The Nonentity by Ethel M. Dell

I

"It is well known that those fight hardest who fight in vain," remarked Lord Ronald Prior complacently. "But I should have thought a woman of your intellect would have known better. It's such a rank waste of energy to struggle against Fate."

He spoke in the easy drawl habitual to him. His grey eyes held the pleasant smile that was seldom absent from them. Not in any fashion a striking personality, this; his kindest friend could not have called him imposing, nor could the most uncharitable have described him as anything worse than dull. Enemies he had none. His invariable good temper was his safeguard in this particular. The most offensive remark would not have provoked more than momentarily raised eyebrows.

He was positively characterless, so Beryl Denvers told herself a dozen times a day. How could she possibly marry any one so neutral? And yet in his amiable, exasperatingly placid fashion he had for some time been laying siege to her affections. He had shaved off his beard because he had heard her say that she objected to hairy men, and he seemed to think that this sacrifice on his part entitled him to a larger share of her favour than the rest of the world, certainly much more than she was disposed to bestow.

He had, in fact, assumed almost an air of proprietorship over her of late—a state of affairs which she strongly resented, but was powerless to alter. He had a little money, but no prospects to mention, and had never done anything worth doing in all his five-and-thirty years. And yet he seemed to think himself an eligible parti for one of the most popular women in the district. His social position gave him a certain precedence among her other admirers, but Beryl herself refused to recognise this. She thought him presumptuous, and snubbed him accordingly.

But Lord Ronald's courtship seemed to thrive upon snubs. He was never in the least disconcerted thereby. He hadn't the brains to take offence, she told herself impatiently, and yet somewhere at the back of her mind there lurked a vagrant suspicion that he was not always as obtuse as he seemed.

She had been rude to him on the present occasion and he had retaliated with his smiling speech regarding her intellect which had made her feel vaguely uncomfortable. It might have been—it probably was—an effort at bluff on his part, but, uttered by any other man, it would have had almost a hectoring sound.

"I haven't the smallest notion what you mean," she said, after a decided pause.

"Charmed to explain," he murmured.

"Pray don't trouble!" she rejoined severely. "It doesn't signify in the least. Explanations always bore me."

Lord Ronald smiled his imperturbable smile and flicked a gnat from his sleeve.

"Especially when they are futile, eh, Mrs. Denvers? I'm not fond of 'em myself. Haven't much ability for that sort of thing."

"Have you any ability for anything, I wonder?" she said.

He turned his smooth, good-humoured countenance towards her. It wore a speculative look, as though he were wondering if by any chance she could have meant to be nasty.

"Oh, rather!" he said. "I can do quite a lot of things—and decently, too—from boiling potatoes to taming snakes. Never heard me play the cornet, have you?"

Beryl remarked somewhat unnecessarily that she detested the cornet. She seemed to be thoroughly exasperated with him for some reason, and evidently wished that he would take his leave. But this fact had not apparently yet penetrated to Lord Ronald's understanding, for he was the most obliging of men at all times, and surely would never have dreamed of intruding his presence where it was unwelcome.

He sat on his favourite perch, the music-stool, and swung himself gently to and fro while he mildly upheld the virtues of the instrument she had slighted.

"I was asked to perform at a smoker the other night at the barracks," he said. "The men seemed to enjoy it immensely."

"Soldiers like anything noisy," said Beryl Denvers scathingly.

And then—because he had no retort ready—her heart smote her.

"But it was kind of you to go," she said. "I am sure you wouldn't enjoy it."

"Oh, but I did," he said, "on the whole. I should have liked it better if Fletcher hadn't been in the chair, and so, I think, would they. But it passed off very fairly well."

"Why do you object to Major Fletcher?" Beryl's tone was slightly aggressive.

Lord Ronald hesitated a little.

"He isn't much liked," he told her vaguely.

She frowned.

"But that is no answer. Are you afraid to answer me?"

He laughed at that, laughed easily and naturally, in the tolerant fashion that most exasperated her.

"Oh, no; I'm not afraid. But I don't like hurting people's feelings—especially yours."

"I do not see how that is possible," she rejoined, with dignity, "where my feelings are not concerned."

"Ah, but that's where it is," he responded. "You like Fletcher well enough to be extremely indignant if anyone were to tell you that he is not a nice person for you to know."

"I object to unpleasant insinuations regarding any one," she said, with slightly heightened colour. "They always appear to me cowardly."

"Yes; but you asked, you know," Lord Ronald reminded her gently.

Her colour deepened. It was not often that he got the better of her; not often, indeed, that he exerted himself to do so. She began to wish ardently that he would go. Really, he was quite insufferable to-day.

Had he been a man of any perception whatever she would almost have thought that he fathomed her desire, for at this point he rose in a leisurely fashion as though upon the point of departure.

She rose also from behind the tea-table with a little inward pricking of conscience for wishing him gone. She wondered if he deemed her inhospitable, but if he did he disguised it very carefully, for his eyes held nothing but friendliness as they met her own.

"Has it never occurred to you," he said, "that you lead a very unprotected existence here?"

Something in his expression checked her first impulse to resent the question. Her lip quivered unexpectedly.

"Now and then," she said.

"Are you a man-hater?" he asked deliberately.

She laughed a little.

"Why do you ask such an absurd question?"

He seemed to hesitate momentarily.

"Because—forgive me—wouldn't you be a good deal happier if you were to marry again?"

Again her colour rose hotly. What did the man mean by assuming this attitude? Was he about to plead his own cause, or that of another?

"I think it exceedingly doubtful," she replied stiffly, meeting his steady eyes with a hint of defiance.

"You have never thought of such a thing perhaps?" he suggested.

She smiled a woman's pitying smile.

"Of course I have thought of it."

"Then you have not yet met the man to whom you would care to entrust yourself?" he asked.

She took fire at this. It was an act of presumption not to be borne.

"Even if I had," she said, with burning cheeks, "I do not think I should make Lord Ronald Prior my confidant."

"No?" he said. "Yet you might do worse."

Her eyes shot scorn.

"Can a man be worse than inept?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered. "Since you ask me, I think he can—a good deal worse."

"I detest colourless people!" she broke in vehemently.

He smiled.

"In fact, you prefer black sheep to grey sheep. A good many women do. But it doesn't follow that the preference is a wise one."

The colour faded suddenly from her face. Did he know how ghastly a failure her first marriage had been? Most people knew. Could it be to this that he was referring? The bare suspicion made her wince.

"That," she said icily, "is no one's affair but my own. I am not wholly ignorant of the ways of the world. And I know whom I can trust."

"You trust me, for instance?" said Lord Ronald.

She looked him up and down witheringly.

"I should say you are quite the most harmless man I know."

"And you don't like me in consequence," he drawled, meeting the look with eyes so intent that, half-startled, she lowered her own.

She turned away from him with an impatient gesture. He had never managed to embarrass her before.

"I should like you better if you weren't so officious," she said.

"But you have no one else to look after you," objected Lord Ronald.

"Well, in any case, it isn't your business," she threw back, almost inclined to laugh at his audacity.

"It would be if you married me," he pointed out, as patiently as if he were dealing with a fractious child.

"If I——"

She wheeled abruptly, amazed out of her disdain. It was the most prosaic proposal she had ever had.

"If you married me," he repeated, keeping his eyes upon her. "You admit that I am harmless, so you would have nothing to fear from me. And as a watch-dog, I think you would find me useful—and quite easy to manage," he added, with his serene smile.

Beryl was staring at him in wide astonishment. Was the man mad to approach her thus?

"No," he said. "I am quite sane; eccentric perhaps, but—as you are kind enough to observe—quite harmless. I never proposed to any woman before in my life, or so much as wanted to, so that must be my excuse for doing it badly. Really, you know, Mrs. Denvers, you might do worse than marry me. You might indeed."

But at that her indignation broke bounds. If he were not mad, it made him the more intolerable. Did he fancy himself so desirable, then, that he had merely to fling her the handkerchief—to find her at his feet? His impertinence transcended belief. But she would pay him back in his own coin. He should never again imagine himself irresistible.

"Really, Lord Ronald," she said, "if I actually needed a protector—which I do not—you are the very last person to whom I should turn. And as to a husband——"

She paused a moment, searching for words sufficiently barbed to penetrate even his complacency.

"Yes?" he said gently, as if desirous to help her out.

"As to a husband," she said, "if I ever marry again, it will be a man I can respect—a man who can hold his own in the world; a man who is really a man, and not—not a nonentity!"

Impetuously she flung the words. For all his placidity, he seemed to possess the power to infuriate her. She longed intensely to move him to anger. She felt insulted by his composure, hating him because he remained so courteously attentive.

