No one could look askance at poor Ralph Dacre’s young widow. Lady Harriet Mansfield graciously hinted as much when she paid her state call within a week of her arrival. Also, she desired to ascertain Stella’s plans for the future, and when she heard that she intended to return to Kurrumpore with Mrs. Ralston she received the news with a species of condescending approval that seemed to indicate that Stella’s days of probation were past. With the exercise of great care and circumspection she might even ultimately be admitted to the fortunate circle which sunned itself in the light of Lady Harriet’s patronage.
Tommy elevated his nose irreverently when the august presence was withdrawn and hoped that Stella would not have her head turned by the royal favour. He prophesied that Mrs. Burton would be the next to come simpering round, and in this he was not mistaken; but Stella did not receive this visitor, for on the following day she was in bed with an attack of fever that prostrated her during the rest of his leave.
It was not a dangerous illness, and Mrs. Ralston nursed her through it with a devotion that went far towards cementing the friendship already begun between them. Tommy, though regretful, consoled himself by the ready means of the station’s gaieties, played tennis with zest, inaugurated a gymkhana, and danced practically every night into the early morning. He was a delightful companion for little Tessa Ermsted who followed him everywhere and was never snubbed, an inquiring mind notwithstanding. Truly a nice boy was Tommy, as everyone agreed, and the regret was general when his leave began to draw to a close.
On the afternoon of his last day he made his appearance on the verandah of The Grand Stand for tea, with his faithful attendant at his heels, to find his sister reclining there for the first time on a charpoy well lined with cushions, while Mrs. Ralston presided at the tea-table beside her.
She looked the ghost of her former self, and for a moment though he had visited her in bed only that morning, Tommy was rudely startled.
“Great Jupiter!” he ejaculated. “How ill you look!”
She smiled at his exclamation, while his small, sharp-faced companion pricked up attentive ears. “Do people look like that when they’re going to die?” she asked.
“Not in the least, dear,” said Mrs. Ralston tranquilly. “Come and speak to Mrs. Dacre and tell us what you have been doing!”
But Tessa would only stand on one leg and stare, till Stella put forth a friendly hand and beckoned her to a corner of her charpoy.
She went then, still staring with wide round eyes of intensest blue that gazed out of a somewhat pinched little face of monkey-like intelligence.
“What have you and Tommy been doing?” Stella asked.
“Oh, just hobnobbing,” said Tessa. “Same as Mother and the Rajah.”
“Have some cake!” said Tommy. “And tell us all about the mongoose!”