THE JUNGLE GIRL
Author of The Elephant God, etc.
I. THE GREY BOAR II. YOUTH CALLS TO YOUTH III. THE LOVE-SONG OF HAR DYAL IV. A CROCODILE INTERVENES V. SENTENCE OF EXILE VI. A BORDER OUTPOST VII. IN THE TERAI JUNGLE VIII. A GIRL OF THE FOREST IX. TIGER LAND X. A POLITICAL OFFICER IN THE MAKING XI. TRAGEDY XII. "ROOTED IN DISHONOUR" XIII. THE COURSE OF TRUE LOVE XIV. THE DEVIL DANCERS OF TUNA XV. A STRANGE RESCUE
THE GREY BOAR
Youth's daring courage, manhood's fire, Firm seat and eagle eye, Must he acquire who doth aspire To see the grey boar die.
—Indian Pigsticking Song.
Mrs. Norton looked contentedly at her image in the long mirror which reflected a graceful figure in a well-cut grey habit and smart long brown boots, a pretty face and wavy auburn hair under the sun-helmet. Then turning away and picking up her whip she left the dressing-room and, passing the door of her husband's bedroom where he lay still sleeping, descended the broad marble staircase of the Residency to the lofty hall, where an Indian servant in a long red coat hurried to open the door of the dining-room for her.
Almost at that moment a mile away Raymond, the adjutant of the 180th Punjaub Infantry, looked at his watch and called out loudly:
"Hurry up, Wargrave; it's four o'clock and the ponies will be round in ten minutes. And it's a long ride to the Palace."
He was seated at a table on the verandah of the bungalow which he shared with his brother subaltern in the small military cantonment near Rohar, the capital of the Native State of Mandha in the west of India. Dawn had not yet come; and by the light of an oil lamp Raymond was eating a frugal breakfast of tea, toast and fruit, the chota hazri or light meal with which Europeans in the East begin the day. He was dressed in an old shooting-jacket, breeches and boots; and as he ate his eyes turned frequently to a bundle of steel-headed bamboo spears leaning against the wall near him. For he and his companion were going as the guests of the Maharajah of Mandha for a day's pigsticking, as hunting the wild boar is termed in India.
He had finished his meal and lit a cheroot before Wargrave came yawning on to the verandah.
"Sorry for being so lazy, old chap," said the newcomer. "But a year's leave in England gets one out of the habit of early rising."
He pulled up a chair to the table on which his white-clad Mussulman servant, who had come up the front steps of the verandah, laid a tray with his tea and toast. And while he ate Raymond lay back smoking in a long chair and looked almost affectionately at him. They had been friends since their Sandhurst days, and during the past twelve months of his comrade's absence on furlough in Europe the adjutant had sorely missed his cheery companionship. Nor was he the only one in their regiment who had.
Frank Wargrave was almost universally liked by both men and women, and, while unspoilt by popularity, thoroughly deserved it. He was about twenty-six years of age, above medium height, with a lithe and graceful figure which the riding costume that he was wearing well set off. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, with good though irregular features, he was pleasant-faced and attractive rather than handsome. The cheerful, good-tempered manner that he displayed even at that trying early hour was a true indication of a happy and light-hearted disposition that made him as liked by his brother officers as by other men who did not know him so well. In his regiment all the native ranks adored the young sahib, who was always kind and considerate, though just, to them, and looked more closely after their interests than he did his own. For, like most young officers in the Indian Army, he was seldom out of debt; but soldierly hospitality and a hand ever ready to help a friend in want were the causes rather than deliberate extravagance on his own account. Taking life easily and never worrying over his own troubles he was always generous and sympathetic to others, and prompter to take up cudgels on their behalf than on his own. His being a good sportsman and a smart soldier added to his popularity among men; while all women were partial to the pleasant, courteous subaltern whom they felt to have a chivalrous regard and respect for them and who was as polite and attentive to an old lady as he was to the prettiest girl.
While admiring and liking the other sex Wargrave had hitherto been too absorbed in sport and his profession to have ever found time to lose his heart to any particular member of it, while his innate respect for, and high ideal of, womankind had preserved him from unworthy intrigues with those ready to meet him more than half-way. Even in the idleness of the year's furlough in England from which he had returned the previous day he had remained heart-whole; although several charming girls had been ready to share his lot and more than one pretty pirate had sought to make him her prize. But he had been blind to them all; for he was too free from conceit to believe that any woman would concern herself with him unasked. He had dined and danced with maid and young matron in London, ridden with them in the Row and Richmond Park, punted them down backwaters by Goring, Pangbourne and the Cleveden Woods, and flirted harmlessly with them in country houses after days with the Quorn and the Pytchley, and yet come back to India true to his one love, his regiment.
As Raymond watched him the fear of the feminine dangers in England for his friend suddenly pricked; and he blurted out anxiously:
"I say, old chap, you haven't got tangled up with any woman at home, have you? Not got engaged or any silly thing like that, I hope?"
"No fear, old boy," he replied, pouring out another cup of tea. "Far too hard up to think of such an expensive luxury as a wife. Been too busy, too, to see much of any particular girl."
"You had some decent sport, hadn't you?" asked his friend, with a feeling of relief in his heart.
"Rather. I told you I'd learnt to fly and got my pilot's certificate, for one thing. Good fun, flying. I wish I could afford a 'bus of my own. Then I had some yachting on the Solent and a lot of boating on the Thames. I put in a month in Switzerland, skiing and skating."
"Did you get any hunting?"
"Yes, at my uncle's place near Desford in Leicestershire. He gave me some shooting, too. It was all very well; but I was very envious when the regiment came here and you wrote and told me of the pigsticking you were getting. I've always longed for it. It's great sport, isn't it?"
"The best I know," cried Raymond enthusiastically. "Beats hunting hollow. You're not following a wretched little animal that runs for its life, but a game brute that will turn on you as like as not and make you fight for yours."
"It must be ripping. I do hope we'll have the luck to find plenty of pig to-day."
"Oh, we're sure to. The Maharajah told me yesterday they have marked down a sounder—that is, a herd—of wild pig in a nullah about seven miles the other side of the city, which is two miles away, so we have a ride of nine to the meet."
"That will make it a very hard day for our ponies, won't it?" asked Wargrave anxiously. "Eighteen miles there and back and the runs as well."
"Oh, that's all right. The Maharajah mounts us at the meet. We'll find his horses waiting there for us. Rawboned beasts with mouths like iron, as a rule; but good goers and staunch to pig."
"By Jove! The Maharajah must be a real good chap."
"One of the best," replied Raymond. "He is a man for whom I've the greatest admiration. He rules his State admirably. He commanded his own Imperial Service regiment in the war and did splendidly. He is very good to us here."
"So it seems. From what I gathered at Mess last night he appears to provide all our sport for us."
"Yes; he arranges his shoots and the pigsticking meets for days on which the officers of the regiment are free to go out with him. When we can travel by road he sends his carriages for us, lends us horses and has camels to follow us with lunch, ice and drinks wherever we go."
"What a good fellow he must be!" exclaimed Wargrave. "I am glad we get pigsticking here. I've always longed for it, but never have been anywhere before where there was any, as you know."
"It's lucky for us that the sport here is good; for without it life in Rohar would be too awful to contemplate. It's the last place the Lord made."
"It's the hardest place to reach I've ever known," said Wargrave. "It was a shock to learn that, after forty-eight hours in the train, I had two more days to travel after leaving the railway."
"How did you like that forty miles in a camel train over the salt desert? That made you sit up a bit, eh?"
"It was awful. The heat and the glare off the sand nearly killed me. You say there is no society here?"
"Society? The only Europeans here or in the whole State, besides those of us in the regiment, are the Resident and his wife."
"What is a Resident, exactly?"
"A Political Officer appointed by the Government of India to be a sort of adviser to a rajah and to keep a check on him if he rules his State badly. I shouldn't imagine that our fellow here, Major Norton, would be much good as an adviser to anybody. The only thing he seems to know anything about is insects. He's quite a famous entomologist. Personally he's not a bad sort, but a bit of a bore."
"What's his wife like?"
"Oh, very different. Much younger and fond of gaiety, I think. Not that she can get any here. She's a decidedly pretty woman. I haven't seen much of her; for she has been away most of the time, that the regiment has been here. She has relatives in Calcutta and stays a lot with them."
"I don't blame her," said Wargrave, laughing. "Rohar must be a very deadly place for a young woman. No amusements. No dances. No shops. And the only female society the wives of the Colonel and the Doctor."
"Luckily for Mrs. Norton she is rather keen on sport and is a good rider. You'll probably meet her to-day; for she generally comes out pigsticking with us, though she doesn't carry a spear. I've promised to take her shooting with us the next time we go. Hullo! here are the ponies at last. Are you ready, Frank?"
