Chapter V. The Woman
 

Summer in the Plains! Pitiless, burning summer!

All day a blinding blaze of sun beat upon the wooden roof, forced a way through the shaded windows, lay like a blasting spell upon the parched compound. The cluster-roses had shrivelled and died long since. Their brown leaves still clung to the veranda and rattled desolately with a dry, scaly sound in the burning wind of dawn.

The green parakeets had ceased to look for sweets on the veranda. Nothing dainty ever made its appearance there. The Englishman who came and went with such grim endurance offered them no temptations.

Sometimes he spent the night on a charpoy on the veranda, lying motionless, though often sleepless, through the breathless, dragging hours. There had been sickness among the officers and Merryon, who was never sick, was doing the work of three men. He did it doggedly, with the stubborn determination characteristic of him; not cheerfully--no one ever accused Merryon of being cheerful--but efficiently and uncomplainingly. Other men cursed the heat, but he never took the trouble. He needed all his energies for what he had to do.

His own chance of leave had become very remote. There was so much sick leave that he could not be spared. Over that, also, he made no complaint. It was useless to grumble at the inevitable. There was not a man in the mess who could not be spared more easily than he.

For he was indomitable, unfailing, always fulfilling his duties with machine-like regularity, stern, impenetrable, hard as granite.

As to what lay behind that hardness, no one ever troubled to inquire. They took him for granted, much as if he had been a well-oiled engine guaranteed to surmount all obstacles. How he did it was nobody's business but his own. If he suffered in that appalling heat as other men suffered, no one knew of it. If he grew a little grimmer and a little gaunter, no one noticed. Everyone knew that whatever happened to others, he at least would hold on. Everyone described him as "hard as nails."

Each day seemed more intolerable than the last, each night a perceptible narrowing of the fiery circle in which they lived. They seemed to be drawing towards a culminating horror that grew hourly more palpable, more monstrously menacing--a horror that drained their strength even from afar.

"It's going to kill us this time," declared little Robey, the youngest subaltern, to whom the nights were a torment unspeakable. He had been within an ace of heat apoplexy more than once, and his nerves were stretched almost to breaking-point.

But Merryon went doggedly on, hewing his unswerving way through all. The monsoon was drawing near, and the whole tortured earth seemed to be waiting in dumb expectation.

Night after night a glassy moon came up, shining, immense and awful, through a thick haze of heat. Night after night Merryon lay on his veranda, smoking his pipe in stark endurance while the dreadful hours crept by. Sometimes he held a letter from his wife hard clenched in one powerful hand. She wrote to him frequently--short, airy epistles, wholly inconsequent, often provocatively meagre.

"There is a Captain Silvester here," she wrote once; "such a bounder. But he is literally the only man who can dance in the station. So what would you? Poor Mrs. Paget is so shocked!"

Feathery hints of this description were by no means unusual, but though Merryon sometimes frowned over them, they did not make him uneasy. His will-o'-the-wisp might beckon, but she would never allow herself to be caught. She never spoke of love in her letters, always ending demurely, "Yours sincerely, Puck." But now and then there was a small cross scratched impulsively underneath the name, and the letters that bore this token accompanied Merryon through his inferno whithersoever he went.

There came at last a night of terrible heat, when it seemed as if the world itself must burst into flames. A heavy storm rolled up, roared overhead for a space like a caged monster, and sullenly rolled away, without a single drop of rain to ease the awful tension of waiting that possessed all things.

Merryon left the mess early, tramping back over the dusty road, convinced that the downpour for which they all yearned was at hand. There was no moonlight that night, only a hot blackness, illumined now and then by a brilliant dart of lightning that shocked the senses and left behind a void indescribable, a darkness that could be felt. There was something savage in the atmosphere, something primitive and passionate that seemed to force itself upon him even against his will. His pulses were strung to a tropical intensity that made him aware of the man's blood in him, racing at fever heat through veins that felt swollen to bursting.

He entered his bungalow and flung off his clothes, took a plunge in a bath of tepid water, from which he emerged with a pricking sensation all over him that made the lightest touch a torture, and finally, keyed up to a pitch of sensitiveness that excited his own contempt, he pulled on some pyjamas and went out to his charpoy on the veranda.

He dismissed the punkah coolie, feeling his presence to be intolerable, and threw himself down with his coat flung open. The oppression of the atmosphere was as though a red-hot lid were being forced down upon the tortured earth. The blackness beyond the veranda was like a solid wall. Sleep was out of the question. He could not smoke. It was an effort even to breathe. He could only lie in torment and wait--and wait.

The flashes of lightning had become less frequent. A kind of waking dream began to move in his brain. A figure gradually grew upon that screen of darkness--an elf-like thing, intangible, transparent, a quivering, shadowy image, remote as the dawn.

Wide-eyed, he watched the vision, his pulses beating with a mad longing so fierce as to be utterly beyond his own control. It was as though he had drunk strong wine and had somehow slipped the leash of ordinary convention. The savagery of the night, the tropical intensity of it, had got into him. Half-naked, wholly primitive, he lay and waited--and waited.

For a while the vision hung before him, tantalizing him, maddening him, eluding him. Then came a flash of lightning, and it was gone.

He started up on the charpoy, every nerve tense as stretched wire.

"Come back!" he cried, hoarsely. "Come back!"

Again the lightning streaked the darkness.

There came a burst of thunder, and suddenly, through it and above it, he heard the far-distant roar of rain. He sprang to his feet. It was coming.

The seconds throbbed away. Something was moving in the compound, a subtle, awful Something. The trees and bushes quivered before it, the cluster-roses rattled their dead leaves wildly. But the man stood motionless in the light that fell across the veranda from the open window of his room, watching with eyes that shone with a fierce and glaring intensity for the return of his vision.

The fevered blood was hammering at his temples. For the moment he was scarcely sane. The fearful strain of the past few weeks that had overwhelmed less hardy men had wrought upon him in a fashion more subtle but none the less compelling. They had been stricken down, whereas he had been strung to a pitch where bodily suffering had almost ceased to count. He had grown used to the torment, and now in this supreme moment it tore from him his civilization, but his physical strength remained untouched. He stood alert and ready, like a beast in a cage, waiting for whatever the gods might deign to throw him.

The tumult beyond that wall of blackness grew. It became a swirling uproar. The rose-vines were whipped from the veranda and flung writhing in all directions. The trees in the compound strove like terrified creatures in the grip of a giant. The heat of the blast was like tongues of flame blown from an immense furnace. Merryon's whole body seemed to be wrapped in fire. With a fierce movement, he stripped the coat from him and flung it into the room behind him. He was alone save for the devils that raged in that pandemonium. What did it matter how he met them?

And then, with the suddenness of a stupendous weight dropped from heaven, came rain, rain in torrents and billows, rain solid as the volume of Niagara, a crushing mighty force.

The tempest shrieked through the compound. The lightning glimmered, leapt, became continuous. The night was an inferno of thunder and violence.

And suddenly out of the inferno, out of the awful strife of elements, out of that frightful rainfall, there came--a woman!