Chapter X. The Sacrifice
 

They went round the bungalow together to see to the fastenings of doors and windows. The khitmutgar had gone to his own quarters for the night, and they were quite alone. The drip, drip, drip of the rain was still the only sound, save when the far cry of a prowling jackal came weirdly through the night.

"It's more gruesome than usual somehow," said Puck, still fast clinging to her husband's arm. "I'm not a bit frightened, darling, only sort of creepy at the back. But there's nobody here but you and me, is there?"

"Nobody," said Merryon.

"And will you please come and see if there are any snakes or scorpions before I begin to undress?" she said. "The very fact of looking under my bed makes my hair stand on end."

He went with her and made a thorough investigation, finding nothing.

"That's all right," she said, with a sigh of relief. "And yet, somehow, I feel as if something is waiting round the corner to pounce out on us. Is it Fate, do you think? Or just my silly fancy?"

"I think it is probably your startled nerves, dear," he said, smiling a little.

She assented with a half-suppressed shudder. "But I'm sure something will happen directly," she said. "I'm sure. I'm sure."

"Well, I shall only be in the next room if it does," he said.

He was about to leave her, but she sprang after him, clinging to his arm. "And you won't be late, will you?" she pleaded. "I can't sleep without you. Ah, what is that? What is it? What is it?"

Her voice rose almost to a shriek. A sudden loud knocking had broken through the endless patter of the rain.

Merryon's face changed a very little. The iron-grey eyes became stony, quite expressionless. He stood a moment listening. Then, "Stay here!" he said, his voice very level and composed. "Yes, Puck, I wish it. Stay here!"

It was a distinct command, the most distinct he had ever given her. Her clinging hands slipped from his arm. She stood rigid, unprotesting, white as death.

The knocking was renewed with fevered energy as Merryon turned quietly to obey the summons. He closed the door upon his wife and went down the passage.

There was no haste in his movements as he slipped back the bolts, rather the studied deliberation of purpose of a man armed against all emergency. But the door burst inwards against him the moment he opened it, and one of his subalterns, young Harley, almost fell into his arms.

Merryon steadied him with the utmost composure. "Halloa, Harley! You, is it? What's all this noise about?"

The boy pulled himself together with an effort. He was white to the lips.

"There's cholera broken out," he said. "Forbes and Robey--both down--at their own bungalow. And they've got it at the barracks, too. Macfarlane's there. Can you come?"

"Of course--at once." Merryon pulled him forward. "Go in there and get a drink while I speak to my wife!"

He turned back to her door, but she met him on the threshold. Her eyes burned like stars in her little pale face.

"It's all right, Billikins," she said, and swallowed hard. "I heard. You've got to go to the barracks, haven't you, darling? I knew there was going to be--something. Well, you must take something to eat in your pocket. You'll want it before morning. And some brandy too. Give me your flask, darling, and I'll fill it!"

Her composure amazed him. He had expected anguished distress at the bare idea of his leaving her, but those brave, bright eyes of hers were actually smiling.

"Puck!" he said. "You--wonder!"

She made a small face at him. "Oh, you're not the only wonder in the world," she told him. "Run along and get yourself ready! My! You are going to be busy, aren't you?"

She nodded to him and ran into the drawing-room to young Harley. He heard her chatting there while he made swift preparations for departure, and he thanked Heaven that she realized so little the ghastly nature of the horror that had swept down upon them. He hoped the boy would have the sense to let her remain unenlightened. It was bad enough to have to leave her after the ordeal they had just faced together. He did not want her terrified on his account as well.

But when he joined them she was still smiling, eager only to provide for any possible want of his, not thinking of herself at all.

"I hope you will enjoy your picnic, Billikins," she said. "I'll shut the door after you, and I shall know it's properly fastened. Oh, yes, the khit will take care of me, Mr. Harley. He's such a brave man. He kills snakes without the smallest change of countenance. Good-night, Billikins! Take care of yourself. I suppose you'll come back sometime?"

She gave him the lightest caress imaginable, shook hands affectionately with young Harley, who was looking decidedly less pinched than he had upon arrival, and stood waving an energetic hand as they went away into the dripping dark.

"You didn't tell her--anything?" Merryon asked, as they plunged down the road.

"Not more than I could help, Major. But she seemed to know without." The lad spoke uncomfortably, as if against his will.

"She asked questions, then?" Merryon's voice was sharp.

"Yes, a few. She wanted to know about Forbes and Robey. Robey is awfully bad. I didn't tell her that."

"Who is looking after them?" Merryon asked.

"Only a native orderly now. The colonel and Macfarlane both had to go to the barracks. It's frightful there. About twenty cases already. Oh, hang this rain!" said Harley, bitterly.

"But couldn't they take them--Forbes, I mean, and Robey--to the hospital?" questioned Merryon.

"No. To tell you the truth, Robey is pegging out, poor fellow. It's always the best chaps that go first, though. Heaven knows, we may be all gone before this time to-morrow."

"Don't talk like a fool!" said Merryon, curtly.

And Harley said no more.

They pressed on through mud that was ankle-deep to the barracks.

There during all the nightmare hours that followed Merryon worked with the strength of ten. He gave no voluntary thought to his wife waiting for him in loneliness, but ever and anon those blazing eyes of hers rose before his mental vision, and he saw again that brave, sweet smile with which she had watched him go.

