The early morning sun, already glowing warmly red and mellow like a ripe apricot, was just pushing its way out from the mists that hung over the wide harbour, and the liner moved silently, in a rather ghostlike way, towards her berth in the dock. Gradually, beyond the drab outlines of the quays, Bombay’s massive buildings and towers took on a rosy brilliance, as though they were made of coral, and the muddy water turned for a fleeting moment sharp jade green, and the girl who leant over the ship’s rail on the boat deck drew in a quick little breath that was partly excitement, partly fear.
“Well, I’ve arrived,” she murmured aloud. “This is India and the crazy adventure has really begun. I wonder just how crazy it is---and how it’s going to end?”
Most of the other passengers were clustered together on the lower decks in friendly, gossiping little groups who were busy exchanging addresses and invitations, but she was deliberately alone and withdrawn from them in this secluded corner high up near the lifeboats, where she could stand unnoticed, watching the adventure draw slowly nearer. This moment of approach to Bombay was so big, so reckless, that she felt she must face it alone.
She was hatless still, in spite of the increasing strength of the sunlight, and it touched her smooth honey-gold hair that was swept simply back from her generous, square forehead. Below it her face was delicately triangular, with firm cheekbones, finely arched dark eyebrows curving over deep set, green-flecked tawny eyes and a warmly curved coral red mouth that had a trick of twisting itself into a faintly one-sided and ironical little smile that had a trace of bitterness in it. Her skin was very fine and palely clear, sprinkled across the straight nose with tiny golden freckles, and she used make-up lightly, with a fastidious sense of rightness.
She was smiling that odd smile now, and in fact that was her mood, a cynical one, a mocking one. This was India, land of traditional colour and romance, and here was she, Sharon Paule, arriving in it and expecting to meet goodness knew what sort of gay adventure and exciting turn of fortune; but suddenly she was tired and full of the weary certainty that it would be the same old story. Five years of fighting her way single-handed through life, of struggling for a foothold on the precarious ladder, not only of success, but of moderate security, had rubbed away most of Sharon’s illusions, had hardened her so that over everything she said and did there was a kind of metallic glaze.
And as she watched India drawing steadily and inexorably nearer to the ship’s side, she went back suddenly in memory to that incredible evening two months ago in London when the adventure had really started. It had been only a few weeks after the end of the September crisis and the Munich reprieve, and London was still in a celebration mood, although under the gaiety there was a grim little note of “let’s eat, drink, and be merry before the deluge really does hit us.” She hadn’t in the least wanted to go to Valerie Morden’s smart evening party at her Sloane Street flat, but Madame had insisted.
“Miss Morden is one of our best customers,” she said smoothly, one scarlet-lacquered finger-nail dusting powder off a black-pencilled eyebrow. “She is going to place a very big order with us for clothes for her round-the-world cruise, and she has taken a great fancy to you, Sharon. There’ll be a good commission for you when we get that order, so it’s worth your while to go along and look your best, my dear. You can have the jade Wintermeyer model to wear; it doesn’t seem to be going to sell, and it does suit you. You never know, an invitation like this might lead to something big.”
That was always the way it was nowadays, Sharon had thought wearily as she lifted the jade-green Wintermeyer model from its hanger---she must always think what it “was worth her while” to do this or that, what it might lead to, what she might get out of it.
Madame Baccari’s dress salon was one of the smartest in Bond Street, and it was considered a feather in any girl’s cap to find herself on the payroll of her models because there were supposed to be thrilling possibilities lurking round every corner of her discreet oyster-and-gold show-rooms for a girl who had all her wits about her. Sharon had never come across anything more exciting than a clumsy note pressed into her hand by some bored husband watching his wife try on imnumerable models, but Madame’s orders ruled not only one’s professional, but one’s private life as well. So she had gone to the party in a mood of weary resignation, though when she got there she did force herself to be gay, to laugh and exchange repartee with the various nameless men who were only too anxious to book her up for various evening dates.
But for some reason that evening she turned them all aside with some light excuse. She was sick to death of everlastingly accepting meals and entertainment from strange men who looked upon her as perfectly legitimate and too easy game for their casual diversion.
To avoid them, she let herself be drawn into a small side-lounge, where Valerie Morden in scarlet chiffon and a black lace mantilla, presided over a roulette wheel. The stakes seemed to be pretty high, but Sharon, with a shrug of her shoulders and a casual faith in the size of the commission cheque she should with any luck collect from Madame, squeezed into a front place and let someone take charge of her modest capital. And, queerly, she had found the pile of chips in front of her thickening imposingly until interested people pressed round to watch and Valerie’s eyes narrowed a little under the ridiculous folds of the mantilla that looped across her waxy white, unnaturally smooth forehead.
“It’s Sharon’s lucky night. . . . She simply can’t lose. . . . Stick it, Val . . .” and Sharon’s guide and mentor, a pink-faced young man with no chin, went red with excitement.
“I’m going to put everything on number eleven, Sharon. . . . Don’t panic. . . . It’s all right. . . . Do your worst, Tony.”
And suddenly Valerie was saying in a high, sharp voice: “Well, you’ve certainly wished some of your luck on to Sharon, Benny, and it’s too much for me. Somebody add up.”
And then Sharon found her hands packed full of crumpled notes, and everyone was laughing and congratulating her on her astounding feat of breaking Valerie’s bank. She had won two hundred and ten pounds, and she need have no qualms about stuffing the notes into her evening bag, for she had won them from people who could have afforded to lose three times that amount without missing it from their spare cash.
Two hundred and ten pounds. . . . That night, tossing sleepless on the divan bed of her little bed-sitting-room whose rent ran away with far more than she could really afford from her weekly pay cheque, the utterly crazy and dream-like picture had suddenly leaped into being against the darkness in front of her eyes, so vividly that she had seen every detail of it. . . . A big white liner swinging lazily and gracefully out towards the open sea, the hot sunshine of India splashing boldly upon white temples and rose-red Mogul palaces and green palm trees . . . freedom and adventure. That was what she would do with her two hundred and ten pounds, and fate could make what it liked of the issue, the result.
And so here she was, all her debts paid, her name taken off Madame’s payroll, two trunks full of carefully chosen clothes labelled in the hold, the shores of India within a few yards, adventure ahead---and not much of her bank balance left.
“Well, what do you think of your first glimpse of India, Miss Paule---to ask a very obvious and stereotyped question?”
She turned her head abruptly at the sound of the voice---a man’s deep-pitched and quiet, so close beside her. He had come along the deck unnoticed while she was lost in her confused dreams, and now he was leaning on the rail beside her, a pipe in his mouth, his dark-blue eyes surveying the dock with casual interest. Sharon was frankly surprised to find him deliberately joining her like this, for all through the voyage Dr. Nicholas Terrimore had shown very few signs of wanting to seek her company, or, for that matter, of being aware of her existence, at all. He was a tall, sun-burned young man, rather dour and stubborn-jawed, and he might have been downright ugly if it hadn’t been for the startling blueness of his eyes and unexpected sweetness of his rare and almost unwilling smile.
“I suppose my reply is just as stereotyped---it’s marvellous,” Sharon answered lightly. “But frankly I didn’t expect too much and I certainly take all the ‘glamour of the East’ business with more than a grain of salt. I imagine people are just the same and just as unglamorous and ordinary in India as they are anywhere else.”
She didn’t know it, but always on the few occasions she had talked to Nicholas Terrimore that same faintly bitter note had crept into her voice; it was as though she were defying him to believe that she had any romantic illusions left about anything. He shifted the pipe a trifle between his teeth and said dryly:
“I can see that you’re a very practical person, Miss Paule, and that you don’t indulge much in daydreams.”
“No; because I’ve learned that they’re a waste of time and mental energy,” she answered coolly. “When you have to earn your own living in London and are completely dependent upon yourself you soon get over the habit of building flimsy castles in the air. Are you glad to be back in India?”
“Very,” he said briefly. “If the September scare had flared into war I’d have stayed at home, of course, but it seems I’ve got a few months’ more respite. As a matter of fact, I always find that the last few weeks of my leave drag abominably, and there’s a lot I want to get my teeth into in Nishapore. Have you met the Maharajah at all during the trip?”
“Oh yes; I’ve seen something of him,” Sharon said. “He seems rather nice.”
“He’s a good fellow,” Nicholas said quickly, with a note of resentment in his voice. “And I’m not mentally adding ‘for an Indian.’ He’s as intelligent and has as good standards as any Englishman. At any rate, the state he rules owes him a tremendous lot for all the social welfare work he’s done for it. If you’re ever up that way, I’d like to show you round my hospital in Nishapore; it’s one of the finest and most modern hospitals in India. But I’m afraid,” he added thoughtfully, looking at her, “that that offer will put you forever off paying it a visit, if you’re going to be dragged round to view hospitals.”
There was a faint note of mockery in his tone, but she looked at him steadily and was going to reply that there was no reason why she shouldn’t find a visit to his hospital extremely interesting when her attention was distracted by something else---the sight of a man leaning far out over the rails on one of the lower decks so that he was clearly visible and, as he glanced upwards, saw her. He waved a greeting, but she didn’t respond to it with any gesture of acknowledgment, and for a moment the colour ebbed out of her face.
That had been a queer and disturbing coincidence, one that had shaken the foundations of her hopes of a breaking away from everything connected with the past. It couldn’t be entirely forgotten when Rex Kildare was on board, travelling on the same ship to the same destination, though in a cheaper class. Their meeting at the top of the gangway that day in Marseilles had startled and shaken her more than she liked to remember now. He belonged to that certain phase of her life that she wanted to forget and wipe out more than any other, but whenever she caught sight of him in the distance, gracefully playing deck tennis or lounging by the swimming pool, the unpleasant memory of it all came rushing sickeningly over her again---the memory of the hot, sluggish, sickly scented atmosphere of the Little Montmartre night club, of the pale, unhealthy faces that came crowding into it, of the hectic, horrible night when Leonie Dennis had thrown herself hysterically out of the window of the second-floor room where that secret baccarat party was in progress. Memory, too, of standing alone in the witness-box at the inquest and answering the hard, remorseless questions that had left her feeling branded and unclean. Rex had been lucky to get away with nothing worse than a severe police warning, but he had been adept in wriggling himself out of all personal responsibility in the tragedy.
She hadn’t seen Rex since that day when, the inquest over, she walked into his little office to announce that she wouldn’t be working at the club any more, and that if it meant forfeiting the quite considerable amount of salary he owed her, it would have to go. Surprisingly, he had written her a cheque that was, still even more surprisingly, honoured at his bank, and had accepted her announcement with an almost good-humoured shrug of the shoulders.
“Sorry about letting you in for all this, Sharon,” he had said. “I didn’t do it deliberately, you know, and I ought to have been quick enough to spot what that Demerest crowd were up to. Let’s part friends, anyway.”
Some weeks later she had seen an announcement of the selling up of the club, and Rex Kildare had vanished entirely from her horizon, and now here he was travelling out to India for some mysterious, twisted reason of his own that wasn’t hard to guess at. India should be a happy hunting ground for a good-looking, ingratiatingly Irish adventurer who lived by his wits and had never been let down by them yet.
“What did you say, Dr. Terrimore?” She made an abrupt little movement. “Oh---your hospital! I might find it more interesting than you think, but I don’t imagine there’s the faintest chance of my ever visiting Nishapore. I don’t happen to be coming to India to go round sight-seeing, but to find a job of work to do, if it’s possible. We’re nearly docked, aren’t we? I must go down and collect my stuff.”
“And put on a hat,” he said curtly. “You can’t take chances with the sun out here, though I know it’s the height of fashion to rush about out of doors with nothing on your head.”
She didn’t thank him for his not too polite advice, but turned and walked away. It was curious how she always felt, even after the exchange of the merest chit-chat with Nicholas Terrimore, as though she had been involved in a heated argument in which she was on the defensive. Without saying anything, he managed to convey an impression of cold criticism and disapproval, and she wasn’t used to that attitude in the young men of her acquaintance.
Nicholas watched her thoughtfully as she walked unhurriedly away from him, her long, slim legs carrying her supple body gracefully, assuredly. A queer sort of girl. Not that he didn’t recognize the type a mile away. Beautiful, spoiled, petulant, expecting every man to fall automatically prostrate at her feet with admiration, hard as nails---and yet she hadn’t quite got the shallow look in her eyes that most of them had. Sometimes there was a look on her face that was oddly forlorn and wistful, a droop about her tinted mouth that was almost childishly sad. He couldn’t quite understand her, although he had watched her with unusual attention from a safe distance during the voyage. She was travelling first-class and her clothes were irreproachably smart, but she hadn’t been drawn into any of the rather noisy and smart social circles on board; she had kept vaguely but deliberately aloof, and that wasn’t quite true to type. On the other hand, he thought cynically, it might be extreme cleverness. A faint air of mystery hanging about her, a tantalizing aloofness, they were tricks that roused people’s interest and curiosity.
Down in her cabin Sharon collected the last of her hand luggage and pulled on a wide-brimmed oyster-coloured straw hat swathed with emerald green chiffon that matched her linen dress. No doubt Nicholas Terrimore would find nothing to approve of in such a hat, and would expect her to march ashore topped by one of those revoltingly ugly white topis that everyone bought at Port Said; but, after all, Nicholas Terrimore’s approval or disapproval meant nothing to her. The hat brim threw a cool shadow across her face and brought out the green flecks in the depth of her tawny eyes.
There was a patter of feet overhead as the gangway went down and the dockside coolies stampeded up it. Well, there was no escaping anything now; this was India, and she had committed herself finally to a crazy and desperate adventure that would begin the moment she stepped off that gangway on to the sun-drenched quay with her face set towards whatever lay beyond.
The saloon and decks were still crowded when she went up. At the last moment people were still exchanging fervent goodbyes and invitations and promises of visits, and suddenly she felt lonely in the midst of it all; but she was only alone for a moment, for a tall figure came swiftly across to her.
“There you are, Miss Paule. I was looking out for you, and I was afraid I might miss seeing you in the rush ashore. You must come and have a last drink with me; there is plenty of time.”
The speaker was an Indian, though without the distinguishing sign of his exquisitely wound pale pink turban nobody would have imagined that he was anything but a rather deeply tanned Englishman. His profile was finely chiselled, a small black moustache was cut away from a boyish mouth, and he had the broad shoulders and narrow waist of the first-class athlete that he was. The Maharajah of Nishapore had been educated at an English public school and Oxford, and his polo-playing, tennis and brilliance as a shot were famous in England and America. His English had not the faintest trace of an accent, except for an occasional faintly American slurring of words.
“It’s very kind of you,” Sharon said. “Early as it is, I’d love something long and cold already.”
He piloted her over to a round corner table where three or four other people were collected, Nicholas amongst them, and she gratefully sucked at the ice-cold fresh lemon squash the steward brought her.
“This is sad, all this saying goodbye,” the Maharajah said regretfully. “I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a voyage quite so much as I have this one, and I’m determined we shall all meet again. Of course, Terrimore is always on my heels.” He grinned at Nicholas. “He drives my unfortunate Chancellor of the Exchequer nearly out of his mind with his endless demands for fabulous sums of money for his precious hospital. There’s no getting rid of him, I’m afraid. But the rest of you---and I’m speaking to you in particular, Miss Paule---do you still flatly refuse to come up to Nishapore and join my house party? I can promise you a glimpse of the real India---lakes, mountains, forests, marble palaces, temples, everything you don’t believe exists. Doesn’t that tempt you?”
“It certainly does,” Sharon said. “And it’s more than kind of you to be so hospitable, but I’m afraid it can’t be managed. I shan’t be doing much travelling about India, and, in fact, I may not be staying out here very long.”
Without looking at him, she knew that Nicholas was watching her intently. This would puzzle him, she thought maliciously. If she were the gold-digging adventuress he certainly thought her to be, she should jump rapturously at this invitation to stay in a palace as the guest of a particularly good-looking and wealthy Maharajah.
“Well, it’s very disappointing,” the Maharajah said disconsolately. “I believe Terrimore has been telling you that we’re complete savages in Nishapore and that you’ll meet snakes and tigers and bandits round every corner. But if you won’t come to my house party, Miss Paule, you must come to the Bombay Races with us to-morrow. I absolutely insist on that.”
“Thank you; I’d love that,” Sharon said; and at that moment the clanging of a bell announced that the gangway was open and they could go on shore. She turned quickly to Nicholas. “Goodbye, Dr. Terrimore.”
“Oh, it’s only au revoir,” he answered casually. “We’ll be meeting to-morrow at the races. I’m staying a few days in Bombay to collect some stuff, and Nishapore is lugging me along to-morrow, though I don’t really know one end of a horse from the other. Where are you staying, Miss Paule?”
Somebody else had spoken to her at that moment, so she was able to pretend that she hadn’t heard his question, which seemed to her impertinent and unnecessary; it wasn’t the slightest concern of his where she was staying in Bombay. She managed to get ashore quietly by herself, through the Customs quickly, and into a taxi unnoticed. To the driver she gave the address of a quiet and modestly priced hotel whose name she had managed to pick up on the boat, since her finances wouldn’t run to anything as grand as the big, popular hotels where presumably all the others would be staying. And to her relief there had been no sign of Rex Kildare anywhere; he must have gone ashore with the first rush of people. Not that it would have really mattered exchanging a word of goodbye with him; she had nothing to fear from him now, and he must have realized by the deliberate way she avoided all contact with him on board that she didn’t mean to pick up any old, broken-off threads; but all the same even the consciousness of his presence on the same ship had given her an uneasy, strained feeling, a sort of chill of foreboding down the spine.
She booked a quiet and inexpensive room on the third floor of the hotel and was just signing the register when the bureau clerk, a plump little Eurasian, with dazzlingly white teeth, looked over her shoulder and said with a welcoming smile:
“How veree nice to see you again, Dr. Terrimore. It is a long time since you went away on leave.”
“Oh, hullo, Josie!” Nicholas said easily. “I’m glad to see you looking so well.” And then he caught sight of Sharon, just laying down the scratchy hotel pen, and his face changed.
It amused Sharon to realize that of the two of them she was the least taken aback by this unexpected encounter, and that Nicholas wasn’t quite quick enough to hide his obvious dislike of her presence in the same hotel as himself, though he recovered in a matter of seconds.
“Hullo, Miss Paule!” he said. “I didn’t know you were putting up here, otherwise we could have come along together. I imagined you’d be heading for the Taj Mahal or somewhere a good deal more luxurious than this.”
“Did you? But luxury doesn’t happen to come into my programme at all,” Sharon answered coolly, and then to the clerk: “I suppose I can get some lunch, though it’s rather early?”
“Yes, of course you can,” Nicholas put in with an oddly sulky scowl. “As a matter of fact, I’m just going to have some myself, so won’t you join me and keep me company?”
She hesitated for an instant. It was on the tip of her tongue to refuse his grudging invitation, and then some impish twist of humour made her murmur a sweet and grateful acceptance.
“If I might just go up to my room first? I won’t keep you waiting more than five minutes, but if that’s too long, please don’t wait for me.”
“No, of course that’s all right. I’ll be down here in the lounge whenever you’re ready.”
A creaking little lift bore her shakily up to the third floor, and she washed and ran a comb through the smooth mass of her hair. There was no time to unpack or to think much yet about anything. She had no idea how long she was staying here in Bombay or what her next move would be. How did one set about job-hunting in India? She had to find that out as quickly as possible, but in the meantime Nicholas Terrimore was waiting for her downstairs, and so far she had only used up four minutes of the five she had allowed herself. With a faint smile she shook out a fresh handkerchief and went lumbering down in the lift. Nicholas was in the lounge and got up to meet her, and she felt his eyes sweeping over her critically, taking everything in---the obviously expensive cut of her linen frock, the delicate subtlety of her make-up, her cool air of self-possession, and it seemed to her that contempt flickered for a moment across his expression. Anger and a furious dislike of him brought a tinge of extra colour into her face suddenly. Why should he set himself up in judgment over her because she made the best of herself, because she was fastidious and had good taste?
They had a corner table in the dining-room, overlooking a small garden full of emerald-green palm trees and an untidy tangle of gaudy flowers, and a faint breeze came in through the open windows and cooled the air stirred up by the sluggish churning of the fan over their heads. Sharon’s spirits took a sudden upward swoop of optimism. Whatever happened now she had at least got to India, and she was free and rid of the stifling, degrading way of her London life. She need never again sponge on wealthier people, scrounge for invitations, tout for orders for Madame. For the first time in the five years since the first tragedy she could feel some measure of self-respect. She could even think without bitterness of her father decamping from England on a cross-Channel boat one raw, fog-bound November day and dragging out the few remaining months of his life in dismal exile in a cheap Swiss pension, safe from the clutch of the law, but stripped of everything else. She could almost forgive him now for the overreaching ambition, the finanical greed, that had shattered not only his life, but her own as well.
But he was dead and the responsibility for her own future lay in her own hands now, and she had made her resolve. There should be no more cheapness and shoddiness and tarnish, and on a sudden wild impulse she said to Nicholas:
“This business of finding a job is pretty important to me, you know, Dr. Terrimore. I wondered if you could make any suggestions? I can type and model and keep books and play the piano, and surely out of all those there is something that would be useful to somebody out here? I’d be content with something---well, quite modest that would just give me a secure living; and I’m not afraid of hard work. Any suggestions?”
He was stirring sugar into his coffee, his head bent, but she saw his face shut up in an odd way, grow wooden and blank.
“It sounds a fairly imposing list,” he said drily, “but I’m afraid India isn’t very productive of the sort of job you’d really like, Miss Paule. Besides, I can’t honestly believe that anything like that is a necessity for you. . . . If you’ve finished your coffee I think I ought to be going off to attend to some business.”
It was like a slap in the face, almost a direct insult. He flatly refused to believe that she was honestly willing to work, that she wasn’t looking for some sort of easy and lucrative opportunity. She pushed back her chair quickly and stood up.
“Of course I wouldn’t dream of keeping you, Dr. Terrimore, and I must go and unpack. Thank you for letting me share your lunch.”
Something in her tone made him flush a little.
“It was a pleasure,” he said briefly. “And if there is anything else I can do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask me.”
“That’s kind of you,” she said levelly, “but I’m quite all right, and you mustn’t feel that because I happen to be staying in the same hotel you’ve got to look after me or bother about me. I’m fairly good at fending for myself---as I expect you’ve guessed.”
She went up to her room, took off her frock, and lay down on the narrow iron bed in a dressing-gown. The afternoon was hot and the air in her room was thick and heavy, and her head ached. Why should she care what Nicholas Terrimore thought about her, how he judged her? He was a narrow-minded, intolerant, dour young man---and yet it had hurt queerly to see the expression change in his eyes when he caught sight of her at the reception desk. Had he imagined that she had deliberately tracked him down to this hotel, that she was trying to get something out of him, entangle him in one of her private schemes for enjoying life in India? Her cheeks burnt at the thought.
The heavy yet restless sleep that she fell into didn’t do much to refresh her, though the tea-tray she had brought up to her room did help disperse the throbbing headache that had tormented her ever since lunch-time. She drank several cups of tea very slowly, stretched under the swinging fan. It felt queerly lonely to be lying like this on a bed in the heart of Bombay, without any idea of what the future held, without anyone being in the least interested in that future.
Presently, since the afternoon was cooling off towards the freshness of brief evening, she went downstairs and glanced at an evening paper lying in the small lounge. Scanning the employment advertisement columns eagerly, she hoped she might catch sight of something that would be an opportunity for her; but the search was fruitless, and fear gripped at her heart again. Perhaps it wasn’t so easy to get a job in India---and what happened out here if one got down to one’s last few shillings, if one were left penniless and stranded? She had enough money left now to buy herself a third-class passage on the next boat back to England. Wouldn’t that be the most sensible and safest thing to do?
And then she despised herself for her cowardice. Playing for safety had never got anyone anywhere that was worth getting to; she had started this adventure and she would give it a fair chance. Because she didn’t find anything possible in the first paper she glanced at was no reason for panic, and if the worst came to the worst she could surely work her way home as a stewardess or a nursemaid. The best thing to do now was to go out for a walk and get some air that might drive out the last twinges of her headache.
She was thankful to see no signs of Nicholas anywhere as she left the hotel and made her way down towards the main road to the sea front. The air was light and cool against her face, and an aquamarine and coral dusk painted the town for a brief time with ethereal colours. Palm trees were filigreed in jet against the opalescent sky, and the lights that followed the enormous sweep of the bay front came on suddenly, with the theatrical effect of a musical comedy scene.
She walked for half an hour and then came back to the hotel feeling refreshed and alert and with her courage mounting again; but it flickered and ebbed a little when she came into the hall and saw a familiar, well-tailored back turned upon her at the reception desk. It was Rex Kildare and he was signing the register, and there was no hope, if he were staying here, of dodging him. The best thing to do was to face the situation boldly and coolly, so she went across to him and spoke in a light, casual voice.
“Hullo, Rex! I didn’t know you were staying in Bombay.”
He swung round sharply, his eyes suddenly alert, his mouth smiling.
“Hullo, Sharon dear; this is a pleasant surprise! I looked for you to say goodbye on board, but you’d vanished into thin air, and I thought you’d been whisked away to stay as a guest in the local palace of the Maharajah. Yes; I’m knocking about here for a few days. Come and have a drink. I haven’t seen anything at all of you, and you were very elusive on the ship.”
His hand had slipped possessively through her arm as he talked, and it seemed to her that there was something faintly threatening in its grip, but she shook the thought away. There was no reason for her to be afraid of Rex, and being distantly agreeable to him for a few days didn’t mean anything. So she let him pilot her into the small marble-floored bar, and he ordered drinks and offered her a cigarette from a thin gold case.
“Well, well!” he said gaily. “I never thought our paths would cross again in this way, Sharon, and it’s one of the nicest things that’s ever happened. I tried to get in touch with you in London once or twice a few months ago, but you seemed to have gone away. How are things with you, darling?”
“Quite all right,” she answered easily. “And with you?”
“Oh---so-so!” He shrugged his shoulders. “That wretched case knocked me endwise for a bit, and I expect you saw that I had to get rid of the club, but I picked myself up again. What are you doing in India, Sharon? Sight-seeing?”
“Partly,” she said, feeling the calculating scrutiny of his eyes fixed on her face. “I came unexpectedly into a little money, so I thought I’d spend it in seeing a bit of the world.”
“A very good idea,” he said smoothly, with a faint smile, and he raised his glass. “Here’s luck to it, darling, and to the picking up of our old friendship. I’ve missed you a lot. Perhaps when we’re both back in England we can get together again in something, and I’ll take good care not to land you in any more messes like the last one. I might start another club---with you as partner.”
“Thanks,” she said quickly; “but I’ve done with that kind of work, Rex. I never really liked it, and too many late nights make me look hollow-eyed and haggish. I must go and change for dinner.”
“Just a moment,” he said slowly, and her heart lurched nervously, because his tone had changed, hardened, and she knew he was getting to the point at last. “You and I were always pretty good friends, weren’t we, Sharon, and you know I’d do anything I could to give you a helping hand if you ever needed it, though I don’t fancy there’s much I could do for you now. But I hope you don’t bear malice, my dear, for what happened, and I’m hoping that you feel a bit like that about me. I’m going to ask you frankly to do something for me. Oh! it’s something very trivial and small.”
“Well, what is it?” she asked as he paused, watching her closely.
“It’s just----you seemed to get very friendly with young Nishapore on board, Sharon, and I’ve heard a lot about him: what a good fellow and fine sportsman he is. I’d like to get to know him myself, but that wasn’t possible on board, as I was travelling in a different class. But now that we’re ashore it’s a bit different, and I was wondering if you couldn’t, as an old friend, introduce me to him while I’m here.”
“Why?” she asked bluntly, and he shrugged his shoulders again.
“Darling, don’t be too innocent. Frankly---and I expect you’ve guessed it---I’m out here to make contacts for my line of business, selling expensive cars, and he’d be a pretty useful one for me. I might be able---very tactfully, of course---to sell him a fleet of limousines. What about the races to-morrow? He’s sure to be there, and we could easily stroll into him in the paddock. It’s all very simple and harmless.”
She couldn’t be sure of that; nobody could ever quite know what was in Rex’s mind. And yet, on the other hand, it did seem a perfectly harmless thing to do. Rex was an old friend and the Maharajah was certainly quite capable of summing a man up and looking after himself. If Rex were out here trying to earn an honest living she couldn’t refuse to help him in such a casual, small way.
“As a matter of fact, he invited me to join his party at the races to-morrow,” she said quietly. “If you happen to be there—— But he isn’t very easy to get to know quickly.”
“You leave that to me,” Rex said with a twinkle in his blue eyes. “Thanks a lot, Sharon; I’ll do the same and more for you any day. And if I get a nice fat commission on a sale to him it’s going to mean a lot to me. I’ll be knocking round the paddock to-morrow. And don’t be scared, darling; I’m a reformed character. And I wish you luck too.”
Suddenly she understood the underlying meaning in his careless words. He thought that she was up to something too, that she was pressing her friendship with the Maharajah for some private reason and plan of her own, and her face burned and she almost hated herself for having given in so quickly and easily, out of fear. She was afraid, too, that the whole thing might seem too obvious, especially if it took place under the piercing scrutiny of Nicholas Terrimore’s watching eyes. For a moment, in her panic, she thought of pleading a sun headache and not going to the races, but her pride came to the rescue. In a different way this friendliness with the Maharajah and his party might help her, and she couldn’t afford to throw away any precious chances.
And when it came to the point, the meeting with Rex as they were strolling across the paddock towards the stands came about so casually and naturally that nobody could possibly have suspected anything prearranged about it. He stopped to speak to her; it was only polite to introduce him to Nishapore, and there was nothing to be ashamed of in Rex’s appearance. He had that air of easy charm and good breeding and sportsmanship that put him at once on the same standing as the rest of the men in the Maharajah’s little circle, and Nishapore’s invitation to him to join them for the rest of the afternoon came perfectly spontaneously and cordially. Within five minutes he and Rex were deep in a highly technical discussion about the relative merits of the English and American breeds of polo ponies.
The race party ended up with cocktails at the Yacht Club and a dance at the biggest hotel, and during the whole time Rex behaved impeccably, never intruding himself too much, not paying too much attention to Sharon, certainly never breathing a hint of the fact that he was in India on a commercial enterprise.
It was very late when Sharon went to bed, feeling tired and yet exhilarated. This little burst of gaiety had lightened her spirits; people were so kind and friendly that surely finding some sort of job wouldn’t be too difficult. And in spite of her late going to bed, she was down early to breakfast, and had just finished when she saw Nicholas in the vestibule with suitcases piled round him and his white topi set at a rather rakish angle on his head. He smiled at her and greeted her almost gaily.
“Good morning, Miss Paule. I’m sorry it has to be goodbye too, but I’m just off to catch the mail train up to Nishapore. I got through my odd jobs in Bombay sooner than I expected. There’s still no chance of seeing you up there some day and of boring you to death with an inspection of my hospital?”
“None at all, I’m afraid,” she said with a smile. “Good luck to your hospital, Dr. Terrimore. Goodbye.”
She held out her hand, and it seemed to her that he gripped it for a second longer than was strictly necessary, and again those blue eyes of his bored deeply, disconcertingly, into her, and then he let go of her hand abruptly and turned to the taxi-driver.
Sharon went up to her room feeling an odd sense of flatness and emptiness close over her. Because Nicholas Terrimore was leaving Bombay sooner than he expected and the chances were a million to one against her ever seeing him again? That was absurd; she didn’t even like him very much, and he certainly had a very poor opinion of her, though sometimes he had seemed on the verge of unbending a trifle, of becoming almost human. Anyway, Nishapore State might as well be on another planet for all the chance she would ever have of visiting it, and she put Nicholas out of her mind and concentrated her attention on the morning papers as she sat out on the tiny balcony outside her bedroom window. But there was still nothing in the advertisement columns that suggested any sort of post she could apply for with the smallest hope of success. Typists and shop assistants and “nannies” were wanted, but none of her qualifications could honestly be said to cover those needs, and she had a feeling that they weren’t jobs English girls of her class would be likely to get, anyway.
She dropped the paper rather wearily on the floor and went into the room to get a cigarette out of the box she kept locked in the suitcase under the bed---and then she made the horrifying, terrifying discovery that turned her legs to water and dried up her mouth till it felt as though it were stuffed with ashes.
In that suitcase, under some folded clothes, she kept the small iron cashbox containing her passport, all her traveller’s cheques, and the few pieces of really good jewellery that her mother had left. Now as her hand sought for the cigarette box it didn’t come into contact with the cold surface of the cashbox, and within a space of seconds she knew that it wasn’t there at all. It was a very forlorn hope to ransack all the drawers and cupboards in the room in case it had got left out in a moment of carelessness---a hope that came to nothing. She felt deathly sick and cold as she sat on the bed for a moment and then reached for the telephone connected with the manager’s office. If that cashbox had gone, everything she possessed in the way of money and financial assets had gone too, and all she had left were a few ten-rupee notes in her handbag.
Within half an hour two large and stolid Indian policemen and an English sergeant had combed the room out too, and the sergeant frowned as he opened a notebook.
“Afraid it’s gone, miss. Indian thieves are pretty clever, and there’s that balcony outside and the open window. He could have shinned up somehow while you were at breakfast, opened the suitcase with a bit of wire, and got away without a sound. We’ll do everything we can.”
“Is there---is there any hope of getting anything back?” Sharon asked tonelessly, and he shrugged his shoulders.
“Can’t promise anything, miss, of course, but we’ll do our best. We may be able to trace the jewellery from the descriptions you’ve given us, and we’ll let you know the moment anything turns up. Good morning.”
She knew that he meant that there was very small hope of ever laying hands on the thief or of recovering anything, and after he and his policemen had clattered away down the tiled corridor she drank a little water and lay on the bed and tried dizzily to collect her wits. She had exactly six pounds ten shillings left in the world---six pounds ten shillings between herself and starvation in India. . . .
The day dragged by endlessly, suffocatingly. She stayed in her room, not wanting to risk a meeting with Rex, who would see something was wrong. He was the last person in the world who must know that she was in this trouble. If only Nicholas Terrimore hadn’t gone . . . but what help could he have been? He might not even have believed her story; he might have thought it was all part of a clever plant, a carefully worked out scheme. . . . No, she had only herself to rely on now.
