Tommy was in a bad temper with everyone—a most unusual state of affairs. The weather was improving every day; the rains were nearly over. He was practically well again, too well to be sent to Bhulwana on sick leave, as Ralston brutally told him; but it was not this fact that had upset his internal equilibrium. He did not want sick leave, and bluntly said so.
“Then what the devil do you want?” said Ralston, equally blunt and ready to resent irritation from one who in his opinion was too highly favoured of the gods to have any reasonable grounds for complaint.
Tommy growled an inarticulate reply. It was not his intention to confide in Ralston whatever his grievance. But Ralston, not to be frustrated, carried the matter to Monck, then on the high road to recovery.
“What in thunder is the matter with the young ass?” he demanded. “He gets more lantern-jawed and obstreperous every day.”
“Leave him to me!” said Monck. “Discharge him as cured! I’ll manage him.”
“But that’s just what he isn’t,” grumbled Ralston. “He ought to be well. So far as I can make out, he is well. But he goes about looking like a sick fly and stinging before you touch him.”
“Leave him to me!” Monck said again.
That afternoon as he and Tommy lounged together on the verandah after the lazy fashion of convalescents, he turned to the boy in his abrupt fashion.
“Look here, Tommy!” he said. “What are you making yourself so conspicuously unpleasant for? It’s time you pulled up.”
Tommy turned crimson. “I?” he stammered. “Who says so? Stella?”
There was the suspicion of a smile about Monck’s grim mouth as he made reply. “No; not Stella, though she well might. I’ve heard you being beastly rude to her more than once. What’s the matter with you? Want a kicking, eh?”
Tommy hunched himself in his wicker chair with his chin on his chest. “No, want to kick,” he said in a savage undertone.
Monck laughed briefly. He was standing against a pillar of the verandah. He turned and sat down unexpectedly on the arm of Tommy’s chair. “Who do you want to kick?” he said.
Tommy glanced at him and was silent.
“Significant!” commented Monck. He put his hand with very unwonted kindness upon the lad’s shoulder. “What do you want to kick me for, Tommy?” he asked.
Tommy shrugged the shoulder under his hand. “If you don’t know, I can’t tell you,” he said gruffly.
Monck’s fingers closed with quiet persistence. “Yes, you can. Out with it!” he said.
But Tommy remained doggedly silent.
Several seconds passed. Then very suddenly Monck raised his hand and smote him hard on the back.
“Damn!” said Tommy, straightening involuntarily.
“That’s better,” said Monck. “That’ll do you good. Don’t curl up again! You’re getting disgracefully round-shouldered. Like to have a bout with the gloves?”