The Way of an Eagle
By E.M. DELL
II.—A SOLDIER'S DAUGHTER
III.—THE VICTIM OF TREACHERY
V.—THE DEVIL IN THE WILDERNESS
VI.—WHEN STRONG MEN FAIL
VII.—THE COMING OF AN ARMY
IX.—THE SCHOOL OF SORROW
X.—THE EAGLE SWOOPS
XI.—THE FIRST FLIGHT
XIII.—THE VOICE OF A FRIEND
XIV.—THE POISON OF ADDERS
XVII.—An Old Friend
XIX.—A Hero Worshipper
XX.—News from the East
XXI.—A Harbour of Refuge
XXII.—An Old Story
XXIII.—The Sleep Called Death
XXIV.—The Creed of a Fighter
XXV.—A Scented Letter
XXVI.—The Eternal Flame
XXVII.—The Eagle Caged
XXVIII.—The Lion's Skin
XXIX.—Old Friends Meet
XXX.—An Offer of Friendship
XXXI.—The Eagle Hovers
XXXII.—The Face in the Storm
XXXIII.—The Lifting of the Mask
XXXIV.—At the Gate of Death
XXXVI.—The Eagle Strikes
XXXVII. THE PENALTY FOR SENTIMENT
XXXVIII. THE WATCHER OF THE CLIFF
XXXIX. BY SINGLE COMBAT
XL. THE WOMAN'S CHOICE
XLI. THE EAGLE'S PREY
XLII. THE HARDEST FIGHT OF ALL
XLIV. LOVE'S PRISONER
XLV. THE VISION
XLVI. THE HEART OF A MAN
XLVII. IN THE NAME OF FRIENDSHIP
XLVIII. THE HEALING OF THE BREACH
XLIX. THE LOWERING OF THE FLAG
LI. THE BIRD OF PARADISE
LII. A WOMAN'S OFFERING
LIII. THE LAST SKIRMISH
LV. OMNIA VINCIT AMOR
LVI. THE EAGLE SOARS
"There be three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:
The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid."
Proverbs xxx, 18-19.
THE WAY OF AN EAGLE
The long clatter of an irregular volley of musketry rattled warningly from the naked mountain ridges; over a great grey shoulder of rock the sun sank in a splendid opal glow; from very near at hand came the clatter of tin cups and the sound of a subdued British laugh. And in the room of the Brigadier-General a man lifted his head from his hands and stared upwards with unseeing, fixed eyes.
There was an impotent, crushed look about him as of one nearing the end of his strength. The lips under the heavy grey moustache moved a little as though they formed soundless words. He drew his breath once or twice sharply through his teeth. Finally, with a curious groping movement he reached out and struck a small hand-gong on the table in front of him.
The door slid open instantly and an Indian soldier stood in the opening. The Brigadier stared full at him for several seconds as if he saw nothing, his lips still moving secretly, silently. Then suddenly, with a stiff gesture, he spoke.
"Ask the major sahib and the two captain sahibs to come to me here."
The Indian saluted and vanished like a swift-moving shadow.
The Brigadier sank back into his chair, his head drooped forward, his hands clenched. There was tragedy, hopeless and absolute, in every line of him.
There came the careless clatter of spurred heels and loosely-slung swords in the passage outside of the half-closed door, the sound of a stumble, a short ejaculation, and again a smothered laugh.
"Confound you Grange! Why can't you keep your feet to yourself, you ungainly Triton, and give us poor minnows a chance?"
The Brigadier sat upright with a jerk. It was growing rapidly dark.
"Come in, all of you," he said. "I have something to say. As well to shut the door, Ratcliffe, though it is not a council of war."
"There being nothing left to discuss, sir," returned the voice that had laughed. "It is just a simple case of sitting tight now till Bassett comes round the corner."
The Brigadier glanced up at the speaker and caught the last glow of the fading sunset reflected on his face. It was a clean-shaven face that should have possessed a fair skin, but by reason of unfavourable circumstances it was burnt to a deep yellow-brown. The features were pinched and wrinkled—they might have belonged to a very old man; but the eyes that smiled down into the Brigadier's were shrewd, bright, monkey-like. They expressed a cheeriness almost grotesque. The two men whom he had followed into the room stood silent among the shadows. The gloom was such as could be felt.
Suddenly, in short, painful tones the Brigadier began to speak.
"Sit down," he said. "I have sent for you to ask one among you to undertake for me a certain service which must be accomplished, but which I—" he paused and again audibly caught his breath between his teeth—"which I—am unable to execute for myself."
An instant's silence followed the halting speech. Then the young officer who stood against the door stepped briskly forward.
"What's the job, sir? I'll wager my evening skilly I carry it through."
One of the men in the shadows moved, and spoke in a repressive tone. "Shut up, Nick! This is no mess-room joke."
Nick made a sharp, half-contemptuous gesture. "A joke only ceases to be a joke when there is no one left to laugh, sir," he said. "We haven't come to that at present."
He stood in front of the Brigadier for a moment—an insignificant figure but for the perpetual suggestion of simmering activity that pervaded him; then stepped behind the commanding officer's chair, and there took up his stand without further words.
The Brigadier paid no attention to him. His mind was fixed upon one subject only. Moreover, no one ever took Nick Ratcliffe seriously. It seemed a moral impossibility.
"It is quite plain to me," he said heavily at length, "that the time has come to face the situation. I do not speak for the discouragement of you brave fellows. I know that I can rely upon each one of you to do your duty to the utmost. But we are bound to look at things as they are, and so prepare for the inevitable. I for one am firmly convinced that General Bassett cannot possibly reach us in time."
He paused, but no one spoke. The man behind him was leaning forward, listening intently.
He went on with an effort. "We are a mere handful. We have dwindled to four white men among a host of dark. Relief is not even within a remote distance of us, and we are already bordering upon starvation. We may hold out for three days more. And then"—his breath came suddenly short, but he forced himself to continue—"I have to think of my child. She will be in your hands. I know you will all defend her to the last ounce of your strength; but which of you"—a terrible gasping checked his utterance for many labouring seconds; he put his hand over his eyes—"which of you," he whispered at last, his words barely audible, "will have the strength to—shoot her before your own last moment comes?"
The question quivered through the quiet room as if wrung from the twitching lips by sheer torture. It went out in silence—a dreadful, lasting silence in which the souls of men, stripped naked of human convention, stood confronting the first primaeval instinct of human chivalry.
It continued through many terrible seconds—that silence, and through it no one moved, no one seemed to breathe. It was as if a spell had been cast upon the handful of Englishmen gathered there in the deepening darkness.
The Brigadier sat bowed and motionless at the table, his head sunk in his hands.
Suddenly there was a quiet movement behind him, and the spell was broken. Ratcliffe stepped deliberately forward and spoke.
"General," he said quietly, "if you will put your daughter in my care, I swear to you, so help me God, that no harm of any sort shall touch her."
There was no hint of emotion in his voice, albeit the words were strong; but it had a curious effect upon those who heard it. The Brigadier raised his head sharply, and peered at him; and the other two officers started as men suddenly stumbling at an unexpected obstacle in a familiar road.
One of them, Major Marshall, spoke, briefly and irritably, with a touch of contempt. His nerves were on edge in that atmosphere of despair.
"You, Nick!" he said. "You are about the least reliable man in the garrison. You can't be trusted to take even reasonable care of yourself. Heaven only knows how it is you weren't killed long ago. It was thanks to no discretion on your part. You don't know the meaning of the word."
Nick did not answer, did not so much as seem to hear. He was standing before the Brigadier. His eyes gleamed in his alert face—two weird pin-points of light.
"She will be safe with me," he said, in a tone that held not the smallest shade of uncertainty.
But the Brigadier did not speak. He still searched young Ratcliffe's face as a man who views through field-glasses a region distant and unexplored.
After a moment the officer who had remained silent throughout came forward a step and spoke. He was a magnificent man with the physique of a Hercules. He had remained on his feet, impassive but observant, from the moment of his entrance. His voice had that soft quality peculiar to some big men.
"I am ready to sell my life for Miss Roscoe's safety, sir," he said.
Nick Ratcliffe jerked his shoulders expressively, but said nothing. He was waiting for the General to speak. As the latter rose slowly, with evident effort, from his chair, he thrust out a hand, as if almost instinctively offering help to one in sore need.
General Roscoe grasped it and spoke at last. He had regained his self-command. "Let me understand you, Ratcliffe," he said. "You suggest that I should place my daughter in your charge. But I must know first how far you are prepared to go to ensure her safety."
He was answered instantly, with an unflinching promptitude he had scarcely expected.
"I am prepared to go to the uttermost limit, sir," said Nicholas Ratcliffe, his fingers closing like springs upon the hand that gripped his, "if there is a limit. That is to say, I am ready to go through hell for her. I am a straight shot, a cool shot, a dead shot. Will you trust me?"
His voice throbbed with sudden feeling. General Roscoe was watching him closely. "Can I trust you, Nick?" he said.
There was an instant's silence, and the two men in the background were aware that something passed between them—a look or a rapid sign—which they did not witness. Then reckless and debonair came Nick's voice.
"I don't know, sir. But if I am untrustworthy, may I die to-night!"
General Roscoe laid his free hand upon the young man's shoulder.
"Is it so, Nick?" he said, and uttered a heavy sigh. "Well—so be it then. I trust you."
"That settles it, sir," said Nick cheerily. "The job is mine."
He turned round with a certain arrogance of bearing, and walked to the door. But there he stopped, looking back through the darkness at the dim figures he had left.
"Perhaps you will tell Miss Roscoe that you have appointed me deputy-governor," he said. "And tell her not to be frightened, sir. Say I'm not such a bogey as I look, and that she will be perfectly safe with me." His tone was half-serious, half-jocular. He wrenched open the door not waiting for a reply.
"I must go back to the guns," he said, and the next moment was gone, striding carelessly down the passage, and whistling a music-hall ballad as he went.
