. I am expecting my brother every minute."
He smiled at her in a way that made her stiffen instinctively. She had never been so completely alone with him before.
"Ah, well," he said, "perhaps you will allow me to amuse you till he returns. I rather want to see him."
He took her permission for granted, and sat down in a bamboo chair on the veranda, leaning back, and staring up at her with easy insolence.
"I can scarcely believe that you are not lonely here," he remarked. "A figure of speech, I suppose?"
Hope felt the colour rising in her cheeks under his direct and unpleasant scrutiny.
"I have never felt lonely till to-day," she returned, with spirit.
He laughed incredulously. "No?" he said.
"No," said Hope with emphasis. "I often think that there are worse things in the world than solitude."
Something in her tone—its instinctive enmity, its absolute honesty—attracted his attention. He sat up and regarded her very closely.
She was still on her feet—a slender, upright figure in white. She was grasping the back of a chair rather tightly, but she did not shrink from his look, though there was that within her which revolted fiercely as she met it. But he prolonged the silent combat with brutal intention, till at last, in spite of herself, her eyes sank, and she made a slight, unconscious gesture of protest. Then, deliberately and insultingly, he laughed.
"Come now, Miss Carteret," he said, "I'm sure you can't mean to be unfriendly with me. I believe this place gets on your nerves. You're not looking well, you know."
"No?" she responded, with frozen dignity.
"Not so well as I should like to see you," said Hyde, still smiling his objectionable smile. "I believe you're moped. Isn't that it? I know the symptoms, and I know an excellent remedy, too. Wouldn't you like to try it?"
Hope looked at him uncertainly. She was quivering all over with nervous apprehension. His manner frightened her. She was not sure that the man was absolutely sober. But it would be absurd, ridiculous, she told her thumping heart, to take offence, when it might very well be that the insult existed in her imagination alone. So, with a desperate courage, she stood her ground.
"I really don't know what you mean," she said coldly. "But it doesn't matter; tell me about your racer instead!"
"Not a bit of it," returned Hyde. "It's one thing at a time with me always. Besides, why should I bore you to that extent? Why, I'm boring you already. Isn't that so?"
He set his hands on the arms of his chair preparatory to rising, as he spoke; and Hope took a quick step away from him. There was a look in his eyes that was horrible to her.
"No," she said, rather breathlessly. "No; I'm not at all bored. Please don't get up; I'll go and order some refreshment."
"Nonsense!" he said sharply. "I don't want it. I won't have any! I mean"—his manner softening abruptly—-"not unless you will join me; which, I fear, is too much to expect. Now don't go away! Come and sit here!" drawing close to his own the chair on which she had been leaning. "I want to tell you something. Don't look so scared! It's something you'll like; it is, really. And you're bound to hear it sooner or later, so it may as well be now. Why not?"
But Hope's nerves were stretched to snapping point, and she shrank visibly. After all, she was very young, and there was that about this man that terrified her.
"No," she said hurriedly. "No; I would rather not. There is nothing you could tell me that I should like to hear. I—I am going to the gate to look for Ronnie."
It was childish, it was pitiable; and had the man been other than a coward it must have moved him to compassion. As it was he sprang up suddenly, as though to detain her, and Hope's last shred of self-control deserted her.
She uttered a smothered cry and fled.
THE FRIEND IN NEED
The road that led to the cantonments was ill-made and stony, but she dashed along it like a mad creature, unconscious of everything save the one absorbing desire to escape. Ronnie was not in sight, but she scarcely thought of him. The light was failing fast, and she knew that it would soon be quite dark, save for a white streak of moon overhead. It was still frightfully hot. The atmosphere oppressed her like a leaden weight. It seemed to keep her back, and she battled with it as with something tangible. Her feet were clad in thin slippers, and at any other time she would have known that the rough stones cut and hurt her. But in the terror of the moment she felt no pain. She only had the sense to run straight on, with gasping breath and failing limbs, till at last, quite suddenly, her strength gave out and she sank, an exhausted, sobbing heap, upon the roadway.
There came the tread of a horse's hoofs, and she started and made a convulsive effort to crawl to one side. She was nearer fainting than she had ever been in her life.
Then the hoof-beats stopped, and she uttered a gasping cry, all her nameless terror for the moment renewed.
A man jumped to the ground and, with a word to his animal, stooped over her. She shrank from him in unreasoning panic.
