Chapter V


Soon they were beneath the deodars, tramping through an undergrowth which to unaccustomed eyes would have seemed impenetrable. Azeena, however, forced her way through with perfect confidence, guided by certain indications which she knew. The path led to the summit of a hill, at the foot of which was the winding road by which they would have travelled had they taken the buggy. By the time they had reached the top and were proceeding along the ridge there were signs of breaking day and the wind felt cold and raw. Indeed in exposed spots the grass was crisp with frost, and as dawn advanced clouds of mist settled below, obscuring the road and the few bungalows which at that time dotted the landscape.

An hour later they were descending the ridge, and the pale yellow tinge in the eastern sky was heralding the sun. The scenery was wild and romantic. To the south were forests of deodar, interspersed with deep, verdure-lined gorges, broad valleys on the slopes of which the rhododendrons flourished and bloomed in every variety of colour. To the north were more forests, gradually ascending until they gave place to the dim outline of hill upon hill, stretching away higher and higher, their summits melting in the distance in low clouds. Beyond these clouds were the Himalayas and the line of perpetual snow.

The dawn told them they were near their destination. Through the blue mist Horsford could discern the cupola surmounting the hall of the Rajah’s Palace.

“Let us hasten,” whispered Azeena. “Some of the servants may be about. It is a pity daylight is coming on, but Zora is on the watch; she will guide us by a secret way into the Palace. The mists are our friends.”

Five minutes more, and Horsford heard a low, mournful note, as of a bird calling to its mate. The answer came soft and prolonged, ceased for a couple of seconds, and was resumed for a brief space. Azeena suddenly turned and faced Horsford.

“Zora has answered my signal. We must be careful. That is the meaning of two whistles​—​one long and one short.”

The note which Horsford thought was that of a bird came from the lips of the women.

“Wait till I call to you, Sahib,” she suddenly whispered.

Azeena struck off to the right, and Horsford lost sight of her in the mist. For a moment he suspected treachery.

“I am here, Sahib,” Azeena’s voice came from below. Horsford slid down the bank and found the woman awaiting him in the dry bed of a nullah, through which a torrent swirled and eddied during the monsoon.

They went on for some fifty yards and the great stone wall of the well supplying the Palace came into sight. The well was a piece of solid masonry with a circular platform, of whiter stone than the rest, for the drawers of water to sit on while they let down their pitchers by the rope attached to the side of the well. The outline of a woman dressed in a dark robe was silhouetted on the white stone. An earthen pitcher was by her side. She rose when Azeena and Horsford emerged from the wreaths of mist, and came hastily towards them. She was unveiled and her face was troubled.

“Why did you not come before?” she cried. “I have been sitting here an hour​—​shaking with cold and fearing discovery. I brought a pitcher to show that I had come to the well for water, lest I might not be believed. You are too late, Sahib. Hoosein Khan and his party are gone and they have taken Nara with them. Had Azeena come back at once as she promised——”

“I could not. I had to wait for the Sahib,” interrupted Azeena. “I thought to reach his bungalow before him, but the Sahib did not come. It was not his fault. How could he tell I was expecting him? He had important business, doubtless, that delayed him.”

Important business? Folly​—​folly​—​folly! Horsford ground his teeth when he thought of it. Clare Stanhope had indeed come between him and his oath to poor Jack Folliott!

“That will do,” Horsford broke out impatiently. “What’s the good of wasting time in useless explanations? Hoosein Khan’s taken the child to Delhi, I suppose. Well, I have but to follow him.”

“The Sahib must not go alone,” cried Zora wildly. “The Rajah has sent a dozen of his fighting men to guard Hoosein Khan and his dancing-girls on the road. They are to travel with all speed. Let the girl go, Sahib. What has she to do with you?”

Horsford paid no attention to Zora’s pleadings. He was thinking out his own plans.

“Azeena,” said he suddenly, “do you love Nara?”

“As the apple of my eye, Sahib,” cried the woman, clasping her hands.

“Then we’ll do our best to save her. How does the party travel, Zora?”

“By bahlee, Sahib. They have gone by the Meerut road.”

“By far the longest way. That’s to throw me off the scent. Good! And the soldiers​—​are they mounted?”

“No. His Highness the Rajah would not let his horses be used.”