He made no attempt to parry her thrust, nor did he seem to be disconcerted thereby. He merely listened imperturbably till she ceased to speak. Then:

"Ah, well," he said good-humouredly, "you mustn't take me too seriously. It was only a suggestion, you know." He picked up his hat with the words. "A pity you can't see your way to fall in with it, but you know best. Good-bye for the present."

Reluctantly, in response to his evident expectation, she gave him her hand.

"I wish you to understand, Lord Ronald," she said stiffly as she did so, "that my reply is final."

He lifted his eyebrows for a second, and she fancied—could it have been mere fancy?—that the grey eyes shone with a certain steely determination that was assuredly foreign to his whole nature as he made deliberate reply:

"That is quite understood, Mrs. Denvers. It was awfully kind of you to be so explicit. As you know, I am not good at taking hints."

And with that he was gone, unruffled to the last, perfectly courteous, almost dignified, while she stood and watched his exit with a vague and disquieting suspicion that he had somehow managed to get the best of it after all.

II

When Beryl Denvers first came to Kundaghat to be near her friend Mrs. Ellis, the Commissioner's wife, society in general openly opined that she had come to the populous Hill station to seek a husband. She was young, she was handsome, and she was free. It seemed the only reasonable conclusion to draw. But since that date society had had ample occasion to change its mind. Beryl Denvers plainly valued her freedom above every other consideration, and those who wooed her wooed in vain. She discouraged the attentions of all mankind with a rigour that never varied, till society began to think that her brief matrimonial experience had turned her into a man-hater. And yet this was hard to believe, for, though quick-tempered, she was not bitter. She was quite willing to be friendly with all men, up to a certain point. But beyond this subtle boundary few dared to venture and none remained. There was a wonderful fascination about her, a magnetism that few could resist; but notwithstanding this she held herself aloof, never wholly forgetting her caution even with those who considered themselves her intimates.

Having dismissed Lord Ronald Prior, with whom she was almost unreasonably angry, she ordered her rickshaw and went out to cool her hot cheeks. The recent interview had disquieted her to the depths. She tried to regard his presumption as ludicrous, yet failed to do so. For what he had said was to a large extent true. She was unprotected, and she was also lonely, though this she never owned. She stifled a sigh as she set forth. Hitherto she had always liked Lord Ronald. Why had he couched his proposal in such impossible terms?

She went to the polo-ground to watch the practice, and here found several friends in whose society she tried to forget her discomfiture. But it remained with her notwithstanding, and was still present when she returned to prepare for dinner. She was dining with the Ellises that night, and she hoped ardently that Lord Ronald would not make one of the party.

But she was evidently destined for mortification that day, for the first thing she saw upon entering the drawing-room was his trim figure standing by her hostess. And, "Lord Ronald will take you in, dear," said Nina Ellis, as she greeted her.

Beryl glanced at him, and he bowed in his courtly way. "I hope you don't mind," he murmured.

She did mind exceedingly, but it was impossible to say so. She could only yield to the inevitable and rest the tips of her fingers upon his sleeve.

It was with a decided sense of relief that she found Major Fletcher seated on her other side. A handsome, well-mannered cavalier was Major Fletcher, by every line of his figure a soldier, by every word of his conversation a gentleman. Exceedingly self-possessed at all times, it was seldom, if ever, that he laid himself open to a snub. It was probably for this very reason that Beryl liked him better than most of the men in Kundaghat, was less distant with him, and usually granted the very little that he asked of her.

She turned to him at once with a random remark about the polo-players, wondering if they would be able to hold their own against a native team with whom a match had been arranged for the following week.

"Oh, I think so," he said. "The Farabad men are strong, but our fellows are hard to beat. It won't be a walkover for either side."

"Where will the match be played?" she asked, nervously afraid of letting the subject drop lest Lord Ronald should claim her attention.

"Here," said Major Fletcher. "It was originally to have been at Farabad, but there was some difficulty about the ground. I was over there arranging matters only this evening. The whole place is being turned upside down for a native fair which is to be held in a few days, when the moon is full. You ought to see it. It is an interesting sight—one which I believe you would enjoy."

"No doubt I should," she agreed. "But it is rather a long way, isn't it?"

"Not more than twelve miles." Fletcher's dark face kindled with a sudden idea. "I could drive you down some morning early if you cared for it."

Beryl hesitated. It was not her custom to accept invitations of this sort, but for once she felt tempted. She longed to demonstrate her independence to Lord Ronald, whose suggestions regarding her inability to take care of herself had so sorely hurt her pride. Might she not permit herself this one small fling for his benefit? It would be so good for him to realise that she was no incompetent girl, but a woman of the world and thoroughly well versed in its ways. And at least he would be forced to recognise that his proposal had been little short of an absurdity. She wanted him to see that, as she wanted nothing else on earth.

"You think it would bore you?" asked Fletcher.

"No," she said, flushing slightly; "I think I should like it."

"Well done!" he said, with quiet approval. "You are such a hermit, Mrs. Denvers, that it will be quite a novelty for us both."

She met his eyes for an instant, assailed by a sudden memory of Lord Ronald's vague remarks concerning him. But they were very level, and revealed nothing whatever. She told herself indignantly that there was nothing to reveal. The man had simply made her a friendly offer, and she determined to accept it in a like spirit.

"It was kind of you to think of it," she said. "I will come with much pleasure."

On her other side she heard Lord Ronald's leisurely tones conversing with his neighbour, and wondered if aught of the project had reached him. She hoped it had, though the serenity of his demeanour made her doubtful. But in any case he would surely know sooner or later.

III

Major Fletcher was well versed in the ways of natives, and as they drove in his high dog-cart to Farabad a few days later, he imparted to his companion a good deal of information regarding them of which, till then, she had been quite ignorant.

He succeeded in arousing her interest, and the long drive down the hillside in the early morning gave her the keenest enjoyment. She had been feeling weary and depressed of late, a state of affairs which could not fairly be put down to the score of ill-health. She had tried hard to ignore it, but it had obtruded itself upon her notwithstanding, and she was glad of the diversion which this glimpse of native life afforded her. Of Lord Ronald Prior she had seen nothing for over a week. He had left Kundaghat on the day following the dinner-party, dropping unobtrusively, without farewell, out of her life. She had told herself a dozen times, and vehemently, that she was glad of it, but the humiliating fact remained that she missed him—missed him at every turn; when she rode, when she danced, when she went out in her rickshaw, and most of all in her drawing-room.

She had grown so accustomed to the sight of the thick-set, unromantic figure swinging lazily to and fro on her sorely tried music-stool, watching her with serene grey eyes that generally held a smile. She wished she had not been quite so severe. She had not meant to send him quite away. As a friend, his attitude of kindly admiration was all that could be desired. And he was so safe, too, so satisfactorily solid. She had always felt that she could say what she liked to him without being misunderstood. Well, he had gone, and as they finally alighted, and went forward on foot through the fair, she resolutely dismissed him from her mind.

She made one or two purchases under Fletcher's guidance, which meant that she told him what she wanted and stood by while he bargained for her in Hindustani, an amusing business from her point of view.

Undoubtedly she was beginning to enjoy herself, when he surprised her by turning from one of these unintelligible colloquies, and offering for her acceptance a beautifully wrought gold filigree bracelet.

She looked at him blankly, not without a vague feeling of dismay.

"Won't you have it?" he said. "Won't you permit me this small favour?"

She felt the colour go out of her face. It was so unexpected, this from him—in a fashion, almost staggering. For some reason she had never regarded this man as a possible admirer. She felt as if the solid ground had suddenly quaked beneath her.

"I would rather not," she said at last, avoiding his eyes instinctively. "Please don't think me ungracious. I know you mean to be kind."

"If you really believe that," said Fletcher, smiling faintly, "I don't see your objection."

The blood rushed back in a burning wave to her face. She, who prided herself upon being a woman of the world, blushed hotly, overwhelmingly, like any self-conscious girl.

"I would rather not," she repeated, with her eyes upon the ground.

But Fletcher was not to be turned lightly from his purpose.

"I wouldn't distress you for the world, Mrs. Denvers," he said, "but don't you think you are a trifle unreasonable? No one expects a woman in your position to be a slave to convention. I would never have bought the thing had I dreamed that it could be an offence."

There was a tinge of reproach in his voice, no more, but she felt inexplicably ashamed as she heard it. She looked up sharply, and the conviction that she was making herself ridiculous swept quickly upon her. She held out her hand to him, and mutely suffered him to slip the bangle on to her wrist.

