THE WITNESS FOR THE DEFENCE
BY A.E.W. MASON
I. HENRY THRESK
II. ON BIGNOR HILL
III. IN BOMBAY
IV. JANE REPTON
V. THE QUEST
VI. IN THE TENT AT CHITIPUR
VII. THE PHOTOGRAPH
VIII. AND THE RIFLE
IX. AN EPISODE IN BALLANTYNE'S LIFE
X. NEWS FROM CHITIPUR
XI. THRESK INTERVENES
XII. THRESK GIVES EVIDENCE
XIII. LITTLE BEEDING AGAIN
XIV. THE HAZLEWOODS
XV. THE GREAT CRUSADE
XVII. TROUBLE FOR MR. HAZLEWOOD
XVIII. MR. HAZLEWOOD SEEKS ADVICE
XIX. PETTIFER'S PLAN
XX. ON THE DOWNS
XXI. THE LETTER IS WRITTEN
XXII. A WAY OUT OF THE TRAP
XXIII. METHODS FROM FRANCE
XXIV. THE WITNESS
XXV. IN THE LIBRARY
XXVI. TWO STRANGERS
XXVII. THE VERDICT
THE WITNESS FOR THE DEFENCE
The beginning of all this difficult business was a little speech which Mrs. Thresk fell into a habit of making to her son. She spoke it the first time on the spur of the moment without thought or intention. But she saw that it hurt. So she used it again—to keep Henry in his proper place.
"You have no right to talk, Henry," she would say in the hard practical voice which so completed her self-sufficiency. "You are not earning your living. You are still dependent upon us;" and she would add with a note of triumph: "Remember, if anything were to happen to your dear father you would have to shift for yourself, for everything has been left to me."
Mrs. Thresk meant no harm. She was utterly without imagination and had no special delicacy of taste to supply its place—that was all. People and words—she was at pains to interpret neither the one nor the other and she used both at random. She no more contemplated anything happening to her husband, to quote her phrase, than she understood the effect her barbarous little speech would have on a rather reserved schoolboy.
Nor did Henry himself help to enlighten her. He was shrewd enough to recognise the futility of any attempt. No! He just looked at her curiously and held his tongue. But the words were not forgotten. They roused in him a sense of injustice. For in the ordinary well-to-do circle, in which the Thresks lived, boys were expected to be an expense to their parents; and after all, as he argued, he had not asked to be born. And so after much brooding, there sprang up in him an antagonism to his family and a fierce determination to owe to it as little as he could.
There was a full share of vanity no doubt in the boy's resolve, but the antagonism had struck roots deeper than his vanity; and at an age when other lads were vaguely dreaming themselves into Admirals and Field-Marshals and Prime-Ministers Henry Thresk, content with lower ground, was mapping out the stages of a good but perfectly feasible career. When he reached the age of thirty he must be beginning to make money; at thirty-five he must be on the way to distinction—his name must be known beyond the immediate circle of his profession; at forty-five he must be holding public office. Nor was his profession in any doubt. There was but one which offered these rewards to a man starting in life without money to put down—the Bar.
So to the Bar in due time Henry Thresk was called; and when something did happen to his father he was trained for the battle. A bank failed and the failure ruined and killed old Mr. Thresk. From the ruins just enough was scraped to keep his widow, and one or two offers of employment were made to Henry Thresk.
But he was tenacious as he was secret. He refused them, and with the help of pupils, journalism and an occasional spell as an election agent, he managed to keep his head above water until briefs began slowly to come in.
So far then Mrs. Thresk's stinging speeches seemed to have been justified. But at the age of twenty-eight he took a holiday. He went down for a month into Sussex, and there the ordered scheme of his life was threatened. It stood the attack; and again it is possible to plead in its favour with a good show of argument. But the attack, nevertheless, brings into light another point of view.
Prudence, for instance, the disputant might urge, is all very well in the ordinary run of life, but when the great moments come conduct wants another inspiration. Such an one would consider that holiday with a thought to spare for Stella Derrick, who during its passage saw much of Henry Thresk. The actual hour when the test came happened on one of the last days of August.
ON BIGNOR HILL
They were riding along the top of the South Downs between Singleton and Arundel, and when they came to where the old Roman road from Chichester climbs over Bignor Hill, Stella Derrick raised her hand and halted. She was then nineteen and accounted lovely by others besides Henry Thresk, who on this morning rode at her side. She was delicately yet healthfully fashioned, with blue eyes under broad brows, raven hair and a face pale and crystal-clear. But her lips were red and the colour came easily into her cheeks.
She pointed downwards to the track slanting across the turf from the brow of the hill.
"That's Stane Street. I promised to show it you."
"Yes," answered Thresk, taking his eyes slowly from her face. It was a morning rich with sunlight, noisy with blackbirds, and she seemed to him a necessary part of it. She was alive with it and gave rather than took of its gold. For not even that finely chiselled nose of hers could impart to her anything of the look of a statue.
"Yes. They went straight, didn't they, those old centurions?" he said.
He moved his horse and stood in the middle of the track looking across a valley of forest and meadow to Halnaker Down, six miles away in the southwest. Straight in the line of his eyes over a shoulder of the down rose a tall fine spire—the spire of Chichester Cathedral, and farther on he could see the water in Bosham Creek like a silver mirror, and the Channel rippling silver beyond. He turned round. Beneath him lay the blue dark weald of Sussex, and through it he imagined the hidden line of the road driving straight as a ruler to London.
"No going about!" he said. "If a hill was in the way the road climbed over it; if a marsh it was built through it."
They rode on slowly along the great whaleback of grass, winding in and out amongst brambles and patches of yellow-flaming gorse. The day was still even at this height; and when, far away, a field of long grass under a stray wind bent from edge to edge with the swift motion of running water, it took them both by surprise. And they met no one. They seemed to ride in the morning of a new clean world. They rose higher on to Duncton Down, and then the girl spoke.
"So this is your last day here."
He gazed about him out towards the sea, eastwards down the slope to the dark trees of Arundel, backwards over the weald to the high ridge of Blackdown.
"I shall look back upon it."
"Yes," she said. "It's a day to look back upon."
She ran over in her mind the days of this last month since he had come to the inn at Great Beeding and friends of her family had written to her parents of his coming. "It's the most perfect of all your days here. I am glad. I want you to carry back with you good memories of our Sussex."
"I shall do that," said he, "but for another reason."
Stella pushed on a foot or two ahead of him.
"Well," she said, "no doubt the Temple will be stuffy."
"Nor was I thinking of the Temple."
She rode on a little way whilst he followed. A great bee buzzed past their heads and settled in the cup of a wild rose. In a copse beside them a thrush shot into the air a quiverful of clear melody.
Stella spoke again, not looking at her companion, and in a low voice and bravely with a sweet confusion of her blood.
"I am very glad to hear you say that, for I was afraid that I had let you see more than I should have cared for you to see—unless you had been anxious to see it too."
She waited for an answer, still keeping her distance just a foot or two ahead, and the answer did not come. A vague terror began to possess her that things which could never possibly be were actually happening to her. She spoke again with a tremor in her voice and all the confidence gone out of it. Almost it appealed that she should not be put to shame before herself.
"It would have been a little humiliating to remember, if that had been true."
Then upon the ground she saw the shadow of Thresk's horse creep up until the two rode side by side. She looked at him quickly with a doubtful wavering smile and looked down again. What did all the trouble in his face portend? Her heart thumped and she heard him say:
"Stella, I have something very difficult to say to you."
He laid a hand gently upon her arm, but she wrenched herself free. Shame was upon her—shame unendurable. She tingled with it from head to foot. She turned to him suddenly a face grown crimson and eyes which brimmed with tears.
"Oh," she cried aloud, "that I should have been such a fool!" and she swayed forward in her saddle. But before he could reach out an arm to hold her she was upright again, and with a cut of her whip she was off at a gallop.
"Stella," he cried, but she only used her whip the more. She galloped madly and blindly over the grass, not knowing whither, not caring, loathing herself. Thresk galloped after her, but her horse, maddened by her whip and the thud of the hoofs behind, held its advantage. He settled down to the pursuit with a jumble of thoughts in his brain.
"If to-day were only ten years on ... As it is it would be madness ... madness and squalor and the end of everything ... Between us we haven't a couple of pennies to rub together ... How she rides! ... She was never meant for Brixton ... No, nor I ... Why didn't I hold my tongue? ... Oh what a fool, what a fool! Thank Heaven the horses come out of a livery stable ... They can't go on for ever and—oh, my God! there are rabbit-holes on the Downs." And his voice rose to a shout: "Stella! Stella!"
But she never looked over her shoulder. She fled the more desperately, shamed through and through! Along the high ridge, between the bushes and the beech-trees, their shadows flitted over the turf, to a jingle of bits and the thunder of hoofs. Duncton Beacon rose far behind them; they had crossed the road and Charlton forest was slipping past like dark water before the mad race came to an end. Stella became aware that escape was impossible. Her horse was spent, she herself reeling. She let her reins drop loose and the gallop changed to a trot, the trot to a walk. She noticed with gratitude that Thresk was giving her time. He too had fallen to a walk behind her, and quite slowly he came to her side. She turned to him at once.
