“Oh, not quite!” protested Bernard modestly. “I’m not tall enough to please everyone of the feminine gender. But you think your wife will overlook that?”
“I know,” said Everard, with conviction.
His brother laughed with cheery self-satisfaction. “In that case, of course I shall adore her,” he said.
They were a merry party at mess that night. General Sir Reginald Bassett was a man of the bluff soldierly order who knew how to command respect from his inferiors while at the same time he set them at their ease. There was no pomp and circumstance about him, yet in the whole of the Indian Empire there was not an officer more highly honoured and few who possessed such wide influence as “old Sir Reggie,” as irreverent subalterns fondly called him.
The new arrival, Bernard Monck, diffused a genial atmosphere quite unconsciously wherever he went, and he and the old Indian soldier gravitated towards each other almost instinctively. Colonel Mansfield declared later that they made it impossible for him to maintain order, so spontaneous and so infectious was the gaiety that ran round the board. Even Major Ralston’s leaden sense of humour was stirred. As Tommy had declared, it promised to be a historic occasion.
When the time for toasts arrived and, after the usual routine, the Colonel proposed the health of their honoured guest of the evening, Sir Reginald interposed with a courteous request that that of their other guest might be coupled with his, and the dual toast was drunk with acclamations.
“I hope I shall have the pleasure of seeing more of you during your stay in India,” the General remarked to his fellow-guest when he had returned thanks and quiet was restored. “You have come for the winter, I presume.”
Bernard laughed. “Well, no, sir, though I shall hope to see it through. I am not globe-trotting, and times and seasons don’t affect me much. My only reason for coming out at all was to see my brother here. You see, we haven’t met for a good many years.”
The statement was quite casually made, but Major Burton, who was seated next to him, made a sharp movement as if startled. He was a man who prided himself upon his astuteness in discovering discrepancies in even the most truthful stories.
“Didn’t you meet last year when he went Home?” he said.
“Last year! No. He wasn’t Home last year.” Bernard looked full at his questioner, understanding neither his tone nor look.
A sudden silence had fallen near them; it spread like a widening ring upon disturbed waters.
Major Burton spoke, in his voice, a queer, scoffing inflection. “He was absent on Home leave anyway. We all understood—were given to understand—that you had sent him an urgent summons.”
“I?” For an instant Bernard Monck stared in genuine bewilderment. Then abruptly he turned to his brother who was listening inscrutably on the other side of the table. “Some mistake here, Everard,” he said. “You haven’t been Home for seven years or more have you?”