A SOLDIER'S DAUGHTER
In the centre of the little frontier fort there was a room which one and all of its defenders regarded as sacred. It was an insignificant chamber, narrow as a prison cell and almost as bare; but it was the safest place in the fort. In it General Roscoe's daughter—the only white woman in the garrison—had dwelt safely since the beginning of that dreadful siege.
Strictly forbidden by her father to stir from her refuge without his express permission, she had dragged out the long days in close captivity, living in the midst of nerve-shattering tumult but taking no part therein. She was little more than a child, and accustomed to render implicit obedience to the father she idolised, or she had scarcely been persuaded to submit to this rigorous seclusion. It would perhaps have been better for her physically and even mentally to have gone out and seen the horrors which were being daily enacted all around her. She had at first pleaded for at least a limited freedom, urging that she might take her part in caring for the wounded. But her father had refused this request with such decision that she had never repeated it. And so she had seen nothing while hearing much, lying through many sleepless nights with nerves strung to a pitch of torture far more terrible than any bodily exhaustion, and vivid imagination ever at work upon pictures more ghastly than even the ghastly reality which she was not allowed to see.
The strain was such as no human frame could have endured for long. Her strength was beginning to break down under it. The long sleepless nights were more than she could bear. And there came a time when Muriel Roscoe, driven to extremity, sought relief in a remedy from which in her normal senses she would have turned in disgust.
It helped her, but it left its mark upon her—a mark which her father must have noted, had he not been almost wholly occupied with the burden that weighed him down. Morning and evening he visited her, yet failed to read that in her haunted eyes which could not have escaped a clearer vision.
Entering her room two hours after his interview with his officers regarding her, he looked at her searchingly indeed, but without understanding. She lay among cushions on a charpoy of bamboo in the light of a shaded lamp. Young and slight and angular, with a pale little face of utter weariness, with great dark eyes that gazed heavily out of the black shadows that ringed them round, such was Muriel Roscoe. Her black hair was simply plaited and gathered up at the neck. It lay in cloudy masses about her temples—wonderful hair, quite lustreless, so abundant that it seemed almost too much for the little head that bore it. She did not rise at her father's entrance. She scarcely raised her eyes.
"So glad you've come, Daddy," she said, in a soft, low voice. "I've been wanting you. It's nearly bedtime, isn't it?"
He went to her, treading lightly. His thoughts had been all of her for the past few hours and in consequence he looked at her more critically than usual. For the first time he was struck by her pallor, her look of deathly weariness. On the table near her lay a plate of boiled rice piled high in a snowy pyramid. He saw that it had not been touched.
"Why, child," he said, a sudden new anxiety at his heart "you have had nothing to eat. You're not ill?"
She roused herself a little, and a very faint colour crept into her white cheeks. "No, dear, only tired—too tired to be hungry," she told him. "That rice is for you."
He sat down beside her with a sound that was almost a groan. "You must eat something, child," he said. "Being penned up here takes away your appetite. But all the same you must eat."
She sat up slowly, and pushed back the heavy hair from her forehead with a sigh.
"Very well, Daddy," she said submissively. "But you must have some too, dear. I couldn't possible eat it all."
Something in his attitude or expression seemed to strike her at this point, and she made a determined effort to shake off her lethargy. A spoon and fork lay by the plate. She handed him the former and kept the latter for herself.
"We'll have a picnic, Daddy." she said, with a wistful little smile. "I told ayah always to bring two plates, but she has forgotten. We don't mind, though, do we?"
It was childishly spoken, but the pathos of it went straight to the man's heart. He tasted the rice under her watching eyes and pronounced it very good; then waited for her to follow his example which she did with a slight shudder.
"Delicious, Daddy, isn't it?" she said. And even he did not guess what courage underlay the words.
They kept up the farce till the pyramid was somewhat reduced; then by mutual consent they suffered their ardour to flag. There was a faint colour in the girl's thin face as she leaned back again. Her eyes were brighter, the lids drooped less.
"I had a dream last night, Daddy," she said, "such a curious dream, and so vivid. I thought I was out on the mountains with some one. I don't know who it was, but it was some one very nice. It seemed to be very near the sunrise, for it was quite bright up above, though it was almost dark where we stood. And, do you know—don't laugh, Daddy, I know it was only a silly dream—when I looked up, I saw that everywhere the mountains were full of horses and chariots of fire. I felt so safe, Daddy, and so happy. I could have cried when I woke up."
She paused. It was rather difficult for her to make conversation for the silent man who sat beside her so gloomy and preoccupied. Save that she loved her father as she loved no one else on earth, she might have felt awed in his presence.
As it was, receiving no response, she turned to look, and the next instant was on her knees beside him, her thin young arms clinging to his neck.
"Daddy, darling, darling!" she whispered, and hid her face against him in sudden, nameless terror.
He clasped her to him, holding her close, that she might not again see his face and the look it wore. She began to tremble, and he tried to soothe her with his hand, but for many seconds he could find no words.
"What is it, Daddy?" she whispered at last, unable to endure the silence longer. "Won't you tell me? I can be very brave. You said so yourself."
"Yes," he said. "You will be a brave girl, I know." His voice quivered and he paused to steady it. "Muriel," he said then, "I don't know if you have ever thought of the end of all this. There will be an end, you know. I have had to face it to-night."
She looked up at him quickly, but he was ready for her. He had banished from his face the awful despair that he carried in his soul.
"When Sir Reginald Bassett comes—" she began uncertainly.
He put his hand on her shoulder. "You will try not to be afraid," he said. "I am going to treat you, as I have treated my officers, with absolute candour. We shall not hold out more than three days more. Sir Reginald Bassett will not be here in time."
He stopped. Muriel uttered not a word. Her face was still upturned, and her eyes had suddenly grown intensely bright, but he read no shrinking in them.
With an effort he forced himself to go on. "I may not be able to protect you when the end comes. I may not even be with you. But—there is one man upon whom you can safely rely whatever happens, who will give himself up to securing your safety alone. He has sworn to me that you shall not be taken, and I know that he will keep his word. You will be safe with him, Muriel. You may trust him as long as you live. He will not fail you. Perhaps you can guess his name?"
He asked the question with a touch of curiosity in the midst of his tragedy. That upturned, listening face had in it so little of a woman's understanding, so much of the deep wonder of a child.
Her answer was prompt and confident, and albeit her very lips were white, there was a faint hint of satisfaction in her voice as she made it.
"Captain Grange, of course, Daddy."
He started and looked at her narrowly. "No, no!" he said. "Not Grange! What should make you think of him?"
He saw a look of swift disappointment, almost of consternation, darken her eyes. For the first time her lips quivered uncertainly.
"Who then, Daddy? Not—not Mr. Ratcliffe?"
He bent his head. "Yes, Nick Ratcliffe. I have placed you in his charge. He will take care of you."
"Young Nick Ratcliffe!" she said slowly. "Why, Daddy, he can't even take care of himself yet. Every one says so. Besides,"—a curiously womanly touch crept into her speech—"I don't like him. Only the other day I heard him laugh at something that was terrible—something it makes me sick to think of. Indeed, Daddy, I would far rather have Captain Grange to take care of me. Don't you think he would if you asked him? He is so much bigger and stronger, and—and kinder."
"Ah! I know," her father said. "He seems so to you. But it is nerve that your protector will need, child; and Ratcliffe possesses more nerve than all the rest of the garrison put together. No, it must be Ratcliffe, Muriel. And remember to give him all your trust, all your confidence. For whatever he does will be with my authority—with my—full—approval."
His voice failed suddenly and he rose, turning sharply away from the light. She clung to his arm silently, in a passion of tenderness, though she was far from understanding the suffering those last words revealed. She had never seen him thus moved before.
After a few seconds he turned back to her, and bending kissed her piteous face. She clung closely to him with an agonised longing to keep him with her; but he put her gently from him at last.
"Lie down again, dear," he said, "and get what rest you can. Try not to be frightened at the noise. There is sure to be an assault, but the fort will hold to-night."
He stood a moment, looking down at her. Then again he stooped and kissed her. "Good-bye, my darling," he said huskily, "till we meet again!"
And so hurriedly, as if not trusting himself to remain longer, he left her.
THE VICTIM OF TREACHERY
There came again the running rattle of rifle-firing from the valley below the fort, and Muriel Roscoe, lying on her couch, pressed both hands to her eyes and shivered. It seemed impossible that the end could be so near. She felt as if she had existed for years in this living nightmare of many horrors, had lain down and had slept with that dreadful sound in her ears from the very beginning of things. The life she had led before these ghastly happenings had become so vague a memory that it almost seemed to belong to a previous existence, to an earlier and a happier era. As in a dream she now recalled the vision of her English school-life. It lay not a year behind her, but she felt herself to have changed so fundamentally since those sunny, peaceful days that she seemed to be a different person altogether. The Muriel Roscoe of those days had been a merry, light-hearted personality. She had revelled in games and all outdoor amusements. Moreover, she had been quick to learn, and her lessons had never caused her any trouble. A daring sprite she had been, with a most fertile imagination and a longing for adventure that had never been fully satisfied, possessing withal so tender and loving a heart that the very bees in the garden had been among her cherished friends. She remembered all the sunny ideals of that golden time and marvelled at herself, forgetting utterly the eager, even passionate, craving that had then been hers for the wider life, the broader knowledge, that lay beyond her reach, forgetting the feverish impatience with which she had longed for the day of her emancipation when she might join her father in the wonderful glowing East which she so often pictured in her dreams. Of her mother she had no memory. She had died at her birth. Her father was all the world to her; and when at last he had travelled home on a brief leave and taken her from her quiet English life to the strange, swift existence of the land of his exile, her soul had overflowed with happiness.
Nevertheless, she had not been carried away by the gaieties of this new world. The fascinations of dance and gymkhana had not caught her. The joy of being with her father was too sacred and too precious to be foregone for these lesser pleasures, and she very speedily decided to sacrifice all social entertainments to which he could not accompany her. She rode with him, camped with him, and became his inseparable companion. Undeveloped in many ways, shy in the presence of strangers, she soon forgot her earlier ambition to see the world and all that it contained. Her father's society was to her all-sufficing, and it was no sacrifice to her to withdraw herself from the gay crowd and dwell apart with him.
