21. By A Route Obscure And Lonely, Haunted By Ill Angels Only

Eleanor is taking her siesta, wrapt in dreams of Carol and love. No thought of evil disturbs her rest, for to-day the clouds seem to have blown over. Carol has been tender and adoring as of old, he speaks no more of the dreaded up-rooting, but is peaceful and content. Yet while she lies in fancy-land--asleep--she cannot see him in the room below, a look of excitement on his face while he writes with feverish haste on a large sheet of flimsy paper.

The words reel rapidly off his quill, he never pauses, and his eyes are aglow with the fire of energy.

Quamina, who has been in the verandah, enters with a tray of cooling drinks and places them by his elbow. She has never seen the Sahib writing before, she did not know he could hold a pen, and his engrossed attitude awakes her curiosity and suspicion. He does not hear her come in till she puts the glasses beside him, then he pushes them away and tells her to go.

Quamina steals across the room.

Why is the Sahib writing? It is not his way. His quill flies like a thing possessed across the paper, and when he pauses it is to wipe the drops of perspiration from his heated brow.

"This is the Sahib's hour for sleep," thinks Quamina. "It is a secret message that he writes at such a time, when his wife is absent, dreaming in the other room." She steals into the verandah and watches. A sudden idea comes to her ignorant mind, which, as she turns it over in her brain, amounts to a firm conviction.

She steals into the verandah and watches.

"The Sahib is making a compact with the devil. He is frightened of that tall spirit in the black mask, and is coming to terms with him. Maybe he will offer his house and his servants, his wife even, to be himself released from the terror of that grim presence."

Quamina shakes from head to foot. Her white teeth rattle. Surely the Sahib's face is taking the likeness of the Evil one, as he sits alone, or why does a sinister smile flit across his lips, while he perpetually pauses to listen, and look nervously towards the door? Once he rises, opens it, standing a moment, looking towards Eleanor's room. But there is no sound, and he returns to his desk reassured.

Finally the letter ends. He folds it carefully, looking at the dashing signature with some pride. He takes up a red seal, strikes a light, and drops a huge round of burning wax upon the envelope.

"The deed is done," thinks trembling Quamina; "the devil has been written to. He will scan those hasty words in his unholy abode, and bargain with the Sahib, till an arrangement shall be made."

Her suspicions increase as Quinton, listening once more at the door, snatches up a hat with a guilty air, creeping out into the broiling sun.

Quamina by this time is wild with curiosity, and as Carol hastens down the hill, the letter in his hand, she follows stealthily at a discreet distance.

"Perhaps he will give it himself to the devil. Ah, the poor Sahib!" she mutters.

Quinton never pauses till he is out of sight of the bungalow; then turning to his right he places the sealed envelope in a crevice of a rock, hidden from sight.

Quamina watches wonderingly the post-box of the devil.

She marks the spot in her mind's eye, and fearing detection hurries back unobserved.

For the rest of the day she thinks of nothing but the Sahib's letter, and its strange hiding place. She pictures the "Nâts" surrounding the spot, and bearing it in triumph to their chief.

She watches her master curiously, but by no sign does he reveal that anything unusual has occurred, save that he laughs more frequently, and seems as light-hearted and high spirited as a boy.

"Maybe he has paid the devil off," Quamina surmises.

Captain Stevenson and Major Short ride over, much to Eleanor's delight, who enjoys a chat with the outer world as keenly as Carol.

She longs once again to hear Major Short's melodious voice, and bringing her guitar, begs for "Mandalay."

But he shakes his head.

"I shall tire you of the one song," he declares.

"Not when it is the favourite," she protests. "Only four lines, if you will, or a single bar of the tune. I love the sad refrain."

He follows her on to the verandah. Quinton and Capt. Stevenson are talking and smoking within.

They catch the words between the pauses in their conversation:

"Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain't no ten Commandments, and a man can raise a thirst.
For the temple bells are callin' and it's there that I would be,
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea."

"Dreadful morals!" laughs Captain Stevenson.

"Do you love the East?" asks Eleanor, as Major Short lays aside the guitar.