"This is good country for a gallop, isn't it?"
"Rabbit-holes though," said he. "You were lucky."
He answered absently. There was something which had got to be said now. He could not let this girl to whom he owed—well, the only holiday that he had ever taken, go home shamed by a mistake, which after all she had not made. He was very near indeed to saying yet more. The inclination was strong in him, but not so strong as the methods of his life. Marriage now—that meant to his view the closing of all the avenues of advancement, and a life for both below both their needs.
"Stella, just listen to me. I want you to know that had things been different I should have rejoiced beyond words."
"Oh, don't!" she cried.
"I must," he answered and she was silent. "I want you to know," he repeated, stammering and stumbling, afraid lest each word meant to heal should only pierce the deeper. "Before I came here there was no one. Since I came here there has been—you. Oh, my dear, I would have been very glad. But I am obscure—without means. There are years in front of me before I shall be anything else. I couldn't ask you to share them—or I should have done so before now."
In her mind ran the thought: what queer unimportant things men think about! The early years! Wouldn't their difficulties, their sorrows be the real savour of life and make it worth remembrance, worth treasuring? But men had the right of speech. Not again would she forget that. She bowed her head and he blundered on.
"For you there'll be a better destiny. There's that great house in the Park with its burnt walls. I should like to see that rebuilt and you in your right place, its mistress." And his words ceased as Stella abruptly turned to him. She was breathing quickly and she looked at him with a wonder in her trouble.
"And it hurts you to say this!" she said. "Yes, it actually hurts you."
"What else could I say?"
Her face softened as she looked and heard. It was not that he was cold of blood or did not care. There was more than discomfort in his voice, there was a very real distress. And in his eyes his heart ached for her to see. Something of her pride was restored to her. She fell at once to his tune, but she was conscious that both of them talked treacheries.
"Yes, you are right. It wouldn't have been possible. You have your name and your fortune to make. I too—I shall marry, I suppose, some one"—and she suddenly smiled rather bitterly—"who will give me a Rolls-Royce motor-car." And so they rode on very reasonably.
Noon had passed. A hush had fallen upon that high world of grass and sunlight. The birds were still. They talked of this and that, the latest crisis in Europe and the growth of Socialism, all very wisely and with great indifference like well-bred people at a dinner-party. Not thus had Stella thought to ride home when the message had come that morning that the horses would be at her door before ten. She had ridden out clothed on with dreams of gold. She rode back with her dreams in tatters and a sort of incredulity that to her too, as to other girls, all this pain had come.
They came to a bridle-path which led downwards through a thicket of trees to the weald and so descended upon Great Beeding. They rode through the little town, past the inn where Thresk was staying and the iron gates of a Park where, amidst elm-trees, the blackened ruins of a great house gaped to the sky.
"Some day you will live there again," said Thresk, and Stella's lips twitched with a smile of humour.
"I shall be very glad after to-day to leave the house I am living in," she said quietly, and the words struck him dumb. He had subtlety enough to understand her. The rooms would mock her with memories of vain dreams. Yet he kept silence. It was too late in any case to take back what he had said; and even if she would listen to him marriage wouldn't be fair. He would be hampered, and that, just at this time in his life, would mean failure—failure for her no less than for him. They must be prudent—prudent and methodical, and so the great prizes would be theirs.
A mile beyond, a mile of yellow lanes between high hedges, they came to the village of Little Beeding, one big house and a few thatched cottages clustered amongst roses and great trees on the bank of a small river. Thither old Mr. Derrick and his wife and his daughter had gone after the fire at Hinksey Park had completed the ruin which disastrous speculations had begun; and at the gate of one of the cottages the riders stopped and dismounted.
"I shall not see you again after to-day," said Stella. "Will you come in for a moment?"
Thresk gave the horses to a passing labourer to hold and opened the gate.
"I shall be disturbing your people at their luncheon," he said.
"I don't want you to go in to them," said the girl. "I will say goodbye to them for you."
Thresk followed her up the garden-path, wondering what it was that she had still to say to him. She led him into a small room at the back of the house, looking out upon the lawn. Then she stood in front of him.
"Will you kiss me once, please," she said simply, and she stood with her arms hanging at her side, whilst he kissed her on the lips.
"Thank you," she said. "Now will you go?"
He left her standing in the little room and led the horses back to the inn. That afternoon he took the train to London.
It was not until a day late in January eight years afterwards that Thresk saw the face of Stella Derrick again; and then it was only in a portrait. He came upon it too in a most unlikely place. About five o'clock upon that afternoon he drove out of the town of Bombay up to one of the great houses on Malabar Hill and asked for Mrs. Carruthers. He was shown into a drawing-room which looked over Back Bay to the great buildings of the city, and in a moment Mrs. Carruthers came to him with her hands outstretched.
"So you've won. My husband telephoned to me. We do thank you! Victory means so much to us."
The Carruthers were a young couple who, the moment after they had inherited the larger share in the great firm of Templeton & Carruthers, Bombay merchants, had found themselves involved in a partnership suit due to one or two careless phrases in a solicitor's letter. The case had been the great case of the year in Bombay. The issue had been doubtful, the stake enormous and Thresk, who three years before had taken silk, had been fetched by young Carruthers from England to fight it.
"Yes, we've won," he said. "Judgment was given in our favor this afternoon."
"You are dining with us to-night, aren't you."
"Thank you, yes," said Thresk. "At half-past eight."
Mrs. Carruthers gave him some tea and chattered pleasantly while he drank it. She was fair-haired and pretty, a lady of enthusiasms and uplifted hands, quite without observation or knowledge, yet with power to astonish. For every now and then some little shrewd wise saying would gleam out of the placid flow of her trivialities and make whoever heard it wonder for a moment whether it was her own or whether she had heard it from another. But it was her own. For she gave no special importance to it as she would have done had it been a remark she had thought worth remembering. She just uttered it and slipped on, noticing no difference in value between what she now said and what she had said a second ago. To her the whole world was a marvel and all things in it equally amazing. Besides she had no memory.
"I suppose that now you are free," she said, "you will go up into the central Provinces and see something of India."
"But I am not free," replied Thresk. "I must get immediately back to England."
"So soon!" exclaimed Mrs. Carruthers. "Now isn't that a pity! You ought to see the Taj—oh, you really ought!—by moonlight or in the morning. I don't know which is best, and the Ridge too!—the Ridge at Delhi. You really mustn't leave India without seeing the Ridge. Can't things wait in London?"
"Yes, things can, but people won't," answered Thresk, and Mrs. Carruthers was genuinely distressed that he should depart from India without a single journey in a train.
"I can't help it," he said, smiling back into her mournful eyes. "Apart from my work, Parliament meets early in February."
"Oh, to be sure, you are in Parliament," she exclaimed. "I had forgotten." She shook her fair head in wonder at the industry of her visitor. "I can't think how you manage it all. Oh, you must need a holiday."
"I am thirty-six, so I have a year or two still in front of me before I have the right to break down. I'll save up my holidays for my old age."
"But you are not married," cried Mrs. Carruthers. "You can't do that. You can't grow comfortably old unless you're married. You will want to work then to get through the time. You had better take your holidays now."
"Very well. I shall have twelve days upon the steamer. When does it go?" asked Thresk as he rose from his chair.
"On Friday, and this is Monday," said Mrs. Carruthers. "You certainly haven't much time to go anywhere, have you?"
"No," replied Thresk, and Mrs. Carruthers saw his face quicken suddenly to surprise. He actually caught his breath; he stared, no longer aware of her presence in the room. He was looking over her head towards the grand piano which stood behind her chair; and she began to run over in her mind the various ornaments which encumbered it. A piece of Indian drapery covered the top and on the drapery stood a little group of Dresden China figures, a crystal cigarette-box, some knick-knacks and half-a-dozen photographs in silver frames. It must be one of those photographs, she decided, which had caught his eye, which had done more than catch his eye. For she was looking up at Thresk's face all this while, and the surprise had gone from it. It seemed to her that he was moved.
"You have the portrait of a friend of mine there," he said, and he crossed the room to the piano.
Mrs. Carruthers turned round.
"Oh, Stella Ballantyne!" she cried. "Do you know her, Mr. Thresk?"
"Ballantyne?" said Thresk. For a moment or two he was silent. Then he asked: "She is married then?"
"Yes, didn't you know? She has been married for a long time."
"It's a long time since I have heard of her," said Thresk. He looked again at the photograph.
"When was this taken?"
"A few months ago. She sent it to me in October. She is beautiful, don't you think?"
But it was not the beauty of the girl who had ridden along the South Downs with him eight years ago. There was more of character in the face now, less, much less, of youth and none of the old gaiety. The open frankness had gone. The big dark eyes which looked out straight at Thresk as he stood before them had, even in that likeness, something of aloofness and reserve. And underneath, in a contrast which seemed to him startling, there was her name signed in the firm running hand in which she had written the few notes which passed between them during that month in Sussex. Thresk looked back again at the photograph and then resumed his seat.
"Tell me about her, Mrs. Carruthers," he said. "You hear from her often?"
"Oh no! Stella doesn't write many letters, and I don't know her very well."
"But you have her photograph," said Thresk, "and signed by her."
