The man in question had withdrawn into the shadows. He was in fact beating an unobtrusive retreat towards the corner of the bungalow, and would probably have effected his escape but for Bernard, who, moved by the anguished entreaty in Stella’s eyes, suddenly strode forward and gripped him by his tattered garment.
“No harm in making inquiries anyway!” he said. “Don’t you be in such a hurry, my friend. It won’t do you any harm to come back and give an account of yourself—that is, if you are harmless.”
He pulled the retreating native unceremoniously back into the light. The man made some resistance, but there was a mastery about Bernard that would not be denied. Hobbling, misshapen, muttering in his beard, he returned.
“Mem-sahib!” Again Peter’s voice spoke, and there was a break in it as though he pleaded with Fate itself and knew it to be in vain. “He is a good man, but he is leprous. Mem-sahib, do not look upon him! Suffer him to go!”
Possibly the words might have had effect, for Stella’s rigidity had turned to a violent shivering and it was evident that her strength was beginning to fail. But in that moment Bernard broke into an exclamation of most unwonted anger, and ruthlessly seized the ragged wisp of black beard that hung down over his victim’s hollow chest.
“This is too bad!” he burst forth hotly. “By heaven it’s too bad! Man, stop this tomfool mummery, and explain yourself!”
The beard came away in his indignant hand. The owner thereof straightened himself up with a contemptuous gesture till he reached the height of a tall man. The enveloping chuddah slipped back from his head.
“I am not the fool,” he said briefly.
Stella’s cry rang through the verandah, and it was Peter who, utterly forgetful of his own adversity, leapt up like a faithful hound to protect her in her hour of need.
The glass in Tommy’s hand fell with a crash. Tommy himself staggered back as if he had been struck a blow between the eyes.
And across the few feet that divided them as if it had been a yawning gulf, Everard Monck faced the woman who had denounced him.
He did not utter a word. His eyes met hers unflinching. They were wholly without anger, emotionless, inscrutable. But there was something terrible behind his patience. It was as if he had bared his breast for her to strike.
And Stella—Stella looked upon him with a frozen, incredulous horror, just as Tessa had looked upon the snake upon her lap only a little while before.
In the dreadful silence that hung like a poisonous vapour upon them, there came a small rustling close to them, and a wicked little head with red, peering eyes showed through the balustrade of the verandah.
In a moment Scooter with an inexpressibly evil air of satisfaction slipped through and scuttled in a zigzag course over the matting in search of fresh prey.