The Place of Honour by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter III. Amid the Ruins
"Do let us get away somewhere and enjoy ourselves!"
Audrey spoke in a quick undertone to the man nearest to her. It was three weeks since her arrival at the Frontier station, and she had settled down to the life with the ease of a born Anglo-Indian. Her first vivid enjoyment of its gaieties was a thing of the past, but no one suspected the fact, her husband least of all. She had not, as a matter of fact, been much with him during those three weeks, for she had struck up a warm friendship with Mrs. Raleigh, and in common with all the younger spirits of the regiment she availed herself fully of the privileges of the latter's hospitality.
On the present occasion, however--that of a picnic by moonlight at the crumbling shrine of some long-forgotten holy man--Mrs. Raleigh was absent, and Audrey was bored. She had arrived in her husband's ralli-car, which he had driven himself, but she had speedily drifted away from his side.
There was an element of perversity in her which made her resent the feeling that he only accompanied her into society to watch over her, and, if necessary, to keep her in order. It was not a particularly worthy feeling, but certainly there was something about his attitude that fostered it.
She guessed, and rightly, that, but for her, he would not have troubled himself to attend these social gatherings, which he obviously enjoyed so little. So when, having deliberately and with mischievous intent given him the slip, she awoke suddenly to the fact that he had followed and was standing near her, Audrey became childishly exasperated and seized the first means of escape that offered.
The man she addressed was one of the least enthusiastic of her admirers, but this did not trouble her at all. She had been a spoilt child all her life, and she was accustomed to make use of others without stopping to ascertain their inclinations.
Phil Turner, however, was by no means unwilling to be made use of in this way. The boy was a gentleman, and was as chivalrous at heart as he was honest.
He turned at once in response to her quick whisper and offered her his arm.
"There's an old well at the back of the ruin," he said. "Come and see it. Mind the stones."
"That was splendid of you," she said approvingly, as they moved away together. "Are you always so prompt? But I know you're not. I shouldn't have asked you, only I took you for Mr. Devereux. You are very like him at the back."
"Never heard that before!" he responded bluntly. "Don't believe it, either, if you will forgive my saying so."
She laughed, a merry, ringing laugh.
"Oh, don't you like Mr. Devereux?"
"Yes, he's all right." Phil seldom spoke a disparaging word of any of his comrades. "But I haven't the smallest wish to be like him," he added.
Audrey laughed at him again, freely, musically. She found this young officer rather more entertaining than the rest.
They reached the other side of the shrine. Here, in a debris of stones and weeds, there appeared the circular mouth of an old well, forgotten like the shrine and long disused.
Audrey examined the edge with a fastidious air, and finally sat down on it. The place was flooded with moonlight.
"I wish I were a man," she said suddenly.
"Good Heavens! Why?"
He asked the question in amazement.
"I should like to be your equal," she told him gaily. "I should like to do and say to you just exactly what I liked."
Phil considered this seriously.
"You can do both without being my equal," he remarked at length in his bluntest tone, "that is, if you care to condescend."
"Goodness!" laughed Audrey. "That's the only pretty thing I have ever heard you say. I am sure it must be your first attempt. Now, isn't it?"
"And it wasn't strictly honest," proceeded Audrey daringly. "You know you don't think that of any woman under the sun."
He did not contradict her. He had a feeling that she was fooling him, but somehow he rather liked it.
"What about the women under the moon?" he said. "Perhaps they are different?"
She nodded merrily.
"Perhaps they are," she conceded. "Certainly the men are. Now, you are about the stodgiest person I know by daylight or lamplight except--except--" She stopped. "No, I don't mean that!" she said, with an impish smile. "There is no exception."
Phil was frowning a little, but he looked relieved at her amendment.
"Thank you!" he said brusquely. "I shall never dare to come near you after that."
"Except by moonlight?" she suggested, with the impudent audacity of a child.
What reply he would have made to that piece of nonsense he sometimes wondered afterward, but circumstances prevented his making any. The words had only just passed her lips when she sprang to her feet with a wild shriek of horror, shaking her arm with frantic violence.
"A snake!" she cried. "Take it away! Take it away! It's on my wrist!"
Phil Turner, though young, was accustomed to keep his wits about him, and, luckily for the girl, her agony did not scare them away. He had seized her arm in a fierce grip almost before her frenzied appeal was uttered. A small snake was coiled round her wrist, and he tore it away with his free hand, not caring how he grasped it. He tried to fling the thing from him, but somehow his hold upon it was not sufficient. Before he knew it the creature had shot up his sleeve.
The next instant he had shaken it down again with a muffled curse and was trampling it savagely and vindictively into the stones at his feet.
"Are you hurt?" he asked, wheeling sharply.
"No," gasped Audrey, "no! But you--"
"Yes, the little beast's bitten me," he returned. "You see--"
"Oh, where, where?" she cried. "Let me see! Quick, quick! Something must be done. Can't you suck it?"
He pushed up his sleeve.
"No; can't get at it," he said. "It's just below the elbow. Never mind; it isn't serious!"
He would have tweaked his sleeve down again, though he was pale under his sunburn. But Audrey stopped him, holding his bare arm between her hands.
"Don't be a fool!" she gasped vehemently. "If you can't, I can--and I will!"
Before he could stop her she had stooped, still holding him fast, and put her lips to the tiny puncture in his flesh, on which scarcely more than a speck of blood was visible.
Phil stiffened and stood still, every nerve rigid, as if something had transfixed him. At last, hurriedly, jerkily, he spoke:
"Mrs. Tudor--for Heaven's sake! I can't let you do this. It wasn't poisonous, ten to one. Don't! I say, Audrey--please don't!"
His voice was imploring, but she paid no heed. Her lips continued to draw at the wound, while he, half-distracted, bent over her, protesting, scarcely conscious of what he said, yet submitting in spite of himself.
There came the sound of running feet, and he guessed that her scream had given the alarm. He stood up with mingled agitation and relief, and an instant later was face to face with her husband.
"I--couldn't help it!" he stammered. "It was a snake-bite."
People were crowding round them with questions and exclamations. But Tudor gave utterance to neither. He only put his hand on his wife's shoulder and spoke to her.
"That will do, Audrey," he said. "There's a doctor here. Leave it to him."
At his words Audrey straightened herself, quivering all over; and then, unnerved by sheer horror, she put out her hands with an unconscious groping gesture, and fainted.