"Who is it? Who is it?" she sobbed. He answered her instantly, rather curtly.
"I—Baring. What's the matter? Something gone wrong?"
She felt strong hands lifting her, and she yielded herself to them, her panic quenched.
"Oh, Major Baring!" she said faintly. "I didn't know you!"
Major Baring made no response. He held her on her feet facing him, for she seemed unable to stand, and waited for her to recover herself. She trembled violently between his hands, but she made a resolute effort after self-control.
"I—I didn't know you," she faltered again.
"What's the matter?" asked Major Baring.
But she could not tell him. Already the suspicion that she had behaved unreasonably was beginning to take possession of her. Yet—yet—Hyde must have seen she was alarmed. He might have reassured her. She recalled the look in his eyes, and shuddered. She was sure he had been drinking. She had heard someone say that he did drink.
"I—I have had a fright," she said at last. "It was very foolish of me, of course. Very likely it was a false alarm. Anyhow, I am better now. Thank you."
He let her go, but she was still so shaken that she tottered and clutched his arm.
"Really I am all right," she assured him tremulously. "It is only—only—"
He put his arm around her without comment; and again she yielded as a child might have yielded to the comfort of his support.
After some seconds he spoke, and she fancied his voice sounded rather grim.
"I am going your way," he said. "I will walk back with you."
Hope was crying to herself in the darkness, but she hoped he did not notice.
"I think I shall go and meet Ronnie," she said. "I don't want to go back. It—it's so lonely."
"I will come in with you," he returned.
"Oh, no!" she said quickly. "No! I mean—I mean—I don't want you to trouble any more about me. Indeed, I shall be all right."
He received the assurance in silence; and she began to wonder dolefully if she had offended him. Then, with abrupt kindliness, he set her mind at rest.
"Dry your eyes," he said, "and leave off crying, like a good child! Ronnie's at the club, and won't be home at present. I didn't know you were all alone, or I would have brought him along with me. That's better. Now, shall we make a move?"
He slung his horse's bridle on his arm and, still supporting her with the other, began to walk down the stony road. Hope made no further protest. She had always considered Ronnie's major a rather formidable person. She knew that Ronnie stood in awe of him, though she had always found him kind.
They had not gone five yards when he stopped.
"You are limping. What is it?"
She murmured something about the stones.
"You had better ride," he decided briefly. "Rupert will carry you like a lamb. Ready? How's that?"
He lifted her up into the saddle as if she had been a child, and stooped to arrange her foot in the strap of the stirrup.
"Good heavens!" she heard him murmur, as he touched her shoe. "No wonder the stones seemed hard! Quite comfortable?" he asked her, as he straightened himself.
"Quite," she answered meekly.
And he marched on, leading the horse with care.
At the gate of the shadowy little compound that surrounded the bungalow she had quitted so precipitately he paused.
"I will leave the animal here," he said, holding up his hands to her.
She slipped into them submissively.
The cry of a jackal somewhere beyond the native village made her start and tremble. Her nerves were still on edge.
Major Baring slipped the bridle over the gate-post and took her hand in his. The grip of his fingers was very strong and reassuring.
"Come," he said kindly, "let us go and look for this bogey of yours!"
But at this point Hope realized fully that she had made herself ridiculous, and that for the sake of her future self-respect she must by some means restrain him from putting his purpose into execution. She stood still and faced him.
"Major Baring," she said, her voice quivering in spite of her utmost effort, "I want you—please—not to come any farther. I know I have been very foolish. I am sure of it now. And—please—do you mind going away, and not thinking any more about it?"
"Yes, I do," said Major Baring.
He spoke with unmistakable decision, and the girl's heart sank.
"Listen!" he said quietly. "Like you, I think you have probably been unnecessarily alarmed. But, even so, I am coming with you to satisfy myself. Or—if you prefer—I will go alone, and you can wait for me here."
"Oh, no!" said Hope quickly. "If—if you must go, I'll come, too. But first, will you promise—whatever happens—not to—to laugh at me?"
Baring made an abrupt movement that she was at a loss to interpret. It was too dark for her to see his face with any distinctness.
"Very well," he said. "Yes; I promise that."
Hope was still almost crying. She felt horribly ashamed. With her hand in his, she went beside him up the short drive to the bungalow. And, as she went, she vehemently wished that the earth would open and swallow her up.
