Again she knew that he spoke the truth. There had been times of late when she had been made aware of the fact that her strength was nearing its limit. She knew it would be sheer madness to neglect the warning lest, as Peter suggested, her baby’s need of her outlasted her endurance. She must husband all the strength she had.
With a sigh she bent and touched the tiny forehead with her lips. Hanani’s hand, long and bony, gently stroked her arm as she did so.
“Old Hanani knows, mem-sahib,” she whispered under her breath.
The tears she had barely checked a moment before sprang to Stella’s eyes. She held the dark hand in silence and was subtly comforted thereby.
Passing through the door that Peter held open for her, she gave him her hand also. He bent very low over it, just as he had bent on that first wedding-day of hers so long—so long—ago, and touched it with his forehead. The memory flashed back upon her oddly. She heard again Ralph Dacre’s voice speaking in her ear. “You, Stella,—you are as ageless as the stars!” The pride and the passion of his tones stabbed through her with a curious poignancy. Strange that the thought of him should come to her with such vividness to-night! She passed on to her room, as one moving in a painful trance.
For a space she lingered there, hardly knowing what she did; then she remembered that she had not bidden Bernard good-night, and mechanically her steps turned in his direction.
He was generally smoking and working on the verandah at that hour. She made her way to the dining-room as being the nearest approach.
But half-way across the room the sound of Tommy’s voice, sharp and agitated, came to her: Involuntarily she paused. He was with Bernard on the verandah.
“The devils shot him in the jungle, but he came on, got as far as Ralston’s bungalow, and collapsed there. He was dead in a few minutes—before anything could be done.”
The words pierced through her trance, like a naked sword flashing with incredible swiftness, cutting asunder every bond, every fibre, that held her soul confined. She sprang for the open window with a great and terrible cry.
“Who is dead? Who? Who?”
The red glare of the lamp met her, dazzled her, seemed to enter her brain and cruelly to burn her; but she did not heed it. She stood with arms flung wide in frantic supplication.
“Everard!” she cried. “Oh God! My God! Not—Everard!”
Her wild words pierced the night, and all the voices of India seemed to answer her in a mad discordant jangle of unintelligible sound. An owl hooted, a jackal yelped, and a chorus of savage, yelling laughter broke hideously across the clamour, swallowing it as a greater wave swallows a lesser, overwhelming all that has gone before.
The red glare of the lamp vanished from Stella’s brain, leaving an awful blankness, a sense as of something burnt out, a taste of ashes in the mouth. But yet the darkness was full of horrors; unseen monsters leaped past her as in a surging torrent, devils’ hands clawed at her, devils’ mouths cried unspeakable things.