"Yes, well enough, but I get terribly homesick at times. I long to draw round a huge log fire in the old hall at home on a still winter's evening, with the shutters shut and the curtains drawn, and my feet on the fender. No one has any conception of the bliss of those long, luxurious hours over the flame and the coal. Those who have it don't appreciate it. Imagine yourself nipped by a biting frost coming suddenly in to such a scene of warmth and ease, to lose yourself in the depths of an enormous spring chair, and gaze in that wilderness of red, while the wood crackles, and blue flickers up like a phantom light in the blazing scarlet. It is many years since I passed a good old English Christmas, with plum pudding and bells chiming over the snow. Bah! I cannot endure to think of it--I get so green with envy."

"I am afraid I never cared for the winter. The sun is better than artificial warmth--the East is rosier than the fireside."

"But you must yearn sometimes to get home to your family and friends. Have you no mother you long to kiss--no father who is pining for a sight of his daughter's smile, and old chums waiting to greet you with a hearty handshake and a cheery welcome?"

Eleanor shakes her head mournfully--her large soft eyes look sad and wistful--she is no hypocrite--she never could pretend.

"No; England is all a blank. My whole interest in life is centred in my husband."

Involuntarily a pang of pity shoots through the man's heart. He hardly knows why, since she is so happy in Quinton's love.

He mistrusts him, for men are quicker in reading each other than a woman blinded by skin-deep fascination.

Many a trusting heart has been won by the pink light from a lamp falling on a handsome profile, by the faultless cut of a frock coat, or by a good seat on horseback.

Poor little Eleanor! Poor humanity!

"It is a mistake to rely too much on love," says Major Short. "It sometimes fails us, and then----"

He pauses, seeing the look of pain upon Eleanor's face.

"I was speaking of myself," he adds half apologetically. "Look for instance, at my parents, at home in the old country. What good is their affection now? What use am I to them, stuck here in India? True, we correspond, but letters give us no sight of the familiar face, no kiss from the lips that may be dead and cold before we meet again. But love, Mrs. Quinton, is over for ever in my life, it is a memory alone, a dream of the silent past."

Eleanor's eyes are deeply sympathetic; she is a woman to inspire confidence.

Major Short continues, though he is surprised at himself for so doing:

"Yes, I was in love once, it was the one sincere and overruling passion of my life." He lowers his voice as he speaks. "You brought it back to me when you said that all your interests were centred in your husband."

He holds out a little case to Eleanor.

"I always carry this about with me; it is her portrait. Look at it."

Eleanor opens the case reverently, and gazes with a certain awe at the beautiful face within. She fancies there is a mystery in the far-away expression of the woman's eyes. But, after all, it is only the mystery of death.

"That picture was taken after she knew she must die," he says. "They would not let me marry her then."

His eyes are lowered, Eleanor fancies they are moist.

"Fate is very cruel," she murmurs.

"Yes, when the poetry of existence turns to prose, all the light dies out. I can never love again. Sentiment to me now is as a shallow stream."

Quamina appears with the tray of drinks again. Her eyes look wild; she shambles along; her knees knock together.

"What is the matter with that woman?" asks Major Short, as she staggers away.

"She is frightfully superstitious, and some nights ago she thought the devil had come for Carol, and she has never been the same since. She crouches about like a creature demented. Sometimes I fancy she must be insane."

Major Short quotes from Pope with a dry smile:

'Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutored mind, Sees God in clouds, or hears Him in the wind."

"But there is sense in that," Eleanor declares. "God is in all Nature; every blade of grass manifests Him."

Then she remembers that she is still clasping that small case, and looks down once more on the impressive features of the beautiful woman.

"Talking of death--and love," she says slowly, harping back to the old subject, "I often wonder what I should do if anything happened to Carol. Imagine me here, in a strange country, alone, friendless! What if he sickened with fever, or was wounded by an enemy, or if he died?" A shudder of apprehension runs over her.

"I hope you will never call yourself friendless while we--while I am within your reach. I have suffered myself; I know what sorrow is. Should you ever be in any trouble, Mrs. Quinton, or need a helping hand, remember you can rely on me."

Eleanor looks at him with that serious and admiring glance of hers, expressive of greater gratitude and deeper wonder than any words.

"You are very good," she says at length. "If all men were so kind, I think women would be better and place surer trust in them."

