The Place of Honour by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter XII. A Woman's Agony
All through the day and the night that followed Audrey watched and waited.
She spent the terrible hours at the Raleighs' bungalow, scarcely conscious of her surroundings in her anguish of suspense. It possessed her like a raging fever, and she could not rest. At times it almost seemed to suffocate her, and then she would pace to and fro, to and fro, hardly knowing what she did.
Mrs. Raleigh never left her, caring for her with a maternal tenderness that never flagged. But for her Audrey would almost certainly have collapsed under the strain.
"If he had only known! If he had only known!" she kept repeating. "But how could he know? for I never showed him. How could he even guess? And now he never can know. It's too late, too late!"
Futile, bitter regret! All through the night it followed her, and when morning came the haggard misery it had wrought upon her face had robbed it of all its youth.
Mrs. Raleigh tried to comfort her with hopeful words, but she did not seem so much as to hear them. She was listening, listening intently, for every sound.
It was about noon that young Travers raced in, hot and breathless, but he stopped short in evident dismay when he saw Audrey. He would have withdrawn as precipitately as he had entered, but she sprang after him and caught him by the arms.
"You have news!" she cried wildly. "What is it? Oh, what is it? Tell me quickly!"
He hesitated and glanced nervously at Mrs. Raleigh.
"Yes, tell her," the latter said. "It is better than suspense."
And so briefly, jerkily, the boy blurted on his news:
"Phil's back again; but they haven't got the major. The fort was deserted, except for one old man, and they have brought him along. They are over at the colonel's bungalow now."
He paused, shocked by the awful look his tidings had brought into Audrey's eyes.
The next instant she had sprung past him to the open door and was gone, bareheaded and distraught, into the blazing sunshine.
How she covered the distance of the long, white road to the colonel's bungalow, Audrey never remembered afterwards. Her agony of mind was too great for her brain to register any impression of physical stress. She only knew that she ran and ran as one runs in a nightmare, till suddenly she was on the veranda of the colonel's bungalow, stumbling, breathless, crying hoarsely for "Phil! Phil!"
He came to her instantly.
"Where is he?" she cried, in high, strained tones. "Where is my husband? You promised to bring him back to me! You promised--you promised--"
Her voice failed. She felt choked, as if an iron hand were slowly, remorselessly, crushing the life out of her panting heart. Thick darkness hovered above her, but she fought it from her wildly, frantically.
"You promised--" She gasped again.
He took her gently by the arm, supporting her.
"Mrs. Tudor," he said very earnestly, "I have done my best."
He led her unresisting into a room close by. The colonel was there, and with him a man in flowing, native garments.
"Mrs. Tudor," said Phil, his hand closing tightly upon her arm, "before you blame me, I want you to speak to this man. He can tell you more about your husband than I can."
He spoke very quietly, very steadily, almost as if he were afraid she might not understand him.
Audrey made an effort to collect her reeling senses. The colonel bent towards her.
"Don't be afraid of him, Mrs. Tudor," he said kindly. "He is a friend, and he speaks English."
But Audrey did not so much as glance at the native, who stood, silent and impassive, waiting to be questioned. The agony of the past thirty hours had reached its limit. She sank into a chair by the colonel's table and hid her face in her shaking hands.
"I've nothing to ask him," she said hopelessly. "Eustace is dead--dead--dead, without ever knowing how I loved him. Nothing matters now. There is nothing left that ever can matter."
Dead silence succeeded her words, then a quiet movement, then silence again.
She did not look up or stir. Her passion of grief had burnt itself out. She was exhausted mentally and physically.
Minutes passed, but she did not move. What was there to rouse her? There was nothing left. She had no tears to shed. Tears were for small things. This grief of hers was too immense, too infinite for tears.
Only at last something, some inner prompting, stirred her, and as if at the touch of a hand that compelled, she raised her head.
She saw neither the colonel nor Phil, and a sharp prick of wonder pierced her lethargy of despair. She turned in her chair, obedient still to that inner force that compelled. Yes, they had gone. Only the native remained--an old, bent man, who humbly awaited her pleasure. His face was almost hidden in his chuddah.
Audrey looked at him.
"There is nothing to wait for," she said at length. "You need not stay."
He did not move. It was as if he had not heard. Her wonder grew into a sort of detached curiosity. What did the man want? She remembered that the colonel had told her that he understood English.
"Is there--something--you wish to say to me?" she asked, and the bare utterance of the words kindled a feeble spark of hope within her, almost in spite of herself.
He turned very slowly.
"Yes, one thing," he said, paused an instant as she sprang to her feet with a great cry, then straightened himself, pushed the chuddah back from his face, and flung out his arms to her passionately.
"Audrey!" he said--"Audrey!"