The morning found him haggard but indomitable, wrestling with the difficulties of establishing a camp a mile or more from the barracks out in the rain-drenched open. There had been fourteen deaths in the night, and seven men were still fighting a losing battle for their lives in the hospital. He had a native officer to help him in his task; young Harley was superintending the digging of graves, and the colonel had gone to the bungalow where the two stricken officers lay.

Dank and gruesome dawned the day, with the smell of rot in the air and the sense of death hovering over all. And there came to Merryon a sudden, overwhelming desire to go back to his bungalow beyond the fetid town and see how his wife was faring. She was the only white woman in the place, and the thought of her isolation came upon him now like a fiery torture.

It was the fiercest temptation he had ever known. Till that day his regimental duties had always been placed first with rigorous determination. Now for the first time he found himself torn by conflicting ties. The craving for news of her possessed him like a burning thirst. Yet he knew that some hours must elapse before he could honestly consider himself free to go.

He called an orderly at last, finding the suspense unendurable, and gave him a scribbled line to carry to his wife.

"Is all well, sweetheart? Send back word by bearer," he wrote, and told the man not to return without an answer.

The orderly departed, and for a while Merryon devoted himself to the matter in hand, and crushed his anxiety into the background. But at the end of an hour he was chafing in a fever of impatience. What delayed the fellow? In Heaven's name, why was he so long?

Ghastly possibilities arose in his mind, fears unspeakable that he dared not face. He forced himself to attend to business, but the suspense was becoming intolerable. He began to realize that he could not stand it much longer.

He was nearing desperation when the colonel came unexpectedly upon the scene, unshaven and haggard as he was himself, but firm as a rock in the face of adversity.

He joined Merryon, and received the latter's report, grimly taciturn. They talked together for a space of needs and expediencies. The fell disease had got to be checked somehow. He spoke of recalling the officers on leave. There had been such a huge sick list that summer that they were reduced to less than half their normal strength.

"You're worth a good many," he said to Merryon, half-grudgingly, "but you can't work miracles. Besides, you've got--" He broke off abruptly. "How's your wife?"

"That's what I don't know, sir." Feverishly Merryon made answer. "I left her last night.

She was well then. But since--I sent down an orderly over an hour ago. He's not come back."

"Confound it!" said the colonel, testily. "You'd better go yourself."

Merryon glanced swiftly round.

"Yes, go, go!" the colonel reiterated, irritably. "I'll relieve you for a spell. Go and satisfy yourself--and me! None but an infernal fool would have kept her here," he added, in a growling undertone, as Merryon lifted a hand in brief salute and started away through the sodden mists.

He went as he had never gone in his life before, and as he went the mists parted before him and a blinding ray of sunshine came smiting through the gap like the sword of the destroyer. The simile rushed through his mind and out again, even as the grey mist-curtain closed once more.

He reached the bungalow. It stood like a shrouded ghost, and the drip, drip, drip of the rain on the veranda came to him like a death-knell.

A gaunt figure met him almost on the threshold, and he recognized his messenger with a sharp sense of coming disaster. The man stood mutely at the salute.

"Well? Well? Speak!" he ordered, nearly beside himself with anxiety. "Why didn't you come back with an answer?"

The man spoke with deep submission. "Sahib, there was no answer."

"What do you mean by that? What the--

Here, let me pass!" cried Merryon, in a ferment. "There must have been--some sort of answer."

"No, sahib. No answer." The man spoke with inscrutable composure. "The mem-sahib has not come back," he said. "Let the sahib see for himself."

But Merryon had already burst into the bungalow; so he resumed his patient watch on the veranda, wholly undisturbed, supremely patient.

The khitmutgar came forward at his master's noisy entrance. There was a trace--just the shadow of a suggestion--of anxiety on his dignified face under the snow-white turban. He presented him with a note on a salver with a few murmured words and a deep salaam.

"For the sahib's hands alone," he said.

Merryon snatched up the note and opened it with shaking hands.

It was very brief, pathetically so, and as he read a great emptiness seemed to spread and spread around him in an ever-widening desolation.

"Good-bye, my Billikins!" Ah, the pitiful, childish scrawl she had made of it! "I've come to my senses, and I've gone back to him. I'm not worthy of any sacrifice of yours, dear. And it would have been a big sacrifice. You wouldn't like being dragged through the mud, but I'm used to it. It came to me just that moment that you said, 'Yes, of course,' when Mr. Harley came to call you back to duty. Duty is better than a worthless woman, my Billikins, and I was never fit to be anything more than a toy to you--a toy to play with and toss aside. And so good-bye, good-bye!"

The scrawl ended with a little cross at the bottom of the page. He looked up from it with eyes gone blind with pain and a stunned and awful sense of loss.

"When did the mem-sahib go?" he questioned, dully.

The khitmutgar bent his stately person. "The mem-sahib went in haste," he said, "an hour before midnight. Your servant followed her to the dak-bungalow to protect her from budmashes, but she dismissed me ere she entered in. Sahib, I could do no more."

The man's eyes appealed for one instant, but fell the next before the dumb despair that looked out of his master's.

There fell a terrible silence--a pause, as it were, of suspended vitality, while the iron bit deeper and deeper into tissues too numbed to feel.

Then, "Fetch me a drink!" said Merryon, curtly. "I must be getting back to duty."

And with soundless promptitude the man withdrew, thankful to make his escape.