Part 7 out of 7
"My dear, you don't look well," said Sir Reginald, as, gorgeous in
his glittering uniform, he stood to hand her after his wife into the
She smiled a little. "It is nothing. I am still rather tired, that's
Driving through the gates she looked forth absently and spied the old
beggar crouching in his accustomed place. He almost prostrated himself
at sight of her, but she had no money with her, nor could she have
bestowed any under Lady Bassett's disapproving eye. The carriage
rolled on, leaving his obsequiousness unrequited.
Entering the glittering ballroom all hung with glowing colours was
like entering a garden of splendid flowers. European and Indian
costumes were mingled in shining confusion. A hubbub of music and
laughter seemed to engulf them like a rushing torrent.
"Ah, here you are at last!" It was Bobby Fraser's voice at Muriel's
side. He looked at her with cheery approval. "I say, you know, you're
the queen of this gathering. Pity there isn't a king anywhere about.
Perhaps there is, eh? Well, can you give me a dance? Afraid I haven't
a waltz left. No matter! We can sit out. I know a cosy corner exactly
fitted to my tastes. In fact I've booked it for the evening. And I
want a talk with you badly. Number five then. Good-bye!"
He was gone, leaving Muriel with the curious impression that there
really was something of importance that he wished to say to her.
She wondered what it was. That he was paying her serious attention she
had never for a moment believed, nor had she given him the faintest
encouragement to do so. She knew that Lady Bassett thought otherwise,
but she had never rated her opinion very highly; and she had never
read anything but the most casual friendliness in Bobby's attitude.
Still it disturbed her somewhat, that hint of intimacy that his words
portended, and she awaited the dance he had solicited in a state of
mind very nearly allied to apprehension. Lady Bassett's suggestions
had done for her what no self-consciousness would ever have
accomplished unaided. They had implanted within her a deep-rooted
misgiving before which all ease of manner fled.
When Bobby Fraser joined her, she was so plainly nervous that he could
not fail to remark it. He led her to a quiet corner above the garden
that was sheltered from the throng by flowering tamarisks.
"I say," he said, "I hope you are not letting yourself get scared
by these infernal budmashes. The reports have all been immensely
exaggerated as usual."
"I am not at all scared," she told him. "But wasn't there an
Englishman murdered the other day?"
"Oh, yes," he admitted, "but miles and miles away, right the other
side of the State. There was nothing in that to alarm any one here.
It might have happened anywhere. People are such fools," he threw in
vindictively. "Begin to look askance at the native population, and
of course they are on the _qui vive_ instantly. It is only to be
expected. It was downright madness to send a Resident here. They
resent it, you know. But the Rajah's influence is enormous. Nothing
could happen here."
"I wonder," said Muriel.
She had scarcely given the matter a thought before, but it was a
relief to find some impersonal topic for discussion.
Bobby, however, had no intention of pursuing it further. "Oh, it's
self-evident," he said. "They are loyal to the Rajah, and the Rajah
is well-known to be loyal to the Crown. It's only these duffers of
administrators that make the mischief." He broke into an abrupt laugh,
and changed the subject. "Let us talk of something less exasperating.
How did you get on while you were away? You must have found the
journey across the Plains pretty ghastly."
She told him a little about it, incidentally mentioning Will Musgrave.
"Oh, I know him," he broke in. "An engineer, isn't he? Awfully clever
chap. I met him years ago at Sharapura the time Nick Ratcliffe won the
Great Mogul's Cup. I told you that story, didn't I?"
Yes, he had done so. She informed him of the fact with an immovable
face. It might have been a subject of total indifference to her.
"You know Nick Ratcliffe, don't you?" he pursued, evidently following
his own train of thought.
She flushed at the direct question. She had not expected it. "It is
a very long time since I last saw him," she said, with a deliberate
effort to banish all interest from her voice.
He was not looking at her. He could not have been aware of the flush.
Yet he elected to push the matter further.
"A queer fish," he said. "A very queer fish. He has lost his left arm,
poor beggar. Did you know?"
Yes, she knew; but she could hardly summon the strength to tell him
so. Her fan concealed her quivering lips, but the hand that held it
But he, still casual, continued his desultory harangue. "Always
reminds one of a jack-in-the-box--that fellow. Has a knack of popping
up when you least expect him. You never know what he will do next. You
can only judge him by the things he doesn't do. For instance, there's
been a rumour floating about lately that he has just gone into a
Tibetan monastery. Heaven knows who started it and why. But it is
absolutely untrue. It is the sort of thing that couldn't be true of a
man of his temperament. Don't you agree with me? Or perhaps you didn't
know him very well, and don't feel qualified to judge."
At this point he pulled out his programme and studied it frowningly.
He was plainly not paying much attention to her reply. He seemed to be
contemplating something that worried him.
It made it all the easier for her to answer. "No," she said slowly. "I
didn't know him very well. But--that rumour was told to me as absolute
fact. I--of course--I believed it."
She knew that her face was burning as she ended. She could feel the
blood surging through every vein.
"If you want to know what I think," said Bobby Fraser deliberately,
"it is that that rumour was a malicious invention of some one's."
"Oh, do you?" she said. "But--but why?"
He turned and looked at her. His usually merry face was stern.
"Because," he said, "it served some one's end to make some one else
believe that Nick had dropped out for good."
Her eyes fell under his direct look. "I don't understand," she
"Nor do I," he rejoined, "for certain. I can only surmise. It doesn't
do to believe things too readily. One gets let in that way." He rose
and offered her his arm. "Come outside for a little. This place is too
warm for comfort."