The two officers rose, as their syces, or native grooms, came up before the bungalow leading two ponies, a Waler and an Arab. Raymond walked over to the bundle of spears and selected one with a leaf-shaped steel head.
"Try this, Frank," he said. "See if it suits you. You don't want too long a spear."
His companion balanced it in his hand.
"Yes, it seems all right. I say, old chap, how does one go for the pig? Do you thrust at him?"
"No; just ride hard at him with the spear pointed and held with stiffened arm. Your impetus will drive the steel well home into him."
Mounting their ponies they started, the syces carrying the spears and following them at a steady run as they trotted down the sandy road leading to the city, where at the Palace they were to meet the Maharajah and the other sportsmen. The sky was paling fast at the coming of the dawn; and they could discern the dozen bungalows and the Regimental Lines, or barracks, comprising the little cantonment, above which towered the dark mass of a rocky hill crowned by the ruined walls of an old native fort. On either side of their route the country was flat and at first barren. But, as they neared the capital, they passed through cultivation and rode by green fields irrigated from deep wells, by hamlets of palm-thatched mud huts where no one yet stirred, and on to where the high embrasured walls of the city rose above the plain. Under the vaulted arch of the old gateway the ponies clattered, along through the narrow, silent streets of gaily-painted, wooden-balconied houses, at that hour closely shuttered, until the Palace was reached as the rising sun began to flush the sky with rose-pink.
The guard of sepoys at the great gate saluted as the two officers rode into the wide, paved courtyard lined by high, many-windowed buildings. In the centre of it a group of horsemen, nobles of the State or officials of the Palace in gay dresses and bright-coloured puggris, or turbans, with gold or silver-hilted swords hanging from their belts, sat on their restless animals behind the Maharajah, a pleasant-faced, athletic man in a white flannel coat, riding-breeches and long, soft leather boots, mounted on a tall Waler gelding. He was chatting with four or five other officers of the Punjaubis and raised his hand to his forehead as the newcomers rode up and lifted their hats to him.
"Good morning, Your Highness," said Raymond. "I hope we're not late. Let me present Mr. Wargrave of our regiment, who has just returned from England."
With a genial smile the Maharajah leant forward and held out his hand.
"I am glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Wargrave," he said, "and very pleased to see you out with us to-day. Are you fond of pigsticking?"
"I've never had the chance of doing any before, Your Highness," replied Frank, shaking his hand. "I'm awfully anxious to try it; but, being a novice, I'm afraid I'll only be in the way."
"I'm sure you won't," said the Maharajah courteously. His command of English was perfect. "Pigsticking is not at all difficult; and I hear that you are a good rider."
He looked at his watch and then, turning in the saddle, addressed another officer of the regiment who was chaffing Raymond for being late:
"Are we all here now, Captain Ross?"
"Yes, sir. These two lazy fellows are the last," replied Ross laughingly.
"Very well, gentlemen, we'll start."
He waved his hand; and at the signal two black-bearded sowars, or soldiers of his cavalry regiment, dashed by him and out through the Palace gates at a hard-gallop, leading the way past the guard, who turned out and presented arms as the Maharajah and the British officers, together with the crowd of nobles, officials and mounted attendants, followed at a smart pace. The city was now waking to life. From their windows the sleepy inhabitants stared at the party, mostly too stupefied at that hour to recognise and salute their ruler. Pot-bellied naked brown babies waddled on to the verandahs to gaze thumb in mouth at the riders. Pariah dogs, nosing at the gutters and rubbish-heaps that scented the air, bolted out of the way of the horses' hoofs.
As the sportsmen passed out of the city gates the sun was rising above the horizon, the terrible Hot Weather sun of India, whose advent ushers in the long hours of gasping, breathless heat. For a mile or so the route lay through fertile gardens and fields. Then suddenly the cultivation ended abruptly on the edge of a sandy desert that, seamed with nullahs, or deep, steep-sided ravines, and dotted with tall clumps of thorny cactus, stretched away to the horizon. The road became a barely discernible track; but the two sowars cantered on, confidently heading for the spot where the fresh horses awaited the party.
Over the sand the riders swept, past a slow-plodding elephant lumbering back to the city with a load of fodder, by groups of tethered camels. Hares started up in alarm and bounded away, grey partridges whirred up and yellow-beaked minas flew off chattering indignantly. The slight morning coolness soon vanished; and Wargrave, soft and somewhat out of condition after his weeks of shipboard life, wiped his streaming face often before the guiding sowars threw up their hands in warning and vanished slowly from sight as their sure-footed horses picked their way down a steep nullah. This was the ravine in which the quarry hid. One after another of the riders followed the leaders down the narrow track, trotted across the sandy, rock-strewn river-bed and climbed up the far side to where the fresh horses and a picturesque mob of wild-looking beaters stood awaiting them.
Among the animals Wargrave noticed a smart grey Arab pony with a side-saddle.
"I see Mrs. Norton intends coming out with us," observed the Maharajah looking at the pony. "We must wait for her."
"It won't be for long, sir," said Raymond, pointing to a rising trail of dust on the track by which they had come. "I'll bet that is she."
All turned to watch the approaching rider draw near, until they could see that it was a lady galloping furiously over the sand.
"By Jove, she can ride!" exclaimed Wargrave admiringly. "I hope she'll see the nullah. She's heading straight for it."
A shouted warning caused her to pull up almost on the brink; and in a few minutes she joined the waiting group. Wargrave looked with interest at her, as she sat on her panting horse talking to the Maharajah and the other officers, who had dismounted.
Mrs. Norton was a decidedly graceful and pretty woman. The rounded curves of her shapely figure were set off to advantage by her riding-costume. Her eyes were especially attractive, greenish-grey eyes fringed by long black lashes under curved dark brows contrasting with the warm auburn tint of the hair that showed under her sunhat. Her complexion was dazzlingly fair. Her mouth was rather large and voluptuous with full red lips and even white teeth. Bewitching dimples played in the pink cheeks. Even from a man like Wargrave, fresh from England and consequently more inclined to be critical of female beauty than were his comrades, who for many months had seen so few white women, Mrs. Norton's good looks could justly claim full meed of admiration and approval.
Accepting Captain Ross's aid she slipped lightly from her saddle to the ground and on foot looked as graceful as she did when mounted. Raymond brought his friend to her and introduced him.
Holding out a small and shapely hand in a dainty leather gauntlet she said in a frank and pleasant manner:
"How do you do, Mr. Wargrave? You are a fortunate person to have been in England so lately. I haven't seen it for nearly three years. Weren't you sorry to leave it?"
"Not in the least, Mrs. Norton. I'd far sooner be doing this," he waved his hand towards the horses and the open desert, "than fooling about Piccadilly and the Park."
"Oh, but don't you miss the gaieties of town, the theatres, the dances? And then the shops and the new fashions—but you're a man, and they'd mean nothing to you."
The Maharajah broke in:
"Mrs. Norton, I think we had better mount. The beaters are going in; and the shikaris (hunters) tell me that the nullah swarms with pig. There are at least half a dozen rideable boar in it."
In pigsticking only well-grown boars are pursued, sows and immature boars being unmolested.
Ross started forward to help Mrs. Norton on to her fresh pony; but Wargrave refused to surrender the advantage of his proximity to her. So it was into his hand she put her small foot in its well-made riding-boot and was swung up by him.
The saddles of the rest of the party had been changed on to the horses that the Maharajah had provided. The beaters streamed down the steep bank into the ravine which some distance away was filled with dense scrub affording good cover for the quarry. Forming line they moved through it with shrill yells, the blare of horns, the beating of tom-toms and a spluttering fire of blank cartridges from old muskets. The riders mounted and, spear in hand, eagerly watched their progress through the jungle. Wargrave found himself beside Mrs. Norton; but, after exchanging a few words, he forgot her presence as, his heart beating fast with a true sportsman's excitement, he strained his eyes for the first sight of a wild boar.
Suddenly, several hundred yards away, he saw a squat, dark animal emerge from the tangled scrub and, climbing up the nullah on their side, stride away over the sand with a peculiar bounding motion that reminded Wargrave of a rocking-horse. All eyes were turned towards the Maharajah, who would decide whether the animal were worthy of pursuit or not. He gazed after it for a few moments, then raised his hand.