IV

A curious rattling sound made them turn sharply the next moment, and even though it proved to be the warning signal of an old snake-charmer, Beryl welcomed the diversion. She looked at the man with a good deal of interest, notwithstanding her repulsion. He was wrapped in a long, very dirty, white chuddah, from which his face peered weirdly forth, wrinkled and old, almost supernaturally old, she thought to herself. It was very strangely adorned with red paint, which imparted to the eyes a ghastly pale appearance in the midst of the swarthy skin. A wiry grey beard covered the lower part of the face, and into this he was crooning a tuneless and wholly unintelligible song, while he squatted on the ground in front of a large, covered basket.

"He has got a cobra there," Fletcher said, and took Beryl's arm quietly.

She moved slightly, with a latent wish that he would take his hand away. But natives were beginning to crowd and press about them to see the show, and she realised that his action was dictated by necessity.

"Shall I take you away before we get hemmed in?" he asked her once.

But she shook her head. A nameless fascination impelled her to remain.

Even when the snake-charmer shot forth a dusky arm and clawed the basket open, she showed no sign of fear, though Fletcher's hold upon her tightened to a grip. They seemed to be the only Europeans in all that throng, but that fact also she had forgotten. She could think of nothing but the crouching native before her, and the basket in which some living, moving thing lay enshrouded.

Closely she watched the active fingers, alert and sensitive, feeling over the dingy cloth they had exposed. Suddenly, with a movement too swift to be followed, they rent the covering away, and on the instant, rearing upwards, she beheld a huge snake.

A thrill of horror shot through her, so keen that it stabbed every pulse, making her whole body tingle. But there was no escape for her then, nor did she seek it. She had a most unaccountable feeling that this display was for her alone, that in some way it appealed to her individually; and she was no longer so much as conscious of Fletcher's presence at her side.

The charmer continued his crooning noise, and the great cobra swayed its inflated neck to and fro as though to some mysterious rhythm, the native with naked hand and arm seeming to direct it.

"Loathsome!" murmured a voice into Beryl's ear, but she did not hear it. Her whole intelligence was riveted upon the movements of the serpent and its master. It was a hideous spectacle, but it occupied her undivided attention. She had no room for panic.

Suddenly the man's crooning ceased, and on the instant the cobra ceased to sway. It seemed to gather itself together, was rigid for perhaps five seconds, and then—swift as a lightning flash—it struck.

A sharp cry broke from Beryl, but she never knew that she uttered it. All she was aware of was the ghastly struggle that ensued in front of her, the fierce writhing of the snake, the convulsive movements of the old native, and, curiously distinct from everything else, an impression of some stringed instrument thrumming somewhere at the back of the crowd.

It all ended as unexpectedly as it had begun. The great reptile became suddenly inert, a lifeless thing; the monotonous crooning was resumed, proceeding as it were out of the chaos of the struggle, and round his neck and about his body the snake-charmer wound his vanquished foe.

The moment for backsheesh had arrived, and Beryl, coming suddenly out of her absorption, felt for her purse and awoke abruptly to the consciousness of a hand that gripped her arm.

She glanced at Fletcher, who at once slackened his hold. "Don't you give the fellow anything," he said, with a touch of peremptoriness, "I will."

She yielded, considering the matter too trivial for argument, and watched his rupee fall with a tinkle upon the tin plate which the snake-charmer extended at the length of his sinewy arm.

Fletcher speedily made a way for her through the now shifting crowd; and after a little they found the saice, waiting with the mare under a tree. The animal was tormented by flies and restless. Certainly in this valley district it was very hot.

"We will go back by the hill road," Fletcher said, as he handed her up. "It is rather longer, but I think it is worth it. This blaze is too much for you."

They left the thronged highroad, and turned up a rutty track leading directly into the hills.

Their way lay between great, glaring boulders of naked rock. Here and there tufts of grass grew beside the stony track, but they were brown and scorched, and served only to emphasise the barrenness of the land.

For a while they drove in silence, mounting steadily the whole time.

Suddenly Fletcher spoke. "We shall come to some shade directly. There is a belt of pine trees round the next curve."

The words were hardly uttered when unexpectedly the mare shied, struck the ground violently with all four feet together, and bolted.

Beryl heard an exclamation from the native groom, and half-turned to see him clinging to the back with a face of terror. She herself was more astonished than frightened. She gripped the rail instinctively, for the cart was jolting horribly as the mare, stretched out like a greyhound, fled at full gallop along the stony way.

She saw Fletcher, with his feet against the board, dragging backwards with all his strength. He was quite white, but exceedingly collected, and she was instantly quite certain that he knew what he was about.

There followed a few breathless moments of headlong galloping, during which they swayed perilously from side to side, and were many times on the verge of being overturned. Then, the ground rising steeply, the mare's wild pace became modified, developed into a spasmodic canter, became a difficult trot, finally slowed to a walk.

Fletcher pulled up altogether, and turned to the silent woman beside him. "Mrs. Denvers, you are splendid!" he said simply.

She laughed rather tremulously. The tension over, she was feeling very weak.

The saice was already at the mare's head, and Fletcher let the reins go. He dismounted without another word and went round to her side. Still silent, he held up his hands to her and lifted her down as though she had been a child. He was smiling a little, but he was still very pale.

As for Beryl, the moment her feet touched the ground she felt as if the whole world had turned to liquid and were swimming around her in a gigantic whirlpool of floating impressions.

"Ah, you are faint!" she heard him say.

And she made a desperate and quite futile effort to assure him that she was nothing of the sort. But she knew that no more than a blur of sound came from her lips, and even while she strove to make herself intelligible the floating world became a dream, and darkness fell upon her.

V

Gradually, very gradually, the mists cleared from Beryl's brain, and she opened her eyes dreamily, and stared about her with a feeling that she had been asleep for years. She was lying propped upon carriage-cushions in the shade of an immense boulder, and as she discovered this fact, memory flashed swiftly back upon her. She had fainted, of course, in her foolish, weak, womanly fashion. But where was Major Fletcher? The heat was intense, so intense that breathing in that prone position seemed impossible. Gasping, she raised herself. Surely she was not absolutely alone in this arid wilderness!

She was not. In an instant she realised this, and wonder rather than fear possessed her.

There, squatting on his haunches, not ten paces from her, was the old snake-charmer. His basket was by his side; his chuddah drooped low over his face; he sat quite motionless, save for a certain palsied quivering, which she had observed before. He looked as if he had been in that place and attitude for many years.

Beryl leaned her head upon her hand and closed her eyes. She was feeling spent and sick. He did not inspire her with horror, this old man. She was conscious of a faint sensation of disgust, that was all.

A few seconds later she looked up again, wondering afresh whither her escort could have betaken himself. It seemed to her that the distance between herself and the old native had dwindled somewhat, but she did not bestow much attention upon him. She merely noted how fiercely the sun beat down upon his shrouded head, and wondered how he managed to endure it.

The next time she opened her eyes, there were scarcely three yards between them. The instant her look fell upon him he began to speak in a thin, wiry voice of great humility.

"Let the gracious lady pardon her servant," he said, in perfect English. "He would not harm a hair of her head."

She raised herself to an upright position with an effort. Very curiously she did not feel in the least afraid. By an abrupt intuition, wholly inexplicable, she knew that the man had something to tell her.

"What is it?" she said.

He cringed before her.

"Let my gracious lady have patience. It is no boon that her servant would desire of her. He would only speak a word of warning in the mem-sahib's ear."

Beryl had begun to give him her full attention. She had a feeling that she had seen the man somewhere before, but where and under what circumstances she could not recall. It was no moment for retrospection and the phantom eluded her.

"What is it?" she said again, studying him with knitted brows.

He bowed himself before her till he appeared to be no more than a bundle of dirty linen.

"Let the gracious lady be warned by her servant," he said. "Fletcher sahib is a man of evil heart."

Beryl's eyes widened. Assuredly this was the last thing she had expected to hear from such a source.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

He grovelled before her, his head almost in the dust.

"Mem-sahib he has gone for water, but he will soon return. And he will lie to the gracious lady, and tell her that the shaft of the carriage is broken so that he cannot take her back. But it is not so, most gracious. The shaft is cracked, indeed, but it is not beyond repair. Moreover, it was cracked by the saice at his master's bidding, while the mem-sahib was at the fair."

He paused; but Beryl said nothing. She was listening to the whole story in speechless, unfeigned astonishment.

"Also," her informant proceeded, "the sahib's mare was frightened, not by an accident, but by a trick. It was the sahib's will that she should run away. And he chose this road so that he might be far from habitation, well knowing that for every mile on the lower road there are two miles to be travelled on this. Mem-sahib, your servant has spoken, and he prays you to beware. There is danger in your path."

"But—but," gasped Beryl, "how do you know all this? What makes you tell me? You can't know what you are saying!"

She was thoroughly frightened by this time, and heat and faintness were alike forgotten. Incredible as was the story to which she had listened, there was about it a vividness that made it terrifying.

