22. No Footstep Stirred--The Hated World All Slept, Save Only Thee And Me.
The following morning Eleanor, her face bright with smiles, kisses Carol as she bids him adieu.
"Shoot something nice for dinner, dear," she says, "and have a good day."
She waves her hand as he trots down the hill, his slim form erect, his eyes bright and lips parted.
"I hope you won't be dull, Eleanor," he cries with a gay laugh. "Keep house till I return, and take care of yourself."
As he fades from sight she turns singing into the bungalow.
There are several duties to be attended to. Her pink muslin gown needs rearranging, and the huge bunch of crimson flowers Quamina has gathered her must be put in the drawing-room. They are bright, and will please Carol's eye.
As she places them in tall, picturesque vases, Paulina's words return with aggressive force.
The sort of woman who stays at home tending flowers! They take the pleasure from her simple task. She leaves the fallen blossoms half on a couch, half on the ground, turning from them disgusted.
Perhaps Paulina was right! Carol would find her far more of a companion if she shouldered her gun and rode off with him to the jungle; but she hates killing things.
The chase is brutal! Sport is revolting! Thus she consoles herself, and sends Quamina for the muslin gown.
How tenderly Carol had kissed her when he said good-bye. How brilliant he seemed that morning!
She laughs again at the thought of his wit. Her Carol was always clever.
He has marked a passage of Spencer's in a novel Eleanor is reading; she picks it up and comes across it.
It is like a rude shock. Why has he pencilled such disagreeable lines?
Full little knowest thou that hast not tried.
What hell it is in suing long to bide;
To loose good dayes that might be better spent,
To waste long nights in pensive discontent.
Perhaps it struck him as so strangely different to their ideal existence.
The hours do not seem long, for a "light heart goes all the day," but as afternoon wanes she is filled with expectant delight, awaiting Carol's advent. He will be naturally tired, and she draws the couch near the window, piles luxurious pillows upon it, and perches herself at the end of it, placing in readiness a loose lounging coat of yellow Tussore silk. Carol, it is a pretty name, she thinks, taking up his portrait and pressing it to her lips. It is in the same attitude as the one she destroyed in the railway train, upon her first meeting with Elizabeth Kachin's mother.
The faint light slants across the verandah, and falls on the yellow cushions placed for Quinton.
It creeps into the room, and sheds a halo round the striking likeness she still holds in her hand.
Eleanor gazes at the Oriental splendour, the beauties of which no utterance is capable of expressing, and indulges in visions that are pleasant and soothing, marvelling at a scene she has admired a thousand times before, and recalling memories of sweet caresses and whispered words.
Filmy shadows fall from the trees without, gradually outlining themselves upon the walls of the room, and the steps from the verandah. The hot air rises from the valley.
Eleanor breathes the tropical atmosphere and sighs. She loosens her gown at the throat, and waves an enormous palm-leaf fan leisurely backwards and forwards. The air stirs the soft hair on her forehead, cooling her brow.
She raises her eyes to the clock and smiles.
"He will soon return," she thinks. "It is growing late, and he promised to be home before nightfall."
She goes out on to the verandah, gazing down the road which leads to Mandalay.
Two or three black children are resting by a wall at the foot of the hill, one squatting on the ground hugging his knees, the others standing in easy graceful attitudes, with round pitchers on their heads.
The well is beneath a huge palm. Eleanor has sometimes "wished" by it with Carol, pretending there is some mystic spell in the water.
He will pass that charmed spot as he returns, and she will stand on the steps to greet him.
Surely in all the world Carol could not have chosen a more romantic retreat in which to live and love!
The shadows deepen, they take forms, and glide from place to place as daylight dies.
She peers into the gloom, the children go home to bed. Carol is not in sight!
The red flowers of the morning lie withered up and brown on the floor where she has left them. Carol must not be greeted by the sight of her negligence. She stoops down, and gathers them together in both hands, sweeping the dust and fallen petals into her white palm. Crossing slowly to the door, Eleanor calls Quamina.
"Take these away," she says.
Quamina looks anxiously into her face, as she relieves her young mistress of the dead blossoms.
"The Sahib is long in returning," she volunteers, with a nervous leer.
"Yes. We shall soon need a light."
"The devil will not catch him this evening; the devil is well employed," Quamina assures her. "Have no fear, lady."
"What do you mean?" asks Eleanor, a shade of anger crossing her face.
Quamina looks up proudly, delightedly.
"I have placed food and drink in the rock away from the roadside," she replies chuckling. "He will be busy eating, and never see the Sahib riding up the path. Quamina loves the Sahib and his white lady; she will provide for the devil."
Eleanor shrugs her shoulders in sheer despair. She cannot bring this woman to reason. With a pitying smile she returns to the window, and buries her fingers in the soft silk of those yellow pillows with an almost frantic clutch. They are just like the sofa cushions at Lyndhurst. Philip, perhaps, is lounging on them now, or Erminie--he has given them to Mrs. Lane for her new drawing-room.
She kneels for a while on the lounge, and though there is no sound her lips move.
Thus she stays, directly opposite the open window, listening and looking, wondering and praying.
Can some evil have befallen him? She remembers his displeasure when she rode out to meet him that night--the man with the black mask.
There is a loud report in the room; she springs to her feet with a cry. It is only a string of her guitar which has broken, and she sinks back into the old attitude despairingly.
Quamina is pounding rice in the kitchen. Eleanor calls to her to stop. She fancies the sound may prevent her hearing the first fall of a horse's hoofs in the distance, for the moon has not risen yet, and she cannot see far.
So she remains perfectly still, waiting for the pale light to rise in the heavens, while crowds of unutterable fancies rush through her brain--a mad disorder of thought.
She stares outwards, as one in the fetters of an awful dream.
"Why does he not come to her?"
Some well-known words recur to her brain. "The eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow, and sees, in innumerable far-off places, the woe which is close at hand."
There is a hot and heavy vapour in the air--it seems to poison Eleanor as she inhales it in her lungs. A settled apathy pervades her spirit. For some moments she feels nothing, has not a thought--only a strange ringing in her head. The landscape before her looks desolate and terrible, an unredeemed dreariness darkens her soul like a London fog--thick, stifling.
London! The word recalls Philip, the man whose home she shattered, whose life she ruined--for Carol's sake. It was easy to deal the blow, to forget the world, to forfeit her good name when love's overpowering fascination was the bait. She can annihilate that black past in the light of Carol's smile; but when he is absent, and night is on the earth and in her heart, then the spectre rises, points his deadly finger at her quivering soul, and she realises the hideous dropping off of the veil. Her mind is a chaos of ruins. She calls to Carol in vain; only the shrill cry of some night bird through the air, and the beating of her pulses, answer that he will not come!
The gaunt form of a four-footed beast steals across the shadows she has watched so long, that she almost doubts her senses. Can it be a tiger perchance come forth from the jungle to prowl around her home?
She looks again, a thrill of horror darting through her trembling body.
The beast creeps with a soft and stealthy tread up the verandah steps--it is long and yellow.
Eleanor stares in mesmeric terror at its fiery eyes.
Then she sees it is a dog--a huge sandy mastiff, with hanging jaws, wet with foam, a great square head, and broad noiseless feet. It shambles nearer, appearing so suddenly out of the gloom that it seems to materialise before her vision. It watches her as if about to spring; she cannot remember it is not a tiger after all.
Eleanor sickens with fear, a dizzy faintness numbs her nerves, the room swims round. Her breath comes in quick gasps from a throat parched, and dry as with desert sand.
She stares dumbly into its glistening eyes that look like coals of fire in the dark.
Those moments seem to be long hours; they are spells of invisible woe; this dog is perhaps a phantom, come to warn her of some ghastly peril into which Carol has fallen. Its fangs look ripe for human gore; it pants, and its breath is as the rush of a storm.
"Help!" says a low voice, calling the dog by name.
The animal turns at the sound of that word. "Help! come back." He crouches away disappointed; he would have liked to seize Eleanor by the throat if he dared.
At the sound of the man's call Eleanor does not move, nor even start, only the blood seems to dry up in her veins, her fingers twitch convulsively, her eyes roll back in her head. She can hear the heavy footfalls mounting the steps to the verandah one by one; she dares not look, for she knows, she understands;
Then a sudden idea seizes her. They are not yet face to face. If her paralysed limbs will let her she may yet escape through the room, and out behind. She can hide in the thick undergrowth, and watch her opportunity to creep down the road and warn Carol of the danger threatening their lives. He may even now be passing the well and riding up the hill to death!