HER NATURAL PROTECTOR
They ascended to the veranda still hand-in-hand. It was deserted.
Baring led her straight along it till he came to the two chairs outside the drawing-room window. They were empty. A servant had just lighted a lamp in the room behind them.
"Go in!" said Baring. "I will come back to you."
She obeyed him. She felt incapable of resistance just then. He passed on quietly, and she stood inside the room, waiting and listening with hushed breath and hands tightly clenched.
The seconds crawled by, and again there came to her straining ears the cry of a jackal from far away. Then at last she caught the sound of Baring's voice, curt and peremptory, and her heart stood still. But he was only speaking to the punkah-coolie round the corner, for almost instantly the great fan above her head began to move.
A few seconds more, and he reappeared at the window alone. Hope drew a great breath of relief and awoke to the fact that she was trembling violently.
She looked at him as he came quietly in. His lean, bronzed face, with the purple scar of a sword-cut down one cheek, told her nothing. Only she fancied that his mouth, under its narrow, black line of moustache, looked stern.
He went straight up to her and laid his hand on her shoulder.
"Tell me what frightened you!" he said, looking down at her with keen blue eyes that shone piercingly in his dark face.
She shook her head instantly, unable to meet his look.
"Please," she said beseechingly, "please don't ask me! I would so much rather not."
"I have promised not to laugh at you," he reminded her gravely.
"I know," she said. "I know. But really, really, I can't. It was so silly of me to be frightened. I am not generally silly like that. But—somehow—to-day—"
Her voice failed her. He took his hand from her shoulder; and she knew suddenly that, had he chosen, he could have compelled.
"Don't be distressed!" he said. "Whatever it was, it's gone. Sit down, won't you?"
Hope dropped rather limply into a chair. The security of Baring's protecting presence was infinitely comforting, but her fright and subsequent exertion had made her feel very weak. Baring went to the window and stood there for some seconds, with his back to her. She noted his height and breadth of shoulder with a faint sense of pleasure. She had always admired this man. Secretly—his habitual kindness to her notwithstanding—she was also a little afraid of him, but her fear did not trouble her just then.
He turned quietly at length and seated himself near the window.
"How long does your uncle expect to be away?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"I never know; he may come back to-morrow, or perhaps not for days."
Baring's black brows drew together.
"Where is he?" he asked. She shook her head again.
He said nothing; but his silence was so condemnatory that she felt herself called upon to defend the absent one.
"You see, he came here in the first place because I begged so very hard. And he has to travel because of his book. I always knew that, so I really can't complain. Besides, I'm not generally lonely, and hardly ever nervous. And I have Ronnie."
"Ronnie!" said Baring; and for the first time he looked contemptuous.
"It's quite my own fault," she said humbly. "If I hadn't—"
"Pardon me! It is not your fault," he interrupted grimly. "It is iniquitous that a girl like you should be left in such a place as this entirely without protection. Have you a revolver?"
Hope looked startled.
"Oh, no!" she said. "If I had, I should never dare to use it, even if I knew how."
Baring looked at her, still frowning.
"I think you are braver than that," he said.
Hope flushed vividly, and rose.
"No," she said, a note of defiance in her voice. "I'm a miserable coward, Major Baring. But no one knows it but you and, perhaps, one other. So I hope you won't give me away."
Baring did not smile.
"Who else knows it?" he asked.
Hope met his eyes steadily. She was evidently resolved to be weak no longer.
"It doesn't matter, does it?" she said.
He did not answer her; and again she had a feeling that he was offended.
There was a considerable pause before he spoke again. He seemed to be revolving something in his mind. Then at last, abruptly, he began to talk upon ordinary topics, and at once she felt more at her ease with him. They sat by the window after that for the best part of an hour; till, in fact, the return of her brother put an end to their tete-a-tete.
By those who were least intimate with the Carteret twins it was often said that in feature they were exactly alike. Those who knew them better saw no more than a very strong resemblance in form and colouring, but it went no farther. In expression they differed utterly. The boy's face lacked the level-browed honesty that was so conspicuous in the girl's. His mouth was irresolute. His eyes were uncertain. Yet he was a good-looking boy, notwithstanding these defects. He had a pleasant laugh and winning manner, and was essentially kind-hearted, if swift to take offence.