"Oh yes. She stayed with me last Christmas, and I simply made her get her portrait taken. Just think! She hadn't been taken for years. Can you understand it? She declared she was bored with it. Isn't that curious? However, I persuaded her and she gave me one. But I had to force her to write on it."
"Then she was in Bombay last winter?" said Thresk slowly.
"Yes." And then Mrs. Carruthers had an idea.
"Oh," she exclaimed, "if you are really interested in Stella I'll put Mrs. Repton next to you to-night."
"Thank you very much," said Thresk. "But who is Mrs. Repton?"
Mrs. Carruthers sat forward in her chair.
"Well, she's Stella's great friend—very likely her only real friend in India. Stella's so reserved. I simply adore her, but she quite prettily and politely keeps me always at arm's length. If she has ever opened out to anybody it's to Jane Repton. You see Charlie Repton was Collector at Agra before he came into the Bombay Presidency, and so they went up to Mussoorie for the hot weather. The Ballantynes happened actually to have the very next bungalow—now wasn't that strange?—so naturally they became acquainted. I mean the Ballantynes and the Reptons did..."
"But one moment, Mrs. Carruthers," said Thresk, breaking in upon the torrent of words. "Am I right in guessing that Mrs. Ballantyne lives in India?"
"But of course!" cried Mrs. Carruthers.
"She is actually in India now?"
"To be sure she is!"
Thresk was quite taken aback by the news.
"I had no idea of it," he said slowly, and Mrs. Carruthers replied sweetly:
"But lots of people live in India, Mr. Thresk. Didn't you know that? We are not the uttermost ends of the earth."
Thresk set to work to make his peace. He had not heard of Mrs. Ballantyne for so long. It seemed strange to him to find himself suddenly near to her now—that is if he was near. He just avoided that other exasperating trick of treating India as if it was a provincial town and all its inhabitants neighbours. But he only just avoided it. Mrs. Carruthers, however, was easily appeased.
"Yes," she said. "Stella has lived in India for the best part of eight years. She came out with some friends in the winter, made Captain Ballantyne's acquaintance and married him almost at once—in January, I think it was. Of course I only know from what I've been told. I was a schoolgirl in England at the time."
"Of course," Thresk agreed. He was conscious of a sharp little stab of resentment. So very quickly Stella had forgotten that morning on the Downs! It must have been in the autumn of that same year that she had gone out to India, and by February she was married. The resentment was quite unjustified, as no one knew better than himself. But he was a man; and men cannot easily endure so swift an obliteration of their images from the thoughts and the hearts of the ladies who have admitted that they loved them. None the less he pressed for details. Who was Ballantyne? What was his position? After all he was obviously not the millionaire to whom in a more generous moment he had given Stella. He caught himself on a descent to the meanness of rejoicing upon that. Meanwhile Mrs. Carruthers rippled on.
"Captain Ballantyne? Oh, he's a most remarkable man! Older than Stella, certainly, but a man of great knowledge and insight. People think most highly of him. Languages come as easily to him as crochet-work to a woman."
This paragon had been Resident in the Principality of Bakuta to the north of Bombay when Stella had first arrived. But he had been moved now to Chitipur in Rajputana. It was supposed that he was writing in his leisure moments a work which would be the very last word upon the native Principalities of Central India. Oh, Stella was to be congratulated! And Mrs. Carruthers, in her fine mansion on Malabar Hill, breathed a sigh of envy at the position of the wife of a high official of the British Raj.
Thresk looked over again to the portrait on the piano.
"I am very glad," he said cordially as once more he rose.
"But you shall sit next to Mrs. Repton to-night," said Mrs. Carruthers. "And she will tell you more."
"Thank you," answered Thresk. "I only wished to know that things are going well with Mrs. Ballantyne—that was all."
Mrs. Carruthers kept her promise. She went in herself with Henry Thresk, as she had always meant to do, but she placed Mrs. Repton upon his left just round the bend of the table. Thresk stole a glance at her now and then as he listened to the rippling laughter of his hostess during the first courses. She was a tall woman and rather stout, with a pleasant face and a direct gaze. Thresk gave her the age of thirty-five and put her down as a cheery soul. Whether she was more he had to wait to learn with what patience he could. He was free to turn to her at last and he began without any preliminaries.
"You know a friend of mine," he said.
"Who is it?"
He noticed at once a change in Mrs. Repton. The frankness disappeared from her face; her eyes grew wary.
"I see," she said slowly. "I was wondering why I was placed next to you, for you are the lion of the evening and there are people here of more importance than myself. I knew it wasn't for my beaux yeux."
She turned again to Thresk.
"So you know my Stella?"
"Yes. I knew her in England before she came out here and married. I have not, of course, seen her since. I want you to tell me about her."
Mrs. Repton looked him over with a careful scrutiny.
"Mrs. Carruthers has no doubt told you that she married very well."
"Yes; and that Ballantyne is a remarkable man," said Thresk.
Mrs. Repton nodded.
"Very well then?" she said, and her voice was a challenge.
"I am not contented," Thresk replied. Mrs. Repton turned her eyes to her plate and said demurely:
"There might be more than one reason for that."
Thresk abandoned all attempt to fence with her. Mrs. Repton was not of those women who would lightly give their women-friends away. Her phrase "my Stella" had, besides, revealed a world of love and championship. Thresk warmed to her because of it. He threw reticence to the winds.
"I am going to give you the real reason, Mrs. Repton. I saw her photograph this afternoon on Mrs. Carruthers' piano, and it left me wondering whether happiness could set so much character in a woman's face."
Mrs. Repton shrugged her shoulders.
"Some of us age quickly here."
"Age was not the new thing which I read in that photograph."
Mrs. Repton did not answer. Only her eyes sounded him. She seemed to be judging the stuff of which he was made.
"And if I doubted her happiness this afternoon I must doubt it still more now," he continued.
"Why?" exclaimed Mrs. Repton.
"Because of your reticence, Mrs. Repton," he answered. "For you have been reticent. You have been on guard. I like you for it," he added with a smile of genuine friendliness. "May I say that? But from the first moment when I mentioned Stella Ballantyne's name you shouldered your musket."
Mrs. Repton neither denied nor accepted his statement. She kept looking at him and away from him as though she were still not sure of him, and at times she drew in her breath sharply, as though she had already taken upon herself some great responsibility and now regretted it. In the end she turned to him abruptly.
"I am puzzled," she cried. "I think it's strange that since you are Stella's friend I knew nothing of that friendship—nothing whatever."
Thresk shrugged his shoulders.
"It is years since we met, as I told you. She has new interests."
"They have not destroyed the old ones. We remember home things out here, all of us. Stella like the rest. Why, I thought that I knew her whole life in England, and here's a definite part of it—perhaps a very important part—of which I am utterly ignorant. She has spoken of many friends to me; of you never. I am wondering why."
She spoke obviously without any wish to hurt. Yet the words did hurt. She saw Thresk redden as she uttered them, and a swift wild hope flamed like a rose in her heart: if this man with the brains and the money and the perseverance sitting at her side should turn out to be the Perseus for her beautiful chained Andromeda, far away there in the state of Chitipur! The lines of a poem came into her thoughts.
"I know; the world proscribes not love, Allows my finger to caress Your lips' contour and downiness Provided it supplies the glove."
Suppose that here at her side was the man who would dispense with the glove! She looked again at Thresk. The lean strong face suggested that he might, if he wanted hard enough. All her life had been passed in the support of authority and law. Authority—that was her husband's profession. But just for this hour, as she thought of Stella Ballantyne, lawlessness shone out to her desirable as a star.
"No, she has never once mentioned your name, Mr. Thresk."
Again Thresk was conscious of the little pulse of resentment beating at his heart.
"She has no doubt forgotten me."
Mrs. Repton shook her head.
"That's one explanation. There might be another."
"What is it?"
"That she remembers you too much."
Mrs. Repton was a little startled by her own audacity, but it provoked nothing but an incredulous laugh from her companion.
"I am afraid that's not very likely," he said. There was no hint of elation in his voice nor any annoyance. If he felt either, why, he was on guard no less than she. Mrs. Repton was inclined to throw up her hands in despair. She was baffled and she was little likely, as she knew, to get any light.
"If you take the man you know best of all," she used to say, "you still know nothing at all of what he's like when he's alone with a woman, especially if it's a woman for whom he cares—unless the woman talks."
Very often the woman does talk and the most intimate and private facts come in a little while to be shouted from the housetops. But Stella Ballantyne did not talk. She had talked once, and once only, under a great stress to Jane Repton; but even then Thresk had nothing to do with her story at all.
Thresk turned quickly towards her.
"In a moment Mrs. Carruthers will get up. Her eyes are collecting the women and the women are collecting their shoes. What have you to tell me?"
Mrs. Repton wanted to speak. Thresk gave her confidence. He seemed to be a man without many illusions, he was no romantic sentimentalist. She went back to the poem of which the lines had been chasing one another through her head all through this dinner, as a sort of accompaniment to their conversation. Had he found it out? she asked herself—
"The world and what it fears."