He had no wish to monopolise her, but it was a relief to him that the constant whirl of pleasure about her attracted her so little. He liked to have her with him, and it soon became a matter of course that she should accompany him on all his expeditions. She revelled in his tours of inspection. They were so many picnics to her, and she enjoyed them with the zest of a child.
And so it came to pass that she was with him among the hills of the frontier when, like a pent flood suddenly escaping, the storm of rebellion broke and seethed about them, threatening them with total annihilation.
No serious trouble had been anticipated. A certain tract of country had been reported unquiet, and General Roscoe had been ordered to proceed thither on a tour of inspection and also, to a very mild degree, of intimidation. Marching through the district from fort to fort, he had encountered no shadow of opposition. All had gone well. And then, his work over, and all he set out to do satisfactorily accomplished, his face towards India and his back to the mountains, the unexpected had come upon him like a thunderbolt.
Hordes of tribesmen, gathered Heaven knew how or whence, had suddenly burst upon him from the south, had cut off his advance by sheer immensity of numbers, and, hemming him in, had forced him gradually back into the mountain fastnesses through which he had just passed unmolested.
It was a stroke so wholly new, so subtly executed, that it had won success almost before the General had realised the weight of the disaster that had come upon him. He had believed himself at first to be involved in a mere fray with border thieves. But before he reached the fort upon which he found himself obliged to fall back, he knew that he had to cope with a general rising of the tribes, and that the means at his disposal were as inadequate to stem the rising flood of rebellion as a pebble thrown into a mountain stream to check its flow.
The men under his command, with the exception of a few officers, were all native soldiers, and he soon began to have a strong suspicion that among these he numbered traitors. Nevertheless, he established himself at the fort, determined there to make his stand till relief should arrive.
The telegraph wires were cut, and for a time it seemed that all communication with the outside world was an impossibility. Several runners were sent out, but failed to break through the besieging forces. But at last after many desperate days there came a message from without—a scrap of paper attached to a stone and flung over the wall of the fort at night. News of the disaster had reached Peshawur, and Sir Reginald Bassett, with a hastily collected force, was moving to their assistance.
The news put heart into the garrison, and for a time it seemed that the worst would be averted. But it became gradually evident to General Roscoe that the relieving force could not reach them in time. The water supply had run very low, and the men were already subsisting upon rations that were scarcely sufficient for the maintenance of life. There was sickness among them, and there were also many wounded. The white men were reduced to four, including himself, the native soldiers had begun to desert, and he had been forced at last to face the fact that the end was very near.
All this had Muriel Roscoe come through, physically scathless, mentally torn and battered, and she could not bring herself to realise that the long-drawn-out misery of the siege could ever be over.
Lying there, tense and motionless, she listened to the shots and yells in the distance with a shuddering sense that it was all a part of her life, of her very being, even. The torture and the misery had so eaten into her soul. Now and then she heard the quick thunder of one of the small guns that armed the fort, and at the sound her pulses leaped and quivered. She knew that the ammunition was running very low. These guns did not often speak now.
Then, during a lull, there came to her the careless humming of a British voice, the free, confident tread of British feet, approaching her door.
She caught her breath as a hand rapped smartly upon the panel. She knew who the visitor was, but she could not bring herself to bid him enter. A sudden awful fear was upon her. She could neither speak nor move. She lay, listening intently, hoping against hope that he would believe her to be sleeping and go away.
The knock was not repeated. Dead silence reigned. And then quickly and decidedly the door opened, and Nick Ratcliffe stood upon the threshold. The light struck full upon his face as he halted—a clever, whimsical face that might mask almost any quality good or bad.
"May I come in, Miss Roscoe?" he asked.
For she had not moved at his appearance. She lay as one dead. But as he spoke she uncovered her face, and terror incarnate stared wildly at him from her starting eyes. He entered without further ceremony, and closed the door behind him. In the shaded lamplight his features seemed to twitch as if he wanted to smile. So at least it seemed to her wrought-up fancy.
He gazed greedily at the plate of rice on the table as he came forward. "Great Jupiter!" he said. "What a sumptuous repast!"
The total freedom from all anxiety or restraint with which he made this simple observation served to restore to some degree the girl's tottering self-control. She sat up, sufficiently recovered to remember that she did not like this man.
"Pray have some if you want it," she said coldly.
He turned his back on it abruptly. "No, don't tempt me," he said. "It's a fast day for me. I'm acquiring virtue, being conspicuously destitute of all other forms of comfort. Why don't you eat it yourself? Are you acquiring virtue too?"
He stood looking down at her quizzically, under rapidly flickering eyelids. She sat silent, wishing with all her heart that he would go away.
Nothing, however, was apparently further from his thoughts. After a moment he sat down in the chair that her father had occupied an hour before. It was very close to her, and she drew herself slightly away with a small, instinctive movement of repugnance. But Nick was sublimely impervious to hints.
"I say, you know," he said abruptly, "you shouldn't take opium. Your donkey of an ayah ought to know better than to let you have it."
Muriel gave a great start. "I don't"—she faltered. "I—I—"
He shook his head at her, as though reproving a child. "Pussy's out," he observed. "It is no good giving chase. But really, you know, you mustn't do it. You used to be a brave girl once, and now your nerves are all to pieces."
There was a species of paternal reproach in his tone. Looking at him, she marvelled that she had ever thought him young and headlong. Almost in spite of herself she began to murmur excuses.
"I can't help it. I must have something. I don't sleep. I lie for hours, listening to the fighting. It—it's more than I can bear." Her voice quivered, and she turned her face aside, unable to hide her emotion, but furious with herself for displaying it.
Nick said nothing at all to comfort her, and she bitterly resented his silence. After a pause he spoke again, as if he had banished the matter entirely from his mind.
"Look here," he said. "I want you to tell me something. I don't know what sort of a fellow you think I am, though I fancy you don't like me much. But you're not afraid of me, are you? You know I'm to be trusted?"
It was her single chance of revenge, and she took it. "I have my father's word for it," she said.
He nodded thoughtfully as if unaware of the thrust. "Yes, your father knows me. And so"—he smiled at her suddenly—"you are ready to trust me on his recommendation? You are ready to follow me blindfold through danger if I give you my hand to hold?"
She felt a sharp chill strike her heart. What was it he was asking of her? What did those words of his portend?
"I don't know," she said. "I don't see that it makes much difference how I feel."
"Well, it does," he assured her. "And that is exactly what I have come to talk about. Miss Roscoe, will you leave the fort with me, and escape in disguise? I have thought it all out, and it can be done without much difficulty. I do not need to tell you that the idea has your father's full approval."
They were her father's own words, but at sound of them she shrank and shivered, in sheer horror at the coolness with which they were uttered. He might have been asking her to stroll with him in the leafy quiet of some English lane.
Could it be, she asked herself incredulously, could it be that her father had ever sanctioned and approved so ghastly a risk for her? She put her hand to her temples. Her brain was reeling. How could she do this thing? How could she have permitted it to be even suggested to her? And then, swift through her tortured mind flashed his words: "There will be an end. I have had to face it to-night." Was it this that he had meant? Was it for this that he had been preparing her?
With a muffled exclamation she rose, trembling in every limb. "I can't!" she cried piteously, "oh, I can't! Please go away!"
It might have been the frightened prayer of a child, so beseeching was it, so full of weakness. But Nick Ratcliffe heard it unmoved. He waited a few seconds till she came to a stand by the table, her back towards him. Then with a sudden quiet movement he rose and followed her.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "But you can't afford to shirk things at this stage. I am offering you deliverance, though you don't realise it."
He spoke with force, and if his aim had been to rouse her to a more practical activity, he gained his end. She turned upon him in swift and desperate indignation. Her voice rang almost harsh.
"How can you call it deliverance? It is at best a choice of two horrible evils. You know perfectly well that we could never get through. You must be mad to suggest such a thing. We should be made prisoners and massacred under the very guns of the fort."
"I beg your pardon," he said again, and his eyelids quivered a little as if under the pressure of some controlled emotion. "We shall not be made prisoners. I know what I am saying. It is deliverance that I am offering you. Of course you can refuse, and I shall still do my utmost to save you. But the chances are not equal. I hope you will not refuse."
The moderation of this speech calmed her somewhat. In her first wild panic she had almost imagined that he could take her against her will. She saw that she had been unreasonable, but she was too shaken to tell him so. Moreover, there was still that about him, notwithstanding his words, that made her afraid to yield a single inch of ground lest by some hidden means he should sweep her altogether from her precarious foothold. Even in the silence, she felt that he was doing battle with her, and she did not dare to face him.
With a childish gesture of abandonment, she dropped into a chair and laid her head upon her arms.
"Oh, please go away!" she besought him weakly. "I am so tired—so tired."
But Ratcliffe did not move. He stood looking down at her, at the black hair that clustered about her neck, at the bowed, despairing figure, the piteous, clenched hands.
A little clock in the room began to strike in silvery tones, and he glanced up. The next instant he bent and laid a bony hand upon her two clasped ones.
"Can't you decide?" he said. "Will you let me decide for you? Don't let yourself get scared. You have kept so strong till now." Firmly as he spoke, there was somehow a note of soothing in his voice, and almost insensibly the girl was moved by it. She remained silent and motionless, but the strong grip of his fingers comforted her subtly notwithstanding.
"Come," he said, "listen a moment and let me tell you my plan of campaign. It is very simple, and for that reason it is going to succeed. You are listening now?"
His tone was vigorous and insistent. Muriel sat slowly up in response to it. She looked down at the thin hand that grasped hers, and wondered at its strength; but she lacked the spirit at that moment to resent its touch.
He leaned down upon the table, his face close to hers, and began to unfold his plan.
"We shall leave the fort directly the moon is down. I have a disguise for you that will conceal your face and hair. And I shall fake as a tribesman, so that my dearest friend would never recognise me. They will be collecting the wounded in the dark, and I will carry you through on my shoulder as if I had got a dead relation. You won't object to playing a dead relation of mine?"
