Chapter IV

The Little Rift

Guy Horsford told Clare everything. The story of Jack Folliott, his bravery, his devotion to his comrade and friend, his death, was new to her. Her talks hitherto with Horsford had never risen above the frothy frivolity of flirtation. The earnestness, the depth of feeling he now showed when reviving tragic memories were revelations of character which came upon her with a sense of novelty. Her own life had been passed amid easy and pleasant surroundings. She had never had a care. She had always been petted by her relatives; at first because she had been left motherless when very young, and afterwards because she soon discovered that demonstrations of affection, tempered by discretion, and an avoidance of treading on people’s sensitive corns, resulted in advantages for herself. After she left school she passed her time in staying first with one rich relation and then with another, making herself agreeable, and acquiring, unconsciously perhaps, a considerable knowledge of the weaknesses of human nature.

The first part of Horsford’s narrative thrilled her. It lifted her into a higher world​—​a world of which previously she had had no knowledge except in the cold pages of historic books at school​—​secretly voted “frightfully dry.” To hear an account of a battle, of heroism, of death, from the lips of a soldier was a different matter.

“Oh, how brave you are,” she cried with glistening eyes. “Fancy my knowing you all this time and never suspecting what my poor dear boy had gone through. But the adventure in the Rajah’s Palace …?”

“I’m coming to that now. I had to tell you first about Jack Folliott. It forms a sort of prologue, as you’ll see.”

He plunged into the recital. As he went on he almost forgot the pretty, dainty plaything by his side; he did not even notice she had withdrawn a few inches from him. He thought only of his oath to his dying friend, of the pathetic picture of the child, of her helplessness, of her terrible future if she were not rescued.

“That’s the story so far as it’s gone,” said he in conclusion. “It’s to be continued in our next​—​but in what way nobody knows. In any case I’m not going to let the matter rest. I must keep my promise. I should never forgive myself if I did not. Don’t you think, Clare, I’m right?”

“Oh, quite right,” she echoed. “What sort of looking girl is this interesting protégée of yours? Sallow and listless like all half castes?”

“Not in the least. If she were dressed in muslin and flounces and her hair done up like yours, I believe you’d hardly think she wasn’t entirely English. As for her looks, I never saw a more lovely child.”

“Most romantic! You call her a child​—​how old is she?”

“About eleven, I should think.”

“Eleven! Why, Indian girls become wives at that age.”

Horsford was not unconscious of the slightly sarcastic note in Clare’s voice. It was not encouraging for any hope of assistance from her, but he went on nevertheless.

“I’m quite aware of that,” he retorted. “But I don’t see what it has to do with the infamy of the thing. Look here, dearest, I’m going to appeal to you as an Englishwoman.”

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Clare interrupted quickly. “I hate appeals. They always mean you’re asked to do something you don’t care a bit about.”

“Wait a moment. You’re not asked for anything more than shelter for this poor waif and stray until I can decide what’s the best to be done. If the Rajah refuses to give her up, I shall take her by stratagem or​—​force. She may have to be concealed. I strongly suspect there’s a plot going on between the Rajah and Hoosein Khan, but if there’s a thousand plots I’ll defeat them. You’ll help me, won’t you?”

“Was your friend Captain Folliott married to the girl’s mother?” asked Clare after a pause.

“I don’t know and I don’t care. What does it matter?”

“It matters a good deal. The Rajah’s a great friend of uncle’s, and one of his best patients. I’m quite sure the doctor wouldn’t care to quarrel with the Rajah on account of a worthless dancing-girl.”

“Worthless? How?”

“Haven’t you said just now that you don’t know whether her mother and father were married. From what I’ve heard of the old days most likely they weren’t.”

“And that’s your objection?”

“Well, isn’t it a proper one? I’m certain all the English ladies in Simla and Delhi​—​Delhi especially​—​would say I was right.”

“No doubt​—​no doubt,” returned Horsford, with a hard laugh.

He rose from the settee and paced the room, his eyes averted from the girl who but a short half hour ago seemed all in all to him. He was bitterly disappointed, not so much at Clare’s refusal, perhaps, as at her line of argument. He thought she had more generosity, that she was not governed by narrow English prejudices. It never occurred to him that she could be jealous of a mere child!

Horsford thought he understood Clare’s character. He was never within the fringe of it. He little suspected that the little Dresden china figure, looking so fair and fragile, was anything but weak-minded, anything but vacillating, and could be as stubborn as a mule when it suited her. Clare Stanhope always knew exactly what she wanted, and generally managed to get it. Her passion for Horsford, one might say, was an act of folly, for Clare was bent upon marrying a rich man, and Horsford was over head and ears in debt. The contradiction is hard to explain, save that the clearest-headed and most determined may have lapses. Who could say what a woman of this type might not do? If she were so minded she would go to extremes either in prudence or folly.

Horsford ceased his pacing. He stopped in front of her. Clare was sitting quite composedly, her clasped hands resting lightly on her crossed knees. She looked remarkably cool and indifferent​—​an effect due perhaps to the absence of her usually brilliant colour. She had gone somewhat pale, and the swinging of the little foot was an indication of disturbed nerves.