“Humph! much obliged to his highness. Bahlees drawn by oxen and men on the tramp​—​not much more than two miles an hour taking the day throughout. Azeena, we must get back to Simla sharp​—​that’s the first thing to do.”

“Yes, Sahib.”

The woman fixed her large, patient eyes, as faithful and as watchful as those of a dog, on the Sahib-logue​—​the man of the master race. Azeena did not trouble to think what the Sahib proposed to do but resigned herself to his orders.

Zora crept away, rejoicing at the liberal backsheesh the Sahib had given her, and well pleased to be free of a matter which might land her in disgrace, and Azeena and Horsford set out on their way back to Simla. It was between three and four when they reached his bungalow. The day had begun, and the servants were about their various duties. They salaamed to their master and showed no surprise at the sight of his companion. If they had any opinion at all it was that Azeena was neither so young nor so handsome a woman as the Sahib might have selected.

The ayah was exhausted; Horsford ordered a meal to be prepared for her, and went out to make arrangements for proceeding by dâk to Delhi. He reckoned that at the slow pace at which Hoosein Khan would be compelled to travel his journey via Meerut would occupy at least eight days, whereas by dâk via Ambala and Karnal it ought not to take more than half that time to do the one hundred and seventy miles to Delhi.

Luck that morning was on his side. He heard that Mrs. Mowatt, the mother of an official connected with the Delhi bank, was also travelling by dâk and was starting at six o’clock. He knew the lady very well, and he begged her to allow Azeena to join her staff of servants. Again luck befriended him. Mrs. Mowatt’s own ayah had taken herself off unexpectedly that very morning, after the irresponsible, erratic fashion of Indian servants, and the services of Azeena came in very handy. Horsford invented some plausible excuse why he was interested in the woman and was anxious to assist her in getting to Delhi, and Mrs. Mowatt, who was only too glad to be relieved from a difficulty, asked no inconvenient questions.

This matter settled, and his own palanquin and runners hired, Horsford raced back to his bungalow, gave Azeena her directions, snatched an hour’s sleep, had his bath, dismissed his servants with liberal backsheesh after his modicum of luggage was packed, and walked leisurely down to the starting-point. He met Major Ormerod, mounted on a trotting horse, to “shake up” his liver after the Rajah’s banquet of the night before.

“Hallo, Horsford,” shouted the Major. “What became of you last night? You slipped away mysteriously. We thought you’d eloped with the little dancer, until the Rajah assured us that the difficulty between you and that evil-looking Mussulman scoundrel had been settled amicably, the girl being taken from the fellow’s custody and lodged in the zenana. Is our fat friend going to add one more to his long list of wives?”

“How do I know?” rejoined Horsford shortly.

“Anyhow, it would be the best way out of the difficulty. I suppose the old rascal of a Mahommedan satisfied you the girl was his grand-daughter. But why didn’t you join us again? We were all on the qui vive to know what had happened.”

“Oh, I’d had enough of the fun. Good-bye, old chap. I’m off to Delhi.”


“Found a letter waiting me when I got back here last night, calling me away on important business. Can I take any messages for you?”

“I can’t think of any for the moment. When do you start?”

“At once. Mrs. Mowatt has already gone on.”

“Are you acting as her escort?” said the Major, with a grin.

“In a way, yes. Not much danger of my falling in love on the way, I imagine.”

“No, by gad. A most amiable woman but one of the ugliest. Her looks protect her.”

Horsford made no reply, but shook hands with the Major and strode away to his palanquin. Ormerod stayed long enough to see the men raise the conveyance and set off at a smart pace, which it was quite certain they would not long keep up, and slowly trotted away.

“Close beggar,” muttered the Major. “He’s not one to let the right hand know what the left hand’s doing. I wonder what’s the real story of the little dancing-girl. It struck me the Rajah was talking with his tongue in his cheek. I guess he’s come to some arrangement with Horsford. Lead us not into temptation! If there’s any prayer useful in India that’s the one.”

Then the Major proceeded on the process of “shaking up,” and meeting a couple of friends bent on a similar undertaking, forgot Horsford and the dancing-girl.

The day wore on without any more excitement than a Simla day usually afforded, which was as a rule none at all. At noon all life died away; the English visitors kept within doors, the natives squatted in the shade of verandahs and drowsily surveyed the world. About six o’clock slumbering Simla awoke.