At the welcome signal all dashed off after the boar at a furious gallop, opening out as they went to give play for their spears. Wild with excitement, Wargrave struck spurs to his horse, which needed no urging, being as filled with the lust of the chase as was the man on its back. Like a cavalry charge the riders thundered in a mad rush behind His Highness, whose faster mount carried him at once ahead of the rest. He soon overtook the boar. Lowering his spear-point the Maharajah bent forward in the saddle; but at the last moment the pig "jinked," that is, turned sharply at right angles to his former course, and bounded away untouched, while the baffled sportsman was carried on helplessly by his excited horse.
Wargrave, following at some distance to the Maharajah's right rear, saw to his mingled joy and trepidation the boar only a short way in front of him.
"Ride, ride hard!" cried Mrs. Norton almost alongside him.
Frank drove his spurs in; and the gaunt, raw-boned countrybred under him sprang forward. But just as it had all but reached the quarry, the latter jinked again and Wargrave was borne on, tugging vainly at the horse's iron jaws. But the boar had short shrift. With a rush Ross closed on it and before it could swerve off sent his spear deep into its side and, galloping on, turned his hand over, drawing out the lance. The pig was staggered by the shock but started to run on. Before it could get up speed one of the Indian nobles dashed at it with wild yells and speared it again.
The thrust this time was mortal. The boar staggered on a few steps, then stumbled and fell heavily to the ground. The hunters reined in their sweating horses and gathered round it.
"Not a big animal," commented the Maharajah, scrutinising it with the eye of an expert. "About thirty-four inches high, I think. But the tusks are good. They're yours, Captain Ross, aren't they?"
"Yes, Your Highness, I think so," replied Ross.
Pigsticking law awards the trophy to the rider whose spear first inflicts a wound on the boar.
"Better luck next time, Mr. Wargrave," said Mrs. Norton, riding up to him. "I thought you were sure of him when he jinked away from the Maharajah."
"To be quite candid I was rather relieved that I didn't get the chance, Mrs. Norton," replied the subaltern. "As I've never been out after pig before I didn't quite know what to do. However, I've seen now that it isn't very difficult; so I hope I'll get an opportunity later."
"You are sure to, Mr. Wargrave," remarked the Maharajah. "There are several boars left in cover; and the men are going in again."
The tatterdemalion mob of beaters was descending into the nullah; and soon the wild din broke out once more. A gaunt grey boar with long and gleaming tusks was seen to emerge from the scrub and climb the far bank of the ravine, where he stood safely out of reach but in full view of the tantalised hunters. But a string of laden camels passing over the desert scared him back again; and while the riders watched in eager excitement, he slowly descended into the nullah, crossed it and came up on the near side some hundreds of yards away.
The Maharajah raised his spear.
"Ride!" he cried.
"Go like the devil, Frank!" shouted Raymond, as the scurrying horsemen swept in a body over the sand and he found himself for a moment beside his friend. "He's a beauty. Forty inches, I'll swear. Splendid tusks."
Wargrave crouched like a jockey in the saddle as the riders raced madly after the boar. The Indians among them, wildly excited, brandished their lances and uttered fierce cries as they galloped along. Their Maharajah's speedier mount again took the lead; but even in India sport is democratic and his nobles, attendants and soldiers all tried to overtake and pass him. The white men, as is their wont, rode in silence but none the less keenly excited. Over sand and stones, past tall, prickly cactus-plants, in hot pursuit all flew at racing speed.
It was a long chase; for the old grey boar was speedy, cunning, and a master of wiles. First one pursuer, then another, then a third and a fourth, found himself almost upon the quarry and bent down with outstretched, eager spear only to be baffled by a swift jink and carried on helplessly, pulling vainly at the reins.
At length a sudden turn threw out all the field except the Maharajah, who had foreseen it and ridden off to intercept the now tiring boar. Overtaking it he bent forward and wounded it slightly. The brute instantly swung in upon his horse, and with a fierce grunt dashed under it and leapt up at it with a toss of the head that gave an upward thrust to the long, curved tusk. In an instant the horse was ripped open and brought crashing to the ground, pinning its rider's leg to the earth beneath it. The boar turned again, marked the prostrate man, and with a savage gleam in its little eyes charged the Maharajah, its gleaming ivory tusks, six inches long, as sharp and deadly as an Afridi's knife.
YOUTH CALLS TO YOUTH
But at that moment a shout made the boar hesitate, and Raymond dashed in on it at racing speed, driving his spear so deeply into its side that, as he swept on, the tough bamboo broke like match-wood. The stricken beast tottered forward a yard or two, then turned and stood undauntedly at bay, as a sowar rode at it. But before his steel could touch its hide it shuddered and sank to the ground dead.
The dying horse was lifted off the Maharajah who, with the courage of his race, had remained calm in the face of the onrushing death. He was assisted to rise, but was so severely shaken and bruised that at first he was unable to stand without support. Leaning on the arm of one of his nobles he held out his hand to Raymond, when the latter rode up, and thanked him gratefully for his timely aid. Then the exhausted but gallant prince sat down on the sand to recover himself. But he assured everyone that he was not hurt and, insisting that the sport should go on, gave orders for the beat to continue.
Wargrave had chanced to dismount to tighten the girth of Mrs. Norton's horse, when a fresh boar broke from cover and was instantly pursued by all the others of the hunt. The subaltern ruefully accepted the lady's apologies and hurriedly swung himself up into the saddle again to follow, when his companion cried:
"Look! Look, Mr. Wargrave! There's another. Come, we'll have him all to ourselves."
And striking her pony with her gold-mounted whip she dashed off at a gallop after a grey old boar that had craftily kept close in cover and crept out quietly after the beaters had passed. Wargrave, filled with excitement, struck spurs to his mount and raced after her, soon catching up and passing her. Over the sand pitted with holes and strewn with loose stones they raced, the boar bounding before them with rocking motion and leading them in a long, stern chase. Again and again the beast swerved; but at last with a fierce thrill Wargrave felt the steel head of the spear strike home in the quarry. As he was carried on past it he withdrew the weapon, then pulled his panting horse round. The boar was checked; but the wound only infuriated him and aroused his fighting ardour. He dashed at Mrs. Norton; but, as Frank turned, the game brute recognised the more dangerous adversary, and with a fierce grunt charged savagely at him. Wargrave plunged his spurs into his horse, which sprang forward, just clearing the boar's snout, as the rider leant well out and speared the pig through the heart. Then with a wild, exultant whoop the subaltern swung round in the saddle and saw the animal totter forward and collapse on the sand. Only a sportsman could realise his feeling of triumph at the fall of his first boar.
Mrs. Norton was almost as excited as he, her sparkling eyes and face flushed a becoming pink, making her even prettier in his eyes as she rode up and congratulated him.
"Well done, Mr. Wargrave!" she cried, trotting up to where he sat on his panting horse over the dead boar. "You did that splendidly! And the very first time you've been out pigsticking, too!"
"It was just luck," replied the subaltern modestly, not ill-pleased at her praise.
"What a glorious run he gave us!" she continued. "And we had it all to ourselves, which made it better. I'm always afraid of the Maharajah's followers, for in a run they ride so recklessly and carry their spears so carelessly that it's a wonder they don't kill someone every time. Will you help me down, please? I must give Martian a rest after that gallop."
With Wargrave's aid she dropped lightly to the ground; and he remarked again with admiration the graceful lines and rounded curves of her figure as she walked to the dead boar and touched the tusks.
"What a splendid pair! You are lucky," she exclaimed. "The biggest anyone has got yet this season."
"I hope you'll allow me to offer them to you," said Wargrave generously, although it cost him a pang to surrender the precious trophy. "You deserve them, for you rode so well after the boar and I believe you'd have got him if you'd carried a spear."
"No, indeed, Mr. Wargrave; I wouldn't dream of taking them," she replied, laughing; "but I appreciate the nobility of your self-denial. This is your first pig; and I know what that means to a man. Now we must find a sowar to get the coolies to bring the boar in. But I wonder where we are. Where is everyone?"
Wargrave looked about him and for the first time realised that they were far out in the desert without a landmark to guide them. On every side the sand stretched away to the horizon, its flat expanse broken only by clumps of bristling cactus or very rarely the tall stem of a palm tree. Of the others of the party there was no sign. His companion and he seemed to be alone in the world; and he began to wonder apprehensively if they were destined to undergo the unpleasant experience of being lost in the desert. The sun high overhead afforded no help; and Wargrave remembered neither the direction of the city nor where lay the ravine in which the beat had taken place.
"You don't happen to know where we are, I suppose, Mrs. Norton?" he asked his companion.
"I haven't the least idea. It looks as if we're lost," she replied calmly. "We had better wait quietly where we are instead of wandering about trying to find our way. When we are missed the Maharajah will probably send somebody to look for us."
"I daresay you're right," said Wargrave. "You know more about the desert than I do. By Jove, I'd give anything to come across the camel that Raymond tells me brings out drinks and ice. My throat is parched. Aren't you very thirsty?"
