16. Oh, Love! In Such A Wilderness As This

Eleanor grows very fond of Elizabeth Kachin and her dusky son. Since she rescued him that day from the trap Tombo thinks there is no one like the beautiful Mrs. Quinton.

Big Tombo, his father, an educated man who has spent many years of his life in England, also looks upon Eleanor with the same reverence and admiration as little Tombo.

Carol makes fun of the sandy-haired woman wedded to a native, and laughs at Eleanor for being friends with her.

"I have not so many friends that I can afford to pick or choose," she says simply to Quinton, who is smoking in the verandah, his legs crossed, and a graceful air of abandon in his attitude.

She looks lovingly at his long, slim foot, remembering how it attracted her in old days.

"No, darling; I am afraid you must be getting bored to death in this beastly slow place."

A look of alarm steals over Eleanor's features. The distress in her voice is evident as she replies:

"Oh, no, Carol--are you?"

"I have plenty of sport," he says, watching the smoke wreath upwards; "it is different for me."

"And I have you," she answers tenderly; "that is all I want."

"Sweetest Eleanor," he drawls, letting her take his hand. "How easily you are satisfied!"

"I don't quite see that," she answers, puckering her forehead. "I have the only man I love here at my side, glorious scenery all round, I do just as I please, I come and go unquestioned, you have given me a horse to ride, and a house to inhabit, a heart to treasure----"

"Why do you put the heart last?"

She laughs at his question.

"Oh! merely by chance."

"Perhaps it is the least valuable," says Quinton, playing with her fingers.

"Don't be silly."

"I wish you were fond of sport, I would teach you to shoot."

"I cannot bear killing things. I really believe I should suffer as much as my victims."

"That would be very weak-minded of you."

"Perhaps, but I have a weak mind, you know. I told you that at Copthorne, when you swallowed up my will."

"That sounds as if I were a devouring monster, darling."

She is gazing before her and takes no notice of his remark.

"Copthorne!" she says at last. "What a long way off it seems."

"Yes," replies Quinton, "rather fortunate under the circumstances. Your good parents were eminently virtuous; I doubt if they would give me such a friendly welcome now. I say, Eleanor, don't you wish you had Giddy out here. She would wake us up. I should like to see her come in now, with that terrible purple hat, and the white cock's feathers all awry. How full she would be of gossip, and how funny!"

He laughs at the recollection of her odd sayings.

"But I don't want waking up," replies Eleanor. "It would be like a douche of cold water thrown rudely over you in a dream to see any face that reminded me of the past. I am sure we don't want Giddy in our paradise. It is far pleasanter without her!"

"You prefer Elizabeth Kachin and her black Tombo!" laughs Carol. "Do you know, Eleanor, you are the only white woman who would speak to her."

"I like them both; they do not bother me with questions."

"By the way, dear, I forgot to tell you Captain Stevenson and Major Short, two old pals of mine, are in these parts. They sent a mounted messenger to ask me to go and see them this afternoon. They don't know what I am doing here. Of course, I shall say 'sport,' that is only another word for 'love.'"

"The two make a bad combination, for some love is only sport to the fickle and untrue."

"How different to yours and mine, Eleanor," he murmurs tenderly. "I wish I could take you with me this afternoon, but it is a long, rough road, and--and----"

"You would rather your friends did not see me, Carol. Don't be afraid to say it. It is very natural. Besides," with a forced smile, "I am so wonderfully pretty, they might become madly enamoured, and kidnap me in these wilds."

There is no conceit in Eleanor's voice or manner as she speaks, but a spirit of cynicism which is new to her.

Quinton kisses her passionately.

"You are beautiful," he whispers.

"Yet you intend leaving me for several long hours! What are these men like?"

"Captain Stevenson is the dearest fellow on earth, and Major Short handsome enough to fascinate any woman. I assure you I am far too jealous to wish to introduce him. His eyes are soft and hazel, the sort that the feminine mind worships--adores! Hair dark and curling, with threads of grey. A smile that has worked destruction in the four quarters of the globe, and a heart so good and tender that he would not intentionally cause a fly a pang."

"I should like to meet him," sighs Eleanor.

"To quote your own sentiments, darling, it is pleasanter alone; we want no one in our paradise, neither Giddy Mounteagle, nor the handsome Major Short."

"Now you are vindictive and cross," she declares, as he draws her head down on his shoulder.

"There is my horse. Good-bye, little woman. I shall be back before nightfall."

