A shaded night-lamp was burning by her side. Her face upon the pillow was in deep shadow. Her hair spread all around her, wrapping her as it were in mystery.
As Mrs. Ralston drew near, she stretched out a welcoming hand. “I hope my watch-dog didn’t startle you,” she said. “The dear fellow is so upset that I don’t want an ayah, he is doing his best to turn himself into one. I couldn’t bear to send him away. You don’t mind?”
“My dear, I mind nothing.” Mrs. Ralston stooped in her warm way and kissed the pale, still face. “Are you comfortable? Have you everything you want?”
“Everything, thank you,” Stella answered, drawing her hostess gently down to sit on the side of the bed. “I feel rested already. Somehow your presence is restful.”
“Oh, my dear!” Mrs. Ralston flushed with pleasure. Not many were the compliments that came her way. “And you feel as if you will be able to sleep?”
Stella’s eyes looked unutterably weary; yet she shook her head. “No. I never sleep much before morning. I think I slept too much when I was in Kashmir. The days and nights all seemed part of one long dream.” A slight shudder assailed her; she repressed it with a shadowy smile. “Life here will be very different,” she said. “Perhaps I shall be able to wake up now. I am not in the least a dreamy person as a rule.”
The quick tears sprang to Mrs. Ralston’s eyes; she stroked Stella’s hand without speaking.
“I wanted to go back to Kurrumpore with Tommy,” Stella went on, “but he won’t hear of it, though he tells me that you stayed there through last summer. If you could stand it, so could I. I feel sure that physically I am much stronger.”
“Oh no, dear, no. You couldn’t do it.” Mrs. Ralston looked down upon the beautiful face very tenderly. “I am tough, you know, dried up and wiry. And I had a very strong motive. But you are different. You would never stand a hot season at Kurrumpore. I can’t tell you what it is like there. At its worst it is unspeakable. I am very glad that Tommy realizes the impossibility of it. No, no! Stay here with me till I go down! I am always the first. And it will give me so much pleasure to take care of you.”
Stella relinquished the discussion with a short sigh. “It doesn’t seem to matter much what I do,” she said. “Tommy certainly doesn’t need me. No one does. And I expect you will soon get very tired of me.”
“Never, dear, never.” Mrs. Ralston’s hand clasped hers reassuringly. “Never think that for a moment! From the very first day I saw you I have wanted to have you to love and care for.”
A gleam of surprise crossed Stella’s face. “How very kind of you!” she said.
“Oh no, dear. It was your own doing. You are so beautiful,” murmured the surgeon’s wife. “And I knew that you were the same all through—beautiful to the very soul.”
“Oh, don’t say that!” Sharply Stella broke in upon her. “Don’t think it! You don’t know me in the least. You—you have far more beauty of soul than I have, or can ever hope to have now.”