It was almost dusk now, and suddenly she remembered with a jerk that she had accepted an invitation to dine that evening with the Maharajah, who was giving a party at his enormous mansion up on Malabar Hill. For a moment she contemplated ringing up and saying she couldn’t go, and her hand hovered on the telephone, but she checked it abruptly. What was the good of lying here all the evening in a stupor of fright? She must pull herself together and go out and face things somehow.
She dressed carefully, putting on a floating, diaphanous frock of smoke-blue chiffon crusted with silver round the narrow waist, and pinned silver flowers in her burnished hair. No one should know that she was looking terror and disaster straight in the face.
The gardens round the big white, many-pillared house were hung with hundreds of coloured fairy lights, a fountain sprayed out plumes of rose and gold-and-emerald-tinted water into a pool below a long terrace, and unseen musicians played softly in some cleverly placed corner. The party wasn’t as large as she had expected, there were only a dozen guests, but the Maharajah liked to lavish as much care and thought over the entertaining of a few friends as others would upon the entertaining of hundreds. There was dancing after dinner on the long, polished marble floor of the terrace, and at the end of a waltz with Sharon he took her down to the edge of the balcony that looked over the bay that was a jewelled and intricate pattern of lights and moonlight and reflected stars.
“But this isn’t the best of India,” he said to her. “My state is much lovelier than this, perhaps in a simpler, less sophisticated way---but lovelier. Don’t think me impertinent and stubborn, Miss Paule, but couldn’t you give my invitation a chance again? I should be so honoured if you’d be my guest, even for a few days, up in Nishapore.”
Sharon’s hands tightened for a moment on her evening bag. Wasn’t this a way out? If she accepted his invitation, she’d be safe for at least a little while---two or three weeks, the visit might even be spun out longer. And then her fastidiousness and newly found self-respect rose in revolt. She had done with that sort of existence of false pretences and cheap makeshifts and hand-to-mouth emergency measures. She took a cigarette from the slender engraved gold case he offered her, and answered quietly: “I do appreciate your invitation very much, and I wish I could accept it, because Nishapore sounds like fairyland. But, you see, the truth is that this visit to India can’t all be pleasure and idleness for me. I came out here to find some sort of work to do, and I’ve got to find it quickly.”
“Work? You?” The Maharajah stared at her unbelievingly, and she smiled.
“I know I look rather a useless sort of person, but I’ve got to find myself a job, and---it’s more urgent than I expected it to be. There was a robbery in my room some time this morning, and all my traveller’s cheques and jewellery have been stolen. The police may trace some of the stuff, but in the meantime---well, surely there must be some sort of work for me to do out here? I was going to ask my friends if they could suggest anything. I’m so new out here I don’t know my way round.
“Would you count me as one of your friends, Miss Paule?” Nishapore asked slowly, and she looked at him for a moment and then answered without any hesitation:
“Yes, of course. Do you mean that you have an idea--- that you’ve thought of something I could do? I don’t mind what it is or how hard I have to work.”
“I---yes, I had something in mind.” He leaned against the marble balustrade of the terrace. “And I hope you won’t be offended at my suggestion, Miss Paule---of course it’s only a suggestion that you must think over very carefully before you say anything definite. You’ve heard me talk of my sister, Mirjhanah? She is just fourteen and a very lovely and sweet and clever child, but a few years ago she had a severe illness that left her extremely delicate. Because of that, she has never been able to do the one thing that is her heart’s desire---visit England and perhaps study at a college there. The doctors have not advised the journey or the change of climate. But to make up for her disappointment I promised her that when I came back this time to Nishapore I would bring an English lady with me who would be a companion for her---someone young and sympathetic who would teach her all the things English girls learn and tell her all about England. But I haven’t so far been able to keep my promise. I’m afraid I left it till rather late, and then all the applicants who came to interview me were too old and stiff and cold, too much like governesses for Mirjhanah. She is so young and sensitive and so gay in spite of her illness that she couldn’t bear that sort of person with her constantly. But now---would you consider taking the post, Miss Paule, if you really mean that you are anxious to find something to do? You would earn my eternal gratitude if you did, because I’m dreading facing Mirjhanah with the news that I’ve broken my solemn promise.”
“You’re offering it to---me?” Sharon said, almost in a whisper. “But I---I have no qualifications at all, Maharajah. I’ve never taught anyone anything in my fife, and I can’t speak your language. I couldn’t——”
“I think you could. None of that matters at all. Mirjhanah speaks English perfectly, and she doesn’t want a governess. You could read to her, tell her all about England, make her happy---that’s all I’d ask of you. And she would like you so much because you’re young, and I’m sure you’re very sympathetic. Of course, you would have your private apartments in the palace, all your travelling arrangements would be made, and the---- the salary will be generous. A proper contract would be drawn up for you so that you’d know exactly where you stand. Will you think it over, Miss Paule?”
She felt a warm gratitude to him for his tact and easy delicacy in handling the suggestion, and she looked at him with a smile.
“I---I don’t think I need to think it over,” she said. “If you really feel you could trust me, if you feel like letting me see what I can do. Of course I know I may be an absolute failure, and that for a time it will only be a trial---that must be in the contract too. But I will do my best and I’m very grateful.”
“It’s I who should say that,” the Maharajah said quickly. “You don’t know what a load you’ve taken off my mind, Miss Paule. I was dreading facing Mirjhanah’s disappointment---and anger. She’s very sweet and gentle, but she can get angry too if she finds someone fails to keep his word. Then it’s all settled---and after all there will be a pleasant reunion of our board-ship friends after all. Dr. Terrimore will be delighted to see you in Nishapore, after you’d refused to come and see us.”
Nicholas! She had forgotten his presence in Nishapore in the dizzying excitement of the moment; had forgotten that they would meet again, that she would have to face the calm, searching keenness of his blue eyes. What would he think when he found her installed in Nishapore palace as companion to Mirjhanah---what unfair, unkind conclusion would he promptly jump to? And how much would she care if he showed openly that he distrusted her, that he believed only a shabby and calculating motive had got her the post? But she couldn’t let that count now; she couldn’t afford to let it count.
“I don’t think Dr. Terrimore will be wildly excited about it,” she said dryly as they turned and walked back towards the dancing. “But at any rate I shall feel that I’m amongst friends who will help me if I find things puzzling.”
“This is your compartment, Miss Paule. It is reserved for your use only, and the bearer and ayah will look after you and see that you have everything you require for the journey; but if there is anything else you need, please ask for it at once. I hope you will find the journey comfortable. There is no need to think about your luggage; everything will be looked after.”
The slim and elegantly turbaned young Indian secretary who was in charge of all the Maharajah’s suite’s travelling arrangements bowed Sharon ceremoniously into the first-class compartment that seemed enormous for the housing of a single person and her modest luggage. A sleek-haired young ayah with tinkling silver bangles adorning slender wrists and bare ankles smiled and salaamed to Sharon, and then went on smoothly about her task of setting the place to rights, though it was immaculately clean and orderly already. The long seats were covered with fresh holland dust-covers and scattered with fat, brightly coloured cushions; there were electric reading lamps and whirring fans; the centre table was piled with new magazines and novels and a large box of chocolates; a small refrigerator in one corner was stocked, the ayah informed her in clipped, shy English, with fresh fruit and cold drinks, and a bouquet of half-open orange-gold rose buds had been arranged in a wall vase. The Maharajah certainly saw that his staff travelled in the maximum of comfort across the length of India, and already the white-and-scarlet uniformed bearer was arranging a tray of hot coffee and sandwiches wrapped in a damp, snowy napkin on the smaller table that swung out across the seat.
Sharon pulled off her hat, shook out her heat-flattened tawny hair, poured out a cup of coffee, lit a cigarette from the box of a hundred set beside the tray, and settled herself comfortably with cushions behind her back and the window open so that she could look out at the colourful, intense turmoil of the huge railway station. To the casual eye it looked rather as though a full-dress riot were in full swing, but apparently there was a definite orderliness and purpose under the scurrying to and fro, the excited shouts and yells of the Indian passengers, the seething mass of dark faces and bright garments and shrieking children and scolding women. And fascinating as the sights and sounds were, Sharon’s attention wandered a little.
The rush of events during the last thirty-six hours had been so swift and headlong that she was still breathless and bewildered by it. Such a little while ago she had been facing disaster and poverty alone in India---and now she was part of a Maharajah’s private suite, travelling in almost regal luxury across India, with a contract in her suitcase that guaranteed her a quite astoundingly large salary over a period of two years, after a trial of six weeks. Life could still be like a fairy tale, even in these coldly prosaic and hard-boiled days.
And yet she wasn’t childish enough to think that the fairy story was completely without flaw or problem . . . for one thing, there was Nicholas Terrimore to be faced in Nishapore. But there was something that did give her an added feeling of security---she had managed to get through the rest of the time in Bombay and leave the hotel to catch the mid-morning mail express without seeing Rex again. He had been invisible all the time, apparently bent upon his own business, she presumed, and it was a sign that he had lost interest in her, a sign for which she was devoutly thankful. She hadn’t left any message for him; her departure would have been, for him, completely unexpected, and there didn’t seem any way in which he could track her to Nishapore, even if he wanted to. She hadn’t left any address at the hotel, nor given any indication of her destination when she left in the special taxi that had been sent by the Maharajah’s secretary. Rex Kildare might be considered to have faded out again, and no harm had been done by their chance meeting, nor by her giving in to his wish for an introduction to the Maharajah. After all, presumably, if he ordered a fleet of expensive cars through Rex it would be because he wanted them, and if he didn’t want them he wouldn’t order them.
The train whistled shrilly, jerked, slid out of the shadow of the station into brilliant sunshine; the second and totally unexpected chapter of her Indian adventure had begun. All day the dusty, tawny yellow-green splashed landscape skimmed past the windows. The fans kept the compartment comfortably cool; she had only to stretch out her hand for food and drink, and at every stop the bearer and the ayah came pattering anxiously along the platform from the servants’ compartment to find out if she wanted anything. Dinner was served on a tray, piping hot and appetizing, at a station at eight o’clock, and she felt so sleepy by then that she asked the servants to get her bed ready. Magically crisp, embroidered linen sheets and fat pillows appeared from nowhere, the opposite seat was made up into a bunk, and she was asleep in it almost before the train slid out of the station into the all-embracing darkness of the Indian plains.
It was a long journey to Nishapore, with two changes of train. Sharon’s head swam a little with this constant rushing across sun-baked plains, through stretches of richly cultivated field and orchard, across gigantic rivers, past pink and rose-red cities. It was the evening of the third day, she had finished dinner, and the bearer and the ayah began soft-footedly and silently to pack her things.
“Nishapore, Miss Sahib, in littly while . . . half-hour. Car meeting miss sahib.”
She was thankful to feel that the journey was nearly over, for in spite of its luxury she felt travel-stained and tired. Looking out of the window ten minutes later, she saw a bright patterning of sprinkled lights against the blue velvet darkness, and felt the train slacken speed round a bend before it ran into the station. In that second, weary, stiff, and rather chilly, she felt suddenly very forlorn at this prospect of arrival in an utterly strange place amongst unknown people, to take up a job about which she knew next to nothing. How did one set about being companion to a fourteen-year-old Indian princess?
“Miss Paule? This way, please. A car is ready for you, and your luggage is being seen to. I hope you had a comfortable journey.”
Yet another smart young Indian was handing her out of the train and ushering her across the crowded, flare-lit platform of the small station to an enormous pale almondgreen limousine, upholstered in cream, that was waiting outside. The crowd parted to let her through, staring in awed wonder at her golden fairness and at the car that was awaiting her, to waft her away to the palace. They had a cheerful, friendly look in their eyes and the babies were fat and rollicking; it seemed to Sharon that the people of Nishapore State were well looked after and happy. The car whisked her soundlessly, except for the occasional musical note from its electric horn, through the close-packed, brightly lit streets, past a temple whose white dome caught the first sheen of starlight, round the curve of a smooth road that seemed to follow water, and through an imposing white marble gateway at the top of a shallow hill. It was guarded by scarlet uniformed and turbaned sentries, who sprang smartly to attention as the car glided through the gateway, and after another five minutes of driving slid to a gentle standstill. The young secretary who had been seated beside the chauffeur leaped down to open the door and two servants sprang down the shallow flight of marble steps to deal with the suitcases.
“This is the palace, Miss Paule,” he said in his precise, clipped English. “If you will come with me, please, I will take you to your apartments and see that you are provided with everything you need. His Highness has instructed us by telegram to procure a personal maid for you who can speak English, and she is waiting for you, and will, I hope, be satisfactory. She is an Anglo-Indian girl with excellent references. This way, please.”
It seemed to Sharon that they walked for miles through marble-floored halls and up curving stairways and along carpeted corridors, all brilliantly illuminated with invisibly placed lighting. There was a faint, sweet fragrance of roses in the air, and many servants were moving smoothly and noiselessly about the place on bare feet. Sharon’s head swam a little with tiredness and an inability to take in all this Arabian Nights splendour. And then suddenly they were going into a suite of rooms, high-ceilinged and airy, furnished luxuriously in completely English fashion with chintz-patterned curtains and deep armchairs and bookshelves and pottery jugs full of flowers standing on the low tables and the wide mantelshelf. A plump girl in a pale green silk uniform and a crisp pleated white apron came shyly forward; she had a pale olive skin, soft brown eyes, and curly red-brown hair, and when she said “Good evening, miss,” her voice went up and down a little.
“This is Rose O’Malley,” the secretary said. “She will attend to everything for you, Miss Paule, and she will show you your other rooms. Good night, and welcome to Nishapore.”
“Good night---and thank you,” Sharon murmured, rather stunned by all this comfort, and she followed Rose thankfully into the bedroom next door, which was furnished entirely in cool oyster white and turquoise blue, with a bathroom leading out of it, also decorated with white and blue tiling.
“If you are veree tired, miss, I could bring you your dinner in bed,” Rose said, and in spite of her “country-bred” accent there was a distinct note of an Irish brogue in her soft voice.
Sharon shook her head and said with a smile that she wasn’t tired enough for that, and would feel perfectly all right after a long, hot bath. “These are beautiful rooms,” she added, and Rose looked pleased.
“You like them? Princess Mirjhanah herself gave special instructions about the way they should be arranged and furnished, when His Highness sent a telegram saying you were to arrive to-day. She wishes evereething to be reallee English for you.”
Princess Mirjhanah must have worked fast, Sharon thought, to have got the rooms ready in the space of a couple of days, and, judging by the result, there wasn’t much she didn’t know about English tastes and ways. Sharon had a leisurely bath, ate a perfectly cooked dinner in a little alcove dining-room that opened out of the sitting-room, and, feeling too tired for any more exploration, slid thankfully in between the crisp linen sheets. But as she put her head on the pillow, she felt absurd tears of renewed loneliness sting her eyes and that frightening flood of nervous foreboding swamp her again.
“Pull yourself together, Sharon Paule!” she thought angrily. If anybody is lucky you are. And you’re going to make a success of this, if it’s the last thing you do. You’ve got to just to show that you can do a job of work intelligently and properly. So it’s no use panicking.” And on that determination she fell asleep.
When she opened her eyes in the morning to a blaze of sunlight on the wall opposite there was no trace left of last night’s mood of depression and loneliness; she felt rested, glowingly alive, and full of curiosity.
“Good morning, miss. Here is your chota-hazri. Did you sleep well?”
Rose put a tray set with delicate porcelain tea-things and a plate of fruit on the bedside table, and Sharon got out of bed, pulled on her dressing-gown, and caught her breath suddenly as Rose drew back two long blue brocade curtains to reveal a view that spread like something out of a fairy tale below the curved marble balcony. She hadn’t realized last night that the palace was poised on the edge of a lake whose sapphire-blue water, spangled with sunlight and framed in a circle of green-clad hills with here and there a snow-capped peak soaring dizzily above them. There were white pavilions floating like feathers on the surface of the lake, and along its edge a white and rosepink town stretched peacefully in a wide curve behind a tree-fringed lakeside road.
“Oh---it’s glorious!” Sharon said under her breath. “The Maharajah was right. But, Rose, I ought to have my breakfast quickly and then go and introduce myself to the Princess, oughtn’t I?”
“But she isn’t here, Miss,” Rose said. “She went yesterday by car to meet His Highness down the line and drive back with him, and they won’t arrive till late this evening. Shall I order a car for you this morning, so that you can go out?”
“I certainly want to go out, but not in a car,” Sharon said happily. “It’s so lovely and fresh I feel I could walk for miles, and I want to explore everything. I suppose that’s all right?”
“Oh yes, miss. You can go anywhere you like, of course, and the people in the town are very friendly. Would you like your breakfast in an hour’s time out on the balconee?”
“Make it in half an hour, Rose, if you can. I don’t want to waste a moment.”
She dressed quickly, putting on a crisp, brick-red linen coat and skirt, and ate her breakfast out in the sunshine. The air was like wine; it almost made her feel giddy. And by ten o’clock she was walking down the long, curved avenue towards the marble gate, past the surprised-looking sentries, who saluted her punctiliously. Probably they thought her quite mad not to want to be whirled along at full speed in a luxurious limousine, but she felt so full of energy that she wanted to walk, to run, to climb up towards the silver peaks.
At half-past eleven she was still walking, entranced by everything she saw and heard in the town. Off the poplar- and sycamore-fringed road wide, clean streets led into its heart, and she wandered along several of them, her eyes delighted by the brilliant turmoil of colour everywhere. The open stalls and shop-fronts were spread with rainbow silks from Bokhara, with dark old Persian rugs, with piles of fruit and vegetables and gaudy sweets heaped stickily on copper trays. A jeweller’s shop fascinated her, and she lingered in front of it, looking at the strings of brilliant cornelian and rough turquoise and golden amber and pale sea-green jade and age-tinted ivory that dangled from numerous pegs and strings. Perhaps if they weren’t too expensive she might be able to buy something later on. . . .
‘Good morning, Miss Paule. This is a surprise. So your tour of India did include a visit to Nishapore after all?”
It was Nicholas’s voice, cool and level and faintly mocking, and she swung round to find him at her elbow, looking at her with a faint smile. She could feel her heart jerking unevenly and the colour running into her face, and her mouth went suddenly dry.
“Good morning, Dr. Terrimore. I---no, I didn’t expect-------”
“But the Maharajah’s invitation was too tempting? I can understand that. But why are you wandering about alone like this? He doesn’t usually leave his guests at the palace to fend for themselves on foot when they go shopping.”
She felt herself stiffen with anger and resentment at his tone. It wasn’t exactly sarcastic, but there was an underlying meaning in it, a hint of contempt. She answered coolly, her nervousness gone.
“No, I’m sure he doesn’t. But he hasn’t arrived yet--- and I don’t happen to be a guest. I’m waiting to take up a post at the palace as companion to his sister, Mirjhanah.”
If she had wanted to surprise him by the announcement and its abruptness she certainly succeeded. He stared at her unbelievingly, his eyes suddenly intent and a trifle crinkled at the corners.
“Mirjhanah’s companion! You?”
“Yes, me,” she answered calmly. “I told you that I had to find some sort of work out here, and the necessity became more urgent suddenly. The Maharajah knew that, and he very kindly suggested that I should come here and see how I get on, on a six weeks’ trial. Of course I may be utterly useless, but at least I’m going to try and make a success of it. Won’t you wish me luck?”
There was defiance in her eyes as they met his, and a golden spark of anger, and she saw his face tighten and his eyes become suddenly veiled and expressionless.
“I see,” he said deliberately. “Yes, I certainly wish you luck, Miss Paule, and I’m glad you’ve solved your difficult problem so satisfactorily---and easily. You’ve come a long way from the palace, and I’m going back that way in my car. Can I give you a lift?”
“No, thank you,” she said coldly. “I wanted a good long walk and I like exploring on my own. Besides, I wouldn’t dream of bothering you by taking you out of your way when you’re such a busy person. I’ll find my way back quite safely.”
She was pleased to see a faint flush come into his tanned face at the directness of her snub, and he raised his topi formally.
“I shouldn’t stay out too long in the sun in that flimsy hat,” he said. “The sun is pretty strong here, in spite of the coolness. Goodbye for the present, then.”
He turned abruptly on his heel and walked away through the busy crowd, and she bent her head over the necklaces again as though all her attention were concentrated on them, but she could feel herself trembling a little with anger. How dared he look at her in that openly cynical, hostile way, and speak with that cutting, mocking tone in his voice? She knew perfectly well what he thought, what he said almost bluntly---that she had always schemed to make use of her friendliness with the Maharajah, that the getting of this post at the palace was all part of a carefully laid and prepared plan. . . . Well, let him think that if he liked, so long as he didn’t do anything to jeopardize her position at the palace.
She walked back to the palace along the shady road, determined to put Nicholas’s attitude out of her mind for good and all, and to avoid him as deliberately as she could in future. Not that she was likely to run into him much after this; once Mirjhanah had arrived and she had taken up her duties, she wouldn’t have anything to do with the social life of Nishapore.
She was tired and hot when she climbed the marble stairs to her room, and she had a headache. Perhaps Nicholas had been right about the flimsiness of her linen hat but she wouldn’t admit it, even to herself. She took some aspirin, had her lunch, and spent the rest of the day lying out and reading in the shade of her balcony, and by tea-time the headache had vanished and her spirits had risen again to a pitch of eager excitement as half-past six drew near, the time of the Maharajah’s arrival.
From the end of her balcony she had a good view of it, and it certainly produced a good deal of picturesque turmoil and bustle. As the fleet of pale green cars drove up to the steps, hordes of uniformed servants and secretaries rushed down them, a band played a rather raucous tune of welcome from the lawn in front as the Maharajah, official in pale gold and emerald-green brocade, stepped out of his limousine. Sharon, watching unobtrusively, saw that he was followed by a small, slight figure wearing a rich fur coat over a soft rose-red silk sari that lightly covered sleek ebony-black hair brushed back from a wide, childly pure forehead. She had only a fleeting glimpse of Mirjhanah before she went up the steps, her hand through her brother’s arm, but her heart beat a little faster. There was something grimly determined about her desire to make good in this job.
One of the secretaries brought a message to her just as she was finishing her dinner. The Maharajah would like to see her in the Princess Mirjhanah’s suite as soon as it was convenient for her to come, and she said she was quite ready now. She had dressed carefully for this first official meeting, putting on a soft hydrangea-blue crepe frock, high at the throat, full-skirted and plainly trimmed with heavy carved crystal clips at the throat and waist. There must be nothing showy or over-sophisticated about her appearance, and she had brushed her hair smoothly into a single deep wave over one side, and used only a faint touch of rose lipstick. But she had the feeling, too, that a fourteen-year-old Indian princess would have an instinctive eye for beauty and good taste, and that she would be summed up very critically.
The secretary ushered her formally through high, folding white doors into a lofty, marble-floored drawingroom, softly flood-lit, and the Maharajah, still in his wide-skirted brocade coat and snowy white, tightly cut jodhpurs, was standing by the open windows. He greeted her with a certain formality that she understood. She was one of his staff now, in his employment, and relations couldn’t be quite so easily friendly between them as they had been in Bombay.
“Good evening, Miss Paule. I hope you had a comfortable journey up from Bombay and that you are being looked after properly here.”
“Everything is perfect,” she answered. “I couldn’t be more comfortable, and the place is beautiful.”
“I’m glad. I didn’t want you to be disappointed in Nishapore after all my glowing descriptions and promises. Now you must meet my sister. Mirjhanah! Miss Paule is here.” In a lower voice he added quickly: “She may be a little shy at first, but that will soon wear off when she sees that you aren’t a severe dragon of an English governess. She is wildly excited about you.”
Gold brocade curtains over a door parted, and the slim, rose sari-ed figure came forward, half timidly, half eagerly, and Sharon almost let slip a little gasp of admiration because Mirjhanah was so completely exquisite. Tiny and built like a fairy, she had fragile little wrists and narrow hands, a delicately oval face that was pearl pale, immense dark eyes framed in sweeping black lashes, and a childish, sensitive mouth. The Maharajah held out his hand to her, and Sharon could see his affection for his small sister shining in his face and smile.
“Mirjhanah, this is Miss Paule---but perhaps she would like you to call her by her first name, Sharon, because it sounds less stiff and formal.”
“Shar-on,” Mirjhanah said in soft, careful English. “Yes, I should like to call her that; it is a pretty name. And she is——”
She stopped short, colouring, and the Maharajah laughed.
“She is pretty? But I told you that, Mirjhanah, only you wouldn’t believe me. You were sure an English companion would be severe and middle-aged and---ugly.”
“But I’m not really a governess,” Sharon put in quickly. “I’m just an English friend.”
“Oh yes,” Mirjhanah said, her face lighting up. “My English friend living with me in the palace---that is always what I have wanted. Of course, I have friends in Nishapore who are very kind, but I don’t like to take up too much of their time with my questions. But you---will you tell me what books to read about England, so that when I go there one day I shall understand everything and know how to behave! I would like to begin to-night if you aren’t too tired.”
Her shyness had vanished suddenly and she was all excitement and shining eyes, and the Maharajah smiled and put an arm round her slight shoulders.
“To-morrow, Mirjhanah, not to-night; you’re tired yourself after that long motor drive. To-morrow you and Miss Paule can start everything; but don’t let her overwork you, Miss Paule, in her enthusiasm. She wants to learn everything about England---history, geography, and social habits and customs---in ten minutes or so. The car will be ready for you at eleven o’clock in the morning to take you for a drive, and Mirjhanah can show you the real beauty spots round here and up in the hills.”
“My lovely hills,” Mirjhanah said. “And I am to go with you and your visitors up into them to the shooting camp next month, because I am so well and strong now. Oh! when will Dr. Terrimore come to see me, Kerry? I have missed him so much while he has been on leave.”
“You can see him to-morrow. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t pay a call on him at the hospital and surprise him. My house-party guests will be arriving at the end of the week, Miss Paule. I hope you will join us often in whatever we are doing, and you mustn’t let Mirjhanah monopolise you too much.”
“But that’s what I’d like,” Sharon said quickly. “You mustn’t bother about me, please; I shall be perfectly happy spending my time with your sister, or amusing myself. I’m sure you ought to go and rest now, Mirjhanah, so goodnight, and sleep well.”
“Good night, Sharon.” Mirjhanah’s smile lit up her whole face. “This is the happiest day of my life. I couldn’t believe Kerry had really kept his word about my English companion until I saw you. I hope you sleep very well too.”
The Maharajah followed Sharon out into the small cream-panelled, marble-floored ante-room of the suite.
“I knew she would take to you at once, Miss Paule,” he said. “And I can’t tell you how grateful I am for what you’re doing for her.”
“But I haven’t done anything yet,” Sharon said; and he smiled.
“Nothing---except make her very happy and excited, and that means a lot to her. She certainly is much stronger and better than she has been for a long time, but, of course, she is still delicate and under Dr. Terrimore’s care. You will see that she doesn’t overtire herself?”
“Of course; I’ll be very careful. And I’m so glad that she likes me. Good night.”
All sense of loneliness and nervous dread had vanished as Sharon went back to her own rooms along the corridor. Somehow she felt suddenly as though she belonged here, as though she were really of some use to someone.
By the end of the week the Maharajah’s house party had assembled at the palace and Sharon had been introduced to all its members, in spite of her determined efforts to keep herself as much in the background as possible and quite apart from the social doings of the guests. It wasn’t a large party. By Saturday evening six people had come--- Colonel and Mrs. Latimer, who were old friends of the Maharajah’s, since the Colonel had held an official post in the state for many years during his boyhood; Captain and Mrs. Gore, who were on honeymoon leave and were spending part of it in Nishapore, and Alex and Cynthia Howland.
Sharon had recognized Cynthia the moment she saw her getting out of the car that had brought them from the station. She had been the loveliest and most talked about and photographed debutante of her season two years ago, and the Howlands were very much in the inner circle of London society, with a big house in Queen’s Gate and a country estate in Somerset. Cynthia was a tall, slender girl with brilliant chestnut-red hair swept back from her white forehead, deep cornflower-blue eyes, and a skin like porcelain, and Alex was equally good-looking, with the same vivid hair curling above a tanned, keen young face. He and the Maharajah had been intimate friends at Oxford, and he was an ardent polo-player too, though not in quite the same class.
Sharon, coming down, on the Maharajah’s insistent invitation, to dinner that Saturday night to meet the guests, was conscious, when she was introduced to them, of a faint stir of surprise and, on Mrs. Latimer’s part, of frank disapproval. Mrs. Latimer was a small, weatherbeaten woman with a tight mouth, sharp eyes, and a rather rasping voice, and Sharon had a feeling that she might be a danger to her. Perhaps her appearance and her position at the palace might seem a little out of the ordinary, but the Maharajah’s perfect frankness about it was surely guarantee of its complete respectability.
She didn’t really enjoy that dinner party, though, sitting between Alex Howland and Captain Gore, she was kept fully amused. But she was conscious of Nicholas across the table, watching her with an overdone blankness of expression, and it was difficult not to let that spark of anger flicker into her own eyes when she met his. His very impersonality was like a challenge and an accusation.
Because she didn’t want to go through that discomfort again, she kept deliberately to her rooms when she wasn’t with Mirjhanah, and dressed as quietly as possible, so that nobody could say that she was trading on her looks to thrust herself upon the house party. And there was no question of hankering after their gaieties; her time was so completely taken up by Mirjhanah that she had no time to feel lonely. Mirjhanah’s friendliness and enthusiastic eagerness to enjoy the company of her English companion was so whole-hearted and spontaneous that within a few days Sharon felt as though she were woven tightly into the fabric of her life. She gave her friendship and affection so generously that only the stoniest heart could have refused to give her any in return.
Another week went by, and Sharon supposed that the house party was complete, but on the following Sunday morning, while she was having her breakfast, the car that met guests at the station swung up the long drive, followed by the luggage car, so somebody else must be arriving. She wasn’t particularly interested and forgot all about it long before she and Mirjhanah went out for their morning stroll down by the lake, whose shores were strictly private for a mile along both edges of the lake.
And it was as they were strolling back, with Mirjhanah’s two pet Pekinese puppies rollicking at their heels, that they came face to face, round a bend in the wide path, with a man who was standing on the lake shore, a cigarette in his mouth. It was Rex Kildare, and for a moment Sharon’s heart turned completely over and she felt queerly sick and shaken. His surprise was complete and genuine, too, for he stood staring blankly at her for a full instant before he found his voice.
“Sharon! . . . Good heavens! But how on earth did you get here? I had no idea you were staying at the palace.”
His eyes went suddenly to Mirjhanah, who made a dignified little gesture of greeting.
“I am the Maharajah’s sister, and you, I think, are Mr. Kildare? My brother told me another guest was arriving later in the week. I am sorry we did not meet before; and now, Sharon, I will go back to the palace, so please do not hurry if you wish to talk to your friend. We shall meet at lunch, Mr. Kildare.”
“I shall look forward to it,” Rex said, recovering his natural gallantry. “You must try to forgive my bad manners, Princess Mirjhanah. I was so surprised and delighted at unexpectedly meeting a very old friend, Miss Paule, that I behaved like a boor.”
He smiled at Mirjhanah, obviously expecting her stiff little air of dignity and reserve to melt under his charm; but her face didn’t change, and with another formal inclination of the head she walked on round the bend of the path, with the puppies prancing ahead of her. Rex waited until she was safely out of earshot, and then he turned to Sharon excitedly, holding out his hand.
“Sharon, this really is a wonderful surprise---to find you staying here too. Nishapore never mentioned it when he invited me up in Bombay. But why didn’t you tell me you were coming here instead of vanishing into thin air in that mysterious way?”
Sharon drew her hand away from his and spoke quietly: “Are you one of the house party, Rex?”’
“I most certainly am, my dear!” he said with an air of complacent triumph. “That introduction to the Maharajah was the luckiest thing that ever came my way, thanks to you, darling, and the rest was easy. Nishapore is a remarkably nice fellow and we get on very well together. And it’s fun having you as a fellow guest.”
“But that’s just what I’m not,” Sharon said coolly. “I’m not one of the house party, Rex; I’m working here. I’ve been given the post of companion to Mirjhanah, and I don’t have anything to do with the palace guests--- if I can help it.”
“What?” Rex’s jaw dropped in astonishment. “A job here! But, darling . . . I don’t quite get it.” And then swiftly a sly, meaning smile spread across his face. “Oh! perhaps I do,” he murmured. “Congratulations, anyway---and how did you work it so quickly?”
She felt herself stiffening with anger and disgust at the obvious meaning in his words, and her voice was ice cold.
“I didn’t ‘work it,’ as you put it. I happened to need a paid job, and the Maharajah very kindly suggested I should try this one on trial. I must go in now.”
As she moved away abruptly she heard his voice behind her, cool, mocking, somehow threatening:
“I see. But even though you’re a paid governess, Sharon dear, I somehow think we’ll see quite a lot of each other during my stay.”
The sunshine had gone out of the day for Sharon as she walked quickly back to the palace. So that casual introduction for which she was entirely responsible had been the means of Rex worming his way into the Maharajah’s circle, and he knew how to make full use of his air of easy charm and good breeding and social position. He had meant to be invited to this house party---and here he was, firmly established as one of Nishapore’s personal friends. Why had he come here? What was he after? She couldn’t believe that his only object was to try to sell expensive cars. . . .
And within a few days Sharon saw, only too clearly, why Rex had come to Nishapore, what quarry he was stalking. Sitting out on her secluded balcony one blue and silver evening after dinner, she glanced downwards and saw the white shimmer of a girl’s frock moving across the velvet lawns, the spurt of a cigarette-lighter’s bright little flame, the glossy sheen of a man’s evening shirt front, heard low, intimate voices and a girl’s quick, excited laugh. Rex and Cynthia Howland were down there together, deeply absorbed in one another. Next morning they were out riding early together, the girl’s glowing hair flying back from her forehead, her cheeks flushed with energy, and Sharon, watching from the balcony, saw Rex’s hand linger on the rounded smoothness of her bare arm when he helped her down from the saddle.
Yes, there was Rex’s motive in coming here. He must have known that the Howlands were close friends of the Maharajah, and the opportunity had seemed like a ripe plum waiting to drop into his hand. Cynthia was lovely, rich, heart-free, and young enough to be dazzled by the Irish charm and ardent admiration of such a practised philanderer as Rex. His presence in the Maharajah’s house party would seem guarantee enough of his social position, and he never had any difficulty about adapting himself to his social circle. Without uttering a single directly false word, he had probably by this time given Cynthia the impression that he owned a Town house, and a country estate somewhere in the heart of Ireland, and might even, much against his will, be forced to take upon himself in due course an old family title.