He broke into a sudden laugh, but sobered instantly when he saw her shrink at the sound.
"That's about all the plan," he resumed. "There is nothing very alarming about it, for they will never spot us in the dark. I'm as yellow as a Chinaman already. We shall be miles away by morning. And I know how to find my way afterwards."
He paused, but Muriel made no comment. She was staring straight before her.
"Can you suggest any amendments?" he asked.
She turned her head and looked at him with newly-roused aversion in her eyes. She had summoned all her strength to the combat, realising that now was the moment for resistance if she meant to resist.
"No, Mr. Ratcliffe," she said, with a species of desperate firmness very different from his own. "I have nothing to suggest. If you wish to escape, you must go alone. It is quite useless to try to persuade me any further. Nothing—nothing will induce me to leave my father."
Whether or not he had expected this opposition was not apparent on Nick's face. It betrayed neither impatience nor disappointment.
"There would be some reason in that," he gravely rejoined, "if you could do any good to your father by remaining. Of course I see your point, but it seems to me that it would be harder for him to see you starve with the rest of the garrison than to know that you had escaped with me. A woman in your position is bound to be a continual burden and anxiety to those who protect her. The dearer she is to them, so much the heavier is the burden. Miss Roscoe, you must see this. You are not an utter child. You must realise that to leave your father is about the greatest sacrifice you can make for him at the present moment. He is worn out with anxiety on your behalf, literally bowed down by it. For his sake, you are going to do this thing, it being the only thing left that you can do for him."
There was more than persuasion in his voice. It held authority. But Muriel heard it without awe. She had passed that stage. The matter was too momentous to allow of weakness. She had strung herself to the highest pitch of resistance as a hunted creature at bay. She threw back her head, a look of obstinacy about her lips, her slight figure straightened to the rigidity of defiance.
"I will not be forced," she said, in sharp, uneven tones. "Mr. Ratcliffe, you may go on persuading and arguing till doomsday. I will not leave my father."
Ratcliffe stood up abruptly. A curious glitter shone in his eyes, and the light eyebrows twitched a little. She felt that he had suddenly ceased to do battle with her, yet that the victory was not hers. And for a second she was horribly frightened, as though an iron trap had closed upon her and held her at his mercy.
He walked to the door without speaking and opened it. She expected him to go, sat waiting breathlessly for his departure, but instead he stood motionless, looking into the dark passage.
She wondered with nerves on edge what he was waiting for. Suddenly she heard a step without, a few murmured words, and Nick stood on one side. Her father's Sikh orderly passed him, carrying a tray on which was a glass full of some dark liquid. He set it down on the table before her with a deep salaam.
"The General Sahib wishes Missy Sahib to have a good night," he said. "He cannot come to her himself, but he sends her this by his servant, and he bids her drink it and sleep."
Muriel looked up at the man in surprise. Her father had never done such a thing before, and the message astonished her not a little. Then, remembering that he had shown some anxiety regarding her appearance that evening, she fancied she began to understand. Yet it was strange, it was utterly unlike him, to desire her to take an opiate. She looked at the glass with hesitation.
"Give him my love, Purdu," she said finally to the waiting orderly. "Tell him I will take it if I cannot sleep without."
The man bowed himself again and withdrew. To her disgust, however, Nick remained. He was looking at her oddly.
"Miss Roscoe," he said abruptly, "I beg you, don't drink that stuff. Your father must be mad to offer it to you. Let me take the beastliness away."
She faced him indignantly. "My father knows what is good for me better than you do," she said.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't profess to be a sage. But any one will tell you that it is madness to take opium in this reckless fashion. For Heaven's sake, be reasonable. Don't take it."
He came back to the table, but at his approach she laid her hand upon the glass. She was quivering with angry excitement.
"I will not endure your interference any longer," she declared, goaded to headlong, nervous fury by his persistence. "My father's wishes are enough for me. He desires me to take it, and so I will."
She took up the glass in a sudden frenzy of defiance. He had frightened her—yes, he had frightened her—but he should see how little he had gained by that. She took a taste of the liquid, then paused, again assailed by a curious hesitancy. Had her father really meant her to take it all?
Nick had stopped short at her first movement, but as she began to lower the glass in response to that disquieting doubt, he swooped suddenly forward like a man possessed.
For a fleeting instant she thought he was going to wrest it from her, but in the next she understood—understood the man's deep treachery, and with what devilish ingenuity he had worked upon her. Holding her with an arm that felt like iron, he forced the glass back between her teeth, and tilted the contents down her throat. She strove to resist him, strove wildly, frantically, not to swallow the draught. But he held her pitilessly. He compelled her, gripping her right hand with the glass, and pinning the other to her side.
When it was over, when he had worked his will and the hateful draught was swallowed, he set her free and turned himself sharply from her.
She sprang up trembling and hysterical. She could have slain him in that instant had she possessed the means to her hand. But her strength was more nearly exhausted than she knew. Her limbs doubled up under her weight, and as she tottered, seeking for support, she realised that she was vanquished utterly at last.
She saw him wheel quickly and start to support her, sought to evade him, failed—and as she felt his arms lift her, she cried aloud in anguished helplessness.
What followed dwelt ever after in her memory as a hideous dream, vivid yet not wholly tangible. He laid her down upon the couch and bent over her, his hands upon her, holding her still; for every muscle, every nerve twitched spasmodically, convulsively, in the instinctive effort of the powerless body to be free. She had a confused impression also that he spoke to her, but what he said she was never able to recall. In the end, her horror faded, and she saw him as through a mist bending above her, grim and tense and silent, controlling her as it were from an immense distance. And even while she yet dimly wondered, he passed like a shadow from her sight, and wonder itself ceased.
Half an hour later Nicholas Ratcliffe, the wit and clown of his regiment, regarded by many as harebrained or wantonly reckless, carried away from the beleaguered fort among the hostile mountains the slight, impassive figure of an English girl.
The night was dark, populated by terrors alive and ghastly. But he went through it as one unaware of its many dangers. Light-footed and fearless, he passed through the midst of his enemies, marching with the sublime audacity of the dominant race, despising caution—yea, grinning triumphant in the very face of Death.
Out of a deep abyss of darkness in which she seemed to have wandered ceaselessly and comfortlessly for many days, Muriel Roscoe came haltingly back to the surface of things. She was very weak, so weak that to open her eyes was an exertion requiring all her resolution, and to keep them open during those first hours of returning life a physical impossibility. She knew that she was not alone, for gentle hands ministered to her, and she was constantly aware of some one who watched her tirelessly, with never-failing attention. But she felt not the smallest interest regarding this faithful companion, being too weary to care whether she lived or fell away for ever down those unending steeps up which some unseen influence seemed magnetically to draw her.
It was a stage of returning consciousness that seemed to last even longer than the period of her wandering, but this also began to pass at length. The light grew stronger all about her, the mists rolled slowly away from her clogged brain, leaving only a drowsing languor that was infinitely restful to her tired senses.
And then while she lay half-dreaming and wholly content, a remorseless hand began to bathe her face and head with ice-cold water. She awoke reluctantly, even resentfully.
"Don't!" she entreated like a child. "I am so tired. Let me sleep."
"My poor dear, I know all about it," a motherly voice made answer. "But it's time for you to wake."
She did not grasp the words—only, very vaguely, their meaning; and this she made a determined, but quite fruitless, effort to defy. In the end, being roused in spite of herself, she opened her eyes and gazed upwards.
And all his life long Nick Ratcliffe remembered the reproach that those eyes held for him. It was as if he had laid violent hands upon a spirit that yearned towards freedom, and had dragged it back into the sordid captivity from which it had so nearly escaped.
But it was only for a moment that she looked at him so. The reproach faded swiftly from the dark eyes and he saw a startled horror dawn behind it.
Suddenly she raised herself with a faint cry. "Where am I?" she gasped. "What—what have you done with me?"
She stared around her wildly, with unreasoning, nightmare terror. She was lying on a bed of fern in a narrow, dark ravine. The place was full of shadow, though far overhead she saw the light of day. At one end, only a few yards from her, a stream rushed and gurgled among great boulders, and its insistent murmur filled the air. Behind her rose a great wall of grey rock, clothed here and there with some dark growth. Its rugged face was dented with hollows that looked like the homes of wild animals. There was a constant trickle of water on all sides, an eerie whispering, remote but incessant. As she sat there in growing panic, a great bat-like creature, immense and shadowy, swooped soundlessly by her.
She shrank back with another cry, and found Nick Ratcliffe's arm thrust protectingly about her.
"It's all right," he said, in a matter-of-fact tone. "You're not frightened at flying-foxes, are you?"
Recalled to the fact of his presence, she turned sharply, and flung his arm away as though it had been a snake. "Don't touch me!" she gasped, passionate loathing in voice and gesture.
"Sorry," said Nick imperturbably. "I meant well."
He began to busy himself with a small bundle that lay upon the ground, whistling softly between his teeth, and for a few seconds Muriel sat and watched him. He was dressed in a flowing native garment, that covered him from head to foot. Out of the heavy enveloping folds his smooth, yellow face looked forth, sinister and terrible to her fevered vision. He looked like some evil bird, she thought to herself.
Glancing down, she saw that she was likewise attired, save that her head was bare. The hair hung wet on her forehead, and the water dripped down her face. She put up her hand half-mechanically to wipe the drops away. Her fear was mounting rapidly higher.
She knew now what had happened. He had drugged her forcibly—she shivered at the remembrance—and had borne her away to this dreadful place during her unconsciousness. Her father was left behind in the fort. He had sanctioned her removal. He had given her, a helpless captive, into this man's keeping.
But no! Her whole soul rose up in sudden fierce denial of this. He had never done this thing. He had never given his consent to an act so cowardly and so brutal. He was incapable of parting with her thus. He could never have permitted so base a trick, so cruel, so outrageous, a deed of treachery.
Strength came suddenly to her—the strength of frenzy. She leaped to her feet. She would escape. She would go back to him through all the hordes of the enemy. She would face anything—anything in the world—rather than remain at the mercy of this man.