"Terribly so. Isn't the heat awful?" she exclaimed, trying to fan herself with the few inches of cambric and lace that represented a handkerchief.
"Awful. The blood seems to be boiling in my head," gasped the subaltern. "I've never felt heat like this anywhere else in India. But, thank goodness, it seems to be clouding over. That will make it cooler."
Mrs. Norton looked around. A dun veil was being swiftly drawn up over sun and sky and blotting out the landscape.
"Good gracious! There's worse trouble coming. That's a sandstorm," she cried, for the first time exhibiting a sign of nervousness.
"Good heavens, how pleasant! Are we going to be buried under a mound of sand, like the pictures we used to have in our schoolbooks of caravans overwhelmed in the Sahara?"
Mrs. Norton smiled.
"Not quite as bad as that," she answered. "But unpleasant enough, I assure you. If only we had any shelter!"
Wargrave looked around desperately. He had hitherto no experience of desert country; and the sudden darkness and the grim menace of the approaching black wall of the sandstorm seemed to threaten disaster. He saw a thick clump of cactus half a mile away.
"We'd better make for that," he said, pointing to it. "It will serve to break the force of the wind if we get to leeward of it. Let's mount."
He put her on her horse and then swung himself up into the saddle. Together they raced for the scant shelter before the dark menace overspreading earth and sky. The sun was now hidden; but that brought no relief, for the heat was even more stifling and oppressive than before. The wind seemed like a blast of hot air from an opened furnace door.
Pulling up when they reached the dense thicket of cactus with its broad green leaves studded with cruel thorns, Wargrave jumped down and lifted Mrs. Norton from the saddle. The horses followed them instinctively, as they pressed as closely as they could to the shelter of the inhospitable plant. The animals turned their tails towards the approaching storm and instinctively huddled against their human companions in distress. Wargrave took off his jacket and spread it around Mrs. Norton's head, holding her to him.
With a shrill wail the dark storm swept down upon them, and a million sharp particles of sand beat on them, stinging, smothering, choking them. The horses crowded nearer to the man, and the woman clung tighter to him as he wrapped her more closely in the protecting cloth. He felt suffocated, stifled, his lungs bursting, his throat burning, while every breath he drew was laden with the irritating sand. It penetrated through all the openings of his clothing, down his collar, inside his shirt, into his boots. The heat was terrific, unbearable, the darkness intense. Wargrave began to wonder if his first apprehensions were not justified, if they could hope to escape alive or were destined to be buried under the stifling pall that enveloped them. He felt against him the soft body of the woman clinging desperately to him; and the warm contact thrilled him. A feeling of pity, of tenderness for her awoke in him at the thought that this young and attractive being was fated perhaps to perish by so awful a death. And instinctively, unconsciously, he held her closer to him.
For minutes that seemed hours the storm continued to shriek and roar over and around them. But at length the choking waves began to diminish in density and slowly, gradually, the deadly, smothering pall was lifted from them. The black wall passed on and Wargrave watched it moving away over the desert. The storm had lasted half an hour, but the subaltern believed its duration to have been hours. The fine grit had penetrated into the case of his wrist-watch and stopped it. A cool, refreshing breeze sprang up. Pulling his jacket off Mrs. Norton's head, Wargrave said:
"It's all over at last."
"Oh, thank God!" she exclaimed fervently, standing erect and drawing a deep breath of cool air into her labouring lungs. "I thought I was going to be smothered."
"It was a decidedly unpleasant experience and one I don't want to try again. My throat is parched; I must have swallowed tons of sand. And look at the state I'm in!"
He was powdered thick with it, clothes, hair, eyebrows, grey with it. It had caked on his face damp with perspiration.
"Thanks to your jacket I've escaped pretty well, although I was almost suffocated," she said. "Well, now that it is over surely someone will come to look for us."
"Then we had better get up on our horses and move out into the open. We'll be more visible," said Wargrave.
Yet he felt a strange reluctance to quit the spot; for the thought came to him that their unpleasant experience in it would henceforth be a link between them. A few hours before he had not known of this woman's existence! and now he had held her to his breast and tried to protect her against the forces of Nature. The same idea seemed born in her mind at the same time; for, when he had brushed the dust off her saddle and lifted her on to it, she turned to look with interest at the spot as they rode away from it.
They had not long to wait out in the open before they saw three or four riders spread over the desert apparently looking for them, so they cantered towards them. As soon as they were seen by the search party a sowar galloped to meet them and, saluting, told them that the Maharajah and the rest had taken refuge from the storm in a village a couple of miles away. Then from the kamarband, or broad cloth encircling his waist like a sash, he produced two bottles of soda-water which he opened and gave to them. The liquid was warm, but nevertheless was acceptable to their parched throats.
They followed their guide at a gallop and soon were being welcomed by the rest of the party in a small village of low mud huts. A couple of kneeling camels, bubbling, squealing and viciously trying to bite everyone within reach, were being unloaded by some of the Maharajah's servants. Other attendants were spreading a white cloth on the ground by a well under a couple of tall palm-trees and laying on it an excellent cold lunch for the Europeans, with bottles of champagne standing in silver pails filled with ice.
As soon as his anxiety on Mrs. Norton's account was relieved by her arrival, His Highness, who as an orthodox Hindu could not eat with his guests, begged them to excuse him and, being helped with difficulty on his horse, rode slowly off, still shaken and sorely bruised by his fall. His nobles and officials accompanied him.
After lunch all went to inspect the heap of slain boars laid on the ground in the shade of a hut. Wargrave's kill had been added to it. Much to the subaltern's delight its tusk proved to be the longest and finest of all; and he was warmly congratulated by the more experienced pigstickers on his success. Shortly afterwards the beaters went into the nullah again; and a few more runs added another couple of boars to the bag. Then, after iced drinks while their saddles were being changed back on to their own horses, the Britishers mounted and started on their homeward journey.
Without quite knowing how it happened Wargrave found himself riding beside Mrs. Norton behind the rest of the party. On the way back they chatted freely and without restraint, like old friends. For the incidents of the day had served to sweep away formality between them and to give them a sense of long acquaintanceship and mutual liking. And, when the time came for Mrs. Norton to separate from the others as she reached the spot where the road to the Residency branched off, the subaltern volunteered to accompany her.
It had not taken them long to discover that they had several tastes in common.
"So you like good music?" she said after a chance remark of his. "It is pleasant to find a kindred spirit in this desolate place. The ladies and the other officers of your regiment are Philistines. Ragtime is more in their line than Grieg or Brahms. And the other day Captain Ross asked me if Tschaikowsky wasn't the Russian dancer at the Coliseum in town."
"I know. I became very unpopular when I was Band President and made our band play Wagner all one night during Mess. I gave up trying to elevate their musical taste when the Colonel told me to order the bandmaster to 'stop that awful rubbish and play something good, like the selection from the last London revue.'"
"Are you a musician yourself?" she asked.
"I play the violin."
"Oh, how ripping! You must come often and practise with me. I've an excellent piano; but I rarely touch it now. My husband takes no interest in music—or indeed, in anything else I like. But, then, I am not thrilled by his one absorbing passion in life—insects. So we're quits, I suppose."
Their horses were walking silently over the soft sand; and Wargrave heard her give a little sigh. Was it possible, he wondered, that the husband of this charming woman did not appreciate her and her attractions as he ought?
She went on with a change of manner:
"When are you coming to call on me? I am a Duty Call, you know. All officers are supposed to leave cards on the Palace and the Residency."
"The call on you will be a pleasure, I assure you, not a mere duty, Mrs. Norton," said the subaltern with a touch of earnestness. "May I come to-morrow?"
"Yes, please do. Come early for tea and bring your violin. It will be delightful to have some music again. I have not opened my piano for months; but I'll begin to practise to-night. I have one or two pieces with violin obligato."
So, chatting and at every step finding something fresh to like in each other, they rode along down sandy lanes hemmed in by prickly aloe hedges, by deep wells and creaking water-wheels where patient bullocks toiled in the sun to draw up the gushing water to irrigate the green fields so reposeful to the eye after the glaring desert. They passed by thatched mud huts outside which naked brown babies sprawled in the dust and deer-eyed women turned the hand-querns that ground the flour for their household's evening meal. Stiff and sore though Wargrave was after these many hours of his first day in the saddle for so long, he thoroughly enjoyed his ride back with so attractive a companion.
When they reached the Residency, a fine, airy building of white stone standing in large, well-kept grounds, he felt quite reluctant to part with her. But, declining her invitation to enter, he renewed his promise to call on the following day and rode on to his bungalow.
