Chapter X

The Die is Cast

“I can’t wait​—​I won’t wait​—​until it pleases Guy to write, and he may never write unless I—— Oh, it’s horrid to think of​—​humbling oneself!​—​yet what else is there to do?”

Clare Stanhope walked to the mirror on the wall. Flushed cheeks, anxious, strained eyes, lips dry and pallid, met her gaze.

“It’s horrible how worry ages one! I look ten years older than I did a week ago. I believe I can see crowsfeet already. I wonder if I shall be ugly when I’m old?”

She laughed​—​a hard, mirthless laugh. Old? What was the use of dwelling on such a prospect at her age, twenty-one on her last birthday? She had but just begun to live her life. She turned impatiently from the mirror, and her gaze went round the room. Everything in it reminded her of Guy Horsford. She was conscious of an unconquerable yearning to see him, and of an equally unconquerable loathing for Andrew Meldrum.

“I promised Mr. Meldrum to let him have my answer in a fortnight. A letter should reach Guy in three or four days. If I address it to headquarters he’s bound to get it as soon as it arrives. He’ll reply by return​—​of course he will,” she added emphatically, “and I shall have his letter well within the fortnight.”

She ran to the writing-table and dashed into a letter. She covered pages only to tear them up, but it was a relief to let herself go, and she wrote what she would like to say to Guy had she dared. Reading over what she had written, she hardly knew whether to laugh or weep. Then came the final effort, when passionate outpourings, the torrent of emotion, had dwindled down to the one cry of her heart, “I want you. Come.”

The letter was despatched. She told herself over and over again it would bring him back. Her feeling of certainty gave her courage and steadied her nerves, and she was able to meet Andrew Meldrum, when next she saw him, without embarrassment. Meanwhile the shrewd and tactful doctor was working quietly. He knew his niece’s capricious nature, and he was careful to warn Meldrum that his best course was not to hasten matters but to abide by Clare’s promise.

“That’s all very well, but I don’t understand why Miss Stanhope hesitates,” said Meldrum, in his hard way. “If she’s made up her mind to accept me, why doesn’t she say so?”

“My dear Meldrum,” said the doctor, shrugging his shoulders, “I’m afraid you’ve a lot to learn about women, and especially about my niece. No matter how deep the veneer of civilisation may be, the primitive woman has a way of asserting herself. She likes to be pursued, and she puts off the moment of yielding as long as possible. Don’t you understand?”

Andrew Meldrum stared blankly at Stanhope. He had never bothered himself with such a problem as the nature of woman.

“Of course there’s no rule,” pursued the doctor. “With many women action depends upon the whim of the moment, and this whim is as often right as wrong. But every woman likes to be on the winning side, and so far as you’re concerned, Meldrum, you’ve delivered yourself bound hand and foot to the conqueror. Clare’s sure of you, so why should she hurry to end your uncertainty? Besides, a woman must tease and tantalise. Now if you wanted to bring things to a crisis you ought to make love to some other girl.”

“Make love?” returned Meldrum slowly.

Dr. Stanhope burst into a guffaw.

“What amuses you?” growled the merchant, a little nettled.

“Your look of consternation at the idea. Why shouldn’t you make love? You ought to know something about it since you’re so desirous of marrying Clare.”

“That’s true, but​—​but I don’t know I’ve ever made love to Miss Stanhope​—​not in the ordinary sense of the phrase. I’m afraid I should have a difficulty in telling her what my feelings are towards her,” returned Meldrum, with a constrained air.

“But you’ve told her you loved her?” said the doctor.

“No. I merely asked her to marry me. I assumed she would take it for granted I should not put such a question unless I loved her.”

“H’m! that’s all very well from a business point of view, but it’s not the best way of entering upon matrimony. A woman may know that a man loves her, but she likes him to tell her so. But we’re drifting into abstract matters, and you, I take it, are not much given to going beyond your own personal concerns. I don’t want to intrude my advice, but from what I know of Clare I fancy that a little of the conventional flummery called love-making would not be displeasing to her. You see, she’s been used to a good deal of admiration, and to have men fussing round her.”

A look of uneasiness stole into Meldrum’s hard face.

“I know​—​I know​—​and no man admires her more than I do,” he returned, a little agitatedly. “Clare’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She’s always amiable, and she has a thousand pretty ways, all of which I’ve treasured up.”