And she, Sharon, had introduced him into this circle had made the whole thing possible for him. Without thinking what the consequences might be to other people, she had thrust the key to the door of Opportunity straight into Rex’s hand, and he had lost no time in making use of it. And her coward’s way of trying to get rid of him hadn’t done her any good, for as long as he was here in Nishapore she wasn’t safe. He knew everything about her father’s criminal flight from England and shoddy death, about her connection with the unsavoury night-club case, about all the things she wanted to keep secret.
There had been no sign of Nicholas since that first dinner party at the palace, and they hadn’t been down to the hospital yet, since Nicholas had had a sudden bout of fever that kept him away from it for three or four days. But Sharon, going along to Mirjhanah’s rooms as usual that morning after her uneasy ponderings upon the subject of Rex, heard Nicholas’s voice in the sitting-room as she opened the ante-room door, and Mirjhanah could hardly wait for the swiftly moving, uniformed chuprassie to open the inner door.
“Sharon, Dr. Terrimore is here!” she cried on a note of excitement. “He says he goes back to work to-day, but I tell him he is very silly and that someone should tell him so and make him obey. Perhaps you can.”
Nicholas’s blue eyes met hers across the room, and she thought that he looked pale and thin and not as a man should who has just come back from leave. Her smile was faintly ironic as she answered:
“I’m afraid my influence over Dr. Terrimore doesn’t extend to giving him orders, Mirjhanah, and if I told him he was silly he wouldn’t mind in the least.”
“Well, it’s a pity,” Mirjhanah said regretfully. “We are going to see the hospital to-morrow, Sharon; you don’t know what a wonderful place it is; and Dr. Terrimore has invited us to tea with him afterwards.”
“That’s to say, if it won’t bore you, Miss Paule,” Nicholas said. “Please don’t feel you have to accept.”
“But it wouldn’t bore me at all,” she answered smoothly. “I’ve heard so much about your great work here that I’m longing to see round the hospital---if it won’t bore you to show me.”
It was like a challenge flung down between them, though Mirjhanah was too young and unsophisticated to sense the air of tension that had suddenly come into the room. Nicholas smiled, half unwillingly.
“No, I shan’t be bored either, Miss Paule. Four o’clock to-morrow, then. And may I congratulate you on how well Mirjhanah is looking? I don’t think she’ll need much attention from me now that she has you to look after her. I must be going.”
“Oh, not yet!” Mirjhanah said, clinging childishly to his arm. “First you must come and see the new summerhouse Kerry is building for me on the island. You can see it from the balconies.”
The three of them went out on to the wide balcony and looked down at the delicate white marble pavilion that stood so gracefully on a little green island floating on the lake opposite the palace. Workmen were still busy about it and a bright red punt was moored to its steps.
“I know how to use a punt,” Mirjhanah was saying. “And Sharon will teach me to row so that we can go on the lake---just the two of us together, without all those stupid boatmen and servants.”
But Sharon noticed suddenly that Nicholas wasn’t listening to her, his attention was concentrated on something else, and in a second she saw what it was. A low white car was being driven very slowly along the wide lake-side private road beneath them, and Rex was driving, with Cynthia Howland sitting beside him, her auburn hair tied with an azure blue scarf, her shoulder pressed intimately against his. The blood ran into Sharon’s face as Nicholas said quietly, his eyes darkened and intent:
“Isn’t that Kildare, your Bombay friend? Is he staying here?”
“He arrived on Sunday,” Sharon answered in a low, hard voice. “I didn’t know the Maharajah had invited him up here. And he isn’t particularly a friend of mine.”
“Isn’t he?” Nicholas smiled again, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “When you introduced him to Nishapore, I somehow got the idea that you and he knew each other very well. I must go now, Mirjhanah. Goodbye.”
Sharon stood on the balcony alone when they went in, twisting her handkerchief into a tight ball between trembling fingers. It hadn’t taken Nicholas long to sum Rex up for what he was---and without a moment’s hesitation he had classed her along with him in the same category of “doubtful adventurers.” Before he knew anything, he had judged and condemned her and accused her of being in some sort of partnership with Rex---and she couldn’t really blame him; it was entirely her own fault, and there was nothing she could do to set matters right except keep an eye on Rex.
Three days later the whole palace party climbed into a fleet of cars and were driven up to the shooting camp in the hills that had been prepared for them. Sharon, driving with Mirjhanah in one of the cars, felt her head swim a little with the sweetness and strength of the air as the cars swung up the steep bends of the road through the green pine trees. The luxurious camp, a huge semicircle of big tents, had been set up on a wide, open grassy plateau overlooking a tumbling mountain stream running white and jade green over granite rocks. It was called a camp, but in reality everything was just as comfortable as in the palace: the tents were completely furnished and heated and lavishly staffed, and they were linked up to the enormous main tents by canvas passage-ways, in case of rain, so that the guests needn’t go outside to reach them.
Mirjhanah was in the seventh heaven of excitement and pleasure at being back again amongst her beloved hills, and Sharon had her work cut out in stopping her from overtiring herself in her enthusiasm. She wanted to walk and ride and go fishing and sketching all at once, and Sharon, determined to keep her promise to the Maharajah to see that Mirjhanah didn’t overtax her strength, had to be almost stern. Life in camp was much more free and easy than in the palace, and everyone was living at closer quarters, but she still deliberately avoided the guests and saw very little of them, though Mrs. Latimer and Mrs. Gore spent a good deal of time with Mirjhanah while the men were out shooting.
Cynthia didn’t join these female parties very often, and it seemed to be tacitly understood now that she and Rex should be left to spend their time together, riding, fishing, or going for long walks through the woods. Cynthia made no attempt to hide the fact that she had no eyes for anyone but Rex, even though Alex’s manner towards him was anything but cordial. Alex obviously had his doubts about Rex, but she was too infatuated to care what her brother thought about him.
A few days after their arrival in camp, Sharon took a book down by the river, and was sitting idly watching the rose and gold of the sunset linger on the topmost snow peaks when she heard the sound of footsteps, and, looking round, saw Rex coming down towards her alone.
“Hullo!” he said casually. “So this is your hide-out, is it? I’ve been wondering where it was. Why do you deliberately try to dodge the rest of us, Sharon---especially me? It seems a bit unnecessary.”
“I think it’s the only way for matters to be arranged,” she answered quietly. “I’m not one of the Maharajah’s guests, and I don’t propose to trade on my position here by pushing myself in amongst them. Besides, I’m perfectly happy spending my time as I do, with Mirjhanah or amusing myself.”
“And making a big success of the job, eh?” he said with a sidelong smile that had something sly in it. “Well, that’s sensible, my dear, and I see your point. But all the same I don’t think you need be quite so exclusive where some people are concerned---young Howland, for instance.”
“Alex Howland?” She looked at him blankly.
“Darling, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed that he’s badly stricken,” Rex said lightly. “The poor lad is always trying to slip off to find you, but you either hide yourself so completely that he never does find you or snub him so that he looks in despair for the rest of the day. That’s rather stupid, isn’t it? After all, you don’t want to spend the rest of your life governessing an Indian girl, do you, and young Howland might---well——”
Sharon’s cheeks flamed with colour as she realized what Rex meant as his sentence trailed into significant silence. He was telling her that the Howlands, brother and sister, were easy game for keen wits, and that if they went, as it were, into partnership and played their cards cleverly they could pull off a double success. He would marry Cynthia and she would marry Alex, and life for both of them would be triumphantly comfortable. She closed her book and stood up abruptly, her eyes dark with anger.
“If you don’t mind, Rex, I don’t feel I need your advice about the management of my affairs and future. How I behave towards Alex Howland is entirely my own business. I’m going back to the camp.”
She left him without another look and walked up swiftly through the woods, her cheeks still burning with a sense of shame and humiliation at the idea of being drawn into any sort of intimate friendship with Rex. What he had said about Alex Howland was perfectly true: he had horribly keen eyes, and the boy’s efforts to attach himself to Sharon whenever he had the chance were frank and obvious. Her evasions and snubbings had been as gentle as possible because she liked him, but she had to be definite about them. Life had suddenly become a rather difficult and complicated affair for her, and she wanted to play for safety. There mustn’t be any gossip or comment about her relations with one of the Maharajah’s guests, and the mildest sort of friendliness towards Alex might easily be a menace to her security and peace of mind, especially as she was conscious of Mrs. Latimer’s sharp little eyes watching her continuously, as though she hoped to catch her out in something. No, Alex had to be kept off, and now Rex must be made to understand once and for all that she wasn’t in Nishapore to help him with his schemes. . . . She was so lost in her uneasy, troubled thoughts that as she hurried along the narrow, rough path that twisted through thickets of rhododendron and tall ferns, she all but cannoned into a man strolling down it. He took his pipe out of his mouth and involuntarily put out a hand to steady her as she swerved into the bushes, and she saw that it was Nicholas.
“Oh!” she said with a little catch of the breath that she couldn’t help. “Dr. Terrimore . . . I didn’t know you were coming up to stay.”
“I didn’t mean to take another holiday yet,” he said slowly, “but Nishapore insisted on my spending a few days here to shake off the last of the fever.” And suddenly, with utter unexpectedness, a boyish and almost impish grin creased up his thin face. “Was it a frightful shock to see me here, Miss Paule? I’m sorry.”
She looked at him and slowly smiled back.
“No . . . not exactly. I’m glad you’ve come. . . . I mean it will do you a lot of good.”
And she knew that she meant it. Strange and difficult and eyen disagreeable as he was, it gave her an odd sense of peace and safety to feel that Nicholas was going to be in the camp, even for a few days.
The mountain weather was cloudless and diamond bright and had an almost champagne effect on Mirjhanah, whose face took on a faintly wild-rose tint. She was filling out too, losing that desperately brittle look, growing strong enough to walk up the hill paths at such a swift, easy rate that even Sharon grew breathless keeping up with her.
“It’s glorious to-day,” she said to Sharon on the morning after her encounter with Rex by the river. “I want to dance or fly, but I suppose I’ll have to be content with just walking. Let’s take our lunch up to the big rook.”
This was a favourite walk of Mirjhanah’s, but rather a long one that brought them by way of a steep, twisting path through pine woods to a wide, flat plateau hanging juttingly over the valley below. Sharon lifted her face to the feel of the pine-scented breeze and looked a little doubtful.
“It is a glorious morning, but you walked a lot yesterday, Mirjhanah, and it’s a good half-hour’s climb to the rock. I don’t think you ought——”
“Oh, Sharon! Now you are being just like a strict old English governess, and you promised you’d never behave like one.” Mirjhanah tucked her arm ingratiatingly through Sharon’s. “Just look at me---do I look tired and wan and feeble? We are going to the rock; and we will just have light things to eat so that we need only send Rahim ahead of us to carry our lunch, and nobody need come with us. I hate to have servants walking all the time with us. Isn’t that a nice plan?”
Sharon hesitated again. She knew that the Maharajah preferred them to have someone with them when they went for walks; but Mirjhanah hated it, and it certainly did restrict their conversation, since most of the palace servants knew English quite well and one had to be discreet in front of them. And Mirjhanah was so frank in her criticisms and opinions about her brother’s guests that it was difficult to keep the conversation on a safe level. Besides, the plateau couldn’t be called a long walk---in fact, the camp was well in sight from it; one could almost drop a pebble down from the edge on to the tents.
“Yes, it’s a nice plan,” she said. “All right; but we’re going to take it slowly, Mirjhanah, and we aren’t going any farther than the plateau. No explorings suddenly.”
“I promise. It doesn’t matter where we go as long as we can stay out all day and not come back to camp till quite late, so that I needn’t have tiffin or tea with the others.”
“Why? Don’t you like your brother’s friends?” Sharon asked, and Mirjhanah twisted her face up into a small grimace.
“Oh yes, some of them! But not Mrs. Latimer, and she always sits beside me and talks to me, to improve my mind, you know. And she is always asking me what I am learning from you---if you teach me geography and English history and economics and mathematics. Sometimes I think she finds me very ignorant.”
“And I daren’t imagine what she thinks of me as a companion governess,” Sharon said uneasily, and Mirjhanah laughed and squeezed her arm.
“Sharon! She is a sour old lady, and who cares what she thinks? I am happy and I love you, and now let us get ready quickly before she comes out and asks me if I would like to spend the morning listening to her read me the latest Government reports. Hurry!”
Within half an hour the servant carrying their lunch baskets had started briskly ahead, and they were following at a more leisurely pace up through the rhododendron thickets and across the open glades where sunlight flickering through pine branches made a golden mosaic on the brown needles and short turf. They went so slowly that it took them an hour to reach the plateau, and Sharon, watching Mirjhanah carefully, saw no sign of tiredness in her delicate face. A rug had been spread out under the big rock that formed a sun-trap for them, and there were books and cold drinks and the lunchbaskets neatly arranged by Kerim, who was allowed to go back to the camp until the time for him to come and pack up again.
Mirjhanah tucked a cushion behind her back contentedly, and Sharon lit a cigarette and closed her eyes. The infinite peace of this place lapped over her, engulfed her in drowsiness, the cigarette went out, and she went to sleep, her fair head resting against the smooth slope of the rock.
Sharon didn’t know how long she slept, for a moment didn’t know what woke her so abruptly, nor where she was as she sat blinking at the sky, her mind still confused with sleep. And then her drowsiness was torn to shreds as the sound that had wakened her cut across the silence of the plateau again. It was a cry of terror, a cry for help, and there was no sign of Mirjhanah anywhere. She was on her feet in a single lightning movement, her heart pounding sickeningly as she ran towards the sound that had died away sharply, as though a throat were suddenly clogged with fear.
“Mirjhanah! where are you? I’m coming. . . . What is it?”
Then, as she scrambled up the steep, rough little path that curved to the top of the rocks above the plateau, she saw and stopped dead. Halfway up the path Mirjhanah was standing petrified, her slight body pressed back desperately against the trunk of a fir tree, her olive face blanched to dull grey, and beyond her, blocking the path, within a few feet of her, a massive brown bear stood stolidly poised, head a little down, small eyes watching her intently. Sharon never knew how she contrived to think, to act, to make up her mind. She spoke in a low voice:
“Don’t move yet, and don’t be afraid.”
The bear hadn’t seen her; all his attention was fixed on Mirjhanah. Silently Sharon bent down, picked up a stone, and flung it as far as she could behind the bear into the bushes, where it landed with a crackle of broken twigs. The bear’s head turned ponderously, suspiciously, towards the sound.
“Come towards me,” Sharon said. “Don’t run. We mustn’t show we’re frightened of it, Mirjhanah, and it won’t hurt us.”
Mirjhanah obeyed like a child, but with enough courage to control herself, though her eyes were still huge and strained. She walked down towards Sharon, who pushed her along the narrow path.
“Go on down now, as quietly as you can. Don’t worry; it’s all right.”
Looking backwards casually, she followed, strolling slowly. The bear, satisfied that the sound in the bushes meant nothing, turned his head towards them again and went on staring. If they had begun to run Sharon knew that that huge, furry body would have come lumbering after them, but their slowness and indifference dulled the bear’s interest. He turned away suddenly, plunged into the depths of the bushes, and went clawing off towards the steeper heights.
Mirjhanah had reached the plateau, and Sharon joined her and put an arm round her trembling body. For a moment she thought the girl was going to faint, but she controlled herself with a desperate effort and smiled wanly.
“It’s all right, Mirjhanah; he’s gone and we’re quite safe.”
“Oh, I’m so ashamed!” Mirjhanah said in a whisper. “To be such a coward when you are so brave and calm. I behaved like a stupid child and——Kerry!”
Figures were hurrying across the little plateau towards them---the Maharajah and Rex with guns in their hands. The Maharajah’s face was stiff with alarm as Mirjhanah moved across to him.
“Mirjhanah, are you all right? A villager came down and told us a bear had been seen roaming about up here, and we knew you were close by. Has anything happened, Miss Paule?”
“Kerry . . . she was so brave, she saved my life,” Mirjhanah said swiftly before Sharon could speak. “It was my fault; I wanted to get a better view for my sketch, so I walked up the path, and when I saw the bear sitting there I---I was a coward; I screamed for help. She came and saved me.”
“I’m afraid it was all my fault,” Sharon said quietly. “We shouldn’t have come so far alone. I’m very sorry. And then I fell asleep. I’m entirely to blame.”
“To blame? For saving Mirjhanah from being perhaps badly hurt or frightened?” the Maharajah said softly. “It was no one’s fault, Miss Paule; these things happen in the hills. If you hadn’t been so calm and plucky . . . I don’t know what to say to thank you. I think we should go back to the camp now if you feel able to.”
“Do you feel all right, Miss Paule?” Nicholas asked, his eyes on her white face. “You’ve had rather a shock, and I’ve got some brandy here. I think you’d better have a drop before we start down.”
As the ground swayed for a second under her feet she felt his hand under her arm, steadying her, and she gave him a shakily grateful smile as she sat down on the rock and sipped the brandy he poured out for her into the silver cap of his flask.
“Nicholas, if you will take Mirjhanah and Miss Paule back to camp, I think I’ll have a look round after that bear,” the Maharajah said. “That’s to say, if you feel all right, Miss Paule.”
“Of course; I’m perfectly all right. Shall we go, Dr. Terrimore?”
The last thing she wanted was that anyone should turn her into a heroine because of what had happened, especially as she felt that the incident was her fault really, and she hoped that their return to camp would be unobtrusive and that nothing more would be said about the affair; but the Maharajah, when he arrived back soon after them, was too full of relief and gratitude to keep it secret. Everybody was told and the camp buzzed for a little while with interest and excitement; only Mrs. Latimer held herself coolly aloof from the general exclamations of admiration and congratulations that everyone else showered generously on Sharon. Not that she wanted flattery; but there was one thing that she remembered with a faint warming of the heart---the half-reluctant look in Nicholas’s eyes as he said to her quietly just before they reached the camp:
“You dealt very pluckily with a nasty accident, Miss Paule. If you’d lost your head there might have been a bad accident, but somehow I don’t imagine you do lose your head in a tight corner, do you?”
And something in his faint smile had pierced like a ray of light and hope down into the depths of her being.
“I try not to, at any rate,” she said. “And I expect that bear was perfectly harmless and mild-mannered and wouldn’t have touched Mirjhanah anyway. Please don’t say too much about it to people, because it was my fault for going to sleep and not keeping an eye on her. She’s really only a child, and I was responsible for her safety. I’ll make her rest now.”
She was thankful when the general excitement died away, and by next day things had returned to normal, though there was no question of wandering about in the woods with Mirjhanah unescorted now.
The day after that was Sharon’s birthday, though when she woke up in the morning she didn’t even remember it; birthdays don’t mean so much when you have no family to fuss over you, no home to celebrate it in. But some time before, without realizing it, she had told Mirjhanah the date, and when she went into their breakfast tent, where the table was set in a pool of sunlight by the raised flap, she discovered quite a little heap of parcels beside her plate, and Mirjhanah in the middle of arranging a vase of trailing, celestially blue morning glories in front of it.
“Happy birthday, Sharon,” she said with a quick, childish brushing of a kiss against Sharon’s cheek. “Why do you look so surprised? I wrote the date down in my birthday book when you told it me, with a red underline. Come and open your presents---this is mine and this is Kerry’s.”
For an instant Sharon felt tears prick her lashes. Warm-hearted, spontaneous kindness hadn’t come much into her life, and to meet it here unexpectedly in India was strange and moving. Blinking a little, she cut the golden strings with which the parcels were tied.
Mirjhanah’s gift was a lovely, richly enamelled old Mogul bracelet threaded on golden links, and the vivid blues and greens and crimsons glowed against the whiteness of Sharon’s narrow wrist as Mirjhanah fastened it on for her, her cheeks flushed with pleasure at Sharon’s admiration.
“It is only a little thing which Kerry’s jeweller found for me, but it’s old, and I thought you would like it. Now look at this one; it is from Dr. Terrimore.”
“Dr. Terrimore!” Sharon said blankly, her eyes widening in disbelief. “But you don’t mean to say that he’s given me a present? Mirjhanah, you shouldn’t have told him or suggested it.”
“But I didn’t suggest anything! He saw the bracelet, and I told him why I had bought it, and he didn’t say anything about giving you a present, but last night he gave me this little parcel and asked me to put it with mine. Open it quickly!”
It was only a tiny thing, a little amber elephant charm, but beautifully cut and tinted pure, translucent gold, and as she held it in the palm of her hand the blood sang a little in Sharon’s ears and her heart lifted skywards dizzily. Nicholas had taken the trouble to find this little present for her . . . but Mirjhanah wouldn’t let her linger much over one particular thing.
“And this one is from Kerry, and I helped him choose, because he said it must be a present better than any of the others, and I think it is. Look quickly!”
For some reason Sharon’s hand trembled nervously as she unwrapped the red velvet case and snapped it open. Inside, on a bed of white satin, such a blinding flash of brilliance hit her eyes that she drew a sharp little breath. Two long pendant earrings set with diamonds were laid out on the satin, and the most ignorant amateur about jewels couldn’t fail to realize that these stones were worth a fabulous amount. No doubt the Maharajah had hundreds like these amongst his private collection and had chosen them carelessly to be given away, but that didn’t lessen their value. To him they were no more than cheap beads, but to her and to everybody else. . . .
“Don’t you like them, Sharon?” Mirjhanah asked anxiously. “He had them specially set and they are very good stones; he said they must be if they were for you.”
Impossible to tell this girl that one simply could not accept such a gift from one’s Indian employer, even as a birthday present; that such generosity was an embarrassment and a danger. What would people think and say if she appeared wearing them, announcing that the Maharajah had given them to her? What would Mrs. Latimer’s sharp tongue find to say? She closed the case quickly and smiled at Mirjhanah.
“They are very beautiful, Mirjhanah, but I think I like your bracelet even better. Now let’s have our breakfast before I open anything else, because it’s getting cold. We can go down to the river later.”
All day as they picnicked and sketched and read down by the musically rushing mountain stream she worried about the Maharajah’s present, feeling it lie like a lead weight on her mind. How could she return the earrings, without hurting and offending him, in such a way that he would understand her point of view? It was a difficult and delicate problem for her to tackle, and there was nobody whose advice she could ask. Mrs. Latimer was the last person she would dare consult.
And then suddenly she thought of the one person who might be able to help her, who would understand her position. It would be difficult even to approach him, but she felt she must have someone’s help.
It was dusk when she saw Nicholas come out of his tent and stroll down towards the river, and, flinging a loose white coat on over her semi-evening frock, which she was wearing because the Maharajah and Mirjhanah insisted on her joining the dinner party that evening, she went quietly after him, a slim white figure moving through the blue twilight. She took the earrings in her pocket and her fingers closed unsteadily over the case, but in spite of her nervousness she was determined to go through with the business now. Nicholas was sucking his pipe and watching the last faint raspberry-red flush of the afterglow fade from the highest peaks, and she spoke softly:
“Dr. Terrimore, I haven’t had a chance to thank you yet for the birthday present you gave me. It was kind of you to think of it.”
“Oh!” He gave a startled little movement and turned towards her, his fingers fumbling with his pipe. “It wasn’t anything at all,” he said awkwardly. “Just a trifle I thought you might like. I hope he’ll bring you luck, at any rate. In India the elephant god is looked upon as a friendly person.”
“I think he will, and I’ll always wear him,” she said; and then, after a little pause, she went on quickly: “Dr. Terrimore, may I---would it be bothering you if I were to ask your advice about something that’s worrying me rather?”
“No, of course not. What is it?” he asked, and she brought the jewel-case out of her pocket abruptly and opened it.
“It’s---these,” she said, putting the case into his hand; and he raised his eyebrows a little as he looked at the earrings, whose fire winked and sparkled even in the dusk.
“H’m!” he said thoughtfully. “A birthday present from somebody?”
“Yes, from the Maharajah. That’s what’s worrying me so much. I don’t know what to do about it, Dr. Terrimore. I can’t possibly accept them, and yet he meant the present so kindly and generously. How can I give them back to him without hurting his feelings?”
“Give them back?” Nicholas said thoughtfully, still staring at the jewels. “You want to do that?”
“Of course.” Again that faint note of mockery and disbelief had crept into his voice, and Sharon felt herself flushing, stiffening. “It’s impossible for me to accept such a valuable present of jewellery from him in my position---you must realize that yourself. I had no idea that he knew about my birthday or that he meant to give me anything like this. Somehow I’ve got to explain to him, and I wondered if you could help me do it in such a way that he isn’t offended and angry.”
Nicholas was silent for a moment and when he spoke at last it was in a different voice, more gentle.
“Yes, of course I understand that you can’t accept them,” he said. “You mustn’t think, though, that he meant anything offensive in giving them to you. He’s a generous person and very grateful for all you’ve done for Mirjhanah, and he didn’t stop to think. I think, if you like, I can explain to him how you feel without hurting his feelings---that’s to say, if you’d like me to try.”
“Oh, if you would I’d be so grateful!” Sharon said with a long-drawn sigh of relief. “I’ve been worrying myself sick all day about it. Supposing Mrs. Latimer were to find out that he’d given me diamonds, she’d---she’d think all sorts of beastly things. You see, I don’t want anything to go wrong here. I’m so happy. In fact, I didn’t believe I could ever be so happy anywhere. . . .”
There was a little catch in her voice, and in the failing light her face had a delicate, ghostly pallor and her eyes looked enormous. Nicholas put the case in his pocket briskly.
“And you’ve got a right to be happy,” he said almost gruffly. “Don’t let anyone spoil things for you. I’ll let you know to-morrow about this. It’s about dinner-time; shall we go up now?”
They walked back towards the brilliantly lit diningroom tent together, and never had the valley seemed to Sharon to be so full of lovely peace. Nicholas was right. Why shouldn’t she be happy? Why should she let anyone spoil things for her?
She enjoyed the dinner party, with candles burning in tulip-shaped brightness down the length of the table and champagne in honour of her birthday filling the crystal glasses. It seemed fantastic to be dining in this luxury, as though one were sitting in a marble palace, when within a stone’s-throw of the camp a mountain torrent surged and plunged down the hillside and bears roamed in the tangled woods. There was radio music and bridge afterwards in the big drawing-room tent, but Sharon contrived to say good night early and slip away. The night was so lovely, with a young crescent moon hanging over one of the peaks, that she didn’t go straight into her own tent, but wandered across the grassy plateau a little way, enjoying the cold sting of the air against her face. She was still lingering over the view of the river when she heard footsteps coming slowly across the grass and two people came into sight, walking slowly, arms linked. Sharon in the shadow of a pine tree was unseen, keeping very quiet, though it wasn’t natural to her to act as an eavesdropper. The two people were Cynthia and Rex. Cynthia had a fur coat slung loosely over her shoulders, and in the faint starshine her eyes were brilliant and excited. They paused just on the fringe of the circle of shadow, and Cynthia slipped into Rex’s arms and lifted her face to his.
“Darling, I can hardly believe it yet,” she said under her breath, “that you really care. We’re going to be so happy, Rex, and we mustn’t let anyone---the family, I mean---interfere. They---they might try to, because they’re terribly ambitious and Mummy expects me to marry a belted earl at least, just because the gossipwriters got so worked up over the colour of my hair. But I don’t care. I’ll be twenty-one in a couple of months, and then I can marry whom I like---and it’s going to be you. I swear it.”
“So do I,” he said lightly. “It couldn’t be anyone but me, Cynthia, or you for me. Shall we tell them to-night?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice rising on an eager, excited note. “I want everyone to know. I’m not afraid of anything, Rex. Let’s go in.”
Sharon stood still for a moment after they had gone up towards the tent, her body still and tense, her head throbbing. Rex’s triumph had been a swift and easy one---and she was responsible for it and for the heartbreak and tragedy that lay in wait for that girl who had lost her head so completely over him. If it were allowed to go on . . . if it were allowed . . .
Her hands were cold and she was trembling a little as, much later and still dressed and wearing her white coat, she watched from her bedroom tent for the breaking up of the party. At last they came out and there were exchanged good nights and everyone strolled off towards their own tent. Rex’s was pitched not far from hers, and she waited until he came level with her and then moved quickly out of the shadow, speaking in a low voice.
“Rex, I want to speak to you for a moment.”
“Oh, hullo, Sharon!” he said easily, showing no surprise at her abrupt appearance. “Yes, of course. By the way, I hope you’ve had a happy birthday, and I imagine you have. It isn’t every girl who gets diamonds from her grateful employer. Why aren’t you wearing them?”
“The earrings---how did you know about them?” she asked sharply, and he shrugged his shoulders with a faint smile.
“I happened to see them. As a matter of fact, he asked my advice about having them set when I admired the stones.”
“Well, I’m not keeping them,” she said quietly. “I’m giving them back and explaining that I can’t accept a present like that from him.”
“Really?” He raised his eyebrows a little. “That seems a trifle over-sensitive, my dear, doesn’t it? But perhaps it’s clever . . . you are clever, my sweet. Even the wild animals play their part beautifully---that bear, for instance. . . .”
There was no mistaking the ugly meaning in his faintly mocking words, and she felt the blood running out of her face.
“If you mean that I invented or somehow arranged the whole thing you give me credit for being a great deal cleverer than I am,” she answered coolly, keeping a tight hold on her rising temper. “I’m not in the position to arrange for bears to appear out of the woods at opportune moments, and I didn’t have the slightest desire to meet this particular one. But that wasn’t what I wanted to speak to you about, Rex. I want to talk about Cynthia Howland.” She saw him stiffen a little and his eyes grow narrow, but she went on determinedly: “You seem to have got her to promise to marry you---but are you going through with it?”
“My dear Sharon,” he murmured in a tone of injured innocence, “one doesn’t usually get engaged without intending to ‘go through with it,’ as you rather oddly put it. I’m in love with Cynthia, and who wouldn’t be? And she’s in love with me, though that is more of a mystery. She could take her pick of the young men in India, but she’s turned them all down. We’re going to get married as soon as we both get back to England.”
“But you can’t do it!” Sharon said under her breath. “Oh, I know it’s all my fault. You’d planned something like this from the very moment you persuaded me to introduce you to the Maharajah. I suppose you somehow knew the Howlands were going to stay with him too, or you were taking a chance on something worth while turning up. I should have known. But---it goes deeper than that, Rex, for me. I can’t let you mess up this silly girl’s whole life. And I know things about you that Cynthia Howland might find rather disillusioning. You’ve got to break this engagement and go away and leave her alone.”
“Have I really?” Rex’s voice was very soft and he was smiling faintly, though his face looked tight. “That all sounds a trifle autocratic, Sharon darling. Living in an Indian palace seems to have given you big ideas. Since when have I had to ask your permission about the way I run my life? If I fall in love and get married, is it any concern of yours?”
“If you marry Cynthia it is,” Sharon said stubbornly, but her hands felt icy cold. “Because I was responsible for you ever meeting her. I mean it, Rex. If I tell Cynthia certain things——”
“If it comes to telling stories,” Rex said smoothly, mockingly, “that’s a game two can play at, my sweet, and the cards are pretty evenly dealt out. Now, you, for instance---does the Maharajah happen to know, I wonder, that your father had to beat a very hurried retreat from England before the police warrant on a charge of fraudulent conversion of public funds caught up with him? Somehow I don’t fancy he does. And has he heard any of your rather---er---startling experiences in London as a night-club hostess? Would he, do you suppose, feel that a girl who appeared as a witness in a pretty sensational suicide case is quite the right person to be trusted with the job of companioning his precious and innocent little sister? I wonder. Think it over, Sharon.”
She was silent for a moment, feeling sick and giddy and stunned. It was perfectly true; Rex could hurt her so much more than she could hurt him. If he had to give up Cynthia it wouldn’t mean much to him; he would go cheerfully off and look for another adventure, another opportunity. But for her---this life in Nishapore meant something big, and one casual word from him could shatter it, spoil it utterly. He held a sword over her head where she only held a pin over his. And yet through her dry-mouthed fear something was urging her to stand fast. Perhaps it was the thought of Nicholas’s face as he listened to the announcement of the engagement, listened to Rex’s smooth display of triumph. She could imagine Nicholas’s eyes narrowing and his mouth twisting into that bitter, cynical smile.
“All right, Rex,” she said slowly. “But I have warned you. Good night.”
She turned and walked away from him, and he stood for a moment watching her, not smiling any longer, but kicking one foot nervously against a tussock of grass, his fingers twisting an unlit cigarette into shapelessness. Damn the girl! There had been a queer look in her eyes, and he had always been conscious of something odd about Sharon, something invulnerable and aloof, something that his charm and personality, even his anger, couldn’t reach and control. It was a strange new sensation for Rex Kildare to be afraid of someone in the depth of his heart, and he didn’t like it. He gave a final furious kick at the grass, hurled the mangled cigarette away, and went off to his own tent.
Cynthia Howland’s bedroom tent was the last of the semicircle that accommodated the ladies of the party and a light still burned through the crack in the flaps. Sharon tapped on it lightly, and a plump little Indian ayah answered her summons.
“Is Howland Miss-sahib still up? Could I speak to her?”
The ayah beckoned her into the little outer porch of the tent, and Cynthia’s clear voice called to her from within.
“Is that you, Miss Paule? Do come in.”
She was in a dark azure blue silk dressing-gown and was brushing out the burnished mass of her hair with swift, vigorous strokes. Sharon noticed that her cheeks were flushed and her eyes almost unnaturally bright as she turned round from the dressing table.
“I’m sorry to disturb you so late,” she said quietly. “I just wanted to speak to you for a moment. I’ve just heard that---that you and Rex Kildare have announced your engagement.”
“Did he tell you? Yes; we gave it out this evening.” She drew a deep breath. “I’m so terribly happy, Sharon--- I can call you that, can’t I? We’re going to be married as soon as this Indian visit is over. Alex and I are only out here for two or three months, and Rex is coming home about then too. Do have a chocolate.”
She held out the box, but Sharon shook her head, and unconsciously she clenched her hands before she spoke again in a low voice:
“Please listen to me, Cynthia. I hate saying this, but---well, I feel I must because you and Rex met through me. I introduced him to the Maharajah and he wangled an invitation to this house party. But---you can’t marry him, Cynthia, you don’t know anything about him. Oh! of course he’s very charming and attractive and he can hold his own anywhere, but he’s---an adventurer, Cynthia, a man who simply lives on other people’s trustfulness. He set himself out to make you fall in love with him because of your money and social position, but he hasn’t anything to offer you. He——”
She stopped short as Cynthia swung round on the low chair to face her, her cheeks flushed crimson, her eyes blazing, her whole body trembling violently in the grip of her ungovernable anger. When she managed to get her voice out it was choked and half hysterical.
“Sharon, how dare you!---how dare you talk like that to me about Rex? . . . If you say a word more . . . But I expected this. Rex warned me that you’d come to me and say things like this---tell horrible, malicious lies about him, because you’re jealous. You want him for yourself; you’ve always chased him round, and he---he doesn’t care anything about you. So now you try to spoil everything for me, out of spite. I won’t listen to another word, and I think you’d better go now before I call Alex. I hate you!”
Her voice had risen to what was almost a scream, and at that moment there was an unnoticed tap on the tent door and Mrs. Latimer came in and stood staring at Cynthia’s twisted, wild face.
“Cynthia! . . . My dear child, what on earth is the matter? What’s going on here? You look terribly upset.”
Cynthia caught her breath like an angry child who has given itself hiccoughs with crying, and everything came out with a rush.
“It’s Sharon . . . she’s been saying vile things about Rex---that he’s an adventurer and only wants my money. It’s because he won’t make love to her. How dare she say things like that! She---she could be prosecuted for them, and if she says anything more . . . She can’t prove a word of it.”
“I’m sorry,” Sharon said in a low voice, her face very white, “but I think you had better be careful what you say too, Cynthia. As for proving anything I say, I can certainly do that. I know Rex Kildare very well. I worked for him in London in a night club that he ran. There was a nasty scandal about a suicide that happened there and he had to close the club down.”
“You worked for Rex Kildare at a night club?” Mrs. Latimer’s attention had suddenly switched from the distraught Cynthia to Sharon. Her eyes were fixed on her face with a piercing interest, and there was a faint gleam of triumph, too, in them. “Didn’t you give evidence in that suicide case, Miss Paule? I thought your face was somehow familiar. Of course, a lot of photos of you appeared in the Press. And---er---aren’t you Winslow Paule’s daughter?”
Even at that last moment Sharon felt she might have wriggled out of the mess, denied everything, saved the situation for herself. Mrs. Latimer wasn’t sure of her facts; she was only guessing; but suddenly Sharon was sick of evasions and lies and deceptions.
“Yes, my father was Winslow Paule,” she answered quietly. “And I gave evidence about Leonie Denis’s death because I had a job as hostess at Rex Kildare’s night club where it happened. But I’m not ashamed of anything, and I’m trying to warn Cynthia of the danger she’s in. I needn’t have said anything, and, of course, if she won’t listen it’s all wasted. Good night.”
She went out of the tent holding her tawny head high, feeling suddenly coldly calm and cleansed and free. To tell the truth without waiting for Rex to get in his tale-bearing---that was much the best way, and it gave her back a feeling of self-respect and honesty. Things must take their course now. . . .
“Miss Paule, is someone ill in Miss Howland’s tent? I saw Mrs. Latimer going in, and I thought I heard a cry.” Nicholas had stepped out of the shadow of his tent beside her, and in the bright moonlight he saw how white and tired she looked. She answered him in a flat, tired voice.
“Cynthia Howland is a little hysterical, but she’s calmed down now, and Mrs. Latimer is with her. It was my fault. I---I tried to tell her the truth about Rex Kildare, to make her see sense, because I feel I’m responsible for their meeting, but it wasn’t any use; she wouldn’t listen to me. She thinks I went to her with my story because---I’m jealous of Rex caring for her and want him for myself.” There was a queer note of mockery in her tone. “Anyway, all that happened was that Mrs. Latimer joined in and discovered that all her secret suspicions about me are perfectly correct and justified---that I’m a financial crook’s daughter and earned my living in London at a shady night club and was mixed up in a sensational suicide case.” She met his eyes suddenly, and her rising voice dropped to a quieter key. “It’s all absolutely true and not exaggerated,” she said steadily. “My father was Winslow Paule, who died in a cheap pension in Switzerland because he could never set foot in England again. And I worked for Rex at his London night club as a dance hostess. So I suppose I’m not really a very suitable person to be Mirjhanah’s companion, and Mrs. Latimer has always guessed it; and I’ve no doubt she’ll waste no time in pointing it out to the Maharajah. It can’t be helped, and somehow---I’m glad it’s over and that she does know.”
There was silence for a moment as Nicholas stood looking down into her eyes, and she saw a muscle in his cheek tighten.
“But is it any concern of Mrs. Latimer’s?” he said at last in a low voice. “Does any of that matter now, Sharon? What your father was or how you had to earn your living before you came here? I mean---you got this post because of what you are yourself, and you’ve proved yourself fit for it several times over. I don’t think the Maharajah or Mirjhanah will worry about anything else. Don’t be afraid of things---not that I think you are---but don’t worry. You’ve got a right to shape your life in the future and I don’t think Mrs. Latimer will go round gossiping about what you told her. Go to bed, and don’t worry.”
For a moment Sharon was so astonished that she was speechless, queerly shaken. That Nicholas, knowing the truth about her at last, should defend her, stand up for her right to be doing the job she was doing, made her heart turn over and her legs tremble. It was so utterly unexpected and illogical. He had despised her because he thought she was an adventuress, and now that he had ample evidence to prove his idea he put himself on her side.
“I---it’s kind of you to say that,” she murmured thickly. “Thank-you---and good night.”
She gave him an uncertain smile before he vanished abruptly back into his tent, and she went on to her own, feeling drained and physically exhausted by the emotions of the strange evening. But at least, whatever to-morrow might bring forth, she felt she could face it with more courage because she wouldn’t have to look into Nicholas’s eyes and see contempt and mockery in them. If she looked deep enough, she might even see friendliness and encouragement. . . .
Sharon didn’t see any of the house party until the next afternoon, when they all had tea together in the luxurious drawing-room tent. The Maharajah and Mirjhanah always insisted on her joining them for that, and she strolled in with Mirjhanah, hoping she looked completely calm and self-possessed, although she could feel her heart knocking against her ribs with uncomfortable nervous violence.
Everybody was there---Rex and Cynthia sitting together on a low sofa in intimate nearness, Mrs. Latimer talking to the Maharajah, the others scattered about near the silver-laden tea-table.
Rex gave her an easy smile; but though Cynthia shot her a hard, unsmiling look, she was obviously controlling herself more than usual. Mrs. Latimer barely glanced at her and went on with her conversation, and Nicholas got up to fetch her a chair, while Mirjhanah, who was determined to do everything in the most English way possible, took charge of the silver teapots, the thin gold bracelets on her slim wrists tinkling as she moved her hands amongst the teacups.
The general trend of the conversation was regret at the end of the camping party, for they were all going back to Nishapore the following day.
“But I hope we shall all meet again at Christmas,” the Maharajah said. “Remember, you’re all booked to spend it up here---as many of you as are within reach of Nishapore, at any rate.” He put down Sharon’s cup for her, and his own. “Miss Paule, if you are free for a moment, will you come into my study? I’d like to speak to you about something.”
“Of course,” Sharon said, but her heart sank like lead as she went with the Maharajah into the adjoining tent that had been fitted up as a private study for him. All the old feeling of insecurity and dread rushed over her again as she waited for him to speak. He looked oddly embarrassed as he drew a chair forward.
“Please sit down, Miss Paule. I---I feel I owe you an apology for my thoughtlessness, though please believe me when I say that I never meant to offend you when I ---when I made you a birthday present that I thought would show you how grateful I am for all you’ve done for Mirjhanah.”
He nodded towards a small table, and she saw that the diamond earrings were lying there in their velvet case. In the worry of the last twelve hours over Rex she had completely forgotten about them.
“But you didn’t offend me,” she said quickly, sensing the hurt in his voice. “I appreciate your kindness and generosity more than I can say, but---it’s difficult to explain. The present was too beautiful and valuable.”
“I know, and I understand how you feel. Terrimore made me see that I’d behaved rather stupidly and impulsively,” the Maharajah said with a smile. “At the time I only thought of my gratitude and how I could show it. You must forgive me, Miss Paule, for causing you this embarrassment, and I hope you’ll accept this little gift instead.”
He put a small parcel wrapped in tissue paper into her hands, and when she opened it, a trifle nervously, it revealed a small, exquisitely carved pale jade figure of a Chinese dancing girl poised on an ebony pedestal. Sharon drew a finger lightly down the delicately cut, tiny face.
“Oh, it’s beautiful!” she said. “I shall always treasure it, and if I could have my choice between this and the earrings, I’d choose this every time.”
“That’s all right, then!” He heaved a sigh of relief as he stood up. “Now let’s go back and have a cocktail with the others.”
Nobody seemed to notice that they had been away for a few minutes, but even though he didn’t look up, Sharon had a feeling that Rex had noticed everything that had happened. She shook her head when Nicholas offered her a cocktail.
“It’s too soon after tea, thanks very much. I think I ought to go and do some packing. I haven’t even started yet, and we’re going down early to-morrow morning.”
Nicholas followed her out of the tent unobtrusively, and they lingered for a moment on the edge of the plateau, watching the foaming, rose-stained mountain stream cascading down over the polished rocks.
“I want to thank you for helping me out of an awkward predicament, Dr. Terrimore,” she said. “I mean with the Maharajah and the earrings. I didn’t know how to do it myself, and it’s a weight off my mind. I’m so grateful.”
“It wasn’t anything,” he said, flushing a little, as though her thanks embarrassed him. “He understood all right when I put the point to him. I hope you slept well?”
There was a question in his eyes, and she nodded.
“Yes; I did. I followed your prescription, about not worrying, and it worked. Thank you for that too.” But there was a shadow in her eyes suddenly. “I’ve done my best about Rex and Cynthia,” she said slowly. “I wish there was something more I could do, but there isn’t. I can’t forgive myself, though, for having made it easy for him to come here and do this. But I had no idea what he had in his mind when I introduced him to the Maharajah. You do believe that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” he answered quietly. “He only used you. But he’s a dangerous person, Shar--- Miss Paule, and if I were you I’d keep out of his affairs and keep him out of yours.”
He fumbled with his pipe for a moment and turned redder. “I expect you noticed last night that I called you ‘Sharon’,” he said abruptly. “It sort of slipped out, and it nearly did again just now. I’m sorry, but I get so used to hearing Mirjhanah talk of you as Sharon. Would you mind if I adopted the habit? And, incidentally, ‘Dr. Terrimore’ always seems rather a mouthful for anyone to waste their breath on. What about Nicholas?”
“I think it’s a good idea,” she answered lightly. “As a matter of fact, only about three people in the world call me ‘Miss Paule,’ and I don’t count them amongst my friends. I really must go and pack now. And thank you again for---everything.”
Camp was struck next morning, and the whole party, after riding a short way on ponies, drove down to Nishapore in the big, smooth-running cars that met them at the foot of the hill. Sharon was sorry to leave the mountains and forests and Mirjhanah was frankly doleful at being torn away from them, but their spirits rose as they came in sight of the lake again. And to Sharon there was something genuinely home-like and welcoming about her rooms in the palace. Masses of flowers had been arranged in the sitting-room, and she found that during her absence, a handsome radio-gramophone had been fitted into one corner of it. Within another few days the house party would break up altogether; Rex, Cynthia, the Latimers---everybody who threatened her security---would be gone for good and she could relax again, let herself sink back into the peaceful, sun-soaked life of the palace and her long, quiet days with Mirjhanah. Queer, she thought with a faint smile, that she, who had always believed that she must have excitement and adventure in life, should find this dullness and tranquillity satisfying.
It was afternoon and she was just finishing her leisurely unpacking and looking about for the best place in which to stand her jade dancing girl, when a curious sound reached her ears, wafted down the length of the marble corridor. She had left her outer door a little ajar and the sound was clear and unmistakable, the sound of convulsive, hysterical sobs, of raised voices.
She went out quickly, just in time to see Cynthia Howland, her face contorted and chalk-white and stained with tears, going into her own room with Mrs. Latimer hovering anxiously on her heels. But Cynthia spoke loudly over her shoulder as she reached the door.
“Please go away and leave me alone. I don’t want to see anyone, and I don’t want to talk about it any more. Tell Alex he must get me away from here at once. . . .”
And with that the door slammed abruptly in Mrs. Latimer’s startled face as Sharon came towards her.
“Mrs. Latimer, what’s happened? Can I do anything to help?”
“To help?” Mrs. Latimer swung round on her angrily, her small eyes glittering, her voice sarcastic. “No; I don’t think you can do anything to help now, Miss Paule. You can’t undo all the harm you’ve done by introducing that wretched young man here. You can’t undo the heartbreak and misery you’ve brought on poor Cynthia by bringing your---disreputable friends to Nishapore.”
“But---what’s happened?” Sharon stammered, her lips suddenly going dry as fear clutched at her heart.
“Your charming Mr. Rex Kildare has been arrested--- that’s what’s happened,” Mrs. Latimer said, her thin lips snapping tightly over the words. “A police officer has just arrived here from Bombay with a warrant in his pocket for his arrest on a charge of fraud and forgery. He’s being taken away at once---and I believe the Maharajah wants to see you at once. I think there’s something he wants explained, Miss Paule.”
In that sick, stunned moment Sharon could only think numbly, “At least Nicholas knows that I did my best to stop this.” But it was a stupid thought, because what Nicholas thought didn’t make any difference to the ugliness of the whole affair. Conscious of the malicious triumph in Mrs. Latimer’s face, she pulled herself together with an effort and spoke quietly.
“I did my best to warn Cynthia, Mrs. Latimer, as soon as I realized what was happening, but you saw for yourself the other evening that she wouldn’t listen. If the Maharajah wants to see me, I’m perfectly ready to explain anything I can. I think someone ought to see that Cynthia is all right.”
“I’ll go in to her.” Neither of them had noticed Alex Howland coming towards them, his young face anxious and strained, and Sharon spoke impulsively:
“I’m dreadfully sorry about this, Mr. Howland. I tried to tell Cynthia what I knew about Rex, but she was too---too carried away by everything to listen to me. Perhaps I should have told you.”
“It’s rather late to say all that now, isn’t it?” Mrs. Latimer put in sharply. “I understand that it was you who first introduced Rex Kildare to the Maharajah in Bombay and got him asked here.”
“I introduced him,” Sharon said quietly, “but I had no idea that the Maharajah was going to invite him to Nishapore.”
“And in any case,” Alex put in abruptly, “I don’t see that Sharon need feel responsible for Cynthia’s affairs. After all, she’s grown up and she ought to be able to judge for herself. As a matter of fact, I told her myself what I thought about Kildare, but she wouldn’t listen to me either, so she really can’t blame anyone but herself. Don’t worry, Sharon; she’ll get over it once we’re away from here.”
“Well, you’d better go into her and see that she doesn’t do anything silly,” Mrs. Latimer said bad-temperedly. “She banged the door in my face.”
She marched off down the corridor, and Alex tapped on the closed door, called out, “Cynthia, it’s me---Alex. Let me come in”; and within a moment or two the door opened a slit and, with a reassuring nod to Sharon, he slipped inside. A white-turbaned chuprassie approached Sharon with a respectful salaam and a folded note on a small silver tray. The Maharajah had scribbled on it, “If you are free, I should like to speak to you; but if it is not convenient, after dinner will be all right.” But she wasn’t going to put the bad moment off till after dinner, and with her head held high and her face rather pale she followed the servant to the Maharajah’s private suite.
The enormous study was a many-windowed room overlooking the lake, its walls adorned with school and college and polo groups and big-game trophies, for the Maharajah’s taste was firmly masculine and he had no fondness for the silken luxury of cushions and curtains. The room was flooded now with the vivid orange sunlight of late afternoon, and for a moment Sharon’s eyes, as she was ushered in, were dazzled and all she could see were two dark figures silhouetted against the brilliance. Then her eyes focused themselves and she saw the Maharajah standing by one of the windows and Rex sitting casually on the arm of a leather-covered easy-chair, one foot idly swinging, his face bland and smiling as though there were no embarrassment whatever for him in this extraordinary business of being arrested in the middle of a palace houseparty. The Maharajah turned round quickly as Sharon came in and the door was closed softly behind her.
“I came immediately I got your message,” she said quietly, and her heart tightened as she saw how grave and stern he looked, his young face furrowed almost into grimness. But when he spoke it was a trifle hesitatingly, uncertainly.
“That was good of you, Miss Paule. I hope it wasn’t inconvenient. You---you have heard what has happened?”
“Yes, Mrs. Latimer told me.” Sharon met Rex’s eyes calmly, tried to stare down their amused insolence, but she could feel her mouth turning dry. That look in Rex’s eyes, of cynical amusement and enjoyment, was so horribly familiar.
“It’s a great shock to all of us,” the Maharajah said coldly. “But before he---leaves, Mr. Kildare said he would like to speak to you in my presence.”
“Well, here I am,” Sharon said, controlling her voice with an effort. “What does he want to say to me?”
“Only that I’m terribly sorry about all this, Sharon dear,” Rex said smoothly. “Terribly sorry, I mean, if I’ve made things at all difficult for you here by my stupidity. Of course, this business is just a ridiculous mistake that can be cleared up in ten minutes when I get to Bombay, but in the meantime I know you’re sort of held responsible for me. And I want to make it perfectly clear that this matter at least doesn’t in the slightest way concern you, and I sincerely hope the Maharajah won’t think that it does.”
There was a queer, taut silence in the room. Rex was still smiling, and the Maharajah looked at him sharply, intently, and spoke with a crisp peremptoriness.
“What do you mean exactly by that phrase ‘this matter at least,’ Kildare? And why should I think that Miss Paule is involved in any affairs of yours.”
“Well”---Rex shrugged his shoulders and looked as though he were unwilling to say anything more---”what I meant is that though Sharon and I are close friends and partners in some things, we aren’t in this. I want to be fair to her.”
“Partners?” the Maharajah said softly. “What do you mean by that?”
“Please,” Sharon put in in a low voice---”please don’t listen to anything he says. It’s not true that he and I——”
“My dear, I never expected that of you,” Rex said in a hurt, bewildered voice. “That you’d go back on our friendship. That’s the very last thing I’m trying to do, heaven knows! I’m trying my best to explain that you aren’t mixed up in this stupid Bombay affair. As for my use of the word ‘partner,’ of course I didn’t mean that it was anything formal or cut and dried. But we are great friends and we came out to India to see how things turned out, and it was a sort of mutual agreement that we should help each other along if one had good luck and the other didn’t. I’m only ashamed that I’ve done so little for you; the debt is all on my side, and this is a pretty poor way of repaying it, I’m afraid. But it’s the least I can do now to explain things.”
Sharon could feel the blood pounding in her ears, and the suffocatingly hot, marigold-red light swam in front of her eyes and the Maharajah and Rex were wavering black shapes against it. The cool, diabolical cleverness of it all made her feel sick and so shaken with anger that she could hardly speak, but she managed to find her voice after a long moment of silence.
“But that’s all absolutely untrue,” she said thickly. “You’re lying, Rex. There’s no agreement, no partnership between us of any sort. I came out to India alone. I didn’t even know you were going to be on the same boat, and when I did know I avoided you. That’s the truth, and you must believe it.”
She looked desperately at the Maharajah, whose face was suddenly blank, inscrutable, in the way that only an Oriental face can be blank.
“Miss Paule,” he said slowly, “if you don t mind my asking, I should like to know what your---your association was with Mr. Kildare before you came to India. It isn’t meant to be an impertinent question, believe me, I know you were friends, but——”
“Of course we were friends,” Rex said swiftly before Sharon could open her mouth. “One might almost say---more than friends.” Again there was that undercurrent of deliberate meaning in his tone and smile that was half veiled, covert. “Sharon helped me to run a night club in London, and we were certainly partners in that. I hoped that it would mean something really worth while for her, but luck was against me. There was trouble, a suicide case on the premises that brought us a good deal of unpleasant publicity, but I think I managed to make it clear that she wasn’t responsible for anything. I took all the blame, and I always hoped that some day I might be able to make up to her for all the worry and disappointment. I’m sorry I’ve made such a mess of things for you, Sharon dear.”
The Maharajah ignored Rex and spoke direct to Sharon, and she relaxed slowly, letting her hands unclench.
“Part of it is true,” she said wearily, almost listlessly. “It’s true that I worked for Mr. Kildare in his night club---but I wasn’t his partner. It’s true that there was a scandal and that the club was closed down---but nothing else is true. No, I didn’t tell you all this when you offered me this post with your sister, and I suppose that wasn’t very honest of me, and I’m sorry.”
“But you mustn’t blame her for that,” Rex said in a soft voice. “You see, Sharon’s had a pretty tough time, one way and another, fighting for herself, using her wits against the world. Because she simply had to. Life isn’t too kind and charitable towards a girl whose father---well, a girl who is Winslow Paule’s daughter.”
“Winslow Paule s daughter!” The Maharajah made an abrupt movement of surprise. “Do you mean that Miss Paule is the daughter of the man who---who——”
“The man who fled out of England to escape arrest on a charge of criminal fraud,” Sharon said quietly, her face very white. “No, Rex, the Maharajah didn’t know that either, but of course, I ought to have told him. I suppose I thought it didn’t matter very much, but I should have realized that it does. And now you know everything about me.” Her eyes were hard, defiant, as she looked at the Maharajah. “But there is one thing that I do absolutely deny, and that is Mr. Kildare’s suggestion that we came out to India together, to see what we could pick up by our combined wits. I don’t know why he came, but I came because I had a sudden impulse to break away from everything that I hated. I wanted to make a break with them, to find a real job of work to do, and I’m grateful to you for having given me the chance of doing one. But now——” Her voice faltered for, a moment, but she regained control of it after a second. “Now you must decide how you feel about my being Mirjhanah’s companion,” she finished quietly. “I quite understand if——”
She was interrupted by a brisk rap on the door, and the secretary, with an apologetic bow, ushered in a smartly uniformed Indian police constable. He saluted and spoke quickly to the Maharajah, who nodded.
“It appears to be time for you to leave, Kildare, to catch the Bombay mail.”
“Yes; I suppose it is.” Rex seemed completely unembarrassed still by his position. He stood up lazily, with an air of supreme self-possession and easiness. Well, I really do owe you an apology, sir, for causing all this commotion over a silly business which is a mistake from beginning to end, I assure you. Thank you for your hospitality, and I sincerely hope we’ll meet again some day.”
“That, I think, is most unlikely,” the Maharajah said with a level look that ignored Rex’s outstretched hand. “Goodbye.”
Rex, with a faint smile, shrugged his shoulders lightly and turned to Sharon.
“I’m sorry, darling,” he said ruefully. “My well-meaning efforts seem to have made things worse for you, and I don’t blame you for not being very keen to go on with things as they are. Never mind, try to forgive me, and we’ll try our luck together again some day, shall we?”
And with that smile still on his face, he went out of the room with the policeman on his heels, and Sharon unconsciously pressed a hand against her burning forehead. The flaring evening light was dying out of the sky now; everything was turning grey and lustreless as the brief twilight closed in, and soon that would be gone too. All colour and sunlight and happiness and peace had gone out of her world because of a man’s careless cruelty and cleverness, because of a few casually spoken, poisontipped words shot into the air.
The Maharajah had taken a thin gold cigarette case out and was restlessly tapping a cigarette against it, his eyes avoiding Sharon’s, his face still expressionless and stiff. She braced her shoulders and broke the uneasy silence for him:
“I must apologize for all this too, because from the beginning it’s been my fault. I should have told you everything about myself in Bombay when you offered me this post, and left you to judge for yourself whether I was fit for it. And I should have refused to introduce Rex Kildare to you that day at Bombay Races---that at least was prearranged, but I had no idea what he wanted out of it. I should have guessed, though. I’m very sorry, and I quite understand that it doesn’t much matter whether you believe his story about our association and ‘partnership’ or not. You want me to leave Nishapore, don’t you?” The Maharajah flung the unlighted cigarette away with an angry jerk, and his eyes were sombre and unhappy.
“I don’t believe all he said, of course. I know he was lying about certain things. But---it’s difficult to explain, Miss Paule, without hurting your feelings. I must try, though. Already your presence here in the palace has been criticized and gossiped about in certain quarters. I have enemies in my own state, men who are bitterly antiEnglish, who resent my fondness for England and her ways and methods. So they are glad to seize on anything to my discredit, and especially to the discredit of my English friends. The news of Mr. Kildare’s arrest will have spread through the bazaars, I’m afraid, and there will be a great deal of exaggeration and lies.”
“About me?” Sharon asked, and the Maharajah nodded unhappily.
“I’m afraid so. Certain elements here never approved of my having an English lady companion for my sister, and they’ll be only too pleased to seize on to anything that looks like scandal. As for what Kildare said about a---a partnership between you to see what you could pick up in India, of course I don’t believe that. But---well——”
“That doesn’t make any difference, though I’m glad that you personally don’t believe it,” she said quietly. “But I understand, and it’s entirely my fault; I’ve spoilt things for myself by my own stupidity, and I must just take the consequences. I don’t want anything unpleasant to happen that would touch Mirjhanah. When would you like me to leave? I can pack at once.”
“I don’t want anything to be inconvenient for you. Miss Paule,” the Maharajah said uncomfortably, his eyes almost sad. “And please believe me when I say that if there were any other way out of the difficulty I wouldn’t hesitate to take it. But I’m thinking of Mirjhanah too. If you were out together and there were any sort of disagreeable incident or demonstration, it would hurt her terribly. I’m afraid, though, that she is going to be terribly upset by all this. Perhaps it would be better to say that you have to leave for some personal reasons. If she knows the truth she’ll be terribly angry with me, and she’ll call me a coward and all sorts of other things.” He smiled unwillingly. “She seems such a gentle little person, but she doesn’t hesitate to voice her opinions and her disapproval very strongly if she believes they are justified. Everything can be arranged for you to catch the Bombay mail to-morrow evening if that isn’t too soon for you. Of course, your expenses will be paid and---and if there is anything else I can do to help while you make your plans, Miss Paule, please tell me. I should never forgive myself if you were put to any sort of discomfort by all this.”
“Thank you,” Sharon said wearily, and her face was as set and expressionless as his own. “You’ve been very kind to me, and I shall be perfectly all right.”
She found herself out in the long corridor, going towards her own rooms, and the marble floor felt soft and wavery under her feet and she felt too tired to think, and in spite of the warmth of the evening her hands were stone cold. Plans---the future---she couldn’t think about them yet, couldn’t get her eyes focused on to the horizon. Nishapore had become her safe, beautiful little world, and now she was being flung abruptly head over heels out of it. . . .
“Hullo, Sharon! Have you been talking to the Maharajah? If he’s free now I’d like . . . Sharon, what’s happened? Is anything wrong?”
In her dazed preoccupation she hadn’t noticed Nicholas coming down the corridor towards her, and she looked at him blankly now, her brain still refusing to work. His face darkened angrily.
“Has that confounded Mrs. Latimer been making mischief?” he said under his breath. “I thought I’d convinced her that she’d be wiser to mind her own business.”
“No; it’s nothing to do with Mrs. Latimer,” Sharon said in a tired, flat voice. “Will you come into my sittingroom for a moment, Nicholas? We can’t talk properly here.”
He nodded abruptly, followed her in silence along the corridor, and closed the door decisively behind them.
“Now what’s gone wrong, Sharon? Something serious?”
“I’m leaving Nishapore to-morrow evening by the Bombay mail,” she said in a flat voice. “Haven’t you heard about Rex Kildare? He’s been arrested for fraud in Bombay, and the police took him off this evening.”
“Rex Kildare! Well, I’m not surprised,” Nicholas said violently, and then added in a quieter voice: “But what’s that got to do with you, Sharon?. Why should you want to leave Nishapore?”
“I don’t want to leave, Nicholas---but I’ve got to. Before he was taken off under arrest Rex talked to the Maharajah and me, and he told him certain things---some are true and some aren’t, but that hardly matters. At any rate, it’s made my position here impossible now. The Maharajah was very kind about it, but he explained exactly how things stood and why I must go, and I don’t blame him. I wasn’t honest with him, and it’s my own fault. I can’t stay here a moment longer than is necessary now.”
“The swine!” Nicholas said in a low voice, his face set and tight. “Sharon---but I’m afraid the Maharajah is right. He has enemies in the state who will make the most of this story, and it might be very unpleasant for you. But what are you going to do?”
“Go back to England, I suppose.” She shrugged her shoulders ironically. “After all, this trip to India was only an adventure, a sort of gamble with Fate. I’ve enjoyed it, anyway, as far as it’s gone, and I can’t blame anyone but myself for its failure.”
“But getting back to England is an expensive business.” Nicholas was frowning a little. “I know the Maharajah will want to do everything he can to make things easy for you, but——”
“But I can’t accept too much from him,” Sharon put in. “He’s been generous enough already, and he insists on paying my fare down to Bombay. I’ll manage all right.”
“Well, if it would be any help, would you agree to helping with two children in return for a passage home?” he asked, with a note of hesitation in his voice. “I happen to have a friend, a Mrs. Crane, who is sailing in a fortnight’s time, and she’s very anxious to find someone who would do that. She’s a dear, and I could put you in touch with her if---if you feel like thinking over the idea.”
“It would be an enormous help,” Sharon said quickly, but her voice was still infinitely tired and empty. She couldn’t face any of this yet---leaving Nishapore, thinking about ways and means of getting home, planning the future. “Thank you, Nicholas; it’s nice of you.”
“Good!” he said, making an effort to speak cheerfully. “I’ll wire Dorothy Crane at once, giving her your name, and she’ll write to you herself, or wire. She’s in Bombay now, so you could join her there and settle things, and I expect she could put you up in her brother-in-law’s bungalow till you sail---that would save you hotel bills. By the way, does Mirjhanah know about all this yet?”
“No.” She caught her breath a little. “I’m going to tell her that I have to go back to England for personal reasons, because a relation is ill or something like that. The Maharajah thinks it would be better than telling her the whole wretched story, which she wouldn’t understand. I shall hate leaving her and India---everyone has been so kind to me.”
“And it’s all been spoilt for you by one unscrupulous blackguard.” She was startled by the fury in his voice, but he put out his hand and gave her arm a quick, half-shy little pat. “It’s rotten, undeserved bad luck, Sharon, but things will work out all right for you. You’re not the sort to let yourself be defeated. Will you write to me sometimes when you’ve a moment to spare, and let me know how you get on? I’d like to know that everything is all right when you get back to England, or if there’s anything else I can do to help. And don’t worry too much.”
He went out of the room so abruptly that Sharon had no time to answer, and after he had gone she stood for a moment by the big window feeling a most odd and inexplicable feeling of peace and lightness of heart steal over her. It might perhaps be the end of the Indian adventure, but that didn’t mean to say that it mightn’t at the same time be the beginning of a much bigger and more important one that might lead her----who knew where? All that mattered was that Nicholas hadn’t believed the worst of her, even in the face of all the events that were so damning. Rex’s cleverness hadn’t blinded him---and so long as he didn’t believe that she had had anything to do with Rex, nothing else really mattered. He was anxious about her future, he wanted to help her. . . . Out of Sharon’s stunned apathy a tiny flower of hope and courage blossomed timidly. She went into the bedroom and began mechanically sorting her things for packing, still feeling oddly unreal and remote, as though none of this were happening to her, but to somebody whom she was watching on a screen.
The palace was very quiet that evening. The house party in the palace had broken up abruptly with Rex’s sensational departure for Bombay under police escort. Cynthia and Alex Howland had, by a superhuman effort of hurry, managed to catch a train to Delhi after dinner, the Latimers were invisible, and there was no sign of Mirjhanah anywhere, which worried Sharon a little. She was dreading the moment when she had to break the news to her, and yet she wanted to get it over. Mirjhanah usually came up to Sharon’s rooms after the formal palace dinner, to spend a couple of hours talking and listening to the English radio programme, but to-night she didn’t come, and Sharon was conscious of uneasiness making her restless.
The silence of the palace got so much on her nerves at last that she hurried over her after-dinner coffee, and, going along to Mirjhanah’s suite, opened the ante-room door. The ever-guardian chuprassie salaamed and went inside to take a message. He was followed out a moment later by a grey-haired, middle-aged Indian woman servant who had attended Mirjhanah since she was a baby and worshipped her---and had never shown much liking for the English Miss-sahib who had usurped her charge over the girl. She made a perfunctory movement of salaam, her heavy silver bracelets tinkling, and said in a faintly surly tone of voice that the Princess Mirjhanah was not receiving visitors that evening. She had gone to bed early with a headache, and did not wish to be disturbed, nor had she wished the Miss-sahib to be worried.
“She is sleeping comfortably now,” she added, as Sharon made a movement as though she would go past her into the sitting-room, and Sharon hesitated. Perhaps she had better not go in if Mirjhanah were settled for the night, and if she hadn’t felt well or had wanted anything she would certainly have sent a message. All the same, she wished she could have seen her to ask details about this headache. And then with a stab of pain at her heart she realized that she was no longer responsible for Mirjhanah’s well-being, that it no longer concerned her. Perhaps Mirjhanah had heard something about the events in the palace and was upset and didn’t want to see her.
“Very well,” she said curtly to the woman. “But watch over her well, and if she needs anything or is unwell, come and fetch me at once.”
“Yes, Miss-sahib” There was a furtive smile about the woman’s thin lips, and Sharon felt that she knew everything, that she meant to convey insolent contempt in her manner.
She went back to her own rooms and found another messenger waiting for her with a request for her to go and see the Maharajah at once if she were not too tired. Her heart leapt a little; perhaps something had happened to straighten out the tangle; perhaps she wouldn’t have to leave Nishapore after all.
“I’ll come at once,” she said; but before she went she hurried into her bedroom and ran a comb over the shining waves of her hair and added a touch of lipstick to her mouth so that she shouldn’t look too harassed and wan. Then for the second time that day she made the long journey through the marble corridors and up the wide stairs to the enormous ivory white-and-gold painted door of the Maharajah’s suite. With a flourish, she was ushered in, and now the heavy brocade curtains were drawn closely and the room flooded with the soft radiance of many concealed lights round the comice.
The Maharajah, wearing evening clothes, his black hair smoothly sleek and burnished, was standing with his back to her, but he swung round as Sharon came in, and when she saw his face her heart sank again like a stone and the palms of her hands went damp, and for a moment she scarcely realized that Nicholas was in the room too, standing by the fireplace, where a small fire of sweet-scented cedar logs was burning.
Sharon’s eyes went from one face to the other swiftly, in bewilderment. The Maharajah’s was rigid, stern, almost grim, and Nicholas’s, when she shot him a frightened glance, was coldly expressionless, unfriendly. Something had gone horribly wrong again, and she needed all her courage to face it.
“You wanted to see me?” she said quietly; and then she suddenly caught her breath because she had just seen something else. Spread out on a strip of black velvet on the polished centre table were the diamond earrings, winking and sparkling with a sort of malicious fury so that red and blue fire flashed from their long clustered drops. And the Maharajah was watching her closely as she stared at them, her face completely surprised and uncomprehending. Nicholas didn’t look at her.
“Yes, Miss Paule,” the Maharajah said curtly. “Please sit down. I’m sorry to disturb you at such an hour, and I hope it wasn’t too inconvenient. What I want to ask you is this---do you recognize these earrings?”
He motioned with one narrow brown hand towards them, and Sharon nodded.
“Of course. They are the earrings that you---you so kindly wanted to give me as a birthday present; the ones I asked you to take back because they were too valuable.”
“Please look at them carefully,” he said sharply. “Are you sure they are the same ones, Miss Paule? The same ones that you handed to Dr. Terrimore to give back to me with that message?”
Fear caught at her throat again for an instant. There was something queer and horrible about all this, and she drove the nails of one hand deep into the palm of the other in an effort to control her nervous trembling.
“They look exactly the same to me,” she said in a low voice. “And if those are the earrings which Dr. Terrimore handed to you they are the same ones that you gave me. Please---what is all this about? What has happened?”
“These earrings,” the Maharajah said slowly, “are certainly the ones Dr. Terrimore gave back to me after taking them from you. They were locked away in an iron cashbox, and I only took them out of it half an hour ago. But---these earrings are not the pair I wished to give you, Miss Paule. Those were set with real diamonds; these are only imitations.”
There was dead silence in the room for what seemed to Sharon to be a sickening eternity. All the blood was being squeezed out. of her heart and brain and something cold was trickling down between her shoulder-blades. And still Nicholas wouldn’t look at her. She put out a hand dizzily to clutch the back of a chair.
“But---that’s impossible!” she said, getting her breath somehow. “How can they be imitations when---when they are the ones I handed over myself to Dr. Terrimore that night? Nicholas---you took them from me——”
“You handed me a pair of earrings in a case,” he answered expressionlessly. “But I didn’t look at them very closely. The case certainly never left my pocket until I gave them back to the Maharajah next day, with your message. That’s all I know about it.”
He was looking at her now, straight in the eyes, and in his she read his inflexible accusation---and judgment. All the old hardness had come back into his face, all the old condemnation.
“But---do you actually mean that you think that I that I stole the original earrings and put these imitations in their place?” she whispered, and suddenly an angry wave of colour surged into her cheeks. “But it’s fantastic! How could I possibly do such a thing---even if I wanted to?”
“You may not know much about diamonds and faking them, Miss Paule,” the Maharajah said smoothly, “but your friend Mr. Kildare was obviously quite an expert on the subject. He saw these earrings when I was having them reset from an old pair; I showed him the sketch for the design. And he was extremely interested in it.”
So that was it. . . she understood what they were saying now. A partnership with Rex, a secret partnership of fraud and lies and pretence and stealing---that was what she was being accused of, and she had no way of defending herself. The colour ebbed out of her face, leaving it ivory white, and she spoke quietly.
“If you want to have my rooms and my private things searched I’m perfectly willing to have it done immediately. That’s all I can suggest, I’m afraid, because I know nothing about the changing of the imitation earrings for the real ones. I put the case into a drawer in my tent in camp and locked it until I handed it over to Dr. Terrimore. I believed that they were the same earrings, but I’m afraid I can’t prove anything, and if you want to call in the police——”
“There’s no question of that,” the Maharajah said with an abrupt gesture. “One scandal in the palace amongst my guests and friends is quite enough, and I don’t wish anything about this affair to become public. I know that it won’t go beyond the walls of this room. All I suggest, Miss Paule, is that you catch the earlier Bombay mail tomorrow instead of the evening one. It’s a slower train, I’m afraid, and not so comfortable, but all the arrangements will be exactly the same for your comfort. Good night.”
“I’ll be ready to catch that train,” Sharon said tonelessly. “Good night.”
She was out in the corridor, though she had no clear recollection of how she got there, how she got herself out of the room. Her face was chalk white, but her head felt as though it were on fire and everything swam a little. For a moment she leaned against the marble banisters of the curved staircase, clinging to them for support, but the sound of quick footsteps behind her jerked her abruptly upright. She was too proud to let anyone see how stunned and shaken she was. It wasn’t a servant coming after her, for these weren’t bare Indian feet, but shod European ones; but she didn’t turn round, although some instinct told her that it was Nicholas. He spoke her name in the same flat, remote voice.
“Miss Paule, there’s one thing I must say to you. You understand that I shall have to wire to Mrs. Crane cancelling the---the suggestion I made in my earlier telegram about you joining her for the voyage home?”
“Oh yes, of course,” Sharon said wearily, almost with a smile. “She certainly won’t expect to have a jewel-thief foisted on to her as a nurse for her children, and by you of all people. Your friends are so very carefully chosen and all their references fully investigated.” She hesitated and then added under her breath: “I suppose you think the Maharajah has treated me very generously by not handing me over to the police?”
She was glad to see a faint flush of red rise into his face, but he answered smoothly:
“One always feels rather bad when English people treat Indians dishonestly. There’s a kind of double disloyalty and harm in it. However, I don’t suppose you’re very interested in the ethics of our behaviour to Indians. I hope things won’t be too difficult for you in Bombay, but you’ll be able to get into touch with Kildare if he’s still there and---a free agent. Good night.”
With an effort, she controlled the sensation of blind dizzying rage that swept over her like a torrent as he passed her and went on down the stairs. At that moment she hated him, she wanted to strike him, to hurt him, to make him suffer horribly, because he could so easily believe this unspeakable thing of her and see her suffer and be intolerably humiliated without saying a syllable in her defence. He hadn’t even troubled to listen to anything she had to say; she had been accused, tried, and condemned up there in the Maharajah’s sitting-room, and all in the space of a few moments. Her legs seemed to be carrying her down the shallow marble steps in erratic zigzags, and she wondered how she would ever manage to reach the haven of her own rooms. . . .
“Miss-sahib! . . . please, Miss-sahib! . . .” a voice gasped out behind her, and bare feet pattered frantically on the marble; but for a moment her dazed brain couldn’t take in anything else and she paid no attention, didn’t even turn round. “Miss-sahib, please come quickly! It is the Princess Mirjhanah, Miss-sahib . . . she is veree sick . . . asking for you Miss-sahib* to come. . . .”
In a split second Sharon’s brain was clear and she was running up the stairs in front of the ayah whose face was a dirty olive-green with fright.
“But what happened? Princess Mirjhanah was asleep when I went to her rooms after dinner.”
“She wake up, she veree sick, asking for Miss-sahib”
The woman obviously could give no details, and Sharon wasted no time on her, but hurried through the big sittingroom of Mirjhanah’s suite into the bedroom. There a glare of lights dazzled the eyes and a circle of frightened-eyed women servants clustered round the bed, chattering and staring and showing every sign of losing their heads. Sharon swept them out of the way peremptorily.
“You are all to go out of the room at once; nobody must be in here but one or two of you---and turn off some of the lights. Piri, make them go.”
The middle-aged Indian woman obeyed sullenly, while Sharon bent over the bed and caught her breath a trifle in alarm. Mirjhanah’s head, the usually sleek black hair ruffled and tangled on the dry, burning forehead, turned and twisted continually on the crumpled pillows; her thin cheeks were painted with the hectic flush of fever, her lips were dry and cracked, and her eyes halfglazed with delirium as her hands picked restlessly at the silk bed-cover. It only needed a second to know that the girl was desperately ill, and Sharon turned round swiftly.
“The doctor sahib must be fetched instantly; send a car to bring him. He has only just left the palace, so he can’t have got home yet. And a message must be taken to the Maharajah sahib quickly. Some of you hurry and fetch fresh ice and lemons. . . .”
The servants scattered swiftly about their errands. Lights were switched off, leaving only a gentle glow in the room; the windows were opened wider, letting in more fresh air; and, bending over the bed, Sharon stroked one of Mirjhanah’s hot hands. To her surprise, there was recognition in her fever-wild eyes, and she clutched at Sharon’s hand with a child’s desperate fear.
“Sharon! . . . you are . . . here. . . . I’m so afraid . . . don’t go away . . . please, Sharon. . . .”
“Dear, I won’t go away, and there’s nothing to be frightened of. You’ve got a nasty little dose of fever; I expect you caught a chill in camp. Dr. Terrimore will be here in a moment and there’s nothing to worry about. You must go to sleep and get rid of it quickly.”
“I’ll . . . try. But you won’t . . . go away . . . solemn promise, Sharon . . . like a Girl Guide . . . ?”
Sharon felt her heart turn over a little, but she answered without hesitation, her eyes steady.
“Solemn promise, Mirjhanah. And here is Dr. Terrimore.”
He came swiftly to the bedside, his face tense, concentrated, and Sharon, watching it as he made his swift examination, felt her heart contract. Mirjhanah had drifted off again into semi-consciousness, and he looked across the bed and met Sharon’s eyes.
“Is it---serious?” she asked in a low voice.
“Desperately,” he said curtly. “Meningitis. I don’t think there’s much hope, but we’ll put up the best fight we can for her. I’ll need your help to-night till I can get hold of expert nurses from Bombay. They can be flown here by to-morrow, but till then you must stay with her.”
“I’ll do whatever you tell me,” Sharon said quietly; and they both went into the sitting-room to break the news to the Maharajah, who was tramping up and down the room in a fever of anxiety. His face went grey when Terrimore told him briefly:
“We can wire to Bombay for nurses, and they’ll be here by midday if they’re flown up. Till then Miss Paule will stay with her. Mirjhanah is fond of her, and everything depends on keeping her quiet. Come with me, will you?”
Dawn broke rosily over the lake, and the bottle-green and silver mountain peaks slowly took shape against the pale apricot sky, and the air was as sweet and fresh as spring water. Sharon drew a chair to the edge of the balcony overhanging the water, dropped into it wearily, and poured out two cups of tea from the tray that had been set on a small table beside her. Nicholas came out of the room behind her, his face haggard and unshaven, and took one of the cups and a cigarette.
Well, she’s alive,” he said briefly. “That’s more than I hoped for last night. But to-day---I don’t know. She’s asleep now---that may help.”
Sharon, stirring her tea, spoke quietly, her eyes on a snow peak flushed carnation red.
“I’m leaving by the midday mail for Bombay. Will the nurses have arrived by then?”
“What?” Nicholas put down the cup with a clatter and stared at her, his eyes oddly dismayed. “But---yes, the nurses should be here by then---but it’s impossible that you should leave, Sharon. She wanted you all through the night; you seem to be the only person who can keep her quiet and give her a chance to rest, and that’s the only hope for her. The nurses are highly trained, but they may not be able to manage her. You can’t go. . . . Her life may depend on you.”
“But I can’t stay,” she said in a flat, cold voice. “You know yourself that it’s impossible. It would mean danger to the Maharajah. The whole town probably knows by this time that I’m an unscrupulous English adventuress, another crook’s accomplice, and an expert jewel-thief combined. I can hardly stay on here in that light, can I? I believe if I did the Latimers would make representations or something to the Government and get me forcibly removed. I’m sorry about Mirjhanah, and if there were any way out of the difficulty you know I’d stay---but there isn’t.”
“Isn’t there?” he said slowly, and his fingers were unconsciously pulling the unlighted cigarette to pieces, and in the sharp morning light his face looked tired and drawn. “But I think there is a way. The point seems to be that you can’t stay on here in the palace, or for that matter in Nishapore, as Mirjhanah’s companion, in the Maharajah’s employment. But---there’s nothing to prevent you staying on here if you held some other---position.”
“Some other position?” Sharon was too tired even to try and think what he meant. She pushed the heavy wave of amber hair back from her forehead and refilled her teacup mechanically. “I don’t understand? What other position is there for me?”
“I’m trying to explain,” he said brusquely. “I think you’re fond of Mirjhanah and would like to try and help me save her life, if there’s any sort of hope. Her only chance is for you to be with her as much as possible during the crisis. And what I meant was that nobody, not even the Latimers or the Government would have any right to criticize your presence here if you were---my wife.”
The lighted match in Sharon’s hand jerked violently as she held it to her cigarette, and then burnt away unnoticed until it singed her finger-tips and she dropped it. Her face was white as paper and her eyes had turned queerly dark, set in pools of shadow. Her voice, when she managed to find it at last, was husky, almost a whisper:
“Yes.” Nicholas turned his head deliberately away and stared across the lake, that was sparkling into azure blue now as the sunshine stretched swiftly across it from shore to shore. The muscles under his tanned skin were set so stiffly that his face looked as though it were carved out of wood. “That’s what I said. I’m suggesting that the best way for you to stay on here with Mirjhanah, without any more fuss or scandal or interference from anyone, is for you to marry me---purely as a temporary and formal arrangement, of course. As soon as you’ve thought it over you can let me know, and if you agree, I can arrange the whole thing at once with the padre and we could be married within a couple of days.”
It seemed to Sharon for a moment as though the bright morning had turned to midnight and the sky were thundering down about her like a crashing ruin. She knew that her hands were still moving mechanically, holding the teacup, striking another match for her cigarette, but her brain had been stunned into paralysis for a space and all she wanted to do was to laugh hysterically, to laugh and laugh. . . . She felt the uncontrollable bubble of hysteria rising in her throat, and with a desperate effort she fought it down. Not that Nicholas was watching her.
He had risen abruptly from the low chair and was standing at the edge of the balcony, his big, sensitive hands gripping the marble balustrade with a curious intensity, so that the knuckles looked white. Ahead of him the flamingo-red clouds of sunrise faded to faint rose and then to cream, and little tangled skeins of mist still drifting across the water melted away and a high-prowed native boat loaded with fresh vegetables and fruit came nosing along the clear shallows, leaving a rough furrow on their smoothness. She could only see his profile, hard and unrelenting, and she drove herself to answer in a voice that to her own astonishment was rock-steady.
“That seems rather a desperate and extraordinary way out of the difficulty, doesn’t it?” she said. “There must be some other . . .”
“Can you think of it?” he retorted, and he wheeled round on her so sharply that she drew back a little in her chair. Now he was staring at her, his eyes sombre under the bold eyebrows. “And, after all, the situation is rather desperate. A girl’s life is hanging by a thread, and a very frayed thread at that, but so long as it just holds there is a minute chance of saving her. Personally, I’m very fond of Mirjhanah, and I had the idea that you were too, but, of course, I haven’t any right to suppose that your affection or feeling of responsibility towards her goes as far as this.”
“My responsibility towards her?” Sharon asked quietly.
“Yes.” He hurled the word at her savagely. “You’ve made the girl love and trust you and depend on you a great deal. You may not care to admit or accept it, but someone’s love and trust is a responsibility. But, of course, I don’t know how you feel about these things, and I must leave you to settle it for yourself. Anyway, you can’t be expected to decide in five minutes, but every second is precious---you know that as well as I do. I hope I made everything perfectly clear---I mean that this would only be a temporary and nominal affair between us. I’m going in to have another look at Mirjhanah.”
He swung away towards the door, but Sharon stopped him with a gesture and a low-voiced question:
“You honestly believe that I might be able to help her? And that there isn’t any other way for me to stay? I---I don’t mind putting up with things that mightn’t be too pleasant or comfortable.”
For the first time since he had put his astounding suggestion Nicholas looked at her quietly, without that darkness of anger in his eyes, and when he answered it was in a gentler way.
“I think you know how things stand here,” he said. “You said yourself just now that you couldn’t stay on in the palace in your present position, and I’m afraid you were right. It’s impossible now, and perhaps even unsafe for you. The whole bazaar is seething with the story about Rex Kildare’s arrest, and you don’t know how much hostility there is against the Maharajah from the diehards and anti-British element in Nishapore. There might be serious political trouble here.”
“But if---if the Maharajah were to explain about Mirjhanah’s illness and that I’m only staying to help nurse her?”
“It wouldn’t be much use,” Nicholas said wearily. “The life of an Indian girl counts for nothing when it comes to political intrigue, and the Maharajah knows it. I’m afraid the situation has got to be faced.” He stepped over the threshold of the room and spoke over his shoulder. “I’ll come back in half an hour; that will give you time to think things out a little.”
Then he was gone. Across the balcony the sun poured its blaze of warmth and living gold that fell on Sharon’s bare arms, but it couldn’t warm her; she felt as cold as ice and as queerly numb.
Marry Nicholas Terrimore . . . ? It was like one of those crazy, fantastic things that happen to you in a dream, in a nightmare that you know you must wake from. But she couldn’t wake up from this, and it was a nightmare, the hideous irony of it, the bitter, twisted mockery in the way Fate offered her the thing she wanted most in the world in the most humiliating and ugliest possible way.
The thing she wanted most . . . she murmured the words that had come into her mind aloud, dully, hardly understanding them yet. She wanted to marry Nicholas? Yes, of course she did, because she loved him. But to have it flung to her like this with the knowledge that he despised and distrusted her, believed the worst of her, had not one grain of faith in her given word or her integrity . . . she couldn’t face it. To stand up in the small English church here and speak the words of the marriage service under these circumstances, knowing that he was perfectly sure she was a crook who had contrived in conspiracy with Rex Kildare to steal the diamond earrings while she played the part of hypocritical super-sensitiveness in asking him to give them back---how could he imagine that she could go through with such a thing? But then he believed she could go through with anything, that she had no qualms of feeling or decency . . . perhaps he even felt he was putting himself in deadly danger by putting himself in such a position.
A “temporary and nominal arrangement” he had called it, and she understood the bleak formality he meant to convey in those cold words. And yet there was Mirjhanah to be thought of . . . yes, she must try and think this thing out quietly, rigidly turning her back on all emotion and personal feeling.
She was leaning exhaustedly back in her chair, sipping a final chilly cup of tea, when there were quick footsteps across the room behind her, and Mrs. Latimer came out on to the balcony. She had spent a good part of the night in the palace too, waiting for news, and Sharon had noticed a change in her during those long hours of watching the wavering flame of Mirjhanah’s life flicker pitifully near to extinction. Her hard, weather-beaten face had softened a little, there was less glittering sharpness in her small eyes, and her voice was softer, pitched in a gentler key. She had been taking a turn at sitting with Mirjhanah while Sharon snatched this brief rest and cup of tea.
“How is she?” Sharon asked. “Would you like some tea? You must be tired.”
“Thanks; I will if there’s enough left.” Mrs. Latimer dropped into a chair. “She’s still asleep, and I suppose that’s a good sign, but Nicholas doesn’t seem to hold out much hope. He’s talking to the Maharajah. The poor man is nearly off his head; he’s so devoted to Mirjhanah, and he hasn’t any other family.”
“Poor little Mirjhanah!” Sharon said softly. “She seemed to be getting so much stronger, and I---I can’t help feeling that I’m somehow responsible for this illness, that I haven’t looked after her carefully enough, though I’ve tried to.”
“It’s nothing on earth you’ve done,” Mrs. Latimer said, almost sharply. “You’ve been wonderful with her, and we’d all noticed how well and happy she was after you came to Nishapore. And now---well, if only you could stay on with her instead of having to leave because of this wretched Kildare business, it might give her a better chance. She does cling to you so.”
“Mrs. Latimer”---Sharon bent forward, her face suddenly eager---“I don’t want to sound conceited, but I’ve felt that too, and I’m so fond of her. It’s dreadful for me to have to go away in the middle of this without knowing how things are going to turn out. I want to ask your honest opinion. Couldn’t I stay with her till the crisis is over?”
“George and I have discussed it with the Maharajah,” Mrs. Latimer said wearily. “We put it to him like that, Sharon, but I’m afraid it’s quite impossible. The bazaars and the troublesome political circles are buzzing with gossip and scandal about Rex Kildare and you and your position here, and the Maharajah’s enemies are making the most of it. They’re spreading round nasty rumours about you and the Maharajah himself, and that’s too serious to be ignored. If you stayed on here it would mean ugly trouble---riots perhaps, chaos in the whole state. It’s too big a risk to take even for the faint chance of saving Mirjhanah’s life. I’m afraid it’s a callous country. The Maharajah asked me to tell you that all the arrangements for your journey down to Bombay are made and you’ll be quite comfortable. The midday mail isn’t a bad train. I---I’m sorry.” Her face twisted suddenly as though she were going to cry. “I feel a good deal of this is my fault, Sharon. Not that I told the Maharajah anything about what was said in Cynthia’s tent that night, and I haven’t tried to influence him in any way, but perhaps he’s guessed by my manner that I didn’t altogether approve of your position here.”
“That didn’t matter,” Sharon said. “Rex Kildare told him everything about me before he left, and I was glad. Proof couldn’t be piled against me more blackly, I suppose. Have you heard about the diamond earrings?”
“Yes.” Mrs. Latimer moved uncomfortably in her chair. “But George and I both told the Maharajah that we couldn’t possibly believe anything like that about you, even though you and Kildare had been friends and partners in something before in England and he had apparently followed you to India.”
“That was generous of you,” Sharon said with a faint note of bitterness in her voice. “To give me the benefit of the doubt, I mean. Some people haven’t even done that. It’s entirely my own fault for having introduced Rex to the Maharajah in the first place, but it seems hard that poor little Mirjhanah should have to pay for my stupidity. All my luggage is packed, luckily, so I can be ready to go, and at any rate stay with her till then.”
“There may be a change before then.” Mrs. Latimer got up heavily. “Well, I think I’ll go and wash and tidy up, and then I can relieve you later. You look as though you could do with some sleep yourself.”
“I’m all right and I can sleep in the train.” Sharon didn’t move after Mrs. Latimer had gone; she sat alone on the balcony, a cold cigarette drooping between her limp fingers, her greeny-gold eyes, darkly shadowed with fatigue and the strain of the last twenty-four hours, fixed on the sparkling lake, her amber-gold head resting slackly against the red cushion. There was no escape, no loophole of hope left---and all but five minutes of Nicholas’s half-hour had slipped away. In five minutes he would come back to her to hear her reply, and she knew it could only be one thing now. The responsibility of winning someone’s love and trust---yes, she had to shoulder it and face its demands, however difficult they might be. That unconscious girl lying in there fighting for her fife depended on her to help her, and nothing on earth could make her break that trust now. She must set her teeth and freeze her heart into numbness and go straight ahead.
She heard him cross the room behind her, and she threw the cigarette away and took another swiftly because the first one looked mangled and cold, and with a perfectly steady hand lit it as he stepped outside. Whatever it cost her, she mustn’t let him see what this extraordinary business meant to her; she must force herself to accept it as he did, calmly and coldly, as though there were nothing personal about it.
“How is she?” she asked him anxiously.
“She’s still asleep, and that may help a little.” He brushed a hand over his ruffled dark hair. “But now there’s another worry to cope with---not a very important one, perhaps, but it’s a nuisance. The old Maharanee is arriving this afternoon from her palace on the other side of the lake, where she generally stays in strict seclusion. She’s the Maharajah’s and Mirjhanah’s great-aunt, and she’s rather a terror.”
“In what way?” Sharon asked in a casual way, as though this conversation was leading up to nothing whatever of importance.
“Well, she’s violently anti-British, one of the grim old-stagers and a born intriguer. She and the Maharajah have quarrelled bitterly over the running of the state, and at first, when he was just a boy who had succeeded his great-uncle, she got the idea into her head that he’d always be completely under her thumb; but luckily he made her realize that wasn’t going to happen pretty soon, when he asked to be sent to England to school and Oxford. I don’t think she ever forgave him, and that’s why she retired in a high dudgeon to her own palace, but she’s been a nuisance all the time, and everybody suspects her of being in touch with German agents. Now she’ll arrive, full of spite and fight, and try to stick her nose into everything again. She doesn’t even know you’re here as Mirjhanah’s companion---or if she does, Nishapore made it clear that it was no concern of hers.”
“Oh!” Sharon said flatly, and then was silent. She knew what he meant her to understand by this piece of unwelcome news---that things were even more complicated and hopeless for her in Nishapore. But she couldn’t bring herself to say anything yet; she had to wait while he fiddled with his pipe and filled it and lit it, his eyes fixed on the lake, his whole manner as cold and remote as one of the mountain peaks. She had to wait until he spoke, curtly, almost angrily.
“Well, have you thought over my suggestion about arranging for you to stay on here? I’m afraid it’s become more and more the only solution to the problem, and it’s got to be settled quickly, for Mirjhanah’s sake. I believe she’s got some hazy inkling that you might be going away; probably some fool of a servant has gossiped about it when they thought she was asleep. She was muttering about it just now and calling for you, but she went off to sleep again. But when she wakes up properly and if she’s fully conscious it’s going to be very dangerous if she’s still worried about it.”
“I realize that,” Sharon said quietly. “Of course I agree to your suggestion, Nicholas, if it’s going to give Mirjhanah a better chance.”
It seemed to her, watching his expressionless back which was turned to her, that it stiffened a little, as though he were bracing himself against a shock or something unpleasant. Well, he couldn’t be particularly looking forward to going through a marriage ceremony with a girl whom he looked upon as an unscrupulous, sharp-witted adventuress, but it was his idea, not hers. He answered in a level, frigid voice:
“I’m glad you’ve decided that, and it’s good of you to do it. You can rely on me to make it as easy and smoothrunning as possible. Of course, we mustn’t make it too obvious that it’s an emergency measure, but I don’t think it will be difficult to make things seem convincing. I’ll make all the arrangements with the padre to-day, and it will seem perfectly natural for us to keep everything very quiet and simple under the circumstances.” He turned round at last, and she was surprised to see that he looked tired and drawn, but probably he was feeling the strain of the long night and the heavy responsibility. “You’ll have to---move over to my bungalow, of course,” he said slowly, “as soon as the ceremony is over. I’ll try and make things as comfortable for you as I can, but I’m afraid I’ve always run the place on rather bachelor lines and it isn’t very luxurious.”
“You needn’t worry about that,” she managed to say, but she turned her head away sharply so that he shouldn’t see her face. To live in the same bungalow as Nicholas, as his wife, but under these fantastic circumstances---was she going to be able to endure it, even for Mirjhanah’s sake?
“Oh, you’re out here, Terrimore!” The Maharajah’s low voice cut sharply across her confused thoughts, and he came out to join them. “And I wanted to speak to you, Miss Paule. I expect Mrs. Latimer gave you my message that everything is arranged for your journey and that I hope it will be comfortable. I’ve made certain arrangements, too, with the bank in Bombay, so there’s no need for you to worry about things before you sail. And please believe me when I say, very sincerely, that I’m desperately sorry about the way things have turned out and that you have to leave Nishapore.”
Sharon didn’t answer; her throat was so dry she couldn’t have spoken if she’d tried to, and she left it to Nicholas to make the first move. He did it quietly.
“Miss Paule isn’t going to leave Nishapore after all but she won’t have to stay on in the palace. She and I are engaged, and after talking it over we’ve decided to get married here very quietly, within a day or two---in fact, as soon as the padre can fix it up for us. But naturally, we don’t want any sort of fuss about it.”
“You’re going to get married---you and Miss Paule?” The Maharajah looked almost dazedly from Sharon to Nicholas, and she managed to raise a faint smile. It wouldn’t do to look too blank and expressionless, and Nicholas wasn’t so far putting on much of an act as a happy bridegroom-to-be. But into the Maharajah’s eyes there came a look of intense relief and thankfulness as he realized what this news meant to him personally. “But this is wonderful, exciting news!” he said eagerly. “I had absolutely no idea---I do congratulate you with all my heart and wish you every happiness.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I suppose we’ve made up our minds about everything rather quickly, but under the circumstances it seemed the best way. I didn’t want to go away and leave Mirjhanah now, and---and there seemed no point in waiting till later to get married. But what about until we can arrange things---will it matter my being in the palace for another day or two?”
“Of course not. This alters everything. You will be staying here as my guest,” the Maharajah said, but Nicholas interrupted.
“Don’t you think it would be better if Sharon were to put up at the rest bungalow for a night? I think I can arrange for the wedding to be to-morrow, but we don’t want to run any risks. The rest bungalow is very comfortable, and I can take what kit you want for the night down there and the rest over to my bungalow. That will simplify everything and put an end to any gossip. I think I’ll go in to Mirjhanah again, but don’t you move yet; rest as long as you can, and I’ll call you when you’re needed.”
It was rather cowardly of him, Sharon thought, to beat a hasty retreat like this and leave her alone with the Maharajah while her head was still swimming and her brain was confused. She wished fervently that he would go too and leave her alone, but he showed no sign of going; he was too excited and pleased over this sudden solution to the difficult problem of Mirjhanah to think about anything else for the moment.
“You can’t imagine how happy this announcement has made me, Miss Paule,” he said as he sank into a low chair. “Terrimore is one of my best friends, and you have been our friend too, and I hope you always will be in spite of everything. I’m afraid that a crisis, a sudden emergency or danger, makes one behave impulsively, without thought and sometimes without justice. You---you understand what I mean?”
Yes, she understood what he meant. He believed that this announcement of their forthcoming marriage was a proclamation of Nicholas’s complete belief in her innocence over the question of the stolen earrings, and he was eager to accept Nicholas’s judgment and to persuade her to forget and forgive what had happened! If he only knew what Nicholas really thought of her!
“Of course I understand,” she said slowly. “And---quite apart from marrying Nicholas, I’m glad not to have to leave Mirjhanah while she’s so ill. I should have been miserable the whole time, waiting for news of her. I believe, you know, that Nicholas will pull her through.”
“With your help.” The Maharajah’s face darkened again. “Well, one can only wait and hope. And if any two people can save her they are you and Terrimore, so at least I know she’s being given every possible chance.”
He hesitated, and then went on a shade hastily: “Perhaps Terrimore told you that my great-aunt, the Maharanee, is arriving here to-day, because of Mirjhanah’s illness. She lives more or less in seclusion, but of course she’s terribly anxious about Mirjhanah. But I want to warn you that she’s rather old-fashioned in some of her ideas, particularly about the education of Indian girls and about other things. For instance, she’s never forgiven me for refusing an arranged marriage for myself and for Mirjhanah---most Indian girls of her age are married by now. But she’s very devoted to us both, and I hope you will bear with her if she becomes a little---difficult. Anyway, your position here is quite different now, and she won’t have any right to criticize it. I expect Terrimore will be able to handle her better than I do; he has more patience with her stubbornness.”
There was a faintly wry smile on his face as he said that, and Sharon involuntarily sent up a little prayer of thanksgiving that at least she was being spared the humiliation and difficulty of facing this formidable old Indian woman as a bitterly disapproved of member of the Maharajah’s staff.
“Anxiety for someone you love makes everybody nervy and on edge,” she said. “I understand how the Maharanee feels.”
The Maharajah gave her a graceful little bow of thanks and gratitude as he left the balcony, and at last she was left alone. It seemed like a hundred years since the breaking of this day’s dawn and the rising of the sun across the opal water, but it was less than two hours. Two hours, during which something so strange and startling had happened in her life that it was still too mad and unreal to believe. She looked down at her slender, sun-browned, left hand that was almost convulsively gripping the chairarm. Within a day or two a wedding ring would circle one of those fingers, put there by Nicholas, but it would be a pretence, a mockery of everything that she held sacred and precious. Had she in all her chequered career ever sunk to such a low level of unhappiness and deceit?
“Sharon, Mirjhanah is awake and asking for you, so will you come and stay with her for a little while? She mustn’t get excited, and I think she’s worrying because you aren’t there.”
“Yes; I’ll come.” She went quietly into the cool, airy bedroom where the light was dimmed by drawn curtains, and slid a cool hand into Mirjhanah’s hot, restless one. “I’m here, Mirjhanah. You’ve had a wonderful sleep and you’re much better.”
“Am I?” There was less fear and childish bewilderment in Mirjhanah’s dark eyes, more confidence and courage. “Yes . . . I feel better . . . you won’t go far away, will you, Sharon? . . . I don’t want nurses and strange people . . . just want you . . . but you mustn’t get too tired.”
“I’ll never be farther away than in the next room, dear, while you’re asleep, and all the rest of the time I’ll stay with you. Now go to sleep again if you can.”
The long day dragged itself on slowly, painfully, for the watchers by the girl’s bedside. Sometimes she was conscious and perfectly clear-minded, but at others she slid into a heavy stupor of semi-consciousness that made Nicholas’s face tighten and grow strained. But whether she was awake or sunk in delirious sleep, she clung with pathetic determination to Sharon’s hand, and she could never slip out of the room for more than a few minutes at a time without disturbing her.
During the early, hot afternoon there was a faint commotion outside of arriving cars, and Sharon guessed that this heralded the appearance of the Maharanee, and towards evening, when Mirjhanah was sleeping more quietly, she was allowed in by Nicholas for a few seconds to see her great-niece. She was a tiny, wrinkled, brighteyed old woman with thin silver hair brushed flat under the delicate turquoise-blue sari, and her wrists and hands were tinier than Mirjhanah’s, but Sharon could understand why everyone stood in awe of her, how she could make her presence felt. Her look was needle-sharp, her back as straight as an arrow, and she gave Sharon a long, hard stare as she came in with Nicholas.
“This is Miss Paule, Your Highness,” Nicholas said in a low voice. “She and I are going to be married within a day or two, and she is helping to nurse Mirjhanah, who is very fond of her.”
“You are going to be married?” the old lady said in very good and barely accented English, and her thin lips snapped over the words. She was still fixing Sharon with those piercing dark eyes, and Sharon nodded.
“Yes. We have decided to get married here in Nishapore very quietly instead of waiting any longer. But we mustn’t talk and disturb Mirjhanah.”
“I heard nothing of a marriage,” the Maharanee said sharply. “Only of an English companion to Mirjhanah.”
“I was her companion, Your Highness, until to-day,” Sharon answered quietly. “Then Dr. Terrimore made up our minds about our immediate wedding, so of course I am no longer in that position.”
The old lady gave a faint sound that might have been a snort, and then she bent for a moment over Mirjhanah, her shrivelled, jewel-laden hand brushing the flushed cheek very lightly, her whole face softening and growing tender.
“Poor little lotus bud!” she said under her breath. “Life has not been very kind to you. . . . Make her live, Dr. Terrimore, if you can.”
“I’m doing everything in my power, Your Highness, he answered. “You know it matters almost as much to me as to you. Now I think you must go, but I will let you know every hour how she is.”
When the Maharanee had reluctantly gone and he had ushered her out of the suite, he came back to the bedroom door and made a silent little gesture of the head that summoned Sharon into the other room. She moved stiffly from her position beside the bed and followed him out, closing the door behind her and then waiting in silence for him to speak, her face very white.
“I just wanted to tell you,” he said abruptly, “that I’ve made all the arrangements. I meant to tell you before the Maharanee came up, but she didn’t give me time. Foster will marry us to-morrow morning at eleven o’clock if we can both leave Mirjhanah, but if there’s any difficulty about that he’ll be ready at any other time during the day if I ring him up. It won’t take more than half an hour at the outside, anyway. Is that---all right for you?”
For a moment the fantastic incongruity of his last sentence made Sharon feel herself sliding towards the edge of a burst of hysterical laughter. “Is that all right for you ---to marry me to-morrow morning at eleven o’clock?” as casually and meaninglessly as I’d make an appointment with the hairdresser. Hadn’t he any idea at all that she was made of flesh and blood, that she had emotions, feelings, nerves, scruples? He was treating her as he might treat a guinea-pig caged in behind the netting of one of his laboratory hutches, and her anger churned so furiously inside her that her eyes ached, but she controlled herself with an immense effort.
“Yes; that’s quite all right for me.” Perhaps there was a note of irony in her voice, but he took no notice of it, and she went on quickly: “It was lucky you were able to fix everything up so quickly, now that the old Maharanee has arrived on the scene. I think she would have made things difficult---more difficult than they are. Do you think it’s necessary for me to go over to the rest bungalow to-night? I’ve got a suitcase packed, but it seems rather silly, and I’d be happier staying with Mirjhanah.”
“You must get a good night’s rest,” he answered briefly. “I’ll finish at the hospital and come back soon after ten to stay on hand in case I’m needed. You wouldn’t get off properly staying here, and I think it’s wiser for you to be seen going there, and that will put an end to the last shred of gossip. I can drive you down there in about half an hour.” He turned towards the door, and then hesitated and went on with a sort of clumsiness: “Oh, by the way, I wanted to ask you if this---if this is all right. The fit and size, I mean.”
He was holding something out to her on the palm of his hand, and she saw that it was a narrow, plain gold ring---her wedding ring. For a moment she couldn’t move, and when at last she stretched out her hand she knew that it was trembling. She took it from him numbly and slid it on to her left-hand finger, where it hung a shade loosely.
“It’s a tiny bit big,” she said in a flat voice. “But that doesn’t matter---it’s quite all right.”
She didn’t add the thought that followed in her heart and almost rose to her lips: “It doesn’t matter because I shall only be wearing it for a few weeks . . . it’s only a pretence wedding ring, after all.”
‘‘How did you manage to get it so quickly?” she asked him as she gave it back to him, because one had to say something, anything to tide over this anguished moment.
“A local jeweller made it for me to-day out of a ring of my own that I had melted down,” he said. “I made a wild guess at the size, so I’m glad it isn’t too bad. It---it can be altered afterwards to fit better. I’ll come back and fetch you in half an hour, then.”
Strange, unreal, dreamlike hours, those that followed. Afterwards she could scarcely remember any details about them, though at the time they had seemed everlasting. Everything became a blur---the drive down to the rest bungalow with Nicholas so that everyone should see that she was now in his charge as his wife-to-be; the few hours of restless, nightmare-broken sleep that she snatched; the drive back to the palace in the grey light of dawn, when Mirjhanah took a sudden turn for the worse; the dreary hours of watching beside her while her fragile spirit seemed on the verge of giving up the exhausting struggle and slipping away. If that happened, Sharon thought stupidly as she sat beside the bed, there would be no makeshift wedding ceremony to-morrow morning---or, rather, this morning, for the first red glow of her wedding day was staining the cool night sky. But somehow Mirjhanah clung on to life and survived the bad hours when vitality is at its lowest ebb, and at ten o’clock that morning she was quietly asleep with one of the trained nurses from Bombay watching beside her. Nicholas glanced at her and then nodded to Sharon and whispered:
“She’ll be all right now for a time. Long enough for us to get down to the church and back, at any rate. Better come along now; the Latimers are waiting in the car for us.”
Sharon was wearing a cool, rose-red linen dress, and she picked up a wide-brimmed cream straw hat wreathed with rose-red ribbon and a pair of loose white suede gloves, drew them on, and said, without looking at the waiting Nicholas, “I’m ready.”
Outside in the blinding sunlight of an azure blue-and-gold day one of the big palace cars was waiting regally, and as Sharon came down the shallow palace steps a uniformed servant stepped forward and put something into Nicholas’s hand, and he turned abruptly to Sharon. It was a bouquet of rare tawny gold-and-violet splashed orchids and sprays of delicate green fern, and he pushed the flowers awkwardly into her hands.
“Your flowers,” he said. “They are out of the palace hot-houses, and I hope you don’t hate orchids intensely--- some girls do.”
“I don’t,” Sharon said very quietly. “Thank you, Nicholas; they’re beautiful.”
She got into the back of the car with Mrs. Latimer, while Nicholas went into the second limousine along with the Colonel, the Maharajah, and the young hospital surgeon who was to be his best man. At least, none of them seemed to have guessed the truth behind this strange and hurried affair, for Mrs. Latimer said gently:
“It’s a shame your wedding should have to be like this, Sharon, so quiet and scrambled, when we could have made it such a lovely one, with a reception in the palace grounds and the State Band and everything for you. But still---a wedding day means just the same, however it happens, doesn’t it?”
“Yes---it means just the same,” Sharon murmured, and looked blindly out of the window at the wood-dappled hills. Why had she ever come to India? Why had she let Fate lead her into this heart-breaking, cruel trap? It wasn’t too late yet . . . she had only to stop the car and say to Nicholas: “It’s no use; I can’t go through with this because I happen to love you, and because you’re going to despise me more than ever for agreeing to this horrible, crazy business.” She had only to do that and it would be over in a couple of minutes and she could drive straight on to the station, catch the midday mail, and have done with this grotesque affair once and for all. . . . But she didn’t move or speak, and smoothly the car glided to a standstill at the brick porch of the little, open-pillared church, and someone was playing the organ very softly.
Not so very many minutes later Mr. Foster, the mission padre, bent down and slipped the too-large gold ring on to her left hand and said, “I now pronounce you man and wife . . .” and she knew there was no going back. She signed the register with a curiously steady hand, felt Mrs. Latimer press an unusually emotional kiss against her cool cheek, and then found herself looking straight into Nicholas’s eyes, while all the world seemed to be locked in the embrace of a breathless stillness.
Gravely, but with a faint smile, he put a hand on her arm and kissed her, and she knew that he was doing his best to make everything as convincing as possible, so that no one should see through this tragic charade. But she wondered a little what he felt like when his lips touched those of a girl whom he cordially disliked and despised---and who was now his wife. Did he realize how much he had put himself into her power by this reckless gesture of his? But he must have weighed up everything in his mind and have decided that, for Mirjhanah’s sake, he would accept the danger of involving himself so completely with an unscrupulous and dangerous adventuress. He must have a good deal of courage, she thought ironically.
“I think we ought to be getting back to the palace now, Sharon. Thank you, Mr. Foster. Come along, darling.”
Neither of them said anything at all on the short drive together back to the palace. Mirjhanah was still asleep quietly, and Nicholas said to Sharon: “I promised the Maharajah we’d go along to his rooms if we could for a few moments, so come along.”
There was a silver tray of cut-glass goblets on the centre table in the Maharajah’s huge sitting-room, and a servant was untwisting the gold foil from the top of a champagne bottle. The Latimers and a few other people were gathered there, but the atmosphere was quiet and rather grave as the Maharajah lifted his glass.
“I wish I could have made this a happier celebration for you,” he said. “The marriage of my two greatest friends is something I should have liked to have made memorable for them and us, but it can’t be helped. So let’s drink to all the happiness in the world for them, because they both deserve it.”
Everyone drank the toast, and Sharon, bending her head a little, heard Nicholas answering it quietly:
“You have made it memorable for us, even though there isn’t much show about it. At any rate, Sharon and I will never forget to-day and how good it is to feel that everybody is wishing us luck---and really meaning it. Here’s to you, Sharon.”
“And you, Nicholas.” She managed a steady smile as they raised their glasses to each other, and then a few minutes later the small party broke quietly up to go their different ways. Sharon stayed with Mirjhanah till the late afternoon, and once or twice she was awake and turned her head to smile at Sharon in a way that made her heart lighten with a sudden ray of hope. If Mirjhanah didn’t pull through after all this business, the bitter irony of it would be almost intolerable.
Nicholas came back towards sunset, and after spending some time with Mirjhanah and the nurses, joined Sharon in the sitting-room.
“I think she’ll have a quiet night,” he said briefly. “If you’re ready now, Sharon, we’d better be getting along to the bungalow, so that you can unpack and settle in before dinner.”
His car was rather a ramshackle old thing that bumped and bounced over the ruts in the road as it swung down the lakeside road and into the big, rambling compound that surrounded his bungalow. And for the first time Sharon crossed its threshold as his wife and stood for a moment uncertainly on the wide veranda. It was a big, two-storied house, furnished, she could see, with Spartan plainness and bachelorish sketchiness. The armchairs in the drawing-room were faded and shabby, there were no cushions or pictures or photographs or flowers, untidy books overflowed along a plain wooden bookcase, and the stone floor was chilly, with only a few thin cotton rugs scattered about on it.
“I told you it was a bit grim,” Nicholas said. “But I think your room is a trifle better. In here.”
It was obvious that he had tried to achieve some degree of comfort for her, with an Indian rug spread beside the bed and the tables covered with embroidered cloths and a pathetic glass jam-jar packed tightly with stiff marigolds and rose buds standing on the rickety dressing-table.
“Perhaps in a few days’ time we’ll be able to improve things,” he said, covertly brushing a film of dust off the end of the bed with his handkerchief. “In the meantime you must ask the servants for anything you want, and of course---you’re mistress here now, Sharon, and you must arrange things as you want them to be. I suggest you have some tea brought in here and rest a bit before we have dinner. I’ll tell Rahim to bring you in a tray.”
“Thanks; that would be nice,” she said, feeling her voice thicken in her throat, and he went out. Presently she was lying on the rather hard bed in a thin silk dressing-gown, her tea beside her untouched, her eyes fixed on the high whitewashed ceiling, a pulse hammering sickeningly in her temples.
She was here in Nicholas’s bungalow, and she was his wife and the mistress of his home---but really she was no more than a passing and unwelcome visitor to whom he extended a cold and formal courtesy. One day, long after she had gone out of his life forever, he would bring another girl to this bungalow as its mistress, and it wouldn’t be like this. She wouldn’t be ushered into the spare bedroom and left alone with a tea-tray there on her wedding evening; she wouldn’t be shut out and despised and ten thousand miles away from him, because she would be the girl he loved and had really married. . . . But what was the use of letting herself think and feel like this? It only made things ten times more difficult and painful.
She got up, had a bath, changed into a cool blue crepe frock, brushed her hair softly back from her face, and went out on to the veranda, where in the red-gold sunset light Nicholas was sitting smoking a pipe. He got up quickly, formally, and drew up a chair.
“You’ve been very quick, but you needn’t have hurried so much,” he said. “Like a drink?”
“No, thanks, but I’ll have a cigarette.” He lit it for her, and she inhaled a deep breath and watched him while he poured himself out a whisky-and-soda. “I wanted to talk to you, Nicholas,” she went on, her face expressionless. “About---about the future. We haven’t mentioned that yet, have we? I mean the future, when Mirjhanah has either recovered---or not pulled through. It’s got to be settled pretty soon, hasn’t it?”
“Yes, I think so. Unless she takes a turn for the better within the next few days, her strength won’t hold out.”
“That’s what I thought. So that you won’t---have to put up with me staying here, upsetting your household generally, for very long. Because, of course, the moment Mirjhanah doesn’t need me any more I shall go back to England and---and make whatever arrangements are best for straightening things out again for you.” Her eyes hardened a little. “You mustn’t be afraid,” she went on in the same cold, level voice, “that I’ll ever take advantage of this situation to make any sort of claim on you in the future. I hope you haven’t been worrying about that.”
On the last words she couldn’t keep her voice quite unemotional; a faint note of bitterness crept into it, and Nicholas’s brown face flushed a trifle and he twisted the glass restlessly round in his thin hands.
“Of course I haven’t,” he said curtly. “Such an idea never entered my head at all, and there’s plenty of time before we need discuss all that. I mean, the future can wait for a bit before we need discuss it, can’t it? I think a small drink would do you good; you must be tired.”
She was tired, too tired to battle against his quiet obstinacy, so she took the glass from him and sipped it in silence, while the sunset died out of the sky and the cool aquamarine and violet-blue darkness came swiftly up over the lake and her wedding day ended.
She didn’t keep much count of time that followed, for without realizing it she was drifting into a haze of tiredness that made everything a little blurred and far away. The strain of the long hours she spent with Mirjhanah, of the lack of fresh air and exercise, of the concentrated narrowness of life, were telling on her, and her cheeks began to look delicately hollowed and her eyes shadowed; but in spite of her weariness she couldn’t sleep when she went back to the rather hard, narrow bed in Nicholas’s bungalow. She would lie hour after hour through the darkness, tormented by such a restlessness of mind and spirit that her nerves felt as though they were wearing away to frayed threads that might snap at any moment, and in the morning Nicholas would look at her sharply, intently. Once he suggested giving her something to help her sleep during the brief hours she could snatch away from Mirjhanah, so that she might make the best of them, but Sharon shook her head.
“No thanks, Nicholas; I’m quite all right and I’m much tougher than I look. I’m scared of taking things that make one sleep.”
Yes, she was afraid of venturing in that direction remembering the girl who had committed suicide that night in the Little Harlem Night Club. The truth was that she had taken drugs to ease her private heartache and misery, and they had become a desperate need that couldn’t be satisfied. Sharon didn’t intend to let herself drift in that perilous direction, even to satisfy Nicholas’s professional instincts, and her nerves must carry her through this strain without that sort of help. In a way Mirjhanah’s obvious need of her gave her the extra strength; she was clinging to life with an astonishing tenacity, and there was no doubt that it was Sharon’s constant presence that gave her this faint chance of survival.
Sometimes the old Maharanee came into the bedroom when Sharon was sitting there, and her small, piercingly bright eyes looked at her with a covert gleam of hostility and malice in their depths; but she didn’t dare to make any open criticism of Dr. Terrimore’s wife’s presence in the palace, nor to show her disapproval of her.
A week went by in this queer, long-drawn-out way, and then there came a night that really seemed to be the end, and Sharon, sitting beside Mirjhanah’s bed, felt a black hopelessness of spirit engulf her. All this effort and strain and mental agony that she had made herself go through had been wasted after all. . . .
As dawn broke in a silver sheet across the east, her desperate weariness got the better of her at last, and sitting even in that cramped and uncomfortable position, holding Mirjhanah’s limp, hot hand, she fell asleep. Nicholas, tiptoeing into the room, found her like that. Her head had slid sideways against the chair-back so that her cheek rested on a blue cushion and her tawny gold hair fell loose and ruffled over her forehead. The long, thick lashes made heavy fringes of shadow on her pale skin and her breath came softly and evenly between slightly parted lips. She looked childish and defenceless and very tired, and for a moment Nicholas stood looking down at her with a queer expression in his grey eyes.
Then suddenly his look shifted to Mirjhanah, and he made a startled little movement. She too was sleeping, and when he touched her narrow wrist it wasn’t hot and dry-skinned, but cool and moist. He stared at her for a moment, laying a hand on her forehead, and then very gently he touched Sharon’s shoulder, but she was so deeply asleep that he had to give her a little shake before she stirred and opened her eyes heavily, blinking at him in a dazed way.
“Oh . . . I’m sorry,” she murmured, trying desperately to drag herself out of the clutches of sleep. “I must have dropped off. . . but it was only for a minute. . . .”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said softly. “You’re horribly tired and you can go back to the bungalow and sleep as long as you like now and make up for all your lost rest. Mirjhanah won’t need you so much now.”
“Nicholas!” Sharon’s eyes widened in fear for a moment and she went a little whiter. “You don’t mean that she . . . that while I was asleep . . .” ,
“My dear, of course not!” he said quickly. “I mean that she’s taken a definite turn for the better. Her temperature has come down considerably and she’s asleep naturally and very comfortably. I think the crisis may be over now, and that within a few days she’ll be out of danger.”
“Oh!” Sharon said in a small, empty voice, and she turned her head away sharply. “I’m so glad, Nicholas. I can hardly believe it.”
But really it was as though the sky had come crashing down upon her world and the ground crumbled away from under her feet, because this meant the end of the charade the end of Nishapore---and Nicholas. She felt his hand on her shoulder again, drawing her to her feet.
“I’m going to take you straight home to bed now,” he said with a note in his voice that forbad any argument. “You’ll be crocking up yourself if you don’t get about twenty-four hours’ sleep. Come along; the nurse will take over, and you’re not needed here.”
She followed him blindly, hardly conscious of the fact that his arm steered her down the long corridors and into the car and up the bungalow steps and into her bedroom; that it was he who drew the curtains across the windows and pulled the cool sheet over her and held her hand in his for a moment before she sank fathoms down into the depths of exhausted sleep.
She didn’t come to her senses again with any clearness until the next morning, when the smiling Rahim brought her morning tea-tray into her, and she stretched luxuriously, feeling the renewed strength and vitality flowing warmly through her whole body. “Chit for Mem-sahib,” Rahim said. “From Doctor sahib.”
She opened the folded note lazily before she poured out her tea. It was very short, a few lines scrawled in pencil:
“I’ve got an emergency op. at the hospital, so have to rush out early. Everything is all right. M. is improving steadily. If you like, go up and see her, but take it easily.---N.”
She had her tea and a leisurely bath and breakfast in the sunshine, and then walked up towards the palace, all her senses more keenly alert than they had been for days. The Indian winter has very few vagaries of weather; it means several months of unfailingly blue skies, with the air crisped by the tang of early snow on the mountain peaks and the scent of flowers in the blossoming gardens.
It seemed to Sharon that this particular day had an extra brilliance and sparkle, that the lake had never looked so blue nor the birds fluttered in the trees with such singing energy. The heavy air of gloom and foreboding had lifted suddenly as word went all through the palace that Mirjhanah was better, that there was real hope now that she would recover, that the doctor sahib had achieved yet another miracle in saving her. There were small children playing about on the edge of the water near the palace gates and women stooping over their gay-coloured washing in the shallows, and they looked at Sharon with shy smiles, and one of them ventured to speak to her, to ask timidly if it were true that the Princess was not going to die.
“Yes, I think it’s true,” Sharon answered in the halting Hindustani she was picking up and learning from Mirjhanah. “The doctor sahib says she is much better.”
“Allah be praised!” the woman said with a little gesture of salaam. “She has done so much for our children and for us, and we love her.”
Sharon went on through the palace gate, where the scarlet-uniformed sentries gave her an extra smart salute, and on the smooth green lawn in front of the marble steps she met Mrs. Latimer strolling, smoking a cigarette and the Maharajah’s golden setters bounding round her. She made an eager gesture of greeting, slipping her hand through Sharon’s arm.
“My dear, how are you? Nicholas was worried because you were so dog tired, and I came down to see you yesterday, but you were sound asleep, so I didn’t disturb you. You look much better. And isn’t the news about Mirjhanah wonderful? We’d given up hope completely, and it’s nothing but a miracle that she’s pulled through, a miracle achieved by you and Nicholas---but principally by you.”
“Oh no!” Sharon protested. “I didn’t do much. It was Nicholas who saved her. I think he kept her alive sometimes just by sheer will power and determination that she shouldn’t die.”
“It’s funny you should say that, because it’s exactly what he says about you. He says he couldn’t have saved her without your help, and he meant it. He must be very proud of you, Sharon.”
They were sitting for a few moments on one of the white marble seats on the terrace, and Sharon looked away so that Mrs. Latimer shouldn’t see the faint, ironical smile that twisted her mouth for an instant. Nicholas proud of her! . . . If only that could be true just for a minute. If only she and Nicholas could be natural and real with one another for a little while---but perhaps it was better that that wasn’t possible. To draw nearer to him, even for a second, would make tilings even less bearable. She knew that she couldn’t have faced this fantastic business of their marriage and the inevitable parting if there had ever been the tiniest flicker of hope that he could think of her with anything but dislike and distrust.
“Hullo, Sharon! I wondered if I’d find you up here.” Nicholas had come noiselessly over the grass to them, and his voice startled her. “Hullo, Mrs. Latimer! How do you think Sharon looks?”
“Much better, but she still looks as though she could do with plenty of sleep. I’ve just been telling her what you said about her share in pulling Mirjhanah through, but she wouldn’t believe me. So you’d better tell her yourself that you said it.”
“Of course I said it.” His voice was almost sharp. “And I meant it. I shouldn’t have been able to save Mirjhanah without her nursing. You can come up and see her for a few minutes, and then you’re going back to bed; you don’t look fit for much yet. Home is the place for you for a bit.”
“Home?” Sharon echoed the word stupidly, and in fact she was suddenly feeling very odd and far away and dense as though a mist were creeping down between her eyes and the azure blue of the lake.
“Yes, home---the bungalow,” Nicholas said firmly. “In fact, I think you’d better come along now. I believe you’ve got a touch of fever coming on.”
She got up obediently, swaying a little, her face very white, and Mrs. Latimer involuntarily put out a hand.
“My dear, are you all right? Nicholas, she does look rotten. Do pop her back into bed and keep her there.”
“It’s nothing,” Sharon said obstinately. “I just feel a bit giddy. I expect it’s the fresh air after being indoors so much.”
Hazily she saw Nicholas coming towards her, as though he meant to take her arm, but she moved abruptly away from him before he could reach her. She couldn’t have stood the touch of his hand on her bare arm just now when she was feeling so absurdly weak and emotional and near to easy tears. Mrs. Latimer followed her anxiously down to Nicholas’s car and helped her in, while Nicholas slipped into the front seat, his jaw set, his eyes expressionless.
“Take good care of her, Nicholas,” Mrs. Latimer said as the car moved forward. “She deserves a little fussing on her own account now. I’ll look in and see you later, my dear, in case there’s anything I can do, but I won’t disturb you if you’re asleep.”
Sharon murmured something, and Nicholas swung the car round and down the long drive, still in silence. Sharon took off her wide hat and rested her head against the back of the seat. It was stupid to feel so light-headed and empty, as though her brain had turned into a dandelion clock that might float completely away into nothingness at any moment. She must pull herself together and think, face up to things. She spoke, quickly, not giving herself time to hesitate.
“Nicholas, if Mirjhanah is really over the worst and likely to be convalescent soon, we---I must begin to think about making plans. About going back to England, I mean. I ought to see about a passage.”
The car gave a lurch as Nicholas swung it aside to miss a dog scratching placidly in the middle of the road, and his dark eyebrows drew together into a scowl.
“Good heavens! there isn’t all that hurry,” he said impatiently. “For one thing, I wouldn’t like to say definitely that she’s convalescent yet; she might have a setback. And for another, you’re hardly fit for a long journey yet.” He turned his head and gave her a fierce, resentful look. “But of course,” he went on, “I can understand that you’re not enjoying things as they are---that you’re finding the situation uncomfortable and boring and life in my bungalow tedious. I’m sorry.”
It wasn’t much use trying to talk when he deliberately twisted the meaning of her words into something that created deeper misunderstanding and tension between them. It wasn’t much use struggling with anything, she thought wearily, and to her fury felt the sting of tears in her eyes and the wetness of them sliding down her cheeks. To break down in front of him, like an emotional schoolgirl, was the last straw, and she dragged her hat on violently, hoping to hide her face in time, but she was just too late; he had seen that bright drop sliding down her white face, and he slowed the car down a little and spoke gently.
“I’m sorry, Sharon; I didn’t mean to say that. I think we’re both tired and rather on edge from the strain of this last week. I don’t want you to bother to think about plans and things just yet, not until you’ve had a good rest and got rid of this touch of fever. There really isn’t such a desperate hurry about all that, is there?”
“No,” she answered. “I suppose not.”
The car pulled up at the bungalow steps: it was a very familiar scene to her eyes, but to-day it looked oddly different, and suddenly she knew why. It was because to-day, for the first time, Nicholas had called it “home” to her. Home what a lot that word could mean and how tragically little it did mean. She wished vaguely that he hadn’t used that word; she wished that her head wouldn’t go round so funnily and that the ground would stay solid under her feet instead of turning into cotton-wool. . . .
When she opened her eyes again she was lying on her bed with a cool pillow under her head, and Nicholas was pouring something into a glass. She raised her head and looked at him dizzily, conscious of a queer shyness.
“I---what on earth happened?” she asked, and tried to sit up, but he pushed her back with a firm hand.
“Keep still for a bit and drink this.” She swallowed the mild dose of whisky meekly and screwed up her nose a little at the taste. “I’m going to order some soup and biscuits for you,” he went on briefly. “You haven’t been eating enough this last week either. Then you’re going to bed with a good dose of quinine inside you. Rahim!”
She lay back while he went out to give his orders, and it certainly was a relief to be back in bed, though she despised herself for the passing weakness that had been caused as much by emotion as anything else. Had Nicholas carried her in here when she fainted? Had she lain in his arms for a moment with her head limp against his shoulder? The mere thought of it made the colour flood into her face and her heart beat faster, but she said aloud, between her teeth: “Stop being a fool, Sharon. Stop imagining in your secret heart that life can turn into a romantic fairy story---because it just doesn’t happen like that, and you know it. You’ve got nobody to blame but yourself if you make it fifty times harder than it is already.”
Nicholas was coming back firmly across the room, a little bottle in his hand, and he shook two white tablets out into her hand.
“Swallow those down---here’s some lemonade. I don’t think you’ve got much of a temperature, and I expect it will go if you have a good sleep after you’ve had the soup.”
It flashed into her mind abruptly that this was only about the second time he had set foot in her bedroom since she had come to occupy it. And he certainly didn’t linger now. He watched her swallow the quinine down with a little grimace, and then gave her a brief professional nod and went out of the room, closing the door with a sort of finality behind him. She didn’t want the soup when Rahim brought it in on a tray, but Nicholas would be annoyed if she didn’t get it down somehow, so she made the effort to swallow it and then thankfully dropped back under the sheet and closed her eyes. She hadn’t expected to sleep, but when Nicholas opened the door cautiously an hour later she was breathing peacefully, with one hand tucked under her cheek and the feverish flush cooling already from her face.
He stood for a moment looking down at her. All this last week she had been looking very tired and drawn, older than her age, and he supposed it was because of the emotional strain over Mirjhanah. Yet somehow he wouldn’t have credited her with quite such a depth of feeling for an Indian girl whom she had only known a few weeks.
Now sleep had smoothed all the troubled emotion out of her face and she looked childish lying there, and curiously unsophisticated and younger than she had ever looked, even on the boat. A frown furrowed its way across
Nicholas’s forehead as he looked at her. He wasn’t used to doubting his own judgment, and now he hardened himself against this creeping uncertainty that had edged its way into his mind. Facts were facts, and even a criminal might look childish and defenceless in sleep. One couldn’t go on forgiving and trusting blindly in the face of black evidence. There had been something between Rex and Sharon, something close and intimate, and that was what he could never forget or forgive or understand. She had had her chance of breaking away, but she hadn’t taken it. Rex had come here through her, and somewhere, either in her luggage or Rex’s, a pair of priceless diamond earrings were hidden. Diamond earrings didn’t take wings and fly away by themselves, leaving behind a perfect imitation. There had been careful planning and method and team-work behind all that. . . . He turned abruptly on his heel and left the room, and Sharon stirred restlessly in her sleep and murmured something:
“Nicholas. . . . I didn’t know anything. . . . It wasn’t true. . . .”
But he wasn’t there to hear what she said.
The fever had gone by the evening, though she felt shaky on her legs when she got out of bed, and Nicholas kept her more or less there for another couple of days. By the time she was out and about again, Mirjhanah had passed the last danger milestone and was allowed to sit up for an hour or two a day against the piled cushions of her low bed. Her face looked pathetically small and bloodless framed in the smooth, loose black hair, but her eyes were bright and happy and her body was beginning to vibrate again to a gently flowing surge of renewed vitality. Sharon, sitting beside her doing some embroidery, smiled at her, but she shook her head when Mirjhanah made a movement to pick up the piece she had been doing.
“You’ve done enough of that, Mirjhanah. Nicholas said a quarter of an hour’s work, not longer, and it’s as much as my life is worth to disobey him. Lie back and rest.”
Mirjhanah obeyed with a resigned sigh.
“All right. But very soon I shall be well again, and then I’ll be giving you orders, Sharon, and looking after you and making you take care of yourself. That fever has made you look so thin, and I feel selfish lying here while you wait on me. Perhaps when I can get up we could go up to the hills again for a little while together. That would make you feel well and strong again, wouldn’t it? It is beautiful up in the low hills, just below the snow-line; the air is like wine.”
“The hills---yes, that must be lovely,” Sharon said softly, her eyes dreamy. “But I’m afraid you won’t be strong enough for that sort of thing for a good while yet, Mirjhanah, and I——” She stopped short abruptly, feeling her throat tighten because it was so difficult to say it, and yet she had made up her mind to-day that it must be said at once, since time was creeping up on her. She bent her head over the embroidery and went on speaking softly. “Mirjhanah, you wouldn’t mind very much, would you, if I went away for---for a time from Nishapore? Went back to England?”
“Go away---you?” Mirjhanah’s eyes were wide and startled. “Oh, Sharon, I did hope——” She stopped quickly and then went on: “But I’m so stupid; I keep forgetting how things are changed. That you aren’t living here with us any longer, and that we can’t ask you to do things for us. You belong to Dr. Terry now, and you must do what he wants. Is he going to England with you?”
“No, he can’t; because he’s only just finished his leave. I’ll be going alone,” she answered steadily; but Mirjhanah’s eyes were still puzzled. “You see, Mirjhanah, I haven’t been very well, and he thinks it would do me good to go back to England for a few months. Besides, I want to see my relations and tell them all about Nicholas.”
That had seemed to her to be the best excuse to give, and though it sounded very lame and unconvincing in her own ears, Mirjhanah accepted it trustingly.
“Of course, Sharon,” she said. “It will do you a great deal of good, and you’ll come back again soon, won’t you? In the spring, so that you’ll be here for the summer and we can all go into camp together, or perhaps to Kashmir.”
“Yes,” Sharon answered in a low voice. “I’ll come back as soon as---I can. Now you really must rest properly, Mirjhanah, and I must go; Nicholas is waiting for me.”
“When---how soon are you going away?” Mirjhanah asked wistfully, as Sharon straightened the pillows for her.
“I don’t quite know yet.” Sharon’s tone was brisk and cheerful. “I expect Nicholas will see about a passage for me very soon now, and the sooner I go, the sooner I can come back again. Go to sleep now.”
She had controlled herself so fiercely against any show of emotion that when she went out of Mirjhanah’s suite her head was aching furiously and her body felt stiff. Nicholas was waiting for her in the car, and she got in beside him in silence, afraid that her voice would betray her if she tried to speak.
“Well?” he said brusquely. “Did you tell her?”
“Yes; I told her.” To her surprise, her voice was quite steady and impersonal. “And she accepted it all without any awkward questions. The whole thing seems quite reasonable to her, so that’s all right. I’m going home because I haven’t been very fit and because I want to see my relations. And I’m supposed to be coming back in---the spring, but matters can easily be arranged before then. Can we stop and send that wire about my passage? It had better be settled now as quickly as possible.”
“Yes.” He answered as though he were thinking of something else, and then he went on, half awkwardly “I’ve been thinking, Sharon; I wanted to ask you about—well, about your arrangements, money arrangements. I’ll see to your passage home, of course, and all the travelling---it’s no use arguing about that. But I wondered about the future, when you get home. You must let me look after things for you---for a time, anyway.”
Sharon’s hands tightened upon each other and she braced herself a little.
“I thought you understood about that, Nicholas,” she said quietly. “I said that I wasn’t going to make any sort of claim on you, and I meant it literally. I’ll be perfectly all right; I’ve always managed for myself very well, and I’ll be able to do it still. There’s no question of you feeling any responsibility for me in the future, and I---I wouldn’t have agreed to anything if you hadn’t promised to agree to that. I couldn’t touch a penny of your money because I haven’t the slightest right to it, and I don’t want to argue about it either.”
He had pulled the car up in front of the telegraph office, and after one swift look at her stubbornly set face he got out and went inside to send the telegram to the Bombay shipping office, asking for a passage for her. But his brows were drawn together and his pipe clenched between his teeth as he wrote out the telegram in bold, angry black letters. She was an extraordinary girl, always leaving one confused and baffled by the things she did, always leaving one, as it were, in mid-air about her. There had been such an ice-cold, steely determination in her voice just now that he had realized that even his obstinacy couldn’t move her---that for once he had to give way, and he wasn’t used to that.
He slammed the car door viciously when he went back, said gruffly, “I’ve sent the wire and they ought to reply at once,” and drove the rest of the way home in angry silence. Sharon almost smiled at his balked sulkiness because for once he couldn’t have his own way about something.
The reply to the telegram came next day while she and Nicholas were having lunch in the sparsely furnished dining-room. He read it and then handed it across to her in silence.
“Can offer you single cabin first class s.s. Muttra, sailing Friday,” she read on the flimsy paper, and she folded it up carefully.
“It’s rather a rush,” he said. “To-day is Monday. Do you think you can make it or shall I try for something later?”
She shook her head and stopped folding the bit of paper up into a tiny scrap.
“No; I can easily be ready. My packing takes very little time, and it sounds as though I’ve been lucky; I might not get anything if I turned this down. Besides---there’s nothing to keep me here now, is there? Mirjhanah’s quite reconciled to my going, and you must be longing to have your home to yourself again after all this upheaval.”
There was no bitterness in her voice, only a flat matter-of-factness, and after a quick look at her he fished out his pipe.
“It’s for you to decide, Sharon. I’m glad they can offer you something comfortable, and, as you say, if you let this chance slip you might get hung up quite a long time. I’ll wire accepting it on my way to the hospital, if that’s what you want.”
“Yes, please. I think I’d like to get away as soon as possible.”
He nodded and went out of the room, and she sat on alone, drinking her coffee mechanically and smoothing out the mangled scrap of paper that was the telegram.
Queer how a few printed words on a slip of grubby paper could turn the whole world upside down and inside out. Had she been secretly hoping, perhaps even praying, that there wouldn’t be the chance of a passage yet, that she would have to wait in Nishapore a little longer? If she had been, she was a fool, she thought angrily. What difference could it make if she went now or in a few weeks’ time? What sort of pride had she that she wanted to stay on here, living in a man’s house as a pretence wife who was treated with less friendliness than a chance visitor would have been given? Sometimes the bungalow felt to her like a prison in which she was treated with the cold, indifferent impersonality that might have been meted out by a jailor to a convicted criminal. No; the sooner she broke this crazy business up and escaped from the whole thing, the better for her state of mind and nerves. Nicholas hadn’t softened in the least since the whole affair began, and she would rather starve than accept the smallest help or support from him during the interval that must be got through somehow before they could get free of one another legally, and she believed that she had made him understand that. Perhaps he still thought it was some kind of subtle and deep-laid scheme that would lead up to another “coup” to be pulled off; perhaps he thought she was laying the ground for blackmail or forgery. What did it matter what he thought?
He was late home to dinner, and she was so physically exhausted by all the emotions and strain of the day that she was cooler and stiffer than usual, sitting almost mute through the meal, with a face as white as marble and eyes that were stone-hard. Nicholas tried to make conversation, to talk about Mirjhanah and plans for her convalescence, for a possible visit to England, but she couldn’t respond, and he found himself thinking suddenly, cruelly: “She doesn’t really care a hang for her; I don’t suppose she ever wants to see her again. She probably insisted on going away because she knew something like this would happen, and that the Maharajah or I would make some sort of offer to her. And perhaps the situation isn’t exhausted yet.”
And just as that thought flashed into his mind, the bearer came in with a small parcel on a tray and presented it to Sharon, with the announcement that it had been brought by a messenger from the palace.
“From the palace---for me?”
Sharon stared at the little gold-corded, red-sealed box and felt suddenly sick, and Nicholas said coolly: “Hadn’t you better open it and see what it is? It looks like---a present.”
In silence she cut the cord and unwrapped the box, while Nicholas watched her with savage intensity, and her hands fumbled clumsily with the cardboard lid. There was a heavily crested and bossed card just inside, lying on top of a crimson case, and she read the written words through a sort of mist.
“This time there can be no refusal of a gift that can only express a fraction of my eternal gratitude and friendship for what you have done for us. I am sure you won’t ask your husband to bring this back to me, because if you do you’ll be hurting very deeply someone who can never put into words or gifts what he feels about your kindness and generosity.---Nishapore.”
She sat staring blankly at the card for a long moment, and Nicholas’s voice cut sharply across the paralysed silence.
“Well, aren’t you going to look and see what he’s given you this time? There’ll be no need for me to take it back and ask him tactfully to understand that you can’t accept it.”
With numbed fingers she opened the case and saw the deep blue glow of sapphires lying on white satin. It was a bracelet, superbly set with square-cut sapphires and diamonds, and the whole room seemed to reflect the glare of the jewels. From far away she heard Nicholas’s voice cold and smooth:
“Well, well! That’s certainly a very nice souvenir of gratitude, and you needn’t feel too sensitive about accepting it this time.”
She didn’t know how she got there, but suddenly she found herself in her own room, leaning against the closed door, her legs shaking under her; and in the dining-room Nicholas, still sitting alone at the table, tore the engraved card savagely to shreds between his strong fingers. That had been a horrible, unforgivable thing to say to her, but the words seemed to have been dragged out of him from the depths of a furious bitterness and blind desire to hurt her. So often he found himself beginning to believe in her sincerity, in something finer and truer beneath the gloss of her sophistication and calm self-possession, and each time something happened to shrivel up that belief at its roots. This new gift that the Maharajah had sent her, even with the explanation written on the card, seemed to bring an unpleasant taste into his mouth. Nishapore might be grateful to her for all she had done for Mirjhanah ---but wasn’t there perhaps something more than gratitude behind such a present?
He pressed a hand over his eyes for a moment, and they felt hot. It wasn’t any use trying to make excuses for her---all along the facts had been too black and crudely plain. And yet deep down inside him something still did lift its voice in her defence, tried to argue against his own accusations, to deny them. But it didn’t matter now. Within a few days she would be going right out of his life for ever, and in a little while he would regain his peace of mind, lose himself in the enthusiasm of his work, forget that he had ever gone through a marriage ceremony with a calmeyed, tight-lipped girl who had never really been his wife, though she lived in his bungalow and troubled the whole serenity of his life.
In her bedroom Sharon mechanically closed the leather jewel case and put it away in a drawer without even taking the bracelet out. She couldn’t give it back . . . not that that mattered, not that anything could matter after those brutal words Nicholas had flung at her. She knew exactly what he was thinking. That, making use of Rex in their “partnership,” she had switched her attentions to the Maharajah, under the cover of Mirjhanah’s illness, and that this glittering present was the outcome of that. Well, he had reached the worst that he could believe of her and there was nothing else left, no deeper humiliation left for her. The only thing that mattered now was getting away from Nishapore, and the three days left that she must spend here still stretched ahead of her like a bleak eternity.
It was Wednesday evening, the evening before Sharon was to leave Nishapore by the early morning mail, and in the big, bare bedroom all her luggage was packed, labelled and stacked, and she had just come in from saying goodbye to Mirjhanah.
That had been a moment that had hurt intolerably, because there was so much pretence and deceit about it. To Mirjhanah it was only goodbye for a few months, and even then at the last moment she had clung to Sharon with tears in her dark eyes; but to Sharon it had been goodbye for always, because she would certainly never see either Mirjhanah or India again. And she felt that she was saying goodbye to more than a person; she was saying goodbye to the greatest happiness and hope she had ever known, for Nishapore had given her something she had never expected to find anywhere.
The gracious beauty of the blue lakes and green-and-silver mountains, the radiance of a honey-yellow full moon shining on white marble domes and pavilions floating, feather delicate, on beaten silver water, the warm colour of the bazaars, the scent of the roses and jasmine and tiger lilies in the palace gardens, the clean, shining austerity and strength of Nicholas’s hospital---they had all taught her something she could never forget. She could never again be content with the old, shallow, butterfly existence she had lived in London, and when she went back it must be to find some job that was worth doing, that had a definite, clear-cut purpose.
She changed for dinner as usual, keeping out a blue crepe frock that could be slipped into the final suitcase, and she took more than usual care over her hair and face to-night, adding rouge and lipstick a little more lavishly, because Nicholas mustn’t see her looking white-faced and haggard, mustn’t guess what this last unbearable ordeal of her last evening in Nishapore meant to her. But when she went at last into the sitting-room she found the bearer just coming in with a note from Nicholas, scribbled at the hospital.
“Sorry I’m being kept here on an urgent case and shan’t be home till late. Don’t wait up for me.---N.”
She smiled faintly, cynically, as she tore up the note. So Nicholas hadn’t been able to face this last evening alone with her either, and she couldn’t blame him. It must have been an awful strain and drag for him these last few days of waiting for her to take herself out of his life and house. Perhaps all the time he had been half afraid that she wasn’t really going, that at the last minute she would reveal some new scheme. Abruptly she told the bearer to bring dinner in.
It wasn’t till she was wearily undressing for bed, just before eleven o’clock, with no sign of Nicholas yet, that she realized how suffocatingly still and airless the evening was, without any stir of breeze and with a dense blanket of starless darkness lying across the valley. It was so close that she could only bear a sheet over her, and her temples throbbed with the pain of a rasping headache. There must be a thunderstorm brewing up on the hills, and she wished it would break and relieve this tension in the air before she began her journey to-morrow.
It was difficult to realize that this was the last night she would spend in this room that had become familiar and home-like in spite of its austere bareness. She knew she was straining her ears for the sounds of Nicholas’s car driving into the compound and his step on the veranda which was pretty stupid of her. And yet to-night she felt she couldn’t go to sleep until she knew that he was safely back in the bungalow, because there was always a kind of twisted, sardonic comfort in that.
And presently, just before midnight, she heard the grind of the car turning in at the gate and then his footsteps along the veranda, passing her door to his own room---and then there was silence. That was the very last time she would ever hear that. . . . She did go uneasily to sleep at last, her lashes sticky with tears, her throat aching.
Whatever it was that woke her up with an ugly jerk, what seemed hours later, felt like a giant hand at her throat, squeezing the breath out of her, so that her heart laboured wildly. She opened her eyes dizzily, and it was as though she were at sea alone in a tiny boat on an extremely stormy sea that was tossing and heaving it about wildly, while in her ears there was a sullen rumble of wind and water, a sound that seemed to be everywhere, even inside her head, so that she felt sick and dizzy. And then, as she gathered her wits together somehow, she realized that her bed, and more than her bed, her whole body, was being shaken hideously until her joints felt as though they must work loose in their sockets. The room was full of deep-throated, sinister noise, creakings, groanings, janglings, crunchings, and as she managed to sit up in bed, her mouth bone dry with fear so that she couldn’t utter even a whisper, she saw the white bulk of the painted wardrobe tilt backwards and forwards two or three times against the wall and then fall forwards with a rending crash, that was only a minor sound in the sinister symphony of noise that had broken out across the valley.
“It’s an earthquake,” she thought dully, and began to scramble wildly into some clothes; but suddenly some instinct made her pause and glance upwards, and next instant she was flat on the floor under the bed, while plaster and beams and bricks came down in a choking shower upon the room.
Nicholas! she screamed, her voice coming back at last; but nobody could hear her, as outside the darkness was split by the thunder of cracking earth and churning water and falling walls. She came half out from under the bed, and in that instant something caught her across the temples and she went dizzily down into fireshot confusion and then into blackness, so that she didn’t hear a man’s frantic shouts behind the wreckage of the door and outer walls, as Nicholas fought to get in.
“Sharon . . . Sharon! . . . Are you all right? For heaven’s sake, answer me. . . . It’s all right; I’m coming. . . .”
When she opened her eyes again slowly and with infinite pain she was lying with a cushion under her head, and something was being pressed against her lips,---the rim of a glass.
“It’s brandy. Drink as much as you can. You aren’t hurt; only dazed and bruised. How do you feel?”
She swallowed the fiery stuff with a little gasp and looked up at Nicholas who was holding a torch over her. It was a scratched, blood-and-dust streaked face, and she caught at his arm.
“Nicholas, you’re hurt yourself. . . . I’m perfectly all right. What’s happening?”
“An almighty earthquake,” he answered briefly. “It was a narrow shave for you. Lucky you had the sense to dive under the bed; it took the weight of the rubble from the ceiling.” His jaw muscles tightened grimly as he drew her carefully to her feet. “Nothing hurts, does it?”
“No; only bruises. Nicholas. It sounds terrible out there.”
“It is terrible,” he said. “There’s fire and flood and a few other things thrown in. I’ve been in this sort of thing before. The city must be in an appalling state, and I’m going down to the hospital now to see what can be done. You’re all right, aren’t you? I think the worst of the shock is over and you’ll be safe here; the bungalow stands high, so that the flood water won’t reach it, and there’s no sign of fire. Only, for God’s sake keep under cover. If things look worse, I’ll come back and take you to the palace if it’s still standing. Can you salvage some clothes? My room isn’t too bad; keep in there unless you feel another bad shock starting, and then go into the garden, up at the far end, with Rahim; he’ll look after you. I’ll come back later.”
She wanted to cry out, “Don’t leave me alone! Don’t go out into that hell of fire and water and horror,” but she knew she couldn’t utter the words. His face was drawn and haggard already with grief for what had happened and she knew all his thoughts were for his beloved hospital and the stricken city. She could only help him by being calm, but just for an instant her cold hand clung to his.
“I’ll be all right,” she said. “Take care of yourself, though. How are you going to get down to the hospital if the lake has overflowed over the road? You can’t get a car through.”
“No; but I’ve got a sort of punt affair that will do, and it isn’t far. Here’s your fur coat; hang on to that, and the brandy. Sure you’ll be all right?”
“Yes,” she answered; and with her fur coat huddled around her body and the torch in her hand, she went to the crumbling edge of the veranda and watched him go down the path to the black swirl of water that lapped against the gate, and there embark in a perilously fraillooking, shallow little native boat in whose bows he set a storm lantern. Then he sculled cautiously forwards, and presently that pin-point of light was lost in the blackness that was still a turmoil of desolate, heartrending sound Could he ever make the hospital in that contraption? A chance wave from the lake or the upheaval of another shock would swamp that ridiculous boat as easily as though it were made of paper---and what was he going to do, even if he reached the hospital? A dull, anguished prayer beat against her brain and she heard herself murmuring it aloud: “Oh God, take care of him . . . bring him through safely . . . nothing else matters.”
Then she made her way back to her shattered room, and with the help of Rahim, always calm even in the face of disaster, and a few hastily rallied, half-panic-stricken servants, she salvaged some clothes from under the heaped dust and rubble, and by the light of the torch dressed herself and drank some tea that Rahim contrived to brew out in the less badly damaged servants’ quarters.
Dawn came slowly, reluctantly, revealing in its drab, dust-smeared light the hideous devastation that had fallen upon the valley. Over the town a pall of smoke and dust still hung thickly, and down the flooded road came floating smashed trees and timber, masses of wreckage, the drowned corpses of animals, and now it was raining remorselessly out of leaden clouds that hid every vestige of the mountains out of which this horror had flung itself. It wasn’t possible to see the palace from here, even from the highest point of ground, and Sharon’s heart was torn with fear for Mirjhanah. With her draggled fur coat still clutched round her, she drank more tea and swallowed some toast that Rahim insisted on bringing on a tray, and while she tried to get it down he told her how the sahib had fought like a madman to reach her after the first shock that had brought her ceiling down, how he had possessed the strength of ten men as he tore at the fallen masonry and piled debris. So at least he had given a thought to her safety, she thought dully. Somehow she had expected him to think first of his hospital and perhaps forget her existence altogether.
“The sahib!” Rahim cried suddenly, leaping to his feet “He comes in the boat. All is well.”
He went down almost waist-deep into the grey water that lapped at the bottom of the gate, and caught the prow of the little boat and pulled it in, while Sharon waited, holding her breath. Nicholas, as he scrambled ashore, looked infinitely grey-faced and haggard and unshaven, and his feet dragged wearily as he came up the muddy path.
“Are you all right, Sharon? I thought I’d better come back and see.”
“Yes, I’m all right,” she said quietly. “Rahim has got hot tea and something to eat ready for you. Bring it quickly, Rahim. Sit down and rest, Nicholas.” He dropped into a chair, fumbling for his pipe mechanically, and she asked gently: “What about the hospital? What happened down there?”
“Part of it is standing all right,” he said in a flat voice as he took the cup of tea from her. “Part is completely wrecked, and a bit can be patched up. We’re doing what we can for the injured as they bring them in, but there are hundreds---thousands of them, and still more buried in the ruins. All the telegraph lines are down and the railway is blocked for about five miles by a huge landslide, so that nothing can be got through until that is cleared; and that’s the first thing they’ve started on, but it will take time. I must get back to the hospital; I only came back to see how you were.”
“What about the palace? The Maharajah and Mirjhanah . . .”
“They’re quite safe, and the palace didn’t come off badly. The Maharajah is giving part of it over as a relief hospital, and Mrs. Latimer is there helping and some of the others. But there was something I wanted to say. Oh yes!” He drew a hand wearily across his eyes. “Burnam, the engineer, is trying to get a light car through somehow, and he thinks he can manage it. That means contact with the next town and the railway, and he can take you with him. I’d like to get you out of here. You won’t be able to catch that boat, but people I know in Bombay would put you up till something else can be managed. Of course, there’s a bit of a risk and the trip won’t be comfortable, but it’s a chance, and he’ll turn back if he thinks it’s too bad. Will you go along with him?”
She stood still, staring at him while he gulped down the tea, and suddenly she knew she had the courage to say it, even if he didn’t believe in her sincerity and thought she was simply trying to be dramatic.
“Burnam won’t want to be bothered with the responsibility of me,” she said quietly. “Nicholas, I know just a little about first aid and nursing. I might be able to help somehow, down there at the hospital. If Mrs. Latimer and the others are there, let me stay too and do what I can to help. I don’t want to go away.”
He lowered his cup and looked at her steadily, his eyes bloodshot with fatigue, his hair matted with dust.
“You don’t realize what it’s like down there,” he said deliberately. “The things you’ll have to see and do. . . .”
“Yes; I do realize,” she answered. “And I’m not afraid, and I don’t think I’ll let you down, Nicholas. At any rate, let me try.”
He struck a match for his filled pipe and puffed at it, his face expressionless, while she waited.
“We do need every scrap of available help, he said at last. “And the drive would be dangerous. I only thought you might have had enough of this, but if you feel like facing it---if you really want to stay . . .”
She bent her head quickly and refilled the teapot with unsteady hands.
“Yes, I want to stay. Are you going back at once? I’ve got everything I want in my pocket; we needn’t bother with anything else. More tea?”
“Half a cup. We’ll have to go in the boat, I’m afraid and it isn’t exactly a pleasure trip. Can you do anything with an oar?”
“I think so, if you tell me what to do.”
They went down to the boat, and Rahim held it steady while she climbed carefully in and settled herself in the shallow stern. Nicholas hesitated on the bank, and then spoke in a low voice.
“You may be drowned on the way, Sharon, or there may be worse shocks to-night and everyone may be wiped out. Are you sure you want to risk it?”
“I was never so sure of anything in my life,” she answered softly, and he stepped steadily into the boat and picked up the other flat paddle, and the journey began.
Grey, mud-thickened water whirling dizzily past them, chunks of logs and rubbish bearing down on them wildly, rain lashing down relentlessly out of the sagging sky, a smell of burning and decay in the steamy air . . . the memory of that voyage stayed with Sharon for the rest of her life, but they made it, and with their paddles defeated the anger of the floods that tried to suck them out into the lake. The hospital steps were awash, but two men were waiting to haul them in against them, and Nicholas helped Sharon out, and she shook back her drenched hair and gave him an unsteady smile.
“Well, we made it, didn’t we? I think that’s a good omen. Now show me where to go and what to do.”
It seemed a thousand years later, but it was really only thirty-six hours, when Mrs. Latimer opened a door and said:
I’ve made some tea, Sharon, in the little room, and there are some sandwiches. When you’ve finished here come up and have some; you look fit to drop where you stand.”
Sharon was in the middle of bathing a yelling, squirming brown baby, and under the white veil tied tightly round her fair hair her face looked more grey than white and her eyes were black circled. Mrs. Latimer looked just about as tired, but she made a brisk movement towards the little tub.
“Here, let me finish this for you while you go up and begin,” she said, but Sharon, lifting the baby out on to the towel across her lap, shook her head.
“You’ll do no such thing. I’ve nearly finished, and if anyone needs a rest it’s you---you’ve been at it longer than I have, with scarcely any rest. How many hours have you been on your feet in the wards?”
“I? I couldn’t tell you.” Mrs. Latimer smoothed down her crumpled overall and then heaved a faint sigh as along the veranda rang the piercing shrieks of a woman on the verge of acute hysteria. “There’s that poor girl again; I’ll have to give her a hypodermic to quieten her down, I think. I suppose there’s been no news of her baby?”
“This was the last one brought in and he’s been identified,” Sharon said, as she bound a bandage carefully round one chubby, badly grazed arm. “There you are. Is Nicholas back from the city yet?”
“No; there’s no sign of him, but he said we weren’t to worry if he were late. I’m afraid he’ll be down there all night again, working in the ruins. Someone will have to fetch him back by force to get some food and rest. I must go and see to that girl.”
She hurried away towards the moans and screams, and Sharon slipped a tiny cotton shirt over the baby’s dark head and settled him in the makeshift cot that had been made out of a sugar box, where to her relief he snuggled down sleepily. Her arms ached intolerably with the weight of children and babies lifted and carried and bathed and bandaged all day, for she had been put in charge of the ward for the less badly injured but homeless children. And not only her arms, but her whole strained body and mind ached as well; and if anyone had asked her quickly how long it was since the moment when she woke up to feel her bed rocking under her, she wouldn’t have had the faintest idea; time was just a grey, confused blur of noise and ugliness and pain. But somehow she had taken control of herself, and now she had reached such a stage of mechanical movement that she was able to face the ugliest sights and sounds without a tremor.
By some special providence, the hospital, though a piece of it had fallen in ruins, was still mainly inhabitable, and all through that first crazy day and night they had worked like maniacs moving patients to safer quarters, improvising fresh wards, tearing up sheets into bandages, giving injections, cooking relays of food. Up here, unless there was another shock or the floods rose, they were moderately safe, but down below in the city, where fires still raged and sodden buildings came hurtling down without warning, things were very different, and that was where Nicholas had been for hours upon end, leading the search for buried victims, fighting the fires, organizing relief.
“Miss-sahib, Mem-sahib saying pliss go for tea. I watching babas.”
A slim, shy-eyed little Indian ayah came in softly and sat down on a mat beside the door, and Sharon, with a thankful nod, washed her hands in a bowl of disinfectant, tied a fresh veil over her flattened hair, and dragged herself wearily along the dark veranda, whose gloom was lightened only by an occasional flickering storm lantern hung on the rails. Up in the little office at the far end Mrs. Latimer was dispensing tea and sandwiches to the small gathering of tired Englishwomen who had rallied to help.
From the first coherent moment after the shock she had organized all the amateur help available, and out of eight English wives in Nishapore five were working with her---the other three had been injured. Even little Miss Martin, the tiny, white-haired missionary, had toiled uncomplainingly for as long hours as the younger ones, and it was astonishing how much they could accomplish and stand in the way of gruesome sights and sounds.
“Sit down there and put your feet up, Sharon.” Mrs. Latimer nodded towards a long wicker chair and pushed a cup of tea and a plate of thick sandwiches into her unresisting hand. “You’re not to move until you’ve consumed every crumb of them. I promised Nicholas I’d keep an eye on you and stop you from killing yourself with overwork, and I wouldn’t like to face him if I didn’t keep my word.”
“Here’s a cushion, my dear,” Miss Martin said, and tucked it in behind Sharon’s back. “Dear me! isn’t the rain terrible? But at least it may help to put out the fires and wash away some of the refuse. I wish the doctor would come back; he’s been down there nine hours now without a break, and I don’t suppose he’s had a scrap of food.”
Sharon sipped the blessedly reviving tea and closed her eyes for a moment as she obediently munched the sandwiches, but, tired as she was, she knew she couldn’t snatch so much as five minutes’ sleep---not until she heard Nicholas’s step on the stairs. In her confused exhaustion she kept seeing little pictures in broken flashes against her closed eyelids: the peach-pink domes of Bombay city shining in the morning sun; the stiffness of Nicholas’s face as he turned to meet her as he was signing the hotel register; the cool green of the pine woods swaying in the wind above the mountain camp; the red-and-white fire of diamonds glittering on a bed of satin; Rex’s amused, cynical smile as he sat on the arm of a chair in the Maharajah’s study; the exotic colours of the bouquet of orchids she had carried to the little church on her wedding day. . . .
Yes, it had been a wild, fantastic adventure, leading up to this grim climax along hard and painful ways, and yet she knew suddenly that if she were given her choice again she would follow the same road, step by step. She must have dozed off in a vague sort of way, for when she opened her eyes again it was with a jerk, and the lantern was smoking and everyone had gone except one tired figure, sipping tea from a chipped enamel mug.
“Oh, Nicholas---you’re back at last!” she said with a little break in her voice. “I was getting worried; you were gone so long, and it must be awful down there. Sit down and rest; you must be nearly dead. We’ve kept some sandwiches for you; they’re wrapped up here, and you must eat them.”
She unfolded the damp cloth from round the plate of ham sandwiches and put it beside him, and he took one and began to eat, but she could see he was almost too tired to bite it.
He made a gesture as though he were going to say something, but she stopped him and refilled the mug.
“Don’t talk till you’ve got something inside you. I don’t suppose you’ve had anything since early this morning, and this isn’t much, but still it’s food---of sorts. If you go down again I’ll give you something to take along with you---coffee in a thermos and some sandwiches. Mrs. Latimer has got the cooking arrangements going wonderfully.”
“It tastes good,” he said; and now he was eating with more appetite and his face didn’t look quite so grey. “Mrs. Latimer does know how to organize things. I’ll have a quick look round the wards, but I expect young Sandhu has managed all right; he’s an excellent doctor. How have you got on?”
“Pretty well. Everyone seems quiet and comfortable, and I’ve got the children cleaned up fairly thoroughly. What’s been happening down in the city, Nicholas?”
“Chaos,” he said wearily. “One simply doesn’t know where to begin. There are still dozens of bodies under the ruins that we can’t get at, and all the communications and public services are non-existent at present. We can only try and carry on as best we can until they get some sort of help through to us from outside.” He hesitated, and went on slowly: “It’s pretty bad luck on you, Sharon, being caught here like this. I wish you’d gone when you had the chance, with Burnam---he must have got through, as he hasn’t come back. I’m afraid of an epidemic breaking out here with conditions as they are. Or there might be another shock.”
“I’ve weathered everything that’s happened so far,” Sharon answered dryly. “And I’m glad I didn’t go, Nicholas. I don’t regret staying for one moment.”
He turned his dark, untidy head and looked at her thoughtfully, and for an instant it seemed to her that something gleamed through the tiredness of his face, something surprised and alert.
“I don’t know how we’d have managed if you had gone,” he said abruptly. “You---and the others. You’ve been wonderful, the way you’ve stood things and not broken down.”
“That was Mrs. Latimer’s doing,” Sharon said. She organized and marshalled us, and I believe she d simply have flung a bucket of cold water over anybody who let their nerves run away with them. And we all felt we’d had enough dousing with cold water. Hadn’t you better turn in and get some sleep now?”
He shook his head and sucked at his pipe.
“Afraid I can’t. I only came back to have a quick look round at things. I’ve got to get back; they’re still digging out people who are alive, and they’ve got to keep at it all night. The Maharajah has been grand; he’s down there himself helping, and he’s sent every available person from the palace to work.”
He started to heave himself mechanically to his feet, almost as though he were sleep-walking, but Sharon laid a hand impulsively on his arm.
“Nicholas, you can’t go back yet. You’ll kill yourself if you do. How much sleep have you had in the last thirty-six hours?”
“Sleep?” He smiled ironically. “I don’t know. Is there such a thing as sleep? I can’t stop.”
“Give yourself a couple of hours,” she pleaded, her hand still on his arm. “After all, if you break down you won’t be able to help anybody, and two hours won’t make any difference to them, but it will to you. Look, there’s a camp-bed here. I’ll get some blankets and pillows and you can lie down. Please, Nicholas.”
He sat on the edge of the chair, staring at her, and she felt her mouth go a little dry with nervousness at her own temerity in interfering with his plans, setting her will against his. She was his wife, but she had no possible right to do it, but she couldn’t stand by and see him go off looking like that into the darkness. She waited quietly for his anger, for that familiar hardening of his face, but to her astonishment he said slowly:
“Well---perhaps you’re right. I’m not much good to anyone if I see four arms in front of my eyes instead of two and can’t make up my mind which to stick a hypodermic into. But if I sleep it must only be for a couple of hours, and you’ll have to wake me up on the tick of eleven. Promise?”
“Yes, of course I’ll wake you. I’ll get the blankets.”
A queer, tremulous sort of joy filled her as she hurried away on her errand. For the first time in their queer association he had listened to her, let her make a suggestion---and had agreed to it. If it hadn’t been for her determination he would have been on his way back to the city now, swaying drunkenly with fatigue.
“Here they are. I’m afraid they’re a bit scratchy, but they’re quite clean. I won’t let anybody disturb you; and don’t bother to think about the time; I’ll wake you without fail.”
He was more than half asleep as he stumbled across the room, and deeply asleep before she spread the blanket over him. She turned the light down to a pin-point and tiptoed on to the veranda, where she met Mrs. Latimer, who spoke in a whisper.
“Was that the doctor, Sharon? I thought I heard his voice.”
“Yes, he came in half an hour ago, and I’ve persuaded him to lie down and get some sleep for a couple of hours, and he’s dead to the world already. I’ll stay here and see that nobody wakes him up till eleven. I’ll be quite comfortable in that long chair with a blanket.”
“Oh, that’s good!” Mrs. Latimer said softly. You certainly know how to manage him, Sharon; he wouldn’t have listened to anybody else in the world who wanted him to rest.”
“Two hours isn’t much, but it will help to keep him going,” Sharon answered; and when Mrs. Latimer had gone on her way she rolled herself up in a blanket in the long chair and kept guard over the door, though it wasn’t likely that anything short of another earthquake would wake him now.
Time ticked by. She was too nervously keyed up to wake him at the proper time to want to sleep herself, and when the hands of her watch touched eleven she went softly into the little room and stood by him for a moment. He was still fast asleep, his face relaxed and almost boyish, and it seemed brutal to wake him, but she had promised. She bent and shook him gently by the shoulder, and in a flash he was wide awake, sitting up and pushing back his tousled hair.
“It’s eleven o’clock, Nicholas,” she said. “I’ve made some fresh coffee to have now and take along with you in a thermos, and some more sandwiches. I wish you could have slept longer.”
He took a gulp of the hot coffee, and then looked at her with a faintly puzzled frown.
“Why aren’t you asleep yourself, Sharon? You don’t mean to say that you’ve been sitting up all this time while I’ve been snoring on the bed?”
“I wasn’t sleepy,” she said hastily. “And I was very comfortable in the long chair with a blanket. It hasn’t been such a strenuous day really; I had a rest in the afternoon.”
“I dare say---for about five minutes.” He got up vigorously. “I must get a move on, but before I do I want to see you on that bed, Sharon, and there you’re going to stay for a good six hours at the very least. You may say you aren’t sleepy, but your eyes aren’t going to stay open another second. Come on.”
He took her firmly by the arm and pushed her down on to the hard little camp-bed and pulled the blankets over her, and through her closing drowsiness she heard his voice saying dimly:
“Thank you for the coffee and food. And don’t worry. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
It was still raining next day out of a waterlogged grey sky. Nicholas came back at two o’clock and swallowed some lunch, but his eyes were dark with anxiety and the weight of his own sense of responsibility.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen if we don’t get supplies through pretty soon,” he said. “Famine and pestilence, I’m afraid. But the railway is still blocked; there’s been another landslide farther down, and the road is as bad, though they’re working to clear a way for lorries to come in. I’ll just have a look at the children. Can you and Mrs. Latimer manage the dressings, Sharon?”
“Yes,” she said. “We can cope with all that.”
He made a hasty round of the cots, reported that all was well, and then departed towards the city in his boat, the rain beating down savagely on his hatless head. With sleeves rolled up and a basin of hot water at her elbow, Sharon began the slow job of attending to the children. It was odd how, within almost a few hours of starting, her fingers had achieved an almost professional skill and gentleness, so that none of the children did more than whimper a little as their cuts and bruises were rebandaged.
“There, that’s done,” Mrs. Latimer said, and pushed a sticky fruit drop into the open mouth of the last small patient. “We’ve got through much quicker this afternoon and—— What on earth is that?”
Along the hospital veranda excited feet were pattering and voices were raised, and for a split second the fear of some new calamity leaped into their minds and turned Sharon’s face white; but the shouts didn’t sound terrified or stricken, and one of the hospital messengers burst in on them, almost incoherent.
“Mem-sahibs, sahibs coming . . . in motee car!”
“Sahibs!” Sharon and Mrs. Latimer looked at each other and chorused in unison, “Someone has got through! as they rushed outside. Two soaked and mud-spattered masculine figures were coming along the veranda, and behind them servants lugged small packing cases.
“Mrs. Latimer?” one of the men said. “We’ve managed to get through with a supply of medical stuff, and we hope some more will follow. You must be needing it badly.”
“Oh, we are! But how on earth did you manage to get through? It must have been a dreadful drive.”
“It wasn’t too comfortable,” the other man said, wiping his mud-caked face with a sodden handkerchief. “Hullo, Sharon!”
“Rex!” She stared at him unbelievingly. “I---I didn’t recognize you? How on earth did you get here? I mean--- why——”
“Well, I know the Nishapore road pretty well,” he said quickly. “And there was nothing to keep me in Bombay, so when I heard about the mess up here I came along and offered to give a hand with getting supplies through. How are you, Sharon?”
“I’m all right. But you must be worn out, both of you. We can give you something to eat and some hot water to wash in.”
“Of course!” Mrs. Latimer put in. “You must get changed and dried off. Come along and you can do that while I see to a meal for you. You don’t know how grateful we are to you. Show them the wash-room, Sharon.”
“I’ll just see that the cases are being handled properly,” the other man said, and for a moment, while he went downstairs, Rex and Sharon were alone on the veranda, and she was silent.
“Surprised to see me?” he asked casually, with a grin, and she answered dryly:
“Very. But they must have been glad of your help.”
“As it happens, they were. And Bombay had rather lost its attractions for me. Not that everything didn’t turn out all right. That idiotic mistake about the cheque was cleared up in five minutes. Sharon, are you really all right? You must have been through hell, and I hoped you’d got away.”
“I couldn’t leave Nicholas,” she answered quietly, and suddenly. Her eyes met his steadily. “I suppose you know that we’re married?”
Rex was occupied in trying to light a damp cigarette, and didn’t reply for a moment. Then he inhaled deeply and said slowly:
“Yes; I had heard. Perhaps I was a trifle surprised, Sharon, but I was glad, and I hope you’re very happy, though this wasn’t exactly a cheerful start to married life. But I must say I’m surprised at Terrimore letting you stay here; things must be ghastly.”
“He wanted me to go with someone who was trying to get a car through, but I refused,” she answered coolly. “I felt I could be some use here. It was nice of you to worry about me, though.”
“I had to be sure you were safe,” he said sharply. “Even though you’ve got Terrimore to look after you now. Where is he, by the way?”
“Down in the city, still helping dig people out of the ruins. He’s been there ever since the earthquake, except for a couple of hours last night when he got some sleep. Your cigarette’s wet; have one of mine.”
She held out the tin, and as he flung his battered stub away and took a fresh cigarette their eyes met again, and for a moment Sharon felt an odd stab of pity and sadness pierce her heart. Perhaps in his own queer, twisted fashion Rex did care about her, wasn’t entirely callous and selfish. At any rate he had taken some big risks in coming back to Nishapore to bring help and see if she were safe, and there could be no possible ulterior plan behind that.
“Sharon! Are you there? . . . I hear someone has got through with medical supplies, and I——”
Nicholas, bursting into the room, stopped short at the sight of Rex, who was sitting on the edge of the table swinging one leg and smoking his cigarette with an air of casual easiness.
“Yes, it’s me,” he said. “The proverbial penny, Terrimore, but I thought this time my arrival might not be so unwelcome. We’ve brought cases of medical supplies, bandages and stuff, and some of tinned milk. I’m glad you and Sharon are all right.”
“Yes. That’s certainly good news.” In his pleasure at the getting through of help, Nicholas was enthusiastic enough to be generous about the identity of one of the rescuers. “It must have been a pretty grim journey, though. Can I get at those cases straight away?”
“I’ll show you where we dumped them.”
The two men went out together, and Sharon heard their voices fade away down the veranda. Queer how the hostility and mistrust between the two of them seemed to have melted away in the face of this grim emergency, how little the old enmities and confusions really mattered at a time like this. It even gave Rex and Nicholas a point of contact and comradeship.
A sudden hungry wailing from the children’s ward reminded her that she hadn’t finished her job there, and she hurried away. Mugs of milk and spoonfuls of baked custard were spooned into open mouths, but when she reached the last bed she put the plate down and frowned, and then sent a hasty message for Nicholas. He bent over the hot, restlessly tossing child for a moment and then shook his head.
“Pneumonia,” he said briefly, “and not much chance for the little blighter, I’m afraid. I’ll get an injection ready.”
She helped him, and then when he had gone sat with the fretful child all the rest of the afternoon, watching anxiously and doing things quickly and surely as Nicholas had shown her. Somehow saving this flickering and quite unimportant atom of life seemed to matter vitally to her; she was pitting her will against the gigantic ruthlessness and callousness of India.
Nicholas found her still there when he came as darkness fell. Her eyes were heavy and dark-circled in her face and she moved stiffly in the chair as he looked at the child, who was very quiet now.
“About ten minutes ago she seemed to go off to sleep more comfortably. Do you think . . . ?”
He shook his head and put a hand gently on her arm to draw her to her feet.
“I’m afraid not, Sharon. She’s gone, poor scrap, but we did everything we could, and I know you wanted to save her.”
For the first time in all these long hours of strain and horror she felt tears thicken in her throat, burn her eyes, felt her emotions and self-control cracking a little. She groped blindly for a handkerchief, and he saw the wetness of her eyes and pushed his own wet and grubby one into her hand.
“Don’t cry, my dear,” he said gently. “It’s cruel, but we’ve saved so many. You’re tired out and you need rest and change. Rex tells me they’re getting a plane over as soon as we can fix up a landing ground, and the telegraph is working again, so we can get word through quickly. I want you to go back in it when it arrives. He’ll look after you. Would you like to go?”
There was something oddly hesitating and uncertain about the way he put. the question, as though he were half-frightened of what her answer might be, and she blew her nose and smiled shakily.
“No, not particularly, Nicholas. I mean---I’m not being a nuisance here, am I? Mrs. Latimer will be going in about a week or ten days to Bombay for a change, and we could go together. And I’d like to go on working here as long as I’m needed.”
“Of course you’re needed,” he said abruptly. “I only thought---you’ve been through such terrible things. You need some food, and there’s dinner going, so come and eat.”
If she hadn’t still been shaken by her grief over the death of the child she might have noticed something in his voice that was almost relief, certainly a new lightness.
The work on the landing ground was carried through at express speed, so that a message to say that it was ready was sent through the following evening, and on the next morning the promised plane made a perfect landing, and from it stepped two doctors and a nurse, while the body of the machine was packed with supplies. Nicholas looked at them unbelievingly, and the elder doctor shook hands briskly and said:
“Well, you can ease off now, Terrimore, and leave things to us. And you certainly look as though twenty-four hours’ sleep wouldn’t do you any harm. How long is it since either you or Mrs. Terrimore had a decent stretch of sleep?”
Sharon shook her head, and the soft hair, released at last from the tight veil, fell over her thin face.
“You reach a stage when you don’t want to sleep, don’t you, and then it isn’t so bad. But Nicholas couldn’t have kept going much longer.”
“Take him away and put him to bed---and yourself, straight away,” Dr. Beckett said. “We’re perfectly capable of carrying on without either of you now, and I don t want to see either of you till found about to-morrow evening. The plane is going back the next morning.”
Sharon and Nicholas drove back to the hospital along the muddy, battered lakeside road, where the floods had subsided, and now that the strain was over she could see how near to breaking down physically he was. He staggered a little as they went upstairs to the shabby bedroom, and he almost forgot to undress, but she ordered him about as though he were a tired child until his head was on the pillow and he let out a gigantic yawn.
“Don’t bother about me any more, Sharon . . . get to bed yourself. Lord! this is heaven . . . and I don’t think we’ve done so badly on the whole. Good night.”
She started down the veranda towards the little room that she used, but Rex met her at the head of the stairs and paused.
“I wanted to speak to you, Sharon, but I’ll only keep you for a second; you look as though you ought to sleep for a month. It’s about leaving here.”
“Oh!” She nodded. “Don’t talk too loud, Rex; I don’t want to disturb Nicholas. What is it?”
“I’m flying back to Bombay day after to-morrow,” he said. “Sharon, why don’t you come with me, away from this place? It’s no use talking about your marriage. I’m not asking questions, and the explanation is your own affair, but I’ve a pretty good idea that it wasn’t exactly a wildly romantic love match. Why not come away with me? I promise I won’t bother, you, my dear; I’ll simply see you safely to Bombay and do anything else you want done to help, that’s all.”
“I know, Rex.” She tried to collect her tired wits because she must give him some sort of an answer. “It’s kind of you and I----I appreciate it. But I am Nicholas’s wife and he needs looking after until he’s got over the strain of all this, and I can’t rush off and leave him now. Things will work themselves out, Rex.”
“I wish you’d think of your own happiness first sometimes,” he said, almost roughly. “But you never do do you? Well, I won’t say any more now, Sharon, because you’re dog-tired. But just remember that when you do leave this place I’ll be waiting---well, just to do anything in the world I can to help. Will you remember?”
“Yes, I’ll remember, Rex.” She smiled unsteadily, and then went in to her tiny room and undressed and crept in between the rough blankets in a huddled, bone-weary heap that sank into fathoms of sleep.
Nicholas, coming quietly a couple of hours later with his dressing-gown wrapped casually round him, found her still in the same attitude, the blankets pushed back, one arm drooping over the side of the bed. He stood looking at her for a moment with a curiously drawn look about the eyes before he straightened the rug and put her arm gently under it.
Then he went back to his own bed, but, tired as he was, he lay for ten minutes or more, staring at the dirty, sagging ceiling, his eyes puckered at the corners, his mouth tight. Sharon and Rex hadn’t known that he had been awake enough to overhear their low-spoken words outside his door. And Rex was right: she always thought about other people’s happiness first and left her own to the last---the happiness that she ought to have now, no matter what the giving of it cost him in pain and loneliness. That was his thought before sleep closed down again on his eyelids.
The aeroplane took off early in the morning, so early that neither Sharon nor Nicholas, still sleeping the clock round, were awake to hear its engines roaring over the battered city. But Nicholas did stir and wake up enough to catch the last echo of it as it sped away, and he sat up with an angry jerk. This was his fault; he had slept too long, and now it was going to be much more difficult because, instead of being on that plane, flying towards Bombay, Sharon was still here in Nishapore. How would she feel when she heard that Rex had gone before she could see him again or say a word of goodbye?
But when she did hear, an hour later, she looked undisturbed and not at all upset. Those hours of steady sleep had worked wonders on her, and when Nicholas saw her in the faint, watery outside sunshine on the veranda, for it had actually stopped raining, he stared at her. This was almost the old Sharon, with a delicate colour in her cheeks and the shadows gone from her eyes and her hair curling sleekly against her cheeks in all its old shining brilliance.
And he looked better too, less like a grey ghost of a man, and when they met they both exclaimed in surprised chorus, “Why, you look miles better!” But looming up against the new optimism and cheerfulness of the day, Sharon was aware of the dark cloud of her own problem and heart ache, as black and immovable as ever. They had almost faded away during these tragic days, but now life was getting swiftly back to normal and one had to face up to normal things---plans for the future, one’s own emotions.
That only meant one thing for her---departure, and somehow it was going to be harder now than before. Perhaps this ordeal and shattering experience they had been through together had drawn them a little closer together, melted some of the barriers; perhaps it had made friendship possible---if things had been different. But for them now friendship of any sort wasn’t possible, and she mustn’t try and trade on the faint change in their relationship; that wouldn’t be fair on Nicholas.
They had breakfast in the small staff dining-room alone together, and when it was finished she spoke quickly.
“Nicholas, I expect you’ll be very busy getting things straight here now, and you won’t want to be bothered with other things. So I thought---if I went down to Bombay at the end of the week when they say the railway will be open, I expect I’ll be able to pick up a passage home fairly soon. That would be all right, wouldn’t it?”
For a moment he looked out of the window at the faintly blue patched sky. Yes, of course, it was quite simple really. To have gone away with Rex would have been too crude, too obvious; but Rex would be waiting for her in Bombay, and why shouldn’t she have her heart’s desire now? She deserved it.
“Yes; that would be all right if it isn’t too much of a rush for you,” he said; and he didn’t ask her why she had changed her mind so suddenly about wanting to leave Nishapore soon after she had said that she wanted to stay and go on helping with the work of straightening things out. But he could understand why without asking. The whole atmosphere had changed swiftly with the arrival of outside help. That sense of enclosed urgency and comradeship and danger had gone and everything was normal and unemotional again---and Rex was waiting for her in Bombay.
They sat over their final cups of tea in the old, stiff, unnatural silence again, and Sharon was just going to make a move to break it, when Mrs. Latimer came hurrying in with an anxious face.
“Nicholas, you’re wanted at once,” she said. “The plane has crashed out beyond Bunderpore, and there’s a car waiting to take you out. There’s a message to say that the pilot isn’t much hurt, but Kildare---they don’t even seem sure that he’s alive.”
For a moment there was silence between the three of them, a silence that had something taut and strained in it, though Sharon was too startled by the news to notice it at the time. Only afterwards did she remember and wonder at the way Nicholas turned swiftly to her, his face pale, his hands making an involuntary gesture as though they would touch hers.
“I’ll go straight out,” he said in a low voice. “Don’t worry too much, Sharon; we’ll probably be able to do something for him, and he’s very tough. I’ll get him back here as quickly as possible, so will you see about a private room and everything?”
“Yes, of course,” Sharon said. “Poor Rex! What horribly bad luck!”
Nicholas had gone before she finished the sentence, and Mrs. Latimer shot a sidelong glance at her that was half curious, half pitying.
“It may not be as bad as they think,” she said. “And Nicholas will do everything he can. Shall I help you get the room ready, after I’ve had a cup of tea? I seem to have had my breakfast a long time ago.”
“There’s plenty of fresh tea, and don’t hurry; I can get things arranged.”
She went briskly along the veranda, and Mrs. Latimer sipped her tea with a little frown creasing her forehead and a cigarette between her fingers. But it was perfectly all right, surely---the thing she had vaguely suspected when Nicholas looked at Sharon in that queer way when she told them about Rex obviously had no foundation in fact. And yet---there was something a little strange about the Terrimores and their sudden, romantic marriage---if it had been so romantic. There was something quite indefinable in their relations towards one another, in spite of the fact that all through this ghastly business Sharon had behaved as only a devoted and deeply in love wife could behave. She had stood staunchly beside him and had certainly helped him over the worst---and yet there was an odd sort of shadow slanting across their married life, a kind of faint chill.
In the little private ward at the end of the veranda Sharon moved about quickly, making up the high, white enamel hospital bed with crisp sheets and pillows, arranging everything that might be needed on the glass-topped table. It didn’t seem real at all yet; one couldn’t think of Rex as a broken, unconscious body lying helpless in an ambulance. But it couldn’t be as bad as that; people panicked at accidents and thought every small injury was far worse than it was.
She finished the room and hurried away to help Mrs. Latimer with the morning bathing of the babies. None, of them was a serious case now, and the room echoed with their gurgles and splashings in the shallow tin tub. Mrs. Latimer, watching her, thought: “She loves children; she and Nicholas ought to have lots of their own.” Aloud she said warmly: “You’re a born nurse, Sharon, and I believe you’re going to miss this job when it’s finished. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go on helping Nicholas tremendously with his welfare work amongst the children. We might get together and work up something really efficient on our own, with a bit of advice from him.”
Sharon, bending down to lift a squirming baby out of the bath, felt a wave of soft hair fall over her cheek, and she didn’t push it back for a moment.
“Oh! I’m not as good as all that,” she said lightly at last, as she straightened herself and plumped the baby on the towel on her lap. “I expect Nicholas is really squirming and wincing inside when he watches some of my efforts. Besides---I’m going down to Bombay at the end of the week to try and get a passage home. I feel I need a change after all this excitement.”
Mrs. Latimer looked at her sharply, opened her mouth to say something, and then, changing her mind, shut it abruptly. She was a bossy, managing little woman, but she did sometimes realize when to stop asking questions, and this was one of the times for that. Whatever the mystery might be connected with Nicholas and Sharon, it wasn’t one she could pry into.
“We’ll all miss you very much, Sharon,” she said. “But you’ll soon be back, I imagine. I think I hear the ambulance, so you’d better go along and hear the news. I’ll finish this one.”
Sharon handed over the baby and went quickly along the veranda. Down below, men were carefully lifting out a blanketed stretcher, and she caught a glimpse of a white, still face as they carried it in. Her heart contracted a little as she went to the top of the stairs and heard Nicholas giving directions as they came up.
“The little room is quite ready,” she said. “Can I do anything else to help, Nicholas?”
“I don’t think so.” He stood between her and it as though he didn’t want her to see too much. His eyes were grave, and to her surprise he put a hand on her arm and gave it a little squeeze. “I’m afraid it’s pretty bad, Sharon, but I’m going to operate straight away, and there’s a chance, but not a very big one . . . but I’ll do my best. I’ll let you know how things go as soon as I can.”
He took his hand away from her arm and followed the stretcher along the veranda towards the operating theatre, and Sharon’s eyes were faintly puzzled as she watched it disappear behind the swing doors. There was something odd in the way Nicholas was behaving, as though he took Rex’s danger personally to heart, and yet she couldn’t believe that their newly sprung up friendliness could have entirely broken down all Nicholas’s dislike of him. Yet there had been real concern, almost distress, in his voice just now, and his eyes were full of genuine anxiety.
She went back to the odd jobs she had still undertaken to do to help the still short-handed nursing staff, and time seemed to drag on limping feet as she unconsciously strained her ears for any sounds from the theatre and private room. It was a relief when Mrs. Latimer came along, just returned from a visit to the palace and Mirjhanah. She brought bundles of clothes and toys for the children, and a number of urgent messages from Mirjhanah, who had come through the ordeal of the earthquake with astonishing courage and strength, and was clamouring to see Sharon.
“I’ll go up to-morrow,” Sharon said. “Although in a way it’s rather a strain saying goodbye all over again. Is she really all right?”
“Marvellously so, and full of enthusiastic plans for the future, when you get back here. We’re all going to be turned into earnest welfare workers; I can see that. She—— Oh! here’s Nicholas, and I must get my odd jobs done.”
She departed hurriedly down the stairs, and Sharon turned to meet Nicholas’s eyes.
“Well, how is he?” she asked quietly.
“He’s——” Nicholas’s voice failed him oddly for a moment, and he looked away from her. “I’m sorry, Sharon; I’ve done everything possible, but it’s no use.”
“Do you mean that he’s dying?” Sharon asked in a low voice, shocked at the idea of death overwhelming anyone as vitally alive as Rex was, and Nicholas nodded.
“Yes. I thought there might be a forlorn hope, but it’s failed. He---he wants to see you, Sharon, if you feel like going in.”
“Yes; of course I’ll go in,” she answered, turning a little white. “Does he---know?”
“I imagine he guesses, though I haven’t told him.”
They walked along the veranda and into the small room, that was dim and shadowy after the bright sunlight outside. She could just see the dark shape of his head and the pale blur of his face, and for a moment they swam in front of her eyes, and pity and a sort of aching tenderness caught at her throat and made her falter. Unexpectedly she felt Nicholas’s hand on her bare arm again, steadying her, and she smiled at him shakily and went over to the bed.
“Hullo, Rex!” she said softly. “This is a bit of bad luck.”
“I’m not sure about that,” he answered in a voice that was surprisingly clear and strong. “I’m not worrying, anyway, and I don’t want you to either. Are you busy? I wanted to talk for a moment.”
“No; of course I’m not busy,” Sharon said, and behind her Nicholas made an abrupt movement of departure.
“I’ll go and attend to something else, Sharon, while you---”
But Rex’s voice stopped him, and it had a note of urgency in it.
“No, wait a moment, Terrimore. In a way I’ve got more to say to you than to Sharon. Is it any good, my dear, at this stage in the proceedings, saying that I’m sorry?”
“Sorry? But what for, Rex?”
“My dear, that’s too generous!” He smiled twistedly. “If I began reciting a list of all the things I want you to forgive me for, I’d take too long. So let’s start up to date, shall we? I don’t suppose I have to remind you about certain things I said to the Maharajah that day before I left Nishapore? Things I said in plain words and things I hinted at?”
Sharon moved restlessly, uncomfortably, but Nicholas stood very still behind her.
“I don’t remember exactly, Rex. What do they matter now, anyway? Don’t worry about things like that.”
“If I don’t worry now,” he said grimly, “I shan’t have much time later on. I insinuated things that hadn’t a grain of truth in them---things about you and me and our coming to India together and our friendship.” He was looking directly at Nicholas now, and there was a sort of anger in his eyes. “I should have thought that anyone who knew you---and me, would have realized that.” A dull redness came into Nicholas’s face, but he didn’t say anything, and after a pause Rex went on, more slowly and with an obvious effort: “In plain words, Sharon hadn’t the faintest idea I was coming to India on that boat, and she did her best to dodge me, shake me off, and make me understand that she didn’t want to have anything to do with me; only I wouldn’t take the hint.”
“Rex, please! It isn’t necessary to talk about all this now. You ought to rest. We---we all understand.”
“I want to put things into plain words so that nobody can possibly misunderstand anything else,” he said stubbornly. “I came back to Nishapore to see that you were safe, Sharon, and if possible happy, so I may as well finish the job now. I forced that introduction to the Maharajah on her, Terrimore; that must have been obvious, and she was too kind-hearted to suspect what I was really after. And then there was something else, wasn’t there? A question of a pair of diamond earrings. . . Sharon made a sharp movement and he went on heavily: “If you look in my suitcase, Sharon, you’ll find the original earrings wrapped up in a bit of chamois leather. If I weren’t feeling pretty ashamed of myself, I might feel a tiny bit proud of pulling off that job.”
“But---but how?” Sharon murmured, and he smiled faintly.
“I saw the earrings, you know, before they were given to you. My advice was asked about the setting. And the old jeweller in the city who did the work put in a bit extra for me---that was all. And then you left them in your tent in the dressing-table drawer before you gave them to Terrimore to return tactfully. It was very easy Lord! I’m tired.”
“Rex, you mustn’t talk any more, please,” Sharon protested; but Rex made an impatient gesture and struggled to speak again, his voice only a thin whisper now, and Nicholas’s hand was on his wrist.
“Doesn’t. . . matter. . . . That’s all. . . isn’t it. . . want to put everything . . . straight. . . . We’re still . . . friends?”
“Of course,” she said, her voice unsteady. “And—— thank you, Rex, and you know we’ll always be friends.”
She found herself outside with Nicholas’s arm in hers and her eyes were wet as she looked at him, for behind them the little room was very quiet.
“Nicholas, is he . . . ?”
“I’m afraid so, my dear. He used up all the rest of his strength talking, but there wasn’t any chance, anyway. Go and rest for a bit, and I’ll attend to everything.”
Her eyes were dry again by the time she reached her tiny room, but she was glad to drop down for a moment on the camp bed and lie with her hands clasped under her head and her body limp and relaxed. The emotional strain of that last talk had tired her, strained her of feeling. Poor Rex! There had been something fine and chivalrous in him after all, and he had done his best to put things right, but it was too late for that to matter now. Perhaps Nicholas didn’t believe the worst of her now, but that couldn’t change his feelings into love, and she knew she was too proud to try to trade on his remorse or sense of guilt about her. She couldn’t accept anything from him that was only based on shame or pity.
Presently she tidied herself, and, because there didn’t seem to be anything more to do in the hospital, made her way down through the mud and wreckage to the bungalow. It made her heart ache to see the half-shattered walls, the heaps of draggled salvage that the servants had managed to rescue. Nicholas found her there an hour later, sorting out broken china and muddied household linen and clothes and her own battered luggage.
“All your nice things,” he said bitterly. “It’s been a damnable business. Sharon, you must let me help now. I mean, you’ve lost pretty well everything. You can’t travel back to England with only half a suitcase full of clothes. I must help.”
“I could manage,” she said flatly. “It’s worse for you, Nicholas; the whole bungalow seems to be flattened out. How will you manage? Where will you live?”
“I’ll be all right,” he said curtly. “I can stay at the hospital or up at the palace. Don’t worry about me, anyway.” He drew a thin slip of paper awkwardly from his pocket. “I got a reply to my wire to Bombay, Sharon, about another passage for you. They can give you a single cabin next week, and those friends of mine will put you up in Bombay for a couple of nights before. I want you to be as comfortable as possible.”
He didn’t look at her as he spoke, and his voice had all the old stiffness and aloofness, and Sharon understood. The brief drawing together was over, and he was thinking now how soon he could be rid of her and be left in peace again with his old life.
“That’s lucky,” she said quietly. “It all sounds luxurious.”
“You must let me know how you get on at home,” he went on in the same coldly business-like tone. “I mean, if there’s anything I can do or arrange for you.”
“I’ll be all right.” It had to be said some time, so it might as well be now. “I don’t suppose a---divorce will be very difficult to get. I know you’d like everything settled as soon as possible.”
She was busy over the shaking out of a dust-smeared coat. Nicholas fumbled for his pipe, and didn’t look at her.
No; there wasn’t anything he could do now except make everything as easy as possible for her. She’d get over Rex’s death in time and make a new life for herself, find someone else. All she would want would be never to set eyes on him again, and he couldn’t blame her. He had put her through such humiliation that she must hate the sight of him.
“I don’t think there’ll be any trouble about that,” he said. “You must arrange it all just as you like. Rex’s funeral is to-morrow morning. Do you know if he had any relations who ought to be told?”
“No; I don’t think he had anyone. I’ve collected all your things that are moderately usable still.”
“Don’t do any more now,” he said sharply. She looked white and shaken, and it was brutal of him to have blurted that out about Rex’s funeral; but the more he wanted to be gentle, the more rough and clumsy he seemed to become. If only he could simply take her in his arms and say: “I love you, and if there’s anything in the world I can do to put all this right and help you forget, tell me what it is and I’ll do my best.” But he couldn’t say that; he could only take the pile of clothes out of her arms and say briefly: “Rahim will see to the rest. I’ll take you along to the palace now; they want you to stay there till you leave, and you can have a good rest before the journey. Come along; I’ve got the car here.”
She went with him listlessly, feeling that nothing more could matter now, but she roused herself when they were in the car and said:
“Mirjhanah’s full of enthusiastic plans for babies’ welfare work that she wants to do here when she’s quite well again, and I’m sure she means it. Mrs. Latimer will help her, and some of the others.”
“I hope so,” he said briefly. “You and the others have set her a wonderful example here lately. Now go straight to your room and have a good rest---and don’t worry about anything.”
Late that evening the Maharajah sat beside Mirjhanah’s long chair on the marble balcony and together they watched the moon rise over the lake, whose waters were smooth and peaceful once again and spangled with starshine. But Mirjhanah was silent as she looked at it, and the Maharajah, glancing at her, said softly:
“You look sad, Mirjhanah, but the worst is over and we can all look forward to happier, better days now. Is anything worrying you? I thought you’d be so happy to have Mrs. Terrimore staying in the palace again.”
“I’m glad,” Mirjhanah said quietly. “But it would make me much happier if she were not so sad, Kerry.”
“I suppose she’s sad at leaving Terrimore, even for a short time,” the Maharajah said. “But she’ll soon be back in the spring.”
“Will she?” Mirjhanah said thoughtfully, her fingers idly folding her dull blue silk sari into little pleats. “I wish I could feel sure of that---but I’m not. There is a great unhappiness there that turns her eyes dark, and when she smiles it doesn’t reach them. I wish I knew what it is between her and Dr. Terrimore that isn’t right.”
“That isn’t right?” The Maharajah stared at his sister blankly. “But that is crazy, Mirjhanah! It was a very romantic wedding and they are devoted to each other. Perhaps Sharon is a little sad because of Kildare’s death---after all, he was a friend.”
“And Dr. Terrimore is unhappy too,” Mirjhanah mused, as though she hadn’t heard him. “If only we could help them . . . keep Sharon here and not let her go to England, so far away from him.”
“But we can’t!” the Maharajah said, half impatiently. “We can’t interfere in other people’s affairs, Mirjhanah, even though they are our greatest friends. Anyway, she’ll only be away a short time. I’m going to have a new bungalow built for them down by the lake that will be ready by the time she returns to Nishapore, and then we’re going to forget all these tragedies and upsets.”
Mirjhanah smiled up at him, but the smile faded from her eyes in a moment, when he went into the room. It was no use her brother scoffing at her: she knew that she was right; for, young and immature as she was, she had a woman’s instinct in understanding another woman, and she felt Sharon’s bitter unhappiness lying like a frost across her spirits. Gropingly, Mirjhanah was trying to understand what it was that had twisted Sharon’s happiness all out of shape, so that it was crooked and confused, but it was difficult. And yet in one thing she felt she had a faint clue that might help. It was a fleeting look that she had seen come into Nicholas’s eyes this afternoon when Sharon’s back was turned on him and he hadn’t thought anyone was noticing---a look so full of aching longing and tenderness that for a split second it had transformed his rather grim young face strangely. And then as soon as Sharon turned round the old expressionless mask came, down over it again.
But even a young and unsophisticated Indian girl could translate that look---it was love that had betrayed itself in Nicholas’s eyes for a moment, heartbreaking, unsatisfied love, and it made the problem all the more bewildering. He loved Sharon, and yet she was going away from him, and Mirjhanah felt that she didn’t mean to come back, in the spring or at any time, and there was grief in her eyes as well as in his. The ways of English people, Mirjhanah thought with a tired sigh, weren’t as simple and frank as she had imagined. Nicholas and Sharon had got married---why? And they were separating now---why?
And suddenly, with piercing, adult clearness, Mirjhanah knew all the answers and understood everything. Sharon had married him because of her, Mirjhanah---to help save her life. Now she remembered the casual, ugly bits of stray gossip that had drifted to her ears while she was so ill that she hadn’t taken in then, but understood now. Sharon had to stay, but there was a reason why she couldn’t remain at the palace, and this had been the solution. No one could gossip if she stayed in Nishapore as the doctor’s wife---even if it were in name only. And now there was pride and misunderstanding and a refusal to look each other straight in the eyes and ask for the truth---and that was the foolish English way of doing things that Mirjhanah didn’t think much of. Neither would say, “Do you love me?” because the answer might mean humiliation, and neither could face that---and Mirjhanah’s mouth curved again into a faint, almost mischievous smile. Things weren’t so difficult and complicated after all.
Sharon’s meagre luggage was packed, for the third time, and in half an hour the car would be ready to take her to the station. Not Nicholas’s car, but one of the palace limousines, because he wasn’t seeing her off; he said he had urgent work at the hospital and must say goodbye at the palace. He knew that he couldn’t trust himself to stand on the platform and watch the train carry her away, and she thought that he wished to see the last of her quickly.
And she was glad of his decision, because she couldn’t have endured it either. Now it was time to go and say goodbye to Mirjhanah. She pulled her soft felt hat on carefully and collected her gloves and bag and went along to Mirjhanah’s suite, and found her still in bed, but sitting up and doing some fine gold-thread embroidery on a pale blue scarf. Sharon was surprised to see her looking so calm and unmoved, almost gay. Somehow she had thought that the girl would be sad and perhaps a little upset at this second farewell; but, of course, she expected to see her again soon, within a few months, and she mustn’t betray anything herself.
“Well, I’m all packed up, and this time I really mean to get myself started,” she said cheerfully. “Nicholas will be along in a moment.”
“And you’re really going this time? Mirjhanah said with a little smile. “But I suppose nothing can stop you, Sharon, except perhaps another earthquake; and that isn’t going to happen.”
“I sincerely hope not,” Sharon said lightly. There aren’t going to be any more earthquakes---or delays. I wonder why Nicholas isn’t here yet? He’s late.”
“He’ll come,” Mirjhanah said tranquilly, and folded up her work. “They will tell you the moment he comes. He’s going to be lonely without you, Sharon, and you won’t you be lonely in England without him?”
“I---yes, of course I shall.” Sharon was twisting her gloves unconsciously.
“So I know you’ll come back very soon,” Mirjhanah went on quietly. “I’m only a child, I suppose, but I do know that when two people love each other the way you and Dr. Terrimore do, to be apart is like being half dead inside. I haven’t loved anybody, but I want it to be like that for me some day. That’s the way you love the doctor, isn’t it? So that when he was away from you all those bad days after the earthquake, you felt as though something were bleeding to death inside you, as though you were a flower dying from want of water and sunshine. That’s the real way to love, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sharon said in a whisper. “That’s the real and only way to love anyone, Mirjhanah. It hurts, but in a way that doesn’t matter. That’s the way I love Nicholas---and always shall. . . . I must go now; I can’t wait and risk missing the train. Goodbye, and take great care of yourself and write to me often.”
She pressed a hurried kiss on the soft curve of Mirjhanah’s cool cheek and went blindly to the door, groping for it, so blindly that she never noticed that it was ajar, never noticed the figure standing close to it on the other side, so close that she blundered into it.
“Sharon,” he said, and she stopped dead, turning very white.
“Nicholas! I thought you hadn’t come, that you’d got held up. I---I couldn’t wait.” She held out her hand, controlling her voice so desperately that it was cold and flat. “Well---goodbye, Nicholas, and good luck, and thank you for everything. I shall always remember Nishapore and how kind everyone has been to me.”
But he didn’t take her hand: He stood staring at her so piercingly that he seemed to be looking straight into her heart.
“Damn your train!” he said. “Sharon---you said something just now in there, to Mirjhanah. Something about you---and me.”
“I---perhaps I did,” she said desperately. “Mirjhanah’s a sentimental child, Nicholas, and I didn’t want to---to shatter her illusions. I didn’t——”
“You said that you loved me,” he said quietly. “I don’t quite understand. You said——”
“I know. But I’ve just told you. She’s a romantic child. I didn’t mean——”
“Didn’t you?” Suddenly he gripped her shoulders violently, furiously. “Sharon, what’s the truth about you and Rex Kildare? I think I’ve got a right to know. I don’t mean about the past. I mean---did you love him, Sharon? Did you want to go away and be free to marry him?”
“Marry Rex?” She looked utterly blank, stunned. “Good heavens, no! What an extraordinary idea, Nicholas! At the end I was sorry for him because he seemed to be trying to---to put things straight, and in a queer way perhaps he did care for me. But---marry him! It’s fantastic!”
“I thought you loved him,” Nicholas said slowly. “I thought that was the way of happiness for you. So I was going to let you go to him.”
“I never wanted to see him again,” she said quietly, and looked at her watch. “I’ve only got seven minutes to catch the train. Nicholas, I must hurry.
But still he stood in front of her, barring the way to the door, staring at her.
“Then---if you weren’t in love with Rex, was it true what you told Mirjhanah just now in there? That you love me. Answer me, Sharon, honestly---just this once.”
She felt her whole body go limp and tired, and she knew she couldn’t fight any longer, couldn’t tell anyone any more lies.
“Yes, it’s true,” she said in a whisper. “But it doesn’t matter now, does it? I know how you feel about me, and we’ve made our plans, and I promised “
“There was another promise you made,” he said softly. “Do you remember? In church, Sharon. To be my wife till death parts us. Doesn’t that promise count for anything, Sharon? Is it too late to wipe out everything---all my stupidity and blindness and beastliness. Don’t you understand what I’m trying to tell you? I love you and I’m asking you---very humbly, my dear---to stay here as my real wife. I was only letting you go because I thought you hated and despised me and never wanted to set eyes on me again. Sharon . . . do you still want to try and catch that train? You’ve got two and a half minutes.”
Her eyes were huge and dark in her white face and she was trembling, but she managed to speak.
“Nicholas, I’ve told you the truth, and you’ve got to do the same. Are you saying this because you overheard what I said, because you’re sorry for me and feel that you ought to try to---to put things right? Is it because you pity me?”
“Pity you! I pity myself, Sharon,” he said, with a crooked smile. “Pity myself for nearly losing the only thing in the world that matters to me. Have I lost it altogether?”
“No,” she whispered. “I---don’t think you have, because it would always belong to you wherever I was in the wide world. That train——”
“It’s just steaming out of the station,” he said quietly, and put his arms round her. Sharon, I’m not offering you much---you’ve had a sample of my sort of life.”
“But it’s my life too. I belong here, I suppose.”
She felt his mouth touch hers, and remembered that this was the first time he had kissed her since their wedding day, and it flashed into her mind that she would have liked another wedding, a real one that would make their marriage the true and lovely thing it had at last become. And then suddenly she disengaged herself and looked at him, her cheeks flushed, and whispered, “Wait a moment. I’ll be back,” and went into the bedroom and shut the door. And Mirjhanah’s brown eyes met hers innocently, widely.
“I’ve missed my train after all, Mirjhanah,” she said softly. “But somehow I don’t think it matters. I wonder---did you tell them to send Nicholas up here when he came to say goodbye to me, instead of asking him to wait in my room?”
“I---oh, perhaps I did!” Mirjhanah said, her eyes not flinching away at all, her cheeks dimpling faintly. “I thought that was what you wanted, Sharon, to save time, so that you wouldn’t risk missing your train this time.” She unrolled her embroidery and bent her sleek black head over it demurely. “But it seems to me you weren t meant to leave Nishapore,” she said. “Because I think everybody needs you here.”