But—he had not been looking at her, and he did not look at her,—his arm shot out as she moved, and his hand fastened claw-like upon her dress.
"Sorry," he said again, in the same practical tone. "But you'll have something to eat before you go."
She stooped and strove wildly, frantically, to shake off the detaining hand. But it held her like a vice, with awful skeleton fingers that she could not, dared not, touch.
"Let me go!" she cried impotently. "How dare you? How dare you?"
Still he did not raise his head. He was on his knees, and he would not even trouble himself to rise.
"I can't help myself," he told her coolly. "It's not my fault. It's yours."
She made a final, violent effort to wrest herself free. And then—it was as if all power were suddenly taken from her—her strained nerves gave way completely, and she dropped down upon the ground again in a quivering agony of helplessness.
Nick's hand fell away from her. "You shouldn't," he said gently. "It's no good, you know."
He returned to his former occupation while she sat with her face hidden, in a stupor of fear, afraid to move lest he should touch her again.
"Now," said Nick, after a brief pause, "let me have the pleasure of seeing you break your fast. There is some of that excellent boiled rice of yours here. You will feel better when you have had some."
She trembled at the sound of his voice. Could he make her eat also against her will, she wondered?
"Come!" said Nick again, in a tone of soft wheedling that he might have employed to a fractious child. "It'll do you good, you know, Muriel. Won't you try? Just a mouthful—to please me!"
Reluctantly she uncovered her face, and looked at him. He was kneeling in front of her, the chuddah pushed back from his face, humbly offering her an oatmeal biscuit with a small heap of rice piled upon it.
She drew back shuddering. "I couldn't eat anything—possibly," she said, and even her voice seemed to shrink. "You can. You take it. I would rather die."
Nick did not withdraw his hand. "Take it, Muriel," he said quietly. "It is going to do you good."
She flashed him a desperate glance in which anger, fear, abhorrence, were strongly mingled. He advanced the biscuit a little nearer. There was a queer look on his yellow face, almost a bullying look.
"Take it," he said again.
And against her will, almost without conscious movement, she obeyed him. The untempting morsel passed from his hand to hers, and under the compulsion of his insistence she began to eat.
She felt as if every mouthful would choke her, but she persevered, urged by the dread certainty that he would somehow have his way.
Not until the last fragment was gone did she feel his vigilance relax, but he ate nothing himself though there remained several biscuits and a very little of the rice.
"You are feeling better?" he asked her then.
A curious suspicion that he was waiting to tell her something made her answer almost feverishly in the affirmative. It amounted to a premonition of evil tidings, and instinctively her thoughts flew to her father.
"What is it?" she questioned nervously. "You have something to say."
Nick's face was turned from her. He seemed to be gazing across the ravine.
"Yes," he said, after a moment.
"Oh, what?" she broke in. "Tell me quickly—quickly! It is my father, I know, I know. He has been hurt—wounded—"
She stopped. Nick had lifted one hand as if to silence her. "My dear," he said, his voice very low, "your father died last night—before we left the fort."
At her cry of agony he started up, and in a second he was on his knees by her side and had gathered her to him as though she had been a little child in need of comfort. She did not shrink from him in her extremity. The blow had been too sudden, too overwhelming. It blotted out all lesser sensibilities. In those first terrible moments she did not think of Nick at all, was scarcely conscious of his presence, though she vaguely felt the comfort of his arms.
And he, holding her fast against his breast, found no consolation, no word of any sort wherewith to soothe her. He only rocked her gently, pressing her head to his shoulder, while his face, bent above her, quivered all over as the face of a man in torture.
Muriel spoke at last, breaking her stricken silence with a strangely effortless composure. "Tell me more," she said.
She stirred in his arms as if to free herself from some oppression, and finally drew herself away from him, though not as if she wished to escape his touch. She still seemed to be hardly aware of him. He was the medium of her information, that was all. Nick dropped back into his former attitude, his hands clasped firmly round his knees, his eyes, keen as a bird's and extremely bright, gazing across the ravine. His lips still quivered a little, but his voice was perfectly even and quiet.
"It happened very soon after the firing began. It must have been directly after he left you. He was hit in the breast, just over the heart. We couldn't do anything for him. He knew himself that it was mortal. In fact, I think he had almost expected it. We took him into the guardroom and made him as easy as possible. He lost consciousness before he died. He was lying unconscious when I came to you."
Muriel made a sharp movement. "And you never told me," she said, in a dry whisper.
"I thought it best," he answered with great gentleness. "You could not have gone to him. He didn't wish it."
"Why not?" she demanded, and suddenly her voice rang harsh again. "Why could I not have gone to him? Why didn't he wish it?"
Nick hesitated for a single instant. Then, "It was for your own sake," he said, not looking at her.
"You mean he suffered?"
"While he remained conscious—yes." Nick spoke reluctantly. "It didn't last long," he said.
She scarcely seemed to hear him. "And so you tricked me," she said; "you tricked me while my father was lying dying. I was not to see him—either then or after—for my own sake! And do you think"—her voice rising—"do you think that you were in any way justified in treating me so? Do you think it was merciful to blind me and to take from me all I should ever have of comfort to look back upon? Do you think I couldn't have borne it all ten thousand times easier if I could have seen and known the very worst? It was my right—it was my right! How dared you take it from me? I will never forgive you—never!"
She was on her feet as the passionate protest burst from her, but she swayed as she stood and flung out her arms with a groping gesture.
"I could have borne it," she cried again wildly, piteously. "I could have borne anything—anything—if I had only known!"
She broke into a sudden, terrible sobbing, and threw herself down headlong upon the earth, clutching at the moss with shaking, convulsive fingers, and crying between her sobs for "Daddy! Daddy!" as though her agony could pierce the dividing barrier and bring him back to her. Nick made no further attempt to help her. He sat gazing stonily out before him in a sphinx-like stillness that never varied while the storm of her anguish spent itself at his side.
Even after her sobs had ceased from sheer exhaustion he made no movement, no sign that he was so much as thinking of her.
Only when at last she raised herself with difficulty, and put the heavy hair back from her disfigured face, did he turn slightly and hold out to her a small tin cup.
"It's only water," he said gently. "Have some."
She took it almost mechanically and drank, then lay back with closed eyes and burning head, sick and blinded by her paroxysm of weeping.
A little later she felt his hands moving about her again, but she was too spent to open her eyes. He bathed her face with a care equal to any woman's, smoothed back her hair, and improvised a pillow for her head.
And afterwards she knew that he sat down by her, out of sight but close at hand, a silent presence watching over her, till at last, worn out with grief and the bitter strain of the past weeks, she sank into natural, dreamless slumber, and slept for hours.
THE DEVIL IN THE WILDERNESS
It was dark when Muriel awoke—so dark that she lay for a while dreamily fancying herself in bed. But this illusion passed very quickly as her brain, refreshed and active, resumed its work. The cry of a jackal at no great distance roused her to full consciousness, and she started up in the chill darkness, trembling and afraid.
Instantly a warm hand grasped hers, and a low voice spoke. "It's all right," said Nick. "I'm here."
"Oh, isn't it dark?" she said. "Isn't it dark?"
"Don't be frightened," he answered gently. "Come close to me. You are cold."
She crept to him shivering, thankful for the shielding arm he threw around her.
"The sunrise can't be far off," he said. "I expect you are hungry, aren't you?"
She was very hungry, and he put a biscuit into her hand. The very fact of eating there in the darkness in some measure reassured her. She ate several biscuits, and began to feel much better.
"Getting warmer?" questioned Nick. "Let me feel your hands." They were still cold, and he took them and thrust them down against his breast. She shrank a little at the touch of his warm flesh.
"It will make you so cold," she murmured.
But he only laughed at her softly, and pressed them closer. "I am not easily chilled," he said. "Besides, it's sleeping that makes you cold. And I haven't slept."
Muriel heard the news with astonishment. She was no longer angry with Nick, and her fears of him were dormant. Though she would never forget and might never forgive his treachery, he was her sole protector in that wilderness of many terrors, and she lacked the resolution to keep him at arm's length. There was, moreover, something comforting in his presence, something that vastly reassured her, making her lean upon him almost in spite of herself.
"Haven't you slept at all?" she asked him in wonder. "How in the world did you keep awake?"
He did not answer her, only laughed again as though at some secret joke. He seemed to be in rather good spirits, she noticed, and she marvelled at him with a heavy pain at her heart that was utterly beyond expression or relief.
She sat silent for a little, then at length withdrew her hands, assuring him that they were quite warm.
"And I want to talk to you," she added, in a more practical tone than she had previously managed to assume. "Mr. Ratcliffe, you may be in command of this expedition, but I think you ought to tell me your plans."
"Call me Nick, won't you?" he said. "It'll make things easier. You are quite welcome to know my plans, such as they are. I haven't managed to develop anything very ingenious during all these hours. You see we are, to a certain extent, at the mercy of circumstances. This place isn't more than a dozen miles from the fort, and the hills all round are infested with tribesmen. I hoped at first that we should get clear in the night, but you were asleep, and on the whole it seemed best to lie up for another day. We might make a bolt for it to-morrow night if all goes well. I have a sort of instinct for these mountains. There is always plenty of cover for those who know how to find it. It will be slow progress, of course, but we will keep moving south, and, given luck, we may fall in with Bassett's relief column before many days."
So with much serenity he disclosed his plans, and Muriel marvelled afresh at the confidence that buoyed him up. Was he really as sublimely free from anxiety as he wished her to believe, she wondered? It was difficult to think otherwise, even though he had admitted that they were governed by circumstance. She began to think that there was magic in him, some hidden reserve force upon which he could always draw when all other resources failed.
Another matter had also caught her attention, and this she presently decided to investigate. She had never thought of Nick Ratcliffe as in any sense a remarkable person before.
"Did you actually carry me ten miles?" she asked.
"Something very near it," said Nick.
"How in the world did you do it?" Her interest was quickened. Undoubtedly there was something uncanny in this man's strength.
"You're not very heavy, you know," he said.
His arm was still around her, and she suffered it; for the darkness still frightened her when she allowed herself to think.
