“Oh, man!” Tommy’s eyes suddenly shone with enthusiasm. “What a chance!”
“A chance I’m not going to take,” rejoined Monck dryly. “I applied for leave instead. In any case it is due to me, but Dacre had his turn first. The Chief didn’t want to grant it, but he gave way in the end. You boys will have to work a little harder than usual, that’s all.”
Tommy was staring at him in amazement. “But, I say, Monck!” he protested. “That Mission business! It’s the very thing you’d most enjoy. Surely you can’t be going to let such an opportunity slip!”
“My own business is more pressing,” Monck returned briefly.
Then Tommy remembered the stricken look that he had surprised on his friend’s face that evening, and swift concern swallowed his astonishment. “You had bad news from Home! I say, I’m awfully sorry. Is your brother ill, or what?”
“No. It’s not that. I can’t discuss it with you, Tommy. But I’ve got to go. The Chief has granted me eight weeks and I am off at dawn.” Monck made as if he would turn inwards with the words.
“You’re going Home?” ejaculated Tommy. “By Jove, old fellow, it’ll be quick work.” Then, his sympathy coming uppermost again, “I say, I’m confoundedly sorry. You’ll take care of yourself?”
“Oh, every care.” Monck paused to lay an unexpected hand upon the lad’s shoulder. “And you must take care of yourself, Tommy,” he said. “Don’t get up to any tomfoolery while I am away! And if you get thirsty, stick to lime-juice!”
“I’ll be as good as gold,” Tommy promised, touched alike by action and admonition. “But it will be pretty beastly without you. I hate a lonely life, and Stella will be stuck at Bhulwana for the rest of the hot weather when they get back.”
“Well, I shan’t stay away for ever,” Monck patted his shoulder and turned away. “I’m not going for a pleasure trip, and the sooner it’s over, the better I shall be pleased.”
He passed into the room with the words, that room in which Stella had sat on her wedding-eve, gazing forth into the night. And there came to Tommy, all-unbidden, a curious, wandering memory of his friend’s face on that same night, with eyes alight and ardent, looking upwards as though they saw a vision. Perplexed and vaguely troubled, he thrust her letter away into his pocket and went to his own room.
The Heaven of the Orient! It was a week since Stella had penned those words, and still the charm held her, the wonder grew. Never in her life had she dreamed of a land so perfect, so subtly alluring, so overwhelmingly full of enchantment. Day after day slipped by in what seemed an endless succession. Night followed magic night, and the spell wound closer and ever closer about her. She sometimes felt as if her very individuality were being absorbed into the marvellous beauty about her, as if she had been crystallized by it and must soon cease to be in any sense a being apart from it.