Dr. Stanhope wrinkled his grey eyebrows. He was beginning to think this cold, impassive man had depths in his nature one would hardly suspect from his cold exterior.

“’Pon my word, I’m beginning to be doubtful whether I’m doing the right thing in pushing this matter on,” mused the doctor. “One point’s certain. Whoever Clare loves if she does love any one​—​it isn’t Andrew Meldrum. For all that the marriage may turn out right. Clare’s level-headed in spite of her apparent flightiness. Her self-interest ought to keep her on the right path, and dress, jewels, fallals, cutting a dash, and that sort of thing will make her think twice before she runs counter to her husband’s wishes. All depends upon how far Meldrum’s willing to let her have her own way. I can’t do more than make her understand the kind of man she will marry​—​that is, if she accepts him, and I guess she will.”

It looked as if Meldrum had heeded the doctor’s words about letting things take their own course, for during the fortnight for which Clare had begged he ceased to call. They met accidentally, however, at an evening party, and she greeted him in her usual gay, airy fashion. Meldrum, on the other hand, was silent and embarrassed. He expected she would show him some special recognition, though in what way he could hardly determine. So far as he could tell she seemed to pay more attention to other men than she did to him.

“Why does she laugh and talk and whisper with that ape Lawton?” he muttered. “Surely she can’t take any interest in his silly gabble.”

Then he thought of Dr. Stanhope’s opinion of women, and wondered if Lawton’s inane grins and smirks and whisperings were anything like the love-making the doctor talked about. He saw Lawton press her hand as he led her to the piano. He could have knocked the fellow down. He ground his teeth when he saw the dandified lieutenant bend across her shoulder to turn over the leaves of her music. The action really meant nothing, but to Meldrum it meant everything.

Clare was certainly more than usually provoking towards Meldrum. She did not ignore him, but she avoided going near the corner of the room where he sat, glowering and pretending to listen to the small talk of a “grass widow.” The truth was Clare had an attack of nerves, and was trying to hide her agitation under the mask of gaiety. At last Meldrum could not endure the sight of her frivolity any longer. He rose to go, and his tall, gaunt frame, with its square shoulders and slightly bowed legs, moved across the room towards his hostess.

“So soon, Mr. Meldrum?” said the lady reproachfully. “Oh, you must stay for the acting charade. Clare has arranged it. She’s splendid at such things. It’s going to be capital fun. Mr. Lawton is in it. He’s quite a droll. You’ll enjoy the charade, I’m sure.”

“I dare say,” said Meldrum grimly. “Sorry I must go, but I’ve my Bombay manager coming to see me, and we’ve a lot of business to talk over.”

The excuse seemed rather a lame one, but Mrs. Parker-Thompson accepted it. Perhaps she was not sorry to do so. Somehow, Andrew Meldrum’s presence that evening was oppressive. Meldrum was never much of a conversationalist at the best of times, but he was rarely so silent and uncompanionable as he was to-night.

Clare was not unmindful of Meldrum’s movements. How could she be when he had hardly been out of her thoughts all the evening? She saw him take leave of Mrs. Parker-Thompson and turn to go. She felt a pang of self-reproach. She was tempted to follow him. She hesitated and then tried to cross the crowded room. It was not so easy; she was intercepted and detained more than once, and when she reached the verandah Meldrum was gone. She looked into the darkness but saw no one. A vague feeling of disquietude seized her. She hardly knew whether to be glad or sorry that she had missed seeing him.

“We were wondering what had become of you, Miss Stanhope. General consternation​—​er——”

She started. Lawton was speaking. Mrs. Parker-Thompson, anxious for the charade, had sent him to search for her.

“The room was so frightfully hot, Mr. Lawton. I came out here for a little fresh air before beginning. Are the others ready?”

“Ready and waiting. Aren’t you well?”

“Of course I am. What do you mean?” she asked, quite snappishly.

“Beg pardon. I fancied you looked a little pale.”

“What nonsense! Let us go back at once.”

Lawton offered her his arm silently. Clare’s manner was so abrupt, so imperious, he thought he had offended her. But the charade once started, all trace of ill-humour disappeared. Her vivid colour came back, her eyes sparkled once more, and everybody declared she had excelled herself. The charade was a brilliant success. Never had Clare Stanhope been gayer, more fascinating. She was overwhelmed with compliments.

“Quite an accomplished actress is lost to the stage, Miss Stanhope,” said Major Ormerod gallantly.

