The Return Game by Ethel M. Dell
Certainly the colonel's wife was in her element. A wedding in the regiment, and that the wedding of its idolized hero, was to her an affair of almost more importance than anything that had happened since her own. The church had been fully decorated under her directions, and she had turned it into as elegant a reception room as circumstances permitted. White favours had been distributed to the dusky warriors under Hone's command who lined the aisle. All was in readiness, from the bridegroom, resplendent in scarlet and gold, waiting in the chancel with Teddy Duncombe, the best man, to the buzzing guests who swarmed in at the west door to be received by the colonel's wife, who in her capacity of hostess seemed to be everywhere at once.
"She was quite ready when I left, and looking sweet," so ran the story to one after another. "Oh, yes, in her travelling dress, of course. That had to be. But quite bridal--the palest silver grey. She looks quite charming, and such a girl. No one would ever think--" and so on, to innumerable acquaintances, ending where she had begun--"yes, she was quite ready when I left, and looking sweet!"
Ready or not, she was undoubtedly late, as is the recognised custom of brides all the world over. The organist, who had been playing an impressive selection, was drawing to the end of his resources and beginning to improvise somewhat spasmodically. The bridegroom betrayed no impatience, but there was undeniable strain in his attitude. He stood stiff and motionless as a soldier on parade. The guests were commencing to peer and wonder. Mrs. Chester made her tenth pilgrimage to the door.
Ah! The carriage at last! She turned back with a beaming face, and rustled up the aisle as though she were the heroine of the occasion. A flutter of expectation went through the church. The organist plunged abruptly into "The Voice that Breathed o'er Eden."
Everyone rose. Everyone craned towards the door. The carriage, with its flying favours, was stopping, had stopped. The colonel was seen descending.
He was looking very pale, whispered someone. Could anything be wrong? He was not wont to suffer from nervousness.
He did not turn to assist the bride. Surely that was strange! Nor did she follow him. Surely--surely the carriage behind him was empty!
Something indeed had happened. She must be ill! A great tremor went through the waiting crowd. No one was singing, but the music pealed on and on till some wild rumour of disaster reached the waiting chaplain, and he stepped across the chancel and touched the organist's shoulder.
Instantly silence fell--a terrible, nerve-racking silence. Colonel Chester had entered. He stood just within the door, pale and stern, whispering to the officer in charge of the men. People stared at him, at each other, at the bridegroom still standing motionless by the chancel steps. And then at last the silence broke into a murmur that spread and spread. Something had happened! Something was wrong! No, the bride was not ill. But there would be no wedding that day.
Someone came hurriedly and spoke to Teddy Duncombe, who turned first crimson, then very white, and finally pulled himself together with a jerk and went to Hone. Everyone craned to see what would happen--how the news would affect him, whether he would be deeply shocked, or whether--whether--ah! A great sigh went through the church. He did not seem startled or even greatly dismayed. He listened to Duncombe gravely, but without any visible discomfiture. There could not be anything very serious the matter, then. A note was put into his hand, which he read with absolute calmness under the eyes of the multitude.
When he looked up from it, the colonel had reached his side. They exchanged a few words, and then Hone, smiling faintly, beckoned to the chaplain. He rested a hand on his shoulder in his careless, friendly way, and spoke into his ear.
The chaplain looked deeply concerned, nodded once or twice, and, straightening himself, faced the crowd of guests.
"I am requested to state," he announced in the midst of dead silence, "that, owing to a most regrettable and unforeseen mischance, the happy event which we are gathered here to celebrate must be unavoidably postponed. The bride has just received an urgent summons to England on a matter of the first importance, which she feels compelled to obey, and she is already on her way to Bombay in the hope of catching the steamer which will sail to-morrow. It only remains for me to express deep sympathy, in which I am sure all present join me, with our friend Major Hone and his bride-elect on their disappointment, and the sincere hope that their happy union may not long be deferred."
He ended with a doubtful glance at Hone, who, standing on the chancel steps, bowed briefly, and, taking Duncombe by the shoulder, marched with him into the vestry. He certainly did not look in the least disconcerted or anxious. It could not be anything really serious. A feeling of relief lightened the atmosphere. People began to talk, to speculate, even to enjoy the sensation. Poor Hone! He was not often unlucky. But, of course, it would be all right. He would probably follow his bride to England, and they would be married there. Doubtless that was his intention, or he could not have looked so undismayed.
So ran the tide of gossip and surmise. And in Hone's pocket lay the twisted note which the woman he loved had left behind--the note which he had read with an unmoved countenance under a host of watching eyes.
"Good-bye, St. Patrick! It has been an amusing game, has it not? Do you remember how you beat me once long ago? I was but a child in those days. I did not know the rules of the game, and so you had the advantage. But you could not hope to have it always. It is my turn now, and I think I may claim the return match for my own. So good-bye, Achilles! Perhaps the gods will send you better luck next time. Who knows?"
No eye but Hone's ever read that heartless note, and his but once. Half an hour after he had received it, it lay in ashes, but every word of it was graven deep upon his brain.