Thus she hung hesitating while Mrs. Carruthers gathered in her hands her gloves and her fan. There was a woman at the other end of the table however who would not stop talking. She was in the midst of some story and heeded not the signals of her hostess. Jane Repton wished she would go on talking for the rest of the evening, and recognised that the wish was a waste of time and grew flurried. She had to make up her mind to say something which should be true or to lie. Yet she was too staunch to betray the confidence of her friend unless the betrayal meant her friend's salvation. But just as the woman at the end of the table ceased to talk an inspiration came to her. She would say nothing to Thresk, but if he had eyes to see she would place him where the view was good.
"I have this to say," she answered in a low quick voice. "Go yourself to Chitipur. You sail on Friday, I think? And to-day is Monday. You can make the journey there and back quite easily in the time."
"I can?" asked Thresk.
"Yes. Travel by the night-mail up to Ajmere tomorrow night. You will be in Chitipur on Wednesday afternoon. That gives you twenty-four hours there, and you can still catch the steamer here on Friday."
"You advise that?"
"Yes, I do," said Mrs. Repton.
Mrs. Carruthers rose from the table and Jane Repton had no further word with Thresk that night. In the drawing-room Mrs. Carruthers led him from woman to woman, allowing him ten minutes for each one.
"He might be Royalty or her pet Pekingese," cried Mrs. Repton in exasperation. For now that her blood had cooled she was not so sure that her advice had been good. The habit of respect for authority resumed its ancient place in her. She might be planting that night the seed of a very evil flower. "Respectability" had seemed to her a magnificent poem as she sat at the dinner-table. Here in the drawing-room she began to think that it was not for every-day use. She wished a word now with Thresk, so that she might make light of the advice which she had given. "I had no business to interfere," she kept repeating to herself whilst she talked with her host. "People get what they want if they want it enough, but they can't control the price they have to pay. Therefore it was no business of mine to interfere."
But Thresk took his leave and gave her no chance for a private word. She drove homewards a few minutes later with her husband; and as they descended the hill to the shore of Back Bay he said:
"I had a moment's conversation with Thresk after you had left the dining-room, and what do you think?"
"He asked me for a letter of introduction to Ballantyne at Chitipur."
"But he knows Stella!" exclaimed Jane Repton.
"Does he? He didn't tell me that! He simply said that he had time to see Chitipur before he sailed and asked for a line to the Resident."
"And you promised to give him one?"
"Of course. I am to send it to the Taj Mahal hotel to-morrow morning."
Mrs. Repton was a little startled. She did not understand at all why Thresk asked for the letter and, not understanding, was the more alarmed. The request seemed to imply not merely that he had decided to make the journey but that during the hour or so since they had sat at the dinner-table he had formed some definite and serious plan.
"Did you tell him anything?" she asked rather timidly.
"Not a word," replied Repton.
"Not even about—what happened in the hills at Mussoorie?"
"Of course not."
"No, of course not," Jane Repton agreed.
She leaned back against the cushions of the victoria. A clear dark sky of stars wonderfully bright stretched above her head. After the hot day a cool wind blew pleasantly on the hill, and between the trees of the gardens she could see the lights of the city and of a ship here and there in the Bay at their feet.
"But it's not very likely that Thresk will find them at Chitipur," said Repton. "They will probably be in camp."
Mrs. Repton sat forward.
"Yes, that's true. This is the time they go on their tour of inspection. He will miss them." And at once disappointment laid hold of her. Mrs. Repton was not in the mood for logic that evening. She had been afraid a moment since that the train she had laid would bring about a conflagration. Now that she knew it would not even catch fire she passed at once to a passionate regret. Thresk had inspired her with a great confidence. He was the man, she believed, for her Stella. But he was going up to Chitipur! Anything might happen! She leaned back again in the carriage and cried defiantly to the stars.
"I am glad that he's going. I am very glad." And in spite of her conscience her heart leaped joyously in her bosom.
The next night Henry Thresk left Bombay and on the Wednesday afternoon he was travelling in a little white narrow-gauge train across a flat yellow desert which baked and sparkled in the sun. Here and there a patch of green and a few huts marked a railway station and at each gaily-robed natives sprung apparently from nowhere and going no-whither thronged the platform and climbed into the carriages. Thresk looked impatiently through the clouded windows, wondering what he should find in Chitipur if ever he got there. The capital of that state lies aloof from the trunk roads and is reached by a branch railway sixty miles long, which is the private possession of the Maharajah and takes four hours to traverse. For in Chitipur the ancient ways are devoutly followed. Modern ideas of speed and progress may whirl up the big central railroad from Bombay to Ajmere. But they stop at the junction. They do not travel along the Maharajah's private lines to Chitipur, where he, directly descended from an important and most authentic goddess, dispenses life and justice to his subjects without even the assistance of the Press. There is little criticism in the city and less work. A patriarchal calm sleeps in all its streets. In Chitipur it is always Sunday afternoon. Even down by the lake, where the huge white many-storeyed palace contemplates its dark-latticed windows and high balconies mirrored in still water unimaginably blue nothing which could be described as energy is visible. You may see an elephant kneeling placidly in the lake while an attendant polishes up his trunk and his forehead with a brickbat. But the elephant will be too well-mannered to trumpet his enjoyment. Or you may notice a fisherman drowsing in a boat heavy enough to cope with the surf of the Atlantic. But the fisherman will not notice you—not even though you call to him with dulcet promises of rupees. You will, if you wait long enough, see a woman coming down the steps with a pitcher balanced on her head; and indeed perhaps two women. But when your eyes have dwelt upon these wonders you will have seen what there is of movement and life about the shores of those sleeping waters. It was in accordance with the fitness of things that the city and its lake should be three miles from the railway station and quite invisible to the traveller. The hotel however and the Residency were near to the station, and it was the Residency which had brought Thresk out of the crowds and tumult of Bombay. He put up at the hotel and enclosing Repton's introduction in a covering letter sent it by his bearer down the road. Then he waited; and no answer came.
Finally he asked if his bearer had returned. Quite half an hour he was told, and the man was sent for.
"Well? You delivered my letter?" said Thresk.
"And there was no answer?"
"No. No answer, Sahib," replied the man cheerfully.
He waited yet another hour, and since still no acknowledgment had come he strolled along the road himself. He came to a large white house. A flagpost tapered from its roof but no flag blew out its folds. There was a garden about the house, the trim well-ordered garden of the English folk with a lawn and banks of flowers, and a gardener with a hose was busy watering it. Thresk stopped before the hedge. The windows were all shuttered, the big door closed: there was nowhere any sign of the inhabitants.
Thresk turned and walked back to the hotel. He found the bearer laying out a change of clothes for him upon his bed.
"His Excellency is away," he said.
"Yes, Sahib," replied the bearer promptly. "His Excellency gone on inspection tour."
"Then why in heaven's name didn't you tell me?" cried Thresk.
The bearer's face lost all its cheerfulness in a second and became a mask. He was a Madrassee and black as coal. To Thresk it seemed that the man had suddenly withdrawn himself altogether and left merely an image with living eyes. He shrugged his shoulders. He knew that change in his servant. It came at the first note of reproach in his voice and with such completeness that it gave him the shock of a conjurer's trick. One moment the bearer was before him, the next he had disappeared.
"What did you do with the letter?" Thresk asked and was careful that there should be no exasperation in his voice.
The bearer came to life again, his white teeth gleamed in smiles.
"I leave the letter. I give it to the gardener. All letters are sent to his Excellency."
"Perhaps this week, perhaps next."
"I see," said Thresk. He stood for a moment or two with his eyes upon the window. Then he moved abruptly.
"We go back to Bombay to-morrow afternoon."
"The Sahib will see Chitipur to-morrow. There are beautiful palaces on the lake."
Thresk laughed, but the laugh was short and bitter.
"Oh yes, we'll do the whole thing in style to-morrow."
He had the tone of a man who has caught himself out in some childish act of folly. He seemed at once angry and ashamed.
None the less he was the next morning the complete tourist doing India at express speed during a cold weather. He visited the Museum, he walked through the Elephant Gate into the bazaar, he was rowed over the lake to the island palaces; he admired their marble steps and columns and floors and was confounded by their tinkling blue glass chandeliers. He did the correct thing all through that morning and early in the afternoon climbed into the little train which was to carry him back to Jarwhal Junction and the night mail to Bombay.
"You will have five hours to wait at the junction, Mr. Thresk," said the manager of the hotel, who had come to see him off. "I have put up some dinner for you and there is a dak-bungalow where you can eat it."
"Thank you," said Thresk, and the train moved off. The sun had set before he reached the junction. When he stepped out on to the platform twilight had come—the swift twilight of the East. Before he had reached the dak-bungalow the twilight had changed to the splendour of an Indian night. The bungalow was empty of visitors. Thresk's bearer lit a fire and prepared dinner while Thresk wandered outside the door and smoked. He looked across a plain to a long high ridge, where once a city had struggled. Its deserted towers and crumbling walls still crowned the height and made a habitation for beasts and birds. But they were quite hidden now and the sharp line of the ridge was softened. Halfway between the old city and the bungalow a cluster of bright lights shone upon the plain and the red tongues of a fire flickered in the open. Thresk was in no hurry to go back to the bungalow. The first chill of the darkness had gone. The night was cool but not cold; a moon had risen, and that dusty plain had become a place of glamour. From somewhere far away came the sound of a single drum. Thresk garnered up in his thoughts the beauty of that night. It was to be his last night in India. By this time to-morrow Bombay would have sunk below the rim of the sea. He thought of it with regret. He had come up into Rajputana on a definite quest and on the advice of a woman whose judgment he was inclined to trust. And his quest had failed. He was to see for himself. He would see nothing. And still far away the beating of that drum went on—monotonous, mournful, significant—the real call of the East made audible. Thresk leaned forward on his seat, listening, treasuring the sound. He rose reluctantly when his bearer came to tell him that dinner was ready. Thresk took a look round. He pointed to the cluster of lights on the plain.