When he was alone he realised for the first time the effects of fatigue, thirst and the broiling heat of the afternoon sun. But Mrs. Norton was more in his thoughts than the exciting events of the day as he trotted painfully on towards his bungalow.
The house was closely shut and shuttered against the outside heat, and Raymond was asleep, enjoying a welcome siesta after the early start and hard exercise. Wargrave entered his own bare and comfortless bedroom, and with the help of his "boy"—as Indian body-servants are termed—proceeded to undress. Then, attired in a big towel and slippers, he passed into the small, stone-paved apartment dignified with the title of bathroom which opened off his bedroom.
After his ablutions Wargrave lay down on his bed and slept for an hour or two until awakened by Raymond's voice bidding him join him at tea. Strolling in pyjamas and slippers into the sitting-room which they shared the subaltern found his comrade lying lazily in a long chair and attired in the same cool costume. The outer doors and windows of the bungalow were still closed against the brooding heat outside. Inside the house the temperature was little cooler despite the punkah which droned monotonously overhead.
Over their tea the two young soldiers discussed the day's sport, recalling every incident of each run and kill, until the servants came in to throw open the doors and windows in hope of a faint breath of evening coolness. The punkah stopped, and the coolie who pulled it shuffled away.
After tea Raymond took his companion to inspect the cantonment, which Wargrave had not yet seen, for he had not reached it until after dusk the previous day. It consisted only of the Mess, the Regimental Office, and about ten bungalows for the officers, single-storied brick or rubble-walled buildings, thatched or tiled. Some of them were unoccupied and were tumbling in ruins. There was nothing else—not even the "general shop" usual in most small cantonments. Not a spool of thread, not a tin of sardines, could be purchased within a three days' journey. Most of the food supplies and almost everything else had to be brought from Bombay. Around the bungalow the compounds were simply patches of the universal sands surrounded by mud walls. No flowers, no trees, not even a blade of grass, relieved the dull monotony. Altogether the cantonment of Rohar was an unlovely and uninteresting place. Yet it is but an example of many such stations in India, lonely and soul-deadening, some of which have not even its saving grace of sport to enliven existence in them.
After a visit to the Lines—the rows of single-storied detached brick buildings, one to a company, that housed the native ranks of the regiment—where the Indian officers and sepoys (as native infantry soldiers are called) rushed out to crowd round and welcome back their popular officer, Wargrave and Raymond strolled to the Mess. Here in the anteroom other British officers of the corps, tired out after the day's sport, were lying in easy chairs, reading the three days' old Bombay newspaper just arrived and the three weeks' old English journals until it was time to return to their bungalows and dress for dinner.
Early on the following afternoon Wargrave borrowed Raymond's bamboo cart and pony—for he had sold his own trap and horses before going on leave to England and had not yet had time to buy new ones—and drove to the Residency. When he pulled up before the hall-door and in Anglo-Indian fashion shouted "Boy!" from his seat in the vehicle, a tall, stately Indian servant in a long, gold-laced red coat reaching below the knees and embroidered on the breast with the Imperial monogram in gold, came out and held a small silver tray to him. Wargrave placed a couple of his visiting cards on it, and the gorgeous apparition (known as a chuprassi) retired into the building with them. While he was gone Wargrave looked with pleasure at the brilliant flower-beds, green lawn and tall plants and bushes glowing with colour of the carefully-tended and well-watered Residency garden, which contrasted strikingly with the dry, bare compounds of the cantonment.
In a minute or two the chuprassi returned and said:
Wargrave, hooking up the reins, climbed down from the trap, leaving Raymond's syce in charge of the pony, and entered the grateful coolness of the lofty hall. Here another chuprassi took his hat and, holding out a pen for him, indicated the red-bound Visitor's Book, in which he was to inscribe his name. Then one of the servants led the way up the broad staircase into a large and well-furnished drawing-room extending along the whole front of the building. Here Wargrave found Mrs. Norton awaiting him. She looked very lovely in a cool white dress of muslin—but muslin shaped by a master-hand of Paris. She welcomed him gaily and made him feel at once on the footing of an old friend.
She was genuinely glad to see him again. To this young and attractive woman, full of the joy of living, hardly more than a girl, yet married to a much older man, sober-minded, stolid and uncongenial to her, and buried in this dull and lonely station, Wargrave had appealed instantly. Youth calls to youth, and she hailed his advent into her monotonous life as a child greets the coming of a playfellow. With the other two ladies in Rohar she had nothing in common. Both were middle-aged, serious and spiteful. To them her youth and beauty were an offence; and from the first day of their acquaintance with her they had disliked her. As for the other officers of the regiment none of them attracted her; for, good fellows as they were, none shared any of her tastes except her love of sport. But in Wargrave she had already recognised a companion, a playmate, one to whom music, art and poetry appealed as they did to her.
On his side Frank, heart-whole but fond of the society of the opposite sex, was at once attracted by this charming member of it who had tastes akin to his own. Her beauty pleased his beauty-loving eye; and he would not have been man if her readiness to meet him on a footing of friendship had not flattered him. He had thought that a great drawback to life in Rohar would be the lack of feminine companionship; for the ladies of his regiment were not at all congenial, although he did not dislike them. But it was delightful to find in this desert spot this pretty and cultured woman, who would have been deemed attractive in London and who appeared trebly so in a dull and lonely Indian station. He had thought much of her since their meeting on the previous day; and although it never occurred to him to lose his heart to her or even attempt to flirt with her, yet he felt that her friendship would brighten existence for him in Rohar. Nor did the thought strike him that possibly he might come to mean more to Mrs. Norton than she to him. For, while he had his work, his duties, the goodfellowship of the Mess and the friendship of his comrades to fill his life, she had nothing. She was utterly without interests, occupation or real companionship in Rohar. Her husband and she had nothing in common. No child had come during the five years of their marriage to link them together. And in this solitary place where there were no gaieties, no distractions such as a young woman would naturally long for, she was lonely, very lonely indeed.
It was little wonder that she snatched eagerly at the promise of an interesting friendship. Wargrave stood out and apart from the other officers of the regiment; and his companionship during the uncomfortable incident of the sandstorm bulked unaccountably large in her mind. It seemed to denote that he was destined to introduce a new element into her life.
As they talked it was with increasing pleasure that she learnt they had so many tastes in common. She found that he played the violin well and was, moreover, the possessor of a voice tuneful and sympathetic, even if not perfectly trained. This made instant appeal to her and would have disposed her to regard him with favour even if she had not been already prepared to like him.
The afternoon passed all too quickly for both of them. Violet Norton had never enjoyed any hours in Rohar so much as these; and when, as she sat at the piano while Frank played an obligato, a servant came to enquire if she wished her horse or a carriage got ready for her usual evening ride or drive, she impatiently ordered him out of the room. When the time came for Wargrave to return to his bungalow to dress for dinner she begged him to stay and dine with her.
"I shall be all alone; and it would be a charitable act to take pity on my solitude," she said. "My husband is dining at your Mess to-night."
"Thank you very much for asking me," replied the subaltern. "I should have loved to accept your invitation; but it is our Guest Night and the Colonel likes all of us to be present at Mess on such evenings."
"Oh, I forgot!" she exclaimed. "I ought to have remembered; for Mr. Raymond told me the same thing only last week when I invited him informally. Well, you must come some other night soon."
Reluctant to part with her new playmate she accompanied him to the door and, to the scandal of the stately chuprassis, stood at it to watch him drive away and to wave him a last goodbye as he looked back when the pony turned out of the gate.
India is a land of lightning friendships between men and women.
THE LOVE-SONG OF HAR DYAL
The bugler was sounding the second mess-call as the Resident's carriage drew up before the steps of the Mess verandah on which stood all the officers of the regiment, dressed in the white drill uniform worn at dinner in India during the hot weather. From the carriage Major Norton, a stout, middle-aged man in civilian evening dress, descended stiffly and shook hands with the Commandant of the battalion, Colonel Trevor, who had come down the steps to meet him and whose guest he was to be.
On the verandah Wargrave was introduced to him by the Colonel and took his outstretched hand with reluctance; for Frank felt stirring in him a faint jealousy of the man who was Violet's legal lord and an indefinite hostility to him for not appreciating his charming wife as he ought. And while the Resident was shaking hands with the others Wargrave looked at him with interest.