"Have you had anything to eat?" she asked him next.
"Not quite lately," said Nick. "I've been smoking. I wonder you didn't notice it."
His tone was somehow repressive, but she ignored it with a growing temerity. After all, he did not seem such an alarming person on a nearer acquaintance.
"Does smoking do as well as eating?" she asked.
"Much better," said Nick promptly. "Care to try?"
She shook her head in the darkness. "I don't think you are telling the truth," she said.
"What?" said Nick.
He spoke carelessly, but she did not repeat her assertion. A sudden shyness descended upon her, and she became silent. Nick was quiet too, and she wondered what was passing in his mind. But for the tenseness of the arm that encircled her, she could have believed him to be dozing. The silence was becoming oppressive when abruptly he broke it.
"See!" he said. "Here comes the dawn!"
She started and stared in front of her, seeing nothing.
"Over to your left," said Nick. And turning she beheld a lightening of the darkness high above them.
She breathed a sigh of thankfulness, and watched it grow. It spread rapidly. The walls of the ravine showed ghostly grey, then faintly pink. Through the dimness the boulders scattered about the stream stood up like mediaeval monsters, and for a few panic-stricken seconds Muriel took the twining roots of a rhododendron close at hand for the coils of a gigantic snake. Then as the ordinary light of day filtered down into the gloomy place she sighed again with relief, and looked at her companion.
He was sitting with his chin on his hand, gazing across the ravine. He did not stir or glance in her direction. His yellow face was seamed in a thousand wrinkles.
A vague misgiving assailed her as she looked at him. There was something unnatural in his stillness.
"Nick!" she said at length with hesitation.
He turned sharply, and in an instant the ready grin leaped out upon his face. "Good morning," he said lightly. "I was just thinking how nice it would be to go down there and have a wash. We've got to pass the time somehow, you know. Will you go first?"
His gaiety baffled her, but she did not feel wholly reassured. She got up slowly, and as she did so, her attention was caught by something that sent a thrill of dismay through her.
"Don't look at my feet, please," said Nick. "They won't bear inspection at present."
She turned horrified eyes to his face, as he thrust them down into a bunch of fern. "How dreadful!" she exclaimed. "They are all cut and gashed. I didn't know you were barefooted."
"I wasn't," said Nick. "I've got some sandals here. Don't look like that! You make me want to cry. I assure you it doesn't hurt in the least."
He grinned again as he uttered this cheerful lie, but Muriel was not deceived.
"You must let me bind them up," she said.
"Not for the world," laughed Nick. "I couldn't walk with my feet in poultice-bags, and we shall have some more rough marching to do to-night. Now don't you worry. Run along like a good girl. I'm going to say my prayers."
It was flippantly spoken, but Muriel realised that it would be better to obey. She turned about slowly, and began to make her way down to the stream.
The sunlight was beginning to slant through the ravine, and here and there the racing water gleamed silvery. It was intensely refreshing to kneel and bathe face and hands in its icy coldness. She lingered long over it. Its sparkling purity seemed to reach and still the throbbing misery at her heart. In some fashion it brought her peace.
She would have prayed, but she felt she had no prayer to offer. She had no favour to ask for herself, and her world was quite empty now. She had no one in her heart for whom to pray.
Yet for awhile she knelt dumb among the lifeless stones, her face hidden, her thoughts with the father whose loss she had scarcely begun to realise. It might be that God would understand and pity her silence, she thought drearily to herself.
The rush of the water drowned all sound but its own, and the memory of Nick, waiting above, faded from her consciousness like a dream. Her brain felt numb and heavy still. She did not want to think. She leaned her head against a rock, closing her eyes. The continuous babble of the stream was like a lullaby.
Under its soothing influence she might have slept, a blessed drowsiness was stealing over her, when suddenly there flashed through her being a swift warning of approaching danger. Whence it came she knew not, but its urgency was such that instinctively she started up and looked about her.
The next instant, with a sound half-gasp, half-cry, she was on her feet, and shrinking back against her sheltering boulder in the paralysis of a great horror. There, within a few yards of her and drawing nearer, ever nearer, with a beast-like stealth, was a tall, black-bearded tribesman. Transfixed by terror, she stood and gazed at him, waiting dumbly, cold from head to foot, feeling as though her very heart had turned to stone.
Nearer he came, and yet nearer, soundlessly over the stones. His eyes, gleaming, devilish, were to her as the eyes of a devouring monster. In her agony she tried to shriek aloud, but her voice was gone, her throat seemed locked. She was powerless.
Close to her, for a single instant he paused; then, as in a lightning flash, she saw the narrow, sinewy hand and snake-like arm dart forward to seize her, felt every muscle in her body stiffen to rigidity in anticipation of its touch, and shrank—shrank in every nerve though she made no outward sign of shrinking.
But on the instant, with a panther-like spring, sure, noiseless, deadly, another figure leapt suddenly across her vision. There followed a violent struggle in front of her, a confused swaying to and fro, a cry choked instantly and terribly, the tinkling sound of steel falling upon stone. And then both figures were on the ground almost at her feet, locked together in mortal combat, fighting, fighting like demons in a silence that throbbed with the tumult of unrestrained savagery.
Later she never could remember how long it took her to realise that the second apparition was Nick, or if she had known it from the first. She felt herself hovering upon the brink of a great emptiness, a void immense, and yet all her senses were alive and tingling with horror. With agonised perception of what was passing, she yet felt numbed: as though her body were dead, but still contained a vital, tortured soul.
And it was thus that she presently saw Nick's face bent above the black-bearded face of his enemy; and remembered suddenly and horribly a picture she had once seen of the devil in the wilderness.
With his knees he was gripping the writhing body of his fallen foe. With his hands—it came upon her as she watched with a shock of anguished comprehension—he was deliberately and with deadly intention choking out the man's life.
"Curse you! Die!" she heard him say and his voice sounded like the snarl of a wild beast. His upper lip was drawn back, the lower one was between his teeth, and from it the blood dripped continuously upon his hands and upon the dark throat he gripped.
"Give me that knife!" he suddenly said, with an upward jerk of the head.
A dagger was lying almost within his reach, close to her foot. She could have kicked it towards him had not her body been fast bound in that deathly inertia. But her whole soul rose up in wild revolt at the order. She tried to cry out, to implore him to have mercy, but she could not make a sound. She could only stand in frozen horror, and witness this awful thing.
She saw Nick shift his grip to one hand and reach out with the other for the weapon. He grasped it and recovered himself. A great darkness was descending upon her, but it did not come at once. It hovered before her eyes, and seemed to pass, and again she saw the horror at her feet; saw Nick, bent to destroy like an eagle above his prey, merciless, full of strength, terrible; saw the man beneath him, writhing, convulsed, tortured; saw his upturned face, and starting eyes; saw the sudden downward swoop of Nick's right hand, the flash of the descending steel.
In her agony she burst the spell that bound her, and shrieking turned to flee from that awful sight.
But even as she moved, the darkness came suddenly back upon her, enveloping her, overwhelming her—a darkness that could be felt. For a little she fought against it frantically, impotently. Then her feet seemed to totter over the edge of a dreadful, formless silence. She knew that she fell.
WHEN STRONG MEN FAIL
"Wake up!" said Nick softly. "Wake up! Don't be afraid."
But Muriel turned her face from the light with a moan. Memory winged with horror was sweeping back upon her, and she wanted never to wake again.
"Wake up!" Nick said again, and this time there was insistence in his voice. "Open your eyes, Muriel. There is nothing to frighten you."
Shuddering, she obeyed him. She was lying once more upon her couch of ferns, and he was stooping over her, looking closely into her face. His eyes were extraordinarily bright, like the eyes of an eagle, but the lids flickered so rapidly that he seemed to be looking through her rather than at her. There was a wound upon his lower lip, and at the sight she shuddered again, closing her eyes. She remembered that the last time she had looked upon that face, it had been the face of a devil.
"Oh, go away! Go away!" she wailed. "Let me die!"
"I will go away," he answered swiftly, "if you will promise to drink what is in this cup."
He pressed it against her hand, and she took it almost mechanically. "It is only brandy and water," he said. "You will drink it?"
"If I must," she answered weakly.
"You must," he rejoined, and she heard him rise and move away. She strained her ears to listen, but she very soon ceased to hear him; and then raising herself cautiously, she drank. A warm thrill of life ran through her veins with the draught, steadying her, refreshing her. But it was long before she could bring herself to look round.
The miniature roar of the stream was the only sound to be heard, and when at length she glanced downwards there was no sign anywhere of the ghastly spectacle she had just witnessed. She saw the rock behind which she had knelt, and again a violent fit of shuddering assailed her. What did that rock conceal?
Nevertheless she presently took courage to rise, looking about her furtively, half afraid that Nick might pop up at any moment to detain her. For she felt that she could not stay longer in that place, whatever he might say or do. The one idea that possessed her was to get away from him, to escape from his horrible presence, whither she neither knew nor cared. If he appeared to stop her then, she thought that she would go raving mad.
But she saw nothing of him as she stood there, and with deep relief she began to creep away. Half a dozen yards she covered, and then stood suddenly still with her heart in her throat. There, immediately in front of her, flung prone upon the ground with his face on his arms, was Nick. He did not move at her coming, did not seem to hear. And the thought came to her to avoid him by a circuit, and yet escape. But something—a queer, indefinable something—made her pause. Why was he lying there? Had he been hurt in that awful struggle? Was he—was he unconscious? Was he—dead?
She fought back the impulse to fly, not for its unworthiness, but because she felt that she must know.
Trembling, she moved a little nearer to the prostrate, motionless figure.
"Nick!" she whispered under her breath.
He made no sign.
Her doubt turned to sudden, overmastering fear that pricked her forward in spite of herself.
"Nick!" she said again, and finding herself close to him she bent and very slightly touched his shoulder.
He moved then, and she almost gasped with relief. He turned his head sharply without raising himself, and she saw the grim lines of his lean cheek and jaw.
"That you, Muriel?" he said, speaking haltingly, spasmodically. "I'm awfully sorry. Fact is—I'm not well. I shall be—better—directly. Go back, won't you?"