"But I don't understand," she said helplessly, as the snake-charmer remained silent to her questions. "It is not possible! It could not be!"

He lifted his head a little and, from the depths of the chuddah, she knew that piercing eyes surveyed her.

"Mem-sahib," he said, "your servant knew that this would happen, and he came here swiftly by a secret way to warn you. More, he knows that when Fletcher sahib returns, he will speak lightly of the accident, so that the mem-sahib will have no fear. 'A broken shaft is soon mended,' he will say. 'My servant has returned to Farabad—to a man he knows. We will rest under the trees but a furlong from this place till he comes back.' But, most gracious, he will not come back. There is no place at Farabad at this time of the fair where the work could be done. Moreover, the saice has his orders, and he will not seek one. He will go back to Kundaghat with the mare, but he will walk all the way. It is fifteen miles from here by the road. He will not reach it ere nightfall. He will not return till after the darkness falls, and then he will miss the road. He will not find Fletcher sahib and the gracious lady before the sunrise."

Thus, in brief but telling sentences, the old native revealed to the white-faced woman before him the whole abominable plot. She listened to him in a growing agony of doubt. Could it be? Was it by any means possible that Fletcher, desiring to win her, but despairing of lessening the distance she maintained between them by any ordinary method, had devised this foul scheme of compromising her in the eyes of society in order to force her to accept him?

Her cheeks burned furiously at the intolerable suspicion. It made her wholly forget that the man before her was an evil-looking native of whom she knew nothing whatever.

With sudden impulse she turned and bestowed her full confidence upon him, the paint-smeared face and mumbling beard notwithstanding.

"You must help me," she said imperiously. "You have done so much. You must do more. Tell me how I am to get back to Kundaghat."

He made a deferential gesture.

"The mem-sahib cannot depart before the major sahib returns," he said. "Let her therefore be faint once more, and let him minister to her. Let her hear his story, and judge if her servant has spoken truly. Then let the gracious lady go with him into the shade of the pine trees on the hill. When she is there let her discover that she has left behind her some treasure that she values—such as the golden bangle that is on the mem-sahib's wrist. Let her show distress, and Fletcher sahib shall come back to seek it. Then let her listen for the scream of a jay, and rise up and follow it. It will lead her by a safe and speedy way to Kundaghat. It will be easy for the mem-sahib to say afterwards that she began to wander and lost her way, till at last she met an aged man who guided her."

Yes, quite easy. She assimilated this subtle suggestion, for the first time in her life welcoming craft. Of the extreme risk of the undertaking she was too agitated to think. To get away was her one all-possessing desire.

While she thus desperately reviewed the situation, the snake-charmer began, with much grunting and mowing, to gather himself together for departure. She watched him, feeling that she would have gladly detained him had that been possible. Slowly, with palsied movements, he at length arose and took up his basket, doubled himself up before her with an almost ludicrous excess of deference, and finally hobbled away.

VI

There fell a step upon the parched earth, and with a start Beryl turned her head. She had seated herself again, but it was impossible to feign limpness with every pulse at the gallop. She looked up at Fletcher with a desperate smile.

He wore a knotted handkerchief on his head to protect it from the sun, and in his hat, which he balanced with great care in both hands, he carried water.

"I am glad to see you looking better," he said as he reached her. "I am afraid there isn't much more than a cupful left. I had to go nearly half a mile to get it, and it has been running out steadily all the way back."

He knelt down before her, deep concern on his sunburnt face. Reluctantly, out of sheer gratitude, she dipped her handkerchief in the tepid drain, and bathed her face and hands.

"I am so sorry to give you all this trouble," she murmured.

He smiled with raised brows.

"I think I ought to say that. You will never trust yourself to me again after this experience."

She looked at him with a guilty sense of duplicity.

"I—scarcely see how you were to blame for it," she said, rather faintly.

He surveyed her for a moment in silence. Then, "I hardly know how to break it to you," he said. "I am afraid the matter is rather more serious than you think."

She forced a smile. This delicate preparation was far more difficult to endure than the actual calamity to which it paved the way.

"Please don't treat me like a coward," she said. "I know I was foolish enough to faint, but it was not so much from fright as from the heat."

"You behaved splendidly," he returned, his dark eyes still intently watching her. "But this is not so much a case for nerve as for resignation. Mrs. Denvers, you will never forgive me, I know. That jump of the mare's damaged one of the shafts. The wonder is it didn't break altogether. I have had to send the saice back to Farabad to try and get it patched up, and there is very little chance of our getting back to Kundaghat for two or three hours to come."

All the time that he was communicating this tragic news, Beryl's eyes were upon his face. She paid no heed to his scrutiny. Simply, with absolute steadiness, she returned it.

And she detected nothing—nothing but the most earnest regret, the most courteous anxiety regarding her welfare. Could it all be a monstrous lie, she asked herself. And yet it was to the smallest detail the story she had been warned to expect.

"But surely," she said, at last, "we cannot be so very far from Kundaghat?"

"No great distance as the crow flies," said Fletcher, "but a good many miles by road. I am afraid there is nothing for it but to wait till the mischief is repaired. My only comfort is that you will feel the heat less in returning later in the day. There are some pine trees on the other side of the rise where you can rest. If I had only brought something to eat I should have less cause to blame myself. As it is, do you think you will be able to hold out?"

She smiled at that.

"Oh, I am not starving yet," she said, with more assurance; "but I do not see the use of sitting still under the circumstances. I am quite rested now. Let us walk back to Farabad, and we might start on foot along the lower road for Kundaghat, and tell your man to overtake us."

Notwithstanding the resolution she infused into her voice, she made the proposal somewhat breathlessly, for she knew—in her heart she knew—that it would be instantly negatived.

And so it was. His face expressed sharp surprise for a second, developing into prompt remonstrance.

"My dear Mrs. Denvers, in this heat! You have not the least idea of what it would mean. You simply have not the strength for such a venture."

But Beryl was growing bolder in the face of emergency. She coolly set his assurance aside.

"I do not quite agree with you," she said. "I am a better walker than you seem to imagine, and the walk into Farabad certainly would not kill me. We might be able to hire some conveyance there—a tonga or even a bullock-cart"—she laughed a little—"would be better than nothing."

But Fletcher persistently shook his head.

"I am sorry—horribly sorry, but it would be downright madness to attempt it."

"Nevertheless," said Beryl very quietly, "I mean to do so."

She saw his brows meet for a single instant, and she was conscious of a sick feeling at her heart that made her physically cold. Doubt was emerging into deadly conviction.

Suddenly he leaned towards her, and spoke very earnestly.

"Mrs. Denvers, please believe that I regret this mischance every whit as much as you do. But, after all, it is only a mischance, and we may be thankful it was no worse. Shall we not treat it as such, and make the best of it?"

He was looking her straight in the face as he said it, but, steady as was his gaze, she was not reassured. Quick as lightning came the thought—it was almost like an inner voice warning her—that he must not suspect the fact. Whatever happened she must veil her uneasiness, which she feared had been already far too obvious.

Quietly she rose and expressed her willingness to go with him into the shade of the trees.

They stood grouped on the side of a hill, a thick belt through which the scorching sun-rays slanted obliquely, turning the straight brown trunks to ruddiest gold. There was more air here than in the valley, and it was a relief to sit down in the shade and rest upon a fallen tree.

Fletcher threw himself down upon the ground. "We can watch the road from here," he remarked. "We should see the dog-cart about a mile away."

This was true. Barren, stony, and deserted, the road twisted in and out below them, visible from that elevation for a considerable distance. Beryl looked over it in silence. Her heart was beating in great suffocating throbs, while she strove to summon her resolution. Could she do this thing? Dared she? On the other hand, could she face the alternative risk? Her face burned fiercely yet again as she thought of it.

Furtively she began to study the man stretched out upon the ground close to her, and a sudden, surging regret went through her. If only it had been Lord Ronald lounging there beside her, how utterly different would have been her attitude! Foolish and inept he might be—he was—but, as he himself had comfortably remarked, a man might be worse. She trusted him implicitly, every one trusted him. It was impossible to do otherwise.

Had any one accused him of laying a trap for her, she would have treated the suggestion as too contemptible for notice. A sharp sigh escaped her. Why had he taken her so promptly at her word? He could never have seriously cared for her. Probably it was not in him to care.

"You are not comfortable?" said Fletcher.

She started at the sound of his voice, and with desperate impulse took action before her courage could fail her.

"Major Fletcher, I—have lost the bangle you gave me. It slipped off down by that big rock when I was feeling ill. And I must have left it there. Should you very much mind fetching it for me?"

She felt her face grow crimson as she made the request, and she could not look at him, knowing too well what he would think of her confusion. She felt, indeed, as if she could never look him in the face again.