A pony carriage drew up in front of Horsford’s bungalow. The smartly dressed girl who had been driving threw the reins to her servant and hastily stepped out. A chokadar who was in the verandah came forward and salaamed.

“Is Sahib Horsford at home?”

“The Sahib has gone.”

“Gone? What do you mean?”

The sudden sharpening of the pitch of the voice told that the girl had a temper that was easily roused. The chokadar proclaimed himself the most miserable of men. He was but a worm in the sight of the mem-sahib. It was not his fault that the lord sahib had departed that morning for Delhi.

“For Delhi? You are uttering lies,” burst out the girl passionately.

The chokadar prostrated himself morally and physically. He called upon several Hindu deities to witness that he spoke the truth.

“Did Sahib Horsford tell you this cock-and-bull story?” cried the visitor, all the brilliancy of her complexion disappearing under her rage, save one scarlet spot on each cheek bone.

The phrase “cock and bull” was evidently unknown to the chokadar. He stared vacantly, and then, conscious he was expected to return an answer of some kind, stammered out that he had seen the Sahib depart that morning, and that if the mem-sahib did not believe him she might ask the dâk agent, who would confirm his statement.

The mem-sahib possibly decided to adopt this suggestion, for without another word she wheeled round abruptly and returned to the pony carriage.

“Guy hasn’t gone to Delhi,” she muttered. “He said that to throw dust in the eyes of the servants. He is at the Dakhur Palace. He told me he meant to visit the Rajah to-day and demand the child.”

It was not etiquette to call on the Rajah. He never received English lady visitors, nor did he ever enter the houses of his English men friends. But for that Clare Stanhope would have gone direct to his Highness and have questioned him concerning Guy Horsford and the girl. In a white heat of fury she flung herself in the low seat, snatched the reins from the servant’s hands, and seized the whip. A slash across the ponies’ flanks sent the animals rearing, another savage cut brought them to their feet and they darted away at a break-neck pace. There was no danger save running against some lumbering, oxen-drawn, village cart, for the road was wide and a steep ascent lay in front. Before the ponies had tackled fifty yards of the hill they dropped into a walk, blown, and the sweat pouring down their sides.

On the level road Clare resumed her furious driving and narrowly escaped collision with a bahlee, under the tilt of which sat a fat Hindu merchant who, when he saw the ponies charging at him, doubted the virtue of the auspicious omens which had decided him to undertake his journey that day. The danger Clare had escaped acted as a wholesome counter irritant. She decided to follow the chokadar’s advice, and turning the carriage round she drove slowly back to the office of the dâk agent. The clerk, a smooth-speaking, obsequious Eurasian, assured her that Captain Horsford had indeed started that morning for Delhi.

“Why has he gone there? I must know. I will know,” she murmured fiercely.

Who was most likely to be in Guy’s confidence? She could think of no one but Major Ormerod, and she sent the ponies at a walking pace past the club, only a primitive affair in the fifties, and very different (as indeed is everything else in Simla) from its successor of the present day.

Half a dozen men were lounging in the verandah, sipping brandy pawnee as an appetiser. They doffed their hats when Clare approached, and she smiled sweetly upon them. Her appearance was a pleasant oasis in the monotony of waiting for dinner, and directly she stopped Ormerod and young Anson came towards her.

A few commonplaces, and Clare led the talk to the subject uppermost in her mind. But she did it in an indirect way.

“I hope you had a merry time last night at the Rajah’s,” said she, as she deftly flicked a fly from the ear of one of her little steeds.

“Well, it was exciting rather than merry,” said Ormerod, hesitatingly.

“I didn’t find it either the one or the other, Miss Stanhope,” struck in the Cornet, his honest eyes fixed with undisguised admiration on Clare’s loveliness. “Give me a hop at the Argyll Rooms or Cremorne before all your Indian Nautch girls.”

“I’m afraid you’re a very bad boy,” said Clare, shaking her head.

“No, really I’m not,” protested the lad, taking her quite seriously. “I found the Indian dancing-girls awfully slow, and I left very early, didn’t I, Major Ormerod?”

Clare could see quite well that Cornet Anson knew nothing about the episode of Horsford and the fainting dancing-girl. But it was otherwise with Ormerod.

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Anson. I begin now to think you’re good. But you might be better​—​if for instance you could get me a cup of tea. Perhaps, though, I’m taxing the resources of the club too much,” said Clare sweetly.