Major Norton was a very ordinary-looking man, more elderly in appearance than his years warranted. He was bald and clean-shaved but for scraps of side-whiskers that gave him a resemblance to the traditional stage-lawyer of amateur theatricals, a likeness increased by his heavy and prosy manner. It was hard to believe that he had ever been a young subaltern, though such had once been the case, for the Indian Political Department is recruited chiefly from officers of the Indian Army. But he was never the gay and light-hearted individual that most junior subs. are at the beginning of their career. Even then he had been a sober and serious individual, favourably noted by his superiors as being earnest and painstaking. And now he was well thought of by the Heads of his Department; for his plodding and methodical disposition and his slavish adherence to rules and regulations had earned him the reputation of being an eminently "safe" man. How such a gay, laughter-loving, coquettish and attractive woman as Violet Dering came to marry one so entirely her opposite puzzled everyone who did not know the inner history of a girl, one of a large family of daughters, given "her chance in life" by being sent out to relatives in Calcutta for one season, with a definite warning not to return home unmarried under penalty of being turned out to face the world as a governess or hospital nurse. And Violet liked comfort and hated work.
During dinner Wargrave found himself instinctively criticising Norton's manner and conversation, and rapidly arrived at the conclusion that Raymond had described him accurately. The Resident, though a very worthy individual, was undoubtedly a bore; and Colonel Trevor, beside whom he sat, strove in vain to appear interested in his conversation. For he had heard his opinions on every subject on which Norton had any opinions over and over again. As the Resident was the only other European in the station he dined regularly at the Mess on the weekly Guest Night with one or other of the officers. He was not popular among them, but they considered it their duty to be victimised in turn to uphold the regiment's reputation for hospitality; and in consequence each resigned himself to act as his host.
After dinner, as the Resident played neither cards nor billiards, the Colonel sat out on the verandah with him, all the while longing to be at the bridge-table inside; and, as his guest was a strict teetotaller, he did not like to order a drink for himself. So he tried to keep awake and hide his yawns while listening to a prosy monologue on insects until the Residency carriage came to take Major Norton away.
When his guest had left, the Colonel entered the anteroom heaving a sigh of relief.
"Phew! thank God that's over!" he exclaimed piously. "Really, Norton becomes more of a bore every day. I'm sick to death of hearing the life-story of every Indian insect for the hundredth time. I'll dream of coleoptera and Polly 'optera and other weird beasties to-night."
The other officers looked up and laughed. Ross rose from the bridge-table and said:
"Come and take my place, sir; we've finished the rubber. Have a drink; you want something to cheer you up after that infliction. Boy! whiskey-soda Commanding Sahib ke waste lao. (Bring a whiskey and soda for the Commanding officer.)"
"You've my entire sympathy, Colonel," said Major Hepburn, the Second in Command. "It's my turn to ask the Resident to dinner next. I feel tempted to go on the sick-list to escape it."
"I say, sir, I've got a good idea," said an Irish subaltern named Daly, who was seated at the bridge-table. "Couldn't we pass a resolution at the next Mess meeting that in future no guests are ever to be asked to dinner? That will save us from our weekly penance."
The others laughed; but the Colonel, whose sense of humour was not his strong point, took the suggestion as being seriously meant.
"No, no; we couldn't do that," he said in an alarmed tone. "The Resident would be very offended and might mention it to the General when he comes here on his annual inspection."
The remark was very characteristic of Colonel Trevor, who was a man who dreaded responsibility and whose sole object in life was to reach safely the time when, his period of command being finished, he could retire on his full pension. He was always haunted by the dread that some carelessness or mistake on his part or that of any of his subordinates might involve him in trouble with his superiors and prevent that happy consummation of his thirty years of Indian service. This fear made him merciless to anyone under him whose conduct might bring the censure of the higher authorities on the innocent head of the Commanding Officer who was in theory responsible for the behaviour of his juniors. It was commonly said in the regiment that he would cheerfully give up his own brother to be hanged to save himself the mildest official reprimand. Perhaps he was not altogether to blame; for he was not his own master in private life. It was hinted that Colonel Trevor commanded the battalion but that Mrs. Trevor commanded him. And unfortunately there was no doubt that this lady interfered privately a good deal in regimental matters, much to the annoyance of the other officers.
Now, relieved of the incubus that had hitherto spoiled his enjoyment of the evening, the Colonel gratefully drank the whiskey and soda brought him by Ross's order and sat down cheerfully to play bridge. He always liked dining in the Mess, where he was a far more important person than he was in his own house.
It did not take Wargrave long to settle down again into the routine of regimental life and the humdrum existence of a small Indian station. But he had never before been quartered in so remote and dull a spot as Rohar. The only distractions it offered besides the shooting and pigsticking were two tennis afternoons weekly, one at the Residency, the other at the Mess. Here the dozen or so Europeans, who knew every line of each other's faces by heart gathered regularly from sheer boredom whether the game amused them or not. Neither Mrs. Trevor nor her bosom-friend Mrs. Baird, the regimental surgeon's better half, ever attempted it; but they invariably attended and sat together, usually talking scandal of Mrs. Norton as she played or chatted with the men. Mrs. Trevor's chief grievance against her was that the General Commanding the Division, when he came to inspect the battalion, took the younger woman in to dinner, for, as her husband the Resident was the Viceroy's representative, she could claim precedence over the wife of a mere regimental commandant. No English village is so full of petty squabbles and malicious gossip as a small Indian station.
Like everyone else in the land Wargrave hated most those terrible hours of the hot weather between nine in the morning and five in the afternoon. He and Raymond passed them, like so many thousands of their kind elsewhere, shut up in their comfortless bungalow, which was darkened and closely shuttered to exclude the awful heat and the blinding glare outside. Too hot to read or write, almost to smoke, they lay in long cane chairs, gasping and perspiring freely, while the whining punkah overhead barely stirred the heated air. One exterior window on the windward side of the bungalow was filled with a thick mat of dried and odorous kuskus grass, against which every quarter of an hour the bheestie threw water to wet it thoroughly so that the hot breeze that swept over the burning sand outside might enter cooled by the evaporation of the water.
But Frank found alleviation and comfort in frequent visits to the Residency, where Mrs. Norton and he spent the baking hours of the afternoon absorbed in making music or singing duets. For Violet had a well-trained voice which harmonised well with his. No thought of sex seemed to obtrude itself on them. They were just playmates, comrades, nothing more.
Yet it was only natural that the woman's vanity should be flattered by the man's eagerness to seek her society and by his evident pleasure in it. And it was delightful to have at last a sympathetic listener to all her little grievances, one who seemed as interested in her petty household worries or the delinquencies of her London milliner in failing to execute her orders properly as in her greater complaint against the fate that condemned a woman of her artistic and gaiety-loving nature to existence in the wilds and to the society of persons so uncongenial to her as were the majority of the white folk of Rohar.
To a man the role of confidant to a pretty woman is pleasant and flattering; and Wargrave felt that he was highly favoured by being made the recipient of her confidences. It never occurred to him that there might be danger in the situation. He regarded her only as a friend in need of sympathy and help. His chivalry was up in arms at the thought that she was not properly appreciated by her husband, who, he began to suspect, was inclined to neglect her and treat her as a mere chattel. The suspicion angered him. True, Violet had never definitely told him so; but he gathered as much from her unconscious admissions and revered her all the more for her bravery in endeavouring to keep silent on the subject.
Certainly Major Norton did not seem to him to be a man capable of understanding and valuing so sweet and rare a woman as this. After their introduction in the Mess Frank's next meeting with him was at his own table at the Residency, when in due course Wargrave was invited to dinner after his duty call. Raymond was asked as well; and the two subalterns were the only guests.
Their hostess looked very lovely in a Paris-made gown of a green shade that suited her colouring admirably. England did not seem to the young soldiers so very far away when this charming and exquisitely-dressed woman received them in her large drawing-room from which all trace of the East in furniture and decoration was carefully excluded. For the English in India try to avoid in their homes all that would remind them of the Land of Exile in which their lot is cast.
Major Norton came into the room after his guests, muttering an unintelligible apology. He shook hands with them with an abstracted air and failed to recall Wargrave's name. At table he asked Frank a few perfunctory questions and then wandered off into his inevitable subject, entomology, but finding him ignorant of and uninterested in it he engaged in a desultory conversation with Raymond. He soon tired of this and for the most part ate his dinner in silence. He never addressed his wife; and Wargrave, watching them, pitied her if her husband was as little companionable at meal-times when they were alone. He pictured her sitting at table every day with this abstracted and uncommunicative man, whose thoughts seemed far from his present company and surroundings and who was scarcely likely to exert himself to talk to and entertain his wife when he made so little effort to do so to his guests.
