Lady Bassett departed with the words, shaking her head tolerantly and still smiling.
But for long after she had gone, Muriel remained with fixed eyes and tense muscles, watching, watching, dumbly, immovably, despairingly, at the locked door of her paradise.
So this was the key to his silence—the reason that her message had gone unanswered. She had stretched out her hands to him too late—too late.
And ever through the barren desert of her vigil a man’s voice, vital and passionate, rang and echoed in a maddening, perpetual refrain.
“All your life you will remember that I was once yours to take or to throw away. And—you wanted me, yet—you chose to throw me away.”
It was a refrain she had heard often and often before; but it had never tortured her as it tortured her now,—now when her last hope was finally quenched—now when at last she fully realised what it was that had once been hers, and that in her tragic blindness she had wantonly cast away.
THE BIRD OF PARADISE
Muriel did not leave the Residency again until the evening of the State Ball at the palace. Scarcely did she leave her room, pleading intense fatigue as her excuse for this seclusion. But she could not without exciting remark, absent herself from the great function for which ostensibly she had returned to Ghawalkhand.
She wore a dress of unrelieved white for the occasion, for she had but recently discarded her mourning for her father, and her face was almost as devoid of colour. Her dark hair lay in a shadowy mass above her forehead, accentuating her pallor. Her eyes looked out upon the world with tragic indifference, unexpectant, apathetic.
“My dear, you don’t look well,” said Sir Reginald, as, gorgeous in his glittering uniform, he stood to hand her after his wife into the carriage.
She smiled a little. “It is nothing. I am still rather tired, that’s all.”
Driving through the gates she looked forth absently and spied the old beggar crouching in his accustomed place. He almost prostrated himself at sight of her, but she had no money with her, nor could she have bestowed any under Lady Bassett’s disapproving eye. The carriage rolled on, leaving his obsequiousness unrequited.
Entering the glittering ballroom all hung with glowing colours was like entering a garden of splendid flowers. European and Indian costumes were mingled in shining confusion. A hubbub of music and laughter seemed to engulf them like a rushing torrent.
“Ah, here you are at last!” It was Bobby Fraser’s voice at Muriel’s side. He looked at her with cheery approval. “I say, you know, you’re the queen of this gathering. Pity there isn’t a king anywhere about. Perhaps there is, eh? Well, can you give me a dance? Afraid I haven’t a waltz left. No matter! We can sit out. I know a cosy corner exactly fitted to my tastes. In fact I’ve booked it for the evening. And I want a talk with you badly. Number five then. Good-bye!”