He came in through the window, walking rather heavily, and halted just inside the room, blinking, as if the light dazzled him. Baring gave him a single glance that comprehended him from head to foot, and rose from his chair.
Again it seemed to Hope that she saw contempt upon his face; and a rush of indignation checked the quick words of welcome upon her lips.
Her brother spoke first, and his words sounded rather slurred, as if he had been running.
"Hullo!" he said. "Here you are! Don't get up! I expected to find you!"
He addressed Baring, who replied instantly, and with extreme emphasis:
"That I am sure you did not."
Ronnie started, and put his hand to his eyes as if confused.
"Beg pardon," he said, a moment later, in an odd tone of shame. "I thought it was Hyde. The light put me off. It—it's Major Baring, isn't it?"
"Yes; Baring." Baring repeated his own name deliberately; and, as by a single flash of revelation Hope understood the meaning of his contempt.
She stood as if turned to stone. She had often seen Ronnie curiously excited, even incoherently so, before that night, but she had never seen him like this. She had never imagined before for a single instant what now she abruptly knew without the shadow of a doubt.
A feeling that was like physical sickness came over her. She looked from Ronnie to Ronnie's major with a sort of piteous appeal. Baring turned gravely towards her.
"You will let me have a word alone with your brother?" he said quietly. "I was waiting to see him, as you know."
She felt that he had given her a definite command, and she obeyed it mutely, almost mechanically. He opened the door for her, and she went out in utter silence, sick at heart.
MORE THAN A FRIEND
Two days later Hope received an invitation from Mrs. Latimer to join her at the Hill Station for a few weeks.
She hesitated, for her brother's sake, to accept it, but he, urged thereto by some very plain speaking from his major, persuaded her so strongly that she finally yielded.
Though she would not have owned it, Hope was, in fact, in sore need of this change. The heat had told upon her nerves and spirits. She had had no fever, but she was far from well, as her friend, Mrs. Latimer, realized as soon as she saw her.
She at once prescribed complete rest, and the week that followed was to Hope the laziest and the most peaceful that she had ever known. She was always happy in Mrs. Latimer's society, and she had no desire just then for gaiety. The absolute freedom from care acted upon her like a tonic, and she very quickly began to recover her usual buoyant health.
The colonel's wife watched her unobserved. She had by her a letter, written in the plain language of a man who knew no other, and she often referred to this letter when she was alone; for there seemed to be something between the lines, notwithstanding its plainness.
As a result of this suspicion, when Hope rode back in Mrs. Latimer's rickshaw from an early morning service at the little English church on the hill, on the second Sunday after her arrival, a big figure, clad in white linen, rose from a charpoy in Mrs. Latimer's veranda, and stepped down bareheaded to receive her.
Hope's face, as she recognized the visitor, flushed so vividly that she was aware of it, and almost feared to meet his eyes. But he spoke at once, and thereby set her at her ease.
"That's much better," he said approvingly, as if he had only parted from her the day before. "I was afraid you were going on the sick-list, but I see you have thought better of it. Very wise of you."
She met his smile with a feeling of glad relief.
"How is Ronnie?" she said.
He laughed a little at the hasty question.
"Ronnie is quite well, and sends his love. He is going to have a five days' leave next week to come and see you. It would have been this week, but for me."
Hope looked up at him enquiringly.
"You see," he quietly explained, "I was coming myself, and—it will seem odd to you, of course—I didn't want Ronnie."
Hope was silent. There was something in his manner that baffled her.
"Selfish of me, wasn't it?" he said.
"I don't know," said Hope.
"It was, I assure you," he returned; "sheer selfishness on my part. Are we going to breakfast on the veranda? You will have to do the honours, I know. Mrs. Latimer is still in bed."
Hope sat down thoughtfully. She had never seen Major Baring in this light-hearted mood. She would have enjoyed it, but for the thought of Ronnie.
"Wasn't he disappointed?" she asked presently.
"Horribly," said Baring. "He turned quite green when he heard. I don't think I had better tell you what he said."
He was watching her quietly across the table, and she knew it. After a moment she raised her eyes.
"Yes; tell me what he said, Major Baring!" she said.
"Not yet," said Baring. "I am waiting to hear you tell me that you are even more bitterly disappointed than he was."
"I don't see how I can tell you that," said Hope, turning her attention to the coffee-urn.
"No? Why not?"
