The Place of Honour by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter IX. Dreadful News
It was nearly a week later that Audrey, riding home alone in a rickshaw from a polo-match, was overtaken by young Gerald Devereux, a subaltern, who was tearing along on foot as if on some urgent errand. Recognising her, he reduced his speed and dropped into a jog-trot by her side.
"You haven't heard, of course?" he jerked out breathlessly. "Beastly bad news! Those hill tribes--always up to some devilry! Poor old Phil--infernal luck!"
"What?" exclaimed Audrey. "What has happened to him? Tell me, quick, quick!"
She turned as white as paper, and Devereux cursed himself for a clumsy fool.
"It may not be the worst," he gasped back. "Dash it! I'm so winded! We hope, you know, we hope--but it's usually a knife and good-bye with these ruffians. Still, there's a chance--just a chance."
"But you haven't told me what has happened yet," cried Audrey, in a fever of impatience.
He answered her, still running by her side "The Waris have got him; rushed his camp at night and bagged everything. The coolies were in the know, no doubt. Only his shikari got away. He has just come in wounded with the news. I'm on my way to tell the Chief, though I don't see what good he can do."
"You mean you think he is murdered?" gasped Audrey, through white lips.
"Afraid so, poor beggar! Well, so long, Mrs. Tudor! We must hope for the best as long as we can."
He put his hand to his cap, and ran on, while Audrey, with a set, white face, was borne to her bungalow.
Her husband was sitting on the veranda. He rose as she alighted and gave her his hand up the short flight of steps to his side.
"You are rather late," he said in his grave way. "I am afraid you will have to hurry."
They were dining out that night, but Audrey had forgotten it. She stared at him as if dazed.
"What is it?" he asked. "Nothing wrong?"
She gasped hysterically.
"Oh, Eustace, an awful thing--an awful thing!" she cried. "Mr. Devereux has just told me--"
Her voice broke, and her lips formed soundless words. She groped vaguely for support with one hand.
Tudor put his arm round her and led her, tottering, indoors.
"All right; tell me presently," he said quietly. "Sit down and keep still for a little."
He put her into an arm-chair and left her there. In a few seconds he returned with some brandy and water, which he held to her lips in silence. Then, setting down the glass, he began to rub her nerveless hands.
Audrey submitted passively at first to his ministrations, but presently as her strength returned she sat up.
"You haven't heard?" she asked him shakily.
"I have heard nothing," he answered. "Can you tell me now?"
"Yes--yes!" She paused a moment to steady her voice. Then--"It's Phil!" she faltered. "He has been taken prisoner--murdered perhaps--by those dreadful hill men! Oh Eustace"--lifting her face appealingly--"do you think they would kill him? Do you? Do you?"
But Tudor said nothing. He made no attempt to comfort her, and she turned from him in bitter disappointment. His lack of sympathy at such a moment was almost more than she could bear.
"How did Devereux know?" he asked, after a pause.
She shook her head.
"He said something about a shikari. He was going to tell the colonel; but he didn't think it would be any use. He said--he said--"
She broke off, quivering with agitation. Her husband took the glass from the table again and made her drink a little. She tried to refuse, but he insisted.
"You have had a shock. It will do you good," he said, in his level, unmoved voice.
And Audrey yielded to the mastery she had scarcely felt of late.
The spirit helped to steady her, and at length she rose.
"I am going to my room, Eustace," she said, not looking at him. "I--can't go out to-night. Perhaps you will make my excuses."
He did not answer her, and she threw him a swift glance. He was standing stiff and upright. His face was stern and composed; it might have been a stone mask.
"What excuse am I to make?" he asked.
Her eyes widened. The question was utterly unexpected.
"Why, the truth--of course," she said. "Say that I have been upset by the news, that--that--I hadn't the heart--I couldn't--Eustace,"--appealing suddenly, a tremor of indignation in her voice--"you don't seem to realise that he is one of my greatest friends. Don't you understand?"
"Yes," he said--"yes, I understand!"
And she marvelled at the coldness--the deadly, concentrated coldness--of his voice.
"All the same," he went on, "I think you must make an effort to accompany me to the Bentleys' to-night. It might be thought unusual if I went alone."
She stared at him in sudden, amazed anger.
"Eustace!" she exclaimed. "How can you be so cruel, so cold-blooded, so--so heartless? How can you expect such a thing of me--to sit at table and hear them all talking about it, and his chances discussed? I couldn't--I couldn't!"
He did not press the point. Perhaps he realised that her nerves in their present condition would prove wholly unequal to such a strain.
"Very well," he said quietly at length. "I will send a note to excuse us both."
"I don't see why you should stay at home," Audrey said, turning to the door. "I would far rather be alone."
He did not explain his motive, and she went out of his presence with a sensation of relief. She had never fully realised before how wide the gulf between them had become.
She remained shut up in her room all the evening, eating nothing, face to face with the horror of young Devereux's brief words. It was the first time within her memory that death had approached her sheltered life, and she was shocked and frightened, as a child is frightened by the terrors of the dark.
Very late that night she crept into bed, dismissing her ayah, and lay there shivering and forlorn, thinking, thinking, of the cruel faces and flashing knives that Phil had awaked to see. She dozed at last in her misery, only to wake again with a shriek of nightmare terror, and start up sobbing hysterically.
"Why, Audrey!" a quiet voice said, and she woke fully, to find her husband standing by her bed.
She turned to him impulsively, hiding her face against him, clinging to him with straining arms. She could not utter a word, for an anguish of weeping overtook her. And he was silent also, bending over her, his hand upon her head.
Gradually the paroxysm passed and she grew quieter; but she still clung closely to him, and at length with difficulty she began to speak.
"Oh, Eustace, it's all so horrible! I can't help seeing it. I'm sure he's dead, or, if he isn't, it's almost worse. And I was so--unkind to him the last time we were together. I thought he was cross, but I know now he was only miserable; and I never dreamt I was never going to see him again, or I wouldn't have been so--so horrid!"
Haltingly, pathetically, the poor little confession was gasped out through quivering sobs and the face of the man who listened was no longer a stony mask; it was alight and tender with a compassion too great for utterance.
He bent a little lower over her, pressing her head closer to his heart; and she heard its beating, slow and strong and regular, through all the turmoil of her distress.
"Poor child!" he said. "Poor child!"
It was all the comfort he had to offer, but it was more to her than any other words he had ever spoken. It voiced a sympathy which till that moment had been wholly lacking--a sympathy that she desired more than anything else on earth.
"Don't go away, Eustace!" she begged presently. "It--it's so dreadful all alone."
"Try to sleep, dear," he said gently.
"Yes, but I dream, I dream," she whispered piteously.
He laid her very tenderly back on the pillow, and sat down beside her.
"You won't dream while I am here," he said.
She clasped his hand closely in both her own and begged him tremulously to kiss her. By the dim light of her night-lamp she could scarcely see his face; but as her lips met his a great peace stole over her. She felt as if he had stretched out his hands to her across the great, dividing gulf that had opened between them and drawn her to his side.
About a quarter of an hour later Eustace Tudor rose noiselessly and stood looking down at his young wife's sleeping face. It was placid as an infant's, and her breathing was soft and regular. He knew that, undisturbed, she would sleep so for hours.
And so he did not dare to kiss her. He only bowed his head till his lips touched the coverlet beneath which she lay; and then stealthily, silently, he crept away.