Tommy was among the players. His play was always either surprisingly brilliant or amazingly bad, and on this particular evening he was winning all the honours.
Stella was joining in the general applause after a particularly fine stroke when suddenly Monck’s voice spoke at her side.
“Why don’t you take a hand sometimes instead of always looking on?”
The question surprised her. She glanced at him in momentary embarrassment, met his straight look, and smiled.
“Perhaps I am lazy.”
“That isn’t the reason,” he said. “Why do you lead a hermit’s life? Do you follow your own inclination in so doing? Or are you merely proving yourself a slave to an unwritten law?”
His voice was curt; it held mastery. But yet she could not resent it, for behind it was a masked kindness which deprived it of offence.
She decided to treat the question lightly. “Perhaps a little of both,” she said. “Besides, it seems scarcely worth while to try to get into the swim now when I am leaving so soon.”
He made an abrupt movement which seemed to denote suppressed impatience. “You are too young to say that,” he said.
She laughed a little. “I don’t feel young. I think life moves faster in tropical countries. I have lived years since I have been here, and I am glad of a rest.”
He was silent for a space; then again abruptly he returned to the charge. “You’re not going to waste all the best of your life over a memory, are you? The finest man in the world isn’t worth that.”
She felt the colour rise in her face as she made reply. “I hope I am not going to waste my life at all. Is it a waste not to spend it in a feverish round of social pleasures? If so, I do not think you are in a position to condemn me.”
She saw his brief smile for an instant. “My life is occupied with other things,” he said. “But I don’t lead a hermit’s existence. I am going to the officers’ picnic at Khanmulla on the twenty-fourth for instance.”
“Being a case of ’Needs must’,” suggested Stella.
“By no means.” Monck leaned forward to light another cigarette. “I am going for a particular purpose. If that purpose is not fulfilled—” he paused a moment and she felt his eyes upon her again—“I shall come straight back,” he ended with a certain doggedness of determination that did not escape her.
Stella’s gaze was fixed upon the court below her and she kept it there, but she saw nothing of the game. Her heart was beating oddly in leaps and jerks. She felt curiously as if she were under the influence of an electric battery; every nerve and every vein seemed to be tingling.
He had not asked a question, yet she felt that in some fashion he had made it incumbent upon her to speak in answer. In the silence that followed his words she was aware of an insistence that would not be denied. She tried to put it from her, but could not. In the end, more than half against her will, she yielded.