“I always did hate Major Burton,” she said sweepingly. “I know he started it in the first place. He said—and now she says—that—that it’s very funny that the leave Uncle Everard had when he pretended to go to England should have come just at the time that Captain Dacre was killed in the mountains, and that a horrid old man Uncle Everard knows called Rustam Karin who lives in the bazaar was away at the same time. And they just wonder if p’raps he—the old man—had anything to do with Captain Dacre dying like he did, and if Uncle Everard knows—something—about it. That’s how they put it, Aunt Stella. Mother only told me to tease me, but that’s what they say.”
She stopped, pressing Stella’s hand very tightly to her little quivering bosom, and there followed a pause, a deep silence that seemed to have in it something of an almost suffocating quality.
Tessa moved at last because it became unbearable, moved and looked down into Stella’s face as if half afraid. She could not have said what she expected to see there, but she was undoubtedly relieved when the beautiful face, white as death though it was, smiled back at her without a tremor.
Stella kissed her tenderly and let her go. “Thank you for telling me, darling,” she said gently. “It is just as well that I should know what people say, even though it is nothing but idle gossip—idle gossip.” She repeated the words with emphasis. “Run and find Scooter, sweetheart!” she said. “And put all this silly nonsense out of your dear little head for good! I must take baby to ayah now. By and by we will read a fairy-tale together and enjoy ourselves.”
Tessa ran away comforted, yet also vaguely uneasy. Her tenderness notwithstanding, there was something not quite normal about Stella’s dismissal of her. This kind friend of hers had never sent her away quite so summarily before. It was almost as if she were half afraid that Tessa might see—or guess—too much.
As for Stella, she carried her baby to the ayah, and then shut herself into her own room where she remained for a long time face to face with these new doubts.
He had loved her before her marriage; he had called their union Kismet. He wielded a strange, almost an uncanny power among natives. And there was Rustam Karin whom long ago she had secretly credited with Ralph Dacre’s death—the serpent in the garden—the serpent in the desert also—whose evil coils, it seemed to her, were daily tightening round her heart.
THE WOMAN’S WAY
It was three days later that Tommy came striding in from the polo-ground in great excitement with the news that Captain Ermsted’s murderer had been arrested.