"Is that a village?" he asked.
"No, Sahib," replied the bearer. "That's his Excellency's camp."
"What!" cried Thresk, swinging round upon his heel.
His bearer smiled cheerfully.
"Yes. His Excellency to whom I carried the Sahib's letter. That's his camp for to-night. The keeper of the bungalow told me so. His Excellency camped here yesterday and goes on to-morrow."
"And you never told me!" exclaimed Thresk, and he checked himself. He stood wondering what he should do, when there came suddenly out of the darkness a queer soft scuffling sound, the like of which he had never heard. He heard a heavy breathing and a bubbling noise and then into the fan of light which spread from the window of the bungalow a man in a scarlet livery rode on a camel. The camel knelt; its rider dismounted, and as he dismounted he talked to Thresk's bearer. Something passed from hand to hand and the bearer came back to Thresk with a letter in his hand.
"A chit from his Excellency."
Thresk tore open the envelope and found within it an invitation to dinner, signed "Stephen Ballantyne."
"Your letter has reached me this moment," the note ran. "It came by your train. I am glad not to have missed you altogether and I hope that you will come to-night. The camel will bring you to the camp and take you back in plenty of time for the mail."
After all then the quest had not failed. After all he was to see for himself—what a man could see within two hours, of the inner life of a married couple. Not very much certainly, but a hint perhaps, some token which would reveal to him what it was that had written so much character into Stella Ballantyne's face and driven Jane Repton into warnings and reserve.
"I will go at once," said Thresk and his bearer translated the words to the camel-driver.
But even so Thresk stayed to look again at the letter. Its handwriting at the first glance, when the unexpected words were dancing before his eyes, had arrested his attention; it was so small, so delicately clear. Thresk's experience had made him quick to notice details and slow to infer from them. Yet this handwriting set him wondering. It might have been the work of some fastidious woman or of some leisured scholar; so much pride of penmanship was there. It certainly agreed with no picture of Stephen Ballantyne which his imagination had drawn.
He mounted the camel behind the driver, and for the next few minutes all his questions and perplexities vanished from his mind. He simply clung to the waist of the driver. For the camel bumped down into steep ditches and scuffled up out of them, climbed over mounds and slid down the further side of them, and all the while Thresk had the sensation of being poised uncertainly in the air as high as a church-steeple. Suddenly however the lights of the camp grew large and the camel padded silently in between the tents. It was halted some twenty yards from a great marquee. Another servant robed in white with a scarlet sash about his waist received Thresk from the camel-driver.
He spoke a few words in Hindustani, but Thresk shook his head. Then the man moved towards the marquee and Thresk followed him. He was conscious of a curious excitement, and only when he caught his breath was he aware that his heart was beating fast. As they neared the tent he heard voices within. They grew louder as he reached it—one was a man's, loud, wrathful, the other was a woman's. It was not raised but it had a ring in it of defiance. The words Thresk could not hear, but he knew the woman's voice. The servant raised the flap of the tent.
"Huzoor, the Sahib is here," he said, and at once both the voices were stilled. As Thresk stood in the doorway both the man and the woman turned. The man, with a little confusion in his manner, came quickly towards him. Over his shoulder Thresk saw Stella Ballantyne staring at him, as if he had risen from the grave. Then, as he took Ballantyne's extended hand, Stella swiftly raised her hand to her throat with a curious gesture and turned away. It seemed as if now that she was sure that Thresk stood there before her, a living presence, she had something to hide from him.
IN THE TENT AT CHITIPTUR
The marquee was large and high. It had a thick lining of a dull red colour and a carpet covered the floor; cushioned basket chairs and a few small tables stood here and there; against one wall rose an open escritoire with a box of cheroots upon it; the two passages to the sleeping-tents and the kitchen were hidden by grass-screens and between them stood a great Chesterfield sofa. It was, in a word, the tent of people who were accustomed to make their home in it for weeks at a time. Even the latest books were to be seen. But it was dark.
A single lamp swinging above the round dinner-table from the cross-pole of the roof burnt in the very centre of the tent; and that was all. The corners were shadowy; the lining merely absorbed the rays and gave none back. The round pool of light which spread out beneath the lamp was behind Ballantyne when he turned to the doorway, so Thresk for a moment was only aware of him as a big heavily-built man in a smoking-jacket and a starched white shirt; and it was to that starched white shirt that he spoke, making his apologies. He was glad too to delay for a second or two the moment when he must speak to Stella. In her presence this eight long years of effort and work had become a very little space.
"I had to come as I was, Captain Ballantyne," he said, "for I have only with me what I want for the night in the train."
"Of course. That's all right," Ballantyne replied with a great cordiality. He turned towards Stella. "Mr. Thresk, this is my wife."
Now she had to turn. She held out her right hand but she still covered her throat with her left. She gave no sign of recognition and she did not look at her visitor.
"How do you do, Mr. Thresk?" she said, and went on quickly, allowing him no time for a reply. "We are in camp, you see. You must just take us as we are. Stephen did not tell me till a minute ago that he expected a visitor. You have not too much time. I will see that dinner is served at once." She went quickly to one of the grass-screens and lifting it vanished from his view. It seemed to Thresk that she had just seized upon an excuse to get away. Why? he asked himself. She was nervous and distressed, and in her distress she had accepted without surprise Thresk's introduction to her as a stranger. To that relationship then he and she were bound for the rest of his stay in the Resident's camp.
Mrs. Repton had been wrong when she had attributed Thresk's request for a formal introduction to Ballantyne to a plan already matured in his mind. He had no plan, although he formed one before that dinner was at an end. He had asked for the letter because he wished faithfully to follow her advice and see for himself. If he called upon Stella he would find her alone; the mere sending in of his name would put her on her guard; he would see nothing. She would take care of that. He had no wish to make Ballantyne's acquaintance as Mrs. Ballantyne's friend. He could claim that friendship afterwards. Now however Stella herself in her confusion had made the claim impossible. She had fled—there was no other word which could truthfully describe her swift movement to the screen.
Ballantyne however had clearly not been surprised by it.
"It was a piece of luck for me that I camped here yesterday and telegraphed for my letters," he said. "You mentioned in your note that you had only twenty-four hours to give to Chitipur, didn't you? So I was sure that you would be upon this train."
He spoke with a slow precision in a voice which he was careful—or so it struck Thresk—to keep suave and low; and as he spoke he moved towards the dinner-table and came within the round pool of light. Thresk had a clear view of him. He was a man of a gross and powerful face, with a blue heavy chin and thick eyelids over bloodshot eyes.
"Will you have a cocktail?" he asked, and he called aloud, going to the second passage from the tent: "Quai hai! Baram Singh, cocktails!"
The servant who had met Thresk at the door came in upon the instant with a couple of cocktails on a tray.
"Ah, you have them," he said. "Good!"
But he refused the glass when the tray was held out to him, refused it after a long look and with a certain violence.
"For me? Certainly not! Never in this world." He looked up at Thresk with a laugh. "Cocktails are all very well for you, Mr. Thresk, who are here during a cold weather, but we who make our homes here—we have to be careful."
"Yes, so I suppose," said Thresk. But just behind Ballantyne, on a sideboard against the wall of the tent opposite to that wall where the writing-table stood, he noticed a syphon of soda, a decanter of whisky and a long glass which was not quite empty. He looked at Ballantyne curiously and as he looked he saw him start and stare with wide-opened eyes into the dim corners of the tent. Ballantyne had forgotten Thresk's presence. He stood there, his body rigid, his mouth half-open and fear looking out from his eyes and every line in his face—stark paralysing fear. Then he saw Thresk staring at him, but he was too sunk in terror to resent the stare.
"Did you hear anything?" he said in a whisper.
"I did," and he leaned his head on one side. For a moment the two men stood holding their breath; and then Thresk did hear something. It was the rustle of a dress in the corridor beyond the mat-screen.
"It's Mrs. Ballantyne," he said, and she lifted the screen and came in.
Thresk just noticed a sharp movement of revulsion in Ballantyne, but he paid no heed to him. His eyes were riveted on Stella Ballantyne. She was wearing about her throat now a turquoise necklace. It was a heavy necklace of Indian make, rather barbaric and not at all beautiful, but it had many rows of stones and it hid her throat—just as surely as her hand had hidden it when she first saw Thresk. It was to hide her throat that she had fled. He saw Ballantyne go up to his wife, he heard his voice and noticed that her face grew grave and hard.
"So you have come to your senses," he said in a low tone. Stella passed him and did not answer. It was, then, upon the question of that necklace that their voices had been raised when he reached the camp. He had heard Ballantyne's, loud and dominant, the voice of a bully. He had been ordering her to cover her throat. Stella, on the other hand, had been quiet but defiant. She had refused. Now she had changed her mind.
