17. Where There Ain't No Ten Commandments
As Carol goes on through the night, fear is in his heart.
How easily the dark, vindictive, savage creature could have cast him wantonly into eternity, yet he stayed his hand. Evidently he had not desired Quinton's life, since he took nothing but a little band of gold, with a cat's-eye. Such a worthless prize--a woman's ring.
The scene is a puzzle to Carol Quinton, the mystery of it haunts him. In every shadow he sees a black mask, at the slightest sound his blood runs cold, the creaking of the boughs above are to him the echo of pursuing hoofs, and the cry of the parrot, that sinister yell which accompanied his fall. Even the stars are flashing eyes, the moon an enemy, and the stones devils.
Quinton is not a brave man; truth to tell, he is a coward. His whole system is suffering from the shock, while the long tramp he has taken in search of his horse, which strayed from the road, increased his nervous agitation.
His hands tremble as they hold the reins, his knees knock against his frightened horse, who in sympathy with his master, starts at every step, appearing to find his route peopled with spirits.
"What did it all mean--what could it mean?" he asks himself again and again.
The beating of his heart seems to Quinton as thunder on the air, which is heavy and oppressive, a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours!
Surely this can be no fancy--the slow tread of a sure-footed beast on the path before him. Carol quails and whitens to the lips. The moon passes behind the cloud--a second figure is at his side. He spurs his horse, and the frantic swish of his crop lays a deep weal on the animal's withers. It breaks into a gallop, throwing up the dust around and flying down a steep descent. He hears the hoofs following closely in the rear, someone is nearly upon him gaining inch by inch. His courage sinks--dies--he is white, perspiring, terrified, limp! His senses reel, he drops the reins, falling forward on his horse's neck. His fingers clutch the mane, while a woman's voice cries behind:
The horse recognises Eleanor's soft tones, and halts, just in time for Quinton to fall unharmed, swooning to the earth.
Eleanor springs off "Braye du Valle," sinking on her knees in terror by the helpless form. She sees the bleeding scratches on his face and hands, but feels his heart beat, knowing that he still lives.
"Oh, Carol," she murmurs, pillowing his head on her breast, "what is the matter?"
He stirs faintly, a convulsive shudder runs through his limbs.
"I am here, Carol," she continues tenderly; "I, Eleanor!"
He starts up, staring at her in the moonlight.
"But the man," he gasps, "the masked man who followed me only a moment since. What has happened? What has become of him?"
"I followed you down the slope. I came out to find you, fearing you had met with some accident on the road. Just as I was approaching and about to speak, you dashed past me, and then----"
"What then?" interpolates Carol impatiently.
"I suppose you fainted, for I saw you roll from your saddle as the horse drew up at the sound of my voice."
"You ought not to have come," says Carol, somewhat harshly, but Eleanor's blinded senses, dulled under the influence of her love, heed not his ill-temper.
He rises surlily, brushing some blood off his forehead.
He mounts Eleanor upon her horse without a word.
"Why are you so late?" she asks.
"I was attacked on the road by a madman, and half killed," he replies between his teeth.
"Oh, Carol!" she exclaims, her face blanching, "how terrible!"
"Yes, it was rather bad."
Then he describes the scene graphically as they ride on side by side, till Eleanor is shivering with horror.
"Strangely enough," he says, "the only thing I lost in the struggle was that cat's-eye ring you gave me. I think the man imagined it was something of value."
"Is that so?" replies Eleanor slowly, staring before her into the moonlight. "I would rather anything had gone but that."
"I am sorry, too; I shall miss it."
There is a pause.
"You are ill, exhausted!" murmurs Eleanor sympathetically.
"Oh, no; don't worry. But I wish I knew who the devil that man was."
"Captain Stevenson wants to give me an Irish terrier," says Carol, a few mornings later. "I think it will be well to have a dog about the place, especially after what happened the other night."
"Yes, indeed; I should accept it by all means."
"I will ride over and see him early, and get back by daylight."
Eleanor picks up a book, leaning back wearily. She is growing accustomed to his absences. The Eleanor who was so difficult to please with Philip Roche will stand anything from Carol Quinton.