“H’m! what the stage has lost we’ve gained, anyhow,” chuckled Colonel Chowden. “Hang it, why you even inspired Lawton. He was really amusing​—​for once. Thanks to you.”

Clare laughed, accepted graciously all the fine things that were said of her; danced every dance that followed the charade, flirted outrageously​—​at least this was the opinion of Mrs. Ormerod​—​and apparently enjoyed herself to the utmost. It was nearly daylight when she and her uncle departed.

The gradients of the road from Mrs. Parker-Thompson’s bungalow were steep and irregular, and Dr. Stanhope had to drive carefully. For some five minutes the pony occupied his attention.

“I thought Meldrum was to be at the party,” said he, when the buggy was on level ground. “Mrs. Parker-Thompson told me yesterday she had invited him.”

“Yes, he was there,” returned Clare, from behind the folds of the wrap in which she had enveloped her head, for the morning air was raw, “but he left early.”

The doctor made no answer. He decided that his niece was not in the mood for confidences. Presently, however, he spoke again.

“A letter came for you just as I was leaving home,” said he. “It had the Delhi postmark. I didn’t know you had any friends in the city.”

This time it was Clare who was silent. Guy Horsford had replied! The sudden crowning of her hopes set every nerve quivering and she dared not trust herself to speak. Her uncle took no notice of her silence. He put it down to over-fatigue. In about a quarter of an hour they were inside the bungalow, and Clare had the letter in her hand. She knew Horsford’s writing, and the sight of it sent her into a tremor. But not for worlds would she betray herself to the doctor.

“I’m too tired to read it now,” said she languidly. “I’ll take it with me and open it to-morrow morning. Good-night, uncle, dear.”

Once in her room her languor disappeared. She dismissed her ayah as soon as possible, and her trembling fingers tore the envelope with feverish haste. Her face altered as she read. It gradually became white and rigid. The letter dropped on her lap. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the arms of the bamboo chair, her hands pressing her temples.

“Gone! Gone!” she murmured brokenly. She stared blankly at the letter on her lap. For the time being her brain was numbed. All she was conscious of was her loneliness​—​her wasted love.

Horsford had written kindly, but not passionately​—​not like a lover. He was careful to explain that his application to be allowed to join the Burmese expedition had been made some time since, and that the answer had come unexpectedly. No doubt, so Clare decided, the summons reached him at Simla and was the business which had caused his hurried departure. This assumption somehow softened her feelings of bitter resentment and wounded pride, but the hard fact remained that she might never see Guy Horsford again.

The thought crushed her, and after sitting for some time quite motionless she crept to her bed, but not to sleep. If she could have cried it would have been a relief, but Clare was not one to whose eyes tears came readily, and so she tossed and twisted until her ayah came with tea. The doctor was not surprised at her keeping her room. It was natural that the excitement of the previous evening should be followed by depression, and he went tranquilly on his rounds. When he returned to dinner he found Clare much the same as usual, a little washed out, perhaps, but not more than he expected. He looked at her narrowly and wondered if she had given Andrew Meldrum his answer, and if so what that answer was. The fortnight expired that very day.

“I guess they met last night and she gave him his quietus,” he thought. “That accounts for his going away so early.”

The truth was Clare was pondering over the letter of refusal she intended to send to Meldrum. With the thought that Horsford had left her for the sake of duty had come a tenderness towards him which overpowered everything. It certainly increased her dislike to Meldrum, and the advantages which would follow a marriage with him no longer weighed with her. To-morrow she would write and do her best to let him down gently.

Before the dinner was over Ormerod called. The Major was more important than usual in his manner, and after a few commonplaces and compliments to Clare on her success of the previous evening, he burst out with his news.

“Called on the Rajah this morning​—​found the old boy awfully upset. A very awkward thing’s happened​—​it’s a mystery or romance or whatever you like to call it. You remember the night of the little Eurasian dancing-girl, don’t you, doctor?”

“Yes, I know what you mean. Well?”

“There was a dispute between Horsford and the scoundrelly old Mahommedan who managed the troupe​—​it turns out he wasn’t the proprietor as we all thought at the time​—​and to settle the matter the Rajah took charge of the girl. Now it appears that his Highness sent her to Delhi the morning after the dinner-party​—​secretly so far as I can make out​—​together with the rest of the troupe, and the Rajah fearing an attack from some source​—​he didn’t tell me what source​—​gave the party an escort of his soldiers. Sure enough an attack was made, the girl was carried off, the old Mussulman disappeared, and three of the men were wounded. Now the point concerning us is that the Rajah suspects that an Englishman was connected with the abduction, and it looks to me as if there was going to be some trouble​—​I beg your pardon.”

