The Place of Honour by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter II. Early Breezes
"It's been lovely," said the bride. She leant back in the open carriage, gazing with wide, charmed eyes into the vivid Indian night. "And I'm not a bit tired," she added. "Are you?"
The man beside her did not instantly reply. He was a man of medium height, dark and lithe and amazingly strong. It was not his habit to speak much, but what little he said was usually very much to the point. It was his custom to mask his feelings so completely that very few had the smallest inkling as to his state of mind.
He was considered a hard man in his regiment, but he was known to be a splendid soldier, and chiefly for that reason he was respected rather than disliked. But the kindest critic could not have called him either popular or attractive. And the news of his marriage in England had fallen like a thunderbolt upon his Indian acquaintances, for he had long ago come to be regarded among them as the last man in the world to commit such a folly.
The full extent thereof had not been apparent till his return to his regiment, accompanied by his bride, and then as one man the whole mess had risen and condemned him in no measured terms, for the bride, with all her entrancing beauty, her vivacity, her charm, was certainly a startling contrast to the man who had wedded her--a contrast so sharp as to be almost painful to the onlookers.
She herself, however, seemed to be wholly unaware of any incongruity. Perhaps she had not seen enough of the world to feel it, or perhaps she was wilfully blind to the things she did not desire to see.
In any case her face, as she lay back in the carriage by her husband's side, expressed only the most complete contentment.
"Are you tired, Eustace?" she asked, as he did not hasten to reply to her first question.
"No," he answered, "not tired; but glad to be going back."
"You've been bored," she said quickly. "What a frightful pity! Why did you stay so long?"
Again he paused before replying, and she drummed on his knee with her fingers with slight impatience.
"I had a notion," he said, in his quiet, unhurried tones, "that my wife would have considered it rather hard lines to be dragged away while there was a single man left to dance with."
The bride snatched her hand from his knee with a swiftness of action that could hardly be mistaken. He might have been speaking in fun, but, even so, it was an ugly jest. More probably he had meant the sting that his words conveyed, for, owing to a delicate knee-cap that had once been splintered by a bullet and still at times gave him trouble, Major Tudor was a non-dancer. Whatever his meaning, the remark came upon her flushed triumph like the icy chill before the dawn, dispelling dreams.
"I am sorry," she said, with all the haste of youth, "that you sacrificed yourself to please me. I hope you will not do so again. Now that I am married, I do not need a chaperon. I could quite well return alone."
It was childishly spoken, but then she was a child, and the admiration she had enjoyed throughout the evening had slightly turned her head. He did not reply to her speech. Indeed, it was as if he had not heard it. And her indignation mounted. There was not another man of her acquaintance who would have treated her with a like lack of courtesy. Did he think, because he was her husband, that she belonged to him so completely that he could behave to her exactly as he saw fit? Perhaps. She did not know him very well; nor apparently did he know her. For during the brief six weeks of their married life she had been a little shy, a little constrained, in his presence. But her success had, as it were, unshackled her. Without hesitation she gave her feelings the rein.
"Do you consider that I am not to be trusted?" she asked him sharply.
"I beg your pardon?"
There was a note of surprised interrogation in his voice. She did not look at him, but she knew that his eyebrows were raised, and a faint--quite a faint--sense of misgiving stole over her.
"I asked if you thought me untrustworthy," she asked.
He relapsed into silence again, and she became exasperated.
"Why don't you answer me?" she said, with quick impatience.
He turned his head deliberately and looked at her; and again she tingled with an apprehension which no previous word or action of his had ever justified.
"Unprofitable questions," he said coolly, "like ill-timed jests, are better left alone."
It was the first intentional snub he had ever administered to her, and she quivered under it, furious but impotent. All the evening's enjoyment had gone out of her. She was conscious only of a desire to strike back and wound him as he had wounded her.
She did not utter another word during the drive, and when they reached their bungalow--the daintiest and most luxurious in the station--she alighted without touching the hand he offered her.
Refreshments awaited them in the dining-room, and the bride swept in and helped herself, suffering her cloak to fall from her shoulders. He picked it up and threw it over a chair. His dark face was quite composed and inscrutable. He was not a handsome man, but there was something undeniably striking about him, a strength of personality that made him somehow formidable. The red and gold uniform he wore served to emphasise the breadth of shoulder, which his height did not justify. He was a splendid wrestler. There was not a man in the mess whom he could not throw.
Yet to those who knew him best, his strength seemed to lie less in what he did than in what he left undone. His restraint was the secret of his power.
Perhaps his young wife felt this, for notwithstanding her utmost effort she knew herself to be at a disadvantage. She set down her glass of sherbet unfinished and turned to the door. It was an abrupt move, but he was ready for it. Before she reached it, he was waiting with the handle in his grasp.
"Going to bed, Audrey?" he asked gravely, "Good-night!"
His manner did not betray that he was aware of her displeasure, yet somehow she was quite convinced that he knew. She paused for a second, and then, with her head held high, she was about to pass him without an answering word or glance. But to her amazement he stopped her, his hand upon her arm.
"Good-night!" he said again.
She faced him then in a blaze of passion, with white cheeks and flaming eyes. But as she met his look her heart gave a sudden thump of fright, and in a second her resistance had crumbled away. He did not speak another word, but his look compelled. Undeniably he was master.
Mutely she raised her face for his kiss, and he kissed her.
"Sleep well," he said.
And she went from him, subdued and humbled, to her room.