Fletcher sat quite still for a few seconds. Then, "But it's of no consequence, is it?" he said. "I will fetch it for you, of course, if you like, but I could give you fifty more like it. And in any case we can find it when Subdul comes with the dog-cart."

He was reluctant to leave her. She saw it instantly, and tingled at the discovery. With a great effort she made her final attempt.

"Please," she said, with downcast eyes, "I want it now."

He was on his feet at once, looking down at her. "I will fetch it with the greatest pleasure," he said.

And, not waiting for her thanks, he turned and left her.

VII

For many seconds after his departure Beryl sat quite rigid, watching his tall figure pass swiftly downwards through the trees. She did not stir till he had reached the road, then, with a sudden deep breath, she rose.

At the same instant there sounded behind her, high up the hillside among the pine trees, the piercing scream of a jay.

It startled her, for she had not been listening for it. All her thoughts had been concentrated upon the man below her. But this distant cry brought her back, and sharply she turned.

Again came the cry, unmusical, insistent. She glanced nervously around, but met only the bright eyes of a squirrel on a branch above her.

Again it came, arrogantly this time, almost imperiously. It seemed to warn her that there was no time for indecision. She felt as though some mysterious power were drawing her, and, gathering her strength, she began impetuously to mount the hill that stretched up behind her, covered with pine trees as far as she could see. It was slippery with pine needles, and she stumbled a good deal, but she faltered no longer in her purpose. She had done with indecision.

She had climbed some distance before she heard again the guiding signal. It sounded away to her right, and she turned aside at once to follow it. In that instant, glancing downwards through the long, straight stems, she saw Fletcher far below, just entering the wood. Her heart leapt wildly at the sight. She almost stopped in her agitation. But the discordant bird-call sounded yet again, louder and more compelling than before, and she turned as a needle to a magnet and followed.

The growth of pine trees became denser as she proceeded. It seemed to close her in and swallow her. But only once again did fear touch her, and that was when she heard Fletcher's voice, very far away but unmistakable, calling to her by name.

With infinite relief, still following her unseen guide, at last she began to descend. The ground sloped sharply downwards, and creeping undergrowth began to make her progress difficult. She pressed on, however, and at length, hearing the tinkle of running water, realised that she was approaching one of the snow-fed mountain streams that went to swell the sacred waters that flowed by the temple at Farabad.

She plunged downwards eagerly, for she was hot and thirsty, coming out at last upon the brink of a stream that gurgled over stones between great masses of undergrowth.

"Will the mem-sahib deign to drink?" a deferential voice asked behind her.

She looked round sharply to see the old snake-charmer, bent nearly double with age and humility, meekly offering her a small brass drinking-vessel.

His offer surprised her, knowing the Hindu's horror of a stranger's polluting touch, but she accepted it without question. Stooping, she scooped up a cupful of the clean water and drank.

The draught was cold as ice and refreshed her marvellously. She thanked him for it with a smile.

"And now?" she said.

He bowed profoundly, and taking the cup he washed it very carefully in the stream. Then, deprecatingly, he spoke.

"Mem-sahib, it is here that we cross the water."

She looked at the rushing stream with dismay. It was not very wide but she saw at once that it was beyond a leap. She fancied that the swirling water in the middle indicated depth.

"Do you mean I must wade?" she asked.

He made a cringing gesture.

"There is another way, most gracious."

She gazed at him blankly.

"Another way?"

Again he bent himself.

"If the mem-sahib will so far trust her servant."

"But—but how?" she asked, somewhat breathlessly. "You don't mean—you can't mean——"

"Mem-sahib," he said gently, "it will not be the first time that I have borne one of your race in my arms. I may seem old to you, most gracious, but I have yet the vigour of manhood. The water is swift but it is not deep. Let the mem-sahib watch her servant cross with the snake-basket, and she will see for herself that he speaks the truth. He will return for the mem-sahib, with her permission, and will bear her in safety to the farther bank, whence it is but an hour's journey on foot to Kundaghat."

There was a coaxing touch about all this which was not lost upon Beryl. He was horribly ugly, she thought to herself, with that hideous red smear across his dusky face; but in spite of this she felt no fear. Unprepossessing he might be, but he was in no sense formidable.

As she stood considering him he stooped and, lifting his basket, stepped with his sandalled feet into the stream. His long white garment trailed unheeded upon the water which rose above his knees as he proceeded.

Reaching the further bank, he deposited his burden and at once turned back. Beryl was waiting for him. For some reason unknown even to herself, she had made up her mind to trust this old man.

"If the most gracious will deign to rest her arm upon my shoulder," he suggested, in his meek quaver.

And without further demur she complied.

The moment he lifted her she knew that his strength was fully equal to the venture. His arms were like steel springs. He grunted a little to himself as he bore her across, but he neither paused nor faltered till he set her upon the bank.

"The mem-sahib will soon see the road to Kundaghat," he observed then. "She has but three miles yet to go."

"Only three miles to Kundaghat!" she ejaculated in amazement.

"Only three miles, most gracious." For the first time a hint of pride was mingled with the humility in his reedy voice. "The mem-sahib has travelled hither by a way that few know."

Beryl was fairly amazed at the news. She had believed herself to be many miles away. She began to wonder if her friend in need would consider the few rupees she had left adequate reward for his pains. Since she had parted with Fletcher's gift, she reflected that she had nothing else of value to bestow.

The way now lay uphill, and all undergrowth soon ceased. They came out at last through thinning pine trees upon the crest of the rise, and from here, a considerable distance below, Beryl discerned the road along which she had travelled with Fletcher that morning.

White and glaring it stretched below her, till at last a grove of mango trees, which she remembered to be less than a mile from Kundaghat, closed about it, hiding it from view.

"The mem-sahib will need her servant no more," said her guide, pausing slightly behind her while she studied the landscape at her feet with the road that wound through the valley.

She took out her purse quickly, and shook its contents into her hand. He had been as good as his word, but she knew she had but little to offer him unless he would accompany her all the way to Kundaghat. She stopped to count the money before she turned—two rupees and eight annas. It did not seem a very adequate reward for the service he had rendered her.

With this thought in her mind she slowly turned.

"This is all I have with me—" she began to say, and broke off with the words half-uttered.

She was addressing empty air! The snake-charmer had vanished!

She stood staring blankly. She had not been aware of any movement. It was as if the earth had suddenly and silently gaped and swallowed him while her back was turned.

In breathless astonishment she moved this way and that, searching for him among the trees that seemed to grow too sparsely to afford a screen. But she searched in vain. He had clean gone, and had taken his repulsive pet with him.

Obviously, then, he had not done this thing for the sake of reward.

A sense of uneasiness began to possess her, and she started at last upon her downward way, feeling as if the place were haunted.

With relief she reached the road at length, and commenced the last stage of the return journey. The heat was terrific. She was intensely weary, and beginning to be footsore. At a turn in the road she paused a moment, looking back at the pine-clad hill from which she had come; and as she did so, distinct, though far away behind her, there floated through the midday silence the curious note of a jay. It sounded to her bewildered senses like a cracked, discordant laugh.

VIII

On the following afternoon Major Fletcher called, but he was not admitted. Beryl was receiving no one that day, and sent him an uncompromising message to that effect. He lingered to inquire after her health, and, on being told that she had overtired herself and was resting, expressed his polite regret and withdrew.

After that, somewhat to Beryl's surprise, he came no more to the bungalow.

She remained in seclusion for several days after her adventure, so that fully a week passed before they met.

It was while out riding one morning with Mrs. Ellis that she first encountered him. The meeting was unexpected, and, conscious of a sudden rush of blood to her cheeks, she bestowed upon him her haughtiest bow. His grave acknowledgment thereof was wholly without effrontery, and he made no attempt to speak to her.

"Have you quarrelled with the Major?" asked Nina, as they rode on.

"Of course not," Beryl answered, with a hint of impatience.

But she knew that if she wished to appear at her ease she must not be too icy. She felt a very decided reluctance to take her friend into her confidence with regard to the Farabad episode. There were times when she wondered herself if she were altogether justified in condemning Major Fletcher unheard, in spite of the evidence against him. But she had no intention of giving him an opportunity to vindicate himself if she could possibly avoid doing so.

In this, however, circumstances proved too strong for her. They were bound to meet sooner or later, and Fate ordained that when this should occur she should be more or less at his mercy.

The occasion was an affair of some importance, being a reception at the palace of the native prince who dwelt at Farabad. It promised to be a function of supreme magnificence; it was, in fact, the chief event of the season, and the Anglo-Indian society of Kundaghat attended it in force.

Beryl went with the Commissioner and his wife, but in the crowd of acquaintances that surrounded her almost from the moment of her arrival she very speedily drifted away from them. One after another claimed her attention, and almost before she knew it she found herself moving unattached through the throng.