Baram Singh brought in the soup-tureen a second afterwards and Ballantyne raised his hands in a simulation of the profoundest astonishment.
"Why, dinner's actually punctual! What a miracle! Upon my word, Stella, I shan't know what to expect next if you spoil me in this way."
"It's usually punctual, Stephen," Stella replied with a smile of anxiety and appeal.
"Is it, my dear? I hadn't noticed it. Let us sit down at once."
Upon this tone of banter the dinner began; and no doubt in another man's mouth it might have sounded good-humoured enough. There was certainly no word as yet which, it could be definitely said, was meant to wound, but underneath the raillery Thresk was conscious of a rasp, a bitterness just held in check through the presence of a stranger. Not that Thresk was spared his share of it. At the very outset he, the guest whom it was such a rare piece of good fortune for Ballantyne to meet, came in for a taste of the whip.
"So you could actually give four-and-twenty hours to Chitipur, Mr. Thresk. That was most kind and considerate of you. Chitipur is grateful. Let us drink to it! By the way what will you drink? Our cellar is rather limited in camp. There's some claret and some whisky-and-soda."
"Whisky-and-soda for me, please," said Thresk.
"And for me too. You take claret, don't you, Stella dear?" and he lingered upon the "dear" as though he anticipated getting a great deal of amusement out of her later on. And so she understood him, for there came a look of trouble into her face and she made a little gesture of helplessness. Thresk watched and said nothing.
"The decanter's in front of you, Stella," continued Ballantyne. He turned his attention to his own tumbler, into which Baram Singh had already poured the whisky; and at once he exclaimed indignantly:
"There's much too much here for me! Good heavens, what next!" and in Hindustani he ordered Baram Singh to add to the soda-water. Then he turned again to Thresk. "But I've no doubt you exhausted Chitipur in your twenty-four hours, didn't you? Of course you are going to write a book."
"Write a book!" cried Thresk. He was surprised into a laugh. "Not I."
Ballantyne leaned forward with a most serious and puzzled face.
"You're not writing a book about India? God bless my soul! D'you hear that, Stella? He's actually twenty-four hours in Chitipur and he's not going to write a book about it."
"Six weeks from door to door: or how I made an ass of myself in India," said Thresk. "No thank you!"
Ballantyne laughed, took a gulp of his whisky-and-soda and put the glass down again with a wry face.
"This is too strong for me," he said, and he rose from his chair and crossed over to the tantalus upon the sideboard. He gave a cautious look towards the table, but Thresk had bent forward towards Stella. She was saying in a low voice:
"You don't mind a little chaff, do you?" and with an appeal so wistful that it touched Thresk to the heart.
"Of course not," he answered, and he looked up towards Ballantyne. Stella noticed a change come over his face. It was not surprise so much which showed there as interest and a confirmation of some suspicion which he already had. He saw that Ballantyne was secretly pouring into his glass not soda-water at all but whisky from the tantalus. He came back with the tumbler charged to the brim and drank deeply from it with relish.
"That's better," he said, and with a grin he turned his attention to his wife, fixing her with his eyes, gloating over her like some great snake over a bird trembling on the floor of its cage. The courses followed one upon the other and while he ate he baited her for his amusement. She took refuge in silence but he forced her to talk and then shivered with ridicule everything she said. Stella was cowed by him. If she answered it was probably some small commonplace which with an exaggerated politeness he would nag at her to repeat. In the end, with her cheeks on fire, she would repeat it and bend her head under the brutal sarcasm with which it was torn to rags. Once or twice Thresk was on the point of springing up in her defence, but she looked at him with so much terror in her eyes that he did not interfere. He sat and watched and meanwhile his plan began to take shape in his mind.
There came an interval of silence during which Ballantyne leaned back in his chair in a sort of stupor; and in the midst of that silence Stella suddenly exclaimed with a world of longing in her voice:
"And you'll be in England in thirteen days! To think of it!" She glanced round the tent. It seemed incredible that any one could be so fortunate.
"You go straight from Jarwhal Junction here at our tent door to Bombay. To-morrow you go on board your ship and in twelve days afterwards you'll be in England."
Thresk leaned forward across the table.
"When did you go home last?" he asked.
"I have never been home since I married."
"Never!" exclaimed Thresk.
Stella shook her head.
She was looking down at the tablecloth while she spoke, but as she finished she raised her head.
"Yes, I have been eight years in India," she added, and Thresk saw the tears suddenly glisten in her eyes. He had come up to Chitipur reproaching himself for that morning on the South Downs, a morning so distant, so aloof from all the surroundings in which he found himself that it seemed to belong to an earlier life. But his reproaches became doubly poignant now. She had been eight years in India, tied to this brute! But Stella Ballantyne mastered herself with a laugh.
"However I am not alone in that," she said lightly. "And how's London?"
It was unfortunate that just at this moment Captain Ballantyne woke up.
"Eh what!" he exclaimed in a mock surprise. "You were talking, Stella, were you? It must have been something extraordinarily interesting that you were saying. Do let me hear it."
At once Stella shrank. Her spirit was so cowed that she almost had the look of a stupid person; she became stupid in sheer terror of her husband's railleries.
"It wasn't of any importance."
"Oh, my dear," said Ballantyne with a sneer, "you do yourself an injustice," and then his voice grew harsh, his face brutal. "What was it?" he demanded.
Stella looked this way and that, like an animal in a trap. Then she caught sight of Thresk's face over against her. Her eyes appealed to him for silence; she turned quickly to her husband.
"I only said how's London?"
A smile spread over Ballantyne's face.
"Now did you say that? How's London! Now why did you ask how London was? How should London be? What sort of an answer did you expect?"
"I didn't expect any answer," replied Stella. "Of course the question sounds stupid if you drag it out and worry it."
Ballantyne snorted contemptuously.
"How's London? Try again, Stella!"
Thresk had come to the limit of his patience. In spite of Stella's appeal he interrupted and interrupted sharply.
"It doesn't seem to me an unnatural question for any woman to ask who has not seen London for eight years. After all, say what you like, for women India means exile—real exile."
Ballantyne turned upon his visitor with some rejoinder on his tongue. But he thought better of it. He looked away and contented himself with a laugh.
"Yes," said Stella, "we need next-door neighbours."
The restraint which Ballantyne showed towards Thresk only served to inflame him against his wife.
"So that you may pull their gowns to pieces and unpick their characters," he said. "Never mind, Stella! The time'll come when we shall settle down to domestic bliss at Camberley on twopence-halfpenny a year. That'll be jolly, won't it? Long walks over the heather and quiet evenings—alone with me. You must look forward to that, my dear." His voice rose to a veritable menace as he sketched the future which awaited them and then sank again.
"How's London!" he growled, harping scornfully on the unfortunate phrase. Ballantyne had had luck that night. He had chanced upon two of the banalities of ordinary talk which give an easy occasion for the bully. Thresk's twenty-four hours to give to Chitipur provided the best opening. Only Thresk was a guest—not that that in Ballantyne's present mood would have mattered a great deal, but he was a guest whom Ballantyne had it in his mind to use. All the more keenly therefore he pounced upon Stella. But in pouncing he gave Thresk a glimpse into the real man that he was, a glimpse which the barrister was quick to appreciate.
"How's London? A lot of London we shall be able to afford! God! what a life there's in store for us! Breakfast, lunch and dinner, dinner, breakfast, lunch—all among the next-door neighbours." And upon that he flung himself back in his chair and reached out his arms.
"Give me Rajputana!" he cried, and even through the thickness of his utterance his sincerity rang clear as a bell. "You can stretch yourself here. The cities! Live in the cities and you can only wear yourself out hankering to do what you like. Here you can do it. Do you see that, Mr. Thresk? You can do it." And he thumped the table with his hand.
"I like getting away into camp for two months, three months at a time—on the plain, in the jungle, alone. That's the point—alone. You've got it all then. You're a king without a Press. No one to spy on you—no one to carry tales—no next-door neighbours. How's London?" and with a sneer he turned back to his wife. "Oh, I know it doesn't suit Stella. Stella's so sociable. Stella wants parties. Stella likes frocks. Stella loves to hang herself about with beads, don't you, my darling?"
But Ballantyne had overtried her to-night. Her face suddenly flushed and with a swift and violent gesture she tore at the necklace round her throat. The clasp broke, the beads fell with a clatter upon her plate, leaving her throat bare. For a moment Ballantyne stared at her, unable to believe his eyes. So many times he had made her the butt of his savage humour and she had offered no reply. Now she actually dared him!
"Why did you do that?" he asked, pushing his face close to hers. But he could not stare her down. She looked him in the face steadily. Even her lips did not tremble.
"You told me to wear them. I wore them. You jeer at me for wearing them. I take them off."
And as she sat there with her head erect Thresk knew why he had bidden her to wear them. There were bruises upon her throat—upon each side of her throat—the sort of bruises which would be made by the grip of a man's fingers. "Good God!" he cried, and before he could speak another word Stella's moment of defiance passed. She suddenly covered her face with her hands and burst into tears.
Ballantyne pushed back his chair sulkily. Thresk sprang to his feet. But Stella held him off with a gesture of her hand.
