The Return Game by Ethel M. Dell
They reached their destination far ahead of any of the others. A thick belt of jungle stretched down to the river where they landed, enveloping both banks a little higher up the stream.
"What an awesome place!" remarked Mrs. Perceval, as she stepped ashore. "I hope the rest will arrive soon, or I shall develop an attack of nerves."
"You've got me to take care of you," suggested Hone.
She uttered her soft, little laugh.
"Faith, Major Hone, and I'm not at all sure that it isn't yourself I want to run away from!"
Hone was securing the boat, and made no immediate response. But as he straightened himself, he laughed also.
"Am I so formidable, then?"
She flashed a swift glance at him.
"I haven't quite decided."
"You have known me long enough," he protested.
She shrugged her shoulders lightly.
"Have I ever met you before to-night? I have no recollection of it."
And mutely, with that chivalry which was to him the very air he breathed, Hone bowed to her ruling. She would have no reference to the past. It was to be a closed book to them both. So be it, then! For this night, at least, she would have her way.
He stepped forward in silence into the chequered shadow of the trees that surrounded the ruin, and she walked lightly by his side with that dainty, regal carriage of hers that made him yet in his secret heart call her his princess.
The place was very dark and eerie. The shrill cries of flying-foxes, disturbed by their appearance, came through the magic silence. But no living thing was to be seen, no other sound to be heard.
"I'm frightened," said Nina suddenly. "Shall we stop?"
"Hold my hand!" said Hone.
"I'm not joking," she protested, with a shudder.
"Nor am I," he said gently.
She looked up at him sharply, as though she did not quite believe him, and then unexpectedly and impulsively she laid her hand in his.
His fingers closed upon it with a friendly, reassuring pressure, and she never knew how the man's heart leapt and the blood turned to liquid fire in his veins at her touch.
She gave a shaky little laugh as though ashamed of her weakness. "We are coming to an open space," she said. "We shall see the satyrs dancing directly."
"Faith, if we do, we'll join them," declared Hone cheerily.
"They would never admit us," she answered. "They hate mortals. Can't you feel them glaring at us from every tree? Why, I can breathe hostility in the very air."
She missed her footing as she spoke, and stumbled with a sharp cry. Hone held her up with that steady strength of his that was ever equal to emergencies, but to his surprise she sprang forward, pulling him with her, almost before she had fully recovered her balance.
"Oh, come, quick, quick!" she gasped. "I trod on something--something that moved!"
He went with her, for she would not be denied, and in a few seconds they emerged into a narrow clearing in the jungle in which stood the ruin of a small domed temple.
Nina Perceval was shaking all over in a positive frenzy of fear, and clinging fast to Hone's arm.
"What was it?" he asked her, trying gently to disengage himself. "Was it a snake that scared you?"
She shuddered violently. "Yes, it must have been. A cobra, I should think. Oh, what are you going to do?"
"It's all right," Hone said soothingly. "You stay here a minute! I've got some matches. I'll just go back a few yards and investigate."
But at that she cried out so sharply that he thought for a moment that something had hurt her. But the next instant he understood, and again has heart leapt and strained within him like a chained thing.
"No, Pat! No, no, no! You shall do no such thing!" Incoherently the words rushed out, and with them the old familiar name, uttered all unawares. "Do you think I'd let you go? Why, the place may be thronged with snakes. And you--you have nothing to defend yourself with. How can you dream of such a thing?"
He heard her out with absolute patience. His face betrayed no sign of the tumult within. It remained perfectly courteous and calm. Yet when he spoke he, too, it seemed, had gone back to the old intimate days that lay so far behind them.
"Yes, but, Princess," he said, "what about our pals? If there is any real danger we can't let them come stumbling into it. We'll have to warn them."
She was still clinging to his arm, and her hands tightened. For an instant she seemed about to renew her wild protest, but something--was it the expression in the man's steady eyes?--checked her.
She stood a moment silent. Then, "You're quite right, Pat," she said, her voice very low. "We'll go straight back to the boat and stop them."
Her hands relaxed and fell from his arm, but Hone stood hesitating.
"You'll let me go first?" he said. "You stay here in the open! I'll come back for you."
But at that her new-found docility at once evaporated. "I won't!" she declared vehemently. "I won't! Don't be so ridiculous! Of course I am coming with you. Do you suppose I would let you go alone?"
"Why not?" said Hone.
He remembered later that she passed the question by. "We are wasting time," she said, "Let us go!"
And so together they went back into the danger that lurked in the darkness.