She was keenly interested in the brilliant scene about her. Flashing jewels and gorgeous costumes made a glittering wonderland, through which she moved as one beneath a spell. The magic of the East was everywhere; it filled the atmosphere as with a heavy fragrance.

She had withdrawn a little from the stream of guests, and was standing slightly apart, watching the gorgeous spectacle in the splendidly lighted hall, when a tall figure, dressed in regimentals, came quietly up and stood beside her.

With a start she recognised Fletcher. He bent towards her instantly, and spoke.

"I trust that you have now quite recovered from your fatigue, Mrs. Denvers."

She controlled her flush before it had time to overwhelm her.

"Quite, thank you," she replied, speaking stiffly because she could not at the moment bring herself to do otherwise.

He stood beside her for a space in silence, and she wondered greatly what was passing in his mind.

At length, "May I take you to have some supper?" he asked. "Or would you care to go outside? The gardens are worth a visit."

Beryl hesitated momentarily. To have supper with him meant a prolonged tête-à-tête, whereas merely to go outside for a few minutes among a host of people could not involve her in any serious embarrassment. She could leave him at any moment if she desired. She was sure to see some of her acquaintances. Moreover, to seem to avoid him would make him think she was afraid of him, and her pride would not permit this possibility.

"Let us go outside for a little, then," she said.

He offered her his arm, and the next moment was leading her through a long, thickly carpeted passage to a flight of marble steps that led downwards into the palace-garden.

He did not speak at all; and she, without glancing at him, was aware of a very decided constraint in his silence. She would not be disconcerted by it. She was determined to maintain a calm attitude; but her heart quickened a little in spite of her. She saw that he had chosen an exit that would lead them away from the crowd.

Dumbly they descended the steps, Fletcher unhesitatingly drawing her forward. The garden was a marvel of many-coloured lights, intricate and bewildering as a maze. Its paths were all carpeted, and their feet made no sound. It was like a dream-world.

Here and there were nooks and glades of deepest shadow. Through one of these, without a pause, Fletcher led her, emerging at length into a wonderful fairyland where all was blue—a twilight haunt, where countless tiny globes of light nestled like sapphires upon every shrub and tree, and a slender fountain rose and fell tinkling in a shallow basin of blue stone.

A small arbour, domed and pillared like a temple, stood beside the fountain, and as they ascended its marble steps a strong scent of sandalwood fell like a haze of incense upon Beryl's senses.

There was no light within the arbour, and on the threshold instinctively she stopped short. They were as much alone as if miles instead of yards separated them from the buzzing crowds about the palace.

Instantly Fletcher spoke.

"Go in, won't you? It isn't really dark. There is probably a couch with rugs and cushions."

There was, and she sat down upon it, sinking so low in downy luxuriance that she found herself resting not far from the floor. But, looking out through the marble latticework into the blue twilight, she was somewhat reassured. Though thick foliage obscured the stars, it was not really dark, as he had said.

Fletcher seated himself upon the top step, almost touching her. He seemed in no hurry to speak.

The only sound that broke the stillness was the babble of the fountain, and from far away the fitful strains of a band of stringed instruments.

Slowly at length he turned his head, just as his silence was becoming too oppressive to be borne.

"Mrs. Denvers," he said, his voice very deliberate and even, "I want to know what happened that day at Farabad to make you decide that I was not a fit escort for you."

It had come, then. He meant to have a reckoning with her. A sharp tingle of dismay went through her as she realised it. She made a quick effort to avert his suspicion.

"I wandered, and lost my way," she said. "And then I met an old native, who showed me a short cut. I ought, perhaps, to have written and explained."

"That was not all that happened," Fletcher responded gravely. "Of course, you can refuse to tell me any more. I am absolutely at your mercy. But I do not think you will refuse. It isn't treating me quite fairly, is it, to keep me in the dark?"

She saw at once that to fence with him further was out of the question. Quite plainly he meant to bring her to book. But she felt painfully unequal to the ordeal before her. She was conscious of an almost physical sense of shrinking.

Nevertheless, as he waited, she nerved herself at length to speak.

"What makes you think that something happened?"

"It is fairly obvious, is it not?" he returned quietly. "I could not very easily think otherwise. If you will allow me to say so, your device was not quite subtle enough to pass muster. Even had you dropped that bangle by inadvertence—which you did not—you would not, in the ordinary course of things, have sent me off post haste to recover it."

"No?" she questioned, with a faint attempt to laugh.

"No," he rejoined, and this time she heard a note of anger, deep and unmistakable, in his voice.

She drew herself together as it reached her. It was to be a battle, then, and instinctively she knew that she would need all her strength.

"Well," she said finally, affecting an assurance she was far from feeling, "I have no objection to your knowing what happened since you have asked. In fact, perhaps,—as you suggest,—it is scarcely fair that you should not know."

"Thank you," he responded, with a hint of irony.

But she found it difficult to begin, and she could not hide it from him, for he was closely watching her.

He softened a little as he perceived this.

"Pray don't be agitated," he said. "I do not for a moment question that your reason for what you did was a good one. I am only asking you to tell me what it was."

"I know," she answered. "But it will make you angry, and that is why I hesitate."

He leaned towards her slightly.

"Can it matter to you whether I am angry or not?"

She shivered a little.

"I never offend any one if I can help it. I think it is a mistake. However, you have asked for it. What happened was this. It was when you left me to get some water. An old man, a native, came and spoke to me. Perhaps I was foolish to listen, but I could scarcely have done otherwise. And he told me—he told me that the accident to the dog-cart was not—not—" She paused, searching for a word.

"Genuine," suggested Fletcher very quietly.

She accepted the word. The narration was making her very nervous.

"Yes, genuine. He told me that the saice had cracked the shaft beforehand, that there was no possibility of getting it repaired at Farabad, that he would have to return to Kundaghat and might not, probably would not, come back for us before the following morning."

Haltingly, rather breathlessly, the story came from her lips. It sounded monstrous as she uttered it. She could not look at Fletcher, but she knew that he was angry; something in the intense stillness of his attitude told her this.

"Please go on," he said, as she paused. "You undertook to tell me the whole truth, remember."

With difficulty she continued.

"He told me that the mare was frightened by a trick, that you chose the hill-road because it was lonely and difficult. He told me exactly what you would say when you came back. And—and you said it."

"And that decided you to play a trick upon me and escape?" questioned Fletcher. "Your friend's suggestion, I presume?"

His words fell with cold precision; they sounded as if they came through his teeth.

She assented almost inaudibly. He made her feel contemptible.

"And afterwards?" he asked relentlessly.

She made a final effort; there was that in his manner that frightened her.

"Afterwards, he gave a signal—it was the cry of a jay—for me to follow. And he led me over the hill to a stream where he waited for me. We crossed it together, and very soon after he pointed out the valley-road below us, and left me."

"You rewarded him?" demanded Fletcher swiftly.

"No; I—I was prepared to do so, but he disappeared."

"What was he like?"

She hesitated.

"Mrs. Denvers!" His tone was peremptory.

"I do not feel bound to tell you that," she said, in a low voice.

"I have a right to know it," he responded firmly.

And after a moment she gave in. The man was probably far away by this time. She knew that the fair was over.

"It was—the old snake-charmer."

"The man we saw at Farabad?"

"Yes."

Fletcher received the information in silence, and several seconds dragged away while he digested it. She even began to wonder if he meant to say anything further, almost expecting him to get up and stalk away, too furious for speech.

But at length, very unexpectedly and very quietly, he spoke.

"Would it be of any use for me to protest my innocence?"

She did not know how to answer him.

He proceeded with scarcely a pause:

"It seems to me that my guilt has been taken for granted in such a fashion that any attempt on my part to clear myself would be so much wasted effort. It simply remains for you to pass sentence."

She lifted her head for the first time, startled out of all composure. His cool treatment of the matter was more disconcerting than any vehement protestations. It was almost as though he acknowledged the offence and swept it aside with the same breath as of no account. Yet it was incredible, this view of the case. There must be some explanation. He would never dare to insult her thus.

Impulsively she rose, inaction becoming unendurable. He stood up instantly, and they faced one another in the weird blue twilight.

"I think I have misunderstood you!" she said breathlessly, and there stopped dead, for something—something in his face arrested her.

The words froze upon her lips. She drew back with a swift, instinctive movement. In one flashing second of revelation unmistakable she knew that she had done him no injustice. Her eyes had met his, and had sunk dismayed before the fierce passion that had flamed back at her.

In the pause that followed she heard her own heartbeats, quick and hard, like the flying feet of a hunted animal. Then—for she was a woman, and instinct guided her—she covered up her sudden fear, and faced him with stately courage.

