Major Burton retired behind the Colonel, realizing himself as unnecessary but too curious to withdraw altogether.
In the pause that followed, a tense silence reigned. Monck was swaying as he stood. His eyes had the strained and awful look of a man with his soul in torment. After that one hard breath, he had not breathed at all.
The Colonel looked up. “Go, certainly!” he said, and there was a touch of the old kindliness in his voice that he tried to restrain. “And as soon as possible! I hope you will find a more reassuring state of affairs when you get there.”
He held out the telegram. Monck made a movement to take it, but as he did so the tension in which he gripped himself suddenly gave way. He blundered forward, his hands upon the table.
“She will die,” he said, and there was utter despair in his tone. “She is probably dead already.”
Sir Reginald took him by the arm. His face held nought but kindliness, which he made no attempt to hide. “Sit down a minute!” he said. “Here’s a chair! Just a minute. Sit down and get your wind! What is this message? May I read it?”
He murmured something to Major Burton who turned sharply and went out. Monck sank heavily into the chair and leaned upon the table, his head in his hands. He was shaking all over, as if seized with an ague.
Sir Reginald read the message, standing beside him, a hand upon his shoulder. “Stella desperately ill. Come. Ralston,” were the words it contained.
He laid the paper upon the table, and looked across at the Colonel. The latter nodded slightly, almost imperceptibly.
Monck spoke without moving. “She is dead,” he said. “My God! She is dead!” And then, under his breath, “After all,—counting me out—it’s best—it’s best. I couldn’t ask for anything better at this devils’ game. Someone’s got to die.”
He checked himself abruptly, and again a terrible shivering seized him.
Sir Reginald bent over him. “Pull yourself together, man! You’ll need all your strength. Please God, she’ll be better when you get there!”
Monck raised himself with a slow, blind movement. “Did you ever dice with the devil?” he said. “Stake your honour—stake all you’d got—to save a woman from hell? And then lose—my God—lose all—even—even—the woman?” Again he checked himself. “I’m talking like a damned fool. Stop me, someone! I’ve come through hell-fire and it’s scorched away my senses. I never thought I should blab like this.”
“It’s all right,” Sir Reginald said, and in his voice was steady reassurance. “You’re with friends. Get a hold on yourself! Don’t say any more!”
“Ah!” Monck drew a deep breath and seemed to come to himself. He lifted a face of appalling whiteness and looked at Sir Reginald. “You’re very good, sir,” he said. “I was knocked out for the moment. I’m all right now.”
He made as if he would rise, but Sir Reginald checked him. “Wait a moment longer! Major Burton will be back directly.”