"Because it wouldn't be very friendly," she answered gravely.
"Do you know, I almost dared to fancy it was because it wouldn't be true?" said Baring.
She glanced up at that, and their eyes met. Though he was smiling a little, there was no mistaking the message his held for her. She coloured again very deeply, and bent her head to hide it.
He did not keep her waiting. Very quietly, very resolutely, he leaned towards her across the table, and spoke.
"I will tell you now what your brother said to me, Hope," he said, his voice half-quizzical, half-tender. "He's an impertinent young rascal, but I bore with him for your sake, dear. He said: 'Go in and win, old fellow, and I'll give you my blessing!' Generous of him, wasn't it? But the question is, have I won?"
Yet she could not speak. Only as he stretched out his hands to her, she laid her own within them without an instant's hesitation, and suffered them to remain in his close grasp. When he spoke to her again, his voice was sunk very low.
"How did I come to propose in this idiotic fashion across the breakfast-table?" he said. "Never mind, it's done now—or nearly done. You mustn't tremble, dear. I have been rather sudden, I know. I should have waited longer; but, under the circumstances, it seemed better to speak at once. But there is nothing to frighten you. Just look me in the face and tell me, may I be more than a friend to you? Will you have me for a husband?" Hope raised her eyes obediently, with a sudden sense of confidence unutterable. They were full of the quick tears of joy.
"Of course!" she said instantly. "Of course!" She blushed again afterwards, when she recalled her prompt, and even rapturous, answer to his question. But, at the time, it was the most natural and spontaneous thing in the world. It was not in her at that moment to have answered him otherwise. And Baring knew it, understanding so perfectly that no other word was necessary on either side. He only bent his head, and held her two hands very closely to his lips before he gently let them go. It was his sole reply to her glad response. Yet she felt as if there was something solemn in his action; almost as if thereby he registered a vow.
Notwithstanding her determination to return to Ghantala after the breaking of the monsoon. Hope stayed on at the Hill Station with Mrs. Latimer till the rains were nearly over. She had wished to return, but her hostess, her fiance, and her brother were all united in the resolve to keep her where she was. So insistent were they that they prevailed at length. It had been a particularly bad season at Ghantala, and sickness was rife there.
Baring even went so far as positively to forbid her to return till this should have abated.
"You will have to obey me when we are married, you know," he grimly told her. "So you may as well begin at once."
And Hope obeyed him. There was something about this man that compelled her obedience. Her secret fear of him had not wholly disappeared. There were times when the thought that she might one day incur his displeasure made her uneasy. His strength awed even while it thrilled her. Behind his utmost tenderness she felt his mastery.
And so she yielded, and remained at the Hill Station till Mrs. Latimer herself returned to Ghantala in October. She and Ronnie had not been together for nearly six weeks, and the separation seemed to her like as many months. He was at the station to meet them, and the moment she saw him she was conscious of a shock. She had never before seen him look so hollow-eyed and thin.
He greeted her, however, with a gaiety that, in some degree, reassured her. He seemed delighted to have her with him again, was full of the news and gossip of the station, and chattered like a schoolboy throughout the drive to their bungalow.
Her uncle came out of his room to welcome her, and then burrowed back again, and remained invisible for the rest of the evening. But Hope did not want him. She wanted no one but Ronnie just then.
The night was chilly, and they had a fire. Hope lay on a sofa before it, and Ronnie sat and smoked. Both were luxuriously comfortable till a hand rapped smartly upon the window and made them jump.
Ronnie exclaimed with a violence that astonished Hope, and started to his feet. She also sprang up eagerly, almost expecting to see her fiance. But her expectations were quickly dashed.
"It's that fellow Hyde!" Ronnie said, looking at her rather doubtfully. "You don't mind?"
Her face fell, but he did not wait for her reply. He stepped across to the window, and admitted the visitor.
Hyde sauntered in with a casual air.
He came across to her, smiling in the way she loathed, and almost before she realized it he had her hand in a tight, impressive grip, and his pale eyes were gazing full into hers.
"You look as fresh as an English rose," was his deliberate greeting.
Hope freed her hand with a slight, involuntary gesture of disgust. Till the moment of seeing him again she had almost forgotten how utterly objectionable he was.
"I am quite well," she said coldly. "I think I shall go to bed, Ronnie. I'm tired."