Ormerod stopped and glanced at Clare as though he did not care to go on with the story. She understood the glance. She had followed the narrative breathlessly and was eager to hear more.

“Yes, Major, and what happened?” she cried, her eyes glistening.

“That’s where the mystery comes in. I’m not sure whether I’m doing right in gossiping about it,” said Ormerod, in his pompous manner.

“That means you think I can’t keep a secret? Women have the reputation of not being able to hold their tongues. I don’t believe they’re half so bad as men.”

“Oh, when the secret concerns themselves, women can be as close as wax, but——”

“I promise you I won’t breathe a word. Uncle knows I can be trusted, don’t you?”

The doctor nodded, and at the same time gave a non-committal shrug of the shoulders.

“Very well, what I was going to say is this​—​the Rajah suspects that in some way Captain Horsford was mixed up in the abduction. The Rajah sets out to-morrow night for Delhi to make inquiries into the matter, because it appears that Zeenut Mehal holds him responsible for the safety of the girl.”

“Sounds like a cock-and-bull story,” said the doctor. “Horsford’s not the man to compromise himself in a scandal of that kind.”

“I should agree with you, doctor, if the question was one of a passing fancy for a dancing-girl, but it’s more than that. It’s quite certain Horsford took a strong interest in her. Maybe he had good reasons, and I daresay if the Rajah’s suspicions are justified, there may be an adequate explanation, but there’s an ugly rumour about the disappearance of the old man, Hoosein Khan. It’s feared he’s been done away with.”

“And does the Rajah accuse Horsford of murder​—​I suppose that’s what it comes to, eh?”

“He makes no accusation​—​he’s far too cautious, but when the thing’s sifted you don’t know what may come out. But for Heaven’s sake don’t breathe a word. I’m not sure it wouldn’t be as well to give Horsford a word of warning. It looks odd his going off in such a devil of a hurry. I met him, you know, just as he was starting. I thought at the time he was precious close about the business that was taking him to Delhi post-haste. I’d better write and tell him of the Rajah’s movements; don’t you think so?”

“There’d be no harm, of course. At the same time I think you’ll find that the Rajah’s discovered a mare’s-nest. I’ll make a point of calling on him to-morrow before he starts and sounding him on the subject.”

“Don’t do that,” broke in Ormerod hastily. “You see, he told me the story under a bond of secrecy. Of course there was no harm in repeating what I heard to you because I’ll wager you know more secrets than any man in Simla. That was why I hesitated about telling you, Miss Stanhope. You’ll forgive me, won’t you?”

“Oh yes, I’ll forgive you, and lest you may be entrusting me with more secrets, I’ll leave you and uncle together.”

Ormerod’s perception was not keen, or he would have noticed the hard note in Clare’s voice. She rose as she spoke. She knew the doctor’s eyes were fixed upon her, and fearing she might betray herself she went to a cabinet, fetched a box of cheroots, placed it on the table, and turned away.

Ormerod’s words had brought about a revulsion of feeling. She knew, or thought she knew, the key to his story. She hastily decided that Guy Horsford had been telling her falsehoods. It was not true, as he had written, that he had applied some weeks before for leave to join the expedition to Burma. He must have made his application within the last fortnight in order to escape the consequences of his recklessness and folly. She did not think there had been any murder, but that he had bribed Hoosein Khan to convey the girl to some secret hiding-place. For anything she could tell, Horsford’s story of going to Burma might be an invention. Of course its truth or falsity could easily be determined, but for the moment she was so carried away by her jealousy she was ready to believe anything bad against him.

At that moment a servant brought in a card and gave it to her.

“Uncle, Mr. Meldrum has called,” said she hurriedly.

Clare and the doctor exchanged glances. Both knew Meldrum’s errand.

“Shall I see him in the drawing-room?” she went on.

“It would be better,” was Dr. Stanhope’s laconic answer.