Determined that on this occasion at least his hostess should be amused Frank did his best to enliven the meal. He described to her as well as he could all that he remembered of the latest fashions in England, told her the plots of the newest plays at the London theatres, repeated a few laughable stories to make her smile and provoked Raymond, who had a dry humour of his own, to a contest of wit. Between them the two subalterns brightened up what had threatened to be a dull evening. Mrs. Norton laughed gaily and helped to keep the ball rolling; and even the host in his turn woke up and actually attempted to tell a humorous story. It certainly lacked point; but he seemed satisfied that it was funny, so his guests smiled as in duty bound. But Wargrave noted Mrs. Norton's look of astonishment at this new departure on the part of her husband and thought that there was something very pathetic in her surprise. When the meal was ended she laughingly declined to leave the men over their wine and stayed to smoke a cigarette with them.
When they all quitted the dining-room the Resident asked his guests to excuse him for returning to his study, pleading urgent and important work; and his wife led the subalterns up to the drawing-room and out on to the verandah that ran alongside its French windows. Here easy chairs and a table with a big lamp had been placed for them. As soon as they were seated one of the stately chuprassis brought coffee, while another proffered cigars and cigarettes and held a light from a silver spirit-lamp. Then both the solemn servitors departed noiselessly on bare feet.
After some conversation Mrs. Norton said to the adjutant:
"Do you remember, Mr. Raymond, that you have promised to take me out shooting one day?"
"I haven't forgotten," he replied; "but I was not able to arrange it, as the Maharajah had pigsticking meets fixed up for all our free days. But I don't think we'll have another for some time; for I hear that His Highness is laid up from the effects of his fall. So we might go out some day soon."
"Good. When shall we go?" asked Wargrave. "Let's fix it up now."
"What about next Thursday?" said his friend, turning to Mrs. Norton.
"Yes; that will suit me. Where shall we go?"
"There are a lot of partridge and a few hares, I'm told, near the tank at Marwa, where there is a good deal of cultivation," answered Raymond. Then turning to his friend he continued:
"You are not very keen on small game shooting, Frank; so you can bring your rifle and try for chinkara. I saw a buck and a couple of doe there not very long ago. A little venison would be very acceptable in Mess."
"The tank is about eight miles away, isn't it?" said the hostess. "I'll write to the Maharajah and ask him to lend us camels to take us out. My cook will put up a good cold lunch for us."
She rose from her chair and continued:
"Now, Mr. Wargrave, come and sing something. I've been trying over those new songs of yours to-day."
She led the way into the drawing-room and Raymond was left alone on the verandah to smoke and listen for the rest of the evening, while the others forgot him as they played and sang.
Suddenly he sat up in his chair and with a queer little pang of jealousy in his heart stared through the open window at the couple at the piano. He watched his friend's face turned eagerly towards his hostess. Wargrave was gazing intently at her as in a voice full of feeling and pathos, a voice with a plaintive little tone in it that thrilled him strangely, she sang that haunting melody "The Love Song of Har Dyal." Wistfully, sadly, she uttered the sorrowful words that Kipling puts into the mouth of the lovelorn Pathan maiden:
"My father's wife is old and harsh with years, And drudge of all my father's house am I. My bread is sorrow and my drink is tears, Come back to me, Beloved, or I die! Come back to me, Beloved, or I die!"
And the singer looked up into the eager eyes bent on her and sighed a little as she struck the final chords. Out on the verandah Raymond frowned as he watched them and wondered if this woman was to come between them and take his friend from him. Just then the bare-footed servants entered the room, carrying silver trays on which stood the whiskies and sodas that are the stirrup-cups, the hints to guests that the time of departure has come, of dinner-parties in India.
As the two subalterns drove home in Raymond's trap through the hot Indian night under a moon shining with a brilliance that England never knows, Wargrave hummed "The Love Song of Har Dyal."
Suddenly he said:
"She's wonderful, Ray, isn't she? Fancy such a glorious woman buried in this hole and married to a dry old stick like the Resident! Doesn't it seem a shame?"
The adjutant mumbled an incoherent reply behind his lighted cheroot.
Arrived in their bungalow they undressed in their rooms and in pyjamas and slippers came out into the compound, where on either side of a table on which was a lighted lamp stood their bedsteads, the mattress of each covered with a thin strip of soft China matting. For in the hot weather in many parts of India this must be used to lie upon instead of a linen sheet, which would become saturated with perspiration. Looking carefully at the ground over which they passed for fear of snakes they reached and lay down on their beds, over each of which a punkah was suspended from a cross-beam supported by two upright posts sunk in the ground. One rope moved both punkahs, and the motive power was supplied by a coolie who, salaaming to the sahibs and seating himself on the ground, picked up the end of the rope and began to pull. Raymond put out the lamp.
Wargrave stared up at the moon for a while. Then he said:
"I say, Ray; didn't Mrs. Norton look lovely to-night? Didn't that dress suit her awfully well?"
"Oh, go to sleep, old man. We've got to get up in a few hours for this confoundedly early parade. Goodnight," growled the adjutant, turning on his side and closing his eyes.
But he listened for some time to his friend humming "The Love Song of Har Dyal" again! and not until Frank was silent did he doze off. An hour later he woke up suddenly, bathed in perspiration and devoured by mosquitoes; for the punkahs were still—the coolie had gone to sleep. He called to the man and aroused him, then before shutting his eyes again he looked at his companion. The moon shone full on Wargrave's face. He was sleeping peacefully and smiling. Raymond stared at him for a few minutes. Then he muttered inconsequently:
"Confound the woman!"
And closing his eyes resolutely he fell asleep.
In the days that elapsed before the shoot at Marwa, Wargrave rode every afternoon to the Residency with the syce carrying his violin case, except when tennis was to be played. In their small community this could not escape notice and comment—not that it occurred to him to try to avoid either. The Resident did not object to the frequency of his visits; and Frank saw no harm in his friendship with Mrs. Norton. But others did; and the remarks of the two ladies of his regiment on the subject were venomously spiteful. But their censure was reserved for the one they termed "that shameless woman"; for like everyone else they were partial to Wargrave and held him less to blame.
His brother officers, although being men they were not so quick to nose out a scandal, could not help noticing his absorption in Mrs. Norton's society. One afternoon his Double Company Commander, Major Hepburn, walked into the compound of Raymond's bungalow and on the verandah shouted the usual Anglo-Indian caller's demand:
"Boy! Koi hai?" (Is anyone there?)
A servant hurried out and salaaming answered:
"Adjitan Sahib hai." (The adjutant is here).
"Oh, come in, Major," cried Raymond, rising from the table at which he was seated drinking his tea.
"Don't get up," said Hepburn, entering the room. "Is Wargrave in?"
"No, sir; he went out half an hour ago."
"Confound it, it seems impossible ever to find him in the afternoon nowadays," said the major petulantly. "I wanted him to get up a hockey match against No. 3 Double Company to-day. He used to be very keen on playing with the men; but since he came back from England he never goes near them. Where is he? Poodlefaking at the Residency, as usual?"
This is the term contemptuously applied in India to the paying of calls and other social duties that imply dancing attendance on the fair sex.
"I didn't see him before he went out, sir," was Raymond's equivocal reply. He loyally evaded a direct answer.
Hepburn shook his head doubtfully.
"I'm sorry about it. I hope the boy doesn't get into mischief. Look here, Raymond, you're his pal. Keep your eye on him. He's a good lad; and it would be a pity if he came to grief."
The adjutant did not answer. The major put on his hat.
"Well, I suppose I'll have to see to the hockey myself."
He left the bungalow with a curt nod to Raymond, who watched him pass out through the compound gate. Then the adjutant walked over to Wargrave's writing-table and stood up again in its place a large photograph of Mrs. Norton which he had hurriedly laid face downwards when he heard Hepburn's voice outside. He looked at it for a minute, then turned away frowning.
When the morning of the shooting party arrived Wargrave and Raymond, having sent their syces on ahead with their guns, rode at dawn to the Residency. In front of the building a group of camels lay on the ground, burbling, blowing bubbles, grumbling incessantly and stretching out their long necks to snap viciously at anyone but their drivers that chanced to come near them. At the hall-door Mrs. Norton stood, dressed in a smart and attractive costume of khaki drill, consisting of a well-cut long frock coat and breeches, with the neatest of cloth gaiters and dainty but serviceable boots. To their surprise her husband was with her and evidently prepared to accompany them. For he wore an old coat, knickerbockers and putties, from a strap over his shoulder hung a specimen box, and he was armed with all the requisite appliances for the capture and slaughter of many insects.
Avoiding the camels' vicious teeth the party mounted after exchanging greetings. Mrs. Norton and Wargrave rode the same animal; and Frank, unused to this form of locomotion, took a tight grip as the long-legged beast rose from the ground in unexpected jerks and set off at a jolting walk that shook its riders painfully. Then it broke into a trot equally disconcerting but finally settled into an easy canter that was as comfortable a motion as its previous paces had been spine-dislocating. The route lay at first over a space of desert which was unpleasant, for the sand was blown in clouds by a high wind, almost a gale. But the camels were fast movers and it did not take very long before they were passing through scrub jungle and finally reached the wide stretch of cultivation near Marwa.