She went with him willingly, thankful to turn her face to the night. A
dozen questions hovered on her lips, but she could not ask him one
of them. She could only walk beside him and profess to listen to
the stream of anecdotes which he began to pour forth for her
She did not actually hear one of them. They came to her all jumbled
and confused through such a torrent of gladness as surely she had
never known before. For the bird in her heart had lifted its head
again, and was singing its rapture to the stars.
A WOMAN'S OFFERING
Looking back upon the hours that followed that talk with Bobby behind
the tamarisks, Muriel could never recall in detail how they passed.
She moved in a whirl, all her pulses racing, all her senses on the
alert. None of her partners had ever seen her gay before, but she was
gay that night with a spontaneous and wonderful gaiety that came from
the very heart of her. It was not a gaiety that manifested itself in
words, but it was none the less apparent to those about her. For her
eyes shone as though they looked into a radiant future, and she danced
as one inspired. She was like a statue waked to splendid life.
Swiftly the hours flew by. She scarcely noted their passage, any more
than she noted the careless talk and laughter that hummed around her.
She moved in an atmosphere of her own to a melody that none other
The ball was wearing to a close when at length Lady Bassett summoned
her to return. Lady Bassett was wearing her most gracious smile.
"You have been much admired to-night, dear child," she murmured to the
girl, as they passed into the cloakroom.
Muriel's eyes looked disdainful for an instant, but they could not
remain so. As swiftly the happiness flashed back into them.
"I have enjoyed myself," she said simply.
She threw a gauzy scarf about her neck, and turned to go. She did not
want her evening spoilt by criticisms however honeyed.
The great marble entrance was crowded with departing guests. She edged
her way to one of the pillars at the head of the long flight of steps,
watching party after party descend to the waiting carriages. The
dancing had not yet ceased, and strains of waltz-music came to her
where she stood, fitful, alluring, plaintive. They were playing "The
She listened to it as one in a dream, and while she listened the tears
gathered in her eyes. How was it she had been so slow to understand?
Would she ever make it up to him? She wondered how long he meant to
keep her in suspense. It was not like him to linger thus if he had
indeed received her message. She hoped he would come soon. The waiting
was hard to bear.
She called to mind once more the last words he had spoken to her.
He had said that he would not swoop a second time, but she could
not imagine him doing anything else. He would be sudden, he would be
disconcerting, he would be overwhelming. He would come on winged feet
in answer to her call, but he would give her no quarter. He would
neither ask nor demand. He would simply take.
She caught her breath and hastened to divert her thought,
realising that she was on the verge of the old torturing process of
self-intimidation which had so often before unnerved her.
The throng about her had lessened considerably. Glancing downwards,
she discerned at the foot of the steps the old beggar who so
persistently haunted the Residency gates, incurring thereby Lady
Bassett's alarmed displeasure. He was crouching well to one side in
the familiar attitude of supplication. There were dozens like him in
Ghawalkhand, but she knew him by the peculiar, gibbering movement of
the wiry beard that protruded from his chuddah. He was repulsive, but
in a fashion fascinating. He made her think of a wizened old monkey
who had wandered from his kind.
She had come to regard him almost in the light of a protege, and,
remembering suddenly that he had besought an alms of her in vain some
hours before, she turned impulsively to a man she knew who had just
"Colonel Cathcart, will you lend me a rupee?"
He dived in his pocket and brought out a handful of money. She found
the coin she wanted, thanked him with a smile, and began to descend
The old native was not looking at her. Something else seemed to have
caught his attention. For the moment he had ceased to cringe and
She heard Sir Reginald's voice above her. He was standing in talk with
the Rajah while he waited for his wife.
And then--she was half-way down the steps when it happened--a sudden
loud cry rang fiercely up to her, arresting her where she stood--a
man's voice inarticulate at first, bursting from mere sound into
furious headlong denunciation.
"You infernal hound!" it cried. "You damned assassin!"
At the same instant the old beggar at the foot of the palace steps
sprang panther-like from his crouching position to hurl himself bodily
at something that skulked in the shadows beyond him.
The marvellous agility of the action, the unerring precision with
which he pounced upon his prey, above all, the voice that had yelled
in execration, sent such a stab of amazed recognition through Muriel
that she stood for a second as one petrified.
But the next instant all her senses were pricked into alertness by a
revolver-shot. Another came, and yet another. They were fighting below
like tigers--two men in native dress, swaying, straining, struggling,
not three yards from where she stood.
She never fully remembered afterwards how she came to realise that
Nick--Nick himself--was there before her in the flesh, fighting like
a demon, fighting as she had seen him fight once long ago when every
nerve in her body had been strung to agonised repulsion.
She felt no repulsion now--no shrinking of any sort, only a wild
anguish of fear for his sake that drove her like a mad creature down
the intervening steps, that sent her flashing between him and his
adversary, that inspired her to wrench away the smoking revolver from
the murderous hand that gripped it.
She went through those awful moments as a woman possessed, blindly
obeying the compelling force, goaded by sheer, primaeval instinct to
protect her own. It was but a conflict of seconds, but while it lasted
she was untrammelled by any doubts or hesitations. She was sublimely
sure of herself. She was superbly unafraid.
When it was over, when men crowded round and dragged her enemy back,
when the pressing need was past, her courage fell from her like a
mantle. She sank down upon the steps, a trembling, hysterical woman,
and began to cry.
Some one bent over her, some one whispered soothing words, some one
drew the revolver out of her weak grasp. Looking up, she saw the old
native beggar upon whom she had thought to bestow her charity.
"Oh, Nick!" she gasped. "Nick!" And there stopped in sudden misgiving.
Was this grotesque figure indeed Nick? Could it be--this man who had
sat at the Residency gates for weeks, this man to whom she had so
often tossed an alms?