Ronnie was pouring some whisky into a glass. She noticed that his hand was very shaky.
"All right," he said, not looking at her.
"You're not going to desert us already?" said Hyde; still, as she felt, mocking her with his smile. "It will be dark, indeed, when Hope is withdrawn."
He went to the door, but paused with his hand upon it. She looked at him with the wild shrinking of a trapped creature in her eyes.
"Never mind," he laughed softly; "I am very tenacious. Even now—you will scarcely believe it—I still have—Hope!"
He opened the door with the words, and, as she passed through in unbroken silence, her face as white as marble, there was something in his words, something of self-assured power, almost of menace, that struck upon her like a breath of evil. She would have stayed and defied him had she dared. But somehow, inexplicably, she was afraid.
Very late that night there came a low knock at Hope's door. She was lying awake, and she instantly started up on her elbow.
"Who is it?" she called.
The door opened softly, and Ronnie answered her.
"I thought you would like to say good-night, Hope," he said.
"Oh, come in, dear!" Hope sat up eagerly. She had not expected this attention from Ronnie. "I'm wide awake. I'm so glad you came!"
He slipped into the room, and, reaching her, bent to kiss her; then, as she clung closely to him, he sat down on the edge of her bed.
"I'm sorry Hyde annoyed you," he said.
She leaned her head against him, and was silent.
"It'll be a good thing for you when you're married," Ronnie went on presently. "Baring will take better care of you than I do."
Something in his tone went straight to her heart. Her clinging arms tightened, but still she was silent. For what he said was unanswerable.
When he spoke again, she felt it was with an effort.
"Baring came round to-night to see you. I went out and spoke to him. I told him you had gone to bed, and so he didn't come in. I was glad he didn't. Hyde was there, and they don't hit it particularly well. In fact—" he hesitated. "I would rather he didn't know Hyde was here. Baring's a good chap—the best in the world. He's done no end for me; more than I can ever tell you. But he's awfully hard in some ways. I can't tell him everything. He doesn't always understand."
Again there sounded in his voice that faint, wistful note that so smote upon Hope's heart. She drew nearer to him, her cheek against his shoulder.
"Oh, Ronnie," she said, and her voice quivered passionately, "never think that of me, dear! Never think that I can't understand!"
He kissed her forehead.
"Bless you, old girl!" he whispered huskily.
"My marriage will make no difference—no difference," she insisted. "You and I will still be to each other what we have always been. There will be the same trust between us, the same confidence. Rather than lose that, I will never marry at all!"
She spoke with vehemence, but Ronnie was not carried away by it.
"Baring will have the right to know all your secrets," he said gloomily.
"Oh, no, no!" exclaimed Hope impulsively. "He would never expect that. He knows that we are twins, and there is no tie in the world that is quite like that."
Ronnie was silent, but she felt that it was not the silence of acquiescence. She took him by the shoulders and made him face her.
"Ronnie," she said very earnestly, "if you will only tell me things, and let me help you where I can, I swear to you—I swear to you most solemnly—that I will never betray your confidence to Monty, or to any one else: I know that he would never ask it of me; but even if he did—even if he did—I would not do it." She spoke so steadfastly, so loyally, that he was strongly moved. He thrust his arm boyishly round her.
"All right, dear old girl, I trust you," he said. "I'll tell you all about it. As I see you have guessed, there is a bit of a scrape; but it will be all right in two or three weeks. I've been a fool, and got into debt again. Baring helped me out once. That's partly why I'm so particularly anxious that he shouldn't get wind of it this time. Fact is, I'm very much in Hyde's power for the time being. But, as I say, it will be all right before long. I've promised to ride his Waler for the Ghantala Valley Cup next month. It's a pretty safe thing, and if I pull it off, as I intend to do, everything will be cleared, and I shall be out of his hands. It's a sort of debt of honour, you see. I can't get out of it, but I shall be jolly glad when it's over. We'll chuck him then, if he isn't civil. But till then I'm more or less helpless. So you'll do your best to tolerate him for my sake, won't you?"
A great sigh rose from Hope's heart, but she stifled it. Hyde's attitude of insolent power was explained to her, and she would have given all she had at that moment to have been free to seek Baring's advice.
"I'll try, dear," she said. "But I think the less I see of him the better it will be. Are you quite sure of winning the Cup?"