"It's nothing," she said between her sobs. "I am foolish. These last few days have been hot, haven't they?" She smiled wanly, checking her tears. "There's no reason at all," and she got up from her chair. "I think I'll leave you for a little while. My head aches and—and—I've no doubt I have got a red nose now."
She took a step or two towards the passage into her private tent but stopped.
"I can leave you to get along together alone, can't I?" she said with her eyes on Thresk. "You know what women are, don't you? Stephen will tell you interesting things about Rajputana if you can get him to talk. I shall see you before you go," and she lifted the screen and went out of the room. In the darkness of the passage she stood silent for a moment to steady herself and while she stood there, in spite of her efforts, her tears burst forth again uncontrollably. She clasped her hands tightly over her mouth so that the sound of her sobbing might not reach to the table in the centre of the big marquee; and with her lips whispering in all sincerity the vain wish that she were dead she stumbled along the corridor.
But the sound had reached into the big marquee and coming after the silence it wrung Thresk's heart. He knew this of her at all events—that she did not easily cry. Ballantyne touched him on the arm.
"You blame me for this."
"I don't know that I do," answered Thresk slowly. He was wondering how much share in the blame he had himself, he who had ridden with her on the Downs eight years ago and had let her speak and had not answered. He sat in this tent to-night with shame burning at his heart. "It wasn't as if I had no confidence in myself," he argued, unable quite to cast back to the Thresk of those early days. "I had—heaps of it."
Ballantyne lifted himself out of his chair and lurched over to the sideboard. Thresk, watching him, fell to wondering why in the world Stella had married him or he her. He knew that a blind man may see such mysteries on any day and that a wise one will not try to explain them. Still he wondered. Had the man's reputation dazzled her?—for undoubtedly he had one; or was it that intellect which suffered an eclipse when Ballantyne went into camp with nobody to carry tales?
He was still pondering on that problem when Ballantyne swung back to the table and set himself to prove, drunk though he was, that his reputation was not ill-founded.
"I am afraid Stella's not very well," he said, sitting heavily down. "But she asked me to tell you things, didn't she? Well, her wishes are my law. So here goes."
His manner altogether changed now that they were alone. He became confidential, intimate, friendly. He was drunk. He was a coarse heavy-featured man with bloodshot eyes; he interrupted his conversation with uneasy glances into the corners of the tent, such glances as Thresk had noticed when he was alone with him before they sat down to dinner; but he managed none the less to talk of Rajputana with a knowledge which amazed Thresk now and would have enthralled him at another time. A visitor may see the surface of Rajputana much as Thresk had done, may admire its marble palaces, its blue lakes and the great yellow stretches of its desert, but to know anything of the life underneath in that strange secret country is given to few even of those who for long years fly the British flag over the Agencies. Nevertheless Ballantyne knew—very little as he acknowledged but more than his fellows. And groping drunkenly in his mind he drew out now this queer intrigue, now that fateful piece of history, now the story of some savage punishment wreaked behind the latticed windows, and laid them one after another before Thresk's eyes—his peace-offerings. And Thresk listened. But before his eyes stood the picture of Stella Ballantyne standing alone in the dark corridor beyond the grass-screen whispering with wild lips her wish that she was dead; and in his ears was the sound of her sobbing. Here, it seemed, was another story to add to the annals of Rajputana.
Then Ballantyne tapped him on the arm.
"You're not listening," he said with a leer. "And I'm telling you good things—things that people don't know and that I wouldn't tell them—the swine. You're not listening. You're thinking I'm a brute to my wife, eh?" And Thresk was startled by the shrewdness of his host's guess.
"Well, I'll tell you the truth. I am not master of myself," Ballantyne continued. His voice sank and his eyes narrowed to two little bright slits. "I am afraid. Yes, that's the explanation. I am so afraid that when I am not alone I seek relief any way, any how. I can't help it." And even as he spoke his eyes opened wide and he sat staring intently at a dim corner of the tent, moving his head with little jerks from one side to the other that he might see the better.
"There's no one over there, eh?" he asked.
Ballantyne nodded as he moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue.
"They make these tents too large," he said in a whisper. "One great blot of light in the middle and all around in the corners—shadows. We sit here in the blot of light—a fair mark. But what's going on in the shadows, Mr.—What's your name? Eh? What's going on in the shadows?"
Thresk had no doubt that Ballantyne's fear was genuine. He was not putting forward merely an excuse for the scene which his guest had witnessed and might spread abroad on his return to Bombay. No, he was really terrified. He interspersed his words with sudden unexpected silences, during which he sat all ears and his face strained to listen, as though he expected to surprise some stealthy movement. But Thresk accounted for it by that decanter on the sideboard, in which the level of the whisky had been so noticeably lowered that evening. He was wrong however, for Ballantyne sprang to his feet.
"You are going away to-night. You can do me a service."
"Can I?" asked Thresk.
He understood at last why Ballantyne had been at such pains to interest and amuse him.
"Yes. And in return," cried Ballantyne, "I'll give you another glimpse into the India you don't know."
He walked up to the door of the tent and drew it aside. "Look!"
Thresk, leaning forward in his chair, looked out through the opening. He saw the moonlit plain in a soft haze, in the middle of it the green lamp of a railway signal and beyond the distant ridge, on which straggled the ruins of old Chitipur.
"Look!" cried Ballantyne. "There's tourist India all in one: a desert, a railway and a deserted city, hovels and temples, deep sacred pools and forgotten palaces—the whole bag of tricks crumbling slowly to ruin through centuries on the top of a hill. That's what the good people come out for to see in the cold weather—Jarwhal Junction and old Chitipur."
He dropped the curtain contemptuously and it swung back, shutting out the desert. He took a step or two back into the tent and flung out his arms wide on each side of him.
"But bless your soul," he cried vigorously, "here's the real India."
Thresk looked about the tent and understood.
"I see," he answered—"a place very badly lit, a great blot of light in the centre and all around it dark corners and grim shadows."
Ballantyne nodded his head with a grim smile upon his lips.
"Oh, you have learnt that! Well, you shall do me a service and in return you shall look into the shadows. But we will have the table cleared first." And he called aloud for Baram Singh.
While Baram Singh was clearing the table Ballantyne lifted the box of cheroots from the top of the bureau and held it out to Thresk.
"Will you smoke?"
Thresk, however, though he smoked had not during his stay in India acquired the taste for the cheroot; and it interested him in later times to reflect how largely he owed his entanglement in the tragic events which were to follow to that accidental distaste. For conscious of it he had brought his pipe with him, and he now fetched it out of his pocket.
"This, if I may," he said.
Thresk filled his pipe and lighted it, Ballantyne for his part lit a cheroot and replaced the box upon the top, close to a heavy riding-crop with a bone handle, which Thresk happened now to notice for the first time.
"Be quick!" he cried impatiently to Baram Singh, and seated himself in the swing-chair in front of the bureau, turning it so as not to have his back to Thresk at the table. Baram Singh hurriedly finished his work and left the marquee by the passage leading to the kitchen. Ballantyne waited with his eyes upon that passage until the grass-mat screen had ceased to move. Then taking a bunch of keys from his pocket he stooped under the open writing-flap of the bureau and unlocked the lowest of the three drawers. From this drawer he lifted a scarlet despatch-box, and was just going to bring it to the table when Baram Singh silently appeared once more. At once Ballantyne dropped the box on the floor, covering it as well as he could with his legs.
"What the devil do you want?" he cried, speaking of course in Hindustani, and with a violence which seemed to be half made up of anger and half of fear. Baram Singh replied that he had brought an ash-tray for the Sahib, and he placed it on the round table by Thresk's side.
"Well, get out and don't come back until you are called," cried Ballantyne roughly, and in evident relief as Baram Singh once more retired he took a long draught from a fresh tumbler of whisky-and-soda which stood on the flap of the bureau beside him. He then stooped once more to lift the red despatch-box from the floor, but to Thresk's amazement in the very act of stooping he stopped. He remained with his hands open to seize the box and his body bent over his knees, quite motionless. His mouth was open, his eyes staring, and upon his face such a look of sheer terror was stamped as Thresk could never find words to describe. For the first moment he imagined that the man had had a stroke. His habits, his heavy build all pointed that way. The act of stooping would quite naturally be the breaking pressure upon that overcharged brain. But before Thresk had risen to make sure Ballantyne moved an arm. He moved it upwards without changing his attitude in any other way, or even the direction of his eyes, and he groped along the flap of the bureau very cautiously and secretly and up again to the top ledge. All the while his eyes were staring intently, but with the intentness of extreme fear, not at the despatch-box but at the space of carpet—a couple of feet at the most—between the despatch-box and the tent-wall. His fingers felt along the ledge of the bureau and closed with a silent grip upon the handle of the riding-crop. Thresk jumped to the natural conclusion: a snake had crept in under the tent-wall and Ballantyne dared not move lest the snake should strike. Neither did he dare to move himself. Ballantyne was clearly within reach of its fangs. But he looked and—there was nothing. The light was not good certainly, and down by the tent-wall there close to the floor it was shadowy and dim. But Thresk's eyes were keen. The space between the despatch-box and the wall was empty. Nothing crawled there, nothing was coiled.
