The jingling notes of a piano playing an air from a comic opera floated cheerily forth into the magic silence of the Simla pines, and abruptly, almost spasmodically, a cracked voice began to sing. It was a sentimental ditty treated jocosely, and its frivolity rippled out into the mid-day silence with something of the effect of a monkey’s chatter. The khitmutgar on the verandah would have looked scandalised or at best contemptuous had it not been his role to express nothing but the dignified humility of the native servant. He was waiting for his mistress to come out of the nursery where her voice could be heard talking imperiously to her baby’s ayah. He had already waited some minutes, and he would probably have waited much longer, for his patience was inexhaustible, had it not been for that sudden irresponsible and wholly tuneless burst of song. But the second line was scarcely ended before she came hurriedly forth, nearly running into his stately person in her haste.
“Oh, dear, Sammy!” she exclaimed with some annoyance. “Why didn’t you tell me Captain Ratcliffe was here?”
She hastened past him along the verandah with the words, not troubling about his explanation, and entered the room whence the music proceeded at a run.
“My dear Nick,” she cried impulsively, “I had no idea!”
The music ceased in a jangle of wrong notes, and Nick sprang to his feet, his yellow face wearing a grin of irrepressible gaiety.
“So I gathered, O elect lady,” he rejoined, seizing her outstretched hands and kissing first one and then the other. “And I took the first method that presented itself of making myself known. So they beguiled you to Simla, after all?”
“Yes, I had to come for my baby’s sake. They thought at first it would have to be home and no compromise. I’m longing to show him to you, Nick. Only six months, and such a pet already! But tell me about yourself. I am sure you have come off the sick list too soon. You look as if you had come straight from a lengthy stay with the bandar-log.”
“Tu quoque!” laughed Nick. “And with far less excuse. Only you manage to look charming notwithstanding, which is beyond me. Do you know, Mrs. Musgrave, you don’t do justice to the compromise? I should be furious with you if I were Will.”
Mrs. Musgrave frowned at him. She was a very pretty woman, possessing a dainty and not wholly unconscious charm. “Tell me about yourself, Nick,” she commanded. “And don’t be ridiculous. You can’t possibly judge impartially on that head, as you haven’t the smallest idea as to how ill I have been. I am having a rest cure now, you must know, and I don’t go anywhere; or I should have come to see you in hospital.”
“Good thing you didn’t take the trouble,” said Nick. “I’ve been sleeping for the last three weeks, and I am only just awake.”