Chapter VII
 

"I am so sorry, Major Hone, but she is seeing no one. I would ask you to dine if it would be of any use. But you wouldn't see her if I did."

So spoke the colonel's wife three days later in a sympathetic undertone; while Hone paced beside her rickshaw with a gloomy face.

"She isn't ill?" he asked. "You are sure she isn't ill?"

"No, not really ill. Her nerves are upset, of course. That was almost inevitable. But she has determined to start for Bombay on Monday, and nothing I can say will make her change her purpose."

"But she can't mean to go without saying good-bye!" he protested.

Mrs. Chester shook her head.

"She says she doesn't like good-byes. I had the greatest difficulty in persuading her to come here at all. I am afraid that is exactly what she does mean to do."

Hone stood still. His face was suddenly stubborn.

"I must see her," he said, "with her consent or without it. Will you, of your goodness, ask me to dine tonight? I will manage the rest for myself."

Mrs. Chester looked somewhat dubious. Long as she had known Hone, she was not familiar with this mood.

He saw her hesitation, and smiled upon her persuasively.

"You are not going to refuse my petition? It isn't yourself that would have the heart!"

She laughed, in spite of herself.

"Oh, go away, you wheedling Irishman! Yes, you may dine if you like. The Gerrards are coming for bridge, and you'll be odd man out. There will be no one to entertain you."

"Sure, I can entertain myself," grinned Hone. "And it's truly grateful that I am to your worshipful ladyship."

He bowed, with his hand upon his heart, and, turning, went his way.

Mrs. Chester went hers, still vaguely doubtful as to the wisdom of her action. In common with the rest of mankind, she found Hone well-nigh impossible to resist.

When he made his appearance that evening, he presented an absolutely serene aspect to the world at large. He was the gayest of the party, and Mrs. Chester's uneasiness speedily evaporated. Nina Perceval was not present, but this fact apparently did not depress him. He remained in excellent spirits throughout dinner.

When it was over, and the bridge players were established on the veranda, he drifted off to the smoking-room in an aimless, inconsequent fashion, and his hostess and accomplice saw him no more.

She would have given a good deal to have witnessed his subsequent movements, but she would have been considerably disappointed had she done so, for Hone's methods were disconcertingly direct. All he did when he found himself alone was to sit down and scribble a brief note.

"I am waiting to see you" (so ran his message). "Will you come to me now, or must I follow you to the world's end? One or the other it will surely be.--Yours, PAT."

This note he delivered to the khitmutgar, with orders to return to him with a reply. Then, with a certain massive patience, he resumed his cigar and settled himself to wait.

The khitmutgar did not return, but he showed no sign of exasperation. His eyes stared gravely into space. There was not a shade of anxiety in them.

And it was thus that Nina Perceval found him when at last she came lightly in from the veranda in answer to his message. She entered without the smallest hesitation, but with that regal air of hers before which men did involuntary homage. Her shadowy eyes met his without fear or restraint of any sort, but they held no gladness either. Her remoteness chilled him.

"Why did you send me that extraordinary message?" she said. "Wasn't it a little unnecessary?"

He had risen to meet her. He paused to lay aside his cigar before he answered, and in the pause that dogged expression that had surprised Mrs. Chester descended like a mask and covered the first spontaneous impulse to welcome her that had dominated him.

"It was necessary that I should see you," he said.

"I really don't know why," she returned. "I wrote a note to thank you for the care you took of me the other night. That was days ago. I suppose you received it?"

"Yes, I received it," said Hone. "I have been trying, without success, to see you ever since."

She made a slight impatient movement.

"I haven't seen any one. I was upset after that horrible adventure. I shouldn't be seeing you now, only your ridiculous note made me wonder if there was anything wrong. Is there?"

She faced him with the direct inquiry. There was a faint frown between her brows. Her delicate beauty possessed him like a charm. He felt his blood begin to quicken, but he kept himself in check.

"There is nothing wrong, Princess," he said steadily. "I am, as ever, your humble servant, only I've got to come to the point with you before you go. I've got to make the most of this shred of opportunity which you have given me against your will. You are not disposed to be generous, I see; but I appeal to your sense of justice. Is it fair play at all to fling a man into gaol, and to refuse to let him plead on his own behalf?"

The annoyance passed like a shadow from her face. She began to smile.

"What can you mean?" she said. "Is it a joke--a riddle? Am I supposed to laugh?"

"Heaven help me, no!" he said. "There is only one woman in the world that I can't trifle with, and that's yourself."

"Oh, but what an admission!" She laughed at him, softly mocking. "And I'm so fond of trifling, too. Then what can you possibly want with me? I suppose you have really called to say good-bye."

"No," said Hone. He spoke quickly, and, as he spoke, he leaned towards her. A deep glow had begun to smoulder in his eyes. "It's something else that I've come to say--something quite different. I've come to tell you that you are all the world to me, that I love you with all there is of me, that I have always loved you. Yes, you'll laugh at me. You'll think me mad. But if I don't take this chance of telling you, I'll never have another. And even if it makes no difference at all to you, I'm bound to let you know."

He ceased. The fire that smouldered in his eyes had leaped to lurid flame; but still he held himself in check, he subdued the racing madness in his veins. He was, as ever, her humble servant.

Perhaps she realized it, for she showed no sign of shrinking as she stood before him. Her eyes grew a little wider and a little darker, that was all.

"I don't know what to say to you, Major Hone," she said, after a moment. "I don't know even what you expect me to say, since you expressly tell me that you are not trifling."

"Faith!" he broke in impetuously. "And is it trifling I'd be with the only woman I ever loved or ever wanted? I'm not asking you to flirt. I'm asking a bigger thing of you than that. I'm asking you--Princess, I'm asking you to stay--and be my wife."

He drew nearer to her, but he made no attempt to touch her. Only the flame of his passion seemed to reach her, to scorch her, for she made a slight movement away from him.

She looked at him doubtfully. "I still don't know what to say," she said.

His face altered. With a mighty effort he subdued the fiery impulse that urged him to override her doubts and fears, to take and hold her in his arms, to make her his with or without her will.

He became in a trice the kindly, winning personality that all his world knew and loved. "Sure then, you're not afraid of me?" he said, as though he softly cajoled a child. "It wouldn't be yourself at all if you were, you that could tread me underfoot like a centipede and not be a mite the worse."

She smiled a little, smiled and uttered a sudden quick sigh. "Don't you think you are rather a fool, Pat?" she said. "I gave you credit for more shrewdness. You certainly had more once."

"What do you mean?" There was a sharp note of pain in Hone's voice.

She moved restlessly across the room and paused with her back to him. "None but a fool would conclude that because a woman is pretty she must be good as well," she said, a tremor of bitterness in her voice. "Why do you take it for granted in this headlong fashion that I am all that man could desire?"

"You are all that I want," he said.

She shook her head. "The woman who lived inside me died long ago," she said, "and a malicious spirit took her place."

"None but yourself would ever dare to say that to me," said Hone. "And I won't listen even to you. Princess--"

"You are not to call me that!" She rounded upon him suddenly, a fierce gleam in her eyes. "You must never--never--"

She broke off. He was close to her, with that on his face that stilled her protest. He gathered her to him with a tenderness that yet was irresistible.

"Sure, then," he whispered, with a whimsical humour that cloaked all deeper feeling, "you shall be my queen instead, for by the saints I swear that in some form or other I was created to be your slave."

And though she averted her face and after a moment withdrew herself from his arms, she raised no further protest. She suffered him to plant the flag of his supremacy unhindered.