The tank, as lakes are called in India, lay in the centre of a shallow depression, the rim of which all round was about four hundred yards from the water which, now half a mile across, evidently filled the whole basin in the rainy season. The strong breeze churned its surface into little waves and piled up masses of froth and foam against the bending reeds at one end of the tank, where, about fifty yards from the water's edge stood a couple of thorny trees, offering almost the only shade to be found for a long distance around. In the shallows were many yellow egrets, while a sarus crane stalked solemnly along the far bank, and everywhere bird-life, rare elsewhere in the State, abounded. The land all about was green, a refreshing change from the usual sandy and parched character of most of the country.
But beyond the tank the fields stretched away out of sight. At the edge of the cultivation the camels were halted and the party dismounted from them and separated. Mrs. Norton, who was a fair shot and carried a light 12-bore gun, started to walk up the partridges with Raymond, while her husband went to search the reeds and the borders of the lake for strange insects. Wargrave armed with a sporting Mannlicher rifle, set off on a long tramp to look for chinkara, which are pretty little antelope with curving horns. The wind, which was freshening, prevented the heat from being excessive.
The sport was fairly good. When lunch-time came the adjutant and Mrs. Norton had got quite a respectable bag of partridges and a few hares. The entomologist was in high spirits, for he had secured two rare specimens; and Wargrave had shot a good buck. So in a contented frame of mind all gathered under the trees near the end of the tank, where lunch was laid by a couple of the Residency servants on a white cloth spread on the ground. As they ate their tiffin (lunch) the members of the party chatted over the incidents of the morning; and each related the story of his or her sport.
After the meal Mrs. Norton decided to rest; for the ride and the long walk with her gun had tired her. The servants spread a rug for her under the trees and placed a camel saddle for her to recline against. Then carrying away the empty dishes, plates, glasses and cutlery they retired out of sight.
"Are you sure you don't mind being left alone, Mrs. Norton?" asked Wargrave.
"Not in the least. Do go and shoot again," she replied, smiling up at him. "I'm very comfortable and I'm glad to have a good rest before undertaking that tiresome ride back. It's very pleasant here. The wind comes so cool and fresh off the water. Isn't it strong, though?"
The breeze had freshened to a gale and under the trees the temperature was quite bearable. The Resident had already gone out of sight over the rim of the basin, having exhausted the neighbourhood of the tank and being desirous of searching farther afield. Wargrave and Raymond now followed him but soon separated, the latter making for the cultivation again, while his friend set off for the open plain. Ordinarily the heat would have been intense, for the hours after noon up to three o'clock or later are the hottest of the day in India; but the gale made it quite cool.
To Wargrave, tramping about unsuccessfully this time, came frequently the sound of Raymond's gun.
"Ray seems to be having all the luck," he thought, as through his field-glasses he scanned the plain without seeing anything. "I'm getting fed up."
At last in despair he shouldered his rifle and turned back. After a long walk he came in sight of the adjutant standing near the edge of the fields talking to Norton. When Frank reached them he found that his friend had increased his bag very considerably.
"Well done, old boy, you'd better luck than I had," he said. Then turning to the Resident he continued: "How have you done, sir?"
"Nothing of any value," replied Norton "Have you finished? We're thinking of going back now."
"Yes, sir; I'm through. By Jove, I'm thirsty. I could do with a drink, couldn't you, Ray?"
"Rather. My throat's like a lime-kiln. We'll join Mrs. Norton and then have an iced drink while the camels are being saddled."
They strolled towards the lake, which was hidden from their view by the rim of the basin. As they reached the slight ridge that this made all three stopped dead and gazed in amazement.
"What's happened to the tank?" exclaimed Raymond. "The water's almost up to the trees."
"Good God; My wife! Look! Look!" cried the Resident.
They stood appalled. The wide body of water had swept up to within a few yards of the trees under which Mrs. Norton lay fast asleep. And stealthily emerging from it a large crocodile was slowly, cautiously, crawling towards the unconscious woman.
A CROCODILE INTERVENES
Major Norton opened his mouth to cry a warning; but Wargrave grasped his arm and said hurriedly:
"Don't shout, sir! Don't wake her! She'd be too confused to move."
Then he thrust his field-glasses into the adjutant's hand.
"Watch for the strike of my bullet, Ray," he said.
He threw himself at full length on the ground and pressed a cartridge into the breech of his rifle. His companions stood over him as he cast a hurried glance forward and adjusted his sight, muttering:
"Just about four hundred yards."
The crocodile was nearly broadside on to him; and even at that distance he could see the scaly armour covering head, back and sides, that would defy any bullet. The unprotected spot behind the shoulder was hidden from him; the only vulnerable part was the neck. Wargrave laid his cheek to the butt and sighted on this.
The crocodile crept on inch by inch, dragging its limbs forward with the slow, stealthy movement of its kind when stalking their prey on land. The horrified watchers saw that the terrible snout with its protruding fangs was barely a yard from Mrs. Norton's feet. Raymond's hands holding the glasses to his eyes trembled violently. The Resident shook as with the palsy; and he stared in horror at the crawling death that threatened the sleeping woman.
As the rifle rang out the creeping movement ceased.
"You've hit him, I'll swear," cried Raymond. "I didn't see the bullet strike the ground."
Wargrave rapidly worked the bolt of his rifle, jerking out the empty case and pushing a fresh cartridge into the chamber. He fired again.
"That's got him! That must have got him!" exclaimed Raymond.
The crocodile lay still. Frank leapt to his feet and, rifle in hand, dashed down the incline. At that moment Mrs. Norton awoke, turned on her side, raised her body a little and suddenly saw the horrible reptile. She sat up rigid with terror and stared at it. The brute slowly opened its huge mouth and disclosed the cruel, gapped teeth. Then the iron jaws clashed together. With a shriek the woman sprang to her feet, but stood trembling, unable to move away.
"Run! Run!" shouted Wargrave, springing down the slope towards her.
Behind him raced Raymond, while her husband, who was unable to run fast, followed far behind.
Mrs. Norton seemed rooted to the spot. But she turned to Wargrave with outstretched arms and gasped:
"Save me, Frank! Save me!"
With a bound he reached her, and, as she clung to him convulsively, panted out:
"It's all right, dear. You're safe now."
He pushed her behind him, and bringing the rifle to his shoulder, faced the crocodile. The brute opened and shut its great jaws, seeming to gasp for air, while a strange whistling sound came from its throat. Its body appeared to be paralysed.
"It can't move. You've broken its spine," cried Raymond, as he reached them. "Your first shot it must have been. Look! Your second's torn its throat."
He pointed to the neck and went round to the other side. From a jagged, gaping wound where the expanding bullet had torn the throat, the blood spurted and air whistled out with a shrill sound.
Wargrave turned to Violet and took the terrified woman, who seemed on the point of fainting, in his arms.
"All right, little girl. It's all right. The brute's done for."
She pulled herself together with an effort and looked nervously at the crocodile. Then she released herself from Frank's clasp and said, smiling feebly:
"What a coward I am! I'm ashamed of myself. Where's John? Oh, here he is. Doesn't he look funny?"
The Resident, very red-faced and out of breath, had slowed down into a shambling walk and was puffing and blowing like a grampus. As he came up to them he spluttered:
"Is it safe? Is it dead?"
"It's harmless now, sir," answered Raymond. "It's still living but it can't move. The spine's broken, I think."
The Resident turned to his wife. The poor man had been in agony while she was in danger; but now that the peril had passed he could only express his relief in irritable scolding:
"How could you be so foolish, Violet?" he asked crossly. "The idea of going to sleep near the tank! Most unwise! You might have been eaten alive."
His wife smiled bitterly and glanced at the grumbling man with a contemptuous expression on her face.
"Yes, John, very inconsiderate of me, I daresay. But how was I to know that there was a mugger (crocodile) in the tank?"
Then for the first time she realised the nearness of the water.
"Good gracious! I thought I was much farther—how did I get so close to it? Did I slip down in my sleep?"
"No; there are the trees," said Raymond. "It's extraordinary. The whole tank seems to have shifted."
The Resident was mopping his bald scalp and lifted his hat to let the gusty wind cool his head. A sudden squall blew the big pith sun-helmet out of his hand. Wargrave caught it in the air and returned it to its owner.
"By Jove! it's a regular gale," he said. "I think I know what's happened. This wind's so strong that it's blown the water of the tank before it and actually shifted the whole mass thirty or forty yards this way."