"Let us go back," she said.

"You have nothing to say to me?" he asked.

She shook her head in silence, and made as if to depart.

But he stood before her, hemming her in. He did not appear to notice her gesture.

"But I have something to say to you!" he said. And in his voice, for all its quietness, was a note that made her tremble. "Something to which I claim it as my right that you should listen."

She faced him proudly, though she was white to the lips.

"I thought you had refused to plead your innocence," she said.

"I have," he returned. "I do. But yet——"

"Then I will not hear another word," she broke in. "Let me pass!"

She was splendid as she stood there confronting him, perhaps more splendid than she had ever been before. She had reached the ripe beauty of her womanhood. She would never be more magnificent than she was at that moment. The magic of her went to the man's head like wine. Till that instant he had to a great extent controlled himself, but that was the turning-point. She dazzled him, she intoxicated him, she maddened him.

The savagery in him flared into a red blaze of passion. Without another word he caught her suddenly to him, and before she could begin to realise his intention he had kissed her fiercely upon the lips.

IX

The moments that followed were like a ghastly nightmare to Beryl, for, struggle as she might, she knew herself to be helpless. Having once passed the bounds of civilisation, he gave full rein to his savagery. And again and yet again, holding her crushed to him, he kissed her shrinking face. He was as a man possessed, and once he laughed—a devilish laugh—at the weakness of her resistance.

And then quite suddenly she felt his grip relax. He let her go abruptly, so that she tottered and almost fell, only saving herself by one of the pillars of the arbour.

A great surging was in her brain, a surging that nearly deafened her. She was too spent, too near to swooning, to realise what it was that had wrought her deliverance. She could only cling gasping and quivering to her support while the tumult within her gradually subsided.

It was several seconds later that she began to be aware of something happening, of some commotion very near to her, of trampling to and fro, and now and again of a voice that cursed. These things quickly goaded her to a fuller consciousness. Exhausted though she was, she managed to collect her senses and look down upon the spectacle below her.

There, on the edge of the fountain, two figures swayed and fought. One of them she saw at a glance was Fletcher. She had a glimpse of his face in the uncanny gloom, and it was set and devilish, bestial in its cruelty. The other—the other—she stared and gasped and stared again—the other, beyond all possibility of doubt, was the ancient snake-charmer of Farabad.

Yet it was he who cursed—and cursed in excellent English—with a fluency that none but English lips could possibly have achieved. And the reason for his eloquence was not far to seek. For he was being thrashed, thrashed scientifically, mercilessly, and absolutely thoroughly—by the man whom he had dared to thwart.

He was draped as before in his long native garment—and this, though it hung in tatters, hampered his movements, and must have placed him at a hopeless disadvantage even had he not been completely outmatched in the first place.

Standing on the steps above them, Beryl took in the whole situation, and in a trice her own weakness was a thing of the past. Amazed, incredulous, bewildered as she was, the urgent need for action drove all questioning from her mind. There was no time for that. With a cry, she sprang downwards.

And in that instant Fletcher delivered a smashing blow with the whole of his strength, and struck his opponent down.

He fell with a thud, striking his head against the marble of the fountain, and to Beryl's horror he did not rise again. He simply lay as he had fallen, with arms flung wide and face upturned, motionless, inanimate as a thing of stone.

In an agony she dropped upon her knees beside him.

"You brute!" she cried to Fletcher. "Oh, you brute!"

She heard him laugh in answer, a fierce and cruel laugh, but she paid no further heed to him. She was trying to raise the fallen man, dabbing the blood that ran from a cut on his temple, lifting his head to lie in the hollow of her arm. Her incredulity had wholly passed. She knew him now beyond all question. He would never manage to deceive her again.

"Speak to me! Oh, do speak to me!" she entreated. "Ronald, open your eyes! Please open your eyes!"

"He is only stunned." It was Fletcher's voice above her. "Leave him alone. He will soon come to his senses. Serves him right for acting the clown in this get-up."

She looked up sharply at that and a perfect tempest of indignation took possession of her, banishing all fear.

"What he did," she said, in a voice that shook uncontrollably, "was for my sake alone, that he might be able to protect me from cads and blackguards. I refuse to leave him like this, but the sooner you go, the better. I will never—never as long as I live—speak to you again!"

Her blazing eyes, and the positive fury of her voice, must have carried conviction to the most obtuse, and this Fletcher certainly was not. He stood a moment, looking down at her with an insolence that might have frightened her a little earlier, but which now she met with a new strength that he felt himself powerless to dominate. She was not thinking of herself at all just then, and perhaps that was the secret of her ascendancy. His own brute force crumbled to nothing before it, and he knew that he was beaten.

Without a word he bowed to her, smiling ironically, and turned upon his heel.

She drew a great breath of relief as she saw him go. She felt as though a horrible oppression had passed out of the atmosphere. That fairy haunt with its bubbling fountain and sapphire lamps was no longer an evil place.

She bent again over her senseless companion.

"Ronald!" she whispered. "My dear, my dear, can't you hear me? Oh, if only you would open your eyes!"

She soaked her handkerchief in the water and held it to the wound upon his forehead. Even as she did it, she felt him stir, and the next moment his eyes were open, gazing straight up into her own.

"Damn the brute!" said Lord Ronald faintly.

"You are better?" she whispered thankfully.

His hand came upwards gropingly, and took the soaked handkerchief from her. He dabbed his face with it, and slowly, with her assistance, sat up.

"Where is he?" he asked.

"He has gone," she told him. "I—ordered him to go."

"Better late than never," said Lord Ronald thoughtfully.

He leaned upon the edge of the fountain, still mopping the blood from his face, till, suddenly feeling his beard, he stripped it off with a gesture of impatience.

"Afraid I must have given you a nasty shock," he said. "I didn't expect to be mauled like this."

"Please—please don't apologise," she begged him, with a sound that was meant for a laugh, but was in effect more like a sob.

He turned towards her in his slow way.

"I'm not apologising. Only—you know—I've taken something of a liberty, though, on my honour, it was well meant. If you can overlook that——"

"I shall never overlook it," she said tremulously.

He put the chuddah back from his head and regarded her gravely. His face was swollen and discoloured, but this fact did not in the smallest degree lessen the quaint self-assurance of his demeanour.

"Yes, but you mustn't cry about it," he said gently. "And you mustn't blame yourself either. I knew the fellow, remember; you didn't."

"I didn't know you, either," she said, sitting down on the edge of the fountain. "I—I've been a perfect fool!"

Silence followed this statement. She did not know quite whether she expected Lord Ronald to agree with her or to protest against the severity of her self-arraignment, but she found his silence peculiarly hard to bear.

She had almost begun to resent it, when suddenly, very softly, he spoke:

"It's never too late to mend, is it?"

"I don't know," she answered. "I almost think it is—at my age."

He dipped her handkerchief again in the fountain, and dabbed his face afresh. Then:

"Don't you think you might try?" he suggested, in his speculative drawl.

She shook her head rather drearily.

"I suppose I shall have to resign myself, and get a companion. I shall hate it, and so will the companion, but——"

"Think so?" said Lord Ronald. He laid his hand quietly on her knee. "Mrs. Denvers," he said, "I am afraid you thought me awfully impertinent when I suggested your marrying me the other day. It wasn't very ingenious of me, I admit. But what can you expect from a nonentity? Not brains, surely! I am not going to repeat the blunder. I know very well that I am no bigger than a peppercorn in your estimation, and we will leave it at that. But, you know, you are too young, you really are too young, to live alone. Now listen a moment. You trust me. You said so. You'll stick to that?"

"Of course," she said, wondering greatly what was coming.

"Then will you," he proceeded very quietly, "have me for a watch-dog until you marry again? I could make you an excellent Sikh servant, and I could go with you practically everywhere. Don't begin to laugh at the suggestion until you have thoroughly considered it. It could be done in such a way that no one would suspect. It matters nothing to any one how I pass my time, and I may as well do something useful for once. I know at first sight it seems impossible, but it is nothing of the sort in reality. It isn't the first time I have faked as a native. I am Indian born, and I have spent the greater part of my life knocking about the Empire. The snake-taming business I picked up from an old bearer of mine—a very old man he's now and in the trade himself. I got him to lend me his most docile cobra. The thing was harmless, of course. But all this is beside the point. The point is, will you put up with me as a retainer, no more, until you find some one more worthy of the high honour of guarding you? I shall never, believe me, take advantage of your kindness. And on the day you marry again I shall resign my post."

She had listened to the amazing suggestion in unbroken silence, and even when he paused she did not at once speak. Her head was bent, almost as though she did not wish him to see her face—he, the peppercorn, the nonentity, whose opinion mattered so little!