She watches him ride away, waving from the verandah; he turns several times to kiss his hand.

Then she sinks back in a low chair, wondering how to kill time until he returns.

The sun sets when he is out of sight, and rises in all its glory at his presence. He is her idol. Her whole happiness and interest are absorbed in Quinton.

She sends her black servant Quamina to beg Mrs. Kachin to come and sit with her.

It will pass the afternoon to have someone to talk to.

Elizabeth gladly obeys the summons, for she thinks a great deal of her new white friend.

"How is young Tombo?" asks Eleanor, running out to meet Elizabeth, whom she caresses in her affectionately demonstrative manner.

"Oh; so well again, his arm is as good as ever, and he hardly runs stiff at all now."

"My husband has gone to visit two men from Burmah, and I felt terribly deserted and lonely. It is good of you to come, Mrs. Kachin."

"I am also glad of a companion," replies Elizabeth. "Big Tombo has gone to superintend the 'Jhooming' and the boy is with him."

"What is Jhooming?" asks Eleanor.

"Oh! don't you know, they cut down the trees once a year, and burn them when they are quite dry. Then plough the ground, ploughing in all the ash, and sow when the rain comes, scattering the seeds broadcast."

"What busy lives the natives lead! It makes me feel so idle," says Eleanor, stretching her arms. "Yet I love this beautiful country, and enjoy to sit and dream. My days are one long siesta; I am never really awake."

"Ah! you don't work in your home as I do. All this morning I was making clothing for little Tombo on my loom, yet I, too, am happy, Mrs. Quinton. Perhaps you wonder how it is that I married big Tombo. We met in England when I was quite a girl. He was the only honest man it had been my fate to know. I was an unfortunate child, nameless from my birth, yet loved honour and virtue more than anything on earth. My mother was always lenient and kind, but when I grew old enough to realise the wrong she had done me I abhorred her! My marriage released me from a hateful and unwholesome home. I was glad to leave the country in which I first learnt to despise the woman I called by the sacred name of 'mother.'"

Eleanor is pale to the lips, she trembles all over as she listens to Elizabeth.

"I sometimes hear from her now, but she knows my feelings towards her."

"Poor woman!" cries Eleanor, speaking suddenly as if compelled against her will. "You, in your quiet life, with big Tombo, cannot guess the temptations she may have faced. You judge her very harshly. She was kind to you, and it is your duty to love her. You prize virtue and honour, yet do not hesitate to hate and abhor your own flesh and blood."

"It is easy to dictate to others. But if you were to meet that woman, and knew her history, you would pull your skirts aside, for fear they might brush her in passing."

Eleanor shakes her head.

"Oh, no," she says sorrowfully. "I would take her by the hand, and call her 'Sister.'"

"Then you are the right sort of Christian," replies Elizabeth. "I cannot feel that way, because I suffered for her sin--Heaven only knows how bitterly!"

As Eleanor listens to Mrs. Kachin, she feels involuntarily drawn towards her by force of contrast. Their natures are so widely different, for Eleanor was ever lenient, kind-hearted, and forgiving, while Elizabeth is hard, determined, not easily swerved from a purpose.

"Where does your mother live?"

"I hardly know; she is a roving spirit, with no settled home. But her loveless old age is the penalty she must pay for a misused youth. Once she wrote and told me she had enough money laid by to come here if I would receive her."

"And you refused?"

"Most certainly."

"Oh! how could you!" cries Eleanor, her eyes flashing with indignation.

"I consider the way I have acted since I came to years of discretion is simply just retribution. There is a saying that justice begins next door. I have practised it on my nearest of kin."

"You must be very cruel."

Elizabeth smiles vaguely. Her smile is her only beauty. It lights up her stern face, and makes Eleanor forget that she has sandy eyelashes.

They talk together in the low verandah till long after Quinton should have been home.

"He promised not to stay more than an hour with his friends, and it is a two hours' ride," says Eleanor. "He left soon after one o'clock. It is nearly dark."

Elizabeth detects the anxiety in her tone.

"Oh! you know what men are, they are worse than women! The Major has probably a host of good stories, and the Captain is plying him with wine and some extra special cigars. Don't worry, my dear Mrs. Quinton, he is sure to be late."

She presses Eleanor's hand, and wishes her good-bye.

Then Mrs. Katchin hurries up the hill to her hut, where big Tombo is growling at her absence, and little Tombo getting into endless mischief, which only his mother's watchful eye can prevent.

