The Place of Honour by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter XI. The Awakening
The sun was already high when Audrey awoke. She started up, refreshed in body and mind. Her first thought was of her husband. No doubt he had gone out long before. He always rose early, even when off duty.
Then she remembered Phil, and her face contracted as all the trouble of the night before rushed back upon her. Was he still living? she wondered.
She stretched out her hand to ring for her ayah. But as she did so her eyes fell upon a table by her side and she caught sight of an envelope lying there. She picked it up.
It was addressed to herself in her husband's handwriting, and, with a sharp sense of anxiety, she tore it open. The note it contained was characteristically brief:
Audrey looked up from the letter with startled eyes and white cheeks. What did it mean? What had he been doing in the night while she slept? How was it possible for him to have saved Phil?
Trembling, she sprang from her bed and began to dress. Possibly the note to Mrs. Raleigh might explain the mystery. She would ride round with it at once.
She went into Tudor's room before starting and found the letter for the colonel. It was addressed and sealed. She gave it to a syce with orders to deliver it into the colonel's own hands without delay.
Then, still quivering with an apprehension she would not own, she mounted and rode away to the surgeon's bungalow.
Mrs. Raleigh received her with some surprise.
"Ah, come in!" she said kindly. "I'm delighted to see you, dear; but, sure, you are riding very late. And is there anything the matter?"
"Yes," gasped Audrey breathlessly. "I mean no, I hope not. My husband has--has gone to try to save Phil Turner; and--and he left a note for you, which I was to deliver. He went away in the night, but he--of course he'll--be back--soon!"
Her voice faltered and died away. There was a look on Mrs. Raleigh's face, hidden as it were behind her smile, that struck terror to Audrey's heart. She thrust out the letter in an anguish of unconcealed suspense.
"Read it! Read it!" she implored, "and tell me what has happened--quickly, for I--I don't understand!"
Mrs. Raleigh took the letter, passing a supporting arm around the girl's quivering form.
"Sit down, dear!" she said tenderly.
Audrey obeyed, but her face was still raised in voiceless supplication as Mrs. Raleigh opened the letter. The pause that followed was terrible to her. She endured it in wrung silence, her hands fast gripped together.
Then Mrs. Raleigh turned, and in her eyes was a deep compassion, a motherly tenderness of pity, that was to Audrey the confirmation of her worst fears.
She did not speak again. Her heart felt constricted, paralysed. But Mrs. Raleigh saw the entreaty which her whole body expressed, and, stooping, she took the rigid hands into hers.
My dear," she said, "he has gone into the Hills in disguise, up to the native fort beyond Wara, as that is where he expects to find Phil. Heaven help him and bring them both back!"
Audrey stared at her with a stunned expression. Her lips were quite white, and Mrs. Raleigh thought she was going to faint.
But Audrey did not lose consciousness. She sat there as if turned to stone, trying to speak and failing to make any sound. At last, convulsively, words came.
"They will take him for a spy," she said, both hands pressed to her throat as if something there hurt her intolerably. "The Waris--torture--spies!"
"My darling, my darling, we must hope--hope and pray!" said the Irishwoman, holding her closely.
Audrey turned suddenly, passionately, in the enfolding arms and clung to her as if in physical agony.
"You may, you may," she said in a dreadful whisper, "but I can't--for I don't believe. Do you in your heart believe he will ever come back?"
Mrs. Raleigh did not answer.
Audrey went on, still holding her tightly:
"Do you think I don't know why he wrote to you? It was to put me in your care, because--because he knew he was never coming back. And shall I--shall I tell you why he went?"
"Darling, hush--hush!" pleaded Mrs. Raleigh, her voice unsteady with emotion. "There, don't say any more! Put your head on my shoulder, love. Let me hold you so."
But Audrey's convulsive hold did not relax. She had been a child all her life up to that moment, but, like a worn-out garment, her childhood had slipped from her, and she had emerged a woman. The old, happy ignorance was gone for ever, and the revelation that had dispelled it was almost more than she could bear. Her newly developed womanhood suffered as womanhood alone can suffer.
And yet, could she have drawn the veil once more before her eyes and so have deadened that agonising pain, she would not have done so.
She was awake now. The long, long sleep with its gay dreams, its careless illusions, was over. But it was better to be awake, better to see and know things as they were, even if the anguish thereof killed her. And so she refused the hushing comfort that only a child--such a child as she had been but yesterday--could have found satisfying.
"Yes, I can tell you--now--why he went," she said, in that tense whisper which so wrung Mrs. Raleigh's heart. "He went--for my sake! Think of it! Think of it! He went because I was fretting about Phil. He went because--because he thought--- that Phil's safety--meant--my happiness, and that his safety--his--his precious life--didn't--count!"
The awful words sank into breathless silence. Mrs. Raleigh was crying silently. She was powerless to cope with this. But Audrey shed no tears. It was beyond tears and beyond mourning--this terrible revelation that had come to her. By-andby, it might be, both would come to her, if she lived.
She rose suddenly at length with a sharp gasp, as of one seeking air.
"I am going," she said, in a clear, strong voice, "to the colonel. He will help me to save my husband."
And with that she turned to the veranda, and met the commanding-officer face to face. There was another man behind him, but she did not look at him. She instantly, without a second's pause, addressed the colonel.
"I was coming to you," she said through her white lips. "You will help me. You must help me. My husband is a prisoner, and I am going into the Hills to find him. You must follow with men and guns. He must be saved--whatever it costs."
The colonel laid his hand on her shoulder, looking down at her very earnestly, very kindly.
"My dear Mrs. Tudor," he said, "all that can be done shall be done, all that is humanly possible. I have already told Turner so. Did you know that he was safe?"
He drew her forward a step, and she saw that the man behind him was Phil Turner himself--Phil Turner, grave, strong, resolute, with all his manhood strung up to the moment's emergency, all his boyhood submerged in a responsibility that overwhelmed the lesser part of him, leaving only that which was great.
He went straight up to Audrey and took the hands she stretched out to him. Neither of them felt the presence of onlookers.
"He saved my life, Mrs. Tudor!" he said simply. "He forced me to take it at his hands. But I'm going back with some men to find him. You stay here with Mrs. Raleigh till we come back. We shall be quicker alone."
A great sob burst from Audrey. It was as if the few gallant words had loosened the awful constriction at her heart.
"Oh, Phil, Phil!" she cried brokenly. "You understand--what this is to me--how I love him--how I love him! Bring him back to me! Promise, Phil, promise!"
And Phil bent till his lips touched the hands he held.
"I will do it," he said with reverence--"so help me, God!"