Her brain had begun to reel, but she clung to the central idea, as one
in deep waters clinging to a spar.
"Speak to me!" she entreated. "Only speak to me!"
But before he could answer, Bobby Fraser pushed suddenly forward,
bent over, lifted her. "You are not hurt, Miss Roscoe?" he questioned
anxiously, deep concern on his kindly face. "The damned swine didn't
touch you? There! Come back into the palace. You're the bravest girl I
He began to help her up the steps, but though she was spent and near
to fainting she resisted him.
"That man--" she faltered. "Don't--don't let him go!"
"Certainly not," said Bobby promptly. "Here, you old scarecrow, come
and lend a hand!"
But the old scarecrow apparently had other plans for himself, for he
had already vanished from the scene as swiftly and noiselessly as a
shadow from a sheet.
"He is gone!" wailed Muriel. "He is gone! Oh, why did you let him go?"
"He'll turn up again," said Bobby consolingly. "That sort of chap
always does. I say, how ghastly you look! Take my arm! You are not
going to faint, are you? Ah, here is Colonel Cathcart! Miss Roscoe
isn't hurt, sir--only upset. Can't we get her back to the palace?"
They bore her back between them, and left her to be tended by the
women. She was not unconscious, but the shock had utterly unstrung
her. She lay with closed eyes, listening vaguely to the buzz of
excited comment about her, and wondering, wondering with an aching
heart, why he had gone.
No one seemed to know exactly what had taken place, and she was too
exhausted to tell. Possibly she would hot have told in any case. It
was known only that an attempt had been made upon the life of the
British Resident, Sir Reginald Bassett, and it was surmised that
Muriel had realised the murderous intention in time to frustrate it.
Certainly a native had tried to help her, but since the native had
disappeared, his share in the conflict was not regarded as very great.
As a matter of fact, the light had been too uncertain and the struggle
too confused for even the eye-witnesses to know with any certainty
what had taken place. Theories and speculations were many and various,
but not one of them went near to the truth.
"Dear Muriel will tell us presently just how it happened," Lady
Bassett said in her soft voice.
But Muriel was as one who heard not. She would not even open her eyes
till Sir Reginald came to her, pillowed her head against him, kissed
her white face, and called her his brave little girl.
That moved her at last, awaking in her the old piteous hunger,
never wholly stifled, for her father. She turned and clung to him
convulsively with an inarticulate murmuring that ended in passionate
THE LAST SKIRMISH
Why had he gone? That was the question that vexed Muriel's soul
through the long hours that followed her return to the Residency.
Lying sleepless on her bed, she racked her weary brain for an answer
to the riddle, but found none. Her brief doubt regarding him had long
since fled. She knew with absolute certainty that it was Nick and
no other who had yelled those furious words, who had made that
panther-spring, who had leaned over her and withdrawn the revolver
from her hold, telling her softly not to cry. But why had he gone just
then when she needed him most?
Surely by now her message had reached him! Surely he knew that she
wanted him, that she had lowered what he had termed her miserable
little rag of pride to tell him so! Then why was he tormenting her
thus--playing with her as a cat might play with a mouse? Was he taking
his revenge for all the bitter scorn she had flung at him in the past?
Did he think to wring from her some more definite appeal? Ah, that was
it! Like a searchlight flashing inwards, she remembered her promise
to him uttered long ago against her will--his answering oath. And she
knew that he meant to hold her to that promise--that he would exact
the very uttermost sacrifice that it entailed; and then perchance--she
shivered at the unendurable thought--he would laugh his baffling,
enigmatical laugh, and go his way.
But this was unbearable, impossible. She would sooner die than suffer
it. She would sooner--yes, she would almost sooner--break her promise.
And then, to save her from distraction, the other side of the picture
presented itself, that reverse side which he had once tauntingly
advised her to study. If he truly loved her, he would not treat her
thus. It would not gratify him to see her in the dust. If he still
cared, as Daisy had assured her he did, it would not be his pleasure
to make her suffer. But then again--oh, torturing question!--had that
been so, would he have gone at that critical moment, would he have
left her, when a look, a touch, would have sufficed to establish
Drearily the hours dragged away. The heat was great, and just before
daybreak a thunder-storm rolled up, but spent itself without a drop of
rain. It put the finishing touches to Muriel's restlessness. She rose
and dressed, to sit by her window with her torturing thoughts for
company, and awaited the day.
With the passing of the storm a slight draught that was like a shudder
moved the scorched leaves of the acacias in the compound, quivered a
little, and ceased. Then came the dawn, revealing mass upon mass of
piled cloud hanging low over the earth. The breaking of the monsoon
was drawing very near. There could be no lifting of the atmosphere, no
relief, until it came.
She leaned her aching head against the window-frame in a maze of
weariness unutterable. Her heart was too heavy for prayer.
Minutes passed. The daylight grew and swiftly overspread all things.
The leaden silence began to be pierced here and there by the barking
of a dog, the crowing of a cock, the scolding of a parrot. Somewhere,
either in the compound or close to it, some one began to whistle--a
soft, tentative whistle, like a young blackbird trying its notes.
Muriel remained motionless, scarcely heeding while it wove itself into
the background of her thoughts. She was in fact hardly aware of it,
till suddenly, with a great thrill of astonishment that shook her
from head to foot, a wild suspicion seized her, and she started up,
listening intently. The fitful notes were resolving into a melody--a
waltz she knew, alluring, enchanting, compelling--the waltz that had
filled in the dreadful silences on that night long ago when she had
fought so desperately hard for her freedom and had prevailed at last.
But stay! Had she prevailed? Had she not rather been a captive in
spite of it all ever since?
On and on went the haunting waltz-refrain, now near, now far, now
summoning, now eluding. She stood gripping the curtain till she
could bear it no longer, and then with a great sob she mustered her
resolution; she stepped out upon the verandah, and passed down between
shrivelled trailing roses to the garden below.
The tune ceased quite suddenly, and she found herself moving through
a silence that could be felt. But she would not turn back then. She
would not let herself be discouraged. She had been frightened so often
when there had been no need for fear.
On she pressed to the end of the path till she stood by the high
fence that bordered the road. She could see no one. The garden lay
absolutely deserted. She paused, hesitating, bewildered.
At the same instant from the other side of the fence, almost as if
rising from the ground at her feet, a careless voice began to hum--a
cracked, tuneless, unmistakable voice, that sent the blood to her
heart with a force that nearly suffocated her.
"Nick!" she said, almost in a whisper.
He did not hear her evidently. His humming continued with unabated
"Nick!" she said again.
Still no result. There was nothing in the least dramatic in the
situation. It might almost have been described as ludicrous, but the
white-faced woman in the compound did not find it so.
She waited till he had come to a suitable stopping place, and then,
before he could renew the melody, she rapped with nervous force upon
There fell a most unexpected silence.
She broke it with words imploring, almost agonised. "Nick! Nick! Come
and speak to me--for Heaven's sake!"
His flippant voice greeted her at once in a tone of cheerful inquiry.
"That you, Muriel?"
Her agitation began to subside of itself. Nothing could have been more
casual than his question. "Yes," she said in reply. "Why are you out
there? Why don't you come in?"
"My dear girl,--at this hour!" There was shocked reproof in the
ejaculation. Nick was evidently scandalised at the suggestion.
Muriel lost her patience forthwith. Was it for this that she had spent
all those miserable hours of fruitless heart-searching? His trifling
was worse than ridiculous. It was insufferable.
"You are to come in at once," she said, in a tone of authority.
"What for?" said Nick.
"Because--because--" She hesitated, and stopped, her face burning.
"Because--" said Nick encouragingly.
"Oh, don't be absurd!" she exclaimed in desperation. "How can I
possibly talk to you there?"
"It depends upon what you want to say," said Nick. "If it is something
particularly private--" He paused.
"Well?" she said.
"You can always come to me, you know," he pointed out. "But I
shouldn't do that, if I were you. It would be neither dignified nor
proper. And a girl in your position, dearest Muriel, cannot be too
discreet. It is the greatest mistake in the world to act upon impulse.
Let me entreat you to do nothing headlong. Take another year or so to
think things over. There are so many nice men to choose from, and this
absurd infatuation of yours cannot possibly last."
"Don't, Nick!" Muriel's voice held a curious mixture of mirth and
sadness. "It--it isn't a bit funny to talk like that. It isn't even
"Ye gods!" said Nick. "Who wants to be kind?"
"Not you, evidently," she told him with a hint of bitterness. "You
only aim at being intelligent."
"Well, you'll admit I hit the mark sometimes," he rejoined. "I'm like
a rat, eh? Clever but loathsome."
She uttered a quivering laugh. "No, you are much more like an eagle,
waiting to strike. Why don't you, I wonder, and--and take what you
Nick's answering laugh had a mocking note in it. "Oh, I can play
Animal Grab as well as anybody--better than most," he said modestly.
"But I don't chance to regard this as a suitable occasion for
displaying my skill. Uninteresting for you, of course, but then you
are fond of running away when there is no one after you. It's been
your favourite pastime for almost as long as I have known you."
The sudden silence with which this airy remark was received had in
it something tragic. Muriel had sunk down on a garden-bench close at
hand, lacking the strength to go away. It was exactly what she had
expected. He meant to take his revenge in his own peculiar fashion.
She had laid herself open to this, and mercilessly, unerringly, he had
availed himself of the opportunity to wound. She might have known! She
might have known! Had he not done it again and again? Oh, she had been
a fool--a fool--to call him back!
Through the wild hurry of her thoughts his voice pierced once more. It
had an odd inflection that was curiously like a note of concern.
"I say, Muriel, are you crying?"
"Crying!" She pulled herself together hastily. "No! Why should I?"
"I can tell you why you shouldn't," he answered whimsically. "No one
ever ought to cry before breakfast. It's shocking for the appetite
and may ruin the complexion for the rest of the day. Besides,--you've
nothing to cry for."
"Oh, don't be absurd!" she flung back again almost fiercely. "I'm not
"Quite sure?" said Nick.
"Absolutely certain," she declared.
"All right then," he rejoined. "That being so, you had better dry your
eyes very carefully, for I am coming to see for myself."
She awaited him still sitting on the bench and striving vainly to
quiet her thumping heart. She heard him come lightly up behind her,
but she did not turn her head though she had no tears to conceal. She
was possessed by an insane desire to spring up and flee. It took all
her resolution to remain where she was.
And so Nick drew near unwelcomed--a lithe, alert figure in European
attire, bare-headed, eager-faced. He was smiling to himself as he
came, but when he reached her the smile was gone.
He bent and looked into her white, downcast face; then laid his hand
upon her shoulder.
"But Muriel--" he said.
And that was all. Yet Muriel suddenly hid her face and wept.
He did not attempt to restrain her. Perhaps he realised that tears
such as those must have their way. But the touch of his hand was in
some fashion soothing. It stilled the tempest within her, comforting
She reached up at last, and drew it down between her own, holding it
"I'm such a fool, Nick," she whispered shakily. "You--you must try to
bear with me."
She felt his fingers close and gradually tighten upon her own until
their grip was actual pain.
"Haven't I borne with you long enough?" he said. "Can't you come to
She shook her head slightly. Her trembling had not wholly ceased. She
was not--even yet she was not--wholly sure of him.
"Afraid?" he questioned.
And she answered him meekly, with bowed head. "Yes, Nick; afraid."
"Don't you think you might look me in the face if you tried very
hard?" he suggested.
"No, Nick." She almost shrank at the bare thought.
"Oh, but you haven't tried," he said.
His voice sounded very close. She knew he was bending down. She even
fancied she could feel his breath upon her neck.
Her head sank a little lower. "Don't!" she whispered, with a sob.
"What are you afraid of?" he said. "You weren't afraid to send me a
message. You weren't afraid to save my life last night. What is it
She could not tell him. Only her panic was very real. It shook her
from head to foot. A fierce struggle was going on within her,--the
last bitter conflict between her love and her fear. It tore her in all
directions. She felt as if it would drive her mad. But through it all
she still clung desperately to the bony hand that grasped her own. It
seemed to sustain her, to hold her up, through all her chaos of doubt,
of irresolution, of miserable, overmastering dread.
"What is it frightens you?" he said again. "Why won't you look at me?
There is nothing whatever to make you afraid!"
He spoke softly, as though he were addressing a scared child. But
still she was afraid, afraid of the very impulse that urged her,
horribly afraid of meeting the darting scrutiny of his eyes.
He waited for a little in silence; then suddenly with a sharp sigh
he straightened himself. "You don't know your own mind yet," he said.
"And I can't help you to know it. I had better go."
He would have withdrawn his hand with the words, but she held it fast.
"No, Nick, no! It isn't that," she told him tremulously. "I know what
I want--perfectly well. But--but--I can't put it into words. I can't!
"Is that it?" said Nick. His manner changed completely. He bent down
again. She heard the old note of banter in his voice, but mingled with
it was a tenderness so utter that she scarcely recognised it. "Then,
my dear girl, in Heaven's name, don't try! Words were not made for
such an occasion as this. They are clumsy tools at the best of times.
You can make me understand without words. I'm horribly intelligent, as
you remarked just now."
Her heart leapt to the rapid assurance. Was it so difficult to tell
him after all? Surely she could find a way!
The tumult of her emotions swelled to sudden uproar, thunderous,
all-possessing, overwhelming, so that she gasped and gasped again for
breath. And then all in a moment she knew that the conflict was over.
She was as a diver, hurling with headlong velocity from dizzy height
into deep waters, and she rejoiced--she exulted--in that mad rush into
With a quivering laugh she moved. She loosened her convulsive clasp
upon his hand, turned it upwards, and stooping low, she pressed her
lips closely, passionately, lingeringly, upon his open palm. She had
found a way.
He started sharply at her action; he almost winced. Then, "Muriel!" he
exclaimed in a voice that broke, and threw himself on his knees beside
her, holding her fast in a silence so sudden and so tense that she
also was awed into a great stillness.
Yet, after a little, though his face was pressed against her so
that she could not see it or even vaguely guess his mood, she found
strength to speak.
"I can tell you what I want now, Nick," she whispered. "Shall I tell
He did not answer, did not so much as breathe. But yet she knew no
fear or hesitancy. Her eyes were opened, and her tongue loosed. Words
came easily to her now, more easily than they had ever come before.
"I want to be married--soon, very soon," she told him softly. "And
then I want you to take me away with you into Nepal, as you planned
ever so long ago. And let us be alone together in the mountains--quite
alone as we were before. Will you, Nick? Will you?"
But again he had no answer for her. He did not seem able to reply.
His head still lay against her shoulder. His arm was still tense about
her. She fell silent, waiting for him.
At last he drew a deep breath that seemed to burst upwards from the
very heart of him, and lifted his face with a jerk.
"My God!" he said. "Is it true?"
His voice was oddly uneven; he seemed to produce it with difficulty.
But having broken the spell that bound him, he managed after a moment
"Are you quite sure you want to marry me,--quite sure that to-morrow
you won't be scared out of your wits at the bare idea? Have you left
off being afraid of me? Do you mean me really to take you at your
"If you will, Nick," she answered humbly.
"If I will!" he echoed, with sudden passion. "I warn you, Muriel, you
are putting yourself irrevocably in my power, and you will never break
away again. You may come to loathe me with your whole soul, but I
shall never let you go. Have you realised that? If I take you now, I
take you for all time."
He spoke almost with violence, and, having spoken, drew back from her
abruptly, as though he could not wholly trust himself.
But nothing could dismay her now. She had fought her last battle, had
made the final surrender. Her fear was dead. She stretched out her
hands to him with unfaltering confidence.
"Take me then, Nick," she said.
He took the extended hands with quick decision, first one and then the
other, and laid them on his shoulders.
"Now look at me," he said.
She hesitated, though not as one afraid.
"Look at me, Muriel!" he insisted.
Then, as she kept her eyes downcast, he put his hand under her chin
and compelled her.
She yielded with a little quivering murmur of protest, and so for the
first time in her life she deliberately met his look, encountering
eyes so wide and so piercingly blue that she had a moment's bewildered
feeling of uncertainty, as though she had looked into the eyes of a
stranger. Then the colourless lashes descended again and veiled them
as of old. He blinked with his usual disconcerting rapidity and set
"Yes," he said. "You've left off cheating. And if you really care to
marry me--what's left of me--it's a precious poor bargain, but--I am
His voice cracked a little. She fancied he was going to laugh. And
then, while she was still wondering, his arm went round her again and
drew her closely to him. She was conscious of a sudden, leaping flame
behind the pale lashes, felt his hold tighten while the wrinkled face
drew near,--and with a sob she clasped her arms about his neck and
turned her lips to his.
OMNIA VINCIT AMOR
"Funny, wasn't it?" said Nick, jingling a small handful of coins in
front of his fiancee. "Quite a harvest in its way! I had no idea you
were so charitable."
She caught his wrist. "You have no right to a single one of them. You
obtained them under false pretences. What in the world induced you to
do such a thing?"
Nick's hand closed firmly upon the spoil. "It was a sheer, heaven-sent
inspiration," he declared. "Care to know how it came to me? It
happened one night in the Indian Ocean when I was on the way out with
Daisy. I was lying on deck under the stars, thinking of you, and the
whole idea came to me ready-made. I didn't attempt to shape it; it
shaped itself. I was hungering for the sight of you, and I knew you
would never find me out. You never would have, either, if I hadn't
had Daisy's message. I was just going to quit my lonely vigil when
it reached me. But that altered my plans, and I decided with Fraser's
assistance to face it out. You knew he was in the secret, of course?
He is in every secret, that chap. As soon as I heard of Lady Bassett's
ingenious little fiction about the Buddhist monastery, I was ready
to take the wan path. But you were invisible, you know. I had to wait
till you emerged. Then came last night's episode, and I had to take to
my heels. I couldn't face a public exposure, and it wouldn't have
been particularly pleasant for you, either. So now you have the whole
touching story, and I think you needn't grudge me a rupee and a few
annas as a reward for my devotion."
Muriel laughed rather tremulously. "I would have given you something
better worth having--if I had known."
"Never too late," said Nick philosophically. "You can begin at once
if you like. Let me have your hand. Hold it steady, my dear girl.
Remember my limitations. You won't refuse any longer to wear my ring?"
"I will wear it gladly," she told him, as he fitted it back upon her
finger. "I shall never part with it again."
Her eyes were full of tears, but she would not let them fall, and Nick
was too intent upon what he was doing to notice.
"That imp Olga nearly broke her poor little heart when she gave it
back to me," he said. "I think I shall have to send her a cable. What
shall I say? OMNIA VINCIT AMOR? She is old enough to know what that
means. And if I add, 'From Muriel and Nick,' she will understand. A
pity she can't come to our wedding! I'd sooner have seen her jolly
little phiz than all Lady Bassett's wreathed smiles. She is sure to
smile, you know. She always does when she sees me." He broke off with
a hideous grimace.
"Don't, Nick!" Muriel's voice trembled a little. "Why does she hate
"Can't imagine," grinned Nick. "It's a way some people have. Perhaps
she will end by falling in love with me. Who knows?"
"Don't be horrid, Nick! Why won't you tell me?" Muriel laid a pleading
hand upon his.
He caught it to his lips. "I can't tell you, darling, seeing she is
a woman. An unpleasant adventure befell her once for which I was
partially responsible. And she has hated me with most unseemly
vehemence ever since."
A light began to break upon Muriel. "Was it something that happened on
board ship?" she hazarded.
He gave her a sharp look. "Who told you that?"
She flushed a little. "Bobby Fraser. He didn't mention her name, of
course. We--we were talking about you once."
Nick laughed aloud. "Only once?"
Her colour deepened. "You are positively ridiculous. Still, I wish
it hadn't been Lady Bassett, Nick. I don't like to feel she hates you
"It doesn't hurt me in the least," Nick declared. "Her poison-fang is
extracted so far as I am concerned. She could only poison me through
you. I always knew I had her to thank for what happened at Simla."
"Oh, but not her alone," Muriel said quickly. "You mustn't blame her
only for that. I was prejudiced against you by--other things."
"I know all about it," said Nick. He was holding her hand in his,
moving it hither and thither to catch the gleam of the rubies upon it.
"You were a poor little scared rabbit fleeing from a hideous monster
of destruction. You began to run that last night at Wara when I made
you drink that filthy draught, and you have hardly stopped yet. I
don't suppose it ever occurred to you that I would rather have died
in torment than have done it." He broke into a sudden laugh. "But you
needn't be afraid that I shall ever do it again. I can't do much
to any one with only one arm, can I? You witnessed my futility last
night. There's a grain of comfort in that, eh, darling?"
"Nick, don't, don't!" She turned to him impulsively and laid her cheek
against his shoulder. "You--you don't know how you hurt me!"
"My dear girl, what's the matter?" said Nick. "I was only trying to
draw your attention to my good points--such as they are."
"Don't!" she said again, in a choked voice. "It's more than I can
bear. You would never have lost your arm but for me."
"Oh, rats!" said Nick, holding her closely. "Whoever told you that--"
"It was Dr. Jim."
"Well, Jim's an ass, and I shall tell him so. There, don't fret,
darling. It isn't worth it. I could wish it hadn't happened for your
sake, but I don't care a rap for my own."
"You are not to care for mine," she whispered. "I shall only love you
the better for it."
"Then it will be a blessing to me after all," said Nick cheerily.
"Do you know what we are going to do as soon as we are married,
sweetheart? We are going to climb the highest mountain in the world,
to see the sun rise, and to thank God."
She turned her face upwards with a quivering smile. "Let us be married
soon then, Nick."
"At once," said Nick promptly. "Come along and tell Sir Reginald.
He must be out of bed by this time. If he isn't I think the occasion
almost justifies us in knocking him up."
They found Sir Reginald already upon the verandah, drinking his early
coffee, and to Muriel's dismay he was not alone. It was later than she
had imagined, and Colonel Cathcart and Bobby Fraser had both dropped
in for a gossip, and were seated with him at the table smoking.
As she and Nick approached, Lady Bassett herself emerged through an
open window behind the three men.
Nick began to chuckle. This was the sort of situation that appealed
to his sense of humour. He began to chant an old-world ditty under his
breath with appropriate words.
"Oh, dear, what will the Bassett say?"
Muriel uttered a short, hysterical laugh, and instantly they were
"Now what are you going to do?" said Nick.
"I don't know," she responded hurriedly. "Run away, I think."
"Not you," said Nick, grasping her hand very firmly. "You are going to
face the music with me."
She gave in, half laughing, half protesting, and he led her up the
steps with considerable pomp.
She need not have been so painfully embarrassed, for every one, with
the exception of Bobby Fraser, looked at Nick, and Nick only, in
speechless amazement, as though he had just returned from the dead.
Nick was sublimely equal to the occasion. He came to a standstill by
the table, executed an elaborate bow in Lady Bassett's direction, then
turned briskly to Sir Reginald.
"After two years' deliberation," he announced, "we have decided to
settle our differences by getting married, and we are hoping, sir,
that you will bestow your blessing upon our union."
"My good fellow!" gasped Sir Reginald. "This is a very great
"Yes, I know," said Nick. "It was to me, too. But--though fully
sensible of my unworthiness--I shall do my best to deserve the very
high honour that has been done me. And I hope we may count upon your
approval and support."
Again his bow included Lady Bassett. There was a mocking glint in the
glance he threw her.
She came forward as though in answer to a challenge, her face
unwontedly flushed. "This is indeed unexpected!" she declared,
extending her hand. "How do you do, Captain Ratcliffe? You will
understand our surprise when I tell you that some one was saying only
the other day that you had entered a Tibetan monastery."
"Some one must have been telling a lie, dear Lady Bassett," said Nick.
"I am sorry if it caused you any uneasiness on my account. I should
certainly never have taken such a serious step without letting you
know. I trust that my projected marriage will have a less disturbing
Lady Bassett smiled her crooked smile, and raised one eyebrow. "Oh, I
shall not be anxious on your account," she assured him playfully.
"Quite right, Lady Bassett," broke in Colonel Cathcart. "He'll hold
his own, wherever he is. I always said so when he was in the Service."
"And a little over probably," put in Bobby Fraser. "Miss Roscoe, if
you ever find him hard to manage, you send for me."
Muriel, from the shelter of Sir Reginald's arm, looked across at the
speaker with a smile of unwonted confidence.
"Thank you all the same," she responded, "but I don't expect any
difficulties in that respect."
"She is far more likely to fight my battles for me," remarked Nick
complacently, "seeing my own fighting days are over."
"And what have you been doing with yourself all this time?" demanded
Sir Reginald suddenly. "You have been singularly unobtrusive. What
have you been doing?"
Nick's answering grin was one of sheer exuberance of spirit. "I've
just been marking time, sir, that's all," he replied enigmatically.
"A monotonous business for every one concerned, but it seems to have
served its purpose."
Sir Reginald grunted a little, and looked uncomfortably at his wife's
twisted smile. "And now you want to get married, do you?" he said.
"At once," said Nick.
"Well, well," said Sir Reginald, beginning to smile himself. "All's
well that ends well, and Muriel is old enough to please herself. Mind
you are good to her, that's all. And I wish you both every happiness."
"So do I," said Bobby Fraser heartily. "And look here, you
jack-in-the-box, if you're wanting a best man to push you through,
I'll undertake the job. It's a capacity in which I have often made
"Right O!" laughed Nick. "But you won't find I want much pushing, old
chap. I'm on my way to the top crag of Everest already."
"Ah, Captain Ratcliffe, be careful!" murmured Lady Bassett. "Do not
soar too high!"
He bowed to her a third time, still with his baffling smile. "Thanks,
dear Lady Bassett!" he said lightly. "But you need have no misgivings.
Forewarned is forearmed, they say. And on this occasion, at least, I
am wise--in time."
"And dear Muriel too, I wonder?" smiled Lady Bassett.
"And dear Muriel too," smiled Nick.
THE EAGLE SOARS
Night and a running stream--a soft gurgle of sound that was like a
lullaby. Within the tent the quiet breathing of a man asleep; standing
in the entrance--a woman.
There was a faint quiver in the air as of something coming from afar,
a hushed expectancy of something great. A chill breath came off the
snows, hovering secretly above the ice-cold water. The stars glittered
like loose-hung jewels upon a sable robe.
Ah, that flash as of a sword across the sky! A meteor had fallen among
the mountains. It was almost like a signal in the heavens--herald of
the coming wonder of the dawn.
Softly the watcher turned inwards, and at once a gay, cracked voice
spoke out of the darkness.
"Hullo, darling! Up and watching already! Ye gods! What a sky! Why
didn't you wake me sooner? Have I time for a plunge?"
"Perhaps--if you will let me help you dress after it. Certainly not
otherwise." The deep voice had in it a tremulous note that was like a
caress. The speaker was looking into the shadows. The glory without no
longer held her.
"All right then, you shall--just for a treat. Perhaps you would like
to shave me as well?"
"Shave you!" There was scorn this time in the answering voice. "You
couldn't grow a single hair if you tried!"
"True, O Queen! I couldn't. And the few I was born with are invisible.
Hence my failure to distinguish myself in the Army. It is to be hoped
the deficiency will not blight my Parliamentary career also--always
supposing I get there."
"Ah, but you did distinguish yourself. I heard--once"--the words came
with slight hesitation--"that you ought to have had the V.C. after the
Wara expedition,--only you refused it."
"I wonder what gas-bag let that out," commented Nick. "You shouldn't
believe all you hear, you know. Now, darling, I'm ready for the
plunge, and I must look sharp about it too. Do you mind rummaging out
"But, Nick, was it true?"
"What? The V.C. episode? Oh, I suppose so, more or less. I didn't
want to be decorated for running away, you see. It didn't seem exactly
suitable. Besides, I didn't do it for that."