Thresk looked at Ballantyne with amazement; and as he looked Ballantyne sprang from his chair with a scream of terror—the scream of a panic-stricken child. He sprang with an agility which Thresk would never have believed possible in a man of so gross a build. He leapt into the air and with his crop he struck savagely once, twice and thrice at the floor between the wall and the box. Then he turned to Thresk with every muscle working in his face.
"Did you see?" he cried. "Did you see?"
"What? There was nothing to see!"
"Nothing!" screamed Ballantyne. He picked up the box and placed it on the table, thrusting it under Thresk's hand. "Hold that! Don't let go! Stay here and don't let go," he said, and running up the tent raised his voice to a shout.
"Baram Singh!" and lifting the tent-door he called to others of his servants by name. Without waiting for them he ran out himself and in a second Thresk heard him cursing thickly and calling in panic-stricken tones just close to that point of the wall against which the bureau stood. The camp woke to clamour.
Thresk stood by the table gripping the handle of the despatch-box as he had been bidden to do. The tent-door was left open. He could see lights flashing, he heard Ballantyne shouting orders, and his voice dwindled and grew loud as he moved from spot to spot in the encampment. And in the midst of the noise the white frightened face of Stella Ballantyne appeared at the opening of her corridor.
"What has happened?" she asked in a whisper. "Oh, I was afraid that you and he had quarrelled," and she stood with her hand pressed over her heart.
"No, no indeed," Thresk replied, and Captain Ballantyne stumbled back into the tent. His face was livid, and yet the sweat stood upon his forehead. Stella Ballantyne drew back, but Ballantyne saw her as she moved and drove her to her own quarters.
"I have a private message for Mr. Thresk's ears," he said, and when she had gone he took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
"Now you must help me," he said in a low voice. But his voice shook and his eyes strayed again to the ground by the wall of the tent.
"It was just there the arm came through," he said. "Yes, just there," and he pointed a trembling finger.
"Arm?" cried Thresk. "What are you talking about?"
Ballantyne looked away from the wall to Thresk, his eyes incredulous.
"But you saw!" he insisted, leaning forward over the table.
"An arm, a hand thrust in under the tent there, along the ground reaching out for my box."
"No. There was nothing to see."
"A lean brown arm, I tell you, a hand thin and delicate as a woman's."
"No. You are dreaming," exclaimed Thresk; but dreaming was a euphemism for the word he meant.
"Dreaming!" repeated Ballantyne with a harsh laugh. "Good God! I wish I was. Come. Sit down here! We have not too much time." He seated himself opposite to Thresk and drew the despatch-box towards him. He had regained enough mastery over himself now to be able to speak in a level voice. No doubt too his fright had sobered him. But it had him still in its grip, for when he opened the despatch-box his hand so shook that he could hardly insert the key in the lock. It was done at last however, and feeling beneath the loose papers on the surface he drew out from the very bottom a large sealed envelope. He examined the seals to make sure they had not been tampered with. Then he tore open the envelope and took out a photograph, somewhat larger than cabinet size.
"You have heard of Bahadur Salak?" he said.
"The affair at Umballa, the riots at Benares, the murder in Madras?"
Ballantyne pushed the photograph into Thresk's hand.
"That's the fellow—the middle one of the group."
Thresk held up the photograph to the light. It represented a group of nine Hindus seated upon chairs in a garden and arranged in a row facing the camera. Thresk looked at, the central figure with a keen and professional interest. Salak was a notorious figure in the Indian politics of the day—the politics of the subterranean kind. For some years he had preached and practised sedition with so much subtlety and skill that though all men were aware that his hand worked the strings of disorder there was never any convicting evidence against him. In all the three cases which Thresk had quoted and in many others less well-known those responsible for order were sure that he had devised the crime, chosen the moment for its commission and given the order. But up till a month ago he had slipped through the meshes. A month ago, however, he had made his mistake.
"Yes. It's a clever face," said Thresk.
Ballantyne nodded his head.
"He's a Mahratta Brahmin from Poona. They are the fellows for brains, and Salak's about the cleverest of them."
Thresk looked again at the photograph.
"I see the picture was taken at Poona."
"Yes, and isn't it an extraordinary thing!" cried Ballantyne, his face flashing suddenly into interest and enjoyment. The enthusiasm of the administrator in his work got the better of his fear now, just as a little earlier it had got the better of his drunkenness. Thresk was looking now into the face of a quite different man, the man of the intimate knowledge and the high ability for whom fine rewards were prophesied in Bombay. "The very cleverest of them can't resist the temptation of being photographed in group. Crime after crime has been brought home to the Indian criminal both here and in London because they will sit in garden-chairs and let a man take their portraits. Nothing will stop them. They won't learn. They are like the ladies of the light opera stage. Well, let 'em go on I say. Here's an instance."
"Is it?" asked Thresk. "Surely that photograph was taken a long time ago."
"Nine years. But he was at the same game. You have got the proof in your hands. There's a group of nine men—Salak and his eight friends. Well, of his eight friends every man jack is now doing time for burglary, in some cases with violence—that second ruffian, for instance, he's in for life—in some cases without, but in each case the crime was burglary. And why? Because Salak in the centre there set them on to it. Because Salak nine years ago wasn't the big swell he is now. Because Salak wanted money to start his intrigues. That's the way he got it—burglaries all round Bombay."
"I see," said Thresk. "Salak's in prison now?"
"He's in prison in Calcutta, yes. But he's awaiting his trial. He's not convicted yet."
"Exactly," Thresk answered. "This photograph is a valuable thing to have just now."
Ballantyne threw up his arms in despair at the obtuseness of his companion.
"Valuable!" he cried in derision. "Valuable!" and he leaned forward on his elbows and began to talk to Thresk with an ironic gentleness as if he were a child.
"You don't quite understand me, do you? But a little effort and all will be plain."
He got no farther however upon this line of attack, for Thresk interrupted him sharply.
"Here! Say what you have got to say if you want me to help you. Oh, you needn't scowl! You are not going to bait me for your amusement. I am not your wife." And Ballantyne after a vain effort to stare Thresk down changed to a more cordial tone.
"Well, you say it's a valuable thing to have just now. I say it's an infernally dangerous thing. On the one side there's Salak the great national leader, Salak the deliverer, Salak professing from his prison in Calcutta that he has never used any but the most legitimate constitutional means to forward his propaganda. And here on the other is Salak in his garden-chair amongst the burglars. Not a good thing to possess—this photograph, Mr. Thresk. Especially because it's the only one in existence and the negative has been destroyed. So Salak's friends are naturally anxious to get it back."
"Do they know you have it?" Thresk asked.
"Of course they do. You had proof that they knew five minutes ago when that brown arm wriggled in under the tent-wall."
Ballantyne's fear returned upon him as he spoke. He sat shivering; his eyes wandered furtively from corner to corner of the great tent and came always back as though drawn by a serpent to the floor by the wall of the tent. Thresk shrugged his shoulders. To dispute with Ballantyne once more upon his delusion would be the merest waste of time. He took up the photograph again.
"How do you come to possess it?" he asked. If he was to serve his host in the way he suspected he would be asked to, he must know its history.
"I was agent in a state not far from Poona before I came here."
"I know. Bakuta."
"Oh?" said Ballantyne with a sharp look. "How did you know that?"
He was always in alarm lest somewhere in the world gossip was whispering his secret.
"A Mrs. Carruthers at Bombay."
"Did she tell you anything else?"
"Yes. She told me that you were a great man."
Ballantyne grinned suddenly.
"Isn't she a fool?" Then the grin left his face. "But how did you come to discuss me with her at all?"
That was a question which Thresk had not the slightest intention to answer. He evaded it altogether.
"Wasn't it natural since I was going to Chitipur?" he asked, and Ballantyne was appeased.
"Well, the Rajah of Bakutu had that photograph and he gave it to me when I left the State. He came down to the station to see me off. He was too near Poona to be comfortable with that in his pocket. He gave it to me on the platform in full view, the damned coward. He wanted to show that he had given it to me. He said that I should be safe with it in Chitipur."
"Chitipur's a long way from Poona," Thresk agreed.
"But don't you see, this trial that's coming along in Calcutta makes all the difference. It's known I have got it. It's not safe here now and no more am I so long as I've got it."
One question had been puzzling Thresk ever since he had seen the look of terror reappear in Ballantyne's face. It was clear that he lived in a very real fear. He believed that he was watched, and he believed that he was in danger; and very probably he actually was. There had, to be sure, been no attempt that night to rob him of it as he imagined. But none the less Salak and his friends could not like the prospect of the production of that photograph in Calcutta, and would hardly be scrupulous what means they took to prevent it. Then why had not Ballantyne destroyed it? Thresk asked the question and was fairly startled by the answer. For it presented to him in the most unexpected manner another and a new side of the strange and complex character of Stephen Ballantyne.
"Yes, why don't I destroy it?" Ballantyne repeated. "I ask myself that," and he took the photograph out of Thresk's hands and sat in a sort of muse, staring at it. Then he turned it over and took the edge between his forefinger and his thumb, hesitating whether he would not even at this moment tear it into strips and have done with it. But in the end he cast it upon the table as he had done many a time before and cried in a voice of violence: