Even after her sobs had ceased from sheer exhaustion he made no movement, no sign that he was so much as thinking of her.
Only when at last she raised herself with difficulty, and put the heavy hair back from her disfigured face, did he turn slightly and hold out to her a small tin cup.
“It’s only water,” he said gently. “Have some.”
She took it almost mechanically and drank, then lay back with closed eyes and burning head, sick and blinded by her paroxysm of weeping.
A little later she felt his hands moving about her again, but she was too spent to open her eyes. He bathed her face with a care equal to any woman’s, smoothed back her hair, and improvised a pillow for her head.
And afterwards she knew that he sat down by her, out of sight but close at hand, a silent presence watching over her, till at last, worn out with grief and the bitter strain of the past weeks, she sank into natural, dreamless slumber, and slept for hours.
THE DEVIL IN THE WILDERNESS
It was dark when Muriel awoke—so dark that she lay for a while dreamily fancying herself in bed. But this illusion passed very quickly as her brain, refreshed and active, resumed its work. The cry of a jackal at no great distance roused her to full consciousness, and she started up in the chill darkness, trembling and afraid.
Instantly a warm hand grasped hers, and a low voice spoke. “It’s all right,” said Nick. “I’m here.”
“Oh, isn’t it dark?” she said. “Isn’t it dark?”
“Don’t be frightened,” he answered gently. “Come close to me. You are cold.”
She crept to him shivering, thankful for the shielding arm he threw around her.
“The sunrise can’t be far off,” he said. “I expect you are hungry, aren’t you?”
She was very hungry, and he put a biscuit into her hand. The very fact of eating there in the darkness in some measure reassured her. She ate several biscuits, and began to feel much better.
“Getting warmer?” questioned Nick. “Let me feel your hands.” They were still cold, and he took them and thrust them down against his breast. She shrank a little at the touch of his warm flesh.
“It will make you so cold,” she murmured.
But he only laughed at her softly, and pressed them closer. “I am not easily chilled,” he said. “Besides, it’s sleeping that makes you cold. And I haven’t slept.”
Muriel heard the news with astonishment. She was no longer angry with Nick, and her fears of him were dormant. Though she would never forget and might never forgive his treachery, he was her sole protector in that wilderness of many terrors, and she lacked the resolution to keep him at arm’s length. There was, moreover, something comforting in his presence, something that vastly reassured her, making her lean upon him almost in spite of herself.