He broke off, and lay silent, his hands clenched as if he were in pain.
Muriel stood looking down at him in consternation. It was her chance to escape—a chance that might never occur again—but she had no further thought of taking it.
"What is it?" she asked him timidly, "Can I—do anything?"
And then she suddenly saw what was the matter. It burst upon her—a startling revelation. Possibly the sight of those skeleton fists helped her to enlightenment. She turned swiftly and sped back to their camping ground.
In thirty seconds or less, she was back again and stooping over him with a piece of brown bread in her hand.
"Eat this," she ordered, in a tone of authority.
Nick's face was hidden again. He seemed to be fighting with himself. His voice came at length, muffled and indistinct.
"No, no! Take it away! I'll have a drain of brandy. And I've got some tobacco left."
Muriel stooped lower. She caught the words though they were scarcely audible. She laid her hand upon his arm, stronger in the moment's emergency than she had been since leaving the fort.
"You are to eat it," she said very decidedly. "You shall eat it. Do you hear, Nick? I know what is the matter with you. You are starving. I ought to have seen it before."
Nick uttered a shaky laugh, and dragged himself up on to his elbows. "I'm not starving," he declared. "Take it away, Muriel. Do you think I'm going to eat your luncheon, tea, and dinner, and to-morrow's breakfast as well?"
"You are going to eat this," she answered.
He flashed her a glance of keen curiosity. "Am I?" he said.
"You must," she said, speaking with an odd vehemence which later surprised herself. "Why should you go out of your way to tell me a lie? Do you think I can't see?"
Nick raised himself slowly. Something in the situation seemed to have deprived him of his usual readiness. But he would not take the bread, would not even look at it.
"I'm better now," he said. "We'll go back."
Muriel stood for a second irresolute, then sharply turned her back. Nick sat and watched her in silence. Suddenly she wheeled. "There!" she said. "I've divided it. You will eat this at least. It's absurd of you to starve yourself. You might as well have stayed in the fort to do that."
This was unanswerable. Nick took the bread without further protest. He began to eat, marvelling at his own docility; and suddenly he knew that he was ravenous.
There was very little left when at length he looked up.
"Show me what you have saved for yourself," he said.
But Muriel backed away with a short, hysterical laugh.
He started to his feet and took her rudely by the shoulder. "Do you mean to say—" he began, almost with violence; and then checked himself, peering at her with fierce, uncertain eyes.
She drew away from him, all her fears returning upon her in a flood; but at her movement he set her free and turned his back.
"Heaven knows what you did it for," he said, seeming to control his voice with some difficulty. "It wasn't for your own sake, and I won't presume to think it was for mine. But when the time comes for handing round rewards, may it be remembered that your offering was something more substantial than a cup of cold water."
He broke off with a queer sound in the throat, and began to move away.
But Muriel followed him, an unaccountable sense of responsibility overcoming her reluctance.
"Nick!" she said.
He stood still without turning. She had a feeling that he was putting strong restraint upon himself. With an effort she forced herself to continue.
"You want sleep, I know. Will you—will you lie down while I watch?"
He shook his head without looking at her.
"But I wish it," she persisted. "I can wake you if—anything happens."
"You wouldn't dare," said Nick.
"I suppose that means you are afraid to trust me," she said.
He turned at that. "It means nothing of the sort. But you've had one scare, and you may have another. I think myself that that fellow was a scout on the look-out for Bassett's advance guard. But Heaven only knows what brought him to this place, and there may be others. That's why I didn't dare to shoot."
He paused, his light eyebrows raised, surveying her questioningly; for Muriel had suddenly covered her face with both hands. But in another moment she looked up again, and spoke with an effort.
"Your being awake couldn't lessen the danger. Won't you—please—be reasonable about it? I am doing my best."
There was a deep note of appeal in her voice, and abruptly Nick gave in.
He moved back to their resting-place without another word, and flung himself face downwards beside the nest of fern that he had made for her, lying stretched at full length like a log.
She had not expected so sudden and complete a surrender. It took her unawares, and she stood looking down at him, uncertain how to proceed.
But after a few seconds he turned his head towards her and spoke.
"You'll stay by me, Muriel?"
"Of course," she answered, that unwonted sense of responsibility still strongly urging her.
He murmured something unintelligible, and stirred uneasily. She knew in a flash what he wanted, but a sick sense of dread held her back. She felt during the silence that followed as though he were pleading with her, urging her, even entreating her. Yet still she resisted, standing near him indeed, but with a desperate reluctance at her heart, a shrinking unutterable from the bare thought of any closer proximity to him that was as the instinctive recoil of purity from a thing unclean.
The horror of his deed had returned upon her over-whelmingly with his brief reference to it. His lack of emotion seemed to her as hideous callousness, more horrible than the deed itself. His physical exhaustion had called her out of herself, but the reaction was doubly terrible.
Nick said no more. He lay quite motionless, hardly seeming to breathe, and she realised that there was no repose in his attitude. He was not even trying to rest.
She wrung her hands together. It could not go on, this tension. Either she must yield to his unspoken desire, or he would sit up and cry off the bargain. And she knew that sleep was a necessity to him. Common-sense told her that he was totally unfit for further hardship without it.
She closed her eyes a moment, summoning all her strength for the greatest sacrifice she had ever made. And then in silence she sat down beside him, within reach of his hand.
He uttered a great sigh and suffered his whole body to relax. And she knew by the action, though he did not speak a word, that she had set his mind at rest.
Scarcely a minute later, his quiet breathing told her that he slept, but she sat on by his side without moving during the long empty hours of her vigil. He had trusted her without a question, and, as her father's daughter, she would at whatever cost prove herself worthy of his trust.
THE COMING OF AN ARMY
Through a great part of the night that followed they tramped steadily southward. The stars were Nick's guide, though as time passed he began to make his way with the confidence of one well-acquainted with his surroundings. The instinct of locality was a sixth sense with him. Hand in hand, over rocky ground, through deep ravines, by steep and difficult tracks, they made their desperate way. Sometimes in the distance dim figures moved mysteriously, revealed by starlight, but none questioned or molested them. They passed from rock to rock through the heart of the enemy's country, unrecognised, unobserved. There were times when Nick grasped his revolver under his disguise, ready, ready at a moment's notice, to keep his word to the girl's father, should detection be their portion; but each time as the danger passed them by he tightened his hold upon her, drawing her forward with greater assurance.
They scarcely spoke throughout the long, long march. Muriel had moved at first with a certain elasticity, thankful to escape at last from the horrors of their resting-place. But very soon a great weariness came upon her. She was physically unfit for any prolonged exertion. The long strain of the siege had weakened her more than she knew.
Nevertheless, she kept on bravely, uttering no complaint, urged to utmost effort by the instinctive desire to escape. It was this one idea that occupied all her thoughts during that night. She shrank with a vivid horror from looking back. And she could not see into the dim blank future. It was mercifully screened from her sight.
At her third heavy stumble, Nick stopped and made her swallow some raw brandy from his flask. This buoyed her up for a while, but it was evident to them both that her strength was fast failing. And presently he stopped again, and without a word lifted her in his arms. She gasped a protest to which he made no response. His arms compassed her like steel, making her feel helpless as an infant. He was limping himself, she noticed; yet he bore her strongly, without faltering, sure-footed as a mountain goat over the broken ground, till he found at length what he deemed a safe halting-place in a clump of stunted trees.
The sunrise revealed a native village standing among rice and cotton fields in the valley below them.
"I shall have to go foraging," Nick said.
But Muriel's nerves that had been tottering on the verge of collapse for some time here broke down completely. She clung to him hysterically and entreated him not to leave her.
"I can't bear it! I can't bear it!" she kept reiterating. "If you go, I must go too. I can't—I can't stay here alone."
He gave way instantly, seeing that she was in a state of mind that bordered upon distraction, and that he could not safely leave her. He sat down beside her, therefore, making her as comfortable as he could; and she presently slept with her head upon his shoulder. It was but a broken slumber, however, and she awoke from it crying wildly that a man was being murdered—murdered—murdered—and imploring him with agonised tears to intervene.
He quieted her with a steady insistence that gained its end, though she crouched against him sobbing for some time after. As the sun rose higher her fever increased, but she remained conscious and suffering intensely, all through the heat of the day. Then, as the evening drew on, she slipped into a heavy stupor.
It was the opportunity Nick had awaited for hours, and he seized it. Laying her back in the deep shadow of a boulder, he went swiftly down into the valley. The last light was passing as he strode through the village, a gaunt, silent figure in a hillman's dress, a native dagger in his girdle. Save that he had pulled the chuddah well over his face, he attempted no concealment.
He glided by a ring of old men seated about a fire, moving like a shadow through the glare. They turned to view him, but he had already passed with the tread of a wolf, and the mud wall of one of the cottages hid him from sight.
Into this hut he dived as though some instinct guided him. He paid no heed to a woman on a string-bedstead with a baby at her breast, who chattered shrilly at his entrance. Preparations for a meal were in progress, and he scarcely paused before he lighted upon what he sought. A small earthen pitcher stood on the mud floor. He swooped upon it, caught it up, splashing milk in all directions, clapped his hand yellow and claw-like upon the mouth, and was gone.
There arose a certain hue and cry behind him, but he was swiftly beyond detection, a fleeing shadow up the hillside. And the baffled villagers, returning, found comfort in the reflection that he was doubtless a holy man and that his brief visit would surely entail a blessing.
By the time they arrived at this conclusion, Nick was kneeling by the girl's side, supporting her while she drank. The nourishment revived her. She came to herself, and thanked him.
"You will have some too," said she anxiously.
And Nick drank also with a laugh and a joke to cloak his eagerness. That draught of milk was more to him at that moment than the choicest wine of the gods.
He sat down beside her again when he had thus refreshed himself. He thought that she was drowsy, and was surprised when presently she laid a trembling hand upon his arm.
He bent over her quickly. "What is it? Anything I can do?"
She did not shrink from him any longer. He could but dimly see her face in the strong shadow cast by the moonlight behind the trees.
