“God bless you, my dear!” he said. “I wish you both every happiness from the bottom of my soul.”
She turned from him a few seconds later with a faintly tremulous laugh to give her hand to the best man, but it did not linger in his, and to his curtly proffered felicitations she made no verbal response whatever.
Ten minutes later, as she left the vestry with her husband, Mrs. Ralston pressed forward unexpectedly, and openly checked her progress in full view of the whole assembly.
“My dear,” she murmured humbly, “my dear, you’ll allow me I know. I wanted just to tell you how beautiful you look, and how earnestly I pray for your happiness.”
It was a daring move, and it had not been accomplished without courage. Lady Harriet in the background stiffened with displeasure, nearer to actual anger than she had ever before permitted herself to be with any one so contemptible as the surgeon’s wife. Even Major Ralston himself, most phlegmatic of men, looked momentarily disconcerted by his wife’s action.
But Stella—Stella stopped dead with a new light in her eyes, and in a moment dropped her husband’s arm to fling both her own about the gentle, faded woman who had dared thus openly to range herself on her side.
“Dear Mrs. Ralston,” she said, not very steadily, “how more than kind of you to tell me that!”
The tears were actually in her eyes as she kissed the surgeon’s wife. That spontaneous act of sympathy had pierced straight through her armour of reserve and found its way to her heart. Her face, as she passed on down the aisle by her husband’s side, was wonderfully softened, and even Mrs. Ermsted found no gibe to fling after her. The smile that quivered on Stella’s lips was full of an unconscious pathos that disarmed all criticism.
The sunshine outside the church was blinding. It smote through the awning with pitiless intensity. Around the carriage a curious crowd had gathered to see the bridal procession. To Stella’s dazzled eyes it seemed a surging sea of unfamiliar faces. But one face stood out from the rest—the calm countenance of Ralph Dacre’s magnificent Sikh servant clad in snowy linen, who stood at the carriage door and gravely bowed himself before her, stretching an arm to protect her dress from the wheel.
“This is Peter the Great,” said Dacre’s careless voice, “a highly honourable person, Stella, and a most efficient bodyguard.”
“How do you do?” said Stella, and held out her hand.
She acted with the utmost simplicity. During her four weeks’ sojourn in India she had not learned to treat the native servant with contempt, and the majestic presence of this man made her feel almost as if she were dealing with a prince.
He straightened himself swiftly at her action, and she saw a sudden, gleaming smile flash across his grave face. Then he took the proffered hand, bending low over it till his turbaned forehead for a moment touched her fingers.