“Nonsense. I’ll see that you have it, and precious sharp, too.”

The ingenuous youth darted away, and Clare, turning to Ormerod, said rapidly:

“You and your friends had adventures last night, I’m told, Major. Young Anson, I presume, knows nothing of the later entertainment, or he would not have run down the dancing-girls of India. The Rajah provided an unexpected entertainment, didn’t he?”

Clare’s voice was as dulcet as ever; her eyes alone betrayed anxiety. Ormerod was shrewd enough to detect her disquietude. He knew that of late she and Horsford had been a good deal together, and he was far too loyal to give a comrade away.

“A case of pumping, is it,” he thought. “I wonder how she’s got hold of the story? All right, my dear, you won’t squeeze much out of me.”

“Oh, it was interesting​—​in a way,” said he. “What happened, I fancy, was as unexpected by the Rajah as by anybody else. One of the dancing-girls fainted, but it was nothing serious. Of course she didn’t dance any more.”

“Was that all? You don’t seem to have seen much,” retorted Clare. “Wasn’t there some disturbance​—​some squabble? Didn’t Captain Horsford raise a protest?​—​I don’t know what about.”

“I believe there was a word or two said,” returned Ormerod guardedly. “The girl, it appears, had an English father, and Horsford has advanced views on the question of Eurasians. Nothing came of it. The Rajah has the girl in safe custody. She’s in his zenana at present.”

Sweet and bitter. It was comforting for Clare to know that the girl was practically out of Horsford’s reach. But what had taken Guy to Delhi? His only object, so far as Clare could see, was that he might separate himself from her.

“What’s the girl like?” she asked abruptly.

Ormerod was too much of a man of the world to commit the mistake of praising one woman to another. The fact that in this case the dancing-girl was a child in years made no difference. Moreover, there was mystery in Clare Stanhope’s curiosity, and contrary to the accepted opinion, Ormerod held that with a woman curiosity was never idle. There was always a personal motive mixed with it, and its exercise generally meant some revelation of character. So instead of describing Nara as the most fascinating and graceful little creature he had ever seen, which would have been the truth, Ormerod merely shrugged his shoulders, and said that there was nothing remarkable about her, excepting that the cast of her features belonged more to the West than the East.

“I thought you were a judge of beauty, Major Ormerod,” rejoined Clare irritably.

“I know when loveliness is presented to me,” said the Major, dropping his voice and fixing his eyes on the dainty figure in the carriage.

The compliment was, of course, unmistakable, and under other circumstances Clare would have replied with some bright sally, but now the slight wrinkling of her brows and the momentary tightening of her lips showed that she was not in the mood for exchanges of banter. A diversion was caused at this moment by Anson issuing from the bungalow, followed by a khidmutgar bearing a tray on which was the promised tea. If she meant to question Ormerod further without interruption she would have to lose no time.

“Did you know Captain Horsford had gone to Delhi?” said she.

“Yes. I met him this morning by chance just as he was about to start. He told me he had a letter last night calling him away on important business.”

“Private, or anything to do with his duties?”

“My dear young lady, I didn’t ask. I’m not a woman, you know.”

Ormerod could not resist the retort. Much as he admired Clare Stanhope, he did not like her. He put her down as vain, shallow, and insincere, but he may have been influenced by what his wife said. Fierce is the light in Anglo-Indian Society that beats on good-looking spinsters, widows, grass and otherwise, and what used to be known as “frisky matrons.” Mrs. Ormerod, who prided herself on keeping up what she called a “high tone,” was inclined to be a severe critic of manners and morals, and certain points in Clare Stanhope did not meet with her approval.

Clare could have delivered a crushing reply to Ormerod, for it was well known that the Major was thoroughly hen-pecked, but she did not trouble herself. She had thought for no one but Guy, and the confirmation by Ormerod of what the chokadar had told her did not tend to allay her agitation. She took the tea without a word of thanks to young Anson, greatly to the disappointment of the lad, who had expended his stock of abusive Hindustani in hurrying the native chef.

After leaving half the vapid concoction Clare gathered up the reins and with a nod and a smile​—​not one of her best​—​she started the ponies into a trot and left the Major and the Cornet, their hats in their hands, watching her and admiring the way she “handled the ribbons.”