"Nick, do you know you make me feel more contemptible every day?"
There was an unmistakable quiver of distress in the words.
"My own girl, don't be a goose!" came the light response. "You don't
honestly suppose I could ever regret anything now, do you? Why, it's a
He stepped from the tent, clad loosely in a bath sheet, and bestowed a
kiss upon his wife's downcast face in passing. "Look here, sweetheart,
if you cry while I'm in the water, I'll beat you directly I come out.
That's a promise, not a threat. And by the way, I've got something
good to tell you presently; so keep your heart up."
He laughed at her and went his way, humming tunelessly after his
own peculiarly volatile fashion. She listened to his singing, as he
splashed in the stream below, as though it were the sweetest music on
earth; and she knew that he had spoken the truth. Whatever sacrifices
he had made in the past, regret was a thing impossible to him now.
By the time he joined her again, she had driven away her own. The sky
was changing mysteriously. The purple depth was lightening, the stars
"We must hurry," said Nick. "The gods won't wait for us."
But they were ready first after all, and the morning found them high
up the mountainside with their faces to the east.
Sudden and splendid, the sun flashed up over the edge of the world,
and the snow of the mountain crests shone in roselit glory for a few
magic seconds, then shimmered to gold--glittering as the peaks of
They did not speak at all, for the ground beneath their feet was holy,
and all things that called for speech were left behind. Only as
dawn became day--as the sun-god mounted triumphant above the waiting
earth--the man's arm tightened about the woman, and his flickering
eyes grew steadfast and reverent as the eyes of one who sees a
"'Prophet and priestess we came--back from the dawning,'" quoted Nick,
under his breath.
Muriel uttered a long, long sigh, and turned her face against her
His lips were on her forehead for a moment; the next he was peering
into her face with his usual cheery grin.
"Care to hear my piece of news?" he questioned.
She looked at him eagerly. "Oh, Nick, not the mail!"
He nodded. "Runner came in late last night. You were asleep and
dreaming of me. I hadn't the heart to wake you."
She laughed and blushed. "As if I should! Do you really imagine that I
never think of anyone else? But go on. What news?"
He pulled out two letters. "One from Olga, full of adoration, bless
her funny heart, and containing also a rude message from Jim to the
effect that Redlands is going to rack and ruin for want of a tenant
while we are philandering on the outside edge of civilisation doing
no good to anybody. No good indeed! I'll punch his head for that some
day. But I suppose we really ought to be thinking of Home before long,
She assented with a smile and a sigh. "I am sure we ought. Dr. Jim is
quite right. We must come back to earth again, my eagle and I."
Nick kissed her hair. "It's been a gorgeous flight hasn't it? We'll do
it again--heaps of times--before we die."
"If nothing happens to prevent," said Muriel.
He frowned. "What do you say that for? Are you trying to be like Lady
Bassett? Because it's a vain aspiration, so you may as well give it up
at the outset."
"Nick, how absurd you are!" There was a slight break in the words.
"I--I had almost forgotten there was such a person. No, I said it
because--because--well, anything might happen, you know."
"Such as?" said Nick.
"Anything," she repeated almost inaudibly.
Nick pondered this for a moment. "Is it a riddle?" he asked.
She did not answer him. Her face was hidden.
He waited a little. Then, "I shall begin to guess directly," he said.
She uttered a muffled laugh, and clung to him with a sudden,
passionate closeness. "Nick, you--you humbug! You know!"
Nick tossed his letters on the ground and held her fast. "My precious
girl, you gave the show away not ten seconds ago by that blush of
yours. There! Don't be so absurdly shy! You can't be shy with me. Look
at me, sweet. Look up and tell me it's true!"
She turned her face upwards, quivering all over, yet laughing
tremulously. "Yes, Nick, really, really!" she told him. "Oh, my
darling, are you glad?"
"Am I glad?" said Nick, and laughed at her softly. "I'm the happiest
man on earth. I shall go Home now without a pang, and so will you.
We have got to feather the nest, you know. That'll be fun, eh,
Her eyes answered him more convincingly than any words. They seemed
to have caught some of the sunshine that made the world around them so
Some time elapsed before she remembered the neglected correspondence.
Time was of no account up there among the mountains.
"The other letter, Nick, you didn't tell me about it. I fancied you
might have heard from Will Musgrave."
"So I have," said Nick. "You had better read it. There's a line for
you inside. It's all right. Daisy has got a little girl, both doing
splendidly; Daisy very happy, Will nearly off his head with joy."
Muriel was already deep in Will's ecstatic letter. She read it with
smiling lips and tearful eyes. At the end in pencil she found the line
that was for her.
"Tell Muriel that all's well with me, and I want you both for
Muriel looked up. "I promised to spend Christmas with them, Nick."
Nick smiled upon her quizzically. "By a strange coincidence, darling,
so did I. I should think under the circumstances we might go together,
She drew his hand to her cheek. "We will go to them for Christmas
then. And after that straight Home. Tell Dr. Jim when you write.
But--Nick--I think we should like to feather the nest all ourselves,
"Why, rather!" said Nick. "We'll do it together--just you and I."
"Just you and I," she repeated softly.
Later, hand in hand, they looked across the valley to the shining
crags that glistened spear-like in the sun.
A great silence lay around them--a peace unspeakable--that those
silver crests lifted into the splendour of Infinity.
They stood alone together--above the world--with their faces to the
And thus standing with the woman he loved, Nick spoke, briefly--it
seemed lightly--yet with a certain tremor in his voice.
"Horses," he said--"and chariots--of fire!" And Muriel looked at him
with memory and understanding in her eyes.