Her one idea is to yield to his every whim, regard his every wish. To live only to please.
He bends over her. She is reading Shakespeare for the first time.
"What is honour?--a word," she quotes aloud. "What is that word, honour?--air."
He kisses the curling hair on her forehead.
"Good-bye, my love. You shall not be alarmed this time."
"Come back soon, Carol."
She does not rise to kiss her hand or wave as he rides away.
She is beginning to see with a woman's shrewd instinct that he treats her with more deference when she feigns indifference.
She is dreaming over her book, and her idle fingers turn the pages till they come to Macbeth. By chance her eyes fall on five familiar words, of whose origin she was ignorant.
"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow!"
A low laugh ripples from her lips, she rises and tosses the volume aside. They have no power to frighten her now, for the to-morrows mean Carol, life, love.
Here in this beautiful country she is passing a charmed existence. Nature in all its majesty now appeals to her senses, ravishes her eye, while she, lovely in her picturesque surroundings, feels a goddess of the east.
She hears the sounds of hoofs below, and leans over the balustrade, a bright smile parting her lips, the sunlight streaming on her hair, looking quite childlike in her soft white gown, which clings around her girlish figure.
Two men ride up: one tall, fair, and emaciated in appearance; the other dark, and indescribably handsome.
"Does Mr. Quinton live here?" asks the fair man, raising his hat.
"Yes," replies Eleanor, "but he is out now, won't you come in?"
The men hesitate and exchange glances.
"Are you Captain Stevenson and Major Short?" looking at them through her long lashes, with half-veiled curiosity.
They reply in the affirmative, and Eleanor informs them that Carol is already on his way to their encampment, at K----.
"But I am all alone, and very dull," says Eleanor plaintively. "Do rest and refresh yourselves."
She sends for a man to take their horses, and receives them in the verandah with a gracious air.
"May I ask to whom we have the pleasure of speaking?" murmurs Captain Stevenson.
"Oh! didn't I introduce myself?" says Eleanor with a slight flush. "How stupid of me! I am Mrs. Quinton, you know, or rather you don't know," laughing spontaneously. "The fact is, Carol and I made a runaway match against the wishes of my relations--very shocking, was it not? But I am not going to appal you with domestic details. A whisky and soda is more to the point. Is not this an ideal spot?"
The visitors hardly notice the surrounding scenery. They are looking at the lovely features of their blushing young hostess.
An Irish terrier has followed them hot and panting into the verandah.
"I have brought the dog I promised your husband," says Captain Stevenson. "He is a fine little fellow, and game for anything."
"It is extremely good of you," cries Eleanor, catching the dog up in her arms, and feeding him with biscuits.
She puts both the strangers at their ease at once. It is long since she has had anyone fresh to talk to, and the time flies, for they all three have much to say. Eleanor will not let them go.
"You must stay and lunch with me," she murmurs persuasively. "Carol will be so angry if I don't keep you, and the days are so long without him."
"I can't think how it was we did not meet if he rode our way," declares Major Short, when lunch is over, and Eleanor has begged them to smoke.
"Nor I; but he must be home early."
"Is that your guitar?" asks Major Short.
"Yes, but unfortunately I cannot play it. Carol has taught me a few chords, but I have no music."
"Short is the man to sing," Captain Stevenson vouchsafes.
Eleanor seizes the instrument, and holds it out to him with a winning smile.
"Do give us one little song!" she pleads.
He takes the guitar with a kind look from his exquisite brown eyes, and strokes the strings, it seems so gently, that they whisper like the wind in the trees.
"What will you have?"
Eleanor leans forward with her chin between her hands, gazing at him intently.
"Anything you like."
"This road," says Captain Stevenson, leaning over the verandah, "is the road to Mandalay. It seems impregnated with the spirit of Rudyard Kipling."
"That shall be the song," says Major Short.
Captain Stevenson half sits on the balustrade, with the terrier beside him gazing up wistfully into his eyes. Eleanor retains her intent attitude, as a voice more beautiful and mellow than any she has ever heard swells out on the hot air.
Eleanor is moved almost to tears by the magnetism of that wonderful sound, thrilling her very being, for she is highly emotional.