She rushes blindly across the room, but that instant the heavy steps reach the verandah. Her aim is frustrated. She staggers against the wall, extending her arms aloft with a wild gesture.
The intruder stands in the open window, his dark figure framed, in the line between the verandah and the interior, his face illuminated by the moon which has burst like a ghostly lamp-man over the east. She feels like one dazed in the trammels of opium. She tries to cry out, to shriek for help, but only one word breaks hoarsely from her lips with a hollow groan:
The man enters the room silently, his garments are thick with dust, his coat torn as with jungle briars sharply thorned. He looks as if he had lived in the outer air, unkempt, dishevelled! Thick black hair has grown over the lower part of his face; but his eyes gleam as they meet hers while he advances, his gaze riveted on Eleanor. A fierce growl makes him turn, and his eyes fall on the lounging coat of Tussore silk lying upon yellow cushions.
"Help" has scented it, and springing with his huge paws towards the sofa, tears and rends it furiously in his heavy jaws with the savage air of a lion destroying prey.
The sight is strangely horrible to Eleanor. Her eyes start from their sockets, staring, bloodshot, fixed. Her lips are livid, her limbs stiff, she is still drawn up against the wall at bay; but for its support she would fall upon the ground.
Philip smiles. The action of the dog pleases him. He does not notice the photograph of Carol, which dropped from Eleanor's hands as she started across the room, but the heel of his dusty boot falls on the face, crushing it under the weight of his tread, scarring the features and cracking the card. He advances and stands passively before Eleanor, so close that his hot breath fans her cheek, looking at her and waiting.
The steady ticking of the clock resounds in the room; in that moment of extreme tension it deafens her.
The silence is horrible, unendurable; she struggles to break it, and her voice sounds to her own amazement perfectly natural.
"I know why you have come, Philip," she says calmly, and it seems that she has lived through this moment in some past existence, so painfully familiar are the ghastly occurrences of to-night. Perhaps it was in some shadowy dream which faded from her memory on awaking. "I know why you are here," she repeats throwing back her head against the bamboo panelling, and stretching out her arms in the attitude of a crucified victim. "I read it in your face. But I am too young to die, too sin-stained."
"You think I have come to kill you, Eleanor?"
His words are low and hollow; they seem strangely similar to the warning growl of his huge dog. She thinks he has grown to resemble the ferocious-looking beast, or "Help," in the moonlight, appears like his master--from perpetual companionship.
But even as she looks, something of the man creeps into Philip's eyes, humanising them. The brute nature fades.
She answers his question under her breath:
"Yes, you have hunted me down to take my life."
An expression of intense pain contracts his features; she has cut him to the quick.
With a woman's sharp instinct, intensified by dread, Eleanor sees that her doom is not yet; but the thought of another burns like fire in her brain. Her own miserable thread of life, what does it matter? She holds it as nought compared with the one she loves. She would die a thousand deaths if such a sacrifice would buy him safety.
"How little you understand me!" he says at last. "It was always so."
"Why have you come?" she asks, faintly tracing the shadows that fall around him in the pallid moonlight.
He turns, as if in answer, to the scattered rags of a silken coat, some of which still hang in the mastiff's jaws; then his gaze travels through the verandah, down the zig-zag path towards the jungle.
Eleanor interprets the look. With a swift movement she wrenches herself from the wall against which she has seemed to be held as if by a strong magnet, crosses the room with quick and noiseless tread, fastens the folding window doors together with a click, facing Philip in defiant silence.
"You have come for him," she hisses, the hatred in her eyes gleaming forth. "You would kill--Carol."
At the mention of his name from her lips Philip starts.
"Is it not so?" she cries wildly, raising her voice, which trembles with emotion, vibratos with dread.
For the moment Philip does not reply, only his face lights up as with the glory of revenge.
Eleanor's fingers tighten on the window fastening. She clings to it for support.
A strangled cry breaks from her lips, and the half incoherent words: "My God! My God!"