“I won’t worry you any more, Clare,” said Horsford slowly. “I’m sorry I mentioned the business. I ought to have known you could hardly mix yourself up in such a matter.”

“And what do you intend to do?”

“Go on with it, of course​—​to the bitter end.”

Clare sprang to her feet, trembling violently. She came close to Horsford and raised her hands swiftly to his shoulders.

“Have you thought of the consequences?” she whispered in a low, tremulous voice.

“No. I’m not sure what they’ll be. I shall risk them in any case.”

“So in spite of … of everything, you intend to give me up.”

Horsford opened his eyes in amazement.

“Good Heavens, no. Why should I? Do you take me for a cad​—​a coward?”

“No, but I think you must imagine I’m a fool. What will people say about you? That you are the associate of dancing-girls. Among men such a reputation doesn’t matter, but among women​—​English women——”

“Well, whatever is said,” interrupted Horsford hotly, “you, who know the truth, can defend me.”

“As if I could do that! As if I could own I was in your confidence over so disgraceful an affair! It’s an insult to me,” she exclaimed, withdrawing her hands from his shoulders, and standing back a pace or two from him. “It comes to this, Guy,” she went on, speaking slowly and deliberately, “you must choose between me and your dancing-girl.”

“You’re talking foolishly. There’s no question of rivalry between you and this child! It’s too ridiculous. You’re missing the point entirely. My choice lies between my love for you and my oath to my dead friend​—​my friend to whom I owe my life.”

“Put it that way if you like​—​I don’t care.”

“I stand by my oath,” said he doggedly.

Clare started as though he had struck her. Her eyes blazed, and she shook with passion.

“And you say that coolly after I have given you my whole love. All I have is yours, Guy. You know it is​—​whatever happens,” said she huskily.

“It’s not my fault. You’ve forced the position on me.”

“But think what you’re about to do. Oh, it will be your ruin! Do be persuaded. Don’t act like a madman! You told me to-night you loved me. Am I to believe that you’re a hypocrite? that​—​that——”

She covered her face with her hands. Her passion had spent itself. She was on the verge of hysterics.

At that moment the silence was broken by the noise of buggy wheels and the voice of a native coachman flinging opprobrious epithets at the horse’s female relatives. Dr. Stanhope had returned.

Horsford felt horribly embarrassed. Clare’s emotion was certain to attract the attention of the keen-eyed doctor, and what explanation could be given? But he need not have troubled himself. Clare, in a marvellous manner, pulled herself together. She went smilingly towards the window to meet her uncle. As she passed Horsford she whispered:

“There’s your hat on the chair. You were just taking your leave. Do you understand?”

Horsford did so only partially. It could not be said he understood Clare. She was certainly acting now, and a disturbing thought crossed his mind​—​had she been acting all along?

The doctor’s voice was heard outside. Horsford, hat in hand, followed Clare to the window. Dr. Stanhope caught sight of him over Clare’s shoulder.

“Ah, Horsford,” said the doctor, in the soothing, pleasant, even voice of the medical man, the majority of whose patients are ladies, “so you were able to tear yourself away from the Rajah’s hospitality. It generally becomes very pronounced after midnight. His Highness has some wonderful wines, not a drop of which he ever tastes. He’s above temptation​—​in that way. I was very sorry I could not put in an appearance. I hoped to do so, but the eternal feminine intervened, as usual.”

“How is Mrs. Foord?” asked Clare.

“Going on splendidly, and the baby too​—​a remarkably fine boy. His father and I christened him over a bottle of champagne.”

Dr. Stanhope was in good humour, partly because of the champagne, partly because the professional business which had prevented him from being at the Rajah’s Palace had given him no anxiety. He did not notice Horsford’s embarrassment. The two men chatted for a few minutes, chiefly about the Rajah’s dinner-party, but Horsford said nothing of the episode of the dancing-girl. He could hardly do so in Clare’s presence; indeed, he was not inclined to go into the story again with any one, and after bidding the doctor good-night he looked round for Clare, but she was gone. He was not sorry he was spared the embarrassment of bidding her farewell after their tiff, but for all that he left the bungalow moody and unhinged.

It was inevitable, due to the crisis of that night, that his thoughts should be fixed on himself. His life, like that of most of his comrades, had drifted along aimlessly. He had gambled, hunted, ridden his horses on the Delhi race-course, danced, flirted, and occasionally “gone the pace,” coming back to reason and repentance when the Delhi bank intimated politely that his account was overdrawn. He could have married over and over again, but married life in India did not attract him. The number of happy marriages, the marriages, at least, of military officers, could be counted on one’s fingers. Nor had he been entangled in a serious, all-absorbing love affair. Flirtations had come and gone and left him heart-whole.

