The Return Game by Ethel M. Dell
It was two days later that Mrs. Chester decided to give what she termed a farewell fete to all Nina Perceval's old friends. Nina had always been a great favourite with her, and she was determined that the function should be worthy of the occasion.
To ensure success, she summoned Hone to her assistance. Hone always assisted everybody, and it was well known that he invariably succeeded in that to which he set his hand. And Hone, with native ingenuity, at once suggested a water expedition by moonlight as far as the ruined Hindu temple on the edge of the jungle that came down to the river at that point. There was a spice of adventure about this that at once caught Mrs. Chester's fancy. It was the very thing, she declared; a water-picnic was so delightfully informal. They would cut for partners, and row up the river in couples.
To Nina Perceval the plan seemed slightly childish, but she veiled her feelings from her friend as she veiled them from all the world; for very soon it would be all over, sunk away in that grey, grey past into which she would never look again. She even joined in conference with Mrs. Chester and Hone over the details of the expedition, and if now and then the Irishman's eyes rested upon her as though they read that which she would fain have hidden, she never suffered herself to be disconcerted thereby.
When the party assembled on the eventful evening to settle the question of partners, Hone was, as usual, in the forefront. The lots were drawn under his management, not by his own choice, but because Mrs. Chester insisted upon it. He presided over two packs of cards that had been reduced to the number of guests. The men drew from one pack, the women from the other; and thus everyone in the room was bound at length to pair.
Hone would have foregone this part of the entertainment, but the colonel's wife was firm.
"People never know how to arrange themselves," she declared. "And I decline any responsibility of that sort. The Fates shall decide for us. It will be infinitely more satisfactory in the end."
And Hone could only bow to her ruling.
Nina Perceval was the first to draw. Her card was the ace of hearts. She slung it round her neck in accordance with Mrs. Chester's decree, and sat down to await her destiny.
It was some time in coming. One after another drew and paired in the midst of much chaff and merriment; but she sat solitary in her corner watching the pile of cards diminish while she remained unclaimed.
"Most unusual!" declared Mrs. Chester. "Whom can the Fates be reserving for you, I wonder?"
Nina had no answer to make. She sat with her dark eyes fixed upon the few cards that were left in front of Hone, not uttering a single word. He sat motionless, too, Teddy Duncombe, who had paired with his hostess, standing by his side. He was not looking in her direction, but by some mysterious means she knew that his attention was focussed upon herself. She was convinced in her secret soul that, though he hid his anxiety, he was closely watching every card in the hope that he might ultimately pair with her.
The last man drew and found his partner. One card only was left in front of Hone. He laid his hand upon it, paused for an instant, then turned it up. The ace of hearts!
She felt herself stiffen involuntarily, and something within her began to pound and race like the hoofs of a galloping horse. A brief agitation was hers, which she almost instantly subdued, but which left her strangely cold.
Hone had risen from the table. He came quietly to her side. There was no visible elation about him. His grey eyes were essentially honest, but they were deliberately emotionless at that moment.
In the hubbub of voices all about them he bent and spoke.
"It may not be the fate you would have chosen; but since submit we must, shall we not make the best of it?"
She met his look with the aloofness of utter disdain.
"Your strategy was somewhat too apparent to be ascribed to Fate," she said. "I cannot imagine why you took the trouble."
A dark flush mounted under Hone's tan. He straightened himself abruptly, and she was conscious of a moment's sharp misgiving that was strangely akin to fear. Then, as he spoke no word, she rose and stood beside him, erect and regal.
"I submit," she said quietly; "not because I must, but because I do not consider it worth while to do otherwise. The matter is too unimportant for discussion."
Hone made no rejoinder. He was staring straight before him, stern-eyed and still.
But a few moments later, he gravely proffered his arm, and in the midst of a general move they went out together into the moonlit splendour of the Indian night.