The two spoke in low tones and their words were inaudible to Ormerod, who, meanwhile, was lighting a cigar. By the time he had taken half a dozen whiffs Clare had quitted the room. Dr. Stanhope did not trouble to give the gossiping Major any explanation. He preferred to wait events. If Clare accepted Meldrum, Ormerod might as well hear the news​—​it would not be the Major’s fault if half Simla did not hear of the engagement within the next twenty-four hours.

The doctor harked back to the subject of the dancing-girl, both he and Ormerod agreeing that if Horsford were really mixed up with the business and Zeenut Mehal got to know of it, there was no woman in India more subtle and deadly in her schemes of vengeance than the Queen of Delhi.

Half an hour went by, and they heard a step outside. Andrew Meldrum came in. He was alone. His face was a little flushed, his manner was slightly agitated, and his first words sufficed to tell the doctor what had been the result of the interview.

“Clare told me I should find you here, doctor, so I’ve come straight away. How are you?” said he, with unusual heartiness.

“She has said yes,” thought Dr. Stanhope. “I never expected it.”

“Congratulate me, doctor,” went on Meldrum, in a voice of suppressed excitement. “Everything is settled. It only remains now to fix the wedding day.”

Dr. Stanhope grasped Meldrum’s outstretched hand.

“I’m very​—​very glad,” said he. Then to himself he grunted, “I hope it’ll turn out for the best. But——”

The doctor completed the sentence with a shrug of his shoulders.

During the next three weeks Simla worked itself into a state of excitement over one of the most sumptuous weddings which had ever taken place among the English residents. The universal opinion was that Clare Stanhope had secured the biggest matrimonial prize in India.

Andrew Meldrum, so everybody declared, certainly “did the handsome thing” in every way. He settled a princely sum on his wife; the honeymoon was to be an extended tour among the principal European cities; the presents to Clare and her bridesmaids were most costly; no expense was spared over the wedding festivities, and last, but not least, the Bishop of Bombay was good enough to take a special journey to Simla to read the marriage service, and, assisted by a regimental chaplain, bestow the blessing of the Church on the happy couple.

Everything was orthodox, and not a hitch occurred anywhere. The doctor gave his niece away. She was more self-possessed than the bridegroom, for she uttered the responses with the utmost calmness, while there was a distinct tremble in his voice. At the wedding breakfast Colonel Chowden proposed the health of the bride and bridegroom in what the Delhi Gazette called a “facetious” speech, and Andrew Meldrum was brief and business-like in his reply. When he uttered the words “my wife” he looked down at the bride with all the pride of possession pictured in his hard face. Clare could not see the look, but she must have been conscious of it. Her lips tightened, and the corners twitched for an instant as though something had jarred upon her nerves.

When the congratulations were over the newly married pair drove away to a bungalow on Elisium Hill, where they would stay until their departure for Bombay. The merriment continued for some little time, but now that the principal actors were gone it was forced and soon subsided. The guests dropped off, and the doctor was left with half a dozen of his men friends to lounge in comfortable chairs in the verandah, drink, smoke, and tell well-worn stories, more or less of the mess-room type.

“After all, there’s something in Eastern customs,” grunted Colonel Chowden, when the smoke-room conversation began to pall. “In England we have to do all the work ourselves if we want amusement. The natives here pay somebody else to amuse them​—​in this confoundedly lazy climate a far more sensible plan. If the doctor was a rajah or a zemindar, he’d have engaged a batch of big-eyed dancing-girls. We’re all of us just in the mood for an hour or so of that sleepy fun, eh? By gad, wouldn’t Mrs. Grundy have had something to say, doctor, if you’d given us an entertainment of that sort?”

“My dear Colonel, there’s already been one scandal​—​or the whisper of a scandal​—​concerning a dancing-girl, and we don’t want another,” said the doctor.

“You mean that affair at the Rajah’s, when Guy Horsford made himself such an ass over the girl just because she was an Eurasian? By Jove, our fellows would have enough to do if they followed Horsford’s example. What do you think I heard——”

“The less said about the business the better, Colonel,” interposed the doctor quietly. “We’re all Horsford’s friends, and we’re at liberty to think what we like, but for Heaven’s sake don’t let us put our thoughts into words. We all know what Zeenut Mehal’s party in the Palace is capable of. Their ways are secret, their methods deadly. We don’t know the true story of the queer affair, but they may. Horsford’s on his way to Rangoon with Godwin’s force, and may never return. Better forget the business altogether for the sake of all concerned.”

A silence followed the doctor’s words. He had given Guy Horsford’s comrades something to ponder over.