The tune is soft, and the well-known words to the familiar melody take pathos from their rough uncultured sentiment.
She remembers once hearing a man recite the words at a musical "At home."
People had cried then; they knew not why, save that his elocution was exquisite, and he breathed it in an undertone:
By the old Moulmein Pajoda lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burmah girl a-setting, and I know she thinks o' me,
For the wind is in the palm trees, and the temple bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldiers, come you back to Mandalay."
Eleanor and Captain Stevenson join in the chorus softly. It is sung slowly, like a low wail, Major Shore's clear notes rising above the rest:
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out er China, 'crost the bay.
As they sing, Carol rides up the hill, and the music falls on his astonished ear. Singing in their verandah--how can that be?
Eleanor is the first to catch sight of him, but does not speak or move, though Quinton's presence always quickens her pulses.
The chords of the guitar take up the refrain, and Captain Stevenson, turning, espies Carol.
"When the mist was on the rice fields, an' the sun was droppin' low,
continues the rich voice.
"Why, there's Quinton!" exclaims Captain Stevenson, breaking into the melody. "My dear fellow, how was it we missed on the road?"
"I can't imagine," he replies; "I suppose I took a different path." His eyes shift uneasily, a flush rises to his brow.
"Your wife has been most kind and hospitable," declares Major Short, laying down the guitar.
"I am delighted she kept you."
"We brought the dog. He has already attached himself to Mrs. Quinton. I assure you at lunch his preference for her was most marked; he wouldn't look at us."
"Cupboard love, eh? I suppose she fed him."
"Well, yes, I should rather think so, he will not require anything more for some time."
"I am afraid," says Quinton, "that I interrupted a concert. You all looked most Bohemian and enjoying the dolce far niente stage of existence."
"It was too bad to break off in the middle of your song, Major Short," Eleanor murmurs, seating herself beside him and taking up the guitar. "I wish you could teach me the accompaniment, for I do know a few notes vaguely, and though I have never learned to sing I can croon a little."
"It really is not difficult," Major Short assures her. "I will send you the song if you like."
"Thanks, but I cannot read music, only I have rather a good ear." So he strikes the chords one by one very slowly, while Eleanor repeats them.
"I should never have picked it out by myself. Now I shall be able to sing to Carol in the evenings."
"Are they not delightful?" says Eleanor, as the two men ride away. "I have quite enjoyed to-day, Carol."
"I believe," muttered Major Short as they turned out of sight, "I believe that fellow Quinton lied to his wife. Do you think for a moment he went our way? There is only one road that is fit to ride on, that he could have gone by; besides, it was written on his face when he saw us."
"You are too sharp, Short, my boy," laughed the good-natured Captain Stevenson. "But there is something wrong with Quinton undeniably. I wonder who the little woman is, and where she came from?"
Major Short rides on in silence, he is thinking of the little woman's smile.
That night, as Quinton smokes in his low cane chair, Eleanor brings the guitar, running her lithe fingers over the strings.
"I say, Eleanor," he begins, "you need not have let out you could not read music. It was awfully gauche of you. You don't want to advertise your farm origin."
"I am so sorry, darling," she answers penitently.
Again she strikes the cords, this time hesitatingly, for her hand trembles.
The spicy garlic smells are wafted on the night air.
Eleanor breaks suddenly into song, as if inspired by the oriental atmosphere:
"When the mist was on the rice fields, an' the sun was droppin' low, She gets her little banjo, an' she'd sing "Kullalo-lo. With her arms upon my shoulder, an' 'er cheek agin my cheek, We use ter watch the steamers, and the 'hathis "pilin'" teak.
Her voice travels far in the darkness; she feels as if singing to some unseen audience--perchance spirits peopling that road to Mandalay.
The dog at her feet starts up suddenly, bristling all over, growling, barking!
"Did you hear anything?" asks Carol nervously.
"I fancied a rustle came from the bushes."
"Perhaps danger is stalking abroad to-night," mutters Carol, throwing his cigar aside.
The dog refuses to be silenced, while Eleanor, holding him by the collar, tries to soothe his petulance.
But Carol goes indoors.