"Oh, quite," said Ronnie, with confidence. "Quite. Do you remember the races we used to have when we were kids? We rode barebacked in those days. You could stick on anything. Remember?"
Yes, Hope remembered; and a sudden, almost fierce regret surged up within her.
"Oh, Ronnie," she said, "I wish we were kids still!"
He laughed at her softly, and rose.
"I know better," he said; "and so does Baring. Good-night, old girl! Sleep well!"
And with that he left her. But Hope scarcely slept till break of day.
BEFORE THE RACE
Hope had arranged to go to the races with Mrs. Latimer after previously lunching with her.
When the day arrived she spent the morning working on the veranda in the sunshine. It was a perfect day of Indian winter, and under its influence she gradually forgot her anxieties, and fell to dreaming while she worked.
Down below the compound she heard the stream running swiftly between its banks, with a bubbling murmur like half-suppressed laughter. It was fuller than she had ever known it. The rains had swelled the river higher up the valley, and they had opened the sluice-gates to relieve the pressure upon the dam that had been built there after the disastrous flood that had drowned the English girl years before.
Hope loved to hear that soft chuckling between the reeds. It made her think of an English springtime. The joy of spring was in her veins. She turned her face to the sunshine with a smile of purest happiness. Only two months more to the zenith of her happiness!
There came the sound of a step on the veranda—a stumbling, uncertain step. She turned swiftly in her chair, and sprang up. Ronnie had returned to prepare for the race, and she had not heard him. She had not seen him before that day, and she felt a momentary compunction as she moved to greet him. And then—her heart stood still.
He was standing a few paces away, supporting himself against a pillar of the veranda. His eyes were fixed and heavy, like the eyes of a man walking in his sleep. He stared at her dully, as if he were looking at a complete stranger.
Hope stopped short, gazing at him in speechless consternation.
After several moments he spoke thickly, scarcely intelligibly.
"I can't race to-day," he said. "Not well enough. Hyde must find a substitute."
He could hardly articulate the last word, but Hope caught his meaning. The whole miserable tragedy was written up before her in plain, unmistakable characters.
But almost as quickly as she perceived it came the thought that no one else must know. Something must be done, even though it was at the eleventh hour.
Her first instinct was to send for Baring, but she thrust it from her. No! She must find another way. There must be a way out if she were only quick enough to see it—some way by which she could cover up his disgrace so that none should know of it. There was a way—surely there was a way! Ronnie's dull stare became intolerable. She went to him, bravely, steadfastly.
"Go and lie down!" she said. "I will see about it for you."
Something in her own words sent a sudden flash through her brain. She caught her breath, and her face turned very white. But her steadfastness did not forsake her. She took Ronnie by the arm and guided him to his room.
"Such a pity. Hope can't come!"
Mrs. Latimer addressed Baring, who had just approached her across the racecourse. The sun was shining brilliantly, and the scene was very gay.
Baring, who had drawn near with a certain eagerness, seemed to stiffen at her words.
"Can't come!" he echoed. "Why not?"
Mrs. Latimer handed him a note.
"She sent this round half an hour ago."
Baring read the note with bent brows. It merely stated that the writer had been working all the morning and was a little tired. Would Mrs. Latimer kindly understand and excuse her?
He handed it back without comment.
"Where is young Carteret?" he asked. "Have you seen him yet?"
"No," she answered. "Somebody was saying he was late. Ah! There he is, surely—just going into the weighing-tent. What a superb horse that is of Mr. Hyde's! Do you think he will win the Cup?"
Baring thought it likely, but he said it with so preoccupied an air that Mrs. Latimer smiled, and considerately refrained from detaining him.
She watched him walk down towards the weighing-tent; but before he reached it, she saw the figure of young Carteret issue forth at the farther end, and start off at a run with his saddle on his shoulder towards the enclosure where the racers were waiting. He was late, and she thought he looked flurried.
A few minutes later Baring returned to her.
"The boy is behindhand, as usual," he remarked. "I didn't get near him. Time is just up. I hear the Rajah thinks very highly of Hyde's Waler."
Mrs. Latimer looked across at the Indian Prince who was presenting the Cup. He was seated in the midst of a glittering crowd of natives and British officers. She saw that he was closely scanning the restless line of horses at the starting-point.
Through her glasses she sought the big black Waler. He was foaming and stamping uneasily, and she saw that his rider's face was deadly pale.