"I want just to tell you, Nick," she said faintly, "that you will have to go on without me when the moon sets. You needn't mind about leaving me any more. I shall be dead before the morning comes. I'm not afraid. I think I'm rather glad. I am so very, very tired."
Her weak voice failed.
Nick was stooping low over her. He did not speak at once. He only took the nerveless hand that lay upon his arm and carried it to his lips, breathing for many seconds upon the cold fingers.
When at length he spoke, his tone was infinitely gentle, but it possessed, notwithstanding, a certain quality of arresting force.
"My dear," he said, "you belong to me now, you know. You have been given into my charge, and I am not going to part with you."
She did not resist him or attempt to withdraw her hand, but her silence was scarcely the silence of acquiescence. When she spoke again after a long pause, there was a piteous break in her voice.
"Why don't you let me die? I want to die. Why do you hold me back?"
"Why?" said Nick swiftly. "Do you really want me to tell you why?"
But there he checked himself with a sharp, indrawn breath. The next instant he laid her hand gently down.
"You will know some day, Muriel," he said. "But for the present you will have to take my reason on trust. I assure you it is a very good one."
The restraint of his words was marked by a curious vehemence, but this she was too ill at the time to heed. She turned her face away almost fretfully.
"Why should I live?" she moaned. "There is no one wants me now."
"That will never be true while I live," Nick answered steadily, and his tone was the tone of a man who registers a vow.
But again she did not heed him. She had suffered too acutely and too recently to be comforted by promises. Moreover, she did not want consolation. She wanted only to shut her eyes and die. In her weakness she had not fancied that he could deny her this.
And so when presently he roused her by lifting her to resume the journey, she shed piteous tears upon his shoulder, imploring him to leave her where she was. He would not listen to her. He knew that it was highly dangerous to rest so close to habitation, and he would not risk another day in such precarious shelter.
So for hours he carried her with a strength almost superhuman, forcing his physical powers into subjection to his will. Though limping badly, he covered several miles of wild and broken country, deserted for the most part, almost incredibly lonely, till towards sunrise he found a resting-place in a hollow high up the side of a mountain, overlooking a winding, desolate pass.
Muriel was either sleeping or sunk in the stupor of exhaustion. There was some brandy left in his flask, and he made her take a little. But it scarcely roused her, and she was too weak to notice that he did not touch any himself.
All through the scorching day that followed, she dozed and woke in feverish unrest, sometimes rambling incoherently till he brought her gravely back, sometimes crying weakly, sometimes making feeble efforts to pray.
All through the long, burning hours he never stirred away from her. He sat close to her, often holding her in his arms, for she seemed less restless so; and perpetually he gazed out with terrible, bloodshot eyes over the savage mountains, through the long, irregular line of pass, watching eagle-like, tireless and intent, for the deliverance which, if it came at all, must come that way. His face was yellow and sunken, lined in a thousand wrinkles like the face of a monkey; but his eyes remained marvellously bright. They looked as if they had not slept for years, as if they would never sleep again. He was at the end of his resources and he knew it, but he would watch to the very end. He would die watching.
As the sun sank in a splendour that transfigured the eternally white mountain-crest to a mighty shimmer of rose and gold, he turned at last and looked down at the white face pillowed upon his arm. The eyes were closed. The ineffable peace of Death seemed to dwell upon the quiet features. She had lain so for a long time, and he had fancied her sleeping.
He caught his breath, feeling for his flask, and for the first time his hands shook uncontrollably. But as the raw spirit touched her lips, he saw her eyelids quiver, and a great gasp of relief went through him. As she opened her eyes he stayed his hand. It seemed cruel to bring her back. But the suffering and the half instinctive look of horror passed from her eyes like a shadow, as they rested upon him. There was even the very faint flicker of a smile about them.
She turned her face slightly towards him with the gesture of a child nestling against his breast. Yet though she lay thus in his arms, he felt keenly, bitterly, that she was very far away from him.
He hung over her, still holding himself in with desperate strength, not daring to speak lest he should disturb the holy peace that seemed to be drawing all about her.
The sunset glory deepened. For a few seconds the crags above them glittered golden as the peaks of Paradise. And in the wonderful silence Muriel spoke.
"Do you see them?" she said.
He saw that her eyes were turned upon the shining mountains. There was a strange light on her face.
"See what, darling?" he asked her softly.
Her eyes came back to him for a moment. They had a thoughtful, wondering look.
"How strange!" she said slowly. "I thought it was—an eagle."
The detachment of her tone cut him to the heart. And suddenly the pain of it was more than he could bear.
"It is I—Nick," he told her, with urgent emphasis. "Surely you know me!"
But her eyes had passed beyond him again. "Nick?" she questioned to herself. "Nick? But this—this was an eagle."
She was drawing away from him, and he could not hold her, could not even hope to follow her whither she went. A great sob broke from him, and in a moment, like the rush of an overwhelming flood from behind gates long closed, the anguish of the man burst its bonds.
"Muriel!" he cried passionately. "Muriel! Stay with me, look at me, love me! There is nothing in the mountains to draw you. It is here—here beside you, touching you, holding you. O God," he prayed brokenly, "she doesn't understand me. Let her understand,—open her eyes,—make her see!"
His agony reached her, touched her, for a moment held her. She turned her eyes back to his tortured face.
"But, Nick," she said softly, "I can see."
He bent lower. "Yes?" he said, in a choked voice. "Yes?"
She regarded him with a faint wonder. Her eyes were growing heavy, as the eyes of a tired child. She raised one hand and pointed vaguely.
"Over there," she said wearily. "Can't you see them? Then perhaps it was a dream, or even—perhaps—a vision. Don't you remember how it went? 'And behold—the mountain—was full—of horses—and chariots—of—fire!' God sent them, you know."
The tired voice ceased. Her head sank lower upon Nick's breast. She gave a little quivering sigh, and seemed to sleep.
And Nick turned his tortured eyes upon the pass below him, and stared downwards spellbound.
Was he dreaming also? Or was it perchance a vision—the trick of his fevered fancy? There, at his feet, not fifty yards from where he sat, he beheld men, horses, guns, winding along in a narrow, unbroken line as far as he could see.
A great surging filled his ears, and through it he heard himself shout once, twice, and yet a third time to the phantom army below.
The surging swelled in his brain to a terrific tumult—a confusion indescribable. And then something seemed to crack inside his head. The dark peaks swayed giddily against the darkening sky, and toppled inwards without sound.
The last thing he knew was the call of a bugle, tense and shrill as the buzz of a mosquito close to his ear. And he laughed aloud to think how so small a thing had managed to deceive him.
The jingling notes of a piano playing an air from a comic opera floated cheerily forth into the magic silence of the Simla pines, and abruptly, almost spasmodically, a cracked voice began to sing. It was a sentimental ditty treated jocosely, and its frivolity rippled out into the mid-day silence with something of the effect of a monkey's chatter. The khitmutgar on the verandah would have looked scandalised or at best contemptuous had it not been his role to express nothing but the dignified humility of the native servant. He was waiting for his mistress to come out of the nursery where her voice could be heard talking imperiously to her baby's ayah. He had already waited some minutes, and he would probably have waited much longer, for his patience was inexhaustible, had it not been for that sudden irresponsible and wholly tuneless burst of song. But the second line was scarcely ended before she came hurriedly forth, nearly running into his stately person in her haste.
"Oh, dear, Sammy!" she exclaimed with some annoyance. "Why didn't you tell me Captain Ratcliffe was here?"
She hastened past him along the verandah with the words, not troubling about his explanation, and entered the room whence the music proceeded at a run.
"My dear Nick," she cried impulsively, "I had no idea!"
The music ceased in a jangle of wrong notes, and Nick sprang to his feet, his yellow face wearing a grin of irrepressible gaiety.
"So I gathered, O elect lady," he rejoined, seizing her outstretched hands and kissing first one and then the other. "And I took the first method that presented itself of making myself known. So they beguiled you to Simla, after all?"
"Yes, I had to come for my baby's sake. They thought at first it would have to be home and no compromise. I'm longing to show him to you, Nick. Only six months, and such a pet already! But tell me about yourself. I am sure you have come off the sick list too soon. You look as if you had come straight from a lengthy stay with the bandar-log."
"Tu quoque!" laughed Nick. "And with far less excuse. Only you manage to look charming notwithstanding, which is beyond me. Do you know, Mrs. Musgrave, you don't do justice to the compromise? I should be furious with you if I were Will."
Mrs. Musgrave frowned at him. She was a very pretty woman, possessing a dainty and not wholly unconscious charm. "Tell me about yourself, Nick," she commanded. "And don't be ridiculous. You can't possibly judge impartially on that head, as you haven't the smallest idea as to how ill I have been. I am having a rest cure now, you must know, and I don't go anywhere; or I should have come to see you in hospital."
"Good thing you didn't take the trouble," said Nick. "I've been sleeping for the last three weeks, and I am only just awake."
Mrs. Musgrave looked at him with a very friendly smile. "Poor Nick!" she said. "And Wara was relieved after all."
He jerked up his shoulders. "After a fashion. Grange was the only white man left, and he hadn't touched food for three days. If Muriel Roscoe had stayed, she would have been dead before Bassett got anywhere near them. There are times when the very fact of suffering actively keeps people alive. It was that with her."
He spoke briefly, almost harshly, and immediately turned from the subject. "I suppose you were very anxious about your cousin?"
"Poor Blake Grange? Of course I was. But I was anxious—horribly anxious—about you all." There was a quiver of deep feeling in Mrs. Musgrave's voice.
"Thank you," said Nick. He reached out a skeleton finger and laid it on her arm. "I thought you would be feeling soft-hearted, so I have come to ask you a favour. Not that I shouldn't have come in any case, but it seemed a suitable moment to choose."
Mrs. Musgrave laughed a little. "Have you ever found me anything but kind?" she questioned.
"Never," said Nick. "You're the best pal I ever had, which is the exact reason for my coming here to-day. Mrs. Musgrave, I want you to be awfully good to Muriel Roscoe. She needs some one to help her along just now."