The visitors’ dinner that night was quite a magnificent affair. The catering for the time of their stay had been confided to an Italian firm in Calcutta. The cooking was excellent, but the waiting by the awkward Palace retainers was very bad. The food was eaten off the Rajah’s State silver service, made in London for his father for the entertainment of a Viceroy. The wine was very good. So the guests enjoyed their meal, and most of them were quite prepared to think the Rajah a most excellent fellow when, at the conclusion of the meal, he entered the dining-room and came to the long table to propose and drink the health of the King-Emperor. He left the room immediately afterwards. This is the usual procedure on the part of Hindu rulers in India, since they are precluded by their religion and caste-customs from eating with Europeans.
After dinner the guests went to the lounge, where coffee was served. They broke up into groups or pairs and sat or stood about the room chatting. Mrs. Rice, who had been much impressed by Ida’s appearance and expensive gowns, secured a chair beside her and endeavoured to monopolise her, despite many obvious snubs. At last Ida calmly turned her back on her and called Daleham to talk to her. Then the planter’s wife espied Dermot sitting alone and pounced on him. He had tried to speak to Noreen after dinner, but it was so apparent that she wished to avoid him that he gave up the attempt. He endured Mrs. Rice’s company with admirable resignation, but was thankful when the time for “good-night” came at last.
The men stayed up an hour or two later, and then after a final “peg” went off to bed. Dermot walked upstairs with Barclay, the young police officer, who was his nearest neighbour, although the Major’s room was at the end of the building and separated from his by a long, narrow passage and several empty chambers.
THE PALACE OF DEATH
When they reached the door of the police officer’s apartment Dermot wished him good-night and proceeded down the passage, which was lit only by a feeble lamp placed in a niche high up in the wall. He had to grope his way through the outer chambers by the aid of matches, and when he reached his room, was surprised to find it in darkness, for he had left a light burning in it. He struck more matches, and was annoyed to discover that his lamp had been taken away. Being very tired he felt inclined to undress and go to bed in the dark, but, suddenly remembering the small light in the passage, determined to fetch it. Making his way back to the passage he tried to take the little lamp down. But it was too high up, and the noise that he made in his efforts to reach it brought Barclay to his door.
When he heard of Dermot’s difficulty he said:
“I’m not sleepy yet, Major, so I’ll bring my lamp along to your room and smoke a cheroot while you undress. Then I’ll go off with it as soon as you’ve turned in.”