The Place of Honour by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter VII. An Unpleasant Interview
"There!" said Audrey, a few seconds later, "I've been a perfect idiot, I know; but I'm better now. Tell me, do I look as if I had been crying?"
She raised her pretty, woebegone face to his and smiled very faintly.
There was something unmistakably grim about Phil at that moment, and she wondered why.
"Of course you do," he said bluntly.
Audrey got up and peered at herself uneasily in a mirror.
"It doesn't show much," she said, after a careful inspection. "And, anyhow"--turning round to him--"I don't know what you have to be cross about. It--it was all your fault!"
Phil groaned and held his peace. She would know soon enough, he reflected.
Audrey drew nearer to him.
"Tell me what he said to Major Raleigh, Phil," she said rather tremulously.
He shrugged his shoulders and yielded.
"He only said that he wished your discretion equalled your promptitude in emergencies," he said.
"Oh," said Audrey. "Was that all? Well, I think you might have told me before."
Phil laughed grudgingly. The situation was abominable, but her utter childishness palliated it. How was Tudor going to treat the matter? he wondered. What if he--
A sudden thought flashed across Phil's brain, and his face grew set. Of course it had been his fault, since she said so. It remained therefore for him to extricate her, if he could. He turned to her.
"Look here, Mrs. Tudor," he said, in a judicious, elder-brotherly tone, "I think it's a mistake, don't you know, to let yourself get depressed over--well, little things. I know what it is to feel down on your luck. But luck turns, you know, and--and--he's a good sort--a bit stiff and difficult to get on with, but still--a good sort. You won't think me rude if I leave you now? I didn't expect Mrs. Raleigh to be so long, and I'm afraid I can't wait any longer. I've got to dress for mess."
"Goodness!" said Audrey, with a glance at the clock. "Does it take you two hours? No, don't scowl! I'm only joking, so you needn't be cross. Good-bye, then! Thank you for being kind to me."
Her hand lay in his for a moment. She was smiling at him rather sadly, notwithstanding her half-bantering words.
Phil paused a second.
"I'm confoundedly sorry!" he said impulsively. "Don't cry any more."
She shook her head and withdrew her hand.
"Who says I've been crying?" she said lightly. "Go away, and don't be silly!"
He took her at her word and departed.
At the gate of the compound he met Mrs. Raleigh, but he refused to turn back with her.
"I really must go; I've got an engagement," he said. "But Mrs. Tudor is waiting for you. Keep her as long as you can. I believe she's a bit down--homesick, you know." And he hurried away, breaking into a run as soon as he reached the road.
He went straight to the Tudor's bungalow without giving himself time to flinch from the interview that he had made up his mind he must have.
The major sahib was in, the khitmutgar told him and Phil scribbled an urgent message on his card and sent it to him. Two minutes later he was shown into his superior officer's presence, and he realised that he stood committed to the gravest task he had ever undertaken.
Major Tudor was sitting unoccupied before the writing-table in his smoking-room, but he rose as Phil entered. His face was composed as usual.
"Well, Mr. Turner?" he said, as Phil came heavily forward.
Phil, more nervous than he had ever been before, halted in front of him.
"I came to speak to you, sir," he said with an effort, "to--to explain--"
Tudor was standing with his back to the light. He made no attempt to help him out of his difficulties.
Phil came to an abrupt pause; then, as if some inner force had suddenly come to his assistance, he straightened himself and tackled the matter afresh.
"I came to tell you, sir," he said, meeting Tudor's eyes squarely, "that I have nothing to be ashamed of. In case"--he paused momentarily--"you should misunderstand what you saw half an hour ago, I thought it better to speak at once."
"Very prudent," said Tudor. "But--it is quite unnecessary. I do not misunderstand."
He spoke deliberately and coldly. But Phil clenched his hands. The words cut him like a whip.
"You refuse to believe me?" he said.
Tudor did not answer.
"I must trouble you for an answer," Phil said, forcing himself to speak quietly.
"As you please," said Tudor, in the same cold tone. "I have a question to put first. Had I not chanced to see what took place, would you have sought this interview?"
The blood rose in a hot wave to Phil's head, but he did not wince or hesitate.
"Of course I shouldn't," he said.
Tudor made a curt gesture as of dismissal.
"Out of your own mouth--" he said, and turned contemptuously away.
Phil stood quite still for the space of ten seconds, then the young blood in him suddenly mounted to fever pitch. He strode up to his major, and seized him fiercely by the shoulder.
"I won't bear this from any man," he said between his teeth. "I am as honourable as you are! If you say--or insinuate--otherwise, I--by Heaven--I'll kill you!"
The passionate words ceased, and there followed a silence more terrible than any speech. Tudor stood absolutely motionless, facing the young subaltern who towered over him, without a sign of either anger or dismay.
Then at last, very slowly and quietly, he spoke:
"You have made a mistake. Take your hand away."
Phil's hand dropped to his side. He was white to the lips. Yet he would not relinquish his purpose at a word.
"It hasn't been for my own sake," he said, his voice still shaking with the anger he could not subdue.
Tudor made no response. He stood with his eyes fixed steadily upon Phil's agitated face. And, as if compelled by that searching gaze, Phil reiterated the assertion.
"If I had only had myself to consider," he said, "I shouldn't have--stooped--to offer an explanation."
"Let me remind you," Tudor said quietly, "that I have not asked for one."
"You prefer to misunderstand?" said Phil quickly.
"I prefer to take my own view," amended Tudor. "If you are wise--you will be satisfied to leave it so."
It was final, and, though far from satisfied, Phil felt the futility of further discussion. He turned to the door.
"Very well, sir," he said briefly, and went out, holding his head high.
As for Tudor, he sat down again before his writing-table with an unmoved countenance, and after a short interval took up his correspondence. There was no anger in his eyes.