But could he make that boast now? He hated to think of his folly, because bound up with it was the feeling that he had been disillusioned. He had imagined that beneath Clare’s frivolity and love of admiration and pleasure there was the real heart of a woman. Until he had taken her into confidence over the dancing-girl he did not doubt her sincerity, but what was that sincerity worth? It had failed at the first test. Her prudishness struck him as a contradiction. She had been quick to return his ardent kisses​—​she had been as quick to treat him with icy coldness over what Simla society would think.

“Perhaps it’s as well our folly’s ended. Had we married I suppose we should have passed our time in bickering. Clare would have spent half the year at Simla and I should have stuck at Delhi​—​and what would happen then?”

He resolved to think no more about Clare. She had taken her course, let her continue in it if she chose.

He had about half a mile to walk to his bungalow. The road ascended all the way and the cool breeze and the exertion steadied his nerves. As he approached the gate of the compound a figure rose from the deep shadow of the trees to his right and confronted him. His first thought was that he was about to be attacked by one of the goojurs of whom Clare had jestingly spoken, but before he had time for a second he saw there was no cause for alarm. The stranger was a woman and unveiled, showing that she was not of high rank.

“Sahib​—​Sahib,” she whispered excitedly, “you must come with me at once.”

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“I am Azeena. Does not your lordship remember Nara’s ayah? I knew the Sahib the instant my eyes lighted upon him at the Rajah’s Palace. If you would save the girl do not delay one instant. Ah, she is in great peril! My poor​—​poor Nara. Sahib, you must bring your pistol and sword. There may be fighting, but Hoosein Khan is a coward​—​they are all cowards​—​aye, even the Rajah. He is in the plot, too!”

Horsford recollected the woman. It was she who played the saringhee, and who afterwards was standing in the curtained doorway with a group of dancing-girls when he led Nara back to the hall after she had recovered from her fainting fit. Azeena was trembling from head to foot with excitement. Her words tumbled from her quivering lips so rapidly that Horsford at first did not grasp their full meaning. But it was sufficient for him to know that the girl was in great danger.

“Quiet yourself. Tell me everything slowly​—​slowly. Do you understand?” said he, clasping her wrists firmly.

The touch of Horsford’s muscular hands restored her to something like calmness, and she explained that Hoosein Khan was under a bond to deliver the girl to Zeenut Mehal, the intriguing Queen of Delhi. He was to have a large sum of money when Nara was safely within the Palace. For the last two years he had been bargaining with the Queen, who had heard reports of the dancing-girl’s beauty and accomplishments, and also knew her origin, and at last the sum was fixed. Hoosein Khan was on his way to Delhi, and the Rajah, hearing that the troupe were passing through Simla, had engaged them to entertain his guests.

“The bond Hoosein Khan signed with Zeenut Mehal’s agent forbade him letting Nara dance before any one lest some rich man should become drunk with her grace and loveliness and detain her,” whispered Azeena. “Zeenut Mehal has promised her pampered boy, Jewan Bukht, a beautiful plaything, and he and his wicked mother would make sport with the girl!”

“My God, it’s infamous!” burst out Horsford.

He stamped the ground in his fury. Jewan Bukht was a sickly boy of twelve or thirteen and a man in wickedness. Zeenut Mehal pandered to his vices and there was no pleasure he fancied she did not gratify. Could she have had her way she would, at the death of old Bahadur Shah, have seated him on the throne in the place of the rightful heir, Mirza Moghul, the king’s eldest son.

“Hoosein Khan would sell every drop of blood in his withered body for gold,” cried the woman; “the Rajah tempted him and he broke the bond. If it reached the ears of Zeenut Mehal he would know what the whip was like, and not a single rupee would she part with. The Rajah wanted the girl to dance to him alone, but Hoosein Khan was afraid of the Queen’s vengeance. He would only consent if Englishmen were present. He thought if the story reached the Palace that Zeenut Mehal’s anger would be softened when she knew English officers were of the company. The English sahibs are not shameless like our princes.”

“That’s enough,” interrupted Horsford hastily. “Nara must be rescued. When the truth is known I’ll swear the Resident will support me. Do you know where the Rajah’s placed the girl?”

“In an upper room in the Palace. My own cousin perfumes the hair of the ladies of the zenana​—​she has promised to help me. But we must go at once. Hoosein Khan will not rest until he has the girl safely inside the King’s Palace. He is thinking of his skin and of his rupees. Do you not see, Sahib, that it is to his interest to deliver the girl to Zeenut Mehal before the gossip finds its way to her ears? But he may not be able to get away as soon as he hopes. The Rajah may delay him. The Rajah fears Zeenut Mehal, but, Sahib, he may be tempted​—​who knows? Yet all is in the hands of Allah. I pray He may protect my poor Nara.”

“Wait here, Azeena. I’ll get the buggy and——”

“No, no, Sahib,” she interrupted. “It is of no use going as if you were on a visit of ceremony to the Rajah. You will be put off with lies. You must go on foot and creep into the Palace like a dacoit. It is nearly three coss by road from here to the Palace, but I know a short cut over the hills. It will save quite one coss and you will get there as soon as you would in the buggy.”

“That means a walk of two coss​—​four miles. Very well, then, let us start.”