As the wet season drew on, their companionship became more and more intimate though their spoken confidences were few. Mrs. Ralston never asked for confidences though she probably received more than any other woman in the station.
It was on a day in September of drifting clouds and unbroken rain that Stella spoke at length of a resolution that had been gradually forming in her mind. She found no difficulty in speaking; in fact it seemed the natural thing to do. And she felt even as she gave utterance to the words that Mrs. Ralston already knew their import.
“Mary,” she said, “after Christmas I am going back to England.”
Mrs. Ralston betrayed no surprise. She was in the midst of an elaborate darn in the heel of a silk sock. She looked across at Stella gravely.
“And when you get there, my dear?” she said.
“I shall find some work to do.” Stella spoke with the decision of one who gives utterance to the result of careful thought. “I think I shall go in for hospital training. It is hard work, I know; but I am strong. I think hard work is what I need.”
Mrs. Ralston was silent.
Stella went on. “I see now that I made a mistake in ever coming out here. It wasn’t as if Tommy really wanted me. He doesn’t, you know. His friend Captain Monck is all-sufficing—and probably better for him. In any case—he doesn’t need me.”
“You may be right, dear,” Mrs. Ralston said, “though I doubt if Tommy would view it in the same light. I am glad anyhow that you will spend Christmas out here. I shall not lose you so soon.”
Stella smiled a little. “I don’t want to hurt Tommy’s feelings, and I know they would be hurt if I went sooner. Besides I would like to have one cold weather out here.”
“And why not?” said Mrs. Ralston. She added after a moment, “What will you do with Peter?”
Stella hesitated. “That is one reason why I have not come to a decision sooner. I don’t like leaving poor Peter. It occurred to me possibly that down at Kurrumpore he might find another master. Anyway, I shall tell him my plans when I get there, and he will have the opportunity”—she smiled rather sadly—“to transfer his devotion to someone else.”
“He won’t take it,” said Mrs. Ralston with conviction. “The fidelity of these men is amazing. It puts us to shame.”
“I hate the thought of parting with him,” Stella said. “But what can I do?”
She broke off short as the subject of their discussion came softly into the room, salver in hand. He gave her a telegram and stood back decorously behind her chair while she opened it.
Mrs. Ralston’s grave eyes watched her, and in a moment Stella looked up and met them. “From Kurrumpore,” she said.
Her face was pale, but her hands and voice were steady.
“From Tommy?” questioned Mrs. Ralston.
“No. From Captain Monck. Tommy is ill—very ill. Malaria again. He thinks I had better go to him.”