Night has fallen, but still Eleanor waits on the verandah, with widely-opened eyes, staring along the zigzag path by which Carol rode away. She remembers he turned back to look at her three times, kissing his hand twice. What can have detained him? Surely he knows how nervous she is!

Eleanor rises and walks up and down distractedly, her face ashen pale, her figure trembling.

He has had an accident--she is certain of it. The road, he said was lonely and rough; it winds near a precipice, the loose stones and boulders roll down the slope of the hill and fall into the abyss.

Perhaps his horse has fallen a victim to disease upon the way, or he has been attacked by a savage troop and speared to death.

These thoughts are too horrible to be borne with equanimity; the stillness of night appals her, she can stand it no longer.

Summoning Quamina, she orders her horse to be saddled immediately, with the idea of flying to his aid. She loves him too well to fear the night, the dangers of that lone road, or her indifferent horsemanship! She would die sooner than sit at home when he might need assistance.

Her horse is the handsomest animal that Carol could buy. She has named him "Braye du Valle."

The black men stare wondrously as she mounts and rides out bravely into the night.

"Braye du Valle," she whispers, "we must find him if it costs our lives!"

In the meanwhile Quinton has bidden his friends good-bye, having stayed far later than he intended, talking over old times, and airing his favourite adventures.

It is dark, and he feels a pang of self-reproach at the thought of Eleanor.

Yet his heart is light, and he whistles as he turns his horse's head homewards.

He loses himself in thought, for Carol Quinton is an imaginative man. As far as his fancy is concerned, he is artist, author, poet, and actor. He creates pictures in his brain, dreams of immortal verse, invents a thousand thrilling anecdotes, and quaint love histories. His train of ideas is more that of a woman than a man.

The moon rises, and he watches it floating above him

Like one that had been led astray,
Through the heaven's wide pathless way.

But the soul of the poet, soaring in the high region of his fancies, is suddenly rudely shaken. His horse starts, throws up its head and snorts, then shies across the road, as a dark shadow blackens the white stretch of moonlit ground.

"Steady," murmurs Quinton, patting the animal's neck, which is damp with sudden terror.

A black figure comes out from the gloom as he speaks--a tall, masked man on horseback--and before Quinton realises his presence he is seized violently by the throat and dragged from his saddle. A hissing sound as of suppressed rage issues from the assassin's lips--he towers above Quinton, and is muscular and active. Carol is taken unawares, and therefore at a disadvantage. He is like a rat in the paws of a tiger, he can neither cry out nor speak, for the cruel fingers press with deadly force upon his windpipe, and he is flung backwards and forwards, shaken till his teeth rattle in his head and his eyes all but drop from their sockets.

The cruel fingers press with deadly force.

The moon swims round in a sea of blood--he gasps, gargles, struggles.

The savage man in whose clutches he suddenly finds himself seems glorying in his power.

Quinton feels himself face to face with death: he is a child in the hands of this dark highwayman.

The thought rises suddenly to his fading senses:

"By night an Atheist half believes in God."

The terror of judgment is upon him--hell threatens. Through the black slits of the mask he faintly discerns the eyes of his tormentor, whose face is in such close proximity to his own that the hot breath of passion brushes his brow. They are the eyes of a devil, burning as coals of fire--glowing, scintillating. The broad white teeth of the man glisten as they press his lower lip; then he loosens his hold on Quinton's throat and gropes for his hand.

The two are fighting now like twin devils under the dark trees, through which the moonlight flits. They roll over in the dust, while Quinton breathes out curses, struggling for mastery. More than once he feels one finger of his left hand caught in the stranger's grasp, then, as with a cry of triumph which rends the air with hideous mirth, super-human strength seems to possess the masked man. He picks up Quinton in his sinewy arms, whirls him once wildly above his head, and drops him over a rock, down a bank--a fall of only a few feet, on to thick undergrowth below. Then leaping back into his saddle, he gallops at full speed towards the jungle, while Quinton lies gasping and shaking, cut and bleeding.

He rises dizzily--strange!--there are no bones broken, only the uncomfortable feeling of those hot fingers at his throat, and the giddy sensation from the violent shaking. He feels for his watch; it is still there. Some money fallen from his pocket lies loose on the wayside. Nothing apparently is stolen.

Then he looks down suddenly at his finger, the one twice captured in their struggle.

His cat's-eye ring has gone!