Two large trees in front of the verandah, with bending boughs, meet and make an archway of feathery foliage, in which the birds lodge. Eleanor's eyes turn to the drooping green, and then to the distant hills. She has a vague foreshadowing of coming evil. She sees the oxen yoked together dragging their loads; she wonders if they are happier after all than mortals like Major Short and herself. Two of these patient animals are drawing a Burmese public carriage, with a black boy looking out of the quaint covering, like a little house on two wheels. They pause to drink in the Irrawaddy; she sighs to think how sadly they need refreshment. In the thatched huts and tall palms, Eleanor pictures Copthorne--it rises as a mirage--till Major Short dispels it by some casual remark. He notices her listlessness, for she starts as she speaks.

"Forgive me," she says, smiling wanly, "but I was miles away."

"How interesting. May I not follow you? What did you see?"

"I conjured up a farm-house and green English lanes, gold cornfields, rustic reapers, and honest workers. They were getting in the harvest."

Captain Stevenson's cheery voice, and Quinton's musical laugh interrupts the conversation as they join Eleanor and Major Short.

"It is time we were making tracks. What do you say, Short?"

"I suppose so, but it is always hard to tear oneself away from pleasant companions."

"When shall we meet again?" asks Eleanor gaily. "Can't we arrange a day next week? Ride over in the cool of the morning to breakfast."

"Thanks--delighted. There is a peculiar fascination in your charming home and hearty welcome."

Quinton smiles enigmatically, as he watches them ride away.

Eleanor slips her hand in his. "You seem very merry to-day," she says. "They quite enlivened us, didn't they, Carol?"

"Yes; it certainly makes a difference having somebody to speak to. Don't you notice it, dear?"

He looks down at her steadfastly, and for the moment Eleanor's expression turns the unscrupulous man dizzy with a vague sensation nearly approaching regret.

He sees in her eyes the overflowing of a heart; whose passionate adoration amounts to idolatry.

He is touched and softened. He presses her lips, though they no longer thrill him, and she in her mute worship cannot define the change.

Her love, he thinks, so freely given, so utterly beyond control, is after all a pitiable spectacle.

He scrutinises her fair face critically; it seems insipid to him now. Its pale spirituality, which once set his brain on fire, appears characterless. The classical features, exquisitely moulded, lack power. The sweet mouth has a wan droop, as if sighing for ungranted kisses.

"Sometimes, Carol," she says at last, "I fancy you are tiring of me." She only speaks for him to contradict.

"My darling, what an absurd notion to get into that pretty little head of yours! Occasionally it is a little slow here for us both."

"That is only since you grew nervous. Of course, the days are long if you will stay indoors doing nothing."

"Yes, you are quite right," he answers, somewhat to Eleanor's surprise. "It is foolish, and unnecessary. Now you won't grumble, my pet, if I go for a long day's sport to-morrow. It will do me all the good in the world, some excitement and exercise. I have been getting dreadfully grumpy and cross."

"How early shall you start?"

"Oh, first thing. I assure you, Eleanor, I am quite looking forward to it. I can't have been very well lately, and that accounts for my apparent prostration and uncalled-for nervousness. There is nothing really to fear, and you can make your mind quite easy about me."

These reassuring words delight Eleanor, for as long as Carol is happy and satisfied, her joy is intense.

As they talk Quamina is crouching under the broad steps that lead down from the verandah; her eyes gaze in the direction of that mysterious rock hidden from sight.

She wonders if the devil has yet come for the Sahib's message. Her soul is torn by curiosity and fear. She longs to know, and if the strange letter still lies in the crevice untouched, herself to break the seal and try to decipher the words.

It is a tremendous temptation; yet, as she rises with a bold resolve and creeps along the moonlit path, she suffers mortal dread, momentarily expecting to encounter some supernatural apparition. She turns out of sight of the bungalow, with its cheerful light, and reaches the rock, on which the moonbeams play. A ray of light lies across the crevice in which the Sahib deposited his epistle.

With set teeth, and frantically beating heart, Quamina forces her skinny arms into the hole, murmuring prayers as she gropes and fumbles, then staggers back with a low moan, and flees from the unholy spot. The devil has been! The letter is gone;