Chapter I
 

"Well played, Hone! Oh, well played indeed!"

A great roar of applause went up from the polo-ground like the surge and wash of an Atlantic roller. The regimental hero was distinguishing himself--a state of affairs by no means unusual, for success always followed Hone. His luck was proverbial in the regiment, as sure and as deeply-rooted as his popularity.

"It's the devil's own concoction," declared Teddy Duncombe, Major Hone's warmest friend and admirer, who was watching from the great stand near the refreshment-tent. "It never fails. We call him Achilles because he always carries all before him."

"Even Achilles had his vulnerable point," remarked Mrs. Perceval, to whom the words were addressed.

She spoke with her dark eyes fixed upon the distant figure. Seen from a distance, he seemed to be indeed invincible--a magnificent horseman who rode like a fury, yet checked and wheeled his pony with the skill of a circus rider. But there was no admiration in Mrs. Perceval's intent gaze. She looked merely critical.

"Pat hasn't," replied Duncombe, whose love for Hone was no mean thing, and who gloried in his Irish major's greatness. "He's a man in ten thousand--the finest specimen of an imperfect article ever produced."

His enthusiasm fell on barren ground. Mrs. Perceval was not apparently bestowing much attention upon him. She was watching the play with brows slightly drawn.

Duncombe looked at her with faint surprise. She was not often unappreciative, and he could not imagine any woman failing to admire Hone. Besides, Mrs. Perceval and Hone were old friends, as everyone knew. Was it not Hone who had escorted her to the East seven years ago when she had left Home to join her elderly husband? By Jove, was it really seven years since Perceval's beautiful young wife had taken them all by storm? She looked a mere girl yet, though she had been three years a widow. Small and dark and very regal was Nina Perceval, with the hands and feet of a fairy and the carriage of a princess. He had seen nothing of her during those last three years. She had been living a life of retirement in the hills. But now she was going back to England and was visiting her old haunts to bid her friends farewell. And Teddy Duncombe found her as captivating as ever. She was more than beautiful. She was positively dazzling.

What a splendid pair she and Pat would make, Duncombe thought to himself as he watched her. A man like Major Hone, V.C., ought to find a mate. Every king should have a queen.

The thought was still in his mind, possibly in his eyes also, when abruptly Mrs. Perceval turned her head and caught him.

"Taking notes, Captain Duncombe?" she asked, with a smile too careless to be malicious.

"Playing providence, Mrs. Perceval," he answered without embarrassment.

He had never been embarrassed in her presence yet. She had a happy knack of setting her friends at ease.

"I hope you are preparing a kind fate for me," she said.

He laughed a little. "What would you call a kind fate?"

Her dark eyes flashed. She looked for a moment scornful. "Not the usual woman's Utopia," she said. "I have been through that and come out on the other side."

"I can hardly believe it," protested Teddy.

"Don't you know I am a cynic?" she said, with a little reckless laugh.

A second wild shout from the spectators on all sides of them swept their conversation away. On the further side of the ground Hone, with steady wrist and faultless aim, had just sent the ball whizzing between the posts.

It was the end of the match, and Hone was once more the hero of the hour.

"Really, I sometimes think the gods are too kind to Major Hone," smiled Mrs. Chester, the colonel's wife, and Mrs. Perceval's hostess. "It can't be good for him to be always on the winning side."

Hone was trotting quietly down the field, laughing all over his handsome, sunburnt face at the cheers that greeted him. He dismounted close to Mrs. Perceval, and was instantly seized by Duncombe and thumped upon the back with all the force of his friend's goodwill.

"Pat, old fellow, you're the finest sportsman in the Indian Empire. Those chaps haven't been beaten for years."

Hone laughed easily and swung himself free. "They've got some knowing little brutes of ponies, by the powers," he said. "They slip about like minnows. The Ace of Trumps was furious. Did you hear him squeal?"

He turned with the words to his own pony and kissed the velvet nose that was rubbing against his arm.

"And a shame it is to make him carry a lively five tons," he murmured in his caressing Irish brogue.

For Hone was a giant as well as a hero and he carried his inches, as he bore his honours, like a man.

Raising his head, he encountered Mrs. Perceval's direct look. She bowed to him with that regal air of hers that for all its graciousness yet managed to impart a sense of remoteness to the man she thus honoured.

"I have been admiring your luck, Major Hone," she said. "I am told you are always lucky."

He smiled courteously.

"Sure, Mrs. Perceval, you can hardly expect me to plead guilty to that."

"Anyway, you deserved your luck, Pat," declared Duncombe. "You played superbly."

"Major Hone excels in all games, I believe," said Mrs. Perceval. "He seems to possess the secret of success."

She spoke with obvious indifference; yet an odd look flashed across Hone's brown face at the words. He almost winced.

But he was quick to reply. "The secret of success," he said, "is to know how to make the best of a beating."

He was still smiling as he spoke. He met Mrs. Perceval's eyes with baffling good-humour.

"You speak from experience, of course?" she said. "You have proved it?"

"Faith, that is another story," laughed Hone, hitching his pony's bridle on his arm. "We live and learn, Mrs. Perceval. I have learnt it."

And with that he bowed and passed on, every inch a soldier and to his finger-tips a gentleman.