Yet as he waited, still with that quiet hand upon her as though to assure her of his solidity, his trustworthiness, she spoke at last, in a voice so small that it sounded almost humble.

"But, Lord Ronald, I—I may never marry again. My late marriage was—was such a grievous mistake. I was so young at the time, and—and——"

"Don't tell me," he said gently.

"But—but—if I never marry again?" she persisted.

"Then—unless, of course, you dismiss me—I shall be with you for all time," he said.

She made a slight, involuntary movement, and he took his hand away.

"Will you think it over before you decide?" he said. "I will come to you, as soon as I am presentable, for your answer. For the present, would you not be wise to go back to your friends? I am too disreputable to escort you, but I will watch you to the palace steps."

He got to his feet as he spoke. He was still absently mopping his face with the scrap of lace he had taken from her.

Beryl stood up also. She wanted to be gracious to him, but she was unaccountably shy. No words would come.

He waited courteously.

At last:

"Lord Ronald," she said with difficulty, "I know you are in earnest. But do you—do you really wish to be taken at your word?"

He raised his eyebrows as if the question slightly surprised him.

"Certainly," he said.

Still she stood hesitating.

"I wish you would tell me why," she said, almost under her breath.

"Why?" he repeated uncomprehendingly.

"Yes, why you wish to safeguard me in this fashion," she explained, in evident embarrassment.

"Oh, that!" he said slowly. "I suppose it is because I happen to care for your safety."

"Yes?" she murmured, still pausing.

He looked at her with his straight grey eyes that were so perfectly true and kind.

"That's all," he said, and smiled upon her reassuringly.

Beryl uttered a sharp sigh and let the matter drop. Nonentity though he might be, she would have given much for a glimpse of his inner soul just then.

X

For three days after the reception at Farabad Beryl Denvers returned to her seclusion, and during those three days she devoted the whole of her attention to the plan that Lord Ronald Prior had laid before her. It worried her a good deal. There were so many obstacles to its satisfactory fulfilment. She wished he had not been so pleasantly vague regarding his own feelings in the matter. Of course, it was a feather-brained scheme from start to finish, and yet in a fashion it attracted her. He was so splendidly safe, so absolutely reliable; she needed just such a protector. And yet—and yet—there were so many obstacles.

On the fourth day Lord Ronald's card was brought to her. He did not call at the conventional hour, and the reason for this was not hard to fathom. He had come for her final decision, and he desired to see her alone.

She did not know how to meet him or what to say, but it was useless to shirk the interview. She entered her drawing-room with decidedly heightened colour, even while telling herself that it was absurd to feel any embarrassment in his presence.

He was waiting for her on his favourite perch, the music-stool, swinging idly to and fro, with his customary serenity of demeanour. He moved to meet her with a quiet smile of welcome. A piece of strapping-plaster across his left temple was all that remained of his recent disfigurement.

"I hope my visit is not premature," he remarked as he shook hands.

"Oh, no!" she answered somewhat nervously. "I expected you. Please sit down."

He subsided again upon the music-stool, and there followed a silence which she found peculiarly disconcerting.

"You have been thinking over my suggestion?" he drawled at length.

"Yes," she said. "Yes, I have." She paused a moment, then, "I—am afraid it wouldn't answer," she said, with an effort, "though I am very grateful to you for thinking of it. You see, there are so many obstacles."

"But not insurmountable, any of them," smiled Lord Ronald.

"I am afraid so," she said.

He looked at her.

"May I not hear what they are?"

She hesitated.

"For one thing, you know," she said, "one pays one's servants."

"Well, but you can pay me," he said simply. "I shall not ask very high wages. I am easily satisfied. I shouldn't call that an obstacle."

She laughed a little.

"But that isn't all. There is the danger of being found out. It—it would make it rather awkward, wouldn't it? People would talk."

"No one ever talks scandal of me," said Lord Ronald comfortably. "I am considered eccentric, but quite incapable of anything serious. I don't think you need be afraid. There really isn't the smallest danger of my being discovered, and even if I were, I could tell the truth, you know. People always believe what I say."

She smiled involuntarily at his simplicity, but she shook her head.

"It really wouldn't do," she said.

"What! More obstacles?" he asked.

"Yes, one—the greatest of all, in my opinion." She got up and moved across the room, he pivoting slowly round to watch her.

She came to a stand by her writing-table, and began to turn over a packet of letters that lay there. She did it mechanically, with hands that shook a little. Her face was turned away from him.

He waited for a few seconds; then, as she still remained silent, he spoke.

"What is this last obstacle, Mrs. Denvers?"

She answered him with her head bent, her fingers still fluttering the papers before her.

"You," she said, in a low voice. "You yourself."

"Me!" said Lord Ronald, in evident astonishment.

She nodded without speaking.

"But—I'm sorry," he said pathetically, "I'm afraid I don't quite follow you. I am not famed for my wits, as you know."

She laughed at that, unexpectedly and quite involuntarily; and though she was instantly serious again the laugh served to clear away some of her embarrassment.

"Oh, but you are absurd," she said, "to talk like that. No dull-witted person could ever have done what you have been doing lately. Major Fletcher himself told me that day we went to Farabad that it needed sharp wits to pose as a native among natives. He also said—" She paused suddenly.

"Yes?" said Lord Ronald.

She glanced round at him momentarily.

"I don't know why I should repeat it. It is quite beside the point. He also said that it entailed a risk that no one would care to take unless—unless there was something substantial to be gained by it."

"Well, but there was," said Lord Ronald vaguely.

"Meaning my safety?" she questioned.

"Exactly," he said.

She became silent; but she fidgeted no longer with her papers. She was making up her mind to take a bold step.

"Lord Ronald," she said at last, "I am going to ask you a very direct—a horribly direct—question. Will you answer me quite directly too? And—and—tell me the truth, even if it sounds rather brutal?"

There was an unmistakable appeal in her voice. With an effort she wheeled in her chair, and fully faced him. But she was so plainly distressed that even he could not fail to notice it.

"What is it?" he said kindly. "I will tell you the truth, of course. I always do."

"You promise?" she said, very earnestly.

"Certainly I promise," he said.

"Then—you must forgive my asking, but I must know, and I can't find out in any other way—Lord Ronald, are you—are you in love with me?"

She saw the grey eyes widen in astonishment, and was conscious of a moment of overwhelming embarrassment; and then, slow and emphatic, his answer came, banishing all misgiving.

"But of course I am," he said. "I thought you knew."

She summoned to her aid an indignation she was far from feeling; she had to cloak her confusion somehow. "How could I possibly know?" she said. "You never told me."

"I asked you to marry me," he protested. "I thought you would take the other thing for granted."

She stood up abruptly, turning from him. It was impossible to keep up her indignation. It simply declined to carry her through.

"You—you are a perfect idiot!" she said shakily. And on the words she tried to laugh, but only succeeded in partially smothering a sob.

"Oh, I say!" said Lord Ronald. He got up awkwardly, and stood behind her. "Please don't take it to heart," he urged. "I shouldn't have told you, only—you know—you asked. And it wouldn't make any difference, on my honour it wouldn't. Won't you take my word for it, and give me a trial?"

"No," she said.

"Why not?" he persisted. "Don't you think you are rather hard on me? I shall never take a single inch more than you care to allow."

She turned upon him suddenly. Her cheeks were burning and her eyes were wet, but she no longer cared about his seeing these details.

"What did you mean?" she demanded unexpectedly, "by saying to me that those fight hardest who fight in vain?"

He was not in the least disconcerted.

"I meant that though you might send me about my business you would not quite manage to shake me off altogether."

"Meaning that you would refuse to go?" she asked, with a quiver that might have been anger in her voice.

"Meaning," he responded quietly, "that though you might deny me yourself, it might not be in your power to deny me the pleasure of serving you."

"And is it not in my power?" she asked swiftly.

He was looking at her very intently.

"No," he said in his most deliberate drawl. "I don't think it is."

"But it is," she asserted, meeting his look with blazing eyes. "You cannot possibly enter my service without my consent. And—and—I am not going to consent to that mad scheme of yours."

"No?" he said.

"No," she repeated with emphasis. "You yourself are the obstacle, as I said before. If—if you had not been in love with me, I might have considered it. But—now—it is out of the question. Moreover," her eyes shot suddenly downwards, as though to hide their fire, "I shall not want that sort of protector now."

"No?" he said again, very softly this time. He was standing straight before her, still closely watching her with that in his eyes that he had never permitted there before.

"No!" she repeated once more, and again brokenly she laughed; then suddenly raised her eyes to his, and gave him both her hands impetuously, confidingly, yet with a certain shyness notwithstanding. "I—I am going to marry again after all," she said, "if—if you will have me."

"My dear," said Lord Ronald, very tenderly, "I always meant to!"